Month: April 2016

So where do you get your ideas from?

I generally tell people that the best inspiration is a contract and an advance. However, I haven’t always been lucky enough to get my contract renewed (it’s tough enough getting published but it’s even tougher staying published) and, once you’ve been dropped by a publisher, you have to go through the process of writing an entire book with no certainty of being able to sell it. Just like you did with your first novels.  When you are in contract you are often able to run some ideas past your editor but once that safety net has gone you are on your own. And that is when you really need to come up with the ideas.

Generally, because I write romance, I come up with my heroine first. The book is going to be her story and I need to know what makes her tick, what does she do for a living, what class is she, how old is she, what’s her background…? All this is vitally important because it informs  the rest of the book.

One of my favourite books was the Chalet Girl. Guess what she did to earn a crust?

Chalet

Spookily, I was on a skiing holiday when I had the idea about a heroine who worked as a chalet host. She needed employment that would feed, house, clothe and pay her as she’d been thrown out of  her home by her super-strict father. Once I had that in place the rest of the story almost wrote itself, especially as we were skiing in a resort where there was a bar which had live music every evening, supplied by one of the saisonniers  who was a brilliantly gifted guitarist. Inspired by him, I made Millie, my heroine, into a talented musician and I knew instantly how I was going to get my happy-ever-after ending.

Another book I wrote was also inspired by a holiday. When my children were small we used to taken them to the Normandy  landing beaches for holidays. The sea there (now there isn’t a war going on) is famously safe and my husband (an amateur  military historian ) and I can both beach-comb for shells – and trust me, there is no conflict of interest! In the graveyard in the village where we were staying was a corner belonging to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and my husband investigated the battle that had taken place there. While he did that, I wondered what it would have been like to be liberated – not joyous and wonderful but utter terrifying as the battle raged all around, as the houses were shelled, the livestock was killed, the farms ruined and thousands were left homeless and destitute. I imagined a farm, just outside Bayeux, and the people who lived there and how their lives were changed for ever shortly after the 6th June 1944.  The result was a book based on some true events.

The Eye of the Storm

There is always inspiration – sometimes just from asking the question ‘what if…?’ or ‘what if she does this?’ you can get the basis for a great story

 

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Write what you know – or what you don’t know?

 

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Those of you who know me in real life know that I am not a petrol head. In fact, at the moment, I don’t even own a car. I have access to my husband’s, which is useful for the weekly shop but, much of the time, I get about on foot, or on my bike. It suits me.  However, I was, at one point, inspired to write a book about motor racing: it seemed to tick a lot of boxes; money, glamour, foreign travel, hunky men, pretty women etc etc. So I contacted an F1 racing team – there are a lot in this neck of the woods – and they took me to Silverstone for practise day. It was fun, it was certainly noisy, and I was royally entertained by their hospitality and sponsorship team. I got to look at the cars up close, I saw them zooming round the track but (unsurprisingly) I never got into one, let alone drove it. And then I came to write the book and I found I couldn’t – my imagination refused to make that leap so I could describe what it must be like to travel, at a zillion miles per hour, in a tiny carbon-fibre box, with your bum just inches off the ground, and with cars all around trying to squeeze you off the road. Nope – just couldn’t do it. All that research and I couldn’t write the damn book.

This is probably my fault. Maybe I didn’t do enough research, didn’t talk to the right people, didn’t work hard enough. However, I’ve got a suspicion that I am one of those people who need to  experience things at first hand to make sense of them. In many respect I am incredibly lucky; my early career path gave me the opportunity to sail, ski, rock-climb, pot-hole, abseil, water-ski, fly gliders… As I say, I was very lucky and I find that I can remember – even thirty or so years later – what it was like. I have vivid memories of how much my knees shook, how sweaty my palms were when I walked backwards over a cliff, attached to safety only by a harness and, what looked like, a very thin rope. If I ever need to have a heroine abseil I shall be able to write the scene in graphic detail.

On the other hand, there was no denying that the research I did was fun. It was a wonderful opportunity to get the other side of the security barrier and go places I never would be allowed under normal circumstances. So I can absolutely understand the allure of research. Sadly though, I think I’m going to have to remain an author who writes what she knows.

The truth, the whole truth and … well, the stuff I write

I managed to get myself on the WI speaker circuit. My talk is titled ‘From Guns and Roses to Hearts and Flowers’. When I am asked what it’s about I tell them it is how I went from being a trained killer of men to writing romantic fiction. The last is totally true but ‘trained killer of men?! Come on.

OK, I was in the army for eight years, I did have a number of postings and I worked with blokes who knew how to fire guns. But… look at me:

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Do I look as if I could swat a fly let alone knock off Johnny Foreigner with my bare hands? I was a trained killer of the filing tray at best. Admin I could do, but killing…? Even a bit of ‘light wounding’  was right outside my skill set. I suppose I could have inflicted a paper cut on someone… maybe… if they’d really pissed me off and it was That Time Of The Month. But not ‘killing’.

However, my description of my transition from army officer to writer rarely fails to raise a laugh, which proves that when it comes to telling a story a little (quite a lot of) embellishment never did a tale any harm. What’s the old journalist’s adage – never let the truth get in the way of a good story? Exactly.

Which is why I write fiction because, with a novel, you can take a good idea and tweak and twist and, maybe, exaggerate bits and bobs until it becomes something much more interesting, much more compelling. And let’s face it, most of real life is as dull as ditch-water and who wants to read that stuff anyway? Making things up is so much more fun.

Yarns

I knit. I knit quite complicated things that take up my evenings for weeks on end.

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And I love it.

I also write books, quite long ones, which take up my days for months on end and I find both processes have remarkably similar properties. They both involve yarns for a start. They are also both processes which need application, dedication and patience. Also, with both, if you make a mistake you have to go back and unpick  your work, because the faults cannot be rectified once it is finished and you – and everyone else – will notice the errors for ever. Furthermore, knitting  only consists of  two stitches, plain and purl, and a few variations such as winding the wool round the needle twice (to make holes) and methods by which you can increase and decrease the number of stitches you are working with. Writing books involves everyday vocabulary and creating a story is a simple matter of putting the words down, one after another on a page to create a believable story about characters that resonate with the reader. Neither activity is particularly complicated but you do have to have the right set of skills if  you are going to wind up with a satisfactory product at the end.

However, I’d never dream of knitting something without a pattern to start with. But when I write a book, I almost never plan out the whole thing in advance. I know it would stop me from making mistakes, from going up blind alleys with a faulty plot twist, and yet – and I am just starting my twentieth book – I still only have the vaguest idea of how I am going to get from page one to the final chapter. And hopefully, as with my knitting, I’ll have enough of a yarn to finish the project.

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