How long have you been writing?
I spent most of the 1990’s as a magazine features writer but I’ve written fiction for most of my adult life. Until recently it was always in my spare time, and always just for fun.
What motivated you to become a writer?
I wanted to be Douglas Adams.
How many hours a week do you commit to your craft?
As many or as few as I want to.
What are some common traps aspiring writers should avoid?
Taking advice from people like me – what do I know?
What advice would you give to a writer whose manuscript has been rejected several times and told he or she will never make it as a writer?
I’m afraid I genuinely don’t know. I was approached by a publisher after the success of some self-published books so I’ve never submitted anything to a publisher who hadn’t already asked for it. Because of that I have no experience of being rejected. It’s an appallingly smug thing to say, but it’s the truth. I’m no help at all.
What is the most important tip you can share with other writers?
I’ve spoken to several authors who don’t plan their work because they believe it will stifle their creativity if they can’t just “go with the flow”. The result is that they often end up having to completely rewrite their novel when they realize that various bits of it don’t work.
When you get to the editing phase, the problems which an editor will point out as needing to be fixed are most often structural. Your ideas will be fine, your writing will be fine – the faults will usually be in the mechanics of the story. If you plan properly, you can make the structure work before you write a single word.
You’re still free to let your imagination run riot once you start writing so no creativity is lost. Indeed, I find it easier to add new ideas because I can see from the plan what else will need to be adjusted to accommodate them.
My editor told me recently, “I find that the more experienced a writer is, the more effort they put into planning.”
Think of it this way: it’s much less traumatic to throw away a four-page planning document after spending a week on it, than to throw away a 400-page novel after spending a year on it.
What was one challenge you had to overcome to become an author?
Although I was confident of my ability to put words together in a readable way, I was a non-fiction writer. I imagined there must be some sort of magic involved in plot structure that I’d never been told about, and I wasn’t nearly so sure of my ability to put a story together in the right order.
How did you overcome that challenge?
I read every book about plot structure I could get my hands on. If you only have the time, the energy, or the money to read one, I recommend John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story, or John Yorke’s Into the Woods. Actually, I prefer Yorke – he makes the excellent point that all the exciting, innovative and original theories in all the other books are essentially the same as his but in a different wig and more flamboyant trousers. On the other hand, Truby has the advantage of being the one everyone else has heard of.
If you want to go further, you can try Robert McKee’s Story, or Christopher Volger’s The Writer’s Journey (which is a basically an exploration of the ideas in Joseph Campbell’s The Hero Has a Thousand Faces).
Although they’re specifically aimed at writers of screenplays, there’s a lot of useful information in Syd Field’s Screenplay, Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat (if you can get past what a thoroughly awful human Snyder paints himself as) or Jeffrey Alan Schechter’s My Story Can Beat Up Your Story.
Pick one excerpt from one of your books you would like to share with readers.
Until recently I never knew what to choose in a situation like this, but I’m fortunate now that Elizabeth Knowelden – the actor who narrates the audiobook versions of the Lady Hardcastle series – has chosen one for me. She was a speaker at this year’s Audio Publishers Association Conference (APAC) and was asked to read an excerpt from book she had narrated. She chose this scene from In the Market for Murder, and apparently it went down well.
The doorbell rang as we sipped our tea in the drawing room. I answered it to see an ashen Lady Farley-Stroud on the doorstep. Ordinarily a lively lady with a mischievous glint in her eye, the glint was gone, replaced by a look of distress.
‘Oh, Armstrong,’ she said. ‘Thank goodness you’re here. Is Lady Hardcastle at home?’
‘She is, my lady. Please come in. You look like you could do with a sweet tea. Whatever’s the matter?’
She stepped in, looking curiously about at our somewhat Spartan decor. I took her hat and coat and conducted her through to the drawing room.
‘Who’s that at the—?’ said Lady Hardcastle as I opened the door. ‘Oh, Gertie what a delight. Do come in, I was just—’
Lady Farley-Stroud fainted. I managed to get my shoulder under her arm to stop her from falling to the ground, but I was having trouble manhandling her towards a chair. Lady Hardcastle leapt up when she saw her guest falling, and winced visibly as the wound in her stomach gave a twinge.
We got the older lady into an armchair and she began to return to her senses.
‘I was just about to offer sweet tea, my lady,’ I said. ‘For the shock.’
‘Sweet tea be beggared,’ said Lady Hardcastle firmly. ‘This lady needs brandy.’
‘Very good, my lady,’ I said, and I went to fetch both.
I returned with a tray of tea, cognac and biscuits to find Lady Farley-Stroud returned to consciousness, but looking little better. Lady Hardcastle was fussing around her friend.
‘Here you are, dear,’ she said. ‘Flo’s brought some tea and brandy. Let’s get some of that down you and you can tell me all about it.’
Lady Farley-Stroud sipped at the proffered glass and began to look a little embarrassed.
‘So sorry, m’dear,’ she said. ‘Don’t know what came over me. Haven’t swooned since I was a girl. Feel very foolish.’
‘Nonsense, darling,’ said Lady Hardcastle. ‘You look like you’ve had a terrible shock. Whatever’s the matter.’
‘Oh, Emily, it was terrible. Went to the market on my own. Left Denton behind – she had things to be getting on with back at The Grange. Having lunch in The Hayrick, chatting to Mr Caradine about the cattle he bought from us last week. Poor old chap was looking very ill but he said it was just a spring cold. He looked jaundiced to me, though, I’ve seen that before. So I took pity on the old chap and was just about to offer him a drink when he keeled over, face down in his pie.’
‘Gracious!’ said Lady Hardcastle and I together.
‘They tried to revive him, but he was dead as a door knocker.’
‘Gracious!’ we said again.
‘We called the doctor, and he said it looked like . . . like he’d been poisoned!’ said Lady Farley-Stroud before she fainted again, tipping the remains of the brandy over her dress.
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