In this post, I share the experiences of writers who have dreamed up novels which at least in part becomes reality true post-publication.
My process is the same every time I write a novel – and I’ve written 12 of them now – I start by jotting down ideas in a notebook.
Once they’ve had a chance to percolate in my unconscious, usually for many months, and sometimes fpr years, I wrestle the ideas into a rough outline of the plot. Then I begin to write, using the outline as a prompt, chapter by chapter, until I reach the end.
This is the second in my new series of posts inspired by Dame Joanna Lumley’s charming memoir, No Room for Secrets, in which she tours her London house giving a commentary on her possessions. I’m sharing snapshots from my Victorian Cotswold cottage in which I write my books, with a commentary on what the objects in each picture mean to me.
Also in this post: news about the book I’m writing now and of a new self-publishing course that I’ll be teaching for Jericho Writers from 1st March.
All authors ought to be avid readers too, so my house has many cosy corners in which to curl up with a book.
This book nook was built by my husband to my specification from a couple of planks of wood to fill in the space left by the vintage Rayburn solid-fuel stove that finally fell to pieces a few years ago.
But as my grandma would have said, “It didn’t owe us anything,” as we’d bought it for £50 twenty years before when we spotted it abandoned in a neighbour’s back garden. They were only too pleased for us to take it away.
Starting from the top, the old enamel sign on the wall above was lying in the garden when I moved in, a relic from when my cottage used to be the village post office.
I made the crocheted lace that hangs from the beam about 25 years ago. Not sure my eyesight would be up to it these days!
On the two pillars hang two small embroideries:
The “Home Sweet Home” on the left was made my dad, who used to do a lot of counted cross stitch, usually on a much larger scale.
I sewed the Mrs Tiggywinkle on the right. I adore Beatrix Potter in general, and Mrs Tiggywinkle is my favourite, reminding me irresistibly of my late grandmother. I’m not sure quite why, but I can never see her without thinking of Grandma!
The bookshelf above the seat is for my “books about books” collection, which is constantly growing. The flat-iron acting as a bookend also came from my garden. The little photo beside it is my young neighbour who sometimes helps feed our cats when we’re away. She is especially fond of Dorothy and left this picture of herself so that Dorothy doesn’t forget her.
The small painting on the shelf is by my nephew Dan Gooding, also a writer. He painted it in Cornwall and gave it to me for Christmas a few years ago.
The cushions, from left to right:
“A present for a dear child” is the sentimental Victorian-style message on the first one, given to me by my parents many years ago.
The large green and white cushions are made from Penguin brand tea towels, and the smaller ones from Penguin tote bags, featuring two of my favourite mystery authors, Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I wish they also made one for Dorothy L Sayers!
The cushion in the centre was hand-felted by my dear Auntie Sheila. (My house is full of arts and crafts made by various members of my family, and I value them more than any Old Master.)
The small cream cushion on the right panders to my passion for Alice in Wonderland.
The green, yellow-edged cushion was crocheted by me from very fine wool many years ago and won first prize for crochet at the Hawkesbury Village Show that year – a great source of pride!
By contrast, the blanket covering the wooden seat is a mass-produced IKEA number, but I love it anyway as it adds more warm pink to my book nook, and also matches my pink, green and cream china, which will feature in a future post in this series.
In case you missed it, here’s the first in this series of posts:
Meanwhile, back on the writing front, I’m poised to write the final chapter of my work in progress, Scandal at St Bride’s, the third in my Staffroom at St Bride’s School series, which should be published in the spring. I’ll bring you more news on that as soon as I can. In the meantime, here’s the beautiful cover by Rachel Lawston to whet your appetite. This story takes place in January, and it’s been helpful to be writing it at the appropriate time of year!
If you’d like to catch up with the first two in the St Bride’s series in the meantime, you can buy them online here:
Or order them from your local bookshop – good booksellers can order them in from their usual supplier, as can public libraries.
New for Fellow Writers: Simply Self-publish – a new course taught by me!
At the same time (January was a busy month!), I’ve been writing a new course for writers, commissioned by Jericho Writers, the highly regarded group that helps writers become authors, through its courses and other resources on writing, editing and publishing. If you’re a writer and would like to take charge of your own publishing career, my ten-week course, Simply Self-publish, will show you how.
For more information, hop over to my course’s page on the Jericho Writers website here:
This is the first post in a new monthly series of blog posts inspired by Dame Joanna Lumley’s charming memoir, No Room for Secrets, in which she tours her London house giving a commentary on her possessions. I’m going to show you snapshots of the Victorian Cotswold cottage in which I write my books, with a commentary on what the objects in each picture mean to me.
My travels may not have taken me as far as Dame Joanna’s, and my friends and relations may not be as famous, but I hope you will enjoy these little insights.
So without more ado, here is the photograph I took this morning of where I like to read for a little while each morning after breakfast – a habit I got into during the first lockdown, when it provided a source of comfort amid so much uncertainty.
The armchair is in the modern extension that my husband built a few years ago. The old part of our cottage has thick, solid stone walls and small windows, which keep it snug in winter and cool in summer, but they also make it very dark. Previously, we could only see our cottage garden from the utility room and my upstairs study.
The new room was therefore designed to give us a panoramic view of the garden and a space filled with natural daylight. We also wanted a high ceiling, in contrast with the low ones elsewhere in the cottage. The stairs lead to a mezzanine floor, added above the old kitchen to make the most of the height.
During Covid restrictions, this light and spacious room, with its view of the great outdoors, really benefitted our mental health.
Now for a commentary on the details of the photo…
The armchair, facing the French doors, may seem unremarkable, being standard-issue IKEA, but I bought it because its mid-century design reminded me of the green sofa in the lounge of my childhood home in Sidcup, on the edge of London. I was very happy there.
The jade-green cushion with embroidered bumblebee, one of my favourite emblems as my name is Hebrew for “bee”, was a Christmas present from my old school friend Jane.
The woollen blanket I knitted during the first lockdown, when I discovered “lockdown blankets” were a thing, because they are a great source of comfort during the knitting as well as on completion. I chose shades of the Scottish Highlands in Rowan Felted Tweed pure wool, becaues for the previous 20 years we had spent many holidays in our camper van in Scotland, and I was missing it very much. It was a bonus that my blanket won first prize in the knitting category at Hawkesbury Village Show this year. (Last year’s village show was postponed due to restrictions.)
The rocking horse behind the chair was made by my father, hand-carved with love, when my daughter – his only granddaughter – was two years old. She’s now 18, but you’re never too old for a rocking horse made by your grandpa. It will forever be a family heirloom.
The little table came from a charity shop, and on it is an iBeani bookrest (the purple beanbag) recommended by my friend Carol Turnham, who belongs to my Cheltenham writers group. It’s really useful if your hands are affected by arthritis, as mine are.
The bottom book, Seven Spiritual Laws of Success by Deepak Chopra, was recommended by my writer friend, Michael McMahon.
The book above it, The Bullet Journal Method by Ryder Carroll was bought just after Christmas at TK Maxx – a shop I never usually visit, but my sister had recommended it, and sure enough, there waiting for me was a single copy of this book that I’d been meaning to read for a while. I snapped it up, along with half a dozen beautiful notebooks. (Well, a writer can never have too many notebooks.)
The dressmaker’s dummy was given to me by my Auntie Sheila, 91, and the Paisley shawls draped over it are from her daughter, my late cousin Frances. Frances loved wool and textiles, and elsewhere we have felt pictures and cloth that she had spun and woven. We think of her every day.
The fez is a souvenir of a hugely enjoyable Madness concert at nearby Westonbirt Arboretum.
On the end of the banister is a Sherlock Holmes deerstalker hat which I gave to my daughter a few Christmases ago for her Sherlockcollection.
The basket and parlour palm were acquired from a neighbour during lockdown, when lots of people in our village put unwanted items on their front walls for others to take home. Treasure-hunting like this was a fun diversion when we were living such restricted lives.
Out of sight, behind the dressmaker’s dummy, is a wooden goose, made by my husband as an accessory for my scarecrow of St Wulfstan, which I made for the Hawkesbury Scarecrow Trail two years ago. St Wulfstan was formerly the priest of our parish church of St Mary the Virgin, where I sing in the choir and ring the bells. Why the goose? Find out more here.
Less interestingly, there’s also a length of copper pipe, left over from some plumbing my husband was doing. I’ve no idea why it’s there or how long it’s been there, and I must find it a more appropriate home!
It was only in compiling this list of artefacts that I realised the reason I love sitting here so much. It’s not just the view of the garden or the comfy chair, but that I’m surrounded by associations with people and places that I love. Where better for comfort reading?
Seasonal Comfort Reads
Speaking of comfort reads, if you fancy a lighthearted and cheery story set at this time of year, Murder by the Book, a laugh-out-loud village mystery tale of love, friendship, loyalty and family ties.
It’s available in paperback and as an ebook for Kindle (also in Kindle Unlimited).
A post about how I choose launch dates for my novels plus a quick survey of other authors’ preferences
While I don’t consider myself to be superstitious, I’ve got into the habit of publishing each new book on a date that is personally significant to me.
Choice of publishing date is a luxury that only independent authors can enjoy:
We call the shots ourselves, rather than being dependent on the huge engines of trade publishing companies, which typically take a year or more to launch a book from the date the author delivers the final manuscript.
My first novel, Best Murder in Show, was launched on 1st April, 2017 – not because I was staging it as a practical joke for April Fool’s Day, but because it happens to be the birthday of my good friend and mentor, Orna Ross, author, poet, and founder of the Alliance of Independent Authors, for which I’m the UK Ambassador.
For my most recent novel, Murder Lost and Found, I chose my daughter Laura’s 18th birthday. Not only was it of course Laura’s majority, but the novel marked a kind of coming of age for Sophie Sayers too, marking the end of her first year in her adopted village of Wendlebury Barrow and a new confidence and assurance for Sophie that has been developing throughout the series.
Being able to publish on dates that are important to me gives me great satisfaction – the icing on the cake of completing a project – but I wondered whether this habit was just personal whimsy or common practice. When I asked some author friends, I was gratified to find I’m not alone in my approach, as these examples show:
Historical novelist Clare Flynn, on her latest novel, Sisters at War, set in Liverpool during the Second World War:
“I chose May 1st 2021 to launch Sisters at War as it was the 80th anniversary of the terrible May Blitz on Liverpool in 1941.”
Alison Morton, who writes alternative history and thrillers, decided to make her Roma Nova short story collection a gift to herself:
“This was the first time I’d dared to put together a collection of short stories, so I thought it would be fun to give birth to it on my own birthday on 19th October. The stories supplement, precede or follow the stories in the core Roma Nova novels – little episodes of their own. It was delightful to wake up to a mix of “Happy publication day” and “Happy birthday” greetings. I drank bubbly that evening in double celebration.”
Other author friends have published to honour family members – for example, Pauline Baird Joneswill launch Cosmic Boom on her late mother’s birthday, 20th July, and Kristina Adams published her non-fiction book, Writing Myths, on her grandmother’s birthday the year she passed away.
Tom Evans has a very appropriate strategy for Soulwaves : A Future History and Soulwaves: Insertions, both of which feature the Moon almost as a character:
“I published on the first new moon of the year, this year and last, and then followed up with snippets of ancillary, augmenting content every subsequent new and full moon. My choice of date may have no significance, but it keeps me aiming at something – with a reminder in the sky when not cloudy!”
Amie McCracken had a very specific reason for fixing the launch date for her latest novella, which is set in the USA and Mexico:
“I chose the Day of the Dead for Leaning Into the Abyss because it features as the day my protagonist finally figures out her life! (And it’s a story about grieving for a lost loved one.)”
Mark Haydenhad a more pragmatic approach for the ninth in his King’s Watch fantasy series:
“Some indie authors are a lot more casual about publication. I adhere to the belief that the best day to publish a book is yesterday, and I put them out as soon as they’re ready. However, even I admit that I rushed out the ebook of Five Leaf Clover a good week ahead of the paperback because the UK bank holiday weekend was coming up and I wanted to give my readers an incentive to buy it. I also admit that my wife did once tell me that under no circumstances could I publish a book on her birthday. I know my priorities.”
Which Book Will I Publish Next?
So when will I be publishing my next book and what will it be?
Mrs Morris Changes Lanes, a new standalone novella – fingers crossed for 1st August (my maternal grandmother’s birthday)
Scandal at St Bride’s, the third St Bride’s School novel – before the end of the 2021 (exact date yet to be decided)
I’m also writing May Sayers Comes Home, a novella about Sophie Sayers’ aunt; a travel memoir,Travels with my Camper Van, and planning new additions to the Tales from Wendlebury Barrowseries of novelettes.
So I’d better get off my blog now and get writing!
One of the most important things I learned in 2020 was that it is very easy to lose perspective when so much of my life feels out of control.
When a flurry of friends shared end-of-year posts in which they realised 2020 had been more rewarding than it had seemed at the time, I recognised the same was true for me.
At the end of 2019, I was sure that 2020 could only be better. Quite apart from political and environmental disappointments (no need to go into those here), the old year had brought me two major health crises. Two scary dashes to hospital with breathing difficulties just after Christmas had led to a new diagnosis of asthma, on top of a year-long debilitating flare of my rheumatoid arthritis that was not responding to treatment.
I had lots of exciting plans to look forward to in 2020, including the annual Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival that I run in my home village, The Selfies Awards ceremony at the London Book Fair for which my novelSecrets at St Bride’s was shortlisted, and some interesting speaking engagements at various writing retreats and conferences around the country. Then along came the pandemic.
That annual rail pass I bought in January 2020 is about to expire unused.
Confined to my home by the need to shield due to the immunosuppressants I take for the arthritis (thankfully new ones from February 2020 brought a vast improvement), I felt thwarted, and I struggled to write as much as I thought I should be writing, given the lack of distractions. As a last resort, I set up an unfinished novel on pre-order on Amazon, the deadline forcing me to work flat out to finish it.
Even so, I felt like a castaway, marooned and powerless – a modern-day Robinson Crusoe, albeit with a regular supermarket delivery slot, cats in place of goats, and a husband and daughter instead of Friday for companionship. So while I was hardly deprived, sometimes I couldn’t stop my gaze lingering on the horizon, hoping for signs of rescue. Although one might think this would have been the perfect time to write my planned travel memoir, Travels with my Camper Van, after several false starts, I set it aside, disappointed that it had stalled.
A Surprisingly Productive Year
However, with the wisdom of hindsight that New Year’s Eve brings, I now realise that in 2020 I was far more productive than I had been in 2019, when I published just one novel, Secrets at St Bride’s.
By contrast, in 2020, I wrote two more novels, Stranger at St Bride’s and Murder Your Darlings; the first two in my new series of Tales from Wendlebury Barrow Quick Reads(c. 20% novel length), The Natter of Knitters and The Clutch of Eggs; and the first Sophie Sayers prequel, a short story Christmas Ginger, featuring Sophie’s Great Auntie May.
As I’ve done every year since 2010, I also wrote 10 columns for the Tetbury Advertiser and 12 for the Hawkesbury Parish News. In addition I completed the first two articles in a newly commissioned series of eight for Mslexia (the magazine for women who write), a short non-fiction guidebook for the Alliance of Independent Authors, plus various blog posts for my own blog and as a guest writer on other sites.
By anyone’s standards, that’s productive.
Writing in Captivity
Only now as I’m writing this post does it occur to me that prison has proven a famously fruitful workspace for writers. Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur were all written in jail. (More examples are in this Guardian article, though not all are such great role models – Marquis de Sade, I’m looking at you!)
Buoyed Up for New Year
So as I ditch my old 2020 calendars and diaries, I’m going to focus on even more ambitious productivity goals for the new year:
a new Sophie Sayers novel, Murder Lost and Found
a new St Bride’s novel, Scandal at St Bride’s
a new trilogy of May Sayers short stories, May Sayers Comes Home
in time for Christmas 2021, The Wendlebury Barrow Christmas Compendium of short seasonal stories
a third Tale from Wendlebury Barrow (haven’t decided which from my bulging ideas book yet)
Travels with my Camper Van, now jumpstarted
So look out, 2021, I’m coming for you!
Whatever your plans are for the new year, I wish you a peaceful, healthy and happy one full of whatever your heart desires.
In the meantime, if you haven’t yet read my new short story Christmas Ginger, which was published on 24th December 2020 exclusively on Helen Hollick’s Discovering Diamonds blog, you can read it here for free, for a flavour of my planned 2021 short story trilogy, May Sayers Comes Home.