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History meets Fiction: Frances Quinn and the Smallest Man

My guest today tells us about the complications of writing historical fiction. Meet Frances Quinn and The Smallest Man.

Frances Quinn

Frances Quinn is the author of The Smallest Man. Her novel tells the story of Nat Davy. Nat becomes court dwarf to Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles 1, just as England heads into the civil war. The war that will end in the execution of the king.

Author Frances Quinn

Author Frances Quinn

 

Who’s behind the Smallest Man?

I came across the real life character that inspired The Smallest Man quite by accident. I was working on a historical murder mystery, and I wanted to feature a character with a disability who, as a result of attitudes at the time, would be a bit on the edge of society.

I’d vaguely heard about ‘court dwarfs’, so I Googled ‘17th century dwarf’, and up popped the Wikipedia entry for Jeffrey Hudson.  Jeffrey was a gift to Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles 1, and he became a sort of human pet at the court.

Hudson went on to kill a man in a duel and survive an attack on the Queen during the Civil War. He was later captured by pirates and taken to be a slave in Morocco. He then came home and went to prison as a traitor – quite a life!

 

Real life v fiction

I instantly wanted to abandon the murder mystery and write a story about Hudson instead. It seemed to be a gift to a novelist.

Little did I know!

As I tried to plan the novel, I discovered that turning a real life into a novel isn’t as easy as it sounds. A novel needs a shape, and a direction. Real life meanders around, goes off at tangents and has no respect for the need to tie all the ends together in the last chapter.

If the interesting part about the person’s story focuses around one event, or even a shortish period, you can zoom in on that. But Jeffrey’s story had almost too much going on, with the key events stretching over 50 years. Long, boring bits occur in between the action and a vast cast of characters appear who were relevant historically but not necessarily very interesting. His life also had a sad ending – it’s thought Jeffrey died alone and in poverty. Not a very satisfying conclusion to a novel.

I was at the point of giving up on the story, when I re-read Armistead Maupin’s Maybe the Moon . Maupin’s main character also has dwarfism and I wanted to remind myself how he’d treated her disability in the story.

I’d forgotten that the heroine, Cadence Roth, was inspired by the actress Tamara de Treaux, who played ET in the film. Maupin’s novel isn’t Tamara’s story, but it’s the story of an actress with dwarfism who played an iconic character in a children’s movie.

That gave me the idea of creating a fictional character, Nat Davy. Nat becomes a court dwarf and has some of the same adventures as Jeffrey did, and some of his own.

 

What to put in, what to leave out

Once I’d made that decision, the novel took shape.

However I still had to wrestle with real life events. The middle part of the story happens against the background of the build-up to the English Civil War and the war itself. That meant a lot of well-documented events that potentially needed to be woven in.

Fortunately, my early choice to write in first person meant that Nat only needed to talk about the events that touched him personally. I concentrated on the things that the real life Jeffrey Hudson might mention if you bumped into him in a tavern and he told you his life story.

That got me out of writing about a lot of very tedious political and religious stuff from the build-up to the war. I also made sure Nat was well away from the fighting, because there was no way I wanted to write battle scenes!

 

A final twist

It took me four years to research and write the book, going through six full drafts. But the real life aspect still had another curveball to throw me, even after the book was sold to a publisher.

From early on, I’d had my doubts about having Nat kidnapped by pirates and taken to Morocco, as Jeffrey was. That would have meant moving the action not just to a completely new setting but a new cast of characters.

Also, because it was first person, some familiar characters would disappear for many chapters, because Nat wouldn’t know what they were doing.

Everyone I spoke said no, it’s exciting, leave it in. So I did. As it turned out, my editor saw the same problem that I had, and asked me to ditch the pirate section.

That meant not only writing a new third section of 30,000 words, but also tons more research into the last years of the Civil War.  I hadn’t thought I’d need to do that because Nat would be in Morocco and know nothing about it! It felt like a mountain to climb at the time, but the book is, I think, much better for it.

So building a novel on Jeffrey Hudson’s story turned out to be much more difficult than I thought when I read that Wikipedia entry. But I’m very glad now that I didn’t give up on him.

 

The Smallest Man

When should my story begin? Not when I was born, a butcher’s son, in a tiny cottage just like all the other tiny cottages in Oakham. Who’d have thought then that I’d ever have much of a story to tell?

Perhaps it starts when people began to nudge each other and stare as I walked with my mother to market, or the first time someone whispered that we were cursed. But I didn’t know then.

No, I think my story begins on the day of the Oakham Fair, in the year of 1625. When I was ten years old and I found out what I was.

Nat Davy is a dwarf. He is 10 years old, and all he wants is to be normal. After narrowly escaping being sold to the circus by his father, Nat is presented to Queen Henrietta Maria – in a pie. She’s 15, trapped in a loveless marriage to King Charles I, and desperately homesick. 

Loosely based on a true story, this epic tale spans 20 years; during which the war begins, Nat and the queen go on the run, Nat saves the queen’s life, falls in love with the most beautiful girl at court, kills a man, is left in exile. Told from his unique perspective as the smallest man in England, with the clever and engaging voice of a boy turned man yearning for acceptance, this story takes us on an unforgettable journey.

He’s England’s smallest man, but his story is anything but small.

 

All Your Little Lies, and confessions

All Your Little Lies is the latest thriller by Marianne Holmes.

It’s Marianne’s second book and I very much hope that there are more on the way.

Today we’re reconnecting to find out more about the book and how the strange year of 2020 is affecting writers…

Hello again Marianne!

Thank you so much for having me back on your blog, Clare, it’s great to be chatting with you again.

Author Marianne Holmes

Great to have you. What words of advice would you give an aspiring author, especially in this changing world?

Marianne: Just keep going, keep reading and keep seeking feedback. Writing, editing, submitting and then editing again take a long time and every writer faces set-backs and disappointments along the way. You can always improve your plot or your writing but resilience is the stuff you need to make it happen.

All Your Little Lies cover detail

All Your Little Lies cover

Resilience is essential to a writer, and perhaps the secret behind many a success. Are there any secrets hidden in your writing?

Yes, but I can’t tell you what they are! Actually, I heard a discussion a while ago about writers having themes that run through all their books and I remember thinking that didn’t apply to me; I was just writing stories.

What I realise now is that I do have some sub-conscious themes going on – around how adults are affected by childhood experiences and how they are able to work through them (or not) – and that’s actually been quite interesting. I did amuse myself by placing similar meaningful ‘keepsakes’ in both books.

Oh, interesting. Is writers block a thing for you?

Yes and no. There are days when, for whatever reason, I just can’t get into the writing. This is when the only thing that works is doing something completely different. The block then usually works itself out in my subconscious.

Of course, there are also days when the block is just me not feeling like grappling with a tricky scene. I try to make myself get something, however terrible, down on those days because editing poor writing is much easier than filling a blank page.

 

Labrador puppy in the garden

Marianne’s new puppy Molly fights with a flower pot

I completely agree: words on the page gather momentum. What about plot holes – how do you deal with them – if you ever have any!

Bizarrely, I love a good plot hole. Once I’ve got over the first stage where I think I’ll never find a solution, I treat it like solving a puzzle. I quite enjoy thinking up lots of different scenarios and then working through them all one by one. After all, making things up to get out of a hole is one of the biggest benefits of writing fiction.

 

True! Do you write for yourself or for a particular audience?

I don’t set out to write with any particular audience in mind, I always just start with the story. My first book, A Little Bird Told Me, turned out to be a mystery but the story line of the second, All Your Little Lies, is definitely more psych suspense. I approach reading in pretty much the same way. I find I’m always attracted first to the story line or the character so I read across all genres, finding some suit me better at different times.

During the lockdown, I was drawn to books that had settings that were unfamiliar to me, whether fantasy worlds or communities or locations I’d never experienced. I love using books as an escape from reality!

 

Lockdown has changed many a relationship with books! What do you think about covers, and do you have any say in yours?

There are so many stunning book covers around at the moment, aren’t there? I can absolutely be enticed to buy a book that I might not have otherwise chosen because it’s got an appealing cover. I don’t always read the blurb on books, sometimes they give away too much, and I find an image can convey a lot. My publishers, Agora Books, use brilliant designers and their covers are amazing. I’m able to input to the process, which is fantastic, but I trust Agora to make the final decision. I see that as more their area of expertise and I find that stage quite freeing after all the many intensive hours of editing.

Puppy with dirty paws

I may have dug up the garden says Molly

Where do you write?

Before the pandemic, I wrote in the box room at home where I could leave random bits of paper and notes scattered on the desk. This meant I could use every moment of the school day (apart from the procrastinating ones). I find I need peace and quiet when I’m thinking about what to write and then getting the words down on paper. After that stage, I can read through and edit in local cafes or other public spaces and I enjoy meeting up with writing friends. It’s a relatively solitary occupation so the chance to get out and see other humans is wonderful.

When lockdown started, however, my husband and two children were also in the house and everything changed. After walking into one of my husband’s Zoom meetings in my pyjamas, he’s now been assigned the box room and I sit in his place in the kitchen. Unfortunately, this is far more distracting and a lot worse for my waistline!

 

So funny! Where do you get inspiration or ideas from?

I tend to start with a scenario or a character and then start wondering how they’d got there or what might happen next.

After my eldest child became emotionally invested in a local missing person case, I started thinking about how well-publicised missing children’s cases – and not all are well-publicised – often attract many calls from members of the public, including sightings from around the world. I wondered what sort of person might make a call to an investigation team in good faith but without any really useful information? The character of Annie in All Your Little Lies started to take shape in my mind.

Puppy wants to get on the sofa

Molly is a perfect distraction

Do you have a pet as a writing companion?

We have just got a Labrador puppy, Molly. She’s three months old now and I’m not sure she qualifies so much as a writing companion as a writing distraction. She spends most of her time trying to eat things – so far 1 book, 2 laptop cables, untold snails, the roses, an ethernet cable, her own lead, chair legs… The 10-year-old & I have very grave concerns for the goldfish! When she’s curled up asleep on the floor beside me though it’s magically soothing. And I’m looking forward to when she’s old enough to go for long walks so I actually leave my screen for a while to do the thinking!

 

Thank you Marianne for sharing your news, and especially your puppy pictures, with us.

 

Marianne’s links:

Twitter @MarianneHAuthor

Instagram @MarianneHAuthor

Website www.marianne.holmes@talk21.com

A Little Bird Told Me: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Little-Bird-Told-Me-ourselves-ebook/dp/B07FB4D86F

All Your Little Lies: https://www.amazon.co.uk/All-Your-Little-Lies-forgotten-ebook/dp/B08DNZZJVG/

 

 

Castle of Kindness: can books change the world? asks Felicity Banks

Felicity Banks is an awesome author, fighter for justice, escape room magician and innovator. She’s a fellow writer at Odyssey Books, and I spoke to her in 2018 for Last Word of the Week.

Today I’m thrilled to present Felicity’s guest post about the Castle of Kindness Project and the complexities of life in general.

Felicity Banks speaks about the Castle of Kindness

Felicity: From the age of twelve to twenty-two I planned and trained to become an aid worker in Indonesia, teaching slum kids English. During that time I travelled to Indonesia seven times, studied the language and culture from Year Seven to university level, and became fluent in Bahasa.

Then I. . . changed my mind. I wanted to stay In Australia.

I married, had two kids, and even finally had several books published.

Heart of Brass books by Felicity Banks

The Heart of Brass books by Felicity Banks

Then

My health collapsed into disability via chronic illness. But in all that time, Indonesia stayed in the back of my mind. Not to mention the rest of the world.

You can call it white guilt, if you like.

Or you can cause it historical awareness. Like every non-Indigenous Australian, I benefit from the illegal seizure of this land. And from the attempted genocide of the Indigenous people.

And from the systemic, institutionalised racism that continues in the form of police and prison brutality, media bias, and so much more. And from the day-to-day racism that means I am more likely to get a job (or a favour, or a loan) than an Indigenous person who is just as qualified as I am.

How do I live with that?

I’m no longer well enough to work at a “real” job, which ironically gives me every writer’s fantasy: the ability to write full-time. Writing is such an enjoyable thing to do, it hardly seems fair. I wonder, often and always, if my books are making the world better. If anything I do matters. If I should be doing something—anything—more than I am.

What more can I do?

And then I read [book title redacted due to spoilers]. A fantasy story, in which people from our reality step through a portal into a brilliant, beautiful, magical land. Even the toilets are magical: anything that goes into certain containers simply vanishes into thin air. Fun!

But the characters discover that all that magic is being taken from the ‘enemy’ population. The wealth that creates beautiful buildings leaves slums in the other land. The toilets empty into their backyards. Even the illnesses that would afflict the beautiful magical creatures in the first kingdom are given to the children of their enemies.

Ouch.

The characters, being fundamentally decent, must immediately give up their beautiful magical land and its exploitative underbelly. . . but in the process they discover that there are several types of magic, and many branches of magic are not being used at all. Magic is not a zero-sum game after all. Although it is difficult, it is possible for everyone to have a decent amount of magic (and the beauty, health, and wealth that comes with it).

A second fundamental truth: being decent human beings doesn’t mean I need to sell my house and give all my money to the poor (and then live on the street). I don’t have to lose everything to lift others up.

Author Felicity Banks

Author Felicity Banks

 

It occurred to me, somewhat belatedly (I’m now 38), that I could help Indonesian people white still living in Australia. I know better than most how difficult it is to live in a nation that speaks a different language, because I’ve been there. So I am ideally placed to help migrants and refugees coming from Indonesia (or anywhere really) to settle into Australian life.

This epiphany happened in 2019

And since then I’ve been looking for ways to give what I have to people here in Canberra (without much success).

A few months ago, one of the groups I’d reached out to reached back: The Community Refugee Sponsorship Initiative (check it out here).

Long before I read the books that changed my life, several major refugee advocacy organisations got together to study refugee sponsorship in other nations (such as Canada, Ireland, and New Zealand) and design a program specifically for Australia.

This year—yes, this miserable plague of a year—they set up a ‘Mentor Program’ as both test and training to see how their refugee sponsorship program could work in practice.

There are now about twenty groups set up around Australia, ready to welcome and support refugees and refugee families in a number of practical ways: helping them find work, helping them meet new friends in their new home, helping them settle their kids into school, helping them with English practice, teaching them about Australian food (and animals that will kill them), and helping them financially until they’re able to stand on their own.

I am now the coordinator of the Castle of Kindness Refugee Sponsorship Group. Our GoFundMe is here and we’re running a Fundraising Gift Shop (including books donated by Clare Rhoden herself—and my extremely fun and magical Australian steampunk trilogy) here.

Until the end of this year, all the money raised in my shop (up to a threshold of $1000) goes into the refugee sponsorship fund.

And I’ll sign, gift wrap, and post them to the address of your choice.

 

This is happening, and it’s beautiful. And it’s all because of a book.

 

Castle of Kindness Refugee Sponsorship Logo

Castle of Kindness Refugee Sponsorship Logo

 

We meet our first refugee family today.

****************************************************

Thank you so much Felicity for sharing your story and you kindness!

Please visit Felicity’s store if you are looking for a bookish Christmas/end of year present that also helps others.

Time for Leadership

Leadership in Fiction

What makes a great leader?

In difficult times, we look to our leaders to guide us to safety and security.

Wow, do we ever need good leaders in 2020!

Writing about leadership

A few days ago, I featured on the Hist Fic Chic website. I wrote a guest post about leadership in fiction.

This is something I studied for my PhD. At that time, I was looking at how leaders are portrayed in World War I fiction. In this post I summarised the heroes of Shakespeare’s tragedies. Leadership is a topic that has intrigued us down the ages.

What about Shakespeare?

To see my take on King Lear, Macbeth, Henry V and co, please visit this blog:

Historical Leadership in Fiction: Writing Great Leaders by Clare Rhoden

The Stars in the Night

The Stars in the Night: Australian WWI fiction

Mine host

My grateful thanks to HistFicChickie for featuring me and my WWI novel,

The Stars in the Night.

Links:

Twitter: ‎@histficchickie

Website: histficchic.com   (‘a nest of historical fiction’)

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/therealdkmarley

How to be Happy with a Book Part 3 – Reflection: a guide for readers and reviewers

You might remember my previous posts about being happy with a book. In Part One, I covered how to choose a book that’s likely to give you joy. Then in Part Two I posed some questions about whether the book’s writing quality met your expectations.

Today I’m going to dig a bit deeper into the final response to the book. Was this book successful? Did it deliver what I wanted?

Child laughing with book

Books can make you happy

First let’s recap this how to be happy project:

Clare’s three questions for being happy with a book:

  1. Do I want to read this book? … cover, genre, look & feel, reputation
  2. Is the book well written and appropriate to its genre? … writing quality, genre stylistics, expression, editing, production values
  3. Was this book a success? … thoughts about plotline, characterisation, suspension of disbelief, resolution, afterglow

This post is about how to reflect on the success of the book you just finished. You might be considering recommending this book to a friend. You might want to write a review, or perhaps you have a task to review it. Time to think about what was good.

Or not.

My reviewing rules

I read in excess of eighty books every year, and a lot of other material too. My reading is for pleasure, for learning, to support fellow writers, and to write reviews. My reviews appear on Goodreads, here on my website, in Aurealis magazine and on the Historical Novel Society website.

Finished a book? What was it like?

Finished a book? What was it like?

I don’t review every book I read. You might see that my Goodreads average rating is quite high, because I concentrate on rating and reviewing only those books that I really enjoyed. Plus the ones that deliver what they set out to do.

What if it’s awful?

If I really don’t like a book, then I try to think: Who would like this? For example, I don’t like gratuitous or graphic violence, but some readers love that kind of story. I might say that it’s ‘a book for lovers of action who don’t mind graphic violence’.

Not the best read

Not the best read?

Or perhaps I’ll choose not to review at all. I don’t like giving low ratings or over-critical reviews, because I know how much work goes in to writing a book. Most books find their audience. We don’t all have to love all of them.

Some questions to ask

Now you’ve finished the book. Hooray! What are your thoughts?

Some readers are quite intuitive about how much they enjoyed a book (or not) and happily land on a star rating. Others could use some structure to sort out their reactions, especially if the book is complex.

If you would like a tick list of questions, I happen to have one right here LOL!

  1. Does the plot makes sense, with all loose ends tied up?
  2. Are the characters believable and engaging? Did I care what happened to them?
  3. Did the story pull me in? Can I accept its world building? EG its magic system, its police procedure, its logical structure, its historical recreation, its planetary set up and so on.
  4. Was the end satisfactory? Perhaps not all is resolved, but the story is complete.
  5. How did that book make me feel? Your expectation of feeling relies on what you’ve been promised: a chilling thriller, a sweet Regency romance, an exciting adventure in deep space? Your lasting emotional response to the book says a lot.
Finishing a book

Who would like this book?

You could do worse than give each of these criteria a number from 1 (weak) to 5 (excellent) before deciding your final star rating for the book as a whole. [HINT: authors love star ratings]

These criteria also provide beginnings for a text review. [HUGE HINT: authors love text reviews!]

Finally

Before you reach for the next delight from your TBR pile, a final thought could be: who would I recommend this book for?

The reading community is very diverse. Even the book you really don’t like will be just right for someone else. And that’s OK!

What’s even better is for you to give them the heads up that you’ve found a book just right for them. The ‘if you like X, then you’ll like this’ statement can be very helpful not only to other readers but also to authors.

[LAST HINT: authors love you to recommended their books to readers who will like them!] 

I’d love to know if you have any techniques for rating and reviewing books that you could share with me. And of course I’d love to know how you make yourself happy with a book.

Until next time, happy reading!

 

All Your Little Lies: Marianne Holmes is Back

All Your Little Lies!

Starting a post with these words might make you think that I am about to interrogate any one of the cornucopia of currently important affairs that clog our social media and our thoughts. Pandemic, anyone? Perhaps the effectiveness of hotel quarantine. I certainly have a lot to say about local journalism standards.

But not today.

I’m pleased to say that my mind has been more enjoyably occupied with a Good Book!

Book Review

Marianne Holmes has returned with an engrossing thriller called All Your Little Lies. This is the story of a woman who wants to help, but is so enmeshed in the lies at the heart of her life that she becomes hopelessly entangled in the investigation of a child’s disappearance.

The plot

Annie seems incapable of telling the truth. Socially awkward, she live alone and clings on to her one friend in a leech-like manner, terrified of being completely isolated from the rest of the world.

Annie is unable to form close relationships, and everything she says comes out wrong. Excruciatingly so! At first I wondered whether this was simply an awkward personality trait of hers, but I later discovered that her personal history has just as much impact on how she relates to the world. This story’s a fascinating look into the effects of crime on personal relationships and emotional health.

When Annie seems to be the last person who might have seen a child who has disappeared, her own secrets muddy the truth about what she does know and what she should admit.

My thoughts

This novel starts dramatically, and to me grippingly, with Annie inside her boss’s flat. At first I thought she was looking at her partner’s things. No! Stalker-like, she moves around Paul’s place touching everything and generally pretending that she lives there.

That’s the start.

Events get much more complicated from then on, as we learn more and more about the Annie of today, and also her hidden past.

Finally

I found this book an intriguing exploration of a complex case and the after effects of tragedy on lives many years down the track. The events past and present are literally life-changing and gave me much to think about. I’ll be reflecting on this story for a long time.

A wonderfully engrossing read.

Thank you to Agora Books for the opportunity to read and advanced copy, and congratulations to Marianne Holmes on this excellent follow up to her first novel A Little Bird Told Me (see my review here).

Author Marianne Holmes

About the Book

ALL YOUR LITTLE LIES

When everything you say is a lie, can you even remember the truth?

Annie lives a quiet, contained, content life. She goes to work. She meets her friend. She’s kind of in a relationship. She’s happy. Not lonely at all.

If only more people could see how friendly she is — how eager to help and please. Then she could tick “Full Happy Life” off her list. But no one sees that side of Annie, and she can’t understand why.

That all changes the night Chloe Hills disappears. And Annie is the last person to see her.

This is her chance to prove to everybody that she’s worth something. That is, until she becomes a suspect.

Drenched in atmosphere and taut with tension, All Your Little Lies takes a hard look at why good people do bad things.

Published October 22 2020 by Agora Books

 

The Snow Fox Diaries: gripping eco-fiction from Jan Mazzoni

Climate fiction (cli-fi) and eco-fiction are having a moment. Quite a long moment. Our concerns about the natural world, our impact on it and its impact on us, are thrown into stark relief by extreme weather, immense wild fires, and the global pandemic.

Only recently Jan Mazzoni discovered that – surprise, surprise – there IS a genre where her writing fits perfectly. It’s eco-fiction. Writing fiction that combines her passion for the natural world with a gripping tale for many years, Jan’s delighted to find a place where the stories she so loves to tell are completely at home.

Not that eco-fiction is new. In many ways, eco-fiction is much like any other genre – historical, thrillers, even romances – because every story needs the protagonist to go through some kind of hellish situation before reaching the (hopefully) happy ending.

As Jan says, eco-fiction just tends to have all this happen in prettier locations.

A yearning for wilderness encouraged Jan to move to a little house hidden in a large, rambling garden on the edge of Exmoor, a windy, bleak but beautiful part of the UK. Here, with husband George and four Romanian rescue dogs, she leads the simple life she’s always craved. She calls herself a recluse-in-training. As an only child she long ago grew up living inside the stories in her own head, and is quite happy there. She can control that world. And when the ideas that come seem like they’re worth putting down on paper, she retreats to the shed at the top of the garden and taps away at the PC. Sadly the dogs don’t usually go with her. It’s too cold up there.

Welcome, Jan, I’m so pleased to speak with you about The Snow Fox Diaries, and about your writing in general. Can you tell me when you decided that you ARE a writer?

JAN: I can’t remember when I haven’t wanted to write. As a toddler I cuddled books instead of toys. I made up stories – usually about animals, I started my animal rights campaigning early! –  and made everyone borrow them. Then I became a real librarian. But that didn’t involve writing of course so I went on to become an advertising copywriter which I loved. It was a real learning experience. But I’m easily bored. So next I tried my hand at cookbooks (vegetarian), dabbled in journalism, wrote magazine fiction, a book of short stories. And finally two novels – one of which was The Snow Fox Diaries, which I’ve revised and am relaunching right now.

The Snow Fox Diaries by Jan Mazzoni

The Snow Fox Diaries by Jan Mazzoni

Is writers’ block a thing for you?

No.  I’m lucky, that’s something I’ve never experienced. I love sitting down at my desk – feel a buzz of excitement as I switch on my laptop, I mean a real buzz, like I’ve just flicked a swich inside my head too. Probably goes back to the days when I was a copywriter. If you got writers’ block you got fired.

That’s a bit extreme! You and I first met through a discussion about covers. Could you tell me your thoughts about book covers.

Again, this may go back to my advertising days. For me the cover is like the box that a product goes into. Would you want to buy it if the box was plain brown cardboard? Or if it didn’t at least hint at what’s inside?  Same with a book – I can’t imagine having to choose books if they had blank covers.  I couldn’t do it. It’s my one problem with using a kindle.

It follows I’ve been very much involved with the covers of all my books. The Snow Fox Diaries originally had a stunning cover that was, in fact, a blue fox as we couldn’t get a picture of an albino (yes, they really are that rare). I wanted to change the balance with this revision, emphasising the moors on which the story is set as a character, while the the fox becomes more mysterious, elusive. We found a moody, misty shot that captures this unique environment perfectly. And then – a miracle – I found a photo of a real albino fox. Tucked on one side, she’s tiny, so you can’t see that she has pink eyes. But I assure she has.

I actually love both covers. I completely agree that the cover is the first thing that grabs me when choosing a book to read. What’s your favourite genre to read in?

I don’t have a favourite. I like to try new things – something that’s had a good review or has an intriguing title. I’ll read a book just because I love the cover!  I do have phases though. Right now I’m into translations. What better way to travel without leaving home? Just visited Poland (Olga Tokarczuk) . Next I’m off to Japan (Takashi Hiraide).

Reading is one way to travel these days! Now, you say that The Snow Fox Diaries is eco-fiction. What is your definition of eco-fiction?

Eco-fiction (also called eco-lit) has been around forever but it’s only just becoming popular. Put simply, it’s fiction that has a strong environmental theme woven through it. It can be any kind of story – horror, love, family saga, YA.  My niche is examining the link between humans and animals, the effect one can have on the other, both good and bad.  But – as you’ll know from your own growing following – dystopian fiction is all the rage right now, which isn’t surprising with the way the world is being trashed. I love reading it but couldn’t write it. I’d find it too frightening.

I think dystopia and eco-lit both have a lot to say in the twenty-first century, and both link strongly to fact. How much research is involved in your writing?

I was probably researching for The Snow Fox Diaries before I even thought of the book! I helped at a small wildlife hospital, which meant taking in casualties and then nursing them in my own home. It’s one of those experiences that sounds more fun than it is.  Baby birds have a terrible tendency to be doing OK, and then to just out of the blue drop down dead. Squirrels bite. They’re through to the bone instantly – and it hurts! Hedgehogs were a favourite, such weird little snuffly creatures. Even so, I recall one summer evening out on the patio with a sickly hedgehog on my lap, picking off maggots one by one, and wondering what on earth I was doing.

I’ve never actually worked with foxes though I’ve spent a lot of time around them. But when I heard the true story that inspired me to write this novel, I already had a lot of background info about caring for wildlife. And I live on Exmoor, so where else would I set it?

I think you’re a perfect match for the story! If I wanted to interview one of your characters, who would you suggest?

It would have to be Kevin. In the book he hangs around the edge of the story, keeps himself to himself, at least until he’s reluctantly drawn into the action. Even then he doesn’t say much, and never lets on what he’s thinking or feeling. Could be very little of course. Or he could one of those complex characters who are full of surprises. I’d love you to interview him because then you could tell me what makes him tick.

Ah! A character keeping secrets from his creator. I love it. What’s your writing goal over the next twelve months?

I like to keep a number of projects going at once. I’m working on three right now. A book of short stories (yes, that link between people and animals again).  A novel combining fact with fiction, based on the life of (English etcher) Eileen Soper who was a brilliant wildlife writer and illustrator, a recluse, eccentric of course. She deserves some recognition.  And I’ve been approached about making The Snow Fox Diaries into a radio play/podcast, which could work brilliantly. Capturing the moors in sound would be a wonderful challenge. I’ve already found the perfect music for the opening scene. It’s by Sting, called Cold Song, (from Purcell’s opera King Arthur) and it really makes you tingle. Now all I have to do is get Sting’s permission.

Maybe another version! Sounds a perfect choice, though – very English and snowy. Thanks for chatting today, Jan, and good luck with all those projects.

You can read my review of The Snow Fox Diaries here.

 

Jan’s LINKS

Website: https://janmazzoniwriter.com

All Jan’s books: https://janmazzoniwriter.com/books/

 

THE SNOW FOX DIARIES: A novel by Jan Mazzoni

Revised and with Author Notes August 2020

Available from Amazon

 

When passion becomes obsession, anything can happen…

Chic, intelligent, highly motivated and unexpectedly unemployed. AND soon to be forty. Not a situation Katie Tremain finds easy to cope with, especially as it gives her time to notice that she and husband Ben seem to get on better together when they’re apart. So when the opportunity to escape the city and work on a dilapidated house on Exmoor comes her way, how can she refuse?

Then, one misty morning, she comes across something so bizarre that she can’t believe her eyes. A fox with fur so white it sparkles, like snow. A very rare albino vixen.

From that moment Katie’s days – and her life – change completely. And as the fate of her faltering marriage becomes entwined with that of the fox, Katie must decide just what she’s prepared to risk to save this beautiful but vulnerable creature.

Her sanity? Her marriage? Even her life?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pondering the Business of Writing: a schema by Nat Dowling

The lovely Natalie Dowling is the bespoke writer behind Words on a Page (WOAP).

I’ve asked Nat to help me in the past, and loved her input. Nat introduced me at my latest book launch (back in 2019, when we had actual book launches!)

Nat introduces me at my last book launch

Nat introduces me at my last book launch

Today I’m asking Natalie to share some advice for creative people about the business of their creativity.

It’s not enough, as we know, to write a book. For example, the book needs a pitch and its author needs a bio. There is a business attached to storytelling.

In today’s blog, Nat is going to take us through some exercises to help us discover who we are – what values stand behind our creativity. Nat also shares some activities to help writers define  who they are and what they have to share.

 

THE BUSINESS OF WRITING

Writing for business is not the same as writing for creativity or self-expression.

As an author or writer you’re probably well versed in the latter. But if you want to get those words out into the world, at some point, you might need to think of yourself as a creative business.

That means developing a profile and talking about yourself with a brand story. Which might feel like sticking pins in your eyes. So, here’s a few tips for when you get stuck developing your bio or preparing the perfect pitch.

Accept the challenge

Talking about yourself to sell your work is difficult. Possibly unnatural. If you’re struggling to write about you, understand that that this block is not a reflection of your writing capabilities. It’s the tricky human dance between hubris and humility. Many people feel challenged by this task, so acknowledge the difficulty and give yourself time and space to have a go.

Brain dump words

Let your ego off the leash. Without overthinking it jot down an intuitive list of words that describe your work, or how you’d like to be thought of by others. Come back to the list. Feel into the words and whittle them down. Circle the most important 30. Then cull it to your top 20. Be the ruthless editor of your own story. Repeat, to get it down to three words. Use these as themes for your bio.

Draft multiple bios

If it starts to feel like you’re pigeon-holing yourself, try writing in different styles. Write a free range playful version. Then go for bureaucratic and perfunctory (a few games of buzzword bingo will introduce you to the industry lingo). You can also give yourself word length exercises. Write 50, 150 and 300 word versions. Deposit them in your bio bank, then access the appropriate version to fit the context.

Nail your narrative

Distil your work into 30 words. Nail your narrative in the most succinct way. Another option is to pitch it to a room full of ten year olds (real or pretend). Get over any idea that this is ‘dumbing down’. Conveying your work simply does not detract from the complexity of the ideas. This exercise can help you to step back out of your mind forest to see the wood for the trees.

Stage an interview

Sometimes we need prompts or an outsider to help us see what’s buried below the surface. Call in a friend or colleague to ‘interview’ you about your writing style, background or project. The ‘what’, ‘why’, ‘how’, ‘when’ and ‘where’ questions are useful starting points. But it’s often the follow-up questions or conversation that strips away the layers to uncover a gold nugget of wisdom or insight.

Create the momentum

You know how to plot a narrative arc or chart character development. So you’ve got directional skills. You can map possibilities and assess which routes to take. See what happens when your writing career becomes the subject and you put those transferrable skills to work. Make decisions about what you want to achieve and determine what’s needed to get there. Give yourself goals and deadlines.

Some folks don’t want to consider themselves business people, because it’s at odds with the noble artist motif. But if you want to find an audience or make a living as a writer, you might want to get over that. You don’t need to compromise your integrity to tout your wares. It’s just a different type of writing that requires a shift in mindset, a commitment to your work, and a little bit of practice.

Thank you so much, Nat, for these pointers on business writing for creatives. That was – and will be – really useful! More power to you.

Web:      www.wordsonapage.com.au                                         Socials: @wordsonapageau

Dream Big and Read Often says Melissa Wray

Melissa Wray finds time to write stories, usually late at night, when the rest of the household is quiet. She’s a mother of two, a teacher and lover of walks along the beach. Her new young adult novel, The Ruby Locket, is a dystopian novel that unfolds through the eyes of the two main characters.

Kerina and Saxon. Two different stories. Two different lives. One connected future.

Great to speak with you, Melissa, and to find out more about what’s behind your writing. What was your favourite book as a child?

Melissa: The Enchanted Wood and The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton. I loved these characters and desperately wanted the giant plum tree in our back yard to become the Magic Faraway tree. I would sit still for as long as possible, hoping to capture a glimpse of Silky or Moonface!

That makes perfect sense! What about creative writing courses – do you think they are valuable?

Absolutely! The key is finding one that suits your needs. There are many courses, both online and in person that an emerging writer can complete. Keep an eye out through your local writer organisation e.g. Writers Victoria or Geelong Writers Inc. Or subscribe to a writing industry newsletter such as Buzz Words or Pass It On. Both are valuable sources for courses, writing advice, and submissions. Both of these are excellent value for money.

I totally agree with that. There’s always more to learn … or re-learn! Do you write for yourself or for a particular audience?

I write whatever I feel interested in telling a story about. I have written stories suited to all age groups, from a picture story book to middle grade fiction through to a young adult audience. The genres have ranged from contemporary to historical fiction through to dystopian. I like to challenge myself in life whether it be at work or play and writing is no different.

A born story-teller, then! Are there any secrets hidden in your writing?

Of course! Bryce Courtenay, one of my favourite Australian writers, once said “I take a fact and put a top hat on it, and a silk shirt and a bow tie, but I don’t ruin the fact.” I love this quote and try to include some secrets into my writing. It gives me a thrill that only I know what those parallels to real life are.

That’s good to know. What’s your writing goal for the next twelve months?

I have one novel that is about 75% complete. I haven’t worked on it for some time so would like to revisit the characters and storyline to see if I can finish the story. To do this I need to keep a balance between my work, family, social and writing life. Quite a precarious balance!

Cover image: The Ruby Locket by Melissa Wray

The Ruby Locket by Melissa Wray

Yes! Mix all that and add a pandemic…Did you have a big break in writing? What happened?

My debut novel, Destiny Road, was published through Morris Publishing. I entered the first four chapters into a writing competition with them. It was shortlisted and I then had to submit the whole manuscript. From this, Destiny Road was selected for publication. This was a huge break for me! It gave me a boost in confidence that can be far between for writers, especially new ones.

I imagine it would. That’s fabulous. Now that your books are out there, how do you feel about reviews?

Mixed. It is uncomfortable knowing someone is reading your story and forming an opinion about it. Stories can take years to write and even longer to get published. The writing process takes commitment to writing and editing and hoping the characters are built well and the storyline works. Somebody can cut the story to pieces with a bad review or they can build you up with a good review. Both are equally terrifying to learn what people think.

And it’s completely out of your hands. Quite terrifying! What’s the best response you’ve ever had to your writing?

One reviewer wrote the following review for Destiny Road and it still makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside.

“Wray has managed to write with absolute brutal honesty that very easily could have become too confronting- especially for those that have undergone a similar situation. The timing is perfect. You have time to catch your breath when needed without ever compromising the flow. In fact, the novel has such a polished feel I was surprised this was indeed her debut novel into the published world.”

That’s perfect. What would readers never guess about you?

My sense of adventure and the need to live a fulfilled life. I once slept in the middle of the Egyptian desert beneath the night sky after travelling all day on a camel. It sounds like a crazy thing to do now, but I love that I have this memory. I don’t want to look back one day on my life and wish I had made different choices.

 I would never have pictured you on a camel, that’s for sure. What would be a dream come true for you?

That’s easy. My book gets made into a movie and I have a cameo role in it. How much fun would that be?!

The Ruby Locket in multiple formats

The Ruby Locket by Melissa Wray

 

LOL! That would be wonderful. Thanks for speaking with me today, Melissa, and all the best with the launch of The Ruby Locket

 

Melissa’s LINKS:

Website: https://melissawray.blogspot.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/DreamBigReadOften/

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/6465945.Melissa_Wray

 

Buy Links

Odyssey Books: https://www.odysseybooks.com.au/

The Ruby Locket: https://www.odysseybooks.com.au/titles/9781922311245/

 

Tonya Ulynn Brown

Tonya Ulynn Brown writes mostly historical fiction, and has a particular interest in the 16th century. Tonya confesses to an unhealthy love for Mary Queen of Scots, so much so that Mary is her number one topic of conversation whenever possible. I might say she’s a little obsessed, and she says that her family thinks so. Tonya lives in rural Ohio, USA, and teaches fourth grade when she’s not writing or enjoying life with her family and their springer spaniel called Oscar (yes of course I got a dog reference in…).

Tonya is the author of The Queen’s Almoner, which was released earlier this year, as I noted in my post in July.

Welcome, Tonya, it’s great to have a longer chat. I hope the book is going well in this strange year! Let’s talk about you as an author: Are there any secrets hidden in your writing?

Tonya: I don’t know that I would call it a secret, but I do use a little hidden imagery in The Queen’s Almoner. The main character has a dream and the dream is rather prophetic. Anyone who knows Mary Stuart’s history will probably recognize the meaning of the dream right away. But don’t worry—if you are not familiar with Mary’s life all will be revealed in the end.

Oh, a little treat for history buffs and Mary fans 🙂 Is writer’s block a thing for you?

Yes, I do get hung up at times. Since I write historical fiction, it usually has to do with an aspect of history that I am not familiar with. When that happens, I have to stop writing and do a little more reading/researching. That usually helps. Another thing that helps when I get stuck is to go back and re-read what I have already written in the story. This helps me get back into the mood of the story and figure out where I want to go next.

So a lot of research is involved in your writing?

Usually, quite a bit. But it just depends on if I am writing in a time period that I am already familiar with. A lot of research goes into the events that happen in a particular individual’s life. If I have written in that time period before, then I will probably not need to research the types of foods they ate, the way they conducted their households, and other important details that make historical fiction so engaging.

How do you get feedback about your story, before it’s published?

I have a really great group of beta readers that read my manuscripts and make suggestions for improvements. They are able to give me insight on things that I am just not able to consider because I’ve been immersed in the story for so long.

Beta readers are the best for blind spots! Do you write full time?

No, I am a 4th grade teacher as well. I currently teach Social Studies and Science.

Goodness! What’s your writing goal for the next twelve months?

I have begun research on a new book that will continue with the child of Thomas, the main character in The Queen’s Almoner. The story will also include Mary Stuart’s son, King James VI of Scotland and I of England, and will focus a lot on James’ involvement with the witch hunts of the sixteenth century.

That sounds very interesting. If you could write a note to someone about to read your book, what would you say?

I take great pains to make sure my stories are as historically accurate as possible. But at the same time, I have added fictional characters to my story, and have used some creative license as well. I try to separate the facts from fiction in the historical notes included at the end of my book, and hope that readers will find the notes useful, should they wish to read further on the subject.

Notes are a good idea. Do you write in more than one genre?

I write mostly historical fiction. However, I do have a women’s fiction story that is finished, I just have not submitted it for publication yet. I have also started a middle grade story, based on what I know my students like to read. But I really consider myself a historical fiction author.

Who helped you most when you were starting out?

My friend, author Janice Broyles, gave me A LOT of advice and guidance years before I was even ready to publish my book. Her insight on querying [publishers], attending writing conferences, and marketing has been invaluable, and put me several steps ahead of the game.

She sounds like a gem. Her books look interesting too – thanks for the tip. I look forward to hearing more from you in the future.

Tonya’s LINKS

Website: Tonya Ulynn Brown

The Queen’s Almoner

Blog: The Rose and the Thistle

Twitter: @MrsBrownee2U

Facebook: @TonyaUBrown 

Insta: tonyaubrown