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.

July Update

July was a busy month; hence the lateness of this update.

Over the weekend of 11-13 July, two hundred and fifty novelists gathered in glorious sunshine for the annual Romantic Novelists’ Association conference at Harper Adams University. Set in the heart of the Shropshire, Harper Adams is an agricultural college complete with cows, pigs and sheep, and yes, all the associated farmyard aromas.

Harper Adams University

 

As usual, the conference content was superb, with a mixture of workshops and talks on traditional and self-publishing, as well as technique. My main problem was choosing what to attend. As workshops run concurrently, I rushed from one to next, only pausing for a quick cup of tea and chat with a friend.

 

Sue Moorcroft leading one of the panels.

The highlight of the weekend was the gala dinner on the Saturday evening, during which Janice Preston was presented with the Elizabeth Goudge Prize for the best short story written by a conference attendee.

Rosemary Gemmell at the Gala Dinner
Rosemary Gemmell at the Gala Dinner

The following weekend, I took part in the Penistone Literary Festival, along with my friend and fellow novelist, Milly Johnson. Arriving early, I had the opportunity to listen to Michael Fowler talk about his crime novels and life as a former police officer.

Michael Fowler
Michael Fowler

 

Milly Johnson and me comparing notes at Penistone Literary Festival
Milly Johnson and me comparing notes at Penistone Literary Festival

As for the rest of the month – I’m pleased to say that the audio book version of The House on the Shore is underway and will be available to download from Audible, Amazon and iTunes later this year!

I’m also involved in an interesting project with fellow American author, Brenda Hill, but more of that later.

In the meantime, it’s back to working on the next book. Are you curious what it’s all about…?  Well here’s a small clue…

Castle Stalker courtesy of Erin Garrett
Castle Stalker, photograph courtesy of Erin Garrett

 

London Book Festival 2009

The winners of the London Book festival Annual Competition 2009, http://londonbookfestival.com/portal/content.asp?ContentId=600 honouring the best of international publishing have been announced, and I’m delighted to say that my novel, The House on the Shore, received an honourable mention.

The House on the Shore is a romantic suspense novel set in Scotland. It interweaves the lives of Anna, a scholar who is reaching for her long-buried creative dreams, and Luke, an American artist, who is running from his tumultuous past. One man stands between them and happiness. And survival.

Recently, The House on the Shore was shortlisted for the Joan Hessayon New Writers Award 2009, presented by the Romantic Novelists’ Association, the United Kingdom’s counterpart to Romance Writers of America.

“The House on the Shore is a sensually suspenseful story filled with non-stop action, romance, and mystery. The facts of Scotland are told with brilliant description that bring the land to life and leave you feeling as if you have stepped out of your world and into the pages. Ms. Howard uses such passion and emotion when telling her story, making the tale flow right along until the last page is turned. With many different characters that will keep you guessing, this novel is the perfect example of how a suspenseful story should be told. …Thrilling until the very end, this book has a who-done-it attitude with such an aching tone of sensuality and love, it will keep you up all night just so you can finish this fantastic tale.” —Danielle. Reviewer for Coffee Time Romance & More

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.