Wednesday, 26 July 2017

In Conversation with Ruth Hogan

By Gillian Hamer
Ruth Hogan. (Photo by Ben Croker)
Reviews for The Keeper of Lost Things:

A debut to watch for… I was hugely impressed by this flawlessly written, most humane novel. (Ronald Frame, Sunday Herald (Books of the Year))

A charming story of fresh starts and self-discovery that warms the cockles (Woman & Home)

A warm and heartfelt debut. (Prima)

A charming whimsical novel about holding on to what is precious (Red)

This mystical and spiritual tale is a joyous read that will broaden your imagination and warm your heart (OK!)

It’s charming, beautiful and full of heart (Fabulous Magazine)

Magical and moving (Heat)
Hello, Ruth, welcome to WWJ. Tell us a little about yourself and your writing?

I was born in the house where my parents still live in Bedford.
As a child I was obsessed with dogs and ponies (I still am) and wanted to be a vet. I was always reading, and frequently had to be forcibly parted from a book at mealtimes. I read everything I could lay my hands on so it was very fortunate that my mum worked in a bookshop. My favourite reads were The Moomintrolls, A Hundred Million Francs, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, the back of cereal packets, and gravestones.
I studied English and Drama at Goldsmiths College, University of London. It was brilliant and I loved it. But then I came home and got a proper job.
I now live in a chaotic Victorian house with an assortment of rescue dogs and my long-suffering husband. I spend all my free time writing or thinking about it and have notebooks in every room so that I can write down any ideas before I forget them. I am a magpie; always collecting treasures (or ‘junk’ depending on your point of view) and a huge John Betjeman fan. My favourite word is antimacassar and I still like reading gravestones.

Your debut novel The Keeper of Lost Things has become a bestseller. Can you sum it up in a single paragraph?

No! I’m really bad at writing short synopses so I’ve pinched this bit from the summary on Amazon.
Meet the 'Keeper of Lost Things'...
Once a celebrated author of short stories now in his twilight years, Anthony Peardew has spent half his life collecting lost objects, trying to atone for a promise broken many years before.
Realising he is running out of time, he leaves his house and all its lost treasures to his assistant Laura, the one person he can trust to fulfil his legacy and reunite the thousands of objects with their rightful owners.
But the final wishes of the 'Keeper of Lost Things' have unforeseen repercussions which trigger a most serendipitous series of encounters...

After a decade working in human resources, it took big life changes in your personal life before you became a full-time writer – what gave you the confidence to take the plunge?

For years I’d clung to the security of a sensible, well-paid job. I had a mortgage and bills to pay, and writing was just a hobby. But in my early thirties I had a car accident which left me unable to work full-time and convinced me to start writing seriously. I was still working part-time as a receptionist, but writing became my main focus. Then in 2012 I was diagnosed with cancer and that was a game-changer. I vowed that I would take every opportunity that came my way and if I ever got the chance to become a full-time writer I’d chase it as hard as if my pants were on fire! I was extremely lucky that the initial publishing deals for KEEPER paid well enough for me to give up working as a receptionist and concentrate on being a full-time author. The rights for KEEPER have gone on to sell in 19 territories so far, so it was a risk that proved to be well worth taking.

What one piece of writing advice you’ve been given do you find invaluable and would like to pass on?

The best piece of advice that I’ve been given was by an agent who rejected KEEPER. She told me to remember that this (meaning the publishing industry) is a ‘business of opinions’ and although she didn’t feel that my novel was for her, there might be someone else out there prepared to take it on. She was right.

Where do you find inspiration for your novels?

Everywhere! Wherever I am, whatever I’m doing, I’m always watching people and the situations they find themselves in. Whenever I see a striking building or landscape, I always think ‘how would I describe that?’ I’m also a documentary junkie and forever cutting news items, personal ads (and occasionally obituaries) out of newspapers and magazines.

How do you set about creating your characters? Eg, where did the character of Anthony Peardew and his lifelong obsession come from? 

Anthony was inspired by a former neighbour of mine who became an extreme hoarder after his fiancée died. I have a notebook for potential characters. Whenever I see someone interesting or get an idea for a character, I describe them in my notebook. I also use other people’s photography as inspiration for characters – for example Diane Arbus, Martin Parr, Doisneau, Tony Ray-Jones and William Eggleston.

What’s the hardest thing about being a writer?

The hardest part is the time spent waiting. I’m not a patient person at all, and when my work is out on submission to publishers I find the waiting excruciating. I have to keep myself distracted by finding lots of things to do!

And what for you is the best thing?

Everything else. It’s my dream job/life.

What three books would you have to take with you to your Desert Island?

UNTITLED by Diane Arbus, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE by Jane Austen and a book about how to survive on a desert island.

Which author do you most admire?

It’s impossible to choose just one, but the man who made me want to write was Eric Malpass after I read his book MORNING’S AT SEVEN.

Can you tell us anything about your next novel?

It is essentially a story of empowerment, hope and redemption. Masha, a woman in her early forties, has suffered a terrible loss and we follow her journey from a very dark place through to a completely new life. She’s inspired to change by two of my favourite characters in the book; an old lady who feeds the crows in the park and sings opera in the local cemetery, and a seventy-year-old amateur dramatics diva and roller disco fan who’s dating an undertaker named Elvis. Some of the darker themes explored in the book were inspired by my own experiences, but there’s also a healthy dose of humour and a cast of eccentric (and hopefully!) loveable characters. And, of course, there are dogs. It will be published by Two Roads Books in May 2018.

Thank you, Ruth! Good luck with your writing.

See our Bookmuse review of The Keeper of Lost Things HERE

Find out more about Ruth and her books:

Monday, 24 July 2017

First Page Competition 2017 - THE WINNERS!

We are delighted to announce the winners of our First Page Competition 2017, which has been judged by Alison Morton

The longlist is as follows:

59, Memory Lane by Celia J Anderson

Dear Alice by Katie Martin

Evil Queen in a Bookshop by Thesy Surface

Heart the Keener by Lorna Fergusson

In a Heartbeat by Jacqueline Molloy

Champagne for Breakfast by Maggie Christensen

Journey Beyond Earth by Philip Thacker 

This is All Mostly True by Kathy Stevens

Raven's Watch by Tania Kremer-Yeatman

View from the Drowning Hole by Kenneth John Holt

The shortlist is as follows:

Crows by K Hughes

Elephants in Flip-Flops by Julia Anderson

Hunting the Light by Vanessa Savage

Guilt by Joan Ellis

Junk Land by Sharon Boyle

Mirrormind by Zoe Perrenoud

Momma by Jenny Rowe

My Hero, My Dad by Brenda Thacker

Random Book Title by Ian King

Rowan's Well by CJ Harter

SE17 by Katie Martin

Strangers on a Bridge by Louise Mangos

Where a Waves Meets the Shore by Kathryn Guare

S is for ... murder by Rod Cookson

And the winning entries are:

Judge’s Report 2017 by Alison Morton

All the authors who reached this shortlist deserve a bouquet of beautiful blooms and the accompanying box of chocolates. Reading these entries was easy because it was pleasurable. Then I had to sit down and judge them. Not so pleasurable because I had to pick winners out of seventeen excellent finalists.

A first sentence should grab your attention, a first page your heart. Who is this person? What are they thinking? What is their dilemma? Can we sympathise? Empathise? Do we care about them? The first page needs to intrigue and entice, yet remain focused and simple. A neat trick to pull off!

Some common themes emerge from these first pages: women escaping or separating from their situation; family disjunct, often crushing feelings or aspirations; unthinking or negligent behaviour or deliberate unkindness with the odd glint of murder.

Several of the first pages seemed almost like short stories; by the last word, they’d almost completed the circle they’d opened with the first few. Inserting an action deriving from the first page to pull us on to the second is almost like a second hook, but vital.

And talking of first sentences, some were crackers! Others could be reviewed; sometimes taking out the current first sentence or two can reveal a much better one.

On to the winners!


Breaking the Lore by Andy Smith

Discovering fairies at the bottom of the garden is supposed to be good luck. Except when the fairy’s been crucified. Two pieces of wood shoved into the ground; one tiny form fastened on to them. Sometimes, thought Inspector Paris, being a cop could be the worst job in the world. And sometimes it was bloody amazing.

‘Well?’ he asked. ‘What do you reckon?’

Williams the pathologist lay on the grass, examining the scene. He shuffled round and peered up at the detective.

‘I’m not sure what to make of it,’ he replied. ‘I’ve never seen anything like this.’

‘You think I have?’

‘Maybe, Boss,’ said a voice over Paris’ shoulder. ‘We do get to see some mighty weird stuff. Remember I told you about those talking fish?’

‘Bonetti,’ said Paris. ‘That was “Finding Nemo”.’

For the umpteenth time, Paris cursed the process of allocating Sergeants, and how the hell he’d been assigned this one. Life could be a right pain. Still, considering the grisly sight in front of him, it had to be better than the alternative.

‘Anyway,’ he said, ‘we’re not in Hollywood. This is Manchester, for God’s sake! The leafy suburbs granted, but your archetypal northern industrial city. Things like this just don’t happen here. Mind you, things like this probably don’t happen anywhere. Help me out, Jack. Is it even real?’

Williams pushed his glasses back on his nose, then pointed at the grass.

‘We’ve got what appears to be blood,’ he said. ‘There’s also bruising around the wounds. Hence the answer is: yes and no.’

He clambered up to his feet, brushing the soil from his trousers.

‘“Real” – yes. “It” – no. Most definitely a “she”.’

Paris crouched down to survey the scene once more. The two sticks were in the ground in an X shape, with one wrist and the opposite ankle attached to each. The petite head drooped forward, golden hair obscuring the face. Over the shoulders rose silver wings, glistening in the early morning sun. Below the head he could see a body covered by a pale blue dress. A body that was clearly female, with a sensational, albeit minute, figure.

‘Can’t argue with you,’ he said. ‘Living doll. Well, a dead one. But she can’t be a fairy, because they don’t exist. So what are we dealing with?’

Judge's Report:

This was hilarious! It shouldn’t have been as the second line revealed it was about a crucified fairy, but we are straight into a crime story complete with a body, pathologist, lead detective, stupid subordinate, jaunty dialogue and setting in Manchester.

The author’s spare yet vivid style and clever way of plunging us into a situation where questions are the only way out demonstrates confidence, a confidence that engenders trust for the reader. Mixed in with the snappy dialogue and down to earth procedural language is an evocative description of the dead fairy: ‘silver wings glistening in the morning sunshine’. The combination of a standard police investigation with a fairy story(!) opens doors to all kind of possibilities. An accomplished writer here and one who can do dialogue well. I’m dying to know what happens next.

Sibling Rivalry by Ilonka Halsband

I was two months old the first time Simon tried to kill me. I knew this only through anecdote, of course, as I had no memory of it, but years later Mother confessed that at the time she saw it only as the normal resentment of a precocious five year old faced with the invasive presence of a squalling baby sister.

When I was three Simon pushed me into the clothes dryer with a load of wet towels, then set us all to tumble dry. The towels cushioned my ride and our combined weight stopped the already malfunctioning appliance. I came out with an egg-sized bruise on my forehead and a fear of the dark.

It was during my first week of kindergarten when the true depth of my brother’s determination to get rid of me became clear. After performing her parental duty on the first day, Mother charged Simon with the responsibility of escorting me safely across the single street between home and school. He demonstrated remarkable restraint, waiting three days before pushing me into the path of an oncoming car. The driver’s superb reflexes limited the damage to a skinned knee and a bruised hip.

By the time I was eight I had survived a plunge down the basement steps, a morning locked in the trunk of the family car, and a few days in hospital after drinking milk laced with Mother’s antidepressants.

I learned to keep distance and, whenever possible, other people between my brother and me. And I slept with a chair wedged under my bedroom doorknob after waking one night to find Simon standing over me with a baseball bat. That it was only a plastic bat was no less alarming.

I was ten when I decided I would have to get rid of Simon.

Judge's Report:

A deadly story related in a straightforward, almost deadpan, style and all the more terrifying for it. The first line sets the whole theme of the book and as you read on, you realise you are watching the story of survival. We are in the modern era with a tumble dryer, plastic toys and cars, but we could be in a cave thousands of years ago. Tiny bits of background are dripped in, e.g. antidepressants. Does this suggest that Mother knows she has a homicidal son and can’t face up to it?

The language is simple in line with a story told in a child’s terms even though it may be an adult narrator several years later, yet every sentence is full of meaning. I enjoyed the humorous tone injected at the most deadly moments. A very worthy runner-up.


The Last of Michiko by Mandy Huggins

Every evening Hitoshi kneels on a blue cushion in the doorway that leads out to the garden. He leaves the shoji screens open regardless of the weather, and stays there until long after the sun has set. His heart knows that Michiko will never return, but his stubborn head finds reasons to hope.

The wind chimes jingle softly through the house, as gentle as her voice, and in the sudden breeze they mimic her laugh. Hitoshi presses his face into a pink kimono, inhaling her faint scent. At his side stands a jar of her homemade adzuki bean paste, as sweet and red as her lips. He has rationed it carefully, but now this final jar is almost empty.

The day’s post is propped up against the screen, and Hitoshi reaches for the bills and a letter from his daughter. She writes each week and always asks him to go and stay. Sometimes he thinks he will, but the trip to Tokyo seems like such a long journey now, and the city blinds him. There are no distances; everything is too densely packed, too close to see. And what about Michiko? He couldn’t risk her returning in his absence.

His son lives nearer, but when Hitoshi sees the car pull up he stays out of sight and doesn’t answer the door. He is saving them from the words that neither can bear to say. His son was the last to see Michiko; he watched the dark water snatch her away as though she were a brittle twig. When Hitoshi imagines it he pictures her hair floating upwards like the darkest seaweed, her skin so pale it appears as blue as the sea.

And though he has tried not to, he blames his son for failing to save her.

Some evenings he thinks he hears the clack of Michiko’s wooden geta on the cobbles, but when he looks outside the narrow street is always empty. He peers into the darkness for a while, lured by the soft light of the lantern outside the noodle shop, and imagines his friend, Wada, sitting at the counter with a beer, waiting to mull over the old days. But Hitoshi always goes back inside and sits alone again in the dark.

Tonight, just as he is about to go to bed, he hears a faint voice outside, and an urgent tapping on the veranda screen.

Judge's Report:

A completely different, tone, style, pace and atmosphere. The first paragraph sums up the devastation of loss; devotion; and the divergence between heart and head. Hitoshi is a traditionalist by his actions and a romantic by his emotions. Illustrated by actions, thoughts and inactions we know about family misunderstandings Hitoshi can’t bear to talk about and the isolation he craves.

The setting is carefully evoked by character names, foodstuffs, places and architecture and small touches like wind chimes and lanterns. Then just as we are lulled, there is the second page hook neatly set up by the first page – a voice outside and urgent tapping on the door. Is it going to be a ghost beckoning him, an urgent call to return to service, a plea from an old friend? I would certainly read on.

Congratulations to all the winners, we will be in contact soon.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Snapshots from... Zürich

In our regular series, we go exploring, finding out about the writing life around the world. Today, D.B. Miller gives us a tour of Zürich, Switzerland. 
Images by SL Nickerson.

What's so great about Zürich?

Things work. Zürich consistently ranks at or near the top of global surveys that measure quality of life – in case five minutes on the lakeside weren’t convincing enough. It also operates at a lower frequency than the whirling inside my head, or for that matter on the page. While the picturesque alleys, cafés and proximity to nature make for some soothing moments, they are not necessarily an invitation to while away the hours. From what I’ve gathered, any loafing around is the sole responsibility of the loafer.

By SL Nickerson

Admittedly, when I first moved here in 2003, I didn’t know what to make of it. I only embraced Zürich after deciding that work and the so-called economic machine lay at its heart. To feel local is to be productive. For that reason, I think the city is ideal for tackling creative projects as long as you have the discipline. You need to be alert, attuned to what’s subtle and hidden. Every day, the color and texture of the lake change. Depending on the weather, the perceived distance and contours of the Alps shift. If you want to find a story here, you have to earn it.

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

For a city this size, and one surrounded by stretches of green, hills and villages, the cultural offer is rich and getting richer. The first time I approached Zürich from the mountains, with the staggering peaks and turquoise lakes just out of reach, I realized what a miracle it really is. On the literary front, big-name writers often come to town for readings at the Kaufleuten and Literaturhaus. Their presence alone is inspiring, to say nothing of the exchanges I’ve had at the signing table with, for example, Lydia Davis, Amélie Nothomb, Michael Ondaatje and Jonathan Safran Foer. The city hosts a number of festivals, including Openair Literatur and Zürich Liest, while smaller, edgier outfits, such as index and Theater Neumarkt, organize events throughout the year.

By SL Nickerson

Of all the other cultural goings-on, it’s worth mentioning the vibrant live music scene. I enjoy the small, quirky venues, ranging from a velvet-clad dance hall to a stuffy pit near the river. On any given night, someone great, maybe just on the verge of a breakthrough, is probably playing less than 30 minutes from home.

What's hot? What are people reading?

By SL Nickerson
In my experience, “hot” does not seem to register here, but I have noticed a steady, lukewarm affection for a good Krimi (thriller). Because bestsellers cross borders, people in this multi-lingual city tend to read what everyone else does, and maybe not even wait for the German translation. The homegrown literary scene is thriving as well. In any case, it used to be easier to spot public literary tastes. As smart phones and e-readers have mostly replaced dog-eared paperbacks, I can’t easily draw my own conclusions.

Can you recommend any books set in Zürich?

While only some of his books take place in Zürich, I associate most of Martin Suter’s stories with the city’s discreet social constructs and small-scale absurdities. Not all of his work has been translated into English, which has meant some slow going for me, but the invested time and teeth-gnashing are always worth it (Lila, Lila is a favorite, especially because the anti-hero is a writer). I’m looking forward to wrestling with Jens Nielsen’s Flusspferd im Frauenbad, based on a recent performance/reading I was lucky enough to catch. A few friends have also recommended Peter Stamm’s work.

As far as English books go, writers tend to explore the traditions, secrets and wealth linked to the city – some much better than others. I have yet to read a book that does for Zürich what Salman Rushdie and Andrei Bely did for New York and St. Petersburg, respectively: blow it out to an extreme, and a funny one at that. Recommendations are welcome.

By SL Nickerson

Who are the best-known local writers?

I’m not sure who can be considered “local” in a relatively small, internationally minded country with four official languages. If I stick to living German-language writers who were born, have once lived or are now settled in and around Zurich: Lukas Bärfuss, Franz Hohler and Charles Lewinsky come to mind (in addition to Nielsen, Stamm and Suter). Hazel Brugger, better known for her slam poetry and comedy, does not neatly fit into the lit scene, though my neighbor swears by her book. I suppose I have a soft spot for creative rule-breakers since the city thrives on rules and regulations. Then again, Zürich was the birthplace of Dada.

On another historical note, plenty of famous non-Swiss writers have passed through the country and stayed long enough to create. Byron, Fitzgerald, Highsmith, Le Carré, Nabokov, Twain – there are just too many to mention. Closer to home, James Joyce and Thomas Mann are buried in or just outside of Zürich. And Thornton Wilder is rumored to have finished Our Town in my town.

By SL Nickerson

Is the location an inspiration or distraction for you?

Neither: it is a challenge. Whether due to my own priorities, procrastination or something in the alpine water, I’ve found that I need more energy to seek out inspiration and not get distracted by (or complacent in) such a prim, orderly place. At a Colum McCann reading, after the author speculated how incredible Zürich must be for writers, I gently pressed him at the signing table. Did he mean it would be inspiring to start something new (and if so, could I learn from him) or conducive to finishing a work in progress (and if so, could I learn from him)? He had to stop and think about it, and then said he wasn’t sure.

The fact is, I’ve lived in cities bursting with stories and characters. But they’re here, too, popping up now and then to remind me to try harder. Here’s that world-weary balding guy in lady’s dress pumps again. There’s that gentleman with the Hungarian pointer who once, unprompted, told me what he thinks of bankers (scum). And I will never forget my first summer when, lounging at a pristine lakeside beach, I watched as a girl of about 12 waded straight into a submerged corpse. In between the shrieks and Baywatch-grade scene that unfolded, I thought: That’s not supposed to happen here, and it just did. (From the little I could glean from the local papers and tight-lipped lifeguards the next day, the elderly man had expired during a routine swim a few days earlier.)

What are you writing?

I’m working on a batch of short stories and some creative nonfiction, all of which are directly or indirectly inspired by live music. I’m also toying with the idea of picking up an abandoned novel set in Zürich. In retrospect, I found it hard to sustain momentum because I kept trying to describe exactly what I saw. To ramp up the tension, I think I need to experiment with a more surrealistic take on the city – and not quit until I’ve blown it out to the extreme.

By SL Nickerson

Sum up life in Zürich in three words.

Get to work.

D.B. Miller is an American writer who has been living in Europe since 1995. With dark humor and a slight edge, she writes about the themes that move her most: disenchantment, alienation and the obliterating power of live music.

Her essays, short stories and offbeat profiles have appeared in The Weeklings, The Woolf and Split Lip Magazine. She also writes for hire but, as the expression goes, that's another story.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Twenty-four Stories for Grenfell Tower

By Catriona Troth

On the night of Friday 24th June, I was watching The Last Leg with my family when Kathy Burke came on to talk about a remarkable project - an invitation to submit a short story for an anthology to raise money for the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire. In particular, the project aimed to provide ongoing psychological support to survivors suffering from PTSD.

That night, I contacted the project, and I have been lucky enough to be granted an interview with its two founders, Paul and Rho.

There can scarcely be anyone in the country unaware of the appalling tragedy that has unfolded at Grenfell Tower, and the history of neglect and negligence behind it. So I don’t need to ask why you are doing this. But how did you two get involved personally?

PAUL: Rho and I are friends on Twitter. We were just chatting by DM about Grenfell. Rho was really keen on wanting to do something specifically for the PTSD care of those people affected by it - I know a couple of writers, I contacted them to see if anyone would be interested in putting together a collection of short stories. Next thing we were snowballed by offers of support. From a private chat between a couple of nobodies on Twitter to being mentioned on national television took 72 hours.

Why the idea of a short story anthology?

PAUL: I just liked the idea of something that would instantly remind people of the cause we were raising money for. Short stories seemed an obvious and striking metaphor for the tragedy - that the form would reflect the lives cut short. Also we thought that it offered the best option for writing that wasn't explicitly political, that just by putting this together it would speak for itself in terms of addressing some of the issues that led to this disaster.

Why choose to focus specifically on the issue of PTSD among survivors? And what kind of help do you hope that this will enable?

RHO: Suffering from PTSD and having been in treatment for several years now I immediately knew that survivors and all those directly involved with the rescue operation would be traumatised beyond anything any of us wish to imagine.

As someone who has been treated by leading doctors in the field of PTSD treatment I know just how incredibly effective treatments including EMDR and Sensori-motor Therapy are.

I don’t want this to be another case of cutting corners for the sake of saving money, where people end up having a short course of CBT and medication to smother things; trauma eventually rises to the surface better recognised and helped now than years down the line.

We hope our project and funds raised will make the public more informed about PTSD. We hope the proceeds will in some way help bolster funds to enable survivors to receive the expert psychiatric support they need.

Who can submit stories for the anthology? And what kind of stories are you looking for?

PAUL: Anyone. As long as they're positive, optimistic tales on the themes of community, unity and hope.We want this collection to be a platform for new voices as much as anything else. One of the many issues that Grenfell has illuminated is the great social divide that stretches way beyond Kensington and Chelsea. We want this book to reach out to, and be written by, a true reflection of our community.

What can often be overlooked in these situations are the voices of those most closely affected. Will you be encouraging people from North Kensington and similar communities (such as those now being evacuated from other tower blocks at risk) to submit their stories?

PAUL: Definitely. We're really keen to hear their stories. We've held off contacting community groups in the area for now for obvious reasons but will definitely be working to ensure stories from Grenfell and other affected communities are heard and read.

Following the fantastic response to Kathy Burke’s appearance on The Last Leg, where she talked about Twenty-four Stories, it doesn’t sound as if you will be short of entries! How will the selection process work?

PAUL: It's been an astonishing response. Kathy is going to be part of our editorial team, we've got a duty to identify those as yet undiscovered writers who we think will leave a lasting impression on the reader. We've had dozens of submissions already and have some really exciting big names who have pledged work.

Thank you very much, Paul and Rho. We wish you every success. Can't wait to see the finished anthology!

You can follow Twenty-four Stories on Facebook or on Twitter @Twenty4stories. Look out for an announcement very soon about some big names who have pledged stories for the anthology!

If you would like to submit a story, here's how:
Short story 750-3000 words max OR flash fiction OR fiction based poem.
Themes: Positivity/Unity/Community/Hope.
Deadline: 31/07/17
Submit by email to:

It is very important that you understand how flashbacks and triggers work for PTSD sufferers.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Writing Characters over a Series

Writing books in a series comes with its own highs and lows. Attracting readers along for the ride has to be one of the biggest joys, but that in itself comes with its own perils. Readers connect with characters, and with a series of books in particular, those characters are totally the main reason people will stick with the journey. Getting them right is a must. So, how does an author go about the task?

Here are three people who should know ....



To develop characters over a series, you need to know them far better than the reader ever will.

You need to know all about their past, what shaped them, why they developed certain patterns of behaviour and how they reached this point. Crime writer Sheila Bugler and I developed a questionnaire to get this in-depth knowledge of our protagonists.

From the first book, I knew my MC had a shelf life. I planned six in The Beatrice Stubbs Series and no more. With that in mind, not only could I plan each novel in terms of plot, but also conceive a character arc spanning six individual stories.

Repetition is a delicate balance. If Beatrice follows the same psychological pattern in every book, it becomes tedious and predictable. DI Stubbs changes and matures and sometimes falters but most of all, she learns from her mistakes.

Regular readers want enough familiarity with her personal life and allusions to previous events to feel they recognise her world. But I don't stuff in too much back story for newcomers those who pick up one as a standalone and might feel excluded.

The surroundings need to change and adapt with her. Certain relationships will wither or flourish within each book; others thrive or die over the series. If a character returns from a previous book, changes must have occurred offstage.

Finally, readers form their own picture of this personality. Unless she behaves in character, my story must provide a very good reason why not. Or I’ll get angry emails. Thankfully the only feedback so far is “I’ll miss her”.

You know what? Me too.

To be honest, writing characters over the course of a single book - let alone a whole series - once terrified me. I was paranoid someone with blue eyes in chapter one, would have chocolate brown ones by the end of the novel. Without the eagle eyes of a proof reader, I doubt I would ever have had the confidence to publish my first book!

However, knowing The Gold Detectives was going to be a series from its conception, helped me organise from an early stage, how to deal with characters who were each going to go on their own individual journey through the course of the novels. In an effort to avoid repetition (one issue I have found with reading crime series from other authors) my plan was to have a central character - DI Amanda Gold - who would be a major player throughout the series, but then for each member of her team to take the lead protagonist role in each new book. And so far it's worked a treat.

In the early days, I kept a diary on each of my characters. I jotted down descriptions, fashions, hobbies, likes and dislikes, personality traits, emotional status. I kept detailed notes on their family history, religious beliefs, prior jobs, school and exam results - and a multitude of information I knew would never get into the books. But if I knew all this useless information about them, then I felt confident answering a question from their point of view, even if the reader never got to find out the background.

In the writing of book one - Crimson Shore - there was a lot of checking and cross-checking to make sure I kept the characters consistent. But I have to be honest and say that in books two and three, there has been less need. If I write something new about character, perhaps the name of an ex-lover or ex-boss, I will note it down in my diary for them.

But I also feel I now have a much closer bond with my characters, to the point that I feel about them much as I would a good friend. For example, I know my friend Zoe has a brother called Pete, husband called Mark and two children called Jacob and Joshua. Because I've spent so much time with my characters, I know pretty much all of the same information about them too, and I'm much more confident in my relationship with my characters than ever before. I know how they think, I know how they speak, I know how they would react and I understand their humour and sarcasm. I can find myself inside their heads responding as they would without even realising it.

For a writer, there's nothing better than a reader telling you how much they love one of your characters or how upset they were when such-and-such happened to a character they've bonded with over the course of your series. It makes the hard work getting the characters to that point all worthwhile!


I think the main emphasis on writing characters over a series is to have them grow, otherwise they become stagnant. They need to learn from past experience and use that knowledge in future books to strengthen their character and to evolve. None of this I found hugely difficult for the Overlord series as I've always had the advantage of time and major events which are recorded in history. The books span 30 years, so there's maturing in years as well as growth through experience to explore for my characters. 

Also, there's the actions and decisions recorded in history, such as Zenobia's ambition and decisions to go to war, to manipulate other characters and so on which have to be influenced by something. This was interesting to explore, because in order to come to a certain event and a character decision you have to investigate what historically might have driven those decisions and influenced certain emotions. 

Some might say Zenobia's growth is the most interesting, and it is, because she grows from strength to strength with each book, amassing power as the years go by and influencing and creating alliances, but she doesn't actually grow that much as a character. She doesn't learn, which is one of her flaws and certainly part of her character. For me Zabdas is the more intriguing, for he learns rapidly, both from emotions he feels, events which unfold, and his reflection on the decisions of others. He understands more as the years go by and doesn't so much amass strength and knowledge but finds it and nurtures it.

JJ Marsh, Gillian E Hamer and JJ Marsh are all members of the Triskele Books author collective.