Choosing the right location for a novel – writing

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!

The Life We Almost Had‘ is currently 99p across all digital platforms during August. Download it from Amazon, iBooks, Kobo or Google.

You can preorder the paperback from Amazon or Waterstones or support your local bookstore. 

Pre-order ‘The Stolen Sisters’ here.

Both books are available as ebooks, audiobooks and paperbacks.

 

 

6 years writing – 10 books written – here’s what I’ve learned

 

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…)

Thank you!

 

 

Novel Writing – Should you include a prologue? #WritingTips

 

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.

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 Family’ is my latest thriller and I’ll use it as an example, I’ve included the prologue below.  The Family is a book about brainwashing, about a mother, Laura, and her daughter, Tilly, who inadvertently find themselves joining a cult.  Laura realises there is something very dangerous about the situation they find themselves in but Tilly has already fallen for the charismatic leader, Alex, and doesn’t want to leave. It’s important for this story that we see how Laura and Tilly find themselves in such a terrible situation so this wasn’t going to be a story that flings you into action on the very first page.

I wanted to give the readers an indication that the pace will increase throughout the book.  The prologue begins in the future and then chapter one begins several months before this. We can initially see the horrifying situation Laura and Tilly are in and then we work back to see how they got there. I enjoy this set up as a reader, forming my own conclusions as to what’s going on and why. I wanted this novel to open with a question. For the readers to feel involved, part of ‘The Family’ from the beginning so when Laura and Tilly get sucked into this tight-knit, claustrophobic group they can feel themselves there too.

We can see, when we read the prologue below, that someone has been shot but who has been shot and who has shot them? I love nothing more than a mystery and it’s been such fun hearing reader’s theories at the beginning of the book and then their reactions at the end (nobody has guessed both parts correctly as yet…)

Prologues are a great tool for grabbing attention, giving background, creating a twist (as the mine below does), and for providing a hook. A question. Writing from a different point of view or a different time – past, present, or future, something that sets it apart from chapter one.

I asked my son once, who is an avid reader whether he read prologues as I was genuinely shocked to hear some readers don’t.

‘Of course,’ he said, ‘but I never bother with the things at the end. The epilogue.’

‘Why not?’ I was horrified.

‘Because I already know how the story ends,’ he said.

Not in my books. There is often, as there is with ‘The Family‘, a twist on the very last line in the epilogue, but how to end a story is another blog post entirely.

Download ‘The Family’ for only £0.99 as part of the Amazon kindle monthly deal here and read the prologue below.

 

 

 

The FamilyPrologue

NOW

LAURA 

It all unfolds with cinematic clarity; the gunshot, the scream. Every detail sharp and clear. Time slows as her eyes plead with me to help her. In my mind I bundle her behind me, shielding her body with mine, but she is too far away and I know I cannot reach her in time.

But still I try.

My legs are weighted with dread as I run towards her; the fist around my heart squeezing.

A second shot.

Her knees buckle. She crumples like a paper doll.

The ground falls away beneath my feet and I crawl to her like the animal I have become. My palms are sticky in the arc of blood that has stained the floor red. Blood is thicker than water they say, but hers is thin and beacon bright. Adrenaline pulses through me leaving numbness in its wake as I press against her wrist, desperately seeking a pulse. With my other hand I link my fingers through hers the way we used to before I brought us to this place that has been our ruin. A lifetime of memories strobe through my mind; cradling her close in the maternity wing; Easter eggs spilling out of the wicker basket looped over her pudgy arm; her first day of school, ribboned pigtails swinging as she ran across the playground.

She can’t be gone.

Can she?

Fingers of panic press hard against my skull. The colour leeches from the room. A black and white hue descending upon me. I tighten my fingers around hers, afraid I’m going to faint. Afraid I’m going to let her go.

But then.

A flicker of eyelids. A murmur from her lips.

I lay next to her, gently rolling her towards me, cradling her in my arms. I can’t, I won’t leave her. Family should stick together. Protect each other. Instead, I chose to come here.

This is all my fault.

The drumming in my head grows louder – the sound of footfall. I don’t have to look up to feel their anger, solid and immovable.

The acrid smell of gunpowder hangs in the air along with my fear.

Looking up, my eyes meet the shooter’s, they are still holding the gun and sensations return, hard and fast. The pain in my stomach is cutting and deep and I am no longer sure if the blood I am covered in has come from her.

Or is coming from me.

Her top is soaked crimson, as is mine.

The pain increases.

Terrified, I tug at her clothes, my clothes, searching for the wound. Praying. Let her be okay. Seventeen is no age. Let it be me.

At last I find the small hole where the bullet has torn through flesh but before I can apply pressure to stem the flow of blood there are hands on my shoulders. My elbows. Pulling. Pulling.

Darkness flickers at the edge of my vision but still I fight against it. I fight against them.

My feet kick out, my teeth sink into flesh, but it’s fruitless. I am growing weaker.

Her fingers twitch. Once. Twice.

Nothing.

‘Tilly!’ My scream rips through me as I am yanked to my feet. ‘Tilly!’ I scramble for traction, every fibre of my being straining to reach my daughter.

I can’t.

I am still wrestling to be free as I am dragged, my feet scraping the ground.

But I know they’ll never let us leave here now.

Not alive anyway.

 

Download ‘The Family’ for only £0.99 as part of the Amazon kindle monthly deal here.

An evening with Louise Doughty (this is how she writes) & a return to prison?

 

Last night I was fortunate enough to be invited to a private event hosted by Laura Devine Solicitors (I first met Laura in prison but more of that later) which featured Louise Doughty speaking about her new book, Platform Seven, as well as raising money for The National Literary Trust.

Before I continue I’ll say I was saddened and shocked by the statistics quoted by Fiona Evans who was there representing The National Literary Trust relating to the reading ability of our children. SHOCKED. You can read more about their fabulous work and how you can help here.

Fiona introduced Louise and I settled back with a glass of wine and the most delicious canapés I’ve ever eaten, eager to find out how she approaches novel writing, nine novels in (9!!).

Firstly, Louise publishes a book roughly once every three years but she’s still hard at work in the period between each publication. Currently on a book tour for Platform Seven, she admits that sometimes she wakes up and wonders what city she’s in. The work promoting each book, plus other projects such as her involvement in the TV adaptation of her novel, Apple Tree Yard, has kept her busy but she also spends a lot of time researching each novel before she begins writing. With Platform 7 she spent the night on Peterborough station to see how it felt. Grim, I should imagine.

The thing that interested me most was the way Louise spoke about planning a novel and, being permanently obsessed with how other authors approach the first draft, I did grill her about this afterward, topping her glass up with wine, hoping she’d become so relaxed (drunk) she’d give me the magic formula. But of course, there isn’t one.

Louise says she starts with a rough idea of what the book might be about and makes notes (and like me she can never later read her own handwriting) but for her, the story is all about character. She explained that she feels if she outlined her stories before she began writing them they wouldn’t have that authentic feel. In her (vast) experience she believes that if characters are written to act a certain way to fit a planned plot then the characters may not feel realistic. She cares about the characters she writes, and for her, she lets them lead the way through the story as they naturally evolve. She told me, ‘If I didn’t care about my characters, if they were behaving in a way that didn’t suit the people they had become as the novel progressed, just to suit the story, why would readers care about them?’

Using the character first, plot second approach eventually leads Louise to a point in her book where she has key scenes and chapters and research to use and then she lays it all out before her, and pieces it together like a jigsaw.

This is a method that clearly works for her with her huge success.

Later on that evening, I found myself catching up with Neil Barclay, the librarian of HMP Thameside. I first met him when I eventually visited the prison’s book club after declining his invitation to visit many times due to The Fear, you can read about my visit here.

He’d been following my career since with interest and asked me lots of questions about past and future books. He also asked if I’d go back and teach some creative writing workshops in the prison.

‘You’ve changed.’ He told me pointing out that before I was hesitant in talking about writing, not convinced I was a ‘real’ author. Not sure I had anything valuable to say. I’m still not sure I have anything valuable to say BUT events like last night help me to grow in confidence.

Louise Doughty’s approach to writing the first draft is very different from the approach Sarah Pinborough takes which I learned about last week during an event we did together – you can read about Sarah’s approach here.

Each time I listen to another author, my layers of self-doubt shrink a little. I’m not doing it all wrong. There is no wrong. As writers, it’s trial and error to find the right process for us and that may process may change day-to-day, book-to-book, and that’s okay.

Knowing this, understanding this gives me confidence in the way I work but it doesn’t stop my curiosity into how authors write.  It’s something I will also find fascinating.

Thanks to the always inspirational Laura Devine and her amazing team who are such an incredible support to the literary world and charitable works.

 

 

A FABULOUS giveaway & FREE event for readers & writers

 

Hello

It’s been such a busy time with last week’s publication of The Family (you can read about the launch here & the behind the scenes at the audio book recording here) but I wanted to touch base and let you know of a FABULOUS competition and some events.

Firstly, thank you to everyone who has bought, reviewed, recommended and shared news of The Family. It really is very appreciated. It’s wonderful to see it out in the world and it’s already hit the UK top 40 on Amazon, No. 2 on Kobo and the Top Ten on iBooks.

I am thrilled that Fern Britton has chosen The Family for her October Book Club pick in conjunction with Tesco and even more excited when Fern tweeted to say how much she loved my book! You can currently find an exclusive edition of The Family in every branch of Tesco which includes an interview between Fern & I, along with some additional book club questions that aren’t in the main edition. All this for a bargain price of £3. You can also currently find the paperback in Sainsburys and all good bookshops (if they don’t stock it they can order it in) and it will be in Asda from mid-December.

The Family has been getting some great endorsements from the press: The Guardian have chosen it for their best crime picks selection calling it “A good study of vulnerability.” Woman’s Weekly have said it’s “Twisted & Suspenseful.” And Heat billed it as “A gripping psychological thriller.”

Are they right? You can find out for yourself for just 99p for the eBook for a limited time via Amazon, iBooks, Kobo and Google Books. If you’ve already read and enjoyed The Family and have time to pop a quick review on one of the platforms it really would be HUGELY appreciated.

Now, if you’re an avid reader or writer you can catch me at a few events this month.

On 23rd October I’ll be at the gorgeous Oundle Bookshop, Nr Peterborough with fellow psychological crime writer Darren O’Sullivan. We’ll there between 17.00-19.30 speaking about how we write and publish and answering your questions. Drinks and nibbles are provided. This is a free event. Darren and I are such good friends we always have such a good time at our talks and laugh A LOT. Do come and join us.

On 24th October at 6pm I’ll be at Waterstones in Silbury Arcade, Milton Keynes, in conversation with Sunday Times Bestseller Sarah Pinborough about the art of writing twists and tension. Entry is £3 on the night but you get that back if you buy one of mine or Sarah’s books on the night.

If you can’t get along to an event I’ll be doing a Facebook Live chat via the super friendly The Fiction Cafe Book Club group on Facebook on Sunday 20th October at 8pm. As well as talking about writing and answering your questions there’ll be a giveaway. Pop along beforehand and join the group here if you’re not already a member and post any questions you have or you can ask me live on the night.

Lastly, to celebrate the publication of The Family, Good Housekeeping Magazine are giving away a free spa day for two worth £230, along with ten copies of my paperback. You can enter the competition here.

Good luck with your entry!

Louise x

The Family – Amazon, iBooks, Kobo and Google Books.

 

Join us for an evening of books & mince pies!

 

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Like I’d ever let you REALLY have the last mince pie…

 

Do come and join Darren O’Sullivan and I at Waterstones in Peterborough on Thursday 20th December where we’ll be talking about, and signing, our books, along with answering any questions you might have from 5pm.

Peterborough is beautifully Christmassy in the evening with gorgeous lights, and if that doesn’t put you in the festive mood, we’ll also be bringing mince pies!

 

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Writing with sound – Placing a reader in the scene #writingtips

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“The world has music for those who listen.” William Shakespeare

My son is home for Christmas from uni with a mountain of both coursework and laundry. Studying media, one of his assignments is to record a two minute piece of writing of his choosing and add any sound effects he thinks should accompany it.

When we last spoke on the phone I knew he’d be doing this and he was on his way to get approval from his lecturer for the piece he wanted to record. What I didn’t know was that piece is the opening to my debut, ‘The Sister’. His lecturer thankfully said he felt right in the scene as he read it and that it is the perfect piece to record.

I’ve written before about bringing the senses into prose when writing (you can read that here). Making the reader feel as though they are right there with the characters, feeling what they feel, seeing what they see, hearing what they hear.

Sound is one of the most powerful senses, believed to be the last thing to go when we die. When I’m out with my dog I never listen to music or scroll through my mobile. Instead, I drink in my surroundings, taking note of where I am and I close my eyes. What can I hear that would place me in my scene? What is unique to it? What can I use in my stories? These are the things the reader needs to hear.

Today, my son and I went to the park with his recording equipment to record the sounds that accompany ‘The Sister’. Although I believe I am mostly mindful, mostly attentive, I was stunned by the multitude of sounds I could pick out when I stood still and really allowed myself to listen.

Layers of noise, all demanding attention from a chainsaw to bird song, kids playing, dogs barking, to the more subtle sounds, the wind against a leaf, the snapping of a twig under footfall in the distance. We’ve had a fabulous afternoon recording and have returned home with a memory card full of noises and I’ve a head full of inspiration.

If you’re writing a story, take a minute to read it back. What sounds would you use if you could? Are you doing enough to set the scene? A reader who feels is a reader who will keep on turning the pagers.

Here’s the sounds we’ve inserted into The Sister: –

Stepping out of my car with heartbreak-heavy legs (car engine, car slowing, stopping, engine cut, car door slam), I zip my jacket (pulling on & zipping a coat) and pull on leather gloves (the stretch of leather gloves being pulled on) before (walking on a hard surface) hefting my spade and bag from the boot (unloading something heavy. A chink of metal): it is time. (footsteps on gravel) My wellingtons slip-slide (footsteps through mud) across the squelching mud to the gap in the hedge. It’s been there for as long as I can remember. I shiver as I enter the forest; it’s darker than I’d thought and I take deep breaths (breathing) of the pine-scented air to steady myself. I fight the urge to go home and come back in the morning, remind myself why I’m here and drive myself forwards. (Walking. Leaves. Snapping twigs).

My smartphone lights the way as I look out for rabbit holes I might fall down. I take giant steps (larger strides) over fallen limbs of trees I’d once have hurdled. At twenty-five I’m not too old to run, but my load is cumbersome; besides, I’m in no rush to get there, I was never supposed to do this alone.

I stop and rest the spade handle against my hip (spade sticking in the ground), splay my fingers and shake out my pins and needles. There’s a rustling in the bushes (leaves rustling) and I have a sense of being watched. My heart stutters (gasp) as two rabbits dart out, (louder rustling) bounding away when they see my light. ‘I’m OK,’ (voice) I reassure myself, but my voice seems loud and echoey, reminding me how alone I am.

My rucksack feels tight across my shoulders and I readjust the straps (the sound of straps sliding) before marching on (more purposeful steps), snapping twigs underfoot (twigs). I’m beginning to think I’ve taken the wrong fork when I reach the clearing with the lightning-struck tree (stop footsteps. Breathing). I wasn’t sure it would still be here, but as I look around it seems nothing has changed – but of course, everything has. Memories of the last time I was here hit me so hard I feel winded. I sink to the ground. (Clothes crinkling as sitting. Dislodging leaves). The dampness of the leaves and earth seep through my trousers, as the past seeps through to my present.

Creating characters AKA you don’t need to know where the postman lost his virginity

I never set out to write a book. I’ve shared before that I started writing to lift my mood after a change in health left me with a disability and chronic pain which led to clinical depression.

It was easy to fall in love with Grace and Charlie, the characters I thought I would try and write a story about. It was easy to find a hook – Charlie’s last words to Grace “I did something terrible, please forgive me.” It was easy to write page after page. It was when it reached a point where it was no longer a short story, and I thought ‘The Sister’ could possibly be a book, that it suddenly felt very, very hard.

I had no idea how to write a novel.

Anxiety was my default setting and I let it consume me. How could I ever think I could write a book? I had no education beyond a handful of GCSE’s. No training. No degree. No idea what I was doing.

Frantically I turned to Google – how do you write a novel – relaxing when I saw the number of hits that appeared. There were people who knew and they were willing to share. It was all going to be okay once I learned the magic formula – or was it?

I didn’t question who the writers were imparting their knowledge, whether they’d published, sold, whether I’d read and enjoyed their stories. I just took it for granted that everyone knew absolutely more than me. I knew nothing. I would do whatever they told me, and I did.

One of the first blogs I read said you could never write a convincing story unless you knew your characters inside out. That made sense to me. I already felt Grace and Charlie were fully formed, real to me but as I read on I knew that they couldn’t be.

Did I know their shoe size? Umm no.

The first flavour ice cream they ever tried? Can’t say I did.

Their best holiday? No idea.

Lucky for me the writer in question had designed a ten page character sheet questionnaire she was giving away free if I signed up to her newsletter. And I did.

I printed out the sheets and filled them in for Every Single Character because ‘there are no minor players in novels.’

For two weeks I did nothing except get to know my characters.  I even knew where the postman (who is only in one scene delivering a letter) lost his virginity.

When I returned to my manuscript it felt different. What had felt natural before now felt a little like wading through treacle. The direction the plot was naturally taking didn’t fit the personalities I was trying to foist upon my characters. They weren’t acting like the people on my character sheets. I began to question whether I was too inexperienced to write. Whether I needed to do a course.

Later, over a glass of wine with my husband he wondered whether knowing where a fictional postman had fictional sex was really that important to the story.

It wasn’t.

I’ve never filled in a character sheet since. That’s not to say they don’t have a value, all authors ultimately find their own way of working, but I prefer to let them evolve naturally, jotting down things like eye colour etc. as I go to ensure continuity.

That said, before I get too far into a novel I do like to know the character’s internal flaw. The thing that stops he/she getting what she wants. The thing that will have readers rooting for them and cheering during that all important change that happens along the character arc.

For my second book, The Gift, I knew that Jenna my main character didn’t know where her place in the world was anymore after a heart transplant at a relatively young age left her feeling set apart from her friends and boyfriend and that was all I needed to know to begin writing. For a satisfying ending, Jenna needed to find her place whether she reached her external goal of tracking down the donor’s family or not.

Incidentally, Jenna gets several deliveries of mail throughout the story. Her postman probably has sex but I’ve no idea who with, or even of his name.

And what’s more – I don’t care.

When book events are about SO much more than books

A few months ago I was asked by Ian Loveland if I’d like to participate in an event to both raise money for, and awareness of my local library. It’s been heartbreaking to hear of the planned closure of so many libraries in our county and I was thrilled to be able to do something, however small, to help. Three other authors Sue Moorcroft, Darren O’Sullivan and Mark West also agreed to give up their time.

Tentatively we hoped if we all spent lots of time promoting the event we could sell enough tickets to bring in a decent crowd of people, more than the library could comfortably seat. The Core Theatre, who shares a building with the library, offered us a room. Corby Radio said they would market the event for free and helped us record an advert they played regularly leading up to the evening.

Last night, us authors arrived with boxes of books and mountains of hope that we’d have more of an audience than just my mum who was the first to arrive. We needn’t have worried. The event was sold out. The atmosphere electric.

Joe Flavin, Director of The Core chaired our panel and asked his first question about writing. As I scanned the room I was overwhelmed with gratitude. With emotion. A lump rose in my throat and I felt tears prick the back of my eyes. I knew this evening wasn’t solely about our stories or how we construct them. It was about people. Our community.

The seed of an idea from the library had sprouted thanks to the support of the theatre, both organisations supporting local writing. In turn, writers supporting the theatre and the library. Corby Radio supporting us all. Many of the theatre staff had volunteered their time. The people of our county buying tickets, nurturing both local talent and the wonderful resources our town has to offer.

As a community we share more than a geographical location. As human beings we all crave contact, a sense of belonging. Forming connections is essential to mental health and well being. It is through our communities we can seek comfort through difficult times. Find a light in the midst of the dark places.

The theatre, the library, hearing that familiar voice come through your radio saves us from alienation and isolation. Helps us to find each other.

Last night there was a real sense of coming together in a world that is pulling apart.

It wasn’t just about books.

It was about love and friendship.

It was about home.

The BIG editing lesson I learned writing The Surrogate #WritingTips

Today is the UK paperback publication of my third psychological thriller, The Surrogate (US paperback publication will follow later this year).  Although I’ve learned from every book, it was this one in particular where my editor gave me a piece of advice that has always stayed with me.

When I shared with my sister that I’d be writing a book about surrogacy she told me that she though the subject was too limiting. That the story would be predictable. I was determined to prove her wrong.

The Surrogate features Kat and Lisa, childhood friends, and Kat’s husband, Nick. They are all keeping dark and damaging secrets. I never plan when I write. I had a vague idea of who might be bad and who might be good but as I got deeper into the story the characters pulled me in unexpected directions. The plot became more complex than anything I thought I was capable of constructing.

As the ending gathered pace I layered twist upon twist, they tumbled onto the page as they tumbled out of my head, until finally the story reached its dramatic conclusion.

Nervously, I sent it over to my editor.

‘This is a phenomenal story’ her feedback began, ‘but…’ my heart sank ‘you’re not giving your twists time to breathe.’

I wasn’t entirely sure what she meant until I reread my manuscript. There wasn’t time to process each revelation before another one hit. It had been exhausting writing it. It was equally exhausting reading it. Rather than the pacy, hard hitting ending I thought I’d written it was confusing, lurching from one reveal to another.

She suggested taking out several twists which I was reluctant to do, so I set about rewriting the end.

For the twist she’d classed as ‘the big one’ I ensured I had no other reveals in this chapter. For other twists I moved a couple so they were away from the end. For most I lengthened the chapters so they weren’t so crammed together, particularly the epilogue which contains several.

Rereading it, I could see the difference. There was time to rest back, to process the turns of the story before it once more turned on its head.

There’s nothing I like more than pulling the rug from under the readers feet. To lead them to think they’ve got it all figured out when they haven’t. My stories always contain multiple twists. Now I’ll always give them time to breath.

You can read the opening of The Surrogate here and buy it on your local Amazon here. It is also now available in Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s & all good book shops.