Thursday, 19 October 2017

Can Anyone Write a Novel?

Last month, I gave a talk to a local seniors group. It was similar to the ones I have done in the past – describing my writing ‘career’, including the differences between writing in the 1960s and writing today, and also giving some examples of where I get my ideas and how I develop my stories.

At the end of all my talks, I’ve had various questions, ranging from ‘How long does it take you to write a novel?’ to ‘How much research do you have to do?’

This time I had a different question. Someone said, “They say there is a novel in everyone. Do you think anyone can write one?’

I had to think on my feet! In the end I said something like, “First I think you have to want to write, and then you have to make the time to do it, rather than just write when you happen to have some spare time or feel like writing. There can also be a big difference between simply writing a novel, and writing something that will be accepted by a publisher. It can involve a lot of time and hard work – not just the actual writing, but also the research you need to do, even for a contemporary novel. You might also have to learn about plotting, using dialogue, and developing your characters, and I also think you need to have a good grasp of grammar, punctuation and spelling.”

That’s a summary of my ‘off the cuff’ answer, which I’m aware might only have covered a small part of what is involved in writing a novel. 

While we were having a cup of tea afterwards, someone else said to me, “I couldn’t write a novel. I don’t have the imagination to create a story.”

On my way home, I thought about this and realised this person was right. The need/desire to write (which means you make the time to do it) is combined with the imagination to create characters and their story. You can learn all the other things – and indeed, we all learn as we go along.

What do you think? Can anyone write a novel? And how would you have answered that question?

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Plot Driven or Character Driven?

A blog interview question asking ‘Are you plot driven or character driven?’ made me wonder what the difference is between these.

One definition I found was that ‘character driven’ means the story concentrates on characterisation, internal conflict, and relationships, with the characters changing an attitude or otherwise resolving a personal problem. ‘Plot driven’ seems to describe stories with more emphasis on plot twists, external conflict, and action. The goal in these is to win, escape, or change a situation.

At first glance, it’s easy to say ‘character driven’ applies to romances, while ‘plot driven’ applies to mysteries or thrillers.

However, I don’t think it’s as simple as that. A romance story which only concentrates on internal agonising and/or problems in a developing relationship can soon become tedious. A thriller or mystery, with no characterisation of the protagonists, soon becomes a puppet show, where the characters are jerked around with lots of action, but no motivation or emotions.

I believe we have to combine the two aspects to create a good story, whether it’s a romance or a thriller. We need the ‘real’ characters of the character driven stories, with their hopes and fears, strengths and weaknesses. Yes, they may have internal conflicts to resolve, they may need to change an attitude or learn some kind of lesson. But if they are only doing this within the confines of a developing relationship, with not much else happening to influence them or show them the way, it won’t be a very interesting story, unless your reader is interested in the psychology of relationships and the inner workings  of your characters’ minds.

Therefore we need the plot twists, and the external events to keep the reader turning the pages.

Would ‘Gone With the Wind’ have worked if it had just shown the relationship between Scarlett and Rhett in peaceful, uneventful times?

Would a Civil War story work if we didn’t get involved in the characters’ lives and loves?

To my mind, stories need to be both character driven and plot driven. I start mine with the growing seed of a situation/plot into which I throw my characters. After that, plot and characters develop equally and interact throughout the story.

How about you? Are you plot driven or character driven?

Thursday, 28 September 2017

"Stormy Hawkins" by Ana Morgan


My guest today is Ana Morgan whose debut novel Stormy Hawkins was published yesterday.

When she was small, Ana's dream was to know something about everything. She has studiously waitressed, driven a school bus, run craft service on indie film sets, milked cows, wandered through European castles, wired a house, married a Marine, canned vegetables, and studied the stars. She knows how to change a flat tire but prefers a gallant, handsome stranger who strips off his jacket and spins the lug nuts for her.

She began her writing career with essays about living on an organic farm and raising vegetables for a 100-member CSA. Now, in addition to writing sensual historical romances, she is the current president of From the Heart Romance Writers and an editor for The Talking Stick, a regional literary publication.

Today she tells us about the research she did for her novel: 

A poet-friend confessed recently, when I showed her the cover for my debut romance, Stormy Hawkins, that she had the start of a western romance buried under her bed. But she’d never write it because the research would be too demanding, and take too long.

I was surprised. I love the research aspect of writing stories set in unfamiliar times and places. Maybe this stems from my life-long goal to know something about as many things as possible.

Stormy Hawkins is set on a cattle ranch in 1890 southeast South Dakota. I live on a farm in north central Minnesota, so I had a leg up on some essential aspects of the story. I’ve driven through both North and South Dakota with a husband who provides running commentary about the geological and agricultural history of every small town and continental divide, and who will slam on the brakes to read a historical marker.

We moved to our then-rundown farm in March 1972. The “house” was a roof over three pushed-together hunting shacks. We had running water but no bathroom. The outhouse was a two-seater. My grandmother was the first relative to visit. She bit her tongue and bought for me a wringer washing machine, which I filled using a hose that attached to the kitchen faucet.

My eager hubby went to the local sale barn and bought a Jersey milk cow. She gave birth to twin heifers, and we learned to milk her by hand. Soon we were in the cattle business.

So, I had some first-hand knowledge of what daily life might look, feel and smell like on an 1890’s ranch. Act 1 of my story was research-lite. In Act 2, the heroine Stormy pursues the hero Blade Masters onto a Missouri River steamboat. I needed to research that.

I ordered books from the local library on steamboats. I bought used books—hardcovers with oodles of pictures—from ABE Books (a fantastic resource). I searched historical society websites for riverboat arrival and departure schedules from St. Louis, MO (my hero’s intended destination) to Yankton, SD., and found first-hand accounts of riverboat boiler explosions (frighteningly common) and boat sinkings due to hitting snags (trees submerged under the Missouri River’s surface).

I knew how the characters would dress on the ranch, but made sure to check when jeans were invented. I took a fascinating workshop on the history of clothing so I would envision correctly the fancy dress that Blade orders for Stormy as a ploy to win her father’s trust. (Blade wants to buy their ranch.)

Barbed wire, too. I couldn’t have the characters erect a fence before barbed wire was invented. That detail, and the history of the army forts established along the Missouri River to protect settlers from Indian attack, set the exact date for the story.

My editor at SoulMate Publishing checked on—and correctly called me out on—the dates when double hung windows came into use. She googled the French brandy in the story to see if it could have been imported. (I invented the brand, so yes, it could have.)

The research I gathered to write Stormy Hawkins will be useful as I write the next book in the Prairie Heart series. Book 2 will propel Blade’s sister, Mary, on a Missouri riverboat and port hopping search for her missing fiancĂ©. But, I will have to pull out the picture books. Passenger riverboats were grand conveyances with stately dining rooms, gambling, and promenades—if you had money. Steerage passengers slept beside stacks of cargo and ate what they brought aboard.


Stormy Hawkins
Blade Masters has finally spotted his ideal Dakota Territory ranch, where he can live alone, forget his cheating ex-fiancée, and bury the shards of his shattered heart. All he needs to do is sweet-talk the ailing owner, and his spitfire daughter, into retiring.

If she weren’t desperate, Stormy would never hire a cowhand. She’s learned the hard way that she’s happier working her family’s ranch alone. But, the greedy banker who holds their mortgage just demanded payment in full—or her hand in marriage.

Will this handsome drifter protect her? Or does he have designs of his own?

Available from Amazon

Thursday, 21 September 2017

What Makes a Page-Turner?

Comments and reviews about my romance novels quite often contain phrases like:’ Couldn’t put it down’ (or ‘unputdownable’ as one person said!) or ‘I was glued to it’ or ‘Once I started, I had to carry on until I finished it.’ In fact, one of my readers once ‘complained’ that I had kept her up late because she had to read ‘just a bit more’ until she got to the end of the book!

Obviously, these are very satisfying remarks for an author, but they made me think about what aspects of a novel make it a page turner.

The first requisite, of course, is that readers want to know what happens next. This means that the plot must be intriguing enough for them not to be able to guess the rest of the story by the time they get to Chapter 2. Of course, with a romance novel, they know the hero and heroine will get their happy ending, but the author must introduce enough unexpected twists and turns to keep readers in suspense and wondering how that is ever going to happen.

Another important aspect is to keep the story moving forward. Long descriptions of people and places might be suitable for literary fiction, but romance readers don’t want to read a whole page describing the scenery, or the layout of a house or exactly what the characters are wearing down to the last detail. A short paragraph with well-chosen words is enough to allow readers to use their own imaginations. Anything more can slow down the action – which brings me to another big turn-off i.e. irrelevant scenes where nothing actually happens.

There’s no need to describe the heroine’s shopping trip, or her day at work, or her cooking or gardening efforts, unless something happens during these events that advances the story. This may seem obvious, but I’ve read some stories with scenes that add nothing to the story. It’s worth remembering that every scene, indeed every page, should contain some kind of action or development. It doesn’t necessarily have to be something dramatic, but there should be a significant ‘something’ that relates to the plot or to the characters. This could be anything from a major turning point in the story or the introduction of a new character to a subtle change of attitude or a character learning something about themselves or the other person or the situation they are in. This applies to conversations, too. Skip all the ‘Hello, how are you?’ pleasantries and any other dialogue that rambles on with no real relevance to the rest of the story.

Cliff-hangers are a well-known device to keep readers turning the pages, especially at the end of a chapter. It’s been said that you should never end a chapter with a character turning off the light and going to sleep – because if your readers are reading in bed (which, of course, many people do) they will probably do the same. You should aim to ‘End each chapter with a bang, not a whimper’! Ask a question, foreshadow something that is going to happen (without giving it away), end with a critical moment for one or more of the characters – anything that will make your readers want to carry on reading to find out what happens next – even though it might be midnight.

An author can also drop hints during a chapter which make readers start asking questions e.g. Character A seems to have a hidden agenda – what is it? I used this in my novel, Irish Inheritance, which brought this comment from one reader when she was part-way through the book, “I’m dying to know what …. (no spoilers!) is up to.” There are also times when readers can be one step ahead of your characters. In Irish Secrets, for example, the hero is not what he is pretending to be and in Irish Deceptions something is revealed by the hero which the heroine doesn’t suspect. Hopefully, this makes people want to continue reading to discover what will happen when the heroine discovers the truth.

My final point is the characters themselves. Romance readers want to empathise with the heroine and fall in love with the hero, and the author needs to ensure that readers get to know the characters well enough to care about them. This means that they’ll be interested enough to turn the pages to find out what happens to them, and how they will eventually reach their happy ending.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Make Me Cry

It’s happy endings that make me cry, especially in films.

I can remember one of the very first films I cried at – an old film about the San Francisco earthquake (with Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy and Jeannette Macdonald). At the end, when they’re all camped out above the burning city, a boy runs up the hill shouting ‘The fires are out!’ and they march to the top of the hill, look out over the ruined, smouldering city and sing San Francisco, open your Golden Gate … well, I’m in floods of tears!

Another film which ALWAYS makes me cry, even though I’ve seen it many times, is Apollo 13. The astronauts, after an agonising wait, finally break the radio silence. Years ago, I watched it actually happening on TV and fisted the air when we knew the astronauts were safe. In the film, it’s the reactions of all the families and the Houston crew that make me fill up, every single time! 

I cried at the end of The Incredible Journey when Shadow, the golden retriever, eventually appeared. I cried when Hugh Jackman found Nicole Kidman after Darwin had been bombed in Australia. For heaven's sake, I even cried at the end of Toy Story 3 when the toys found a happy new home!

I cry at the end of Carousel when Billy makes his peace with Julie, I cry when the family escape to safety over the mountains in The Sound of Music, I cry when Emile re-appears at the end of South Pacific – in fact, a lot of musicals make me cry, because the endings are happy.
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If a reader tells me that the happy ending of any of my books has made them cry, then I know I've got it right.


What movie or book has made you cry?

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Setting Goals

‘They’ say writers should set targets/goals for themselves but I’ll start by saying that I don’t usually set any for myself.

Several years ago I took part in NaNoWriMo and completed the ‘goal’ of 50,000 words in a month i.e. averaging 1,666 a day. However, I was very aware of how the quality of my writing deteriorated. That novel (or rather that very inadequate first draft) needed over 6 months of re-writing and editing before it was ready for submission and I have to admit it still remains my least favourite novel.

Another year I took part in a 100K Challenge i.e. 100K words in 100 days, which included any kind of writing e.g. blogs as well as stories or novels. In my case, probably over half of my daily total each day came from writing a series of blogs (in advance) for the A-Z Blog Challenge. I didn’t really increase my output as far as my novel was concerned.

When I am writing a first draft, I’m well aware that I am my own worst enemy, because, however much I try, I can’t turn off my inner editor. Even though I know I’ll spend hours re-writing, adding, deleting, and tweaking once the first draft is done, I still do the same while I’m writing that first draft! Occasionally I might say, ‘That’ll do for now, I’ll sort it out later,’ but that doesn't often happen.

I’m constantly searching for the right words or phrases, and I know when something isn’t working as I want it to work, whether it's an emotional experience, a build-up of suspense/tension, or simply a word picture of a scene. Therefore I can spend a long time working on a particular scene until I’m satisfied with it. Sometimes I can write 1,000 words in a day; sometimes I’ll agonise over just 50 words.

However, this month I have set myself a target. It’s a fairly modest one of 500 words a day, which I think is achievable for me. After a week’s work, I’ve actually managed to average 678 per day. A couple of evening ago, I was ready to finish for the day (it was after midnight!) but I’d only written 366 words. I forced myself to go on for another 15 minutes and add enough words to get to the magic 500. I’m happy to say I didn’t delete those words the next day!

500 a day for 30 days = 3,500 a week (which is the average length of my chapters) and a whopping 15K for the month. IF I can continue at this rate, the first draft (which currently stands at 38,000 words) will be nearing completion by the end of October. I’ll let you know if that happens!


Meanwhile, what goals do you set yourself? And do you achieve them? 

Thursday, 31 August 2017

All Change!

The last couple of weeks have taken me (and my books) in yet another different direction, which is one of the reasons I didn’t post my usual Thursday blog last week. Everything seemed to be up in the air – but a lot can happen in a week!

For various reasons, which I won’t go into here, my association with the publisher who accepted my books at the beginning of July didn’t work out, and it was a mutual (and amicable) agreement to accept this.

Which meant that I had to find a way forward – and I’m delighted to announce that yesterday I signed a contract with Tirgearr Publishing who will re-publish my four Mist Na Mara books initially, and hopefully some of my other books, too, at a later stage. As Tirgearr is based in Ireland, it seems to be a very appropriate place for my Irish books to find their new home!

I’ve already received a very warm welcome from Kemberlee and from other Tirgearr authors, some of whom I already know, and I look forward to getting to know more in the future.

After what has been somewhat of a roller coaster during the past four and a half months since my publisher Rebecca Vickery regretfully announced the closure of her publishing company, I now feel very settled, and I’m looking forward to working with Kem and her team. For the time being my books are all offline, but they will go back once the editing and proof-reading has been completed and new covers have been designed.

So – watch this space!

In the meantime, please consider joining me and other Tirgearr writers – and readers – at the Tirgearr Publishing Reader Group on Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/groups/tirgearr.publishing/

See you there, hopefully.