On Writing: Scaring Kids with Helen Grant

Halloween may be behind us, but that’s not to say that the scary fun is over.

I (Kristina) was one of those children who just loved being scared. It started with a book called The Finger Eater by Dick King-Smith. A book that had such an impact on my brother that he shoved blankets and clothes down the side of his bed so the Finger Eater wouldn’t gobble up his pinkies in the night. Then I moved on to some Robin Jarvis, Goosebumps, and later Cliff McNish’s Doomspell series and the classic (and fantastic!) Point Horror series – highlights include Twins and The Babysitter, thanks R.L. Stine.

Now, for a good spooking, I read Stephen King and Shirley Jackson, but it’s the childhood scares that stay with me the longest. They’re the stories I can recall most vividly. We’ve had a number of conversations about Point Horror in the office and EVERYONE interrupts each other with, “Do you remember the one…” It’s something special.

Today we have an author who knows a thing or two about scaring kids, Helen Grant. Her outstanding YA novel The Vanishing of Katharina Linden left me utterly chilled – read it if you haven’t yet. We asked Helen all about how she gets her inspiration and what she thinks makes a great scary novel.

vanishing-act-of-katharina-linden US

What are the three key building blocks when writing a scary novel?

One of the most important things is to remember that a scary novel is meant to be SCARY, not so gory that it’s horrifying. For me, the pleasure of reading a scary book is that spine tingling feeling.

Secondly, I think creating relatable characters is really important. If the reader doesn’t empathise with the hero or heroine, they won’t feel the same sense of tension about what happens to them.

It’s also key to have a really strong plot with lots of thrilling scenes. In a short ghost story, you can build up to one single terrifying event. In a full length novel, you have to maintain that tension for a lot longer, so you have to include lots of scary moments as you go along.


Where do you draw inspiration from?

I love to visit scary and atmospheric places, and many of them end up featuring in my books and short stories. Places I have visited in the past include ruined castles and churches, catacombs, a deserted railway tunnel and the Brussels sewers!

I also love folklore and legends, and some of these have definitely inspired my work. My first book, The Vanishing of Katharina Linden, includes local German folktales retold in my own words.

Glenfarg railway tunnels

How do you avoid clichés and write with real menace and tension?

That’s one of the biggest challenges, I think. If you are reworking folk tales or creating a plot about some horrible secret buried in the past, obviously you are going to be covering old ground to some extent. There are also certain expectations of a creepy story. My teenage daughter says she reads ghost stories especially for the clichés!!

I think there are several things the writer can do. It’s useful to read the same kind of thing you are trying to write. I love thrillers and ghost stories so I read loads of them. This means that you become familiar with what has already been done many times. A ghost haunting a deserted house is pretty old; if you can think of a really unusual reason for the haunting, it becomes a lot more intriguing.

I think the other thing is that the details of the story should really bring the characters and setting to life. If you can share the character’s terror and absorb all the striking details of a scene, it makes it so much more vivid.


What is the scariest book/story you have read?

Hmmm, that’s a very tough question. When I was a child, I think the book that scared me more than any other was – oddly – a Victorian anthology called The Silver Fairy Book. It always astonishes me, the things people thought were suitable for kids in the past! There are various grotesque stories in it, but the one that stands out is The Palace of Vanity, translated from the French. It’s about a place where everyone’s wishes come true, but in horrible ways. For example there is a woman who wishes for a “wasp waist” and becomes so thin that she cannot stand up any more for fear of snapping. It’s horrible! Brrrr.

As an adult, I found Cormac McCarthy’s book The Road, about a father trying to protect his son in a post-apocalyptic landscape, so unbearably tense that I have only ever read it once. It’s still on my bookshelf, but I can’t bear to open it again.

If I want a pleasurable scare, though, I read the ghost stories of M.R.James. Some of those give me the creeps so badly that my eyes water!


Is there a big difference between writing to scare children and adults? Obviously less gory but what else?

I think there are lines I wouldn’t cross when writing for young people.

As well as my young adult novels, I write short ghost stories for adults, and in some of those, the ending can be quite grim. Well, okay, in practically all of them, the ending is very grim…

In my young adult novels, people do die, and horrible things do happen, but I can’t imagine writing one in which every good character died at the end and the villain got away scot free. I like a sense of justice to prevail at the end. I also like to show my hero or heroine actively battling to bring about that justice – taking control. In some of my adult stories, there is a sense that the protagonist is being carried along by events, or that their own failings (greed, naivety, selfishness) lead to their downfall. My young adult protagonists are more sympathetic characters than that, and they also try to take control of the situation. Lin, the heroine of The Glass Demon, is pretty much the only proper adult in her family, even though she’s only seventeen.

Follow Helen Grant on Twitter: @helengrantsays

Posted in Advice for Authors, On Writing, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Agency Newsletter: September



Posted in Newsletter | Leave a comment

On Writing: Supporting Characters with Phaedra Patrick

While some books can hold their own with a solid, unshakeable protagonist (ahem, Jack Reacher), most books need to have an array of interesting, fully-realised supporting characters. Where would Bridget Jones be without her chain-smoking, straight-talking friends and family? Or where would Frodo be without the Fellowship? Probably wouldn’t have made it past his front garden, if we’re being honest.

Phaedra Patrick is an author who knows the value of an eclectic group of supporting characters. Her outstanding debut novel, The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper, wowed critics with its ‘oodles of charm’. Now she’s back with her highly anticipated follow-up, Wishes Under the Willow Tree, which once again is brimming with a number of unforgettable characters. We want to know how she does it.

Wishes Under the Willow Tree cover

Both of your novels have a fantastic array of supporting characters, how do you create supporting characters who are three-dimensional and with distinctive personalities?

Main characters have space and time throughout a novel to grow and develop, whereas supporting ones enjoy a more fleeting appearance. So it’s important that they are memorable for readers.

I always try to think of a couple of distinguishing attributes for each minor character, a little like a caricaturist might select strong features to exaggerate in a drawing. Or it might be something about the way they walk, or talk. I try to make them a little out of the ordinary – a llama keeper who ties up his long hair with a child’s pink bobble, a lonely lady who cares for others by baking cakes and who wears rhinestones on her fingernails, a lord of the manor who dresses only in cobalt blue and who hand-raises tigers.

It also helps to give minor characters a passion, obsession or duty. It doesn’t have to be anything big, just something that allows them to have a journey or goal of their own. They may love trying out different flavours of crisps, or be hunting for a place to live. They might have a secret unrequited love, or be trying to save a floundering relationship. It’s great if it’s something readers can relate to or recognise.


What should good supporting characters contribute to the story?

We all have other people in our everyday lives, even though not all of them are helpful! Some have large parts to play, and others have smaller ones. Main characters need people around them too, whether that’s friends, family, neighbours, work colleagues, strangers…or even enemies and rivals.

Supporting characters are there to encourage and help the hero or heroine on their journey. Or to throw hurdles in their way.  They can add variety to the story, offer solutions, or a bit of humorous relief. They should help the main character to shine, rather than try to hog the limelight themselves.


Are the supporting characters initially vehicles for the plot or do they come to you first and you figure out a way to fit them in?

In both my novels the supporting characters often showed up unannounced, as I wrote. It’s a little like a casting call for extras and you never know who is going to turn up on the day.


Has a supporting character ever found its way into a more prominent role, if so who/why?

In The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper, Arthur’s interfering neighbour, Bernadette, initially had a smaller role. She was there to bother and provoke Arthur. However, the more she turned up on his doorstep with her home-made pies, the more it became apparent that they both needed each other, in order to move on with their lives.


Which book/film/play has outstanding supporting characters? What do they have that makes them special and what can writers learn from it?

One of my favourite introductions comes from Tony Stark, the main character in the film Iron Man, when he introduces himself as, ‘Genius, playboy, billionaire, philanthropist.’ These four words give us such a clear picture of his character. I actually think it’s brilliant film too, one of my top three. All the characters are distinctive, their interaction is exciting, the main character has an interesting journey full of highs and lows, plus there’s a great bad guy.

Describing your friends and family in four words can be a great writing exercise to try out. Or, why not ask them to describe you? It’s a useful trick to apply to the cast of your book, to give you a strong framework for their characters.

Once you have four words to describe your main character, you can think of contrasting or complimentary ones for your supporting ones, so you have a real mix. If you have a workaholic protagonist, try giving her a lazy assistant and see what happens. Or if you have an unlucky-in-love bachelor, give him a flat mate who’s an expert on Tinder. The combinations are endless.


How do you know when to cut a minor character out? Have you ever had a ‘kill your darlings’ moment?

I’m guilty of committing a few murders when necessary. If a minor character doesn’t contribute to your main character’s journey or quest, then they should leave or change. You can often ‘feel’ when they aren’t quite working. My second book, Wishes Under the Willow Tree (known as Rise and Shine, Benedict Stone in the US), featured a Yorkshire hairdresser who just wasn’t doing her job. It’s only when I turned her into an Italian florist instead, that she came to life.

Wishes Under the Willow Tree is out now on e-book: get it here. Paperback will be published April 2018. Follow Phaedra on Twitter: @phaedrapatrick 

Posted in Advice for Authors, On Writing, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Debut author interview: Phoebe Morgan

She didn’t realise it at the time, but Phoebe Morgan’s journey to becoming a published author started when she was only 6, when her dad made her an impressive doll house. This became the inspiration for her chilling debut, The Doll House, which has already been met with rave reviews by early readers.

In the first instalment of our series of interviews with debut authors, Phoebe Morgan, author of The Doll House, talks about setbacks, support networks, and why an idyllic family home is the perfect setting for a psychological thriller…


The Doll House is out today, but first let’s look back to where it all started. Where did the inspiration for the novel come from?

When I was about six or seven, my Dad made me a doll house and I was obsessed with it! It was beautiful, with six rooms, a fully functioning staircase and even a loft. I used to spend ages creating the perfect little family set-up, and so when it came to thinking of ideas for my first book, the doll house sprang to mind. A doll house is like a perfect little microcosm of the ideal home, one in which you’re in charge. As a child, I could create the perfect narrative by playing with my dolls – I had a Mummy doll in the kitchen (horribly sexist) and a Daddy who returned home from work with a briefcase (fairly sure my own father doesn’t have one!)  while the small dolls played by the fire (all a tad unrealistic).

As a writer, I wanted to explore that idea of the idyllic family home not being quite as lovely as it might first seem. I knew I wanted to write a book about the complicated relationship that can exist between sisters too, and the memory gaps that can exist between childhood and adulthood. It fascinates me how we all remember certain scenes differently, and as we become adults we sometimes learn things about our families and our parents that do not quite match up with the idealistic childhood memories we’ve remembered. In the book, this concept of a perfect home begins to slowly disintegrate until the characters’ memories are distorted by the truths that have been uncovered. There have been a lot of lies and the sisters in my book have to deal with the repercussions of that!

As plenty of budding authors know, getting published is rarely a straightforward process. What for you was the most difficult aspect of your journey as a debut author?

Oh, it’s always so hard getting rejections! With The Doll House, we had a couple of near misses, and some straight no’s too, and every time you get an email explaining why it’s not quite right for a list it definitely stings. It can be difficult picking yourself back up and continuing to have hope when things aren’t going your way but honestly, I don’t know a single writer who hasn’t been rejected at some point in their career. When you’re a debut, you’re a total unknown so you do need an editor to take a chance on you and your idea, which can be terrifying. I think near-misses have probably actually been the hardest bit, because that’s when you really get your hopes up and start allowing yourself to imagine getting a deal, and so when that comes to nothing, it can feel pretty tough. But you absolutely never know what is around the corner and you have to be persistent, and remember that you only need one yes, and then it really doesn’t matter any more how many no’s you got along the way!

I also remember having a particularly sticky plot point while writing this book which always stays in my mind. I was working on it in the British Library, which is such a lovely place to write (despite the vastly overpriced snacks!) and I just could not figure out this one thing. I called my mum in tears, and then suddenly had an idea for the solution and ended the call very quickly… I did ring back to apologise though.

We’ve obviously loved working with you, but what’s it been like for you to work with an agent and an editor for the first time?

I’m so lucky to have worked with Camilla Wray here at Darley Anderson and with Charlotte Mursell at HQ, both of whom brought new ideas to the book and helped me make it what it is today. When you write, you get so close to your manuscript that you do start to lose sight of it a little, and having those extra pairs of eyes reading everything over makes all the difference. Camilla is a very hands-on editorial agent so we worked a lot on the book before it went on submission, straightening out plot problems, revising sections of the narrative and even cutting out a whole strand at one point! At the time, rewriting can feel brutal and difficult, but the novel is so much better for it. You have to constantly be aware of the reader, how they’ll feel at each juncture, and how the book will sit in the market. I worked very hard on getting my opening just right along with my chapter endings, with the aim of keeping the reader on their toes and giving them that incentive to keep turning the pages. Agents and editors know the market inside out and having that crucial insight is invaluable.

Finally – it’s publication day! How have you been feeling in the run up to the big day?

The run up to publication has been a strange time! I work in publishing too as a Commissioning Editor at Avon, so I do have an insight into how some of this works and what to expect, which is sometimes a blessing and sometimes a curse! I think it means I can’t kid myself, and am realistic in my expectations, but at the same time it makes it easier to torture myself with nerves when I look at the amount of amazing books that I will be competing against! Mostly, I’ve been really overwhelmed with how kind people have been – telling me they’ve pre-ordered the book, leaving positive reviews on GoodReads, getting in touch on social media – but then the closer we get to publication, the harder I’m finding it to sleep too as it does feel as though it’s becoming very real now, when for so long it was a bit of a pipe dream. It’s also been quite a whirlwind fitting in writing publicity bits and pieces in the run up, and making sure I’m on top of extra stuff such as social media.

Having a book go out into the world is without doubt a very nerve-wracking process, but I’ve found that talking to other writers really helps as they know what you’re going through and can offer words of wisdom in that respect. I think it’s also important to remember – and this is something I’m trying to do – that your book is one part of your life, an important one, but that it’s not your whole life, and so things always need to be kept in perspective. If I keep thinking that way, I’m hoping any negative reviews and set-backs won’t feel quite as bad…!

Posted in Debut author interviews | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Agency Newsletter: August



Posted in Newsletter | Leave a comment

On Writing: Characters in Love with Jo Platt

Love stories in literature continue to be some of the most enduring. They’re not limited to one particular genre or set up. While some, like a meet-cute, can make you feel warm and fuzzy, others make you weep and ugly-cry with grief and some love stories make you feel sick, worried and rooting for its untimely demise.

So what’s the hardest thing about writing about love? How do you make the readers care about whether the characters’ romance comes together or happens at all? In this On Writing instalment, Jo Platt talks us through how she makes her readers fall in love with her characters’ love stories.


You Are Loved

The funny and up-lifting You Are Loved by Jo Platt is out today – 14th August 2017


How do you keep the reader rooting for your characters?

Well first and foremost, by rooting for them myself. A happy ending never feels like a foregone conclusion for me as I write, and I like to include at least the possibility of an alternative ending, for example when a character misses a crucial opportunity to reveal their feelings, or when another potential love interest enters the narrative.   So I’m just as eager to see how things work out for my characters as everybody else is, and I hope that my own curiosity and enthusiasm transmits to the reader.

Also, of course, it’s important for my protagonists to be relatable and ultimately likeable.  I say ultimately because I’m not always presenting them at their best.  As the novel opens, they may be at a professional or personal low, and miserable characters aren’t particularly engaging or sympathetic.  I counter that problem by encouraging the reader to judge them, in part at least, by their friends and family.  If a character is surrounded and loved by emotionally intelligent, interesting people, that reflects well on the character themselves, even if when they’re first introduced they’re wallowing in self-pity, or drowning in cynicism.  It gives them collateral, hinting at what they were and what they could be again, and making them attractive by association while we’re waiting for a better them to shine through.  It helps to make them a character for whom, from the off, everybody is keeping their fingers tightly crossed.


How do you avoid clichés and keep narratives fresh?

I don’t think I make a conscious effort to avoid clichés.  After all, some clichés are simply tried, tested and rather beautiful truths, aren’t they?  But I do make an effort to keep characters and situations as real and relatable as possible.  Hopefully this avoids things becoming unsubtle or trite.

With keeping things fresh in mind, I am aware that I read comparatively few romantic novels.  Again, I’m not sure that this is a conscious choice on my part, but I do feel that focusing too much on what others are writing, or what is popular, in your chosen genre isn’t always helpful.  Just tell your own story, in your own way.

And do keep your eyes and ears open: fresh narratives are all around you! People meet and fall in love in a thousand different ways and all you need is a starting point.  I had a friend who met her (eventual) husband through a newspaper personal column and then framed his ad and hung it in the hallway, where it has remained for the last twenty years.  Another realised she was in love with her friend of many years only when he said he was thinking of moving to the other end of the country.  And my mother seduced my father by slamming a door in his face.  These are just three of so many beginnings which have caught my interest, and which as an author I can transform and make my own, twisting the histories and shaping the characters. The possibilities and permutations are endless.


What is your favourite love story?

My own, of course.  It’s thirty years long and still ongoing.


You Are Loved by Jo Platt is published by Canelo today. Be sure to follow Jo on Twitter for consistent laugh-out-loud tweets: @JoPlattTweets

Posted in Advice for Authors, On Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

On Writing: The Power of Setting with Erik Storey

A sense of place is pivotal when writing a novel. It’s important to hook your reader but also to keep them, and immerse them in the world you created. From the haunting moors of Wuthering Heights to the expansive Middle Earth in Lord of the Rings, the environment can create atmosphere, drama and even, as many have said before, become a character in its own right.

The latest instalment in the On Writing series looks at the power of setting with Erik Storey, author of the outstanding Clyde Barr series, resident of the Colorado high deserts and former ranch hand, wilderness guide, dogsled musher and hunter. Erik’s unique understanding and experience of his environment shines through in his debut Nothing Short of Dying and now in A Promise to Kill, the rip-roaring follow up which is out this week. The wilderness has never been more beautiful and brutal – make sure to check them out if you haven’t already.

A PROMISE TO KILL - revised cover











Your setting is at the core of your writing, how did it affect the shape of your novels in terms of character, plot, tension, etc?

The setting is at the core because I believe it is extremely important, second only to the characters who roam and fight and love in the world that I’m describing. I actually came up with the idea for my first book by thinking of where I wanted it to take place. There aren’t many books that are set Colorado wilderness, so I decided to try and write one. Once I had the location and came up with characters tough enough to live in the area, the rest was relatively easy.

Setting is so important because of how it can be used to affect all that the question mentioned, and more. It can also become a character of its own. In a wilderness setting, storms and extreme temperature shifts can be used as villains, or as ways to raise tension and harass the characters. Same for traffic jams and stuck elevators if you set your novel in a major city. On the other hand, setting can be used as a sidekick for the characters if they are smart and use their environment to their advantage. The same storms and elevators could be used by a wily character as a way to better their odds against an enemy that doesn’t have the same knowledge of the setting.


What do you think is the most important thing to get right with your setting? Do you have any techniques that you use in order to ensure this?

I believe the number one thing to get right is the feeling of the place. This sounds obscure, like a grand generalization, but stay with me and I’ll explain. When you look back and think about a place you are fond of, or a place that you loathe with all your heart and soul, what do you remember? You remember how the place made you feel. This feeling is an accumulation of remembered stimuli and details, and these have to be spot on in order for the reader to feel the same way about a setting. If you are writing about a real place, then the small details need to be right because people live there or visit there and they want it to be right. And others want to get a genuine feel of the place, so the details help. Not too many, so that it doesn’t bog down the story, but enough to put the characters in a real world. The black gum marks on the sidewalks next to the streets that smell of urine in a city. Or the burble of the small creek lined by Aspen trees that smell of licorice when wet.

This brings me to another point, and an important and overlooked one in my opinion. Fiction is one of the few mediums that allow us to try and convey the sense of smell and taste. By all means use them. Have your characters go to a popular diner in the city, and describe one of the locals’ favorite dishes. If camping, have the characters eat the memory-evoking s’mores or a can of pork and beans. Describe the smells of the pine trees with a small breeze blowing through them, or the smell of exhaust and ocean that permeates cities by the sea.


You have first-hand experience living in the Colorado wilderness, how much research do you think is necessary for setting?

I think research is essential. First hand is best, if possible. If you can, walk the streets of the place you want to write about. Walk the trails. Talk to the people that live or visit there. Take notes on the weather, sunsets, smells, strange sights, and the small things that make the place different. These are the details that matter and make the setting real in the reader’s mind. Nowadays you can use Google Earth, YouTube and other internet tools to research, but you only get the audio and video of the place. Which are important, but not near as important as the things you can’t get from a movie or clip. Books allow us to tap into the other senses and bring in memories and feelings. Because of this, it is imperative that writers try and get the small things right. There is a reason so many writers place their books in the area that they live in and love.


If you were to write about any other place where would it be?

Because of an immense closeness with my area, I would say that I’d be leery to write about anywhere else. But if I did, I would want it to be similar in climate and peoples and vegetation. Semi-arid deserts or tall mountain ranges anywhere in the world would be acceptable, if I were to switch locales. Australia, the Himalayas, South Africa (or other smaller parts of Africa) would all be fun to write about, and my lead character Clyde would thrive in any of those spots. It would also be fun, considering how anti-technology and backwoods Clyde is, to put him into a city and see how he fares. The only problem there would be the research involved. I’m very similar to Mr. Barr, and would have almost as hard of a time researching the area as he would navigating it.

Which authors do you consider to be masters of setting and why?

There are so many that I admire and respect for their prowess in setting that it’s hard to narrow it down. I’ll try by naming a few of my favorites. There is a common theme running though the list, however, and it’s the fact that all of them are writing about a place they know and love.

  1. Louis L’Amour—He walked the land, sailed the seas, and fought the fights that he wrote about. His knowledge of place was amazing, as was his life. In fact, his autobiography is as fun to read as any of his Westerns.
  2. Wilbur Smith—I love his descriptions of Africa almost as much as he loves his continent.
  3. James Lee Burke—whether he is describing his beloved Louisiana, or his newer Montana environ, his setting descriptions are pure poetry. Almost no one describes things more eloquently.
  4. CJ Box—The writer describes his wonderful state of Wyoming better than anyone, and that’s because he truly loves where he lives.
  5. John D. MacDonald—His Travis McGee series was a major inspiration behind my Clyde Barr character, and I try to reread the series every year. With each reread, I notice more and more how well MacDonald described the Florida that he was worried was being destroyed by tourists and Industry. He was also a master of describing something brilliantly in one line or less. An important skill if you want to write fast-paced thrillers.
  6. Edward Abbey—One of my favorite writers, and it was his Desert Solitaire that showed me how to write about the desert that I know and love. I’ll never write with the same skill, but I believe we have the same devotion to the land we love.
  7. Jim Harrison—Another of my all-time favorite writers. The only one who can beat Burke when it comes to a poetic description, and the only one who can beat MacDonald with brevity. This is probably because Jim was a poet first, and a novelist second. I think we can all learn from this, and remember to include poetry in our reading.

A Promise to Kill is published by Simon & Schuster in UK on 10th August and by Scribner in the US on 14th August. Follow Erik on Twitter: @ErikStorey

Posted in Advice for Authors, On Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment