Author Interview – Paul Nelson, author of young adult fantasy, mystery and other genres

As we continue to rack our brains for something to do at home, this week I thought it would be nice to showcase the work of an Indie author and reshare a short interview from two and a half years ago!

Paul Nelson is the author of the Susquehanna series of books for both young adults and adults. The first book of this series is Burning Bridges Along The Susquehanna, which I highly recommend for a pacy and unusual read. Paul has also written Saving Worms After The Rain, and the Fisher’s Autism Trilogy. Paul is an advocate of autism and his main characters are autistic. It is Paul’s desire to open up the eyes of all of us to what it is to be autistic and to break through the preconceptions about autism and the way autistic people are treated. I can highly recommend these very original books, as they are warm, funny and very human. In addition, I love the period detail and the settings of these books, as they are steeped in local history and folklore.

Now, over to Paul:

Thanks for agreeing to be tortured in this way, Paul, I have a few basic questions for you, if you don’t mind. Hopefully these will help people to see the man behind the books!

Q1. What kind of books do you write?

I write fiction that includes those with disabilities, especially autism. Saving Worms After the Rain is an adult mystery with historical elements, and the Fisher’s Autism Trilogy are aimed at young adults and are mainly fantasy.

Q2. What were your earliest influences? What did you read as a child?

Reading was hard for me as a child. I think I have ADHD. When I got older, I read lots of short stories by Truman Capote in school. I also love John Steinbeck and Anne Rice.  I read a lot about spirituality…Richard Rohr and Buddhism.

Q3. What are you working on at the moment? What can we look forward to in the future from you?

I’m working on a novel about a young woman with an autistic brother. (Spoiler alert, that’s the Susquehanna series, people, buy it now here) It’s historical and fantasy combined. They find a time portal and travel back in time. It’s about the Susquehanna River Valley, where I live.

Q4. What are your favourite authors? What are you reading now?

Mark Twain, John Steinbeck, Richard Rohr, Anne Rice. I’m not reading too much right now. I’m trying to spend most of my time writing. 

I know what you mean, I don’t read much when I’m writing either, it seems too much of a distraction, and I’m worried about bringing other authors’ voices and styles into my work. Plus I just don’t have the mental energy!

Now on to Q5. What do you do when you’re not reading?

My autistic son needs a lot of my time. I make sure I walk for at least 40 minutes a day. It’s good for the body and the spirit and mind. I do a lot of writing in my head when I walk. I also love movies. I wrote a screenplay of my first book. My son and I go to movies quite a bit. (Caron adds: let’s hope we can all get back to that soon.)

Q6. What is your writing process?

I like to write in my head first. When I sit down to start writing a rough draft, I imagine what I want to write as a movie scene. It’s like storyboarding in my head. After I write all the scenes, I go back and embellish, add descriptive passages and link the scenes together. I’m a very visual person.

That’s an interesting approach – I find it difficult to write until I’ve created a book cover – I need that visual stimulus to bring my story alive in my head, but I don’t do the full on storyboarding. Maybe I should try that.

Thank you so much for sharing your writing process with us. I’m really looking forward to your new book – and all your subsequent books out there in the big wide world.

About the Author:

Paul Nelson is a former music teacher who has written a trilogy of fantasy fiction books inspired by his 19-year-old son Michael, who was born with autism. Michael has a hard time communicating on his own, but Paul knows his son has a story to tell. Paul wants to show the world that people with autism are not ‘badly raised and in need of spanking’ nor are they ‘stupid and lazy’, but are creative, intelligent, compassionate people with something to say and who deserve the same respect everyone else should get. On top of that, his books are a breath of fresh air. The books are available as a set in one volume called FISHER’S AUTISM TRILOGY, or as individual volumes, entitled: Through Fisher’s Eyes, Dark Spectrum and A Problem With The Moon.  In addition to this trilogy, there is also a novel for adults, Saving Worms After The Rain, which Paul describes as a mixture of mystery and the history of central Pennsylvania. You can follow Paul on his author page on Amazon.com or on Twitter.

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How to make a first draft: a list of ingredients

A lot goes into the first draft of a novel. It’s a phase, not just a single event. It goes through emotional twists and turns–as does the writer.

I write all my novels longhand in the first draft. Here’s a list of some of the ingredients I used to write my most recent first draft:

Firstly I needed six of these: (they HAVE to match…)

And I will on average use 4 or 5 of these: (I am literally writing purple prose).

One each of the these:

And even these:

Finally, raring to go, I will begin with excited enthusiasm: (the towel’s not really part of this.)

Then I will write furiously in a panic to get it all down on paper:

Then I will feel tired and only want to do this:

Next comes the phase of rebellion:

Then there’s a little bit of surprised ‘I think this is going to work’ feeling.

Followed rapidly by a ‘Why on earth do I do this to myself?’ sensation (which can last up to twenty years).

When that is over, I move into what I like to call the ‘Theoden, King’ phase of writing: a kind of grim resignation.

When writing a first draft you need a lot of sheer dogged persistence. Fortunately I do have quite a lot of that. It’s basically my only marketable (or not) skill.

Until one day:

Followed by:

And of course, plenty of:

And then:

The End (of the beginning…)

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The Older Author

Is it too early in the year to do a blog round-up? Am I the only one who feels like they’ve already had enough of 2020? And to think that only a couple of months ago I was saying that 2019 had been ‘the year that never was’.

I hope everyone is keeping well and just as importantly, staying sane, in these very weird times. At Chez Allan, we are all fine. The hubs is outside now the weather has improved and doing manly things like banging the living daylights out of a piece of wood. If I had a hammer…

…I’d probably brain someone with it.

There’s a reason I write crime fiction.

Yes, in case you missed it, easily done in this world of megamarkets and worldwide internet shopping, I am a writer of mystery books, and in the case of one trilogy, murder-not-so-mysterious (she tells you what she did and how…).

I’ve always loved murder mysteries. I also love romance but not the really gut-wrenching, heart-breaking stuff. I like it light and fun. I am not a fan of too much reality – I have enough of that in my life, I want to escape to somewhere happy. Or as happy as you can be with a corpse at the bottom of the stairs…

I started just as many other criminals writers start, reading Enid Blyton etc as a small child. I mean really reading. I read well by the age of four, and was unstoppable when it came to books. I still have a VERY large collection of print books, and now eBooks too. (Of course the beauty of eBooks is you can have hundreds and hundreds and your partner doesn’t even know about them!)

From Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, Secret Seven and other series, I went on to the wonderful and very under-rated Malcolm Saville’s books. Then it was just a hop, skip and a jump to the books I have loved for about fifty years: those of Agatha Christie and Patricia Wentworth.

So it’s not entirely surprising that my passion for books and words should make me turn to creating my own stories back in the days when you had to wait a year or more for your author to put out a new book, instead of every three or six months. I just used to like putting my thoughts down on paper. The power you have as a writer, to make the elements of life you don’t like disappear, and to put better ones, more exciting or glamorous, in their place!

I never thought I would be published by a ‘real’ publishing company. Quite the opposite. I did a short creative writing course to round off my degree, and the tutor spent as more time telling us we had more hope of going to the moon, than of being published by a publishing house than she did actually teaching. This did not boost class morale, I can tell you. But I had by my late thirties developed a dogged arrogance that I was going to keep writing, no matter what. (I destroyed all my writing once when I was about 28 or 30, because someone told me what I was doing was wrong, selfish, immoral, pointless and self-indulgent. I regretted almost immediately being so gullible. And that (probably awful) work is gone forever. The world won’t miss it, but I do, like an old friend.) I wasn’t going to make that mistake again.

You might think then that it was clear I would have to self-publish. but I didn’t even consider that for many years. In fact it was 2012, when I was 52, that I finally thought, you know what, maybe that is a good idea. There was more stigma attached to that, because then even more than now, people saw it as ‘not real publishing’. If any fool could put their own book out there, well, what value was there in your work?

But I don’t write to prove I have some value. And I freely admit some people hate my work. But–and this is the bit that astonishes me even now–some people love it. And they say nice things to  me like ‘I can’t wait for your next book’ or ‘I love these characters’. That’s amazing, and that’s what keeps me going.

If you look at great writers, or popular writers (not always the same thing) you will see some awful reviews for their books. I mean, we all think of the prolific and successful writers as ‘great’ in some sense, and yet they have their fair share of bad reviews. So it’s no surprise that a wannabe like me would have some bad ones too. You have to develop a thick skin, and send your tough journalist/critic persona out there to read your reviews and engage with reality, don’t let your sensitive, insecure creative persona go out into the big world, they will be crushed.

This has been rather a woolly, waffling blog post, I know, but I just wanted to say all this again, to talk about how you can come from nowhere special, with an average or below average education, income etc, and with determination and by learning a few skills, you can be a writer. It’s not quite as easy as I’ve made it sound, and it might be years before you make any money, but what have you got to lose? Give it a go. I also feel compelled to say this: it is not too late, you are not too old. Writing is one of the few careers where you can start at any age, and you don’t have to retire at sixty-five if you don’t want to.

There are a ton of writers out there who are old gits, I’m not the only one. Here is a link to an article about older authors:

https://www.thoughtco.com/bestselling-authors-who-debuted-after-age-50-4047864

 

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A writing assignment from years ago.

This week I thought I’d try something a bit different. So I’m sharing a piece that was an assignment for a course I did a number of years ago. I had lost this piece for a long time, then found it again last week – which has made me really happy!

The requirement was, to write a short piece about a topic from a list. I chose ‘A derelict building’. The first piece was to be a descriptive piece to set the scene. Then, we had to write a longer piece, developing this idea into a short story. Then, as if that wasn’t enough, we had to write a reflection, a short piece again, to explain why we wrote what we did and made the decisions we did about setting, point of view etc. This is pretty much a classic assignment in any writing course. I’m giving you here the three pieces, more or less unedited, and a tiny ‘now’ reflection on the work. Sorry – it is quite long!

A derelict building:

With my single step the dust flurries and settles again. A bird, startled, in turn startles me as it flutters away, my heart is in my mouth at the sound, sudden, unexpected. I am fixed on my spot for a moment then move on again, this time stepping more carefully, more softly. I do not want to disturb those that live here—creatures of the secret uninhabited places, or the shadows, those who are impressions left behind when the building closed, snapped shut on a half-drawn breath as the lights went out.

The shadows, the pigeons, the rats, they are all shut up in this place, hiding from the sunlight in the grey dusty corners. I can hear scratchings but cannot divine the source. I hear the creaking of wood, the groaning of heavy ancient timbers, and the wind sighs through the broken teeth of the windowpanes, and my goosebumps prickle up.

Dust. Cobwebs. Broken oddments of undistinguishable furniture, stranded like the rocks when the tide goes out, poking out of the sand.

I wipe strands of cobwebs from my face, but my skin still remembers the touch even though they’re gone, and I have to wipe and wipe again at the spot. The smell is dry, yet sweet, stuffy and somehow dull, as if there is no remaining scent or fragrance here.

My foot rolls on something on the floor, half-hidden in the mess. I pick up a biro, filthy, but when I test it on the back of my hand it writes in bright blue ink.

I find the stairs. It is darker here in the stair well, and I pause, wondering. Do I really want to go up there? Is it even safe to use these stairs? It’s dark up there, all I can see as I peer upwards is darkness and waiting shadows.

 

And now, the longer piece, I’ve called it Simon:

I could see them from my corner behind the staircase. I hunched down into the shadows, making myself as small as the mice that run along the ledges in the early hours of the morning.

A man and a woman. Smart suits. Briefcases. The man had a clean white handkerchief folded to his mouth and nose. Like he was going to be sick or something. The woman laughed at him and I heard her say, in her posh city voice, ‘Oh Jonathan, you’re so silly!’

Jonathan, his voice was posh too, but he said a bad word back to her.

If I’d said a word like that, Dad’d take off his belt and hit me with it. And Mum, she’d have said, ‘Simon, you shut your ‘ead.’

The woman was looking round her. She looked this way, looked towards the stairs but she didn’t see me. My face is the same grey as the dust in here now, and I’ve got cobwebs in my hair. They itch me a bit. I kept real still, and she was clattering about in those high heels of hers, scaring the pigeons in the roof. They whooshed past her and Jonathan, and made her scream with the suddenness of it, and their wings being so nearly silent—that was funny. I wasn’t scared. I was expecting it to happen—it happened last time when that old alky came in the other night when the rain was battering on the roof. Any time anyone comes in, them pigeons go off.

And, if anyone’s coming, the mice hide. So you know if they’re not around you’ve got to watch out, could be someone out there.

They’d take me away if they found me. Make me go back to the social people. They’d make me go and live with some clean people with a dog and a big garden. And I’d have to go to school.

But I like it here. It’s my own private place. All mine. Well, mine and the beetles, mice, pigeons, bats and that. We share it. They don’t bother me and I don’t’ bother them.

It’s quiet. It grubby but a bit of dirt won’t hurt you. And there’s loads of room. You have to be a bit careful on the stairs, ‘cos they’re wood and two of them in the middle have gone soft and crumbly. You have to jump that bit.

That Jonathan’s found my pen. It must have fallen of out me pocket, and now he’s stepped on it and found it. he looked at it, then he tried it on the back of his hand. It’s still working, I can see it from here. It was a good pen, that.

She’s just laughing at him again. Said it’s ‘obviously’ been there ages as it’s filthy. He’s chucked it down, he looks like he feels a bit thick. She’s really bossy, her. I bet no one ever give her the belt when she was a kid. I’ll get that pen once they’ve gone. It’s a good one.

I wish they’d go. I’ve got half a burger I want to eat. I found it this morning on the pavement outside the chippy. It had just been thrown down, still warm it was. The bloke got in a van and drove off. I want to eat it, I’m starving. It’ll be a bit gritty by now, I bet, ‘cos everything I bring in here, after a while it gets that gritty taste. Mind you, sometimes that’s ‘cos I get cobwebs on things—there’s loads of spiders in here. All different ones. Good thing I like spiders and mice and that.

She’s sneezing! Five in a row, then a quick gasping breath and then another five! I almost laughed. It’s all the dust. They’re stirring it up, moving around the place. She scared the pigeons again—which gave her another fright too! And all the noises they make are big. They all sound like the building will fall down.

They’re really scared. Just because it’s a bit dark and it keeps creaking and all that. I bet they think it’s haunted.

Now he’s just told her to stop being so stupid. More bad words and now you can tell she’s pissed at him.

They’re going to go upstairs, they’re coming over this way. I’m hunching down small and hiding my face. I hope they don’t see me. They’re still looking up the stairs.

‘It’s a bit gloomy up there,’ said Jonathan.

‘That poor little boy might be up there, though,’ she said. ‘We’ve got to make sure. What if he’s hurt?’

‘My suit is ruined. Dry-cleaning won’t fix this, Candida!’

She clattered up the stairs, and I waited to see if she’d fall through but she noticed the rotten steps just in time.

They were up there ages before coming down again. Both cross this time.

‘Told you!’ he said. ‘Bloody waste of time.’

‘We had to be sure, you idiot,’ she said.

Anyway, another quick look round and then they left. I heard the door creak as they went out. I hear the engine of the car start up and listened as they drove away.

It was a few minutes before the pigeons settled again. Then a couple of mice ran across the floor. I knew it was okay to leave my spot.

The stairs creaked as if someone was on them, but I knew it was just like an old man stretching or cracking his knuckles—just getting comfy again. A breeze moaned through the broken windows.

And I tiptoed out of my hidey-hole over to where I keep all my stuff in an old biscuit tin. The burger wasn’t warm now, but I was too hungry to care. I’m going to sit on the bottom step and eat my burger in the peace and quiet, my back against the post.

Reflection:

In my freewrite, I pictured the scene from my own point of view, using the first person to set myself in the derelict building and try to see what was there. But for the main write I wanted to see myself as a visitor, observed by someone else, someone who observed my reactions to the building. I thought about who might be there and settled on the idea of a teenage runaway as the narrator, and I wrote as if he were recounting or recording the episode.

I tried to combine the boy’s resilience in the face of difficulties with the experience of the people who were there to search for him, a boy who has been reported missing. The police officers are the visitors, the outsiders, and the boy gives us his observations of them, alternating his wry humour with his fear of being found and sent to live with strangers, and his growing sense of hunger and thoughts of his scavenged burger.

I tried to see the building as not only a derelict empty shell but also a refuge, a place of relative safety, and an autonomous kingdom where the youngster is the ruler of a domain only he knows.

I tried to avoid too much pathos, I don’t think the boy would see himself in a pitying way, as one of life’s victims. Rather I feel he is happier to live this way, and I feel sure that if he evades the authorities, he will be able to survive there as a squatter as long as he needs to. I wanted the feel of the piece to be more positive than negative.

New note:

With the benefit of hindsight, one of my main quibbles with this piece is that I now realise that plainclothes detectives with suitcases and high heels would not be despatched to look for a missing teenager in derelict building.

And I feel that the boy’s situation is not maintainable in any meaningful way. And there is quite a lot I would change if I was editing it now. But, oh well, as a creative piece it fulfilled the criteria of the assignment. And here and there, it has its moments.

It’s interesting to think about things—plot ideas, for example—from different points of view. And freewriting is a great way to explore your created world if you’re stuck and unsure how to move your story forward, or if you just want to play around with an idea.

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Roadworthy: more on driving in the 1930s

These days we put a destination into our satnav, drive to the garage, fill up with diesel/unleaded petrol, stock up on in-journey catering (M & S vegan Percy Pigs, HIGHLY recommended, or failing that, a couple of rolls of those chewy mints, plus a bottle of water), find Heart fm or Absolute Radio and off we go, singing happily along from one traffic jam to another until we reach our goal.

If we break down, we can, variously, call our mate Steve who has a truck, call our Mum who has a credit card, or if we are very organised, we call our breakdown service of choice, usually one of three in the UK, the first two being, the AA and the RAC, the third being Green Flag. There are no doubt others, but I think these are the most common ones.

And what else do we do? We call everyone we know – or rather text them. ‘OMG can’t believe I blew a tyre and now I’m stuck at the side of the road, LOL, face plant emoji, yawning emoji, emoji of a little car with smoke coming out of the front.’ (I made that last one up, though there may well be one of these. If there isn’t, there should be.)

It’s not a big deal. These days the majority of breakdowns and delays are relatively minor.

In the 1930s, even though people had been driving engine-propelled vehicles for pleasure and work for thirty or forty years, there was, I imagine, still an element of the unknown, of setting out a great voyage of discovery and possibly great personal risk.

So you definitely had to let people know where you were going, what time (or day!) you would be arriving, and the approximate route you were taking.

In the ’30s, there were no motorway services every five miles. Nor in fact, motorways. There was no breakdown – oh wait, what’s this? RAC and AA? In the ’30s? Wow!

I think I thought everything started in the 60s, when I myself ‘started’. So I was quite surprised when I discovered that there was already a very strong AA and RAC presence in this country in the 1930s. If I asked you who came first, which way would you jump? RAC? Or AA? I had vaguely thought it was the AA. No idea why. But I was wrong. It was the RAC. And they began an incredibly long time ago, or so it seemed to me, having been founded in 1897, with the AA not appearing until 1905. (more about that)

As for comfort breaks, well I suppose if you were caught between posh hotels or at a pinch a country pub, you’d have to wait until you were in a secluded area then nip behind an obliging bush or tree. There were campaigns for more public toilets, but these tended to be part of wider issues than merely a place to relieve yourself on a journey.

So I think as my main character Dottie pops out in the car, she will need:

a warm rug,

a map, or book of maps, because even in this day of equality, I think we all know women can’t fold maps.

a flask of tea/coffee (she likes both), maybe a bar of chocolate just in case she breaks down and has a long wait for help to arrive.

The tommy is the plain bar – who knew????

She will want a snuggly car coat, specially cut to reach to the hips, so you don’t strangle yourself when you sit on the ends of your coat…we’ve all done it.

There will no doubt be a can of spare petrol in the back of the car, if not two. And, according to the owner’s manual of the morris minor car (stating that their cars are ‘the very acme of economical motoring’.) come with a tool box under the near-side passenger seat which contains the following: a jack with folding handle, tyre pump and wheel brace, three tubular box spanners and tommy (what on earth is a tommy?), three double-ended spanners, a cold chisel (a shout-out here to the Australian band!), a half-round file with handle, 9 inch adjusting spanner, 6 inch steel punch (why????), a screwdriver, an ignition spanner, a high-pressure lubricating pump for chassis oiling system, a pair of pliers, a hammer (because if something isn’t working, you whack it with a hammer, right?), a carburetter spanner, a sparking plug box spanner, a cylinder head box spanner, a tappet spanner with feeler gauge, (thank goodness, we wouldn’t want to be without our feeler gauge), a tyre lever, and last but by no means least, an oil can.

the feeler gauge is that fan-shaped thingy

Dottie might also want a nice hat, because you need a proper travelling hat, don’t you? I notice that the early hats resembled those leather helmets World War I flying bods used to have. The main reason I want her to have a hat is to restore my own equilibrium after that bewildering range of tools in the tool box. If I had been driving in the ’30s, probably the most worrying thing for me if I broke down would be which spanner did what.

On the whole, it’s probably a good thing that driving and cars have moved on a good deal since then. I know we complain about our satnavs taking us the wrong way or leaving us in the middle of nowhere with a triumphant ‘You have reached your destination’. But it really does sound quite tricky, doesn’t it, getting from A to B with only a tommy and a feeler gauge to help you if things went wrong.

The Aussie Band, Cold Chisel

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Sneak peek and a short extract… upcoming book The Spy Within: Dottie Manderson mysteries book 6.

It’s that time again. I’m working on a new book, the next in the Dottie Manderson mysteries series set in the 1930s and featuring an amateur detective Dottie Manderson. The new book is to be called The Spy Within and I plan and fervently hope to release it in July(ish) of this year.

In case you haven’t heard of these books, I published the first in the series, Night and Day in 2015, and it’s been followed by The Mantle of God, Scotch Mist (a novella), The Last Perfect Summer of Richard Dawlish (sorry about the long and unwieldly title of that one, at home we call it Dickie Dawlish for short, even though Richard hated his name shortened) and last year, The Thief of St Martins came out.

The main character is Dottie Manderson, obviously, she is the one the books mainly are about, and although she isn’t always the one who solves the mystery, she is nevertheless habitually embroiled in the action. Dottie is only 19 in the first book and ages gradually through the series. In the one I’m writing now, The Spy Within, she is almost 21. She is from a well-to-do family and after leaving her ladies’ college at 18, she worked more or less full time as a mannequin (model) for a Mrs Carmichael at her independent fashion warehouse, Carmichael and Jennings, Exclusive Modes, in London. Dottie lives with her parents, and has a married sister, Flora. Dottie and Flora are very close. George, Flora’s husband, adores Dottie almost as much as his wife does, she is very much his sister too.

Unfortunately the books aren’t quite stand-alone. That is to say, there are ongoing story-lines that progress through the novels. I wish I’d though about that a bit more carefully when writing them because with book 3, Scotch Mist being a novella, and therefore cheaper to buy, people often buy it and then haven’t got a clue what’s going on. I really must revise it with a bit more explanation to help those who dive into the series at book 3. Still, we live and learn, I guess! Hopefully I won’t do that next time around.

So what’s new for The Spy Within?

Well, those who have read the books up to this point will be aware that Dottie has been seeing a ‘gentleman’ by the name of Gervase Parfitt for a couple of books. Sadly in the last book, he let her down rather badly by not supporting her when she needed him most. Oh, Dottie had such hopes for Gervase to begin with. But he seems to be not quite as nice as she’d thought, and there’s a rumour going round that he’s likely to be substituted.

If you’re Team William, this could be music to your ears.

William Hardy, police inspector and all-round good guy (most of the time) has been in the background for a while now, and if you’ve loved all the flirty looks and romantic thoughts, then prepare to enjoy some more. It’s Valentine’s day in 1935, and love is in the air. I think. Or is it? You’ll just have to wait and see.

In other news, the Manderson’s maid, Janet is at last tying the knot with police sergeant Frank Maple in this book. They’ve been walking out together since the first in the series. Don’t expect any tears, it’ll be a happy day for all. And it’s about time they made things all above board, because as Dottie said in The Mantle of God, ‘I wouldn’t mind if they did any actual walking out. And how Mother hasn’t caught them, I’ll never know. From what I can make out, they spend all their time indoors.’

So that’s about all I can say at the moment. If I’ve piqued your curiosity, please take a look at a draft version of Chapter One here. Just bear in mind, I might change it a bit by publication day, and hopefully I’ll remember to tidy it up and make it a bit more succinct. I hope you enjoy it.

All that I need to do now is to say a huge thank you to my family and friends and some wonderful, loyal, encouraging and amazing readers who say nice things that cheer me up when I’m down and keep me keeping on. Thank you all. XXX

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Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right, here I am STUCK… my ideas about Writers Block.

I am a self-doubter and a self-regulator. I am not confident in my own abilities but contrarily I do trust my own instincts. I know a good story idea when I see it, it’s just that I doubt my ability to execute it to its finest, best, most beautiful incarnation, which makes me depressed. And I constantly question myself about whether I’m doing my best, or if I am lacking some vital skill or technique, or indeed, if I actually have any skill or talent at all.

A long while ago I read a post on LinkedIn where someone said they had no patience with writer’s block, that it didn’t really exist, not in the case of ‘real’ writers, because ‘real’ writers ignore such collywobbles and just get on with it. Oh yes, said all their friends, absolutely, that’s so true, Writer’s block just isn’t a real thing, it’s simply a poor excuse used by wannabes for being rubbish at writing.

I say that’s poo! (Not what I really said, but I’m trying to stay calm and be polite) Of course it’s real! Maybe these so-called ‘real’ writers have simply learned techniques to help them overcome or cope with self-doubt and plough on?

But many, many very ‘real’, very talented writers–and people in other creative worlds–struggle with issues of self-doubt and have difficulty getting started, or continuing or concluding a project. They (I should say ‘I’ really) might get stuck in the middle of their book, bogged down by the weight of bringing together so many narrative strands to create a satisfactory conclusion. Or they might be stuck trying to move on to a new project after finishing something. Or they might be unsure which of several possible endings is the best one to go with. Or ideas might dissipate like a summer mist ten thousand words into a novel. There are many reasons why a story won’t progress to order, and may leave a writer stranded on the rocks.

So how do you cope? Or stay calm and get on with your work? There’s no perfect solution. Sorry. And there’s no universal fix that suits everyone.

Just know:

a) Real writers do get lost with their projects and struggle. Don’t listen to those ‘experts’ who say real writers don’t cry, I mean, get blocked.

b) It’s ok to struggle, and not see your way forward with a particular work.

c) There are ways you can learn to cope with a lack of progress.

d) You will come out of this and move on to be your wonderful creative self again.

Here are some of the things I recommend. They’ve helped me from time to time.

Take a break. Maybe you’re just mentally and emotionally exhausted? We can so often pout ourselves under so much pressure. it’s wonderful when readers say ‘Loved it, can’t wait for the next one!’ but that can’t be your driving force. Readers are voracious and though we love them, they want far more than we can give them, like baby birds. Take a week off and look after yourself. Have fun, eat well, sleep well, forget about the book. Enjoy your life.

If I’m stuck in the middle of a book, and can’t see my way forward, I put on my editing head and go back to the beginning. I start reading/tidying up until I find I have recaptured the vision, the direction I wanted to go. This can work quite well if you’re a pantser and haven’t really got much in the way of notes to lean on.

If I have a number of alternative plot choices and I’m not sure which is best, I turn to my friends who know me and my work. I discuss my problem in depth with them and see what comes out of that. Sometimes just talking ideas through will help a choice to gel in your mind and get you back on track. If you can’t do that, you can join an online forum and ask them. You might not get the answer you hoped for, but hopefully you will find someone on your wavelength you can open up to and have a proper chat with. But bide your time and get to know people first. Otherwise, I guarantee you will get your heart trampled on by jumping in too quickly and confiding in the wrong person. Or you could just wait and see. Quite often, a situation will resolve itself as the book goes on, just because your various alternatives fall away when they no longer fit with what you’ve written.

Write something else. I can guarantee that the minute I lose interest in a project and start writing something else, is the minute a fresh, new and amazing idea comes to me for my ‘stuck’ book.

In a previous blog, I’ve also put together these ‘top tips’ on how to keep going with your writing. Some of these ideas may help you.

But above all, remember, getting stuck is not a sign that you’re faking it, and yes, ‘real’ writers DO get blocked. Hang in there.

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Dreams and journals

Dreams.

Dreams often provide inspiration for creative projects. I don’t mean dreams in the sense of goals or aspirations but in the sense of the crazy movies that go through our heads as we sleep.

Remembering them long enough to write about them can be a challenge, but sometimes dreams are so vivid, you just can’t forget them, even if you wanted to. I have quite a lot of vivid dreams. I don’t usually have the appearing-in-public-naked kind of dreams. Mine are, more often than not, mysterious, complex and emotional. And I’ve used dreams to create two complete works: one is a novel that I haven’t (yet) published, though that might happen one day. The other is a short story that I plan to publish, possibly next year, and possibly in a collection of short stories, or as a freebie direct from this website.

A lot of my dreams are centred around my anxieties. So I’ve had a lot of dreams about a place I worked many years ago before our children were born. It was an incredibly stressful job, and the hours were quite long. I dreamt about that place for at least twenty years after I left it. Any time I got stressed, I would dream ‘the dream’. I would picture myself back in that office with a large number of people clamouring for my help, and there would be a rush to get everything done in time, and a lot of noise, confusion and abuse. Even now, 34 years after I left that place of work, I still very occasionally dream about it if I’m really stressed about something. That must be the very definition of a toxic working environment: if it makes you have bad dreams thirty years after you left!

Other dreams are centred around other anxieties, usually relating to my children. I imagine many parents, especially of not-yet-born or very young children, have dreams about them. When my children were very small, I often worried something awful would happen to them. In one particular dream, the dream-of-the-book, I was myself a child, and I was sitting on top of a perilously high and very narrowly tapered craggy rock. I was holding a doll wrapped in a shawl or a blanket. But I was also standing beside the rock, as an adult, looking at myself, the child with the doll. Of course, I dropped the doll and it fell and smashed on the ground, being one of those old-fashioned doles with the porcelain arms and head. I-the-adult and I-the-child simultaneously screamed and scrambled for the doll, knowing it was too late. When I picked the doll up, it was transformed into my baby, and I said in a plaintive wail, ‘I’ve broken my dolly!’ Then I woke up.

Dolls, like clowns, have become incredibly sinister in the modern view!

It takes a while, doesn’t it, to shake off the horror of a nightmare and to realise that it isn’t real. I know now that it was borne out of my own sense of inadequacy and immaturity as a mother. It was a long time before I could talk about it. However, I could write about it, and so I did, writing a novel about a severely mentally disturbed woman who is always looking for her lost dolly, that she fears might be broken. I called the story–inevitably–Dolly. Although these days I refer to it as Baby Girl, to avoid confusion with my Dottie Manderson series. Who knows, one day I may polish it and publish it. It’s quite far down on my to-do list.

It can be cathartic to write about dreams, hopes, fears and everything else. Writing is often used as therapy. In prisons and mental health institutions, writing is used to help people to express their thoughts and feelings in a safe and private environment. If you take any kind of anger management course, or any active therapy, even if you just go on a supervised diet or fitness regime, they tell you to write it all down in a journal: how you’re felling, what you want to get out of your current situation, what is wrong with it, what is grinding your gears, that kind of thing. You are taught how to analyse yourself by reading back over what you’ve written and attempting to view it objectively.

So it can be a huge help to write about your dreams, and to examine your fears through writing about them.

More recently, I had a dream that I based the other story on, that I mentioned above. It’s a short story, featuring Dottie Manderson and William Hardy, and Dottie’s sister Flora and her husband George. I’m still umming and ahhing about publishing yet because it contains spoilers for the main series. That’s why I say it might not be until next year that I bring it out of total obscurity into relatively light obscurity 🙂

This is the Artsy Bee image I’m thinking of using for my Dottie short story.

As a writer, I’m continually asked, ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ So a discussion about dreams in part explains that, too. I have often trawled through Pixabay and other stock photo/image sites, looking for images for book covers, for my blog posts etc. And I love the images one contributor Artsy Bee has on Pixabay. A series of those gave me one idea. And watching an old film gave me another. And I got yet another idea from reading something factual about the second world war, and this all led to the dream in which those elements came together. Sometimes even a horrid dream is just your subconscious or your imagination, whatever, fitting together all the elements to try to create something whole and well-rounded.

Dreams then are a very useful mechanism for exploring your own interior world, and for creativity. You can deal with your hang-ups and fears, and at the same time, if you can remember the dream, get a great idea for a story.

Goodnight. Sweet dreams!

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A World Of Their Own: the character universe

When I was a child, I thought that the characters who appeared in the stories I read and loved all knew each other. More recently, I read (somewhere…can’t remember where) that it’s common for small children to think that way.

I thought Winnie-the-Pooh knew Ratty and Moley, who were in turn good friends with Timmy the Dog from the Famous Five. I didn’t understand why Snow White and Cinderella couldn’t join forces, the two of them together easily defeating all the wicked witches, sinister stepmothers and evil queens in the world.

As we grow older, in a way it’s sad that we come to realise none of these characters are real, that they exist only in a little pretend-world snapshot. If we found our way into their worlds through a magic mirror or a gateway in a stone circle, or by any other mysterious means, we would not find ourselves face to face with the story-world. I can remember carefully examining the back of my wardrobe. But no, to my disgust there was no Narnia hidden away. I’d put on my anorak and wellies for nothing.

Yet we–whether author or reader or both–people our world with fictional characters. I’d love to know the psychology behind that.

Some say storytelling is to do with conveying history or traditional or moral values to a younger generation. Some say it is purely for entertainment, keeping the kids quiet in the back of the cave whilst they wait for their dinosaur steaks. Some say it is to explore concepts and ideas beyond our own direct experience, or to combat loneliness, or to relieve stress.

Whatever the reason, we love our stories. We love our imaginary worlds and the characters who live a life that we cannot.

Heroes–storybook people–don’t age. I mean, writers can make them age, but the writers are in complete control and it isn’t inevitable. Sometimes heroes just are ageless, forever young. And characters suffer, yes, but only within the realms of the story. They don’t live their whole lives with unanswered questions, or with serious flaws of their personalities. We don’t watch them decline into old age. (Usually, though. I’m thinking of Wallander.) They remain perpetually young and golden.

This way you can read their story when you are yourself young, and again and again over the long passage of years, then again when you are old and changed, experienced and maybe a little bit cynical. But their bright outlook and determined hopefulness  remains unchanged. They walk through our lives beside us. They are there before we are born, and will continue long after we are gone. They are eternally young, preserved in the pages of memory and written and spoken works.

But we long for them to meet one another, to bring their own strengths and successes to benefit the lives of others.

And with creative works, we can do that. So we have superheroes popping up in each other’s stories. We have mash-ups, mix-ups and collaborations. It’s always interesting to see how this works. Maybe Inspector Barnaby should pop out to the Caribbean for a holiday and help out the Saint Marie police force in a Death In Paradise/Midsomer Murders extravaganza?

And spin-offs are popular: capturing and extending the audience for each side. Morse leads to Lewis and then to Endeavour. We love our characters to work together; we love to see their lives played out; we want to meet all their family and friends. Miss Fisher’s niece arrives on the scene to carry the torch forward in Miss Fisher’s Modern mysteries.

I was interested this week to see that authors Lee Strauss and Beth Byers have come together to produce a crossover work featuring their respective main characters, Ginger Gold and Violet Carlyle, in a new short work Mystery on Valentine’s Day (due out on 11 February this year). I’m intrigued. I will definitely buy that book!

And also on the wonderful internet, I came across a number of books that are ‘about’ books, or an authors work, being a guide to the author’s books, best reading sequence and all the characters. I was astonished to discover there’s a market for that!

With invented realities, the possibilities are endless. Fans of different series welcome the meeting of their favourite characters, I’m sure. It must be the next best thing to meeting a character yourself, to read about or watch a character you love being met by another character you love, and so setting in motion a whole new series of stories in the bookiverse.

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Shakespeare’s English?

Sometimes people say annoying things like, ‘There’s no point in studying Shakespeare–it’s completely out of date and has nothing to do with life in the twenty-first century. It’s a relic, dead and dusty. It’s a waste of time.’

If you’ve been living on Mars for your whole life, you might not know this, but Shakespeare (Bill to his friends) lived from 1564 to 1616(ish). So yes, it was a long time ago. But I firmly believe his work is still relevant today.

Why? Well, many movies and books, and other creative arts continue to be based upon or inspired by the plays or poems of William Shakespeare. More than that, so many words he created are part of our everyday language. Although experts continue to disagree about just how many words he actually ‘invented’, whether it’s 1000 words and phrases, or 3000, (or whether all his plays were in fact, his plays), there is an even greater number of words and phrases that you and I use in our ordinary speech which were commonplace in those days but were not recorded in written English until Shakespeare first put them down on the parchment.

Not that Shakespeare was the first person to write in what we call ‘modern’ English–there were many writers in the  hundreds of years before who wrote in the English language: the language of the poor, and working classes, whilst the wealthy well-educated spoke Latin, then French. But I’d argue that Shakespeare was the first to really use the language in a vitally creative way, adapting it to his audience and the form he was writing in.

A quick comment: English is a relatively new language. It’s a mixed up thing, using elements from many other languages. Its words were ‘borrowed’ (but we won’t be giving them back, so it’s more like theft) from the Celts, the Romans, the Greeks, the Norse, Old German, Old French, Latin, Japanese, Yiddish, Native American languages, Chinese languages, Indian dialects, Arabic dialects, Dutch, Icelandic… or all of the above, English as a language is something living and breathing, it evolves, changes, it has trends, adaptations and corruptions. Igloo. Veranda. Wanderlust. Safari. Samovar. Loot. Cookie. Anonymous. Ketchup. Avatar. Telescope. Doppelganger. Genre. Cafe. Lingerie. Kindergarten. Rucksack. Glitz. Schmooze. Guerilla. Macho. Patio. Chocolate. Moccasin. Karaoke. Karate. Typhoon. Moped. Paparazzi. Siesta. Gherkin. Quartz. Horde. Schmuck. And many more…

You only have to compare Englishes around the world to see the changes that have occurred to the ‘common’ language. If it wasn’t so, you wouldn’t need dictionaries of American English and British English, to explain us to one another. Pants and pants. One is underwear, one is trousers (outer wear). And now, it’s a word meaning bad or terrible, as in: ‘My morning at work was completely pants.’

If someone said, ‘Yeah, baby, that’s out of this world, it’s fabulous, man,’ you’d know they were giving you a crash course in 1960s idioms. Once upon a time, if we were satisfied with the way things were, we said things were cool. Then we started saying people should chill out. How quickly words are assimilated into our language these days. They are often not new words at all, but simply known, ordinary words being applied in a new way. Which brings me back to Shakespeare.

Shakespeare was a genius at taking words we already used and using them in a new context. For example, he often used nouns as verbs. These conjured up vivid mental images, making his plays, for example, colourful and immediate. In a play, already heavily leaning on words for context and meaning, to use words in different way was to bring the spoken word to life.

Here’s a little list of words and phrases, either new or adapted, that can be found in Shakespeare’s work:

Bandit (Henry VI, Part 2)

Critic (Love’s Labour Lost)

Dauntless (Henry VI, Part 3. 1616)

Dwindle (Henry IV, Part 1)

Elbow (the noun used as a verb, King Lear)

Friend (the noun used as a verb, Hamlet)

Green-Eyed (The Merchant of Venice) to describe jealousy; previously or commonly, jealousy was considered to be orange! (Much Ado About Nothing: ‘The Count is neither sad nor sick, nor merry, nor well;/But civil Count–civil (play on the word Seville) as an orange,/And something of that jealous complexion.)

Lacklustre (As You Like It)

Lonely (Coriolanus)

Skim-milk (Henry IV, Part 1)

Swagger (Midsummer Night’s Dream)

Unaware (poem: Venus & Adonis)

Uncomfortable (Romeo & Juliet)

Undress (Taming of the Shrew)

Unearthly (A Winter’s Tale)

Unreal (Macbeth.)

 

Maybe it’s time to bring a bit more Shakespeare back into our everyday language? There is nothing the Bard did so well as a good insult. Try these out at the pub:

Villain, I have done thy mother (sounds surprisingly modern – and completely validates my point!)

Thou Painted Maypole (for a tall woman)

Away, you starvelling, you elf-skin, you dried neat’s-tongue, bull’s-pizzle, you stock-fish

Thou sodden-witted lord! Thou hast no more brain than I have in mine elbows

Would thou wert clean enough to spit upon

Poisonous bunch-backed toad

I am sick when I do look on thee

The tartness of his face sours grapes

I was searching for a fool when I found you (my favourite!)

I do desire we may be better strangers

He has not so much brain as ear-wax.

You have such a February face, so full of frost, of storm and cloudiness

Her face is not worth sunburning

Thou hateful wither’d hag!

Thou art unfit for any place but hell

Bloody, bawdy villain! Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain

You are now sailed into the north of my lady’s opinion, where you will hang like an icicle on a Dutchman’s beard (Of which I think we can all agree, the best response is, ‘What?’)

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