Food for the soul

Plato advised us that:

‘Knowledge is food for the soul’

I’ve been thinking about this quote, which led me to thinking about books and reading.  I started to read when I was around four years old (according to my mum!).  Since that tender age I have rarely been without a book in my hands.  I was lucky enough to spend my working days editing and even though the subject matter focused on health-related conditions and medicines, it was still fun chasing words around the page.

Now my focus is fiction and my feeling is that people read fiction for a whole host of reasons.   There are times when I just want to read for pleasure, laying in the bath, or sitting in the garden.  The book in my hands gives me the chance to block out all thoughts of chores.  It might be a grabbed ten minutes, or a leisurely half hour (or longer, if I’m lucky!).  I’ve escaped into another world, maybe another time zone and the only interruptions are the birds singing a little too loudly, or the bath water getting cold.

Then there are the times when I read to learn.  As a fiction writer I love to discover the way that other authors approach character development, plot structure or timelines. As a writer I see myself as an apprentice, constantly trying to develop my craft, with years of learning ahead of me.  So, when I come across a beautifully constructed sentence I read it over and over and dream about the day when I can write that perfect piece of prose.

Here are the opening lines from a wonderful book by Ann Patchett, called ‘Bel Canto’:

When the lights went off the accompanist kissed her.  Maybe he had been turning towards her just before it was completely dark, maybe he was lifting his hands.  There must have been some movement, a gesture, because every person in the living room would later remember a kiss.

 

And some more from Rachel Joyce’s tear jerker, ‘The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry’:

Harold Fry was a tall man who moved through life with a stoop, as if expecting a low beam, or a screwed-up paper missile, to appear out of nowhere. […] The boy learned quickly that the best way to get on in life was to keep a low profile.’

 

Of course, there is a whole lot more to learn from fiction.  When I read, Helen Dunmore’s ‘The Siege’, I learned about the horrors of the Nazi’s winter siege of Leningrad in 1941, which killed six hundred thousand people.  Helen Dunmore focuses in on the detailed experiences of her characters, to tell a story that affected so many.  They learned to boil shoe leather to make soup, such was the devastating hunger they experienced.  Certainly an eye opener for me and a story that stayed with me long after I finished reading it.

Books also bring us together.  There are hundreds, if not thousands, of book clubs around the country where friends get together maybe once a month and chat.  They chat about the book they have all read, but it’s a great intro to chatting generally and a way of making new friends.  Then there are online forums – The Fiction Café – is a great Facebook group where people can share their thoughts about their favourite books.   Passing on recommendations also means that we can all be tempted to try something we might not have otherwise picked up.

Libraries and charity bookshops are wonderful places, giving us the chance to read to our heart’s content for free, or for just a few pennies.  We are coming into the season of summer fetes and festivals, where I always make a beeline for the book stall!  I am a member of the Chichester Network of Independent Authors and throughout the summer we will be out and about at the local fairs and festivals – maybe I will see you there!

We are a lucky bunch of readers – we have access to books in ways that our parents and grandparents might have only dreamed of.

These are a just a few reasons why people read – how about you?  What makes you dive into a book?  Share your thoughts by adding a comment below.

 

 

 

 

 

What makes a great author?

I’ve been finding out more about that wonderful Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie.  Having just read her biography, I have discovered some interesting facts about her.  Here are some of them:

  • her ideas for plots, characters and settings came in a random way – she filled numerous notebooks, but there was no order or organisation to her note-taking
  • she lived a busy life outside of her writing and was prepared to try her hand at all sorts of pursuits – even windsurfing!
  • she travelled extensively
  • she loved her privacy.

While reading about her I have tried to deduce what it was about her writing that made her as famous and well-loved as she was – and still is.

Here are some thoughts:

  • Agatha Christie lived for 85 years and was writing for most of those years – her first book was published in 1920 – when she was thirty years old, and she was still getting great reviews for newly published works in the 1970s – fifty years later
  • her books have been translated into numerous languages and have been read by millions
  • it seems to me that her focus was always the story – she loved the psychology of crime – creating twists and turns throughout to keep her readers guessing.

In the words of her biographer:

‘Agatha’s books last because they are good, if sometimes hopelessly improbable stories.  The reader, once hooked, wants to know what happens next.  They deal with myths, fantasies, obsessions shared by people of every sort: quests and contests, death, sex, money, murder, conspiracy, transformation, power, the triumph of the simple over the complex, the importance of the mundane as well as the cosmic.  They construct a pattern, assigning facts and emotions to their appointed place as problems are resolved and guilt and innocence established.’

‘Agatha Christie – A biography’ by Janet Morgan (published 2017)

So, how does all this help a rookie author called Isabella Muir, who has developed a fascination for writing crime mysteries?

Well, by delving into the life of Agatha Christie’s life I can see that she lived a full life – grasping opportunities to explore and to learn about people, places, experiences.  It seems to me that it was a life well lived.  Inevitably that spilled into her writing and her energy and enthusiasm meant that she just kept on going – writing and living.

I’ve been learning from Agatha, at the same time as Janie Juke has been learning from her hero, Hercule Poirot.  Janie has successfully solved two mysteries so far in ‘The Tapestry Bag’ and ‘Lost Property’, with her third – ‘The Invisible Case’ waiting in the wings for publication this June.  Janie and I have a long road ahead – but if we keep Agatha Christie in her hearts and in our heads then we are in good company!

The Invisible Case will soon be available for pre-order on Amazon – watch this space!

Follow Isabella Muir on Twitter @SussexMysteries for the latest news about the Janie Juke mystery series.

Dreaming of Italy!

If you are waiting for Janie Juke’s next adventure ‘The Invisible Case’, I can confirm that progress is good!  The first draft is complete and plans are in place for publication some time in June…watch this space…

Meanwhile, I can share with you that I have tapped into my Italian roots for Janie’s newest mystery.  It’s been wonderful recalling childhood memories of long train journeys to Rome, with all the excitement of our picnic breakfast.  It makes me smile now to think about how we downed our cornflakes with evaporated milk, as though it was a meal fit for royalty!  Fortunately, most of our trips were made as a family, which meant we filled a compartment, so no danger of annoying other passengers with our endless games of I-spy.

On our return journeys we spent hours munching our way through all the fruit that kind aunts and uncles had donated to us for our travels.  On one occasion I remember an uncle arriving at Rome station to say goodbye and to hand over a suitcase full of grapes!

My dad took us all on long walks around Rome and, even though my aunt lived quite a way from the station, dad insisted we walk to Roma Termini before we started any adventure.

Appropriate then, that Chapter 1 of ‘The Invisible Case’ starts in exactly the same place…

 

 

Tamarisk Bay!

At last, readers of the Janie Juke mystery series can find their way around Janie’s home town of Tamarisk Bay with the aid of this wonderful map.

For those of you who live in Sussex, see if you can spot some familiar landmarks!

Look out for the second edition of The Tapestry Bag and Lost Property which will include the map, as well as some tempting bonus chapters.

Many thanks to figurative artist Richard Whincop for creating such a masterpiece!

EARLY ONE MORNING

(by Virginia Baily, published 2015)

A kind friend lent me this novel when he discovered I was interested in learning about what life was like in Italy during the Second World War, as part of the research for the third book in the Janie Juke mystery series.  The perfect about this storyline is that it is set in the very year and region that I had been focused on – Rome, 1943.

This was the year when Italians changed their allegiance and the English went from being their enemies to being their friends.  In truth, I am sure that for average Italian the English were never considered the enemy – but with Mussolini choosing to be pally with Hitler, well, it didn’t bode well.  Then, after a ‘vote of no confidence’ in July 1943 Mussolini was arrested and in October that year Italy declared war on Germany.

Early One Morning captures all of the difficulties of life at that time.  It has a powerful start, with the protagonist, Chiara, saving the life of a young Jewish boy – Daniele – when his family is rounded up by German troops.   As the story unfolds we learn how that single moment has devastating results for Daniele and Chiara for years to come.  We meet Chiara again in the 1970s to discover how she copes when she receives an expected phone call.  A phone call that brings back memories she had hoped to forget.

The tale is beautifully told, well written, and full of detail that helps the reader to see, smell and taste what life was like in Italy in the forties and again in the seventies.  It was during the seventies that I made many of my own trips to Rome, with family and with friends.  My memories of pizza al taglio is perfectly described here:

‘Customers were coming out of the baker’s, clutching pieces of something hot, wrapped in waxed paper, biting into it before they even got out of the door, so irresistibly delicious was it.’

And here, a description of one of Rome’s famous squares:

‘…Piazza Navona, with the three fountains, the water bouncing off the great white statues now and sparkling in the bright midday sunshine.’

All in all, the book was a joy to read and took me back there to that place and that time, without me ever having to leave my house!

 

 

 

Italian memories

The second book in the Janie Juke mystery series (Lost Property)  introduces Janie’s aunt, Jessica.  Jessica has been travelling around Europe for a few years and is now planning to return to Tamarisk Bay.

In the third book of the series we hear much more about Jessica and her mysterious Italian friend, Luigi.  As I’ve been drafting the third book, I’ve enjoyed immersing myself in happy memories of Italy.  Having an Italian mother, as well as cousins who live in Rome, I’ve been lucky to have the chance for loads of trips to that beautiful country.  I think I was about four years old when I first visited and since then not many years pass when I don’t make at least a flying visit.

One of my favourite places is the pretty port of Anzio.  Anzio lies just about an hour away from Rome and is a favoured resort for Italian holidaymakers.  There is a gentle buzz about the place, with wonderful fish restaurants all along the port and bars on every street corner.  In the centre of the town is Piazza Pia, with its marble fountain right in front of the Chiesa of SS Pia e Antonio.

Anzio Church and Fountain

My favourite holiday pastime is to sit at one of the bars, with my cappuccino, watching the Italians make their evening passegiata.  Looking at this photo, I can almost imagine I am right there, with the warm sun on my back and the happy chatter of Italian voices in my ears.  All good inspiration for the next Janie Juke book!

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!

 

Nanowrimo – one year on

One year ago I accepted an invitation.  I didn’t know then that it would be an acceptance that  would change my life.  Perhaps that sounds a little dramatic?  Nevertheless, when I look back over the last twelve months and catalogue the differences, it feels like a fair assertion.

The invitation came from Authorlab colleague, Chris Paton who writes as Christoffer Petersen ‘How about joining in with Nanowrimo?’ he asked me.  Back then, I didn’t know much about the forum that encourages authors to write up to 50,000 words during the month of November.  The forum works on the basis that online writing buddies support each other through the ups and downs of putting together the first draft of a novel.  Chris and I spurred each other on.  During that month I worked to complete a novel I had started for my MA in Professional Writing.  The novel, Forgotten Children, had itself been forgotten and it was a good feeling to re-immerse myself in the plot and get to know the characters.  I didn’t achieve my 50,000 words, but by the end of the month I had got into the habit of writing daily.  More than a habit, that daily writing became a comfortable addiction.

By Christmas 2016 I had finished the draft of Forgotten Children and sent it out to friends and family for comment and feedback.  But I wanted to keep writing.  In February 2017, while strolling along a beach in southern Spain with my faithful Scottie dog, Hamish, I had an idea for another novel.  Continuing my daily writing habit, I started drafting.  Then in April, Chris suggested we commit to Campnano, which works in a similar way to Nanowrimo.  With a daily target to push me on, I managed to complete the first draft of The Tapestry Bag.  During the spring and summer I beavered away drafting and re-editing until I was ready to send The Tapestry Bag out to the world.

While writing The Tapestry Bag I got to know my key character, Janie Juke, very well.  So well, in fact, that I realised she deserved a series of stories.  Janie is a young and unlikely librarian who has a passion for Agatha Christie novels and sees herself as a budding Hercule Poirot.  The Janie Juke crime mystery series is set in the late 1960s in Tamarisk Bay, an imaginary seaside town, modelled on my home town of St Leonards-on-sea.  As Janie goes about her library work she discovers many of the characters in this sleepy resort are not quite what they might appear.  She cleverly weaves her way through a puzzle of clues, unwrapping secrets and challenging lies.

The second Campnano in July helped me to complete the second in the Janie Juke mystery series, Lost Property, where Janie is approached by a Second World War pilot to track down an old friend.  In Lost Property Janie teams up with local journalist and friend, Libby Frobisher, and between them they delve into the past in order to solve the mystery.

Janie Juke Promo 02

In between drafting the two books in the Janie Juke mystery series I’ve been delighted to learn about the successes of two other Authorlab colleagues.  Continue reading Nanowrimo – one year on

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.

Following in Virginia’s footsteps

It would be nice to think that all there is to writing is putting the words on the page.  But even some of our greatest writers have done much more than that.  Let’s look at Virginia Woolf as an example.  She wrote, but she also collaborated with the Bloomsbury Group, ‘that intellectual group of writers and artists’.  She even got involved in publishing her own novels via the Hogarth Press, which she founded in 1917 with her husband Leonard.  An early example of self-publishing perhaps?

V-Woolf

One hundred years on and it seems to be more important than ever that when you decide to be a writer you need to also make a commitment to learn several ‘add-on’ occupations.

Tell someone you are a writer and they may imagine you spend your days enjoying the solitude of a log cabin or cosy study, letting your creativity explode onto the page.  Then it’s just a case of tidying it all up, doing a spell-check and sending it off to a publisher.   Isn’t that what fiction writing is all about?

If you are a writer, or if you know a writer, then you will have a clearer idea of the reality of the situation.  Continue reading Following in Virginia’s footsteps