I wrote here about planning my next book, which is going to be set in my adopted home county of Gloucestershire. For the sake of the plot I’m not setting it in one identifiable place, but instead I’m picking buildings, shops, and settings from several of my favourite villages to create somewhere that plenty of things can happen to my fictional family.
Here is St. Endec’s church, where the grandfather of two of my main characters is a member of the band of bellringers.
It’s actually a photograph of St Giles, Maisemore, taken from the lime avenue which I think was planted as part of celebrations for Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953 (I’m sure somebody will put me right on that if I’ve mis-remembered!). This lane makes a sweet-smelling stroll during the summer. With Maisemore apiaries only half a mile away as the bee flies, the place is buzzing during June and July!
Here’s the local pub my characters use…
Although this picture is of the Red Lion in Avebury, the pub in my book is called the Bear and Ragged Staff (or “The Bear “for short). When I was young and single, the Red Lion was about half-way between where I lived, and the home of the man I thought was my Mr Right. When I discovered how Wrong he was, I dropped him like a red-hot bar meal and have never been back. That’s a shame, because it used to be a great place for an assignation!
Here’s the village duck-pond, which is actually part of the mill in Lower Slaughter…
The Cotswolds was only an hour’s drive from where I was born in Somerset, but the countryside and cottages are completely different in character. As I child I thought the villages of Upper and Lower Slaughter must have been the site of terrible battles but the truth was much closer to my soggy Somerset home than I realised. The Slaughters are named after the old English words “slough” or “slothre”, which means muddy.
My heroine’s sister lives in one of these cottages in Arlington Row, Bibury…
Like many beautiful Cotswold settings, these cottages have appeared on all sorts of chocolate boxes, calendars, and postcards. That complicated roof-line and all those hundreds of little roof tiles give this row another claim to fame. If you have a British passport, it’s one of the (hopefully) impossible-to-forge watermarks inside.
I’ve squirrelled away all these photographs in the images file of my in the Scrivener database I talked about here, but I’m still looking for things to include in my identikit Cotswold setting. Can you help me pack my fictional village with all the right things?
When you think about the countryside, what says “England” to you?
I’ve always wanted to write fiction, but until I sold my first book I earned money by writing non-fiction articles and producing photographs for magazines such as The Lady and The Garden. Among other things, I wrote monthly gardening tips, and pieces on how to keep poultry and pigs.
Once I began to get articles commissioned on a regular basis, I could afford to go back to writing fiction. At first I wrote short stories, as they fitted in well with my non-fiction writing schedule.
I love listening to the radio, so trying to produce some radio drama was an obvious move. During my first year as a full-time writer I was shortlisted for the BBC Young Writers’ Competition with an historical drama, but found writing stories and novels much easier than producing a script!
How I came to be published in book form for the first time is a saga in itself. One morning on Woman’s Hour, a writer was interviewed about her new historical novel. It sounded like a great read, but in those days OH and I were poverty-stricken newly-weds. Unable to justify buying a hardback book, I ordered it from the local library.
I can still remember how indignant I felt when I read the opening sentence, which went something like this…
The beautiful heroine looked down from her vantage point on the top of Toghill at workmen busily building Bath’s Royal Crescent….
That was written by someone looking at a map, not a view. I was born only a few miles from Toghill. For anyone to see Bath, let alone pick out workmen on the Royal Crescent, they would need to be about twenty metres tall and blessed with the eyesight of a hawk! There is a great view from the top of Toghill, but it is in the direction of Bristol, not Bath. On a clear day, you can see the Severn estuary. The city of Bath is not far behind you, it’s true, but because of the lie of the land the city is invisible until you travel several kilometres south east from the top of Toghill.
I decided then and there it would be a poor show if I couldn’t write something a bit better than that. Taking the script I’d written for the BBC, I reworked it into an historical novel. This was in the days before the internet, so all my research had to be done during trips to Gloucester library.
During my many visits, I used the library’s copy of the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook to find a possible publisher for my book. That was disappointing. Only one of the publishers would accept work direct from writers. All the others dealt only with agents.
The single publisher that would accept unagented manuscripts was Harlequin, under their Masquerade imprint. Just before Christmas one year I sent off the first three chapters and a synopsis, as requested in the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. In January I got a lovely letter asking me for the rest of the story. I sent it off straight away, together with return postage (as Snail Mail was the only way in those days).
I didn’t sit back to wait. I kept busy, creating and submitting more articles and photographs on gardening, which is how I fill my time when I’m not writing. At the beginning of May I opened the letter every writer dreams of getting—Knight’s Pawn had been accepted for publication!
The first thing I did was to check out the most impressive-sounding literary agents in the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. I wrote to them, saying I’d landed a contract to write historical novels for Harlequin Mills and Boon. I got a reply from one of the biggest agents in the country almost by return, inviting me up to a meeting at their headquarters in London.
I was shown into a plush office where I was given tea and cake by a lovely guy who said it was his first week in the job. He sweet-talked me into agreeing to become his client, and said he’d get a contract couriered to me as soon as it had been drawn up.
I was so excited, I spent the journey home from London working on the first draft of another book. A week passed, then ten days, but no contract arrived. I was climbing the walls with excitement until the awful day two weeks after my trip when a slim white envelope arrived.
It was an apology dictated by the head of the firm. It was their policy not to take on clients who wrote historical fiction for Mills and Boon, the letter said. The Harlequin contracts were pretty much “boilerplate”— that is, there was little if any room for an agent to negotiate different terms. The man who interviewed me hadn’t been fully aware of the circumstances, the letter said, and so with regret they didn’t feel able to offer me a contract after all.
It was tough, discovering I was that new agent’s first big mistake, but this cautionary tale just goes to show that if something seems too good to be true, it usually is.
That was years ago and I never did find an agent, but it doesn’t seem to have done my career much harm. I may have missed some opportunities and I’d love someone to take control of my writing calendar, but I’ve always had plenty of work, and I get to keep 100% of my pre-tax profits. If I had an agent, I’d lose 15% of it, in their commission!
What’s been the biggest excitement in your writing life?
This week, I’m using one of my own short stories as a real-life example of all the steps—from motivation to publication—that have appeared in this series.
In 2018 I took my seventeen-year-old-son to a university open day and ended up signing on for a Masters course myself. There had to be a story in that experience. To answer the question Why Write? posed in Part One of Writing for Pleasure, Profit, and Posterity, I wanted to satisfy my creative instinct, capture my experience of going back into education as a mature student, and do it in a way that would entertain others.
Readers like to relate to characters, and giving the people in my story everyday worries would make them convincing. Part Ten of my series included the top concerns of people today, two of which are ageing, and work-related worries. That pair of posers certainly kept me awake while I was trying to decide whether or not to sign up for university. I worried that I was too old, and that my poor school record (I left at sixteen) might mean I couldn’t keep up with the other students.
Projecting my fears onto a fictional character and making sure she overcame them might persuade others to become mature students, too.
In real life, it turned out that I was worrying about nothing. There were people of allages on my course. One of them had children older than me! I survived all the coursework and assessments, and emerged at the end of two years with lots more life experience, and a distinction.
My short story project was always going to be an optimistic piece, so The People’s Friend was the obvious choice when it came to finding my audience, as discussed in Part Three of Writing for Pleasure, Profit, and Posterity. That magazine’s combination of upbeat fiction and articles, crafting, cooking, and beautiful illustrations has kept it popular for generations. The People’s Friend has exacting standards but provides lots of information to help potential writers— see here for details.
Parts Four and Five of my series centred on inspiration, and using your own experiences as a starting point. I decided my short story would be built around a woman wondering whether she was up for a huge challenge. Every other day, I face a struggle of my own like that. I’m built for comfort rather than speed, but I force myself to use a treadmill for the good of my health. I may not be fast, but I keep going! In contrast, one of our friends is a workaholic. His doctor is always telling him to diet, stop smoking, and take up exercise. He’s never got around to doing any of that, although he did try walking rugby…once!
Those two contrasting real-life people gave me the basis of my central fictional characters. I then needed a theme for my story. Waving my last “baby” off to university was hard, but it led directly to me having a great time there myself. That idea of turning a bittersweet experience into an advantage was something I wanted to share. It proves that life doesn’t end when your children move on. Finding something which keeps your brain active, gets you out of the house, and involves meeting other people can help fill the gap in your life.
Part Six of my series dealt with turning thoughts into a manuscript. As I was only going to be writing a short story rather than a novel, I didn’t use Scrivener for this project. I used the prose template I have on my computer, which automatically creates manuscripts in 12-point Times New Roman, double spaced, with wide margins, and numbered pages.
I typed my notes straight onto my computer, saving my work regularly both as a document and onto a thumb drive. I named my file Restart_Short_Story, as that working title plays on the heroine’s aim of restarting her life. It also suggests a change in her relationship with her husband, and gives a nod toward running, which is central to the plot. The word Restart formed the header on every page of my manuscript, keeping me focussed on those core themes.
Some of Restart was written during sourdough-making sessions. My recipe requires the dough to be worked four times, with a ten minute break between each burst of kneading. The kitchen timer would go off just when I’d got into the swing of writing a scene. That meant I couldn’t wait to get back to it (once I’d scraped the dough off my fingers). Two more important writing tips: never get flour on your keyboard—and the best time to end a writing session is when it’s going really well. That way, you’ll be raring to go next time you start work.
Gradually my story Restart took shape. I kept Part Nine‘s Four C’s of Creative Writing (Character, Contrast, Charisma, and Conflict) in mind as I worked. Quiet housewife and mother Sue is a foil for her boisterous, workaholic husband Malcolm. He can be annoying, but his charisma is balanced with charm. Sue is keen to pick up the ambition she abandoned when they had a family. I made use of contrast in my writing as well as in my characters, so there’s internal monologue as well as dialogue, and the settings vary between a car interior, and out in the fresh air.
As well as my central middle-aged couple, an elderly lady, and a teenager also appear giving contrasts in age, too. I wrote the story in the first person, from heroine Sue’s point of view as—while this story is complete fiction, and this couple definitely aren’t me and OH— her hopes and worries were based on my hopes and worries. I really did write this story from my heart!
The internal conflict which is vital to keep readers hooked is introduced right at the start of the story. Sue secretly wants to investigate the university course but she is afraid she is too old, and keeps quiet. She knows Malcolm will laugh at her dream, because he never takes anything seriously. Malcolm has an inner conflict of his own. He hides his worries about what will happen now they’re rattling around in their family home alone by covering it with humour.
Once I had those characters and their hidden concerns in place, I added some external conflict to add excitement. Sue and Malcolm witness a mugging. She chases the thief and catches him, which convinces her she’s fitter and more determined than she thought. Malcolm’s pride and confidence in Sue’s ability is obvious, and by the end of the story they have reaffirmed their love for each other. Sue decides to sign up for university, while Malcolm is going to look again at his attitude to work, and his health.
In Part Two of this series I wrote about finding people to support you in your writing ambitions. I usually use workshop sessions organised by the Marcher chapter of the Romantic Novelists’ Association, although the first outing for this short story was a university workshop. A well-run workshop is a brilliant way to improve a piece of work. You can learn a lot by helping other writers, too.
A good workshop is one where only constructive criticism is allowed. As novelist Joanna Maitland puts it, offer three stars and a wish. That is, aim to give three pieces of praise before you make a suggestion for improvement. It’s a classic example of do-as-you-would-be-done-by!
When I had finished the workshop revisions, I went back and checked the length required byThe People’s Friend. Restart would fit nicely into one of their 2,000-word slots, so during the editing process I made sure the word count didn’t go over that figure. When I was happy with the result I saved it onto a thumb drive again, then sent a copy by email to my beta reader. I copied myself in on the email, so I had an insurance copy safe in my inbox.
Once the story was returned to me and I had made the revisions suggested by my reader, I added a front page which set out the working title Restart, my name, the word count, and had my full contact details at the bottom. I copied those, and pasted them onto the last page of my manuscript. After adding the word END and the word count below the final paragraph of my story, I sent it off to The People’s Friend.
Every publisher receives thousands of submissions every year, so waiting for them to respond can be frustrating. Keep writing while you wait. It makes the time pass much more quickly, and means you’ll have more pieces to submit.
Although I called my story and computer file Restart, I never assumed that would be the title of the published work. They are almost always changed for publication, and Restart duly became Catch Me If You Can. There are a number of reasons why publishers change titles. They may have already used that one in the past, their house style may require titles that consist of more than one word, or it has to be a certain length to suit the layout of the typeset page, for example.
That’s the story of my story, from initial ideas about Restart, right through to its submission and eventual publication as Catch Me If You Can. Like everything worth waiting for, success in creative writing takes time but every second is a pleasure, and it’s an amazing feeling to see your name in print.
I’m taking a short break from blogging about writing to get my PhD schedule sorted out. If there’s anything you’d like me to cover in this blog in future, or if you’d like to read Catch Me If You Can, contact me and I’ll see what I can do.
The four C’s of creative writing are Character, Charisma, Contrast, and Conflict—so here’s what you need to know about them…
Every human being on this planet is the sum of all their past experiences. From princes to paupers and everyone in between, the way they were treated as a child, their birth position in their family, education, health, work (or lack of it) and every other life experience comes together to create a unique person. We’re all works in progress!
Your past is what makes you, you. It’s the same with fictional characters. To make the life they live between the pages of your book feel real, give each of them a past. The very best characters capture the imagination of readers so well, it feels as though they will have a life beyond the end of the story.
Kate Walker provides a great template for developing your characters in her 12-Point Guide to Writing Romance. I adapt her idea by adding some questions of my own about background and circumstances each time I start a new writing project. This creates a database for every new fictional character, tailored to the story I’m writing.
Some of the most interesting questions to ask yourself about your characters concern their childhood. The position of children within their family is a fascinating subject, and important. The upbringing of an only child will be very different from the life of a youngster who is the middle one of three (potentially bossed around by the eldest child, and invisible if their younger sibling needs attention). And what about twins? How much of their character depends on nature, and how much on nurture? Perhaps their mother saw one as “good” and the other as “attention seeking”. The treatment you get as a child has a lasting effect.
I’ve never been a believer in horoscopes but when the poet Paul Groves gave me a book on Zodiac Types, I had to admit that there were eerie similarities between my own character, and those of my birth sign. After that, I compared the personality types of all my family members and friends with the book. It scored more hits than misses, so I’ve used it ever since to help me create characters. Whether or not astrology actually affects our day-to-day life, the way this book lists linked traits of personality, body type, suggestions for ideal careers (or jobs to avoid!) and other details provides exactly the sort of information to kick-start anyone’s imagination.
Whether they are heroes or villains, the best fictional characters have charisma. This is much more than simple charm. It’s almost indefinable, but it’s obvious when you see it, or read about a character who has it.
Charisma is a combination of confidence and determination, together with an ability to communicate, and inspire. Charismatic people aren’t always “nice”. Some of the most charismatic people in real life aren’t liked by everyone. Eva Perón and Donald Trump are both examples of charisma in action, but that doesn’t mean you’d automatically vote for either of them.
In fiction, Pride and Prejudice’s Fitzwilliam Darcy is charismatic: George Wickham is charming. Darcy gets the job done: Wickham basks in admiring glances. The best type of fictional hero combines drive and determination with charm and intelligence. Create characters your readers can recognise, then tune their individual facets up or down to make them either more or less heroic, depending on the part they will play in your story.
Keep contrast in mind whenever you are writing. If all your characters think, speak, dress and act in similar ways, it will be difficult for the reader to see them as individuals.
Use different types of setting—interiors, exteriors, town, and country, to add variety to your work and keep your audience interested. Use the weather as shorthand, but avoid slipping into cliché.
Shakespeare set the standard for using weather—imagine how different the opening scene of Macbeth would be if he met the witches on a sun-warmed beach at midsummer! Play with the idea of weather setting the scene by turning the idea around— contrast the furious revelations that end a marriage with the beautiful peace of a summer evening, to highlight how poignant relationships can be. Alternatively, have your lovers brought together by a thunderstorm rather than being torn apart. That idea worked beautifully for Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire in the Isn’t is a lovely day? routine in the film Top Hat.
Within your story, vary the length of your scenes and chapters. Contrast is also useful in pacing your story. Follow some languid scene-setting with lines of punchy dialogue, or let a violent incident result in a tender love scene, for example when Jack slips away in Titanic.
Once you’ve created a great character, give them something to kick against. In the memorable image first used by an anonymous nineteenth-century theatre critic, you need to chase your protagonist(s) up a tree, then throw rocks at them. There’s a time and place for introspective fiction, but at times of stress or boredom most people don’t want to read about Jo Dull from Beigeville. They’ll grab an Ian Fleming, ready to follow James Bond across oceans to exotic locations.
If your hero chases villains around the world leaving a trail of destruction behind them, that’s what is known as external conflict. Plenty of successful books and films rely on little more than that, but including an element of internal conflict adds depth to both characters and storyline.
External conflict is the sort you see in news bulletins (or Bond films)—war, natural disasters, accidents, fights, financial panics, and so on. Internal conflict is the struggle within a character to reconcile their opposing emotions. They may feel inadequate while trying to live up to the expectations of others, or struggle with the contrast between their public image and private reality.
Internal conflict is the engine driving your character to act in the way they do—guilt, shame, fear, and secret love are some good starting points.
This isn’t the place to discuss the contrast between our contemporary liberal values and the moral strictures of Victorian England, but Holman Hunt’s painting The Awakening Conscienceis the perfect example of inner conflict. The painting is packed with the popular imagery of its time and repays careful study, but here’s a quick 101—this unmarried couple are living outside of society (like Lydia and Wickham in Pride and Prejudice). He has been playing the sentimental tune Oft in the Stilly Night. The lyrics of that popular Victorian song are chock-full of longing for the past, and memories of friends and family who have been lost.
She leaps to her feet in a torment of inner conflict: the life of a mistress at this time was shameful and short. It almost always ended with pregnancy, a sexually-transmitted disease, a descent into prostitution, or a combination of all three. Brought up at a time when everything not permitted was forbidden, this woman’s childhood would have been spent listening to Sunday sermons about wickedness, and veiled hints about the fate of adulterous relationships (don’t get me started on A.L. Egg’s Past and Present, Numbers 1, 2, and 3 or we’ll be here all day!) Her family will either have disowned her when she ran away, or she has been too ashamed to make contact.
Holman Hunt has caught her Will I ever see my family again? moment of inner conflict. Should she stay, or should she go? As with all the best internal conflicts, there’s no easy answer. Should this woman continue her life of present comfort with its almost guaranteed future pain, or abandon it in favour of possible humiliation and rejection if she tries to be reconciled with her family?
To return to the work of Jane Austen: think how much shorter and less captivating Pride and Prejudice would be if the first time George Wickham’s name was mentioned Darcy announced, “He’s a rogue who should be horsewhipped!”. Wickham would be cut from polite society in an instant — end of story.
Instead, Darcy struggles with concealing what he knows about the man. Despite his charisma, Darcy has already been shown to be a judgemental stuffed shirt. If he exposes Wickham as a shallow rogue and compulsive gambler who tried to elope with Georgiana Darcy, he would seem bitter, vengeful, and as big a snob as Mr Collins. More importantly, it would wreck the good name of Darcy’s sister.
The four C’s of Creative Writing will help you put in place the scaffolding that a great story needs. Next time I’ll be writing about how writers can help readers find solutions to problems in their own lives by examining popular themes in their work.
In this series we’ve talked about imagination, capturing it, and then turning your ideas into words. Putting all that together to create a novel takes patience and concentration. I’m about to start a new writing project, so this week I’ll show you how the hints and tips I’ve shared come together in real life.
Last week, Jean Fullerton of the Romantic Novelists’ Association hosted a panel about writing sagas. I’ve written stand-alone historical novels (you can discover my other books here), and was curious to find out more about sagas. I’d never thought of writing one myself— until I listened to Jean and her panel of best-selling authors.
I learned that sagas have changed in recent years and no longer have to be enormous tomes covering decades. The word count for individual sagas within a series can be as low as 80k—or as long as it takes you to tell that segment of the story. Sagas today don’t have to be all clogs, shawls and trouble at t’mill, either. Readers particularly enjoy novels set in Victorian times, but they also love Second World War stories.
The more I listened to the RNA panel, the more I felt like writing about a time of uniforms, silk stockings, and air-raids.
While I was researching Struggle and Suffrage in Bristol, I came across lots of fascinating real-life accounts of life in the city during the Second World War. I only had room for a fraction of them in the published book. For example, a bomb blasted this heavy iron tram rail high into the air and sent it flying toward the famous church of St Mary Redcliffe. It just missed the houses of Colston Parade, and buried itself to half its length (it would have been about six feet long) in the church grounds. Imagine the carnage if it had landed on the houses…
The rail was left where it fell, and a commemorative stone set beside it.
After looking again at the notes I have on file about life in Bristol during the twentieth century, I’ve decided to incorporate some of them into a saga.
One of the many things that going to university as a mature student taught me is that it’s not only important to make lots of notes—you need to be able to find the right bit of that research instantly, before inspiration vanishes.
This is where Scrivener comes in really handy. I talked about it in Part Six, and opening this new project is a way to show it in action. Here’s a screenshot of my first moves this week on Scrivener (to see a larger version, right click on the image):
As soon as I start work on documents within each folder, the appropriate card you can see in the main part of the screenshot will begin to fill with text. The beauty of using this system is that if, for example, I decide one book will cover the period from August 1939 to January 1941 all I need to do is point and drag all the relevant documents into the 1939 folder, and rename it Sept 1939-Jan 1941.
Below the list of dated folders on the left, you’ll see my list of characters. That’s where I’ll file all the details about them such as their age, position in the family, appearance, mannerisms, and anything else that comes to mind. None of this will appear in my finished manuscript—it’s simply a way of keeping all my ideas, research in one place rather than having my notes scattered aorund the house in any number of individual devices and notebooks.
This isn’t to suggest that the lives of my characters Wilf, Mary, their son Arthur, and daughter Sally are in any way based on Gandalf, Mother Teresa, Dean Martin, or Isadora Duncan! All I’m doing is collecting some visual cues for a patriarch, matriarch, party animal, and a free spirit. These will create an instant reminder for me…although I can’t help wondering who would come out on top if Gandalf and Isadora Duncan were involved in a “domestic”!
I’m not a planner, but would rather write “into the mist” as author Joanna Maitland puts it. However, because I’m setting a story in a defined period of history I’ll need to keep tabs on what is happening elsewhere. Writing about my characters munching steak at a time of rationing, or playing floodlit tennis during the blackout is not on.
I started my research for Struggle and Suffrage in Bristol by opening a spreadsheet with the columns representing the one hundred years covered by the book. I then used rows to represent International events, National events and Local events. I filled it in accordingly so that for any year I could see what was going on generally, and see which events might affect Bristol and its women. As you can see below, I’ve done a similar spreadsheet for SAGA_WW2_NURSERY.
At this early stage I’ve filled in only the basic details of major international and national events that might affect my characters, using nothing more than good old Google. If in the future I decide to refer to any of those incidents in my novel, I will do more extensive research but for now all I need is a flavour of Autumn 1939.
The Local Events row will involve much more detailed research from the moment I start writing, to help me keep my story true to time and place. I haven’t even begun to think about that yet! I have, though, included an extra row at the bottom of the spreadsheet for details obtained from the Met Office archive about the weather.
Including small details like that will help create a believable setting for my story. After all, what’s the first topic of conversation when any English people meet?
Next time, I’ll be looking in more detail at how to create characters. Sign up to follow this blog below, so you don’t miss Part Nine!