Tag Archives: fiction

**Summer at Hollyhock House Blog Tour**

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Today I’m pleased to welcome Cathy Bussey, the author of ‘Summer at Hollyhock House‘ to the blog to talk about writing a realistic heroine. This topic is of particular interest to me and I hope it’ll be of use to you too when considering how to make original, realistic characters. 

Cathy is an author, journalist and hopeless romantic who wrote her first book at the tender age of six. Entitled ‘Tarka the Otter‘, according to Cathy it was a shameless rip-off of the Henry Williamson classic of the same name, and the manuscript was lost after she sent it to her penpal and never heard a jot from her since. 

Fortunately reception to her writing became more favourable and she spent ten years working for a range of newspapers and magazines covering everything from general elections and celebrity scandals to cats stuck up trees and village fetes. She has been freelance since 2011 and written for ‘The Telegraph’, ‘Red Online’, ‘Total Women’s Cycling’ and other lifestyle and cycling publications and websites. 

She is the author of three non-fiction books and her debut and thankfully non-plagiarised novel ‘Summer at Hollyhock House‘ has been published by Sapere Books. 

Cathy lives on the leafy London/Surrey border with her husband, two children and a dog with only two facial expressions: hungry and guilty. Her hobbies include mountain biking, photography, wandering around outside getting lost, fantasising about getting her garden under control, reading, looking at pretty things on Instagram and drinking tea. You can find her there, on Twitter or visit her website. 

My thanks to Cathy for sharing her experience with us. 

Vic x

Cathy Bussey

Writing the heroine you want to be
By Cathy Bussey

The stories of women’s lives have always gripped and fascinated me. I grew up with chick lit and I’m firmly part of the Bridget Jones generation. The Shopaholic series, Sex and the City – these were the cornerstones of my literary and emotional education.

I adore the intelligence with which women write about the issues that affect us all. Love and romance, friendship and family, mental and physical health, children, ageing parents – there’s so much in everyday life to explore that I’ve never tired of the women’s fiction genre. But. 

There’s always a but, isn’t there?

I always struggled to find heroines with whom I could truly identify. 

The classic city girl who can’t get a hair out of place and screams at the sight of a spider – that ain’t me. 

I can’t walk in high heels since I had children, nor do I want to. Glossy shopping sprees, makeovers, shoes, handbags, manicures, Prosecco, spa weekends, nights out with the girls – the stereotypical setting of chick-lit doesn’t reflect my internal reality. I’ve never once fantasised about moving to New York.

I have only once found a heroine that spoke to my other, wilder side. 

One of the best romcoms I ever read was called Going Ape and it came free with a copy of Cosmo. I can’t even find it on Google so I assume it’s out of print, but it had an enormous impact on me. It was set on a monkey sanctuary and the heroine was a scientist. I adored her. She was no less flawed and quirky and adorable than Bridget, Becky, Carrie et al, but she got her hands dirty. Very dirty, actually. 

So when I came to create my own heroine, Faith, I wanted to write her for women like me. For girls like the girl I used to be. 

She’s a nature girl, a bit of a wildflower, she’s outdoorsy and active and energetic. She rides bikes down gnarly trails and digs ponds with a shovel. She gets the guy – or does she? – on her own terms. 

She represents a different definition of femininity, and one with which I can both identify, and aspire to. I created her for me, and I really hope somewhere out there other women might feel that I created her a little bit for them, too. 

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Don’t Quit the Day Job: Nicola Ford

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’s guest is Nicola Ford. Nic’s here to talk to us about her double life and how that influenced her to write her debut novel ‘The Hidden Bones‘. My thanks to Nic for sharing her knowledge and experience with us. 

Vic x

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I love writing. I’ve always loved writing. And I’ve always loved reading crime fiction. So when I decided to turn my hand to writing fiction there was only ever going to be one genre for me. And I’m among the most fortunate of people because after much time spent applying my backside to my office chair and, as seems compulsory for all writers more than a smattering of self-doubt, my debut crime novel The Hidden Bones was published in June this year. 

So I have a job I love – crime writer. But that’s not the end of the story, or maybe I should say it’s not really even the beginning; because like many writers I lead a double life. By night I’m crime fiction writer Nicola Ford but by day I’m Dr Nick Snashall, National Trust Archaeologist for the Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Site. 

So I live a life steeped in the distant past. Wiltshire, the place that I’ve called home for a decade and a half is thronging with ancient burial mounds and prehistoric stone circles. And much of my time is spent digging up their secrets and delving into the mysteries that lie buried deep within museum archives.

Some writers may dream of giving up the day job, but for me I’m an archaeologist to my core. It’s one half of who I am and provides not only the backdrop, but also the inspiration for my crime writing. The Hidden Bones is set amid the chalk uplands of the Marlborough Downs an area I know intimately as I’ve spent the last fifteen years of my life working there. 

Often rural is equated with ‘cosy’, but for those of us who live and work here we know that life in the countryside is anything but. If you’re born without money or means, or elderly and alone, rural life can be tough. And the shock waves left behind by violent crime can have a deep resonance that persists down through the generations in small, sometimes isolated communities.

The Hidden Bones delves into the secrets of one such community.  Clare Hills returns to Wiltshire in search of new direction in her life after the death of her husband in a car crash. She’s only too glad to take up old college friend, Dr David Barbrook’s offer of helping sift through the effects of recently deceased archaeologist Gerald Hart. When they discover the finds and journals from Gerald’s most glittering excavation, they think they’ve found every archaeologist’s dream. But the dream quickly becomes a nightmare as the pair unearth a disturbing discovery, putting them at the centre of a murder inquiry and in the path of a dangerous killer determined to bury the truth forever.

In both halves of my working life I spend my time dealing with the dead. And in trying to figure out how they came to die, I’ve found that the most important clues are often found in understanding how they lived. I’m fascinated by the imprint that choices made by people in the – sometimes far distant – past leave on our lives, in ways we may never understand. And many of the scientific techniques I draw upon in my day job form the fundamental building blocks of modern police investigations. So Nicola Ford crime writer is inextricably interlinked with Dr Nick Snashall archaeologist. Two halves, one whole – and I wouldn’t have it any other way.  

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Review: ‘Seven Bridges: A DCI Ryan Mystery’ by LJ Ross

When the Tyne Bridge explodes, DCI Ryan’s team face someone calling themselves The Alchemist who won’t stop until every bridge is burned. The time constraints set by The Alchemist make much of this book a literal race against time to stop the bridges being blown up – along with the people on them.

Ryan’s plans to leave Newcastle to track down a killer are put on hold in the wake of the threats. Add a colleague who is in very serious trouble, and there’s no way Ryan can leave Tyneside.

With every DCI Ryan book, LJ Ross manages to surprise. I feel like she is working her way through every sub-genre of crime – and I like it! ‘Seven Bridges‘ combines domestic noir with a very timely terrorist element.

What I really enjoyed about ‘Seven Bridges‘ was the backstory pertaining to DCI Ryan’s former relationship with Detective Chief Superintendent Jen Lucas. This was a great subversion of the typical coercive control representations in fiction and I applaud LJ Ross for shining a spotlight on the damage that can be done.

As always, the plot is tight and filled with tense twists. LJ Ross manages to wilfully misdirect the reader’s attention and keep you guessing until the very end. Packed with exciting action sections and peppered with humour, ‘Seven Bridges‘ will not disappoint DCI Ryan’s legion of fans.

Vic x

Review: ‘Educated’ by Tara Westover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tara Westover is my hero.

Vic x

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.

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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**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.