Today I’m excited to host Veronica Strachan and Darren Kasenkow as they tell us all about their inspiring project. Veronica and Darren are the co-founders of Australian Book Lovers and the co-hosts of the popular podcast of the same name. They’ve created a site that’s brilliant for readers and writers.
Love Australian books? Go straight to their site, sign up for the newsletter, subscribe to the fabulous chatty, engaging, informative podcast. I guarantee that you won’t be disappointed.
What is Australian Book Lovers?
Australian Book Lovers is a platform for Australian and Indigenous authors to list their books, and for readers from across the globe to find them.
About the ABL team:
In between listing books, promoting authors, and recording podcasts, Veronica and Darren are editing their collaborative novel Family Secrets. Book 1 of a new series, ‘Beneath a Burning Heart’, Family Secrets features adventure, romance, and a supernatural twist.
Veronica spent most of her life in the health industry as a nurse, midwife, project manager, CEO, coach, and facilitator. Once she switched her attention to creative writing, she published six books in five years. A memoir, a workbook/journal, and two books in a children’s picture book series, illustrated by her daughter, Cassi. As V.E. Patton, she’s written Book 1 of a fantasy series and a novelette. Soul Staff: Book 2 of her ‘Opal Dreaming Chronicles’, and Chickabella Shapes Up: Book 3 of The Adventures of Chickabella are due for release later in 2021.
Darren appeared on Last Word of the Week earlier this month. He’s an author whose work dances across the boundaries of literary fiction, with thematic elements from dystopian horror, apocalyptic science fiction and existential suspense. His books include The Apocalypse Show, Dust and Devils, See the City Red and The Hallucigenia Project Book One. He’s currently working on the highly anticipated sequel titled Godless, with an expected release date of late 2021.
I’m very excited to talk to Veronica and Darren today about their work and their mission to promote Australian books.
Welcome to 2021 Inspirations
Veronica: Thank you for the chance to post our inspirations to your blog.
What inspired me to get Australian Book Lovers going? Well, if you chat with Darren Kasenkow for more than a few minutes, you are guaranteed to be inspired by his enthusiasm and imagination. We’re co-authoring a book and have chatted regularly over Zoom over the last couple of years. I was getting to know lots of Aussie writers through the Twitter #AusWrites hashtag started by Rebecca Langham (and now assisted by Kevin Klehr) and the Australian Women’s Writers Challenge (Reading more works by Australian women writers).
Both DK and I were doing everything we could as Indie authors to promote our books in the crowded marketplace, and in the midst of COVID-19!!! I can’t help coaching – looking for potential and nurturing it forth, it’s in the blood – and wanting to support other people in reaching for their dreams, in this case Aussie authors! The conversation got around to … wouldn’t it be good if all the Australian authors were in one place… and easy to find and promote. I’m pretty sure it was DK who said,
“We should start a website”
and he came up with the name Australian Book Lovers. As a serial small business entrepreneur, it was the green light to get started.
The continuing inspiration comes from the authors themselves. The podcast is my favourite. It is an absolute honour to chat with so many creative imaginative people and to hear about what inspires them. And then to spend time chatting with my friend Darren about anything and everything writing and reading that takes our fancy. If one of us is feeling a bit flat, it only takes a minute or two to be uplifted by the other person’s energy and enthusiasm.
Darren: Thanks so much for the opportunity to be a part of your amazing blog!! And an extra huge thank you for shining a light on great people and artists of all passions – in a world that’s continuously turning upside down it’s a beautiful thing to know beautiful conversations are happening 🙂
As for inspirations behind the Australian Book Lovers website and podcast, my writing, and of course my insatiable appetite for all things that ignite the imagination, I guess I have to say it probably has to do with those truly magical moments of discovery as a kid that held a recipe for transcending time.
The promise of wonder in a new book
is just the same today as it was when my bedtime was out of my hands and a new tale to read was a whole new world to discover and learn from. I love all art and forms of expression, yet books continue to be portals that I just don’t think other mediums can beat (and I say that as someone who loves to explore the technology of virtual reality!).
I write with the hope my story might inspire the same love of literary portals that I’ve been lucky enough to carry with me throughout life’s trials and tribulations, and I love working on Australian Book Lovers with Veronica because it represents the chance of sharing great works with readers who also hold the soul of an inner child filled with wonder and the desire to push their imaginations to the limit! Oh, and I love to peek behind the curtains in life, so interviewing authors and industry specialists is an absolute blast!!!!!
Tell us more about Australian Book Lovers, please!
Each listing allows a cover, blurb, bio, and author pic as well as a buy link of the author’s choice. We have hundreds of books from hundreds of authors listed under 12 separate genres/ages. Each page has its mascot – an Australian animal or bird, usually wearing a quirky piece of clothing or a prop instantly recognisable to lovers of those books. You can see two of our favourites in this blog. We’ve just commenced competitions to name all the mascots. The hundreds of people who subscribe to our newsletter get updates on the latest additions to the website, special features and access to author giveaways. Authors get their books shared with our subscribers and all the website visitors. The website changes almost daily, both in terms of books added and functionality. Very soon we’ll have to add multiple pages for our most popular genres. We’ll be offering listings for short fiction in the near future.
which currently has seventeen episodes and over 25 hours of writing news, reading news, author interviews, cameos, book readings, chats with industry experts and expert panels.
It is so inspiring to chat with authors and industry people about their love for writing and publishing. We were blown away by the support of authors for the podcast and amazed at having 1000+ downloads by our listeners in only three months.
There are times when it’s hard to keep up with demand, as we both have our own creative work and careers, but it is a gift to be connecting Australian and Indigenous authors to new readers, and we love it.
Thank you so much to Veronica and Darren for bringing together Australian Book Lovers through their energy and passion for reading, writing, readers and writers. If you are an Australian author yet to take advantage of the free listing service for your book, do it now! If you love reading books by Australian authors, wherever you happen to be in the world, go straight to ABL for a feast of books!
Born in 1969, Phil was one of the last children born before man walked on the moon. Working at Australia’s National Dinosaur Museum since 2000 and as an educator at the Australian War Memorial since 2006, he has previously worked at Questacon Science centre and could be seen haunting the halls of London’s Natural History Museum and The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. Here he even played famed palaeontologist O. C. Marsh during the Smithsonian’s centenary celebrations. When asked why the 19th century palaeontologist was speaking with an Australian accent, Phil blithely stated that everyone on the 19th century spoke with an Australian accent.
Published in newspapers and magazines across the globe, Phil is the paleo-author for the world’s longest running dinosaur magazine, The Prehistoric Times. He has also been a comic shop manager, a cinema projectionist, a theatre technician and gutted chickens for a deli. All of these influences seem to make an appearance in his writing, especially the chicken guts bit.
Congratulations on the publication of Golgotha.
What inspired you to write this story?
PHIL: Thanks, I’m so pleased how this story came out. I have worked for museums all over the world for the last three decades and was lucky enough to work as an educator at the Australian War Memorial for a decade. I was always looking for interesting stories to pass on to the AWM visitors. During my research I found several stories, and further research led me to even more oddities. Many of these I used in my tours, but some I filed away for later use.
The story of a crucified soldier was the first of these, but I do have a few more that will hopefully make an appearance with my international team of investigators in the near future.
Golgotha is set during the First World War.
Why are you interested in the war, over a hundred years later?
PHIL: OK, this may get deep. Working in places like the London Natural History Museum made me confront the lack of history I feel connected to. Not only am I am Australian – so part of one of the youngest nations on the planet – but I’m also from Canberra – arguably the world’s youngest city/capital. Certainly, our country is old, and the indigenous have some serious history, but in many ways, I feel that’s not my story to tell.
I collect stories, and many of these I find in strange locations, meaning they are often unreported. This has led me to creating a new history for Australia for a podcast I’m about to release … and it will all be bizarre Australian history that I’m certain many have never heard about, and all real. A samurai invasion of Australia decades before Cook arrived, the Fall of the Roman Empire leading to the Dutch landing in Western Australia … Napoleon sending an invasion fleet to Botany Bay … all true.
All of this has led me to understand – as many of us do – that our identity as Australians really did begin with Gallipoli. It’s when we first started to think of US and not THEM. The First World War is our American and French Revolution, our Civil War – it’s the conflict that forged us into the nation we know today, I mean, even the word ANZAC has become something for more than its original meaning, its something sacred.
Do you think that WWI still has lessons for us today?
PHIL: HELL yes. I believe statics show that, by population, no Allied nation lost more in the Great War than Australia. Similarly, no nation (that wasn’t physically part of the battle – like France) is still as affected by these losses as Australia.
Drive through many rural towns today in Australia and you’ll see a large monument in the town square noting their losses. The monument is often full of men with the same last name. Entire generations from these towns joined up and were often buried together in some field overseas.
These towns never truly recovered from their losses and rural Australia still feels underpopulated.
I feel this has all left something of an emotional national scar. One way we have been dealing with the great loss is the way we reverently look on those who served.
I feel what other nations can learn by this is perhaps the way we use the past, but we are not tied to it. Mateship is part of our national identity, but rather than let us restrict who we include into this circle, we try tp be inclusive.
I think our natural outlook towards others, which is usually friendly, is why Australians worldwide are beloved.
Very interesting reflections, thanks Phil.
Now a bit about you! If you were stuck on a desert island
– or maybe in lockdown LOL –
what five books would you want with you?
PHIL: Ouch … only five … actually, challenge accepted.
The Black Company by Glen Cook. I love this series and it’s been a massive influence on me. The way Cook uses a bare-bones way of writing his stories is something I really have taken form heart. Don’t waste your time getting your characters from A to B – just get them there and move on with your story. I also just love his characters and the entire story line … this leads me to
Old Tin Sorrows by Glen Cook. This book and this entire series is da’ bomb. It’s also part of the inspiration for my first novel, Brotherhood of the Dragon. The books are about a fantasy hard-boiled detective called Garrett. I recall reading ‘Old Tin Sorrows’ when it suddenly struck me that many of the plot points were from Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. In fact, the entire series is also heavily influenced by Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe books, so I decided I wanted to join in the fun and also use these mechanics in Brotherhood.See if you can spot them? Golgotha also has similar influences – most notably the Third Man with Orson Welles.
Cetaganda/A Civil Campaign by Lois McMaster Bujold Ok, I may be cheating here, but let me explain. The Vorkosigan saga is one of the greatest novel series ever put to paper (and not just Sci-fi, but all series). Each one takes on a different theme. Cetagandais pure political/detective thriller. There are plots within plots and action and intrigue and red herrings and Mile Vorkosigan mentally pulling it all apart and finding the truth. Great stuff. The next book though is a romance/political thriller with plots within plots and intrigue and red herrings and Miles fumbling his way to asking the lady he loves to marry him. It’s the funniest book I have ever read and pure genius. I’ll also cheat here and suggest you get the audiobooks. Both of these I listen to at least once a year.
Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis Possibly the most influential book on this list. Moneyball is about baseball statistics…and yet it’s so much more. The lesson it teaches is anything can be interesting if you find the right angle. Moneyball is about how to win when you’re losing, how to change tac when you realise you are going in the wrong direction, how to create something from nothing, how to make a weakness a strength and how to tell just a great freakin story. You can watch the movie – its great too – but honestly, read the book – especially if you are interested in facts more than fiction – you simply won’t regret it!
The Gilded Dinosaur by Mark JaffeThe history of palaeontology bookended by the greatest battle in science – the intellectual war between ED Cope and O C Marsh. Dinosaurs, palaeontology, cowboys, train robberies, explorers, nation building, the Smithsonian, political intrigue … and did I mention dinosaurs? What’s not to love?
You write across genres and have a wide range of amazing interests.
How do you juggle all of these with work and writing?
Do you have some time management or focus tips for us?
PHIL: Well, for one thing you will never suffer from writer’s block … you can always move onto another subject for a while and get refreshed/re-inspired.
That’s the cheat answer. To be helpful, I guess I would say work smart.
Research is fun but can create a serious freeze on your brain as you find yourself swamped by too much info. You will take notes – so many notes – well put them in Word! DO NOT USE A NOTEBOOK! Trust me, I’m a researcher and I love carrying around a notebook. The problem is, you end up with lots of notebooks – but do you ever look in them? And do you find what you’re looking for? So, work smart – put them in Word and then you can word search later for what you’re looking for.
Keep folders. You will be astonished how often you will be looking for some info, and you’ll find something that links into something you are working on. Don’t stop what you’re doing, cut/paste/save– take a screen shot or a photo – but save that info in the folder you have for that project and then get on with what you’re doing.
And this brings me to my most important point.
Finish your projects. Don’t get distracted, and I mean distracted by outside as well as internal influences. If you are working on a crime story, don’t start watching documentaries about the First World War, even if that’s something you are also going to work on. You’ll get distracted/inspired and lose your train of thought.
Stay on point – stay on theme – and you’ll get an astounding amount of work done.
Wow, Phil, thank you so much for your insightful answers. Wonderful!
And thanks in advance for sharing a chapter from Golgotha, which I know is wonderful.
Just one more to join our happy band of adventurers, Fitzhugh thought as they entered the Australian lines. They were immediately joined by several large men wearing the quintessential slouch hats the antipodean troopers favoured.
These men referred to themselves as ‘six-bob-a-day tourists’, referencing their daily wage, and their service meant the Australian government and senior commanders treated them with more respect than other nations treated their own men. The most obvious example was that no Digger could face a firing squad for any offence without the permission of the Australian government, and that permission was never forthcoming, despite the pleas of generals like Douglas Haig.
Soldiers being soldiers, the Australian servicemen took full advantage of this leniency by rarely saluting their officers and hardly ever answering with the proper use of rank. Instead, the Aussies called their commanders by their first name, never wore their uniforms in the ‘correct’ by-the-book-way, nor took part in much of the silliness that soldiers from other nations had to endure.
Fitzhugh knew full well the reputation of these men, both on and — in this case — importantly off the battlefield.
At one point, the unruly Diggers had found themselves located in the lines near the 10th Royal Fusiliers, and here they became concerned for their fellow soldiers when the Fusiliers commander ordered them to parade every morning. The very English and newly minted colonel had decided he would have his men march a full-dress parade, with spit-and-polish uniforms, during their morning mounting of the guard. This was all done as the unit’s brass band played a merry ditty for the Fusiliers to march back and forth under the braying vigilance of Sergeant-Major Thomas Rowbotham. A lifelong military NCO, Rowbotham agreed with his colonel that strict discipline within the ranks was the only way to go.
Amid the mud, carnage, and death on the Western Front, the Diggers watched these parades with growing incredulity. Stationed next to each other, the two units inevitably began mixing and the Aussies eventually had to ask their British comrades if they enjoyed all that marching and dressing up.
‘Not on your life!’ replied one of the Fusiliers.
Another jumped in. ‘We have to do the parade during our downtime. Even at rest, we’re busy polishing buttons and boots, all so our bloody officers can feel like they’re leading proper soldiers.’
One burly Australian grinned an evil grin at his new friends and, slapping the much smaller man on the back warmly, said, ‘Right-o, cobber, we’ll fix that for you.’
The next day, Sergeant-Major Rowbotham called his men into parade. The Fusiliers all dutifully filed in and the regimental band lifted their instruments, awaiting the Sergeant-Major’s signal. As Rowbotham lifted then dropped his arm to signal them to play, he was greeted by a cacophony of what some would later recount fondly as noise.
Marching up and down behind Rowbotham were the Australians, playing what could be kindly described as instruments. Most were rusty and showed the signs of a hard life, but none of this mattered as the Aussies couldn’t play them anyway. Instead, they just blew and banged as hard and loud as they could, to drown out Rowbotham’s orders. Each time the makeshift orchestra began to wane, and the Sergeant-Major tried to regain control of the situation, the Australians began playing again with even greater vigour. After nearly half an hour of this, the Sergeant-Major, in utter defeat, finally strode away in a huff and the Fusiliers were never called to parade again. The Australian trench band was always watching and ready to start up their battlefield symphony if they did.
‘Can I help you, gentlemen?’ one of the Australian soldiers asked.
‘No, thank you, just passing through,’ Fitzhugh answered as Andrews manoeuvred to place himself between the two men.
‘What have we here? It seems the officer is taking his dog out for a walk,’ another Aussie said. ‘Down there, Fido. Sit!’
Another of the soldiers asked, ‘Does your dog do any tricks?’
‘Sergeant,’ Fitzhugh cautioned, as Andrews took a threatening step toward the jokester.
‘Nice leash, puppy,’ the Australian said, indicating Fitzhugh with a nod of his hat.
‘Actually, perhaps you men can help me?’ the captain asked, his tone remaining warm.
‘What’re you after? A German flag? A helmet? We got lots of souvenirs to impress the folks at home. You can even say you collected them yourself, you big brave British soldier you.’
‘Even have an officer’s uniform. It’s still a little bloody from where Barney here gutted the bloke.’
Ignoring the clear threat, and taking the statement as a joke, thus passing the test the Australians had laid out, Fitzhugh replied sincerely, ‘No, no, do not offer me any of your baubles. I was hoping for some information. Do any of you men know Sergeant Hank Ash?’
‘Now what would a proper British officer like you want with Mr Ash?’ the soldier called Barney asked with a heavy Irish accent.
Both Fitzhugh and Andrews caught the sudden change in attitude. All had gone from casual, fun-loving jokesters to rigid and aggressively hard.
‘I’m here to try to save his neck!’
The newly demoted Private Hank Ash sat in his cell, his sleeves sporting discoloured sections where his sergeant chevrons used to be. Two armed English guards stood directly outside his cell, situated in a small outbuilding of the farm that was being used as a temporary prison behind the Australian lines. Outside stood more guards, while the farmhouse itself had been converted into a makeshift barracks.
Through a small field that should have been full of feeding chickens and a garden, but now housed a small latrine on one side and a smouldering fire on the other, Fitzhugh, Andrews, and their Australian retinue marched. Approaching the farmhouse door, Fitzhugh took off his cap and stepped inside, returning the salute of the guards as he did. His retinue moved on to the barn, calling out to their mates inside.
Walking into the prison’s makeshift office, Fitzhugh found an English major with a Douglas Fairbanks moustache taking a cup of tea from a brawny NCO.
‘No milk in mine, Corporal,’ he said, inviting himself to sit down at the major’s desk.
The corporal looked from one officer to the other, not sure if he should be turfing the intruder out and hoping for a cue from his commander as to what to do. The major flicked a look at the door and the man left.
‘Perhaps a little sugar if you have it, Corporal,’ Fitzhugh called after the departing man, ‘and a bikkie.’
‘How can I help you, Captain…?’
‘Fitzhugh, Major Preston.’
‘It would seem you have me at a disadvantage, Captain Fitzhugh.’
‘So it would seem, Major,’ Fitzhugh replied, mirroring the senior officer’s reference to his rank to let the man know he knew that trick and wasn’t about to be cowed by an officer just because he had a little more brass on his shoulders.
‘How can I help you?’
‘Well, sir, I’m here to take Sergeant Ash off your hands.’
‘Very funny, Captain. Now, why are you really here?’
Rather than repeat himself, Fitzhugh removed a letter from his breast pocket, unfolded it, then slowly and deliberately smoothed its creases before handing the paper over. As the officer read the letter, Fitzhugh could tell when he read the name scrawled on the bottom of the page, as his eyes suddenly grew very wide.
‘This is signed by Haig.’
‘General Haig.’ Fitzhugh smiled warmly, continuing their game a little longer.
‘Are you sure it’s Ash you want?’
‘I have been hearing that question a lot recently. Absolutely it is Ash I want.’
‘And you know what he did?’
‘Let me see, he was wounded at Gallipoli after showing enormous courage, and has been serving very bravely here since….’
‘Since he broke a lieutenant’s jaw–’
‘From what I heard, the lieutenant deserved a broken jaw.’
‘He was still a superior officer,’ Preston said.
‘Senior officer, Major. I’m not too sure how “superior” the man was. Let’s not be conjuring facts we have no actual evidence. Personally, I refuse to condemn a man standing against a practice more in tune with the brutality of the inquisition. Now, I believe Sergeant Ash is yet to be convicted of this crime?’
‘May I ask why it’s taken so long to court-martial a man who struck an officer? The official report is frustratingly vague on why he has missed his last three court appearances. For that matter, how are you still in charge, having failed to get your prisoner to his hearing…if I may be so bold as to ask?’
‘Very simple.’ The major opened his hands, as though displaying something on the table before them. ‘My predecessor was a total and utter moron.’
Biting off a laugh from the unexpected comment, Fitzhugh regained control of himself. ‘Care to elaborate, sir?’
‘The buffoon arrested Ash and placed him in this stockade, a stockade, I’d like to point out, that is surrounded by the entire 1st Australian Division.’
‘Gotcha,’ Fitzhugh said, realisation striking.
‘Every time we have tried to move ‘Private’ Ash, those bloody Australians have intercepted us. It seems they are determined to make sure he never sees the inside of a courtroom, and their own officers are uninterested in doing anything to help clear our path.’
‘How are they stopping you?’
‘Well, you may have noticed the Aussies have men posted along every route into and out of this place, and they seem to be ready to move on a moment’s notice if they sense we are up to something. The first time we tried to take Ash to his court appearance, we found nearly a thousand men choking the road, doing the finest parade drill I have ever seen. Every time we tried to cut through them, some unseen voice would order a platoon to move into our way, and they would begin vigorously marching.’
No longer interested in hiding his mirth, Fitzhugh asked, ‘And the next time?’
‘We tried to sneak him out after making sure the time of his hearing was never announced. Somehow, when we went to move him, we suddenly had hundreds of Australian soldiers pushing into the little courtyard out there. They managed to never disobey an order, as the ones who could hear us became hopelessly trapped by the men at the rear continuously pushing forward. It took hours to disentangle everyone, and by then the court had dispersed for the day.’
‘So, I assume you next tried to bring the court here?’
‘We did, and here’s why I really hate those fucking antipodeans.’ The major almost spat. ‘Clearly, they have either befriended or bribed some of my guards, as no sooner did I have it planned for the court to visit us, the Australians struck again.’
‘Well, of course, I have no proof of this, but I find it suspicious that the horses the court were going to use to get here disappeared, and of course, they refused to walk all the way, and vehicles would never have made the journey through the trenches.’
‘The Australians stole the horses?’ Fitzhugh asked, grinning.
‘They steal everything not tied down, bloody convicts.’ Sensing he may have said too much, the warden backpedalled. ‘Well, as I said, there’s no proof. Though the Aussies did seem to eat well for the next few days. They had themselves a grand barbeque. They even invited us for a meal.’
Fitzhugh gasped and looked toward the heavens. ‘Thank God!’
‘Captain?’ the major asked, a little confused.
‘Sorry, sir, I was just thanking the Almighty that they’re on our side, because I wouldn’t want to be facing the bastards if they ever got really angry at us.’
‘I hadn’t thought about that,’ the warden said. ‘Thank God!’
Also, don’t forget that as a special for July, Golgotha is included in the Fromelles Anniversary Book Bundle from Odyssey Books – along with my novel The Stars in the Night, and Jim Ditchfield’s Nursing Fox. Something for everyone!
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!
Alice McVeigh uses the pen name Spaulding Taylor when she writes science fiction. She may have two names, but she has many more roles than that. She’s a ghostwriter, an editor, a performer , and a musician.
Alice is with me today to talk about what inspires her creative output. She is also sharing an extract from her book Last Star Standing (I love that title!) which is a dystopian sci-fi thriller!
What Inspires Alice
ALICE: I’ve been very open about my triumphs and disasters, perhaps particularly here:
Basically, I was lucky enough to get a Booker-prize-winning agent when I was still pretty young, along with a two-book contract with Orion (now part of Hachette). These novels sold very well, but not well enough for Orion, who rejected my third.
I then entered a period of real depression, retreating into ghost writing and cello-playing (my only degree is in cello performance, oddly enough!)… But fiction, eventually, pulled me back, and Unbound released my Kirkus-starred speculative thriller only a couple of months ago.
What inspired me? A meditation, which I mention in the interview. It was a crazy experience, having a character come and tap me on the shoulder! – But I’m very grateful all the same…
Thanks Alice, that’s so interesting. It’s not often a character accosts a writer, but it’s worth following up when it does happen.
Ravene, the alien King’s heir, was Aiden’s lover a decade earlier.
Aiden, along with Bully and the gromeline, is in the King’s encampment, on the mission to assassinate the King. Aiden is telling the story.
But Aiden is currently in the body of a hideous Tester, a bull-like humanoid alien. He’s taken aback when Ravene notices him in this guise and insists that he accompany her, alone, to her quarters.
Excerpt from Last Star Standing
Ravene shifted into a sitting position and flinched. She spoke almost to herself, as if I was too stupid to understand. ‘You’re ugly, of course, but then, you’re all ugly. But there’s something different about you. You remind me of someone I first knew years ago.’
Might not have been me, of course. Always sought-after, Ravene. The legs, mostly. She turned her head, reminding me that her profile was tops, as well.
She continued, ‘He was human. Good-looking – not stunningly good-looking, but still handsome – well-built, clever, amusing. Tenten was his name, you might have heard of him? He was only recently executed.’
So the King had lied even to Ravene, his favourite child and acknowledged heir.
As some answer seemed expected, I rasped, ‘A known rebel. A known traitor, lady.’
‘A traitor to us, perhaps, but utterly true to his own people. You must realise, hircht, that I am part-human? My siblings constantly remind creatures of this, in hopes that I might be discounted in the succession.’
I knew all this, of course. Whether most testers would have, I hadn’t a clue. I stood in the approved tester pose: staunch, wooden, dull.
Ugly too, I bet.
‘Perhaps that’s why I remember him so warmly. Of course, he was impulsive, stubborn, in some ways difficult, but his humanness somehow spoke to me. I’ve never since—’ She lapsed back into thoughtfulness, while I kept wondering why the hell she was telling me this.
‘He had such feeling! Everything with Aiden was always so wonderfully in the moment! There was a time, I remember, we were on a balcony—’
Oh God, I remembered that too. Almost fell off the bloody thing.
I shifted uneasily as she said, almost dreamily, ‘And then, and then, another time – we were on a picnic with other students. It was autumn in the overland and somehow one could still sense it, even deep below – perhaps some movement in the air, some atmosphere, some sense of leaves being trodden, decaying, into the dark earth… The picnic was in one of those kycnm fields with false-rainbowed skies and grass that never smells right. Aiden and I drifted away from the others. We had been dancing – did I mention the music? – but why on earth am I telling you this?’
But beneath both my hammering hearts I was still bewitched. That rainbow-textured sky, that music, that day… Sternly, I attempted to think of Bully, of Pavlina, of any bloody thing, just to break the spell.
This didn’t work. Instead, I was also caught up in remembering.
Ravene, casting her gaze backwards in the Academy corridor. Ravene waiting in the disabled loo, hair already rapturously dishevelled. Ravene winning the badminton tournament, with that perfected eye. Ravene sliding her palm into my pocket in the refectory… I tried to remember Petra, but she lacked vitality, in comparison. It was as if Ravene had tossed diaphanous silks over everything that wasn’t ourselves – young and handsome, young and full of hope, young and full of glory, the way the young are.
She sighed, stirred, and continued. ‘We left the others, just the two of us. We – oh, I don’t suppose you understand for one single second what I’m talking about! – but luckily, you’re far too stupid to understand. At any rate, we left the others under that great canopy of false sky. And above it there was a crack, and through it – like a gift – a slice of real sky. And he took me, just there, under that—’
She had been gazing into the distance. She glanced over at me and wriggled discontentedly. ‘What an apish expression you all have!’
As for me, I was still trying to look like the dimmest tester going. As much as I was feeling glad about anything, I was glad that I had shoved Bully out with the gromeline.
‘Lady, just tell me what to do,’ I growled, as politely as I was able. ‘Command me. A drink, a pundling, an attendant—’
She half-rose on her elbow, staring at me. Both of my hearts stopped.
BOTH MY HEARTS STOPPED!
What a place to finish. If you’d like to read more, you can find Alice’s work at the following links. Thank you so much Alice for speaking with me today on Last Word of the Week: 2021 Inspirations Edition.
Veronica Strachan spent most of her childhood lost in a good book. She spent most of her adult life lost in a good job as a nurse, midwife, CEO, coach, and facilitator (amongst other things).
After years of encouraging others to follow their dreams, she remembered what she wanted to be when she grew up. Five years later she has six published books: a memoir, a workbook/journal, and a children’s picture book series illustrated by her daughter, Cassi.
As V.E. Patton, Veronica has written a fantasy and a novelette. She is co-founder of Australian Book Lovers and co-hosts their podcast.
In keeping with my theme of 2021, I asked Veronica about her inspirations.
Veronica: Thank you for the lovely opportunity to contribute to your blog.
What inspires me?
Such succulent bait to my chronically overactive curiosity and imagination. Reel me in!
‘Learning’ in all its forms inspires me. But, let’s keep it to what inspires my writing life…
Age attenuated the urgency of making a living and bringing up children. So, having given myself permission to make writing my next best thing – as it had been my first thing during childhood – inspiration began coming from all points of the compass, the clock, and life.
I see a person frowning into their phone – what’s their backstory? A cat staring superciliously at its human slave – character for a villain. Autumn leaves skittering across chilled black dirt – setting. An anecdote from a friend – plot twist. Heated exchange in a shop queue – dialogue. Flick of a fringe or straightening of a cap – character trait. A quiet walk: still air and sunshine are the soil, imagination is the seed, inspiration bursts forth – a new stand-alone science fiction story about genetic engineering.
No, perhaps a trilogy with a second trilogy to follow!
I jog home to scribble down some notes. Most of all, I’m inspired by people: my husband, children, friends, and clients. Whether I’m coaching an individual, facilitating a room full of clinicians or chatting with a friend over a cuppa, I see potential in everyone, hope for a better future, be it this minute, this month, or this life. All food for putting words on a page.
Breathing While Drowning was inspired by my daughter, Jacqueline Bree, who died at four years old. Twenty-years later as I wanted to creatively write, I had her voice in my head encouraging me to write our story. I transcribed journals I wrote to Jacqui in the short years she was alive and for several years after as I struggled through grief. And I was inspired by myself. Perhaps an odd thing to say, but reading back over what that younger me had done, lived and felt, I was so grateful for how she’d held our life together – not always well, but hold it together she did. And ever so slowly, she opened herself to healing from the life and love around her.
Ochre Dragon was inspired by every science fiction and fantasy book I’d ever read, every utopian or dystopian world I’d ever escaped to and the absolute dearth of female protagonists over fifty! So, inspired by every clever and courageous woman I’d met, I wrote the book I wanted to read. Middle-aged woman battles her own demons, all the villains, and saves the universe – or does she?
My oldest sister, Mary inspired my picture book series: The Adventures of Chickabella. Mary died two years ago from breast cancer, a dearly loved and respected kindergarten teacher, leaving five young grandchildren to miss her reading stories to them. Mary was the oral story-teller in our family, every moment was history, and every moment a memory. She taught as easily and effortlessly as breathing. My eldest daughter Cassi created the beautiful illustrations for her Aunty.
Here we meet middle-aged project manager Ali just after she’s been attacked in her office!
If the assassin stops to kill her, then I can escape. Ali felt sick at being so gutless. Indecision kept her frozen to the spot, expecting a scream at any moment. With her eyes glued to the door, rainbow sparkles began to crowd her vision.
A trilling female voice hooted with laughter in Ali’s head. She clutched her temples. You should SO run. Impossibly, the voice sliced through her brain like a hot knife.
She’s not who you think she is. She’d definitely run if the shoe was on the other foot.
‘Who’s there?’ Ali rasped, fear drying her mouth.
Come on. Did you see what I did there? Shoe on the other foot. You’re only wearing one shoe. SHOE-ON-THE-OTHER-FOOT. Surely that’s worth a groan at least.
‘Who is it? Come out now. This is not funny. We’re in a Code Black,’ Ali couldn’t imagine how the voice was in her head.
You know who I am Ali Morrow. That is who you’re calling yourself in this incarnation, isn’t it Alinta? Invisible, anonymous Proji and Cataloguer Extraordinaire.
The voice continued in a huffy tone. And that was very funny by the way. I’ve been practising my comedy routines while I waited for you to come to your senses.
Ali swivelled, searching the foyer for the owner of the voice.
We don’t have time for theatrics. We’re close to the century congruence. It’s me. Jiemba. I’m through. I’m back. We needed a life-threatening event so I could break through this ridiculous nightmare you call existence.
Ali’s gift flashed a picture of a cranky red dragon in her mind. Dragon. Mammoth body, sinuous neck, enormous frilled head, covered in scales, dragon. Dark red threads charged around her gift like lit fuses, blasting holes and breaking connections in her mind’s tapestry.
The dragon sat on its massive haunches in the chaos and bared a set of sharp, glistening fangs. It tilted and lowered its head so that Ali got a glimpse of one enormous eye peering at her – from inside her head. Apart from the vertical obsidian pupil, the dragon’s eye was like a gigantic opal. The eye drank in light, leaving the smattering of sparkling rainbow flecks a brilliant counterpoint.
Ali shook her head, her heart hammering a ragged tattoo. She must be going mad. The old woman had told her to remember Jiemba. Something about her shadow seemed out of sync and Ali glanced down to see that it had transformed into the shape of an enormous dragon, its head crowned with curled horns.
She dragged her gaze past outstretched wings, taloned forelimbs, and a lashing spiked tail. Its hind legs and enormous feet joined at her very real single shod pair. Her mind threatened to explode.
‘No. Absolutely not. There are no such things as dragons.’ She barely realised she’d spoken aloud and closed her eyes as an offended huff sounded in her head.
There certainly are such things. And you and I are one. So let’s get outta here. The voice turned a little plaintive. I wanna go Home.
Ali squeezed her eyes tighter.
Aren’t you even a little bit glad to see me? I was only kidding about the breakfast thing. I haven’t eaten a human in ages. At least a couple of hours. Kidding. I’m just kidding. I only eat the bad ones. Kidding again, Well, no actually. That bit is true.
Ali put her hands over her ears. ‘Not real. Not real. Not real,’ she chanted.
Jiemba sulked in the background, mumbling about humour and bad gigs. All of which only upped Ali’s panic level. A noise had her whirling as her office door opened and Sophie strolled out, the epitome of composure.
She looks more like a bloody manager than me, all cool and graceful. Ali did not qualify for cool or graceful just now.
‘Nothing there but shadows and an over-active imagination. Come on, come and see.’ Sophie beckoned her closer.
How can she be braver than me? I’ve got at least a quarter-century on her, and she’s just an addi.
I could’ve helped you with that. I have enough courage for both of us. And then some.
Sophie’s not hearing the voice.
Well, she wouldn’t, would she. I’m only in your head.
Ali gulped, swallowing the bile that fear had driven to her throat.
Ugh, that burns. I am so heading to that stress session tonight.
Sophie beckoned again, her lifted eyebrow questioning Ali’s hesitation.
Ali approached, limping in her single high heel, and peeked past Sophie’s smile. Nothing. No one. She stepped into the small room, getting a whiff of Sophie’s citrus perfume and nothing else. She edged past the upended chair, bent and looked under the desk and then over to the floor beside the window.
Nope, no ninja assassin. No silver thingies.
Her body sagged. She ran her fingers through her hair, gathering the soft escapees and tucking them behind her ears.
‘What about the conference room? Did you check in there?’ Ali asked.
Sophie nodded. ‘Nothing.’
‘Jeez, I must look like an idiot.’
Sophie patted her shoulder sympathetically.
Can’t disagree with you there, Jiemba chuckled.
‘Ali, you’ve been working like a fiend to get this report out. You’re exhausted. And you don’t eat well. Is it any wonder you’re jumping at shadows? Go and save your work and I’ll make you a cuppa for the trip home. Time we both left anyway. Federation won’t love us if we file for burn out.’
Sophie marched off and Ali listened to her confident clip, clip, clip across the tiles to the kitchen. The sound of the boiling kettle seemed so prosaic to her overwrought senses.
She realised she was standing forlornly in the middle of her office, adrenaline still churning her gut. She took a long, slow, deep breath, remembering her stress relief classes and glanced around.
‘Right, nothing to see. You’re ridiculously busy, so stressed that even in the daytime you’re imagining wandering wild women and nefarious ninja assassins.’
Seriously, why the hell would ninja assassins want to kill me? It’s not like I’m anyone important. I’m nothing. I know I’m good at my job, but jeez.
You forgot a dragon talking in your head. Jiemba sounded snarky. Ali ignored her.
Wow! All that and DRAGONS! Thank you so much Veronica, for being my guest tioday.
FAITH SAYS: Inspiration for a book is a funny thing. As a writer, it’s probably the question you’re asked the most – where do you get your ideas? The truth is, the ideas are everywhere, just waiting for you to grasp them.
Sometimes, an idea comes from little more than a few off-hand words, a comment in a voice that you know would work great in a character. It’s not necessarily, even a real voice, just one that seems to enter my head from nowhere.
At other times, inspiration can be as simple as the beauty of my surroundings. Quite a number of my books are based on a fictional village called Ballycove. It’s a place that doesn’t exist, and yet it very much does. It’s a mish-mash of all the best of the rugged coastline that runs from west County Sligo to the far reaches of County Mayo, here in the west of Ireland. Local readers will often tell me they recognise various landmarks. At the same time, many locals could pick up my books and not have the foggiest that they are actually living in some part of the story.
I think that’s the magic of inspiration – it’s very personal. Where you and I see beauty or the nugget of a story can be poles apart. It’s also why there are so many books and all so different.
They say that there are only ten different plots. Fewer depending on who you believe. But the same plot in different hands becomes a completely different book and none the less satisfying for that, if the writer is worth their salt.
It is set in Ballycove, a windswept corner of the west of Ireland.
The Wild Atlantic Way stretches along the west coast of Ireland, from Cork at its tip to Donegal at its head. It’s a symphony of small villages, unspoilt beaches, crashing waves and green fields. It’s truly breath taking, no less in winter when we’re blown away by gales than it is in summer when the sun shines and it feels as if the heavens have opened up before you.
And then there are the people. My books are all character driven. In The Ladies Midnight Swimming Club, it is Lucy, Jo and Elizabeth who are steering the story. We meet each of them in their own moment of need. Each of them faces their own personal crises, some of which can be resolved. Others are out of their hands. But in life, it’s not always about how you fix things – it’s about how you cope with them.
What we’ve all learned, if we’re lucky enough to have a solid network around us, is that there is no problem that can’t be made to feel smaller if you can laugh at it. And there is no-one better to help you put things in perspective than another woman.
The Ladies Midnight Swimming Club is a story about friendship. It’s about reaching out not because you have to, but because you can. It’s about the therapeutic benefits of laughter and kindness and the fact that every problem is halved once it’s shared.
After the year we’ve all put in, I think it’s exactly the sort of book I would like to pick up and read this weekend. It’s been described as ‘joyful, life-affirming and inspirational‘ and isn’t that exactly what we need right now?
The cold burns against my skin, numbing it instantly. I wade out, warily knowing that the icy water stabbing against my legs is an inevitable part of this. A bitter blanket weaving about my body welcoming me, a dear friend; I plunge violently in, gasping, salt water teasing my lips. I feel the small jagged stones beneath my feet. And then, I’m in. My arms and legs cut automatically through the water, until the cold has eaten from the outside in and there is nothing to do but surrender to the vastness and in it know that I am somehow suspended safe and all is well. I turn on my back for delicious blissful moments before I must go back to the shore and take up my life where I left off before … From Jo’s Journa
Mid May and to Elizabeth, the night felt almost balmy. The cove was just half a mile along the beach. Elizabeth knew she’d come here again, even if she wouldn’t have admitted it to herself. When she did, she stood for a few moments. This was where Jo came to swim every single night. Like her window washing every Thursday afternoon, Jo was a woman of routine, albeit to the beat of her own drum. Each evening when all the other women in Ballycove settled down to fall asleep before the television, Jo pulled out an old shopping bag with a threadbare towel and a comb that once belonged to her mother. She walked along this beach until she came to just this spot and then she stripped down to her faded swimsuit and swam energetically for at least ten minutes in the biting waves.
Elizabeth stood for a long while, a little transfixed with the recollections and ghosts that played along in her memory. She had come down here often when they were children, but she hadn’t swum for years.
‘I thought it was you,’ Jo’s familiar voice called out from behind her. ‘What brings you down here tonight?’ She dropped her bag on the ground.
‘Oh, just out for a bit of a ramble,’ Elizabeth said easily, regretting now that she’d come here to impose on what was Jo’s own form of meditation.
‘Maybe you’ll join me?’ Jo laughed.
‘Oh, I don’t think so. For one thing, I’m not sure I have your constitution for the cold.’ She laughed at this for a moment, and then she remembered as Jo shed layer after layer of clothes that she was nowhere near as strong and robust as Elizabeth had always assumed. Rather, beneath the layers, she had shrunk into a sparrow of a woman with stick-like arms and legs, and not very much more in between.
‘You’re missing out – that’s all I’ll say.’ And then she was picking her way down towards the waves and Elizabeth was left to think about the fact that she had spent her life sitting on the sidelines. It wasn’t where she wanted to finish out the rest of her days.
There was something about today. Something Elizabeth couldn’t quite put her finger on, as if it was the start of a new chapter. The water ahead seemed suddenly so inviting. She really wasn’t sure that she was in full command of her actions or her senses as she began to throw off her clothes, but soon, she was running with the energy of an excited child, shrieking with an abandon she’d never known before, naked as the day she was born, she ran into the water.
It was exhilarating, a baptism of biting cold that felt as if it might chew her up in no time. It rattled her nerve endings, sending an extravagant swell of emotion through her. It was initiation, as if she was being culled of her old staid life, and suddenly, this unbearable cold became part of her, a wholly new sensation, freeing her from the life she’d lived until now. This was liberating. It was overwhelming. A cascading of emotion welled within her, the salty cold now insulating her from any pain, rather, for the first time, it felt as if all of those fears and secrets could reside as one within her and the biting sea was powerful enough to hold her in equilibrium. Finally she was free.
This moment was her whole life, all rolled up – past, present, future – but mainly, she was here and now and she’d never felt so alive. She dived beneath the water feeling the freedom of it while shocked with the cold, but she filled with immeasurable warmth. It was madness, passionate, wonderful living perfection. She lay on her back, squinting off towards where she knew the horizon sat. She swam out further, far beyond her own depth to where Jo was lying on her back, gazing up at the fading light.
‘You did it,’ Jo murmured as they treaded the freezing water together.
‘It’s bloody cold here,’ Elizabeth said unnecessarily.
‘It is that, but don’t you feel alive? I feel the same thing every day I come here. It anchors me in a place that’s mine within the vastness.’
‘Okay.’ Elizabeth wasn’t sure what she meant. She just knew that here, in the sable saltiness of the ocean, she felt as if she could do anything – nothing could faze her at this moment.
‘I wonder what Eric would say now?’ Jo smiled and suddenly they were both laughing their heads off like lunatics. For once, he’d have been completely lost for words. The notion that his respectable wife would be out swimming in the altogether in the moonlight; it might very well have been enough to shock him into sobriety.
The beach was completely empty, apart from a few circling gulls who probably thought they were wholly mad. Elizabeth laughed again; perhaps they were right – maybe she had finally tipped over into a state of happy lunacy, but she didn’t care. For the first time in far too long, she felt what it was to be truly blissful.
Thank you so much for sharing with us today, Faith. More power to you!
A couple of posts ago, I wrote about reading happily, and how to choose a book that was most likely to please you. That was Part One of my meanderings about How to be Happy with Book (click the link if you’d like to refresh your memory about that).
First, a reminder about the things I consider when faced with that delicious choice – which book next:
Clare’s three questions for being happy with a book:
Is the book well written and appropriate to its genre? … writing quality, genre stylistics, expression, editing, production values
Was this book a success? … thoughts about plotline, characterisation, suspension of disbelief, resolution, afterglow
Today’s post looks at the second list of criteria. That is, does the chosen book deliver what you expected? Let’s look at the writing quality and think about whether the book matches its promise.
Writing Quality Matters
There is no escaping the readerly expectation that books should be well-written and well-edited. We expect nothing less.
We like the book to look and feel good in our hands or on our screens. I talked about covers last time, and I want to add that I often look again at the cover while I’m reading. Does the cover represent a specific scene? Perhaps it shows me what a character looks like. Maybe it simply sets the mood.
If you don’t refer often to the cover, or you’re not really into visual mood-setting, this may not bother you. But…
When a cover doesn’t match what’s inside in any of those ways, I feel let down.
What is it about good writing? To me, it’s a bit like listening to speech. When I was a speech pathologist, I used all sorts of cues and markers to diagnose speech problems. However, most listeners wouldn’t even hear what I was hearing. For example, it’s not until a speaker is less than 96% fluent that ordinary listeners might think they are stuttering.
The same with writing. I have studied the craft, and although there are much better editors than I am, I can spot writing problems – especially in other people’s writing! Not so much in my own… Many readers will be made uncomfortable by ungrammatical writing or too many swear words. They may not be able to pinpoint the problem, but they will say that the book is not well-written, and they will ditch it.
For us writers, getting it right means endless rounds of editing and polishing.
Poor layout and frequent typos present another barrier to the enjoyment of a story.
To some extent this is due to the disruption of the publishing industry and the rise of self-publishing. But that’s a long discussion for another day.
If typos and shoddy layout don’t bother you, you’ll be fine with anything. That’s not what I hear or see in the world of books, though.
Let’s just say that too many typos are a big turn off for dedicated readers. Look at the review websites to see the loathing. Hmm.
Sometimes it’s wonderful to be surprised, sometimes not. The example I often use is the Game of Thrones (GOT) fantasy series.
Millions of readers were enthralled about the reversal of the typical storyline of the genre, thrilled by the way the story played with fantasy conventions, and excited by loads of extraneous sex and violence that raised the stakes higher and higher. Other readers not so much, because they invested heavily in Ned Stark and felt short-changed.
I’m not going to decree whether meeting or flouting expectations is good or bad. However, if you particularly want a certain type of reading (such as a happily-ending Regency romance), you probably shouldn’t choose one with zombies included.
When to DNF
I try my very best not to choose books that I can’t finish. As I said previously, a DNF is a disappointment for both the reader and the author. I can generally judge whether I’m going to enjoy the book by using all the cues I mentioned in the first post about How to be Happy With a Book, and reading the first page/few pages/chapter.
I am so excited when I realise that YES, this book is going to be fabulous!
I hope you get that feeling often too.
Next time, let’s talk about how to reflect on the book … and a little bit about reviewing.
In these days of lockdowns and revisiting old pastimes such as board games, knitting and baking, many of us* have been doing more reading. But are we enjoying our books?
*Well, not me, because I am a lifetime book addict and I can’t see how I could possibly do more reading. At least as long as eating and personal hygiene remain important.
How to be Happy with a Book PART ONE
I write books, and I love the fact that complete strangers read and review them – reviews are a kind of currency among authors. Most authors also read a lot, and a second aspect of my writing practice is book reviewing. To me, ‘book review’ = ‘book critique’ where ‘critique’ = ‘analysis and assessment of a book, including virtues and shortcomings’. In this series of posts, I want to talk more how to choose books better so that you spend more time reading books that suit you, and waste less time on the DNF* stories. This is about finding a book that makes YOU, dear reader, happy.
*DNF = Did Not Finish. A disappointment to the reader, and a cruel blow to any author…
As a reviewer, I see my task as working out which readers would like this book, and then telling them why. I don’t see the need to find fault, because I know that different readers like different things (gore, violence, swearing, romance, magic, philosophy, spirituality – you name it!). It’s a rare book, in my experience, that has nothing for anyone. I concentrate on finding out what’s good about this book, for which readers – hence the title of this series: how to be happy with a book.
As well as book reviews in print, there are also many online platforms to share our thoughts about books. Some readers check Goodreads reviews before they buy; others look at the Amazon scores. Authors sift through their reviews for good quotes to use on their book descriptions and some book bloggers check what everyone else thought about a particular book before they weigh in on one side or the other.
Reviews are not always positive, and authors are advised not to read reviews.* While it’s a fact that not every reader will love our books, we still like to see what others think.
*We do (read reviews of our books)
I read and review about 80 books a year. You might think that’s a lot, but it’s perhaps a quarter of the books I’d like to read each year. How do I choose the ones that will please me best?
Clare’s three criteria for being happy with a book:
Do I want to read this book? … cover, genre, look & feel, reputation
Is the book well written and appropriate to its genre? … writing quality, genre stylistics, expression, editing, production values
Was this book a success? … thoughts about plotline, characterisation, suspension of disbelief, resolution, afterglow
This post is Part One: choosing a book*
*I’m imagining that you have strolled into a bookshop or library, or you are scrolling online, just browsing for something to read. If you are looking for a specific author or title, you are way ahead.
First, look at the cover: The old adage that you can’t judge a book by its cover has lost most of its power now that book production is streamlined with access to high resolution images, huge banks of attractive fonts, and the growing language of cover art. You will know what kind of book it is by the look of the cover. For example, a cover that features the back view of a young woman walking away from us into a dark street will be a crime thriller. The cover with the hovering dragon will be a fantasy. The cover with the pretty blue and pink border around a scenic view will be a romance, and the cover with the little white cottage surrounded by a flower garden is probably a cosy mystery.
Add to this the helpful work of bookshop staff and librarians who shelve novels under genre categories*, and you should recognise immediately what kind of book you are looking at, even before you pick it up.
*Genres are often imposed by libraries and bookshops. Many authors, myself included, just write the next story that comes along. Then we have to propose that story to a publisher, who wants to know ‘what genre’? Good question!
You, dear reader, now have a decision to make. Do you like reading this genre? Perhaps you have never read anything in this genre and you’d like to try it. Are you going to pick up this book, turn it over and read the blurb? If the book looks promising so far, then onwards!
Next, read the blurb: The blurb is part of the cover. Often written by a marketing staffer, sometimes by a bemused author, the blurb conveys the essence of the book in a way meant to entice the reader. The relationship of the blurb to the contents is not fixed. The blurb is as accurate as the ad for your local pizza chain. Do they serve the best pizzas in your town? The answer will be different for each reader, or pizza eater as the case my be. The blurb is to ‘sell’ the book to you, not to summarise the story.
Then check out the inside: The look and feel of a book is important too, especially in physical books. The artwork, the paper weight, the font, the ink quality, the layout – all of these can have an effect on your reading experience. I find that the font and layout of e-books is important too, and the quality of the illustrations is paramount for graphic novels in electronic form. I would usually read the first paragraph too, to see if the style of writing is one I can easily engage with.
Reputation: Have you heard of this title? Heard of the author? Heard of the publisher? What about any recommendations printed on the cover or on the inside? What do these things tell you about this book – do you think you’re likely to agree with the puff statements? Maybe you’re looking for an Australian book, or a quick read, or an elevating challenge. You can usually discover quite a lot about a book without even reading its first page.
PART ONE SUMMARY:
So, we’ve had a look at the book and we should now be able to decide whether or not to give it a go. Remember, our goal is to have a happy reading experience. I don’t mind passing on a book that others rave about, if my reconnaissance tells me it’s not going to make me happy. After all, I can only do justice to 80 books a year!
Next time, I’ll look at Part Two: Is the book well written?
Riana Everlyis a Canadian writer of romance and historical romance. Influenced by the beautiful writing of Jane Austen and the rich historical tapestry of the early nineteenth-century, Riana combines elements of stories old and new in her Regency novels. Each one takes a surprising twist on a well-loved tale, much to the delight of her many readers. Love and adventure feature highly, and among these variations you may find your own personal favourite Mr Darcy…
Welcome, Riana. Your books have such an interesting combination of inspirations and cross-genre views. Are there any secrets hidden in your writing?
Riana: I’ve been known to sneak in song lyrics or snatches of plot elements from my favourite operas. But nobody has ever found them, so I don’t think I do it very well.
Well-hidden, then! How much research is involved in your writing?
Oh, so much research! I spend more time researching than writing. I know I can never get everything correct, but I can try, and I do try.
Because I mainly write about the Regency period, I have a fairly broad general knowledge about the basics. I know the general history, the politics, the fashions, etc, but that is just the beginning. For example, in my first published novel, Teaching Eliza (a novel in which Pride & Prejudice meets My Fair Lady), I needed to know about class-based accents in nineteenth-century England. So down the rabbit hole of research I went. For a throwaway sentence in one of my works-in-progress, my main character buys a cribbage board for a gift. And down the rabbit hole went I, searching up the history of cribbage and the sorts of cribbage boards found in England in 1810. And I have to admit, I love that part! It’s what makes the history part of historical research come to life for me.
Sounds wonderful to mix history, created characters, and devious plots. How do you deal with plot holes – if you ever have any!
Me? Plot holes? Never!
(Okay… all the time. But shhhhh. It’s a secret.)
I tend to let my stories sit for a long time between first draft and editing. This way, when I go back to them, it’s with a bit of a clear mind because I have some distance between what I wrote and what I’m reading. But I would never trust myself to find plot holes. Instead, I have a few trusted beta readers who I beg to read with a critical eye and let me know what doesn’t work. And then I go back and rewrite and tinker and fix things and hope I don’t introduce more mistakes as I edit.
What an excellent practice – hope you don’t mind if I ‘borrow’ it! Do you write for yourself or for a particular audience?
I really write for myself. I know the advice out there is to write to market, but that is not me. I have my stories that want to come out, and if they are not exactly what “the market” wants, then so be it. I would rather sacrifice some readers than write something I don’t really want to write.
I completely agree. It’s the story bursting out of me that I want to write, not what’s hot at the moment (which can be sad for the income stream!). What’s the scariest thing you’ve ever done?
I just dyed my hair purple. Does that count?
Absolutely! Not sure its it’s scarier than sending your writing out into the world, but it’s your hair after all. What’s your writing goal for the next twelve months?
I have been writing some historical mysteries. I have three completed – one almost fully edited and two in various stages of editing. My plans for the next twelve months are to start publishing these and to write the other three I envisage for the series. There is a large story arc for the main characters over the six planned books, which is why that will be the limit to this particular series. But if I still like my characters, there might be more in store for them.
That’s a massive project. It’s exhausting just to hear about it! Go you. What do you think about covers, and do you have any say in yours?
I think a cover is so very important! I know we are always told never to judge a book by its cover, but how can we avoid doing that? Some of my favourite authors have very amateurish-looking covers, and I’ve learned to focus on the text and not the outside, but were I just to see that cover, my instinct would be to assume the inside is as amateurish as the outside. Perhaps that is not a good trait of mine, but it’s there and it’s not going away.
So my advice is always to get a professional cover. If you happen to have those amazing skills, that’s fabulous. But if not, spend the few dollars and get something that looks professional.
I’ve been extremely fortunate to find a terrific cover artist. She listens to me and accepts my constant suggestions and requests with a cheerful smile. One of the perks of being indie!
Yes, it helps to be able to have that closeness, I’m sure, to others involved in getting your story out there. Do you write in more than one genre?
Sort of. Isn’t that a great answer? I started my writing career writing Jane Austen-inspired romance, which I still do and which I love. But I’ve also always loved classic mysteries, and somewhere along the line I had the idea to write some Austenesque murder mysteries. They straddle the line between historical mysteries and cozy mysteries, and I’ve really enjoyed getting to know my sleuths as they solve their way through Regency England.
Do you plan your books, or do you listen to your muse?
I used to approach my books with a vague story in mind and let my characters tell me what they were up to. But since I’ve started writing historical mysteries, I find I have to be much more of a planner. Clues, red herrings, more clues… They all have to be there and fit together and make some sort of sense at the end.
That makes perfect sense, indeed. One has to shepherd those lovely characters to a degree, or they’ll toddle off into some other plot of interest only to themselves.
Thank you so much Riana for sharing with me today. I’m so intrigued by your mash-ups of genre and manners into stories that meet us in the now. Long live the Regency in fiction!
Veronica Strahan is magnificent at sharing words that mean a great deal to others. Whether writing non-fiction, children’s picture books or the fabulous high-fantasy-dystopian-hopepunk Opal Chronicles, Veronica ‘s books will affect how you see the world and yourself. Her memoir Breathing While Drowningis a message of courage and hope that speaks to grief and recovery.
Welcome, Veronica. You have quite a catalogue of amazing works. Why is writing important to you?
VERONICA: Though my creative writing was delayed by a few decades (okay four or so), due to the frustrating and often challenging interruptions of life, I’ve always felt compelled to write and share my stories—even if it was only with myself. When I spent years mired in producing formal clinical and business writing, my creative outflow was journalling. I love the power words have to change your life, to draw you into other worlds, to make you think, feel, and believe differently. Journal writing kept me sane and functioning until I found my story writing voice again. Once I’d turned on the tap, it was impossible to turn off.
Those words just keep coming, I know. What advice would you give an aspiring author?
VERONICA: Write what you’d love to read, the book that contains everything you ever wanted in a story. This is the story that will speak to other people. Let the creative juices pour out first, and then spend time on your crafting, and finding your audience. Take some creative writing courses and follow people who are writing things that you enjoy, or who are successful in their writing business.
Give yourself time. It’s a bumpy ride, but so worth your effort. You will change someone’s life with your story.
Oooh, that’s quite a concept! What’s the best response you’ve ever had to your writing?
VERONICA: I’d given my daughter a draft of my first fantasy to read. She was reading it as a favour to her mum, but this was the text I received…
‘Noooooo!!!! That can’t be the end! I need more! What happens next?!?! Right are you finished writing book two yet? It is so freaking good!!! I literally got only a few hours sleep because I couldn’t stop reading and couldn’t wait to wake up and keep reading. Holy shit – you have written something truly fantastic! (In both senses of the word!)’
That made me very happy.
And since I’ve been writing children’s picture books… the videos and photos of kids tucked up with a copy of Chickabella are wonderful. They’re often accompanied by anecdotes from parents about how Chickabella is now a part of their family! One little boy wants his mum and dad to buy a rainbow house.
How fabulous! Great responses. How do you feel about reviews?
VERONICA: I find most reviews incredibly helpful. They tell you how readers are connecting with your stories and where improvements may be needed. A complimentary review can give you an incredible boost, especially when someone is moved by your words.
And reviews are vital to self-published authors like me. Without the machinery of a publishing company to assist and connect you to readers, it’s all up to you. Reviews from readers help put your story in front of more readers, spreading the word about your work. I like to tell readers that someone else who needs to read the book may find it by reading their review.
What do you think about covers, and what say do you have in yours?
VERONICA: Books are absolutely judged by their covers, particularly these days when so many people are scrolling rapidly on mobile devices. Covers needs to entice the reader into your world. I’m incredibly lucky that my daughter Cassi Strachan is a creative soul who creates beautiful covers to my very sketchy requests. She always exceeds my expectations. Cassi and I teamed up for The Adventures of Chickabella series (words by me and pictures by her) and that has been a lot of fun too. We get so excited when we hear that kids love the books and recognise Chickabella on the cover.
Do you have launch parties for your books?
VERONICA: I had a launch party for my memoir Breathing While Drowning, a few years back which reunited me with a bunch of wonderful people who had helped us over the years – and gave me excuse to have a book cake. But it was at a fabulous launch party in 2019 for my first fantasy novel, Ochre Dragon, Book 1 in The Opal Dreaming Chronicles (read Clare’s review here), that I felt I had really arrived as a writer – I had made the whole thing up after all. We had a delicious dragon cake (there must be cake), champagne and nibbles, book signing, and some reading from the story. Lots of friends, family, and other writers came to celebrate the book’s long-awaited birth. It was brilliant!
Yes, I sigh for the good old days of book launches! One day we’ll have them again. Do you write in more than one genre?
VERONICA: One genre – never! I’m definitely a multi-genre writer, sometimes with a genre mashup in the same book! I like messing with the usual suspects and deepening the characters and worlds. My favourite reads are fantasy and scifi, so that’s my main focus in creative fiction under my pen name V. E. Patton. I’m also completing the final edits of a co-authored, contemporary, action adventure with a supernatural twist.
As Veronica Strachan, publishing my memoir was the door opener into writing. I just had to write the story of my long healing from grief following the death of my second daughter Jacqueline Bree. It was incredibly cathartic. And as well as being a writer, I’m a leadership coach, health management consultant, and facilitator. So, as requested by some of my readers and clients, I wrote and published a self-discovery workbook and journal as a companion to the memoir. It felt very much aligned to my work with women who want to find ways to live a more remarkable life.
The first of my children’s picture books was originally written as a legacy for my sister Mary, who was a kindergarten teacher and told the best stories. I always nagged her to write a book, but she was our family’s oral storyteller. When she died in early 2019, I wanted to honour her love of children. My own children still remember their favourite read aloud stories, and I wanted to help make good memories for other children.
That’s wonderful. I’m sure Mary is glad that you are now putting stories onto the page. Thank you so much for talking with me today, and I look forward to the next book launch Opal Dreaming #2 is coming soon, I hope.