Saturday, 8 December 2018


Warning: if you are of a sensitive disposition and rude words upset you, please don’t read this blog post. It is about swearing in novels, and therefore contains some ‘naughty’ words by necessity, to illustrate my points.

I write dual timeline fiction, where a historical mystery is uncovered and resolved in the present day. My books do reasonably well and get mostly good reviews, but I have had a couple of reviews complaining about the ‘bad language’ and recently was contacted via my website by someone who was so shocked at the swear words in chapter 1 of The Drowned Village that she found it hard to read on.

And yet, I don’t feel that I overuse swear words. It’s possible that I’m immune to them – I am married to an Irishman who uses swear words, particularly what one reviewer coyly described as ‘the F bomb’ practically as punctuation.

But I do have my characters swear if I think that’s what they would naturally do, in the situation I’ve put them in.

Here’s an example from The Pearl Locket (it’s not a spoiler). Context is that our hero Jack is fighting in 1944 in northern France, just after D-Day.

The mortar and bag of shells was there, but no Mikey. Only a smear of blood along the bottom of the ditch. ‘Shit, Mikey, what’s happened?’ Jack muttered. He followed the trail of blood a few yards further along the ditch, and found Mikey, lying on his back, clutching at wounds in his thigh and side.
Mikey, oh Christ, Mikey. Hang on, kid. I’ll soon patch you up.’ The thigh wound was pumping blood. Jack pulled out his knife and cut off the lower part of Mikey’s trouser leg. He tore a strip of it and tied it tightly above the leg wound, wadding the rest against the hole in Mikey’s side. He placed Mikey’s hand over this. ‘Push hard. Keep the pressure on. I’ll get you home.’
Never coming home,’ Mikey mumbled.
Yes you are, kid. You’re not fighting any more with those injuries. We’ll have you back on a boat in no time. Shit!’ Jack ducked as more machine gun fire rattled across the field. He felt the whoosh of a bullet right past the side of his head. ‘Too close. Mikey, look, I’ve got to get that mortar set up. We’ve no hope unless I can take out the machine gun. Keep that pressure on, and hang on in there.’

So, just two instances of ‘shit’ which given that Jack’s best mate has been mortally wounded and he himself is being fired at, does not seem excessive to me. I mean, you would swear in that situation, wouldn’t you?

And in the same novel, in the contemporary story, teenage Matt has just been dumped by his girlfriend Kelly.
Matt knocked the tray out of her hands. Crockery and leftover food went flying and a couple of girls at the next table leapt up squealing as they were showered with debris. ‘For fuck’s sake, Kelly. We’ve been together nearly a year and you do this to me? Well, that’s it. I’ve had enough. It’s over. Over! Happy now?’ He stormed out of the café.
Much later, Kelly turns up at Matt’s door, unannounced.
‘… It’s a long story. Can I just get rid of the taxi? Then I’ll explain. If it’s OK to come in… Thing is, I can’t go home, and I’ve no money and no phone…’
For fuck’s sake, Kelly.’ Matt dug in his pocket and pulled out a two-pound coin. He thrust it at her then turned and walked back into the house, leaving the front door open.

Matt’s use of ‘for fuck’s sake’ in these clips is part of how he speaks, as a modern day teenager who is being mucked about by his girlfriend. I think it’s warranted and natural. And these extracts are the only swearing in that entire novel.

The one that elicited the contact via my blog is this. It’s in chapter one of The Drowned Village, in an extended flashback. Laura has returned unexpectedly early to the flat she shares with her long-term boyfriend and best friend who is their lodger. She’s walked in on the two of them humping, and Stuart has admitted it’s been going on for some time. And then he says this:
‘Lols? I guess maybe you and Martine should swap rooms. I mean, now it’s all out in the open . . .’ Stuart said, with a shrug.

That did it. ‘Swap rooms? You think you just move me into the spare room now you’re bored of me, and Martine into our room? It’s as easy as that? You bastard, Stuart. You are a complete and utter GIT! And you –’ Laura turned to Martine – ‘how even could you? I thought you were my friend. My best friend. Well, fuck you.’ She picked up the nearest object to hand – a ring-binder folder of Stuart’s containing details of his work projects – and flung it across the room at them both. Satisfyingly, it popped open in mid-air, showering papers everywhere.

Again, in that situation, you would swear, wouldn’t you? I mean, ‘blimey’ or ‘you cad’ just wouldn’t cut the mustard, would it?

I like swear words. I like the impact they bring, in those heated moments, when you need to show the extreme emotions your characters are experiencing. I don’t use them lightly – I use them when no other word will do.

What do blog readers think? To swear or not to swear, in fiction? Does it bother you or not?

Saturday, 1 December 2018


I was writing a scene in my current wip this week where one of my characters, Vicky a would be writer, discovers a wonderful summer house in the garden of the villa she was staying in on holiday. She immediately decided that that was where she’d spend her time writing. The garden was beautiful, the view of the blue Mediterranean wonderful and she just knew that her writing would be inspired in this place. 
I got so carried away with my vision of this summerhouse that I began to research writer’s rooms and I’m sorry to say the little green eyed monster made an appearance. There were arty rooms, lived in rooms,spartan rooms, rooms with a view, rooms in cottages, rooms at the top of elegant townhouses. Many rooms were bigger than the sitting room in my quirky little cottage. Suffice to say - whatever they were like they were a million miles away from this writer’s life! Rather like this rather grand picture of a room in Harewood House.

I did learn a couple of interesting things though. Jane Austin, without a room she could call her own, settled near a door, writing on small pieces of paper which she could easily hide from prying eyes when the creaking of another door warned her somebody was coming. She apparently refused to allow the creak to be oiled.

Margaret Forster, interviewed for the Guardian’s series on ‘Writer’s Rooms’ years ago, said of her room: ‘The minute I walk into this room of my own, I swear I become a different person. The wife, the mother, the granny, the cook, the cleaner - all vanish, for two or three hours only the writer is left.’ 
And that really sums it up for me - we all need to find somewhere where we can become that writer for however little time we can spare to write.

As for me, I do have my own tiny writing space. Currently it’s in what was originally a lean to at the back of the cottage that has been converted into a bathroom and an extra room. I share this room with a put-u-up, the airing cupboard, the ironing pile and board and a chest freezer! It’s also not unknown for the roof to leak. Next year when we finally have a new roof I’m hoping to be able to move upstairs and create a proper writer’s room!

I know lots of my writer friends write on laptops sitting at the kitchen table or on the sofa but I find that an impossible scenario for me. I need silence and the ‘DO NOT DISTURB’ sign hanging from the door. 

So, do you have a room of your own like Virginia Woolf advocated ninety years ago as essential to women writers? Or maybe you run away from home to write? Find a friendly cafe where you can people watch as you write? Or does the silence of your library appeal more? If you stay home do you sit on the sofa and shut everything out? Do you need a view? A blank wall? What does it take to get you ‘in the zone’? If you have a room of your own do you obey Stephen King and shut the door on the real world to inhabit your imaginary one? Do tell us.

Saturday, 24 November 2018


It’s a truth universally acknowledged that short story writing is a fantastic way for would-be novelists to perfect their craft.
For years I ignored this wisdom offered to beginner writers, not because I’m arrogant or thought I knew better, rather the opposite. I didn’t believe I was creative enough to continually imagine a company of new characters and settings. What I’d failed to grasp was that I didn’t need a mountainous stack of short story ideas all clamouring to be told. All that was required was that I write one story, followed by another, then another.

It wasn’t until I attended a short story writing workshop in May and began to wonder if I might tackle shorter work, that I understood if I read short stories, as well as wrote them, ideas would bubble up. Now instead of worrying I don’t have enough material to try shorter pieces, I find inspiration all around – a juicy snippet at the hairdressers, an unusual photograph on Pinterest, some interesting theme in the news.
As a newbie short story writer, the past few months have been encouraging. Last time I shared how thrilled I was that my Doric piece, The Whole Hog, was to be published by literary newspaper NorthwordsNow. The excitement continued when my short story, Jenny’s Well, was selected to be included in a Scottish Book Trust anthology, created to celebrate Book Week Scotland 2018. But this very nearly didn’t happen. My inner critic is strong and I wasn’t convinced my piece fitted the brief. Thankfully a generous writing buddy, Sareen McLay, gave me the push I needed to submit.

Book Week Scotland 'Rebel' Anthology

And I’m so glad she did. As well as 100,000 copies of the Rebel anthology being distributed to libraries and bookshops across Scotland, the stories were also published online. Contributors were invited to record their work at the Royal National Institute of the Blind studios in Glasgow, to be transmitted via RNIB radio. Hear me reading Jenny's Well around 6 minutes 45 seconds  (LISTEN NOW), along with an eclectic selection from fellow Rebel writers. The fun didn't stop there. We were treated to a swanky launch party in Edinburgh, where I met other writers – many experienced, some taking those tentative baby steps like me. I even received a shout out in our local newspaper.

Recording 'Jenny's Well' at the
RNIB Studios in Glasgow

So what lessons have I learnt from trying my hand at short story writing?
Firstly, that writing buddies are invaluable, not only for helping critique work but also, when the time is right, to give an encouraging nudge to submit.
Secondly, never to restrict myself as a writer. My inner critic is loud and bossy but she can be tamed, as long as I find the courage to have a go.
Finally, and possibly most importantly, remember to enjoy the ride. As well as finishing my women’s contemporary fiction novel, I intend continuing with short story writing, not only to hone my writing craft, but because it’s something I love to do.

So wherever you are on your writing journey, what wisdom do you wish to share?

Happy travelling!

Rae x

Friday, 16 November 2018


Buildings can form a great backdrop to a scene, but they can also be used to tell us about the characters’ mind-set, past and even their future. Buildings can show the passing of time, add tension to a scene or show the class the character has been born into or aspire to join. Buildings are an amazing tool and are, in my opinion, not used to their full potential, yet they can draw a reader into the story and help them to walk in the footsteps of the characters themselves.
An example of this is Manderley, the house in Dauphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca. It holds a sense of doom for the new Mrs De Winter. Its rooms feel haunted by her husband’s former wife, the heirlooms are hers and even her portrait still hangs on the wall and gets her into trouble. In addition to all this, the housekeeper constantly reminds the new wife how Rebecca liked to run it. Little by little the present Mrs De Winter feels overshadowed by the former wife as her confidence is gradually whittled away. Mrs De Winter never meets Rebecca in the novel, she doesn't need to. The house is a constant, imposing reminder of how great her husband's former wife was and the housekeeper uses the building to her full advantage to taunt her about this every moment she can.

When I wrote A Daughter's Christmas Wish, I ensured that each main character had a building linked to them which helped to tell their story.
The heroine, Rose, feels lonely and trapped in her unexciting life living with her parents. Her mother still grieves for the loss of her son and is unable to move on in her life. Their home reflects this and, hopefully, the reader will be able to empathize with Rose's feeling of being trapped in a dull life. If only she had someone who could help her to feel festive again as Christmas approaches … cue the arrival of a lone soldier, called Nicholas.
Nicholas has returned from the Great War and has a promise to fulfil - to give a fellow soldier’s fiancé, Rose, the Christmas she has always wanted. Once again I have used his home to show his class, the past he has tried to hide from and how the passing of time (and war) have changed it. He also imagines the future too, which I hope shows his mindset in that moment.
Yet for these two people, who are from very different classes, to meet I needed a neutral setting and, for the first time in my writing career, I used a place of work – a teashop. This allowed them to meet and be alone together, an oasis for their festive countdown to Christmas to begin and their relationship to grow. It is where shy Rose feels most confident. This allows her to blossom and think about leaving her grief for her fiance behind her. Hopefully the reader will feel that they are watching Nicholas and Rose from a quiet corner of the room as these two people learn to live in peacetime again.

As a writer one must use all the tools at hand. We often use smell, taste, sound, feel, sight, thought and internal emotions to convey what our characters are experiencing, but the buildings that form a backdrop to their lives can also speak volumes - in their own quiet way.
A Daughter's Christmas Wish
Available as an ebook & audiobook from 20th November, 2018.
Available to pre-order today. 

Saturday, 10 November 2018


'Where do you get your ideas from? Oh for a ten pound note for every time I've been asked that. I've now had over 300 short stories published, plus serials, articles, and now my eighth novel is to be published next month. I can't say I've ever analysed where my ideas come from, but for the purposes of this blogpost I thought I'd give it a go. CHRISTMAS AT STRAND HOUSE is set, well, at Christmas. a time for families and friends to get together. What if you have no family? Or friends, only acquaintances? Could you make a happy and memorable Christmas from less than happy circumstances? So I decided to take four disparate characters with nowhere to go and no-one with whom to spend Christmas and over 80,000 words try to knit them together. I'll take Lissy first as the house in the title is now hers, willed to her by her godmother. I am a godmother. A not very good one - two Roberts and an Emily. I often think of them but I'm not the best present buyer and I certainly won't be able to will any of them a house. But a friend of mine was willed the most fabulous house by her godmother and it got me thinking .... how might something like that change your life, especially if you are now on your own, post divorce, and desperate for change? (I've never been divorced but know many who are) It was a bit of a light bulb moment and I thought I might be able to get a book out of it.
So I brought Janey into the equation. Janey is an abused wife and knows she must leave her marriage. I've got to state here that I have never been an abused wife but sadly, I've known those who are/were. More than one has said to me over the years something along the lines of ... 'I'll leave when the children go to senior school/university/get married/when X gets over his illness/the mortgage is paid off'. But they rarely do, because is there ever a right time. I don't think a couple of days before Christmas would be the time that many would choose, but Janey does. She leaves a note for her husband and accepts Lissy's invitation to spend Christmas at Strand House, taking the secret of her abuse and the fact she has run away with her. Next came Bobbie. I have a Facebook friend - Gerri - who puts up the most wonderfully glam and feel-good FB posts - pictures of impossibly slim and beautiful models dressed in clothes and shoes and hats I will never wear. We have bonded in the ether over my love of black and white.
So I decided to counter the sadness of Janey and the blandness of the way she dresses by having Bobbie the absolute opposite. Bobbie is a mature model but she has brought her own secret to the party and over the course of the book she shares it with the others at Strand House. So, I thought three characters would be enough as each has a point of view and I'd need to know their back story, how they speak, how they think. But then I remembered that 'two's company, three's a crowd', and decided to bring a fourth character into the group - Xander. Xander is funny and kind ... and a young widower. (My starting point here was a neighbour widowed far too young and struggling to mourn his wife and move on at the same time) Xander's late wife, Claire, had been childhood friends with Lissy. Janey and Bobbie had met Claire, if briefly, and only have good memories of her. But, as in most marriages, life isn't all sweetness and light, hearts and flowers, and cosy, romantic moments in front of a log fire with a glass of wine and a box of chocolates. Xander has a secret too. And somehow, Claire has wormed her way into this book - not quite the elephant in the room but her absence is affecting them all. So, I had my characters. I had the setting. Over the course of four days they all get to know and like/love one another a lot better. It was fun - well, okay, not fun writing this in the hottest summer we've had for decades- deciding what they would eat, what they would drink, what they would wear, and how their friendships would develop in Strand House, perched as it is on a cliff in coastal Devon. Bring into the equation all the decorations we have at Christmas and the traditions and .... last but not least there is even a sprinkling of snow!
Available as an ebook and in paperback and up on Amazon for pre-order right now!

Saturday, 3 November 2018

Some Thoughts on Stars

Beautiful stars... (public domain)
I’ve been thinking about stars

No, not those stars. Not the ones that twinkle in a clear summer sky. I’m talking about the ones that corrupt and compromise you, the ones that make you feel bad about yourself, the ones that hammer home your own irrationality and, days, weeks or even months later, leave you riddled with guilt.

They’re the stars that review sites insist you allocate before you leave your thoughts on a book.

Generally speaking I avoid giving star ratings, but as I’ve recently tried to do a lot more reviewing, on the grounds that it’s a way to help writers and also help readers find books they want to read, I’ve been forced into it. When I review on my blog, I don’t leave a star rating, but Amazon, Goodreads and Netgalley, which are the places I’m now regularly posting, won’t let you get away with that.

I find it a huge problem. Not because I hate giving a bad review, because that’s easily dealt with purely by not reviewing a book if I can’t give it at least three stars, and preferably four. But reviewing is subjective, and while you can build that into the text of a review, the raw star rating doesn’t allow it.

So on what basis should I score a book on a scale of between one and five? Because it’s a good book? But we’ll almost certainly differ on what constitutes a good book, and I can think of a lot of good books I haven’t enjoyed, and some bad ones I did.

Not-so-beautiful stars...
So shall we say there’s a book I enjoyed some years ago and gave five stars? But my tastes have changed and now I don’t think it’s half as good as I did. In the past I’ve given five stars to books in a genre that was new to me because I thought they were fresh and original, only to realise that in fact they’re just tired repetitions of the same old tropes. So do I give four stars to a book that’s better than the one I originally gave five stars to, because now I understand the genre and overrated the first one?

Some of the differences between four and five stars may be nothing to do with the book itself. They might include:

  • whether I’m in the particular mood for that particular book at that particular time
  • whether I like the place it’s set, or find a well-written character irritating
  • the frame of mind I’m in when I read it (gritty, violent, scary books will get a lower score if I’m feeling frail and in need of cuddles, whereas you’ll probably always get a higher rating for something feel-good)
  • whether I’ve read a book with a similar plot that was better.

I’ve reached an uncomfortable accommodation with my soul over this. I read books for pleasure, so my default position is that I would expect to give every book I read at least four stars. If a book falls short it might get three. But the difference between three, four and five stars probably isn’t one of quality but is all about me and my expectations.

I might as well admit to my inconsistencies. I’m too old to grapple with a qualitative rating system so I’ll give stars for enjoyment, and I reserve the right to be inconsistent.

Jennifer Young

Saturday, 27 October 2018


Sex - a topic that's not been covered on this blog before. So here goes ..... first up is Victoria Cornwall. 'I don't have a problem writing sex scenes, partly because I find describing the easiest part of the writing process. I am also a former nurse who taught sex health promotion to teenagers for several years so if I can cope with that, I can cope with most things. However, I don't use graphic names to describe a mechanical process with what might be considered modern language. There are some very successful authors who write historical romance, use this approach and have legions of very loyal fans. However, every reader is different and books like those are not the sort of historical romances that I enjoy. I write lovemaking scenes which concentrate on how the character feels - their nerves, confidence, anticipation, desire and the consequences they may face afterwards (whether it's good or bad). Some of my novels stop at kissing or the foreplay stage, whilst others go all the way. With the latter scenes it might stop at the bedroom door or go on to describe a very passionate session. I want the reader to wonder 'will they or won't they', but be equally satisfied whichever way it turns out. Writing a sex scene is not about the act, it's about the "almost" moments too, as the build-up is as important, if not more so. I could never write erotica however I try to make my novels realistic to the period they are set in and, as we all know, women have had to fight (and are still fighting) for respect in this department. At the end of the day, my greatest fans are my close and extended family and friends and at the back of my mind I know that one day they will be reading it. Maybe this is why I write like I do and erotica, graphic and mechanical description is most definitely off the table.'
Kath McGurl has this to say. 'When I got my first book deal, my younger son - then 16 - was horrified. He sat me down one day, for a serious talk. 'Mum, if you ever decide to write, you know, erotica and all that smutty stuff, promise me, promise me, you'll use a pseudonym, and you will never, never, tell me what that pseudonym is. I just don't want to ever know your sordid little sexual fantasies, all right?' I promised him. Of course I did - what else could I do? And actually, I don't write erotica, under any name (well, if I did I could hardly admit it here, somewhere he could trace back to me, could I? But I do put a little bit of sex into my novels, when it's needed to advance the story. Just a bit. No squelchy details, nothing my son could call 'smutty stuff'. Nothing that would cause him to squire with embarrassment.. He doesn't read my books anyway!'
Terry Lynn Thomas is in the US - perhaps they do things differently over there? 'I haven't tackled a sex scene in my books yet. If I did, it would be used as a tool to perpetuate plot and would probably go something like this: A man and a woman, entangled in the sheets, their bodies glistening with sweat. There's a knock on the door. The man rolls onto his side. He runs his fingers down the woman's body. 'Expecting someone?' The woman meets his gaze. 'My husband.' The man gets out of the bed and peeks out the window. He sees a hulk of a man, the sort that looks like he could carry a piano on his back. 'You didn't tell me you were married!' The woman smiles at him, cat like. She licks her lips, as though anxious for the ensuing conflict.'You'd best run, love.' She gets out of bed and tosses him the trousers which he took off in such a frenzy. 'Don't forget these.' Hmmm, I feel a story coming on!'
Jennifer Young was the first to respond to my request for pieces for this joint blog. 'So now I have to write about sex. This joint blog just gets worse! Generally speaking, this is not what I do. In fact, the most recent review I've had went so far as to say that my writing would suit people who preferred 'edgy romance rather than sex scenes.' I read this review several times and with a degree of before I decided to take it as a compliment. As a romance writer, I know that most of my readers expect sex. Not always, of course, but in this modern world readers accept that it goes on and that if it doesn't there has to be a very good reason for it. So my characters do have sex. In fact they have quite a lot, but except on the odd occasion, they do it in private. Because while the actual fact of the couple having sex might be necessary to progress the plot, the detail of who put what where often isn't. Ironically, the most graphic sex scene I've written to date isn't in a romance but in an (as yet unpublished) crime novel. It certainly isn't romantic; it's purely animalistic, satisfying mutual lust. Originally, this scene was firmly veiled from public view too, but as it involves a key part of the plot, and as the act triggers a terrible memory, I realised that for the first time in my life I had a sex scene which couldn't be veiled. So I wrote it and - rather to my surprise - I was quite pleased with it. For the most part, however, I prefer to keep the bedroom door firmly shut.'
Rae Cowie decided to be brave. 'I've decided not to be coy! I find sex scenes tricky. A couple of years ago I submitted an early draft of a novel to a professional editor and the advice she gave on the section where my heroine and hero finally get it together was that it wasn't satisfying for the re4ader. All those hours she'd spent rooting for my characters, only to find the bedroom door firmly shut was not to her taste. How rude! Fast forward a couple of years and I recently wrote a short story that required a vigorous sex scene. I shared the story with a writing friend and this time the feedback I received was that the sex scene was a bit Jilly Cooper. Normally, I would be beyond thrilled by such a comment, for who pens better sex scenes than Jilly Cooper? The problem was that the rest of the piece aimed for a darkly Gothic style. The sex scene stuck out like, well let's just say it stuck out! So for me, sex scenes are still a work in progress. All hints and tips extremely welcome.'
Jennie Bohnet lives in France where sex is practically a national past-time ....maybe she's not found that bit in the dictionary yet? 'Okay, I admit it - I find it impossible to write sex scenes so I've given up even trying. None of my books have sexy scenes. My storylines do contain a certain amount of romance and love but I never go beyond the bedroom door. So my contribution to this join blog is this Adam and Eve photograph - and a couple of quotes that tickled my fancy.' 'Sex is a part of nature. I ago along with nature' - Marilyn Monroe. 'Love is an ice cream sundae, with all the marvelous coverings. Sex is the cherry on top' - Jimmy Dean. 'There is more to sex appeal than just measurements. I don't need a bedroom to prove my womanliness. I can convey just as much sex appeal picking apples off a tree or standing in the rain' - Audrey Hepburn. 'Remember, sex is like a Chinese dinner. It ain't over 'til you you both get your cookie' - Alec Baldwin
When I first suggested this topic for a joint blog I naively thought someone else would tackle the technical issues, but no one has. So it's down to me. The thing is, at the back of my mind, is my dear old dad saying, 'A lady never talks about religion, politics, money, or sex'. Well, it seems all the ladies here have problems with the last one, doesn't it? And I'm no different. Like the others I'm fine with the love and the romance and the feelings but when it comes down to the nitty gritty what do we call the bits that go where? Do we say penis/member/manhood/John Thomas/dick/willy/whatever? And do we say vagina/lady cave/that dreadful word beginning with c (well, I think it's dreadful and have standards so never use it)? And then there are breasts/boobs/mammaries/Dolly Partons/jugs - which do you use?Whenever I read something along the lines of ...'And then he entered her', all I can see in my mind is the local branch line train eventually chugging off into the tunnel after some delay or other.So, there we have it .... and it must be noted here that none of us writes erotica where it's fine to, ahem, titillate our use of words. And it seems we are not alone. The poster for the stage play below sums it all up nicely, I think.
But I'm going to give the last word (via Marilyn Chapman)to Shakespeare - or should that be words? 'Sex does not thrive on monotony. Without feelings, inventions, moods (there are) no surprises in bed. Sex must be mixed with tears, laughter, words, promises, scenes, jealousy, envy, all the spices of fear, foreign travel, new faces, novels, stories, dreams, fantasies, music, dancing, opium, wine'

Saturday, 20 October 2018


These days we all know if we want to make a career out of our writing or, whisper it, even to make some money, we have to treat it like running a small business. We also have to put ourselves out there on social media - something I personally fail at dismally most of the time, much too far out of my comfort zone. We also know, especially if we’re traditionally published, a lot of things are out of our control and down to our publisher and those dratted things on Amazon etc known as algorithms.

Having run several small catering businesses in the past I know how hard managing a business can be. But running a writing business isn’t like running any other business. Even though I spent a lot of time working in the kitchen when catering, I had helpers and I’d meet the customers. I had social interaction within the course of my working day. Writers invariably work alone for hours at a time in front of a screen these days getting the words down without a lot of input from other people.  The real business of writing starts after the book is finished.

These days it’s all about networking and making useful contacts with fellow authors, bloggers and readers, doing guest posts, having an up-to-date website - the list goes on, for both independent and traditionally published authors. 

Reading the blog of friend and fellow RNA member, Alison Morton this week, I realised just how much effort and time has gone into her success as an independent author publishing her award winning bestselling Roma Nova thrillers. She makes my current paltry efforts on Twitter and Facebook look . . . well even paltrier to be honest.

Alison lists everything she still has to do or organise after the book is written - and it’s a huge amount of work: commissioning a cover design, editing and proofreading, formatting. Granted if you’re published traditionally the publisher takes responsibility for a lot of these but these days they do expect authors to do a lot more marketing than back in the day. I found Alison’s pre-launch routine as a part of her marketing campaign particularly interesting:

‘While you’re waiting for copy-edits or structural edits or beta readers and at least 4-6 weeks before publication date, you spend days at the email coalface contacting all the friends, fellow authors, bloggers and reviewers you know to ask for their help launching your treasure. You will have set up a spreadsheet, of course, to track it all to include name, email, website, what you agree on after a little negotiation (guest post, review, Q&A), date agreed, date drafted and date sent.’

Now I do try to do most of those things but I have to admit the phrase that scared me half to death was the one containing the word ‘spreadsheet’. I do of course keep records but it has never occurred to me to use a spreadsheet.  I’ve always thought of spreadsheets as being the preserve of accountants and the like. In fact I confess I didn’t know and honestly couldn’t see how it would work for keeping the kind of records writers need to keep. So I took myself off to Youtube and watched a couple of videos hoping to learn and be inspired. All I can say is that my brain froze. Can I just say I am in awe of anybody that can create, update and understand a spreadsheet. As for me I shall just have to keep to my tried and trusted method of pen and diary - and a simple back up document on the computer.

I’d love to know how everyone else keeps track of all their social media and marketing skills.

Here’s the link for Alison’s very informative blog - its well worth a read:

Saturday, 13 October 2018

On drought, inspiration, and life imitating art...

What do 1976, 1984 and 2018 have in common? Along with a few other occasions, these are years when the Haweswater reservoir in Cumbria has dried out so much that the ruins of a village are exposed.

Haweswater in drought, 2018. Image copyright Jennifer Young

Mardale Green was demolished in the 1930s to make way for the reservoir, which is the main source of water for Manchester. A dam was built, and the small lake that had graced the valley expanded. A whole community was lost – farms, homes, roads, a church and a pub.

The villagers were compensated, but all had to move out after the dam was built , to see their homes destroyed and then lost beneath the water. Even the dead were moved – graves in the churchyard were exhumed and reburied elsewhere.

When the reservoir dries out, the remains of walls are revealed, the outlines of cottages, dry stone walls marking old field boundaries, rusty iron gates. There’s even an intact stone bridge, that crossed the stream that ran through the valley, revealed when the water drops low enough.

I’m a long-time lover of the Lake District, and visited Haweswater in the spring of 2016, when the reservoir was full and the valley at its most beautiful. There was snow on the mountain tops and the previous year’s brown bracken on the slopes. Downstream of the dam the fields were lush and green, filled with the season’s new lambs.

Hiking up the Old Corpse Road above Haweswater, the inspiration for my novel The Drowned Village

We parked in the car park at the top end of the reservoir. There’s a faded information board there about the history of the valley, and as I was reading it my friend said to me, ‘Hey, Kath, you could write a novel about this!’

For the rest of the day that was all I could think about, and by the time we came down from the mountains I had the beginnings of a story idea in my head. What if, my novelist’s brain suggested, a secret was hidden in the village, lost when the valley was flooded, only to resurface in a drought year? Something important, something that would resolve an ancient mystery...

That idea eventually became my novel The Drowned Village, which was published by HarperCollins in September 2018. I seem to have predicted the summer’s drought – my friends are all now asking me for next week’s lottery numbers.

It’s not the only time life has imitated art, or at least, imitated the plot of my books. In my first book, The Emerald Comb, an ancient skeleton is revealed when a tree blows down in a storm. A year or so after publication, a friend sent me a link to an article about how a thousand-year old skeleton was revealed when a tree fell down in County Sligo, Ireland.

Hmm, what will come true next, I wonder? Let’s see, what’s in my next book...

Friday, 5 October 2018

Can You Write a Modern Woman?

I’m going to break with tradition today and share a blog post that Heather Webb wrote on I read this post once, twice, and a third time. The writing is stellar – not surprising. Heather is a master. She handles this potentially incendiary issue with grace and insight. I’ve provided a link to WritersUnboxed at the end of the post, along with more info about Heather and her amazing books.

Happy writing, friends. May the muse be with you.

Can You Write a Modern Woman?
By: Heather Webb
Posted on on September, 27, 2018
Reposted with Permission

This is one of those topics that’s sticky and tricky and I have to admit, I had my qualms about posting it. In the end, it seemed too important a topic NOT to post. Important in today’s climate and mostly, important to those of us who want to be the best fiction writers we can be. (I also thank Therese Walsh, who quietly nudged me to be brave.)

 Recently, I worked on three different client manuscripts written by male writers. One of the writers in particular, showed very skillful writing. It was gripping, well-paced, and had interesting metaphors. In fact, I was happily reading along with few comments until about page eight when something happened in the narrative that made me realize—oh, crap, THIS CHARACTER IS A FEMALE. I scratched my head, trying to figure out what was missing. The character was a little rougher around the edges, an anti-princess if you will, which was great. I love a rough-and-tumble female character with a side of badass, so this wasn’t the problem. I started reading from the beginning again, looking for clues. How had I missed this?

And then it hit me, on my second read. This protagonist, in fact, all three protags from the client books I mention above, were missing the same thing. A fundamental piece of being a woman was absent.

The protagonists lacked both body and spatial awareness.

What does that even mean, spatial awareness? Being proud/ashamed of your body and/or your physical skills is certainly a part of spatial awareness, but it extends far beyond this. It’s something that is deeply programmed in our psyches, as women. A message that grows louder as we gain experiences, most of them negative, but some good, too.

And then there’s our relationship to men, and how it relates to this awareness.

It doesn’t matter the male’s size, shape, or ethnicity, his clothing or social status. A male’s age might matter some, but that’s about it. When confronted with men they do not know and in an exposed situation, most, if not all, women feel like a rabbit hopping through a field littered with foxes and coyotes and hawks and eagles. The predators may look different, but they ALL want to chase that rabbit. Rabbits are food for many species after all. Some rabbits are wily and escape, some are just plain fast and get away, and some have strong hind legs and kick the crap out of the predator to fend them off. None of these things change the simple fact that women are still rabbits. They are the prey.

Maybe this is a silly analogy. Certainly, there are wonderful people and horrible people out there, weak and strong, regardless of their sexual orientation, and great and weak writers regardless of their gender. There are also many wonderful men. This is not a male-bashing post, not at all. That’s not my point. Neither is my point that it’s always the men whose female characters lack this body and spatial awareness in their stories—though it’s much more common, and I’ve got a stack of edited manuscripts to prove it.

My point is about craft.

Do your characters reflect this body and spatial awareness? We writers need to take note of these concepts to create the most believable, effective, unforgettable characters we can, so let’s look at some tips to help with this.

Body Awareness

Women compare themselves to each other, in large part because of growing up in a world that bombards us with ugly messages, but it’s also part of our hard wiring to compete for a male in order to procreate and further the species. (Not to go all anthro on you, but anthropology helps us understand these impulses. Also, check out The Female Brain and conversely The Male Brain by neuropsychiatrist Louann Brizendine.) These factors can create an inferiority—or superiority–complex but it can also explain why there is so much emphasis on how women look. This develops into an acute awareness of the way others regard their bodies, and how that changes over time. Women internalize these messages and it becomes a part of the way we, in turn, view ourselves. This could be quite negative or positive.

A female character will notice how she feels. I’m not referring to straight-forward emotions that result from some event in the character’s life. I’m referring to hormonal surges and changes in both mood and physique due to these hormones. They’re cyclical in a woman’s body so it makes sense that we would have constant awareness of these things. Examples of physical changes include aches and the way her body changes after having children—and not just their hips and thighs. Perhaps now she has developed migraines or weird allergies or skin issues post-pregnancy or post-menopause. These sorts of things. We are always on the look out for something shifting and changing inside of us, and how that will affect us on the outside as well.

Spatial Awareness

Females are very aware of who is walking in front of them, behind them, beside them. They take note of the distance between them and any male nearby. If they have a choice, they will often move to the side of the street next to another female or select a seat on a bus/train/plane/theater next to other women. It’s safety in numbers and in distance, you see. These are things we think about every single day.

Even in my quaint, wooded little town, I keep my front door locked when my husband isn’t home, and I don’t answer the door when a male I don’t know rings the bell. When the lawn guys are around the neighborhood, I’m keenly aware of where they are and how close they are to the house. If I’m out at night or walking through a parking garage, I tend to find someone to walk with at a distance, or I have my phone at the ready and literally dart to my destination, walking as fast as I can without appearing like a total spazz.

Women are always at risk. We are extremely aware of who and what is around us and the minute we stop paying attention could not only be dangerous, it could be LIFE-THREATENING.

I can’t emphasize this enough. Your female protagonist, therefore, will not walk through a dark parking lot without listening for footsteps or looking over her shoulder, or at least taking stock of the environment around her. If your female protagonist gets into a car with a strange man, or goes home with a strange man from a bar, etc, be careful how you depict her motivations. She must be very naïve or drunk or have a death wish because of pain in her past that has heavily damaged her self-worth to do such a thing. Or maybe she’s a cop or an assassin and knows she can take down anyone. There has to be a strong motivation that is valid, because we’re not buying it. Most women know they must watch their backs at all times.

Disclaimer Note:  I need to add in an important note here. Gender is an incredibly nuanced social and biological construct, and as society grapples with accepting all kinds of people (at last!), some of these “expectations” or “normalities” are shifting. Sure, men can feel like prey as well, in particular if they have been a victim of assault or trauma, but for men it isn’t a constant, and it’s less likely, whereas it never changes for women. Not ever.

Regardless of what gender our protagonist is, it’s our job as novelists to burrow deeply into our characters’ minds and hearts. A large part of this involves their view of the world and how they move through it, and not just as a reaction to what has happened to them in the past, but through their programming as males, females, transgender, or gender neutral. This a complex issue, but an important one to analyze and apply.

Time to talk. You may have a different opinion on writing authentic women. You may have seen other shortcomings, and have your own observations. I’d like to hear all of that, but please let’s take extra care to be respectful about how our opinions are conveyed. There are no villains here, only observations from this field called Life. Over to you.

Heather Webb is the international bestselling author of historical novels, including her latest Last Christmas in Paris, The Phantom’s Apprentice, and the upcoming Meet Me in Monaco set to the backdrop of Grace Kelly’s wedding which releases in summer 2019. Her works have been featured in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Entertainment Weekly and more, as well as received national starred reviews. In 2015, Rodin’s Lover was selected as a Goodreads Top Pick, and in 2017, Last Christmas in Paris became a Globe & Mail bestseller and also won the 2018 Women’s Fiction Writers Association STAR Award. When not writing, you may find Heather collecting cookbooks or looking for excuses to travel. She lives in New England with her family and one feisty rabbit.

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