Three things you need to be a best seller

There three things every writer needs to be a best seller: JK Rowling

1 To be up there among the big guys and make loads of money from your writing, you need a series. Once you hook a reader with your first book, then they will be dying for the next one and the one after that etc, etc.

Genre is important too. Crime pays. So do historical books based on Tudor England and children’s books can do well too. Not to forget fantasy series.

2 A main character that appeals to your readership and can stay the course. Their personal lives must engage but not dominate the narrative and there must always been that hook at the end of each book, which leaves the reader longing to know what will happen next.

3 Location and/or world is also crucial. The world of Harry Potter is so well known that words like “Muggles” have become part of our language. Parts of Ireland are visited purely because they provide settings for “Game of Thrones.” In both these cases readers have so identified with the narrative that what is purely fictional has become real and spawned its own reality.

Now at the moment, I’m not doing very well on any of these points. As far as the first is concerned, my novels are all standalone books and quite different in in structure and genre. House of Shadows“House of Shadows” is a time slip novel,

shadows-on-the-grass“Shadows on the Grass”, historical and Picking Up The Pieces“Picking up the Pieces” women’s fiction.

 

 

 

I do have a specific location for all of them, however, as they are all set in Bristol, so I suppose I’m half way towards point no 3.

And while I hope all my characters are engaging, their stories end with the end of the novel. So a complete failure as far as point 2 goes.

However, now that I know what I should be doing, I’m putting myself on the right track.

My children’s book “City of Secrets” is due out in October and will be the first of a series (1) for eight to twelve-year-olds about Letty Parker (2) and her friends, who will be solving mysteries in an alternative world Bristol (3)

Will this be a recipe for success?

Who knows, because one ingredient I haven’t yet discussed is the question of luck, but that’s for another blog.

 

 

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Cars and who drives them.

Ping in snow.

Ping in the snow

As far as I’m concerned all I want from my car is reliability, energy-efficiency and heated seats. I don’t really care what it looks like, or how fast it goes and all the other things that matter to dedicated drivers.

There have been one or two cars that I’ve owned in the past that I’ve been particularly fond of: Ping, my yellow Renault Five, because it used to belong to my sister and Little Blue, the Yaris had a charm of its own, but general, so long as they go when and where I want them to, that’s all I want.

Cars in my novels, however, are a different thing all together and last week saw me trawling through page after page of cars to find the right one for my character. In my current WIP Thea is a successful young lawyer. Living in Bristol, she has to drive a city car, but one with just enough, but not too much, glamour that suits her personality.

Initially I gave her a Mercedes SLX, only to have it pointed out to me by the annoyingly wonderful Jem Shaw that Jo, in “House of Shadows” drives the same car. The two women are very different and what is right for Jo is not for Thea, hence the research.

Luckily, Renegade writers came to the rescue and the choice narrowed down to two, a Range Rover Evoque or a Fiat Abarth. Armed with more information about both than I could possibly want I made my decision.

Why does all this matter? Because like clothes, hairstyle, choice of house, or food, you choice of car reflects who you are, your age, your status, how much you earn, what interests you and so much else.

In the case of “Bevedere Crescent” Thea was finally give the Fiat: the convertible in metallic blue is perfect and I can go back to a state of blissful ignorance…until the next time.

Novitec-Fiat-500-Abarth-1

Happy Mothering Sunday

Four Generations

Four generations of women in my family

It’s that day in the year when we are all supposed to think about our mothers, send cards and flowers and take them out to lunch.

In the beginning, however, this tradition was nothing to do with mothers but it was the day when people went back to their mother church, the church where they were baptised, or the local parish church, to celebrate Laetare Sunday.  Anyone who did this was said to have gone “a-mothering.”

In later times, Mothering Sunday became a day when domestic servants were given a day off to visit their mother church, usually with their own mothers and other family members. It was often the only time that whole families could gather together, since on other days they were prevented by conflicting working hours, and servants were not given free days on other occasions.

The children would pick wild flowers along the way to place in the church or give to their mothers. Eventually, the religious tradition evolved into the Mothering Sunday secular tradition of giving gifts to mothers.

Lovely though it is to be given a special day the relationship between mothers and children is an on-going one that begins at birth and continues often beyond the end of life.  Whether our mothers are still alive of not their influence conscious and sub-conscious continues shaping our thoughts, emotions and behaviour.
It’s this link between mothers and daughters that is a constant theme in my writing. In “House of Shadows” Jo’s mother refuses to see herself in that role, preferring to be treated as an older sister and leaving the mothering to Jo’s Gran.

Picking Up The PiecesIn “Picking up the Pieces” independent, resourceful Liz encourages her daughter to go travelling, but misses Poppy dreadfully while she is away. While self-absorbed Elsa is enough of a mother not to want to trouble her son with her problems.

“Shadows on the Grass” follows the lives of a grandmother, mother, daughter and aunt showing how the care, or lack of it, can make a profound difference in the way a young woman sees herself and what she can expect of life.

Even in my latest work in progress, the children’s book “City of Secrets”, Letty Parker has an unconventional relationship both with her mamma and her step-mamma.

 

Why write such different books?

Why do I write such different books?

Books some of

Talking to a friend about “Shadows on the Grass,” she said that it sounded more of a historical novel than the books I usually write. In any event it was different from the previous two, “House of Shadows” and “Picking up the Pieces.”

Which of course it is. While “House of Shadows” is a time slip/supernatural story, with a touch of the Gothic, “Picking up the Pieces” is a contemporary novel about the difficulties of being an older woman who has lost her job, or, as in Elsa’s case, when her ex-husband goes bankrupt, her alternative source of income.

“Shadows on the Grass,” on the other hand, tells the story of a Polish immigrant family, who come to the UK after WW2. It goes back into their history and uncovers deeply buried secrets in their past, going back as far as pre1914 Poland.

The book also explores family relationships, primarily those between mothers and daughters, throughout the generations.

Another theme is loss. The Dzierzanowski family can’t return to Poland because the country they knew no longer existed as it was virtually satellite state of the USSR, which at that time was separated from the West by what was called The Iron Curtain. Travel between the West and the Eastern Bloc was difficult, if not impossible and my own parents could not visit their relatives, until I was in my late teens.

On the surface, a very different book and yet there are a number of similarities. A sense of loss pervades “House of Shadows”. In that case it is the loss of a child, which is key to the action of the book. There is also, loss in “Picking up the Pieces”. As all three women have to face profound changes in their lives. Much is lost, but more is gained.

Again, all three books are set in Bristol. A city I know and love and which, in spite of the fact that I haven’t lived there since my late teens, still inspires much of my work.

The three genres, however, are very different. This is possibly not the best marketing ploy. Commercially successful writers tend to be those who write series of books. The most profitable, at the moment, being crime.

Why then don’t I find a genre that suits me and stick to that? If money were the sole object, then I would, but that is not why I write.

I write because I have a stories that want to be told, themes that I want to explore and to be honest, I enjoy trying out different genres and suspect I would be bored sticking to just one, especially if there were quite rigid conventions to be observed.

The other reason I write a variety of different books is because I can. Unlike some writers I am not tied in to a contract that demands more of the same, so I am free to experiment and be as creative as I want.

It doesn’t always work. There is a book waiting on my hard drive that can’t quite find its form, but when it does it fuels my enthusiasm and, on a good day, makes writing sheer pleasure.

PS. I also write children’s books, but more on those in another blog.

Cover 1“Shadows on the Grass” due to be published as an e-book in January 2018.

 

 

 

What’s in a Name?

Pensive me 2

Malgosia 

We all know that a rose “by any other name would smell as sweet”. It is, after all, a flower and you can’t change its appearance, or its scent by giving it a different name. Call the same blossom bogstink, however, and our perception of the flower might change.

Names are powerful. They carry with them a resonance and depth of meaning that work on many levels, some buried so deeply in the sub-conscious that we are not even aware of them.

This is why a great deal of time and money is spent trying to find the right name for a new product. The right name will spark a desire to own, or eat, or drink whatever it is that is on sale. A Jaguar, with its connotation of speed and glamour is for more desirable, than the now defunct Datsun Cherry.

It is also why finding your characters matters. Find the right one and so much can be implied, age, status, gender. No reader will empathise with Cruella de Ville, or Draco Malfoy, while Harry Potter is Every Boy, as opposed to Every Man.

House of ShadowsSometimes, as with Jo Docherty, in “House of Shadows” name and character simultaneously at once. It is almost as if I had already known her from somewhere in my past. I could see and hear her, I know all about her family and how and she ended up living with her grandparents.

I also knew exactly what Ann, the girl in the blue dress, looked like. It took me a time to find the portrait of her, painted by Thomas Gainsborough, but it was there in the museum Art Gallery, just as I had remembered.

Names play an important part in “Shadows on the Grass”. Cover 1The Dzierzanowski’s Polish surname sets them apart from post-war British society, in which they have to find their place.

The father, Gregor, suffers the indignity of having his name Anglicised at   work, because his work mates cannot cope with an unfamiliar juxtaposition of consonants.

Today, in a much more multi-cultural world, we make an effort to get our tongues around other people’s languages. When I was growing up, however, it was an accepted fact that no one would try.

The little girl in the picture was Christened, Malgorzata, Anna, Maria Chmielinska. Her first language was Polish and her parents, who did not have much money, sent her to a private nursery school when she was three years old, to make sure that she would be fluent in English, before she started full-time education at five.

Once at La Retraite, the nuns decided that my surname was impossible, my first name even worse and I became Margaret Anne.

Unless this has happened to you, it is difficult to understand what a huge impact this forcible re-naming can have.

For decades afterwards I struggled with this other persona. This English girl who wasn’t me.

What was worse, was that I wasn’t Polish either. At that time Poland was behind the Iron Curtain and was impossible to visit. Even communication with the rest of the family was difficult and possibly dangerous for them. I didn’t see any of my relatives who lived in Poland, until I was seventeen. By which time the political situation had changed and travel between the Eastern Bloc countries and the west was easier, though still not without its difficulties.

I still have vivid memories of the stone-faced East German guards going through our papers on the train and the way in which our possessions were searched on the way out Poland, in case we were smuggling any forbidden currency.

My sister, Anuk Naumann, she too has a story behind her name, but that is for another time, are both known not by the names we were given at birth, but by ones we either found, or grew into.

I suspect this search for identity is crucial to the way we see the world and to our art. Being uncertain of your own story is surely the greatest spur to constructing a narrative, where you, as the writer, or the artist, are more or less in control.

 

Is this Chance or Synchronicity?

Birdcage Walk.

#Friday’s Favourites was a blog about “Birdcage Walk” by Helen Dunmore. It is a book, I’d wanted to read since it was published, because the book is set in Bristol, the city that has inspired so much of my work and the title refers to a place, I know well.

That, has proved not to be the only connection.

Needing to find something on the bookshelves in my office, I embarked on a wholescale re-vamp. I decided that my books and any anthologies, or magazines that have my stories in, I would put on the same shelf. It was interesting to see how much there was and to come across one or two pieces that I had forgotten about.

HensYears ago, in the 90’s I had some stories published in a magazine called “Hens”. It was set up by Harriet Kline, a friend of my daughter Posy Miller’s from university, to promote writing by women.

Looking through edition 5, I found, not only my story “Bubbles”, but also an interview by Helen Dunmore under the title “Published Women”.

A claim to fame? A salutary tale? Or one to be encouraged by, as we were all writers somewhere in the middle of our careers?

Who knows?

It just seems strange to discover, at the same time as I am reading her last novel, yet another link to this brilliant writer.

***

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#Friday Favourites: Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore

Birdcage Walk.“Birdcage Walk” is a novel I have wanted to read it since it came out. Then my mum lent me her copy and a few days later, when Mike was shopping, he rang me from the supermarket to ask if I wanted him to buy it for me.

I wish now that I had said yes, as this is a book that I would definitely want to keep. Not only is it set in Bristol, one of my favourite cities, but I know Birdcage walk well, as it is close to where I went to school. The path through the disused graveyard sparked my short story “Angels’ Wings” and like Helen Dunmore, the city and its history, have inspired a number of my novels, particularly “House of Shadows”.

“Birdcage Walk”, however, has a depth and quality to which I can only aspire. It tells the story of an unknown woman writer, Julia Fawkes, well known in her lifetime for her radical views, but now completely unknown. Nothing she wrote has survived, which gives rise to the question of what writers, especially women, can expect to leave behind them.

Julia is mourned by her daughter Lizzie and it is through her eyes that we see the world of radical thinkers to which Julia and her circle belong and the way in which they struggle with the moral and ethical consequences of the French Revolution.

Lizzie has removed herself form their circle, to marry a man, whose values are in complete opposition of her mother and stepfather. At first totally in love with Diver, she gradually begins to see that there is a darkness in her husband, which will threaten everything she knows and loves.

The gradually rise in tension is almost unbearable. The details of eighteenth century life vivid, yet unobtrusive, the images of the terrace of houses rising up above the Gorge, symbolic of the themes of the novel.

The book is at once a psychological thriller, a historical novel and a treatise on legacy and loss. What makes it all the more poignant is that this is Helen Dunmore’s last novel. In the Afterword, she writes,

“The question of what is left behind by a life haunts the novel. While I finished and edited it I was already seriously ill, but not yet aware of this. I suppose that a writer’s creative self must have access to knowledge of which the conscious mind and the emotions are still ignorant, and that a novel written at such a time, under such a growing shadow, cannot help being full of a sharper light, rather as a landscape becomes brilliantly distinct in the last sunlight before a story.”

Helen Dunmore died in June 2017.