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Midnight swims and the omnipresence of story ideas

Swimming at midnight – could it possibly help? Today we’ll ask author Faith Hogan about her latest book and her inspirations.

Faith lives in the west of Ireland with her husband, four children and a very busy chocolate Labrador called Penny.

She’s also going to share an excerpt from her novel The Ladies Midnight Swimming Club.

Author Faith Hogan

Author Faith Hogan

Inspiration – The Ladies Midnight Swimming Club

FAITH SAYS: Inspiration for a book is a funny thing. As a writer, it’s probably the question you’re asked the most – where do you get your ideas? The truth is, the ideas are everywhere, just waiting for you to grasp them.

Sometimes, an idea comes from little more than a few off-hand words, a comment in a voice that you know would work great in a character. It’s not necessarily, even a real voice, just one that seems to enter my head from nowhere.

At other times, inspiration can be as simple as the beauty of my surroundings. Quite a number of my books are based on a fictional village called Ballycove. It’s a place that doesn’t exist, and yet it very much does. It’s a mish-mash of all the best of the rugged coastline that runs from west County Sligo to the far reaches of County Mayo, here in the west of Ireland. Local readers will often tell me they recognise various landmarks. At the same time, many locals could pick up my books and not have the foggiest that they are actually living in some part of the story.

I think that’s the magic of inspiration – it’s very personal. Where you and I see beauty or the nugget of a story can be poles apart. It’s also why there are so many books and all so different.

They say that there are only ten different plots. Fewer depending on who you believe. But the same plot in different hands becomes a completely different book and none the less satisfying for that, if the writer is worth their salt.

In The Ladies Midnight Swimming Club, I was spoiled for inspiration. It came from all around me – literally.

It is set in Ballycove, a windswept corner of the west of Ireland.

The Wild Atlantic Way stretches along the west coast of Ireland, from Cork at its tip to Donegal at its head. It’s a symphony of small villages, unspoilt beaches, crashing waves and green fields. It’s truly breath taking, no less in winter when we’re blown away by gales than it is in summer when the sun shines and it feels as if the heavens have opened up before you.

And then there are the people. My books are all character driven. In The Ladies Midnight Swimming Club, it is Lucy, Jo and Elizabeth who are steering the story. We meet each of them in their own moment of need. Each of them faces their own personal crises, some of which can be resolved. Others are out of their hands. But in life, it’s not always about how you fix things – it’s about how you cope with them.

What we’ve all learned, if we’re lucky enough to have a solid network around us, is that there is no problem that can’t be made to feel smaller if you can laugh at it. And there is no-one better to help you put things in perspective than another woman.

The Ladies Midnight Swimming Club is a story about friendship. It’s about reaching out not because you have to, but because you can. It’s about the therapeutic benefits of laughter and kindness and the fact that every problem is halved once it’s shared.

After the year we’ve all put in, I think it’s exactly the sort of book I would like to pick up and read this weekend. It’s been described as ‘joyful, life-affirming and inspirational‘ and isn’t that exactly what we need right now?

 

Excerpt from The Ladies’ Midnight Swimming Club

Diary of a Sea Swimmer

The cold burns against my skin, numbing it instantly. I wade out, warily knowing that the icy water stabbing against my legs is an inevitable part of this. A bitter blanket weaving about my body welcoming me, a dear friend; I plunge violently in, gasping, salt water teasing my lips. I feel the small jagged stones beneath my feet. And then, I’m in. My arms and legs cut automatically through the water, until the cold has eaten from the outside in and there is nothing to do but surrender to the vastness and in it know that I am somehow suspended safe and all is well. I turn on my back for delicious blissful moments before I must go back to the shore and take up my life where I left off before … From Jo’s Journa

Prologue

Mid May and to Elizabeth, the night felt almost balmy. The cove was just half a mile along the beach. Elizabeth knew she’d come here again, even if she wouldn’t have admitted it to herself. When she did, she stood for a few moments. This was where Jo came to swim every single night. Like her window washing every Thursday afternoon, Jo was a woman of routine, albeit to the beat of her own drum. Each evening when all the other women in Ballycove settled down to fall asleep before the television, Jo pulled out an old shopping bag with a threadbare towel and a comb that once belonged to her mother. She walked along this beach until she came to just this spot and then she stripped down to her faded swimsuit and swam energetically for at least ten minutes in the biting waves.

Elizabeth stood for a long while, a little transfixed with the recollections and ghosts that played along in her memory. She had come down here often when they were children, but she hadn’t swum for years.

‘I thought it was you,’ Jo’s familiar voice called out from behind her. ‘What brings you down here tonight?’ She dropped her bag on the ground.

‘Oh, just out for a bit of a ramble,’ Elizabeth said easily, regretting now that she’d come here to impose on what was Jo’s own form of meditation.

‘Maybe you’ll join me?’ Jo laughed.

‘Oh, I don’t think so. For one thing, I’m not sure I have your constitution for the cold.’ She laughed at this for a moment, and then she remembered as Jo shed layer after layer of clothes that she was nowhere near as strong and robust as Elizabeth had always assumed. Rather, beneath the layers, she had shrunk into a sparrow of a woman with stick-like arms and legs, and not very much more in between.

‘You’re missing out – that’s all I’ll say.’ And then she was picking her way down towards the waves and Elizabeth was left to think about the fact that she had spent her life sitting on the sidelines. It wasn’t where she wanted to finish out the rest of her days.

The Ladies Midnight Swimming Club

The Ladies Midnight Swimming Club by Faith Hogan

There was something about today. Something Elizabeth couldn’t quite put her finger on, as if it was the start of a new chapter. The water ahead seemed suddenly so inviting. She really wasn’t sure that she was in full command of her actions or her senses as she began to throw off her clothes, but soon, she was running with the energy of an excited child, shrieking with an abandon she’d never known before, naked as the day she was born, she ran into the water.

It was exhilarating, a baptism of biting cold that felt as if it might chew her up in no time. It rattled her nerve endings, sending an extravagant swell of emotion through her. It was initiation, as if she was being culled of her old staid life, and suddenly, this unbearable cold became part of her, a wholly new sensation, freeing her from the life she’d lived until now. This was liberating. It was overwhelming. A cascading of emotion welled within her, the salty cold now insulating her from any pain, rather, for the first time, it felt as if all of those fears and secrets could reside as one within her and the biting sea was powerful enough to hold her in equilibrium. Finally she was free.

This moment was her whole life, all rolled up – past, present, future – but mainly, she was here and now and she’d never felt so alive. She dived beneath the water feeling the freedom of it while shocked with the cold, but she filled with immeasurable warmth. It was madness, passionate, wonderful living perfection. She lay on her back, squinting off towards where she knew the horizon sat. She swam out further, far beyond her own depth to where Jo was lying on her back, gazing up at the fading light.

‘You did it,’ Jo murmured as they treaded the freezing water together.

‘It’s bloody cold here,’ Elizabeth said unnecessarily.

‘It is that, but don’t you feel alive? I feel the same thing every day I come here. It anchors me in a place that’s mine within the vastness.’

‘Okay.’ Elizabeth wasn’t sure what she meant. She just knew that here, in the sable saltiness of the ocean, she felt as if she could do anything – nothing could faze her at this moment.

‘I wonder what Eric would say now?’ Jo smiled and suddenly they were both laughing their heads off like lunatics. For once, he’d have been completely lost for words. The notion that his respectable wife would be out swimming in the altogether in the moonlight; it might very well have been enough to shock him into sobriety.

The beach was completely empty, apart from a few circling gulls who probably thought they were wholly mad. Elizabeth laughed again; perhaps they were right – maybe she had finally tipped over into a state of happy lunacy, but she didn’t care. For the first time in far too long, she felt what it was to be truly blissful.

***

 

Thank you so much for sharing with us today, Faith. More power to you!

 

IMPORTANT LINKS

Faith’s website

Other Titles by Faith Hogan

My Husband’s Wives

Secrets We Keep

The Girl I Used to Know

What Happened to Us?

The Place We Call Home

 

 

Us versus Them – or is it? with Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

Mikhaeyla Kopievsky is an Australian speculative fiction author. She is the author of the Divided Elements series and an upcoming gothic novel set in Tasmania. Mikhaeyla was longlisted for the 2019 EJ Brady Short Story Competition for her piece, Grasshopper.

Mikhaeyla is an administrator of the Australian Speculative Fiction facebook page (if you write sci-fi, fantasy and/or horror, I really recommend that you join this wonderful group!) and a developmental editor with their Deadset Press imprint.

Black Australorp chooks (chooks is Australian for 'chickens' or 'fowl')

Black Australorp chooks (chooks is Australian for ‘chickens’ or ‘fowl’)
Image from
https://www.knowyourchickens.com/australorp-chicken/

Born in Sydney, Mikhaeyla now lives in the Hunter Valley with her husband, son, two rescue dogs, four Australorp chooks, a hive of cantankerous bees, and the occasional herd of beautiful Black Angus steers.

When she is not writing or reading, Mikhaeyla enjoys cooking with the produce harvested from her kitchen garden, going to the beach, stargazing, and training to be a ninja.

I’d better watch out, because ninjas are a bit scary. Time to turn over the post to Mikhaeyla!

 

Mikhaeyla talks about inspiration

Mikhaeyla: I’ve always been interested by stories that explore the (artificial) divide between us and themRomeo and Juliet, Brave New World, Handmaid’s Tale, Hunger Games, Red Rising – they all show what it is to sort people into pre-defined boxes so that you can align yourself with one side and demonise the other. It’s part of our evolutionary psychology to seek out our ‘tribe’. Our biochemistry is designed to give us hits of happy chemicals like serotonin and oxytocin when we’re accepted into (and by) a group. It’s why we get so much pleasure from social validation or feeling like we’re part of a team, and why it’s so hard to break away from social norms or reject peer pressure.

Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

Book Punk and SFF Author Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

I enjoy writing stories about characters who have to confront the neat boxes they’ve constructed for their identity (and the perceived identities of others) and engage in more complex, uncomfortable, and nuanced relationships because of it. Ellie Safak, a brilliant writer, gave a great TED talk a few years ago on the politics of fiction and she used this wonderful metaphor of circles – explaining how everything dies when it is surrounded (almost entombed) in a circle. I like putting my characters in situations where they are forced to break out of that circle.

 

Fascinating! And you have an extract to share?

This is an excerpt from the first book in my Divided Elements series, Resistance. The series is set in a future, dystopian Paris where everything is engineered, including identities, and a resistance movement has emerged to upset the carefully-constructed order. The first book follows Anaiya, a Peacekeeper who has her mind realigned to a different identity so that she can infiltrate the resistance movement and bring it down. In this scene, Anaiya has just got her first real lead and is about to embark on a night out in the hedonistic and carnival-like nightlife of the Northern Area:

Extract from Resistance

The late afternoon light filters through oppressive brown clouds as Anaiya makes her way back towards the Ravignan Strip. She shivers past the long jagged shadows cast by Stricken Core on the ancient bricks of Ruzais Street, her boots slapping the uneven surface as the descent falls steeper and steeper.

Arriving at the start of the Ravignan Strip she stops to survey her target. The Lavoir izakaya rises seven storeys, its pale-brick walls following the sharp angle of the intersection and forming a wedge. Anaiya tilts her head back and stares up at its heights, intrigued by the way its triangular shape is softened by rounded corners that defy the geometric rigidity of rectangular bricks.

The strange perspective pushes her off-balance and she finds herself swaying like the treatment boats in the nearby River Syn. Closing her eyes tightly, she steps back to regain her balance, stopping abruptly when she collides with something behind her.

Spinning around, she is confronted by a smiling Elemental. It takes a moment for the surprise to fade, for her neocortex to kick in and allow her to assess him.

Male. Sixth lustrum. Six feet four inches, maybe five. Traces of skin ink on left arm from mid-ulna upwards. Non-hostile stance. Intelligent eyes.

“Hey,” he offers casually, reaching for the entry panel next to the izakaya door.

The door clicks and he pulls it towards him. Anaiya watches as his sleeve recedes further up his arm, revealing more of the skin pattern – thick, dark lines stretch into twisting ribbons, reaching up to cradle a skull.

“Hey,” she replies.

He stands there, the door still grasped in his hand.

“Going in, butterfly?” he asks, inclining his head towards the activity just beyond the door.

Anaiya blinks in recognition of the familiar nom de douceurThis Elemental with the interesting ink is the same one who barred her exit from izakaya last night.

She stares at him, trying to gauge his approach, interpret his intent. His body language is neutral, the smile still dancing at his lips. He is teasing her. Anaiya returns the smile involuntarily, enjoying the moment of levity even if it is at her expense, and ducks through into the Lavoir.

Inside, the lighting is dim. A score of ancient incandescent bulbs dangle from plastic cables, throwing soft light around the low-ceilinged, narrow space. Music beats and pulsates, bouncing off the wall and blending with the low hum of conversation. The air is rich with smells and noises.

Anaiya pauses, allowing her limbic brain to revel in the feast of sensations presented before her. The breeze at her back dies as the door to the izakaya clicks shut. She drifts between Air Elementals, slow-dancing a wandering path towards the bar. Her gaze tracks along its architecture; a long piece of graphene, suspended on transparent glass to seemingly float above the polished concrete floor.

The Earth Elemental behind the bar is two generations older than Anaiya, the lines of hard working and hard living marking her handsome face. Beside her, a now-familiar inked arm reaches out to plug its silver cable into the terminal.

“Five lyseracids,” he requests.

He looks over to her, eyes glinting in the yellow light.

“Six,” he says, amending his order.

The bartender turns her back to fill the order, leaving them alone in the small space buffeted by the throng of Elementals around them.

All Air Elementals possess a certain charisma: A freedom, a spontaneity, that sweats through their pores. As a Peacekeeper, Anaiya had detested it – passed it off as an arrogance and independence bordering on Heterodoxy. Tonight, she envies it.

“Where are you from?” he asks, tapping his fingers against the matte grey surface of the bar.

She runs her fingers along the graphene in a subconscious response, shadows lengthening and retracting under her fingers – her neocortex feeding her an appropriate response even while her limbic mind surrenders to the tactile and audio sensations assaulting it.

“Eastern Area,” she says.

“Yeah, you looked green,” he says, turning back to the bartender.

Green.

For Peacekeepers, the adjective is used for pups – inexperienced Trainees who don’t yet understand the way of the world.

“Why the transfer?” he asks, stacking the shot glasses in a narrow rectangular tray.

“Hypoxic demotion,” she says, feeding him the standard response.

He nods, handing her a shot glass brimming with the liquid lys.

“Bienvenue,” he says, his voice lilting in the pidgin convention of Air Elementals.

Welcome.

And with that, he retreats from the bar, never looking back, gripping the tray of lys and walking to the far end of the izakaya.

Anaiya shoots the dark liquid, a cloying sweetness coating her tongue. To her left, Air Elementals download their wristplate playlists via one of two terminals attached to the bar. A screen embedded in the bartop flashes with the music’s identifier – sometimes a name, other times a visual – before adding it to an updated queue. Bodies sway and dip and writhe in a contorted imitation of Anaiya’s free-running; their movements chaotic where hers were precise.

 

Thank you so much, Mikhaeyla. What an intriguing set up.

I’m so glad to meet you and your writing. Till next time!

 

Liked this excerpt?

The good things keep coming. Get your copy of Resistance (Divided Elements #1) to keep reading!

You can read more about Mikhaeyla and her novels at www.mikhaeylakopievsky.com

There’s also a free Divided Elements novella for you when you sign up to her mailing list.

The Meaning of Anzac Day

Anzac Day is a disputed day of reverence on the Australian calendar.

It’s often conscripted into arguments by both sides of politics, providing support for any point anyone wants to put forward.

“Anzac Day celebrates the landing at Gallipoii, a campaign that sums up the useless violence of war.”

“Gallipoli represents the birth of the nation.”

“Mateship began in the trenches of Gallipoli.”

“Australia’s self-identity is based on the invasion of another country.”

Australian graves on the Western Front

Australian graves on the Western Front

The place of Anzac Day in Australian cultural identity is complex. The legend may not be historically accurate, but the day is culturally significant.

As Martin Thomas says, historical ‘falsehoods are built on fragments of reality, and for this reason they reveal greater cultural truths’.[i]

It’s no wonder that mythology grows out of world-changing events. There are so many shades of grey. One thing that is certain is that WWI was a huge, life-changing time for millions of Australians. And we all know how a single far-off event can have enormous ramifications world wide. Pandemic, anyone?

Today I’m sharing extracts from my book about World War I and Australian story-telling. I haven’t found the answer to Anzac Day’s place in our lives, but I did uncover some interesting questions.

What do you think?

***

An extract from

The Purpose of Futility: writing World War I, Australian style, by Clare Rhoden, UWAP Scholarly, 2015.

World War I was an astonishing event. The millions of people caught up in the war had never experienced anything like it. For the first time, all of civilisation was trapped in a life-or-death struggle. Whole societies were pitted against one another in a devastating, horrific, technological war. Cultured Europe was transformed into a gigantic threshing ground that crushed cities into shards and men into bloody pieces. No wonder people thought this was the war to end all wars. It seemed likely to be the war to end all of humankind. Everyone continued to fight because to lose such a bloodbath was unthinkable; losing could only mean total annihilation, a return to the Dark Ages. The war was so horrific that everyone was sure that this would be the last time humanity ever resorted to the battlefield.

Everyone was deluded.

World War I, far from preventing more wars, probably made World War II  –which transformed ‘The Great War’ into ‘World War I’ – inevitable.

World War I, however, did change the world in significant ways. There were undoubted advances in engineering, medicine, and science, driven by necessity: improved machinery, engine technology, motorised vehicles, aerodynamics, weaponry, surgical instruments and techniques, medical and rehabilitation procedures, prostheses, building methods, communications technologies, and so on.

There were also irreparable damages and losses.

One of the most astonishing outcomes of the war was the proliferation of art and creativity, both inspired by and addressing the war. Viewed as the most literary war ever fought, World War I was the first to involve literate populations on a grand scale. The trove of written memorabilia from the war, and the overwhelming mass of writing about it since, ensure it will remain a focal point in the mainstream consciousness of the west.

Australian World War I prose is a distinct sub-genre. Here I provide a moderating frame over previous research which effectively identified the Australian writers’ reliance on old-fashioned heroic modes of writing war. Our central discussion of how leadership is represented in literature establishes Australian cultural egalitarianism as a factor in the infamously poor discipline of Australian troops. My underlying premise – that literature has both constructive and commemorative cultural value –goes some way to explaining Australia’s infatuation with all things Anzac.

Part of the difficulty we have in understanding the effects of war comes directly from the writings of veterans.

Although the most popular World War I narratives tell a story of disillusionment, horror and grief, most of the writers have a degree of pride and even enjoyment in their service. Many remember war as the best time of their lives, because its dramas, intense friendships, and shared purposes created a sense of community and personal worth that peacetime can never match.

Survivors need to believe that their experiences have some meaning, and the vast majority of soldiers wrote about World War I as a meaningful event. Reading their words in a later age, we use our somewhat jaundiced hindsight to view their motives and actions with a mixture of disbelief and amazement. We tend to evaluate the writings of veterans in terms of our own moral and ethical standards; we doubt that men truly enlisted with the joy of anticipation, with a desire to fight. To most of us, knowing the continued cost of war across the twentieth century, war is the worst calamity which humanity can inflict upon itself. Even though many veterans look back with pride and nostalgia on their service days, we prefer to believe that everything about war is repulsive, and that no aspect of it can be viewed positively; we believe that those who record their war service as the best time of their lives must be deluded.

The truth lies everywhere in between: no simple dichotomy exists, from which we must choose our side; no balanced midpoint satisfies all perspectives. It is not possible to say that war is either the worst event that can befall us or the best situation for comradeship and meaning. Like most human experiences, war is sometimes neither the worst nor the best, but something in between, something quite ordinary and even boring.

More often, war is both the best and the worst, and also quite ordinary for much of the time. This is the heart of war’s mystique for the writer and the reader. Stories of war can reveal much to us about the joys and the costs of living in a fragile world, because such stories reflect both the best and the worst of human life itself, and tend to elide the ordinary days. In war stories as in everyday life, small decisions can be fateful, and accidents, happy coincidences, and inexplicable sufferings are daily occurrences.

***

The Purpose of Futility

The Purpose of Futility

My book goes on to explore the novels written by WWI veterans, and the place of WWI generally in our nation’s history – the way we ignore the battles of colonization, the way we valorize masculinity, the way we overlook the bitter arguments about conscription that divided the home front…

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

 

 

[i] M. Thomas, ‘Leichhardt on the mind: the manhunt for the Prussian enigma’, review of Where is Dr Leichhardt? The Greatest Mystery in Australian History by Darrell Lewis, Australian Book Review, no 354, September 2013, p. 21.

Past inspirations, secrets, and gifts

At the launch of The Stars in the Night

Launching The Stars in the Night

Preparing for the annual Anzac Day celebration, I’m taking a break from interviews.

Around this time every year, there is renewed interest in my World War I academic book, The Purpose of Futility, as well as my historical novel, The Stars in the Night. Both of them came out of my PhD studies at the University of Melbourne. Today I have three goals:

  1. to share some of the fascinating background to my story
  2. to let you in to some of the secrets hidden inside the covers
  3. and offer you a free copy of The Stars in the Night*#

 

*#UPDATE April 18th: Thanks all, the free copies are GONE 🙂 … but feel free to sign up for my newsletter if you wish in any case

Behind the story

Here are some facts and figures for you. I know some of you love numbers and weird trivia.

Fact:

Australia of all the combatant nations in the First World War did NOT execute any of its own soldiers.

The Purpose of Futility: writing World War I, Australia style

Figure:

Over 316,000 Australians served overseas in WWI, but only about 7000 remained in service from Gallipoli to Armistice.

Fact:

Originally, only those soldiers who served at Gallipoli were called ‘Anzacs’. Their identifying colour patches were distinguished by a gold letter ‘A’.

Figure:

After the war, more than 250,000 servicemen returned to Australia, bringing with them a new perspective on our place in the world.

 

Hidden Secrets

My reasons for studying WWI novels in the first place had to do with family. My paternal grandparents arrive in Port Adelaide in January 1914, escaping the threat of European war. My father had some stories of their experiences. Some of these have made their way into my novel.

Secret 1:

Harry Fletcher’s German grandmother, Liesl, is modelled on my grandmother Albertine. She died when my dad was only 9 years old, so I never met her. Quite possibly, I have a rose-tinted view of her.

Secret 2:

Harry Fletcher’s birthday is the same as mine!

The cemetery at Poperinghe

The cemetery at Poperinghe, photo by Clare Rhoden

Secret 3:

Harry’s mother Ellen is based on my mother-in-law Nell. Watch out. I’m sure she’s still around in one way or another.

Secret 4:

The German widower and his son, who come into Harry’s bakery early on in the story, represent my dad and his bereaved father. I wanted them to have jam doughnuts.

 

Finally, free copies!

*#UPDATE April 18th: Thanks all, the free copies are GONE 🙂 … but feel free to sign up for my newsletter if you wish in any case

To help commemorate Anzac Day 2021, I am offering a free print copy of The Stars in the Night to the first three readers who sign up for my newsletter. *Australia only this time. See the panel to your right to sign up. I promise there not to deluge your inbox with spam!

The Stars in the Night

The Stars in the Night by Clare Rhoden

 

 

 

Safe and Sound: Philippa East and the psychology of suspense

Philippa East is a fiction writer with HQ/HarperCollins and she also works as a clinical psychologist, which I guess can come in pretty handy for writing thrillers.

Author Philippa East

Author Philippa East

Philippa grew up in Scotland before moving to Oxford and then London to complete her clinical training. A few years ago, she left the NHS to set up her own part-time practice and dedicate more hours to writing. The result was her debut novel LITTLE WHITE LIES, which was long-listed for The Guardian’s Not-The-Booker Prize and shortlisted for the CWA “New Blood” Award 2020.

Little White Lies by Philippa East

Little White Lies by Philippa East

Philippa’s next book SAFE AND SOUND is another twisty and compelling tale. For a fun preview, check out the video trailer on Philippa’s Amazon Author page (best with sound on!).

Philippa now lives in the beautiful Lincolnshire countryside with her husband and cat. She loves reading (of course!) and long country walks, and she also performs in a local folk duo called The Miracle Cure. Alongside her writing, Philippa continues to work as a psychologist and therapist.

I’m excited to have Philippa as my guest today, as she tells us about what inspires her. Philippa also shares an extract from SAFE AND SOUND, which you’ll find below.

 

Inspirations

Phillippa: It’s a funny question, isn’t it? ‘Where do your ideas come from?’

For me, a book often comes alive when two (or even better, three) different ideas come together in my head. That’s generally how I know I might have enough material for a whole 90,000-word novel!

I write in the psychological suspense genre, and actually get a lot of my ideas – full disclosure! – from watching true-crime documentaries on TV. At heart, I’m fascinated by what people are capable of and why they do the things they do. This also overlaps with my day job as a clinical psychologist.

More specifically, individual plot ideas, character motivations or story twists can get sparked for me in various ways: reading other books in the genre can help get my brain in ‘thriller’ mode; I also often go for long walks around the Lincolnshire countryside to get the brain wheels turning, plus sometimes I just have to pin down a friend and brainstorm relentlessly with (at!) them until the pieces finally fall into place.

The inspiration for my latest book, SAFE AND SOUND, was actually the true-life story of Joyce Vincent, a woman in her thirties who died at home in North London in late 2003. Her body was only discovered in 2006. Around 2013, I found myself watching ‘Dreams of a Life’, the incredibly moving docu-drama produced by filmmaker Carol Morley about Joyce’s life and death. The film stayed with me for years, itching away at my brain, until I was compelled to write my own version of this heart-breaking story.

***

Thank you so much Philippa for sharing that with us, and especially for the (rather scary) extract. All the best for your work and your writing.

***

Extract from SAFE AND SOUND

Chapter One

Before I started in this job, I used to picture bailiffs bashing in people’s doors and dragging furniture out into the street.

Of course, it isn’t like that really. We’ve sent this tenant a letter to let her know we’re coming, all correct protocol with the London Housing Association that I work for. I have two bailiffs with me but, really, all we want to do today is to ensure that this tenant, Ms Jones, knows about her debts, and hopefully sort out a means for her to pay them. That’s why I’m here: as her Housing Manager. Hopefully, I can agree a payment plan with her, something to help her out of this mess.

The bailiff with the kind face takes a deep breath and knocks hard on the door. ‘Ms Jones? Ms Jones, we are here about your unpaid rent.’

Safe and Sound by Philippa East

Safe and Sound by Philippa East

I think I can make out voices coming from inside the flat, but as I lean closer I hear someone saying Capital FM!, and I realise it’s just the radio playing. If the radio is on though, I can be pretty sure she’s in there.

The bailiff knocks again, thump thump.

A song comes on a moment later: ‘Everywhere’ by Fleetwood Mac. We’ll keep knocking and hope that eventually she will come to the door, even if she doesn’t open it. She has a right not to open it to us, but I really hope we can speak to her today. That way I have a chance to help. We can let things go for a while – the longest I can remember was four months – but we can’t just let it go on forever. Ms Jones is already three months behind. We’ve sent half a dozen letters already, but she didn’t reply to any of them, so now it’s come to this. If we can’t arrange some kind of payment schedule today, the next step is an eviction notice and I would really hate for it to come to that.

‘Ms Jones?’ the bailiff calls again.

There are footsteps on the stairs above. I step back and look up to see who’s coming. A neighbour from upstairs, nobody that I recognise, a black woman, smartly dressed, probably on her way out to work. There are dozens of people living in this block but now I wonder how many of them speak to each other or even know their neighbours’ names. But she must pass this way at least, most days. ‘Excuse me,’ I call out to her. ‘Do you know the tenant in this flat? Is she usually home at this time?’

The woman comes down the last few stairs.

‘She’s got the radio on,’ I say. ‘We’re assuming she’s in.’

The woman pauses next to us and shrugs. ‘Her radio is always on,’ she says. ‘I hear it every time I go by.’

She loiters for another moment between the staircase and the doors to the outside, sizing us up. But she is busy, she has her own life to be getting on with, and no doubt she’s learnt that it’s best in a big city like this not to get involved. ‘Sorry,’ she offers as she hitches her handbag more securely onto her shoulder and makes her way through the heavy door to the lobby.

We turn back to the flat and the other bailiff knocks this time, his fist bigger, his knock that bit louder. I look down at the file of papers I am still holding against my chest. I’ve been in this flat before; I checked the last tenant out. I can still picture it: the tiny apartment is only a bedsit really, tucked away on the ground floor, hidden under the stairs so you could quite easily miss it. The living room and bedroom are one and the same, the sofa tucked behind the front door doubling as a bed, and there is a kitchen, but only an archway divides the two, so you could hardly even call them separate rooms. There’s a tiny toilet, with a shower attachment that hangs, a little bit crooked, above a plastic bath. And that’s it.

The last tenant, I remember, only stayed a few months. They complained about the commercial waste bins that always somehow ended up against the rear wall of this block, even though they belonged to the restaurant twenty yards away. Then the flat was empty for a good while, until this tenant moved in a year ago. Into this flat, now allocated to me.

The song has flipped over and it’s another tune that’s playing now. I recognise this one too: ‘Beautiful Day’ by U2. Out of nowhere I get a sort of roiling feeling in my stomach and a prickling up the base of my spine. I hand my file of papers to the bailiff with the plain, kind face and walk right up to the door. I bend my knees so that my eyes are level with the letterbox and lift up the flap. With my cheek against the flaky wood of the door I look through the slat of a gap that has opened up.

I see all the post, a slithering pile of it silting up the floor on the other side of the door. No doubt the letters we sent are among it. The strangest smell reaches me in thin wisps from inside, and suddenly I find myself thinking back to last year and the annual inspection I was supposed to carry out. I let the flap of the letterbox fall and straighten back up. My chest has gone tight. I can’t seem to speak.

Now both bailiffs are looking at me, but I can’t find a way to tell them what’s wrong. The older one leans down, copying what I have just done and sees for himself what’s through that narrow space.

He puts a palm on the door, as though to steady himself.

He manages to say something and he says: ‘Holy shit.

***

Oh my goodness! What a great beginning. Thank you Philippa for sharing.

Philippa’s Links

Amazon Author page: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Philippa-East/e/B07S3JQDGK
Safe and Sound book link (via Bookshop.org who support independent bookshops): https://uk.bookshop.org/books/safe-and-sound-9780008344047/9780008344047
Twitter profile: https://twitter.com/philippa_east

“A gift from the sea”: Heather Ewings

Celtic myths abound about the selkies – seals who can shed their skins to become human…or is that humans who can take up a skin to become a seal? Our fascination with creatures of the sea is a long-standing one, from the classical sirens who tempted Jason and the Argonauts to Hans Christian Anderson’s Little Mermaid. Yes, long before Disney. And who can forget the Attack of the Mermaids in Pirates of the Caribbean?

Of course, all earthly life started in the sea. We’re mostly water, after all.

Today’s guest is Heather Ewings,  a fellow Australian speculative fiction author. Heather lives and writes on the land of the Pallittorre people of Northern Tasmania, and has an MA in Modern History. She also has a particular interest in Tasmanian colonial times, as well as a fascination with myth and folklore.

I’m fortunate to day to speak to Heather about her writing inspirations.

What inspires me?

Heather:

I once won a book by answering this question! That was about fifteen years ago, but the answer I gave still applies today. I’m inspired by hearing how other people have achieved their dreams, whatever they may be. I love hearing of the so-called ‘over-night’ success after years of hard work – it encourages me to sit down and put the effort in to take that next step. Whether improving my writing or editing skills, or learning how to market and promote my books, there’s always more to learn. But it’s not always easy to find the motivation to sit down and do the work.

Author Heather Ewings

Author Heather Ewings

… And for those who want to know which book I won, I’m pretty sure it was Vanishing Acts by Jodi Picoult, which I won through a competition run by Allen & Unwin!

***

Heather has kindly provided an extract from her novel, What the Tide Brings. Here’s the blurb, just before you start reading the story:

In most tales of selkies it is a woman whose magical skin is stolen, who is forced to marry the lucky thief and live a life of misery, pining away for her home in the sea.

But what if the stolen skin belongs to an infant, taken before they have memory of life under the waves?

Extract from What the Tide Brings:

Myna tossed and turned on the rickety bed as recent conversations circled her mind.

There was Wayanna’s hopeful plea: ‘That’s my seal skin. You have one too,’ quickly followed by Father’s defensive tone: ‘You’ll never find it. Your ma hid it too well, even from me!’

Could it be true?

Myna wanted her walk to the beach to be a dream, but it hadn’t ended suddenly, as dreams always did. Instead she’d had to walk the long cold path back home, and undress again, and climb back into bed beside her still sleeping husband. And then she’d lain there, for an awfully long time, as thoughts whirled around inside her head.

When the faint light of dawn crept in between the shutters, Myna sighed and slipped out of bed.

In the main room she stoked the fire, setting the kettle to boil before starting on the morning’s oats.

Father slept on a cot by the wall. Ronan intended to build an extra room for him, one that would be Ebba’s once he’d passed, but though the foundation stones had been laid the walls hadn’t been started, and Myna felt a stab of irritation. How long can it take?

As though he’d heard her thoughts, Ronan exited the bedroom, crossing the room to give Myna a kiss before leaving the house to start the morning’s chores.

Myna carried the heavy pot, hanging it on the hook over the fire when she heard the cot creak.

What am I doing here?’ Father propped himself up on one elbow, blinking at her.

You live with us now, Father.’ Myna turned to remove the tea cups from the shelf and place them on the table.

Nonsense. Take me home. Your mother will be wondering where I am.’

Mother died years ago.’

Father sat up, swinging his legs over the side of the bed in a rare moment of agility. ‘You’re trying to find it, aren’t you? She’ll spank you when she finds out.’

Myna lost her patience. ‘My mother. Really? You’ve been full of tales these past months. Accusing me of searching for something I never knew existed. I thought you’d gone mad—that you suffered the derangement of old age. But you haven’t, have you? You’ve just lost the ability to hide the truth. So, tell me this thing I’m supposed to be looking for, that my so-called mother doesn’t want me to find.’

He frowned, and blinked, his eyes gaining a clarity Myna hadn’t seen in such a long time.

Oh Myna.’ His shoulders sagged. ‘I told your mother to leave you there.’

No question how Myna found out, not even a hesitation.

I told her it were no good, taking you from the sea. And look where it got us, a fishing village with no fish, and your mother and me ostracised, and all because of you.’ His finger pointed at her, and his voice filled the room. ‘But she wouldn’t ever give you back, no matter how we begged and cajoled, she just wouldn’t let you go.’

He sighed, his arm dropping to his lap. When he spoke again his voice was softer.

I’m sorry, Myna, love. We were going to tell you. We just…it’s hard to know when the right time falls for such talk. At every point we feared destroying your present happiness or upsetting you more than you were. Your mother struggled to conceive a child; you know that. And when she saw you…’ He sighed again.

She thought I was a gift from the sea.’

He nodded.

So you just found me, abandoned on the beach?’ Myna wanted it to be true, that the people who’d raised her had saved her, but when Duncan’s gaze dropped to the table between them her hopes sank.

You were there with a selkie woman.’ His gaze flicked to Myna’s face and back to the table. ‘Your mother, Dyllis, she asked to hold you. The selkie seemed unsure, but agreed. Then Dyllis ran.” Duncan’s eyes flicked again. ‘Selkies aren’t used to running, are they? She couldn’t catch up. And then once Dyllis made it to the trees there were too many sharp sticks underfoot. Selkies’ feet aren’t used to sharp sticks.’

Myna’s knees gave way beneath her, and she sank into the nearest chair.

You and Dyllis took me from the shore. Even though I was there with my mother?’

Father cringed. ‘She loved you, from that first moment. We both did.’ He stopped, met her eye. ‘We both do,’ he amended. ‘You know that, don’t you?’

Myna’s eyes stung as she shook her head.

You may have thought you loved me, but you hated not being part of the town, living on the outskirts. And what about me? I grew up with no friends—always the outcast, always the focus of stares and whispers.’ She wiped the tears building in the corners of her eyes. ‘My own mother would have loved me. And I would have grown up as one of a group, not always the odd one out.’

Myna—’

If you and Mother had loved me, you would have sought out what was best for me. You would never have forced me into a life of your choosing. You would never have taken me from my family to begin with.’

She stood, and strode the few steps across the room to the door, slamming it on her way through.

She was a selkie, was she? Selkies hadn’t been seen since before she was born. Long extinct, her parents had told her when she’d asked about the tales. Ronan was from a larger town, further down the coast. He considered them folklore. How could she tell him they were real?

How could she tell him she was one?

***

Keen to read on? Check out Heather’s website – sign up for her newsletter and receive a free copy of the prequel yo What the Tide Brings – Maggie and the Selkie

Links:

www.heatherewings.com.au

Fantasy meets Science with Fi Phillips

Fi Phillips is a fantasy author living in North Wales with her family and a pooch called Bailey. Writing about magical possibilities is her passion.

Her debut novel, Haven Wakes, was released in 2019 by Burning Chair Publishing and the second instalment in The Haven Chronicles is due to be released later this year.

When she isn’t ‘authoring’, Fi works as a freelance copywriter. Fi tells me how inspiring she fins the potential in that space where imagination meets science.

 

Fi Phillips: Fantasy with a touch of Science

I’m a fantasy author. I love all things magical – from people with spell-casting powers, to mythical creatures, to artefacts that can do the most marvellous things. If there’s magic involved, let me at it.

But here’s the thing. I also love reading about scientific developments. I’ll give you an example – robots. There’s a whole world of robots out there, right now. Some are the kind of robots I remember from childhood viewing, like Robby the Robot in Forbidden Planet, clumsy and cumbersome and unlikely to outrun or even outwalk you in a chase. Others are altogether more advanced and scarily relevant to the world we live in. You just have to look at the progress that Boston Dynamics has made to realise that. And then, there are the robots which are currently floating around and being useful, like the Astrobees (no, that isn’t a kids TV programme – they really exist) on the International Space Station.

Robots are kind of magic too

Robots are kind of magic too…photo by Possessed Photography from Unsplash

My favourite fantasy novels and films are those that have a mixture of fantasy and science, stories like Sheri S Tepper’s The True Game series or the Nicholas Cage film The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. That’s why my debut novel, Haven Wakes, includes all of that – magic and robots and plenty of future-tech that is being developed as we speak (read?).

Inspiration for me is the place where imagination and science meet.

 

Extract from Haven Wakes

“Mind yourself.” Steve pulled Hartley aside as a small robot struggled down the centre of the pavement, pulled equally ahead and back by the four dogs it held the leads to.

“Is that normal?” said Hartley.

“Of course. That’s the kind of job robots do. Walk the dog. Serve in a shop. Clean up.”

“So what do people do?”

“Everything else, I suppose,” said Steve. “Or nothing.”

“Sounds peculiar to me,” said Hartley, still watching the robot as it untangled one of its limbs from the dogs’ leads. “Where’s the fun in having a dog and not walking it?”

***

The retail and eateries district that the department store sat in was a grid of mismatched shop fronts. The stores were split into three main types.

There were the older stores, like Sebastian Green and Sons with their faux-old pillars and marble-floored entrances, that attempted to mimic old world prestige. They sold the type of item that needed to be seen before purchase. It was also the kind of item that only the richest could afford, from rhodium jewellery to the latest solar sports car and the rarest of plants.

Dotted in between the shop fronts were the pick-up pods that varied in size depending on exactly what you were collecting. The largest pick-up pod that Steve had ever seen was one that supplied cars. Scan your identity from your wrap-phone, the door opens, and away you go.

“Surely that isn’t edible?” Hartley pressed his face against the window of an eatery, the third type of store in the district.

A conveyor belt of food-filled glass plates travelled around the eatery counter. At one end of the belt, waiter robots recovered the plates to serve to the waiting customers. At the other, the nozzles of the 3D food printer moved speedily around each plate, forming the pre-ordered food.

“That’s the advantage of synthetic food,” said Steve. “You can form it into any shape you want, and it’s fast.”

“Ludicrous,” said Hartley, shaking his head as he stepped back from the window. “There’s not enough on one of those plates to touch the sides.”

***

Oh, I love that! Especially the part about why you would have dogs but let the robot walk them! And 3D printed food. Wow. More please.

Author Fi Phillips

Author Fi Phillips

 

Fiona’s Links:

Author Website – http://fiphillipswriter.com/

Haven Wakeshttps://burning-chair.myshopify.com/collections/fiction-books/products/haven-wakes-by-fi-phillips

Find Fi on Instagram – https://www.instagram.com/fiphillipswriter/

Songbird Inspiration: J Victoria Michael

My author friend Judith Michael is a New Zealand-born writer now living in Melbourne.

Judith is fascinated with other dimensions, time travel and unexpected, remarkable talents. She writes as J Victoria Michael.

Inspirational

Judith has a passion for epic stories that stir the imagination, so we have a lot in common! Judith’s imagination takes her into shadow worlds where strange things happen, and words make music. She’s very musical and loves dance as well. The GriffinSong Trilogy is her debut as a novel writer. Judith’s short stories have been awarded and published in hard copy and e-zines.

You can read my review of the first novel in the series, Songbird, here. I loved it!

I asked Judith to tell me about what inspires her. She responded by explaining all about the main protagonist of the GriffinBird world, Irenya O’Neil. Here’s what Judith told me.

Irenya O’Neil

Who is she, and how did a thirty-one year old Melbourne mother, teacher and musician finish up in a story with fantasy elements?

Irenya O'Neil from the GriffinSinger Trilogy by J Victoria Michael

Irenya O’Neil from the GriffinSinger Trilogy by J Victoria Michael

Irenya and I agreed to meet up early in the writing of GriffinSong Trilogy. She arrived, carrying her own chair, which was one of those wickerwork things with thin cushions. It didn’t take much to get her talking. Here’s some of what she told me…

David and I were planning to marry soon, but I’ve had problems. The panic attacks were getting worse. I was shit-scared of dying – still am – and the anti-depressants were doing piss-all to help me. Supermarkets are the worst. It’s that Musak. Does my head in. Same as my grandmother. What if our little boy has inherited this too? It worries me sick. Then, just before Christmas, and with no warning, I finish up in this place called Dar Orien. Trying to find my way home is exhausting. If I was one of those show-off, kick-ass teenagers, I might find life in another world interesting. But I have a 15-month-old son, for Pete’s sake, and I miss him so much. All I want is to go back home. Now you’re telling me there are two more volumes to my journey here…”

Irenya doesn’t realise it but she is on a liminal threshold. As the year 2020 has shown us, the shift from one reality to another can be long-term and devastating. You may no longer be sure of where you are, or even who you are, as Irenya discovers in Songbird the first volume of my trilogy.

Liminality

Liminal exactly describes Irenya’s journey. Arriving in the alternate world of Dar Orien means she has crossed a physical threshold, but has yet to complete the transition across mental, spiritual and sensory boundaries. She is standing on the threshold between two worlds, on the verge of something new, and praying for the chance to return home, unaware that what she is waiting for is transformation. For her, it is a state of being that is painful, distressing and exhausting. It’s a state that threatens to tear a vulnerable woman to pieces.

Liminal also describes the realm of Dar Orien and its inhabitants. They too, are on a threshold, waiting for transformation, yet hamstrung by their inability to see beyond the tenets they have accepted for millennia.

The liminal state does not allow a return to where you were.

That particular place and moment is gone, as Irenya comes to realise. There is only one direction she can go, and that’s forward. As for her being in a story with fantasy elements, I am an author who loves stretching my imagination. Apart from that, it was luck of the draw.

In my latest release GriffinSinger (GriffinBird #2), Irenya finds a new state of grace, which, in the year 2021, is something we’re all hoping to find.

Fleetwalker (GriffinBird #3) is due for release this year.

 

Thanks Judith, that’s so interesting. And now for a gift extract!

Songbird by J Victoria Michael

Songbird by J Victoria Michael

 

From Songbird (GriffinSong Trilogy #1)

Elaaron clasped his hands together, his expression changing from courteous to grim. His cool gaze was unsettling. ‘Tell me about Tire. When were you last there?’

It was several seconds before Irenya could reply. ‘Wh… Where’s that? In this valley?’

‘Tire is a town more than one hundred leagues from here.’

She tried to work out the difference between leagues and kilometres. ‘I’ve been here all the time. The physicians will confirm that.’ She waved a hand at the snow-capped mountains outside the windows. ‘Why do you think I’ve been anywhere else?’

‘I have come from Tire. You were seen there four summers ago.’

She wanted to laugh, but his manner did not invite that response. ‘And…?’ she prompted.

‘I spoke with several of the townspeople who remember a woman who fits your description. Your face. Your voice. Your name. They were describing you.’

‘I… I’m sorry. I just have to laugh because that’s impossible. A long way from here and four years – I mean four summers ago? I haven’t been here anywhere near that long. It can’t have been me. It…isn’t…it just can’t…’ She subsided. Her face was beginning to overheat. In the prickly silence she felt a bead of perspiration run down the nape of her neck.

He unclasped his fingers and placed his hands palm down on the table, precisely shoulder-width apart. ‘Do you deny that you and your brother, Mikey, were in Tire four summers ago?’

‘What! My brother died when we were children. And my son, Mikey, is still an infant. Yes, I do deny it, because it’s impossible.’

To distance herself from his outrageous claims, she pushed her chair back from the table, folded her arms tightly across her chest and squeezed her eyes closed. She heard the chime of glass and the gurgle of poured liquid. A cup of water appeared before her. He clasped his hands again.

‘So.’ She met his gaze. ‘According to the good people of Tire, I was there four years ago – summers, years or whatever – with a child I would not conceive for some time.’ She raised the cup and drained it. It was his word against hers, and in this place, he was the authority.

‘Did you bring me here?’ The question had hung in her mind for days.

‘No.’ He shook his head once, the movement glancing light off the single gold earring he wore. ‘Meia willing, I hope I am never called upon to keep a mother from her child. Why did you choose to come here?’

‘You think I just came to Dar Orien? As if this is a holiday!’

He had shaken her with the Tire story. His constant scrutiny and his claims were exhausting. She looked at him, wanting him to give her the faintest ray of hope, anything that might tell her how she could go home.

He made a study of her face before replying. ‘You came here for a purpose,’ he said. ‘Though being here appears to constantly surprise you.’

Irenya was silent. The only surprise she wanted was to find herself back in Melbourne, one second after she’d left. How that might work, and what their problems might be here, was not her concern; she wanted to go home to David and Mikey.

‘Now, he said. ‘The seer, Fis… If the accounts I have are correct, she may still be living in northern Ishter, possibly over the border into Midrash. Given the slowness of our communications I can give you no assurances. I plan to journey north with a small company in spring. You should travel with us.’

‘Spring!’ She reeled in shock. ‘I don’t even want to be here then, let alone searching for a seer who may or may not be able to help me. Can’t we go now?’

‘We do not have a choice in this. The mountain pass is already dangerous, even for an experienced rider. We cannot leave until the spring thaw has melted most of the snow. I will not risk lives. Talk to Leachim. Ask him to tell you everything he knows about the Gifteds, and the fleetwalkers. After all, he was one.’

This was not the first time she’d heard words that filled her with dread, words that opened chasms beneath her feet. Living in this world was like walking on ice with no idea how thin it might be. Each step she took could land her in danger. She had already experienced that.

As if he had read her thoughts, he said, ‘If the MageGate had survived the invasion it would not have been necessary to test you with primitive fire. Though I apologise for the ill treatment, I would not wish to mislead you. Had I judged you harmful to this realm, I would have let the flames take you.’

Her skin prickled hot then cold and her throat tightened.

‘Lady,’ he continued. ‘I will overlook your tendency to appear disrespectful, on the grounds that you are unfamiliar with our customs. Be mindful, and do not give others cause to complain. We are living in hard and testing times.

‘With regard to the mirror, it has been fixed to that wall for a very long time. It is no more than an ornate, oversized looking-glass. I believe it is a portal that you alone may open. If someone did not send you through the mirror, then you must surely have journeyed here yourself. That leaves two questions. Why did you come here? And why do you deny yourself a passage home? Open your mind to what makes Dar Orien different from your world.’ He sat back in his chair and she sensed a dismissal.

She rose to leave, thanked him for his time and his advice. The squire reappeared and Irenya stepped into the passage, acutely conscious of the intense blue stare at her back. He can’t help me, yet my life is in his hands…

Thank you so much for sharing! Here are some links to Judith’s books.

Highly recommended!

Judith’s Links

Judith’s author site:   www.jvictoriamichael.com
Songbird:   www.odysseybooks.com.au/titles/9781922311078/
GriffinSinger:   www.odysseybooks.com.au/titles/9781922311276/
Find Judith’s books on Amazon:  https://www.amazon.com.au/J-Victoria-Michael/e/B08BJX2XJJ/

The Alps are alive and inspiring strangers: Louise Mangos

Louise Mangos, originally from Hertfordshire, now lives in central Switzerland with her Kiwi husband and two sons. She enjoys a very active life in the Alps, and she takes inspiration and energy from the stunning beauty of nature around her home.

Louise has just completed her Master in Crime Writing at the University of East Anglia in the UK and is working on her third psychological suspense novel.

Author Louise Mangos

Author Louise Mangos

Today Louise is sharing her ideas on inspiration for writing, plus the MUST READ opening scene from her debut suspense novel Strangers on a Bridge.

Inspiration for Writing

Louise: If you want to be a writer, the first thing on the list of ‘must-do’ is to read, read and read. Reading novels in one’s own genre not only provides inspiration, but gives a good idea of the market trends. While I don’t advocate writing to trends, if a writer is having difficulties discovering their niche and wants to attract the attention of an agent or publisher, this might help.

Books aren’t the only places I find inspiration. I live on the edge of a lake in central Switzerland surrounded by the foothills leading to the high Alps. My first two novels and part of my third are set here. I only have to walk out of my door to be bombarded with inspiration.

The setting in a story can be as important as character. It takes on a life of its own, especially in psychological thrillers and suspense where the darkness of human character can be enhanced by the location of the story. In this genre, setting requires an atmosphere and environment that marries the tension and menace of the narrative.

Snowy inspiration

Snowy inspiration

You might think the pristine snowy peaks of the Alps surrounded by wild-flowered meadows in spring hardly conjures a threatening atmosphere. But in the deep winter or in an approaching summer storm, those peaks become dark and foreboding. They change as quickly as an unstable character.

While writing, inspiration doesn’t always come easily to writer sitting at their desk (or the dining-room table in my case). Once the seed of a story idea has germinated in my mind, I need to distance myself from the words from time to time to allow them to flourish.

Getting outside and exercising in nature is an essential aid to my creativity. Our brains, not just our bodies, thrive on exercise. In summer I go kayaking or wild swimming in the lake that lies on my doorstep. In winter I skate-ski on the trails within a few minutes’ drive from my home.

If I’m stuck on a plot point or need inspiration for the next chapter, being outside doing an activity helps to fix those issues in my imagination. I have to be able to write them down as quickly as possible after my outing before my befuddled mind forgets it all. Voice notes on the phone and a pencil and notepad in a backpack helps, but in general I let the writing flow once I’m back at my computer, looking out of my window at the view of the places that nurtured the seeds of my story.

Louise kayaks on the Swiss lake near her home

Louise kayaks on the Swiss lake near her home

Thanks Louise.

I see it all! The Heidi-esque flower slopes under the looming avalanche!

Louise has chosen the opening chapter of her debut novel Strangers on a Bridge which shows the (inspirational) Alpine setting.

 

CHAPTER ONE

APRIL

I wouldn’t normally exercise on the weekend, but several days of spring rain had hampered my attempts to run by the Aegerisee near our home during the week. The lake had brimmed over onto my regular running paths. The sun came out that morning, accompanied by a cloudless blue sky. Simon knew I was chomping at the bit. He let me go, encouraging me to run for everyone’s peace of mind.

I chose a woodland track from the lowlands near the town of Baar, and planned to run up through the Lorze Gorge. A local bus dropped me at the turn-off to the narrow limestone canyon, and I broke into a loping jog along the gravel lane, dwindling to a packed earthen trail. Sunlight winked through trees fluorescent with new leaf shoots. The forest canopy shaded much of the track and the swollen river gushed at my side. I lengthened my stride, and breathed in the metallic aroma of sprouting wild garlic. The mundane troubles of juggling family time dissipated, and as I settled into my metronome rhythm, a feeling of peacefulness ensued.

The sun warmed my shoulders as I ran out from the shade of the forest. I focused on a small pine tree growing comically out of the mossy roof shingles of the old Tobel Bridge. Above me, two more bridges connected the widening funnel of the Lorze Gorge at increasingly higher levels, resembling an Escher painting.

Before I entered the dim tunnel of the wooden bridge, I glanced upwards. A flash of movement caught my eye. My glance slid away, and darted back.

A figure stood on the edge of the upper bridge.

In a split second my brain registered the person’s stance. I sucked in my breath, squinting to be sure I had seen correctly at such a distance.

Oh, no. Please, don’t.

The figure stood midway between two of the immense concrete pillars, his fists clutching the handrail. His body swayed as he looked out across the expanse to the other side of the gorge, the river roaring its white noise hundreds of feet below him. Birdsong trilled near me on the trail, strangely out of place in this alarming situation.

Ridiculous to think this person was going to jump. But that body language, a certain hollowed stiffness to his shoulders and chest, even from a distance, radiated doom. Unsure how to react, but sure I didn’t want to observe the worst, I slowed my pace to a walk.

Haallo!’ I yelled over the noise of the river.

My voice took some time to reach him. Seconds later his head jolted, awoken from his reverie.

‘Hey! Hallo!’ I called again, holding my arm out straight, palm raised like a marshal ordering traffic to halt at an intersection.

I backtracked a few metres on the trail, away from the shadow of the covered bridge, so he could see me more clearly. A path wove up through the woods, connecting the valley to the route higher up. I abandoned my initial course and ran up the steep slope, losing sight of the man somewhere above me. At the top I turned onto the pavement and hurried towards the road onto the bridge, gulping painful breaths of chilly air, heart pounding.

The man had been out of my sight for a few minutes. I dreaded what I might find on my arrival, scenarios crowding in my mind, along with thoughts of how I might help this person. As I strode onto the bridge, I saw with relief he was still there on the pavement. Fear kept my eyes connected to the lone figure. If I looked away for even a second, he might leap stealthily over the edge. Holding my gaze on him would hopefully secure him to the bridge.

‘Hallo…’ I called more softly, my voice drowned by the sound of the rushing water in the Lorze below. I walked steadily along the pavement towards him. He didn’t seem to have heard me.

Grüezi, hallo,’ I said again.

With a flick of his head, he leaned back, bent his knees, and looked ahead.

‘No!’ The gunshot abruptness of my shout broke his concentration. My voice ricocheted off the concrete wall of the bridge. He stopped mid-sway, eyes wide.

My stomach clenched involuntarily as I glanced down into the gorge, when moments before I had been staring up out of it. I felt foolish, not knowing what to say. It seemed like a different world up here. As I approached within talking distance, I greeted him in my broken German, still breathing heavily.

‘Um, good morning… Beautiful, hey?’ I swept my arm about me.

What a stupid thing to say. My voice sounded different without the echo of space between us. The words sounded so absurd, and a nervous laugh escaped before I could stop it.

He looked at me angrily, but remained silent, perhaps vaguely surprised that someone had addressed him in a foreign language. Or surprised anyone had talked to him at all in this country where complete strangers rarely struck up a conversation beyond a cursory passing greeting. I reeled at the wave of visual resentment. Then his eyes settled on my face, and his features softened.

‘Do you speak English?’ I asked. The man nodded. He was still leaning backwards, hands gripping the railing. Please. Don’t. Jump.

He was a little taller than me. His steel-grey hair was raked back on his head as though he had been running his fingers through it repeatedly. His coat flapped open to reveal a smart navy suit, Hugo Boss maybe. I looked down to the pavement expecting to see a briefcase at his feet. He looked away. I desperately needed him to turn back, keep eye contact.

‘I… I’m sorry, but I had this strange feeling you were considering jumping off the bridge.’ I desperately hoped my assessment had been false.

‘I am,’ he said.

***

O my stars! What a grand opening. Thank you so much, Louise, for sharing. I see my chocolate box view of Switzerland may need some tweaking 🙂

Those Swiss Alps are rather fab. See you next week for more inspirations.

 

Louise’s Links:

 

Author website: https://louisemangos.com/

Strangers on a Bridge: https://mybook.to/StrangersOnABridge

Her Husband’s Secrets (formerly The Art of Deception): https://mybook.to/HerHusbandsSecrets

 

Inspirations for 2021: Malve von Hassell and the trobairitz

Another inspiring extract for you: meet Malve von Hassell!

About Malve

Malve was born in Italy and spent part of her childhood in Belgium and Germany before moving to the United States. She is a freelance writer, researcher, and translator, with a Ph.D. in anthropology .

Malve’s first historical fiction novel, The Falconer’s Apprentice , is for young adults. She has also published Alina: A Song for the Telling , set in Jerusalem in the time of the Crusades.

Author Malve von Hassell

Author Malve von Hassell

Malve’s forthcoming book, The Amber Crane (to be published by the fabulous Odyssey Books this year),  is set in Germany in 1645 and 1945. Currently, she is working on a biographical work about a woman coming of age in Nazi Germany.

Today she is sharing an extract from her novel Alina, and explaining how history inspired the story.

Malve’s Inspiration: the trobairitz

Malve: When writing my historical fiction novel, I wanted to incorporate and give voice to the trobairitz, the women singer-songwriters of the 12th century. My protagonist Alina is a young woman who aspires to become a trobairitz.

Who were the trobairitz?

Trobairitz are female troubadors. In the early 12th century, the troubadour school or tradition originated in a region of southern France as well as parts of Italy and Spain known as Occitania. The art of the troubadours declined and eventually died out by the middle of the 13th century. Trobairitz came from that same tradition.

Why did most of the known trobairitz emerge from the Provence and other areas in southern France?

The social-economic factors defining the lives of ordinary women in that part of the world reduced their choices. Other than marriage and childbearing, few alternative paths were available to women in the 12th century. Women from the upper classes had the same restrictions, unless they chose the church. In rare instances, women made names for themselves as writers or healers, or managed to carve out positions of political power at various courts.

In southern France, compared to other regions in Europe, women had more control over land ownership. That meant women had access to sources of power. This was perhaps reinforced by the fact that during the Crusades, many men were away, leaving their wives to administer their estates.

The trobairitz moved far beyond the traditions of the troubadours. Like the troubadours, they often sang about courtly love. However, trobairitz had a much sharper, more grounded, and even mocking tone. Their lyrics were often more sincere, direct, and passionate than that of troubadours. They wrote about political and social inequality and questioned the prevailing mores of the times that silenced women and relegated them to the realms of motherhood.

For the first time in European history, women could claim authorship of their lyrics and compositions. All known female composers who preceded them wrote sacred music, with their works published under the names of men for their music to have any chance of being distributed and played.

Alina: a Song for the Telling by Malve von Hassell

Alina: a Song for the Telling by Malve von Hassell

 

Excerpt from

Alina: a Song for the Telling

Chapter 8 Wind in the Desert

Sand had gotten into everything I owned. I gave up trying to shake it out and resigned myself to being covered with a layer of dust until we arrived in Jerusalem. My hair was even more disheveled than usual, and I could taste the salty sweat on my cracked lips. My eyes burned from the hot glare of the day. I was tired.

And I was happy.

It was as if I was drunk on the colors of the desert, the silence, the vastness, and the impersonal harshness, drunk on traveling and on being far away from home. With one ear I tried to catch the sounds of the men talking. Occasionally I could make out Count Stephen’s voice.

“Let’s play some music.”

Startled out of my reverie, I glanced around. Milos had walked over and crouched on the sand next to me. He helped himself to a date. “How about it?”

I hesitated. During the journey from France, it had seemed a natural thing to do in the evenings, but now with Count Raymond, Count Stephen, and other older knights, I felt uncomfortable. I hardly needed to draw more attention to myself.

“Come on, Alina. This might be the last chance we’ll have for a while.”

Reluctantly I took my lute out of its wrappings. “What would you like to sing?”

“How about Can vei la lauzeta?” Milos asked.

For a moment I yearned for home. Right now the hills would be covered with wild thyme.

I began to play a few chords, and then Milos began to sing, softly at first. Heads turned, and a few of the knights wandered over to listen to us.

Behold the lark

Dancing

In the sun’s rays and

Swooping into the depths, borne down by the delight in its heart.

It makes me yearn to be one with all who have tasted happiness.

After the first few lines, I forgot my discomfort. Milos and I had done together this so often that we didn’t even need to look at each other for cues about when to increase or lower the volume or when to slow down or to pause. For Milos, it was just one of many facets of his being. He liked to perform, but he had never hounded our father to teach him new songs.

For me, it was so much more—not just a joy, but something vital in a way I couldn’t explain. Maybe in part it was because I could control it when I couldn’t control anything else. Perhaps it had been like that for our father as well. Of course he was a man, and nobody could force him into a marriage or tell him how to act. So maybe it wasn’t the same. Anyway, for me it was more than that.

When Milos finished, the last drawn-out note echoing through the still evening air, I made a sign to him and whispered, “Now it’s my turn. I’ll sing Ar em al freg temps vengut.

Milos shook his head. “But that’s about winter, and it’s too long,” he whispered.

“We’ll do just a few verses,” I said stubbornly. All afternoon I had watched the shifting light transform the desert into a glowing purple void, the silvery green leaves of the scrubby desert brush the only signposts reminding us of the ground beneath our feet. I had kept thinking of the right music to convey all this splendor. Finally, I remembered the song my father taught me by the trobairitz Azalais de Porcairagues. Gently I strummed the strings and began.

Winter is upon us, and time stands still,

Trapped in ice and snow and mud.

All birds have fallen silent

(for none wants to raise her voice in song).

Milos picked up his flute and followed my voice. The melody was sparse and severe, a song of immeasurable sorrow, glorying in desolation. It was as if one could hear the high-pitched whistling and groaning sounds from a frozen lake, echoing across the ice.

Now, with the heat of the day drifting away into the darkness, the flute’s plaintive notes evoked the wind sweeping over the sands. I kept my eyes on Milos as I sang. A hint of sadness in his eyes reminded me of our father and his lost, hungry expression at the end.

When we drew to a close, Milos lowered his flute, but I didn’t want to stop yet.

I concluded with one of my father’s pieces. Eerily, he had composed it a year before my mother died. It was about a dreamer who walks through a misty valley, blind to the flowers at his feet, in search of his love. He walks and weeps and does not hear the birds all around him. Faster and faster he rushes through the woods. His steps lead him to the brink of a ravine. He never falters as he steps into the void. I didn’t sing the lyrics, instead just picked out the chords of the simple melody.

A last dark note and I placed my fingers on the strings to still them. When I raised my head, I looked directly into the face of Count Stephen. He had moved quietly to join the others listening to us. The fire lit up his features—plain, with a jutting nose and a wide mouth slightly off-center, a broad forehead, and grey eyes under thick brows. Courteously he inclined his head toward me and smiled. It transformed his face.

I realized that I was staring at him, and felt myself go red, hoping he could not see this in the dark.

“Thank you, Mistress Alina. I hope we will hear you perform again.” Then he turned and walked away.

The next day we arrived in Jerusalem.

***

Goodness! Now I want to read on. I hope you do too. Here are some useful links to help you do that. Many thanks to Malve for sharing this with us. Until next week!

 

Malve’s LINKS

https://www.malvevonhassell.com

https://www.amazon.com/Alina-Telling-Malve-von-Hassell/dp/1643971042

https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/alina-malve-von-hassell/1137197559?ean=9781643971049