The nitty-gritty of writing – it’s not all glamorous
In my previous post I talked about how when I’m writing a book it begins with a character – a character that comes to me out of the blue usually when I’m busy doing something completely unrelated to writing. And it’s in getting to know that character that the plot begins to develop, as does the idea of where it should be set.
The devil is in the detail – timelines, events & maps
But whereas I don’t do much in the way of detailed planning for the development of the story itself, preferring to see where my characters take me, I’ve learned the hard way that I absolutely must have a detailed record of the timescales involved, of the factual biographies of the characters, and of the locations where the action will take place. This is particularly important when writing a series as there’s only so much detail I can hold in my memory.
Timing is crucial
Therefore I’ll have a time frame for the duration of the action – be that over a year, a month, a week – whatever. And even if I don’t say it’s all taking place in, for example, 2017, I’ll make sure I have a definite year or period in mind, so that the continuity of the action works.
Linked to that I’ll also have the birth dates and ages of all the main characters decided on and noted – again no matter whether those details are mentioned in the novel. But as well as dates of birth, I also make sure to note all the relevant background details of the characters that might influence their actions and reactions in the novel – yes, regardless of whether these details are directly mentioned in the telling of the story. For example what their parents did for a living and what their names were, where the character grew up, their siblings if any, perhaps their health history or educational record. And most importantly I make a note of their physical characteristics – again – you guessed it – whether or not they’re directly referred to in the telling of the tale. This all helps bring the characters fully to life in my head and, as with the timeline, helps me check continuity.
And, although I use real world settings in my novels I do also apply some fictionalising to those real places. That way I get the best of both worlds and my already hard-working imagination doesn’t get overstretched.
So, for example in my Skye-set novels – the Scottish island is of course real. The main town of Portree, the famous mountains and other scenic sites are all places that exist, but the township of Halladale where my main character Rachel loves is entirely fictional – as are its hills and the local mountain, Ben Halla.
I made up Halladale because I wanted the freedom to include whatever houses, landscape and other features that I needed for my story to work. As for the houses where Jack, Rachel and other characters live – whether on Skye, or in the other locations the story takes them – they, too are all made up. However, although some are completely made-up, some are based on real places. Halladale is based on the place where I lived in north Skye. Rachel’s house is loosely based on my own Skye house. And the Jerusalem flat where Rachel’s brother lives is based on the apartment where a friend of mine lived when she was growing up there and which I visited.
Using made up or fictionalised places means that I draw out floorplans of the houses and note what direction they face and what can be seen from various windows and so on. I also draw maps – for example I drew a map of Halladale and noted how far it was (in my mind) from the real main town of Portree and where on the island’s northern peninsula I have placed it. That way I can have them leave their driveways and head in the right direction every time, and I can have them gaze out of their front room window at the same view of the loch as they had in a previous chapter.
All of these background details are essential. Shared with my readers or not, they help ensure consistency and credibility in my storytelling and having them written down saves me so much time as I edit, proofread and check my manuscript before publication.
Not all about channelling the muse
So, this writer’s life is not just a case of sitting down and having the inspired and wonderful prose flow effortlessly from brain to computer screen. A lot of effort goes into producing a novel – oh yes, it does – and there’s a lot goes on in the background that the reader never gets to see but is a nevertheless necessary part of the writer’s craft.
Which brings me to research – another essential item in the build-a-novel toolkit. But that’s a post for another day.
It’s official! I’ve now been a published writer for ten years. Yes, it was in early December of 2009 that my debut book, Change of Life was first published.
It was a surreal, exciting and utterly terrifying experience. I had no idea what to expect, no idea if my book would sell and no idea how to make potential readers aware of its existence.
I had no online experience other than using email, but I quickly discovered I’d have to up my game in that respect. If I wanted to get the word out there that my book existed, I was going to have to wise up and get acquainted with social media.
Ten Years A Blogger
So it’s also nearly ten years since I started this blog.
This was my first post:
A small miracle happened to me recently. I held my book – the book that I’ve been working on for several years – in my hand for the first time. A long gestation, a sometimes painful labour and at last it was delivered. It was an overwhelming feeling, looking at this thing I had created, to run my fingers over its cover, to flick through its pages, to read my words on those pages. It was the realisation of my longest held and most fervent ambition. My maternal grandmother, herself a writer, and heroine of my childhood set me on the writing path and it’s been a lifelong, life-saving occupation for me. But for so many years it had to take a back seat. It had to be fitted in around family and working life – and it often got squeezed out. That all changed at the end/beginning of the millennium, after I got the ultimate wake-up call – i.e. intimations of my mortality in the shape of a cancer diagnosis. It was brought home to me that tomorrow doesn’t always come and the procrastinating had to stop. I promised the fates that if I survived the cancer I’d get down to some serious writing.
I beat the ovarian cancer and so had to keep my side of the deal. Writing still had to fit around work and family – but it was no longer squeezed out – priorities were reordered and the hard work began.
And now it’s here – my wonderful, beautiful first novel is here. It’s fully formed and it has gone off into the world on its own. It will now have to jostle for readers, for its place on the bookshelf – and I can only watch and support at a distance. I love my book and I want others to love it too. I’m thrilled, exhilarated and absolutely bloody terrified. I’ve never felt so proud and I’ve never felt so vulnerable.
So there you have it. Of course there’s more to the journey, more to the story than that and I hope to share more bits of it with you as I blog. I’m at the beginning of a whole new adventure and it’ll be good to have you along for the ride.
There was no accompanying picture of the book cover, no buying links, and no mention of the book title or its content.
But over time I did get better at the whole blog post thing. The blog has been through several changes and upgrades and is now part of my main website. It has over 600 followers in its own right, as well as many more via Twitter and Facebook – yes, I joined them too.
Ten Successful Years
It’s been an amazing decade. I took early retirement from my work as a primary school teacher and writing is now my full-time job. I’ve now published four books with a fifth one due out early next year.
As time’s gone on I love writing more and more. I love the storytelling and the characters I write about, and I can’t imagine ever retiring. You’ve been warned!
In the last decade I’ve learned so much more about the art and craft of writing. I’ve learned how to talk about and share my writing – both in the real world and the online one. And I’ve gathered such a lovely and loyal readership.
And I’d like to thank any you who are reading this and are also part of that lovely and loyal band. Thank you for your support, encouragement and most especially for those precious, priceless reviews you’ve taken the trouble to write and post – whether on an online bookselling site or on your book blog. Reviews really do help sales and I’m very grateful.
So, as I say, no plans to stop writing. The new book, which is called Fulfilment and is the third and final part in the Jack & Rachel Skye series ( which consists so far of Displacement and Settlement) is due to be published in early 2020. Watch out for more information on this soon. And, after Fulfilment‘s safely out in the world, I have lots of ideas to explore for my next novels.
I’ll be sticking with contemporary romance. I’m not sure whether to write a standalone story or to begin a new series set in the south of Scotland. If I go for a series it would focus on a community and each book would tell the romantic story of a particular pair of characters from that community. I need to think some more about that. And, if you’re a reader of my books, I’d be interested to hear your preferences.
But whatever I decide, it’s an exciting prospect to be starting on something new as the next decade begins. Here’s to 2020 and beyond!
Thanks for being with me on my incredible journey.
PS: you can find out more about my books and where to buy them by clicking on the cover photos – either in the sidebar or at the foot of this post – depending on the type of device on which you’re reading this. Or simply go to the ‘My Books’ page here on the website. You see I have learned a thing or to about marketing 🙂
I recently returned home to Scotland from a month away visiting family in Australia. I left behind Queensland’s hot and sunny springtime and came back to misty, mellow autumn days at home. So what with the jetlag and the dramatic change in the weather and daylight hours, it’s taken a wee while for me to get back into my writing rhythm.
But I do love the autumn. I take a childish delight in walking through fallen leaves and I love the quality of the light and the crisp fresh air. So I’ve been alternating spells at the desk with lots of nice long walks.
Back to work at the writing desk
And, as my writing schedule from now until the end of the year is pretty full-on, I intend to continue to find time for these mind-clearing, restorative and refreshing outdoor spells.
My first task on returning to work was to begin the redraft of the manuscript for my latest novel. I’ve made good progress with that and, after a bit more rewriting of certain sections, it will be ready to go off to the editor. The new book is called Fulfilment. It’s the third and final part of my Skye series of novels and it will be out early next year.
And speaking of Skye, where I lived when I write the first two books in the above-mentioned series, I’m heading back there this week on author business. I’ll be there as my alter-ego, children’s author Anne McAlpine, to talk about The Silver Locket, my Bonnie Prince Charlie/ timeslip novel for 9 to 12 year-olds. I’m going to be doing an author talk at one of the island’s primary schools and will also be doing writing workshops with some of the pupils. I am looking forward to it very much.
Then when I get back, I’ve got the pre-Christmas gathering and lunch of the Facebook group – Authors and Book Bloggers in Scotland – to go to in Edinburgh. And at the end of November I have a table at the local Craft & Gift Fair where I’ll be selling my books.
Lots of Reading
When I do find time to relax – and I will – then, of course, I’ll be reading. I read a lot of good books when I was away in Australia including, naturally lots of contemporary romance as well as a couple of cracking crime novels. Among the best were –
in crime: Lin Anderson’s Time for the Dead and Ann Cleeves’ Wildfire
in romance: The Day We Meet Again by Miranda Dickinson, Tropic Storm by Stella Quinn, Autumn at Blaxland Falls by Eliza Bennets and The Life She Deserves by Maggie Christensen.
And I’m currently reading and very much enjoying Kathryn Freeman’s latest contemporary second-chance romance – Reach For a Star
Questions for you
So, I reckon that’s us up to date. But before I go I’d like to ask if you have a favourite season and if so what is it that especially appeals to you about it? Also what books have you enjoyed reading recently and what are you currently reading?
Hello everyone! This is the 25th and penultimate event in the Put It In Writing Virtual Book Festival. And it’s my pleasure to welcome second-chance romance author Claire Baldry to the festival today. Claire is going to share her thoughts on the use of imagination in her writing.
So over to Claire:
I have always believed that imagination is the finest of all human qualities. It allows us to empathise with people in situations we have never experienced. If we let it, imagination has the power to improve our world and build new inventions. It has the potential to stop us hurting others, because we can envisage their potential pain. As writers, imagination allows us to combine pieces of our experiences together and create a whole new world.
So when people ask me ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ the only reply I can offer is:
“You never know what’s in your head, until you start pulling it out.”
Again and again, I hear authors explain that, however hard they plan their novels, the characters seem to take over and lead the storyline in all sorts of unexpected directions. And that is the same for me. Imagination is a powerful and mysterious tool.
The deeper I get into writing a book, the more likely it is that I will find myself talking to my imagined characters. So when I’m asked “Are your characters based on real people?” I always reply “Not one person, but bits of loads of people I’ve known, and some I’ve seen on TV or read about, and some who just seem to emerge.”
How does the power of imagination translate into writing? I’ve tried to unpack this a bit and take a look at some of the characters and the setting in my latest novel ‘My Daughter’s Wedding’. The bride, Charlotte, is very self-centred, inconsiderate towards her mother and partly formed by the indulgence of her father. But she is also a hard worker, a good mother, and still only twenty-four. Is she based on my own daughter? Certainly not, but there are occasional echoes of my own daughter in the most self-centred phase of her teenage years. And when Charlotte loses control of herself in an emotional and hurtful outburst, she can’t stop. That bit of Charlotte is me, admittedly not often, but it does happen.
The mother of the bride’s new man is also a mixture. His perceptions as a teacher are definitely mine, but his humour comes from my husband whose wit is always sharpest in the company of women.
The looked after child, Carly, is partly based on pupils and families I encountered as a teacher, but I also drew on a variety of second-hand experiences told to me or watched on TV to enable me to enter the head of the abuser with whom Carly has a relationship.
I hope I have been successful in creating these characters. Blogger, Linda Hill was kind enough to observe……
”Claire Baldry has created a cast of people who felt real, flawed and authentic.” (Linda’s Book Bag)
And yet I have chosen to take these fictional characters and place at least some of them in my own hometown of Bexhill in East Sussex. The setting is real. It was a pleasure to weave my imagined characters into such familiar places. I hoped that asking my readers to use their imagination was a good way to promote my coastal hometown, which relies on visitors as part of its economy.
Blogger Anne Williams described the benefit of the setting.
“And I must mention another element of the story I loved, its vivid sense of place. Bexhill, Hastings and their surroundings are unknown territory for me, but I felt like I’d had a rather lovely holiday – the descriptions are just wonderful, the restaurants and the markets, the geography and the attractions, the detail drawn with care but never intruding, just enhancing the backdrop for the story.” (Being Anne)
I would like to write a sequel to ‘My Daughter’s Wedding’, to develop the lives and personalities of some of the characters into a whole new story. As yet, I have no inspiration, but if I keep delving into my head, hopefully my imagination will eventually pull something out.
With grateful thanks to Anne Stormont for allowing me to share my thoughts as part of her Virtual Book Festival.
Anne: And thank you to you too, Claire for this fascinating insight into how you use a mix of imagination and reality – to excellent effect – in your writing.
And now we have an extract from Claire’s above-mentioned book :
My Daughter’s Wedding
From the Back Cover:
When ‘bride to be’ and single parent, Charlotte, discovers that her 61-year-old widowed mother is in a new relationship, she struggles to come to terms with it. “Why do you need to have a man, at your age?” Charlotte asks, “Can’t you just be a grandma?”
The growing tension between mother and daughter combined with preparations for the wedding impact on both family and friends. In this compelling and unashamedly romantic tale of finding love in later life, the experience of a young care-leaver who is tasked with making the wedding bouquet, is skilfully intertwined with the family’s – sometimes turbulent– preparations for a modern wedding.
Angie was fastening her jacket when the phone rang. “Mum, it’s me. I need a favour.”
“Ask quickly then. I’ve got my jacket on. I was on my way out.”
“Why on earth are you wearing a jacket? It’s boiling out there.” Angie was irritated by her daughter’s increasing habit of treating her like a child.
“It’s breezy on Bexhill seafront. What do you want, Charlotte? I’m in a hurry.”
“Can you pick Joe up from school on Wednesday? His dad’s let me down again.”
“No, I’m sorry Charlotte, I can’t. It’s Uncle Jack’s funeral on Wednesday.”
Angie could hear daughter’s annoyance. “I still don’t see why you have to go. You didn’t like him.”
“I’m the only one left now on Grandpa’s side. I’m going to represent the family.”
“Uncle Jack won’t know you’re there.”
“I’m just doing what I believe is right. Sorry about Joe, but you’ll have to find someone else. Charlotte, I have to go.” Angie put down the phone. She grabbed her bag and stepped out of her flat and onto the wide landing. She deliberately walked past the lift and descended the four flights of stairs.
“I am not yet old,” she told herself, “I have a right to my own life.” The July sun was strong. Angie began to feel hot as she hurried along the promenade. She was pleased Charlotte wasn’t watching as she removed her jacket. By the time she reached the little Thai restaurant, her friend Alison was already seated at a table. Alison waved an empty glass at Angie.
“Wine? You look flustered.”
“I am flustered, and yes please. Well done for remembering to bring the bottle.” The restaurant wasn’t licensed, so the two friends took it in turns to bring wine to their weekly lunch.
“Let me guess, it’s Charlotte.”
Angie let out an exaggerated sigh. “She talks down to me as if I’m senile. And she forgets I have a right to a life of my own. I’m her mother, not her servant.”
Want to read more? You can buy a copy of the book here
Former headteacher and English Advisor, Claire Baldry, lives on the East Sussex coast with her husband Chris. She has published five booklets of amusing poetry, an autobiographical novella and two novels. Claire has a very regular schedule of engagements as a speaker and light-hearted performance poet. She regularly fundraises for charity, and Claire and her husband were awarded the SE Diabetes UK fundraising Inspire Award in 2017. Claire is passionate about promoting books and poetry with protagonists and issues which appeal to readers in mid-life and beyond. She is the creator of the ‘Books for Older Readers’ website and has won two awards for her poetry from the Silver Surfers website.
You can connect online with Claire at the links below:
Hello and thank you for visiting the Virtual Book Festival. Today it’s my pleasure to welcome historical novelist, Anne Stenhouse. Anne is going to tell us about her route into writing novels, why she chose to write historical fiction and how this has developed.
Q. What do you write?
A. Dialogue rich Scottish Regency with a touch of humour
People will ask ‘What do you write?’ and I normally answer historical romance, although I do write contemporary stories, too. And at heart, I’m a playwright. Prose writing took me some time to master even with the assistance of the wonderful editor, Judy Roth, then at publisher MuseItUp and now freelance http://www.judy-roth.com/. What was the attraction of the historical genre in the first place?
QUALIFICATIONS AND INFLUENCES
Drama and the written word crafted to be spoken, remain my favourite forms of communication. I think in conversations. Any incident replays in my head with different nuances. But, and it’s a biggy, drama only exists once it is performed. Performing drama needs actors, directors, stage crew, venues…
Or, put at its bald reality, money.
After a few years of minor successes and a spell as a Playwright in Residence with Theatre Broad of Stirling, it became clear that I wasn’t going to attract the thousands of pounds needed to make a Fringe breakthrough production. So, how to use the hard-won knowledge of what makes a scene dramatic and what makes conversations sound real?
Georgette Heyer has a lot to answer for. Many historical romance writers credit Heyer with their initial interest and ongoing love of the classic Regency novel.
I’m no exception.
We do have other mentors such as Jane Austen, but Heyer’s eye for the absurd and ear for Regency cant (slang) are a potent and captivating combination. She also uses a lot of dialogue.
In addition, I began at university taking enough papers in both English and History to enable me to choose Honours in either when the time came. I opted for English and American Literature and haven’t ever regretted that choice, but it does mean I have a grounding in British and European History which is useful for the author interested in writing a historical.
So, those were my qualifications and influences. Coupled with a desire to entertain and amuse, the choice was easily made.
PERIOD AND THE ROMANTIC ARENA
Having settled on historicals, what would my period be and what would the focus of my romance be?
The period was an interesting conundrum as I sometimes set my work into the 1820s and, therefore, just out of the Regency period. The Western world at that time was changing rapidly in the wake of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars. Rapid industrialisation was fuelling discontent of the non-establishment male. Entrenched legal idiocies fuelled discontent of all females.
I’m not an issues’ writer. My job is to entertain. But, I hope I’m not an irresponsible writer. I try very, very hard to get into what must/might have been the mindset of my heroines. I do try to show my heroines dealing with their problems in the way they would most likely have had to do in their period.
Readers who haven’t read much history may be surprised by some of the restrictions that held sway in Nineteenth century times.
No, a woman could not vote, attend university classes, keep her children after a divorce, keep her property after marriage…
If I leave my readers pondering how close to all of that we remain, then I’m happy. If they go on to reflect that in many parts of today’s world women still face such restrictions, then I’m even happier.
But, as I’m not an issues’ writer, where do I find that holy grail of writers, the CONFLICT and its resolution, the ROMANCE?
I find it in the age-old Battle of the Sexes. We start early, if we have brothers or boy cousins, and we progress through mixed school classes. In the early nineteenth century, of course, while brothers and cousins were facts of life, mixed classes were harder to come by.
This is an opportunity for the romantic novelist because there are so many, and so patently ludicrous, stereotypes to work with. From the woman who thinks all men eat most of a sheep for breakfast to the man who thinks no woman ever eats, the material is endless.
Did I mention how I like a fair dollop of humour in my work? I do write to bring out the ridiculous and help people recognise it. My first published hero, Tobias, is taken aback to discover Miss Mariah Fox would rather teach urchin children than become his Countess. However, he’s a man and he’s got her in his sights so he tricks her into a little delicious scandal and she’s in the bag. Along the way, he buys and sends her most of the cut-flowers available in London. There is a darker seam in Mariah’s Marriage, though, and through its resolution Tobias comes to realise he does love this woman.
THE SCOTTISH ANGLE
Bella’s Betrothal, which is featured below, opens in Dalkeith and features a lady escaping from a scandal which is life-changing rather than delicious. I was prompted to think of the Edinburgh setting when I discovered that there were Assembly Rooms in Haddington and Glasgow as well as Edinburgh. And there’s little anywhere to rival Edinburgh’s New Town. I find I like the microcosm. I enjoy the concerns of a small society which mimic those of the larger and I’m fascinated by the rise of the architect.
So, as well as Georgette Heyer, David Bryce has much to answer for. My hero in Bella’s Betrothal is of the smaller landed gentry, but he’s a rising architect in the manner of the eighteenth and nineteenth century greats like Bryce, the Adams’ family members and William Burn.
Last year I was commissioned to write an anniversary serial for People’s Friend magazine. It was set in 1869 and marked their 150th year of continuous publication. I enjoyed moving forward in time to the later years of the century and I enjoyed the wider canvas afforded by writing a story which, while it included two young married couples, was not essentially a romance. Walking around the New Town of Edinburgh, I do experience a shiver of recognition. There are many young ladies whose stories need to be told. I also had a fruitful discussion with an editor at this year’s Romantic Novelists’ Association conference and it was about a contemporary story. Writing is an ever-changing challenge.
Anne Stormont: Thank you so much Anne. That was a fascinating read – a great insight into what’s involved in producing a period novel. And all the best with the move into contemporary.
Below we have an extract from one of Anne’s novels. I’ll let her introduce it:
BELLA’S BETROTHAL was my second historical romance for MuseItUp and it is set in Edinburgh just post Regency. I wrote this book during the only NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) event I’ve taken part in and it is full of the energy NaNo demands to produce 50,000 words in a month. Bella and Charles are among my favourites of all the characters I’ve created over a lot of writing years and their story plays out in Edinburgh which is the city of my heart.
From the back cover:
While she is travelling north to find sanctuary from the malicious gossip of the Ton, Lady Isabella Wormsley’s room in a Dalkeith inn is invaded by handsome Scottish Laird, Charles Lindsay. Charles has uncovered a plot to kidnap her, but Bella wonders if he isn’t a more dangerous threat, at least to her heart, than the villainous Graham Direlton he wrests her from. Bella settles into the household of her Aunt Hatty Menzies in Edinburgh’s nineteenth century George Square where Charles is a regular visitor. She has been exiled to the north by her unfeeling mama, but feels more betrayed by her papa to whom she has been close. Bella hopes the delivery of her young cousin’s baby will eventually demonstrate her own innocence in the scandal that drove her from home. Bella’s presence disrupts the lives of everyone connected to her. Direlton makes another attempt to kidnap her and in rescuing her a second time, Charles is compromised. Only a betrothal will save his business and Bella’s reputation. Mayhem, murder and long suppressed family secrets raise confusion and seemingly endless difficulties. Will the growing but unacknowledged love between Bella and her Scottish architect survive the evil Direlton engineers?
“Lady Isabella, my name is Charles Lindsay. I am a neighbour of your uncle, Mack Menzies. Indeed he and I are distant cousins. My country property is in Strath Menzies.” He stood back from Bella’s chair and came around. She could see him in the flickering light of her candles and the few coals still burning in the grate.
He was a man of around thirty. He wore no jacket and his linen was smeared by muck from his climb across the roof. As he drew a hand over his chin, Bella watched the long fingers leave a trail of mud across the stubble there. His grey eyes, rather deep set, gleamed with intelligence and certainty. Yet how could she believe him? Hadn’t she been so sure Aubrey Daunton was genuine and hadn’t she been so very wrong?
“You doubt me, ma’am. Mrs. Menzies, the former Miss Hatty Lennox, has the same fiery mass of red curls that you…”
“Mr. Lindsay, if that is your name, these things you offer me as proof of your bona fides are all things anyone seeking to ingratiate himself with me could learn easily. If you are a friend of my uncle and aunt, then why not wait to be presented to me in their drawing room?” Bella snapped, although like him, she kept her voice low. She had no wish to be discovered with a man in her bedchamber, particularly one as personable as her visitor.
“Why not wait to be presented? Do I wish to know you, Lady Isabella? There are some who would say acquaintance with you must tarnish my name and reputation,” Lindsay said.
Bella rose up abruptly, and catching him by surprise, tipped him off balance. She grabbed the poker and swung it round hard against the back of his knee.
“You little hell-cat!” He groaned in pain, but caught Bella’s wrist with masterful ease as she drew the poker back for another swipe. “What did you think to achieve?”
“The removal of the self-satisfied affront that denies me any defence of my reputation.” Bella squirmed as his grip tightened around the fine bones of her wrist. She would have a ring of bruises showing through her pale skin on the morrow. How would she explain them to her aunt?
“In London I have been used to sticking a hat pin into the idlers and Beaus who trap me among Hatchard’s book shelves.” The memory of several unpleasant encounters nonetheless cheered her. There were one or two men who would now think again before acting on assumptions.
“But as you do not wear a hat to bed, you attack me with a poker,” Lindsay said, and she saw him suppress the smile it almost brought to his strong boned face. “I did not say I agreed with those who have condemned you, ma’am.”
“You do not have to say it, Mr. Lindsay. Your presence in my bedchamber tells me exactly what you think of me,” Bella retorted, and desolation flooded her. Would life never return to anything like the normality she had once known?
Anne Stenhouse has always been a story-teller. Her favourite form is the written word crafted to be spoken and Anne enjoyed the Debating Society at school. She much enjoyed writing one-act stage plays and loves the opportunity to write dialogue presented by writing prose fiction. Anne has been a civil servant, addictions’ worker, full-time wife and mum and hands on granny. She lives in Edinburgh where she is a member of the Edinburgh Writers’ Club and of Capital Writers. She is a member of the Romantic Novelists’ Association.
Welcome to event number 19 at the Virtual Book Festival. Today I’m delighted to welcome former TV news presenter, agony aunt, psychotherapist and writer, Christine Webber, to the festival.
Christine is taking a look at how real life issues can sometimes hinder the writing process but she also acknowledges how it can help during times of great stress.
So, over to Christine:
When Life Gets in the Way of Writing
We all know about displacement activities that keep us from our keyboards:
I need to watch this TV drama – for research purposes
I better do something about those windows, they’re filthy
Perhaps I should get dressed before switching on the laptop
I’ll think I’ll just rearrange my CD collection in alphabetical order…
As writers, we also know that books or articles don’t appear by magic. At some point, the distractions have to be junked and we have to put some words down – rather a lot of them – on paper or a screen. It’s hard, but we do it.
But what happens when it’s not just delaying tactics getting in the way of our masterpiece, but major life events?
I remember hearing Margaret Drabble say that when her children were small, she usually had a baby on her lap while she was writing and had to reach her arms out over the top of that infant so that she could bash away at her typewriter on the table in front of her.
Motherhood is still a big deal when it comes to writing. As is holding down a full-time job, which so many really good writers have to do in order to pay the bills.
Then there are life’s reverses – a parent has dementia, our heart is broken, a child is being bullied at school, we move house and think we’re losing our sanity… These are tough times, but one might argue that they provide some of our best material. And the strange thing is that during these periods, we may find that though we cannot concentrate well enough to read someone else’s book, we have a strange compulsion, and ability, to carry on writing our own.
My biggest challenge came when David, my husband of thirty years, became terminally ill. I wanted to continue writing as it felt like the only normal thing that was happening. But I also wanted to spend most of my time caring for him as it became apparent that he was going downhill more rapidly than any of his doctors had forecast.
During those months, I was writing my novel It’s Who We Are, which has five leading mid-life characters and three locations, including the west coast of Ireland where David and I had had so many wonderful holidays.
At the beginning of his illness, he was still managing to continue his own work as a medical columnist, so our routine was not too altered, though there were loads of hospital visits, and scans, and blood tests to fit in. But during that period, I got the bulk of my first draft written. And I found that, actually, you can be more episodic in your writing habits than usual, and still complete a manuscript.
But around late summer 2017, David had to give up his last regular writing job – a weekly column he had had for fifty years – and began to spend many more hours a day in bed.
This was when the challenges mounted up, and people who have been through this will know what I mean when I say that my brain felt overwhelmed and overloaded with arranging carers, doctors’ visits, endless medication, trying to find food that would appeal and not take too much effort to eat and – most importantly of all – spending hours just talking together and celebrating the wonderful past we had had as we jointly planned David’s remaining future and my life after that.
Somehow though, writing was a thread that held together during that time, not least because my lovely husband was as supportive as he had always been. And what I found was that when I had no capacity to produce new material, my mind was capable – and indeed really enjoyed – editing.
And of course, those of us who are indie writers have a host of other activities to tackle in order to produce a book, so when we can’t summon up our creative juices, we can perhaps sort out our marketing ideas, or start planning a blog tour, or finalise a cover.
Somehow, It’s Who We Are was finished, and it came out in mid-January 2018, by which time my husband was terribly ill. But I had dedicated it to him, as I had all my previous books, and I was able to sign his copy, and put it into his hands. It was a poignant moment.
Now, seventeen months after his death, I am writing another mid-life ensemble novel.
It will not surprise you to know that one of my three protagonists is newly widowed. And I am sure that in many ways, I’m processing my own loss by attributing it to a character. We writers are so lucky, aren’t we, to be able to do that?
Anne: We are indeed fortunate in that respect, Christine. Thank you so much for sharing your, at times, moving thoughts on the difficulties but also the rewards of being a writer.
And now we have and extract from Christine’s book It’s Who We Are. I’ll let Christine introduce it.
It’s Who We Are
This, without any doubt, is my absolute favourite out of all the fiction and non-fiction I’ve written over almost four decades. It’s a story about identity and change, and it reflects the turbulence so many of us experience in mid-life just when we had assumed we would feel stable and secure. The novel takes place in Norfolk, where all the main characters were born, as well as in London and the west coast of Ireland.
And the plot centres on how often the demise of parents can lead to us discovering family secrets that shock us to the core. The surprise in this book is beyond what the characters, or indeed any reader, could ever imagine. And poses the question: do you really know who you are?
This segment is from a chapter near the end of the book. Philip and Wendy didn’t know each other at the start of the novel but as it has developed, they have become very good friends and she has been a huge support to him after a bad accident. They are in a hotel after leaving a party for her, which has been hosted by the other main characters at a house in Norwich.
The two of them are chatting in the lounge and discussing their evening, and Philip takes the opportunity to outline a new business project to her, which Wendy responds to enthusiastically.
His smile broadened. ‘I knew you’d understand and run with it. Is it any wonder that I really, really love you?’
‘Well, I love you too, Philip. You’re a great person and a wonderful friend.’
‘No, but I mean, I love you!’
Wendy wrinkled her nose in puzzlement.
‘Do you understand?’ He pressed her.
She continued to look bewildered for a moment, then she raised her eyebrows as she considered a new option. ‘Do you mean, like, in italics?’
His face creased into the grin that she had become so fond of. ‘Yes, exactly. Not just as in “I love this smoked salmon drizzled with lime juice”.’
‘Mmmn, but that sounds really good! So, you mean you love me more than that?’
‘I do, actually. And in a rather lustful way.’
‘Lustful! But I’m sixty in…’ she looked at her watch, ‘forty minutes. Surely not? Are you drunk?’
‘Not at all.’
‘But do you really mean what you’re saying?’
He nodded. ‘Totally.’
‘Are you surprised?’
‘Flabbergasted. I mean, we’re the two who’re well aware we’re hopeless at sex, and even worse at relationships.’
‘Perhaps we could try to push that assumption into the past tense?’
Her eyes glinted with fun. ‘Do you mean what I think you mean?’
‘I imagine so.’
She giggled. ‘Well, I’m game to give it a go, if that doesn’t sound too impossibly romantic!’ Leaning towards him, she planted a tentative kiss on his cheek. ‘Your room or mine?’
‘You choose,’ he said.
‘OK, mine. Here’s your stick. Can you manage the stairs, or do we need the lift?’
‘Do you mind if we take the lift? Sorry, but I want to conserve my strength.’ He sighed as he rose to his feet. ‘Wendy, I’m hardly love’s young dream.’
‘I’m the one who’s about to be sixty! We’ll just do our best, shall we?’
‘I might have to experiment to find a position where my ribs or my leg don’t hurt, or my wrist doesn’t give way!’
She took his arm. ‘If you don’t shut up you’re going to talk yourself out of this, just when I’m getting keen on the idea!’
Christine can be found tweeting on a wide variety of subjects @1chriswebber
She is also active within various book groups on Facebook including Books for Older Readers, Book Connectors and The Alliance of Independent Authors where she is a partner member.
Christine Webber originally trained as an opera singer but had to re-think her career plans when her voice professor commented: ‘Your voice is ok, but your legs are very much better!’
Musical theatre beckoned. There was some success. But not much.
However, eventually, in 1978, she became a news presenter for Anglia TV. At last she had found something she enjoyed that other people thought she was good at. It was such a relief that she stayed for 12 very happy years.
Next, she became an agony aunt for various publications including TV Times, Best, Dare and BBC Parenting. She also wrote a column for the Scotsman and one for Woman called Sexplanations.
During her ‘problem page’ years, she trained as a psychotherapist and started a practice in Harley Street which she shared with her late husband, Dr David Delvin. That experience greatly informed much of her writing.
She has written 12 non-fiction books including How to Mend a Broken Heart, Get theHappiness Habit and Too Young to Get Old, and has broadcast extensively over the decades on mental health and relationship issues.
In 2016, she embarked on a fresh career as a novelist and has now produced three titles: Who’d Have Thought It?, It’s Who We Are and a re-written version of her first book published in 1987, In Honour Bound.
Following the death of her husband, she’s returned to live in East Anglia because that’s where most of her good friends are. Forthcoming projects there include hosting an arts awards ceremony, judging the non-fiction section of the East Anglian Books Awards and a number of talks to women’s groups. She has also become a Trustee for a charity that provides mentors for offenders, to support them when they leave prison.
Further afield, she has become an occasional presenter and interviewer for the Royal Opera House Insights Programme and recently had the honour of interviewing Royal Ballet star Gary Avis and Britain’s best-loved baritone, Sir Bryn Terfel.
Next month, she is presenting and producing a series of video podcasts about staying as young as possible for as long as possible. And, having recorded the audio version of one of her own novels, she has now been approached to narrate a couple of others.
Hello everyone and welcome to event number 17 in the Virtual Book Festival. This is the third and final joint event with the Books For Older Readers (BFOR) Blog Blitz. You can find out more about BFOR at the website here.
Today it’s a pleasure to have romantic fiction writer, Maggie Christensen here to tell us about herself and her books.
Welcome, Maggie. Let’s begin with why and how you became a writer?
I’ve always been an avid reader and loved writing compositions in school. As an only child I enjoyed playing with and talking to my imaginary friends and this led to my making up stories about them, some of which I wrote down – I often pretended I had a twin brother and thought up stories of twins. I found the time set for writing in school very limiting – I clearly remember starting one story about a fishing boat disaster and being very frustrated as time was up just as I felt I was getting into the heart of the tale. I also recall submitting a short story about being lost in the snow to Girl magazine.
But it wasn’t till I was close to retirement that I began to write fiction seriously. I enrolled in a correspondence course on creative writing, which I gave up on, then an online course which I did finish and learned a lot from, the chief thing being the importance of writing something each day. One of the tasks was to start each day by writing for five minutes about whatever I was thinking.
My first attempts were two Mills and Boon type books – the first paragraph in one won an award in a competition at the Sydney Writers Centre.
But I soon realised these were not what I enjoyed reading, so switched to writing the mature women’s romantic fiction I love to read. I joined several writing groups before finding one whose members I could relate to, and encouraged by their success, I published my first novel, Band of Gold, in 2014.
Anne: I love that you didn’t start your writing career until you were close to retirement. It shows it’s never too late to follow your dreams.
What genre do you write in and why does that hold a particular appeal for you?
I write what I call mature women’s romantic fiction – the sort of books I enjoy reading – books featuring women who have lived, have some experience of life and who my readers can become attached to. I feel that too often older women are either ignored or stereotyped in literature and I like to write them as real people you might have as friends. I also like to bring back characters from my earlier books so that my readers feel they are meeting old friends.
Anne: I love this too – the idea that life is as rich and varied for those over forty as it is for younger folks –and that you reflect that in your fiction. And yes the links to previous characters that you include do work well.
How many books have you written? Tell us a bit about them.
I have written 12 books – 11 already published and the 12th currently with my editor. All feature women in their 40’s, 50’s and 60’s who have experienced some sort of challenge in their lives – end of a marriage, death of a child, redundancy, end of a relationship, domestic violence. Three – The Sand Dollar, The Dreamcatcher and Madeline House – are set in Florence on the Oregon Coast where my mother-in-law moved to in her 80’s – The Sand Dollar features a woman who leaves Queensland’s Sunshine Coast for Oregon; two are set on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast where I now live – A Brahminy Sunrise and Champagne for Breakfast – and tie in with my Oregon series; three – Band of Gold, Broken Threads and A Model Wife -are set in Sydney where I lived when I first came to Australia and three – The Good Sister, Isobel’s Promise and A Single Woman – are set in my native Scotland, and tie in loosely with my Sydney books – the first of these, The Good Sister, being my only historical novel so far.
Anne: Wow! 12 books is quite an achievement – and they’re all first class reads.
Tell us about a typical writing day?
I like to start in the morning and get the bulk of my writing done, then go back to it late afternoon. While I’m writing, I take breaks when I read or do housework – and let ideas come to me. Sadly, I don’t always keep to my schedule as I also enjoy having coffee with my husband or friends. I also belong to a book club, and I deliver library books to a housebound lady, both of which take me away from my writing.
Anne: Oh, I think you’re allowed some time away from the writing desk. And how lovely that you deliver those library books.
Do you plot your novels in some detail before you actually start writing?
I’m very much what’s called a pantser. I start with my main character, a situation, and a location and go from there with only a rough idea of where it will lead. I enjoy writing this way. When I’ve tried to plan, it hasn’t worked for me.
Anne: Flying by the seat of your pants. The exciting way to work!
What comes first for you characters or plot?
I start with a character and a situation, then usually a man appears in her life and family; the characters develop and take on a life of their own. I’m never sure what‘s going to happen when I sit down to write – my characters often surprise me.
Anne: It’s funny how characters can do that – as if they’re real, breathing people who the writer isn’t in charge of.
Where do you get your ideas?
I take things I hear and read, then link some of them together and think ‘what if?’.
Band of Gold begins with Anna’s husband placing his wedding ring on the kitchen table on Christmas morning and saying, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ I heard of someone this happened to and started to wonder what would happen to her afterwards.
In Champagne for Breakfast, Rosa is sitting by the river drinking champagne on her birthday – by herself. One Sunday morning my husband and I were walking along the Noosa River when we saw a woman sitting alone with an empty bottle. I started to wonder what her story was and remembered Rosa, a secondary character in The Sand Dollar, who had recently finished a disastrous relationship. That woman became Rosa drinking champagne alone by the river on her fiftieth birthday.
The Good Sister is based on my aunt’s story. As a child growing up in Scotland, I had an aunt who was fond of telling us the story of her doomed love affair. I knew I had to write it one day. Her story became old Isobel’s story in this book.
Madeline House was written as the result of a trip to Florence after my mother-in-law died. During that trip, the woman who bought my mother-in-law’s house had arrived in town with only her car and her dog. At the same time, I became aware of the business of estate sales in the area. Also, I had once worked with a woman whose husband was very controlling and who had many of the same experiences of Beth in this book. These ideas all came together to produce this third book in my Oregon Coast series.
When I get stuck with a book, I often find inspiration when I’m driving or ironing – or falling asleep!
Anne: Yes, those ideas don’t always come when a writer’s at their desk. I like your magpie way of collecting small, sparkly ideas and developing them.
Have you got a favourite character out of all the ones you’ve created? Tell us about them if you have or is it too hard to pick just one?
I love all my characters – my heroines all have a little bit of me in them and my heroes a little bit of my lovely husband and soul mate. I feel most akin to Jenny in my Oregon books as, like me, she travels to Oregon when facing a redundancy and meets a lovely retired university lecturer like my own dear husband. But I think perhaps I like Bel best. Like me, she emigrates from Scotland to Australia to teach in her twenties, but unlike me she returns and meets the lovely Matt choosing to set up home there with him on the banks of Loch Lomond – a spot where, if I’d remained in Scotland, I’d dearly like to have lived.
Anne: I’ve a soft spot for Bel too.
Can you share some of the feedback/reviews you’ve had from your readers?
I’m thrilled to have found readers who want to read my books and who enjoy reading about more mature women. Many of them mention this in their emails and reviews. They also mention that I write about real people and that my books have a good sense of place.
One of my favourite comments comes from one of Mrs B’s Book Reviews in which book blogger, Amanda, calls me ‘the queen of mature age fiction’. I also love her comment that, ‘Maggie Christensen’s writing is like a nice warm cup of tea. It is warm, nourishing, comforting and embracing.’
Another favourite review is by Anne Williams of Being Anne book blog
‘The author’s story-telling is just wonderful: she introduces you to her characters, sets the scene, and the story then unfolds around you – and her characters are always real people who you can’t fail to take to your heart as you watch them making their choices and mistakes.’
Anne: I completely agree with those reviews.
And now I’d like to thank you very much indeed, Maggie, for agreeing to take part in the festival today and for providing us with such a fascinating interview and insight into your writing.
But before you go, we have an extract from your novel A Single Woman below. Tell us a bit more about this particular book and why you chose it for the extract.
A Single Woman is the third book in my Scottish Collection. While it can be read as a stand-alone novel, readers of the first two will welcome to opportunity to reconnect with old friends from the earlier books.
In the words from your review in Put it in Writing, it’s ‘a second-chance, midlife romance where the last thing either protagonist is looking for is to fall in love. It’s set mainly in the Scottish city of Glasgow, and it’s the thoughtful and touching story of the developing relationship between two rather damaged people.’
From the back cover:
Isla Cameron, headmistress at an elite girl’s school in Glasgow, is determinedly single, adroitly avoiding all attempts at matchmaking by a close friend.
Widower Alasdair MacLeod is grieving for the wife he lost two years earlier, struggling as the single father of two teenagers, and frustrated by the well-meaning interference of his in-laws.
When a proposed school trip to France brings Isla and Alasdair together, they find a connection in the discovery that each is suffering the loss of a loved one, but neither is interested in forming a relationship.
As their friendship grows, Alasdair struggles with his increasing attraction to the elegant schoolmistress, while Isla harbours concerns about the complications a relationship with him would bring.
Can Alasdair overcome his natural reserve, and can Isla open her heart to love again?
The extract from chapter 8 takes place when Isla is attending a Christmas Eve party held by an old school friend. I chose this extract as it the first time the two protagonists meet. Christmas is a sad time for both of them.
A Single Woman
Having imagined herself alone, Isla turned quickly to see a tall, wide-shouldered, fair-haired man standing almost hidden by the branches filled with Christmas ornaments and tinsel.
‘You escaped, too?’ he asked, with a conspiratorial grimace.
Isla nodded, hoping he didn’t see her tears.
‘Look,’ he stammered, ‘I need a breather. Why don’t you join me – get away from all that…’ He gestured in the direction of the room they’d both left where the sound of carols was beginning to drown out the chatter.
Isla hesitated. What she really wanted was to go home, but she needed to sober up a bit before she could consider driving on the icy roads. Fresh air would clear her head.
Seeing her waver, the man spoke again. ‘Get your coat and we can sneak away.’
About to do as he said, Isla looked down at her heels. They were not made for walking on icy roads.
‘You’ll be fine. The pathway around the garden has been cleared.
By the time she’d put on her coat, her companion was opening the door, and the pair slipped out, closing it silently behind them.
After the centrally-heated house, the frosty air hit them like sharp needles, their breath forming clouds in the cold air.
‘By the way, I’m Alasdair,’ Isla’s companion said.
‘Isla.’ She shook his outstretched hand before returning hers to her pocket, while wondering what on earth she was doing out here with a strange man on Christmas Eve.
‘How do you know Kirsty?’ he asked, as they walked.
‘We’re old school friends, though until a school reunion a few weeks ago, we hadn’t seen each other since. You?’ Isla didn’t really want to know, but felt obliged to ask.
‘Sister-in-law, for my sins.’
Isla almost stumbled in surprise. If Alasdair was Kirsty’s brother-in-law, then it followed he was also Fiona MacLeod’s father and, if she remembered correctly, it was around this time of year his wife had died.
‘Are you okay?’ he asked.
‘Yes, thanks.’ Should she tell him? Tell him what? That she was his daughter’s headmistress? What would be the point of that? They were two strangers, grabbing some fresh air, escaping from a party it seemed neither of them wanted to be part of. That was all.
At the corner they turned, and without any further conversation, they walked back and stepped into the Reid home just as silently as they’d left.
In their absence, the gathering seemed to have become even more raucous, the loud beat of music and chorusing of old hit songs emanating from the living room. It was like being at one of the parties Isla remembered from her schooldays. She’d never been a social animal. She grimaced.
‘Not your scene either?’
‘No. I think I’ll make my thanks to Kirsty and leave.’
Still in her coat, Isla peeked into the room catching sight of Kirsty in the centre of a jolly group of choristers. She hesitated, unsure how to interrupt.
‘You’ll never manage it. Call her in the morning,’ Alasdair advised. ‘I’m going, too. Tomorrow…’
‘Is Christmas Day. Yes.’
Isla supposed he’d be involved in some sort of family celebration. She shivered. She would be alone. For her, it would be just another day, nothing special, no celebration. Another day when she’d try to keep the memories at bay.
After a career in education, Maggie Christensen began writing contemporary women’s fiction portraying mature women facing life-changing situations. Her travels inspire her writing, be it her frequent visits to family in Oregon, USA, her native Scotland or her home on Queensland’s beautiful Sunshine Coast. Maggie writes of mature heroines coming to terms with changes in their lives women who have learned to live and love in later life and the heroes worthy of them. Heartwarming stories of second chances. She has recently been called ‘the queen of mature age fiction’
From her native Scotland, Maggie was lured by the call ‘Come and teach in the sun’ to Australia, where she worked as a primary school teacher, university lecturer and in educational management. Now living with her husband of over thirty years on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, she loves walking on the deserted beach in the early mornings and having coffee by the river on weekends. Her days are spent surrounded by books, either reading or writing them – her idea of heaven!
She continues her love of books as a volunteer with Noosa library where selects and delivers books to the housebound.
You can connect with Maggie online at the links below:
Hello and welcome to event 14 in the Virtual Book Festival line up. As with event 13 this is a joint one with the Books For Older Readers Blog Blitz. You can visit the Books for Older Readers website here.
Today I’m sharing the first chapter of one of my second-chance romance novels. As I said in event 13, I write books aimed at adult readers of any age who enjoy mature, romantic, and thought-provoking fiction.
Displacementis the first of a series of three novels all set on the Scottish island of Skye. The second book is called Settlementand is also available, and the third book, Fulfilment is due to be published later this year.
Here’s what it says on the back cover:
It’s never too late to fall in love, but the past can get in the way of a happy future.
From the Scottish Hebrides to the Middle-East, Displacement is an intense, contemporary love story where romance and realism, and the personal and the political, meet head on.
Divorce, the death of her soldier son and estrangement from her daughter, leave Hebridean crofter, Rachel Campbell, grief stricken, lonely and lost.
Forced retirement due to a heart condition leaves former Edinburgh policeman Jack Baxter needing to take stock and find a new direction for his life.
After the two of them meet in dramatic circumstances on a wild winter’s night on the island of Skye, a tentative friendship develops between them, despite their very different personalities. Gradually, however, their feelings for each other go beyond friendship.
But Rachel is about to go to Israel-Palestine where she plans to explore her Jewish heritage and to learn more about this contested land. And Jack is already in what is, for him, the ideal relationship – one where no commitment or fidelity is required.
Will they be able to overcome the obstacles that lie in the way of their deepening love?
Can Rachel find a way forward and let herself love again?
Snowmelt and recent heavy rainfall meant the normally tame burn was now a forceful and rapid river. The water was up to my waist. I was stuck, held fast by the mud, trapped in darkness. The flow pushed hard against me. I no longer had the strength to free myself.
It was January on the island of Skye and the wind-chill meant the temperature was probably below zero. I no longer shivered. I didn’t feel cold. I didn’t feel anything. The ewe had stopped struggling a while ago but I kept my arms around her neck.
I’d gone out at around seven that evening to check the sheep. Bonnie, my sheepdog, was with me. It had already been dark for hours. I’d normally have been out much earlier than this, but the last of the mourners hadn’t left until around six so I’d been delayed. There’d been a wake in the hotel immediately after the burial, but a few friends and neighbours had accepted the invitation to come back to the house afterwards.
When everyone had gone, Morag helped me clear up. She offered the services of her husband Alasdair to check the animals. But I declined the offer.
Morag shook her head as she wiped down the kitchen worktop. “It’s a pity your brother isn’t staying here tonight. You shouldn’t be on your own.”
“Jonathan offered to stay. But he’s been here every night since Mum died and this was the only chance for him and Alec to have a few beers and a catch-up before he goes back. Besides I just want a hot bath and an early night. I was happy for him to go.”
There was more head shaking from Morag. “And I suppose you’ll say no to having dinner with us as well.”
“Thanks, really.” I tried a placating smile. “But I’m not hungry, not after all that tea and sandwiches. No, you’ve been a good friend, as always, but …”
“But now you want your precious privacy back, I know.” Morag spoke kindly, but I could tell she found my need to be on my own difficult to understand. “In that case,” she continued, “I think I’ll take Alasdair up on his offer to take me to see the new Bond film. It’s on in Portree. And don’t be too long outside. You look shattered. After all it’s not just been today, you’ve been looking after your mother for a long time.”
“Yeah, I don’t know what I’ll do with myself now.”
“You could try starting to live for yourself a bit more.” Morag patted my arm. I flinched at her touch. I couldn’t help it.
She appeared not to notice my discomfort. “You’ve spent your life looking after other people and, with everything that’s happened in the last few years, you deserve a bit of happiness.” She stretched her arms out towards me. “Oh, come here. You need a damn good hug.”
I let her embrace me.
As she let me go she looked at me sadly. “The old Rachel hugged people back.”
“The old Rachel!” The force and agony of my raised voice surprised us both.
I closed my eyes, put my head in my hands, pulled at my hair and took a moment to get a grip on my temper. When I could speak again, my voice was strained but quieter. “You’ve no idea what it’s like. Nobody does. Any chance of happiness died two years ago, along with the old Rachel. She’s dead and gone to Hell.”
Morag looked distraught. I knew she hadn’t meant to hurt me. I was angry because I knew she was right.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I just meant it’s time you did stuff for you, got on with your life.”
“Right, that’s it,” I said. “I’m not listening to this. I’m going to check the sheep. Thanks for your help today. You can see yourself out.” I hurried out through the doorway that led from the kitchen into the side porch. I shoved my feet into my wellingtons and whistled for Bonnie. My faithful old collie looked at me reproachfully, whether it was for rousing her, or for shouting at my best friend, I don’t know. She hauled herself out of her basket by the stove and came to me.
The dark was deep, and sleety rain swirled around us. A screaming northerly blew hard and the rain felt needle-sharp on my face. I didn’t hear the sheep’s distressed bleating until I approached the bottom of the croft. I swung the torch in the direction of the sound and had to grab the fence to steady myself. The bleating was coming from the burn.
It was one of the Jacob’s shearlings, a pregnant ewe. She was submerged to her shoulders in the swirling water and not even trying to climb out. At first I tried grabbing hold of the horns and pulling hard, but to no avail.
It didn’t occur to me to get help. I told Bonnie to stay and placed the torch on the ground pointing towards the ewe. Then I slid off the bank into the shockingly cold water. It felt like minutes before the shock passed and I could breathe again. Too late, I realised my mistake. Like the ewe, I was stuck in the mud.
All I could do was try to keep both our heads above the rising water. I knew it was pointless to shout. The wind would swallow the sound and, even if it had been a quiet night, I was too far away from any of my neighbours’ houses to be heard. Bonnie barked and darted in and out of the torch’s beam. For a while she alternated barking with whimpering. Then she went quiet and the light from the torch disappeared. I could only assume she’d run off, moving the torch as she did so.
In the complete darkness, as the last of the feeling left my body, I felt sleepy. My grip on the ewe loosened. The animal must have felt my hold slacken, and with one huge kick she leapt up the banking and scrabbled to safety.
The force of the kick toppled me over and freed my feet from the mud. I fell backwards and went under. I grabbed at a boulder to prevent myself from being swept away and then I heard a voice. Was it my own? ‘Let go. Stop fighting and just let go,’ it said. And I wasn’t afraid any more. It would all be over soon and I would find some peace. I loosened my grip and let myself sink. I saw a bright light coming towards me.
I almost fell over the stupid sheep. It appeared out of nowhere as I followed the barking collie to the water’s edge. The beam of my torch picked out the woman’s face and her outstretched arm. She let go of the rock and started to slip downstream. I slid down the bank and managed to grab the hood of her jacket. I was surprised by how light she was, even in her sodden clothes. She fought against me as I dragged her from the water.
I put her over my shoulder and half jogged, half stumbled back to the holiday cottage I was renting from Morag. The dog ran by my side and followed us indoors. I set the woman down in a chair at the fireside and threw some more coal into the grate. Then I went to the bathroom and grabbed a towel. I took off my sweater and put it and the towel on the floor in front of her. I told her to get out of her wet things while I made a hot drink.
When I returned with two mugs of tea and a blanket, she was standing, looking into the fire. She rubbed half-heartedly at her hair with the towel. Her wet clothes lay in a pile on the floor. My sweater came down almost to her knees. She turned to look at me. She was slightly built and could only have been about five-foot-three. Her face was pale, her eyes large. She was obviously in shock and she looked exhausted.
I laid down what I was carrying. “Here, let me.” I took the towel from her. At first she tensed up, but she allowed me to rub her hair. As it dried I saw that she was a redhead, just a bit of grey here and there. “That’ll do,” I said, putting down the towel. “Now, get this down you. It’s hot and sweet.” I handed her a mug. I also gave her the blanket. “And wrap yourself in this.”
She took the tea and sat on the sofa. The dog followed her and sat on the floor at her feet.
I remained standing by the fire. I glanced at the woman as I sipped my tea and wondered how she’d come to be in need of rescuing. I guessed she was in her late forties or early fifties, not bad looking, even in her exhausted state. As she drank her tea, she stared into the fire. She’d tucked her legs up under her and covered herself with the blanket. From time to time she ran a hand through her hair, and the more it dried the curlier it became.
She caught me looking at her. “Thanks for the tea,” she said. “But now Bonnie and me had better leave you in peace.”
I was slightly surprised to hear her voice. She hadn’t spoken a word so far.
“No, take your time, there’s no rush. Is there someone you’d like me to call? Someone who will be wondering where you are?”
She didn’t reply. I saw her jaw tense as she looked at me.
“Maybe I should take you to the hospital, get you checked over.”
“That won’t be necessary, really, I’m fine.” She pushed the blanket aside and laid the mug on the side table. As she stood up, she staggered and grabbed the sofa arm to steady herself.
I went over to her, put my hands on her shoulders, gently sat her back down. “Oh, yes, you’re clearly fine. Half drowned, exhausted and probably hypothermic, but apart from that right as rain.” I also wondered where she thought she was going, dressed only in my sweater. I sat beside her and, taking her wrist in my hand, felt for her pulse.
She pulled her hand away. “Are you a doctor?”
“No, I’m a policeman, was a policeman, retired Detective Inspector, Lothian and Borders. I was trained in first aid in the force. I’m Jack by the way, Jack Baxter.”
“Rachel Campbell.” She met my gaze, but only briefly, her smile a mere flicker.
The dog stood up, looked from Rachel to me, gave a little bark.
“That’s a good dog you’ve got there, protective and very persistent,” I said.
Rachel just nodded.
“It was lucky I’d gone out to get some coal,” I went on. “I heard her barking. She was down at Morag and Alasdair’s place. I thought she maybe belonged to them, but there was nobody home. I tried to get her to come in here, but she kept running up the track every time I got close, until I got the message and followed her. So I just grabbed my coat and a torch and she led me straight to you.”
“Yes, Bonnie’s a good dog. I owe her, and you, of course. I owe you both. I’d no strength left.” Her voice trembled and she looked away as she finished speaking.
“Look, why don’t I get us some more tea and you can tell me how you ended up in the water. And then I’ll take you home. I take it you live close by.”
“Yes, yes I do, Burnside Cottage. And thanks, more tea would be nice.”
“Good, might even throw in some toast.” As I stood to go, I took the box of tissues from the coffee table and handed it to her. “Use as many as you like,” I said.
Want to read more?
You can buy Displacement as a paperback or ebook online here:
It’s also available as a paperback at your local bookshop – and you can ask them to order it in if it’s not on their shelves.
Today’s event is a joint one. It’s a Virtual Book Festival event and it’s also part of a Blog Blitz which has been organised by author Claire Baldry who set up and runs the popular Books for Older Readers (BFOR) website and Facebook group.
Claire set up the group and the website as places to highlight books which had older/mature main characters and which would therefore most likely appeal to older/mature readers. In doing so she was responding to the fact that older/mature readers often seemed to be finding it difficult to find such books – even although she – and lots of other authors she knew of – wrote them.
The initiative has proved popular and successful in matching books to readers who describe themselves as no longer young and the group and website have lots of members/followers from both the reading and writing communities – including myself.
So I thought in today’s event I’d like to explore and share with you what the concept of books for older readers – both writing and reading them – means to me.
Age appropriate reading
The Publisher Definition
Publishing is an industry and like any industry it needs to make a profit to survive and so it goes where the money is and it targets its customers. Therefore authors of commercial fiction have to follow the rules and conventions of their genre. Two genres in particular are mainly defined by the age of their intended readership – and these are: children’s fiction and its age specific sub-divisions, and Young Adult fiction. But for most of the other genres it’s not age but content that defines them. It’s taken as read (pun sort of intended) that readers will be adults.
And for the most part that works. But sometimes age, and attitudes to ageing, does seem to be an issue – especially when it comes to romantic fiction – and most especially when it comes to female characters
My Author Perspective
When I first sought publication for my debut novel – Change of Life – in 2009, I got lots of nice, but encouraging, rejections. I was told there was no doubt I could write, I could tell a good story, the characters were well drawn.
BUT, they said, the fact that my two main characters were in their forties meant it wouldn’t work as romantic fiction. I was told I could possibly get away with having the male character in his forties but definitely not the female one. She would need to be under thirty-five for readers to find it realistic.
I disagreed. And I’m now the proud author of three successful, independently published (including that first one) contemporary romantic novels with main protagonists who are in their forties or fifties. It turns out there is a market for what are now sometimes classed as second-chance romances. And I should also point out my readership spans the ages – from people in their twenties to their nineties.
Having said that, I don’t want to rule out the possibility that I might in future write novels that have younger main characters, but what I am advocating is an open mind when it comes to age and main characters in romantic fiction.
My Reader Perspective
Unsurprisingly, one of the genres I most enjoy reading is contemporary romance.
And, even although I’m more of an autumn chicken than a spring one, I’m still quite happy to read books where the protagonists are young. This year alone I’ve read several superb romantic novels where the lead characters have been in their twenties and thirties. And there will be more about them and their writers later in the festival.
However, I also like to read books where the main characters are in their forties, fifties and beyond who continue to live full lives – and who are definitely not too old to fall in love, enjoy sex, and begin new long term relationships. And these can be harder to find.
And just as a wee side note, I must say it brings out the grumpy old woman in me when women – and it does mainly seem to be women – over forty are portrayed as past it, frumpy and baffled by technology.
Things Are Changing
However, things are changing. And, as is often the way in publishing nowadays, it is the indie publishers who have made a significant contribution to satisfying demand. Authors such as Maggie Christensen, Christine Webber, and the aforementioned, BFOR founder, Claire Baldry, all write successful and first-class romantic fiction with older protagonists. And the big traditional publishers are at last catching up 🙂
But I think there is still a way to go in raising the profile of books with older protagonists or ageing-related issues at their heart. And that’s where groups like BFOR come in.
I don’t believe ‘older’ readers only want to read about ‘older’ characters, just as I don’t want to restrict myself to only writing about them, but I do believe life after thirty-five can be as challenging, surprising and rewarding as it was before – if not more so. So the lives of characters in the older age groups can provide fertile ground for all sorts of fiction. And surely having the full spectrum of adulthood – especially perhaps female adulthood – represented in fiction makes sense. After all the biggest group of book buyers is women over 45.
Age is just a number and is only one factor in our personalities and interests. It shouldn’t be a barrier to inclusion or enjoyment when it comes to our reading. And I’m hopeful things will continue to change for the better in that regard.
So, I’ll get down off my soapbox now and hand over to you.
What do you think about ageism in fiction? Is it something you’ve noticed or care about? And would you read/enjoy a novel where the romance happens between older characters? And, as I said, groups like the BFOR one are good for helping readers find books they’d like to read – so, where do you find your next good book?
Please do leave your comments below.
And please do come back to the festival tomorrow when, also as part of the BFOR Blog Blitz, I’ll be sharing an extract from one of my novels.
Hello and thank you for coming along to event number twelve at the Virtual Book Festival. Estate agents put a huge amount of importance on location when it comes to selling houses – and for writers, too, getting the setting right can be crucial to a book’s success. Today it’s the turn of JJ Marsh author of the fabulous Beatrice Stubbs crime novels which are set in various locations around Europe and she’s brilliant at conveying the settings. So I’m delighted she’s going to share her thoughts on the use of location when writing fiction. And we also have an extract from her latest novel Honey Trap which is set in Italy.
Welcome, Jill – and over to you.
The Little Differences
“You know what the funniest thing about Europe is? It’s the little differences.” (Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction)
Authors such as Monique Roffey (Trinidad), Stef Penny (Canada), Alexander McCall Smith (Botswana), Barbara Kingsolver (Mexico) and John Steinbeck (Monterey, California) have all transported me to places I’ve never seen but can vividly imagine, thanks to their descriptive skills.
Nothing makes me happier than when a reader tells me they’ve been transported to the location by one of my books. A sense of place is integral to my work and I consider the city, village or countryside to be a character in its own right and worthy of as much attention as any other.
Creating a sense of place requires a variety of elements: sensory detail, geographical, architectural and meteorological notes; observations on cultural habits and perhaps even upending some clichés. But the primary consideration must be perception.
Think about your last holiday. What did you notice, photograph and remember to tell your friends? I’ll bet it was all those little differences that aren’t the same at home.
What matters is deviation from the norm. The setting for The Beatrice Stubbs Series is Europe, varied enough to be interesting, close enough to be familiar. And that is the key word – familiar. To whom?
Let’s start with the character. For example, we’re in the city of Naples. A tourist is likely to exclaim at the chaos of traffic, the plethora of Vespas, the strength of the coffee and the constant noise of the cobbled, crowded streets.
Our local man sees all that as background. He’s much more likely to notice his usual route blocked due to a political demonstration or the looming clouds over Vesuvius suggesting a storm.
Now turn this point-of-view into a recently arrived immigrant. Some elements will delight and others dismay in comparison to what she knows. Does the volume of everyday conversation reassure or alarm? Depending on where this person is from, trying to cross the road may seem terrifying or surprisingly ordered.
How do we experience a new environment? Via our senses and comparative memories. In many European languages, the question word people use to elicit subjective description is ‘How?’ – Comment, Wie, Como, Hogyan, etc. In English, we ask ‘What was it like?’ In other words, please compare it to something I understand.
Sensory detail can wield immense suggestive power, particularly in combination. Taste and smell, texture and sound can all equal the overworked first choice of descriptive passages: sight.
A walk along Porto’s River Douro is a feast for the eyes. Washing flapping from wrought-iron balconies, crumbling façades the colour of sponge cake, the retro-style wooden trams and shimmering water reflecting the masts of the distinctive black barcos.
But take a deep breath. Absorb the details. There’s a peixeira (fishwife) selling pungent salt cod while humming along to the fado from the nearby café. Hop on the tram and run your fingers over the cracked leather seats. Leave the trundling vehicle at Foz, take your shoes off and press your toes into the sand till you find a beachside bar with a free deckchair. Enjoy a glass of white port and a plate of grilled sardines while you inhale ocean spray from under a striped umbrella.
Smooth not lumpy
That chunk of description above is all very well in terms of employing all the senses, but where’s the story? Where’s the assassin with his mirrored sunglasses? Or rippling chested romantic hero bounding across the dunes? Or massive shark leaping out of the waves to consume you and your sardines?
Anyone who’s ever listened to a story or anecdote, whether round a fire, tucked up in bed or with a gang of mates in the pub, knows the formula of scene-setting. And it’s not just English. Every European language I’ve attempted to learn has at least two forms of past tense: what was happening (set the scene) and what happened (action).
SCENE SETTING: The sun was shining, the birds were singing and the breeze was ruffling Anastasia’s blonde locks as she rushed to the creek, desperate for cool water against her sunburnt skin.
ACTION: She slipped off her dress and stood on tiptoes to dive into the pool. A crashing noise startled her from the undergrowth. A Martian burst from the tree-line, tentacles akimbo, its seven eyes focused on her slight form.
Description doesn’t just belong in Scene Setting, it should play a part in Action. Weave in your perception, sensual nuances, weather, environment and atmosphere into everything, but make it matter. Use detail – not flowers but daffodils. Not birds but ravens. Plant that wobbly plank in the early chapters and bring it back to trip your axe-murderer when you change into fifth gear.
SCENE SETTING: Sun beat through the palms and parrots shrieked like cheerleaders as Anastasia ran for the creek. Sweat ran down her temples and her blonde locks dampened into honey-coloured curls, a light breeze encouraging her to sprint the last five metres. She focused on the limpid turquoise pool ahead, craving its cool green relief and the balm it offered to her rosy skin.
ACTION: On her favourite smooth stone, she peeled off her dress and stood on tiptoes. Nothing could stop her now. She bent her knees and raised her arms to the point of an arrow, preparing to dive. Just as she drew her in-breath, the foliage behind her burst into life. Both impossible and recognisable, a shape emerged. Seven matt-black eyes fixed on her slight form, its tentacles vibrating with unearthly energy and a sulphurous stench emanated from its suppurating flesh. What else could it be? The last surviving Martian.
This is where working with other writers opens your eyes. Our lovely hostess, Anne, noted on an early draft of my first novel that my characters descended into a crypt, lit by wall scones. As opposed to wall sconces. Apart from such oafish examples of my clumsiness, my mentors and editors have saved me countless times if standards slip.
One element is finding new ways to circumvent the dull, bland adjectives of ‘hot’, ‘dark’, ‘tasty’, ‘disgusting’, ‘smooth’ for something less expected. My Triskele colleague Liza Perrat (Queen of Descriptive Language) told me off for lazy writing. “The sky darkened ominously? – not good enough. What colours? What did it remind you of?” The reworked line developed into ‘Grey, yellow and violet clouds – the colours of a bruise – obscured the white tip of the mountain.’ Liza’s insistence on raising basic to beautiful is a lesson I won’t forget.
It’s not easy to find new way of avoiding natural collocations such as ‘heavy rain’, ‘imposing architecture’, ‘rolling hills’ because that’s our shorthand in conversation and the fast food of journalism. Writers need to work harder, winkling out the detail which means something to the character. Raindrops on metal? An unpleasant recollection of the refuge at the border or a happy memory of that saucy weekend in a caravan?
The Little Big Things
Quentin Tarantino’s dialogue between two hit-men is superbly judged. They are who they are, they do what they do, but a glimpse of another culture holds them both in thrall. There’s another world out there and the safest observation point is from a story.
Expressive touches that transport a reader come from many sources but I’d argue the key elements are creative use of detail coupled with your character’s view of the world. Only from details do we – as readers and adventurers – form the big picture.
Anne: Thank you so much Jill. What a fascinating insight into location and all the nuances that go with it.
Below is an extract from Jill’s latest novel along with an online link for buying the book and some more information about Jill.
From the back cover:
“Chaos or order is simply a matter of taste”
A half truth is a whole lie
Ecco, the world-famous Michelin-starred restaurant in Naples, has a problem. A chef is dead and there’s a spy in the kitchen, selling their secrets to competitors. What they need is a food-loving detective to go undercover. Isabella Lopez knows just the person.
Over Holy Week in Italy, Beatrice Stubbs takes on her first paid job as a private investigator, accompanied by family and friends. Posing as a wannabe pastry chef, her job is to hook the worm out of the apple.
Meanwhile, her men folk explore the city, the volcano and the ruins of Pompeii, followed by a man in a black beret. Who or what does he want?
At the restaurant, kitchen staff are scared and mistrustful, the head chef is explosive and Beatrice’s culinary skills lack finesse. The pressure is on. She sets a trap for the mole before anyone else gets killed.
The Neapolitan family network and business links grow increasingly tangled, dragging in everyone Beatrice loves. This catch is bigger than she thought and she can’t handle it alone. Has PI Stubbs bitten off more than she can chew?
‘I thoroughly enjoyed Jill Marsh’s presentation of a hot and flustered Beatrice Stubbs amidst Italian pots, pans and flans, who at the flick of a whisk, manages to regain her cool and resolve a tricky Neapolitan intrigue and murder.’ – Janys Hyde, owner at Creative Retreats, Italy
A thrilling career change for Beatrice Stubbs amidst the chaos, beauty and gastronomy of historical Naples. – Liza Perrat, author of The Bone Angel Series
Extract from Honey Trap
The speedboat bounced across the waves, jolting the passengers perched on the plastic benches. Adrian found the spray and speed exhilarating, as did Luke, but Matthew’s posture remained stiff, as did his smile. The leathery boatman reached out a muscular forearm to assist them as they clambered onto the quay.
Adrian spotted the subtle transfer of Euros as Matthew shook their pilot’s hand. They all waved goodbye and gazed up at the colourful peak of Capri. The weather was warm enough to turn pale British skin pink, clusters of purple heather and yellow broom seemed to erupt from each corner and the cheerful chatter of the quayside lifted everyone’s spirits. Too romantic for words. Adrian was glad he’d re-watched The Talented Mr Ripley before leaving London. Now he knew exactly what to expect.
Luke ran ahead up the steep narrow street, pointing out ice-cream shops, souvenirs and on every other doorstep, reclining cats. Basil, oregano, thyme and marjoram grew on most windowsills, adding a herbal note to the lemon-scented air. They strolled uphill, snapping pictures of one photogenic panorama after another: small coves changing colour with each wave and cascading terraced gardens. On the winding streets, tiny one-person utility vehicles carried suitcases, their drivers hooting to clear a path between the tourists. Of those there were plenty. Adrian guessed the nationality by dress sense before he could even hear the accents. He took a decision to stop being judgemental and admire the beauty of this little island with its celebrated history.
Luke’s energy took him further ahead than Adrian deemed comfortable, while Matthew’s slow progress stretched the distance between them to a worrying degree. Adrian caught Matthew’s eye, indicated Luke and made the motion of a grabbing claw to indicate he’d catch the boy. The ex-professor rested against a wall and nodded his permission. Ducking groups of tourists dawdling up the congested little street and taking selfies, Adrian loped after the six-year-old, scanning both sides for a small blond head. With a surprising sense of relief, he spotted Luke watching a street vendor waving beribboned sticks to attract young eyes. Right behind him stood an older man in a black beret, equally absorbed in the display.
Adrian drew Luke away with a gentle hand on his shoulder. “Let’s stick together. Your granddad isn’t as fast as you and we shouldn’t spilt up. Now I’m not sure what you think, but I wonder if it’s too early for an ice-cream?”
Writer, journalist, teacher, actor, director and cultural trainer, Jill has lived and worked all over Europe. Now based in Switzerland, Jill is the author of The Beatrice Stubbs Series, a founder member of Triskele Books, co-editor of Swiss literary hub The Woolf and reviews for Bookmuse.
You can connect with Jill online at the links below: