On Writing: Historical Setting with Margaret Dickinson

The latest blog in our On Writing series looks at Historical Setting with bestselling author Margaret Dickinson. Today marks the publication of The Poppy Girls, the 25th novel from the Queen of Saga. 25 novels? Most writers struggle to finish one! Huge congratulations to Margaret and thank you for taking the time to share your incredible author wisdom with us.

The Poppy Girls

When I found Darley Anderson in 1991, it was he who suggested that I should try to write a regional saga and he gave me three very useful pieces of advice, which I still do my best to follow with every book I write.

  • A strong woman as the central character, whom the reader can visualise from the first page
  • The story should ‘breathe’ the place you’re writing about; your readers must feel that they’re walking down the same streets that your characters are walking down.
  • A satisfactory ending so that the reader closes the last page and says, ‘yes, that’s a good ending to that story.’

And that’s all there is to it, really…  Well, not quite!

Regional sagas are traditionally set during the first half of the twentieth century, though I did once go back to the 1850s with Pauper’s Gold so that the background of the pauper apprentice system in the cotton mills was historically correct.  Sagas, too, are usually spread over several years, so consequently the author is always running into one war or another!  However, that can be a very useful way of getting rid of an unwanted character!  And also, there is ready-made conflict in a war situation.  For example in The Clippie Girls, set in Sheffield, I already had the tension of the Second World War; the rationing, the bombing, the blackout, women doing men’s work and the constant fear for the soldiers fighting overseas.  But I wanted more conflict so I invented a household of women; the grandmother, who owns the house and never lets anyone forget it, her widowed daughter and three granddaughters, all with very different personalities.  Once the time, the setting and the characters are all in place, then the story begins to flow.

There is no right or wrong way to write a novel, but this way works for me.  Before I write anything down, even notes, I have my central character and probably one or two more around her.  Then I know when the story takes place, where it’s set and the background; i.e. farming, fishing, tulip-growing, lace-making and so on.  I know how it is going to start and I already know how it will end and I also have a vague idea what will happen through the story, though this may change as the plot develops.  At this stage I don’t do detailed research.  I may make a preliminary visit to places and talk to a few people to make sure that when I do want to do in-depth research I know where to find it.  I also collect numerous books on the subject in readiness.

Then I write the story, going straight through a first draft to the end without pausing to edit or to refine.  This works for me to keep the pace going, though I do make ‘notes to self’ throughout reminding me where more details need to be filled in during the research stage.  (By the way, editors always talk about ‘pace’!)  At the end of a very rough draft that is fit for no one but me to see, I then go back to the beginning and work steadily through the script, doing detailed research and filling in the blanks.  At this stage I will visit museums and speak to experts as well as reading non-fiction books on the subject and researching on the Internet.  Newspapers of the time are a great resource, giving not only the news of the time but also an insight into people’s lives from advertisements as well as articles.

Another read-through of the script will concentrate on the characterisation asking myself questions such as, are all my characters fully rounded so that the reader will believe in them as real people?  Have I got enough emotion into the story?  Is the plot line credible?  Everything that happens must have sound reasoning behind it; editors do not like plots that hang on coincidence or chance!

I believe it is important to get the facts right, especially if you are writing about a real occupation.  For example, if you are writing about a mining community, they have always been very special people and not to represent their lives accurately could be insulting to them.  Even though it is fiction and all my characters bear no resemblance to real people, I like to think I am paying tribute to the kind of people I am writing about.  And, of course, it’s vital to get historical facts right.  Your readers are intelligent, well-educated people, who will soon spot a glaring error and lose faith in your accuracy and therefore probably in your novel too.

As regards the amount of research needed, this will vary with each book and it’s quite a difficult decision to know how much to include.  You want to give a realistic and accurate background and yet not overload the reader with facts that detract from the plotline.  I have heard readers say that if they come to a page of description, they skip reading it!  What I try to do is weave in descriptions and facts amongst conversation and action.  That way, the reader will absorb it without really being aware they are doing so.

But the most important thing to get right is to create a ‘page-turner’ that will keep your readers wanting to know more about your characters and what happens to them until the very last page!

Margaret’s new novel The Poppy Girls is published by Pan Macmillan today, get it here.

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On Writing: The Difficult Second Novel with Gillian McAllister

 

On the publication day of her outstanding new novel Anything You Do Say, Gillian McAllister tells us about the pressures of writing a second book after your debut novel was a Sunday Times bestseller…

Anything you do say - amazon.jpg

I remember the exact moment I had the idea for my second novel, Anything You Do Say. I had wanted to write a Sliding Doors novel for years, and had been brainstorming ideas with my boyfriend. And then – out of nowhere – two ideas came together: what if a novel followed a woman committing a crime on her way home from a night out, and then split, following a strand where she hands herself in and goes to trial for attempted murder, and a strand where she leaves the scene and goes on the run? I thought it was an interesting concept: that a single second could change your life forever, but showing both outcomes.

I emailed my agent, Clare, and she replied immediately, saying I LOVE THIS IDEA.

Two months later, she sold my first novel, Everything But The Truth, to Penguin. Suddenly, I was under contract with a two-book deal, and the big idea I’d been wrestling with would have to be delivered at the end of the year. I was still working full-time as a lawyer, and I had a moment, standing in my kitchen late one night, thinking of the scale of my novel, where I thought: what have I done? I wasn’t sure I was a good enough – or experienced enough – write to pull it off.

I made sure I had a first draft down by the April, but the strand where my protagonist, Joanna, goes on the run needed more work. In the spring, I pasted all of those scenes into a new document, and tried to forget about the rest of the book. I wanted each parallel narrative to stand on its own. It was  hot spring/summer, and I spent it re-writing that strand of Anything You Do Say in the the garden, my cat for company.

The characters needed work, too. One of the biggest issues with writing a parallel narrative plot is that there is twice as much character development: in one strand, my heroine is a fugitive, on the run, hiding things from her husband, Reuben. In the other, she’s a defendant, in the justice system. Her husband develops differently in each strand as he faces different problems. Likewise, her best friend makes a different life choice in each version, because what she sees Joanna go through has an impact on her. It took several months to get the characters down. But something still wasn’t working. I remember sitting in my garden one evening, the summer air warm against my legs, and wondering if I was ever going to face up to the fact that there was something wrong with my novel. It seemed too big, somehow, on that July evening. The stakes were too high. I went to bed and hoped it would resolve itself.

In the meantime, while also working full time, I was editing my debut, Everything But The Truth, and beginning to promote it. I could see how distracting that would be, and so I was determined to finish and deliver Anything You Do Say before Everything But The Truth came out.

In the very early autumn, I was talking to my father in my kitchen while we waited for a pot of tea to brew, and he said, ‘really, split narrative novels are about a whole life changing, aren’t they?’ and it was as though everything slotted into place. Of course: the novel shouldn’t end with my heroine’s trial, and with the result of her attempts to cover up the trial: time should move on, and show how her entire life life is affected by the moment, the split-second decision, in the first chapter. Of course.

That night, the weather crisp and cool and the air drifting in through my open spare room window, I wrote a plan for what would become the final third of Anything You Do Say. As I wrote it, I got a very specific feeling: it’s working. It was going to work.

I wrote fast, the nights blurring into one. I wrote in train stations with gloves on, in Halfords while my car had its MOT, and before work in coffee shops. Finally, in the late autumn, it was done.

I had often worried about the tricky second novel, but – as is often the way – it wasn’t tricky for the reasons I expected it might have been. It wasn’t to do with contracts or the pressure of being published, and being read. It was just that particular book; my tricky, sprawling, extra-special second novel. It’s published this week, and I hope you enjoy it if you read it.

Anything You Do Say is published by Michael Joseph today, find it here. You can follow Gillian on Twitter: 

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29 Seconds publication day: interview with TM Logan

Readers were gripped by TM Logan’s debut novel, Lies, keeping it in the Kindle top 10 for months. Now fans can finally read his second novel, 29 Seconds, out today in eBook. To celebrate, we’ve asked TM Logan to look back on how it all started, as well as give us a hint of what’s to come…

As of today, you’ve got two published novels under your belt. Where did each one start its life?

Most of my ideas come from everyday life – a conversation, a story on the news, a thought that turns into a ‘what if?’ question that might form the core of a plot.

With Lies, it was a conversation with my wife as we drove to Brittany for our summer holiday. She related a story about some friends of hers who had been raising money for charity in memory of a colleague who had died. As part of this, they had used the colleague’s Facebook profile to help publicise their efforts. That got me thinking: what if you did something similar but with criminal motives? Perhaps to cover up a crime? To mislead the police? To frame an innocent man?

For 29 Seconds, I had the original kernel of the idea some time ago, but had been searching for the right setting for the story. Then in the summer of 2016, in my previous job (as head of communications for a large university) I fielded an enquiry from The Guardian – a national investigation into the scale of sexual harassment in higher education, almost exclusively senior male academics harassing younger female colleagues or students. That got me thinking. When I read the story that came out of their investigation, I thought it might make a strong setting for a novel – if the victim was so desperate for a solution that she would resort to desperate measures. It’s been very weird to see it coincide with the ongoing international news story about harassment/#MeToo that has become so huge in recent months.

Now for the hard part – once you’ve had your idea, how do you get your novels finished?

I will spend 6-8 weeks planning a story, getting the plot, characters and key moments clear in my head (I’ve always been envious of people who can just sit down and write off the top of their head, seat of the pants style. I need a plan). My desk – in the spare bedroom – faces the wall so there’s nothing to distract me, no window, no view, no outside world. No TV, no radio. Nothing to tempt me away from sitting in that chair and putting my hands on the keyboard. The walls around my desk are generally covered with notes, chapter plans, lists, reminders and scraps of paper with ideas and quotes for the story I’m working on.

When I’ve got to the stage where I’m just procrastinating to put off the real business of writing, I’ll dive into it and write every day, without fail, until the first draft is done. Writing every day helps me to maintain momentum, to keep on top of the plot and stay in touch with my characters. I keep a tally of my daily wordcount, although it’s less about the number and more about making links in the chain and keeping that promise to myself. If I’ve written for 30, or 50, or 100 days straight, I’m less likely to take a day off and break the chain (at least that’s the idea).

Looking back on your own experiences, what advice would you give an author who’s just starting out?

Being a debut author made me realise how important it is to feed constructive criticism into the writing process. Both Lies and 29 Seconds were improved hugely with constructive input from others. It can be tricky, though: when you’re starting out you have to be so single-minded about writing, to keep going without any guarantee that your stories are ever going to see the light of day – you have to believe that they will find an audience eventually. You’ve got to believe in what you’re doing. But you can’t let that single-mindedness, that belief, deafen you to hearing constructive criticism. Essentially, you need to be proud of what you create, but humble enough to know that it can always be improved with input from friends, fellow authors, family members, reading groups – anybody who’s willing to be constructive. I’ve been lucky enough to work with my brilliant agent Camilla Wray at Darley Anderson and the excellent team at Bonnier Zaffre in that respect.

And finally, what can we expect to see from you in the future?

I’ve been writing full-time for a few months now and absolutely loving it! I’ve just agreed a new two-book deal with Bonnier Zaffre and I’m currently working on book 3 for them, which will come out in 2019. It’s a standalone thriller set in the south of France, where four best friends are holidaying together with their families. As the week goes on, their friendship starts to unravel amid secrets, betrayal and lies, until it becomes clear that someone in the group is prepared to kill to keep a long-buried truth from coming out…

For the future, I’ve always wanted to create a series and would love to be able to do that alongside my standalone thrillers. Watch this space!

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Agency Newsletter: November

It’s been another busy month for the agency as lots of fantastic deals are still coming in off the back of a successful Frankfurt. We have also had a number of award nominations and wins for our authors which is always exciting to see!

Here is the news from November!

Newsletter Nov17

Lee Child’s unstoppable global success

‘It’s automatic: Reacher gets of a bus and Child lands on the NYT bestseller list’ – Booklist, 2017

The 23rd novel in the iconic Jack Reacher series, The Midnight Line, has whipped readers round the world into a frenzy, racking up No.1 after No.1 on numerous bestseller lists.

In the UK, The Midnight Line rocketed to the No.1 spot, unseating fellow publishing giant Dan Brown, and has held the position for three weeks so far.

Across the Atlantic, it’s a certified smash hit: No.1 on the New York Times bestsellers list, instant No.1 Bestseller on Amazon, instant No.1 bestseller on Barnes & Noble, instant No.1 iBooks bestseller. It also hit the No.1 spot in Australia and New Zealand, which is one of the first countries in which Lee achieved a No.1.

As other countries begin to publish their editions, we are sure to see more of the same fantastic success, as Reacher and Child both prove, nobody does it better.

Lee also appeared on the hit Scandinavian chat show Skavlan for their special New York  edition. He chatted to host Fredrik Skavlan about jogging, fish and chips and fighting – and how he came to write the phenomenal global bestselling Jack Reacher series.

So many congratulations to Lee on this unmatched, unstoppable success.

 

Martina Cole shines on Graham Norton

The Queen of Crime, Martina Cole, was interviewed on Graham Norton’s Radio 2 programme on Saturday 11th November. With her trademark charm, insight and candour, Martina discussed her writing 25 year career and successes.

The 25th  Anniversary paperback edition of Martina Cole’s iconic debut Dangerous Lady was published this month. Martina has achieved 16 No.1s in hardback and paperback since then! Her latest novel Damaged, the 4th novel in the gripping DCI Kate Burrows series, is out now and has been doing exceptionally well.

She really is a phenomenon.

 

The Mistake tops 100k copies

The 4th  gripping thriller from KL Slater has sold over 100,000 e-books in just two months! The Mistake also climbed to the No.2 spot on the Kindle bestsellers chart last month and has remained in the Top 20 ever since.

Total sales across all KL Slaters novels have well surpassed the half a million mark. Her 5th novel, The Visitor will be published by Bookouture in March 2018. You can pre-order your copy now.

Congratulations Kim!

 

Goodreads Choice Awards 2017

We are delighted that two of our bestselling authors have made it to the final round of the highly regarded Goodreads Choice Awards 2017!

BA Paris’ addictive second novel, The Breakdown, has been nominated for the Best Crime/Thriller of 2017.

John Connolly’s breath taking 15th novel in the Charlie Parker series, A Game of Ghosts, has been nominated for Best Horror of 2017.

Congratulations!

 

BGE Irish Book Awards 2017

We are so thrilled to announce that two of our authors have won a BGE Irish Book Award 2017!

John Connolly’s literary masterpiece, he, won the RTÉ Radio 1 Listeners’ Choice Award, beating out some strong contenders.  His outstanding and original novel, reimagining the life of Stan Laurel, was also a Sunday Times bestseller.

From the DA Children’s Agency, rising star Deirdre Sullivan was awarded the Eason Teen & Young Adult Book of the Year for Tangleweed & Brine, a collection of dark, feminist re-tellings of traditional fairy tales. The collection was beautifully illustrated by Karen Vaughan.

A huge congratulations to both!

 

Goodreads Choice Awards 2017

We are so proud that three of our Children’s Agency authors have been nominated for the Carnegie Medal 2018!

Kim Slater’s 928 Miles From Home, Polly Ho-Yen’s Fly Me Home and Stewart Foster’s All The Things That Could Go Wrong are all longlisted for the prestigious prize.

This will be the third time Kim and Polly have been nominated, one for each of their three novels, and the second nomination for Stewart who was longlisted for his outstanding debut novel, The Bubble Boy.

 

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On Writing: Dialogue with Kerry Fisher

It’s easy to talk, for most people. On average, we speak around 20,000 words every day. But trying to replicate the ease and nonchalance of conversation with your best friend is tricky. Dialogue is, notoriously, one of the harder things to get right when writing a novel. How often have you read a piece of dialogue in a book and thought that it didn’t sound right or was pointless? It can often be tough to nail the style, delivery and keep it useful to the story.

Today, on the publication of her ‘layered and poignant’ new novel, The Secret Child, bestselling author Kerry Fisher gives us her top tips on writing dialogue.

The Secret Child - amazon

1. Listen to how people speak – in shops, on the train, on TV. Dialogue is influenced by background, age and where you live, as well as the environment the character finds himself/herself in. People speaking in a job interview or making a complaint on the telephone will sound more formal than when they are at the pub with their friends.

2. Teenagers are a tricky age group to write dialogue for because their favourite/current words are constantly evolving. Keep checking with someone in the right age group that the words you’ve used are not from the 1990s.

3. The biggest lesson I’ve learnt about dialogue is not to be too formal. This is where listening to how people really speak comes in. Don’t overthink it – just imagine your character is rushing into a bar to tell his friends what he’s just seen in the street – ‘There’s a right old commotion going on outside. Some bloke just fell off his bike in front of a lorry and everyone’s getting out of their cars to have a good old stare.’ Which is much more natural than ‘There’s been an accident outside. A man’s fallen off his bicycle in front of a lorry and lots of people have got out of their cars to have a look.’

4. People do swear, so if you have a character who would use colourful language, you just have to forget that your mother might be reading (anything, ever). In my experience, most readers will tolerate moderate swearing even ones who don’t like profanity if it’s in keeping with the character. I’d be reasonably sparing with the F-bomb and think very carefully about whether the C-word is absolutely necessary unless you really want to shock or expect your readership to be fairly young.

5. Dialect or an attempt to convey an accent onto the page can be tiring to read. Give your character a couple of words to give a flavour of the accent and leave it at that. Readers hate having to decipher what’s written before they can enjoy the story. In my debut novel, The Not So Perfect Mum, one of my characters had a Basque name, Etxeleku, and I got more complaints about that than anything else in the book because people didn’t know how to pronounce it.

6. Most people don’t often use other people’s names in conversation once they’ve been introduced, unless they are calling them over or trying to get their attention so keep the ‘Would you like a cup of tea, Paul?’/ ‘Where are you going tomorrow, Sandra?’ to a minimum.

7. Usually people don’t speak for very long without someone chipping in or interrupting. Try to avoid huge paragraphs of speech without any action in between.

8. Dialogue should help you distinguish between characters in a book. There are lots of ways to do this but it could be that one character speaks very informally with lots of slang, gives everyone a nickname. Another character might use long, rather pompous words. In my novel, The Silent Wife, I tried to differentiate between two women from different social classes by using specific vocabulary for each one e.g. sitting room/drawing room/lounge/front room, sofa/couch/settee. If, like me, you’re not sure which is the ‘posh’ word, the internet is alive and kicking with forums to debate these things!

The Secret Child by Kerry Fisher is out now, get it here. Follow Kerry on Twitter: @KerryFSwayne

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Agency Newsletter: October

Hi all! After a particularly busy couple of months we are very happy to bring you the Agency Newsletter for October!

Frankfurt Book Fair has been the focus and we are happy to say that we had a very successful and exciting fair.

Check out all the news below!

Newsletter Oct 17

 

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Lee Child Charms on Scandi TV!

Thanks to Lee Child’s incredible success in Scandinavia, he was invited to join Fredrik Skavlan and guests on Friday evening to talk jogging, fish and chips and fighting – and how he came to write the phenomenal global bestselling Jack Reacher series. Skavlan is the show of choice for over 3 million viewers in Norway and Sweden and airs primetime on Friday evenings.

Lee’s fellow guests are astronaut Jessica Meir and New York Rangers hockey players Henrik Lundqvist and Mats Zuccarello.

Watch it here:

 

 

 

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