As I was planning my current work-in-progress, Beastly Business at St Bride’s, the fourth Gemma Lamb Cozy Mystery, I realised I’d have to choose the names for three new characters – a task I always enjoy. Continue reading “9 Ways Authors Choose Their Characters’ Names”
On World Book Day yesterday I was pleased to be invited to take part in a special online eventrun by CoProduce Care, a not-for-profit organisation connecting people, communities and organisations to influence the decisions affecting the care community.
I’ve been involved for many years with World Book Day both as a parent and when I worked for the children’s reading charity Read for Good. Knowing how a love of books and reading can transform the lives of people of all ages, I was really pleased that CoProduce Care wanted to extend the celebration to adults also, and in particular to the providers and clients of social care services.
CoProduce Care’s event, expertly hosted by Sophie Chester-Glyn, was livestreamed on World Book Day and is now available to watch at your leisure. Click the image below to watch on Youtube:
I’m introduced six minutes into the show, but it’s worth watching the whole thing to enjoy the talks and readings by historical novelist and historian Lucienne Boyce and YA author Luke Palmer, and the Q&A session with Sophie.
About My Talk
I was asked to speak for ten minutes – five minutes talking about books and my writing life, and five minutes reading from one of my stories, choosing a passage relevant to CoProduce Care’s activities.
I don’t usually use a script for talks, but as time was so tight and I wanted to make best use of it, I wrote my talk down beforehand, and today I’m sharing it below in case anyone would like to read it.
Thank you very much. I’m very pleased to be part of this event celebrating the joy of books and reading and writing.
I’ve always been an avid reader, and I enjoy escaping into a good book. When times are tough, books can be especially comforting and even healing. When I had pneumonia a few years ago, the gift of a box set of P G Wodehouse novels seemed a better tonic than any medication. During the pandemic, starting each day by quietly enjoying a chapter or two of a good book has been grounding and calming.
If you’re not sure reading is for you, maybe you just haven’t found the right book yet. To help you find books you’ll love, visit your local library and have a chat with a librarian – they love being asked for recommendations, and they’ll be very pleased to help you find books that you would enjoy.
Like reading, writing has been very therapeutic for me in times of trouble or distress. For many years I kept diaries, and for the last twelve years I’ve been a blogger. I also enjoy writing fiction and non-fiction for other people to read.
Like reading, writing can be an enjoyable hobby that costs you next to nothing. If you’ve never tried writing, give it a go. Writing for your eyes only is fine – no need to share it unless you want to. All you need is a notebook and pen. Just write whatever comes into your head for ten minutes or so first thing in the morning or last thing at night. If you keep at it for a few weeks, you’ll find yourself writing what matters to you, and understanding and working through your own feelings. You may uncover thoughts and feelings you didn’t even know you had, and you’ll feel better for it. You might even find yourself writing stories you’d like to share, as Lucienne, Luke and I are sharing ours today.
I’ve written nine novels and lots of shorter stories. I write what is known in the trade as cosy mystery. This means that despite a crime being the jumping-off point for the plot, the stories are never dark or graphic or bloodthirsty. Instead they provide gentle, upbeat entertainment that leaves you smiling – and they often make you laugh out loud along the way. My stories are all set in the Cotswolds. They have a strong sense of place and a cast of quirky characters, most of whom are lovable, and the villains are the kind you love to hate.
My inspiration comes from my home village in the Cotswolds. When I moved here 30 years ago, I was immediately impressed by how people here look out for each other and support each other in good times and bad times, and I write to celebrate that sense of community. My stories show that when people take time to get to know and understand each other, the world can be a more tolerant and generous place. The conflict in my stories – and also some of the comedy – often comes from initial misunderstandings that are eventually resolved. I hope they might inspire readers to be equally caring about their own neighbours.
About My Reading
For my reading, I chose an extract from The Natter of Knitters, my quick-read novelette, about a yarnbombing event that goes haywire, thanks to the intervention of Ariel, an odd newcomer to the village, who stages a one-woman protest under the slogan:
“Say No to Knitting: Let Sheep Safely Graze”
To hear my reading from The Natter of Knitters, click here and scroll to 12 minutes into the video.
If you’d like to read the whole story, you can download the ebook or buy a tiny pocket-size paperback online here.
As I prepare my talk for Wrexham Carnival of Words next week, offering answers to FAQs (the most frequently asked questions) about writing, I’ve been revisiting some of my favourite advice from writers I admire. I hope you’ll enjoy it too, whether you’re a writer or a reader or indeed both.
George Orwell’s Six Rules of Writing
In my teens, I read the complete works of George Orwell for the extended essay that formed part of my International Baccalaureat at Frankfurt International School. His politics, his integrity and his rules of writing have stayed with me ever since.
- Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
While I don’t follow Orwell’s rules blindly – for example, I will use a long word if it feels more natural than the short equivalent – I think any aspiring writer would do well to pin them over their writing desk.
Just Write, says Ray Bradbury
Fear of breaking rules should not deter the would-be writer from putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard and just getting on with it. Many writers, especially when they’re starting out, spend far too long dithering, thinking about writing, talking about writing, and admonishing themselves for not writing at all. They should listen to the hugely prolific (and entirely wonderful) Ray Bradbury:
Just write every day of your life. Read intensely. Then see what happens. Most of my friends who are put on that diet have very pleasant careers.
Stephen King on Concision
Possibly the most useful English lesson I learned at school was the art of précis. I’m amazed it isn’t taught more widely.
I’m naturally garrulous in conversation and with the written word. Knowing how to cut out superfluous words without losing meaning was therefore invaluable in my early careers as a journalist and a PR, when I had to write articles to fit precisely into a given space or to match a specific word count. Ruthlessly editing down other people’s text, or pieces I’d written on clients’ products that weren’t close to my heart (eg cat litter, frozen peas, drainpipes), was great practice for when I began to focus on writing fiction.
Novice writers are often disbelieving when I tell them it’s possible to cut 10%, 20% or even more from something they’ve written – and return pleasantly surprised to find that not only did they manage it, but that the edited piece is more powerful. Stephen King, whose memoir On Writing should be on every writer’s shelf of reference books, sums up the process well:
When your story is ready for rewrite, cut it to the bone. Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt: revising a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be done.
More Murderous Recommendations from Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch
Stephen King is not the only writer who invokes murder. Although the next piece of advice has been attributed to many authors over the years, it was author and critic Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch who originally coined the phrase in On the Art of Writing in 1916:
Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – wholeheartedly – and delete it before sending your manuscript to the press. Murder your darlings.
I love this particular tip so much that I made it the playful title of my mystery story set at a writers’ retreat, published last year. It now feels like a lucky charm, as Murder Your Darlings has now made it to the shortlist of six novels for adults shortlisted for The Selfies Award, given by publishing industry news service Bookbrunch for the best self-published books in the UK.
A more succinct version of Quiller-Couch’s recommendation comes from Elmore Leonard:
If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.
I like to think George Orwell would approve!
Above All Else, Read!
But probably my favourite piece of advice to writers, and the one that irks me most when aspiring writers ignore it, is simply to read. I have no patience with those who say they can’t spare the time. Would you trust a chef who never tasted food? Over to Samuel Johnson:
The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book.
Without wishing to sound smug, in the last twenty-four hours, I’ve read part of all of these:
- From the Oxford University Press’s “Very Short Introductions” series, American History by Paul S Boyer
- A collection of classic children’s stories, Mary’s Plain’s Omnibus by Gwynned Rae
- The Secret of Chimneys by Agatha Christie
- The Times newspaper
Join Me at the Wrexham Carnival of Words (online this year)
If you’d like to hear my own writing advice at Wrexham Carnival of Words, which is being held online from 17-24 April, you’ll need to buy a ticket – but the good news is that just £15 will gain you a pass to the entire festival. Visit their website to find out more about the huge array of events on offer and to book your ticket now: www.wrexhamcarnivalofwords.com
For the Wrexham Audience
I’ll be sharing with delegates the following list of recommended further reading…
- The Art of Writing Made Simple – Geoffrey Ashe
- Polish Your Fiction & Writing in a Nutshell – Jessica Bell
- Self-editing for Self-publishers – Richard Bradburn
- Zen in the Art of Writing – Ray Bradbury
- Becoming a Writer – Dorothea Brande
- Write Every Day – Helena Halme
- On Writing – Stephen King
- Nail Your Novel series – Roz Morris
- Use the Power of Feedback to Write a Better Book – Belinda Pollard
- Punctuation without Tears – Dominic Selwood
… and this list of recommended membership organisations for writers:
- Alliance of Independent Authors (affiliate link) – a global nonprofit organisation, for which I’m UK Ambassador
- Fictionfire – run by my friend Lorna Fergusson, the most amazing writing coach and editor
- Jericho Writers – the leading online writers’ club for which I’ll soon be teaching a course (more news on that soon)
- The Society of Authors – the trade union for UK writers; similar organisations exist in most countries
Do you have a favourite quote about writing or a book for writers to recommend? I’d love to hear it, so please feel free to leave a comment.
Perhaps because I write in the first person and I live in a village in the Cotswolds, readers sometimes assume that my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries are partly autobiographical. One of my best friends, who has known me since we were 11, said to me after reading the first in the series, Best Murder in Show, “Sophie Sayers – she’s you, isn’t she?” Today I’d like to explain some of the similarities and differences between us.
First of all there is a disparity in our ages. I’m old enough to be Sophie’s mother, but I was only four years older than Sophie when I moved to the Cotswold cottage where I still live and work today.
Like Sophie, I had previously lived in towns and cities before moving to a village, but I moved here with my husband rather than as a single girl on the rebound from a failed relationship.
Sophie and I are both lucky enough to live in a Victorian Cotswold stone cottage with a pleasant established garden, but Sophie inherited hers. I had to buy mine, paying off my mortgage a few years ago. I envy Sophie her mortgage-free status from such a young age!
Strangely, when I write about Sophie’s cottage, I don’t picture my current home. That might seem the obvious choice, but it’s the wrong size and shape for my story. Mine is a three-bedroomed semi-detached cottage, whereas Sophie’s is a two-bedroomed terrace. (That’s a row house to American-English speaking readers.)
For the internal layout, I picture an amalgam of my maternal grandmother’s 1920s terraced house in Sidcup and my first house, a Victorian two-up, two-down workman’s villa in Tring, Hertfordshire. Both of those houses were brick-built, but Sophie’s is definitely made from the local honey-coloured Cotswold stone, like all the other old houses in her village.
Sophie and I both harboured writing ambitions since childhood. Like Sophie, when I decided the time was right to start taking my writing seriously, I took baby steps rather than plunging straight into writing novels. Having swapped my full-time job for a part-time one to give myself time to write, I committed, as Sophie does, to writing a monthly column in the village community magazine, in my case the Hawkesbury Parish News. This was to force myself into a regular writing habit and to nurture the discipline of writing to deadline and to length.
Unlike Sophie, I volunteered to write a second column for a magazine with a larger readership and circulation, the award-winning Tetbury Advertiser, which serves the nearby Cotswold market town.
For both publications, I write about seasonal or topical issues, and they’re generally humorous, ending with a smile even when addressing a serious issue such as Covid-19, but the editors give me free rein as to choice of topic.
Sophie, on the other hand, confines herself initially to writing for Wendlebury Barrow’s parish magazine, in which her column is called “Travels with my Aunt’s Garden“. The great aunt from whom she inherited her cottage was a travel writer and filled her cottage garden with plants that remind her of her favourite places around the world. Each month Sophie writes a seasonal piece about a plant currently thriving in her garden and its exotic origins.
There are many differences between us:
- Sophie’s got light brown hair and blue eyes, my natural colour at Sophie’s age was dark brown, as are my eyes.
- I’ve never worked in a bookshop or dated a bookseller, although I do love bookshops of all kinds.
- Sophie is thriving in her job running the Hector’s House tearoom, whereas my only stint as a waitress was in a tea shop in York while I was at university. I was very bad at it and soon made my excuses and left.
- Sophie’s parents live and work in Inverness; mine retired to Bristol after working in London, Frankfurt, Detroit and Los Angeles.
- Sophie has taught at international schools, whereas I attended one as a pupil between the ages of 14 and 18.
- Sophie is an only child, while I have a brother and sister.
Writers’ Retreat as a Turning Point
But there is one final similarity that unites us: we have both attended writers’ retreats on Greek islands. Mine was on Ithaca, run by author, designer, poet and musician Jessica Bell, an Australian living in Athens. Sophie’s is on a tiny fictitious island just off the end of Ithaca and is run by a specialist company based in London.
Sophie wins her place on her retreat as a competition prize, whereas I attended Jessica’s as a paid speaker.
Yet both Sophie and I returned from our retreats significantly changed.
For me, the retreat was the turning point that made me realise that I really could write novels. Previously I’d focused on short stories, nervous of tackling the larger canvas of full-length fiction. My eighth novel, Stranger at St Bride’s, is due to launch on 1st July.
Sophie enters her retreat questioning not only her ambition to write books, but also the future of her relationship with Hector.
How is Sophie changed by her retreat? You’ll have to read Murder Your Darlings to find out!
How to Order Murder Your Darlings
- Click here to order a paperback of Murder Your Darlings – or ask your local bookshop to order it in for you using ISBN 978-1911223559
- Click here to order the ebook for your preferred ereading device (Kindle, Kobo, tablet, phone, etc)
How to Create Your Own Writing Retreat at Home
While the coronavirus pandemic hampers foreign travel, writers’ retreats abroad can be only a fantasy. That’s a great shame, because writing is terrific therapy in a time of crisis, even if you write only for yourself.
But here’s news of a different kind of writers’ retreat that you can set up for yourself at home – the new Fictionfire – you may be interested in a different kind of this talk of retreats has got you hankering after taking such a trip yourself.
My friend Lorna Fergusson, an award-winning author, writing coach and editor, has set up this course online at a very reasonable price ($17 earlybird rate until 21st June, $37 after that). This gives you a lifetime access to the course materials.
Lorna also runs free online writing retreat sessions, and having enjoyed a couple of those during lockdown, I know that her course will be of a high standard (and yes, I have already snapped one up at the earlybird rate!) Click here for more information.
Every day last week I had the pleasure of spending some time at Westonbirt School, talking to English classes in Years 7, 8 and 9 (11-14 year olds), sharing insights into an author’s life and writing advice that I wish I’d been given at their age.
On the Thursday, for World Book Day, I returned in the evening to co-judge the school’s annual inter-house reading competition, alongside the award-winning poet Shirley Wright and two sixth-form pupils. We judged the pupils’ readings were on four criteria: clarity, confidence, choice of passage and overall performance. The overall standard was really high, and, in the stunning setting of the school’s Grade 1 listed library, being a judge was a very enjoyable experience.
Congratulations to all those pupils who performed, and to the English department, so ably led by Miss Sheehan, for staging such a streamlined and impressive evening of entertainment.
But before the readings began, I had to give a small performance of my own: a brief motivational speech to all those taking part. In case you’re interested, here’s the transcript.
My Address to the Readers
People often assume that being a professional writer is a lonely business, spent in isolation. But as I’ve been explaining in these classes, the writer’s life is all about collaboration. It’s team work. Editors, proof-readers and cover designers help turn my manuscripts into books, before the books are sent out into the world.
Reaching readers is by far the most important stage in any book’s journey, because a book’s success stands or falls by what its readers make of it. Every reader interprets the writer’s intention in their own way. Furthermore, the same reader, reading the same book at different times in their life, may find it a completely different experience. Books you love now may leave you cold when you get to my age. On the other hand, in later life you may find you love books that you struggled to enjoy at school.
Those who read books aloud to entertain others add another layer of interest to a writer’s words.
In the audiobook publishing world, these people are called voice artists. Good voice artists add value and interest to a book and inject it with their own personality. They also make the process look easy. But even when you know a text really well, reading it aloud is hard work, as I know from my own experience. At the launch of my first novel, performing an extract from Best Murder in Show, instead of reading about “Rex’s elegant girlfriend”, I managed to call her “Rex’s elephant girlfriend”. That’s quite a different thing and an error I’ll never forget. (Click here to witness my gaffe!)
Using your voice to engage an audience is a valuable life-skill in any setting. If you apply the skills demonstrated in this competition in other settings, such as the classroom, the boardroom or in government, you can change lives and may even change the world.
Last Friday, in the rain and the mud in Bristol, Greta Thunberg spoke for just four minutes. Her immaculate delivery of her succinct and perfectly polished script moved not only the tens of thousands on College Green, my own daughter among them – but, thanks to the internet, her voice resonated around the world, mobilising millions to support her cause – including you, here, at Westonbirt School, as you watched her speech streamed live in the Great Hall. (Watch her speech on Youtube here.)
Those of you who are reading to us tonight may be reading words written by someone else, but in years to come, when you use the power of the spoken of word to deliver your own messages, we may find ourselves as mesmerised by you as we were by Greta.
You have already proven your exceptional skills by being chosen to represent your houses in school-wide heats. No matter who wins this competition tonight, your houses should be proud of you all and you should be proud of yourselves.
Now let the stories begin.
The Story Behind the Story
My time spent working at Westonbirt School (1997-2010) was the inspiration for my new St Bride’s School series, which begins with Secrets at St Bride’s. However, the situation, the plot and the characters are completely made up!
To read the first chapter for free and to find out more about this jolly romp of a novel, click here.