Category Archives: Writing

Don’t Quit the Day Job: Linda MacDonald

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’ll talk to writers about how their current – or previous – day jobs have inspired and informed their writing.

Today on Don’t Quit the Day Job, we have the lovely Linda MacDonald to talk about how teaching Psychology to sixth formers inspired her debut novel, ‘Meeting Lydia‘. My thanks to Linda for sharing her interesting journey to publication

Vic x

How a computer, an A level topic, a classroom accident, radio news and a work-related breakdown all contributed to my writing career.

My 2001 resolution was to buy either a home computer or a rabbit. The computer won. The day job of teaching in a sixth form college demanded I learn how to use one. Little did I know that this computer, this alien in the living room as I thought of it for a long time, was to be the vehicle of inspiration for my first novel, Meeting Lydia.

Friends Reunited hit the headlines later that year and on a wave of nostalgia, I found the only boy in the class who was never horrible to me at a time when I was bullied. Many emails followed and supplied me with two themes for a story: the long-term effects of school bullying and the psychology of internet relationships.

Write about what you know is the oft-heard mantra. My main character became a teacher of Psychology, someone able to analyse the pros and cons of electronic communication. It was already a topic on the A Level specification and I asked for volunteers to come to an extra lesson to discuss the issues. I told them I would like to tape them with view to gathering authentic ‘student speak’ for a novel I was writing. Their amazing contributions formed the basis of three chapters and added to the quirkiness of a novel.

I was driven by a fire that consumed me: a book that had to be written. In the evenings, when the supper was eaten and the dishes were washed, I made myself write instead of collapsing to watch some inconsequential rubbish on TV. I wrote random chapters, as yet no clear plan of how they would interlock: the bullying backstory; a collapsing marriage; menopausal madness; the psychology of jealousy.

And every morning on my drive to work, I listened to Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme, hoping for an interesting piece to provided inspiration for the email exchanges that must be anything but mundane.

Five years later I had a novel of over 110,000 words; three years after that, I had drafted a more commercial sequel. But the day job still had cards to play. In 2009, I smashed my wrist tripping over a classroom chair and as I lay in hospital, I mused. I was in my fifties, time was running out and I decided to go the self-publishing route.

Sadly, perhaps ironically, the job that was to fuel my writing career was also partly responsible for my having a stress-related breakdown in 2011. ‘Adrenal fatigue’ is a label I found best summed up my condition and my day job became impossible.  I took early retirement. I didn’t have a choice. Yet looking back, without the breakdown, I would have carried on teaching for another few years and I wouldn’t now have four published novels.

Life is unpredictable and I still don’t have a rabbit.

Linda’s latest novel ‘The Man in the Needlecord Jacket‘ is available now. 

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Guest Post: Mark Hill on Minor Characters. 

In September, I went to Bloody Scotland for the first time (I’m not being offensive by the way – Bloody Scotland is a crime writing festival held in Stirling). It was a fantastic experience and I’d recommend that fans of crime fiction book up for next year. 

The first panel I attended was Alex Gray‘s New Crimes featuring Ian Skewis (author of ‘A Murder of Crows‘), Felicia Yap (writer of ‘Yesterday‘), Rob Ewing (whose debut novel is ‘The Last of Us‘) and, last but not least, the author of ‘Two O’Clock Boy‘, Mark Hill. The panel was really interesting and each reader read an excerpt of their debut novel as well as answering questions from Alex and the audience. 


Mark Hill has kindly agreed to share his thoughts on minor characters today. Thanks to Mark for sharing his thoughts on this subject. 

Vic x

Guest Post: Mark Hill on Minor Characters. 

Pull up a chair, authors, and let’s talk about those characters in your books who never get enough attention. They’re usually ignored by readers and reviewers, who prefer to concentrate all their praise on the terrific narrative arc of your awesome protagonist and their battle with the evil antagonist.

I’m talking about the little people, that supporting cast of characters who appear all too briefly in your book. They may be a witness to a crime, a lawyer guy, or the newsagent who sells your protag a packet of Revels. They appear for a scene or two, perhaps, and then… they’re gone forever.

Your minor characters get a few fleeting paragraphs to register in the consciousness of the reader, but by the end of the book, let’s face it, they’re usually long forgotten. It’s not their fault, they did their job. In the big scheme of things, they’re just not that important.

But those minor characters deserve your love and attention just as much as your main cast. It’s easy to write them as shallow stereotypes, but they deserve personalities all of their own, and feelings, and depth of character. Give them their moment in the sun.

For example, I used to do a lot of script reports for new writers. I read hundreds of scripts, perhaps thousands. Films scripts, TV scripts, play scripts. If old ladies appeared in those scripts they’d often be described as having white hair and wearing a cardigan. They were the most generic old ladies ever. They’d invariably call everybody ‘dear’ a lot. As in ‘hello, dear,’ ‘yes, dear’ and ‘would you like a cup of tea, dear?’

Because if an old lady appeared, you could bet your life that a cup of tea would be sure to follow. Now I love tea as much as the next fellow– milk, no sugar, since you’re asking – but I often wondered what would happen if instead of clutching a teapot the old lady would appear with a crack-pipe… or a DVD of extreme porn… or sporting a purple Mohican hairstyle.

In my crime debut Two O’Clock Boy, there’s not a teapot in sight. I’ve got a couple of senior citizens, but they’re tricky and ferocious characters – and I hope counter-intuitive. Myra Drake is an eighty something with an acid tongue and the predatory eye of a vulture. True, Harry Crowley does lean on a walking stick – a typical prop for an old person – but he uses it to slyly manipulate the people around him into thinking he’s more frail than he actually is.

Treat them with love and care, and you never know when your supporting characters will become the breakout stars of your next novel. Take our old friend Hannibal Lecter…

Thomas Harris practically reinvented the serial killer thriller with Red Dragon. Banged up in a small cell, Hannibal appeared briefly. But his watchful, enigmatic presence dominated the narrative.

Up until then serial killers had tended to be grubby little men banging nails into cages in basements. Lecter was different. He was a high-functioning polymath, a lover of fine wine, opera and art – a man who hid his true nature behind a veneer of immaculate taste and sophistication. He also ate people. Harris took the serial killer out of the basement and put him in the penthouse. With that one minor character he flipped the reader’s expectations – and hit gold.

Lecter didn’t get many pages – but by the time Silence Of The Lambs came along, he was the leading man. Now, practically every fictional serial killer is a smarmy know-all with a penchant for turning murder into high-art.

So when you’re thinking about the minor characters in your crime novel, take a moment to consider how you can make them shine. Use all those god-given powers you have to make shit up, all your skills of description and dialogue and storytelling, to give them that tweak that will turn them from ‘Walk-On Part A’ to ‘Charismatic Scene-Stealer.’

But just do me a favour: don’t offer them a cup of tea.

Guest Post: Rachel Amphlett on Bouchercon 2017

Having been to a few crime writing festivals this year, there is one I’d really like to attend but haven’t managed yet. 

Bouchercon is an annual world mystery convention where readers, writers, publishers, editors, agents and booksellers gather for four days to talk all things crime fiction and mystery. Bouchercon is a non-profit, volunteer-led festival. 

The venue changes every year – this year, everyone gathered in Toronto. Although I wasn’t able to attend, the wonderful Rachel Amphlett has been kind enough to share her experience with us.

Hopefully I’ll get there one day.

Vic x

Bouchercon 2017 from the frontline.
By Rachel Amphlett

Some five years in the planning process, over 700 authors and an equal amount – if not more – of avid readers, and Bouchercon 2017 was ready to open its doors on 12 October at the Sheraton Central in Toronto.

I was astounded at how many avid crime fiction readers descend on the conference – speaking to Mark and Sharon from Denver, it turns out they travel around North America every year to come to these – it’s a “must do”, and it seems they’re not the only ones!

This year was the 48th iteration of the popular conference, and included the thirty year anniversary for Sisters in Crime. The programme boasted an incredible choice of seminars and conversations – it was impossible to get to everything, but here are some of the highlights for me.

Given the number of psychological thrillers/domestic suspense novels out, the “Urban Noir” panel authors were asked: is the city scarier than the suburbs?

Not so, according to Michael Harvey, who pointed out that the current trend of psychological thrillers/domestic suspense often features characters who live in suburbia and, as Rebecca Drake added, often have more capacity for evil.

Gary Dvorik’s view was that the noir energy of the forties and fifties has been “cleansed” from cities, and that urban noir has moved to the suburbs, where it looks set to stay for some time. Julia McDermott raised a good point in that protagonists in urban noir are people who aren’t typically thought of as heroes – hence the popularity of what some are calling “domestic suspense” (although it was discussed whether the changing genre titles are simply down to publishers’ marketing departments!). 

It seems that Breaking Bad still resonates with a lot of people as an example of suburban crime, and as Rebecca pointed out, “noir is a darkness that lurks in all of us, just waiting to be tapped”.

The panel entitled “Unkind Settings” proved popular, and included a wide range of thriller sub-genres including disaster and dystopia. The panel were asked what they thought the allure of apocalyptic settings was, and Tim Washburn said he likes to drop his characters into that sort of scenario to see how resourceful they can be in order to survive. Adam Sternbergh made a great point that, as a writer, the setting should make you nervous – it’s almost like a character in itself.

The panel discussed the advantages of an unkind setting, and agreed that it plants the reader right in the action from the start, and then there’s always room to turn up the heat on your characters even more!

Joe Hart’s closing remark very much made me sit up and think about story potential, in that “when consequences are taken away, a character’s moral restrictions fade, too” – exactly how far would you be willing to go in order to survive?

There were at least two panels taking a look at the advantages and disadvantages of writing a series versus writing a standalone novel.

The first, “Standalones”, moderated by Craig Sisterson and featuring Kathy Reichs and Linwood Barclay, looked at how authors with established series then strike out and write a standalone. The reasons for this were quite similar – two authors had been asked by their publishers to write something new, and another author whose first series hadn’t taken off at that time was requested by his agent to try something different.

We also found out during the panel that Kathy hates bugs – a rather large cockroach appeared on the table in front of her, but was quickly dispatched by fellow panellist Kate White. Reichs admitted afterwards that she’s “much happier dealing with maggots”!

Back to the standalone/series debate and, in all cases, the authors agreed that they relished the change, and felt refreshed upon returning to their series titles. Of course, through writing a standalone, there was also the opportunity to develop a further series if readers liked the characters.

As with all crime fiction festivals, a lot of the time could be spent on the concourse where authors and readers could mingle and share their love of the genre. The hospitality suite, bars and café on the upper levels were certainly doing a roaring trade over much of the weekend.

For me, Bouchercon 2017 was an opportunity to catch up with friends, make some new ones, chat about my own work on influences, research, and writing habits on a couple of panels (“Government Agencies” and “A World of Thrills”), and meet some of my writing heroes while taking copious notes that I’m sure will inspire me for months (if not years) to come.

And for the organisers? Well, they’re already setting their sights on the next four Bouchercon conferences to be held in North America over the coming years, with special guests already confirmed including Karin Slaughter, Mark Billingham, and Ian Rankin (2018 – St Petersburg, FL), James Patterson and Harry Hunsicker (2019 – Dallas, TX), and Scott Turow and Walter Mosley (2020 – Sacramento, CA).

*Fox Hunter Blog Tour* Guest Post: Zoë Sharp on Keeping a Series Fresh.

2017 Book Tour Blog.pdfWhen I first joined Twitter in 2011, one of the first people I interacted with was Zoë Sharp, author of the Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Fox crime thriller series.

Since then, Zoë and I have met at several events – including her reading at a few of the Noir at the Bars I’ve presented. Zoë’s prose is like her love of fast cars and motorbikes – fast-paced – and she always gets a great reaction from the audience when she reads her work. Having been privy to an advance copy of Zoë’s latest novelFox Hunter, I can understand why. 

Zoë is a joy to be around and I’m delighted to have her on the blog today to talk about how to keep a series fresh – and she would know having written twelve novels in the Charlie Fox series.

When she’s not chipping away at the word-face of another book, Zoë can usually be found international pet-sitting or renovating houses so I’m very humbled that she found time to write this brilliant post.

Vic x

Photo by Nick Lockett

KEEPING A SERIES FRESH
By Zoë Sharp

One of the hardest things when you write a long-running series is keeping it fresh. Not only for the reader, but for the author as well. I think that’s one of the reasons I never really gave Charlie Fox a regular job in law enforcement. So, she doesn’t get summoned from her bed to go and inspect the body at the latest crime scene—in fact, she’s more likely to be asked to prevent there being a body in the first place.

This constant search for a new challenge for Charlie is why her career has evolved throughout the series, and is still doing so. When we pick her up in the early books she is a self-defence instructor, someone who’s been a victim of violent attack herself and is now determined to teach others to look after themselves.

I know some people build hugely successful series around such an amateur sleuth, but I knew from the start I was going to take her in the direction of personal protection in a more professional guise, even if she wasn’t sure.

When she agreed to go undercover into a bodyguard training school in the third book, Hard Knocks, she didn’t fully appreciate that she was going to follow that path, first working for her former army mentor, Sean Meyer, in the UK, and then moving with him when he became a partner in Parker Armstrong’s prestigious agency in New York City.

Now, as the latest book, Fox Hunter, closes, the future is looking a lot more uncertain for Charlie, and I have some choices about where she goes next. I’d already laid in some strands for her future in previous stories. If I know something like this is going to come up, I try not to make it unbelievable when it does. Inevitably, she’s met some interesting people along the way—some of whom may want to kill her, and some of whom owe her their lives. It’s not unreasonable that their paths may cross again occasionally. After all, she’s been moving in a small and exclusive world.

Charlie has changed quite a bit as a character as the series has progressed. Keeping her static and unchanging would have been difficult as she faced different challenges with every book, and her personal and emotional life swirled around her.

In particular, exploring her capacity for violence has always been fascinating for me. She’s very familiar with it in all its forms, and can be utterly ruthless when the occasion demands, but she’s not without conscience. If you threaten her—or someone she cares about, or feels responsible for—she’ll kill you without a second thought. But she’ll go a long way to avoid a confrontation if she can.

That much hasn’t changed about Charlie. Right from the first book, Killer Instinct, where she plays the clown to side-step proving her self-defence abilities to an aggressive club doorman (thereby proving them by another means) up to Fox Hunter, her twelfth outing, where she gives someone who tries to forcibly detain her two chances to step aside before she takes him apart.

Perhaps because she is ever-changing, I try hard not to repeat myself, either in storyline or action sequence, or in her interaction with the recurring characters. Madeleine Rimmington, whom Charlie dislikes on first meeting in book two, Riot Act, is slowly becoming a friend.

And as she enters the next phase of her life, Charlie may find she needs all the friends she can get…

Death at the Docks

A wonderful write-up of Death at the Docks – thanks to Jennifer C Wilson.

Source: Death at the Docks

Residential Writing Retreat with Stephanie Butland

I know regular readers of this blog will be familiar with the lovely Stephanie Butland, writer of the tremendous Lost for Words. Well, now’s your chance to spend some time with Stephanie on a writing retreat in Yorkshire. 

Spaces are filling up fast, though, so if you fancy attending, book now! 

Vic x

Writing Retreat with Stephanie Butland, February 2018 

Do you need time to focus on your writing? 

Is there something missing from your novel? 

Do you have a folder full of stories and snippets that you aren’t sure how to progress? 

You might be working on your first novel, or writing short stories, or looking for some space to help you decide whether you want to write at all.

You might be trying out a first-person narrator, or writing from multiple viewpoints.

Maybe your dialogue doesn’t feel right.

Whatever your level and experience, this retreat is designed to help you to become a better writer. 

You’ll complete writing exercises, examine techniques, and discuss what you want to achieve with your writing. And of course you will have plenty of time and space to think and write!

Come along for tutored writing sessions, 1:1 feedback, the company of fellow writers, great food, and wonderful surroundings. Write, think, sleep, explore, and return to the world refreshed, inspired and raring to go.

Our venue is the beautiful Garsdale Retreat in the Yorkshire Dales National Park.

Details:
Thursday 22 February 2018 (4pm) – Tuesday 27th February 2018 (10am).
Fully catered. Only two spaces left – single rooms with a shared bathroom, £700 per person.

To book, or if you have any questions, please email Stephanie at me@stephaniebutland.com or drop her a line on social media.

Writing Retreat at St Mary’s Island.

Writing Retreat on St Mary’s Island, Whitley Bay.

Have you ever wanted to just write, cut off from the world? Elementary V Watson is giving you that opportunity on Sunday, 20th August.

All too often, the distractions of modern life get in the way of our creativity so I’m inviting you to attend a writing retreat with a difference. Come to the iconic St Mary’s Island in Whitley Bay and experience a stranding where the only thing you’ll have to do is write!

The retreat will run from 12:30pm – 6pm and the causeway will be covered for the majority of that time.

As a participant of the retreat, you will have the opportunity to walk around the island and write wherever you feel comfortable. This retreat is aimed at writers of all genres and experience who want to write independently but there will be prompts to inspire your writing plus the opportunity to get feedback on your work. I’ll be available throughout the session, too, to provide one-to-one support and guidance where required.

You’ll have access to an indoor space with tea and coffee facilities but you will need to bring your own lunch / snacks.

Spaces are limited so book now! The cost for the retreat is £30. In order to secure your place, a 50% non-refundable deposit of £15 is required. Please email me for more information. Spaces are filling up fast!