The Critical Friend – a friend indeed!

friends-old-images-050Us creative types have somewhat sensitive egos. We invest so much of ourselves in our creations that we can’t quite separate our work from ourselves, leaving us very prickly when it comes to criticism.If the critic says “this was a bad book”, the sensitive writer will rationally tell themselves that one can’t please everyone, but inside, our fragile author will be weeping blood at being so brutally rejected.

Over time, writers learn that just because someone hates their book this doesn’t mean they would hate the writer per se. Mind you, most writers aren’t that interested in even attempting to get to know someone who dismissed their magnum opus as “badly written” or “bland”. Over time, writers get reconciled to receiving bad reviews – but hate them all the same. That feeling of being eviscerated upon reading someone’s scathing comments just never goes away.

In some cases, the negative reviews reflect a difference in taste. Where the writer loves pink and fluffy endings, the reviewer can’t abide this unrealistic nonsense. In most cases, reviews point at things the writer needs to work with. Some reviews are just spiteful and should be totally ignored. Others highlight the fact that this particular writer did not have a Critical Friend.

A classic, if non-writing, example of when a Critical Friend is a friend in need, is when people apply to talent shows – such as American Idol. The eager and talent-less applicant is totally torn apart by the jury, and says things like “My mother told me I can sing,” or “my best friend always said I’m the next Whitney Houston.” To judge from the recent performance, mother and BFF are as tone-deaf as the would-be Idol. Or uncomfortable with telling the truth.

We don’t like telling people truths we suspect might hurt them. If someone asks us how they look in something, chances are we’ll tell them they look fine, even if the overall impression is that of a bratwurst about to burst apart. Honesty can kill a friendship unless delivered with enormous tact, and so many of us opt for less of the honesty by making vague approving sounds while not going so far as exclaiming “Wow, you look smoking hot in that!”.

By not telling the truth, chances are we’re doing our friends a major disfavour. That young boy with a voice like a rusty saw would have been better off had he not applied to American Idol, there to make a fool of himself in front of millions of viewers. Our friend that we sent off in that far too tight skirt, would have preferred to hear from us that maybe that skirt was not the most becoming.

Enter the Critical Friend. Now, to be a Critical Friend, you first have to qualify as a friend, which essentially means you’ve proven time and time again that you always have your friend’s best interests at heart. You’ve listened to hourly monologues about cheating partners. You’ve stoically tolerated being yelled at when you’ve stopped your BFF from leaping onto a motorbike with an unknown, if gorgeous, man. You’ve held hands in moments of grief, you’ve danced polka over the kitchen floor to celebrate degrees, jobs, babies, weddings. You’ve sat all night on a bench outside the police station so as to be able to be there when your BFF is released next morning. You’ve dashed across town at four in the morning because your friend woke you up yelling emergency and you were expecting a bloodbath but found him/her crying over their dead hamster. You know, the stuff friends do for each other. Real friends, that is: those friends who also speak the truth when it comes to singing abilities and overly tight suede skirts.

For an author, a Critical Friend is worth their weight in gold. A Critical Friend will deconstruct your tottering plot line before a reviewer does. A Critical Friend will point at plot holes, at unrealistic characters, at pages littered with adverbs. A Critical Friend will tell you this story will never fly, because there isn’t anyone in the world but you interested in a book featuring a worm and a pine cone. Even when you try to explain the worm and the pine cone are symbolic, Critical BFF will be unimpressed, thereby saving you from publishing a book that would have you squirming on a hook some years from now.

I have a Critical Friend. I have a person who loves me enough to look at me and say “hmmm.” I know what that means: it means whatever she is presently reading is really, really bad. She only uses a long “hmmm” in such situations. A “huh” indicates she doesn’t buy it, but sees the potential. And when she grins and goes “kssksskss” I know I’ve struck gold.

My Critical Friend told me to hide my first few manuscripts wherever the sun wouldn’t find them and forget about them. My Critical Friend has read my books in version 1 through 10. She sends me cryptic messages along the lines of “what happened to the burlap sack?” at five a.m. and I have to think really hard to identify what burlap sack she might be referring to. My Critical Friend is happy to sit for hours and dissect my characters – and my plotlines. I’m not always thrilled by the outcome of all this dissection, but in general it results in a better product, even if I’ve had to cut out my three most favourite scenes.

Does having a Critical Friend preclude negative reviews? Of course not. But with Critical Friend and Amazing Editor scrutinising my every word, I am pretty confident the book isn’t as bad as the reviewer thinks. “Everyone is entitled to their opinion,” I’ll say with a bright smile—which doesn’t mean I don’t gnash my teeth and stick pins in my voodoo doll in private. Hey, what can I say? I’m one of those sensitive creative types, remember?


When the creative juices flow

And let’s hope they keep on flowing! A post I wrote some years ago seems just as valid today 🙂


imagesOG7LVEQ1 Me sitting down to chat w me…(Sargent)

Every now and then, I sit down to have a serious one-to-one chat with yours truly. Okay, so the conversation is generally one-sided, as I haven’t progressed to doing different voices for different sides of my personality, but the purpose of these little tete-a-tetes is to remind myself why I write. Primarily for me. You see, sometimes I forget that my main source of inspiration and energy is the desire to write what pleases me.

These meetings tend to be quite the hub-bub. Some of my more vociferous invented characters will take the opportunity to remind me that very much of what I write affects them – and they really want a say in it. Not about to happen, I remind them. After all, life is usually a long sequence of surprises (big or small) no matter if you’re living in the real…

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Creating characters – an uncontrolled happening

Sometimes, people ask me how I create my characters. I never quite know how to answer, because I’m not sure I have a standardised process. Rephrase: I definitely don’t have a standardised process.

First of all, sometimes my characters sort of pop up all ready to go. That is the case with Matthew Graham, my first “complete” character. (And he looks very satisfies when I say that, all six feet and more of him lounging against a mental door. Sunlight seeps in, highlighting the odd touches of chestnut in his dark hair, his shirt strains over a broad chest, and…Get a grip of yourself, Anna! ) This 17th century man was inspired by a LOT of reading about the 17th century – specifically about the religious persecution that plagued Europe in the aftermath of the Reformation a century or so earlier. Anyway: in Matthew’s case, he just appeared one day, a serious man with strong convictions. A tad too goody-goody (And don’t frown at me, Matthew Graham) , a tad too dour, and I wasn’t quite sure what to do with him. Until a vision of a red bra had me sitting upright in bed one night.

Okay, okay: yes, I know a red bra is a serious anachronism if I’m writing about the 17th century. Thing is, the wearer wasn’t in the 17th century. She was in our time, humming along with something playing in the background. Well-shaped legs in tight jeans, dark, unruly hair cut short, and eyes like cornflowers in the sun.

the-letter-writer-surprised“Who is she?” Matthew asked, peering over my shoulders.
“No idea.” But I already knew she was called Alex, and the tall fair man standing by the cooker was her father.
“I want to meet her,” Matthew said.
“Fat chance. You’re like three centuries apart.”
Matthew fiddled with the worn linen of his shirt sleeve. “She belongs with me.”
“She does?” I looked at the laughing Alex, and I saw a shadow over her, a sadness similar to that which I sometimes saw in Matthew. So maybe he was right: maybe they did belong together, she a nice contrast to his serious disposition. Might liven things up a bit, to have her land in his life.
“Fix it.” Matthew nodded at my keyboard. “Put those magic fingers to good use and bring her to me.”
Which was how I ended up writing The Graham Saga about the rather reluctant time traveller Alex Lind (well, until she met Matthew) and her adventures in the 17th century.

Another of my characters is the consequence of repeated visions of a woman lying on a sheep’s fleece. She is cold, she is dirty and wet, and the man who has just saved her from certain death is also indirectly the man responsible for her recent suffering. This woman is as yet not fully formed, and the man who looks at her shivering form and weeps in silence, plagued by guilt, anger and fear in equal measures only has a name – Jon Crowne – and a face. Those two require a lot of work yet before they can be brought out into the light.

Very often, my characters start as voices. A low, insistent whispering, the odd laugh, a line or two of dialogue. The voice itself tells me little beyond the gender, but soon enough, these voices begin to tell me their story, their thoughts and their dreams, and as they do, the character takes shape and form.

At other times, it’s a gesture. I see someone walking down the street, and the way she whips round when someone calls her name, her hair lifting in the wind, has me smiling, while in my brain the entire little episode is planted into a mental pot, watered by my imagination until that gesture became a figure became a person who then starts to whisper of her dreams and hopes, her fears and past.

Now and then, it is something I see. A hand lifted to adjust an escaped curl. The muscles in a hairy forearm bunching when the owner grips a fork. I watch, entranced, as all those golden hairs move and shift, glistening where the sunlight catches them. And so, just like that, I have my first image of Adam de Guriande, medieval knight and protagonist of my series The King’s Greatest Enemy.
“I’m not that hairy,” he protests, flexing his arm. He is covered in golden fuzz, deliciously so. When I say as much, he flushes.

I guess the conclusion of all this is that I don’t really know how my characters are created. Sometimes, it seems to me they create themselves, with me the lucky beneficiary. Well, okay: not always so lucky, because some of the people who pop up in my head are not exactly the kind of peeps I’d invite over for tea and cake. In any case, whatever it is that sparks these creative bursts, it is not a process. Bummer. I can’t apply for an Author ISO 9001 certification, seeing as ISO requires the process to be repeatable and measurable.  Instead, I embrace those flashes of inspiration that result in a brand new character – even if sometimes this has a very disruptive effect on my sleep!

In my very own bubble

reading-franz-eyblThe other day, I was feeling a bit wilted around the edges. Best cure for that is to curl up somewhere and escape into a book. Quite often, I’ll opt for a book set in the past, one of those books that combines blood and gore with courtly love and honourable men (like my own books, come to think of it. But I cannot read my own books to escape: I end up using a red pen and doing further corrections…)

When I am feeling very, very low, I prefer it if the book in question is one I’ve read before – I need the warmth of familiarity rather than the suspense of new adventures. In these situations, my go-to books are rarely any literary pearls. I’m not in the mood to savour carefully constructed sentences – I need love, and preferably steamy love. So I read Sylvia Day. Or Amanda Quick. Or (yup: I do) E.L. James.

I have a crush on Gideon Cross (Sylvia Day’s very hot, very powerful, male protagonist) I have less of a crush on Mr Grey, but both these men hide scars under polished exteriors, and I like that. In Amanda Quick’s case, her heroes are less scarred, less powerful, just as hot – and seriously, peeking as a Regency hero undresses is something else, starting with those tight, tight Hessians.

Now, when I’m re-reading Ms Day or Ms Quick, I can always argue I am doing it to hone my writing skills. These two ladies are accomplished writers, delivering well-wrought characters and (especially in the case of Ms Quick) delicious dialogue. I read Ms Quick to laugh. I read Ms Day to fan myself.

Ms Quick writes romances set in the 19th century (all through the century) and has a preference for male heroes with green, grey or amber eyes. Her heroines are determined young ladies who set out to sort whatever problem they might have all on their own, and invariably the hero comes to their aid – well, except for when the hero is the problem. Excellent historical context, vivid descriptions and intelligent plotlines make Ms Quick’s books fun to read – several times.

readers-jean-jacques-hennerMs Day does write historical romances – quite adeptly, I might add – but it is her Crossfire books that I return to time and time again. A male protagonist burdened by his past encounters an equally scarred young woman. Sparks fly, and just like that, Eva and Gideon grow into my heart. Eva is no retiring violet – but her past haunts her. It is Gideon who saves her from her past, and she in turn takes on the task of freeing this man from the shadows of his childhood. Two damaged people trying to heal each other – a somewhat combustible combo, all of it delivered in well-paced prose, generously laced with hot, steamy sex scenes.

In comparison with Ms Day, Ms James delivers clunky and tedious sex scenes. So boring, in fact, that I rarely read them. The dialogue is awful, cliché stacked upon cliché. Anastasia Steele is an anachronism: here we have a young, pretty woman in the 21st century who does not have a laptop (seriously?) who is unused to smartphones (err…) and is also a virgin – a total innocent when it comes to sex. Which makes it sort of incredible when she accepts Grey’s proposal to enter into a Dom-Sub relationship with him.

The writing is generally awful. The supporting characters are caricatures. And despite all this, Ms James’ books have sold millions and millions. Why? Well, that is what I try to work out as I re-read them. Pure research, people…Ha! Who am I trying to fool? I read them because I like them, and I know why I like them: Ms James offers a new take on the oldest story around, that of love as a healing force. Like The Beauty and the Beast, Anastasia saves Christian. From himself, from his self-imposed loneliness, from his past, from his self-hatred. Come to think of it, all good romances are variations on this old chestnut. The interesting thing about Fifty Shades is that it’s not a good romance, in the sense that the writing is sub-standard. And still it sells. Obviously, Ms James has succeeded where it truly counts: she has given the readers protagonists they truly care about.

reader-fragonard_the_readerNone of the above crosses my mind when I retreat into my escapist bubble. In my bubble, all I want is to be entertained, dragged out of my reality which, at present, sucks. Any writer who can create an illusion strong enough to yank me out of the here and now has, IMO, done their job. Kudos to them, I say.

When life sucks the words out of you

IMG_0093Sometimes, things happen that sort of whack Ms Inspiration senseless. It may be too much work (but that rarely fazes my Ms Inspiration, who just snorts, shakes out her long and colourful skirts and tells me not to whinge but get on with it) it may be life in general. Or, in some cases, Ms Inspiration decides she needs a long vacation and scoots off somewhere else entirely. Knowing Ms Inspiration, she’s likely hiking the Annapurna ring or paddling up the Amazon or doing some mountaneering in the Rockies. (Ms Inspiration is not only my muse. In some ways, she’s my alter ego, all the way from her long, dark curly hair to her dainty Victorian half-boots)

Whatever the case, there are times when the words just dry up. There I am, eager to get cracking, and I stare and stare at the cursor, trying to come up with one good sentence. When I’ve written the equivalent of “once upon a time” ten times, i know it is best to give up – for now.

Thing is, for me, words are a way to handle my reality. So when I can’t express myself,  there’s a lot of stuff roiling round in my belly and generally generating quite some discomfort. Especially when things are happening in life. Difficult things, that require to be processed. Elements of guilt, of frustration, of feeling utterly helpless – all of this tumbles round and round and is at most expressed in a succinct “Shit.” Not much help in processing things, let me tell you… Plus, Ms Inspiration is of little help – unless she finds a way to translate my personal experiences into fiction. Knowing her, she will. Once she’s back from Tibet or the impenetrable jungles round the Congo river.

I guess all writers draw on their own experiences when writing. We are also a bit like magpies: we steal other people’s experiences, gestures, ways of speak and incorporate them into our work. We watch those around us avidly, we register mannerisms and laughs, the interaction between friends and lovers. “I spy, with my little eye” – that’s a writer for you, entranced by the everyday drama of human interaction around us. So all of you (us) who have writer friends, best beware: at some point, something you did or said will end up in a novel. The important thing, of course, is to anonymise what you steal. The girl who decorated her hair with lacquered chopsticks will never recognise herself when she pops up in one of my coming books, neither will the rather gorgeous young man whom I once saw comforting his weeping girlfriend in Hyde Park.

gabriel-metsu-writingWhat any of the above has to do with my lack of words, I don’t really know – beyond concluding that by writing about this, I suddenly seem to have recouped some of my capacity for verbal expression.
“See?” Ms Inspiration whispers in my ear. “Sometimes, it’s just a matter of sitting down and putting one word before the other.” I glance at her: she’s sporting a lovely tan and has eschewed her normally so dark clothes for a creation in burnt orange and green, reminding me of a vivid tiger. “You’ve been gone for a long time.” Long enoght to sunbleach her hair and cover her nose with a smattering of dark freckles.
“Yup.” She shakes her forearm, and her multiple bangles jingle. “Did you miss me?”
“Not much.” Liar, liar pants on fire. Ms Inspiration arches her brows, no more.
“Okay, a little,” I tell her. Her brows rise all the way up to her hairline. I press my lips together. I’m not giving her more than that, not when she’s left me stranded and wordless for weeks and weeks. Ms Inspiration smirks – I always forget that as she lives inside my head, she hears all my thoughts. But she doesn’t say anything. Instead, she wonders what I think of the following:

She was soft and round and so short she had to crane her head back to look at him. Big dark eyes in a face that still retained the softness of childhood, dark hair that spilled unbound down her back, and a plump lower lip that bore the indents of her teeth – she must have been biting it just seconds before. A child, he reflected, trying to recall just how old this bride of his was. Fourteen? She didn’t look fourteen, but when his gaze dipped lower it encountered a promising swell over her chest, so maybe she wasn’t quite as immature as he had first thought. He smiled. She blushed, but did not avert her eyes, studying him as intently as he was studying her.

It seems the words are back, peeps. Or at least Ms Inspiration is!

Why I turned down a publishing deal

Several weeks ago, I was more or less knocked off my feet. On the other side of the table I was sitting at, the charismatic publishing director of a smaller press had just told me they were interested in publishing my forthcoming books AND my entire backlist. I sort of soared out of that meeting, let me tell you.

Now, before we go any further, allow me to crawl off my high horse and say that everything that follows would probably not have applied had I been approached by one of the big publishing companies. In fact, had they offered, I’d probably had said a resounding yes while still sitting at the table. Why? Because they could have afforded me a highway to retail exposure, which is one of the constant difficulties indie writers grapple with. Truth be told, had any of the big publishing companies offered, I’d gladly have sold out a part of my creative soul, more or less blinded by the whispered promises from Mammon. This despite knowing that Mammon is a character best not trusted…

A small press cannot afford to push all their authors. A small press has to be very commercial and business oriented in their thinking. The publishing director I met was clearly a savvy business person – but so am I, so I wasn’t intimidated by this. Rather, I respected the person – I like people who are direct and don’t beat around the bushes. So when the publishing director explained that their normal practice was to first publish as e-book and PoD, only upgrading to print runs if the initial formats enticed enough interest, I totally agreed with the business reasoning behind it. But. I already have e-books and PoDs, so how would this benefit me? My royalty rates would go down, my exposure would all in all be more or less the same – albeit that there were tie-ins the publishing house could offer to other authors in similar genres.

All the same, I was tempted. Very tempted. So I did some further research.
I produce my PoDs to a very high standard, Truth be told, I make very little money of my pb sales, but on the other hand I have the satisfaction of knowing my books are printed on good quality cream paper, are adequately typeset with adequate margins, and have covers that are thick enough not to curl upwards like a third into the book. I can afford to be picky – I am not running a business, I am pandering to my artistic ego, ensuring the packaging conforms with the (I hope) quality of my writing.

A person running a business has to think margins. All the time. Two percent higher margin may be the difference between a healthy cash-flow and liquidity issues, so the conscientious business owner will go for acceptable paper quality rather than good, will go for the lower grade cover material and will keep a hawk’s eye on the page count – which may result in over-crammed pages.

The business person in me studied the copies of the paperbacks produced by the small press that had contacted me, and was not surprised. Lightweight paper, equally lightweight covers – but nice cover art. The creative person in me studied the way the cover curled and offered a loud “hmm”. Very loud.

The creative person in me was further put off by the occasional odd font change and the somewhat hasty feel to the editing. I had read a couple of e-books published by the small press and in some cases been less than impressed by the formatting (they have subsequently been reformatted) and the recurring typos. In brief, the creative me cringed.

And then there was the matter of control. The publishing director was very direct, explaining that yes, I would lose control. Not all control, obviously, but a lot of it. I didn’t like that. Like most indie authors I know, I’ve developed a protective and somewhat control-freak attitude to my books. I spend a lot of money on edits by accredited editors, I don’t stint on the cover design and will rework and rework until I am happy with the end product as presented by my excellent cover artist. Obviously, a business on the lookout to defend their earnings can’t do that. I understand that. But I don’t like it.

So, all in all, I decided to say no thank you. I was immensely flattered, and I will be forever grateful to the publishing director for the huge compliment she offered me, my branding, and my writing. Plus, of course, this entire process made me realise just how much I enjoy being an indie, in total control of every facet of my book production. But hey, Random House et al, don’t let that put you off, okay? You come calling and I’m sure we’ll work something out  Oh, yes!

It’s all about people, people

Sometimes, people ask me why I write historical fiction. “Why such a difficult genre?” they ask, which in itself makes me a tad irritated, as historical fiction, IMO, is not a genre – it’s an umbrella under which all other genres coexist. In essence, the “historical” in historical fiction merely indicates that the story is set in a non-contemporary time.It says nothing about the content as such, albeit that many people seem to think historical fiction is defined by blood and gore and thousands upon thousands dying in one battle or other. 

Yes, that stuff happens in historical novels. It also happens in contemporary novels – it happens in real life around us on a daily basis. There are historical novels that are essentially love stories, there are others that are coming-of-age stories, yet another author delivers a well-crafted thriller set in distant times, and quite a few produce so called cosy mysteries a la Miss Marple. As long as all these very different books are set in the past, they end up labelled as historical fiction – and considered comparable. Obviously, they are not.

I write books set in the past because I am something of a history geek. Since I was old enough to read for myself, I have submerged myself in stories set in the past – no matter genre – because I wanted to pretend I was there, in an era very distant from my own. Escapism in its purest form, one could say.

And yes, I spend very many happy hours researching my chosen setting – at times resulting in tangential excursions that bring no value whatsoever to my WIP, but expand my soul and enrich my life in general. After all, who doesn’t want to know that Peter the Great married a low-born, illiterate commoner? Or that Eleanor of Castile had a half-brother, Felipe, already a bishop when he threw his ecclesiastic career out of the window to marry a Norwegian princess?

You can research your setting and the era you’ve chosen until you’re blue in the face. That in itself will not result in a page-turning novel. In fact, sometimes too much research produces a major info-dump instead – you know, books in which the author expends pages and pages on showcasing their own knowledge of the period, thereby effectively killing pace.

A skilled writer of historical fiction inserts DETAILS, not paragraphs. A skilled writer – no matter genre – also knows that if you want the story you write to resonate with the reader, your novel must deliver some sort of insight into the commonalities of being human.Therefore, for a novel to come alive, it requires characters that are vibrant and complex, real enough to step out of the pages, no matter if they ever existed or not. 

People have not changed all that much through the centuries. We are still needy creatures, both on a physical and emotional level. Think Maslow, and I guess we all agree humans have physiological needs, a desire to feel safe, to belong. We do in this day and age, they did back in historic (and pre-historic) times as well.

It is therefore a safe bet to assume human emotions and reactions are relatively constant throughout the ages. Someone betrays you, the visceral rage you feel is probably identical to the one your 12th century ancestor felt when he realised he’d been set up. Loving someone probably feels the same – maybe with the caveat that these days, we consider it a borderline human right to be loved and love. Back in the darker and grimmer eras that precede ours, love was something of a luxury: if you had food and a roof over your head, if you were safe and your children set up for surviving, you could live with not falling into throes of passion at the sight of your husband/wife. Truth is, you didn’t EXPECT to love your spouse – you married for reasons on the lower lever of the Maslow pyramid. But this doesn’t preclude that IF you fell in love, it would feel exactly the same way as it feels today.

All of us have personal experience of feelings and emotions. As these are the most important aspects to convey in a novel, we could all, potentially, carry a budding writer within. There is, however, a major difference between experiencing an emotion and describing it – plus, once again, it is a fine balancing act between describing too much and too little. Readers enjoy filling in the blanks. Writers don’t want them to fill in the blanks with the wrong stuff, so writers have to leave enough hints to steer the reader in the right direction. This is the major difference between “show” and “tell” writing – as in “She was so devastated and confused she had no idea what to do next” (the writer informs – tells – the reader of what the protagonist is experiencing) or “She couldn’t quite focus: her hands shook, her mouth was the texture of paper, her brain a total blank” (the writers presents the protagonist’s reactions which the reader analyses before concluding she is in a bad way, probably in some sort of shock).

Whatever the case, it is my opinion that to write a novel one must be fascinated by humanity, in all its diverse forms. It is only by presenting the reader with a mirror in which they can recognise their own emotions that a writer succeeds in hooking them. And once the reader has swallowed the bait, it doesn’t really matter if the book is set in the future, the past or the present. What matters is that the reader is willing to take a ride through the imagined landscapes produced by the writer, hand in hand with the protagonist.

This post was written for IndieBrag, albeit in a somewhat different form

When words won’t work

Words don’t come easy to me,” warbled 80s singer F.R. David – a lie, obviously, given the fact that he’d written the lyrics – but yes, there are times when words don’t come easy. In fact, they don’t come at all.

When I started writing seriously, I lived with the certainty that unless I wrote things down now, immediately, forthwith, the words would disappear, and the precious flash of inspiration would dissipate into useless smoke. This led to little notepads placed strategically throughout the home, pens checked constantly to ensure they worked, should the bolt of creativity strike me while in bed, cooking, cleaning the toilet. It also led to irritated family members, ongoing conversations disrupted by a “wait, wait! I just have to…” followed by me launching myself at the closest bit of paper available.

As my handwriting is not exactly at calligraphy level, there were several occasions when I couldn’t decipher the note as such, but they served as memory nudgers. “Aha: pink postit. Yes, that’s when I was making roasted pork and I had this sudden image of Alex…” or “Scribbles in the dark. Hmm. Oh, yes! The dream, that’s right – the dream!”

These days, I don’t do notes – unless it is for a bright new idea, one I haven’t explored fully and therefore need to conserve for some later day. These days, I am relatively comfortable in the knowledge that even if the precise words disappear, I’ll be able to recall what I was planning on writing about. I suppose this is due to no longer depending on inspiration to write. As a writer learns their craft, discipline and sheer slogging can replace those ephemeral and unreliable sparks of “Aha!”.

Mind you, we still need inspiration. It is inspiration that moves us to connect with our story and our characters. It is inspiration that breathes life into potential ideas. And there are still days when the words won’t come – or the words that come are WRONG.
“Crap,” I mutter, highlighting what I’ve written a bright yellow to remind myself I am NOT happy with it. Most of it will go when I next look at it, but I am confident a couple of words will survive, enough to build on, rewrite with. Or maybe not.

When things are really bad, I resort to walks. Or cleaning. For some odd reason, plot issues tend to resolve themselves just as I am washing my windows or on all four scrubbing the bathroom floor. I think it’s the repetitive work involved, a no-brainer that somehow lulls the overactive pat of my brain to sleep, thereby allowing the subconscious free rein.

Walking is different. When I walk, I pretend. Okay, so it is difficult to be a 50+ woman brandishing a length of wood while in the midst of the city, so I keep these more intense pretend sessions for when I’m out in the forest. Dog (an elderly and by now experienced 13-year-old) is given whatever role I require, and off I caper, “sword” in one hand, my phone on voice recording. I must say I have a lot of fun listening to myself afterwards – beyond concluding I am seriously out of breath after having trotted (in my head, I was “hurtling along at full speed”) up the long incline that leads to the telephone mast (in my head “the looming towers of Nottingham Castle”).

Anyway: my walks are long, I return refreshed – and with words. I think the key word here is “refreshed”. Staring at a screen while desperately scrabbling for words doesn’t work. Desperately scrabbling for a foothold on the very steep hill releases all sorts of words, the chief one being “Shit!” But hey, it works, and where before I had no idea how my honourable knight Adam de Guirande was to resolve his present conundrum, or how Sam Woolfe intends to intimidate financial analyst Helle (different books, okay? One is medieval, the other contemporary) I often return with an inkling of how to resolve the issues. And words. So many, many words.

I guess the conclusion is rather simple: All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. Unless the boy is called Jack Reacher, of course. That guy doesn’t know the meaning of dull…On the other hand, he isn’t a writer is he?

The art of description – better too little than too much!

Whenever summer comes around, chances are I’ll be slouching in the shade reading a Lee Child novel. There is something very comforting about reading his books. Jack Reacher always survives, is always on the side of good, and the pace is fast and gripping. It is also a relief to read something outside my own genre, as the reading experience becomes more relaxed when I don’t go “Ooooo, that was an elegant insertion of historical detail” or “OMG: I wish I had written that!” or “That can’t be right, can it? A match in the 18th century?” (turns out it was – sort of).

So I read Lee Child to relax – except I don’t, because Mr Child is an expert at succinct descriptions, a few word sufficing to paint a person, a location, a situation, and I read and reread, because seriously, to describe your characters is an art. As a writer, I have a very clear picture of what my protagonists look like – but the moment I turn them over to the public in a published book, I’m also inviting the readers to form their own images, and to do so I must describe some things but not all things.

Take, for example, Adam de Guirande, tall and rugged 14th century knight. Now I know exactly what he looks like – all over.
“No you don’t,” Adam objects. “It’s not as if you’ve seen me stark naked.”
Umm…I sure have. I’ve seen him in the bath, I’ve seen him curled up in a dungeon, I’ve seen him hoisting his little son up in the air, I’ve seen him kissing his wife. More importantly, I’ve experienced his fears and hopes, lived through his rushes of adrenaline, felt the indescribable pain of having a mallet slammed through his foot (my toes curl) felt his heart beat faster when he sees his Kit, cried with him for Roger Mortimer when he’s dragged off in chains, hated Hugh Despenser as fervently as Adam does – the whole gamut of emotions experienced by an adult man torn apart by his loyalties in a time of severe unrest.

In each and every one of these situations, I know exactly what my fair-haired knight looks like. I know if he’s unshaven, if he has bags under his eyes, if there’s egg-yolk on his tunic (“Never,” Adam says, sounding quite offended. He’s wrong. A weakened man does not always eat as neatly as he’d like.) But I don’t impose all these visuals on my readers. I just drop some details – his scruffy hair in one scene, a vulnerable set to his mouth in another, a narrowing of his grey eyes in a third.

Other than Adam being tall, fair, grey-eyed and with a thin scar running down his face, I leave the rest of him up to my readers’ imagination. Does he have a long nose? Is there a dimple on his chin? Do his brows grow bushier towards the temples? I know, obviously, but I’ll allow each and every person who develops a relationship with Adam to decide those things for themselves. That way, they can make Adam their own. Well: He’s mine, but I can share him. (So as to avoid having my eyes scratched out by Adam’s wife, Kit, I hasten to add that ultimately he is her man, not mine. Of course.)

Lee Child has perfected a similar approach. After twenty odd Jack Reacher books, I dare say all readers have their own impression of what he might look like, and the only thing the avid Lee Child readers will agree on is that he does not look like Tom Cruise. At all. For starters, Jack Reacher is big – like very, very big. And then…Ah: that’s right, we don’t know much more than that, do we? More to the point, we don’t need to – we all have the imagination required to fill in the details.

Right: and with this I must leave you. Jack Reacher calls, and I just know that unless I keep an eye on him, he might end up in trouble. Come to think of it, Jack Reacher is ALWAYS in trouble.

As to Adam de Guirande, Timelight Press has published two out of four books in the series featuring him. The King’s Greatest Enemy is set in the 1320s and is the story of Adam, his wife Kit, and their adventures during Roger Mortimer’s rise to power. The first book, In the Shadow of the Storm, was published in 2015. The second book, Days of Sun and Glory, has just come out. Both books have been awarded Readers’ Favourite Five Star Seals, and Days has been selected an Editor’s Choice by Historical Novel Society. So, if you’re a fan of historical fiction (and selective descriptions) I urge  to enter a world of political intrigue, watch my protagonists navigate a world in which loss is certain and life is not.

Taking them there – of transportation with words

ISOTS pic 4I was eleven. It was more or less midnight and I snuck out of bed and opened the door to my closet. I clambered up the fitted shelves to the little platform right at the top – my secret nest. The closet was – obviously – dark. It smelled of wood and clean clothes. I struck a match and lit the seven candle stumps I’d arranged in a rough pentagram shape. I put on my home-made tunic. As I am a disaster at sewing, it was stapled together. A belt, my Dad’s heirloom knife and I was ready to go. I swept my hands through the respective flames, set my palms flat to the wood and prayed for time to tear itself open and suck me through, land me at the feet of my great hero, Richard the Lionheart.

It didn’t happen – if it had, I’d not have had my ear chewed off by my mum for being an idiot who potentially could burn the whole house down by lighting candles in my closet. On the other hand, had it happened, I guess I would have wished it hadn’t.

The thing about the past is that we tend to romanticise it. We think life was simpler back then – good and bad more clear-cut. We ignore the fact that the vast majority of our medieval forebears were poor, hungry and generally quite scruffy. They had lice and fleas. They ate a lot of porridge or pottage. They never had lemon and meringue pie for dessert. They worked a lot. Most of them rarely went all that far beyond the village of their birth. The majority were illiterate. Not, all in all, a life to aspire to, is it?

Since my eleven-year-old self’s experimentation with the arcane, I have moved on. I still have moments when I wish I could step into another time. I tend to linger in ancient churches and ruins, and at times I imagine hearing the faint echoes of those that went before. A whispered prayer, begging God to spare his wife from the plague: a shadowy lady, kneeling as she lights a candle for her departed son. Men fleeing a battlefield for the sanctuary of a church, screaming as they are cut down just inside the door. It all happens in my head, yet it is so very vivid. Real, almost.

Writing historical fiction is about transporting the reader through time. Effectively, a historical novel should resemble a Tardis, sweeping the reader out of the securities of modern life and dumping them somewhere else entirely. You don’t achieve that by loading your book with info-dumps. Neither will the reader be transported by a re-telling of political events. No, what creates the historical settings are the details, the little things that subtly indicate the plot is unfolding in a distant time. Tallow candles burning with a sooty flame, a woman combing lice out of her hair (although that is something we rarely see in historical fiction – despite it reasonably being quite commonplace), a swaddled baby hung off a hook to quieten its cries. Linen being soaked and washed, muddy garments being cleaned with brush and sand, cows to milk, pigs to butcher – the minutiae of everyday life is the warp into which the adept historical novelist weaves the plot itself. And those who weave know that unless the warp is set up correctly, the weave itself will collapse, no matter how impressive the weft.

The trick with all these everyday details is that as a novelist you must know much more about them than you ever share with the reader. The reader does not want a detailed description of how to make lye soap – but wants enough for the reader to think; “aha, he/she knows her stuff”. Of course, if you’ve spent hours investigating lye, if you’ve collected birch ashes and mixed with rain water, if you’ve set it to drip, if you’ve even gone to the trouble of boiling the resulting lye with lard to make some sort of rudimentary soap, then you really, really want to share. Don’t. Just add the occasional detail, like your character checking on the lye barrel, or someone hollering at a child who gets too close to the (very) caustic lye.

So to get the warp right I’ve made lye, I’ve made soap, I’ve done laundry the old-fashioned way. I’ve also castrated piglets, milked cows, helped foals into the world, butchered a pig, used a flail and scythed a hayfield. And no, that is not as easy or picturesque as when Aidan Turner walks about bare-chested against a gorgeous backdrop of sunny skies. To start with, it is hard work which causes you to sweat, and when you sweat, the flies descend upon you.

Very little of all of the above ever shows up in much detail in my books. But I know – and I am very, very glad I live in a day and age where everyday life comes with washing machines and dishwashers. And showers. And chocolate. I do feel we could do with some more knights in shining armour, though. And seriously, how about a gilded swan for dinner? No? No, maybe not.