Saturday, 30 March 2019

On Theme, and treading a fine line

When I first began writing, my writing tutor told me that all good stories had a beginning, a middle, an end and a point. When the reader reaches the end they should end on an emotion – a smile, a laugh, perhaps a few tears, and a new, improved understanding of the world and how it operates. It’s this that gives the story its raison d’etre. Stories, my tutor said, should embody a universal truth, or illustrate a well-known proverb – eg “love conquers all”, “blood is thicker than water”, “money can’t buy happiness”. She was speaking then about short stories, but the same principle can and should apply to novels, the only difference being that a novel is so much longer and can incorporate several themes within their length.

I try to come up with a theme for each novel early on in the planning phases. I write dual timeline novels, and for me it’s the theme or universal truth that hopefully ties the two stories together in a deep and satisfying way.

What themes have I used in my novels? The Emerald Comb is all about identity – who do you think you are? Is it your ancestry that makes you the person you are, or the way you were brought up?
The Pearl Locket is about love and constancy. The Daughters of Red Hill Hall looks at toxic friendships and jealousy. The Girl from Ballymor has a strong theme of maternal sacrifice. The Drowned Village has themes of family loyalty and betrayal.

And my latest, The Forgotten Secret, is I think my strongest-themed book to date – it’s all about independence. The historical backdrop is the Irish war of independence, and in the contemporary story a woman approaching the milestone age of 50 is fighting to regain her own independence after a long and abusive marriage.

Writing about the Irish war of independence brought its own set of challenges. It was far more difficult than writing about the second world war, as I did in The Pearl Locket. In WW2 there were more obvious ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ but the Anglo-Irish war is not so clear cut – especially when you look at the aftermath of the treaty that ended the war of independence and divided Ireland. The Irish leadership was split between those who agreed with the treaty and those who opposed it. Civil war broke out between the two factions within a few months of the signing of this treaty. And the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland of the 1970s-80s were a direct descendent of the disagreement about the treaty.

So as well as using the theme of independence, in The Forgotten Secret I try to illustrate the old adage that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” - that there are two sides to every conflict and it is not always obvious which is right. It was a fine line to tread, in the book. The choice of language plays a large part in this – was a soldier “murdered” or “shot dead”? Are the rebel MPs running a “campaign” or “plotting” against the government? Many early reviewers have commented that growing up in Britain during the period of the ‘Troubles’, had left them with little knowledge of the origins of Ireland’s problems, or understanding of the ‘other side of the story’. I hope my book has addressed this, a little.

Saturday, 23 March 2019


Inspiration is a funny old thing. It’s very personal for a start. Does a glorious view inspire you with ideas? Or a wall with a thought provoking picture on it? Maybe you need an empty, silent, house with no interruptions? Music in the background? Coffee and chocolate on tap? Does that intriguing sentence or two of a conversation you over heard in the supermarket, ‘She’s only gone and run off with her toy boy. Goodness only knows what the headmaster will say’ get your mind racing with Who? What? Where? When? How? All those classic journalism questions to find the story behind the news item. Do you find story prompts in the latest writing magazine, helpful?  Do scenes and plots spin into your head as you people watch on your commute to work? Maybe you like going on a retreat like Rae wrote about last week? 
Photographs can sometimes lead one into a story.

For instance these colourful shoes. Who would wear boots likes this? Where would they walk? Were they waterproof or did they leak? They look to be a small size - children’s boots or a petite lady with tiny feet? But however you find your  inspiration you do need that ‘lightbulb moment’ in the beginning when you sense the idea has the legs for a novel rather than a short story.
Writing a novel is not a quick process and sometimes at the halfway point through the first draft, additional inspiration is needed to keep the story on line. Maybe a long soak in the bath with a glass of wine relaxes the left side of your brain and the ideas flood in inspiring you to carry on with the story.
I know some writers who say they have so many ideas for books they’ll never have time to write them all. Me - well, I’m not like that. Ideas do come to me out of the blue but not always when I need them. And definitely not fully formed. But I do write them down in a notebook ready to flip through when I’m desperate. Sitting in front of a blank screen with no idea what to write to move the story forward can be soul destroying. Over the years I’ve tried to find and master some fail safe ways of finding inspiration when I need to call up the muse. 
My stories are usually set in either Devon or France, so I choose my setting and then write down the basics of my main female character. Name, age, marital status, family and job. Then I think of a theme i.e.  Divided loyalties; Sibling rivalry; Dunkirk spirit; I then give my heroine a problem - sibling rivalry could be devastating news that drives a seemingly permanent wedge between the heroine and her brother/sister.  

In theory inspiration and ideas are everywhere but writers need to be open to their presence and ready to recognise which idea has the real legs to be expanded into a novel. Do ideas come to you in dreams? Do you sit in front of the computer with a fully formed character and story in mind? Do you sit scribbling doodles and words hoping that something will come to you. We’d love to hear what inspires you and your writing.

Saturday, 16 March 2019


The image of a writer tapping away in a lonely garret is a popular one and although all writers need space and time to create, some also find inspiration by attending a well chosen writing retreat. (I’ll return to the ‘well chosen’ part later.) I definitely fall into the latter camp. So at the beginning of each year, I wave goodbye to my family and spend one wonderful weekend focusing purely on writing.


This year I indulged in a Writing Detox organised by Chasing Time Retreats - isn’t that the perfect name for a writing getaway? Set in a 1840s Gothic mansion, complete with stunning stained glass window and animal skins pinned to the walls, Rosely Country House Hotel is surrounded by acres of grounds, deep in the Scottish countryside. My favourite cosy neuk was beside the crackling log fire, where we gathered in the evenings, curtains drawn, to share stories.

Stained glass window at Rosely Country House Hotel


As well as providing peace and time to write, a tutored retreat also offers the opportunity to connect with other writers. The Chasing Time team, who organise and deliver events, is made up of noir thriller writer Sandra Ireland, author of Beneath the Skin, Bone Deep and The Unmaking of Ellie Rook ; Elizabeth Frattaroli, award winning author of Pathfinder 13; and Dawn Geddes, a freelance journalist whose debut novel The Worry Dolls is currently with the Sophie Hicks Agency. All three did a fantastic job of helping guests relax and to make the most of precious writing time.
Getting to know new writing friends...


I promised to return to the theme of choosing the right writing hideaway. Some retreats are untutored, for authors who require solitude – perhaps to finish a project, or work on a knotty plot problem. For me, the cocoon of my spacious yet cosy bedroom at Rosely House was where words flowed – far more than I’d achieved at other retreats. However, the main reason I chose the Chasing Time option was because Sandra Ireland offered morning workshops – one focusing on hooks and structure, the other on editing – topics I wished to strengthen before embarking on another draft of my women’s emotional fiction novel.

Busy, busy during the editing workshop...


By the end of a productive weekend, as well as feeling equipped to crack on with my work-in-progress, I also felt inspired to try my hand at penning darker short stories. And what do you know? Chasing Time Retreats are planning a one-day Gothic short story writing workshop in the autumn. Rosely Country House Hotel, with its resident ghost and creepy owl sculpture in the garden, will make the perfect backdrop for imagining some seriously scary tales.
Mr Owl... waiting for a story to be written
Happy writing!

Rae x

Saturday, 9 March 2019

Adding Realism To Your Writing by Victoria Cornwall

A novel is like the inside of an intricate clock. Just like the well-oiled cogs and gears of a clock, a book has many elements which need to interact smoothly so it provides an enjoyable read. This week I am going to chat about a character’s reaction to a given situation. Their reaction is one of those key elements. A good reaction can strengthen the reader’s interest in the character or plot  … a poor, ill-written reaction can lose a reader’s support and loyalty.
As a writer, I try to imagine how the character would behave and think in any given situation and describe it as accurately as I can. However, over the years I have come to realise that people do not always behave how we would expect them to. If a writer captures this unexpected reaction in their writing, it can add realism to the situation and more depth to the character. It can also add an unexpected twist. Here are two examples of what I am trying to explain. They are both related to losing someone special:-
Imagine you are writing about a young widow learning how to navigate life again without her husband by her side. The story starts with a scene of her sitting by her husband’s hospital bed. They are holding hands as he finally succumbs to a long, drawn out battle with cancer. The last two years have been particularly brutal. The normal emotions of denial, shock and heart rendering grief come to mind. Scenes involving tears, emotional numbness, relatives offering comfort, doctors saying things that in the moment make no sense. Those scenes are in her future, but right now she is still holding his hand as it begins to grow colder in hers. Her love, her soul mate, her friend has just left her forever. The perfect reactions to her husband’s passing are just waiting to be written. But wait! STOP and think again.
Remember that she has just spent years by his side battling cancer. The last two years have been particularly bad. What if his personality had changed over that time? What if he had not accepted his diagnosis well and had railed against the unfairness of it all. She had nursed him up to the point of his admission to hospital and she is now in a state of physical and mental exhaustion. Her love for him had changed as his illness had changed him. The happy years of their marriage are a distant memory as his anger, frustration and physical changes had eaten away at their marriage as efficiently as the cancer inside him. He was not the man she fell in love with. What if she felt a great sense of relief at his passing? Imagine the guilt she would have at experiencing such feelings. She would feel unworthy of the sympathy offered by friends and relatives. She would feel like a fraud. In the story she will eventually learn to understand her husband's reaction to having cancer, understand her own reaction to living with someone she no longer recognised and finally forgive both her husband and her reaction to living with cancer. She will fall in love with her husband all over again as her memories of their happier times together become easier to recall. She has to do all this before she can grieve normally again and feel the true depth of her loss. Finally she learns to live without him, but her initial “abnormal” reaction actually adds realism and an extra dimension and twist to the normal grief process. Her reaction may at first seem abnormal, but it is actually very realistic. Chronic illness is a terrible strain on family members and we can add this side into our story too.
I used to work in intensive care as a nurse. After the death of a patient, I came across his son sitting in the corridor. I sat down beside him ready to offer words of comfort. We were both in our mid-twenties and had never spoken before.  Back then, if I was to write the scene, I would have had him expressing his grief at losing his father, perhaps eyes brimming with tears, hands trembling in grief, reactions all equated with grief. The reality was very different. Although he was very distressed, he did not show it in the normal way. His mind was whirring and he was agitated as he didn’t know how to arrange all the practical things to do with a death in the family.  He gave the impression of being rather selfish – only thinking of himself and all the jobs he had to do. Where would he get the death certificate from? How would he move the body to the funeral directors?  Who would he have to notify? His father had died yet he was talking as though it was a problem to be solved. However, I understood his thought processes as not long before I had been in a very similar situation.
He had no experience of dealing with a death in the family. He felt ill prepared and knew little about how to sort out funerals, wills, death certificates etc. The one man he would normally turn to for advice was no longer there and he was in panic mode. He felt his loss very deeply, but expressed it in a different way and was overwhelmed by the practicalities facing him. He wanted to be a support to his mother and protect her by doing all the practical things required, but he felt totally inadequate for the jobs ahead. He felt that he was already failing his father and as he sat outside the intensive care unit, numb with shock, he spilled out his worries to a nurse who happened to sit down beside him. Luckily, from my recent experience, I could help him more than most.

So just remember, although it is important for a character’s reaction to be a believable one, sometimes you can add depth, a twist or an added layer to a plot or character, by allowing them to react in a way that is not quite what one would expect.

Fiction by Victoria Cornwall

Saturday, 2 March 2019

EDIT is a four letter word

There's only one possible topic for my blog this time - edit. Even though I've just finished my ninth (THE LITTLE B&B AT COVE END - HARPER-COLLINS)and this one was nowhere near as scary as my first it's still about as much fun as cleaning drains - it has to be done whether we like it or not. I had a deadline for this one ... and just under five weeks to get there. So plenty of time. Of course, I wasted time getting started as per usual. Edit, in case no one has ever thought of it, is an anagram of diet, tide, and tied. I waste a lot of time like that getting started. So, I'll take the word 'diet' .... an edit, for me, is quite a tool to diet because once I get started I often let lunchtime come and go, and just grab a quick something for supper - result in the diet department. As for 'tide', well, this book is set in a coastal village and with boats going in and out and beaches appearing and disappearing I had to check tide times. And then there was the 'tied' bit when I'd wasted so much time - because I had plenty of it anyway, didn't I? - and had accept I was now tied to my desk and had to refuse invites to coffee and lunch to get it finished. This time around it was suggested another thread to the story would be good ... something else for my heroine to unravel before she gets her man. A sub--plot of sorts.It was by no means obligatory but 'do give it some thought, Linda'. So I did. And I put one in, which meant other things had to be taken out to stop the word count from rocketing. Add to all that the usual things we have to do on an edit - checking timings for a start. I'm not good at those. I know it's Monday, or Sunday or a week later, but my reader doesn't - and that first reader was my editor so .... that had to be sorted. And then, of course, there are the double and triple checks we all have to do to make sure that eye/hair colour hasn't changed between page one and three hundred and one.
And shoe size - yes, I've done that. I had my hero in size nines at the beginning and then because ... well, we all know the connection between a man's shoe size and the size of a certain part of his anatomy ... he was getting sexier by the page. By the time he got to the end he was in size elevens.
There have been times when I've been doing all this when I've wondered whose book this is which is, perhaps, ungracious of me because I know my book will be much improved by the time I get to the end. I'm almost there on this one ... the structural edit is done, eye/hair colour, shoe size,et al have been checked and triple checked. Then comes the scary bit, sending back out there into the ether. Wish me luck!