new book

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.

 

 

 

 

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’.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Proof Is In The Reading: proofreading the new novel

I’ve spent the last few weeks holed up and proofreading. This is the last stage of preparing a novel for publication. It went through structural and copy edits and then to a professional proofreader and to me. This is my last opportunity to spot errors and make minor amendments. There are always some no matter how thoroughly I’ve editied it before. Sure enough I spotted an inadvertent  name blip, winced at the number of times I used ‘winced’, and noted armorial colours that mysteriously changed. That’s what proofreading is all about and I am thankful for the absolute professionalism of the team handling the production of my book.

Proofs for Wheel of Fortune are back with the editor. It’s now time for a thorough purge of my study before resuming editing the second book, Degrees of Affinity. How does so much detritus build up when I’m not looking?

To be fair this mountain was largely the result of boxes being deposited in my room. Accumulated over thirty years, this ‘stuff’ had to be sifted and sorted, trashed and filed one box at a time.

I’ve completed that task. Now I have a lifetime of books to go through, organise and get onto the shelves. First off are the numerous books on a variety of historical topics associated with research for The Tarnished Crown trilogy. Next come those collected in childhood – well-thumbed and with annotations and observations scrawled in a childish hand. The history books from  university are another load. The comments have matured, become somewhat pithy at times, and reflect a more searching mind. The stacks that have accumlated since are well-read but pristine. Notes are now made on slips of paper and secured within the pages. Many have been gifts from my family, always on the hunt for presents for Christmas and birthday. It is a time for reflection as I come across old favourites, and a time of preperation before I continue with the second book.

On Weeding and Writing: Creative Gardening Writes Novels

Can creative gardening write novels? I think it can. It’s that post-Christmas period when the morning sun reveals the dust on the shelves and the first snowdrops and winter aconites wink under the hedges. I ache to get out into the garden and continue the jobs left undone at the close of autumn.

 

With Thegn’s help I’ve been concentrating on clearing ivy in the spring garden. Seedlings of ash and sycamore have over-wintered there as well, and their bare stems defy attempts to dislodge them. Where I win the battle, I push crocus bulbs and snowdrops into the loosened soil, and plant wild primroses and spotted pulmonaria (lungwort) under the shelter of the trees. They look sad at the moment but, given gentle rain and warm sun in equal measure, will soon rally, providing nectar for emerging bees.

Such repetitive work gives me plenty of time to think about writing. Often, gardening is when the best ideas filter into my consciousness, bud, and blossom. Over subsequent weeks as the garden develops, I weed out the blind bulbs of ideas that lead nowhere, the weak seedlings that undermine the plot. I feed and tend the stronger saplings whose branches will bear the most fruit and the best storylines. In my garden, I flesh out my characters and prune those that get ahead of themselves. Even the very act of tending the soil gives ideas for the future. While Emma D’Eresby in The Secret of the Journal series hates gardening (because her father loves it), Isobel Fenton in The Tarnished Crown series lives for it. For her, the garden is a place of refuge in a land of turmoil where she, and she alone, is mistress.

Perhaps that’s also one of the reasons I like to garden. Here, I have the time, the space, and the freedom to create. From a simple patch of bare ground I can make a world of my own, whether in my head or on my knees, in the certain knowledge that hard graft now, will bear fruit later.