Thursday, July 2, 2015

In a Blue Mood...

For those of you who don’t already know, I broke my ankle back in February. Short version of a long story is, I fractured a bone at the back of my ankle and messed up a tendon and damaged my midfoot in what’s called a Lisfranc injury, and having spent the past several months wearing Darth Vader’s leg armour and hopping on crutches without getting better, I’m scheduled for surgery now in a couple of weeks.

Which is fine—I like getting things fixed. But my surgery date is July 23, meaning I had to cancel my plans for the Romance Writers of America’s big national conference in New York City, which was a huge disappointment.

Not only because I was looking forward to sharing New York City with my Elder Kid (who’ll now be touring all the sights without me), or because I was looking forward to co-presenting my first RWA workshop with my friends Julie James, Lauren Willig, and Sherry Thomas (on the merits of being a slow writer—luckily Meredith Duran was able to step in to take my spot), or because I was just looking forward to Nationals themselves—the crazy awesomeness of the Literacy Signing, the wealth of workshops, the joy of connecting with old friends and new ones…but because I was REALLY looking forward to the Bluestockings Dinner.

The Bluestockings Dinner is a new tradition at the Nationals, created by my good friend Rachel Hollis, who in addition to running her own successful lifestyle site, The Chic, writes incredibly funny, romantic, and bestselling books. A former celebrity party planner, Rachel knows how to make any event special, and with the Bluestockings Dinner she’s sort of created a modern Salon—a gathering of women writers, intimate and small, where conversation is the key, and over drinks and dinner writers with a range of different sub-genres and styles share their ideas and experiences.

This was what our dinner looked like last year, in San Antonio, where the guests, apart from myself, Rachel, and her right-hand-woman Eryn, were Jennifer L. Armentrout, Laura Kaye, Molly O’Keefe, Jennifer Probst, Nalini Singh, and Sherry Thomas.
So you’ll understand why having to turn down my invitation this year made me literally weep.

I know whoever takes my seat will have a dinner to remember. And that’s got me thinking, now, and wondering…

We’re often asked which long-dead authors or great characters from history we’d invite to dinner, if we could.

But if you had to choose a group of LIVING authors for an evening of fine wine, great food, and sparkling conversation, who would YOU invite?

If I chose from women writers whom I’ve never met or barely know, my invitations might go out to Catherine Gaskin, Evelyn Anthony, Rosamunde Pilcher, Susan Isaacs, Mary Jo Putney, Kate Forsyth, and Donna Thorland (which, with me included, makes an even eight).

What about you?

Monday, June 8, 2015

Research - love it or loath it

Love it or loath it research is key part of writing a book even if you know your subject. You need to check facts – that is important but only a small part of the joy of research for me.

I could do nothing but research – I love it. Now with the Internet, it is easier than ever to become lost moving from one click to the next - eventually finding yourself reading new and interesting facts that have moved a long way from where you started. So I have learned to restrict myself to minimum research before writing because, to be honest, the book may never be completed if I did it all before. I need just enough knowledge to write the first draft. This will be filled with lots of XXXX, which means more research is required. If I stopped to do it then and there I’d never finish the book.

But I love coming back to those points when I begin to rewrite - because I have found that doing the research at that point is when I find the layers that can make a story more interesting or thinking cakes – tasty.

In Under A Cornish Sky, I knew from the start that the garden would be important, but it was in choosing the name for the house, Boscawen that new layers were added. Boscawen means dwelling by an elder tree. I began to research elder trees and a whole host of wonderful folklore appeared, which then added plot twists and turns. The same happened with bluebells…

I didn’t plan these things - they arose from research, from looking into the small details and that is what I enjoy most, the unexpected. I find that research can lead to new books as it did with A Cornish Stranger. I found the old Cornish saying – save a stranger from the sea, he’ll turn your enemy – while doing research for A Cornish Affair.

At the moment, I’m writing and researching my next book, The Returning Tide, which has a dual timeline – current day and WW2. So much more research is required than in my previous books. But I’m trying to hold off doing too much before I finish the first draft so that the magic of research can help me twist and shape the novel like a cake with a surprising element in all the layers that somehow works together to satisfy and intrigue.

How do you feel about research if you are writer and if you are a reader how important is it to you? Do you notice it?

Monday, May 18, 2015

A Different Point of View

Each time I sit down to begin a new novel, I find myself facing at least one new challenge that scares me; that forces me out of my comfort zone.

I don’t always know what it’s going to be till I get to that place in the manuscript where I think: “[Insert your favourite swear word here], I have to write a whole battle scene/write as a woman with Asperger’s/have someone speaking the Doric.”

In this latest book I’ve started writing, BELLEWETHER, I’ve already hit three such places – but the latest one, because it happened just last week, is freshest in my mind, and seems the kind of thing to get a good discussion going.

I’ve discovered that I’ll have to write at least half of the past scenes from the hero’s point of view.

My first thought was: “[insert your favourite swear word here], I can NOT write the hero’s point of view. I don’t know how to do it!”

Which, once I had calmed myself with coffee, proved to be not wholly true. In fact, my first book, UNDERTOW (long out of print, and rightly so), had alternating points of view between the two main characters, and in my thriller EVERY SECRET THING some of the people who narrate what they remember to my heroine (a journalist) are men.

But I was 25 years old when I wrote UNDERTOW. I really didn’t know what I was doing, and the book was short. And in my thriller those male voices were still filtered somewhat through my heroine’s first-person voice.

So, yeah. This definitely puts me past the boundary of my comfort zone.

So reassure me. Tell me why you think the hero's voice deserves a place in a romantic novel. What do you enjoy (or not) about reading his point of view?

Monday, April 27, 2015

Funny Twists of Fate

Today I’m signing copies of A Cornish Affair for some high school students. Back in March I gave a seminar on point of view. I had a great time and I hope they did too.

One of the students asked me to write down my favourite quote in the book when I signed it. I had to think long and hard about it and then for a completely different reason I went into an old journal. There on the front page - was the opening lines of a poem by Alexander Pope…

True Ease in Writing comes from Art, not Chance,
As those move easiest who have learn'd to dance,

And the words hit me again…but this time I really understood the meaning. Last week A Cornish Stranger came out in paperback and on the 7th of May Under A Cornish Sky comes out in trade paperback and I'm struggling with the research and writing of the next book, The Returning Tide. Back then I dreamt of being a novelist. I had no idea what it really entailed. I was just then learning to dance. Now with four books under my belt I'm still learning - always trying to become better at the old steps while learning new ones. I think I was meant to see this quote today. I needed to be reminded that good fiction, good art, well – good anything takes a lot of practice. I just didn’t know when I  began the journal back on the 11th of July 1984 in Oxford that it would take me quite so long to learn….

We won’t comment on the disturbing purple squiggles and what that says about me or my mind at the time…but I did spent that summer working on my writing and learning a little bit about life.

Monday, April 20, 2015

The Crossdale Church

Pure fiction, but inspired by my Mum, and the Crossthwaite Church.


The Crossdale Church
The black iron hinges in the great old door didn't creak, to Catherine's surprise.  The church door swung open noiselessly, swapping the spring-tasting freshness of the churchyard for cold, musty air.  She stepped inside and closed the door again, waiting for her eyes to adjust to the dimness. 
She was conscious that she didn't want to look, didn't want to be disappointed.  She kept her eyes averted from the nave and the chancel, taking in the backs of old, oak pews, and scattered red rugs on the smooth-worn stone floors, while her stomach curled in nerves and uncertainty.
"Well," she said, "I'm here."
"That's a fact."
The soft voice made her jump.  She saw a smaller door in the opposite wall, through which soft light and a sturdy figure were emerging.  It was an older woman, short and mostly shapeless, with hair cut short and no make up.
"I'm sorry," Catherine said.  "I didn't know someone was here.  I don't mean to interrupt–"
But the other woman did.  "Here to look around?  Just help yourself, chick, don't mind me."  As she gestured, Catherine saw she held a bunch of carnations in one hand, and a pair of secateurs in the other.
Catherine nodded.  "Thank you," she said, and turned to the aisle.
Except now that she was here, for Mum, she didn't really want to do the things Mum would have done.  Didn't want to read through the history leaflet and guide to the church, study the stained-glass, examine the font.  Unsure, she went and sat in one of the pews, looking without seeing.  She breathed deep of the cold air, and this time she realised the mustiness had faded, and she could smell furniture polish and more exotic blooms than the bulbs outside.
It was chilly, but it was calm.
Nothing in the last few weeks had been calm.  Mum's funeral had been a matter of endless letters and phone calls and arrangements, of synthetic carpet and strip lighting and plastic chairs.  And, in spite of it all, the strong, binding thread of a whole community of people who had thought the world of Catherine's Mum, and shared her grief.
But it hadn't been calm.
Her gaze focussed on the big glowing window behind the altar.  A solemn figure in russet and white stood there, staring down.  His eyes seemed to know everything, but communicate nothing.
"Are you alright?"
It was the flower woman, easing down into the pew next to her with a little grunt of effort.  In the quietness of the Crossdale Church, Catherine found she wanted to explain.  "My... my Mum died recently."
"Ah."  The syllable was warm with no-nonsense sympathy, the sort that would hand over a cup of tea and tissues, and refrain from mouthing pointless words.
"There was this... this sort of running joke in the family," Catherine went on, "that each time we came here on holiday – most of our childhood holidays were here, you see – that Mum never got a chance to visit the Crossdale Church."  Catherine gestured at the serene beauty around them, still-life in stone, then clutched her hands in her lap again.  "It was just the sort of thing she loved to do, poking around in old churches.  Even when Dad died, she would still come here, but she never visited the church.  She said once that she liked to leave something undone for next time, so that she'd never done it all, so that there was always something to look forward to."
The woman had turned slightly on the pew, watching her.  Catherine closed her eyes for the moment, swallowing against the tightness in her throat.  "Only.... she never had the chance to... "  She gave up. 
The woman slid her hand over and gripped Catherine's.  It was a broad, short-nailed hand, and Catherine could feel the calluses on the palm and fingers.  The distant chattering of swallows filtered through the windows.
"So I thought I'd come and do it for her," she continued eventually.  "I thought... it would be a... a chance to think, to do something in her memory.  But now I'm not sure.  Was that the right thing to do?  Did Mum mean for it to be a... an eternally uncompleted thing?"
"It's big questions you have, there," the woman said, mildly.  "Bigger, I think, than a church.  And a mother."
Catherine sagged.  "Yes."
The woman took back her hand and settled a little more, folding her arms, tipping her head up as if examining the vaults of the soaring ceiling.  "So what are the real questions, I'm wondering?"
It was St Peter in the window, Catherine realised.  She could see the key in his hand.  "Should we always complete everything?  Are there some things that are better left as... as a potential than a real thing?  Are there things that are best just as they are without being pursued?  Should we leave things undone, or try and get... resolution to everything?"
"Unfinished business."
The woman shrugged.  "Everyone has some.  Don't you?"
Catherine nodded.  "Oh yes.  And I'm almost sure I know what to do about that, but...  What about you?  Do you have unfinished business anywhere?"
She gave Catherine a wry look.  "With sixty and more years in my dish, it would be a wonderful thing if I hadn't.  But yes."
The pause stretched out too long, and Catherine gathered herself, meaning to go.  "Well, thank you for listening to me, I–"
"His name was Michael Maguire."
Catherine said nothing.
"I didn't marry him.  I married the other one, but I knew Michael would have liked fine to be the one.  He was a teacher, in the other valley.  And my husband a farmer in this.  And then my husband died, and the bairn with him."
It was Catherine's turn to reach for the other woman's hand, clutching it tightly.  The woman smiled and patted the back of Catherine's hand with her free one.  "It was a long time ago, chick.  They went swimming.  It was a lovely day.  But then there I was, a widow and a farm to run, all broken inside, and even knowing that Michael was fond of me, even not seeing him, felt like some kind of evil insult. I sent him packing.  Then, a couple of years later, I lifted my head and felt like I saw the horizon for the first time.  But then he'd upped and married.  She was a good girl, and good for him."
"But you wonder... what if?" Catherine prompted.
"Ah, no.  I don't wonder or what-if my life, chick.  But Michael's wife's been dead these five years and I... never re-married.  So his phone number's been burning a hole in my head a while now."
"What are you going to do?"
The woman grimaced.  "Well, how about you tell me what you think.  About unfinished business, your Mum, and the Crossdale Church?"
"I think..." Catherine breathed in the polish and the flowers, the stone and the peaceful centuries.  "I think Mum was crazy.  It's beautiful here, and she missed that.  And if she had crossed the Crossdale Church off her list, there would always be something else beautiful and real and possible around the corner."
"So unfinished business?" prompted the woman.
Catherine spoke with certainty.  "Should be finished or crossed off.  But not left unfinished as some sort of protection against finishing a life.  Life isn't finished when you've done everything or loved everyone or been down every road, because life isn't a competition or an itinerary.  It's a dance."  She turned to face the woman, looking into the pale eyes, seeing an outdoor life stamped on her unashamed skin.  "And sometimes in the dance you separate.  And sometimes you join hands again."
The other woman's lips pursed.  It wasn't quite a smile.  She set her callused hands on her knees.  "Well, I have these flowers to finish."
"May I help?"
Catherine set out arrangements and vases, and they talked.  Not philosophy, not this time.  This time they talked about lily pollen and gladioli, about ultrasound scanning of ewes and over-grazing.  It was a perfect blessing not to be talking about casket wreaths and whether anyone had asked Uncle John to contribute to the eulogy.
"There," the woman said, wiping her hands.  "I'll finish up here.  Get you gone, chick."
Catherine smiled at her.  "I–"
"Shoo," she said, flapping her hands.
"Alright, alright," Catherine said, laughing.  "Thank you."
The woman slipped into the vestry.  There had been merry hell when the vicar insisted on having a phone line put in, but now she picked it up and dialled without hesitation.  "Michael," she said, when he picked up.  "Yes.  It's me."  She looked up at the notice board, unusually lost for words.  A snippet of a quote caught her eye, scrawled in the vicar's left-handed writing on a scrap of pale blue paper, skewered with a scarlet-tipped pin.  It was something of Christina Rossetti's.  Can anything be sadder than work left unfinished? Yes, work never begun.
"Michael?" she said.  "We have unfinished business."
It was warm in the sunshine.  Catherine filled her lungs with the narcissi-scented air and thumbed her phone on, waiting for it to connect to the real world.  She opened her contacts and scrolled through, searching for.... there.  Scott Benton.  Her finger hovered over the entry for a moment, then she smiled.  And pressed delete.
On the stone wall a thrush flicked its tail at her, then leaped into flight, singing its joy at the bright sky.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

One for All, All for One

(Photo courtesy of

Can you tell I’m still just slightly obsessed with musketeers at the moment?  The Musketeers to be exact, which for those of you who don’t live in the UK is a BBC TV series loosely based on Alexandre Dumas’s original story.  It’s absolutely brilliant and I love the way they’ve taken the basic story and just run away with it!  Having the four musketeers clad in leather (albeit still looking more or less true to the fashions of that era) is also genius, as is the way they’re allowing the women in the series to be very much part of the action and not just decorative.  Okay, I’ll admit I just like everything about it.

I’ve loved the concept of “one for all, all for one” ever since I first read The Three Musketeers – the fact that if you do things together, always standing by your friends, life can be so much easier.  I have found that to be true in every way – here with my fellow Heroine Addicts; when working with the other authors published by the same publisher as myself; in various organisations and recently with a group of friends who all wanted to do the same thing: to self-publish a Young Adult novel.

I’m supremely un-techie so although everyone kept saying self-publishing was 'a doddle' and ‘anyone can do it’, I didn’t quite believe them.  I could have paid for someone to help me with it, of course, but that would have felt like giving in, being feeble, and I didn’t want to be so easily defeated.  Still, it was very daunting and I kept putting it off until I found out that some of my friends had been thinking along the same lines.

Claire Watts, Gill-Marie Stewart and me
Four of us – myself, Katy Haye, Gill-Marie Stewart and Claire Watts – decided to get together and do it as a group.  Not just holding each others’ hands while going through the publishing process and doing the techie bits, but promoting the books together, doing events/talks as a group.  Suddenly, it all seemed doable and it was the kick up the backside I’d needed.  Funny how things are so much easier when you’re not alone!

We’ve each self-published a book now and are working on number two.  It’s been a steep learning curve, but also great fun.  Thinking up a collective name – Paisley Piranha (yes, I know it’s weird, but we liked it :-D) – setting up a website, blog and Twitter account etc.  And just knowing there’s someone you can bounce ideas off is brilliant.

I’ve just come back from Scotland where we held a launch party for our first novels.  One of them was based on movie themes, so we rented a bijou cinema – the Robert Burns Centre in Dumfries – and had a special showing of The Princess Bride, surely one of the best movies of all time!  And there were snacks and books of course.  All in all, a lovely afternoon.  So if anyone else is thinking of self-publishing (or doing anything else for that matter) but you don’t quite dare, I’d definitely recommend the “all for one” approach!  If it worked for the musketeers …