Dark and edgy inspirations: Caroline England

Truth Games

Author of Beneath the SkinMy Husband’s LiesBetray Her and Truth Games as Caroline England, and The House of Hidden Secrets as CE Rose, today’s guest Caroline England likes to write multi-layered, dark and edgy ‘domestic suspense’ stories that delve into complicated relationships, secrets, lies, loves and the moral grey area. 

Author Caroline England
Author Caroline England

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.

The House of Hidden Secrets by C E Rose
The House of Hidden Secrets by C E Rose

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.

Truth Games
Truth Games by Caroline England

An extract from Truth Games 

Prologue

‘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.’ 

‘Nice.’

‘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!

Caroline’s Links

Truth Games: https://amzn.to/2TidJro

Website: www.carolineenglandauthor.co.uk

Twitter: https://twitter.com/CazEngland

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/CazEngland1/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/cazengland1/

The multi-dimensional Alice McVeigh is inspiring

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!

Welcome, Alice.

Author Alice McVeigh who also writes as Spaulding Taylor

What Inspires Alice

ALICE: I’ve been very open about my triumphs and disasters, perhaps particularly here:

https://selfpublishingadvice.org/author-interview-alice-mcveigh/

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.

Now Alice is going to share an extract from Last Star Standing

***

 Background to the scene:

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.

Last Star Standing by Spaulding Taylor
Last Star Standing by Spaulding Taylor

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?’

Search me.

 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.

Alice’s Links:

Alice on Facebook

Alice’s Website

Alice on Instagram: @mcveigh.alice

Alice on Twitter: @astmcveigh1

Midnight swims and the omnipresence of story ideas

jumping into water!

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

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

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

Author Faith Hogan
Author Faith Hogan

Inspiration – The Ladies Midnight Swimming Club

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Excerpt from The Ladies’ Midnight Swimming Club

Diary of a Sea Swimmer

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

Prologue

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

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

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

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

‘Maybe you’ll join me?’ Jo laughed.

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

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

The Ladies Midnight Swimming Club
The Ladies Midnight Swimming Club by Faith Hogan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

 

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

 

IMPORTANT LINKS

Faith’s website

Other Titles by Faith Hogan

My Husband’s Wives

Secrets We Keep

The Girl I Used to Know

What Happened to Us?

The Place We Call Home

 

 

Safe and Sound: Philippa East and the psychology of suspense

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

Author Philippa East
Author Philippa East

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

Little White Lies by Philippa East
Little White Lies by Philippa East

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

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

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

 

Inspirations

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

***

Extract from SAFE AND SOUND

Chapter One

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

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

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

Safe and Sound by Philippa East
Safe and Sound by Philippa East

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

The bailiff knocks again, thump thump.

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

‘Ms Jones?’ the bailiff calls again.

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

The woman comes down the last few stairs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

Philippa’s Links

Safe and Sound book link (via Bookshop.org who support independent bookshops): https://uk.bookshop.org/books/safe-and-sound-9780008344047/9780008344047

The Alps are alive and inspiring strangers: Louise Mangos

Strangers on a Bridge by Louise Mangos

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

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

Author Louise Mangos
Author Louise Mangos

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

Inspiration for Writing

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

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

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

Snowy inspiration
Snowy inspiration

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

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

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

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

Louise kayaks on the Swiss lake near her home
Louise kayaks on the Swiss lake near her home

Thanks Louise.

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

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

 

CHAPTER ONE

APRIL

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

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

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

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

A figure stood on the edge of the upper bridge.

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

Oh, no. Please, don’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grüezi, hallo,’ I said again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I am,’ he said.

***

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

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

 

Louise’s Links:

 

Author website: https://louisemangos.com/

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

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

 

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

Castle of Kindness Refugee Sponsorship Logo

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

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

Felicity Banks speaks about the Castle of Kindness

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

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

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

Heart of Brass books by Felicity Banks
The Heart of Brass books by Felicity Banks

Then

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

You can call it white guilt, if you like.

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

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

How do I live with that?

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

What more can I do?

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

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

Ouch.

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

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

Author Felicity Banks
Author Felicity Banks

 

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

This epiphany happened in 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Castle of Kindness Refugee Sponsorship Logo
Castle of Kindness Refugee Sponsorship Logo

 

We meet our first refugee family today.

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

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

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

A civil war with Mark Turnbull

Mark Turnbull author

Mark Turnbull is a young English author who lives in the seventeenth century.

Well, he would if he could. He’s a passionate enthusiast of seventeenth century history. When he’s not writing or researching, Mark enjoys battle re-enactments and visits historic sites.

Mark’s here today to tell me about his fixation on all things English Civil War, a period of great interest to me. Many decades ago I read Margaret Irwin’s novel The Stranger Prince.  It’s the story of the romantic Prince Rupert of the Rhine, and that led me down all sorts of paths back to the 1600s.

I even once visited Linz on the strength of it. The Linzer Torte made it well worth our while!

Great to speak with you, Mark. I owe my interest to Margaret Irwin. How did you become interested in the War of the English Civil War?

When I was ten years old, my parents took me to Helmsley Castle, in North Yorkshire. I’d had a love of history from an early age. Like any child, I was eager to see what the gift shop had in store, eventually landing upon a pack of cards. But this was no ordinary pack. Each card featured an image of a monarch of England, along a short biography of their reign.

After flicking through many tombstone effigies, my eye was caught by Van Dyck’s portrait of King Charles I at the hunt. The colours, clothes, the beautiful artistry, as well as the King’s pose – imperiously looking at me as if I’d interrupted him – all drew my interest.

I was shocked to find out that he was publicly executed in the name of his people. Like a murder mystery, I now wanted to know who did it, when and why. Back then, of course, there was no internet to help with such questions.

How much research is involved in your writing?

My research is almost daily. Noting down observations, descriptions, or facts that I can use. I list historical characters’ movements as I come across them, jot down plot lines, or simply read about the period. It is constant research, although it’s all a pleasure. I feed my interest in the period, and that, in turn, feeds my writing.

Why are you the perfect person to write your books?

My friends tell me that I was born in the wrong century!

I really love the period I write about, and find the historical characters and events fascinating. They inspire my imagination.

For me, it’s the small details or snippets of personal facts that bring a person, event or an era to life. After reading and writing about the civil war and re-enacting it in The Sealed Knot as a pikeman, I feel as if I live and breathe the era when I write. Thirty years of passionate interest has helped me get to grips with the 17th century world and I stay true to the history.

What was the first book you bought for yourself?

Not long after my interest was sparked, I watched the film Cromwell, starring Richard Harris and Alec Guinness (not historically accurate, but is wonderfully visual!). This led me to purchase Cavaliers and Roundheads by Christopher Hibbert to expand my knowledge of the period. It’s timeless, and I have re-read it numerous times. It takes you through the war and skilfully brings it to life. I was hooked by every detail.

The book survives to this day, sitting on my bookshelf like a proud grandfather amongst the array of civil war books that followed it!

Allegiance of Blood by Mark Turnbull
Allegiance of Blood by Mark Turnbull

Do you plan your books, or do you listen to your muse?

A bit of both. I map out a chronology of factual events and then weave my story around that. I find that this brings my characters to life and grounds them in the history, motives and risks of the day. Consequently, the national events direct the life of my fictional characters – as they would have directed those who lived through this pivotal part of our history.

I also find that the storyline takes on a direction of its own as my writing progresses, and I really enjoy that; it’s great to see the plot come alive and to feel transported back in time to become part of it as I write. When writing Allegiance of Blood, one fictional character ended up meeting their maker, even though I had not planned for this to occur at the outset.

What would be a dream come true for you?

Ultimately, to be able to become a full-time writer, fully indulge my passion for the civil war period and entertain readers with books that transport them back to an overshadowed 17th century world.

Perhaps even to have a book adapted into a drama series, like the ones we see that are set in the Tudor age!

Now that would indeed be the pinnacle! Why is writing important to you?

Writing started as a hobby but is now part of my life. I believe we all have our own passions that can help us focus, get through tough times, give us both pleasure and challenge us, but also help us learn. This is mine.

I enjoy creating and crafting; whether it is a novel, non-fiction, short story, or a post for my blog and hope that my writing, along with that of other authors, helps play a small part in keeping the era and the people who lived through it alive.

What words of advice would you give an aspiring author?

Keep writing. In my own experience, writing – whether it is a novel, short story, or an article – has not only helped me find the style I enjoy, but it helps me improve and develop.

I recently read Andrea Zuvich’s inspirational story. In 2010, she bought a novel set in the 17th century on her way home from work, and at the time she, too, dreamed of writing one set in the period.  Ten years on, she is an established author of fiction and non-fiction and has just published her sixth book, which has been reviewed by none other than the well-known author of the book she bought all that time ago.

She is truly amazing, and now advises on television and film set in the period! What is your writing goal for the next twelve months, Mark?

I am currently finishing off a non-fiction which looks at the early stages of the English Civil War and am working on a sequel to Allegiance of Blood.

I’d also like to start compiling a book of short stories about minor events that occurred during the civil war, which would entertain in the way of fiction but put meat on the bones of these small, often overlooked occurrences.

A sequel, that would be wonderful. Thank you for speaking with me today, Mark. All the best with your work. Keep writing!

Mark’s LINKS

Mark’s website: http://www.allegianceofblood.com

Mark tweets at @1642author

Mark’s blog is at https://www.allegianceofblood.com/#Blog

Allegiance of Blood is available from all online sellers or you can purchase a signed copy from Mark at this link: https://www.allegianceofblood.com/#Purchase

Guns Under the Bed: Jody Forrester’s revolutionary memoir

Author Jody Forrester

Jody A. Forrester, a writer and former chiropractor, received a MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars (2010), and BA from Antioch LA (2008), in literature and creative writing. Her stories received an honorable mention in the 2009 Anderbo/Open City Competition, and featured in the 6th Annual Emerging Voices Group Show (2010) at the New Short Fiction series in Los Angeles. Jody’s work has also been published in Prime Number, Claudius Speaks, the Furious Gazelle, the Citron Review, Straylight, Two Hawks Quarterly, the WriteRoom, and the Missouri Review blog. Jody has just completed a memoir, Guns Under the Bed: Memories of a Young Revolutionary, published by Odyssey Books (yes, my favourite publisher!) this year.

Guns Under the Bed by Jody Forrester
Guns Under the Bed by Jody Forrester

Jody is that rare thing, a native Angeleno – for the benefit of non-US readers, that means a born and bred resident of Los Angeles. Jody was raised mostly in Hollywood during the fifties and sixties. She lives with her husband, musician John Schneider, in Venice just six blocks from the Pacific Ocean. They have two adult daughters, a son-in-law, and a mini-Australian shepherd dog named Charley.

Welcome, Jody, thank you for chatting with me today. You’ve had quite a writing career on top of your day job. Do you have a go-to routine for writing? Where do you write?

These two questions are intertwine so I’m answering both. I have a desk where I write in my older daughter’s childhood bedroom. Typically I wake and have a light breakfast, and go upstairs to my office with a strong cup of black tea. Before I sign off for the day, I try to leave my pages in such a way that I know where I’m going to begin the next time I sit down. Otherwise, I start typing randomly, hoping there will be threads to pull out to begin something anew.

That sounds like you go with the flow, but in a structured kind of way. Can you tell me about the time you decided you are a writer?

After twenty-five years in practice as a chiropractor, a wrist injury forced me into early retirement. Terrified of the days and years ahead without something to occupy me, I recalled that I’d always wanted to write. Three days after I sold my practice, I enrolled in the Baccalaureate program in writing and literature at Antioch College (LA), but the realization that I was a writer came several years later when my short stories began to be published.

Publication definitely helps with self-identification as a writer, I agree. How much research is involved in your writing?

My intent is verisimilitude, even for my fiction. As such, I research a lot, visiting websites of locations that may figure in the work, checking historical events that could be relevant, even looking up recipes and clothing in the era I’m writing in.

For my nonfiction essays and memoir, my research goes even deeper to assure myself that the facts are as I remember.

Yes, because memory is a fickle informant. Research is essential, and even then, I find that sometimes something slips through. How do you get feedback about your story, before it’s published?

I have a small network of writers, close friends, as well as my family, who give me feedback along the line. I depend on their responses to be sure I’m on the right track.

A reliable – and truthful – circle is so important. Can we get your book as an audio book?

My forthcoming memoir, Guns Under the Bed: Memories of a Young Revolutionary, will be released simultaneously as a paperback, e-book, and audiobook.

That’s excellent news. Your book is a memoir – what kind of reader would like your book?

People interested in the sixties and early seventies who either participated in or are curious about the anti-Vietnam War protest movement and the process of political radicalization.

Do you write in more than one genre?

I write creative nonfiction and short fiction.

And very successfully, too. Who helped you most when you were starting out?

I was fortunate to have several excellent teachers who served as mentors, both at Antioch and the Bennington Writing Seminars. They helped me identify the stories that needed to be written, and nurtured the earliest seeds.

I’m quite a fan of writing courses. Good to hear that yours was so great! Thanks for speaking with me today, Jody, and all the best for the success of Guns Under the Bed.

 

Jody’s Links:

jodyaforrester.com

https://twitter.com/jaforrester2

https://www.facebook.com/profile

https://www.facebook.com/Guns-Under-the-Bed-Memories-of-a-Young-Revolutionary-257105318424130/

https://www.instagram.com/jodyaforrester/

 

How to be Happy with a Book Part 2: Does the book deliver?

Does that book make you happy?

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:

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

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.

Two books
Choose your next book to make you happy

Writing Quality Matters

There is no escaping the readerly expectation that books should be well-written and well-edited. We expect nothing less.

Production values

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.

Writing values

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.

open book
Reading is one of life’s joys

Editing values

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.

Genre matching

Sometimes it’s wonderful to be surprised, sometimes not. The example I often use is the Game of Thrones (GOT) fantasy series.

On first reading, you might expect that the story will follow the traditional hero journey of mainstream fantasy. There, good triumphs over evil, after a series of horrendous trials, strange meetings and sad events. Well, the death of Ned Stark at the end of the first GOT book put paid to that expectation. Not to mention the random slaying of baby dire wolves early on. Eek!

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.

Levitation in historical fiction?

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.

 

 

Clare Urbanski loves villains … just a bit too much…

Sixth in Line by Clare Urbanski, cover detail

Clare Urbanski is a fantasy author and Twitter-certified villain fangirl. She’s managed to confuse and alienate many a friend who can’t understand why she always falls for the brooding villains instead of the courageous heroes, or why she always wants to play villains even though no director ever casts her as one. On top of that, she can’t find any fictional villains who will date her. As such, she’s had to settle for creating fictional villains of her own, ignoring the temptation to give them all happy endings.

Author Clare Urbanski
Author Clare Urbanski

Hello, it’s so nice to meet another Clare! We should form a club…No, onto more important things. What was your favourite book as a child?

Clare: The Truth Cookie by Fiona Dunbar. I still love that book. A little bit of magic and a whole lot of emotional family struggles—which the main character does use magic to solve, but very much through her own initiative.

It’s really well-written, I agree, and a great premise. What about creative writing courses – do you think they are valuable?

Totally depends on the instructor and what you need. If it’s all about craft and doesn’t involve practical feedback at all, that can be helpful to extreme beginners. Instructors who impose their own preferences on you and give you bad grades for not being Ernest Hemingway shouldn’t be allowed to teach creative writing, but they can help you develop a thick skin if nothing else. The kind of course I recommend is the kind that’s basically a workshop guided by the instructor’s expertise. I’d argue those are useful for everyone.

Workshopping is a wonderful resource for any writer, I think. What’s the best response you’ve ever had to your writing?

Someone once told me Sixth in Line was like “Crime and Punishment times seven.” (Dostoyevski’s) Crime and Punishment happens to be one of my favourite books, and I definitely wasn’t purposely trying to imitate it, but I was absolutely delighted by both the compliment and the realisation that Sixth in Line actually does take a bit of a jab at the übermensch philosophy. I guess Dostoyevsky and I both hate it. No one is special enough to be above consequences!

I’m all in favour of undermining the übermensch! What’s your favourite writing food and drink?

I actually have this nasty habit of not eating or drinking at all when I get on a good writing streak. I remember texting my writer friend once saying “HELP I’VE BEEN WRITING FOR THREE HOURS STRAIGHT AND I JUST WROTE A REALLY DISTURBING SCENE AND IT’S ALMOST 9 PM AND I HAVEN’T EATEN SINCE NOON PLEASE TELL ME I’M NOT INSANE.” Not sure how she puts up with me.

Sixth in Line by Clare Urbanski
Sixth in Line by Clare Urbanski

Ah, you do like olive dangerously! Can you tell me about the time you decided you are a writer?

I was in fifth grade. I used to be super into those Bailey School Kids books, and I remember being very disappointed to discover that not every type of fantastical creature I liked was featured in the series. Then, suddenly, one day I thought, “What if I wrote a book about the ones they missed?” And as soon as I realized nothing was stopping me, that’s exactly what I did. (I still have that one. My mom printed out all 150 pages for me and everything. Not a bad achievement for an eleven-year-old… which is the only thing that’s kept me from burning it. It is exceptionally, prodigiously terrible.)

Ha! Lucky for me, my early efforts are long-lost. Is there anyone in your past who’d be surprised at your writing?

Anyone who knew me as a child: Oh, are you still writing?

Me: Yeah!

Anyone: [Remembering cute story about plucky middle school detective girls and the evil fairies’ labyrinth of doom] So what have you been working on?

Me: Well, I just finished a novel narrated by a serial killer…

Anyone: Uh.

Me: And I’m editing one about a teenage prince having a mental breakdown over all the deaths in his family…

Anyone: [Runs away]

That’s hilarious! Where do you write?

Actually, for me it helps to move around. For some reason I focus better if I don’t write in the same place twice. I’ve gotten a surprising amount of writing done in very non-romantic places, like while riding the city bus or trapped in the lobby of a Russian hotel (long story).

Ooh, perhaps another book about the Russian hotel…Where do you get inspiration or ideas from?

The most random places you could imagine. I did some excellent character development once by walking into a Walgreen’s to get out of the cold while I was waiting for the bus. The only money I had on me was a dollar in quarters, and since I was bored waiting I decided to search the store for anything I could buy with that. Unfortunately I was extremely hungry, and it was torture looking at all the candy when I could only afford an eraser. My mind immediately jumped to one of my main characters from a work in progress, an ex-criminal. I pictured him walking through his local market as a twelve-year-old, doing the same thing I was, but knowing full well he and his mom would go hungry that night if he couldn’t find anything cheap enough. Suddenly I understood exactly how his thieving habit started.

That’s very clever, and a kind of method-acting way of getting inside your character. I like it. If I wanted to interview one of your characters, who would you suggest?

It might be funnier to tell you who I wouldn’t suggest. I think the absolute worst candidates would probably be 1. the Jack of Spades, the villain’s sidekick from Queen of Spades, and 2. Crystal, the main character’s twin sister from Hero of the Hinterland. They’re both an incredibly dangerous combination of powerful (in combat and magic, respectively) and spectacularly socially inept. You don’t want to be the one to accidentally make them feel threatened.

The Witch's Apprentice by Clare Urbanski
The Witch’s Apprentice by Clare Urbanski

I will keep that in mind! Eek. *looks over shoulder in case a magic villain has materialised* Who helped you most when you were starting out?

My parents had this one friend who used to read my works in progress when I was in high school. Every time he came over I would print out a chapter or two for him, and he read every single one of them. Considering how terrible I think those high school projects are now, I actually get a little teary thinking about how kindly and generously he encouraged and supported me by being my first “fan.”

That’s a lovely memory. Early constructive support is very important, I think, more so than early criticism or corrections. Thanks for speaking with me Clare – and adding yet more to my long ‘want to read’ list.

Clare’s LINKS:

Twitter: @ClareUrbanski, @VillainFangirl

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/clareurbanski.author