It’s that exciting, anxiety inducing time when I’m beginning a new book. This is ALWAYS where I panic, feel I can NEVER write another novel again and procrastinate wherever I can. So, to keep me on track I’d love it if you would join me on my journey this time via my new series, ‘A Writer’s Life’.
Subscribe to my blog so you don’t miss monthly (ish) updates on my progress as well as insights into a writer’s life, what I’m reading, the challenges I’m facing and any special offers running on my books. (This month, for 99p, UK readers can download ‘my latest release, ‘The Stolen Sisters‘ and ‘The Gift‘ via these Amazon links).
If you sign up to my mailing list here you will also receive two free short stories as well being able to enter exclusive giveaways.
If there’s any part of the writing/publishing process you’re particularly interested in, do drop a comment below and I’ll make sure I cover it as best I can.
After publishing 6 psychological thrillers under Louise Jensen which is my real name, last year I published my first contemporary fiction book under the pen name Amelia Henley. Since then I’ve been asked so many questions about why I used a different name I thought I’d write a blog post about it.
My publisher told me to.
Shortest post ever?
Let me expand it then, there are many reasons to use a pen name and multiple pros and cons.
When I first signed a deal for my debut, ‘The Sister‘, it didn’t even cross my mind to use a pseudonym. I was super excited to finally see my name on the cover of a book. It was such a special moment for me, and my family. My son took his friends into Waterstones and showed them and I felt a glow of pride I’d never felt before. Of course, then, I didn’t realise it would quickly sell over half a million copies and be translated into twenty-five languages and that a LOT of people would read it. This was really only an issue for me during a smear test when the nurse asked me if I’d written ‘The Sister’ and then proceeded to tell me how much she loved Grace and Charlie which was very nice but probably not the time or the place. Having a disability and subsequently a lot of medical appointments there are times when I’ve wondered whether I’d have been more comfortable using a pseudonym. Not that I assume people have read my books or know my name but, as the smear test palaver demonstrated, you really never know.
If you want to retain anonymity or have some separation between your writing life and another career a pen name can be really useful. Particularly if you have a name too similar to an established author. Being called Stephen King may not create any confusion in day-to-day life but in publishing…
There are many other reasons authors use pen names. Reinvention is one of them. An author who hasn’t had the best sales and wants to begin again, or, as in my case, an author who wants to try a different genre.
My publisher (HQ/Harper Collins) loved my debut love story but wanted a separation from my thriller brand (I’m very uncomfortable with the word brand btw). This was liberating in that I could bring something out with no reader expectations and no fear of judgement because although ‘The Life We Almost Had’ is ultimately a tear-jerking love story there is a sci-fi element to it and I wasn’t sure how it would be received. The downside being I had to set up social media accounts in a new name and running two of everything is quite time consuming. In the end my publisher suggested we use ‘Amelia’ as an open pseudonym which was a relief, some publishers have it written into contracts you can’t tell anyone for a stipulated period of time and I am rubbish at keep secrets.
So, who choses the pen name?
My editor wanted me to come up with suggestions I was happy with but then these needed to be run past the marketing department for their approval.
Amelia Henley is the only name I put forward and I’m thankful they approved it because it is very personal. I have three children and for ‘Amelia’ I took two letters from each of their names. ‘Henley’ is an extremely special name to our family.
It’s worked out really well for me having two names (which is just as well as I have a second Amelia book – ‘The Art of Loving You‘ – publishing this July and a new thriller coming in October). One of my career highs and a completely ‘mind blown’ moment was last autumn when both ‘The Life We Almost Had‘ and ‘The Stolen Sisters‘ were published in paperback and I walked into Tesco and saw them both on a shelf together.
If you’re a writer and thinking of using or have a pen name I’d love to hear of your experience and how you chose yours.
‘The Life We Almost Had’ is currently in its 3rd week at No.1 in Germany and UK readers can currently download the kindle book for just 99p for a limited time from Amazon here.
I didn’t blog much in 2020 –I didn’t feel I had much to say, if I’m honest I still don’t. We all know how terrible the year was. As a family, we’ve faced challenges the same as everybody else; illness, hospital admissions, bereavement, an accident, a decline in health, the list is endless. My creativity was non-existent, my productivity poor.
During the first lockdown I spent weeks wondering how I could write alongside home schooling and my husband working from home. This morphed into what I should write, my mind was too cluttered to think clearly. Pre-pandemic I’d been writing psychological thrillers in the morning and contemporary fiction in the afternoons but I knew I no longer had the mental capacity to do this. I had an idea for an Amelia Henley book but publishing my debut love story during a pandemic had been hugely challenging and I wasn’t certain there was a future for Amelia.
Finally I spent the last few months of the year contemplating whether I should write at all. Had I lost my love for it? 2020 was the longest stretch I hadn’t written anything in years. Perhaps it was time to do something else entirely.
Then came the end of year blogs, the ‘Best Books of 2020’. It’s always so rewarding to see my books featured on these lists and to see multiple entries for ‘The Stolen Sisters’ was hugely gratifying.
But then came something unexpected. I checked my ‘Amelia Henley’ social media channels not expecting any notifications but there was. I was overwhelmed to see ‘The Life We Almost Had’ featured on numerous ‘Top Ten’ book blogs and even voted book of the year.
I cried and then I replied to the posts I’d been tagged in on to say thank you but thank you doesn’t quite convey just how life affirming and life changing these blog posts have been.
Today, I sat at my computer for the first time what feels like forever and wrote two small words I wasn’t sure I’d ever write again, ‘Chapter One’ and I feel nervous, excited and above all hopeful, to begin a fresh Amelia Henley story, to have new characters to get to know.
In this post I wanted to try and express, but fear I am failing the importance of book bloggers. How they have allowed me to regroup, refocus.
Thank you doesn’t quite cut it but I don’t know what else to say.
I began writing my debut, ‘The Sister‘, for fun. It was meant to be a short story. I hadn’t written any fiction as an adult and I hadn’t any qualifications other than a clutch of GCSE’s. I never believed I could write a book. I had always thought that to be a published novelist you needed a wealth of experience and a degree in creative writing.
When it got to the point that my ‘short story’ had reached 90k words I began to tentatively hope I could edit it to a high enough standard where I’d dare to submit it. Out of my depth, I was so grateful when a writer I met at an event offered to read the opening 3 chapters for me. I didn’t check where she was published, or how she was published. The fact she was in print led me to believe she knew absolutely everything.
Her overriding feedback was that my prologue was a huge mistake, ‘”readers hate them, agents hate them and publishers hate them. If you submit something with a prologue it won’t be read.”
I felt my face burn with embarrassment. I didn’t know the rules and I’d been found out for the imposter that I was.
Immediately I deleted my prologue, but now, several books on and with over a million copies sold I’m familiar with most of the rules and (whispers) here’s the thing. There aren’t any.
That writer, as it turned out, was right that ‘The Sister‘ shouldn’t have a prologue, but not for the reasons she said.Her overriding feedback was that my prologue was a huge mistake, ‘”readers hate them, agents hate them and publishers hate them. If you submit something with a prologue it won’t be read.”That writer, as it turned out, was right that ‘The Sister‘ shouldn’t have a prologue, but not for the reasons she said.
The prologue wasn’t needed. It didn’t serve a purpose and in a novel, every single scene, every single word needs to earn its place, prologue included. After The Sister spent two months at No. 1 I found the confidence to include a prologue in my second psychological thriller, ‘The Gift‘, because no matter what that writer said about people hating prologues, I don’t and first and foremost I’m a reader. I don’t write one for every book because not every story warrants one.
So how do I decide when to use one? ‘The Stolen Sisters’ (currently 99p in the Amazon Kindle Deal) is my latest thriller and I’ll use it as an example, I’ve included the prologue below.
When Carly looked back at that day the memory was in shades of grey; the trauma had sucked the blue from the sky, the green from the freshly mown grass. She had sat on the back doorstep, the coolness of the concrete permeating through her school skirt, the late-afternoon sun warming her bare arms. Carly remembers now the blackness of a beetle scurrying down the path before it disappeared into the soil under the rose bush. The stark white of the twins’ socks, bunched below their knees.
Inconsequential details that later the police would jot in their notebooks as though Carly was somehow being a great help but she knew she wasn’t, and worse than that, she knew it was entirely her fault.
It had all been so frustratingly normal. Leah and Marie had shrieked in mock disgust as Bruno, their boxer, bounded towards them, drool spilling from his jowls. But their screams then still carried an undercurrent of happiness, not like later when their cries were full of fear and there was nowhere to run to.
The things that have stayed with Carly are this.
The way her fingers gripped the cumbersome Nokia in her hand as though she was clutching a secret. Her annoyance as she angled her screen to avoid the glare, never dreaming that soon she would be craving daylight.
The pounding in her head increasing as the girls bounced a tennis ball between them across the patio. The way she had snapped at the twins as though it was their fault Dean Malden hadn’t text her. Of all the things that she could, that she should, feel guilty about, she had never forgiven herself that the last words she spoke to her sisters before they were all irrevocably damaged was in anger rather than kindness.
Although in truth, she had never forgiven herself for any of it.
‘Shut up!’ She had roared out her frustration that the first boy she loved had shattered her thirteen-year-old heart. Crazy now to recall that she once thought the absence of a text was the end of the world. There were far worse things. Far worse people than the floppy-haired blond boy who had let her down.
Her younger sisters turned to her, identical green eyes wide. Marie’s sight trained on Carly’s face as she chucked the ball for Bruno. Carly’s irritation grew as she watched it fly over the fence.
‘For God’s sake.’ She stood, brushing the dust from the back of her sensible pleated skirt. ‘It’s time to come in.’
‘But that’s not fair.’ Marie looked stricken as her gaze flickered towards the fence.
‘Life isn’t fair,’ Carly said feeling a bubbling resentment that at eight years old the twins had it easy.
‘Can you fetch our ball, please, Carly?’ Marie pleaded.
‘Fetch it yourself,’ Carly snapped.
‘You know we’re not allowed out of the garden on our own until we’re ten,’ Marie said.
‘Yeah, well I’m in charge today and I’m saying you can. It’s not like we live in a city. Nothing ever happens in this dump.’ Carly was sick of living somewhere so small where everyone knew everyone else’s business. Where everyone would know by tomorrow that Dean Malden had rejected her. ‘Be quick and shut the gate properly.’
She turned and pushed open the back door, stepping into the vast kitchen that never smelled of cakes or bread. It never smelled of anything except freshly roasted coffee. Carly clattered her phone onto the marble island and yanked open the fridge door. The shelves that were once stocked with stilton and steak and that had groaned under the weight of fresh fruit and vegetables, were woefully bare. There was nothing except a shrivelled cucumber and some out-of-date hummus. It was all right for her mum and stepdad out for the evening at yet another corporate function. They spent more time on the business than with their children nowadays, although Mum had assured her it wouldn’t be for much longer. She’d soon be at home more but in the meantime it was left to Carly to sort out tea again. She had loved her half-sisters fiercely since the day they were born but sometimes she wished mum still paid the retired lady down the road to babysit but since Carly had turned thirteen mum felt that she was responsible enough.
She sighed as she crossed to the shelf above the Aga and lifted the lid from the teapot. Inside was a £10 note. Chips for tea. She wondered whether the money would stretch to three sausages or if they should split a battered cod.
Minutes later the twins tumbled into the kitchen.
‘Yuck.’ Leah dropped the tennis ball coated with slobber into the wicker basket where Bruno kept his toys.
‘Wash your hands,’ Carly snapped as she checked her phone again.
What had she done wrong? She had thought Dean liked her.
Marie perched on a stool at the breakfast bar, swinging her legs, the toes of her shoes thudding against the kick board. How was Carly supposed to hear her text alert over that? Marie had her chin in her hands, her mouth downturned; she hated being in trouble. Carly could see the way her lip trembled with upset but she couldn’t help yelling again.
Marie slid off the stool. ‘I . . . I left my fleece in the garden.’
Carly jerked her head towards the door in a go-and-get-it-gesture before she clicked on the radio. The sound of Steps flooded the room. Marie paused and momentarily their sisterly bond tugged at them all. ‘5, 6, 7, 8’ was one of their favourite songs. Usually they’d fall into line and dance in synchronicity.
‘Let’s do this!’ Marie flicked her red hair over her shoulders and placed her hands on her hips.
‘It’s childish,’ Carly snapped although inside her shoes, her toes were tapping.
‘It doesn’t work unless we all do it.’ Marie’s voice cracked. ‘We have to be together.’
Carly pulled the scrunchie she’d been wearing like a bracelet from her wrist and smoothed her long fair hair back into a ponytail. The twins got into position. Waited. Carly reached for her phone and tried to ignore the pang of meanness that flitted through her as the smile slipped from Leah’s face. Marie’s small shoulders rounded as she headed back outside.
Minutes later she raced back in, socked feet skidding across the tiles, tears streaming down her freckled cheeks. ‘Bruno’s got out. The gate was open.’
‘For God’s sake.’ Carly could feel the anger in her chest form a cold, hard ball. It was one of the last times she ever allowed herself to truly feel. ‘Who shut the gate?’
Marie bit her lower lip.
‘I did,’ said Leah, slipping her shoes back on.
‘You’re supposed to bang it until it latches, you idiot. You know it’s broken. Three times. You bang it three times.’
The girls pelted into the garden, calling the dog’s name.
Marie hesitated at the gate. ‘Perhaps we should wait—’ Under her freckles, her skin was pale. She’d been off school yesterday with a stomach-ache and although she’d gone back today, she didn’t look well. Carly knew she should ask if she was feeling okay but instead she shoved her roughly into the street. ‘It’s your fault, Marie. You search that way.’ She pointed down the avenue lined with beech trees.
Marie grabbed Leah’s hand.
‘No,’ Carly snapped. ‘Leah can come with me.’ The twins could be silly where they were together and she had enough to worry about without them getting into trouble.
‘But I want . . .’ Marie began.
‘I don’t care what you want. Move.’ Carly grabbed Leah’s arm and led her in the opposite direction, towards the cut-through at the side of their house which led to the park.
It all happened so quickly that afterwards Carly couldn’t remember which order it all came in. The balaclava-clad face looming towards hers. The forearm around her neck, the gloved hand clamped over her mouth. The sight of Leah struggling against arms that restrained her. The scraping sound of her shoe as she was dragged towards the van at the other end of the alley. The sight of Marie, almost a blur, flying towards the second man also clad in black, who held her twin, pummelling him with her small fists.
‘Stop! You can’t do this! Don’t take her. I don’t want you to take her!’
The soft flesh compacting against hard bone as Carly bit down hard on the fingers that had covered her mouth.
‘Run!’ she had screamed at Marie as the man who held Leah grabbled to find something of Marie’s he could hold onto, clutching at her collar, her ginger pigtails, as she dodged his grasp.
I decided to use a prologue for this story, not only because it’s an instant hook, but because I wanted to begin twenty years before I started the story proper. There was vital information I wanted the reader to know. The girls are snatched in the prologue but Chapter One immediately move on to the girls as adults and we learn they were returned without any abuse. As a mother the only way I could write about missing children was if we know straight away that the girls were safe and the prologue enabled me to do this. We do, as the novel prgoresses, delve back into the past where we see, not how the girls were taken, but why and in the present it’s all about what happens when their abductor reappears on the twenty year anniversary of their abduction.
To read more of the Sinclair sisters’ story download the digital version of the book for just 99p for a limited time only across all digital platforms. You can find The Stolen Sisters on Amazon, iBooks, Kobo, Google books & Waterstones.
It’s also a Fern Britton book club pick and a special edition with extra content is available at Tesco. You can also find ‘The Stolen Sisters’ at Asda, shortly at Sainsbury’s and as an audiobook on Audible.
Two of my other books (with prologues!) are also in Amazon’s October sale. Download ‘The Gift‘ or my Amelia Henley debut love story with a twist ‘The Life We Almost Had.‘ (you can read the prologue for this here.)
Locations can be hugely important to a book. My first four psychological thrillers were based in fabricated towns in the midlands because the place wasn’t relevant to the story, my fifth, ‘The Family’ in a cult in Wales because I needed a vast amount of rural space and I was very familiar with this area. ‘The Life We Almost Had’ my debut love story takes place on a Spanish Island based on Lanzarote.
For my 7th and latest book I needed somewhere specific. Somewhere remote and yet not too far out of a town. Somewhere creepy. Somewhere you could feasibly hide three young girls…
I’m obsessed with exploring abandoned buildings and my children are the same. If we want a day out we’d much rather go and look around a ruin, and so the hunt was on for somewhere to base ‘The Stolen Sisters’. In this book the Sinclair sisters are snatched during chapter one. In chapter two we find out they had been returned unharmed with no sexual abuse (it was the only way I could bear to write this). Chapters in the book alternate between past and present and in the past we needed to feel the girls fear, the tension and the way to build on this was to use the setting almost as another character.
I considered, and disregarded multiple locations before I stumbled upon RAF Upwood. It was everything I wanted it to be. Close enough to take the girls there in a relatively short space of time. Vast enough for the girls to get lost when they escape their room. Remote enough so no-one can hear them scream…
I renamed Upwood, RAF Norwood for the story and like Upwood, in my book Norwood was fenced off, waiting to be demolished for a housing estate (Upwood has now partly been knocked down.) Hyde Housing were very accommodating, allowing me to look around and film. I also staged rooms where the girls might be held, with the scant possessions they were given, to try and really get a feel for the horror Leah, Marie and Carly Sinclair might have felt.
It was surreal being at Upwood. Kind of like being on a film set for a movie version of ‘The Stolen Sisters’.
This clown was really the start of everything. I imagined it being on the back of the door, terrifying the young girls, the sense of his eyes watching them every time they try to escape the room. I was never afraid of clowns until I wrote this book, now…
The corridors have so many doorways coming off them, imagine how terrifying it would be to be chased, to choose a doorway, and find yourself trapped in another dark room.
There is a scene in the book where the girls hang from these bars hoping they can pull them free from the window. They can’t.
Carly is running with her two younger sisters, she hears the men coming, does she hide upstairs or try to make it to the door?
I set up a camp in one of the rooms with Leah’s teddy bear, the blanket and the food and drink the girls were given. It was horrible
There is a terrifying scene that takes place in the shower block. Thanks to my visit I was able to describe the environment, but the smell! I could never describe the smell.
The site is absolutely vast. Imagine running around here at night with no lights. Shudder.
Some of the graffiti here is so impressive.
Everywhere I turned I spotted potential danger for the girls.
In a bid to escape, Leah dropped her teddy bear, it was heartbreaking to think of it left the RAF base amongst the rubble.
It’s also a Fern Britton book club pick and a special edition with extra content is available at Tesco. You can also find ‘The Stolen Sisters’ at Asda, shortly at Sainsbury’s and as an audiobook on Audible.
It’s publication day for my 6th psychological thriller, (my 7th published book).
It’s been a whirlwind, launching both this book and my debut love story ‘The Life We Almost Had‘ written under my pen name Amelia Henley. With ebook and paperbacks, this is my third publication day in the last few months. The excitement never ends! Thanks to everyone who came along to my live online launch last night – it was huge fun and congratulations to all the prize winners.
The Stolen Sisters is available as eBook, paperback and audiobook, and the physical version can be found in Tesco, Asda, (Sainsbury’s in a couple of weeks), Waterstones, Foyles, and other bookshops. If your local bookshop isn’t stocking it, do ask – they’d be happy to order in. I can’t wait to see it on a shelf! There was much excitement when I finally got to hold it in my hands.
I’m both grateful and excited that the lovely Fern Britton has chosen The Stolen Sisters for her October bookclub pick. She has an exclusive edition with extra content which can be found in Tesco!
This story of the Sinclair Sisters is very special to me, and I’m thrilled with the early feedback. It’s already received over 100 5* reviews on Netgalley and I’ve been doing a readathon these past few days with the lovely folks at Pigeonhole and the response there has been phenomenal.
I’ll be talking about the inspiration behind it, and the creepy real life location it is based in over the next few weeks but for now I’ll leave you with the blurb.
Sisterhood binds them. Trauma defines them. Will secrets tear them apart?
Leah’s perfect marriage isn’t what it seems but the biggest lie of all is that she’s learned to live with what happened all those years ago. Marie drinks a bit too much to help her forget. And Carly has never forgiven herself for not keeping them safe.
Twenty years ago The Sinclair Sisters were taken. But what came after their return was far worse. Can a family ever recover, especially when not everyone is telling the truth…?
I love discussing books. All of my novels have book club questions at the back and writing questions that I know will spark interesting discussions is such a joy.
I’ve always been an avid reader. As a child I was the only one in my family who read, my friends didn’t seem to share the same intense love of books that I did and subsequently I always felt a little… odd.
After having children, some of the other mums at the school gate suggested forming a book club and I was overjoyed. Every fortnight, for three hours I’d be able to talk about plot, characters, twists. I couldn’t wait.
What actually happened was we met in a bar. Whoever chose the book would say ‘it was ok,’ most people hadn’t read it and then we’d drink and talk about our kids. We had some good nights but…
When I moved to a new area I googled ‘book clubs’ and much to my joy I found one. I emailed the organiser who, after asking me a lot of questions, invited me along to the next session. I immediately bought their current read and when it came curled up in an armchair determined to finish it before the meeting.
It. Was. A. Slog.
I’m all for broadening my horizons and reading outside my usual genres but on the first page alone I had to look up multiple words in the dictionary and that carried throughout the novel (I don’t use the word story here because I wasn’t convinced there was one).
I went along to the group, clutching my paperback, looking forward to meeting new people and hearing what they thought. They had A LOT of thoughts. I needed my dictionary again. I sat miserably nursing my cooling coffee (“we may meet in a pub but we don’t drink alcohol while we’re discussing literature, Louise”) and I felt out of my depth, stupid. Lonely. I never went back.
It’s taken years but finally I have found a book club full of members who are friendly, welcoming and love reading as much as I do. Surprisingly it’s online which I always thought would feel detached but, over time, I’ve got to know a lot of the members who I now class as friends. This Facebook group, The Fiction Café, is run by Wendy Clarke who is one of the nicest people I have met (and this group do physically get together for events when they can). I’m in awe of her and the admins who put in hours tirelessly running author live events and buddy read alongs. My only fault with this group is that every time I drop by I end up buying recommendations and my TBR pile is out of control!! If you’re a book lover of any genre do check them out here.
Also, a shout out to Book Connectors run by super blogger Anne Cater. This group is a mixture of bloggers, authors and readers and I love reading the bloggers book posts about forthcoming releases they have already had the chance to read. There’s also some interesting discussions about publishing in this group. Anne doesn’t stand for any nonsense and it feels like a very safe space to speak. You can find Book Connectors here.
My publisher HQ, Harper Collins, is currently hosting an online book club every Thursday afternoon. This Thursday I’m the featured author and will be talking about my newly published debut contemporary fiction book ‘The Life We Almost Had’ written under my penname Amelia Henley. With my research taking me from Lanzarote to Magdalen College in Oxford where I studied neuroscience there’s LOTS to talk about with this very unusual love story.
If you haven’t read the book yet you can buy it this week for 99p across all digital platforms – links below. If you buy the Kindle version (or have already bought it) you can add the audiobook for just £3.47.
An important decision any writer needs to make is where to set your novels. The right location can really highlight the genre and set the mood. There are advantages of using a genuine place; readers who are familiar with it can instantly place themselves in the location, and disadvantages; landscapes can change so quickly and if you get any of the details wrong this can be jarring.
For my early novels where locations didn’t matter to the story so I kept things deliberately vague, never naming a town or stating exactly where it was supposed to be. Name generators on Google were my friend although this almost backfired once after naming a village ‘Therinsborough’. My editor immediately flagged this with a ‘Didn’t you ever watch Neighbours, this sounds very close to Erinsborough, Louise….’
My latest two novels however, are a little different. For my forthcoming psychological thriller, ‘The Stolen Sisters’ I use the location where the Sinclair Sisters, Leah, Marie and Carly, are taken and held captive almost as another character. The description of the abandoned site where they are held adds another chilling layer to their story and really creates a dark atmosphere. To find the perfect location, I spent hours trawling through urban explorer sites and watching YouTube videos until I stumbled across the perfect place. Here I could envisage these three young sisters huddled together, cold and scared, but also telling stories and making up games to support each other through their ordeal. The stark, cold, decay of their rooms contrasting with the warmth of their loving relationship which shines through the pages. I’ll be sharing these real life photos closer to the 1st October publication.The idea for my debut contemporary fiction novel, ‘The Life We Almost Had’ came to me in Lanzarote. I was gazing out to sea and, in my imagination, I saw a shocking scene play out before my eyes, like a movie. Instantly I knew I had to write the unusual story I had imagined.I wanted to base the novel on Lanzarote but as this love story has a futuristic element I needed to build a Scientific Research Centre on the north of the island and so I renamed my island Alircia (although I still secretly call it Lanzarote). I use the blue skies and sparkling seas to paint a warm and loving picture. We’re with the couple as they fall in love and visit the tourist attractions that I also visited – (using a real location has the added bonus of research trips!) – the house of writer Jose Saramago, the lava caves, Jameos del Aguo, the markets and of course, the place where the story circles back to, the beautiful cove at Playa Blanca where couples fasten lovelocks.I was so utterly invested in Anna and Adam’s love story with a twist that I bought them a lovelock even before I had even put pen to paper.When Anna and Adam return to the UK things get drab and bleak, much like the weather. Life throws them on to an unexpected path. Both keeping secrets, they return to their beloved Alircia to try to fix their fractured relationship but a tragedy forces them apart. Will they take the ultimate risk for a second chance at their love.You’ll have to read the book to find out!
One of the things that put me off writing a book for years (other than fear of failing, fear of making a fool of myself, fear of being terrible at writing and shattering my author daydreams) was the research. How did writers know all the things that went into their books? I guessed that high profile authors, perhaps had police contacts on speed dial to check out procedures but what about the rest of us? Those starting out? What happens when Google just doesn’t cut it?
Writing ‘The Sister’, I shied away from including anything I didn’t know much about which left…. very little content. I had to reach out to experts and the thought terrified me.
I remember, with clarity, the way my hands shook, palms sweated, as I made my first call to the fire department to ask for their advice (and no, I didn’t ring 999 claiming a plot emergency) tentatively explaining I was writing a book and wanted to be as accurate with the details as I could. I was told someone would call me back. Despondent I hung up, sure I’d never hear from anyone. Later that afternoon my phone rang, a man introducing himself as Chief Inspector and my heart skipped beat, certain I was about to be arrested for wasting time, but he was lovely and helped enormously. His advice changed the whole scene and he worked on the detail with me until we were both happy.
I realised then that most people are happy to talk about the things they have a passion for and knowledge of. Since ‘The Sister’ I’ve spoken to numerous people about various things – the concept of cellular memory for ‘The Gift’ (a heart retaining memories of its donor so the recipient knows things they shouldn’t…) Prospagnosia (Face Blindness) for ‘The Date’, surrogacy and law for ‘The Surrogate’, brainwashing for ‘The Family‘ and kidnapping for the forthcoming ‘The Stolen Sisters‘.
One of the most interesting things I have researched is neuroscience for my latest publication ‘The Life We Almost Had’ which is my debut contemporary fiction novel published under my pen name ‘Amelia Henley’. I’d become fascinated with consciousness and, for fun, I wanted to write a story set in current times but to expand on scientific elements for part of the plot (and yes I know this sounds vague but I don’t want to give spoilers).
I called up Magdalen College in Oxford and explained what I was doing and they invited me to sit in on some lecturers. I met some of the world’s leading experts in their field and I found it so enjoyable so much so that I’ve been looking into formally studying science in some capacity.
There’s a danger, when authors research, that they want to put everything they’ve learned into the story because they’ve spent so much time learning and because they’ve found everything so interesting and this is something I definitely had to bear in mind with ‘The Life We Almost Had.’ At it’s heart, it’s a sweeping love story and I often found myself cutting out technical explanations that I knew some readers would find boring, and getting back to Adam and Anna’s tangled relationship.
Writing ‘The Life We Almost Had‘ took me to Lanzarote where much of the story is based. Research trips are great fun sometimes so much so I forget to do the actual research…
Here are my top tips for researching: –
Take the time to choose who you think can best help you carefully, for instance there are many different types of lawyers, doctors etc.
Approach people respectfully – I never ask questions in my initial email but rather ask if they’d be willing to answer questions and I let them know roughly how many or how much time I think I’d need for a phone chat.
Don’t fire off the same email to dozens of people asking for help and waste people time if they all reply.
Plan ahead so you can continue writing while you wait for a response. Appreciate people are busy and they might not get back to you straight away.
Also make sure you have your questions ready before you ask for help. For the book I’m currently writing I emailed a charity, assuming that because of the pandemic they might not have the time or staff to get back to me at all and they called me five minutes later and I wasn’t prepared!
Don’t include everything you’ve learned however interesting, ask yourself ‘does the reader need to know this and does it move the plot forward’.
Blogs are a great place to find people who want to talk. I found many transplant patients this way who were happy to share their experiences with me.
Remember that although books are entertainment as a writer you are dealing with experiences that people have lived through. Be kind. Be sensitive.
Don’t assume everyone wants to be in the acknowledgements. After someone had helped me I mentioned in passing I’d thank them at the end of the book and they asked me not to as they didn’t want their boss to know they’d divulged information.
It’s okay to take artistic license to suit the story but I always state in my acknowledgements if I’ve done this (in ‘The life We Almost Had’ I credit a neuroscientist but mention I’ve had to progress science to fit my story.)
Six years ago this month, following a drastic change in health circumstances, which had led to years of chronic pain, and clinical depression I knew for the sake of my mental health I needed to find a hobby. With limited mobility, there wasn’t much I could think of but then I remembered how much I’d loved writing as a child, how I’d had a burning desire to become an author until I was told at secondary school this wouldn’t be a viable career option.
I decided to try writing a short story. Two characters came to mind, Grace and Charlie, lifelong best friends. The story begins with Grace digging up a memory box that the girls had buried several years before on Grace’s sixteenth birthday. Grace hopes to the box might contain a clue to explain Charlie’s last words before her mysterious disappearance – “I’ve done something terrible, please forgive me.”
My short story soon became 90k words of a (terrible at that stage) novel but I’d fallen in love with the girls, with their story of friendship and loyalty and courage and I rewrote and rewrote until it was ready to submit. I’m eternally grateful a publisher took a chance on my psychological thriller – The Sister – and turned my hobby into a full-time career.
Now, just six years on I am writing my tenth book. (Five have been published, two are due for publication this year and two for next year and I’m working on something new). I’ve sold well over a million copies, been translated into twenty-five languages, and although I can’t, of course, speak for every writer I wanted to share my opinions on some of the things I have learned along the way.
1) Write the book you’d love to read. It’s so tempting to try and follow market trends and write a book you think has more of a shot of being published. Don’t. Market trends change so quickly you’ll always miss the boat. You spend such a long time with a manuscript I think if you’re writing something you genuinely love and are passionate about it shines through the finished product. Although my thrillers have been hugely successful I’ve also started writing high concept contemporary fiction in a different genre under the pen name ‘Amelia Henley‘ because I had a story in my heart I couldn’t let go. (You can read more about writing the story you want to rather than the story you should in a previous post, here)
2) Don’t follow the rules. They are endless and who made them up anyway? Use common sense – if you write a 300k word romance it’s unlikely to be published but don’t be afraid to trust your gut. Prologues, for example, are often the source of much debate and I wrote a recent post on my opinion, which you can read here.
3) Don’t compare yourself to others. This. Is. Soul. Destroying. (Not just in writing but in every aspect of life). There are always going to be people you aspire to and that’s a good thing but constantly comparing yourself to others is stressful and nothing stifles creativity like stress. The writer that’s shouting about a new deal on social media – be happy for them – your time will come and you don’t know what they are dealing with in their personal life. Rarely are things as glittery and shiny as they appear online. The writer that’s written 5k words today and is SO HAPPY – doesn’t affect your progress at all, it only changes the way you feel about it. Most writers I know write far quicker than me but it doesn’t matter. I write, on average 1000 words a day but I edit as I go (see No. 2 – I don’t follow rules) and am generally very satisfied with the quality I produce. Every word builds a sentence, every sentence a scene, every scene a chapter, and then, eventually, you’ll have a book. It isn’t a race.
4) You won’t run out of ideas. This used to terrify me ALL OF THE TIME. I’d see writers online (and back to number 3 here) and worry that they have notebooks full of ideas and I had one – ONE – that I’d be working on. So far, when I’m coming to the end of a first draft, or shortly after, another idea will start to brew but until then I have no idea what I’ll write next. My brain can’t seem to cope with thinking of more than one thing at once and that’s okay. Ideas will come when you least expect it. (Read my previous post on ‘Where do ideas come from’ here.)
5) Don’t force the words to come. We hear much in the writing rules (see no. 2) about how writing should be a ‘discipline’ and we ‘must’ write every day. To me this sounds like a punishment and writing above all else should be enjoyable. It is important to try and form a routine and not to wait until inspiration strikes (spoiler – it doesn’t always strike) but sometimes forcing yourself to sit in front of a blank page is demoralising. If I’m stuck on a plot point I step away from my computer. I go for a swim and 99% of the time the words will begin to flow again once I’ve had a break.
6) Don’t sweat the small stuff. Punctuation and grammar. Here’s my confession (whispers) I don’t know what an abstract noun is or a concrete noun is or why I shouldn’t use them together. This was one of the first things a copy editor pointed out I was doing wrong. I’m still not entirely sure. I try hard with my drafts, I chuck the odd semi-colon in to prove I’ve made an effort but I get things wrong as we all do. It makes me sad when I receive emails from people telling me they want to write but they can’t because they are dyslexic or feel they are too uneducated and can’t get to grips with grammar and punctuation. Of course, polish your manuscript as much as you can but the MOST important thing is you have a good story to tell with strong characters. There are proofreaders, copy editors, beta readers, even friends and family who can help iron out any niggles. Don’t let worry about the final touches to a manuscript put you off writing one.
7) Don’t become obsessed with the charts. If you’ve published a book it’s so tempting to be constantly hitting the refresh button to see where you chart on Amazon. Don’t. Become. Obsessed. The Amazon charts are a complicated beast comprising of Kindle Unlimited, Prime Reading, Kindle Firsts etc. which all count towards chart positions so a high chart position doesn’t always necessarily equate to straightforward sales. Remember, stress stifles creativity.
8) You can’t please every reader. If you’ve got a book out there you’re going to be tempted at some stage to read reviews and it’s human nature that you’ll gloss over the good ones and the bad ones will lodge in your mind. My debut, The Sister very quickly sold over half a million copies and I read every single review and tried to please every single one of those reviewers while I was writing my second book – The Gift. I sped up the pace, slowed down the pace, put in more twists, reduced the number of twists, tied myself in knots. You just… can’t.
9) Celebrate EVERY LITTLE success. This is SO IMPORTANT. Remember, that writer on social media who is having the Best. Time. Ever. They’ve had knockbacks too. We all have. It’s an industry of unavoidable lows, which makes it even more important to appreciate every single good thing that happens. Those successes will keep you going through the inevitable low times and throughout those low times never lose hope. Things can turn around when you least expect it.
10) Don’t be embarrassed to call yourself a writer. Don’t be ashamed to want to make a living out of it. This is something I struggled with enormously for a very long time. Looking at my shoes and mumbling vaguely whenever anyone asked what I did for a living. Be proud. Don’t use the term ‘aspiring writer’ if you write, you’re a writer. Also there’s a weird thing (and I’ve been guilty of it myself) where some writers feel they have to say they write for the love of it and not for financial recompense and while you do have to love writing to write there’s nothing wrong with ambition. I have a mortgage to pay and children to feed and this is how I chose to do it. You can read about the moment I finally felt like a ‘real’ writer here.
My latest psychological thriller – The Family – is currently 99p across all UK digital platforms. Download a copy from Amazon here (back to paying my mortgage and feeding my children…)