Right from the opening line, How to Survive Your Magical Family is a delight. This novel for younger readers delivers magic, mystery and mayhem… plus credible characters, lots of humour and action aplenty.
Toby is the youngest of the Dartin family and has the least magic. His sister, Helen, has much more practical magical abilities, such as healing animals, ‘imagining a parking spot into existence’ and turning off the iron after she’s left home. All Toby can do is charm any cat that comes to him.
Told between Toby’s point of view and that of his best friend Mia, How to Survive Your Magical Family leaps between normal family dynamics and kidnapping, bribery and vengeance.
Rhoden has created a completely believable alternative world where magical people and ‘flats’ – those who can’t see magic – interact happily, mostly without the ‘flats’ knowing. But she has also created credible child characters, Toby and Mia, who show courage and
intelligence, and have real agency throughout, even in the most hopeless situations. It’s also refreshing that she shows them as young people clearly out of their depth at times, kids who need to rely on the adults in their lives (most of whom are loving and capable) to help them.
… How to Survive Your Magical Family is great fun, and there are enough loose ends to mean that a sequel could be on the cards, to which I say, ‘Deal me in!’ A fabulous read. Highly recommended.
Drawing on her days as a divorce and professional indemnity lawyer, Caroline creates ordinary, relatable characters caught up in extraordinary situations, pressures, dilemmas or crime. She admits to a slight obsession with the human psyche, what goes on behind closed doors and beneath people’s façades. She also enjoys performing a literary sleight of hand in her novels and hopefully surprising her readers!
Caroline has also written Convictions and Confessions, a legal drama under the pen name Caro Land.
Let’s find out what inspires Caroline’s work
Caroline: My Secret Inspiration!
Everybody has a secret.
Yes you do! A study revealed that the average person keeps thirteen secrets, five of which he or she has never shared with anyone. Go on, count them. They can range from the little things that some people don’t feel are too bad, such as not mentioning too much change at the supermarket or exaggerating mileage at work. Or they might be major crimes such as a hit and run, robbery or even murder! Then there are affairs, betrayals and hidden relationships which can have devastating consequences, to easy small lies to cover looking for another job or concealing the early weeks of pregnancy. Or perhaps a person’s secret is simply unhappiness. Don’t we all do it at times? Put on our bright facade for the Facebook posts and Instagram photos to hide the the sorrow inside?
What about family secrets? Ones which only come out when Grandma has a few too many sherries on Christmas Eve: your great uncle was a bigamist; your parents married when you were two; your aunty was arrested for shoplifting a Rampant Rabbit.
Then there are the deadly secrets in my domestic suspense novels… Those which are so dark and deeply hidden that they’ve almost been forgotten. Almost…
My fourth psychological thriller, TRUTH GAMES, revolves around Ellie Wilson. Outwardly her life seems good – she has friends, her partner Cam and three boys. But when Sean Walsh, Cam’s old university friend, comes back into their lives, she becomes tormented by fragments of the past, and deep shame, which come back to haunt her. It’s time for Ellie to confront the layers of secrets and lies to reveal the devastating and destructive truth…
OK, I admit it; I’m a tad obsessed with secrets and lies and the human condition. Indeed, one reviewer described me as a ‘specialist in stories of secrets, lies and revelations.’ So I guess I am an amateur psychologist who drives my family bonkers with my interpretations of people’s behaviour, what they tell us and what they don’t. But isn’t it fascinating to find out what goes on behind closed doors – or indeed, inside the pages of a gripping crime suspense novel? Do secrets burrow into our psyche and poison us? Or are they sexy, powerful and make us strong?
I probably have thirteen secrets; maybe there are five I haven’t told anyone. Come on, spill the beans – what are yours?
Well, there’s a challenge for us all. Now here’s an intriguing extract from Caroline’s novel for you.
An extract from Truth Games
‘It has to be the truth, the honest truth. Everyone agree?’
‘But what is truth?’
‘It’s only a game, man. Besides, another slug and we’ll know.’
Six young adults in the high-ceilinged room, two cuddled on the sofa and four on the floor. A girl and two guys sit around a candlelit coffee table. Though late, it’s still balmy, the leaded windows ajar. They’re drinking Jack Daniel’s from shot glasses.
The girl snaps open the second bottle and pours. Her nails are bitten, her nose pierced, her short hair dyed black. Her attention is focused on the man stretched out on the floor.
Lifting his dark head, he glances at her. ‘Isn’t there anything other than that American shit?’ he asks, his accent distinct. He goes back to his spliff and takes a deep drag. ‘OK. Then we’ll use the correspondence theory of truth,’ he says. ‘A belief is true if there exists an appropriate entity – a fact – to which it corresponds. If there’s no such entity, the belief is false.’
The fair-haired boy laughs. ‘OK, genius, I’ll start.’ Blue-eyed and neat featured, he looks younger than his twenty-years. ‘A secret. A true secret . . . ’ He knocks back the whiskey. ‘I’m in love with somebody in this room.’
The girl whips up her head, her stark make-up barely hiding her shock.
‘Tell us something we don’t already know!’ This man is huge, his voice booms Home Counties. ‘Come on, old chap. What did you say? The honest truth. Something you haven’t told anyone before.’
‘Right; here’s one. My mum tried to snog me once,’ he says.
Everyone but the girl laughs.
‘No, it’s true, I’m not joking. Dad had buggered off, so she spent all the time drinking and crying—’
‘And snogging you?’
‘Yes, Your Honour.’ He guffaws. ‘The truth and the whole fucking truth, eh? Only the once, thank God, when she got close enough. I can’t do needy. Fucking disgusting.’
A silence of drunk embarrassment, then the eloquent voice again: ‘Are you two lovebirds playing?’
They turn to the couple on the sofa. The young woman is asleep. ‘We’re living our secret,’ her boyfriend says. ‘But one you don’t know . . . Let me think. My brother and me, we used to spit in the take-outs. Special treat for the racists we knew from school.’
‘Nah. Good try, but it won’t put me off your delicious—’
‘I saw my father beat up my mum.’ The man on the floor looks fixedly at the ceiling. ‘Badly. Watched the blood spurt from her nose. Did nothing to stop him.’
The Goth girl stares, but doesn’t speak.
The blond boy leans over. ‘Fuck,’ he says. ‘How old were you?’
‘Still a kid. But I blamed her. Probably still do.’ He sits up and throws back his shot. Then he squints through the smoke at the girl, still sitting cross-legged and silent. ‘What about you, nice middle-class miss? You’re not saying much. What’s your secret?’
Everyone is watching, all eyes are on her. ‘A secret truth?’ she asks, turning to him. ‘With an actual fact to which it corresponds?’
The man snorts. ‘Yeah. Come on, then; try me.’
She opens her inky lips—
What a place to finish! Thank you so much Caroline for sharing your inspirations, and especially for the enthralling extract!
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.
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.
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.
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
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.’
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.
English writer Alec Marsh writes dramatic thrillers set in the 1930s. He’s the author of the new soon-to-be-classic Drabble & Harris adventure series. Ernest Drabble is a mountaineering Cambridge historian and his partner Harris is an old school friend and press reporter. These two have all the dash and wit they need to solve mysteries and throws spanners into the works of bad folks.
Alec started his writing career on the Western Morning News in Cornwall, and then went on to write for titles including the Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail, The Times and London Evening Standard. In 2008 he was named an editor of the year by the British Society of Magazine Editors. He is now the editor of Spear’s Magazine, a title focused on luxury lifestyle. He is married and lives with his family in west London.
Alec’s debut novel RULE BRITANNIA was released in 2019 and the second novel in the series, ENEMY OF THE RAJ, will be published this September.
Welcome to last Word of the Week, Alec, and thank you for coming along to chat about your books and your writing. Looking at your bio, I can see that you have been writing all your life. Why is writing important to you?
Alec: I can only imagine that it’s the same for a lot of writers and most people on some level. But since the earliest time I can remember I’ve been telling stories – either to myself or others, but mostly I would think to myself. And it becomes a habit that drives an urge that leads decades later to hard-drives being filled with words. So I think for me it’s pretty hard-wired.
A born storyteller! That usually goes with voracious reading. What was your favourite book as a child?
I adored Hornblower; CS Forester’s nautical series set during the Napoleonic war; I also loved – perhaps more and in very much the same vein – the Richard Bolitho series written by Douglas Reeman, under his ‘other’ name of Alexander Kent. Years later I had the pleasure of interviewing Reeman. He was exceptionally generous with his time, clearly spotted me as a fan, too, and was quietly inspirational: he told me how he would get into his car during his lunchbreaks as a young man and write with his typewriter on his knees. I’ve often thought of him since, when I’ve been sitting in Pret-a-Manger with my laptop, eating a sandwich…
Do you think that creative writing courses are valuable?
Absolutely. I did a one day screen-writing course in Newcastle when I was a student there and learnt a huge amount in just a few hours. I still remember being terrified. Later on I was tempted by the Creative Writing MA at East Anglia university but in the end I decided I would keep working and writing around work. With my first published novel, RULE BRITANNIA, I got some advice from a literary consultancy. Books like EM Forster’s Aspects of the Novel offer important advice and insight for writers. Arguably just reading the best that’s out there is the most important thing.
What words of advice would you give an aspiring author?
I asked Martin Amis for his advice once at a literary festival. ‘Just keep writing,’ he said. It didn’t seem very profound in the moment he said it, or repeated it. But it was – and it worked for me. I once asked Sir John Mortimer, creator of the Rumpole of Bailey series, what the secret to a great comic novel was. ‘Making people laugh!’ he roared, laughing. Then he added an important point – words to the effect of: ‘If you can make yourself laugh while you’re doing it then you’ve got half a chance.’ And that’s true for any emotion you’re trying to generate, really.
I love your anecdotes of such great writers! Do you have a go-to routine for writing?
Not really. I work fulltime and have a young family so a great deal of my second novel, ENEMY OF THE RAJ, was actually written on the London Underground on my commute to and from work. A crowded Tube carriage is not ideal, but fortunately the book was not harmed. I’ve written in lunchbreaks, or after the kids have gone to bed. Quite often, on a Saturday morning I’ll get up early and head to a local café when it opens at 8am, and get in two hours then. That’s the best time.
How do you feel about reviews?
Be grateful for good ones and listen to the bad ones. Sometimes people go too far and make it personal. That can be upsetting. As a journalist it has made me think harder about the impact of what I write upon my subjects.
Yes, it does have that effect, which I think is a good thing. Whatever we write, we can think about the effect on readers. Has your work been compared to other writers?
The author most referenced by reviewers of RULE BRITANNIA is John Buchan. Stanley Johnson remarked that with the Drabble and Harris series Buchan ‘must be stirring uneasily in his grave’. It’s without doubt true that Buchan was something of an influence – The 39 Steps, Greenmantle; these are tales of personal hazard and adventure that generate an excitement for the reader that I very much wanted to ape.
Can you tell me about the time you decided you are a writer?
When I was 17 or18 I went on a school theatre trip to see Arcadia, Tom Stoppard’s then new play. I had no idea how much of a big deal it was to see it (the first run with a star cast) but I came away thinking that I would very much like to do that. I also loved Oscar Wilde’s plays as a kid – anything really that demonstrated such verbal dexterity and wit. I was also fascinated by plays like Look Back in Anger, which are really very different. As a result my first efforts as a writer when I was at university were plays. One of these won a student competition which made me think there might be something in it. I switched to fiction after reading Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall. I realised that you could bring the essential freshness of dialogue to life without the need of a theatre, and perhaps therefore have a more direct relationship with the reader.
Did you always plan to write historic fiction?
No, never. In fact I set out write the next great English novel. Eventually, after several failures, I listened to an old friend of mine who had been advising me for years to write historic fiction. ‘Alec,’ he would say, ‘you’re obsessed with the past, you should write about it.’ He was absolutely right. When I began writing what would become RULE BRITANNIA I knew immediately that I was on to something.
Is writer’s block a thing for you?
Absolutely. Knowing what comes next can be difficult. Quite often you run out of track and I often find my mind needs time to catch up. When this happens I go for a run, or more likely read around the topic or setting – tangential research – is the answer. Before you know it you’re raring to go again. The secret, if there is one, is to keep thinking ahead as you are writing, but that’s easier said than done.
True! Thank you so much for chatting with me today, Alec. Congratulations in the publication of Rule Britannia, and good fortune to you for Eneemy of the Raj!
Eleni Hale’s stunning debut novel, Stone Girl, burst onto the scene in 2018, and was instantly recognised for its outstanding quality and its direct emotional engagement with a difficult topic – society’s forgotten children. Published through Penguin Random House, Stone Girlwon the prestigious 2019 Readings YA (Young Adult) Book Prize , and has been short and long listed for a number of other awards. Stone Girltells the story of one child’s journey through institutional care.
Eleni describes herself as a survivor of the system, and she campaigns for the recognition and rights of children who are in, or have now left, the care of the state.
My review of Stone Girlis forthcoming. I can’t wait for the book to arrive!
Welcome, Eleni, and thank you for speaking with me today. I know you have quite a background as a writer across different media and genres. You’re now working on your second novel. Is writers’ block ever a thing for you?
Eleni: It’s not really a ‘block’ for me. I think it’s a message that something isn’t right in the work. It took me years to figure this out but it’s completely changed the way I approach that horrible moment when my fingers are suspended over the keyboard and I have nothing to say.
Writing isn’t just about writing. it’s about thinking and dreaming and problem-solving and that ‘block’ moment is when I step away from the keyboard to go for a walk or take a shower or clean the car.
I think about where the story is and how the characters feel about it. That’s how I figure out what to write next. And sometimes that means going back and deleting what I never should have written because those characters would never do that or it was leading the story to a dead end.
Sometime deleting sections is the kindest thing you can do for a work in progress, I agree. What would readers never guess about you?
I am addicted to documentaries, especially true crime. In another life I would have liked to be a criminal psychologist.
Never too late! And there’s always your next reincarnation. When did you fall in love with reading?
I discovered the escapism of books when I was about nine or ten. My mum let me read whatever I wanted and once I devoured all the Sweet Valley High series I quickly moved onto Judy Blume. Then, at about twelve years old, I discovered Virginia Andrews and Anne Rice.
Books opened up new worlds up for me. I was no longer living my life and grappling with my difficulties but sharing in the troubles of my characters. It was magical and empowering.
Always, I was attracted to dark-subject books.
Yes, I see that. Dark stories can be very affirming, in strange ways. Do you think that creative writing courses are valuable?
Yes. Writing course offer parameters and structure for the creative mind to build upon. I remember starting Stone Girl and my brain was the wild wild west. I had no idea how to write a book, what the elements were or the structure required to hold it all together.
Courses teach a novice writer the tools and secrets of those who’ve been writing for years. This is a fast-track method to enlightenment. Obviously, some courses are more valuable than others so do your research.
That sounds right. I learned so much from my creative writing studies, though I had been writing for a lifetime already. What words of advice would you give an aspiring author?
From my personal experience (I can’t talk for others), writing appealed to me because it was a way to express an active imagination. The world around me was shrill, triggering and inspiring. I wanted to capture it and, in this way, find some control.
Aspiring authors are told ad nauseum to read lots and write constantly. Create a character, find the plot and the voice and set it in a place. I concur that this is all vital.
However, don’t forget your imagination. It is completely unique to you. Don’t constrain it too much in rules and structure or worse, trying to write like someone else. Particularly with your first and second draft, allow your writing to be free and trust the muse. After that, apply the theory.
Imagination is the basis of each writer’s own voice, I think. Do you have a go-to routine for writing?
I enjoy writing in the morning but since I’ve had kids, I am an opportunistic writer. Pre kids I wrote for about six hours in the morning before university or when I worked as a journalist, I’d write on the train on the way to work.
Now, my husband and I negotiate terms and times and I inform everyone I’m working and to only interrupt me when it’s absolutely urgent. But, as I have a three and a five-year-old ‘urgent’ can mean pretty much anything! Yes, I’ll get you a snack/peel your banana/give you a hug. I’m starting to insist though that they understand this is important. Being a mother and a writer has taught me to be pretty great at shutting out distractions.
And excellent practice for pandemic lockdowns, too. Are there any secrets hidden in your writing?
I’m not sure about ‘secrets’ but I hate being bored. My writing needs to involve a level of emotional intensity and a constantly progressing plotline to keep it interesting. I often need to go back and stretch out the action to make sure it’s not too much too soon.
Pacing is important, but I’m sure you have that down pat. Congratulations on the great reception for Stone Girl, and many thanks for speaking with me today, Eleni.
Stone Girl is available through all good booksellers (the link at the start of this sentence is to Booktopia), and many bookshops are providing free postage during the COVID-19 restrictions. Or buy an e-book – guaranteed germ free 🙂
Although Trevor Wood has lived in Newcastle for twenty-five years and considers himself an adopted Geordie, he still can’t speak the language. A successful playwright who has also worked as a journalist and spin-doctor for the City Council, Trevor served in the Royal Navy for sixteen years joining, presciently, as a Writer. Trevor has an MA in Creative Writing (Crime Fiction) from the University of East Anglia.
Trevor’s widely-praised first novel, The Man on the Street, is set in Newcastle, and will delight readers of mystery thrillers – if you like Val McDermid and Ian Rankin, Trevor’s Jimmy Mullen series could be your next addiction.
Let’s discover a bit more about the writer behind Jimmy.
LWOTW: Welcome, Trevor, and thanks for talking to me on last Word of the Week. What was the first book you read for yourself?
TREVOR: Like most people my age I blame Enid Blyton for everything. The Secret Seven, Famous Five and the ‘Adventure’ series were undoubtedly my gateway drugs to a lifelong love of crime fiction. It’s no coincidence that my debut crime novel The Man on the Streetfeatures a dog. He’s a direct descendant of Timmy.
Once I’d put on my big boy pants it was difficult to know where to go next for something to read – YA fiction was barely a thing back in the day. The solution came to me on a terribly dull barge holiday on the Norfolk Broads with my cousin and his family. These days I’d love that kind of holiday – a glorified pub crawl on a boat being my kind of thing – but for a 14-year-old boy it was stupefyingly boring. The solution was galloping through the shelf full of books on the barge – all written by Agatha Christie. From that moment on it was crime all the way and it’s all due to Enid and Agatha (and maybe Scooby Doo).
Enid and Agatha provide a perfect pedigree, but I see you also have an MA in Creative Writing. Do you think that creative writing courses are valuable?
I have nothing but praise for the creative writing courses I’ve done and am certain that without them I wouldn’t now be a published author. I tried a couple of short, local courses in Newcastle first. From the first I ended up joining a small group of writers who meet up every three weeks to offer each other constructive criticism on our latest work in progress. It’s been an invaluable part of my process. My second course provided me with a great friend who also happened to be a retired senior cop, who is now not only a drinking partner but a sounding board for some of my more fanciful ideas regarding the police.
It was the third, however, that provided the major impetus to my writing career, such as it is. I was one of the guinea pigs on UEA’s inaugural Crime Writing MA, a two-year, part-time course with an end point of producing an 80,000 word crime novel. With visiting writers including Lee Child, Ian Rankin, Mark Billingham and Denise Mina, and ten other thoroughly-committed budding crime writers offering regular feedback on every 10,000 words produced, it was a total joy from start to finish. Not only did it make me a far better writer, it opened so many doors, with visits from agents, editors and several experts in their fields from pathologists to crime scene boffins, the whole thing was an inspiration. Out of the eleven students, five now have publishing deals and three more have agents with books in the pipeline.
If your ambition is to be a published crime writer then I urge you to SIGN UP NOW (I’m not on commission but maybe I should be?)
Yes, you should be! That sounds like a fabulous course. Personal question now: are there any secrets hidden in your writing?
It’s not a secret really but a small in-joke for my own amusement that no-one has ever mentioned so this is basically a WORLD-WIDE EXCLUSIVE. The main character in The Man on the Street, Jimmy, is a homeless veteran who is suffering from PTSD. He is particularly haunted by fire as a result of his experiences in the Falklands War. I have a cop in my book too, who may or may not be on Jimmy’s side, no plot spoilers here. The cop’s name is DS Burns. I did say it was a small in-joke.
But a world-wide exclusive small in-joke! LOL! Now, how do you feel about reviews?
Undoubtedly the best response I’ve had to The Man on the Street was from the ultra-talented writer Dominic Nolan, who I’m certain will soon be catapulted on to the A-list with his brilliant new book After Dark. All praise is, of course, deeply gratifying but when it comes from a master of his, and your own, craft it’s doubly so. I’ll leave this here:
Trevor has assembled a fine array of characters—each playing their part in the main narrative whilst remaining the heart of their own stories, and never once are they condescended to. The plotting is so deft—weaving the larger tapestry of social inequality and the wretchedly skewed priorities of collapsing instruments of state services with the more intimate darkness of personal crimes. It is the kind of thriller our times need and deserve.
Dominic Wood on The Man on the Street
Of course, there will always be those who don’t like your work. I really don’t mind less-than glowing reviews as long as they are constructive and often find myself agreeing with some of the criticism. If you’re going to be a writer you really have to learn to take criticism because believe me you’re going to get it. It starts from the moment you begin submitting to agents and then, if you survive that ordeal, editors come next – and it never really stops. It’s a brutal rite of passage and you need to be resilient to get through it. That doesn’t mean you have to agree with everything that’s said about your work, far from it. But it does mean you have to be able to examine your work carefully and critically. I have a rule that if two people say the same thing then I need to have a good look at it but sometimes you have to go with your gut and stay strong if you’re convinced you’re right. There will always be people who hate your work. Note it and move on quickly. I’ve co-written around a dozen plays and my favourite bad review was “the writers set the bar really low yet still manage to limbo dance under it.” Which you have to admit is a funny line even when you’re the victim of it.
Oh dear, yes, that made me laugh out loud! Do you imagine specific actors playing your characters – which is possibly inevitable for a playwright?
I was very lucky with the audio version of The Man on the Street. As I’ve mentioned above, I’ve co-written several plays (and consequently worked with a lot of great actors.) My publishers sent me a link to listen to when they thought they’d found the right actor to take the job on and I didn’t even need to open it. It was the outstanding David Nellist, who had starred in one of my co-written plays Alf Ramsey Knew My Grandfather but is perhaps better known for playing Mike Stamford, the character who introduces John Watson to Sherlock Holmes in the re-boot of the TV series. As always, Dave has done a fantastic job with the book, bringing a real authenticity to the characters.
That’s wonderful. And is there more Jimmy Mullen to come?
Yes there is! A second book is well underway, and there might be bigger things in store for Jimmy.
That’s so exciting! Thanks for sharing with me today, Trevor, and all the best to you and Jimmy.
Prolific UK author Helena Dixon splits her time between the Black Country and Devon. Married to the same man for over thirty-five years she has three daughters, a cactus called Spike, a crazy cockapoo* (see below) and a tank of tropical fish. She is allergic to adhesives, apples, tinsel and housework. Her addictions of choice are coffee and reality TV. She was winner of The Romance Prize in 2007 and Love Story of the Year 2010, writing as Nell Dixon (with a fantastic list of titles on her bookshelf). Helena now writes historical cozy crime set in the 1930s.
I’m excited to speak with Helena today as we have quite a bit in common. Let’s get to the questions!
Welcome to the Last Word of the Week, Helena! Why is writing important to you?
Helena: Writing is like breathing. I can’t imagine not being able to express the stories that I have galloping around in my head if I didn’t write. I joined my first writing group when I was twelve and have belonged to a writers group for most of my life. I belong to the RNA (Romance Novelists Association), the CWA (Crime Writers Association) and my local writers group which is affiliated to the NAWG (National Association of Writers’ Groups). Writing keeps me sane and makes me a much nicer person to be around.
What would readers never guess about you?
I have severe dyscalculia. I see numbers backwards and jumbled up. I can’t remember or retain them. I can’t read a digital clock very well. I can’t tell left from right or follow directions. I struggle with time as a concept. I can do sums in my head but not if I’m looking at the numbers. I don’t know my phone number, I forget my post code and I don’t know my car registration. I have never used an ATM and only own a mobile phone for the camera facility. I don’t know my number or how to use it.
Goodness, I would never guess that. How amazing and interesting. It obviously has no effect on your reading and writing. How much research is involved in your writing?
Lots. Especially my Helena Dixon books as they are set in 1930s Dartmouth. I recreate journeys via steam train and ferry. I make site visits and take copious notes and pictures. I have lots of wonderful people who answer all kinds of questions to check that I’m as accurate as I can be. For the third Miss Underhay book, due out in June, I visited the golf club where I wanted to leave a body and they kindly gave me a tour in a golf buggy and answered a million and one questions.
Site visits sound like complete fun. Do you have a pet as a writing companion?
Yes, although he is more of a hindrance than a help. That’s my lovely Cockerpoo Teddy. He even has his own facebook page!
(Clare says: Teddy the Cockerpoo* is a spoodle to those of us in the antipodes, i.e. a cocker spaniel crossed with a poodle. Aussies tend not to put ‘poo’ and, er, ‘cock’ in the same sentence, let alone the same word, if we can help it LOL. My own writing companion is the gorgeous and sassy Aeryn Spoodle-Wolf. You might have met her in this earlier post.)
What’s your writing goal for the next twelve months, Helena?
Hmm, I’m working on book 4 of the Miss Underhay series and I also have plans for a stand alone murder mystery. We’ll have to see how that all goes. I may even find time for a novella.
That sounds wonderful. What would be a dream come true for you?
Writing wise, I would love to see the Miss Underhay series on TV. There has been some interest and if anyone is listening it’s still available. My daughter wants a film, mainly because she thinks Beyonce should play Vivian Delaware, a slightly shady OTT jazz singer who appears in the first book, Murder at The Dolphin Hotel.
Oh, i’d love to see those stories on the little – or big – screen too! Fingers crossed. Thank you so much for sharing so much interesting information! I can’t wait to read more of Miss Underhay.
Murder at the Dolphin Hotel is available as ebook, paperback and audiobook
June 1933. Kitty Underhay is a modern, independent woman from the top of her shingle bob to the tip of her t-strap heels. She prides herself on the reputation of her family’s ancient hotel on the blustery English coast. But then a body is found, rooms are ransacked and rumours begin to circulate that someone is on the hunt for a valuable stolen ruby – a ruby that Kitty’s mother may have possessed when she herself went missing during the Great War. Before she can do more than flick a duster, Kitty finds herself in the midst of a murder investigation.
When the local police inspector shows no signs of solving the shocking crimes plaguing the hotel, Kitty steps briskly into the breach. Together with ex-army captain Matthew Bryant, her new hotel security officer, she is determined to decipher this mystery and preserve not only the name of her hotel, but also the lives of her guests.
Could there be a cold-blooded killer under her own roof? And what connects the missing jewel to the mystery from Kitty’s own past?
Isobel Blackthorn writes great stories. She’s one of those accomplished authors who won’t be put in a box. Think thrilling mysteries, dark and dangerous romances, eerie occult tales and more. Every time I pick up one of Isobel’s books, I know I am about to be transported into an exotic location where I will meet intriguing characters who wrestle with particular circumstances…and I will have to read as quickly as I can to the end!
Hi Isobel, it’s wonderful to have you as today’s guest on the Last Word of the Week Q&A. Can you tell us about when you first realised that you are a writer?
Isobel: When I was eighteen, I developed a thirst for literature. I had uni friends studying English literature and I asked them for lists. That was how I feasted on Austen and Hardy, and then Zola and Flaubert and Kafka and Hesse. A little Sartre. I devoured those books and as I did, something in me stirred. I wrote little bits of poetry and song lyrics. I had not an iota of confidence, just a deep urge or impulse that would rise up in me every now and then. I heard the narrative voices of those books in my mind and I began to develop a narrative voice of my own, which proved to be a lot like Hesse at first. This was in the 1980s. It took decades before I had the time and space and self-belief to apply myself to learning the craft.
A great way to enter the world of writing, indeed. As a writer, do you rely more on dreams, imagination, and planning?
Ideas for new works emerge as if from nowhere. Little aha moments. It is rare that a whole novel will emerge at once. Sometimes many years go by before the initial impulse is developed into a book-length work. I do as little planning as possible. Too much planning can kill the creative spark. I prefer to let things flow as much as possible. Although writing mysteries and thrillers, there is always an element of plotting. And I usually know how a story will end so I have something to work towards. I am forever mindful of balancing the story elements and I am always fixated on the word count.
Story ideas are delicate creatures, I agree. I think you wrangle them very well. What’s the highlight of your writing career so far?
Finding myself shortlisted for the Ada Cambridge Prose Prize. I have long coveted winning a prize or even just reaching the long or short list. A prize is a rubber stamp that tells the world you are really quite good at what you do. In a fiercely competitive and swamped marketplace, we need to stand out somehow.
Congratulations! Yes, wonderful to have that stamp! What are you most looking forward to at the moment?
That is a big secret.
Oh, how marvellous! Now you have me guessing. If you could say one thing to aspiring writers, what would it be?
Don’t give up. Writing is an all-consuming activity that will stretch you in unexpected ways. Enjoy the creative process and do not be defeated by rejection. It can take ten years and many books before you feel you have climbed more than a rung of the ladder. Above all, support your fellow writers. We are a vast community, published and unpublished and we can help each other progress in many ways.
Lovely, thank you! And finally:Who would you be if you were a fictional character?
Here is that curly question at the end of the exam! Just when you feel you are ahead and passing is assured, along it comes and dashes your hopes. Who would I be? I used to think I would be Cathy in Wuthering Heights. No more. But I can think of no single character. I am that woman who sits by her upstairs window and gazes out at the world. An artist, probably, and very solitary. Who is she? I am a lot like, or want to be a lot like the protagonist in The Oblique Place by Caterina Pascual Soderbaum. I urge all literary fiction fans to read that book.
It sounds intriguing – very suitable! Thank you so much for talking with me today, Isobel.
In this episode of Last Word of the Week, I’m excited to speak with Maisie Porter. Maisie works as a wedding photographer in Australia. We should make it clear right now that she has neither abducted nor been abducted by any competitors (something that *might* happen in her novels…). Maisie is an author at Crooked Cat Books.
LWOTW: Hi, Maisie, it’s a pleasure to meet you. Can you tell us when you first realised that you are a writer?
Maisie: As well as writing, I work as a wedding photographer. In 2017, in between weddings, I began writing a story. At that time I had a desire to create something that wasn’t as fleeting as a photograph. So much work is put into creating visuals for social media (especially in the photography industry) that I was becoming disillusioned at the dispensability of photos. These days you can take a wonderful photo that has to be replaced immediately with another to feed the social media monster! So I started to write a story. It was a private and satisfying effort.
‘Something a bit more lasting.’ That’s a good explanation. As a writer, do you rely more on dreams, imagination, or planning?
All three! In that exact order, I dream up the story, imagine it as I am writing, and plan and organise all the parts so it all fits together.
That sounds quite organic. You’re a natural! What’s the highlight of your writing career so far?
The highlight of my career is my first book No Reception being published by Crooked Cat Books.
What are you most looking forward to at the moment?
I have just finished writing my next book, so I’m looking forward to when I dream up my next story.
That cover is quite chilling! If you could say one thing to aspiring writers, what would it be?
I would say, get your book written and find a good editor to look at it for you. Then get it out there; either traditional, small press or self publishing. But don’t get to hung up on writing the story because the hard work of marketing your book is still before you.
And finally: Who would you be if you were a fictional character?
Yikes! Now I’m truly scared 🙂 Thanks for speaking with us, Maisie, and all power to both your writing and photography careers.
Jamie Paradise has written a debut novel that takes crime to an audacious new level. Night Time Cool has been described as flamboyant, comic, and energetic: a tale of Christmas time in 2015 London with all its colour, exuberance and the odd swathe of violence. It’s the underbelly of Shoreditch and the characters, particularly Detective Inspector Frederick Street and his son Elvis, revel in their complex, seedy setting.
In the day time – when not hunkered down in a dark mansion surrounded by old family skulls and writing comic crime – Jamie is also a sports journalist called Jamie Jackson. He writes about football. “Soccer” to those of us in Australia who adhere to Aussie Rules.
LWOTW: Good to meet you, Jamie. Tell us about when you first realised that you are a writer.
Jamie: Good Question – I have a memory of being around nine and thinking, yes, writing for me – then at 21/22 I knew – after reading Henry Miller.
So Henry Miller tipped you over the edge. That’s good to hear. Do you rely more on dreams, imagination, and planning?
Imagination all the way – get an idea/opening scene/etcetera then away I go – so much fun.
Writing can indeed be fun, and it’s great that it shows in your novel. What’s the highlight of your writing career so far?
Having my first novel compared to Martin Amis, Anthony Burgess, and it being reviewed by The Observer (the world’s oldest Sunday newspaper) as a “rip-roaring debut”.
That is really wonderful, congratulations. What are you most looking forward to at the moment?
The current novel I’m writing – about 2/3 in of 1st draft.
First drafts can be exhausting. Good luck! If you could say one thing to aspiring writers, what would it be?
Read all the time, write all the time and keep DREAMING.
And finally: Who would you be if you were a fictional character?
Peter Pan – I’m never growing up anyway. XXX
LOL! Thanks for speaking with me today, Jamie, it’s been amazing. More Power to you and the Streets of Shoreditch.