Feeling inspired

So much has happened over the last few weeks, all of which has helped to inspire my writing.

First off I was lucky enough to spend a few days in Denmark with my two writing buddies!  Spending hours talking and thinking about books is my idea of heaven, plus we got to see a beautiful country in stunning weather – a dusting of snow on the ground, but bright blue skies and no wind.  Perfect walking and talking weather.

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Returning from all that mental stimulation I was pleased to be able to throw myself into drafting the manuscript for Book 3 in the Janie Juke mystery series.  In Book 3 we meet Janie’s Aunt Jessica, who has been travelling abroad for the last few years.  She is returning from Italy and so my favourite country has once again been in my thoughts.  Just like in Lost Property, Book 3 has references to the Second World War, but getting the period detail correct is critical.

As every author knows, research is a fun part of the writing process, but can often be tricky.  Pinning down the right resource, or finding someone who knows the answers can often prove difficult and time-consuming.  So, I was very grateful to discover that my cousin (who lives in Rome) was able to provide me with wonderful stories, told to her by her parents, who lived through the Second World War.  What’s more, one of her grandchildren has been set the task of interviewing his 90-year-old great-grandmother to find out what she remembers about that time.  I can’t wait to hear the results!

My Italian cousin has proved to be a wonderful support, and not just with the new book. Over the past few weeks she has been steadily translating The Tapestry Bag into Italian! She says it has been a labour of love and she’s been enlisting every member of her family to check the translation.  So, I am hoping that later this year I will be able to publish an Italian edition of The Tapestry Bag, followed (hopefully!) with Italian versions of the other books in the series.

My final boost of inspiration during February is to see my five star reviews on Amazon continuing to increase in number.  There are now SIX for The Tapestry Bag and THREE for Lost Property.  It’s so encouraging to know that readers are enjoying the books and I am really grateful for all the support.

But for now, it is back to my drafting – hopefully it won’t be too long before it’s finished.  I’ll keep you posted!

Spending time with friends

I first met Janie Juke in February 2017.  I was walking my Scottie dog, Hamish, along a Spanish beach and she came into my head.  But back then I didn’t know her name, I didn’t know that she would be a mobile librarian and I hadn’t met any of her family and friends.

Since then Janie has become a friend.  I have discovered a little of her likes and dislikes, her fears and insecurities.  I’ve enjoyed getting to know her dad, Phillip, who is a blind physiotherapist and her husband, Greg, who is her soulmate and stalwart supporter.  But I’ve still got a lot to learn about Janie and about my writing craft.

Anyone who has tried their hand at writing fiction will understand that moment when your character takes on a life of their own.  As an author you think you are in control, but once the words start to appear on the page, you discover that you are not.  Well, that’s how it feels to me.

So far, Janie has had two major adventures.  In The Tapestry Bag, Janie is desperate to track down a friend who has gone missing.  By solving that mystery she realises that she has skills as an amateur sleuth and in the early chapters of Lost Property she is surprised to learn that those skills can earn her money.  Just like many young families in the 1960s (or now, for that matter) any opportunity to bolster their financial coffers is grabbed with both hands.

3D 008 sml

The Janie Juke mystery series is set in the late 1960s.  I have loved the chance to look back at that era when The Beatles were breaking the mould of popular music.  Medical advances were coming thick and fast.  Attitudes were changing to sex, crime, women’s rights and family life.

In Lost Property Janie meets Hugh Furness, a Second World War RAF pilot.  She learns something about life during the Second World War, and the years immediately following it.  Researching this era has given me a taste for it and I’d like to spend a bit more time with Hugh.

So what happens next?  Well, I know there is a lot more I have to learn about Janie and her family and friends.  I’m pretty certain she is going to take me on more adventures and I hope you will come along with me…it’s going to be a busy 2018!

 

Drilling for gold

When you write fiction you literally have the world at the end of your pen (or computer keyboard).  You can choose to construct characters who are not like anyone you have ever met.  They may not even be human.  Your plot can be as complex as a journey across the universe, or as simple as afternoon tea on the riverbank.  Your aim with every word you write is to take the reader to another place, to help them to escape from their everyday world for just a few minutes, or a few hours.  You are giving them the chance to be somewhere else without ever leaving their comfortable armchair.  That place you take them to has to be as vivid as you can make it.

Think about some of the greatest books you have read.  What stands out for you in your memory?  Let’s just consider some of the classics.  In Charlotte Bronte’s  Jane Eyre Thornfield Hall is the perfect setting for the dour Mr Rochester, can’t you just see the dusty, dark corridors and imagine the fear that Jane must have felt when she heard the screams from the ‘lunatic’ Bertha Rochester who he kept in a ‘third-storey room’ which she made into a ‘wild beast’s den’.

In Oliver Twist Dickens describes the place where Fagin and his ‘boys’ live:

‘high wooden chimney-pieces…cornices…black with neglect and dust..Spiders had built their webs in the angles of the walls and ceilings…the mouldering shutters were fast closed…and the window of ‘Oliver’s observatory was nailed down, and dimmed with the rain and smoke of years’.

Masterful.

But as writers of fiction when we consider setting we need to do so much more than focus on a place.  Yes, knowing whether your story takes place in England or Zambia, town or country, garden shed or high-rise is a part of it, but this is only the beginning.  There are so many more elements to setting than location.  Let’s run through some of them…

Cultural influences
Once you have decided on the location for your story, think about the way the culture of that place may influence your characters.  Are there particular local customs that could provide an interesting angle to your story?  Your characters don’t have to be in an exotic location to be affected by tradition.  Your setting may be an enclosed place, such a prison or care home, with its own set of rules and traditions.

There may be a particular accent related to your location that you can represent in some of the dialogue, or certain food delicacies that are renowned locally.

Population
Do your characters have to cope with rush hour commuters, or can they enjoy comfortable isolation? Does the population of your setting vary with the seasons?  A seaside town is packed with day-trippers and holidaymakers during the summer, but on a cold, wet February day it might be possible to walk along the seafront and not meet another soul.

Society and politics
What is the era for your story?  Are there any political events that might influence your characters?  As part of your research it might be worth checking to find out whether any life-changing laws were passed in the year you have chosen for your plot.  Take, for example, the difference in UK cities before and after the Clean Air Act of 1956.  What about more recent events like the UK decimalisation of 1971 – are your characters still dealing in pounds, shilling and pence?

Time and place
Think about the landmarks in your location.  When were they created?  When were they destroyed?  By investigating a little you can really give your reader a sense of your setting at exactly the time your story is unravelling.

Geography and climate
Of course, the geography of your setting may be the first thing that comes to mind.  Forests or mountains, lakes or fields.  The landscape will affect your characters in all sorts of ways. Does your character enjoy cycling along the flat country lanes of Norfolk, or prefer mountain biking around North Wales.

The climate can have a significant effect on your story and your characters.  Are they huddled up in winter coats during a severe winter, or basking in the heat of a summer that breaks all records?  Researching weather patterns can help with scene setting, but we are writing fiction, so if you want to make your summer the hottest for twenty years then go ahead, your reader will enjoy feeling that warmth and probably won’t be diving into the internet to check the temperature records.

Atmosphere
We all know that the weather can affect our mood.  It makes sense therefore that your characters may be temporarily cheered by the first signs of spring, despite the traumas they may have just experienced.   But the atmosphere of your setting is more than temperature.  How might your protagonist feel when she stumbles through a dark forest at dusk?  What about someone who has spent their life outside, growing up on a farm, who suddenly finds themselves in a cocktail bar heaving with sweaty people.  How might he feel when he has grown up listening to birdsong and his ears are now bombarded with a head-banging disco beat?

James Frey in How to write a damn good novel II cites examples of some of the great novels that have contrasted characters with their setting to create real page turners.  In Gone with the wind Scarlett O’Hara is a ‘Southern belle, born and bred to be pampered’ put into a ‘war-ravaged country where she has to grub for roots to survive’.  In Jaws the sheriff, Brody, can’t swim and yet is put into a boat ‘during a hunt for a man-eating shark’.

Time
Naturally the time of day will influence your setting; whether it is light or dark, time for breakfast, or time to settle down for a drink before bed.  You can use the interaction between your character and the setting to express emotion.

Remember that your reader will have certain associations with particular times of the day or night.  If your protagonist is walking out at midnight, down an unlit street your reader may feel fear and expect something bad is going to happen.  But perhaps you want to suggest to your reader that there are other ways of looking at the world.  This may be the moment she comes across her soulmate as he is walking home from shift work.  The event is crystallised in time, a story recounted to their children and grandchildren on each wedding anniversary.  Something about the way you describe that setting at that particular point in your story will lead your reader down a certain path – even if you include a few moments of surprise first.

As well as the time of day we have the seasons to consider.  The short days of winter, the long days of summer – each giving rise to different pastimes, different work patterns.  With the seasons come national holidays – Christmas, Easter and personal holidays, like birthdays, anniversaries.  If your story involves other cultures remember that there may be other festivals to consider, such as Passover or Thanksgiving.

In Anita Shreve’s The Pilot’s Wife Kathryn reminisces about Christmases spent with her husband (who has since died).  They are driving and:

‘her stomach is so full from Julia’s Christmas dinner that she has to flip the seat back to make herself more comfortable’.  She describes ‘the cream-coloured sweater that she knit for him their first winter together…[that he wears].. loyally each Thanksgiving and Christmas’.

As you take your reader with you on that special journey into your story world, drill down as far as you can into the detail of your setting, for that is where you will find the gold…

Do you have favourite techniques when it comes to scene-setting?  What tips can you suggest?  What about your most-loved novels – how have best-selling authors accomplished the scene-setting in their stories?

Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.

Forgotten children

I woke this morning to listen again to some of the horrors experienced by the British child migrants.  The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse in England and Wales has the first day of public hearings today and its initial focus will be the British children sent to Australia between 1945 and 1974.

I was studying for my MA in Professional Writing when I first learned about these children, some as young as four years old, who were taken from British care homes and put on ships to journey to the other side of the world.  When they arrived they were placed in institutions where they were often used as slave labour.  They experienced dreadful neglect, hardship and abuse of all kinds.  It was only when a Nottinghamshire social worker, Margaret Humphries, started to investigate that the truth came to light.  In 1987 she founded the Child Migrants Trust and she has since dedicated the rest of her life to helping children – now adults – to find out the truth about their past.

There have been several books already written about the child migrants, one of which was made into a heart-wrenching film, Oranges and Sunshine.

The more I read about the sad tales of the children who were taken from all they knew in the name of providing ‘good, sound British stock’ for our colonies, the more I felt impelled to try to raise awareness in the best way I know how.

I am currently putting the finishing touches to my novel Forgotten Children, which tells of a mother’s desperate attempts to find her son, and a young man’s search for his parents.  The story is inspired by the factual accounts of some of the child migrants, who contributed to a book, entitled, Lost Children of the Empire, which is now out of print, but I managed to track it down in the British Library.  It made for sad reading.

Forgotten Children will be published later this year.