historical mystery suspense

Finding Inspiration: How A Broken Tomb Inspired a Book

‘A picture paints a thousand words’ they say, but I say, why stop at a thousand? I wrote a 5-book series off the back of one image. OK, so it wasn’t a painting, or even a picture. The inspiration for Mortal Fire came from a broken tomb.

I can’t remember where I first saw him, or even his name. I’m not even sure whether his name survived down the long centuries since his image was captured in stone. There he lay, frozen in time – a knight in full armour – his monument to be read like a book. Minute traces of pigment remained trapped in the detail of his sword belt and in the fur of the dog at his feet. His hands, steepled in prayer, spoke of his hope of redemption after death, his collar his affinity in life.

I have seen many such effigies over the years of visiting churches that have become the unintended guardians of the past. Each tells its own story. Whatever we were intended to read from such graceful piety, the dignity of his composure, the emblems of duty, this had a postscript. And it shocked me to my core.

At some point long after the man’s entombment, someone had taken a chisel to his face. It was no accident, nor an act of mindless vandalism. This was a deliberate attempt to erase the man’s identity, his story, his legacy. What struck me on that day as I lingered at his side, was a question in two parts:

  • What had this man done or what did he represent to provoke such a violent response?
  • Who was the umknown person who desecrated the tomb and why?

It was from considering these unknowables that the concept behind The Secret of the Journal series was created so many years later. Although the period in which my protagonist, Emma D’Eresby, was cheifly interested bracketed the English Civil War, the devastating events of that time could have happened in any era. Ignorance breeds mistrust – mistrust, fear – fear, reaction. We see it all the time throughout history; we see it now. The Secret of the Journal goes one step further in its question: what happens when the past and present collide?

I wish I could remember the name of the little medieval church in which the unknown knight lay, or even the corner of England in which I found him. It was a long time ago now. The grass grew lush around the graves in the churchyard, flowers invaded the tumbled stone. I left my knight to rest in peace as he contemplated Heaven ignorant, I hope, of the fate of his legacy, a reminder that history is as much of our present as we are to the people of the future. Those ripples of time continue indefinitely and who knows where they will reach?

Wherever I go and whatever I do, I try to take photographs as a reminder of what I have seen. Although I often fail to make a note of the place (N.B. to self: take a notebook and a pen), the resulting images form a visual reference and the starting point for further research. Sometimes they even become the inspiration for a book. So, have a look through your own photographs and at the people, the places and the things that inspired you to capture them on screen. Now look again and see them as a source of ideas for  your next creation. A picture makes a thousand words.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

How Practice and Experience Improved One Author’s Craft.

Can practice and experience improve an author’s craft?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’.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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.

 

Restoration Game: Joys & Tribulations of Renovating

I’ve been taking time out from writing my latest historical mystery suspense to engage in a little house restoration. One of the joys and tribulations of living in an old house is what might turn up expectedly during renovation.

For the last week I’ve been engrossed in getting some work done in my study – not writing this time, but stripping (although the new book is coming on apace, I’m delighted to say).  I’ve been working on the Arts and Crafts window seat which crosses the entire width of the windows and was stained such a dark colour that it sucked all the light out of the room. 

It wasn’t an easy decision. I’ve seen too many over-restored houses to let that happen to this one. Too often woodwork that was supposed to have been painted from the start is stripped back to a naked surface and limed or left parched and bare. I agonised over what to do for the best and the question I asked myself was: is this an original finish to the Douglas fir and oak bench, or a later addition? A test strip painted a pale, neutral colour looked terrible, leaving me no other option than to take the plunge and remove layers of sludgy ‘mahogany’ varnish. 

The varnish turned out to be a modern polyurethane finish. Removing the varnish allowed not only the warmth of the wood to glow through, but also the strong grain – giving texture and depth. It also revealed that two oak panels had been replaced with…vinyl laminate flooring. Delightful. It worked, I suppose, when covered with gooy varnish, but stripped back looked exactly as it was – plastic. Carefully removing the laminate revealed the badly wormed oak panels. My helpful decorator supplied some oak sheet he had tucked away in his garage and that will be my next task – to cut two panels from it to replace the placky stuff. Then I’ll stain the fresh oak to match the 1900 wood, and use a beeswax and turpentine mix to unify the colours, feed the wood and give it some protection.

Even with this much done, the room feels lighter and more inviting and closer to the original finish desired by Edward Toronto Sturdy when he first commissioned the building. I’ll post some more photos when the job’s completed.