My interview as Clubhouse Chat Guest: Caron Allan

This week I’m cheating! In fact I’m not just cheating, I’m showing off, too, as last week I was honoured to be interviewed by Paula Readman in her Clubhouse. You can find Paula’s blog here, and learn more about Paula’s own books, The Funeral Birds, Days Pass Like A Shadow, and Stone Angels, as well as reading all the great conversations that take place with writers who are mysteriously smuggled into the Clubhouse. Here’s how it went:

Welcome to Clubhouse Chat page. Those of you who are not aware the location of the Clubhouse is shrouded in mystery. The only way to visit it is via membership or an invite to the tearoom. Every few days, I’ll be sharing a conversation with all sort of writers and authors at different levels of their writing careers. Over tea and cakes, or maybe a glass of something stronger, I shall be chatting with my guest about their work in progress, or latest book release.

Today I’m welcoming Caron to the clubhouse tearoom. Welcome.
Thank you for the invite, Paula. Gosh, the clubhouse and tearoom is amazing and so many familiar faces too. Though getting here is very peculiar.
I’m sorry about all the cloak and dagger stuff, but keep the location secret allow our members complete privacy. Also we have some noisy parties too. 😂 To start with let’s order our drinks and then we can start. My first question is When you first begun your writing journey what drew you to your chosen genre?

I’ve tried writing all sorts of stories of the years, romance, family saga, and so on, but there is always a point when I think, ‘The only way out of this is to kill someone.’ Or else I get so fed up with someone I devise a grisly death for them. I’m not a very nice person!

Also, which I probably should have led with, mystery and crime are my favourites books to read, which was due to my mother’s taste in books. I started reading her Agatha Christies and Patricia Wentworths around the age of 11 or 12, after growing up on Famous Five and Secret Seven books. Mum used to screen them to ensure there wasn’t anything ‘unsuitable’ in terms of sex and bad language. I wasn’t allowed to read her more ‘hard-boiled’ detective books.

What writing elements do you think is your strongest points, and what would you like to do better?

That’s a hard one. It’s quite difficult to step back and analyse your work impartially. But I think I’m quite good with the crime scene stuff. Or at least I try to be accurate. I don’t write a lot of descriptive scenes, these are the bits I find boring in other books and always skip. I want to allow the reader to imagine the scene, the characters, so I keep description to a minimum. I like to think I write good characters, though readers don’t always like what I put them through or make them do. I try to keep things believable and logical to a certain extent.

But I would like to cut the waffle a bit. My dialogue can be woolly if I’m not careful, with a lot of umms and ahhs. I’m also terrible at writing sex scenes (I always laugh inappropriately) but fortunately most of my books don’t require sex scenes, as they are ‘cozy/cosy’, and also (more or less) ‘clean’.

And I’m terrible for getting side-tracked then not wanting to cut out the side-track.

Tell us a little about latest writing project. Is it a new idea, or one you have been mulling over for some time?

I’ve got a few projects on the go at the moment. I’m about to start a bit of light outline-type planning for book 7 of my 1930s mystery series, Dottie Manderson mysteries. Book 6 (The Spy Within) came out last week, so I’m still in recovery! But I already have an outline for book 7, which will be called Rose Petals and White Lace. I’m also in the latter stages of writing a new series, The Miss Gascoigne mysteries, and I’m keeping everything crossed that book 1 will come out sometime next year. That is called A Meeting With Murder.

Caron Allan

How many unfinished projects do you have on your computer?

Once I actually begin writing, I don’t usually leave a project unfinished. Although I have drawerfuls of books from my early years of writing that aren’t finished, I used to often abandon a story at around the 35,000-45,000 words mark, but it took me many years to learn how to push through the tough stages of a book, and also, how to fix problems such as not knowing where the story was going or how to rekindle the love for an idea. Someday I’d love to dig them out, dust them off and get them finished, but I just never seem to have the time. Life is so hectic, isn’t it, and there are so many new ideas to try.

Do you write a synopsis first or write the first chapter, or let the characters lead you?

I mainly write long fiction. I have written quite a few short stories, but they’re not my main ‘thing’, and my poetry is awful. Apart haikus, I love a good haiku! I mull an idea over for a while, and maybe make a few notes, as I’m prone to forgetting things! I keep doc files of my ideas, things that randomly occur to me that I think could be a good plot point or an entire plot for a story in the future. Then I usually try to find a way to bring ideas together to create a plan. I am stimulated by images and music, so when I really want to nail an idea, I start with creating a cover for my book, and the title, which helps the plot to settle in my mind. I don’t write detailed or elaborate plot outlines, I keep them in my head. There is a danger that I’ll forget something, of course, but if I write down too much, I lose interest and feel like the story is now finished.

Choosing only five of your favourite authors. Can you list them in order 1 begin the top of your list and say how have they influenced your writing?

Agatha Christie – it’s hard to know who should come first, Agatha or Patricia. First of all I admire anyone who can make themselves sit down and write every day in a professional, diligent manner, and do it come rain or shine. Because it’s quite a hard thing to do. Secondly, I learned so much from how they did it. I analyse their books and make notes. I find it so interesting to read about the nuts and bolts of creating a mystery novel. They both brought together groups of people to be anything from killer to victim, to red herring, to information gatherer and detective. I also love the social commentary.

Patricia Wentworth – As well as the above, I like the romantic elements of Wentworth’s books, and the moralistic tone. I think you get a great sense of characters from her books. And also style of the era too.

Dorothea Brande – I read this author’s most famous book Becoming A Writer when on a visit to my mum, it was the one that answered the questions I had as a young writer and made me see how to grow and develop my skills. First published in the 1930s, I think it’s the most influential book on the topic of ‘how to be a writer’ I’ve ever come across. Her book was the one that convinced me I could actually do this, I could write books and publish them.

Mary Stewart – I love her romantic suspense books, and so many of her chapters start with a literary quote that is relevant to the story, sometimes hilariously so. There is (usually) a strong element of romance in her mysteries too, and that is what I’ve always loved and to try to bring into my writing. Also, the exotic locations – I’m not widely travelled and so envy the heroines who dash off to all these wonderful places.

It’s very hard to confine myself to just five main authors. I’ve got hundreds and hundreds of books, and they are a bit like a family to me. (though I have a real, wonderful and very tolerant family) But if you held a gun to my head and told me I could only pick one more author, I’d probably go with M C Beaton, simply because she is very prolific, has a range of different series, and her books always seem fresh, funny and very human. And quirky. And she creates the most ingenious and cunning characters. I have never been drawn to the aloof characters such as Sherlock Holmes, though I’ve read most of Conan Doyle’s works. I like things cosy, and very female-centric as that is my life experience, and my happy place. But I read loads of authors, modern, and older, mystery and romance and fantasy, and non-fiction, I love social history and art/cultural history. I also love to play around with learning languages, but I get them all muddled.

When reading your work through do you ever find that your daily mood swings are reflected in your writing?

Not really. If I’m very ill, or very depressed, I can’t write fiction, though I do keep a journal for therapy. I had cancer a few years ago, that was a difficult time and as I adjusted to the news, I found I could write my thoughts and feelings into my journal, which was cathartic, but it took me a while to get back to my fiction and WIP writing.

Were any of your characters inspired by real people?

Not directly, or consciously, but there are always little things you notice or absorb unnoticed, and these get put in. As a child I knew lots of older ladies, aunties and ‘courtesy aunties’, and the way they talked and behaved has given me an affection for those kinds of characters in my books.

What did you learn when writing your book? In writing it, how much research did you do?

For my 1930s series, I have researched things such as fashion, social history, manners. I had to learn all about cars and driving in the 1930s. My main character starts off as a mannequin for a fashion house but ends up owning and running the business, so I had to learn a bit about that. I had to learn about policing procedures and advances in detection to present my murders – and the solving of them – in a believable manner. Most recently I had to find out what films were released in the early part of 1935. For an earlier book I had to learn a great deal about medieval embroidery and Opus Anglicanum, and also about the religious intolerance of the 1600s and well, always really). so there is always quite a bit of research to do. The trick is remembering it doesn’t ALL need to go into your book!

Is there anything about you your readers might be surprised to find out?

Erm… Oh dear… That’s hard to say. I’m not a very exciting person! We lived in Australia for five years, due to my husband’s job, returning to Britain in 2002. I’m a cliché really, a cat loving introvert with tons of books. I once had a letter published in Gardeners’ World and got a £5 voucher for it! That’s kind of it.

Did you uncover things about yourself while writing your books, whether that be a long forgotten memory, a positive experience etc.

Not really, although understanding that what I enjoy writing stems by and large from my first 10 or 12 years of life was a bit of a revelation to me that came to me out of the blue more or less a year or two ago. I find it hard to write male characters. When I thought about it, I realised I don’t actually know very many males. Having grown up without a father, then having a step-father I didn’t (for various reasons) feel close to, and as an only child, I didn’t have a close bond with a man or any boys. Even now, my only main male references are my son and my husband (who are lovely!), but that’s an unusually small number of men really, I just hadn’t really been aware of that until recently. I have drawn on anxieties or dreams and memories to develop story ideas for several novels and short stories.

What is your work schedule like when you’re writing?

I thrive on routine, so my schedule tends to be the same, more or less, all the time, weekdays and weekends. Though I do tend to write virtually all time in one form or another. I write mainly in the evening and late at night. I am most definitely not a morning person. During the day hubby and I tend to potter around the house doing chores, or go to a caff for lunch or a coffee (corona-plague-dependent, obvs). I’m lucky that I no longer have to do a day job as such. When I was working full time, I used to write on the bus to work or home again, and in my lunch hour, and then grab an hour or two most evenings and some of the weekend.

Do you set yourself a daily word count?

No. I write by scenes. So I try to do one entire scene, or if they’re very short, two or three scenes a day. Sometimes, I just feel full of energy and ideas flowing and I have to write until it’s all there on the page, other days it’s more of a disciplined slog.

How many hours in a day do you write?

Two or three. Maybe more in terms of planning, mulling, researching, pondering and faffing about. Most of my writing is done by staring out of the window and thinking ‘what if…?’ And I have post-its everywhere.

Did you ever consider writing under a pseudonym?

I only write under a pseudonym. My real first name is dowdy and my husband’s surname is ridiculous, so I didn’t want to use those, and I couldn’t write under my maiden name as that is already the name of an author (with the same first name). Also, as a new writer when I started out, I needed to be free to write whatever I wanted and find my voice without anyone knowing it was me.

How do you select the names of your characters? Do you know everything about them before you start writing their story?

I know a few things – the vital stuff, how tall, how old, eye colour, hair colour. I learn the rest as I go along, with the reader. I have had a few problems with names. To begin with, in my first drafts, male characters were always called John. It’s a name I like, plain, down-to-earth, reliable. But it can be quite hard to find a name that ’fits’ sometimes, and I am terrible for forgetting what I’ve called previous characters, and often in the early stages find I’ve got two people with the same name. I once came up with the perfect name for a character: Ben Sherman. My daughter laughed and told me that was the name of a designer, so I had to bin that idea. But at least it made me realise why those names seemed to work so well together!

What was your hardest scene to write?

I struggle with the emotional scenes where my main characters lose someone or something important to them. But I am able to sit in the privacy of my office sobbing into a notebook or onto the screen, so that’s helpful. I always empathise, so I feel the pain they feel, and I want to show my characters as they go through hard times like we all do.

In terms of technically difficult, as I said before, I’m rubbish at sex scenes. There’s always ‘his hand was here, and his hand was there, then his other hand was…’ and I think, how many hands has this guy got? Or the euphemisms people use, that always makes me laugh. So I tend to leave my couples at the full-on snog stage and come back with the lasting longing farewell.

How long on average does it take you to write a book?

It can vary tremendously, and I don’t always get down to it when I should, but usually a full-length novel takes me around eight or nine months to draft, polish, rewrite etc, get edited, proofed, revised and generally ready for publication. Most of them tend to be around 80,000-110,000 words, which is fairly long for a cosy mystery, but as I said, I am something of a waffler. I always write my first draft longhand in notebooks, then transcribe onto the computer for revisions. A first draft will generally take around one to two months, although I have written 120,000 words in 23 days once. Still haven’t revised that one though! I think it’s mostly umms and ahhs.

Thank you so much, Caron for joining us today. When you’re ready to leave please let our driver Brutus know and he’ll run your destination.

If you would like to find out more about Caron’s writing and books please click on these links: Her blog Her Author’s Amazon Page Latest book: (The Spy Within: Dottie Manderson mysteries book 6)

If you want to find out more about Clubhouse Member’s Books don’t forget to check out the Clubhouse Bookshops

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