Thursday, 16 November 2017

With Criminal Intent

My interviewee today is Danuta Reah with whom I co-authored The Writers’ Toolkit several years ago. I mention that just so I can flag that Fantastic Books’ editors took it up as their recommended text, badgered us into an expanded second edition called How to be a Fantastic Writer and that new edition is just out.

Danuta is a crime novelist. She was Chair of the Crime Writers Association a few years ago. However, her specific expertise is in English Language and linguistics, and this adds a particular weight to her views. As well as being a novelist, she’s a book reviewer; the sort with a growing following. She pulls no punches but to be reviewed by her can give a book a real boost.

What came first, the academic writing or the novels?

She tells me, ‘I started out writing academic stuff - a general book about text analysis, a book about the language of newspapers. I learned a lot about writing in general that way - learning how to structure a long piece of work and, of course, with text analysis, you learn a lot about the writer's craft from studying the way other writers do it. I used a lot of what I gained from that in The Writers' Toolkit and later in How to be a Fantastic Writer.’

In what ways does her academic writing impact on her novels?

‘I know some people get a bit nervous that my novels are going to be very “literary” (whatever that means) and that they won't enjoy them - and then they are surprised to find that they're tense, suspenseful, scary - not the same as an academic text book at all.’

‘I do use my academic background. I have written three novels that make use of my work in forensic linguistics - the analysis of language in the context of crime - identifying the writer or speaker, identifying forgeries, voice recognition, that kind of thing. I used it a bit in Silent Playgrounds, and even more Night Angels.’

The books above, Only Darkness, Silent Playgrounds and Night Angels are three of Danuta’s Yorkshire quartet. The fourth in the series is BleakWater.

The mystery in her most recently published novel, The Last Room, centres entirely round the forensic investigation of language.

In this series of interviews, I have spoken to some people who write in genres I’ve never heard of. Danuta writes fiction in one of the most popular genres. Does being part of a big all-embracing genre cause any problems?

‘There's a tendency to get lost in the crowd. I know when I go into a book shop and look at the crime section, I'm overwhelmed by the choice and let myself become too influenced by the table displays and book shop recommendations. My reviewing has led me to authors I've thoroughly enjoyed, but probably would have missed on the shelf. I shouldn't say this as a writer, but there are too many crime novels out there and I suspect we are close to “peak crime”.

‘Another big problem is fashion and “the next big thing”. The problem is, editors want more of what sells, forgetting that quite often, the next big thing comes from a publisher who was prepared to move away from what everyone else is publishing at the moment. People forget sometimes that Stieg Larsson's books, which were very much the next big thing a few years ago are really structured as very traditional crime novels, but they seemed very new because no one was publishing that kind of thing at the time - and of course, Larsson did it very well. Right now, it's all psychology, unreliable narrators and final plot twists - great fun when handled by a good writer, but frustrating when a writer gets it wrong, and you suspect the book was written that way because the writer was pushed into it by the publisher rather than made that choice themselves. I don't want any more unreliable narrators, and I certainly don't want any more final “twists” that I can see coming from a mile away.’

Danuta has been published by a variety of publishers from the huge conglomerates to the small independents. I ask if she has any words of wisdom for other authors supposing they were in a position to choose?

‘It's horses for courses really. Small publishers are a lot more loyal to their authors and will work harder to help you publicise your books. The downside is a lot of them don't really have the clout with the bookshops, which makes it tough. You have to get out there and sell the book yourself. Amazon may be seen as the death of book shops, but it's also a lifeline for small publishers and for mid-list authors to get their books out there. Big publishers are pretty ruthless. If you don't increase your sales book on book by a certain amount, you're out, and there's a Catch-22 in this in that less than satisfactory sales means you get far less sales input.’

I ask if Danuta has ever self-published. When she says no, I ask why?

‘I don't know why. I know a few writers who got fed up with traditional publishers and went for it - but you have to be a very good self-publicist and be able to put in a lot more time than you do with a traditional publisher. If you're self-publishing ebooks it can be very profitable as once you've paid off your initial costs, you can just keep on selling. Self-publishing hard copy is very tough. It's expensive, you have to get your books into bookshops, in front of reviewers and in front of your audience. That's very hard and I would only consider that if I already had a massive market.’

Danuta’s next novel is called Life Ruins, and it turns out it has had expressions of interest from both a small publisher and one of the big 5. Which will she go with?

‘Until a contract’s signed, my lips are sealed.’

Find out more about Danuta and her writing on her website.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

When romance spells trouble

Rhoda Baxter is the first of two interviewees who writes in one of the world’s biggest and most popular genres. In Rhoda’s case, it’s romance. Her fifth book, Girl in Trouble, is just out and I wonder if she considers her work part of a sub-genre or does she prefer not to pigeonhole her books like that?

‘I used to be bothered by the idea of pigeonholing my books,’ she says, ‘but I'm more relaxed about it now because it lets the readers know what to expect.’ She goes on to explain one of the difficulties which is that the pigeonholes change from country to country. 

‘In the UK, what I write is considered contemporary romance; by definition, set in the present and involving two characters falling in love. There are usually jokes, so that makes it... romantic comedy or “chicklit”. On the other hand, my books often deal with slightly darker themes behind the joking; the current book is about fathers and daughters and the choice to remain childless, which is not what people expect from romantic comedy. That nudges the books into women's fiction.'

‘In America, my novels are, arguably, not even proper romances because they focus on other things as well as on the couple. And there isn't enough sex! I could say they were “sweet” romances, because of said lack of on-page sex, but then the language is not clean by US standards. Being Brits my characters are fairly free with 'bloody' and 'bugger' type words. So maybe not “sweet” romance then. But if you look at the books that are classed as Romantic Comedy on the US Amazon site, you're faced with acres and acres of bare man-chest. My poor little cartoony covers look completely out of place. The best description for my books in the US would be “novel with strong romantic elements”, which, according to Amazon, isn't a real sub-genre.

‘I write two sorts of books - light romantic comedy and the standalones which are slightly darker and lean towards women's fiction rather than romance. The latest is a lighter book, but has a very angry protagonist.

‘So, the short answer is, I have no problem with pigeonholing my books. The difficulty is finding which pigeonhole to cram them into.’

Having given me a whole new angle to think about, Rhoda adds, ‘I bet you're sorry you asked now!’

No, not in the least. I want to present people thinking on the page, exploring ideas. I ask Rhoda if she’s ever tried to write up an interview with a subject whose longest answer to any question was yes or no. She promises to keep the comprehensive answers coming.

Given this fluidity of sub-genre, I wonder if Rhoda writes for a particular audience and is that audience different for the different books? Her answer is specific enough to surprise me.

‘I've always written with a particular reader in mind. She's a friend who went to school with me and she was my first reader when I wrote stories in my teens. She's well read, geeky and cynical but a romantic at heart, a lot like me. Since my books were published, I've realised that there are more people who like the same sort of thing. I tend to attract readers who like their romances to be plausible and accurately depicted, especially where scientist characters are involved. No 25-year-old ingĂ©nues with two PhDs leading research groups here. Who'd want to do two PhDs anyway?!’

Good point! I find myself quite taken with this idea of the specific audience of one. I can see where it could not only work but make a few decisions on the direction of a book a lot easier to make. So essentially she is happy with her chosen genre, but are there any down-sides?

‘There's so much competition!’ she says. ‘There's also a fair bit of snobbery from non-readers of romance - usually people who looked at a cover of a Mills and Boon book once in the 1970’s and decided they “don't read romance”. That's annoying. On the other hand, there's a large romance writing community where everyone is really friendly and the people who do read romance are usually voracious readers and are on the lookout for new books to read all the time.’

That last point is an undoubted plus as romance is by far the best-selling genre around the world. Rhoda’s previous four books have all been well-received. Her first, Girl On The Run, chose the unexpected setting of a patent law firm; Please Release Me (set in a hospice) was shortlisted for a Love Stories award in 2015 and Girl Having a Ball was shortlisted for the prestigious RoNA (best romantic comedy) award in 2017. 

Her books all have a distinct new angle. What draws her to one idea, setting or context over another?

Rhoda’s initial, ‘Hmm...’ reassures me that she hasn’t yet been tempted down the monosyllabic route. ‘I tend to look at the ideas I have,’ she tells me. ‘Then I jump on the one that feels the most exciting. It's not a scientific way of doing things. If I have a commitment I have to meet, like a novella that needs to be written by Christmas, then I'll do that first. I usually start with a scenario. For example, in Girl In Trouble, I started with the premise of what happens if a woman who is determined to be child-free accidentally gets pregnant?’

Sounds like the perfect premise for one of Rhoda’s books.

That ‘Hmm...’ again. ‘All books start off as a vast, wonderful idea,’ she points out. ‘But they inevitably turn out to be harder to execute than I anticipated. When Iris Murdoch said "Every book is the wreck of a beautiful idea," she was spot on.’

There’s food for thought here and some intriguing angles on the business of novel writing. My final question is to ask Rhoda to tell me something about Girl in Trouble. This is the question to which I expect the longest answer of the interview.

She says, ‘When things go wrong, is Olivia too stubborn to accept help?’

And that’s it. The shortest answer I’ve had from her! But in her own unique style, it’s specific, it’s unexpected and a whole stack of hidden agendas peep temptingly from behind that brief reply. My advice is to click HERE and go get the book.

You can find out more about Rhoda on her website


Thursday, 2 November 2017

All things Skiffy but drawing the line at Grimdark

Shellie Horst is hard to pigeonhole in terms of what she writes because she covers such a range – Sci-Fi, fantasy, advertising copy, articles, blog posts, reviews, Minecraft projects, interactive narratives ... I could go on but my head is beginning to spin, so for starters I ask her to tell me about the interactive narratives she’s working on for Hull’s Humber Mouth Literature Festival, and in particular, the millymollymo website.

‘I have a business background, and used to build and develop websites so it was only natural that I created my own site, when I started my Creative Writing Degree. I’m guessing what you really want to know is why Millymollymo?’

I do.

‘There’s nothing especially complex about it,’ she tells me. ‘Milly Molly Moo was a pet name my mother used for me. I’m in the process of rebuilding the site to incorporate some of the other aspects of my writing. It’s grown a lot since then, moving from the observations of a student to my career as a writer and overview of the reviews I do for SFFWorld. It’s something authors overlook, many use it to sell from, but it can be so much more than just another route to market.

‘In 2015 I received a Special Commission as part of the Humber Mouth Literature Festival, Ten Miles East Of England: The Quest for the Lost Stories. I was lucky enough to work with some amazing children at Alderman Cogan CE School, Hull. Together we not only developed a story but then converted it to a game for Minecraft.’

You can see more of the project HERE.

‘It was a hugely rewarding experience for the class, staff, parents and myself. The pupils discovered the elements of story planning and writing, as well as basic coding. Every child involved produced a huge amount of writing. They were eager to see it transformed to something they could all play on. It created connections within families and enabled the pupils to share something visually throughout the project. 

‘This area is something I believe strongly about. Stories are everywhere, not just printed on paper and bound in books. Just because a child isn’t reading Dickens or Austen doesn’t mean they are not interacting with words.’

This is just a part of Shellie’s life as a writer and she does all this whilst being a mum of young children. I wonder if juggling figures in her repertoire.

‘Juggling, not so much,’ she says. ‘I’d never get anything done! I’m so disorganised generally and things have a way of trying to prioritise over my writing. So malicious organisation and ruthlessly sticking to schedules is the only way to deal with the social lives of my family. Everything has its place. It’s all a bit over the top, but it gets done. Eventually.

‘When I switch from the freelance writing to the fiction, I have playlists and a number of writing exercises to get me back into the right mind-set. On the upside, you can get a lot done while waiting for a dance class to end, or a swimming club to start. I make the most of time spent waiting by editing, or writing up notes. I’m also very lucky to have a husband who isn’t fussed if the vacuuming isn’t done on a daily basis!’

Shellie is a contributor to Woodbridge Press’s successful Exploration Anthology series, which now comprises four books. Her story, When the Skies Fall, features in Explorations: Through the Wormhole. In it she explores what happens to a colony when it loses contact with Earth.

Given the huge range of her writing activities I’m curious to know if she has a favourite genre. Her answer surprises me.

‘I use the genre I need to tell the story, but only ever within SFF. Science Fiction and Fantasy, speculative fiction, SFF, Skiffy - call it what you like. It’s what I read, it’s what I love. The genre pulls in from others, stories may need romance, sometimes crime or historical, but always fantastical. The genre is so inclusive why do anything else? I do avoid hard science in my work. I prefer to explore how the technology affects the characters and how they interact with it, as opposed to the more technical details of how it works. For example, we don’t worry how a website works, only that we are able to order with next day delivery, and there’s plenty of science behind it.

‘Even in Fantasy where science takes a back step to the magical, science is still there in the Blacksmith’s or the Mill. While I enjoy reading the Grimdark subgenre, it’s not something I enjoy writing. My current project is set in a fantasy world. Fantasy gets a lot of stick for “the chosen one” trope. Yet I think that the hope of being unique is important. Being singled out in your 9-5 doldrums for positive reasons rather than not meeting your targets would brighten anyone’s day! I think that hope is what appeals to many readers.’

What’s next from the pen of Shellie Horst?

‘A project I have been working on has come to an end and I’ve just completed Nisi Shawl’s and K.T. Tempest Master Class on Writing theOther. I’m toying with the free time and mental space it’s created. I’m using it to world build while working on the second draft of my fantasy novel. I’m sure there will be short stories in there somewhere too.’

Good news there for fans of skiffy, SFF, speculative fiction and all things fantasy. Please come back before too long, Shellie, and tell us how things are going.

Meanwhile if you want to explore Shellie’s varied output, check out her MillyMollyMo website.

Thursday, 26 October 2017

From old records to human stories

When writer Joy Gelsthorpe decided to do some family research, it was not with the intention of becoming a novelist. However, as she looked into the Parish Records of the village of Reighton on the East Yorkshire coast, intriguing facts began to emerge that made her start to wonder about the lives of these people. The vicar, for example, had nine children. How did his family cope in a tiny vicarage?

Widening her net, Joy read the Beverley Quarter Sessions of the period. Here she came across assaults, disturbances of the peace, smuggling, even the poisoning of a dog. The people of the early 18th century were coming to life in her imagination. She knew she had the material for a novel set in the early 1700s, but went on to spend several years on her research.

When she finally sat down to start on the novel that was clamouring to be written, she notes that it had already grown in her mind into a trilogy, adding, ‘Those three books have now become four.’

The opening to the series emerged when she read about the harsh winter of 1703. ‘It was one of the worst storms in British history,’ she says.

But even with years of meticulous research behind her, she says, ‘There wasn’t much to go on. All I had were the dates of births, marriages and deaths, but I didn’t know any detail, how people died or what motives lay behind their marriages. Court indictments, wills and sales of land provided further information but nothing about people’s personalities and desires.’

Nonetheless, these bare facts gave her both a framework and a time scale around which to build the characters and imagine the problems they would confront. She says, ‘It wasn’t long before the people felt real to me and, if I left off writing for a while, I missed them.’

Joy structured events for the whole period of the four books from 1703 to 1735. ‘I knew, well in advance of my writing, when people married or died. Even so, I did make some mistakes and had to backtrack at times and re-write sections. I found out later that one of my favourite characters, who I thought to be childless, did have one daughter. I was reluctant to alter things and, when there was no further record of the girl either dying or marrying, I decided to use artistic licence and just leave her out. Also, as the Jordan family tended to use the same few Christian names, it is highly likely that I have combined the lives of at least two William Jordans.’

The area where Joy lives is a close-knit community where people tend to know each other. Some of her readers will be people she knows personally but will also be direct descendants of some of the people she is writing about. I ask if that causes her any worries.

‘It’s true,’ she says, ‘the names of the characters are those of some friends, and they may be descendants. I’ve worried from the start whether to use the real names or not. I hope people understand that the characters’ actions and motives are figments of my imagination. I don’t want to upset anyone. After all, the Jordan family are my own ancestors and that has not stopped me from painting a dark picture of them at times.’

And what happens when these books are finished?

‘I have a new writing project, but it’s on hold while I’m working on the Reighton books. It’s based on imaginary letters from a young lady on holiday in Filey in 1819. It’s about a handsome fisher boy that she sees and falls in love with. The idea came after hearing Eliza Carthy sing “The Bonnie Fisher Boy”.’

How far along the road is she with the Reighton books?

‘All four books have been written but are in the process of their second and third re-drafts. I’ve had an encouraging response on book one from a publisher who wants me to change a few things and re-submit, so I’m reworking that.’

That sounds encouraging. I have had the opportunity to read extracts from books one and two. Joy really has done her research and paints a fascinating picture of rural life in the early 18th century. I hope she’ll be back here before too long to share news of publication of the whole series.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

A thoroughly modern genre – the eco-thriller

Sue Knight’s second book, Waiting for Gordo, published this year by Fantastic Books Publishing, is billed as an eco-thriller. I’m not entirely sure what that is but I know it doesn’t do justice to the emotional range that this short novel evokes. It’s laugh-out-loud funny in its beautifully observed relationships, but within a paragraph unease has crept up and turned into terror. And all within an incredible landscape.

One reviewer said of the book that it took them right back to the Maldives, and it’s hard to imagine any other setting provided the inspiration and back drop, though the location is never specifically mentioned. I ask about what inspired the setting?

Sue says, ‘It was indeed the Maldives and I am so pleased that was recognised. I did want to convey the beauty of the islands. We had many many dive trips there in our expat days, staying at various small islands. And I wrote and edited quite a bit of it on those trips.’

So what exactly is an eco-thriller?

‘Yes. That is an excellent question,’ says Sue, adding into our live chat interview the line <...looks evasive and tries to change subject...> but she goes on to say, ‘Perhaps because one of the book's main themes is the way we find a paradise destination, go there, in our droves, and in doing so, do we spoil it? And yet we are wanted and needed there. The issue of global warming is touched upon too. But I take no sides politically speaking, and have no political answers to offer.’

I wonder were there things about the Maldives and society there that made her uneasy while she was there or have her misgivings emerged with hindsight? Or indeed are these misgivings entirely fictional?

‘I wouldn't say I had any misgivings really - the tourist islands are very separate from the day to day life of the Maldives and I never even travelled to Male, the main island. My thoughts over the years were mainly about the increasing luxuries tourism requires, and how it weighs with these small isolated islands, so remote and set so low in the beautiful Indian Ocean.’

The story at times is very funny as it charts the different relationships of the group on the island, but there are moments of dreadful unease that become real terror. I ask Sue if she has walked around a remote island at night on her own? And if so, how did it feel?

She thanks me for finding the book both funny and frightening as that was what she was aiming for. ‘Yes,’ she says. ‘I have walked on the islands at night, though not all the way round as my heroine does. It was lovely. And felt safe. I liked the evenings and nights there best of all. There are no cars, no traffic noise, just the sea beating and beating against the island edges. The stars are bright and the air smells of frangipani blossom. I wasn't so keen on Disco/Karaoke night blaring out from the bar at the other end, but that was only one night, and it is what many tourists want. I never felt at all uneasy about walking on my own in the dark there. I enjoyed it. But it is nearly ten years since I was there, and sadly things may have changed, as violence seems to be on the increase everywhere.’

Sue’s first book, a novelette called Till They Dropped, was very different in terms of its setting and characters, yet it had that same edge-of-seat tension and was perhaps giving the same message from a very different angle. I ask if she would agree.

‘Yes, “Till they Dropped” could be described as an eco-thriller I guess, as, many many years ago, I began to wonder about all the shopping malls being built, and whether the world would run out of shoppers. So I decided to write the story of the last shopper left alive, and the deadly danger that would put her in. But that was also about the brave new world we tried so hard to build in the wake of WW2.’

Will there be any more Maldives-inspired books?

‘I don't think so, no. So I hope I have done them justice in this one.’

Undoubtedly, she has. Waiting for Gordo perfectly captures the beauty and remoteness of these small tropical islands.

What is next?

‘I am working on another thriller inspired by my childhood family home and another paradise which was my granny's rambling old house and garden - a fairy tale place for us grandchildren. And I am using a Rebecca-ish theme in that my heroine is the second wife haunted by the memory of the first wife. I even have a Mrs Danvers figure. It is nearly finished. And I hope it is scary, but also funny.’

I for one, can’t wait for the next book, and I’ll leave the last word to Sue who, in response to that genre question again, says, ‘I would like to call it a post-modern version of Rebecca, but the problem with that is that someone might ask me what that means. And the only thing I can think of to say with reference to “post-modern” is that it is a phrase that testifies to the foolishness of calling any movement in art “modern”.’

Follow Sue’s blog HERE

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Out of Africa? The Midrashim

Elaine Hemingway is a writer with a wide and varied writing CV. Retired now, she spent many years in Africa and was once a regular contributor to a local newspaper with a column called Stille Oomblik, which translates to Quiet Moment. 

‘I had to give up the column,’ she says, ‘when we moved to Natal.’ But clearly the writing bug had well and truly caught her long before then, and her publications track her progress down Africa, with a short story in a Zambian newspaper, an article in a car magazine reflecting the self-sufficient life she and her family had to lead, and her Stille Oomblik column from the Transvaal.

Elaine has long nurtured ambitions to write a longer piece. ‘As we moved down Africa,’ she says, ‘I became fascinated by the history, acquiring the diaries of Johan van Riebeeck and attempting an historical novel based on his time in South Africa.’

Was the book ever completed?

‘Sadly not, because life continued to intrude,’ says Elaine, ‘and I became more adept at procrastination. But it was my religious values that brought me back to my writing. I grew up with Christian beliefs, but only after a particular disaster did I come to full commitment and find my niche. Writing and studying became a real pleasure, to be indulged more deeply. My Stille Oomblik column was a part of it.’

Elaine ran a Resource Centre which demanded a lot of reading and presenting of reviews. She also led a home Bible Study group and Experiencing God courses, all of which left little time for general writing although she managed a couple of articles in Baptist Today and Christian Living magazines. After this and after producing a 40th anniversary brochure and magazine complete with interviews with all the many Pastors, Elaine says, ‘It seemed inevitable that we would start a writing group and that’s what we did.’

This writing group spawned a self-published novel from one of the church deacons as well as many other forms of writing including biblical crosswords. ‘We even started a quarterly Church News mag,’ says Elaine.

Elaine and her husband Dennis moved back to England, after which the group disbanded but the Resource Centre still continues.

Since her retirement Elaine has become an active member of the Faith Writers and has completed the annual NaNoWriMo challenge which she intends doing again this year. Elaine has used NaNoWriMo to kickstart an ambitious project, a Midrashim – fiction based on a Biblical account – in which she interleaves a present-day story of Marla, a young woman struck by sudden tragedy, with the story of another young woman, Shayna, caught up in the Babylonian wars of around 600 BC.

And how does it feel to have her major work well underway? ‘It is really taxing me,’ says Elaine. ‘It’s far more difficult than preparing Bible studies! Juggling two time frames isn’t making it any easier so I waver between perseverance and procrastination.’

I have had the good fortune to have heard some extracts from Elaine’s magnum opus. She has captured her two time-frames exquisitely, portraying the grief and despair of the modern Marla, and the terrifying maelstrom of war in which Shayna is swept up.

Don’t procrastinate too long, Elaine, and please come back here to let us know when the book is finished.

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Looking at a few of the oddities of fiction writing

The seven blogs following this will explore a variety of corners of fiction writing, looking at some of the less well-known genres as well as the issues of writing in a popular genre. I have lined up writers whose fiction ranges from factual base to fantasy world; from debut novelists to international best-sellers, some of whom are well-nigh impossible to pigeonhole. The one thing they have in common is that I enjoy their work. I hope you will too. As the blogs are published, the links below will come live, one a week starting one week from today - mark the dates.

With Criminal Intent

International best-sellerdom via an unconventional route