Category Archives: Writing

Don’t Quit the Day Job: Nicky Black

Lots of people don’t realise that although you may see work by a certain author on the bookshelves in your favourite shop, many writers still hold down a day job in addition to penning their next novel. In this series, we talk to writers about how their current – or previous – day jobs have inspired and informed their writing.

I read ‘The Prodigal‘ in 2016 and have since got to know Nicky Black quite well. I’ve hosted her at Noir at the Bar Newcastle a few times as well as spending time with her at Bloody Scotland and Newcastle Noir. I’m really thrilled to have Nicky on the blog to discuss how her work life has influenced her writing. 

Thanks, Nicky, for taking the time to chat to us. 

Vic x

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Since self-publishing The Prodigal in 2015, I’ve met a lot of authors, some of whom write full time, some who don’t and many who dream of it. Now I like my own company, not because I’m the wittiest, most interesting person I know, but because I’m comfortable being on my own, but there’s only so much time I can spend in front of my laptop, in my living room, staring at the ugly plastic vent on my chimney breast wall. My day job serves many purposes – office banter (love it), a sense of achievement, and it pays the bills and it keeps me and my kitties fed.

I’ve had a 30 year career, mostly working either in, or in support of, “poor communities,” – firstly with Save the Children, then in urban regeneration and in the latter five years in welfare to work (I’m not going there…). I’ve seen the best and the worst of these communities, whether Cowgate in Newcastle or Hackney in London. The problems are the same: high crime, poor health, low educational achievement (there’s an actual list), and above all, a labelling of these communities as somehow undeserving and undesirable. There are many undesirables for sure, but where there’s a ying, there’s a yang, and I’ve also met the most passionate, fearsome, committed people who have nothing to their name, but who root for their communities and give them a voice. 

So, whilst The Prodigal and Tommy Collins (out this summer) fall within the crime genre, they aren’t police procedural stories (I leave that to those fabulous authors who can create twisty-turny whodunnits). My interest lies in the impact crime has on individuals, families and whole communities, and how that is dealt with by the authorities and the communities themselves. I’ve heard how the police talk about these estates, and I’ve experienced the disdain residents have for the police – both are valid in their own right. The Prodigal was actually inspired by a conversation with a police officer back in the nineties about informants or “grasses”– who are they? Why do they do it? The answer was that it is generally family members, almost always women, and they do it because they want that person they care about to stop. Pop those facts into a scenario where the grass is a woman, in love with a copper who’s after her criminal husband, and you’ve got drama. 

The housing estate itself where the books are set (the fictional Valley Park) is a key character, and I couldn’t have written it with any authenticity without the experience of working for 20 odd years with local residents, and the professionals who think they know what’s best for them (sometimes they do, I can’t argue with that). Valley Park is a grim place in The Prodigal, and even grimmer in Tommy Collins which is set ten years earlier in 1989 – the height of Thatcherism, unemployment and civil unrest. I’ve actually started to feel quite protective of the place and the pretend people who inhabit it, even the bad ones. It’s like the Mothership – a place you can’t escape. Anyway, I’m looking forward to book three which will bring Valley Park bang up to date, and I can have a pop at Beardy Men and gentrification (is there ever a happy medium?).

I’m out of the poverty game now. I left London in 2016 (I lived there for 14 years), had some time off, and now I’m back working pretty much full time again for a hospice charity (there may well be a future novel in that, who knows?). Now, my writing influences my day job in a way. I write grant applications, and this requires delivering a story with heart, hitting all the right notes that make those funders want to read on and see what they’ll get for their money. They’ve got to believe in what you’re doing and get some satisfaction from investing in you – much like readers, I suppose. I must be doing okay, because in eight months I’ve secured over £200,000, which is about £160,000 more than they’ve had in grants in any one year. I’m quite proud of that! 

It doesn’t leave me much time to write, as I do like to keep my social life active, my house clean and my cupboards stocked. That, coupled with my inability to stick to a plot, means my second book is about a year behind. But I’m getting there. You can be sure it’ll be full of grit, inspired by some of the best and worst people I’ve ever met through my day jobs.

Thank you for having me Vic, and hello to those of you reading this 😊 *waves* x

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Review: ‘Educated’ by Tara Westover

What is it to be educated? Is it to have spent every day of your life from the age of four until the age of twenty-one in a classroom? Is it the ability to read and write? How about being able to reflect deeply on your own personal experiences? 

Tara Westover was not educated in the way one might expect. She did not have school records. In fact, she didn’t have medical records. Tara Westover didn’t even have a birth certificate – officially, she didn’t exist. Tara grew up in Idaho with a father who didn’t trust in intervention.

From the moment she was born, Tara was to be taught to prepare for the End of Days. Her mother ‘home-schooled’ Tara and some of her siblings while their father proselytised about the dangers posed by doctors, teachers, government and law enforcement.

At the age of sixteen, Tara decided to educate herself. That decision took her to Harvard and then to Cambridge.

Having recently heard Tara talk at Forum Books about her experiences growing up a Mormon with an increasingly radical father and erratic brother, I was moved by the erudite way in which she spoke about her unusual childhood and her decision to make a change in her life.

Educated‘ is a beautifully written memoir. Westover’s prose is almost lyrical, featuring evocative descriptions of the rolling hills. Her gorgeous writing is juxtaposed with the terror I felt when reading about some of the things she had lived through. At times, the events were so out of my sphere of understanding, I had to check online that this was a memoir and not fiction! 

Throughout ‘Educated‘, there is a sense of not quite knowing what will happen next. At times, the tension was almost too much to bear. Westover masterfully allows the reader to tread the fine line she walked on a daily basis. There is also a feeling of sadness and grief that pervades this memoir. Ultimately, though, ‘Educated‘ is a hopeful book about the power of taking control and never giving up. 

Tara Westover is my hero.

Vic x

**The Forgotten Blog Tour** #LoveBooksGroup #BlogTour

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I’m delighted to be taking part in this #LoveBooksGroup blog tour to mark the e-book release of ‘The Forgotten‘ by J.V. Baptie. I was lucky to host J.V. at Noir at the Bar Newcastle earlier this year and the excerpt she read that evening left many of us desperate for more. 

My post today gives you a flavour of the book and of its main character, DS Helen Carter. I hope that you’ll be as intrigued by ‘The Forgotten‘ as I was. 

Vic x

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The Forgotten: Synopsis

In Edinburgh in 1977, newly-promoted but unwelcome Detective Sergeant Helen Carter is tasked with investigating a murder in an abandoned picture house.
The killer has left a clue: the business card of an former cop.
Helen must piece together the case before the bodies mount up around her, and before the killer strikes closer to home…

**

About DS Helen Carter
By J.V. Baptie

The Forgotten is a crime fiction thriller set in and around Edinburgh and Glasgow in Scotland during the 1970s, a fascinating and somewhat overlooked era in Scotland. 
For much of this decade there was rising unemployment, social change, picket lines, crime and murder: plenty of inspiration for any crime novel. Poverty was rife in Scotland on a scale unimaginable today, with many families living in rat-infested one-bedroom tenement slums. Let’s not forget the strikes and the three day week.

It wasn’t all bleak during the 1970s. For my main protagonist, Helen Carter, it’s a time of hope, opportunity and social freedom that earlier generations of women couldn’t have imagined – and Helen wants to live it. Throughout her life she has found herself at the pinnacle of change. She was degree-educated at Glasgow University, played football at the time when the Scottish Women’s Football Association was founded and eventually got to play in the first Women’s League. 

After university, Helen found herself in dead end jobs but, tiring of these, she decided to follow her father’s footsteps into Glasgow City police as a WPC, then gains a promotion afterwards.

Glaswegian Helen is still finding her feet in Edinburgh but on a rare occasion she’s on a day off you might find her shopping in Goldbergs, or meandering along Princes Street, or having a quiet drink in the White Cockade. If there’s a good gig on she’ll be at one of the many dance halls.

**

About J.V. Baptie,
Author of The Forgotten.

J.V. Baptie

J.V. Baptie graduated from Manchester Metropolitan University in 2017 with an MA in Creative Writing. When she’s not writing, she is also an actress and has appeared in a variety of children’s shows and stage plays. You can find out more about her on Twitter and Facebook.

Don’t Quit the Day Job: Glenda Young

Lots of people don’t realise that although you may see work by a certain author on the bookshelves in your favourite shop, many writers still hold down a day job in addition to penning their next novel. In this series, we talk to writers about how their current – or previous – day jobs have inspired and informed their writing.

A couple of years ago, I went on a writing course in York hosted by ‘The People’s Friend’ magazine. On that course, I met Glenda Young. Since then, Glenda’s career has sky-rocketed – and there are few people who deserve it more than her.

Glenda is here to share a very personal story with us. I’d like to thank Glenda for her honesty. I hope her story inspires many of you.

Vic x

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I didn’t quit my day job, it quit me. 

Sort of. 

It made me really ill. Stress-induced panic attacks, anxiety eating away at me for months. Not sleeping, worrying myself sick about going to work in a job that was making me desperately unhappy. Something had to give. Something had to snap. Unfortunately, it was my mind. 

I called in sick. I thought I’d be all right after a duvet day. I wasn’t. I thought I’d go back the following week. I didn’t. I couldn’t. Weeks turned into months and I still wasn’t right. 

With the help of the NHS I underwent counselling and therapy which helped more than I can tell.  I began to recover. HR were on the phone, wondering when I was coming back. I decided not to return, handed in my notice and left, determined never to put myself through the stress of being in the wrong job ever again in my life. 

Even just thinking about that dark time at the end of 2014, early 2015 I feel my shoulders tense, my jaw grind and my blood pressure rise.

So what was the right job for me, I wondered? Well, I’d always loved writing and had earned money over the years from writing online and for ITV in my spare time. I’d put the word ‘writer’ down on my tax return every year so why not call myself a writer full-time?  Why not … I gulped … give it a try? A proper try? No playing about this time. And so, I changed my twitter profile to say I was a writer.  I announced it to the world. And now there was only one thing I needed to do: 

Write.

In autumn 2015 I joined a creative writing class at Sunderland Women’s Centre, it was a real back to basics writing class, all about expressing emotion and feeling in your work, using your senses. I loved it. I submitted a short story to The People’s Friend magazine and fell off my chair when they emailed to say they wanted to buy it. I wrote another, and another…. 

Over two years on from having that first short story published in a woman’s magazine I’ve had short stories published in three different women’s magazines and have been commissioned by The People’s Friend to write the first ever weekly soap opera for the magazine in its 150 year history. It’s an honour and a privilege to have been asked – and a real joy to write. 

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I’ve also won a local short story competition, been placed second in a national short story competition and been shortlisted and longlisted in various others. My work has been published in anthologies. And the unexpected happened too – I’ve done things I would never have dared while working in my past jobs. I’ve spoken, in public, in front of people. It’s terrifying, but by god, I enjoyed it. 

And the best bit of all, the bit that I am still on cloud nine about, that I still can’t believe is real… I’ve been signed to a literary agent who has sold my debut novel to Headline. I’ve been signed up by Headline on a three-novel deal with my debut novel Belle of the Back Streets published in November 2018.

Being diagnosed with anxiety and mental health problems has changed my life. For the better.  Yes, I still get anxious. Yes, I still get chewed up in knots over the most simple of thing. But – excuse the cliché please – I’ve learned that it really is OK to not be OK. 

It’s horrible, but it’s OK. 

As a full-time writer, of course I have less money coming in than when I was in a salaried role. There’s no pension, no security, just a blank screen that stares at me every morning. It’s a battle to write some days, but once I get going… oh, once I get going.  And I wouldn’t swap it for the world.

I am happy. 

I am a writer.

Review: ‘Turn a Blind Eye’ by Vicky Newham

The headmistress of a culturally diverse school in Tower Hamlets (East London) is found brutally murdered in her office. Left behind is a calling card, stating the ancient Buddhist precept ‘I shall abstain from taking the ungiven’. What does it mean? 

Enter DI Maya Rahman, the freshest detective you will have ever read. Maya is a Muslim woman struggling with her own complex family issues while trying to catch a killer who seems determined to wreak revenge on the people responsible for maintaining a wall of silence around an event that rocked the community. 

Turn a Blind Eye‘ is a triumphant debut that left me desperate for more. The characters created by Newham, Maya in particular, were so well-rounded and complex that I’d happily spend a lot more time in their company. Newham’s portrayal of the multicultural area of Tower Hamlets is not only sensitively communicated but also informative. It was easy to empathise with many of the characters despite having differing viewpoints and experiences. 

This is a beautifully written, paced thriller that I found utterly addictive. ‘Turn a Blind Eye‘ may be the first in the DI Maya Rahman series and I can guarantee this is a series that will run and run. 

Vic x

Review: ‘What Falls Between the Cracks’ by Rob Scragg

A severed hand is found in an abandoned flat. DNA tests identify that it belongs to someone who hasn’t been seen in over thirty years. Why aren’t the police aware of this person? Isn’t she on a list of missing people? No, because she hasn’t been reported missing.

Detective Jake Porter and his partner Nick Styles are called in to investigate this increasingly complex case. From the prologue, the reader is sucked in to this chilling mystery which goes to prove that you can’t always trust those closest to you.

The premise itself is really original but the unpicking of what happened and why is masterful. Robert Scragg weaves a complex plot with a large cast of characters, all of whom propel the narrative forward.

I really enjoyed the cultural references in this story, they helped to make the dialogue realistic and brought the characters to life. The banter between Porter and Styles demonstrates the gallows humour that is present in many challenging work environments.

OK, so you all know I love a twist. You know what’s better than a twist? Several! Just when I thought I had a grip on what was going on and who was responsible, the rug was whipped from under my feet and a new piece of the jigsaw was thrown into the mix (apologies for the mixed metaphors).

What Falls Between the Cracks is an assured debut that introduces readers to new detectives that they’ll keep coming back to as the Porter and Styles series expands.

Vic x

A year on…

One year and one day ago, I woke early and looked at Twitter – horrified by the news from Manchester Arena. I spent the day with friends, counting my blessings.

It was a gloriously sunny day and, as more news emerged about the victims, I reflected on how I’d feel if someone I loved had been involved. How would you feel if you’d had an argument then never got the chance to make up? Or, perhaps worse in some respects, you’d parted on perfectly fine terms but never got to tell them how much you loved or respected them?

That was when I decided to start writing to friends for no other reason than to tell them how much I loved them. My friend Emily, who moved home to the US, and I had been corresponding the old-fashioned way for a little while but that attack in Manchester made me realise that although I spend lots of time with my friends, I don’t tell them how much I appreciate them – because it’s implied. Well, I decided to make it explicit.

All we seem to get in the post these days (oh, how I’m showing my age) is bills and junk but when someone receives a heartfelt message in the post, it makes them feel valued. Ever since then, I’ve sent card and postcards and letters in the post and the feedback I’ve had has been lovely. People have reciprocated, of course, which was never the plan – I but it is a glorious feeling, knowing someone has taken the time to think about you then put pen to paper.

To me, a letter (or postcard or even an email) shows that the writer has thought about this. They have not just hugged you because you were standing in front of them, they are writing to you because they were thinking of you when you weren’t even with them. They have taken time out of their day to write to you.

I am not a tactile person – quite the opposite, in fact – but I am able to express myself with words far better than I ever could face-to-face. On the odd occasion that I found myself on the wrong side of my parents when I was a child, I would write a letter to apologise. Weird, I know.

I know some people wouldn’t feel able to express themselves fully through writing. To this I say: choose whatever works for you and do it.

Emma Whitehall once said to me that Elementary Sisterhood was partly borne out out of the support she had felt from receiving messages of support and encouragement through the post.

Yesterday, I had a massive wobble. Something inconsequential happened but it really threw me for a loop. However, when I messaged the sisterhood to tell them, the words of love and understanding I received heartened me. The people – in the sisterhood and beyond – who rushed to tell me what they felt for me and how I’d helped them really made me see the positive impact I’ve had on others.

So, in short, the message of this post is: if you feel something, say something.

Vic x