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”

Introducing Janie Juke

Janie Juke has a famous ally – Hercule Poirot, no less.  Janie has been intrigued by Agatha Christie since she was a little girl and now she works in a mobile library she has the perfect opportunity to read the latest crime thrillers.

The Tapestry Bag sees Janie take on the first of her challenges as an amateur sleuth, when she tries to track down her best friend, Zara, who has gone missing. Zara’s boyfriend was killed in a hit-and-run and one year on from the day he died, Zara disappears.

The story takes place during the ‘swinging sixties’ in Tamarisk Bay, a quiet seaside town.  The Tapestry Bag is full of twists and turns, as Janie comes across unsavoury characters who each have a reason for wanting Joel dead.

Along the way, Janie turns to Agatha Christie’s crime novel,  The Mysterious Affair at Styles, to help her untangle the web of lies and deceit.

The Tapestry Bag is available for pre-order from Amazon.

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.

Goodbye and thank you

Two weeks ago, I woke to the sad news that one of my favourite authors had died.  She had dealt with her illness privately and with courage, which meant that many of her readers may have been as shocked as me at the news.  Helen Dunmore was just 64 when she died.  Much too young.

I first came across Helen’s novels about 10 years ago.  I think A Spell of Winter was my introduction to her beautifully crafted writing.  Since then I have read many more and marvelled at every one.  What’s more, on a visit to the London Book Fair in 2014, I was delighted to discover Helen being interviewed in the PEN Literary Salon, talking about her latest book.

Her writing is meticulously researched so that the reader is immersed in the setting and the period.  She quite literally takes you on a journey back in time and you feel as though you have met the characters and experienced the hardship and challenges they face.

For anyone who hasn’t yet explored Helen’s writing, I have provided a flavour of her work here, by taking a look at the last couple of novels I’ve read and given a taster of one I have on my reading pile still to look forward to.

The Siege – first published 2001

This is a harrowing tale, describing the siege of Leningrad in 1941.  The novel describes the bigger picture of how the second world war affected the lives of Russians, while focusing in on the desperate daily tragedies the German blockade inflicted on them.

Some of the images that Dunmore conjures up, of families being so hungry they boil shoe leather to make soup, stayed with me long after I turned the last page.

Dunmore writes:

‘Everyone now knows what it takes to keep life in a body.  You can be separated from your life so easily.  It might happen in the street, or in the bread queue, while you’re typing or while you’re sleeping.  You can die from a cold, an ear infection, or a miscarriage.  If you have a stomach ulcer it will open and bleed.  You can die so casually these days.’

The House of Orphans – first published 2006

The House of Orphans is set in Finland in 1902.  It tells the story of Eeva, an orphaned girl who is sent to a country orphanage when her father dies.  But Eeva has a strong will and steadily battles against the challenges that her impoverished life throws at her.

Eeva has never forgotten her children friend, Lauri, who is now caught up in the resistance movement.  Lauri is drawn into terrorism as he joins others to fight against the attempts of Russia to impose its rule on Helsinki.  But Eeva shows him that there is another way of living, that it’s possible to live with hope in your heart, rather than hatred.

Dunmore writes:

‘There would be no next, he knew that now.  Not for him.  Whatever it took to make a people’s martyr, he hadn’t got it.  They had shown him photographs of a row of dangling men.  But when he looked closer there were women as well.  They had their skirts tied at the ankles, for decency.

He would go away, with Eeva.  They did not have to stay here.  He had never thought he would really leave his country for ever, but then he’d never felt like this before.  It seemed to him that the sun had stopped shining on his life here.  He was living in an eclipse.  If he stayed, nothing lay ahead of him but weariness and risk and a long blunder through darkness towards a goal that he wasn’t even sure he wanted to reach.’

The Lie – first published in 2014

In The Lie Helen returns to the first world war, but this time the setting is Cornwall, where a young man remembers his experiences in the trenches.

I have yet to read this novel, but the Guardian says of this book:

The Lie is a fine example of Dunmore’s ability to perceive the long vistas of history in which the dead remain restless…It is a book in which ghosts, perhaps, remain imaginary: but they are none the less real for that.’

And the Times Literary Supplement says:

The Lie is a substantial work, and Dunmore is able to crystallize tragedy in a simple sentence.’

What is evident from all of Dunmore’s novels is that she is doing so much more than telling a story.  She is allowing us to see these periods of history through her eyes, eyes that are sharp and wise, and through her beautifully crafted prose.

She has received many plaudits, winning the McKitterick Prize, the Orange Prize and the TS Eliot Prize, and was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize for The Betrayal in 2010.  As well as 15 novels, Helen Dunmore has written many children’s books, young adult books and poetry.

Helen Dunmore was taken from us too soon, but she will continue to live on in her writing and in the minds of her readers.  I, for one, am grateful for that.

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”

Fiction meets fact

I bought a Sunday paper this week.  It’s unusual for me to buy a newspaper, let alone a Sunday one, but I had some time on my hands and was pleased for the chance to browse.   I was astounded then as I turned to page 13 of one of the supplements to find an article on Anglesey.  Not just any article, but Mark Radcliffe describing Anglesey as the place where he goes:

‘when things have been stressful and it sucks the stresses away somehow’.

As I read through the article I felt as though I had fallen into another universe – the universe in which I was reading the words of the enigmatic Walter from my novel Forgotten Children (which is still in manuscript form).

IMG_2734

Walter has a favourite bench on a clifftop, from which he can see the wide bay below and enjoy the seabirds swirling and nature at its wildest.  Imagine how strange it felt to read Mark Radcliffe explain:

‘If you climb up a little hillock opposite the church there is a bench there and sitting on it all you can see is the church, the church yard, the sea, the seabirds and ships.  I’ve sat there many times, just me and my dog…’

In Forgotten Children Walter helps the protagonist Emily through a difficult time in her life, gently sharing his wisdom, wisdom that has come to him as the result of a difficult childhood.  He settled in Anglesey as it gave him a sense of peace, a place where he could be at one with nature.  He feels safe and part of a small community, where he is not judged.

Walter would agree with Mark Radcliffe who says about Anglesey that it has:

‘got under my skin and really does have a special place in my heart.’

Walter wouldn’t be surprised that I picked up that newspaper, or that the article was on page 13.  I’m sure he would say that fate takes us to the places where we need to be.

Enjoying research

I live down south, but last week I was lucky enough to make a trip to North Wales.  While I was there I realised it offered a perfect opportunity for me to do some hands-on research.

Anglesey is one of the key settings in my forthcoming novel, Forgotten Children.  I visited this small island many years ago and from that vague memory I had described it as best I could.  But now I had the opportunity to spend a day there and to soak up the atmosphere and explore the very beaches where my protagonist walks her dog.

It was a wonderful, yet strange feeling, a mix of fiction and reality.  At every turn I was expecting to see my characters, who have become so real to me.  In Forgotten Children Emily rents a cottage for a while, Martha’s Cottage.  As I walked around Red Wharf Bay I saw several cottages that could easily have been Emily’s retreat.  The wide sweep of the Bay is the perfect place for dog walkers and I could just imagine Emily’s dog, Ralph, racing across the sand.

It was a grey day when I was there, but I could imagine it in all weathers.  The grassy backdrop to the beach will soon be filled with spring colour as the March sunshine warms the land.  We chatted to some locals who described the force of the recent storm, which swept across the village, creating some damage to trees, but also providing a reminder of the way that nature is in charge.

I’m so pleased I had the chance to spend a few hours there and I hope that my more recent experiences will help to more accurately inform my writing about this often forgotten outcrop.

 

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.