Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Guest Post - Alison May - The Secret To Christmas Shopping

Today I welcome Alison May, author of Midsummer Dreams and Sweet Nothing. Alison tells us a little about her festive book; Christmas Kisses, and shares her secrets for how to do Christmas Shopping the right way.

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Having written three Christmas novellas you’d think I’d have written every possible Christmas related scene by now, and, to be fair, I’ve done a good few of them. I’ve written turkey dinners with all the family. I’ve written a Christmas wedding, and Santa’s Grotto. I’ve written a heroine desperate to get away for Christmas and a hero equally desperate to get home.

But one thing I realise I’ve not written very much about is Christmas shopping, which is a shame, because Christmas shopping is an area where I have views. There is, without question, a correct way to approach it, and, equally without question, all three heroines in the Christmas Kisses stories would do it wrong. Holly, from book one, would be someone who hates Christmas shopping. She would complain about the queues and the expense and the consumerism of the whole thing. Intellectually she would be making a lot of good points, but still she would be Entirely Wrong.

Cora, from Cora’s Christmas Kiss¸ would be someone who is used to just throwing money at the problem of Christmas shopping. Her usual gifts would be stylish, elegant, beautiful and probably selected by a high-end personal shopper on her behalf.

Jessica, the star of the third book, would be a little ball of Christmas shopping stress. She’d hate the thought of not getting the right thing and would work herself up into a great anxiety over the whole present-buying process. And, like the other two, she would also be Very Very Wrong.

To Christmas shop correctly you need the following things:

  • Time
  • Excellent administrative procedures; and
  • A partner-in-crime.

With these three things Christmas shopping ceases to be a source of seasonal stress and becomes one of the highlights of the festive season. The first key requirement is downtime in the schedule. If you have two hours after work to buy presents for everyone you’ve ever met, then you’re going to end up stressed. It needs time, and that time needs to include cake stops, and, if possible, a half-day spa session. Instantly shopping becomes a leisure activity rather than a chore.

The second requirement is good admin. Lists are your friend. Lists of everyone you have to buy for. Lists of things they might like. I don’t mind if you’re a notebook person or a spreadsheet aficionado, but good administration is your Christmas shopping ally. It’s saved me from falling into a retail frenzy and buying more than one present for the same person on at least one occasion.

And finally, you need a shopping buddy – someone to keep the mood up when you’re starting to flag. I can heartily recommend my sister for the role, but unfortunately for all of you, she’s booked for Christmas shopping duties so you’ll need to make your own friend. It’s worth it – if you make a good one, you’ll get use out of them all year around.

So there you go – Christmas shopping – I didn’t put it in any of the Christmas Kisses books, because those heroines would just have done it wrong. Fortunately they do lots of other things right, so if you’re looking for something to read during that Christmas shopping spa session you’ve just booked, then why not check out Christmas Kisses for yourself?

About Alison May

Alison is a novelist, short story writer, blogger and creative writing tutor who grew up in North Yorkshire, and now lives in Worcester. She worked as a waitress, a shop assistant, a
learning adviser, an advice centre manager, a freelance trainer, and now a maker-upper of stories.

She won the RNA’s Elizabeth Goudge trophy in 2012, and her short stories have been published by Harlequin, Choc Lit and Black Pear Press. Her romantic comedies, Sweet Nothing, Midsummer Dreams, and the Christmas Kisses series are published by Choc Lit. Alison has been shortlisted in the Love Stories and RoNA Awards. She also runs novel-writing half-day, one-day and weekend courses.

You can find out more about Alison at www.alison-may.co.uk, on facebook at www.facebook.com/AlisonMayAuthor, or by following her on Twitter @MsAlisonMay

About Christmas Kisses

Three girls, three kisses, three gorgeous Christmas stories.

Holly hates Christmas with a passion and can't wait to escape it - but then the flight to her once-in-a-lifetime holiday destination is cancelled.

Cora has had the year from hell, and faces a bleak Christmas working in Golding's department store - in the most unflattering reindeer costume imaginable.

Jessica is in denial after her husband's betrayal, and can't help but think back to when her life still seemed so full of hope and promise ...Three years from hell, three sets of broken dreams, three girls in desperate need of Christmas spirit.

Is the perfect Christmas kiss all it takes?

Includes Holly's Christmas Kiss, Cora's Christmas Kiss and Jessica's Christmas Kiss

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

A New Job

I have a new job!

I'll be the accountant for a library. I think that's about as close as my day job and my writing can get, at least until writing becomes my day job anyway. A girl can dream, can't she?

However it's been a while since I changed jobs; 7 years in fact, and the thought of moving on is utterly terrifying. So terrifying that I almost talked myself out of going for the interview. Then again, it could have been the requirement to make a ten minute presentation (with visual aids) as part of the interview that was increasing my nervousness.

The presentation went well in the end, (even if my PowerPoint slides did get out of sync with my speech as a result of my inability to remember to press the button at the appropriate time). Which is fortunate given the topic I was tasked with presenting is not only a real project, but will be one of my first pieces of work when I start my new job.

Negotiations have now commenced for my start date in my new role. As it's all part of the same organisation, it's effectively one giant game of tug of war between my current boss and my new one. But whilst it's incredibly flattering and a real boost to my self-esteem to be fought over, I'm not sure that this game will go in my favour.

With my current boss unwilling to let me go until they find a replacement, and my new boss eager to get me to start as soon as possible as their last accountant has already left, at present it looks like I will be doing two jobs until the 1st of March.

This isn't quite what I had in mind when I told the interview panel I was looking for a new challenge.

Still, as my mother always says; 'it'll all work out in the wash'. There are after all far worse problems to have. Though if someone could work out how to add a few extra days in the week...

According to my friends however, my career move is really just a sneaky way of getting my novels onto the library shelves. Perhaps I should get that added into my contract...

Monday, 10 October 2016

Social Media For Writers

photo courtesy of Anita Chapman
On Saturday I set off on my writer related travels again. This time to London, for NeetsMarketing's Social Media Course for Writers, run by the lovely Anita Chapman.

It seems fitting that I met Anita through social media. After learning lots of useful tips from her NeetsMarketing blog I invited her to be a guest on my blog back in March, and she wrote a fantastic post for me on Taking Twitter to the Next Level. We finally got to meet in person at the RNA conference in July and caught up with one another again at the HNS conference in September. But it was great to attend one of her courses and learn from her in person.

Saturday's course covered twitter, facebook, instagram and blogging. Whilst I've been blogging and using social media for over a year it was amazing to discover there was still so much that I didn't know. Anita was full of handy tips that were like little light bulb moments, as I discovered there's a much easier way of doing things than my long winded self taught approach.

Thanks to Anita's guest blog earlier this year I had already discovered TweetDeck and the time savings it can bring from being able to schedule my tweets. Her course on Saturday showed me the importance of creating an author brand across my social media platforms and helped me to figure out what that should be, and how to be more effective at communicating it.  My author brand will focus on things that interest me. Writing obviously tops my list, but with more emphasis on my novel set in the American old west. Hopefully the rest of my new brand will start to become apparent in the next few weeks...

You may have noticed my blog has a slightly new look this week. My logo is now in the header. I have added a twitter button and lots of other new things down the right hand side. Things I didn't know how to do until Anita's course.



Here's just a few of the things that I learnt on the course:

  • how to embed a tweet and facebook post in my blog
  • how to use facebook groups
  • how to create facebook adverts - using boosts and ad manager
  • an introduction to crowdfire
  • how to use instagram
  • how to customise my blog

Thanks to Anita for such a fun and informative day

Monday, 3 October 2016

Guest Post: Ros Rendle - Fumsup


A ‘fumsup’ may also be known as a ‘touch wood’ and as the name indicates they were for good luck. They first appeared at the end of the 19th century and were very popular during the beginning of the 20th century. There was a surge of interest during World War 1 when many were given to soldiers to take abroad as a charm hanging from a button or to be worn on a watch chain. It was suggested during this era that the name comes from the Roman era when an emperor would give the thumbs up sign to save someone during a battle of mortal combat. On the box of one of these little charms there is a poem to suggest the Victorian’s believed this to be the origin:

When Romans fought

With sword and knife,

The sign – thumbs up –

Meant – spare a life.

Some historians believe this not to be the case but for the charms to have a registered design number as they do, on the back, they would have needed a name and so ‘fumsup’ was created. Inside the original box lid of these small charms, on a card, is the following poem.


Behold in me the birth of luck, 
Two charms combined TOUCH WOOD-FUMSUP. 
My head is made of wood most rare 
My thumbs turn up to touch me there. 
To speed my feet they’ve Cupid’s wings, 
They’ll help true love 'mongst other things. 
Proverbial is my power to bring 
Good luck to you in everything. 
I’ll bring good luck to all away, 

Just send me to a friend today.

The charms are made of either brass, silver or gold with a little wooden bead head, said to be holy oak. The eyes might have been precious stones but are more frequently

coloured glass or white glass with a tiny, black pupil. The arms are articulated and can rise to touch the wooden head. On the forehead is an imprint of a four-leafed clover. The word ‘fumsup’ is usually engraved across its little round tummy. There are tiny wings on the ankles to speed the owner home.

Another design was also created around this time. These were a round wooden beads with a face. Arms come from that and bend to touch the top of the head. Legs also come from the same bead. Sometimes they have a flat back with a nationalistic image behind glass. This may be a popular leader of the time such as General Kitchener, Field Marshal Sir John French, First Earl of Ypres or Admiral Jellicoe. It may be the union flag. Very occasionally it’s possible to find a fumsup with female clothing or a version called ‘Lucky Luce’ which has a glass head.

There is a version called ‘OI you get in line’ supposed to have been produced for the Second World War and in the 1950s a new set of touch wood charms became available. Again the round wooden bead was central but silver head and legs were added in the shape of various animals or figures such as a lucky gnome holding a bag of money.

In my collection I also have a little, bisque doll, a children’s brass rattle and a counter advertising display model all in the shape of the fumsup charm with the distinguishing features for good luck. Postcards and Christmas pudding charms were also produced.

Much more recently others have added a form of touch wood charms to their collections. Notably Vivienne Westwood produced an acorn with its cup and her distinctive logo in silver being attached to the wooden bead.

I have a wide variety of these charms in my collection. I love the thought that presumably the owner was guided home having received the good luck from a loved one upon his, or rarely her, departure.

One features in my recent novel, ‘Flowers of Flanders’. Rose buys one for herself to remind her of a happy family holiday time just as WW1 is declared. Later in the book she gives it to Michael. Does it bring him the good luck he needs in France fighting on the Somme? Well . . .

Friday, 30 September 2016

Book Review: The Cherry Tree Cafe by Heidi Swain


About the Author:

Although passionate about writing from an early age, Heidi Swain gained a degree in Literature, flirted briefly with a newspaper career, married and had two children before she plucked up the courage to join a creative writing class and take her literary ambitions seriously.

A lover of Galaxy bars, vintage paraphernalia and the off bottle of fizz, she now writes contemporary fiction and enjoys the company of a whole host of feisty female characters.

She joined the RNA New Writers’ Scheme in 2014 and is now a full member. The manuscript she submitted for critique, The Chery Tree Café, is her debut novel published by Simon and Schuster in July 2015.

She lives in Norfolk with her wonderful husband, son and daughter and a mischievous cat called Storm.

Links Twitter: https://twitter.com/Heidi_Swain
Blog: http://www.heidiswain.blogspot.co.uk/
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/WriterHeidiJoSwain?ref=hl

Book Summary:

They say you can never go home again, but home is precisely where Lizzie Dixon finds herself returning to. Dumped, unemployed and homeless, she really doesn’t seem to have any alternatives, but being around people who love her and accept her for who she is turns out to be just what she needs.


Lizzie Dixon has turned herself inside out to fit into her boyfriend’s world.  But while she’s happily humming the wedding march anticipating the big question that he’s obviously about to ask, he’s got an entirely different bride in mind.

At first Lizzie seems a little naïve to have given up everything for a man with a shaky past when it comes to commitment, but blinded by love and an eagerness to be loved in return her naivety is not only understandable it’s also a common affliction. I quickly found myself rooting for Lizzie as she adjusted to the shock and realised that finding love had meant losing herself. As Lizzie battles to overcome the humiliation and heartache of losing the man she loves, Cherry Tree Café becomes the place where she can retreat and find comfort with friends who love her, and who teach her to love herself again.

This was a lovely easy read that kept me engaged all the way through. Well rounded characters gave the story great depth and charm. As a fellow craft lover I loved the idea of the beautiful café and its creative craft sessions and desperately wanted to be able to walk through the doors and join in!

Let down by the person she loved, Lizzie becomes cautious about letting people get too close to her. When she realises that her friends have not only been whispering about her behind her back, but also keeping secrets from her, it causes her to flee again as she feels there is no-one that she can trust.

The mysteries surrounding the backgrounds of the three male characters, Giles, Ben and Jay, were intriguing and kept me guessing as to who Lizzie would eventually fall for. I was impressed with the author’s ability to make me feel pity (as well as contempt) for a man whose treatment of Lizzie was so mean and despicable.

Overall, a thoroughly enjoyable and satisfying read. I’m looking forward to reading Heidi’s next book now - Summer at Skylark Farm.

Monday, 26 September 2016

The People's Friend Writing Workshop

A few weeks ago I noted that my writing seemed to be taking me on a tour of England. I couldn't help wondering where it would take me next. 

It turns out the answer was York, to The People’s Friend Writing Workshop.

My grandmother got me started reading The People’s Friend years ago. Money was tight so the magazine was passed between my Grandmother, Aunt and Mum before eventually making its way to me.  Often by that point it would be a few pages short where someone had ripped out an interesting recipe to try later, or a knitting pattern that was added to their ever growing collections. I didn’t mind the somewhat well-read state of the magazine, all that interested me were the stories. Though I did learn to check that the entire story had survived before I started reading…

These days it’s just Mum and I reading the magazine and sometimes I even get to read it first. Oh the thrill of reading a magazine that is fully intact before someone has stolen their favourite parts!
As you can imagine, I was therefore delighted when Kate Blackadder mentioned she was a guest author on a writing course run by Fiction Editor Shirley Blair.

It takes just over 3 hours for me to get to York by train. Though to be fair, that does include the time spent hanging around train stations waiting for connections. Which of course means it takes well over 3 hours if just one of the connections happens to be running late…

My (non-writing) friends thought I was crazy traveling so far for a one day course that work wasn’t even making me go to. I decided they were right. So I booked a hotel and stayed for three days instead. It seemed like a perfect excuse for a little bit of sightseeing.

After two days of trekking around York, determined to make full use of my York Pass, I was relived to be able to sit down and listen to the knowledgeable presenters. However, while my feet where having a well-earned rest, my hand was working overtime trying to scribble down all the useful pearls of wisdom that Shirley and Kate were eagerly imparting.

Whilst I am still a complete coward when it comes to reading my work aloud, particularly when it’s just an idea that’s still in a half formed state, I came away from the workshop with two partly written short stories and lots of inspiration for more.

Whether one of my stories will ever appear in the pages of The People’s Friend remains to be seen, but at least I now have a much clearer idea of what Shirley and her team are looking for. Regardless of the outcome, I had an enjoyable day spent learning about something I love – what writer could ask for more?

Monday, 19 September 2016

Guest Post: Mark West - A Web Presence

This week I'm delighted to welcome author Mark West to the blog.

I started publishing in 1999 and managed to catch the tail end of the small press zine world - those ‘for love’ magazines and periodicals so beloved of genre, homemade and often stapled though some were perfect bound. Moving into the noughties, as the Internet slowly grew in usage, those physical mags became webzines. It was a brave new world out there and, Luddite that I am, I resisted for a while - I didn’t want my story to appear online, I wanted it to be in an edition I could put on my ego shelf (I often still feel the same way as we careen towards the ‘20s!).

But aside from markets, the Internet promised much more - a web presence. I think most of those early adopter websites have long since disappeared (thankfully) but I’m convinced that if you could find any now, they’d be full of rotating skull gifs, dripping blood gifs, screams (whoever thought a website that screamed at you whenever you clicked on it would be a good idea?) and all manner of cheesiness. But I set one up - called Strange Tales, as it still is to this day - with a company called Homestead, it took me longer to work out the interface than it did to write some of my short stories and, like everyone else, I put a load of stuff up then updated it sporadically. That limped on for a few years and then the rush abated (and the hosts started charging), so sites went dormant (there’s something faintly depressing about finding a long forgotten site full of rotating skull gifs, spinning around for the amusement of viewers who never visit) and I let mine lapse.

Then, in September 2009, I discovered blogger. At the time, I was publicising a forthcoming short novel and used it for that but, as time went by, I started to put more on. I began to enjoy the process of blogging, so much so that I published 23 posts in my first year, 144 in my second (which remains my peak). I read an article that mentioned the need to blog regularly and decided to try it - I formalised the process this year and a new post is published every Monday (with additional ones as and when required). More so, away from writing fiction, I discovered that I really enjoyed blogging.

I’ve kept a diary since 1981, I make thorough notes for most of my writing projects, I write afterwords to all of them and I’m endlessly fascinated by creative processes - writing, music, behind-the-scenes work on films - and a blog tied all this together. Certainly, there’s a lot on mine about my own writing (stuff I’m working on, in-depth essays when new pieces are published) but there’s a lot of other stuff too. I started with essays about matte paintings and miniatures, of favourite films and forgotten classics and they got a response. Some of them have been very popular too - one, on the matte paintings of Return Of The Jedi, has received almost 10k hits (it was mentioned on reddit.com) - but, more importantly, all of them have been fun to research and write.

My good friend, the writer Sue Moorcroft, once called my blog ‘interesting and eclectic’ and that seemed like the perfect way to describe it - because it’s certainly eclectic (I’ll leave it to others to say if it’s interesting or not). I write about books, films, my life, my son and our adventures, things that interest me, nostalgic pieces about my childhood, essays about old friends and fun at conventions. I write about things I like because I enjoy it (I love the research, I love to ‘pass things on’) and I hope it makes the blog interesting to read because it’s not all me-me-me.

And that’s the key thing. If you run a blog, of course it’s basically about you but it needs to be about more than that otherwise people won’t keep coming back. Through Sue, I’ve been to a couple of writer/blogger meet-ups (where I met Elaina) and it’s fascinating, the amount of time people put into their creation. I love reading, I review a few books but nothing on the scale of some people - it must be the best part of a full-time job for some of them. But you can see that, you can hear the passion crackling between the lines, you can tell they have a thirst for what they’re doing, that they want to pass on information to the reader.

A good blog has an identity (even if it’s to be eclectic, as Sue says mine is) and it needs to be somewhere that you, the reader, wants to visit every now and again to hang out. And long may those good bloggers continue!

My blog - www.markwest.org.uk

Author Bio

Mark West was born in Northamptonshire in 1969 and now lives there with his wife Alison and their young son Matthew. Since discovering the small press in 1998 he has published over eighty short stories, two novels (In The Rain With The Dead and Conjure), a novelette (The Mill), a chapbook (What Gets Left Behind), a collection (Strange Tales) and two novellas (Drive, which was nominated for a British Fantasy Award and The Lost Film). He has more short stories and novellas forthcoming and he is currently working on a novel.

Away from writing, he enjoys reading, walking, cycling, watching films and playing Dudeball with his son.

He can be contacted through his website at www.markwest.org.uk and is also on Twitter as @MarkEWest

Monday, 12 September 2016

Historical Novel Society Conference 2016

One of the things I love about books is their ability to transport me somewhere else. I can leave behind my own surroundings and lose myself in another time and place. What I didn’t anticipate when I started writing however was that books not only have the power to lead me on adventures to unknown destinations in my imagination, but they also do so in the real world too.

My naïve assumption that writing is a solitary pursuit has been proved wrong so many times this year as I found myself drawn into the sociable side of being a writer. What has surprised me the most though is how writing has lead me to journey across the country.

Each summer when I was a child my parents would load up Dad’s Peugeot 205 with camping gear and we would head off on holiday. The long drives were passed fairly amicably with endless games of ‘I Spy’ and the inevitable repeated question; ‘Are we there yet?’ Until eventually Dad pulled into the campsite. Mum and I weren’t particularly what you could call the outdoors kind, but for a couple of weeks a year we were willing to brave the wilderness providing our camp was in the vicinity of a beach.

However the night that we ended up chasing our waterproof outer tent across a field amidst the wind and rain drew an end to our camping days. The following summer we boarded a plane and headed to a hotel in Majorca, with indoor plumbing and nice comfy beds.

It turns out though that writing is now re-igniting that sense of adventure and I’m exploring parts of the UK that I’ve never been to before, possibly because there are no beaches nearby.

I started off with a few simple trips to Birmingham to attend a couple of courses and meet fellow writers. Then it was Lancaster for the RNA conference in July. Now I’ve just returned from the HNS conference in Oxford.

Determined to make the most of my new adventurous side, I caught an early train to Oxford so that I could do some sightseeing before the conference. It was a great plan, until I stood chatting away at the wine and canapes reception cursing my choice of footwear. Standing around in a pair of heels for a couple of hours wasn’t the greatest idea given I’d just spend the day trekking around on a mission to ensure I didn’t miss anything.

When I returned home I was asked what the best part of the conference was. I’m still struggling to answer that because there were so many great things about the weekend it’s hard to just pick one, so here’s my top five:

The people 

I still can’t quite get over how friendly and supportive writers are. Everyone is so welcoming and eager to help that even quiet, reclusive folk like myself quickly feel at home.

The pitches

I was utterly terrified at the prospect of delivering my first pitch earlier this year, and whilst I’d be lying if I said I didn’t tremble at the thought of them now, this is more a result of nervous excitement than sheer terror. The opportunity to pitch my novel in person and receive feedback is too good to miss just because of a little (ok, a lot of) fear. The agents and publishers I’ve met have been absolutely lovely, they’ve offered helpful advice and encouragement, and thankfully they haven’t once rolled around on the floor in hysterics at the notion of me attempting to publish my novel.

The speakers 

The conference was a fantastic opportunity to hear from renowned authors such as Fay Weldon, Jo Baker, Melvyn Bragg and Tracy Chevalier, who gave interesting insights into their inspirations and ways of working.

The panel sessions:

  • The Next Big Thing in Historical Fiction panel chaired by Carole Blake was a fascinating insight into what the highly regarded panel of agents, booksellers and publishers are hoping to find in future submissions.
  • Working with an Agent v Going Solo – chaired by Joanna Swainson, gave a considered overview of the benefits of working with an agent – particularly with regards to having someone in your corner to champion your book and offer you advice and work on rights issues (translation, audio, film and TV, large print) which is an area where self-published authors struggle without the expertise of an agent. It was interesting to note that whilst an agent will work on editing a debut novel before they pitch it, they want novels that are 95% ready before they’ll sign a new author, as even if they love the idea they don’t have time to dedicate to a book that isn’t close enough to being ready for publication.

The workshops:

  • Points of view – this workshop struck a chord with me given this is currently the issue I am tackling in my own novel. James Aitcheson’s recommendations for avoiding cinematic views and the need to consider what things feel like from the characters perspective are great tips to help me get closer to my main character. Emma Darwin’s explanation of psychic distance to the character was intriguing, and I will be delving into her blog This Itch of Writing to find out more.
  • Creating Historical Characters – Jean Fullerton put historical fiction into perspective for me in her session when she explained that; “Good historical fiction isn’t about history, it’s about the people. Historical details are the backdrop.” That doesn’t however mean that the historical details aren’t important, they are and it’s essential to get them right. Jean explored examples of these details which are worth researching for your novel’s time period, such as; language, clothing, food, daily rituals, attitudes and actions.
My only regret for this conference is that I haven’t mastered the art of being in two places at the same time, as there were so many other sessions that I would have loved to attend as well.

So with #HNSOxford2016 over the question is, where will my writing take me next?

Monday, 15 August 2016

Guest Blog: Shelley Wilson - Should You Plot It Or Pants It?

When I began writing stories in the 80s, I was a classic pantser – I didn’t realise it at the time because I was barely eight years old, and to waffle on for pages and pages about the fairy at the bottom of the garden seemed appropriate. My mum would ooh and aah in all the right places, and my teacher would add a smiley face at the bottom of my page. Little did I know that they were lulling me into a false sense of security.

The revelation of being either a pantser or plotter would only become known to me once I hit forty. I wrote blindly, hoping to get to the brutal end of my story with a suitable middle and a punchy beginning, but it never panned out. I would inevitably run out of steam, or my characters would become bored with their adventure.

It was in 2013 when I was finally introduced to the joys of plotting. Eager to take part in my first NaNoWriMo contest (National Novel Writing Month – a contest to pen a 50,000 word novel in 30 days), I engaged in the forum discussions and discovered a host of writers’ eagerly plotting their story arc and character bios in readiness for the 1st November start line. I was intrigued and decided to look into this phenomenon more closely.

After reading several books and articles, including the Guardian Masterclass, Writing a Book in 30 Days, which included printable worksheets, I thought it might be worth my while to give this system a go. Being a pantser certainly wasn’t working for me – and with such a tight deadline for NaNo, I needed all the help I could get. What a revelation. Where I had initially believed that outlining would strip the creative heart from my story, I soon discovered that this method freed my muse to take over and write…and write…and write.

In my day-to-day life, I am an avid scheduling freak. I love order and structure. My diary is my dearest friend, and if something doesn’t have an appointment, then it doesn’t happen. So why I hadn’t applied this same routine to my writing suddenly baffled me.

I tried to use the three-act novel structure:

Act One – The Set Up.

Act Two – The Development or ‘Complication.’

Act Three – The Resolution.

I wasn’t feeling the love for this way of working and could feel my inner pantser begin to raise her head once more, but I persevered until I attended a workshop with the incredibly talented children’s author, Matt Whyman. Matt introduced me to the twelve steps on the writer’s journey developed by Christopher Vogler, and this was my (excuse the cliché) lightbulb moment!

As Matt expertly showed us how to dissect the Star Wars film and the Wizard of Oz, I finally understood the beauty of outlining.

Ordinary World – Where your character belongs (Luke Skywalker with his uncle)

Call to Adventure – When something changes for your character (Dorothy has to go to Oz).

Before I wrote the first words that would make up the beginning of my YA trilogy, Guardians of the Dead, I outlined the full story. Beginning – Middle – End. I wrote in-depth profiles on every main and secondary characters including a deluge of information that never made the book. It was this detail that made it so much easier to picture my characters as I wrote about them.

Once I began writing, my characters took over and began to weave the story how they wanted it to go – this was something I had never experienced before, and it blew my mind. I have
heard many of my favourite authors talk about their characters taking over, but I had believed it to be a thing that bestselling authors said at interviews.

Allow me to share one such moment: the outline for the Guardian series clearly stated that my protagonist, Amber Noble was to be an all-powerful witch. Amber had other plans. As I was writing the scene where a destiny spell goes awry, the salt circle of protection was distorted into the shape of an eye. All of a sudden, Amber is an Oracle with supernatural powers and a host of ancient guides to help her.

What followed was a day of panic as I reworked my plot to accommodate Amber’s swerve on her destiny pathway. Where I may have abandoned all hope at this point had I been in pantser mode, I was now able to go with it and manoeuvre my story back on track.

Excerpt from Guardians of the Dead (Book 1): 


She screwed her eyes tightly shut, her heart racing as she was battered by the winds surrounding her.

‘Humans don’t feel a thing.’ That’s what India had said.She no longer felt the wooden floor beneath her; instead she felt an odd weightlessness. Her head was thumping and the vibration strumming through her body was intense. Her mouth was so dry, as if she hadn’t had a drink for a month.

Just when she was ready to shout for India to stop, the winds ceased and she could feel the floor beneath her legs. She was shaking from head to foot, her eyes still closed and her breath coming in short, sharp gasps. Very slowly she flexed her fingers and opened her eyes.

Connor and India were crouched on the floor behind the counter. The shop looked like a tornado had passed through it, and as she looked around her she noticed the circle of salt, her protection, had been scattered.

With wobbly legs Amber stood up and looked again at the salt. The circle was gone, and instead the unmistakable shape of an eye stared back at her.

‘I’m going to take a stab in the dark here and say I’m not human.’

Her friends shook their heads.

‘Well that’s just terrific,’ she mumbled.

Writing has taken on a new intensity for me. Plotting out the story arc is now something I relish. I treat myself to a new notebook and fill the pages with ideas, scenes, settings, and character bios. I have a new found love of post-it notes and cover my office wall with the detailed plans for each new book.

Planning has changed how I write, and in turn, it’s made me more productive. I’ll never go back to being a pantser – would you?

Book three in the Guardians Trilogy is due out on 11th November 2016 but you can catch up with Amber’s story with Guardians of the Dead (book one) and Guardians of the Sky (book two), available in eBook and paperback from Amazon.

Guardians of the Dead (Book one) 

Amazon UK – http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B00SM2IKSW
Amazon US - http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00SM2IKSW

Guardians of the Sky (Book two)

 Amazon UK – http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B01AYC3RTY
Amazon US – http://www.amazon.com/dp/B01AYC3RTY


Amazon Author Account – http://amazon.co.uk/Shelley-Wilson/e/B00G5KPMJI

Goodreads – http://goodreads.com/author/show/7362789.Shelley_Wilson

Website – http://www.shelleywilsonauthor.co.uk

Blog – http://www.shelleywilsonauthor.com

Instagram – http://instagram.com/authorslwilson

Twitter – http://www.twitter.com/ShelleyWilson72

Facebook – http://www.facebook.com/FantasyAuthorSLWilson

Monday, 1 August 2016

Guest Post: Chrissie Bradshaw - Once Upon A Moon

I just had to use the waxing and waning of the moon as the timeline for my novel, ‘A Jarful of Moondreams’…

Last month, I enjoyed reading Jack Steele’s contribution to Elaina's blog. It was on visiting and choosing the right locations for a novel and I thought about how vital the setting of place and time are to any novel. I decided to carry on the theme of setting this month by writing about how I have shown the passage of time in my debut novel, ‘A Jarful of Moondreams’.

I write contemporary fiction and my currently released novel is set in the present day, 2015 to be precise. When I was writing, I had a calendar out to track events from May to September but I just knew that my characters would feel happier if I used the waxing and waning of the moon as the timeline for my novel. This could be lots of fun when I got it right but, at times, it was a headache to track the moon calendar of 2015 and make sure that it was in synch with the events in the novel.

Why did I do It? Well, with a family who had the surname Moon and a wonderful character who had encouraged her daughters to use a ‘moondream’ jar to hold their wishes that were made on a new moon, it was a natural way to show the passing of time over their tumultuous summer. My story begged to be told in moon months.

When I was researching moon names, I found several lists from different eras and continents; the moon's cycle is important thought history and across the world. This is the sort of research that can eat into writing time but it is fun! I now know what the Algonquian, the Cherokee and the Choctaw native Americans called their moons as well as the Celts and medieval England.

How did I use that wealth of information? I decided to use just a touch of ‘artistic licence’ and chose the most apt, or the nicest sounding, name from each source. I knew that my character, Teri Moon, would have had no trouble mixing and matching to suit her mood too. Having chosen the names, I used descriptions of the moon to reflect the mood of the story.

My story starts with the Pink Moon of May and then we journey into the Flower moon of June. After that, we encounter the excitement of two moons, the Thunder moon and an extra Blue moon in July. This brings thunderous times and a ‘once in a blue moon’ magic moment of course. After the Corn moon reaps many changes, there is a lovely full Harvest moon where we say farewell to the summer and leave the family to enjoy their happy ending.

I know that readers may not notice any of these elements; they do not need to in order to enjoy the turmoil, changes and romances of this eventful summer. I'm just happy that it adds another layer of meaning to the story and I know that it pleased Teri Moon. Maybe, if you read my book, it will please you too.

A JARFUL OF MOONDREAMS is available from Amazon and all good book stores.

About the author: 

Chrissie Bradshaw, 2016 winner of the Romantic Novelist's Elizabeth Goudge writing trophy, is a seasoned tea drinker and a tenacious trainer of her welsh terrier, Oscar. A JARFUL of MOONDREAMS, a contemporary story about family relationships, secrets and how dreams can come true, is her first novel.She has always loved match-making a book to a reader. Writing the kind of book she loves to read takes this a step further. When Chrissie is not writing or reading, you will find her walking the troublesome terrier on the beach, trying to avoid the gym and spending time with her family and friends.

Chrissie enjoys tweeting to readers on @ChrissieBeee

Her blog is http://www.newhenontheblog.com

She has a Chrissie Bradshaw author page on Facebook

Amazon link: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Jarful-Moondreams-Chrissie-Bradshaw-ebook/dp/B01HRZ1HAW/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1467396704&sr=1-1&keywords=chrissie+bradshaw

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Guest Post: Jack Steele - Location Location Location

Today I welcome Jack Steele, author of 'Loose Cannon', to my blog...

Bannister House Flats (where I grew up)
Capturing the essence of a location in my novels has become somewhat of a mini-obsession. It has to be detailed enough to transport the reader into that place but at the same time allow the mind to fill in the gaps and maintain the flow of the story.

I could make it up of course but for whatever reason there is the need for me to visit that location. In my novel ‘Loose Cannon’ I used a pub in Canary Wharf called ‘The Gun’. It has a room upstairs where Admiral Nelson and Lady Hamilton are said to have had their private meetings. They showed me around the pub so I could get a good feel for the place. The research gained from that one visit alone was enough to use in all of my future novels in the series. The compulsion to physically walk through the doors of a pub and enjoy a drink there….. is why I love research!

Brick Lane (where a Mafia family member is attacked)

There are a few exceptions. For instance, there is a scene in ‘Loose Cannon’ where a daughter visits her father in prison. I’ve researched that scene instead of visiting Her Majesty’s Pleasure. Another exception is when a restaurant that I’ve visited closes down and a different building goes up in its place. Then I have to place that restaurant in a location where it isn’t actually there.

So why not use Google Earth or the Internet to walk a route instead of wearing out my shoe leather? It’s just a personal thing that I have to be there. It’s important to take in the sights and smells around Canary Wharf, ride the London Underground and visit buildings to get a feel for their inside as well as their surroundings outside.

The Barbican (because of a sniper attack scene)
Hackney is at the heart of the story because I was born and raised there. Surprisingly there are still a lot of the original buildings standing. The Churches, Fire Station, Bannister House Flats and the Hommerton Hospital are thankfully still there.

A characteristic of my books will be the chase scenes. I’m often dreaming of either being chased or I am chasing after someone. I really feel like I am there!

'The Gun' pub bar area
A friend told me that it’s best not to include passing the doctor’s surgery or the laundromat as it slows down the pace of the chase. I follow her advice even though I have sat in that doctor’s a long time ago or I have taken washing into that laundromat!

It’s all about the balance between what to include and what to leave out. I have been delighted with the reviews so far, many point out their enjoyment of the pacing of the novel. Where some may like a little more detail, others want less and the majority have mentioned that its spot on. So the positive reaction has spurred me on to write the sequel to my Crime Fiction novel ‘Loose Cannon’ which includes more pubs, more landmarks and another chase sequence. Last month I paid a visit to London so that I could witness these locations for real. I’m really excited about this book with all the familiar locations and the new ones which I have added and I’m happy to say, have now been thoroughly researched.

'The Gun' pub where Nelson and Lady Hamilton met

My thanks to Elaina James for this guest post on her impressive blog site.

You can follow Jack Steele on social media:

Monday, 18 July 2016

Guest Post: Karen King

Today I welcome Karen King to the blog to introduce 'The Millionaire Plan' and 'Never Say Forever' which have been re-released by Accent this month.

Author Bio

A member of the Romantic Novelists' Association, the Society of Authors and the Society of Women Writers and Journalists, Karen King writes sassy, contemporary romance just right for reading on the beach. 'I DO - or Do I?' her first chick lit for Accent Press, was published in May. She has been contracted for two more. And she is delighted that Accent Press have republished her earlier romance novels, The Millionaire Plan and Never Say Forever. The Millionaire Plan was nominated for the RONE Award in 2014.

Karen has had several short stories for women’s magazine and 120 children's books published.

When she isn’t writing, Karen likes travelling, watching the ‘soaps’ and reading. Give her a good book and a box of chocolates and she thinks she’s in Heaven.

Author links

Website: http://www.karenking.net/

Twitter: @karen_king

Karen King Romance Author Facebook Page

Karen King Children’s Books Facebook Page

Pinterest: https://uk.pinterest.com/karenkingauthor/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/karenkingauthor/?hl=en

The Millionaire Plan


Love or money, what would you marry for?

Amber Wynters is on a mission to find a millionaire to marry - and fast. Her parents are nearly bankrupt and being forced to sell their family home, a beautiful Tudor house that has been in the family for generations, thanks to Amber's ex-fiancé persuading them to invest in his dodgy shares. Armed with a self-help book and a ten-point plan, she sets off to hook herself a rich husband. On a millionaire's yacht, she meets the drop-dead gorgeous Jed Curtess. The attraction between them is sizzling. It's a shame that he is only a hired hand. Can Amber ignore her heart and follow her plan?

Buy Links

Available from Amazon

Never Say Forever


Do you follow your dream or follow your heart?

That's the decision Kendall McKenzie has to make when she meets hunky businessman Jake Newman. He's as attracted to her as she is to him - but Kendall has vowed never to get married, and it seems that Jake has too. When they are together, sparks fly. It's obvious to everyone except themselves that they're meant to be together. Can Kendall trust Jake enough to give him her heart? And if she does, will she have to give up her dream?

Buy Links


Monday, 11 July 2016

RNA Conference 2016

I’ve just returned from three fantastic days at the RNA conference. Having never been to a conference (of any kind) before, I headed off early so that I had time to settle in and get my bearings before the event begin properly. Thanks to the lovely members of the Birmingham chapter I soon felt right at home in the midst of this busy occasion.

I have to admit to being a little bit nervous before I went. Alright, very nervous. I was going to an event attended by so many fantastic and inspiring authors I was afraid I'd feel like an imposer.  Not to mention the nail biting nerves at the thought of pitching my own novel to editors and agents. It turns out though that this is the friendliest group I could ever wish to be part of.

It was wonderful to meet so many writers, particularly those who I’ve been chatting away to online for months.

As for the terrifying prospect of pitching my novel... Well, it was still nerve wracking, but it was also really enjoyable. It was exciting to be able to chat about my writing, and interesting to hear their views, and listen to their feedback and suggestions.  I've come away with so many ideas.

Thanks to all the organisers, agents, publishers, speakers and authors who made this event such a success.  I am looking forward to next year already!

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Cover Reveal: The Velvet Cloak of Moonlight by Christina Courtenay

As the velvet cloak of moonlight settled over the ruined towers of Raglan Castle, the shadows beneath them stirred …

When newly widowed Tess visits Raglan Castle, an extraordinary hallucination transports her to a past that existed long before her own – to seventeenth-century Wales and to a castle on the brink of a siege.

Even when Tess leaves Raglan to return to Merrick Court, her husband’s home, the strangeness continues as her life becomes increasingly intertwined with her dreams and visions. And when the new owner of the estate arrives - New Zealander Josh Owens - the parallels become even more obvious. It's time to confront the past head-on.

But perhaps the voices from the past aren’t just trying to tell their own story, maybe they’re also giving a warning …

About the author

Christina lives in Hereford and is married with two children. Although born in England she has a Swedish mother and was brought up in Sweden. In her teens, the family moved to Japan where she had the opportunity to travel extensively in the Far East.

Christina’s debut Trade Winds was short listed for the 2011 Romantic Novelists’ Association’s Pure Passion Award for Best Historical Fiction. The Scarlet Kimono won the 2011 Big Red Reads Best Historical Fiction Award. Highland Storms (in 2012) and The Gilded Fan (in 2014) won the Best Historical Romantic Novel of the year award and The Silent Touch of Shadows won the 2012 Best Historical Read Award from the Festival of Romance. The Velvet Cloak of Moonlight is Christina’s eleventh full-length novel with Choc Lit.

Follow Christina on Twitter: @PiaCCourtenay

Visit her website: www.christinacourtenay.com

The Velvet Cloak of Moonlight is published by Choc Lit and is now available to pre-order! The paperback will be out on 7th October 2016.

Monday, 4 July 2016

The Perpetual Girl Guide

Big, but not overly so, my handbag is just the right size to carry my notebooks so I will never be without them.  Its dark black exterior with single beige stripe give no indication of what lies within. To the rest of the world it looks like a smart business woman’s handbag. Who else but I would know its main purpose is to carry my dreams?

However, it doesn’t end there. In addition to my dreams my handbag carries pretty much everything you can think of, and probably a few unexpected items too.

I always carry at least one extra pen. I have my own portable first aid kit from paracetamol to plasters. I’m prepared for any kind of weather with a pair of sunglasses stashed beside an umbrella. A tape measure. Spare plastic bags. Tissues. A pair of pliers. A torch. My handbag is a girl guide’s delight.

Ironically I wasn’t a very good girl guide. At least not according to our troop leader. Nevertheless, I returned each week decked out in my neatly ironed uniform, the traditional version with a bell shaped skirt and badges (the few I had) down my shirt sleeve. This was before it was permitted for girls to wear trousers. It was hideous. Even when the new, more fashionable uniforms were introduced, I remained in my somewhat frumpy outfit. This was definitely not by choice I hasten to add, but rather economic necessity. At least that’s the reason my parents gave. Personally, I think they figured that not even a new uniform would improve my skills as a guide, and there was so much space left on my shirt sleeve for all those badges that I’d never earn, what chance did I ever have of filling a great long sash instead?

Every Thursday I would reluctantly head off to the school hall, while my brother stayed home and watched Top Of The Pops.  I of course was not at all jealous, and the fact I can remember what happened to be on TV is purely coincidental…

Somehow I was eventually made patrol leader. I assure you that I was as surprised as everyone else by this. Our patrols were all named after flowers, given my patrol was nicknamed the awkward orchids you guess how successful my leadership skills were.  I swear I tried.  I would also like to point out that the ‘awkward’ reference was not directed at me.  I was a delightful, if somewhat ineffective guide. There were plenty of other words which could be used to describe me, and indeed our troop leader used most of them, but awkward was not one of them.

In fact the only thing I really excelled at was my ability to ensure that the bulky purse on my belt was always packed with pencils, tiny note books, paper clips and any other potentially useful and sufficiently small item that I could cram in there. The nature badges may have been out of my reach, and admittedly still are (have you read my posts on my attempts at gardening?) but I more than made up for it with my ability to be prepared for any eventuality.

My days in the guides are thankfully behind me and my hideous blue purse has been upgraded to a spacious handbag. Oh alright, several. I am on a permanent quest to find the perfect sized handbag to store my essentials. Which of course includes multiple note books.  

Ever seen Mary Poppins? Of course you have, it’s hard to miss when it’s shown on TV every year. Well, my handbag is like her carpet bag, though I’m still waiting for it to pack and unpack itself.

Friday, 1 July 2016

Book Review: Please Release Me by Rhoda Baxter


About the Author:

Author of Please Release Me, Doctor January and Girl on the Run, Rhoda is a former scientist who now works in the field of intellectual property.

 Book Summary:

Shallow, manipulative Sally thinks she has found everything she could ever need in the wealthy Peter.  However, when a car accident leaves Sally in a coma, Peter beings to realise that he doesn’t know Sally as well as he thought.

Grace is everything that Sally isn’t. She is kind, caring, genuine and true.  But most importantly, she’s in love with Peter.  That’s one thing that Sally has never been.


Having loved Rhoda’s previous book ‘Girl on the Run’ I was keen to read her latest; ‘Please Release Me’ and I hoped it would be of the same standard.  I wasn’t disappointed.

I loved the contrast between the two female characters.  I was immediately drawn to the quiet insecure Grace, who’d suffered so much heart-ache and loss and yet still tried to do whatever she could to help others.  My first instinct was to despise Sally and her selfish mistreatment of Peter, but as the story progresses we get to see a vulnerability behind her tough exterior.

The characters are well written and we get to watch them develop and grow as the story unfolds.

It’s a modern take on a fairy-tale, but this time sleeping beauty isn’t content to lie still.  Sally finds that while her body is in a coma her spirit is able to wander through the places she has been whilst she was awake.

It’s a clever idea, well-structured and thought out with an unexpected twist to a timeless classic.

Thursday, 30 June 2016

Cover Reveal: Little Girl Lost by Janet Gover

When a little girl goes missing, an entire town comes together to find her ... 

When Tia Walsh rides into the small town of Coorah Creek on a Harley Davidson, Sergeant Max Delaney senses that everything about her spells trouble. But Tia's trouble is not all of her own making, and the dangerous past she tried to leave behind is hot on her heels. 

Sarah Travers has returned home after three years of college to find that her parents have been keeping a devastating secret. Her childhood crush, Pete Rankin, is facing his own struggle with a harsh reality that will take him away from the girl and the life that he loves.

Tia, Max, Sarah and Pete are all trying to find their future, but when a little girl goes missing in the harsh outback, nothing else matters except finding her safe ...

About the author

Janet lives in Surrey with her English husband but grew up in the Australian outback surrounded by books. She solved mysteries with Sherlock Holmes, explored jungles with Edgar Rice Burroughs and shot to the stars with Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury. After studying journalism at Queensland University she became a television journalist, first in Australia, then in Asia and Europe. During her career Janet saw and did a lot of unusual things. She met one Pope, at least three Prime Ministers, a few movie stars and a dolphin. Janet now works in television production and travels extensively with her job. Janet’s first short story, The Last Dragon, was published in 2002. Since then she has published numerous short stories, one of which won the Elizabeth Goudge Award from the Romantic Novelists’ Association. She has previously published three novels with Little Black Dress, Flight to Coorah Creek was Janet’s debut with Choc Lit. Her other books with them include The Wild One, Christmas at Coorah Creek and Bring Me Sunshine.

Follow Janet on Twitter: @Janet_gover 

Visit her website: www.janetgover.com

Little Girl Lost is published by Choc Lit and is now available to pre-order as an eBook! It will be released on 2nd August 2016. 

Nothing but the truth: when a novelist writes non-fiction by Helen Barrel

I’d always written fiction. If you’d said to me, “the first published book with your name on the cover will be non-fiction,” I wouldn’t have believed you. But so it is. There might seem to be a gaping chasm between the two forms; airy-fairy imaginative stories over on the fiction side, and on the non-fiction side, a desert of hard, dry fact. But I’ve found that my background in fiction has come in very handy for writing non-fiction, and I’ll explain why.

Staying the course

By signing the contract for Poison Panic, I was promising Pen and Sword, my publisher, that I would write 60,000 words. I thought back to the longest piece of non-fiction I’d written up until that point – my undergraduate dissertation on Agatha Christie (can you see a theme developing?) – and that was 12,000 words. How the heck was I going to write 60,000? But it didn’t scare me.  Although none of my novels have ever been published, apart from a self-published spy thriller back in the late 1990s (when self-publishing meant ‘photocopied’), I’d at least managed to complete them. Some were easily twice as long as 60,000 words, so each time I stared blankly at my computer and the Doubting Gremlins whispered mean things in my ears (Imposter Syndrome is very unkind), I would tell myself, “I might not have completed non-fiction this long before, but I’ve written novels that are much longer - I can do it!” I had to remind myself that I did have the discipline to sit down and write the bloody thing.


I knew I’d ‘got’ Poison Panic when I started to dream about it. This is something that happens to me with fiction, too – in fact, my fiction often comes out of my dreams. But with Poison Panic, once I’d had a dream that I was in Mary May’s kitchen, and that a rat had scurried over my foot, and that I watched Mary put arsenic down to kill the rodents plaguing her cottage, the book entered the space in my head where my novels germinate and grow. I’m currently writing Fatal Evidence, the biography of nineteenth-century forensic scientist Alfred Swaine Taylor, and I realised I’d ‘got’ him once I had a very odd dream where he was sitting at my desk!

This doesn’t mean I added anything to my non-fiction – Poison Panic is based entirely on primary historical sources, such as newspaper reports – but it meant I could get a feel for the people in the book. They became more rounded in my mind, not just stock characters – ‘middle-aged farm labourer’s wife’ – but a living, breathing woman from the nineteenth-century. I could close my eyes and see them laugh or cry, see them stare stonily ahead as they stood in the dock, or collapse in terror on the scaffold.

I grew up in north-east Essex, where part of Poison Panic is set, so by adding some set-dressing to my memories (carriages, bonnets, smoke spiralling up from chimneys), I was able to create an 1840s version of Essex in my mind that I could populate with the ‘real’ people I had met in my research.
Being a daydreamer no doubt helps. Stuck in a traffic jam on the bus? Let’s retreat into Poison Panic Land and find out if that arsenic has sorted out the rodent problem yet….

Hone your craft

If you’re writing fiction, then there’s workshops, weekend retreats, residential courses, manuscript critique, and editing services. I’m sure there must be some for non-fiction, but it’s the fiction ones which seem to be proliferate.

While I was a student, I was very lucky to have one-to-one mentoring sessions with novelist William Palmer, courtesy of the Royal Literary Fund (yes, he has the same name as The Rugeley Poisoner). I took my novel to him (jazz singer framed for murder… that theme yet again) and he taught me how to be brave and edit my work. Not just juggle between *this* layout of a sentence, or *that* tense, but put a big line through that paragraph, tear out this page, and heck, get rid of this chapter! As
Poison Panic spilled out of my fingertips and into Scrivener, I hammered it about, using the same fearlessness that William had instilled in me as a student. Can you explain this in a sentence, rather than this terrible, waffly paragraph? Yes. Then do it. For heaven’s sake, do it.

More recently, I attended Alison May’s ‘Developing YourNovel’ day-long workshop. We learnt about such things as character, the three-act structure, how to edit, the point-of-no-return, the darkest moment, and how to write a synopsis. All extremely useful stuff for someone writing a novel, but how, you might wonder, is this any use for non-fiction?

Whilst I can’t add my own characters to non-fiction (though some writers do), thinking about characterisation in fiction was a good way to breathe life into the real people in my book. There’s tricks which fiction-writers use for presenting characters in particular ways, and, by collating my facts in a certain manner, I was able to show the reader how I see these characters – based on my research.

There’s nothing I can do about the point-of-no-return not appearing in the middle of the book, where you expect it to fall in novels and films. It’s non-fiction, for heaven’s sake! That said, some true crimes deal with this by, for instance, having the protagonist’s arrest fall at the halfway point. Dealing with several different cases, it just wasn’t possible to do this with Poison Panic. But there’s a certain sense of doom that hovers over the point-of-no-return, and I tried to emulate this. Equally, each chapter is about a separate case, so in theory I could’ve had a point-of-no-return in the middle of each chapter, but I didn’t consciously set out to do that.

I was commissioned to write Poison Panic a couple of months after I attended Alison’s workshop. Her advice on synopsis-writing did help – I was asked to pitch an idea, and it was later that I realised what I’d written was, essentially, a short synopsis. When I was ready to pitch Fatal Evidence, I followed the publisher’s submission guidelines to the letter, and bore Alison’s advice in mind. They commissioned Fatal Evidence the day after I sent my submission.

A synopsis needs a hook – it’s vital whether it’s fiction or non-fiction. Why should a publisher or agent be interested in what you’ve written, or what you propose to write? And as well as the synopsis, there’s the elevator pitch. Alison forced one out of me for a novel which I initially couldn’t describe in one paragraph, but by the end of the workshop, I could explain in a sentence. Being able to distil down tens of thousands of words into a one-sentence hook is a skill you’ll learn at a novel-writing workshop, and it’s essential for writing non-fiction too.


As you might imagine, writing a book about real poisoning cases requires a lot of research, and how you express it is key. Writing non-fiction, you could get away with flinging all the facts at the page in a vaguely chronological order, with a bit of commentary here and there. But I’m very conscious of the fact that I’m writing for the general reader, and if someone has picked up my book because they think it looks interesting, the worst thing I can do is present all this information in a way that sends them to sleep. I’m encroaching on their spare time, even if, by picking up my book, they’ve invited me in.

I researched my fiction: rifling (the ‘fingerprints’ of a gun barrel left on a bullet), stagecoach timetables, what music the BBC played on the radio on New Year’s Eve 1935, on and on it goes. But I don’t chuck these facts at the reader: one must always avoid the Information Dump! I might be able to weave the facts in somehow – they might, after all, be crucial to the plot. But a lot of it might be background information which I need to know in order to confidently handle the story I’m telling, but I don’t need to bludgeon my readers over the head with.

This is where reading over your own work is important, that point where you leave it for a few days – a few weeks, or even longer (if you have the time… a slight problem if a deadline is bearing down on you). This is something I learnt from writing fiction. There were some points in Poison Panic where, when I came to read over it, the narrative slowed down, caught up in an undertow of facts. Yes, facts are important, but if you think it’s going to annoy your readers, you need to address it. Can you express these facts in a different way? Maybe the tone of the passage is too stuffy, or the information isn’t explained clearly. Is there an angle here which can be amplified to make it interesting and keep the reader engaged? Maybe there’s something which you think is interesting, but as far as the narrative is concerned, doesn’t really earn its place in the book. In this situation, non-fiction has the benefit of footnotes or references, which fiction (apart from The French Lieutenant’s Woman) doesn’t have.

For instance, it was important in Poison Panic that I explained how many children Mary May had had, and when. I started off with a bullet-pointed list of their baptisms and burials, then tried to turn it into a paragraph, but I got annoyed by how clunky it looked. It was an ugly mass of dates which didn’t really mean much. So instead, I wrote an overview in a couple of sentences, and put the list of baptisms and burials in the references at the back. The information is therefore supplied for the reader, but it’s not clogging up the narrative pace.

I must confess that there is a lot going on in Poison Panic, but writing for a general reader, I can’t assume anything about people’s prior knowledge on arsenic or indeed the nineteenth-century. If you’re writing a nineteenth-century police procedural novel, you don’t need a page explaining the Rural Constabularies Acts of 1839 and 1840. If you think it’s important, you have the freedom to, perhaps, invent a conversation, where your character talks about becoming a policeman following the Acts. Writing non-fiction, I cannot do this, but I can include a photograph of square-jawed PC Barnard of the Essex Constabulary in his steel-reinforced top hat. You probably can’t do that in a novel, but you might have Barnard’s photo as your computer’s wallpaper for inspiration as you write.

And back again…

It follows, of course, that writing non-fiction benefits writing fiction, but I’ll spare you for now. Back to your work-in-progress – scram!