Wednesday, 4 December 2013
1. What first drew you towards crime fiction?
Once upon a time there wasn’t such a thing as YA fiction. You were expected to progress from Enid Blyton and other children’s writers to whatever you found on the school reading list and at home. I must have been a disappointment to Dad: not only did I not want to play football, he couldn’t interest me in his books about military history either. On the other hand, as soon as Mum judged me ready for Agatha Christie, I became immersed in crime fiction and haven’t looked back. At that time, the so-called Queens of Crime (Christie, Sayers, Marsh, Allingham) reigned supreme. The genre has become a lot broader since, but it still delivers what I look for in books: great stories. So when I decided to write a novel, what else would I write?
2. Who are your favourite crime fiction authors and why do you like their stories?
Over the past couple of years I’ve noticed a shift in how I read crime fiction. Instead of avidly devouring every book by a small range of authors, I now read work by a wider spread of authors, especially debut novels. This probably started while I was trying to go down the traditional agent/publisher route and hoped to discover what, if anything, those novels had in common. The two established writers who appear most frequently on my bookshelves are Robert Goddard and Christopher Brookmyre. Goddard is a supreme storyteller, getting his main characters into fixes from which it seems impossible to escape, yet they do. I also enjoy the historical aspects of his novels. Brookmyre brilliantly combines crime with the blackest of humour, sending up everything from fake psychics to the Scottish Government.
3. If you could meet a character from any crime fiction book, who would it be and why?
I still have a soft spot for Reginald Hill’s Andy Dalziel, who is far more uncouth in the novels than he is portrayed by Warren Clarke in the TV adaptation. But he makes me laugh as well as being far cleverer than people realise.
4. No Stranger to Death is your first novel. What can readers expect?
As I discovered when the time came to upload it to Amazon, my novel doesn’t fit neatly into a category. Yes, it revolves around murder and other crimes, but although the police are involved, they play a minor part, and my main character is Zoe Moreland, a recently widowed GP. It’s set in the Scottish Borders, which is very rural, but while the goings-on Zoe gets caught up in are far from the ‘cosy’ world of Christie’s Miss Marple, they’re maybe not dark enough to qualify as ‘tartan noir’. So perhaps I’ve just invented a new crime sub-genre: tartan cosy! Suffice to say, I’ve written the sort of book I like to read, with a twisty-turny plot, lots of interesting characters, and several shocks at the end.
5. Tell us more about your main character...
Doctor Zoe Moreland is a loner – although she would describe herself as independent – and her only companion is Mac, a crossbreed dog she unintentionally adopted. She has moved to the Borders to start a new life, not realising a village is the last place to go if you’re trying to keep a secret. I wanted to make her as unlike myself as possible, so although she’s emotionally reserved she is a sporty, physically adventurous type. She also has long, thick hair, which I’ve always wished for! By contrast, Zoe’s new friend Kate Mackenzie, a deaf genealogist who comes from a long line of Borders farmers, is an extrovert, forever trying to persuade Zoe to be more outgoing and trusting of people. It was fun writing about two such disparate characters and I like Kate so much that she gets her own plotline in Book 2.
6. You live in the Scottish Borders. How much of an influence were your surroundings when writing No Stranger to Death?
After living up here for 21 years (I’m originally from Dorset) I can’t imagine being anywhere else, so maybe I took the easy way out by setting my book here too. However, No Stranger to Death would be a very different novel if Zoe had relocated anywhere else, as her new surroundings shape the events she gets caught up in. For example, walking her dog in a city may have exposed her to some types of crime but probably not finding a body in the remains of a Guy Fawkes bonfire.
While writing the book I discovered a strange thing: I had no shortage of plot ideas or characters, but I could not describe places and buildings without actually seeing them. Looking at photographs on the internet can be useful, but I got into the habit of visiting locations, which in turn provided yet more storylines. Going to Kelso to research Zoe’s visit to her favourite coffee shop (in real life it’s actually a tiny Boots) gave me the idea for a revelation on the very last page of the book, and a trip to a graveyard supplied the scene when her car goes out of control in the snow.
7. I love researching oddities for my writing. What research did you do for your novel?
Again, much research can be done without leaving the comfort of one’s home thanks to the internet, but I don’t think you can beat talking to people to find out the really interesting stuff. I call this the ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’ principle. Speaking with someone to check a few facts can lead to them sharing things you hadn’t even asked about, small details which give your writing veracity. For example, because Kate Mackenzie is a genealogist, I met up with a real one in Berwick, and learnt that Kate would probably keep an acrylic magnifying dome on her desk, to help with reading copies of old documents. When we discussed the sort of people who ask her to draw up their family trees, she said many of her American clients are far keener for her to find them Scots ancestors than English ones. It would have taken an awful lot of googling to discover that!
8. Can you describe your writing routine?
I’m lucky in that I no longer have to juggle writing with a job outside the home, but I do help my husband run his business, so I can’t ignore the phone if it rings because it could be a potential customer. And we don’t have children, although my day is organised around caring for our two dogs who wake me at 5am most mornings. I can’t possibly write that early, but it gives me time to read and plan my day, and catch up with Twitter and Facebook. I aim to be at my desk by 9am and write for two or three hours, morning and afternoon. When I’m writing something new I try not to keep going back and editing, but plough on and finish. I’m a reluctant pantser: I wish I could plot an entire book before sitting down and typing it, but I can’t. Instead, I plan a few chapters ahead, write them, then plan a bit more.
9. What made you decide to self-publish No Stranger to Death?
Having seen two friends, Mel Sherratt and Peter Flannery, self-publish very successfully, I always had it at the back of my mind as an option. Weirdly enough, a rejection from an agent decided me. Not because she hated my novel but because she took the trouble to phone me to say she really liked it and but didn’t think she could sell it because it was too ‘mid-list’ for a publisher to take on in the current climate. That was the validation I needed, the reassurance that I had written, in her words, ‘a very good book’.
I have a marketing background, so that aspect of self-publishing didn’t overly worry me, but I knew I had to make my book as good as it could possibly be, for it to stand any chance of selling more than a handful of copies. That’s why I invested in a bespoke cover by a professional designer, Kim McGillivray, and also paid to have it edited by Caroline Smailes at BubbleCow. One of the best bits of advice I’ve had came from Peter Flannery, who said on the day I pressed the ‘Publish’ button: ‘Remember this is only the beginning of the process’. It’s still very early days, but I was delighted when No Stranger to Death reached the dizzy height of number 17 in Amazon’s Scottish Crime Fiction on Kindle a couple of days after its release.
10. What advice would you give to other authors who are thinking of self-publishing?
I don’t think I’ve been at this long enough to say anything other than suggest they do their homework first. There’s lots of information available now, online and in print. And get to know others who’ve gone down that route, see how they approached it. But remember: There are no hard and fast rules in self-publishing, which makes it both scary and exciting!
Thank you, Janet!
No Stranger to Death
Some secrets can be deadly . . .
The featureless corpse lay like a grotesque department-store mannequin, elbows and knees flexed, fists clenched. Wisps of smoke rose from its still-burning torso.
Recently-widowed GP Zoe Moreland really wishes she’d chosen another route to walk her dog on November 6th. Had they gone away from the village, Mac could not have led her to the body lying in the remains of a Guy Fawkes bonfire.
Zoe’s move from an English city to the Scottish Borders was meant to be a fresh start among strangers unaware of her past. Instead, she is thrust into the limelight by her grisly discovery and gets caught up in the resulting murder investigation. Then someone else dies unexpectedly and Zoe herself narrowly escapes death.
Determined not to become the killer’s next victim, she digs beneath the tranquil surface of the close knit community to find out who is committing these horrible acts. But uncovering other people’s secrets puts Zoe in even more danger . . .
Buy the book: Amazon
Find the author on...
I love the idea of 'tartan cosy', and the evocative cover art is so enticing. As for the blurb - what a great start to a novel! Am looking forward to finding out more.
Wednesday, 18 September 2013
I first saw a mention of the festival in a tweet. ‘Ang on, I thought (as even in thoughts I drop aitches), that sounds a bit sparkling. I then did some research and was swiftly dazzled by the amount of industry professionals signed up to hold one-to-one sessions or present panels and workshops. It was a weekend flooded with literary goodness. I ditched the plans for a holiday; decided last year’s winter wardrobe was perfectly adequate as long as no one inspects hems (and how many hem-fetish weirdoes do we really meet on a day-to-day basis?), and promptly booked.
Friday 13th dawned (thankfully not at Camp Crystal Lake). I’d been awake since 6am alternatively coaxing and threatening my printer to do its job (trust my luck to have a printer with existential issues) and, along with nerves, took with me to the festival my first few chapters, a synopsis, and my pitch.
We shall draw the thin Veil of Calm over what happened at Kings Cross station when I saw most trains were delayed or cancelled, and instead board the train. I don’t think there was a lessoning of the stomach muscles until I got to York. But arrive I did, and felt very brave asking a taxi queue of strangers if anyone else was also travelling to the festival. One girl stepped forward so we shared the cab fare and chatted on the way. I never actually saw her again – the festival is big! – but it was really nice to walk in with someone else.
I had cunningly timed my arrival to
Debi is so lovely. (You will spot a theme here.) She instantly made me feel welcome and, as I entered the lecture hall, I felt completely at home.
Tea and coffee breaks are a great way to start chatting to people. I introduced myself to someone I’d seen in Debi’s course, and knew pretty much straight away that I had found a good buddy. We realised we had our first one-to-one sessions at the same time, so when the course resumed we made a plan to discreetly slope out together and towards the one-to-one building.
The one-to-ones were ten minutes in front of your chosen industry professional – whether literary agent, book doctor, or publisher. (I love the wording ‘book doctor’.) I chose to speak to literary agents. The feedback was insightful, positive, reaffirming, considered, and pretty damn lovely. They liked my book idea and my writing. Whoop! I think I babbled a bit – and handed one agent a business card with a pic that unfortunately makes me look like I write vampire porn - but apart from that they said they'd be interested in a submission. So this makes me think of two things.
- You really need to find an agent who connects with your novel. They need to love it/believe in it in order to sell it.
- It is really obvious when you find someone like that as the questions they ask will reflect their interest.
Of course, we all send submissions to the Great Slush Pile; it's rare to meet an agent first. But ways this can be translated is by researching that your chosen agent represents your genre, and get your manuscript as polished as it can possibly be before submitting.
Saturday dawned with a spill of sun soaking through clouds still damp from the laundry. I swung off to breakfast with my notebook, determined to make the most of the day. And what a day! It started with a keynote address from the author Adele Parks, a lady who is simply brilliant at public speaking. She was warm, confident, funny, succinct – and didn't shy from talking about painful things like family bereavement, which prompted her to start making her author dreams come true.
I was next in literary agent Juliet Pickering’s workshop ‘Honing a one-minute, two-line pitch’, and we did practical exercises as well as trying out how our pitches sounded to a roomful of people. Afterwards someone came up to me to say they thought my idea sounded intriguing, which was lovely to hear.
And this leads me nicely on to the friendliness of the festival. The effect was such that I've found myself smiling at strangers ever since (very odd behaviour for a Londoner). Everyone is willing to chat, every conversation is about writing. I attended a sci-fi / fantasy panel and absolutely loved that one part of it was spent seriously discussing possible outcomes of the next ice-age. The ‘next’, mind you. It was brilliant.
The afternoon was spent in author Julie Cohen’s workshop about characterization (spelling in honour of her nationality). She is a fantastic teacher full of enthusiasm and energy for her subject. We were handed random letters and created a character from them – mine was fifty-year old Unwin Walters, a hit man out to murder his employers (‘Unwin’ means ‘enemy’). I might revisit ol’ Unwin at a later date…
Sunday’s workshops started with a talk about digital story-telling. Speakers Rob Sherman, Lisa Gee, and Tom Abba introduced us to different ways of telling stories, and it was eye-opening, revolutionary, fascinating, and mind-blowing. The workshop was extended for those of us who were practically on the edge of our seat – we were like a little church of true believers, buzzing around the speakers at the end of the talk, fully engaged with ideas.
I then decided to attend another of Julie Cohen’s classes, as she was so brilliant the day before, and was in a packed workshop called ‘Learning story structure from Pixar films’. Again, she was really lovely (that theme again!) and the class was brilliant. I've now ordered some Pixar films… research, I tell you.
This leads me onto the other thing I got from this festival: book and film recommendations based on my writing, my idea, and my genre. This is so fantastic – I'm on a literary journey, and can’t wait to bolster my education, so to speak, with authors such as Jonathan L Howard, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mark Z. Danielewski, and films such as Hugo, and A Matter of Life and Death.
The final keynote speech was from author Sharon Bolton (SJ Bolton) who, despite a tricky time-slot, shone from the stage with an inspiring, rallying speech full of dry wit and advice for aspiring authors, namely:
- Be talented, hard-working and professional
- Be nice
- Don’t be a twat
And then there was only time for goodbyes and the wet taxi scrum dash to the train station.
Oh, Festival of Writing. How truly lovely you were, exceeding all my expectations. I met some amazing people, who I’ll hopefully stay in touch with (and can’t wait for them to be published so I can read their books), got some fantastic feedback and advice, attended some brilliant workshops, and, perhaps most importantly of all, feel a real confidence in my writing.
Onwards and upwards, my friends.
The Festival of Writing is run by The Writer's Workshop.
Saturday, 7 September 2013
I'm not quite back yet, but, in the manner of opening the windows in a guest room before Great Aunt Doris’ imminent arrival; I've given the blog a bit of an airing.
There have been a few changes.
I've decided it’s time to say goodbye to my Novice Novelist title. I love the playful alliteration, but have also been thinking about the message I'm sending into the universe with that title, and the message I'm sending to myself. I know – a bit hippy-dippy – but I believe the tags we give to ourselves are important, and it’s important to listen to what we are truly saying. It’s so easy to be subconsciously negative, and this creates barriers to our heart’s desire without us even realising. I don’t want to be a novice novelist – I want to be a novelist. I’ll always continue to learn and grow, as that’s what humans do, but it’s time for a bit of positive energy.
I've also added an About section with a list of published work to date, amongst some other bits. Once my scanner stops doing its best impression of a breeze block with buttons, and starts remembering its mission in life, then I’ll upload the articles; it’ll be nice to have them all in the one spot. I’ll also add some details of my illustration adventures. The Grand Plan for 2014 definitely involves getting some art back in my life again.
My 9-5 work is still very busy, and I'm still searching for that elusive work / life balance, as ever. As for the novel – the rewrite / editing continues – mostly I'm really happy with how it’s progressing; sometimes I want to throw the keyboard out of the window and jump up and down on its cruel blank innards…and then make a necklace out of them – that will teach you, keyboard! Don’t mess with a writer who is also into steam-punk jewellery.
Well, I think that’s it for now. Great Aunt Doris should be very comfortable here in the interim. She is very fond of Steely Grey colour schemes and is partial to Courier font (and a courier or two, so I've heard, in the Tales of her Exciting Youth Vol One).
I hope your writing, or art, is going really well, and look forward to catching up with you all soon.
Monday, 22 July 2013
I feel silenced every time I think of this blog. There are so many things I want to say that my fingers get stuck with the enormity of it all and I can’t form the words. I don’t feel very witty anymore; I worry that the folk who came here to be entertained may yawn instead and this time there's no rabbit waiting in the hat to pull out as a surprise.
I need to make some changes with my life and as of yet can’t find the gumption to do it. (Who stocks gumption? I need to order some pronto.) I have to take control of the wheel, but instead I laze backwards and let the ship steer where it may, into that choppy sea, onto those rocks, adrift under the sun. I’m still chipping away at my story, still excited by what I’m writing, but I feel a constant underlying weariness to my days, which is probably to do with lack of decision-making. And yet there are so many things I am plotting behind the scenes – create a website, do this, sell that, make this, write that – maybe thinking of these things at once has caused me to press all the keys on a mental typewriter and create a jam.
The other stumbling block is the rise of Hugely Busy with the 9-5 job and the enormous length of time I spend squashed into random smelly armpits while commuting on the tube. I’ve had my job for four years now and completely notice the difference in outside work creativity – when I started I had a lot more evening energy to write, draw, and blog. Now my best writing time is always at the weekend, and the longer I spend there, finding those words, the less I can devote to words here. I tweet as that’s easy, but blogging is more of a commitment, for me, anyway.
So think of this blog as my online bookmark. It's closed for now but will open again one day soon, and I’ll find my place again.