Sunday 31 August 2014

Keeping It (Un)real

Confession time. The places I write about in my books are not real, although I do occasionally take inspiration from an actual place or building. Hurst Castle in Nemesis, for example, is very loosely based on Penrhyn Castle in North Wales, but I often change elements to suit my plot.

It was never my intention to create my own world and I have written about real places in the past. Why Do Fools Fall in Love is set in Bath, and I've used Sorrento and New Orleans as settings in my Proposal stories.

From a writer's point of view, there is something very satisfying about creating a world of your own. You start off with a character or two. Your characters need friends, lovers, enemies - and somewhere to live. As soon as you've created (and decorated!) their homes, the neighbours will be popping round. So then you have to create places for all these people to visit to stop them getting into trouble - or perhaps, if you're that way inclined, encourage them into it! So that means pubs, clubs, schools, theatres - and before you know it, you've created an entire village and it's all got slightly out of control.

My first book to use an entirely made-up setting was Smoke Gets In Your Eyes. *Spoiler alert*. In it was a sub-plot about corruption in the police force. At the time I was working for the police and I didn't want anyone assuming I was writing about real people and real events. So I created Calahurst. I picked the name because every day on the way to work I passed a road called Cala-something-or-other and I added 'hurst' because I wanted to set my book someplace pretty, and I thought of the New Forest and places like Lyndhurst and Brockenhurst.

I drew a map of my imaginary village. This might sound self-indulgent but when you're writing about a place, real or made up, you really have to get it straight in your head where everything is or, before you know it, coffee shops start moving about. And I did come a cropper in A Girl's Best Friend, when I wanted my heroine to drive down a road which wasn't 'there', and I had to quickly 'build' one!

I've used Calahurst as a setting for my first three books and while I have recycled elements - one house in Smoke Gets in Your Eyes got a new owner in Breathless - I created another village (Port Rell) for my fourth book. And then I got very ambitious and added 'historical' legends - Civil War battles and sieges, and a notorious smuggler who turns up out of nowhere and then vanishes one day in much the same way. I had so much fun with that, I'm doing it all over again for my next two books. I have a new village, Buckley - previously mentioned in Nemesis, and a whole lot of new characters to get into trouble.

It really is the best part of being a writer.


My Pinterest board for Breathless has more photos of Lymington in the New Forest, which helped to inspire Port Rell (along with a few other places!)

My Pinterest board for Nemesis has more photos of Penrhyn Castle

Writing What You Don't Know - Researching Locations - a blog post for Novelistas Ink

Sunday 17 August 2014

Five Books Which Influenced Me

I very nearly called this post "Five Books Which Changed My Life" but, while I'm never one to let the truth get in the way of a good story, that did seem a little too hyperbole-y, even for me. But hey, I'm a writer, we're prone to telling fibs making stuff up exaggerating slightly. So, while these books didn't change my life, they certainly influenced me as a writer. Castle of Adventure by Enid Blyton
If you've read any of my books, maybe you've guessed this one already. I blame my mother. She had a huge collection of Enid Blyton books as a child, which she lost when she moved house. As soon as my brothers and I arrived, she set about recreating that lost collection. The Castle of Adventure was one of my favourites and might have been the one I read first, as my copy had a scary ruined castle on the front - and you know how I feel about ruins ...

Tregaron's Daughter by Madeleine Brent
My grandmother loved reading those gothic romantic suspense novels which were popular way back in the 1970s, so once I'd outgrown Enid Blyton I began raiding her shelves. Tregaron's Daughter is about Cadi, a fisherman's daughter, who only discovers she has aristocratic relatives when they whisk her off to Venice after his death. But are they as pleased to find her as they appear to be? This book has all the things I love in a book - family secrets, mysteries to solve and a dangerous hero - and it's set in Venice.

Polo by Jilly Cooper
I've already blogged about how I first discovered Jilly Cooper's early books, while on a rainy holiday to the Isle of Wight. Jilly wrote a series of romantic comedies with girls' names as the titles - Emily, Bella, Harriet, etc - before switching to writing these big, sexy blockbusters. My favourite Jilly Cooper book is actually The Rivals but Polo is a close second. I've never liked wishy-washy heroines and I love that the heroine of Polo (Perdita) is deliciously horrible at times. OK, most of the time. But that is her charm.

Tell No One by Harlan Coben
It was a friend who first got me hooked on Harlan Coben. I love reading mysteries but I was becoming increasingly frustrated with the way it was always so easy to guess what was coming next. Is this is a 'writer's thing'? My favourite books and movies are always the ones where I can't work out what is going on, or how it's all going to end, so I can just sit back and enjoy the ride. I've always tried not to do the obvious in my own books but Harlan Coben's work really made me stop and think about all those extra little evil twists I could add. This one is my favourite.

On Writing by Stephen King
I love Stephen King and I've read all his books, which have definitely inspired me to try and be a better writer. For me, On Writing is brilliant because in it he talks about his own life at the time when he wrote each of his books and he explains how he was inspired - just little snippets of detail that would trigger the creation of whole scenes. I always find this kind of information fascinating. Is it another 'writer's thing'? Or am I just nosy?

So there you have it, five books which influenced me as a writer - although I might not have realised it at the time. There are so many other wonderful books and authors which I love and, if you're feeling a little bit nosy too, you can pop over to my Pinterest board Most Favourite Books in the World Ever and check them out.

Sunday 10 August 2014

It was a dark and stormy night ...

Do you like my new mug? My husband bought it for me. I collect mugs - and notebooks (you can read about that obsession here), which I know makes me sound odd, but I'm a writer and we're allowed to be odd slightly eccentric.

Why did my husband buy me this particular mug? It's a running joke between us. Every time I start a new book, I grumble about how the opening sentence has to be absolutely perfect. This is his cue for helpful suggestions such as: "It was a dark and stormy night. It was a stormy night and very dark. It was night and darkly stormy." Author-baiting? Not recommended! It's lucky I have a sense of humour or he'd find himself wearing the contents of said mug.'It was a dark and stormy night' is the first line of the novel Paul Clifford, written by Victorian author Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton. It was published in 1830 and written in  the style which became  known as a 'Newgate' novel - where the hero is a criminal. They were popular between the 1820s and 1840s, and were a forerunner to the serialised 'penny dreadfuls'. In this particular story, the hero is a gentleman by day and a dashing highwayman by  night.  

The opening line has been much parodied, not least by cartoonist Charles M. Schultz, whose Peanuts character, Snoopy, always begins his novels the same way. (I'd post one here but I don't want to be sued violate copyright.) In fact, the phrase has become such a cliché, there is now an annual competition, known as the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, for the worst opening to a novel.

'It was a dark and stormy night' is not such a bad start to a book, but when you read the rest of it ...

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents - except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

Sadly for Sir Edward, writing styles go in and out of fashion. In his day, long sentences and pages of text without a single paragraph break were fairly typical.

Despite his more recent incarnation as the poster boy for purple prose, Sir Edward was a hugely popular author in his time and friends with authors such as Charles Dickens. As well as novels, Sir Edward wrote plays and poems, and coined phrases such as 'the pen is mightier than the sword' and 'the great unwashed'. He was also an MP and a Secretary of State.

As an author myself, I think it's kind of cool that a line written nearly two hundred years ago is still quoted and appearing on mugs, T-shirts and the rest.

I wonder what Sir Edward would have thought?

(I expect he'd have liked the royalties!)

Sunday 3 August 2014

Writers Write (or, What I Really Do All Day)

If you follow me on Twitter or Facebook you're probably getting a very skewed idea of my life. I drink lots of coffee, I'm always sneaking off for champagne and cake with the Novelistas or shooing escaped farmyard animals out of my kitchen. You know I live in Wales, because I grumble about the weather and Instagram photos of sheep. And, oh yes, apparently I sometimes write books. Look, check the header, it's official: 'Sometimes writes books'.

I am supposed to be a full-time writer but sometimes it does feel like 'sometimes' rather than 'all the time'. So what, exactly, do I do all day?

Let's start with a photo of my desk. It doesn't always look like this. In fact, it never looks like this, which is why I took a photo of it about two years ago. If you could see it now, there are two huge piles of crap important paperwork on either side of me, with about an inch of space around my laptop.

I set my alarm for seven, even on weekends, even on holidays. (It's amazing how motivated you can be when you're self-employed.) While the rest of my family (one husband, two children, one hamster) fight it out for the bathroom (not the hamster; she makes her own arrangements), I switch on my laptop and read newspapers and blogs and link anything I find interesting to Twitter, Facebook, etc. Back when I had a 'proper' job (or, as my son likes to put it, 'when dinosaurs roamed the earth'), one of my roles was to read the morning papers and identify trends. I suspect I spent more time reading up on celebrity exploits rather than identifying trends, but the training came in useful and it's now become a habit.

Where were we? Oh yes, newspapers, blogs, social networking. Followed by chores. I have no staff (excuse me while I roll around the floor laughing) and you can tell how well the current book is going by how clean my house is. Then I stop for coffee, to include answering emails and more social networking. Tip: If you find yourself being sucked in by Twitter, Facebook and all the rest of it, set yourself a time limit! In and out. Think: Networking Ninja. Got it?

After my coffee break and the Networking Ninja-ing, I write until I break for lunch. (I've blogged about my writing process here and how I use notebooks to write here). If the writing is going well, I read someone else's book. If it's not, I'm stuck with reading my own book, emailed to my Kindle Fire. Somehow it looks different on a Kindle and I find it easier to identify which parts are not working. I use the highlighting feature: pink for the parts I need to delete, orange for the parts that need to be reworded, blue for punctuation issues and yellow for everything else. The text-to-speech option also helps me spot the odd missing or repeated word, and stops me falling asleep over my own book.

And then it's back to work. I stop to do the school run and cook dinner and sometimes work into the evening, or into the night if it's really not going well. It takes me a morning to write a blog post or an article, two weeks to a month to write a short story/novella (depending on length) and nine to twelve months to write a book. I also design my own book covers, which you can read about here.

If I leave the house (yes, I do occasionally leave the house) I take my Kindle with me, and when I go to sleep I'm sure you can work out what I'm dreaming about.

So there you have it, that's what I do all day: write books, novellas, short stories, blog posts and articles - and do you know what? I wouldn't have it any other way.

Because I'm a writer, and writers write.

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