Sunday, 13 November 2016

My agent wrote a novel

It's a bummer when your agent writes a novel. When Andrew Shephard told me he'd actually published Nellie and Tabs I knew I would have to read it. I was praying it would be terrible and I could say something patronising like 'Nice try, Andrew.' Unfortunately, crushingly, his book was better than any of mine. I asked him how he did it.

Your novel comes with such a powerful sense of the sights, sounds and smells of the 70’s alternative culture. Did you write this from your own experience or did you do a lot of research?

A lot of the details are dredged from my own experiences, and stories that I remember people telling me at the time. I didn’t do much research other than looking at old magazines and letters because I wanted to condense the main action into one year, and I didn’t want the facts to get in the way of a good story.

When you write a novel do you start with character or plot? Or was it the 70’s culture that inspired the story?

With this novel I started with the setting. The alternative society, as it was called at the time, is the type of enclosed world which makes good material for a novel. It takes the reader to a different world, though some aspects, especially youthful idealism, passions, and trying to find a role which suits, are familiar to most people.

Nellie covers a lot of ground in the book, moving from the commune in the north, to the Midlands to work on Peace Times, then London, Cambridge, Wales…. What made you choose these locations, and how important was Nellie’s travelling to the development of the story?

Well Nellie does not stick at anything for long so measures his life in months not years. Wherever he goes he does not quite fit in. He moves on to try and dig himself out of the latest hole he has dug. The locations I use are all places I have spent some time, so I sort of lived each scene as I was writing. I felt like I was really there, albeit as an observer.

The plot has many different strands as we follow the path of the different characters. It’s got everything – crime, politics, Nellie’s journey, and the ‘will they, won’t they’ romance of Nellie and Tabs themselves. Did you have all these strands fully planned out before you started writing?

No, I didn’t. The setting came first, then the main characters. As I wrote, the characters became sharper in my mind until they became almost as real as people I know today, and then I knew what they would do when they had difficult choices to make. 

Nellie is a really interesting character, with some quirky aspects to him, such as his interest in magic tricks, and his nickname! How did you come up with him?

The magic tricks were important from the beginning because a trickster knows about illusion. He thinks other people – like Tabs with her I Ching and the peaceniks with their revolution – are performing an act too. He’s not a believer. The nickname came when I was imagining his life before leaving home, and a brother who changed Neil to Nellie as an insult. But Neil likes it, because of the song ‘Nellie the Elephant’ (a children’s song popular in the 1960s) and he fancies he has a better memory than his friends. Elephants reputedly have a good memory.

Your other main character, Tabs, is a real enigma – full of contradictions. Did you like her, in the end?

Tabs alights on new ideas, whether spiritual or political, and gobbles them up. She does the same to people, too. She is very much a free spirit, a 1970s style feminist who does not want to be tied down by a conventional relationship. So although she and Nellie feel a strong attraction to each other, there are issues which keep them apart. Did I like her? I admire her as a pioneer. She is more of a radical than Nellie is.

The ending of the novel, the last couple of chapters, are a real surprise, - it’s quite a bitter-sweet ending. Did you always plan to end the story in this way or did you change direction as your characters developed?

I neither wanted to repeat the traditional romance, nor completely lose the sweetness of a significant relationship. But I really did not know how it would end between Nellie and Tabs. Endings are always difficult, but at about the third attempt, as I was cycling back from a meeting with Emma Harding, my editor, it came to me like a revelation. So there was work to do even after I’d ‘finished’ the novel. Some people say ‘writing is re-writing’ and I experienced that to the full with this novel. But having written some bad novels, I think I can tell that, this time, I have written a better one.

Nellie and Tabs is available as a paperback and ebook from Amazon. Just click on the cover graphic.

A version of this interview first appeared on the Yorkshire Writers' Lunch blog.

Sunday, 3 July 2016

Author Interview with Dave Rigby

Caroline has gone off her Kindle, saying that it's not trendy anymore. She still uses it surreptitiously for the kind of books I used to write, but much prefers a good paperback to fall back on when delayed at an airport or waiting to see the beautician for a massage. Returning exhausted last week from an emergency meeting at her company's new offices in Frankfurt, she tipped the contents of her bag out on to the kitchen table. She was looking for strong painkillers for her hangover, but seeing the handsome paperback, Shoreline among the pile of stuff she said, "You must read this, Robert. I want to talk to you about it. It's a crime thriller."

I read it, enjoyed it, and contacted the author - I wanted to be well briefed before discussing the book with Caroline. I didn't want her telling me I had got it all wrong. I was also hoping I might learn something of use for my own efforts in the fiction department. Mr Rigby was sympathetic to my situation, and provided the following answers to my questions, for which I am very grateful.

click for details

Harry Vos, your amateur detective is a rounded character with lots of life experience. How did you get to know him?
His name was my starting point. I saw it in a newspaper and thought it was a good mixture of a very English sounding first name and a Flemish / Dutch sounding surname. Because I’ve holidayed in the Flemish area of Belgium quite a bit, I decided to base him there. I thought it would be good to have a man in his sixties as the central character, retired (like me) and not a professional crime investigator. That way I don’t have to learn about police procedural stuff. I can just allow Harry to make it up as he goes along (as I do!). I had a strong idea of his character from the start (unlike the plot which unrolled as things developed). Basically I envisaged a solid man but with a number of strong character traits. He’s dogged, stubborn, gets annoyed quite quickly and can defend himself if he needs to. But he knows when he needs help from others - such as Katerine and Ryck.

Shoreline has a distinctive sense of place and gives the reader something of a tour of Flanders. How did you create such convincing locations for the action? And why Belgium?
Having holidayed over a number of years in Brussels, Brugge, Gent, Antwerp and Leuven, I picked up a bit of a feel for Flanders and felt reasonably confident about basing the book there. Harry lives in a small town called Heist-op-den-Burg. A few years ago I visited the town with a friend (when we were staying in Antwerp) to watch the local football team playing Aalst. I thought it was an appropriate location for Harry. I think his heart is still in Antwerp where he lived until his mid-teens. But then there were particular reasons why the family moved away from the city to a rural area. Heist fitted the bill for their new location.
Flanders is small enough to be able to move round quite quickly from city to city so it allows for rapid changes of scene. Having written the book in draft, I visited a number of specific locations including the beach, near De Haan, (where the body of Moise, the migrant, is found) and Zeebrugge where the character Rodenbach is based, to get a better feel for these places. I made some changes to the draft as a result of these visits.  
I haven’t been to the Matonge area of Brussels, which features in the book, but I found some useful information via the internet on this part of the city.

The plot is contemporary and highly believable. How did you research the African end of the story?
When I started writing Shoreline, I didn’t know much about people smuggling – other than what I’d read in the papers. I did my research online for this aspect of the book, firstly to get a clearer idea of how smugglers operate and secondly to improve my knowledge of the Democratic Republic of Congo. I decided to focus on the DRC for this part of the story, because of the colonial link with Belgium and all its implications. I gathered quite a lot of information on geographical and historical aspects of the country, the languages and the mining. Then it was a question of what to use in the book in order to assist the story, without overloading the reader with too much detail.  

Do you have a regular writing regime or do you write when the mood takes you? Do you always write in the same place, or can you write anywhere?
It’s a regular routine. I write between two and six in the afternoon – not the whole four hours, I hasten to add, but probably two to two and a half hours. I write four or five afternoons each week. I always sit at the dining room table and write straight onto the laptop, with breaks for cups of tea and newspaper reading. My typing is fairly slow but it’s about the same speed as my thinking! I sometimes work with music on – but only instrumentals, nothing with words as that’s too distracting. I very occasionally write in the morning but never in the evening. (I’d never get to sleep if I wrote in the evening.)

Harry Vos has a fondness for Belgian beer and strong coffee. Which is the greater help to your own creative process, beer or coffee?
I have a great fondness for both! But I don’t drink either when I’m writing. The reward for finishing the afternoon’s writing will be a beer (Belgian or otherwise) – but only when it’s a drinking day. I have a coffee or sometimes two every day, but this is always in a cafĂ©. For some reason I never drink coffee at home. So basically it’s tea that keeps the writing going.

The story has a wide variety of characters, male and female. How do you come up with your characters’ names? Do you ever change a name as the character develops?
As I mentioned earlier – Harry’s name came from a newspaper article. The other names are the fruits of researching Flemish first names and surnames. I made a long list of possibles and then selected from that, trying to match the name to my idea of each character. I do sometimes change names part way through. (Thank goodness for the ‘find’ facility on the laptop.) The change is generally because I’ve come across a better name in my readings / viewings / travels.

Plot, character, setting, theme, and genre: which do you start with?
I usually start with a main character and a setting. With both Harry Vos in Shoreline and Ellis Landsman in Darkstone, I thought about their character traits and how they would react in specific situations. I knew what the setting for each book would be before I started writing. I always like reading books with a strong sense of place and try to create this in my writing.
For Shoreline, I knew it would start with the discovery of a body on the beach but I hadn’t planned what would happen after that! I decided fairly quickly to focus on people smuggling, partly because it’s such a high profile issue.
I don’t really think specifically about genre. But the murder mystery genre must appeal to me instinctively and it’s a good way of building a framework for the plot. Having said that, my third book, Disconnected, which I’ve just finished writing, is not a murder mystery.
I’ve left plot until last because I find it the most difficult. I learnt on my creative writing course that you should have a begin, middle and end clearly in mind before you start to write and that this helps to develop a plot outline.
As I don’t do this – I have to try and work out the plot as I go along and then go back and re-work it where necessary. I do quite a lot of walking and find these times very helpful for working out plots and solving plot difficulties.

Will we be able to read any more of Harry’s dangerous investigations? Any chance he might come to the UK?
I deliberately added the wording “A Harry Vos Investigation” to the front cover of Shoreline, because then I knew I’d have to write at least one more! I’ve got some ideas for book two in my head – but not quite a plot yet. As Harry’s daughter Kim lives in London, he may very well come to the UK, but the story won’t be set there.

Sunday, 28 February 2016

Karin Bachmann discusses 'The Venetian Pearls'

Caroline said I was getting on her nerves and suggested I “do something useful for a change.”
“Like what?” I said.
“Anything. What about that blog thing you used to spend hours on?” I said I couldn’t think of anything to write.
“Oh for God’s sake, writing’s easy. Just ask someone you know a few questions and write the answers down.”
“But I don’t have any friends, not since that business in Brazil…”
So when Karin Bachmann suggested a reciprocal blog visit, I jumped at the chance. I told Caroline not to talk to me, I would be busy for a while, and she said, “Thank goodness for that.”

Some people are just good communicators, and Karin Bachmann is one such person. She blogs, she googles, and she tweets. She also finds the time to write fiction for the teen market. Her recent book The Venetian Pearls was commended in the Writing Magazine self-publishing awards. Karin is a winner of the valuable Swanwick Writing for Children prize. Karin was kind enough to send me answers to my daft questions, so I didn’t have to write very much myself.

I notice that The Venetian Pearls is set in Isles of Scilly. Why did you choose that location?
A few years ago, a friend and I decided to have a holiday in England. We wanted to visit some of my relatives and discover a new spot before going to see them. When the travel brochures arrived, I dropped one. It fell open and revealed the most beautiful seascape. The Isles of Scilly. We spent four days there. Every one of them better than the one before, and I told myself: one day, I'm going to set a story here. I've been to the Isles of Scilly twice more since then. You can't help but fall in love with the place.

Where did you get the idea for the plot?
Several incidents eventually mingled. I went to a talk about precious stones and pearls. Then I cleared out my schoolbooks and stumbled upon the story of Ulysses and the ogre again that plays a part in the solution of the mystery in the Pearls. And I had an encounter with a leg-amputated child when waiting for a train connection. Stuff everything into a hyperactive brain, give it a shake, let it fester for a few nights – hey presto!

Were you able to do any book promotion around the publication of The Venetian Pearls?
Not very much but I did my best contacting English bookshops in Switzerland and Cornwall. There's an amazing number of English-speaking organisations and schools in Switzerland, where I was able to give talks – well at some of them. When the German version came out, I sent brochures to schools, which again resulted in readings and sales.
But best of all, last summer, I returned to the Scillies. I contacted St. Mary's Library in Hugh Town (on Twitter: @StMarys_Library, incidentally the library with the most beautiful view in the world). The librarian was extremely helpful. She organised a workshop for the local writing group, a reading for children, and an interview on Radio Scilly. She also put me in contact with local bookshops who now stock the book.

Having been through the experience of publishing your own book, what advice would you give to someone who wanted to try it themselves?
You have to know that it's hard work. The production process is the smallest part – it's the PR that kills you. So make sure your book is really the best it can be. For example, it pays to have it professionally proofread and to have a striking, stunning cover. The hardest bit is not to get it out there but to get it noticed. Try to befriend locally situated librarians and booksellers – and teachers when writing for children. Such people are worth their weight in gold.

What do you enjoy most about writing for a younger audience?
To be able to feel like a child again, with all the wonder, mischief and enjoyment that involves. But also the fear and helplessness. Trying to see the world from a child's perspective can open up our grown-up-view-of-the-world.
And then, of course, meeting the audience at school readings. Children are very blunt. They'll let you know what they think about you and your stories.

Do you connect with your inner child when you are writing?
Sometimes I'm not sure if I've ever grown up at all. So my inner child is very close to the surface. On the other hand, I was a strange child; interested in history and science from an early age. I've been accused (by adults, mostly editors) to overestimate my readers. I'm not sure if that's true, and rather think adults tend to underestimate children. I remember that one of the most irksome aspects of being a child was being talked down to. That's the thing I try to avoid when writing for children.

Where and when do you do most of your writing?
I work as an optician in an 80% post, so do my writing on Sundays (social media and correspondence in the morning, fiction in the afternoon) and Wednesdays and Thursdays. I can write almost anywhere if necessary – except on trains. That is, I can write on trains but not decipher what I've written afterwards.

Do you enjoy social media such as Facebook and Twitter, and do you count that as writing too?
Being a digital dinosaur, it was very hard for me at first to start with social media. But all the tutors and speakers at the Swanwick Writers' Summer School seem to agree that you have to do that nowadays if you're a writer. I've grown rather fond of tweeting and quite like blogging. Having said that, I do count it as writing and reserve special slots in my writing days for social media.

Do you have a ‘work in progress’? If so, are you ready to tell me about it?
The working title is "The Grandmaster's Sword" but you could just as well name it "Never Ending Story Part 2" because I've been working on it for ages.
It's a sequel to the Pearls and set in Malta. Nicky, Chris and Daniel are on the scent of a precious historical sword. Everybody thinks, Napoleon acquired it on his way to the Battle of the Nile, and that it's exhibited in the Louvre museum in Paris. But Chris' father – a historian – has a hunch that the sword's never left Malta. A mysterious motorbike rider follows the friends and Chris's father in a scary way, as does the shady archaeologist Villard.  When Chris's father is accused of having stolen a priceless artefact, Nicky, Chris and Daniel have to start investigating…

If you could set a novel anywhere in the world, and had to travel to research it, where would you go?
That's a hard one! I'm a travel-addict. I'll go anywhere, as long as the place is interesting – preferably with a historical background. I wouldn't mind a bit of adventure as well such as having to get there on horseback or in a canoe (as long as there aren't too many creepy crawlies).

Are there any authors you return to again and again?
Yes, many. For adult stories, it's Terry Pratchett, Dick and now Felix Francis, Lyndon Stacey, Frank Tallis, Roz Southey and Simon Hall. For children's books it's Eoin Colfer, Roald Dahl, and recently Curtis Jobling and Derek Landy. I'm always thrilled to discover new, exciting books and series.

What is the book you think everyone should read (apart from your own)? Why?
The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. It's a brilliant, heady concoction of a gripping mystery in a stunningly authentic historical setting. And the language is great, too. Although I wouldn't know for sure as I've only read the German translation. (And you probably won't believe me that I wrote this answer before his death. I'll miss that writer!)

What advice would you give to someone just setting out on writing a book?
Don’t try to be artistic. Write according to your mouth, as it were. Have fun making up and writing the story, because chances are that your readers will then have fun as well.

Goodbye for now Karin - thanks for dropping by. 

Visit Karin's blog here.

And find out more about Venetian Pearls here.

Who are these people?

The world is divided into voyeurs and exhibitionists... It takes one of each to make a good marriage.

Robert and Caroline Fanshaw are an ambitious young couple trying to make their way in a complex world.

What happens when their private affairs collide with world events and the big issues of our times? Drama, comedy and x-rated scenes.