Tag Archives: story

Don’t Quit the Day Job: Nicky Black

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.

I read ‘The Prodigal‘ in 2016 and have since got to know Nicky Black quite well. I’ve hosted her at Noir at the Bar Newcastle a few times as well as spending time with her at Bloody Scotland and Newcastle Noir. I’m really thrilled to have Nicky on the blog to discuss how her work life has influenced her writing. 

Thanks, Nicky, for taking the time to chat to us. 

Vic x

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Since self-publishing The Prodigal in 2015, I’ve met a lot of authors, some of whom write full time, some who don’t and many who dream of it. Now I like my own company, not because I’m the wittiest, most interesting person I know, but because I’m comfortable being on my own, but there’s only so much time I can spend in front of my laptop, in my living room, staring at the ugly plastic vent on my chimney breast wall. My day job serves many purposes – office banter (love it), a sense of achievement, and it pays the bills and it keeps me and my kitties fed.

I’ve had a 30 year career, mostly working either in, or in support of, “poor communities,” – firstly with Save the Children, then in urban regeneration and in the latter five years in welfare to work (I’m not going there…). I’ve seen the best and the worst of these communities, whether Cowgate in Newcastle or Hackney in London. The problems are the same: high crime, poor health, low educational achievement (there’s an actual list), and above all, a labelling of these communities as somehow undeserving and undesirable. There are many undesirables for sure, but where there’s a ying, there’s a yang, and I’ve also met the most passionate, fearsome, committed people who have nothing to their name, but who root for their communities and give them a voice. 

So, whilst The Prodigal and Tommy Collins (out this summer) fall within the crime genre, they aren’t police procedural stories (I leave that to those fabulous authors who can create twisty-turny whodunnits). My interest lies in the impact crime has on individuals, families and whole communities, and how that is dealt with by the authorities and the communities themselves. I’ve heard how the police talk about these estates, and I’ve experienced the disdain residents have for the police – both are valid in their own right. The Prodigal was actually inspired by a conversation with a police officer back in the nineties about informants or “grasses”– who are they? Why do they do it? The answer was that it is generally family members, almost always women, and they do it because they want that person they care about to stop. Pop those facts into a scenario where the grass is a woman, in love with a copper who’s after her criminal husband, and you’ve got drama. 

The housing estate itself where the books are set (the fictional Valley Park) is a key character, and I couldn’t have written it with any authenticity without the experience of working for 20 odd years with local residents, and the professionals who think they know what’s best for them (sometimes they do, I can’t argue with that). Valley Park is a grim place in The Prodigal, and even grimmer in Tommy Collins which is set ten years earlier in 1989 – the height of Thatcherism, unemployment and civil unrest. I’ve actually started to feel quite protective of the place and the pretend people who inhabit it, even the bad ones. It’s like the Mothership – a place you can’t escape. Anyway, I’m looking forward to book three which will bring Valley Park bang up to date, and I can have a pop at Beardy Men and gentrification (is there ever a happy medium?).

I’m out of the poverty game now. I left London in 2016 (I lived there for 14 years), had some time off, and now I’m back working pretty much full time again for a hospice charity (there may well be a future novel in that, who knows?). Now, my writing influences my day job in a way. I write grant applications, and this requires delivering a story with heart, hitting all the right notes that make those funders want to read on and see what they’ll get for their money. They’ve got to believe in what you’re doing and get some satisfaction from investing in you – much like readers, I suppose. I must be doing okay, because in eight months I’ve secured over £200,000, which is about £160,000 more than they’ve had in grants in any one year. I’m quite proud of that! 

It doesn’t leave me much time to write, as I do like to keep my social life active, my house clean and my cupboards stocked. That, coupled with my inability to stick to a plot, means my second book is about a year behind. But I’m getting there. You can be sure it’ll be full of grit, inspired by some of the best and worst people I’ve ever met through my day jobs.

Thank you for having me Vic, and hello to those of you reading this 😊 *waves* x

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Review: ‘What Falls Between the Cracks’ by Rob Scragg

A severed hand is found in an abandoned flat. DNA tests identify that it belongs to someone who hasn’t been seen in over thirty years. Why aren’t the police aware of this person? Isn’t she on a list of missing people? No, because she hasn’t been reported missing.

Detective Jake Porter and his partner Nick Styles are called in to investigate this increasingly complex case. From the prologue, the reader is sucked in to this chilling mystery which goes to prove that you can’t always trust those closest to you.

The premise itself is really original but the unpicking of what happened and why is masterful. Robert Scragg weaves a complex plot with a large cast of characters, all of whom propel the narrative forward.

I really enjoyed the cultural references in this story, they helped to make the dialogue realistic and brought the characters to life. The banter between Porter and Styles demonstrates the gallows humour that is present in many challenging work environments.

OK, so you all know I love a twist. You know what’s better than a twist? Several! Just when I thought I had a grip on what was going on and who was responsible, the rug was whipped from under my feet and a new piece of the jigsaw was thrown into the mix (apologies for the mixed metaphors).

What Falls Between the Cracks is an assured debut that introduces readers to new detectives that they’ll keep coming back to as the Porter and Styles series expands.

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.

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.