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.

February Update

A belated Happy New Year!

2014 kicked off with a large portion of southern England underwater. While South Yorkshire has been battered intermittently by gale force winds, I’ve been beavering away in my office, and left wondering what happened to January.

My writing time has been divided between working on my current manuscript, speaking engagements, and dipping my toes into the mysterious world of forensic science.

I’ve long harboured the desire to write a crime novel, and when the opportunity to learn something about forensic science with FutureLearn arose, I grabbed it with both hands. FutureLearn is an online study program set up with the cooperation of educators from top UK and international universities.  The courses it offers are free and cover a wide range of topics, and are designed to appeal to a broad range of learners.  There’s even one on writing fiction. (Advertisement over!)

While I have a good grasp of human biology, its diseases and their aetiology, (I was a business coordinator in the NHS, after all), chemistry and physics leave me cold. That said I am fascinated by the world of forensic science and insist on watching every factual TV programme on the subject.

Over the past five weeks, I have learned about fingermarks, footmarks, (and just so there is no confusion, fingerprints and footprints are what we possess and ‘marks’ are what we leave behind on a surface). The course has also covered DNA, blood spatter patterns, toolmarks, and drugs.

As Edmund Locard, who not only formulated the basic principle of forensic science, and was known as the ‘Sherlock Holmes of France’ once said:

‘Wherever he steps, whatever he touches, whatever he leaves, even unconsciously, will serve as a silent witness against him.’

 Very useful for reminding the family that you will find out who removed the last slice of bread from the breadbin and who failed to place the butter back on the shelf in the fridge!

My other half, Stephen, bless him, is looking more and more worried by the day, by my choice of bedtime reading – The Crime Writer’s handbook, 65 Ways to kill your victim…in print, and with the subject matter of my next course – Forensic Science and Crime!

So while Stephen is asking about that mysterious substance I added to the casserole (it was pepper, honestly!) the time has come for me to get my head down and do more writing.

Until next time…

New Year – New Book

I’ve spent the last few weeks of 2011 undertaking research for my latest romantic suspense novel. That done, it’s now time to put my fingers on the keyboard and start writing. I find starting a new project daunting mo matter how well I’ve researched the subject matter or how detailed an outline I’ve written. It’s what I call ‘the blank page/screen syndrome.’ You’re faced with what feels like acres of white space to fill and the first sentence is the most important of all. It has to hook your reader, draw them into the story quickly, so that they’re anxious to continue reading and find out what happens next.

My first chapter will go through several drafts before I feel able to concentrate on the rest of the book. But spending so much time working on the opening chapter can stifle my creative process and slow my writing. So this year I have a plan. My opening chapter will go through three drafts, then satisfied or not, I will move on and work on the rest of the manuscript, returning to it only when the book is complete.

I already have a working title for the book, and as with my three previous novels, it will be set somewhere different, albeit in a familiar place – Derbyshire. And that’s all I’m going to tell you about it at present.

I’m not the only person who’s been busy over the holiday period. My editor at Vanilla Heart has produced a new free sampler for my novel, The House on the Shore. The House on the Shore Sampler

Vacations and Presentations

While on a vacation in Florida in December, I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to promote my latest novel, Ring of Lies and give a presentation to the members of the Suncoast Writers’ Guild, chaired by Edwin Ellis, the director of the Guild.

After my presentation was over I signed copies of my novels and spent time chatting to the members. As everyone was very complimentary on the content of my presentation, I’ve decided to put my notes for the event here, so that any members who couldn’t attend can have access. I hope you find it useful.


Why all books need strong protagonists.

We’ve all read books and been disappointed when the characters fail to meet the demands of the plot. My job as a novelist is to get you totally absorbed in the story from page one to such an extent that you feel as if you are standing in the corner of the room witnessing the action.

So how do we, as writers, achieve that?

The magic key is character development – the one element that can define a book as a success or a failure.

Every work of fiction needs a hero – he may be a detective in a crime novel, an astronaut battling the alien in a science fiction book, the war hero in an historical, or in the case of romantic suspense, he’s the guy the heroine finally falls in love with.

Regardless of the genre, they all have something in common. They have to be someone you, the reader, can identify with. Someone you will care about. Moreover, it’s not just the main protagonists who need to be interesting, the villains should be compelling too. Otherwise, I’m pitting tough, intelligent protagonists against stupid villains which lead to a dull, contrived plot.

The romantic hero or protagonist differs from other heroes in fiction in that he must evolve from being self centered with a closed heart to loving fully, in other words, he must learn to commit.

At one time, he was required to be single, sexy, sweet (although that might not be evident at first), smart, and of course, solvent. But tastes have changed over the years. We no longer want the classical tall, dark and handsome hero of Jane Austen or Charlotte Bronte. Although, that said, my heroes do fit the stereotype to a certain degree, only because I’m short and never had much luck with blond haired men.

Bonnie Tyler’s song ‘I need a hero’ sums up the modern romantic hero perfectly. He’s strong, intelligent and somewhat larger than life. Not only is he a good ‘people reader’ and able to see through everyone’s lies, he also has to be human, make mistakes and learn from them as we all do. He’s the guy we want on our side. The one who’s a little bit dangerous, the one our mother warned us about when we first started dating.

His strengths are the qualities that make the heroine and the reader fall in love with him.

But how do I create this desirable male?

Like many novelists, I write a short biography for each of my characters, other authors prefer to use a chart such as the one to be found on this website : http://www.epiguide.com/ep101/writing/charchart.html I include physical attributes, such as height, weight, hair and eye colour, whether they have any tattoos or scars. I also include such things as whether they had a college education, can drive and own a car, what their employment is. Some novelists I know write two or three pages on each character, but I would suggest you add as much or as little detail as you are comfortable with.

But you need to know more than your character’s background. You have to place them in conflict with each other and give them goals.

So what do I mean by goals?

The external goal is usually something simple and obvious – catch the killer or thief, solve the mystery and find the priceless antique. The villain’s goal, on the other hand, might be to exact revenge on the police officer who put him in jail or destroy the small town that shunned him. It is the external goal that drives the plot forward, and obviously, the protagonist’s goal is going to directly conflict with the antagonist’s external goal.

For example, in my latest novel, Ring of Lies, Grace Elliott’s goal is to discover her dead husband’s true identity and find out where the money to purchase the beach house on Gasparilla Island came from.

The internal goal is usually an emotional goal, hidden in the hero or heroines psyche, something which reveals an area of vulnerability. For example, a female police officer’s goal might be to catch the criminal, but her internal goal is to win the approval of her colleagues and family.

For example, in Three Weeks Last Spring, Walker’s external goal is to catch whoever is poisoning the fish in Puget Sound. His internal goal is to overcome his fear of commitment because every woman he’s ever dated has walked out on him when she learns how often he is working away from home.

Whatever the internal goal, the hero and heroine have to change and evolve during the course of the novel and become better persons through their relationship with each other.

The key is to create characters that are strong in their ideals and values, but who are prepared to listen, and if necessary change during the course of 100,000 words. After all, you don’t want to be three chapters into writing your novel only to realize you hate your characters. If you don’t like them, neither will your readers.

But internal and external goals and inner conflict isn’t the only trait characters need. To create tension and excitement, something must impede both the protagonist and antagonist achieving their goals. Without it, there is nothing to make the reader keep turning the page. Every major character must have something to lose as the book reaches the final climax.

It’s the combination of all these factors – believable characters and a realistic plot which makes a novel an enjoyable read. If I can achieve that, then I know I’ve done my job well.

You’ve come up with an amazing an idea for a novel, so what’s next? Part 2

While I out walking with my Border collie, Lucy, the other day I thought about the plot for my next novel. I’ve been working on this manuscript for nearly a year now, and have got no further than Chapter three. No doubt you’re wondering why I haven’t finished it.

There are two reasons.

Firstly, although I had completed The House on the Shore over a year ago and had been submitting it to agents, I decided to revise the manuscript – not once, but twice. This entailed adding some 24,000 words to the original manuscript, so what had started out as a 70,000 word single-title suspense romance finally became a 95,000 word novel. Did I make the right decision in revising the manuscript? You bet! It will be published in February 2009 by Vanilla Heart Publishing.

The second reason for not completing my third novel is due in to the fact that I felt the plot was lacking something. The idea originally came to me while I was sitting on a beach on Gasparilla Island in January 2006. I knew the basic premise was sound. My characters have depth and by that I mean they are not one-dimensional – when I think about them, I can see them acting through the events I have planned for them. I can even imagine snatches of dialogue, and occasionally I dream about them. In other words, I know what makes them tick. They have the personality, wit, and intelligence to overcome the problems they encounter during the course of the novel.

So what was wrong with the plot and how did I rectify it?

By asking myself questions or playing “the what if game.” I already knew, “Who,” “Where” and “When,” but “What and “Why” eluded me. I knew how my story began and how it would end.

My problem was how to introduce my hero and make his meeting with the heroine plausible. Originally, I had planned to have my hero follow the heroine from the airport and then contrive to meet her by accident. But it didn’t feel right.

I put the manuscript to one side and worked on a short story. When that was complete, I emailed a friend who happens to be a fellow writer and we tossed ideas back and forth for a few days. I also tried to imagine what I would do if I were in a position similar to that of my heroine. It was only by doing this and asking myself questions that I finally reached a solution I was happy with. I re-wrote my plot outline – the key events and points I wanted to achieve during the course of the story. When I started writing again the words came easily.

If you don’t have a writing friend, someone you can bounce ideas off, I suggest you put aside your work-in-progress, and spend a few days away from the computer, or work on something else. If that fails, there are a number of excellent books on plotting; Goal, Motivation and Conflict by Debra Dixon, and Holly Lisle’s Plot Clinic are excellent. Both are guaranteed to get the imagination fired up and working.

You’ve come up with an amazing idea for a novel, so what’s next?

Many first time authors just start writing with no clear ending in mind, and then often find themselves grinding to a halt somewhere around chapter five or six. The manuscript gets shoved into a drawer and forgotten about.

So what’s the solution?

The answer is some basic planning. Decide on the length of the book, and which genre your novel fits into. At this stage it’s a good idea to look books similar to the one you are writing to get an idea of overall length. The average single-title contemporary romance is anywhere between 80,000 to 100,000 words long. If you’re writing category romance then check the publisher’s guidelines, as it can vary from line to line. For example: For Mills and Boon Intrigue the word count is 50,000 and 60,000, while their Modern Heat line is 50,000 to 55,000.

Then decide on your cast of characters. I like to cut images from magazines and past them onto “character sheets” for the main characters. I find it a great aid to describing physical attributes. Then I build their background, their skills and personalities. As I write romantic suspense, I also give them some emotional baggage, something that they have to overcome to achieve their goal.

Next I do my research. Say my protagonist is an artist; in that case I need to decide whether he or she paints in oils or watercolours. The local library is a good source of information, although more often than not, I find what I’m looking for on the Internet. Then I choose a setting—let’s say San Francisco. Fortunately, I’ve been there and have photographs and guidebooks to refer to. But if you set your novel in an unfamiliar place, then again, do your research.

Once you’ve done that, you’re ready to sit down and plot your novel or write your outline.

Some writers will tell you that it is essential to develop your characters and plot your novel, chapter by chapter. Others will tell you that they don’t plot per se, but they jot down key points they wish their characters to achieve, in other words they write a plot outline. Then there are the “wingers,” those writers who have a beginning and an ending, but no idea of what will take place in the middle.

So who is right, the plotter, the author who outlines, or those who wing it?

Unfortunately, they all are! You have to find which way works best for you. Personally, I find a tight plot line hampers my creativity and prefer just to work from a four to six page outline. This allows my story “growing room.”

For expert help in plotting your novel I suggest you read Brenda Hill’s excellent e-book Plot your way to Publication. www.brendahill.com