Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Guy Saville - in conversation with JD Smith

Guy Saville is the author of The Afrika Reich, an international bestseller. Born in 1973, Saville studied literature at London University. He has lived in South America and North Africa and is currently based in the UK. His latest novel, The Madagaskar Plan, was released in September 2015.

Welcome to Words with JAM. Could you tell us a bit about your new novel, The Madagaskar Plan …

It’s great to be here! The Madagaskar Plan is an alternative history thriller where the Nazis won the war and conquered Africa. There has been no Holocaust; instead the entire Jewish population of Europe has been deported to Madagascar (a huge, remote island off the east coast of Africa). This set-up is based on real Nazi plans and is the background for an epic tale of love, revenge and survival.

I always have a favourite scene once I’ve finished a book. One I’m proud of. Do you have a favourite scene and why?

My favourite scene is towards the end of the book and too ‘spoilerific’ to share here. However, there’s one earlier in the book that springs to mind, what I refer to as the ‘tent scene’. Outside the rain lashes the canvas; the interior is dry and warmed by paraffin lamps. It is the setting for an unlikely duel of wits. There’s something very evocative about the scene and I love the details in it: the mirrors hanging from the roof casting a hypnotic light, the smell of freshly roasted chicken, the scratch of a fountain pen on paper. (Anyone who’s read the book will know the scene.) For all the action in my books, it’s these quiet, intimate moments I often enjoy the most.

And do you have a favourite character?

That’s sort of like asking if you have a favourite child! I admire Burton, the hero, for his single-mindedness; and Madeleine, the main female character, for her toughness and determination to survive. I also can’t help but like the villains: they’re ghastly but with an undeniable charisma. And I always make sure the supporting characters are memorable (this is especially important if they only feature briefly). In short, I can’t write any character unless there’s something that draws me to them.

Afrika Reich was a huge success. Did you feel pressure to write a second book that was equal to if not better than the first?

Once you’ve had a success in publishing there’s a lot of pressure to do the same thing again. When I sat down to write The Madagaskar Plan I had two objectives: 1) to write something different 2) to write something better. So, yes, I did feel the pressure... but it was more of my own making.

It’s been a long time since the publication of your first book. Did you find the second harder to write than the first?

Yes. With the first book, I mapped out the entire plot from beginning to end before I began writing (a process that took nine months). With the follow-up I had a deadline to meet, so I didn’t have the luxury of this planning stage. It caused me a huge amount of problems because I was writing without knowing where I was going. I know some writers thrive on this, but it brought me to a grinding halt as I literally lost the plot. Eventually, things got so bad I had to negotiate a new deadline, then plan the whole book from beginning to end before I started writing again. Madagaskar has a more complex, interweaving structure than the original so this map was invaluable. After that things were easier.

The other challenge was making it stand-alone. I had to assume readers weren’t familiar with the first book (or because of the gap between books had read the first one a long time ago and wouldn’t remember all the details.) The trick was to include enough information so people understood the world and backstory without having to re-tell the entire plot of the original. The initial reaction from readers suggests I pulled it off.

Historical novels inherently come with huge amounts of research. How did you go about tackling that and did you enjoy it?

I always think of research as mining: a process of starting at the surface, then going deeper and deeper to find precious nuggets. I start with generalist texts, then follow their footnotes and bibliographies to the next strata of books and papers, then repeat the process through to academic publications and finally the original archive material. I think I overdid it with Madagaskar because by the end I probably had enough to write a non-fiction book. A lot of that material had to be discarded for the sake of the narrative. There’s an element of drudgery to the research process – but also exhilaration when I stumble on a fact or detail that’s a gem.

Which authors inspire you and why?

Among contemporary writers, Robert Harris and Sarah Waters as they’re able to combine cracking stories with a brilliant attention to historical detail. I also admire the earthiness of William Boyd and his humour.

Do you have a favourite place where you like to write?

I have a log cabin at home which is my office and the main place I write. It’s at the end of my garden and surrounded by fields so very peaceful. I have a big desk, a comfy armchair for reading, and shelves and shelves of books – so it is the perfect place to be creative. I feel very lucky.

As an historical novelist, how do you feel about the recent destruction of ancient ruins in Palmyra?

I’ve travelled widely in Syria and have visited Palmyra. It was an amazing, atmospheric experience and one I treasure. So watching Palmyra’s destruction on the news has been particularly painful; it feels personal. I appreciate that ancient sites fall into ruin or are destroyed by natural events but to see the place so wilfully and nihilistically destroyed is a tragedy.

Would you ever consider writing in the present or about an historical event without it being alternate history?

There’s one more Afrika book – but I’m not by inclination a writer of alternative histories. It’s more just a coincidence. So yes, I do plan to write books set in the present and based around real events without any deviation from history. Indeed, one of the books I’m currently pitching to my publisher is set in the near future. In years to come, looking back at my output, the alternative history of the Afrika books will seem the exception rather than the rule.

And lastly, favourite pizza topping?

I was hoping you’d ask a serious question! ‘Padana’: goat’s cheese, caramelised onions, red onions and spinach. Pizza Express does a particularly good one if anyone wants to take me out for lunch...

Want to win a signed, hardback copy of The Madagaskar Plan? We have a US and UK copy to give away. To enter, simply fill in the form here.

Friday, 25 September 2015

Jungle Books

By Catriona Troth

On a piece of waste ground outside Calais, rapidly turning into a sea of mud in the autumn rains, is a tent city of refugees from Syria, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Somalia and Sudan. Many of them are highly educated people whose studies have been curtailed by war. Others are children who are desperate to go to school.

In the middle of this, lie a couple of brightly decorated tents which house Livres de la Jungle -  the Jungle Library.

The founder of the Jungle Library is Mary Jones. Originally from Wales, Jones now teaches in Amiens, some 160km from Calais.

“Ever since the previous centre at Sangatte closed, I’ve been keeping an eye on things here. I knew I wanted to do something, but I kept telling myself I was just too far away. But then I thought, ‘just go.’ Perhaps I could offer English lessons.”

She spent a lot of time just sitting and watching, trying to understand what the needs really were.

“I knew the reason a lot of them wanted to get to England was in order to study. I thought maybe I could get books from people like the Open University. But I knew reading should also be for pleasure.”

She began by clearing out her own bookshelves, and the library grew from there. Livres de la Jungle
was set up in a couple of tents. After an article appeared in the Guardian, they were flooded with books, especially novels.

"It's lovely. But what is really needed can be quite specific. There are different groups of users. Some are highly educated and desperate to continue their studies. They can be looking for books about chemistry or engineering, say. Others want very basic books to help them learn – not just English, but French too. And then there are the children.”

There are simple practical needs too. A generator to provide electricity. A lock on the door. Warmth. Jones set up a crowd-funder (now closed) in order to address some of those needs and to deflect people from spending money on expensive postage for books.

“A photographer provided us with some laptops, which were already loaded with the language teaching software, Rosetta Stone. We have no security, and when they first appeared, a few of them walked out of the tent. But then a few days later, they walked back in again.”

She would love to be able to provide decent WiFi, which the refugees could use to speak to their families via Skype, or to access free online courses such as MOOCs.

“My ambition is for this be a warm space where people can come and just have a few minutes of normality. “

One group supporting the Jungle Library is Exiled Writers Ink. They are going to be in the Jungle Library performance space one day during the week of 5th October. Exiled and refugee spoken word poets and prose writers will perform their work in the languages of the refugees. They have put out an appeal specifically for books in Arabic, Tigrinea, Amharic, Dari, Pashto, Farsi and Somali, to be brought to the Exiled Lit Cafe night at 22 Betterton Street, London WC2 9BX, on 5th October, having first contacted

The day I interviewed Jones, two other things happened. Firstly, another of her great supporters, the Big Green Bookshop in Wood Green London, brought over a delivery of donated books. Secondly, French police choose to bulldoze a small encampment of Syrians who are outside the Jungle.

“They had built themselves a little community by on old warehouse and garden,” Jones tells me. “I don’t think their relationship with the neighbouring houses was that great. I had bought them a generator, but they told me they didn’t dare use it because it would make too much noise.

“They were already traumatised, by what they had left behind, and what they had been through to get here. And one of their group had recently been electrocuted. And now they’ve lost everything, all over again.”

Simon Key from the Big Green Bookshop witnessed the aftermath.

“The people in the camp are in an impossible situation,” he wrote on Twitter. “It was horrible to see how they were treated.”

The Big Green Bookshop has raised almost £3k for the library. It began as a local appeal, after Key read about the library in the Guardian. Then their appeal was mentioned in the Telegraph and picked up on BBC News, and the whole thing spiralled. At one point they were receiving twenty parcels a day with books to take to Calais.  As a final flourish, they had a mammoth sale of second hand books. Then on 21st September, they drove over to Calais with the donated books.

That morning police in Calais blocked all the entrances to the Jungle and they were redirected to a massive warehouse. They described seeing people picking through the rubble of 300 smashed up tents, looking for their stuff. "Everyone came to help," Key told me. "The camaraderie was incredible."

“The people here are so friendly & positive, despite all that's happened," he wrote, when they arrived in the Jungle.  "Their attitude is inspiring."

And their books did make it through to the library, as Jones confirmed to me a couple of days later.

"I don't want this to be a one off." Key told me. "I have been contacting other indie bookshops, so we can make this a regular thing. We want to ensure the library always has fresh supply of books."

At the end of our interview, I asked Jones what her greatest hope is. I was thinking about her greatest hope for the library, but characteristically, her vision was much broader.

“My greatest hope is for these lovely people to be able to live a normal family life. To build a home somewhere that isn’t on a rubbish dump. To be safe and secure.”

If you would like to help the Calais Jungle Library, PLEASE DO NOT JUST SEND BOOKS. They have set up a Facebook page, and they will be using that to let people know about specific requirements for help.

If you have connections with any of these things:

  • Materials for teaching either English OR French as a foreign language
  • Academic books, especially science, maths and engineering
  • Books in the languages of the main groups at the camp (Arabic, Tigrinea, Amharic, Dari, Pashto, Farsi and Somali)
  • Dictionaries from those languages into English and/or French 
again, DO NOT SEND THEM DIRECTLY, but please contact Mary Jones (maryjones[at]orange[dot]fr ) and ask how best you can help.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

60 Seconds with Siobhan Daiko

Siobhan Daiko was born and spent her childhood in colonial Hong Kong. She has worked in the City of London, once ran a post office/B&B in Herefordshire, and, more recently, taught Modern Foreign Languages in a Welsh comprehensive school. Siobhan now lives with her husband and two cats in the Veneto region of Northern Italy, where she spends her time writing, researching historical characters, and enjoying the dolce vita. Her books to date are Lady of Asolo, The Orchid Tree, and Veronica Courtesan. Her new release, The Submission of Theodora, comes out on 27th October, 2015.

Tell us a little about you and your writing.
I’m really honoured you’ve asked me. Writing wasn’t something that I’ve always done, unlike most other writers I know. Yet I’ve always been creative. My father was an artist and encouraged me to paint when I was a child. I loved it, but I was also a linguist, and that’s the direction my life initially took. My passion for writing only started when the empty-nest syndrome kicked in. My son had left for university and an old friend had become a published author. Naively, I thought I could become one too. So I wrote a novel about a school-teacher in Wales (I was a school-teacher in Wales at the time). I thought it would be the next Bridget Jones. Ha! I did complete it, but my heart wasn’t in the story and I hadn’t found my voice. Instead, there other stories in my head, clamouring to be told, and I’ve hit my stride writing them, I hope.

 What’s the best thing about being a writer?
I love the journey of completing a novel, discovering where the characters will take me. The end is always set in stone, but getting there is absolute magic.

 And the worst?
Marketing. It’s the downside of ‘being a writer’ when I’d much rather just write. That said, I’m learning more about promotion with each book I publish and now I have the help of a wonderful lady, Tracy Smith Comerford.

Why historical fiction?
The idea for The Orchid Tree, my debut novel, came to me while I was researching my grandparents’ experiences in the notorious Stanley Civilian Internment Camp in Hong Kong during World War II, and the first part of the novel is set there. To lighten the darkness of the subject matter, I focused on two very different fictional romances. History was one of my favourite subjects at school, and I’ve always been fascinated by it. Whenever I visit a historic location, I lose myself in daydreaming about what it would have been like to have lived there in the past. Lady of Asolo, a time-slip historical romance set in the area where I now live in northern Italy, is inspired by a location steeped in history. And I love reading historical fiction, of course.

If you could see your latest novel turned into a Hollywood film, who would you like to see play the lead roles?
Funnily enough, there has already been a Hollywood film, Dangerous Beauty, made about the main character in my latest book, Veronica COURTESAN. The role of Veronica was played by Catherine McCormack and Rufus Sewell interpreted the part of her lover, Marco. I thought the sets in the movie were beautiful, but I would change the leading actors to Scarlett Johansson, for her beauty and intelligence, and Aiden Turner for … (need I go on?). It would have to be x rated, though, as Veronica is my first foray into erotica.

Do you have a special writing place?

Yes, I do. I write in what was my father’s studio. I like to think he would approve of me carrying on the creative tradition here. Sadly, he died before he could fulfil his dream of painting in this place during his retirement. It’s a beautiful spot, set on a hillside in the foothills of the Dolomites. I love it.

You live in Italy now which must influence your writing. Is location important in your books?

Italy definitely influenced Lady of Asolo and Veronica. Location is a vital part of my writing process. My next erotic romance will be released on 27th October 2015: The Submission of Theodora, set in 6th Century Constantinople. I researched the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of the setting before I started writing the story.
Which 3 writers do you most admire and why?
That is such a difficult question! There are hundreds. So I’m going to choose writers of the past who still resonate with me today. In first place: Shakespeare. Quite simply the best for his characters and use of language. Second place: Jane Austen for her biting irony and not just because her novels have been brought to life on TV and the big screen. Third place: Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It was through him that I discovered magical realism and I really wish I had the nerve to use it in my own writing. He’s the master, though, and I would be a poor imitator.

If you could choose a different genre to write in for just one book – what would it be?
I would love to write a thriller. Mainly because I enjoy reading them. One day, maybe…

Classics are the theme of this issue – which is your favourite Classic and why?
The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–1375), which I studied when I was learning Italian. He focuses on the naturalness of sex, which is what I’ve always believed is an essential part of our humanity, and I try to focus on that too in my erotic romances.

60 Seconds with Jenny Blackhurst

By Gillian Hamer

Jenny Blackhurst rediscovered her childhood love of writing after the birth of her son in 2011 and wrote her first novel between feeds and nappy changes. Jen has a Masters degree in Psychology, and when she isn’t writing works as the Fire Safety Systems Administrator for Shropshire Fire and Rescue Service. She is currently working on her second novel, which is also a psychological thriller after the amazing success of her debut release, How I Lost You.

Tell us a little about you and your writing.

I started writing How I Lost You after being made redundant in 2011 but have always loved both reading and writing. My favourite genre is crime and I am constantly thinking ‘what if’ in my day to day life.

It’s a popular genre at the moment, but why did you choose to write crime thrillers?

It’s the genre I read most in so it was a natural choice for me. If I try to write anything else it usually ends up turning to crime so it’s obviously where my first love lies!

Who are your crime author heroes?

I started my love of crime with Patricia Cornwell when I was about 11 years old but recent inspiration has come from Alex Marwood, Sharon Bolton, Mo Hayder and ultimately Sophie Hannah.

You say your own pregnancy inspired the plot of How I Lost You – how did that come about?

There are a lot of mixed up feelings which come with the arrival of a new baby and I feel it’s definitely a time a woman can feel most vulnerable and suggestible. There are so many doubts that set in about your sense of identity and who you were before vs who you are now. I found it a very emotionally rich time which was incredibly conductive to writing.

Does your Masters degree in Psychology assist in writing thrillers – and how?

Psychology is essentially the study of the mind and behaviour which is enthralling for a crime writer. Why people behave the way they do, nature vs nurture and how different people respond to stresses, and of course how our past shapes our future. It’s fascinating.

What’s the best thing about being a writer?

There are so many great things! My favourite is being part of a world I used to be a spectator in – crime writers are the most friendly people (maybe it’s because we spend so much time killing people off!) Attending Crimefest and sitting on panels with ‘real’ authors, being paid for something I would be doing anyway…the list really is endless.

And the worst?

The Fear. Is this any good? This is fantastic! This is the worst thing ever written. Ok, this might turn out alright…

Where do you write?

Anywhere and everywhere. With a four year old and a one year old I can’t afford to be precious about where I write. I’m very productive in Tesco café and I love a long train journey. The hardest place I’ve tried to write was a soft play barn. Those places are carnage.

Which 3 books would you take to a desert island?

Just 3? Can’t I take my kindle?!? Okay, Strangers by Dean Koontz, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by JK Rowling and The Enchanted Wood by Enid Blyton.

What are your future writing plans?

Hopefully to keep writing! I’m working on book 2 at the moment which is a psychological thriller but eventually I’d like to explore the genre further as well as try my hand perhaps at another genre completely, maybe horror or young adult. Essentially I just love to write and just want to keep learning the craft and improving.

Twitter: @jennyblackhurst

In Conversation with Anne O'Brien

By Gillian Hamer

Hello, Anne, Welcome to WWJ. Tell us a little about you and your writing?

Hello. I am very pleased to be here with you.
I was born in West Yorkshire and lived most of my life in Beverley in East Yorkshire before moving to where I am today, in Herefordshire in the beautiful Welsh Marches where I live in an eighteenth century cottage. I gained my history degree and professional qualifications at the universities of Manchester, Leeds and Hull and have enjoyed city life as well as rural isolation. I had no long standing ambition to write, and so was a late-comer, only deciding to try my hand at historical fiction when I had some free time. From that moment, twelve years ago, I have become hooked on writing about the women of medieval England. When not writing I enjoy reading, cooking, gardening and visiting castles, cathedrals and anything with a historical vibe.

Why did you settle on historical fiction?

This was an easy choice for me. In a previous life I taught history and have always enjoyed the splendid stories and strong characters from the past. Here was an opportunity to bring these events and people - particularly the powerful but silent women of the 14th and 15th centuries - back to vivid life and give them a voice again. They may have lived 600 years ago, the social and moral pressures on their lives may have been very different from ours, but much of what they experienced, and how they reacted to it, can still resonate with us today. I particularly enjoy writing about relationships as the Plantagenet Court. For me, history is definitely not dead!

How do you handle the endless research required for histfic?

Because I have written about events in the royal Courts of the Plantagenets and Lancastrians in six novels, I now have a reasonable knowledge of what life was like, so I do not have to return to basics every time I embark on a new book. I do of course have to delve into the lives and characters of those who will people my story. I find this to be no burden at all. This is the exciting part of the work, particularly if I discover something I did not know about, something to give my story an edge or an excitement. It is a great pleasure to unwrap the story of my heroine and those who will interact with her.

What’s the best thing about being a full time author?

Quite definitely the best for me is to be able to plan when I write and how long I write, without too many outside influences and distractions. I am a morning writer, so I arrange my day to start early and work through the morning until lunch. If I need longer - when deadlines for my editor loom - then I am also free to do this.

And the worst?

I cannot think of a 'worst'. I found that when I taught full time, writing even short stories was very difficult. Even if I had the physical opportunity, my mind tended to be full of academic history and the demands of the lessons for the next day. The total freedom to write is amazing, and I am well aware of how fortunate I am.

I suppose what does irritate me most is when real life creeps in - as it does - and I have to push aside my characters and their important and emotional problems, to visit the supermarket or tackle some basic housework. And because I work at home, sometimes I cannot ignore what needs to be done around me.

For writers interested in the whole nuts and bolts process, can you give us a potted-history of your route to publication?

Here goes!
I choose a character who has something to say. Whose life involves tension or difficulties or choices that will make good drama. Without this, there will be no excitement for the reader. There is nothing worse than a totally 'good' character
I construct a detailed timeline of her life, interwoven with the lives of the characters who will play a part in her story. I add where and why and how as ideas come to me.
I select the most dramatic scenes that must be present to hold the story together, and I decide where my heroine's story will start and end.
Then I start writing.
I write a rough draft. Followed by another two or three edits and re-edits to build up the detailed layers of historical detail and the facets of character which become clearer as I write.
A final read-through to get a sense of pace and 'page-turning' quality.
Twelve months later, by which time we have lived cheek by jowl and I know my characters very well, and they have sometimes surprised me ...
I send my completed novel to my agent and editor.
This is followed by some re-editing. It is always vital to have a second opinion at this stage. I am too close to my story to be totally objective so advice is very valuable.
And then (hopefully) it is taken out of my hands for publication. A day of celebration!

What do you know now as a writer that you’ve learned since the publication of your first novel?

I  have learned two essential elements to writing historical fiction about people who actually lived. The first is the importance of historical accuracy. This is the bedrock of my writing. If the facts are known, then they cannot be changed. Outside the facts there is, of course, room for 'historical imagination' to fill in the dots as long as the character remains true to herself and the history around her.

The second is the importance of 'readability'. A novel must have pace and excitement to carry the reader on. They must be driven by a need to know what happens next. For this reason I must be selective in which historical detail I use. It is important that the lives of my characters do not become weighed down with too much historical fact. I might find the description of a particular battle fascinating, but four pages of description of who killed who will not enhance my novel! It is a lesson in self-control and careful selection.

If you could take a time machine back to any period of history, where would you go and why?

Because I have written about this in depth in recent books, I would choose to be a fly on the wall at the court of Richard II. Vigorous, extravagant, full of promise with a young monarch and good councillors, it was to descend into tragedy because of Richard's weak choices, royal favourites, politically inept decisions. Finally there was the downfall and death of the king himself. And such splendidly dramatic characters are there: John of Gaunt, Katherine Swynford, Elizabeth of Lancaster, Joan of Kent, John Holand: all of whom have appeared in my novels so far. It was a remarkable reign and I would certainly like to see it for myself.

Would you like to write a book in another genre? If so what would it be and why?

I have no plans to write in another genre, but occasionally it crosses my mind to change from medieval history to the highly romantic, tragic and colourful world of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the PreRaphaelites. There are so many exceptional characters, both the artists themselves as well as the 'stunners', the women who influenced them and their art. Can I truly abandon my medieval people for the reign of Queen Victoria? One day perhaps ...

What is next in the pipeline for you?

I have a new historical novel very close on my horizon now. It will be published in January 2016. It is 'The Queen's Choice', telling the little known story of Joanna of Navarre who became the second wife of King Henry IV in the early years of the 15th century. A mature woman with her own family, she discovered some surprising and uncomfortable obstacles for her to overcome on becoming Queen of England. Not least being accused and imprisoned for three years, by her stepson King Henry V, on a dangerous charge of necromancy. I discovered her to be a remarkable heroine, and I think that my readers will also enjoy her experiences.

We have a theme of CLASSICS for this month’s issue. Which is your favourite Classic – and why? And do you think it has influenced your own writing?

I have always enjoyed Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, told from Jane's personal point of view, the approach I use in my own writing. I enjoy the vibrancy it allows when writing from the main protagonist's point of view.
But the Classic that influenced me most was Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe. I remember reading it when I was very young and romantically impressionable. I loved the colour and romance, and the weaving of real and imaginary characters into the backdrop of history. It made history come alive for me, so that I was drawn in to enjoy and suffer with those I admired or hated. It is my ambition to do the same for my readers.

For those who would like to follow Anne and keep up to date with her writing, particularly the release of The Queen's Choice:
Twitter: @anne_obrien

Classics - And Why We Love Them!

By Gillian Hamer

Do you have your own favourite Classic? A book that moved you or signified a particular period – good or bad / happy or sad – in your life. Classic novels have played a big part in a lot of people’s life stories, and for authors a big part of their careers.
Here, a few fellow writers reveal their favourites and answer three questions:

1. Your favourite Classic – and why?

2. Your favourite quote from above novel.

3. How the book has influenced your writing.


1. Tess of the d'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy. My favourite Hardy novel. I adore novels where the landscape is an important character and the landscapes of Tess are so central to the story - Tess is also a wonderful invention - an intense and heartbreaking character. I have pondered over her role as a woman for years and I expect I will continue to do so for many years to come!

2. “...our impulses are too strong for our judgement sometimes.”

3. I think what I find most satisfying about the book is the intensity of feelings the characters have. They really live and breathe in Hardy's pages. If I have taken any influence from this book it is both Hardy's love of the natural world and also a sense of trying to create in my own novels, the kind of intensity and truth that he evokes so well in his characters.


1. My favourite (modern) classic is Kleinzeit by Russell Hoban.

2. "Summer, age something. Before a thunderstorm. Black sky. A piece of paper whirling in the air high over the street. Harmony took place.
I remember, said Kleinzeit."

3. It made me want to write about that moment when harmony happens, when we 'remember' (re-member. become unified), and that has been the motivating force for most of my novels - reaching the moment when everything just is.


1. Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. The beautiful women, the handsome men, the glam period costumes and a fiery Civil War backdrop. The drama and romance!

2. “My dear, I don’t give a damn.”

3. Inspired a love of historical fiction, epic dramas based on fact, things I tend to write about in my own fiction.


1. Little Women by Louisa May Allcott

2. “Every few weeks she would shut herself up in her room, put on her scribbling suit, and 'fall into a vortex,' as she expressed it, writing away at her novel with all her heart and soul, for till that was finished she could find no peace.”

3. Remembering the excitement and anticipation of entering the world of Jo March and her sisters, and to realise at a young age I shared Jo’s passion for language and writing. It was a very exciting time for me.


1. War and Peace by Tolstoy.

2. “We can know only that we know nothing. And that is the highest degree of human wisdom.’ OR “Because of the self-confidence with which he had spoken, no one could tell whether what he said was very clever or very stupid.”

3. In 1972, the BBC undertook the massive task of dramatising Tolstoy’s War and Peace in a 19 part TV drama. I started watching it with my family and immediately fell in love with Pierre (and incidentally with Anthony Hopkins). About halfway through, I found I couldn’t wait any longer for the net episode. I borrowed a copy of the book from the school library and went on renewing it week after week until I finished reading the same week as the TV drama reached its final episode. I am not sure I could have tackled a book like that at such a young age (or even now) without the visual images from the series to help me distinguish the multiple characters with their complicated Russian names and keep track of the multi-layered plot. But I loved it, and it taught me never to be put off by the length or the daunting reputation of a book, but to have a go and enjoy it on its own terms.

I’m not sure I’d say the novel specifically influenced my writing, but devouring an early diet of classics a) made me ambitious to tackle big subjects in my writing and b) in a less positive way made my early writing hopelessly pretentious – something it took me a long time to get over!


1. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

2. “It takes great personal courage to let yourself appear weak.”

3. It affected my writing by making me want to give up. And by making me more truthful.


The Importance of Goal Setting


We all need to value the importance of goal setting. This simple technique can help, encourage, motivate and support us to produce high quality regular results. Here, I outline ten steps to get you started on the goal setting path.

1 Why we need to set goals

Goals keep us motivated, it offers us structure, plus it forces us to be disciplined and organised. We can actually finish projects instead of having lots of ideas hanging about cluttering up our hard drives, our minds and our notebooks!

It doesn't matter if your first idea isn't very good – we can go back to it at a later date. The important thing is that you've stuck to your goal of seeing an idea through - eg carrying out research and starting a first draft of that article, story, play or novel.

2 Decide what your goal is

It should be something you really, really want to do. Last year (2014) I decided that I wanted to attempt a chick- lit novel. I gave myself a rough time limit of a year to start it, finish it, edit it and sub it. However, I still have small daily goals too eg: to start the first of a fresh batch of magazine stories, because my other goal is to see my fiction published in more magazines.

3 Goals prevent the 'blank screen' scenario

Every day, when I sit down at the computer, I have pretty good idea what my goals are and what I can realistically achieve in my time limit. If you find yourself facing a blank screen, ask yourself questions. Eg: How do I begin my journey of launching my own blog?

The first step on that journey is to make a list of new interesting blogs. Then read them and take notes.

Grab a pen and paper, write your goal down and place this note on your desk.

It doesn't matter if there's just one small item on the list.

The next day, you can crack on with that project straight away – no more time wasted staring at blank screens - in your mind or at the PC. If you adopt this method, you'll never get stuck, because your goal is already there facing you.

4 Daily, weekly, monthly and yearly goals

You can set goals for every day, every month or every year. If this sounds too much like hard work, that's because it is!

Professional writers, novelists and freelancers actively choose to work in their own specific areas of employment.

If they don't work, they don't eat and they can't pay their bills either.

My one big goal for this year (2015) is to finish my chick-lit novel. My goal after that is to edit it and adjust accordingly. Then - and only when I feel ready - I'll sub it to agents and publishers.

If it's 'no' from everyone, I won't hide myself away and sob in a dark room (Well, perhaps I will, but just for a few hours!)

I have other long- term projects I can work on. Starting and finishing at least one of these projects and submitting it, is one of my goals for 2016.

5 Have more than one goal

There's nothing wrong with having several goals. In fact, I would actively encourage it. I know of people who can only work on one project at a time – others, like me, relish the variety of different projects. However, I would say complete one project before you start work on another, because your mind set may change with each piece project.

6 How to Keep Motivated

You shouldn't have any problem keeping motivated if you have set your goals clearly. If you've run out of goals, simply set some more!

Reflect on your past success and think 'I did it then, so I can do it again now,' or tell yourself 'There's no reason at all why I can't produce my own high quality story and sell it to the highest paying magazine.'

You really need to push yourself. Grab any opportunity you can, because any kind of experience soon adds up!

7 Goals must be realistic and achievable

I feel that my goal of producing a commercial chick-lit novel is both because:

a) I've had several stories published in national UK magazines

b) I enjoy reading the chick-lit genre very much

c) I've had practical working experience of my MC's occupation and

d) Hopefully, my novel will fit nicely alongside certain author's work on the shelf in the book shop.

Remember, ideally, your goals should be realistic and achievable. If they're not, think about how you'd get from get from A to B.

For instance, if you wanted to write a political thriller (I realise that your goal may be something completely different, but please bear with me) and you've spent twenty years working on a farm, I'd research the details of your idea first.

Interview as many politicians as you can. Don't simply make it up and think it's going to be okay. It won't.

Talk to your friends about your project and listen to their suggestions.

8 Struggling? Set yourself a different goal

If you're struggling to start or complete your goal, it's perfectly okay to put it on the back burner for a while. Perhaps it's not the right time for it, or perhaps it's a big project and you don't feel ready. Maybe you need capital to launch your product, and there's a lack of spare funds.

It's a waste of time and energy to force yourself into something, so write down your idea and save it on a document on your computer (because you might want to return to it one day - that's another goal for the future) and switch your focus to a different goal instead.

9 Give yourself a reward

You need to know one very important aspect of goal setting. It involves treats. Lots of them, in fact!

Reached the project basics? Fix yourself a coffee – oh and have a biscuit too. Researched a pricing range? Treat yourself to a hot chocolate and a small cake!

Now I'm not suggesting that you stuff yourself silly with sugary sweet stuff all day, but there's nothing wrong with rewarding with yourself after you've worked hard.

If snacking ain't your thing, vow to get your nails/ hair done or buy that new book by your favourite author. You could ask your partner to prepare the evening meal or request a massage to ease your aching shoulders.

Little treats like this gives us something to look forward to when we're in the midst of despair.

10 Keep going with those goals!

Regard goal setting as standard for your working life. It's kept me on the straight and narrow.

When I was an amateur unemployed writer, my goal for the next day was to visit the local library, log onto a computer, type my work up from my longhand and save it to a floppy disc. The disc was stuffed full short stories.

The fact that I wasn't a published paid writer didn't deter me one little bit.

I didn't listen to others who put me off achieving my goal - and neither should you.

The reason why I felt my goal was a realistic and achievable one was because I'd had my work assessed by an agency who'd said my material was 'spot on' for the magazine market.

I had set my goal and I did everything within my power to achieve it.

And finally, I did it.

My fiction was published in a national magazine and I actually got paid! I was so proud. I've since gone on to repeat this success.

People with no goals simply drift along with no real purpose in life. Misery can breed very quickly if we have nothing to aim for.

So go on - set those goals today!


S.BEE is my writing name. My proper name is Sharon Boothroyd.

Since 2010, I've had a wide range of letters,opinion pieces, poems and stories published in national UK magazines. As well as running my own online writing group, I edit and co- own a small non- profit e-magazine.

My own site is:

Snapshots from... Lausanne.

By JJ Marsh

In our regular series, international writers share some snapshots from their part of the world. This issue, Nancy Freund shares her views on Lausanne in Switzerland and its cousin, Geneva.

What’s so great about Lausanne? 

Just an hour’s drive from Geneva, at the northern tip of Lake Geneva’s croissant-shaped apex, Lausanne attracts expats from all over the world, some short-termers intent on retaining their national identities at all costs and long-termers who hold numerous countries’ passports, speak many languages, and blend easily into the diverse cultural landscape. The writing from this region reflects this diversity in style, structure, and content.  The political neutrality of this country is reflected in the writing and culture as well. There is a lot of room for a creative person to manoeuvre and find readers who truly appreciate innovative works. Lausanne and Geneva have distinct cultural personalities – they’re like the cousins who always migrate to one another at family events. They’re not the same, but they really enjoy each other’s company. 

Tell us a bit about the cultural life of the place.

The Geneva Writers Group is a lifeline for hundreds of English-speaking writers in the French-speaking region of Switzerland and further afield. In fact, its biannual conference draws 250 writers and instructors from more than 50 countries, and it always offers a surprising range of workshops panels, and opportunities to meet like-minded writers. The Geneva Writers Group has grown from strength to strength over the course of 23 years. Every month about 70 writers participate in master classes and related events at the Geneva Press Club, and GWG membership has opened pathways to publication for many members. It’s a wonderful, vibrant group – and extremely diverse.

More recently this area saw the 2004 opening of the Jan Michalski Foundation and Library supporting multicultural and bilingual literature and offering a stunning, light-filled space for literary events, writers’ residencies, and a very generous literary prize that has been a wonderful honour for both Jan Michalski’s legacy and the writers who’ve received it. This weekend Julian Barnes will be speaking there.

This area also celebrates the annual Morges Literary Festival known as Le Livre Sur Les Quais, which attracts 40,000 book-loving visitors and 300 writers to the beautiful lakeside venues in Morges’ old town. The place can probably be seen from space, with all the literary electricity buzzing that weekend in early September. Tessa Hadley was a favourite speaker on this year’s roster, and she will return to Geneva for the GWG conference in March.

What’s hot? What are people reading?

One book I have to mention is the recent Pulitzer Prize winning novel All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, who was a fiction instructor for the Geneva Writers Group a number of years ago. A beautiful book! Another fiction instructor we had a few years ago is Bret Lott, whose novel Jewel is exactly that. The locals regularly like to read each others’ works, spanning a great range of genres, fiction and non-fiction, both published and to-be-published. I’ve got three books lined up right now – Olivia Wildenstein’s Ghostboy, Chameleon and the Duke of Graffiti, Katie Hayoz’s Chicago steampunk novel, Immersed, and Amanda Hunt Callendrier’s El Camino. It’s a real privilege to beta-read great fiction.

Can you recommend any books set in Geneva, or Switzerland?

Not everyone knows that Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho, author of The Alchemist lives with his artist wife in Geneva and regularly writes about the area. His new novel Adultery is evidently set here. I confess I haven’t read it, although I have read his novel Eleven Minutes, also based on sexual misconduct in the Geneva area. A bit of a departure from his metaphysical Alchemist. In the Diamones trilogy, Massimo Marino writes Geneva-based dystopian sci-fi drawing on his experience as a CERN physicist.

Who are the best known local writers?

Founder of GWG Susan Tiberghien with Daniela Norris
If you look at the membership of the Geneva Writers Group, you’ll see many important local writers, many of whom have won prizes in the US, UK, and Europe. Michelle Bailat-Jones, winner of the Christopher Doheney Prize for Japan-based Fog Island Mountains is top of my list of favorites. Susan Tiberghien, now in her 80s, founded the Geneva Writers Group more than 20 years ago and has just released two charming memoirs about expat life, marriage, and writing. Daniela Norris writes wonderful new age inspiration and fiction, with a new novel coming any day now, titled Recognitions. I also highly recommend Susan Jane Gilman’s novel The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street for its broad-ranging (yet quite specific) review of the last century of American history, a strong (yet damaged and damaging) female protagonist, and a fantastic fly-on-the-wall revelation of business building. I loved that one. Susan splits her time between New York and Geneva.

Is the location an inspiration or distraction for you?

Inspiration, 100%. I write in English, and I love the freedom to write in a minority language, in the style I choose, without concern about audience. Those concerns can come in later, when the work is all stirred and simmering. There’s wonderful freedom as a writer here.

What are you writing?

My third novel Effort of Will features a Montana cowboy whose investment banker wife moves the family to Switzerland for an expat assignment. It’s taking me eons to write it because I keep inventing new plot twists as I go. I enjoy these characters so much, I don’t want to see this novel untwist itself and end. Soon, though!

Sum up life in Lausanne in three words.

Neutral. Organized. Fulfilling.

And because I’m not actually Swiss, I’m going to break the rules and throw in a fourth –


Nancy Freund is a writer, editor, prior English teacher, and mentor. Born in New York, raised in Kansas City, and educated in Los Angeles, she was married in England, and today lives in French-speaking Switzerland. She is the author of Foreword Reviews finalist for Book of the Year in General Fiction and Category Finalist for the Eric Hoffer Prize 'Rapeseed,' (Gobreau Press, 2013) 'Global Home Cooking: International Families' Favorite Recipes' which earned the Eric Hoffer Prize Honorable Mention (2014), and 'Mailbox: A Scattershot Novel of Racing, Dares and Danger, Occasional Nakedness, and Faith' (2015). Her novel 'Effort of Will' is forthcoming in 2016. Her writing has appeared in The Istanbul Review, BloodLotus Journal, Offshoots, The Daily Mail, Female First, and The Sirenuse Journal. Her radio interviews have aired on BBC London, World Radio Switzerland, and Talk Radio Europe. She is active in Community Literacy projects for teens and adults, and she holds a B.A. in English/Creative Writing and an M.Ed. from UCLA.

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Cornerstones Mini Masterclass October 2015

with Ayisha Malik, Managing Editor at Cornerstones Literary Consultancy.

Each issue, Cornerstones Literary Consultancy explore and critique a reader's opening page. If you would like to participate in their Opening Page Mini Masterclass, send your opening page (400 approx words) as a Word Document attachment to with the subject ‘Cornerstones Masterclass’. Pieces for critique are chosen at random from those submitted to Words with JAM.

by Terry Ellen

Tim Browne didn’t even hear the storm. On the eve of his thirteenth birthday, when—for his own health, not to mention his Aunt Nellie’s peace of mind—he really should have been asleep, he was lying on his bed (in truly dorky pyjamas) wearing headphones and playing guitar. This is what he did almost every night, even when he wasn’t turning a year older the next day. It was not only a passion, but also an effective escape from the parts of his life that made him unhappy, which, these days, was pretty much all of them.

Beside him on the bed was a CD case whose resident artists were identified as the Three Fingers—a rock band his dad Rob had played in before Tim was born. He was listening to the album full blast and doing his best to play along with his dad’s gnarly riffs. His dad was a pretty awesome guitar player. Not as awesome as Jimi Hendrix, of course, who looked down benignly on Tim from his place of honor on the wall beside his bed. His dad had given him that poster and both of them knew no one was as awesome as Hendrix.

Suddenly, there was a blinding flash followed by an ear-splitting crack loud enough to penetrate even the full-blast, surround-sound musical world in which Tim was immersed. Tim jumped up and pulled off his headphones, looking around in alarm. When he heard the rain pounding the cottage, he quickly figured out the cause of the disturbance. In case he had any doubts, another peal of thunder, almost as loud as the first, confirmed his hypothesis.

Tim raised the window blind and peered outside, wondering just how close the lightning strike had been. It couldn’t have been very far, that was certain. He took a deep breath and exhaled, feeling his pounding heart slowly starting to return to normal. He put the headphones back on. The band was just about to go into the big finish. Smiling, he assumed his best rock and roll pose and raised his arm, getting ready to hit the final E7 chord. As his pick hit the strings there was another blaze of light. This time Tim didn’t have to guess where the bolt hit. The blast of electricity surged through the guitar, cementing Tim to the spot and freezing his entire body in an absurd contortion, a parody of rock and roll excess. As a noise like an explosion shook the cottage, Tim fell to the floor. It was a hell of a finish.

Critique by Ayisha Malik

I think there is potential in this opening page, especially to wring out the Tension that builds to the climax towards the end. In order to maximise on this the author could employ more Show Don’t Tell as well as anchor us more firmly in the main character’s Point of View, which links to Voice. Voice is all-important, particularly in children’s fiction (although it’s not entirely clear whether this is adults or children’s) and once the author unearths this it will immediately feel more authentic, vibrant and should positively impact on other aspects such as: Show, internal conflict and observation. It should also help to slow down the scene in key moments to aid build-up and tension. At the moment the authorial perspective takes away from us really engaging with Tim and this diminishes the impact of what occurs by the end of the page. There are also some issues with Pace that could be honed. I’ll go into more detail about how the author can develop these technical aspects in order for this first page to live up to its potential. 

We’re immediately given a good sense of place and Tim’s character – musical, a little nerdy (the pyjamas are a good touch), unhappy. However, using more Show would help bring out the dimensions of his personality, as well as allowing the reader to engage with him. For example, when the author writes:

It was not only a passion, but also an effective escape from the parts of his life that made him unhappy, which, these days, was pretty much all of them.

The author could employ more of Tim’s thoughts in order for the reader to find out about the reasons behind his unhappiness. Is it to do with school? Friends? Family? His mother isn’t mentioned and I get the feeling there might be a story there, especially as Aunt Nellie is alluded to (where are his parents?). What are the feelings specific to Tim that help him to escape? I like the subtle irony of this: Tim has his headphones on, doesn’t notice the storm and is so fully immersed in his own world that he has no idea about the one around him, which is going to eventually lead to an incredible accident. Also, how does this passion make Tim feel? What are the physical or emotional manifestations of this passion? I also wonder whether the author could add some details here to help raise the Tension. We know Tim doesn’t notice the storm, but the author could drip-feed certain details, suggesting something happening outside in order to increase a sense of mystery and foreboding. Perhaps a flash of light that Tim catches, but he ignores it? Or perhaps the light in his room flickers as a result of the storm outside? 

The details about CDs and names of bands, while giving us an insight into Tim’s likes and nicely alluding to his positive relationship with his father, take away from the tension of the moment and slows down the Pace. The jump from ‘No-one was as awesome as Hendrix’ to ‘Suddenly there was a blinding flash’ feels rather abrupt at present. I realise that’s the nature of its suddenness but the preceding description, which feels quite slow, means the lead-on paragraph jars somewhat in the narrative. Any drip-feeding suggesting that things aren’t quite normal might help with this. 

It would be good to stay away from any clichés when describing the lightning, such as ‘Blinding flash’ (it’s hard to imagine a blinding flash when the blinds are drawn) and ‘ear-splitting crack.’ This is also a good opportunity to Show from Tim’s Point of View. Can we be shown his reaction to the light and the sound? Does he squint or shield his eyes? Is there some kind of interference with the headphones he’s wearing, piercing the sound and hurting his ears? 

Structurally, if you think of the opening we have: 
First paragraph: introduction to character and setting.
Second paragraph: musical detail, along with mention of his dad. 
Third paragraph: action.
Fourth paragraph: inciting incident. 

The paragraphs are more or less equal in length, but not necessarily equal in narrative importance. I believe that condensing the second paragraph and slowing the pace in the third and fourth would increase the Tension. Tim’s ‘pounding’ heart is a good example of Showing (though perhaps also quite clichéd) and more of this the moment he realises what’s happening outside would be good. I’d also be careful of language that sounds too formal, such as, ‘Confirmed his hypothesis.’ This doesn’t sound like the voice of a soon-to-be thirteen-year-old boy, which adds to the distancing effect between the reader and character. How does Tim feel when he sees the thunder? What is he thinking? When he puts his headphones back on I want to see the emotional transition from fear back to happiness. 

The final few lines, leading up to the incident are imperative:

As his pick hit the strings there was another blaze of light. This time Tim didn’t have to guess where the bolt hit. The blast of electricity surged through the guitar, cementing Tim to the spot and freezing his entire body in an absurd contortion, a parody of rock and roll excess. As a noise like an explosion shook the cottage, Tim fell to the floor. It was a hell of a finish.

I think more careful use of language could contribute to a tighter finish. For example, do we need, ‘This time Tim didn’t have to guess where the bolt hit.’ This feels like an authorial perspective and without it, I believe the finishing reads in a more gripping way. 

In conclusion, this page has potential but the author should think about employing more Show Don’t Tell, editing out sentences/words to fasten the Pace when needed, and focus on Tim’s emotional reactions and perspective to slow it down when necessary. A much stronger focus on honing Tim’s Voice, Point of View, and his thoughts and feelings should also help the reader to engage with both Tim and the story. 

Best of luck to the reader with developing this piece. 

That's Classic, by Anne Stormont

What gives a book classic status - the accepted definitions and a personal list

How do you judge what's classic? Is it like beauty––dependent on the beholder? To a certain extent, I think it is. For one thing, culture will play a part as will personal taste and opinion.

And the word 'classic' has various meanings and a couple of cousins.

My husband has been known to describe a soccer match that has ended in favour of his beloved Aberdeen football club as a classic. Here its use is to show that the play was a very good example of its kind. And staying with sport, there are also certain major golf and tennis tournaments which are describes as classic–– again implying something outstanding.

My son will describe certain of my behaviours, usually when he's laughing at said behaviours, as 'classic Mum', and here the meaning is that the behaviour is absolutely typical.

The classic label is also applied to things which are judged to have been of the highest quality and /or appeal over a long period of time. These could be anything from a long-running comedy or drama programme on television or radio, to a movie, a play, a piece of popular music , an item of clothing or an accessory, a hairstyle, a piece of equipment and so on––just about anything really––it just has to have enduring appeal. Think Chanel Number 5 perfume, the short bob hairstyle, just about any Beatles album, the Mini car, the movie It's a Wonderful Life, the Kenwood Chef food mixer, the Little Black Dress... Make your own list.

Then there's 'classical' the slightly posher more formal cousin of 'classic', but definitely in the same classification family. Here, too, the things having this label applied to them must be long-established, but usually by centuries rather than decades. They must also adhere to a set of long-established forms and styles, and, of course, be of an exemplary standard. So, for example, classical ballet and music, but also items that represent a first significant and influential field of study which has gone on to be further developed by others, such as classical Freudian psychoanalysis.

And finally there's the second-cousin once removed, i.e. The Classics which covers the study and interpretation of ancient Greek and Latin civilisation, their languages, yes, but also their cultural aspects such as their literature, philosophy and history. The Classics underpin the English language and, of course, many of the other modern European languages too. They also provide the foundation for just about every aspect of Western cultural arts.

But Words with Jam is a magazine for writers, so does any of the above apply to us and, more particularly, with the results of our labours? I suppose the short answer is–– it's not for us to say. Judgement will be made using some or all of the above criteria. Having the term classic applied to our books is something we as writers can only aspire too.

What applies to movies, cars and paintings applies to books too. Classic is surely in the mind's eye of the beholder.

It's readers who decide what's officially classic––readers who reach a consensus-by-osmosis over a long period of time. It could be readers of a quantum physics textbook, a literary novel, a  whodunnit, a poetry or short story collection, a children's novel or a parent-child picture book––but it will be readers who'll be the judge of what gets the classic badge.

But we can, as readers, have our own, non-consensual, list of classic books. The books that meet our personal criteria that may or may not meet the classic standards of others. Below I've listed my own personal classic book biography. It covers the period from my childhood back in the stone age to the 1990s. Anything more recent of course can't qualify yet. So the main criteria for achieving a place on Anne's classics list is relative longevity, their high level of positive influence on me and my own huge affection for and attachment to them.

The Mother Goose Book of Nursery Rhymes
The Mallory Towers series by Enid Blyton
The Child's Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson
Peter Pan by JM Barrie
Jill and the Perfect Pony by Ruby Ferguson
Vicki in Venice by Lorna Hill
Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson
Lorna Doone by RD Blackmore
Greenvoe by George Mackay Brown
The Collected Poems by Robert Burns
The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare
The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart
The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran
The Collected Poems by TS Eliot
The Collected Poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins
Les Fleurs du Mal by Baudelaire
L'Etranger by Albert Camus
The History of the English Language by Albert Baugh
Dibs: In Search of Self by Virginia Axline
Teaching as a Subversive Activity by Postman and Gartner
How Children Learn by John Holt
The Learning Game by Jonathan Smith
Taking it Like a Woman Ann Oakley
Women Fly When Men Aren't Watching by Sara Maitland
Over by Margaret Foster
The Hours by Michael Cunningham
Unless by Carol Shields
Grace Notes by Bernard Maclaverty
Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels
Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande

So there you have it. My life story up to the millennium in thirty books. It's all in there––childhood wonder, adolescent awakening, university study, political awareness, womanhood, marriage, motherhood and my imaginative, emotional, personal and professional life. All are (to me)  high quality, influential and great examples of their kind.

What would be on your classics list?

Anne Stormont is an author-publisher. She can be a subversive old bat but maintains a kind heart. As well as writing for this fine organ, she writes fiction for adults – mainly of the female-of-a-certain-age persuasion – and for children, when she goes by the name of her alter-ego, Anne McAlpine. She blogs at  – where you can find out lots more about her.

Websites at:  and

Writing about diversity from the outside in

by Anne Goodwin

While it’s generally agreed that diversity in the book world is a laudable aim, there’s not a great consensus as to how to facilitate it. Recently on Words with Jam, Debbie Reese cautioned against outsiders writing about Native Americans in books for children, while Farhana Shaikh, in the UK, saw no reason why white writers shouldn’t create BME characters. Having recently published my debut novel about a woman whose particular minority background I don’t share, I’m particularly sensitised to this polarisation of opinion. I want to avoid inadvertently perpetuating negative stereotypes but I also believe that diversity in fiction is everyone’s responsibility. While it would be painful to be accused of racism or homophobia, straight white writers have to do our bit.

I didn’t set out to write a “diversity novel” but, as the story evolved, I realised this was the right way to go. While I’m no expert, feedback, in the form of reviews, suggests I’ve done a good-enough job, so I thought it worth passing on some tips based on my experience of writing about diversity from the outside in.

Learn your craft

If you’re relatively new writer, it might be advisable to defer your “diversity novel” until you have honed your skills. Creating authentic characters of any kind is challenging; do you want to add another layer of complexity to the mix? Sugar and Snails took me seven years from inception to publication, partly because I didn’t realise what a complex task I’d set myself. On the other hand, my passion for the story made me determined to make it work.

Find a safe place to explore your prejudices

We’ve all grown up with assumptions about those who are not like us. The more we can be aware of our stereotypes and prejudices, the less likely they are to contaminate our fiction. If you can’t access equality and diversity training, at least examine your attitudes in confidence with a close friend.

Avoid stereotypes and ration the humour

Make sure your characters don’t conform to cultural stereotypes, and don’t make them the butt of your jokes. While most novels benefit from a sprinkling of humour, the truly comic novel should be left to those writing from inside.

Do your research, but don’t get lost within it

You’ll need to read around your subject and check up on facts, but don’t let your fear of mistakes impede the flow. If you keep your focus on why this topic interests you, you might find you don’t need as much background information as you originally thought. It can be liberating to let go of one’s grandiosity: you’re not writing the definitive text on a particular community, but one possible version of life within it. A journey of the imagination encompasses myriad possibilities.

Dig deep to find your personal connection with your character

Despite diverse cultural practices, at the emotional level, human beings are fundamentally the same. Connecting with your character emotionally, will make your fiction live and breathe. Give them some aspect of your own personality or history, or dress up in their clothes, so that you feel less the creator than the conduit for their experiences.

Let your readers get close and personal

First-person or close third-person points of view help reduce the distance between character and reader. Invite them inside your character’s mind, let readers live the story through their eyes. That doesn’t necessarily entail forgoing suspense. Consistent with her secretive personality, the exact nature of Diana’s identity issue in Sugar and Snails isn’t spelt out until halfway through.

Sensitively seek feedback from those in the know

Just as fiction with a school setting might benefit from feedback from a teacher, try to get the perspective of someone on the inside. But do this sensitively: your acquaintance might not identify as strongly with the minority community as you assume. Consider also when to show them your manuscript: a polished final draft is more engaging than a crude early one. With Sugar and Snails, we didn’t seek an opinion from any experts-through-experience until the proof stage. Fortunately, they loved it.

If you believe in it, do it!

Finally, if you’ve considered these points but are still uncertain, why not just give it a go? Writers need to be free to write that story we want to write, regardless of what others think. If you’re committed to your project, and you’re prepared to do the work, you’ll get there eventually.

Author bio