Tag Archives: character

Getting to Know You: David Ahern

I’m here to introduce readers of the blog to writer to David Ahern, author of the Madam Tulip Mysteries. I hope you enjoy learning about David and his work and find some of his advice helpful. 

Thanks to David for sparing some time to chat to us.

Vic x

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Tell us about your books.
The Madam Tulip Mysteries follow a young actress who moonlights as a fortune teller at celebrity events. Fortune tellers get told the most surprising things. But where you have money and secrets you’ll soon have trouble and crime. 

What inspired them?
Actors are wonderful people, dedicated to their art but who have a hard time making a living.  What do you do to pay the rent if you act and you’re a teeny bit psychic?

Where do you get your ideas from?
Staring into space, mostly. If I stare for long enough, ideas will come just so I can get something to eat.

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Do you have a favourite story / character / scene you’ve written?
All of the Madam Tulip books have hilarious scenes between Derry’s divorced parents, her Irish artist father and her stupendously successful American art dealer mother.  Readers love them, and I do too.

Are you a plotter or a pantster?
Both. A bit of plotting and bit of pantsing. I write character-driven stories, so I have to let the characters take me where they want to go.  On the other hand, a mystery has to be cleverly put together, so you need to plan.

Can you read when you’re working on a piece of writing?
Not fiction, but I devour non-fiction. 

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever been given and who it was from?
My mother (who is a wonderful actress and writer) said: ‘Apply seat of pants to seat of chair.’ It works.

What can readers expect from your books?
The most believable heroine out there, lots of laughs and page-turning tension.  

Have you got any advice for aspiring writers?
Learn to punctuate fluently.  You won’t believe the freedom it will give you.

What do you like and dislike about writing?
Love making myself laugh out loud (or blub). Hate being stuck at a desk.

Are you writing anything at the moment?
Madam Tulip Book #4.

What’s your favourite writing-related moment?
Seeing the galley proof for the first time.

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Review: ‘The Curious Heart of Ailsa Rae’ by Stephanie Butland

For many people, including me, a stand-out read of 2017 was ‘Lost For Words‘ by Stephanie Butland so it was with excitable trepidation that I began reading ‘The Curious Heart of Ailsa Rae‘.

I needn’t have worried. Stephanie’s latest novel surpassed my expectations – I did not want to stop reading this heart-warming tale of Ailsa Rae, a young woman who, following a lifetime of illness, has to learn a new way of navigating her way through the world while struggling with grief and survivor’s guilt.

Once again, Stephanie Butland has created inimitable characters that I’d happily be friends with. One of Butland’s skills is to make her characters rounded, creating light and shade in both the narrative and within the characters.

Ailsa, in particular, seems completely real to me. After suffering from a heart condition since birth, Ailsa finally undergoes a heart transplant and afterwards feels somewhat lost – her identity no longer revolves around being ill, but she’s not sure what it should revolved around. Despite her apparently hard exterior, it was lovely to peel back Ailsa’s layers and see a more vulnerable side to her. Stephanie Butland really seems to have a talent for creating seemingly tough characters with soft centres.

It was easy for me to fall into this story, I was totally invested in the characters – Seb was particularly appealing to me. The once-close relationship between Ailsa and her mum is portrayed sensitively and realistically as both mother and daughter struggle to come to terms with their new roles.

I felt that having a novel revolving around organ donation was a bold move and it absolutely works. The amount of research undertaken by Butland shows but it’s the human element of this story that makes it utterly compelling.

Although it’s an enjoyable read, ‘The Curious Heart of Ailsa Rae‘ has a very important message behind it – the incredible difference organ donation can make to someone when your organs are no longer of use to you.

Vic x

**Friends and Traitors Blog Tour** Getting to Know John Lawton.

Today it’s my pleasure to welcome John Lawton to the blog. His latest novel ‘Friends and Traitors‘ is available now. 

Many thanks to John for taking the time to answer my questions today.

Vic x

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Tell us about your books, what inspired them?
I really don’t know. I’ve written most of my life. Certainly since 1957 when I first encountered Shakespeare’s history plays. And in the years that followed, since you can’t imitate Shakespeare’s dialogue unless you’re Tom Stoppard (and whoever watched or read him for his plots?), I came under the influence of writers who were writing stunning dialogue. My first sight of a Pinter play about three years later is still vivid.

Peter Cook’s EL Wisty monologues were compulsive and when the Dagenham Dialogues with Dudley Moore came along … well, I think I learnt as much from them as I did from Pinter. The really odd thing is the switch from writing drama to writing novels, which happened about 1983 … cause? … failure. Wasn’t getting anywhere as a playwright. That said, much of what I write, certainly in earlier drafts, strikes me as reading like a two-hander play. That’s how most of my books begin  … two voices talking in my head.

A taste for dialogue, a course in Russian at University, reading Gorky Park, watching Ian McEwan’s The Imitation Game (not the recent film of the same name) all fuelled the plot line that became my first Troy novel.

Where do you get your ideas from?
Dunno where they come from, but I know where they arrive. Usually in trains, and almost as often out walking. I do a lot of walking.

Do you have a favourite story / character / scene you’ve written?
I think my favourite scene might be towards the end of A Little White Death, when Tara Ffitch takes about a page to slam the morality that put her in court. I stand by every word of that. And I’m quite partial to the scene in Friends and Traitors when Guy Burgess rattles off the list of things he misses in his Russian exile. My favourite characters would be among the minor figures … Fish Wally in two or three novels, and Swift Eddie in most of them — a part I wrote hoping Warren Clarke would play him one day.

Are you a plotter or a pantster?
Not sure I quite understand the question, but I usually have a plot fully worked out in my head before I write a word. Only book I’ve ever plotted on paper was Black Out.

Can you read when you’re working on a piece of writing?
Yes. But not books by anyone doing what I’m doing.

I spent last autumn on a Mick Herron binge, and I think I’ve just begun a Timothy Hallinan binge. Neither of them write historicals.

I keep picking up and putting down Illusions Perdues. I think I might have to wait for a new, better translation, but if that theory works why do I have six different translations of Ovid?

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever been given and who it was from?
“Write a book a year and take control of your life” – Gore Vidal. Somewhere I still have the letter.

I’ve never been able to do that of course. Come to think of it, I turned down a book-a-year offer from Penguin ages ago. I’m a fan of Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series which appears very regularly and I don’t know how he does it. My ‘mentor’ Ariana Franklin got up to a book a year in her seventies, but I honestly think it was exhausting for her. With hindsight I wish she’d slowed down. So good advice as yet unheeded.

What can readers expect from your books?
Writer vanity prompts me to say that I hope I can shatter expectations with the odd surprise, but a running character creates expectations otherwise she/he would be rather inconsistent. So expect politics, romance, a touch of mayhem. Do not expect a who-dunnit, as my books can bang on for another fifty pages after the who of dunnit is obvious. I cannot change Troy’s character, he will change only as the time-setting of the novels change (and I’ve never liked the idea of fiction existing outside of time …  Troy ages and hence changes) but I quite deliberately move the locations around. Black Out is set entirely in London, with Old Flames I went rural and in Friends & Traitors has a lengthy continental journey before settling back in London.

Have you got any advice for aspiring writers?
Yep. Abandon all social media. Leave it to Trump, he’s welcome to it. I am looking forward to his ‘Twitts from Prison’. Shut down your twitt and bookface accounts, resign from your readers & writers group, bin your iphone, stop talking about writing and write.

If anyone asks why they haven’t seen much of you lately tell them you’ve been studying for the civil service entry exam and are hoping for a job with the ministry of [fill in blank as appropriate]. My usual choice is the ‘White Fish Authority.’ Such a wonderful name for a government ministry, alas it shut up shop in 1981. I wonder if there was ever a ‘Chips and Mushy Peas Marketing Board’?

What do you like and dislike about writing?
Like … the doing of it. One of the best narcotics around and it’s free.

Dislike … promoting a book. Best regarded as a necessary evil. I hate being photographed. (Sorry, Ali Karim.)

Are you writing anything at the moment?
Yep. Third book in the Wilderness trilogy. And another game of with Zoë Sharp. All done by email as we live in different countries.

What’s your favourite writing-related moment?
Dunno. I live by writing, which I consider most fortunate, but to say my moment was the first time I received a fat cheque would be both crass and untrue. I’m not interested in prizes, the gongs and daggers, and winning one didn’t engage with me much. I think it has to be ‘finishing-summat-that-had-me really-foxed’  … which has happened from time to time, but I’m not saying which book or books it was.

Getting to Know You: Charlie Laidlaw.

Today it’s my pleasure to host writer Charlie Laidlaw on the blog. My thanks to Charlie for sharing his time and experiences with us. 

Vic x

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Tell us about your books, what inspired them?
My first book, The Herbal Detective (Ringwood Publishing) was inspired by the seventeenth century witch craze. Back then, it was a crime not to believe in witchcraft. What, I thought, would happen now if someone still did believe in witchcraft? That said, to make this improbable tale work, it had to be a bit of a Benny Hill romp. It’s a fun book.

My second, The Things We Learn When We’re Dead (Accent Press), while a gentle comedy, is darker. It’s really a reworking of The Wizard of Oz – young woman gets knocked on the head, remembers her life in flashback, and emerges from the experience as a different person. It’s a book about the power of memory and how, if we remember things in a different way, we can be changed by that experience.

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Where do you get your ideas from?
Good question because I have no idea. The basic inspiration for my second book came on a train from Edinburgh to London, which was apt as Edinburgh is the only city in the world to have named its main railway station after a book. When I got home, I wrote the first and last chapters. The first has changed beyond all recognition, but the last chapter is pretty much the same.

Do you have a favourite story / character / scene you’ve written?
Not really, no. I tend to be something of a perfectionist and am constantly editing and rewriting. I hope that, for the reader, it comes across as effortless. From my perspective, everything is hard work – so I tend to like most of the stuff that eventually makes it into the final cut!

Are you a plotter or a pantster?
Not entirely sure what you mean. But I think that good books need good characters, a good plot, and good narrative and dialogue. Those are at least some of the basics. However, as I’ve mentioned the word “plot” I suppose I’m a plotter.

Can you read when you’re working on a piece of writing?
I’m always reading because I take inspiration from other writers, and the world and the characters they create. You can’t write if you don’t read.  Simples.

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever been given and who it was from?
I can’t remember who gave me this advice but, like most advice, it’s both blindingly obvious and wise. Simply: you can’t edit a blank page. In other words, it doesn’t matter if you’re writing gibberish. You can go back to it later and turn it into English. The important thing is to keep writing.

What can readers expect from your books?
I hope, to be entertained. But also, maybe, to be taken on a slightly mad thought-provoking journey. I like books that are not too deep, entertain me, and make me smile. I hope that’s what mine do.

Have you got any advice for aspiring writers?
Keep writing and don’t give up. I honestly believe that some of the best books ever written will be mouldering at the bottom of landfill because their authors received one too many rejection. If you genuinely think that what you’ve written has merit, stick with it.

What do you like and dislike about writing?
I like the way that one idea can lead onto another and then another. I dislike it when those ideas turn out to be bad ideas, and I’ve wasted days or weeks of my life. I try now to plan well ahead, with an ending in sight.

Are you writing anything at the moment?
It’s complete and provisionally entitled The Space Between Time. While (again) a gentle comedy, it’s also about mental illness and how we can grow up with false impressions of the people closest to us. It was a difficult book to write, because it has to balance lighter elements with tragedy and poignancy.  It will be published late this year or early in 2019.

What’s your favourite writing-related moment?
I’d like to say, putting in the final full stop. But that just provokes me to go back into the manuscript and edit, edit, edit. So, perhaps the best moment is when your editor and proofreader tell you that no further changes can be made!

**Black Water Blog Tour** Author Interview

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Our guest today is Cormac O’Keeffe, author of ‘Black Water‘. I’m delighted to have been included on the blog tour of a book that has been described as ‘…’The Wire‘, set in Dublin’ (Brian McGilloway) so my thanks to the publisher and to Cormac for sparing the time to appear on my blog.

Vic x

Cormac O'Keeffe

Tell us about your books, what inspired them?
My debut novel Black Water is about a boy groomed into a criminal gang and the fight to save him and bring the gang to justice.

A number of factors influenced the novel. The first was living in communities affected by gangs and the drugs trade, amid economic neglect and a struggling policing response. I wanted to tell a story about that, through the experiences of a vulnerable boy. In the areas I lived, there was no shortage of boys running fairly wild on the street, without much structure and afraid of no one. All those things and a lot more fed into my character of Jig, who is being reeled into a gang. Poured into that mix were other events and experiences from my work as a journalist.

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Where do you get your ideas from?
Many of my ideas came from living in communities and my work as a journalist specialising in crime, drugs and policing. I have met many people over that time, from community workers to detectives. But really the ideas come from deep within.

Do you have a favourite story / character / scene you’ve written?
It’s hard to single out a particular character as a favourite. I have so many of them. I have three main characters that I am very close to. There are a host of secondary characters that I really like, including gang members, such as local crime boss Ghost.

It’s very difficult to choose a favourite scene. There are a number of scenes with Jig that are quite moving, but I do like the shooting scene about a third of the way in and the bomb attack at the end.

Are you a plotter or a pantster?
A ‘pantster’ sounds more like it. I was definitely not a plotter with this novel. Anything but. I wrote about the three main characters separately, which weren’t woven in together, to about the halfway point. I had to commit an enormous amount of work (and considerable pain) to tease out and establish plots – and go over those again and again.

Can you read when you’re working on a piece of writing?
Absolutely. Often I might even read a novel, perhaps some literary fiction, to get into the use and flow of words, to free up my mind and then get to work.

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever been given and who it was from?
It’s impossible to single out any particular advice as the best, let alone try and remember who said it. ‘Dive in’ was one of the first bits of advice I remember, which was true. You have to dive and dive deep for a long time. Only then can you worry about all the other stuff. You need the raw material down first (or have started that process), before dealing with, and getting entangled in, structure and plot and pace.

Rewriting, though, is absolutely fundamental. Repeated cycles of rewriting, with spaces in between if you can. Do not rush sending it out, particularly to agents. That is a real biggie. It is very tempting, but resist (counsel others who know) and go over it again and again.

What can readers expect from your books?
Ah, that is hard for me to say. I would like to think a story that is powerful, gritty but with humanity, original, authentic and thrilling. I would hope that readers of Black Water will feel like they have been dropped into a living, breathing community where people are fighting to survive.

Have you got any advice for aspiring writers?
Yes, but I would be slow to be too loud or firm about it. I would say, just start writing. Try not to waste too much time online or on social media. Look for a writing group, a good one if you can. Be gentle on yourself. Yes you will suffer from self-doubt and from procrastination, but don’t give up. Keep on going. Seek help from authors. Don’t rush sending it out. Hold back. Chisel. Fine tune. Polish. Repeat. Don’t crumble from the rejection. Lean on someone for support. Keep on going.

What do you like and dislike about writing?
I like when it flows. I like when you pierce through and carve out a piece of a character or a plot. I like when the dialogue rings true, when action sings, when you leave a reader wanting more. I like it when you come up with an idea for a plot, or how to plug a gaping plot hole.

I dislike the persistence of mistakes and errors, no matter how many hundreds of times you read something. I don’t like it when you can’t ‘see’ your writing anymore, because you have gone over it so much. I don’t like that feeling that the novel is never going to be finished.

Are you writing anything at the moment?
Only inside my head.

What’s your favourite writing-related moment?
When, eventually, I realised that there was nothing more I could do and it was the best it could be.

Getting to Know You: Roz Watkins

I’m delighted to welcome the lovely Roz Watkins to the blog today. You can follow Roz on Twitter – and I strongly recommend that you do. 

Roz’s debut novel ‘The Devil’s Dice‘ is available now and I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to reading it. I was gutted to miss the launch party in London a couple of weeks ago so I’m hoping to catch up with Roz soon to celebrate her success. 

My thanks to Roz today for sharing her experiences with us. 

Vic x

Roz Watkins

Tell us about your book. What inspired it? 
The initial impetus came from my dog’s foul habits. We were walking in the woods near to my house in the Peak District when I saw him running towards me with something in his mouth. It was swinging side-to-side, and from a distance it looked like a human spine. I thought, Oh Christ, the dog’s found a body! 

When he got closer, I could see it was in fact a hare (they are surprisingly large) but it got me thinking. What would it be like to come upon a body when walking the dog? And that’s what happens in my first book. A greedy Labrador sniffs out a corpse in a cave. 

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This is the day the dog found a hare. At least it wasn’t a corpse!

Where do you get your ideas from?
I mercilessly mine my life and the lives of those around me. My partner complains that he can’t now write the book he was going to write (when he gets a spare half hour) because I’ve stolen all his best stories. This is of course not true, but I do use my life experiences. I was previously a patent attorney so I enjoyed killing one in my first book. I trained as a hypnotherapist, so in book 2, a therapist has to deal with a girl who seems to be remembering the death of her heart donor. I’m an animal trainer, so clicker-trained killer pigs may feature in book 3. Or they may not. My mum was a GP so receives calls along the lines of, If you wanted to kill someone using… She loves it. 

Do you have a favourite story/ character/ scene you’ve written?
I do love the scene where I try to kill my main character in an underground labyrinth with water rising all around her. As I edited the book, the level of torture increased with each re-write, and it was fun! 

Are you a plotter or a pantster?
A bit of a mixture. I try to plot, but then it all goes horribly wrong as I start writing. I haven’t really worked out a system and it doesn’t seem to be getting any easier! I write in a tiny room that’s impossible to keep tidy, surrounded by piles of paper and post-it notes and stray animals. But I fantasise about owning a huge loft apartment with acres of space where my mind would magically be clear and organised… 

Can you read when you’re working on a piece of writing?
I always read. At the moment I’m feeling guilty about all the authors who’ve said nice things about my book and whose books I haven’t yet read, because my TBR pile has become so huge! So I’m concentrating on reading proofs at the moment. Sometimes the style of a particular writer seeps into my writing, but not in a way which causes a problem. 

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever been given and who was it from?
That’s a toughie. I was struck by someone (it may have been Matt Bird) talking about how at the start of a book, we don’t care much about the characters so we’re not really bothered if they’re in jeopardy. You can dangle them off a cliff or throw them under a train and the reader doesn’t necessarily care very much. But we’re wired to want answers to questions, no matter how banal. On my local radio station, they have this thing where they say something like, 35% of men admit to doing this. And you have to carry on listening to find out what it is. Even though it’s a matter of total irrelevance to your life.  You have to listen. Do they not change their underpants every day? Do they pluck their ear hair? WHAT IS IT? I learnt a lot from that. Pose questions on page 1. 

What can readers expect from your books?
Hopefully a detective they can relate to because she’s a normal woman who worries about normal stuff and is a little bit fat and possibly has cat hair on her clothes. A few possibly supernatural goings-on and a touch of classic whodunit, plus a little bit of sardonic humour (I’m told!) 

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Have you got any advice for aspiring writers?
Write about what makes you angry or emotional, because it keeps you going when things get tough.  And treat writing a publishable novel as a learnable skill, rather than something you should just be able to do. I started off writing absolute junk, but I devoured books on writing craft and sought feedback all over the place. 

What do you like and dislike about writing?
I find the first draft feels a bit like pulling teeth, although I do love coming up with the ideas. I enjoyed the first draft of my first book (done without a deadline!) but now I get obsessed with word-counts and how behind I am! I like editing. 

Are you writing anything at the moment?
I’m on book 3 (and behind where I should be…) A woman goes missing from an abattoir, and all the evidence points to her having been killed and fed to pigs. 

What’s your favourite writing-related moment?
I’ve been so lucky there have been many over the last couple of years, but I’m going to choose standing in a piazza in Venice and receiving a call from my agent about a life-changing offer from a German publisher. 

 

**Twin Truths Blog Tour** Guest Post and Review.

Twin Truths Blog Tour Poster

Regular readers of the blog will know that Shelan Rodgers’s ‘Yellow Room’ was one of my favourite books of 2017 so I jumped at the chance to read her new novel ‘Twin Truths‘. 

I’m also thrilled to have Shelan with us on the blog to talk about how she creates a story that lingers with the reader long after they’ve finished reading it. My thanks to Shelan and Dome Press for having me on this blog tour. 

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Creating a story that stays with people
By Shelan Rodger

The idea for this blog piece came from Victoria and I loved it immediately. Creating a story (or a painting or a piece of music or a film) that stays with people is something I believe is at the heart of artistic aspiration. If a piece of art lingers and plays in our minds, it means that we have truly connected with it; like a pebble dropped into a pond, it sends ripples into our lives.

If I think of books that have stayed with me – books like Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, or Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, or Ruth Ozeki’s Tale for the Time Being – they all share certain characteristics associated with ambivalence and pushing the boundaries. If ‘creating a story that stays people’ were a recipe, I think I would identify six possible ingredients:

  1. Ambiguous characters – not just straight forward goodies or baddies, likeable or unlikeable, but complicated people with flaws that make them human. I believe that deep down there is a white swan and a black swan in us all and this multiplicity is intriguing and unpredictable, an ambiguity that makes it possible to empathise with the character on the page and enter into minds and places we might never normally go.
  2. Engaging in the character’s journey – if we connect to the characters, we feel their dilemmas and conflicts in a way that is intimate and yet safe at the same time. As we read, we slip in and out of our own experiences, relating them subconsciously to what we read – and this becomes a filter to look at our own world and ourselves in a different way, challenging what we have always taken for granted or hidden from the world or ourselves. The story, the character’s experience emanates outwards, rippling into our own life and reflections.
  3. Twists – their power to shock, to reveal, to make sense of chaos, or turn order upside down. By making us reevaluate what we thought was true, they challenge and push the boundaries.
  4. An ambivalence or openness in the ending – an ending which gives us a sense of closure and yet does not close doors completely, so that we feel satisfied and curious at the same time. There may be the hint of a future, or that things might not be as resolved as they seem and may continue to change and evolve, as life does. As a reader and a writer, I love last lines – and I think they are the most challenging thing to write of the whole book!
  5. Transformative power of the narrative – The Lovely Bones is a beautiful example of this: the almost transcendent way the author enables you to engage with an appalling subject matter (the rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl); how she manages to convey the horror but also a sense of redemption, something beautiful and uplifting from the very ashes of what happened.
  6. The language itself – it is not all about plot and character, it’s also about the language, the images, the reaching for symbolism and connections. As a reader, I don’t want language that it is totally transparent; I want to be carried along by the current of the narrative, but I want to swim in it and feel its texture on my skin.

In Twin Truths, I have aspired to combine all these ingredients. Even the title is ambiguous and my hope is that you will come back full circle to it at the end of the book. Here’s to your journey and I hope it lingers with you!

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Review: ‘Twin Truths’
By Shelan Rodger.

What is the truth? And how do you recognise it when you hear it? Jenny and Pippa are twins. Like many twins they often know what the other is thinking but when Pippa disappears Jenny is left to face the world alone, while trying to find out what happened to her sister. But the truth can be a slippery thing.
In ‘Twin Truths‘, Shelan Rodger has surpassed herself with this bold, audacious novel about truth, lies and everything in between. 
Rodger transports her readers to Buenos Aires, Greece and London while exploring the nature of identity and how the stories we tell ourselves and each other influence our sense of self. 
Rodger’s prose is at times poetic but always beautiful. She doesn’t shy away from sensitive subjects and handles them with aplomb. ‘Twin Truths‘ is truly unsettling with a really shocking ending. 
Vic x