A Holiday and Research

I love autumn, and am always happy when I spend it in Scotland. And, if I can combine a trip to my favourite part of the country with a little research for my next book, I’m even happier. The air seems crisper, the vistas clearer, the sunrises, and sunsets more stunning. I don’t mind the darker mornings and evenings, which give me the impetus to sit down and write, or finish the knitting projects that were abandoned in spring when longer days meant time spent in the garden.

I’ve just returned from two weeks staying on the Mull of Galloway, that ‘hammer head’ part of southwest Scotland that juts out into the Irish Sea. Part holiday, part research for my next book, it turned out to be two weeks full of beach walks, ancient stone circles, and stunning gardens hewn from hillsides.

Glenwhan Garden, Dunragit
Glenwhan Garden, Dunragit

The fictional village in my current manuscript is based on the town Portpatrick, a former port for transportation to and from Northern Ireland. The ferries have long gone, and Portpatrick is now a holiday resort and the starting point for the Southern Upland Way, a long distance path that stretches to the east coast some 212 miles away.

Portpatrick
Portpatrick

A little further south, lies the village of Port Logan, created by Colonel Andrew McDowall, the Laird of Logan in 1818. The Bell Tower at the end of the harbour was designed by Thomas Telford, better known for designing bridges and the Caledonian Canal.

The Bell Rower, Port Logan Harbour
The Bell Rower, Port Logan Harbour

I’m fascinated ancient carved stones, and was surprised to find a fine example of bothat Kirkmadrine Church. It is home to a collection of the oldest Christian monuments in Scotland.

 

Early Christian Stone Carving, Kirkmadrine Church
Early Christian Stone Carving, Kirkmadrine Church

While driving back from Wigtown, I also came across the Standing Stones of Torhouse, a Bronze Age stone circle consisting of 19 granite boulders. The three central stones are known as King Gladus’s Tomb, a legendary and probably mythical early Scottish King. While the dumpy granite boulders are not as impressive as the stone pillars of Callanish on the Isle of Lewis, it was nonetheless interesting to read that the circle was probably erected between 2000-1500 BC as a religious centre.

Torhouse Stone Circle, Nr Wigtown
Torhouse Stone Circle, Nr Wigtown

And no post would be complete without a photo of the weather forecasting stone from the Mull of Galloway Lighthouse.

Weather forecasting stone, Mull of Galloway Lighthouse
Weather forecasting stone, Mull of Galloway Lighthouse

I am now home, armed with a camera full of images to inspire and a notebook full of ideas, it’s time to knuckle down to finishing the next book.

Until next time.

Ring of Lies

Need something to help while away the dark winter nights. Here’s a short excerpt from my latest novel, Ring of Lies.

It was dark when Grace left the solicitor’s office. Numbness had finally set in. She moved without thinking, without emotion as if she were one of the stick figures at a theme park—flagging down a taxi and giving the driver her address.
Flicking on the hall light in her home, the home she and Daniel had shared and loved, the pain returned in a torrent. She dropped her purse on the table, and went straight to the study. Daniel’s study, the one room in the house she never entered, not even to dust.
Grace rested her hand on the door knob, and half expected to hear his deep-timbered voice reminding her not to enter. She’d ignored his warning only once, the ensuing argument had left her reeling. Ever since then she’d respected his wishes. All of them.
But Daniel was no longer here to wish for anything.
She pushed open the door and stepped inside. The air smelt stale. She told herself that the lingering aroma of pipe tobacco was permanently embedded in the furniture, but her feelings told her otherwise—that he was here, alive somehow, yet invisible to her. She fumbled with the catch on the window and threw it open, impervious to the frigid air that flooded the room. An old leather chair, which had once belonged to Daniel’s father, stood next to the soot-stained limestone fireplace where ashes of a half-burned log lay in the grate. A large oak desk, its surface covered with a faint film of dust, filled the bay window. The date on the desk calendar showed the seventeenth of November, the day Daniel had left for the conference. She tore off the pages without bothering to read the proverb printed underneath, and threw them into the wastepaper basket.
Daniel’s face, and that of her own, smiled back at her from a small silver framed photograph on the corner of the desk. She picked it up and wiped the dust from the surface with her fingertips.
“What other secrets have you kept from me?”
Daniel’s brown, unfathomable eyes seemed to stare everywhere but at her. With a heavy heart she replaced the photograph on the desk. She collapsed into the chair and rested her aching head in her hands. Their marriage hadn’t been perfect; they’d had their fair share of ups and downs like every other couple, but she’d never thought of Daniel as being secretive. Yet the last few hours had proved that he was just that.
She leaned back and rubbed her temples. Nothing the solicitor had told her made any sense. They weren’t rich. Their joint checking account, which last time she’d looked, held less than two thousand pounds. When they’d purchased Applegate Cottage four years ago, they’d put down the minimum ten percent deposit and borrowed the rest from the bank. So where had the money come from to purchase a house in America? And more importantly, why hadn’t Daniel told her about it?
The desk held seven drawers; three in each pedestal and one in the centre. Her fingers hovered over the small brass handle of the centre drawer. Feeling like an intruder, she pulled it open. It was empty. One by one she opened the remaining drawers. Apart from an assortment of envelopes, a few credit card receipts, a letter opener shaped like a dagger, and some spare batteries for the hand-held dictating machine Daniel occasionally used, she found nothing connected to the beach house.
Daniel’s briefcase, which the police had found in his car, and the personal items from his office, sat in a box next to the door. She slipped out of the chair, picked it up, and placed it on the desk. Item by item she removed the contents: a desk diary, a box of post-it-notes, a calculator, and a framed photograph of her and Catherine. The desk diary she put to one side, replaced everything else, and then put the box on the floor.
She’d given Daniel the Raffaello briefcase for his thirtieth birthday. It had cost two weeks housekeeping money, but it had been worth it to see the smile on his face when he opened the box. She ran her fingers over the now scuffed and torn calfskin.
Grace pressed the locks to open the case, but nothing happened. She dug the fingertips of her right hand into the frame and tugged at the handle. The catch on one side gave, and she realized that the force of the impact had warped the frame. With great care she eased the blade of the letter opener into the lock on the opposite side and twisted sharply. There was a loud click and the case popped open. Inside lay Daniel’s MacBook and a number of manila folders. One by one, she went through the internal compartments, but found nothing else of interest.
Part of the silk lining had come away from the frame. When Grace ran her fingers along the edge she felt something underneath. She pulled back the fabric and found an envelope taped to the bottom of the case. She tore it free and turned it over in her hand.
Why go to so much trouble to hide something as innocuous as an envelope? She slipped her fingernail under the flap and opened it. A passport and a tiny piece of paper fluttered on to the blotter. A series of numbers, written in Daniel’s unmistakeable scrawl, covered the surface. Perplexed, she counted the digits. Twenty-four. Daniel was fascinated by numbers and frequently designed puzzles as a way of relaxing. Were these something he was working on, or the combination to the safe at the office?
The latter seemed the most likely explanation, yet Daniel had an eidetic memory. There was never a need for him to write anything down.
Grace opened the passport at the photograph on the back page. Daniel’s face stared up at her. Only the name in the passport wasn’t his, but that of Lionel Lattide.
A flicker of apprehension coursed through her. She tried to catch her breath, but couldn’t get air. The more she struggled to control her breathing, the more terrified she became. Beads of perspiration dotted her forehead. She willed herself to relax, just as the doctor had told her to, but it was impossible.
She staggered into the kitchen. Her medication lay on the shelf next to the fridge. Standing on tiptoe, she reached for the bottle, but her hands shook so much it slipped from her grasp, the contents spilling out along the shelf and onto the floor.
She could get through this, she told herself. It was only a panic attack—she wasn’t about to die. It wasn’t real. Crying with frustration, her fingers trailed along the floor until she finally pinched a wayward pill between her thumb and forefinger. She popped it in her mouth, and washed it down with a glass of water from the tap.
Leaning against the sink for support, she forced herself to breathe deeply—in, out, in, out. The pill started to do its work, and the room began to steady itself. As her heartbeat slowly returned to normal, she tried to ignore the questioning voice in her mind, but couldn’t. She pressed her hands over her eyes in an attempt to blot out her fears.
What have you been up to, Daniel, that you needed a second passport?
She took another sip of water. The passport lay on the drainer next to her hand. With trembling fingers, she opened it and turned to the visa section.
It was stamped.
She froze. Her mind and body benumbed.
She peered at the faint impression and could just make out the words ‘Department of Homeland Security’. America! She turned to another page, and found that too, had been stamped. During the last six months alone, Daniel or whoever he was, had travelled to the United States on five occasions.
Why?
She wrenched the calendar off the wall, and compared it to the passport. Every entry visa coincided with a date when Daniel had been away on business.
Waves of panic and nausea overwhelmed her, and she sank to her knees and sobbed. The man to whom she had trusted her heart had lied to her. Not once, not twice, but least four times.
Pain yielded to anger.
Who was her husband?
It seemed that the only way to find out was to fly to Miami and meet with the attorney, Zachary Parous. It sounded so easy when she said it quickly. But the thought of such a journey aroused old fears and anxieties. She wasn’t a traveller—and certainly not alone. What if she had a panic attack mid-Atlantic? Who would help her? And then there was the small problem of getting from Miami to some place called Gasparilla Island and locating the mysterious beach house. How hard would it be to find? Would she be safe?
She’d heard such things about Florida, stories of gangs, drug lords, and even worse. She snatched up the phone before she could change her mind and booked a seat on the nine-thirty flight to Miami the following morning.
Then there was only one call left to make.

Writer’s Block – Fact or Fiction?

You’re halfway through writing your novel and–bang! You’re stuck. Your inspiration has deserted you. You find yourself staring at a blank page for minutes, hours, days, possibly even weeks and months.

So what causes it?

Many different theories have been put forward, everything from lack of focus, fear of failure, poor plotting technique, stress—and if the scientific community are to be believed, Attention Deficit Disorder and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

That’s all very well, but you need to get back on track and finish that novel. So how do you do just that?

Ask a group of novelists that question and you will receive a myriad of different answers.

Take me, for example. I’ve been struggling with one scene for weeks. I’d done all the research and had all my notes, but for some reason, the words would just not come. I went on holiday to Florida, the place where my novel is set (purely coincidental, I assure you). I made more notes and came home refreshed and eager to write. After a hesitant start, I finally got the words down on paper.

Now I’m not suggesting that you all rush out and book yourself a holiday. There are other tricks you can try. For example, step away from the keyboard and simply relax with a cup of tea (or coffee). If that doesn’t work, play solitaire (although be warned, that can be addictive), bake a cake, play with the children, doodle, play word association games, mow the lawn or write an article for your blog. You’d be surprised how many times that last trick has got me over a case of writer’s block. Then there’s my all time favourite of going for a walk in the local park or countryside. There’s something about the fresh air and listening to birds’ sing that clears my mind and fires my imagination.

The simple answer is do anything—anything that takes your mind off your project for fifteen to twenty minutes before you sit back down and attempt to write.

Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s time I got back to work!

Backstory

On my recent appearance on the Rony Robinson Show on BBC Radio Sheffield, we talked about backstory or the infodump, and why telling the reader too much, too soon, should be avoided.

What exactly do writers mean when they talk about backstory? Basically, it is filling the reader in on the background of your story, why the action takes place where it does, the subtext of your character’s lives, and the reasons for the big question or problem they have to solve.

Backstory is essential to novels, but the opening pages aren’t the place to go into depth about your character’s past or the places they inhabit. The trick is to give the reader just enough information to make them care, and want to find out what happens next.

You need to think carefully about the opening chapter. Readers don’t necessarily have to know that your heroine has blue eyes, blonde hair, and lives with her aged mother in a tumbledown cottage, or that the hero has two siblings who have green eyes and regularly tap him for a loan.

Think of the opening of your novel as the equivalent of an appetiser—a bit of teasing in order to keep the reader hooked. A couple of sentences here and there, no long blocks. Backstory is showing not telling. Your readers want to launch into the action. They want to see what’s happening. They don’t want to be told.

What about flashbacks – those little scenes where your character starts to think about something that took place weeks/months/years ago? Flashbacks can slow the pace of the story and confuse readers. They are best used in a prologue, but be careful that you don’t tell the reader too much, too soon. There are three primary ways to include backstory in your novel.

  1. Dialogue.
  2. Narrative.
  3. Description.

I prefer to use dialogue. It feels more natural to have my characters talk about their past, or explain their reason for acting in a particular way. But it’s a personal choice and you have to decide what works best for that part of the story.

But how do you know how much backstory to use?

That’s a difficult question, and to a certain extent, the decision is yours. Just remember, too much backstory will make the reader bored and tempt him or her to put the book down. You’ll lose their attention. They may even wonder why they picked up the book in the first place, and that’s the last thing any writer wants.

You’ve come up with an amazing idea for a novel, but what’s next? Part 3.

You’ve written your outline and/or plotted your novel. You’ve named your characters and given them a background, and are itching to put pen to paper, but what about the setting for your novel?

Many seasoned novelists will tell new authors to write about what they know, and its good advice. But most people see reading as a form of escapism from the humdrum of everyday life.

Just as life experiences often given us ideas for novels, places we travel to can often be the source of inspiration when it comes to settings. For example, when I set out to write my first novel, Three Weeks Last Spring, I had recently returned from a holiday in Seattle, Washington. Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands are spectacular. I realised that it wouldn’t take much to upset the ecological balance of the area. An oil spill from a tanker and the wildlife, in particular, the seabirds and mammals, would be facing a catastrophe, equal only to the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound in Alaska. That vacation, not only gave me the setting for my novel, but also the idea for the story.

I knew I wanted to set my second novel in Scotland, but I needed an idea for a story, and a setting. Having lived there for twenty years I had travelled the length and breadth of the country, but I also had first hand knowledge of the offshore oil industry. I recalled a visit to the west coast, and the drive along the single-track road to Loch Hourn, a fjord-like sea loch, and decided it would be a wonderful setting for a novel.

But what to write about?

A little further south lies Loch Kishorn, another sea loch, and the site of the now defunct Howard Doris Construction yard. I tried to imagine how the occupants of the three small settlements on the shore, known collectively as Kishorn, must have felt when the Highland Council granted permission for Howard Doris to use the loch as a construction facility for offshore oil platforms.

From that setting, and my knowledge of the offshore industry, the idea for The House on the Shore, evolved.

So you see setting can be used as a plot devise. An isolated Scottish Glen, a bankrupt factitious Laird, desperate to salvage his family fortunes, and an offshore construction company seeking to build a deepwater facility, became the ingredients for a romantic suspense novel. But it’s a novel based on fact.

As a writer you should always be aware of your surroundings – you never know your next vacation or trip to the countryside could be the setting for a novel.

The House on the Shore is due to be released under the Vanilla Heart label next month.