Tag Archives: bookshelves

Don’t Quit the Day Job: Alan Parkinson

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.

Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of hosting the first ever Noir at the Bar in Sunderland as part of Sunderland’s Creative Writing Festival. One of the writers on the bill that night was the lovely Alan Parkinson

Alan is here today to talk about how his work life has affected his writing. If you haven’t read any of Alan’s work, I strongly recommend that you do. You can also catch Alan on Twitter and Facebook

Vic x

IMG_5043.jpgTwo years ago, I gave up the day job to become a full-time writer and there were many things I took into consideration. Could I afford it? Despite the romanticised image of life as a writer, it is generally a poorly paid profession.

Would I be taken seriously? I’d self-published two novels at that stage. They’d done well but was that enough to sustain a career in writing?

Would my friends ever stop thinking I was unemployed? The answer to that one is no, they still ask if I’ve got a ‘proper job’.

One thing I hadn’t considered, and possibly the most crucial thing of all, was would I lose my most valuable source of material?

Writing is all about observation. Noticing the small detail in things and shaping it into your own little world. I thrive on seeing humour in every situation, even the darkest moments, and thinking about how I can use it in a future story.

Whether they realise it or not, my workmates were a deep well of idiosyncrasies, amusing phrases and peculiar behaviours. As were the hundreds of people I saw on my commute each day and the thousands I encountered on my daily lunchtime wander around Newcastle. I was giving that up to sit at my posh writing desk, on my posh writing chair (I soon moved to the settee) and meet and talk to nobody other than the Amazon delivery driver and my elderly neighbour asking me to fix her laptop again.

This is why you see so many dull novels where the protagonist is a writer struggling to put words on a page; by becoming a writer they have lost their inspiration.

Leg It

That’s not to say I’ve ever taken person wholesale and put them in a book; I’ve yet to meet anybody interesting enough. I steal one characteristic and match it with another, and another from somebody else, and shape a new character.

I do the same with situations. I’ll take real life situations, adapt and exaggerate them with different characters to make my story come alive.

When I worked for one of the world’s largest banks. In a period of months, we had one colleague locked up for murder, one for attempted murder and another for a dodgy internet history. I’ve never considered any of them worthy of writing about because they are all a bit ‘obvious’.  It’s the little things that are funny and give your story life.

It’s over fifteen years since I worked in a call centre but my short time there has inspired two novels, Idle Threats and my current work in progress, Troll Life. Anybody who has ever worked in a call centre or phoned one will recognise the utter despair and understand how it can drive people to extremes. 

Idle Threats

I’ve never been in an armed siege, or dressed as a Mexican, or dealt with an irate customer in their pyjamas but my experience in a call centre helped me make this unlikely scenario realistic.

I don’t regret my decision for a minute but every now and then I long for a workmate who would say “I wish Andrea would move to one side, so I can get a good blast of her fan.”

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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.

Don’t Quit the Day Job: Cathie Devitt

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.

My guest today is Cathie Devitt who will be telling us all about how her working life inspired her writing. Cathie’s final novel in the Bernice O’Hanlon trilogy, ‘Don’t Break the Circle’ is due out later this year. Thanks to Cathie for being part of this series.

Vic x

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My working life began at the tender age of 15, I lied and said I was 16 to get the weekend job). 

The children’s clothes shop I went to work in was owned by the female half of a wealthy Italian family for whom the men’s business was ice cream. Yup. Ice cream.

The clothes were all imported from Italy, designer label and very expensive. Parents all want their little angels to look their best, even if it meant paying for the outfits on credit. That, and the regular visits from celebrities and football stars, kept the business going. There were loads of interesting characters to draw on from that experience.

My full-time work varied from working in National (yawn) Savings (yawn) Bank to working in a bakery putting the jam into doughnuts. Mis-shapes were a perk of the job as was overfilling said doughnuts and slurping hot jam as it dribbled down my hand. The characters I have worked with in catering have given me great one-liners and insight.

Life chuntered on and I worked as a waitress, cleaner, in a supermarket, as a civil servant and for youth charities. I was a housing officer for years working in one of the poorest areas of Scotland. Most of the housing was flats within closes, so 8-12 flats in one building. Have you ever seen a tank housing Iguanas fill an entire living space? The fact that the tenant fed them live crickets didn’t go down well with his neighbours who found the critters in their cornflakes and were wakened by a morning chorus of crickets rubbing their legs together. 

I have travelled extensively on high class airlines courtesy of my sister’s staff travel perks and have seen “trolley dollies” in action. Believe me, their lipstick is a badge of honour. Strong characters, strong stomachs. Watching the crew and the travellers was a gift for a writer.

Some people say they long to write full time as a career. For me, with the retirement age going up, I am likely to expire before I retire, but I feel that writers benefit from interaction with other people and what better way than working with the general public?

I currently work in local government and see first-hand the issues faced by people, the way politicians handle situations and the press coverage that can make or break policies. 

I have never blatantly characterised a real person in my writing, but my current trilogy, the life of Bernice O’Hanlon, is loosely based on my friend who is a High Priestess, Wiccan witch. The plot is based on some true events, some are total fiction. That is the power of the pen. I wouldn’t want to expose someone or hurt anyone’s feelings so my characters are all patchwork.

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Don’t Quit the Day Job: James A Tucker

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.

Today, James A Tucker – writer of ‘Space Expectations‘ and member of Elementary Writers – is with us today to talk about his rich and varied career and how they have enabled him to imagine worlds far, far away. 

Vic x

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Some authors seem to collect weird jobs.

Well, I haven’t been an unarmed combat intructor or anything.  I volunteered in a homeless shelter but they sensibly never put me on night shift, so I didn’t see much of the trouble.  I delivered telephone directories around the lanes of Somerset, where the houses were numbered in the order they were built.  I think that has helped writing about isolated and odd almost inaccessible places, but it wasn’t much of a money maker.  To buy a bass amp I spent a while getting up at two thirty am to work in a sandwich factory, doing things like putting four slices of tomato on every bread slice passing by on a conveyor belt, standing inside a giant refridgerator.  I sneezed over one sandwich, but it was gone before I could do anything about it.  I don’t learn, because I still eat ready-made sandwiches.

Had a holiday job at an oceanographic lab.  The most writerly things about that were the isolated setting, the abandoned civil service estate in the forest with its empty houses, the sailor’s tales of worse things happening at sea.  But it also gave me a glimpse into the lost world of employment inhabited by my father: where bosses could be bumbling, relaxed and kindly.

The rest of my employment hasn’t been much like that at all.  But I should probably mention the training.  I am a strange person who was always good at science, physics especially.  So I did a physics degree.  Then, being the contrary person with depression that I am, I decided not to do it for a living.

I like to think that my sci-fi scenarios and hardware are distinctly above par.  On the other, realism and plausibility are not necessarily what people look for in their genre fiction!  It might be a lot better not to spot laughably bad science and plot holes.  But I’m a pedant who reckons that without a working world to stand on, you can’t have a serious story.

Then I worked for ten years as an Occupational Therapist.  The first benefit for a writer was figuring out how to explain what an OT is and what we do; and to realise that the answer depends on the context and the audience.

In a kind of shock therapy, I was plunged into a world of intense human drama, life, death, suffering, resilience, hope and despair.  In the first draft I started writing and couldn’t stop until it was way too long for a column.  So what are the most important things to say?  That if many of the things I saw or experienced were written in anything but a black farce, people would say they were too extreme or unbelievable.  Fiction differs from life in that it has to make sense, and villains have to show depth and complexity.  There might be a redeeming reason why a nurse is covering up patient neglect by smearing other people, but in reality, you’re unlikely to ever find out.
One interesting thing was that I went from a 90% male profession to one that was 90% female.  There I experienced both positive and negative discrimination for being a minority.  Gives you perspective… the sexes really aren’t that much different.

In the end, I burned out from stress and management bullying, and am now unemployed.  Is there a fresh career as an author awaiting?  Let’s find out…

Don’t Quit the Day Job: Matt Potter

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.

Today I’m chuffed to bits to have Matt Potter on the blog to talk about how his work experience gave him plenty of material for his writing. My thanks to Matt for sharing his time and his stories with us today.

Vic x

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Sometimes, it takes someone else reflecting back to you, about your writing – a blurb or review of your work – for you to realise what you write about.

It took me years to pinpoint just what it is I write about. As for genre, I would think domestic or intimate comedy (whatever that really is, I kind of just made that up).

But what I really write about, the constant theme, is compromise. What are the deals we do with ourselves to get through life. What are we willing to put up with to get what we want? When does not enough become really not enough? When do we decide to walk away, and when do we decide to return or start anew?

Many of the day jobs I have held have been in community services, because I am a qualified social worker. Disclaimer: I have never been a very good one, certainly not in the traditional mould.

Many of these jobs involved advocacy – supporting others by being their mouthpiece, or assisting them to do so; or planning (future health or care issues); or training and information provision (hundreds of public sessions); or in communication roles: web content, newsletters (when newsletters were really a thing), media releases, leaflet and brochure text, poster and flyer design.

Many of these jobs also involved talking to people about their lives – really talking with them and listening – and of all the things I did in my social work career, chatting to people about their lives has always been the best, most fun, most interesting thing for me.

Setting the scene or environment so people can talk about themselves – despite me also being a great talker – has always been really easy for me. Getting to know people intimately, and quickly, so they unburden themselves, give me what they need to, sometimes when they don’t really want to or initially feel uncomfortable doing so. It’s about being open and receptive and the other person recognising this instantly.

I also taught English as a Second Language for a number of years, and ultimately, found that more rewarding than social work, but that’s another story.

Have I ever directly written about the stories people told about their lives? Only once – a man in his late 20s told me he had finally dealt with his father issues, which meant he wasn’t gay anymore! – and another story has played around in my head for 11 years or more … again about personal deal-making.

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A reviewer of my new novella On the Bitch wrote that I have “the ability to put the reader into whatever scene is playing out at the moment” and I think that is true. So it’s about instantly being there, in the situation, and not somewhere else. YOU ARE THERE! And that’s what listening to the hundreds of people who spoke about their lives and their troubles and their issues and their plans taught me. BE IN THE MOMENT. You can read it, see it and experience that on the page through my writing.

Don’t Quit the Day Job: Paul Gitsham

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.

Following on from Linda MacDonald’s insight into how teaching A Level Psychology contributed to her debut novel, we have another teacher on the blog to talk about how teaching has inspired him to write a series of crime novels.

My thanks to the lovely – and very busy – Paul Gitsham for taking the time to write about his day job. To find out more about the DCI Warren Jones series,  go to Facebook, Twitter or Paul’s website

Paul’s will be the final blog in the Don’t Quit the Day Job series for 2017 because December, as always, will be taken up with daily guests reviewing their year. Don’t Quit the Day Job will start again in January 2018.

Vic x

“You know, if you bury her body under the new school hall, no one will ever find her, Sir.”

This was not a helpful plot idea from one of my students, rather the response of another pupil to his classmate’s question “are trees alive?”, asked precisely three weeks before the class were due to sit their biology GCSE.

Fortunately, the question appeared to be little more than a random synaptic misfiring – probably caused by stress – and the frantically blushing pupil went on to do very well.

If I tell someone at a literary festival that I am a school teacher (often in response to the question, ‘why don’t you write more quickly?’ or ‘can’t you take the afternoon off to arrive at a more reasonable hour?’), they naturally assume that I teach English. That I am a former biologist and now teach science seems to bemuse many people.

Yet I find that although teaching full time eats into my writing time, it also feeds into what I write. For example, DCI Warren Jones is happily married to Susan, a – you guessed it! – secondary school biology teacher. She even supplies the odd crucial insight – thus allowing me to vicariously fulfil my own fantasies…

The first person we meet in my debut novel, The Last Straw, is Tom Spencer – who just happened to be sitting opposite me, marking coursework, as I dreamt up that book. By contrast, the laid-back, portly, pony-tailed Crime Scene Manager Andy Harrison, who appears in all of my books, is the polar opposite of his namesake, another former colleague. A number of workmates have given me explicit permission to either kill them off or name a serial killer after them. If nothing else, the people I work with or teach are a useful source of interesting names and personality quirks.

It was also through school that I met my forensic science contact. Lee ran workshops for our science and engineering club, but his day job is that of a crime scene investigator for Essex police. An endless source of dark and blackly humorous war stories, he’s given me countless ideas and advice.

Like all writers, I am a trivia magpie and nowhere is a better source of random information than a science classroom. For example, did you know that deer stand still in the glare of headlights because they interpret the lights as eyes, but are confused by the lack of legs? Thanks to eleven year old Francis for that fact – look out for it in book 2, No Smoke Without Fire. I’ve also spent ten years teaching about diabetes and blood glucose regulation – a key plot device in Silent as the Grave. An A Level practical investigation into how blood is identified at a crime scene triggered a lovely little sub-plot in an upcoming novel.

Writing this article has really made me consider the impact that teaching and being a teacher has had upon my writing. And so, for the foreseeable future at least, I have no plans to give up the day job entirely.

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.