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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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Review: ‘The Break’ by Marian Keyes

It’s been many years since I last read a Marian Keyes book and now I can’t stop asking myself why I left it so long. I bought ‘The Break‘ after going to see Marian Keyes in Newcastle. I found her funny and engaging and her explanation of the premise of ‘The Break‘ had me intrigued.

Amy’s husband Hugh wants to take a break. Not the romantic, coupley kind but a break from their marriage. Hugh wants six months away from Amy, their family and their commitment to one another in order to ‘find himself’ and promises that, after those six months are up, he’ll come back and they’ll be together again. OK, so he’s not saying he wants to break up but his departure leaves Amy reeling. Will Hugh come back? And if he does, will he still be the man she married? And will she still be the woman he left behind?

Marian Keyes writes prose the way she talks – she intertwines serious subjects with humour and humanity. ‘The Break‘ doesn’t just dissect a marriage; it also questions what it’s like to parent in the 21st Century, what it means to be a modern working woman, how to navigate the minefield of female friendships as well as exploring a larger social issue of abortion laws in Ireland.

Marian Keyes manages to do what the second series of TV show ‘Doctor Foster’ failed to do: make the characters sympathetic. Even when they’re doing things that you might disagree with, you cannot help but be on their side. In several interviews I’ve heard, Marian Keyes has said she hopes to show that these characters – and the situations they find themselves in (whether through choice or by chance) – are nuanced and I think she does that admirably.

The cast of characters is large and varied and I can’t help but think that many of the family scenes are influenced in part by Keyes’s own extended family. I loved Locmof (read the book and you’ll understand) and Amy was fantastically real to me. I also adored the delicate Sofie and the sage Kiara.

Although there are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments in ‘The Break‘, they are tempered with sadness and anger. It may be a bit of a cliche but I genuinely laughed and cried while reading this novel and I think the reason for that is not just Keyes’s accessible writing style but because she creates characters that are as real as the people we share lives with.

The Break‘ is an absolute triumph of a book and I can’t help but hope we see these lovely, warm, realistic characters again.

Vic x

Just going to leave this here…

Don’t Quit the Day Job: David Videcette

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

As a former Scotland Yard detective, David Videcette has worked on a wealth of infamous cases, including the 7/7 London bombings. He is the author of bestselling crime thrillers The Theseus Paradox and The Detriment – based on real events. His motto is: ‘I can’t tell you the truth, but I can tell you a story…’™

When David isn’t writing, he’s commentating for the news media on policing, crime and terrorism. You can find out more about him via his website  or chat to him on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.  For the chance to win signed copies of David’s books, pop in your email address here.

Thanks to David for taking the time to explain how fiction compares to life at the coal face.

Vic x

Timing is everything
Having spent a career as a Met detective, I know that the most complex investigations take years to solve. Real life cases involve dead ends, false leads and red herrings along the way, which drain resources and often our will to live. In crime fiction, these real-life tales would never fit into 350 pages, and readers would tire of them. With experts saying crime novels should be tied up in around 90,000 words, this is totally at odds with reality, and my policing brain. But that’s my burden as an author – to make these stories work.

Tempo
Real detective work is 90% boredom and 10% sheer terror. That 90% is slowly and methodically piecing evidence together – painstakingly linking phone number to phone number, or trawling through witness statement after witness statement for that golden nugget that solves the case. The boredom is not what people want. They want that moment you find the golden nugget and the 10% of sheer terror when someone shoves a gun in your face. And who wants the reality of police officers constantly rowing about childcare with their spouses in their nail-biting thriller? Finding that balance in a novel is important. 

All the loose ends
Then there are the nice tie ups that readers expect at the end of a book.  That bit where the crime gets solved; the relationship puzzle and sub plots tie up; the sun sets over a glass of wine; and everyone lives happily ever after.

In real life, sometimes we don’t solve the case, sometimes innocent people die, and sometimes we never get the girl…or we work in windowless offices where we don’t see the sun for days on end.

The troubled detective is inescapable
Many people expect police officers to be some sort of cross between Superman and Batman in our day job, then go home and have dinner with our partner and forget all about our investigation till the next shift. Yet there is always a build-up of trauma which will eventually impinge upon your mental health. We teach ourselves to put protective barriers around our emotions, but there are often chinks in our armour.

For example, a lot of police officers find that dealing with adult deaths can become just about bearable, but when suddenly faced with the death, rape or torture of a child, their defences aren’t able to cope and they unravel. If you’re used to dealing with stabbings, but then come across scores of people blown up by a bomb, this can completely wreck the impenetrable armour you thought you had in place.

The troubled detective who drinks too much is no cliche. He or she is very real, made of flesh and blood, and often wishes that he were just a fantasy trope invented solely for the purposes of making crime fiction books more interesting.

Getting to Know You: Lilja Sigurðardóttir

I’m delighted to welcome Lilja Sigurðardóttir. I first met Lilja at Newcastle Noir 2016. Having heard her talk about her books, I – like many others – were desperate to read them and I’m thrilled that Orenda Books have published Lilja’s novel ‘Snare‘ in English. Yet another novel on my ever-expanding TBR pile! 

Thanks to Lilja for taking the time to talk to us today.

Vic x

Tell us about your books.
I am the author of five novels that have been published in my home country of Iceland. The latest are the Reykjavík Noir Trilogy that is enjoying international success and being translated into many languages. The first in the series, Snare, is just out in English, translated by Quentin Bates. 

What inspired them?
It is hard to tell what inspires a book, as there are so many things that influence a story. I would say that I have a passion for writing, for telling stories and entertaining people with them. That passion is the driving force behind what I do.

How do you feel about your novel being translated into English?
It is an absolute dream come true! Both because I have many English-speaking friends and they have been waiting impatiently to get to read my books, but also because the English language is such a gateway to the world. I have been a bit stressed about how the stories would be received in English as the English-speaking world has such a rich and strong tradition of crime fiction, but the reception so far has been very positive. But the best part of the whole process was working with Quentin Bates, whom I now consider a close friend.

Where do you get your ideas from?
From all over, I have to say. I dream a lot and some of the ideas come from my dreams as strangely as that sounds. It usually starts with a character that begins to grow in my mind and then I try to find a place and time for them, a purpose and a drive and from there on dreams and research come in handy. Dreams for mad ideas and research for deciding the limits of the possibilities.

Do you have a favourite story / character / scene you’ve written?
Oh, so many! I do love my characters like family. Even the nasty ones. Usually my last book is the favourite one, as it is fresh in my mind and I still feel like I´m in love with the story but now with the publication of Snare in English I have been reading it again and talking about it and promoting it, so now I’m totally in love with it again! I will have to say that the complete Reykjavík Noir Trilogy is my favourite work.

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever been given and who it was from?
The best advice I have been given was from a wonderful friend and renowned Icelandic poet and writer Þorsteinn frá Hamri. He told me that since I had a compulsion to write I would just have to make a go of it and give it my best, otherwise I wouldn’t be happy. He was right. I have never been happier than when I made writing my main job.

What can readers expect from your books?
Entertainment! I hope. My main goal with writing is to make people happy. Everyone likes a story and in order to make people happy, the story has to be good and fun to read. ‘Snare‘ is fast-paced and the point of view changes between four very different characters that then connect to each other. Everyone seems to have a favourite character in that group and I love asking people who their favourite character is.

Have you got any advice for aspiring writers?
Yes. Only one. Write a story that you love. Never mind trying to be clever or funny, just write a story you fall in love with. Then it has the best chance of being a good story.

What do you like and dislike about writing?
I love, love, love writing! I love creating the story, connecting to the characters, finding the pace, pumping up the action. Editing is another thing altogether. Rewriting and fixing sentences and proofreading are things I wish I could get out of. It takes way too much time and bores me. I would rather write a whole other book than edit one I’ve finished.

Are you writing anything at the moment?
Yes. I am starting a new series. It is very exciting although I miss my old characters from the Reykjavík Noir Trilogy and am very tempted to make some of them appear in the new story, just so that the readers and I can see where they are now. But we’ll see.

What’s your favourite writing-related moment?
Every morning that I have time to write and sit down at the computer with coffee in the mug that Quentin gave me and Malinche, the 16th century Mexican skull my dad gave me, by my side. I enjoy living in my head and portraying that inner life to a page. Of course, like all writers I love the moment when I write: “Endir” at the bottom of the last page. That’s Icelandic for: The End.

Don’t Quit the Day Job: J.A. Baker

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, J.A. Baker talks about how working full-time as a teaching assistant has inspired her work. 

You can find Judith on Facebook and Twitter. Given how busy she is, I’d like to say a massive thank you to Judith for finding the time to share her experiences with us. 

Vic x

I am the first to admit I find holding down a full time job and writing, a difficult juggling act. Time is always against me and I struggle to fit everything in – writing, making sure I don’t neglect my family and friends and, of course, housework. That said, I don’t think I could give up the day job. Writing is a solitary business and I enjoy the routine of getting up every day and going out there and meeting people.  The contact I have with people helps feed my imagination, keeping my mind ticking over. Without it, I fear my writing would become dry and stilted resulting in 2D characters and poor dialogue.

I am a Teaching Assistant in a primary school so my days are usually pretty full on with no time for taking notes should an idea pop into my head. I write psychological thriller/domestic noir novels which are absolutely nothing to do with my day job … or so many would think. My qualifications are in education and psychology and I channel an awful lot of that into my stories, using my experience and knowledge of how people think to create most of my characters.

A lot of the staff at work have bought and read my books and are constantly asking when the next one is due out. The most bizarre experience was finding out from a group of pupils that their parents had bought and read my debut novel. Another weird encounter was finding out that one of the classes had used my author page to learn about writers and what sort of people dedicate their time to producing books. I happened to be passing through the room and spotted my profile picture up on the interactive whiteboard. That was a fairly surreal moment. Every now and again, a small child will run up to me in the playground or in the classroom shouting at me that I’m famous. I think I often help challenge their idea of what constitutes famous!

Are any of my books ever set in a school? My most recent novel, The Other Mother (due out later this year), centres around a school setting and my second book, Her Dark Retreat, had a character that was a deputy head, so the answer is yes. The old adage ‘write what you know’ comes into play. Why have all that information to hand and not use it?

Of course the big bonus of working in a school is the holidays. That’s when I do the bulk of my writing. Without them I’m pretty sure none of my books would be out there. I have author friends who also hold down other full time jobs that don’t have such generous holidays and I take my hat off to them. I have no idea how they do it, writing two to three books a years with only four weeks holiday. So as much as I like to moan about how difficult it all is, juggling the workload involved with writing and being a TA, I actually have very little to complain about. I love my job and I love writing and the buzz that accompanies finishing the first edit of my next book. All authors dream of being the next Stephen King or Paula Hawkins but the truth is, I enjoy the challenge of working two jobs. However, I hear you asking, would I quit the day job if I wrote a bestseller and sold millions of copies? Well, all I can say to that is, I’m a positive person and I enjoy being busy, but I’m not an idiot.

**Whiteout Blog Tour** Review

I’m delighted to be reviewing ‘Whiteout‘, the fifth book in the ‘Dark Iceland‘ series by Ragnar Jónasson, as part of his blog tour. 

Two days before Christmas, a young woman is found dead beneath the cliffs of a deserted village. Questions swirl as to whether the woman took her own life or if it was taken from her. As the snow continues to fall unabated, Ari Thór Arason discovers that the victim’s sister and mother also died in exactly the same place over two decades ago. More secrets are revealed and the death toll continues to rise as the Siglufjordur detectives battle to stop a killer before anyone else is harmed. 

Whiteout‘ is the first book by Ragnar Jónasson that I have read and I really enjoyed it. Although I found it a little slow to start, once it got going the tension didn’t let up until the very end! I must also add that Quentin Bates has done a marvellous job with the translation of this compelling story.

Featuring an interesting cast of characters that, in my mind, could have easily come out of an Agatha Christie story, ‘Whiteout‘ makes everyone a suspect. This device ensures that the reader ends up pretty much accusing everyone at some point! 

Through the development of the narrative Ragnar Jónasson manages to set up several mini-mysteries within the overarching question of what happened to the young woman. This is a very clever technique which ensures the reader is frequently satisfied throughout the novel. 

Jónasson uses beautiful descriptions of the setting to drop the reader right into Iceland at Christmas. The weather throughout this novel adds an extra level of peril to everything the characters do: whether it’s driving or chasing someone on foot, the driving snow and black ice make almost every action potentially fatal. The descriptions make the action so vivid that I could see it happening in my head. 

Although ‘Whiteout‘ is the fifth book in the ‘Dark Iceland‘ series by Ragnar Jónasson, I found that this book worked perfectly as a standalone. You definitely do not need to have read the others to follow this plot – it’s a self-contained mystery.

Whiteout‘ is the perfect novel to read from cover to cover while you’re snuggled under a blanket with a cup of hot chocolate on a cold winter night. 

Vic x

Getting to Know You: Claire MacLeary

Today on the blog, we have the lovely Claire MacLeary. Claire is the author of ‘Cross Purpose’ which was longlisted for the McIlvanney Prize – Bloody Scotland’s annual prize – this year. The award was renamed in memory of William McIlvanney who was often described as the Godfather of Tartan Noir so to be nominated is an exceptional achievement. 

I have met Claire on several occasions and she has always been incredibly kind to me. When I heard Claire read from ‘Cross Purpose’, I was utterly blown away. Her character, Big Wilma, has really captured readers’ imaginations. I can’t wait to host her at Noir at the Bar one day. 

Thanks to Claire for sharing her thoughts with us. 

Vic x

Congrats on the nomination! How did that feel?
Surreal. I was on a boat in Bratislava relaxing after submitting my second book, when instinct told me to switch on my phone. My publisher, Sara Hunt, had been trying to contact me and ultimately sent a text. With no signal or Wi-fi access – and wild imaginings as to what crisis could have precipitated the message –  I rushed ashore, found a bar with good reception and … well, luckily I was sitting down when I read her email. Needless to say, I was so giddy the rest of that day is a blur.

 

How did you feel at the awards ceremony?
Happy and humble in turn. The late Willie McIlvanney was a towering figure in Scottish literature, the founding father of Tartan Noir and the most charming and unassuming of men. To be longlisted for a prestigious award that bears his name – and that in the company of such stellar fellow nominees – validates the hard work I have put in over the past few years and is at the same time deeply humbling.

Had you read the other shortlisted books?
Almost all. I made a start when Bloody Scotland announced the longlisters – tagged The Dirty Dozen – and I am still working through the eleven other novels (I’m currently reading Jay Stringer’s How to Kill Friends and Implicate People). Familiar with the writing of the big name nominees, I started with Helen Fields and Owen Mullen, debut authors like myself. I was blown away by Perfect Remains (I thought my mind was dark till I read the gruesome torture scenes) and loved Owen’s Glasgow PI, Charlie Cameron. But my money for the McIlvanney Prize  was on Denise Mina’s The Long Drop, in part because I spent half my childhood living in Burnside at the time the Watt murders were committed there.

Tell us about your book, ‘Cross Purpose‘.
I’d developed a literary novel from my MLitt thesis, but had an early rebuff, being told domestic fiction didn’t sell. Having already written the first scene of Cross Purpose for a writing exercise, I consigned the literary novel to a drawer and decided to try my hand at crime fiction.
Set in Aberdeen, where I lived for some years, my debut novel is a departure from the norm in that its protagonists are neither experienced police professionals nor highly qualified forensic scientists, but two women ‘of a certain age’. They’re an unlikely pair: Maggie petite, conservative, conventional. Her neighbour, Wilma, is a big girl: coarse, in your face and a bit dodgy. But before your readers decide Cross Purpose is ‘cosy crime’ be warned, it’s dark. Humorous too. Think Tartan Noir meets Happy Valley.

What inspired ‘Cross Purpose‘?
I moved from Edinburgh to Aberdeen when my first child was born. Having given up a high-intensity job as a training consultant and far from friends and family, I looked for something I could do with a baby under one arm and became an antiques dealer. Then, when my son started primary school, I opened a sandwich bar. Cross Purpose was inspired by the colleagues who worked with me there, and in the spin-off catering business: women whose aspirations and self-confidence were constrained by the lack of affordable childcare. Most hadn’t had the benefit of further education, yet they rose magnificently to every challenge – and there were loads! My book is a tribute to those unsung women.

Where do you get your ideas from?
Life. As an older woman, I have plenty to write about. Aside from consultancy work, I’ve done a range of jobs: market trader, advertising copywriter, laundry maid. I’ve travelled widely: India, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Bhutan as well as Europe and USA. I’ve also had some challenging experiences: detained by soldiers in the Egyptian desert, escorted at gunpoint off an aeroplane in Beirut, given a talk to Business School students at Harvard, drunk cocktails in a private suite at The Pierre.
I’m curious. I keep my eyes and ears open, a notebook always to hand. It’s amazing what a writer can pick up.

Do you have a favourite story / character / scene you’ve written?
George Laird’s funeral scene always makes me cry. Then I feel heaps better. If it can still move me, there’s a chance it will move my readers.
That apart, I love writing the scenes where Wilma is pushing the boundaries. It was my publisher who coined the ‘Big Wilma’ moniker. I was resistant at first, because I didn’t want Maggie’s business partner to morph into a figure of fun. I needn’t have worried. Readers have taken both protagonists to their hearts: Maggie because she’s straight as a die, Wilma for her frailties as well as her couthy humour.

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever been given and who it was from?
‘Make every word count.’ The advice came from the acclaimed New Zealand novelist Kirsty Gunn, my MLitt professor at the University of Dundee. Kirsty was a hard taskmaster, and some of her strictures didn’t make sense until long after I’d gained my degree. But the rigour she instilled, together with the reading list she tailored to my needs, combined to make me a better writer.

What can readers expect from your novel?
Strong characterisation. I try to draw characters my readers can readily identify with: think Maggie’s money worries, Wilma’s yo-yoing weight, their respective marital woes, their hopes and fears for their offspring.
Pared-down style. I’ve been told my writing ‘says a lot in a few words’ and ‘leaves a lot unsaid’. I set out to engage the reader, but leave room for interpretation.
Social commentary: affordable childcare, housing problems, alcohol/drug dependency to name a few.

Have you got any advice for aspiring writers?
Keep chipping away. I’m impatient by nature, but have learned the big projects take their own time.

What do you like and dislike about writing?
I love that feeling of satisfaction when you write a good sentence, or even find the right word. Problem is, you can waste time trying to fine-tune when what’s needed is to get on and write the first draft. Good advice is to circle or highlight the words that aren’t quite right and sort later.
I have a low boredom threshold, and get weary halfway through the edit, even though I know it will improve the end result.
That said, after several years and endless rewrites, it was a thrill to finally see Cross Purpose in print, even more satisfying to see it earn plaudits from book bloggers and readers.

Are you writing anything at the moment?
Burnout
, second in the Harcus & Laird series, has gone to proof and will launch in Spring 2018.
A short story will appear in the next issue of Gutter Magazine.
My literary novel has been turned on its head and may yet find a home.
My head is bursting with ideas for a police procedural into which I’m trying to insert Maggie and Wilma.

What’s your favourite writing-related moment?
It should be when I got offers for Cross Purpose from two separate publishers, but I must admit that scenario was eclipsed by those few minutes when, with my fellow McIlvanney Prize longlisters, I was piped across the courtyard of Stirling Castle into the Great Hall to thunderous applause.