Monday 27 June 2022

Writing historical fiction? Keep detailed notes.

Just a few of my extensive
research books
I recently did a workshop on writing historical fiction at the IAmWriting Festival. In it, I reminded the attendees that anyone who writes historical novels more than any other writer will have to justify their writing. Only a week later I found myself doing exactly that when I received my most recent edits. 

The copy editor was quite rightly double-checking my research, a certain word I'd used, querying why I had made certain decisions. This can be quite a challenge because I have long-Covid and I don't always remember what I did yesterday, so remembering why I made a decision when writing over a year ago was going to be challenging.

Luckily for me, I might not be a planner, but I do make copious notes when I make a decision and I also list all websites I visit that I use for research. Plus being an academic, I tend to underline things that are relevant in books and use post-it notes to mark useful chapters. This means that when I am challenged over my research or my decisions I can go back to my notebooks and go through all my scribblings. I will invariably find the answer. Resulting in me being able to put a comment that explains my sources for the decision or if I think the editor has actually highlighted a weakness in my writing, I might add a sentence to add clarity as I may realise that I'm not getting across what I thought I was. It is too easy to fall into the trap of the author's assumed knowledge. I say this so often to my students, just because you can see it in your head, you need to get those images from your head onto the page by including some hints for the reader to pick up on.

Another resource
Helps with colours

It is a salutary reminder to keep good records so that you can support yourself and it also means you can double-check when you are editing or rewriting. Never underestimate the importance of good research. When writing historical fiction you will research far more than will ever appear in your story but it will inform your writing, adding depth to it. I love doing the research and finding a little nugget of detail which will lift the narrative. The reader may not notice it but I'll know it is there. The research should always have a light touch within the story and not be overwhelmed by it. The story comes first always.

I've a new idea for a children's story but am also writing a historical novel for adults at the moment and that is interesting. I have found some wonderful research for them both.  Those that know me well understand that the research process is one of the most exciting elements for me when writing.

Thinking out loud is something writers do quite frequently so I thought I'd share Ed Sheeran's version:


Sunday 15 May 2022

Where do ideas come from?


This week has been an exciting week. Firefly revealed the cover of my latest novel, Safe, which is being published on 1st September and is the sequel to Flight. The cover is designed by Anne Glenn and I love it. It features Kizzy and Jakob and once again they are off on a perilous journey. They are tricked into making this trip and are in great danger. It is a story I am passionate about. In the main because it feels very pertinent. There are elements to it that feel so close to what is going on in the world now. 

As an author, one of the questions you are asked the most often is 'where do ideas come from?' The thing with Safe is that obviously as a sequel it had a long journey. The idea started initially with those nuggets of ideas that formed when I began Flight. Now, where did they come from?

These two images give a few clues. The first one is an image of Director Alois Podhajsky, from the Spanish Riding School saluting General George S Patton from the US Army near the end of the Second World War. The second is an image from a Walt Disney film made in 1963 entitled Miracle of the White Stallions. This film was inspired by Operation Cowboy, which was where the US Army negotiated with the Nazis so they go could through the German lines and get to Hostau where there were several hundred horses including Lipizzaner mares belonging to the Spanish Riding School and a prisoner of war camp nearby. The plan was to rescue both the prisoners and the horses before the Russians arrived. They drove the horses back through the German lines, cowboy style. Hence the name of the operation. It was doing research into the performance in front of General Patton, what happened to the Spanish Riding School during World War 2, and Operation Cowboy that started the nugget of an idea. I also watched the film. The nugget soon became the eternal answer to the important writer's question 'What if...'

I started thinking about what might happen prior to the performance in front of the General and prior to Operation Cowboy. What if two children, who were in danger themselves, needed to save a group of Lipizzaners. And so started the story of Flight with another great cover designed by Anne Glenn.

That's all very well but then when you are asked by your publisher to write a sequel how do you follow on because the story has come to an end. Where does it go from here? Again you start asking questions. What are the worst possible things that could happen to Kizzy and Jakob now? Make a list of them, then make them fifty times worse than that before inflicting those things on them. 

While doing the research I found out about all the displaced children in Europe towards the end of the Second World War. Groups of children who had lost their parents and relatives would move around together. These were sometimes called 'lost children' or sometimes 'wolf children' because they were in packs. It felt important that as a story Kizzy and Jakob should move beyond rescuing horses so this time they don't just rescue abandoned horses. They lead a group of 'lost children' to safety too. 

The horses are different too. I spent time researching what horses might be around as I didn't want it to be Lipizzaners again as they had done those. I found information on so wonderful horses that I've been able to include. 

I also found out about the formation of organisations like UNICEF after the war and how they tried to help alongside the Red Cross. Obviously, there are many more organisations now that help refugees but I've tried to raise awareness where I can at the back of the book.

Ideas grow and evolve as you find inspiration when you do research, particularly when writing historical fiction. I hope you've enjoyed this little insight into the journey of how Safe and Flight came about. Look how beautiful they look sitting next to each other. I am very lucky. 

Another musical inspiration to make you smile if you remember it:

Sunday 24 April 2022

A basic guide to Tik Tok

 Tik Tok is proving an important resource in the publishing world. In a recent Publishing Association report, they suggested that total publishing income for the UK reached a new high in 2021, rising 5% to £6.7 billion with surges in both fiction and young adult fiction, which they attributed in part to Tik Tok.

I joined Tik Tok ages ago and I've been a lurker for a very long time. Wary of taking part because I felt I am about to be a woman of a certain age who should know better than to get involved in it. I also watched the brilliant Kathryn Evans, Emma Finlayson-Palmer and K L Kettle do incredible things on it and felt I was just not capable. However, I started to see the videos done by Chicken House Publishing. They were interesting and informative. I was intrigued by it. All my adult life I have always tried new technology. Prior to my academic career, I would teach people how to use various software. I knew I had to get over this fear of making a fool of myself. I had to find a way of using it that worked for me. I wasn't going to dance or be funny.

It was the fabulous YA author and my great friend K L Kettle that finally pushed me into doing my first video by asking me what was my inspiration when I wrote. I did a quick 60 second video in response to her question and thoroughly enjoyed it. I posted on Facebook that I had put up my first Tik Tok and several of my author friends immediately asked if I could blog about how I did it, so here is a very basic guide to posting on Tik Tok. I am no expert. This is very early days for me but this is just based on what I have done so far. (FYI I am using my iPhone to record my videos)

1. When in Tik Tok press the black plus button at the bottom of the screen. 

2. Sort the camera out so it is facing the way you want it to using the flip button on the top left-hand side. You might want it to face towards you or away.

3. You can add filters if you want.

4. Decide how long you want your video to be: 15s, 60s or 3 mins.

5. When you are ready tap the red button and you will start recording. It will continue to record even if you take your finger off the red button. It will only stop when you tap the red button again. 

6. If you want to record a video separately you can use the upload button on the right hand side at the bottom of the screen.

7. When you have finished recording and you are happy with it you press the button with the tick. If you are not happy you press the button with the cross to discard it. 

8. If you press the tick button it will take you to a preview screen where you can add music (it can play in the background), captions (note you can edit these, they are really good), more effects and stickers. When you've done editing your Tik Tok tap next.

9. From the post screen add your description, hashtags and if you want to tag friends. This is also where you can decide who can view your post and disable comments. 

10. You can hit drafts to save your Tik Tok - I have a draft video that I practise on. It gives me a chance to play with all the different options and work out how to do things. I am still not very good at editing so am not going to advise you on how to do that. I am lucky and have recorded a lot of online lectures so am very used to recording. Get it clear in your head what you want to say and do before you start. Having this draft helps you gain confidence. It is a video I will never post.

11. On the other hand if your video is ready to share press post. 

As I said this is a very basic introduction to doing a Tik Tok video, but if this author can do it, so can you. Be brave! 

Thursday 21 April 2022

The joy of the writing process

 I love those moments when you are writing away and a character suddenly takes you by surprise by doing something totally unexpected that takes the story in a different direction. I had one of those moments yesterday in the adult novel I am currently working on. It has happened to me in the past when a character was getting very cross with me because I hadn't realised they were actually gay. Once I did they suddenly came to life and felt fully formed. 

This is why I love writing and probably why I am not very good at plotting because my writing takes me off in surprising directions. I would say I am more of a plantser. In that, I will know my beginning, my ending and maybe a few key scenes, but how I get there is going to be a revelation. As for my characters, they often evolve as I write. This can prove a major problem when publishers ask for a chapter breakdown because that is not really how I work. I will write one for them but I will tell the publisher it is written with a caveat that it may not be set in stone. I work on the basis that you have to trust your gut and if it feels right go with it. In the same way, if it doesn't feel right you cut it out.

Yesterday's incident was interesting because I had been worrying about how it was going to work with this character and where they were going to fit in. I had various scenarios in mind, but none of them felt quite right. Then the character actually wrote themself out of the story in a totally unexpected way, which solved all my concerns. It wasn't something I had even considered up until that point. I had seen them as a vital part of the onwards journey, but taking them out made more sense and the journey would still work with the other characters even without them. Characters are always powerful, they leave footprints on your heart as they find their route through your story.

I am used to writing for children and young adults and it has been quite interesting writing for adults. In a way, it has been rather liberating. This story started off as a middle-grade, but it was suggested to me that writing it as such was rather constraining and it would be better as an adult story. I have to say as I am writing it, I agree. Also, as a creative writing lecturer, it is always good to try all these different mediums so that I can share my experiences. 

Writing is important for me as it helps with my mental health. I always feel better if I am writing. I have tried different methods including setting word counts, sprints and using apps where I can create trees, but I don't find any of those work particularly well for me. I know they work very well for many others. Instead, I write when and for as long as I can without any pressure. I often find then I can churn the words out. What I always say to all my students and aspiring writers is that there is no write [sic] or wrong way to write. You have to find what works for you and most importantly, don't compare yourself to others. Everyone has their own journey. Just make sure you enjoy yours. 

Happy writing everyone!

I am loving the writing and production of the series The Split. It is very inspirational. This is some of the music from it by Olivia Broadfield

Saturday 5 March 2022

Fiction echoing Reality


It has been hard watching events unfold in Ukraine. Feeling so helpless as you see families becoming separated, refugees fleeing and others determinedly defending their country against Russian invaders, sent by someone who can only be described as a dictator without any thought for others. Seeing children's faces full of fear as they run from the Russians. We feel like we are standing on the edge of something terrifying and am not even going to mention our own government's appalling behaviour towards refugees. #Notinmyname. All welcome. 

I faced the situation last week as these events were unfolding where my fiction seemed to become a reality around me. I was doing the latest round of edits for Firefly on my novel Safe which is coming out in September 2022. Part of the story involves a group of 'lost children' who are fleeing from the Russians. Watching the news and feeling so desperate certainly enabled me to add depth to the emotion of my story even though it is based during the end of the Second World War.

I was very lucky in the past Flight was picked by EmpathyLabUK as a Guided Reading book for Empathy in 2020 so I am very aware of how important reading can be for creating empathy. It can also be a way of dealing with difficult subjects such as invasion, war and all those frightening terms that are being bandied around at the moment. Reading a story that opens dialogue and discussions can make a huge difference. It allows children to consider what it might be like for those children they see on the news. What they might be feeling but also to understand that though bad things happen often good things can occur too and there might be a sense of hope to hold on to. This image by Charlie Mackesy is a perfect example and a great reminder of the importance of love:

 This is why I think it is important that we continue to write stories about the past because it helps children deal with the present and as a reminder to try and ensure that certain events of the past should never happen again. We need to create stories they can empathise and engage with. Writing the best stories we can. 

For inspiration read books by: Phil Earle, Lesley Parr, Emma Carroll, Michael Morpurgo, Tony Bradman, Miriam Halahmy, Ally Sherrick, Rowena House, Hilary McKay or maybe even my book Flight