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Authentically You: Writing, Genre & Identity.

 

Understanding your writing, genre and identity is key to describing your latest book. In an interesting on-line discussion the other day, the question of self-identity came up. This was in relation to how we view ourselves in terms of being ‘human’ and our ‘gender’. This, in turn, had me thinking about something authors are frequently asked: Who do you write like? How does a writer categorise their book’s genre and identity? What makes them authentically you?

The question often stems from people wanting to get their heads around what you write. This gives them an idea of your genre  and whether your books are ones they might read. Fair enough.

For publishers, the question is more pragmatic and commercial: who is the target readership and on what shelf of the bookshop is your book going to sit? After all, a publisher wants to sell your books, so knowing the answer to both of the above is one step on the ladder to publication.

The answer to the question of genre is all your potential readers need to know. The question of how it reads is what they will find out when they pick up a copy of your book. You cannot write like anybody else; your style is authentically you.

The question therefore is twofold: What is your genre? and to whom will  your writing style appeal?

Asking a writer to identify the author whose books most closely resemble their own is more difficult than it first might seem. When originally asked the question I must have looked like a rabbit in the headlights. I honestly couldn’t say. It helped when my editor, quite unsolicited, described my style as being similar to P.D. James and, oddly enough, someone else said the same in an unrelated conversation. At least I could now come up with a name. But did it really represent  my books?

The second question, that of genre, also proved to be tricky to pin down – important if your book is being entered for awards. Nobody likes picking up a mug of tea only to discover it’s coffee instead. Getting the genre – or genres – of your book right is just as important. Classifying a romantic-mystery-suspense with a paranormal-and-historical twist is a bit of a mouthful. My publisher entered Mortal Fire in the Adult Romance catagory of the Book of the Year Awards. The genre didn’t quite cover all the bases, but Mortal Fire won GOLD nonetheless, so must have ticked at least some of the boxes.

The current series should be easier – a straightforward historical novel. Yes, but historical romance? Historical suspense? Historical blood-and-guts? A bit of all the above is the answer. You see the problem.

It’s not straightforward at all, so perhaps the other way to look at this classification issue is to ask people who have read the books. The following excerpts have been taken from reader reviews on Amazon for Mortal Fire:

Thoroughly recommend if you enjoy a bit of history, a touch of romance, mystery and maybe some crime too.’

‘Romance and mystery, a perfect combination in this page turner of a novel.’

‘The author conveys the sense of mystery and tension brilliantly. She has researched the 17th century very well.’

‘I was entranced by Moral Fire by CF Dunn. It brings together all my favourite themes: romance, murder-mystery-suspence, history and an elusive “extra” that has not been fully disclosed in this first book in a series… time travel?’

‘This book is both a thriller and romance with the undertones of Du Maurier’s Rebecca.’

 

There we have it. From the point of view of readers (and they are the ones that count), The Secret of the Journal series is a romantic mystery-suspense with a historical twist and might be found on the same shelf as Daphne Du Maurier.

So, how do you categorise your book – simply and succinctly – when someone (reader/agent/publisher/film producer) comes up to you at a party and asks that question? Seperating the question into two distinct parts makes it easier to answer:

Q. ‘Hi. I understand you are writing a book – what sort do you write?’

A. ‘Hi’ you say, quick as a flash and with a confident smile. ‘I write books of…

Q. Who do you write like?

A. I write like me, of course, you might secretly think, but seemlessly reply, ‘You will find me on the shelf next to…’  At which point the reader/agent/publisher declares an undying interest in everything you’ve written and you have a fan for life. No? Well, perhaps you’ve managed to tickle their curiosity and that’s the first step, but getting the pitch right? That’s entirely another road for a future post.

 

 

 

 

Rear Window

From the rear window I can see the world outside changing. I’ve been laid up for the last five weeks with a plate holding my fibula together and my broken ankle pinned. It’s the last time I’ll be litter-picking on the coastal footpath for a while. Since that interesting episode in early March, winter has drifted into spring. In a normal year I would flow with it, planting and sowing according to the week and the weather, but my recent accident has taken me down another road. 

So, here I am, watching the tips of branches swell into tiny leaves of vivid green and glowing burgundy. Early prunus blossom has given way to blackthorn egg-white froth, and soon the ballerina-pink, double-flowered ornamental cherries will steal the show. Beyond the garden, I can see the Dorset hills greening under the persistent sun where, not long ago, brown-ribbed earth sported dots of white seagulls.

Snow, rain or milk-mist, the ever-changing landscape is a reminder of life’s fragile persistence. For me, writing without reference to the natural world would be to ignore the foundation of our existence. Whether now or a thousand years ago, the patterns o5qf the seasons are tracked by our senses. Without conscious thought, tendrils of nature wind their way onto the page to anchor fiction in reality. Where would I rather be if being there meant not pausing to look, absorb, breathe? Here I am, trapped by circumstance, but free to see.

Illuminated by the roving sun or silhouetted by the moon, the scene encapsulated by my window never ceases to capture my imagination and my heart.

As I Write This: Slings and Arrows

As I write this I am about a quarter of the way through the first draft of my latest book. It is the eighth I’ve written and the third in The Tarnished Crown quartet. If numbers add up to anything you might expect the process to become easier with time. But does it? In my case the answer is yes. And no. I’ll deal with the yes first.

Since embarking on my first novel, Mortal Fire, in 2009, I’ve encountered many slings and arrows along the way; but I’ve also seen positive changes in the way I approch my writing. As an aidemémoire for those moments of doubt, I’ve come up with an (admittedly) incomplete list of the benefits garnered from years of writing:

  • Understanding how novels work in my genres of historical fiction and romantic mystery-suspense takes much of the gueswork out of plot and structure. This has come with experience and being open to learning and refining aspects of the craft.
  • I’ve developed my own written language style. I didn’t know what it was before I began my first novel, but I do now. That’s a plus. Writing increases confidence in your own unique voice – the one that identifies your work as, well, yours.
  • I know what to expect of my writing journey. Since producing my first book in the euphoria of ignorance, I now realise that size really does matter. A 350,000 word book is not going to appeal to a publisher no matter how well it is written. My books are still long, but they are now within the range of what is acceptable for historical novels.
  • I have an idea of how long it will take me to produce the next volume. I reckon on the first draft taking a year – give or take a few months for moving house, Christmas and other such eventualities.
  • I’ve worked out what daily routine works best for me and plan my schedules accordingly. Emails get answered in the morning, then it’s  gardening, cooking, or household maintenance (DIY, restoration, cleaning) all before early-afternoon. From then onwards I write until at least 7pm and woe betide any interruptions or interruptors.
  • Over the last decade I’ve concluded that editing is preferable to writing the first draft. I like to have the backbone of the story done before fleshing it out and adding the details that provide richness and depth. The first draft can be a bit of a white-knuckle ride, an adrenaline rush before relaxing into the second draft.
  • The subsequent books in a series tend to be easier to write because the fictional world and its inhabitants have been established already.
  • It has been a real eye-opener working with publishers and seeing the world from their perspective. They are the ones producing and selling your books, so it helps the relationship if you have an insider’s view on what sells, how books are marketed and how you can help the process.
  • Marketing and self-promotion – ah, yes, two things writers are urged to embrace with all the enthusiasm of a convert. I have yet to conquer social media and I confess I’d rather be writing than Tweeting, but I am working on improving my understanding of such things. I have already learned a tremendous amount, made many good friends, and sold books to readers across the globe who enjoy my work. That can’t be bad.

So much for experience helping with aspects of writing a new book and all that goes with it, but what continues to be tricky?

The actual slog of writing is much the same whether it is your first, tenth or last book. It requires mental effort, discipline and, not to put too fine a point on it, bum-glue. Yes, without dedicated time at your desktop or with your quill, that book will not get written. Accept it and buy a decent chair that supports your back.

The snakes and ladders of writing are just the same whichever book you write. You start off on an anticipatory sprint, slow down to a jog, before mooching about in the mire in the middle. Pulling yourself out is tough, but once over that hump and peering at the finishing line, you’re almost there. N.B. Write that down and remember it for the next book you write. There will always be ups and downs – plough on.

For many writers, including me, self-doubt is the elephant in the room. Learning to open the door and invite it to step outside is the one thing you can do for yourself.  Recognise the doubts, analyse them for what they are, and then give them the boot.

Looking back, I’m struck not by how much easier writing each book has become – and it has – but the confidence that has grown out of tackling each new project. In a note to myself, I must remember that and, before embarking on the next novel with all those snakes and elephants, repeat the words made famous by Chief Dan George in the film  The Outlaw Josey Wales:

                             When in doubt I must ‘endeavour to persevere’.

 

 

 

 

 

Of Compost & Writing

 

Between writing one chapter and the next I usually do something completely unrelated. At this time of year and on dry days it will be a gardening task. Over the last few months I’ve been tidying winter’s detritus from around the kitchen garden, scooping up leaves and worms and putting them in a safe heap to get on with making lovely, friable compost.

Meanwhile, I’ll be plotting the planting of the vegetables while planting the plots for the next chapter. Both require gentle handling and time to compost, although the outcomes are completely different.

Following Breadcrumbs: Tracing Historical People

 

Tickhill Castle, print

 Sir Hugh Hastings, de jure 10th baron Hastings, (c1447 – 7th June, 1488) is one of those tantalising figures that populates C15th English history. We have scant information about the man and I have been unable to trace an image of him. The little we do have leaves a trail of breadcrumbs that leads to notable people and events. We know he was knighted and acted as Sheriff of Yorkshire (1479 – 1480), and that he was also steward of Tickhill castle, near Doncaster, Yorkshire. This is where he enters my orbit of interest.

 
Elsing Hall, Norfolk, built C1470
Son of Sir John Hastings (of Elsing Hall, Norfolk) and Anne Morley, Hugh married Anne Gascoigne (before 12 April 1455). Together they had five sons and six daughters who survived long enough to be named and noted.
 
From the Patent Rolls we gain a little more insight:
On 20th June, 1482, Hugh made a will. Given the date this, presumably, was before leaving with the invasion force to Scotland under the leadership of Richard, Duke of Gloucester.
On 25 May, 1484, Richard of Gloucester – now Richard III – rewarded Hugh Hastings for his services against the rebels in Buckingham’s rebellion. He granted him ‘the manors of Wells, Warham, Sheringham, and Wiveton, Norfolk, worth £101 6s. 7d. a year, to hold, in tail male, by military service, at a rent of £8 16s. 7d. a year.’ (Complete Peerage) What role he played is unknown. 
 
Hugh survived the change of regime in 1485 long enough to die where he was born, in Fenwick, West Yorkshire, on 7th June, 1488.
If time were not an issue, if I had lifetimes to spend on research, it is people such as Hugh Hastings I might choose to study. Theirs is a voice seldom heard.
I am currently working on The Tarnished Crown trilogy, a historical suspense set during the turbulent years of the 15th century in the period we now call The Wars of the Roses. Blood will out.

Happy New Year!

 

I have been a bit remiss in not posting Christmas greetings (being in full unpacking-of-boxes-and-packing-of-presents mode), but I am right on it with wishing everyone a very happy, peaceful, and healthy 2021. None of us can foretell what this year might bring, but whatever unfolds, may the new year be gentle and blessings manifold. Happy New Year!

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Christmas baking: going traditional

That’s the mixed fruits and candied peel ready for Christmas baking. A couple of weeks ago, the raisins, currants, sultanas, chopped dates, peel, ginger, orange zest, and glace cherries were washed and packed into big preserving jars. A concoction of brandy and spices (LOTS of spices) was then poured over the fruit, the jars sealed, and the whole lot left to steep. This is then ready for all sorts of recipes: I can add suet to make mincemeat or kept just as it is for the family version of stollen, or as a vital ingredient for apple and fruit pies. The smell of citrusy spices is intoxicating.

I used a jar of the mixture for the Christmas puddings I made last week, and another for the traditional Christmas cake, the recipe for which was passed down to me from my grandmother and from her’s before her, so is at least 130 year’s old.

 

 

 

 

Unlike my grandmother I remove my wedding ring before baking. Many decades ago, she lost the same ring while making her famous Christmas cake. Mourning its lost (it was the only ring she owned) my grandmother never thought to see it again until my aunt took a bite of cake on Christmas day and discovered the errant ring.

Now instead of a ring, I put a silver thruppeny bit in the cake (and £1 coins in the puddings) with a health warning before serving it up to the family.

Author interview with S.C. Skillman: Paranormal Warwickshire

I am delighted to have as my guest, writer and novelist S.C. Skillman, whose latest book Paranormal Warwickshire looks certain to raise curiosity and a few tingles. This is not just one for those living in Warwickshire, but for anybody interested in the historical culture and lore which surrounds these tales. This is a fascinating book, S.C. Skillman, tell me more.

Paranormal Warwickshire (https://www.amberley-books.com/coming-soon/paranormal-warwickshire.html   involves real incidents. How do you find the balance between reporting fact and delivering an interesting and entertaining read?

The key to this is to find the most engaging information with a high level of human interest, and to present it in a light, accessible style. I blended historical details of each location – whether grand or everyday – with the strange stories and curious anecdotes that present day visitors, custodians and staff have told about them. For some of my chapters I listened to those willing to share stories, and in my book I present their words in direct speech, alongside the historical details, only bringing in information which I think will answer questions in the mind of the reader. 

 

  • Why do you think that people continue to be fascinated by tales of ghosts and ghouls?

I believe this is the same appeal of “who knows what’s lurking behind… or under… or beyond…?” that can apply in so many areas of life, and in several media and literary genres. It’s an essential element in the gothic horror genre and is closely allied to psychology and the unknown of our own minds. A key feature of the gothic genre is the idea of so-called “madness”, and the interplay of paranormal events and unusual states of mind. Ghost stories are often linked to places and overlap with folklore.

Some of the greatest of novels include elements of the paranormal to heighten the sense of tragedy, fate or destiny, or to raise the emotional stakes. Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre for instance and Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and of course Dicken’s A Christmas Carol. Even George Eliot, renowned for her critical independent thought, ventured into this territory with her 1859 novella The Lifted Veil. This concerns itself with such subjects as extra sensory perception, gifts of precognition and the supernatural.

  • How did you find and develop the idea for Paranormal Warwickshire?

I began by frequently visiting several places in Warwickshire, feeling their spiritual resonance, and discovering new things about them each time I visited. I wrote blog posts about them in my series Places of Inspiration. Then a writer friend suggested I put them in a book. She suggested I confine myself to Warwickshire and include photos. I decided to call it Spirit of Warwickshire. When I read out a chapter in my local writing group, a member of that group said she wanted more history.

So I researched further and included more history in my chapters. Then I approached a few history publishers with the book. Amberley were interested and said they wanted it for their paranormal series. I thought, ‘OK. I can do that. I’ve always loved ghost stories, and all the places I’ve written about do have several such stories attached to them.’

  • Is there any particular incident in Paranormal Warwickshire that stands out for you and why?

I think it’s an incident in the library at Stoneleigh Abbey, Kenilworth.  I have been on a number of history tours there; and also on the Jane Austen tour. The Abbey is strongly associated with Jane Austen, who visited it in 1806 with her mother and sister when her mother’s cousin the Revd. Thomas Leigh of Adlestrop inherited the estate.  On each occasion I have found the library to be my favourite room. I love its proportions, its ambience, the inviting shelves packed with books, the lovely furniture (including an original Thomas Chippendale chair). The room is strongly associated with Chandos Leigh, 1st Baron Leigh of the 2nd creation, who was a poet and friend of Lord Byron. I feel a sense of empathy with him because he poured out a lot of intense, worthy poetry which was well received at the time, but he has never been regarded as a great poet and his poetry was ignored after his death. He was eclipsed by his own friend Lord Byron.

Chandos spent a lot of time in the library.  The history guide describes many strange occurrences in this room; one of the events relates to the handle on the door which is now blocked up on the other side. The handle moves up and down violently at times, as if someone on the other side is keen to get in. The history guide told a very amusing story of how it interrupted one of his first tours, when he was speaking to a party of twenty visitors.

He reports that it was so loud, he said, ‘Stop!’ And it stopped. He then said to the manager, ‘somebody’s trying to get through that door, and you need to have a word with them, as it really put me off my tour.’ The manager replied, ‘that’s impossible.’ The guide said, ‘I know it’s impossible, the grandfather clock’s standing in front of it, so they can’t come in.’  He said, ‘no, no, no: the other side of that door’s a wall, the handle is only on your side. It really needs to be moved because it’s stiff.’

  •  As a novelist, you write across genres. What made you choose these areas? 

I have written a psychological thriller, a paranormal thriller, and non-fiction.  My two new novels (one completed, one WIP) are gothic magical realist novels.  My first two completed novels, written years ago, and unpublished, were comic novels.  I love trying different genres.  I believe that genre chooses you rather than the other way round. 

It’s all about the books you most love to read.  When I think of my top all-time favourites (mostly classic) – Dostoyevsky: Crime and Punishment; Emile Zola: Therese Raquin. Wilkie Collins: The Woman in White. Oscar Wilde: The Portrait of Dorian Gray. Daphne du Maurier: Rebecca. Iris Murdoch: The Bell. Barbara Erskine: Midnight is a Lonely Place.  Susan Howatch: The St Benet’s Trilogy. Phil Rickman: The Merrily Watkins series, a theme emerges: psychological, paranormal, gothic, spiritual. These are the things I love. The strange byways of human nature… this all feeds into psychology and the paranormal, mystery and the unexplained.

  • How do you believe that your experiences have influenced you as a writer?

My experiences with numerous groups of people throughout my life have influenced me in the writing of all my fiction, including my first two unpublished works, and my two published novels, Mystical Circles and A Passionate Spirit. One of the things I love exploring in fiction is dangerous group dynamics in an enclosed setting.  I have poured into these two novels a lot of my personal experience in many settings; not only a variety of spiritual groups, but also numerous everyday settings like offices, parties, and family gatherings, along with retreats, conferences and courses I’ve attended. Everywhere there is raw material in the form of people and their interacting personalities.

I have long loved observing people, and then writing down their words and behaviour in my own journals.  Also, I am inspired by books, films, TV drama, art and psychology. This can be seen from my non-fiction book Perilous Path: a writer’s journey which is an encouraging, motivational book full of short chapters about the writer’s life, and how inspiration can come from great writers, artists, psychologists and the Bible. The book also serves as a friendly how-to guide to writing fiction.

  • What writing projects do you have lined up?

I plan to write, and have started researching, another non-fiction book called Illustrated Tales of Warwickshire which is about folklore and strange events. I have completed a gothic magical realist novel called Director’s Cut and am halfway through the sequel Standing Ovation.  The first novel is set in south London where I was born and brought up, and the second novel is set in Stratford-upon-Avon, close to where I live now.

I hope you will enjoy reading the stories as much as I enjoyed researching them!

 

S.C. Skillman, very many thanks for your intriguing insights and for taking the time to introduce us to Paranormal Warwickshire, which will be published on 15th November 2020 and can be bought through the links, below.

Buy Links:

https://www.kenilworthbooks.co.uk/signed-books

https://www.amberley-books.com/coming-soon/paranormal-warwickshire.html

http://www.warwickbooks.net/preorder

https://www.waterstones.com/book/paranormal-warwickshire/s-c-skillman/9781445698267

Social Media Links:

Website and blog: https://scskillman.com/ 

Amazon Author Profile:  http://bitly.ws/9SK9

https://www.facebook.com/scskillmanauthor

https://twitter.com/scskillman

https://www.instagram.com/scskillman/

https://www.pinterest.co.uk/scskillman/_created/

https://www.linkedin.com/in/sc-skillman-42347a47/

https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/4692653.S_C_Skillman

 

Defining Character: Finding George.

George, Duke of Clarence C16th portrait

Ever wondered how writers come up with characters? Chatting with other authors it’s clear everyone has their own way of creating the people who populate their pages. The subject came up as I was telling them about watching Stranger Things 3 and spotted George. “George? Who’s George?” For anyone who has watched the delightfully quirky series, you will know that there isn’t a character called George. However, as an author, I’m always on the look out for people and faces that fit the characteristics of someone in my books. It helps me visualise them, allows me to create a more nuanced, rounded person just from the quirk of a brow, or the gritting of teeth. From that the imagination flows: why is he gritting his teeth? Does he have bruxis, a bad temper, or has just lost his favourite car in a poker game? Some people are easier to find than others. George isn’t one of them.

As the middle brother of Edward IV and Richard III who never made it to the throne, George, Duke of Clarence doesn’t get much of a look in. Not that much is known about him, and what is known is not particularly flattering. He comes across as a difficult, rather punchy individual, argumentative and edgy. No doubt there will be those who will wish to paint a more flattering picture, but I just don’t see it in what records we have from the period. Writing about him has its challenges, not least how to conjure a fully rounded personality out of very little.

It’s easier if the character isn’t real. Even then, they have to be created from nothing. It took me time to find someone with the physical characterisitcs of Matthew Lynes – one of the main characters in The Secret Of The Journal series – and here he is in the form of the late, lovely Paul Walker

But although Paul Walker was the physical personfication of Matthew Lynes,

he didn’t quite get to the heart of the man. For this, I use British actor Sam Claflin, who somehow manages to pack so much emotion into so little, giving the impression of depth and a hidden past. Perfect.

 

So, back to young George. And therein lies a problem: George Plantagenet was only twenty-eight years old when he died. He led an eventful, often violent, life, which needed to be reflected in his characterisation. Visulising him was difficult. I see him attractive, sometimes charismatic and sexy. He could be charming but also jealous and vengeful. He was impatient, exacting, fierce. He loved his children, but only on his own terms. He believed himself to be the man for the job and could be critical of his older brother’s leadership. Yet, in the early years, he was also known to be defensive of his younger brother, Richard before, that is, the boy became a man and challenged George’s sense of seniority. How, then, to create a visual impression of this complex individual who seemed so much older than he was? I’ll trawl through newspaper photographs, magazines, and watch films. I will take every opportunity to observe the everyday people around me in cafes and streets, shops and on walks. The hunt is on to find someone who captures the essence of the man.

 

Putting The World To Writes: the value of writing buddies. 7 steps to follow

Colin Dexter, Inspector Morse

Writing can be a lonely business. Novelists inhabit a world of imaginary people, but getting out to meet real ones can be a bit of a challenge. And Covid-19 hasn’t helped, restricting the opportunities to get out there and meet living, breathing folk.

It takes bum-glue to get a book written. Hours, days, years are spent working up a book to a publishable standard. How, then, do writers get a bit of people time and, more importantly, get a bit of perspective on their latest work?

This is where having other authors as friends really counts. Writers speak their own language. They swap notes, share information, support one another. They understand the ups and downs of writing, finding an agent, a publisher, an illustrator. They swap tips, share experiences, and have an insider’s view of the publishing industry. Most of all, they can have a good laugh over a glass of wine, mug of coffee and the inevitable chocolate.

When it comes to the writing itself, another author might have a valuable skill they can offer in return for your own. As a dyslexic, I make errors of spelling and punctuation despite rabid attempts to iron them out. This is where my good friend and author, Sue Russell, steps in. She’s a Grammar Guru to whom I turn for help. In return, I discuss her writing projects and ideas for plots. Best of all, we enjoy each other’s company, support one another, and have a good chuckle along the way.

We met when I ran a writing group in North Kent. She popped along one evening to suss us out and ended up staying. We became firm friends. That was  nearly a decade ago. Now I live in the South West, but distance hasn’t diminished our friendship, nor the practical help we offer each other. We send our latest manuscript by email,  exchange messages on social media, and take full advantage of Zoom or Skype. Of course it’s not all work and we enjoy a similar sense of humour which we employ at the slightest provocation.

It’s simple to find a writing buddy because the world’s your oyster. There are thousends of authors like you who will enjoy your company and appreciate your experience.

 

There are a few hard and fast rules to follow:

Respect one another’s work –

Respect the relationship  – this is not an opportunity to blow your own trumpet and big yourself up.

Be honest – not ruthless.

The relationship is a work in progress – nurture it.

Have fun – otherwise what’s the point?

Apply a degree of professionalism – be rigorous, not pedantic; thorough and even-handed.

Support one another – we all have our highs and lows.

Give your writing buddy a boost – tweet, post, and blog about their work. Big them up.