Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Author interview: Janet O’Kane

I’m delighted to welcome author Janet O’Kane to my blog. I first ‘met’ Janet via blog comments, and was delighted to meet her in person earlier this year and to realise she is just as lovely off-screen as on. It’s been fab watching Janet’s journey towards publication with her debut novel, No Stranger to Death. Let’s find out more about it...

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

The Festival of Writing at York

#FoW13 - not a sound effect from a posh Batman and Robin fight scene (take 13), but the hashtag used on Twitter to group together tweets from an incredibly inspiring long weekend in York.

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 be the cheapest train from London coincide with the start of a mini-course, but there was time to say a quick hello to the lovely Nicola Morgan – who looks more glamorous each time I meet her – and for her to introduce me to Debi Alper, who was running the course ‘Self-editing your Novel’.

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.

  1. 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. 
  2. 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:

  1. Be talented, hard-working and professional
  2. Be nice
  3. 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

A mini-update

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.

J x

Monday, 22 July 2013

A bookmark

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.
J x

Sunday, 24 March 2013


Start the triumphant fanfare! I have finally picked the five winners from my give away of Wendy Wallace’s debut novel, The Painted Bridge. Thank you to all who entered, as well as thanks to those who also tweeted about the giveaway and so gained two entries in the magic handbag.  Since I am a little overdue with the announcement (hangs head in all-kinds of bloggy shame), let’s do something a little special for the reveal…

A movie!


Big congratulations to those who won – Maggie May, Snafu, Elizabeth Varadan, Old Kitty, Johanna Garth. Please email me – (replace the AT with @) – and send me your address so the book can be mailed out to you. I’ve also popped over to your blogs to let you know, so hopefully I’ll be hearing from you soon.

If you didn’t win then here’s the Amazon link for The Painted Bridge.

Moving onto Other News, I’ve been tagged by both Carole Anne Carr and J.B. Chicoine to take part in the blog meme ‘the Next Big Thing’. Thank you, ladies – it’s lovely to be tagged and I’m delighted that you want to know more about my novel-in-almost-finished-progress. So this will be the next blog post coming up – hopefully this week.

Until then... Happy writing all!


*sails off humming Aida*

Monday, 25 February 2013

It’s never The End online

When you finish a good book, do you rush to the Internet to find out more?

I always do. It’s an extra delicacy that’s impossible to resist. As soon as I close the book, or release the kindle to its stand-by picture of crudely rendered pencils, I’m at the computer, googling. (Not goggling, Victorian time-travellers, although I do a fair amount of that online as well – usually in bafflement at obscure websites on subjects such as milk-bottle collecting).

Why am I googling? What do I want to know at this stage? Just... more, if possible – more about the story, about the characters, about the author.  I like to read other people’s riffs on ideas or themes, and I like to read interviews with the author to find out what inspired them to write that particular story.

Sometimes I’m curious about what the authors look like.

You know how dogs sometimes resemble their owners? I want to see if the author looks like their genre – e.g. whether they are suitably detective-like for crime fiction.

 (I’m thinking a no-nonsense hairstyle, some sort of beige raincoat, a look of noir in their eyes.)

Actually, let’s follow that cliché tangent...

  • Historical: A vague impression of dust, free-range hair, a monocle, a defiant cardigan
  • Romance: A Very Interesting necklace (if a lady), a Very Interesting cravat (if a man), a secret yearning to walk by a stream in a meadow (both)
  • Horror: A quiet unassuming air, with quiet unassuming hair. If they are distracted in conversation assume they are thinking of ways to horribly kill and maim.
  • Comedy: Hair that can comfortably host its own stand-up show, a jaunty outfit, oversized accessories
  • Sci-fi: Like a blinky-eyed mole, recently emerged from its secret Mole Lair
  • Supernatural: Black clothes, cross or skull silver jewellery, tattoo of name in Wingdings font* on arm
  • Thriller: Super-fit, hair swept back as if just stepped off speed-boat, aviator sunglasses, loves Bond.

This is probably why my novel makes slow progress. You’ve got to love a tangent or two (sung to the tune of ‘You’ve got to pick a pocket or two’ from Oliver!)

In this novel, one thing counts
On the page, ideas must mount
I’m afraid these don’t grow on trees
You’ve got to love a tangent or two

What else am I googling? (Besides lyrics to parody.) After I finish a book, I like to read reviews to see what everyone else thinks – and, to all authors who worry about reviews – this is the only time I read them, after I’ve finished the book. A bad review on Amazon would never put me off your book as I’d never see it first. I can understand why authors worry, after all, I’d be gutted to see a miserable review of my own book, but from a reader’s point of view, it wouldn’t inform my choice at all. Does anyone actually go to Amazon to browse reviews to decide what to read? (There’s a lot of 'to’s' in that there sentence.)

I find this sort of googling adds another layer to the story. It’s like wringing as much pleasure as possible out of a sponge.**

I once wrote about a character that couldn’t bear to watch films as she didn’t like to think there was an ending. The character was an over-wrought imaginative teenager, and it was surely only a coincidence that at the time I was also an over-wrought imaginative teenager. Sometimes I feel like that about good stories. They fill my mind so much that I need to google every last drop out of them and only then can I let them rest in peace. Before the Internet I’m not quite sure what I did. Quite possibly I never actually paused between books but hastily picked up the next to consume, and so stayed continually giddy drunk on stories, rather than go through the hang over feel of an ending. Now I like to pause and reflect a little. And, of course, google the hell out of it.

What about you?

*Is there an actual point to Wingdings? There are three versions on my copy of Word (and a bastard child – webdings) so someone out there must know.

**I’ve never passed by a sponge and thought let’s wring it for a bit of a giggle. I’ve never even looked at a sponge and thought of it as an entertainment source, to be honest.

Monday, 4 February 2013

Author interview: Wendy Wallace

Wendy Wallace is the author of The Painted Bridge – a haunting novel set in the 19th century, where nothing is as it seems. The symbolic cover art intrigued me at once, and the book is an enchanting and satisfying read, one that deeply absorbs the reader into the Victorian world within the pages.

I’m delighted to welcome Wendy to my blog for an interview, and have teamed up with her UK publisher, Simon & Schuster, to offer a copy of her book to five lucky folk – find out how to enter at the end of this blog post.

On to the interview!

How would you describe your debut novel, The Painted Bridge?

My shorthand description of The Painted Bridge is that it’s about photography, madness and the sea. A longer version might be: The Painted Bridge is set in London, in 1859, in a private asylum for women. It’s the story of Anna Palmer, a woman who has made a mistake in her life and who has reached a point where she is forced to learn to see things for what they are.”

Where did you get your inspiration for the story?

I took inspiration for The Painted Bridge from a range of sources. I’d spent a Christmas in Caernarvon on the north Wales coast and had read about shipwrecks on the treacherous rocks there, and had walked on the wintry beaches. At about the same time, I came across the work of Dr Hugh Diamond, a Victorian psychiatrist who believed that the then-new science of photography could be used to read mental illness from the features of the face. Underlying these things, I had a persistent idea in my mind - about a woman who saw visions. These elements were the foundations of what became Anna’s story.

Why did you choose ‘The Painted Bridge’ as the title?

The eponymous bridge is inspired by a real one, in the grounds of Kenwood House in north London, where I walk regularly. It is a bridge that is not what it seems! I don’t want to give too much away but, trapped in Lake House asylum, Anna Palmer must find a way out of her situation. What at first appear to be ways of escape – appeals to doctors, the bridge itself – are illusory. And yet ultimately the bridge is made to serve. The metaphor of ‘finding a way across’ underlies the whole novel.

Photography plays a big part in the novel. To what extent did you research the techniques involved?

I totally enjoyed researching the photography aspects. I’ve been fascinated by photography for many years and have always taken photographs. It was a very powerful experience to visit the archive at Bethlem Royal Hospital and there to see and hold 19th century photographs of women patients.

I was lucky enough to be able to attend a wet collodion workshop, held at the London studio of artist Minnie Weisz, and run by two New Yorkers who are fine practitioners of the art of wet collodion. From that, I learned about the smell of the chemicals, the feeling of the glass plate in your hands and also formed the idea for the opening and closing images of the novel – in which the world is seen through a lens, upside down.

Tell us about your main character, Anna Palmer.

Anna is a solitary character from a precarious family, trying to make a life for herself in the ways that were open to Victorian women. She has married a scoundrel but can’t allow herself to realize it. She grew up by the sea and the sea seems to wash through her being, in her memories and the way she sees life, and in her passionate commitment to aid for seafarers. The experience of incarceration at Lake House could make or break her and it is up to the reader to decide whether or not she is ‘mad’, as charged by her husband.

Along with Anna, every character within the novel has their own personal journey. Was each character’s emotional arc planned from the beginning?

The emotional arcs were planned in embryo from the beginning but each of the minor characters grew in substance during the writing. Lizzie Button and Talitha Batt are incarcerated alongside Anna, and at first she can see neither for who they are. Emmeline Abse, wife of the proprietor Querios Abse, finds her own form of freedom through the events of the winter of 1859. Even Querios Abse will ultimately escape from Lake House. The book appeared to me during the writing of it as a mosaic, in which each tiny piece by the end found its place in the pattern.

If you wrote a sequel to The Painted Bridge, which characters would you like to follow and why?

I have written a sequel to The Painted Bridge! Although I think of it not as a sequel exactly but as a ‘linked’ novel. The Sacred River, which will be published in July 2013, is the story of Anna Palmer’s older sister Louisa Heron, and Louisa’s daughter Harriet. Harriet appears only as a baby in The Painted Bridge, but is a young woman of 23 by the time Magic begins, in the winter of 1882.

I wanted to explore the character of Louisa further. I knew all about her background, growing up like Anna in a flint-knapped house on a clifftop near the port of Dover in Kent, in an unconventional family. Louisa is a more complex character than Anna Palmer, and for reasons of her own, doesn’t always do the right thing. By 1882, she is forced by Harriet’s illness to leave a fogbound London for the light and warmth of Egypt - with consequences for each of the three main characters that could not have been foreseen. Yael Heron, the third member of the party that sets out for Alexandria, never comes on stage in The Painted Bridge although Louisa mentions her.

If you could go back in time to the year the novel is set, 1859, for one day only, where would you go and why?

Shortly before publication, we made a short film trailer for The Painted Bridge, in which actress Sarine Sofair was in costume as Anna Palmer. We filmed at Brockwell House in Lambeth and the film shows Anna beating on the door of her room, looking out of the window of ‘Lake House’, dancing (her great love) alone in the grounds. During the filming, I felt as if I had gone back in time, as if I walked with Anna Palmer in the walled garden, felt her fear and frustration as she paced the day room. It was an uncanny experience.

Apart from that – I’d love to go back on any very ordinary day and just walk amongst the people of London, listening to their conversations, smelling the roasting chestnuts and the bunches of violets (and the sewage, probably). I’d have a gin in a public house, hold a baby, maybe try on a pair of laced boots or wield a quill pen! Take a ride on an omnibus. Very ordinary things interest and move me.

How do you organise your time when writing?

I don’t have a cast iron routine but just work consistently, day after day, often in the evenings and at weekends as well. The Painted Bridge took me two years to write. I like writing while sitting on a couch, with my feet up. It gives me the feeling that I’m not really working, just amusing myself and I think that’s not a bad feeling to have in writing fiction.

By my computer I currently have a pen, my mobile, and an origami fortune teller. What’s on your desk?

I like the sound of your fortune teller. Often on my desk there are heaps of postcards, print-outs from of old texts or reports, copies of photographs, reference books – and always my trusty Dictionary of Etymology (to prevent modern words creeping in to the mouths of 19th century characters.) Other times, I’ll have a big clear out and get out a can of furniture polish and my desk will be completely empty, which helps give clarity. My talisman throughout the writing of The Painted Bridge was the card of my agent, Ivan Mulcahy. I had it on a shelf in front of me and his belief in me helped me find more in myself. On my noticeboard, I have a quote from the wise and wonderful Hilary Mantel: “Imagination only comes when you privilege the subconscious.”

Can you share some information about your next writing project?

The Sacred River is now in production and will appear in hardback in July this year. I’m gestating a new novel but it’s too early to say anything about it yet. I see writing as a path, and it’s my hope that I can stay on that path.

What advice would you give to aspiring authors?

Three pieces of advice have helped me very much.

One is not to judge your first draft too soon; just let it come out, you can improve it later.

The next thing is to give yourself time. It takes time to write a novel, thousands and thousands of hours. Progress is not even; you can be stuck for ages then have a series of major breakthroughs in understanding the characters, the story.

Finally – in the later stages - read the work aloud, again and again. Let your ear tell you what should stay and what must go or be rewritten.


Thank you, Wendy! It was fabulous to find out more about the background to the novel. And many thanks to Simon & Schuster for offering five of my blog readers the chance to receive their own copy of The Painted Bridge.

How to enter

Leave a comment on this blog post = one entry in the hat
Tweet about (and link to) this interview mentioning me @jayneferst (so I won't miss your tweet)  =  two entries in the hat
Link to this interview on your blog (and let me know in a comment) = three entries in the hat

So your name could potentially go into the hat six times! The giveaway is open to all readers of my blog no matter where you are in the world, and is open throughout the month of February. The five winners will be chosen at random.

In the meantime, do visit the links below to find out more about Wendy and her writing.

Wendy's website (and book trailer mentioned in the interview):
Wendy's Twitter:
The Painted Bridge: Amazon
(The hardcover is out now, the paperback will be released on April 25, 2013)

Monday, 28 January 2013

Fish-hooked Monday

Mildred and her
best friend Maud
Today I feel like I’ve been rudely jerked into Monday by a giant fish hook. There I was, all Sunday-ish and kind to small kittens, when all of a sudden – wham! Into Monday I go, without so much as a by-your-leave, or an excuse-me.

A fish-hooked look is one of startled scruffiness, I’ve decided. In fact, my inspiration today appears to have come from The Worst Witch’s Mildred Hubble. I am sporting a very similar plait, which is tied not only where you’d expect but also ‘in the middle’ with a ribbon snipped from a clothes item. Now, at 7am this seemed the height of sophisticated practicality. It was keeping unruly hair ruled and was the only thing to hand. But, in the harsh strip lighting of a corporate-ish office, why do I have a random piece of ribbon in my hair? I don’t know.

Another inspiring 7am idea was to pair suit trousers (a nod to respectability) with trainers that have a go-faster bright blue stripe. Fine, you may say, but I forgot I fretfully painted my fingernails varying shades of pink in a WHY-WON’T-MY-INTERNET-WORK! tedium crisis on Saturday. I’m also wearing a pink scarf. So, ignoring the plait thing, I look like I’ve almost thought about my look today – and then you glance down at my trainers and realise oh, actually, whatever stylistically matches is a pure lucky stumble.

This wasn’t going to be a blog post on being fish-hooked into Mondays. It was going to be a Very Intelligent article on Art, Science, and Deep Thoughts. So I’d like everyone to just imagine that for a minute instead.




I thank you.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Britain’s changing high street

Lulled into and lolled out of a dark Christmas, January slid into view behind the scenes, the skies giving no clue as to the new colour of the year. But now, mid-way, we are smacked out of our glittery jumpers by minus temperatures, crystal piercing skies, and the news of one high street behemoth after another lying down by the bleached bones of Woolworths, eyes rolling, one last snort of steam from its nostrils, killed like in a bad sci-fi movie from that unseen virus – online.

Poor His Master’s Voice. For ninety-two years that little dog sat, ear cocked, listening intently to a gramophone. It never was upgraded to displaying a boom-box on its shoulder, never listened via gigantic headphones to walkmans, didn’t progress to being a digital projection of a cartoon dog street-dancing to an iPod. Like its logo, HMV also just sat, *squatted on every high street, usually on the dust-blown ashes of an independent record shop, belligerently happy with its position as ‘top dog’ for music, until it glanced around in shock and realised its customers were all shopping elsewhere.

But HMV was handy, especially once you waded through the racks of over-priced band t-shirts. I liked seeing what box-sets were on offer. A voucher from HMV was the stock Christmas present staple for all the blokes in my family (thankfully not this year – that honour has now been awarded to Costa vouchers since we are all hopelessly addicted to caffeine.) But what did I actually buy from HMV stores? Earphones. The odd film for £3. And occasionally there would be something to buy that I’d have no idea about unless I wandered the shop – such as the London on Film DVDs. But in recent years wandering the shop was not exactly a pleasure. The aisles were cramped. The fixtures and fittings dark. The music too loud. DVDs stacked on the floor, bunched on tables. The store started to resemble a chain pub over-run by a bring and buy sale, haunted by the ghost of Dixons staring down from the flat-screen televisions.

Blockbuster also gasped a final breath this week. Back in the day, we had a little local ‘Video City’. I used to don my rollerskates (quads), noisily whoosh down the pavement, and clunkily tip toe on the rubber stoppers all around the shop, trying to find something to watch that had actually been released in the last three years. Finding a new film was rarer than a Dodo feather. You had to put your name down on a list. Then along came Blockbuster. So bright! So much choice! Lots of sweets! My allegiance swiftly transferred, along with the rest of the community, and stayed throughout the transition from school to college to University. But then I found less time to watch films. Videos were cheap to buy. DVDs came down in price... especially if they were bought online.

HMV and Blockbuster should have put their heads together. They should’ve gone for a walk around the neighbourhood, popped into the latest trendy club, taken a casual stroll around an Apple store, recognised which way the wind was blowing. Unfortunately the online world is fairly stealthy. The activity is not heard. Yet those virtual shopping baskets are still being filled, and the invisible cash register is silently adding up for somebody.

It’s incredibly sad for the people who have lost their jobs. It always is. But perhaps this will be seen, one day, as a good thing for the high street. Maybe it will usher in an age of hand-made, of independents, of locally sourced, of craft. Maybe each high street will eventually become unique to its area again – a place people want to visit. The majority of people still like to go out and potter around. Shops should look at the demographic and footfall passing their door and think what can entice them in. The Internet will always be a factor, but online has different strengths to offline, and businesses that work that out will be onto a winner.

*I know this should say 'squatting'. But here, I rather like 'squatted'. Squatting sounds transient, like the store will straighten its knees at any moment and stride off. Squatted, on the other hand, sounds like it's bulkily blocked down on the street and put down concrete anchors.

Monday, 7 January 2013


And so I start the first (official) working week of the year with shiny blow-dried hair, a new scarf, and firmer ideas about what I want to achieve. I don’t make resolutions in the time-honoured ‘I Shalt Not Ever Again Eat Gorgeous Biscuits!’ kind of way (as that would be sheer January madness), but I do like to plant little virtual signposts in the months ahead. Sort of like this:

 I’d like to be more creative this year. There’s a lot I’d like to make happen, if I can, and a good part of that will mean recognising new opportunities, speaking to new people, and learning to trust in my own abilities (and not disparage the poor things at every opportunity... including just then. Darn it!)

Update on the novel rewrite

Slowly the evenings and weekends, the hours and minutes, the time squished out of the day to tap-tap-tap at the keyboard is repaying me with a stronger story. I downed tools on Sunday evening (far too late) and realised that there’s only 81 pages left to detangle / polish with Super Novel Shine (patented in 1872 by Mrs Paige Turner, no less.)


This is SO exciting!
 I’ve booked two days off in January to give the writing a time-boost and my main mission for the next six weeks is to finish and submit. Whoop! Once the submission process has started on that novel then I need to start plotting out my next idea. There are several lined up but each needs to be explored to see which pulls me in most. During that time I’ll also be looking for a new place to live. (Another whoop!) I am hoping to be in a new place by the time I start exploring ideas, but am slowly discovering life is not linear. For so many years I had the mindset that until ‘A’ happens then ‘B’ can’t happen, and so on and so forth, but that’s not necessarily the best way to live. In fact, it’s time to take advice from Yoda...

... and when he says it, you know it makes sense. Happy creative week all!