Archive | April 2013

Guest Post – Research For Writers

It’s time for another guest post – and today I’m welcoming back fellow author Jessica Lave with her thoughts on research. Take it away, Jessica:

Stop Procrastinating & Dig In

jessica2Research is a four-letter word for some writers. It’s time-consuming, it’s not always clear when we need it, and the sheer volume of information out there is pretty intimidating.

Why Research Matters

Writers make things up on a daily basis. We’re professional make-believers, compulsive liars, and spend substantial time in a fictionalized version of reality. Why research when we can just as easily make something up?

Readers can only be asked to push their imaginations so far. If a writer constructs a contemporary story in a real city, the history, intersections, colloquialisms, and landmarks had all better match up, or the locals will be after blood.

Even in science fiction or fantasy, the laws of physics and bounds of reality still apply. The writer must set up exceptions throughout the story so the reader can keep up with the “rules” of the fictional world. It’s easy to make up an explanation for why something happens in a book, but a reader has to buy the explanation, and that’s where research comes in.

Research keeps a story balanced with a good blend of fact and fiction.

When to Research

Writers sometimes struggle to separate imagination from reality. It’s hard to experience the story from a reader’s perspective. But, whether it’s science fiction, historical romance, or contemporary crime fiction, there’s a point at which readers will buy into the story’s premises, and a point at which they’ll put the book down, shake their heads, and write a two-star review saying, ‘It just wasn’t very realistic/believable/good.’

Beta readers are invaluable when it comes to research – they’ll tell you what is or isn’t believable and ask questions if something was confusing. However, a good writer thinks a few steps ahead – while writing, or at least during the editing process – about the research needed to make the story work.

If you as the writer have to stop and ask yourself about something in the story, you need to research it. How long does it take to fly from London to New York? Did people still send telegrams in 1968? How do I write about a mathematician when I barely understood high school algebra? You don’t need to be a frequent flier, over the age of 60, or understand advanced mathematics to write these things into your story. You just need to investigate.

Good Research Strategies

Strategy depends on your work style. If you work best without interruptions, it’s best to make notes as you go and research later on. Vocalizing your questions and thought process – yes, talking to yourself about your book – can help you identify the parts of the story that need more research.

If you prefer a little background noise while you write, some movies or even books on tape (ones in your genre!) can be a great way to research style and dialogue. Connecting with settings, action, and dialogue similar to your story fuels the imagination.

If you are a multi-tasker and flit around while you write – checking your email or Facebook or getting up for a snack or a drink on a regular basis – then keeping a few “research tabs” in your browser may work for you.

Some good starter pages:

  •  A dictionary/thesaurus website: for that perfect word
  • A name generator or baby names website: for character names
  • Google Maps: for cities, street names, travel times, etc.
  • IMDb: for movie buff characters, or to research films to watch while you write
  • A news source: for current events. Current events can inform your characters’ surroundings and worldviews, and can even be a good source for plot development.
  • And, it’s not necessarily research, but pull up a music player and tune in. It’ll make all that “homework” go by in no time!

Why Research?

I love research and learning new things, but when I’m in the middle of a story, it’s a battle to say “no” to the little devil on my shoulder who wants to throw stuff at the wall and hope it sticks, and say “yes” to the pulsing cursor nagging at me in the search engine bar.

Why research? Because without it, you’re just a liar. With it, you’re a novelist.

quietontheset-coverABOUT THE AUTHOR:

By day, I work in a cubicle tending to an e-commerce website. By night, I blog, I review television shows and films, and occasionally I settle down long enough to write a novel. I’ve always had a diverse set of interests, which has led me to study everything from ethics to yoga to film, but the one thing that has stayed consistent is my enthusiasm for writing.

Writing is my way of bringing my interests together—I may not be able to speak six languages, pick the lock on a door, or cook a five-course meal without a recipe, but I can write about a character who can, and that’s the next best thing!

Visit me on my website at, follow me on Twitter @jessinsists, or check out my other books on Goodreads. My new book, Quiet on the Set, is available in paperback and as an ebook on Amazon.

Give Me A Dictaphone

Why is it the best ideas always come when it’s impossible to write them down?

In the past I used to take an MP3 player when I went running or to the gym. Like many people, I found something fast, with a good rhythm – and sometimes a dash of aggression – helped spur me on when otherwise I might have given up.

These days, for some reason, I seem to have fallen out of the habit of having a music player with me. Now when I go running, cycling or walking I find my mind wandering with no music on which to concentrate.

My ‘forebrain’ is busy with the basic stuff like where to put my feet and which way to turn, leaving the rest of my head free to go where it pleases. Sometimes the mental ramblings are inconsequential stuff about work/life/food etc. Quite often, though, I’m thinking about plot lines for my writing and inspiration seems to strike frequently enough to make the process quite productive. Many times, I can run through entire scenes – dialogue and all – in my head.

But I never have any paper or a pen with me! The trouble is, I know that I have good ideas for my stories and sometimes I remember them. My fear is that I can’t remember them all or in their entirety.

And if I don’t remember everything, what happens to my great ideas? Will all those neat solutions for plot twists that have been bothering me just evaporate and go back into the ether? Or will they re-emerge as ‘new’ ideas another day?

I think I’m going to have to get a Dictaphone. That way I might not lose so many ideas. Or do I need to learn some new memory techniques for recalling my thoughts?

Taking a Dictaphone out running might seem a bit odd. Once upon a time the locals might have thought me mad if they saw me running the local paths talking to myself, nowadays they’ll probably just think I’m some sad individual who can’t live without their mobile phone. (Not sure which scenario is worse.)

Lazy Literary Agents In Self-Publishing Money Grab via Argo Navis

Excellent insight into some dodgy manoeuvrings in the publishing world.

Don’t Let It Get To You

It’s been grim recently: murdering bombers in Boston, a warmongering dictator in North Korea threatening a nuclear holocaust, ongoing death and destruction in Syria, kidnappings in Afghanistan etc, etc.

On days when it seems like every news story is about our race’s unique capacity to hurt and harm itself, it’s easy to think the world’s (still) going to hell in a handcart.

But draw breath. It’s not all like that. Bad news always dominates the headlines. It’s a rare day when boring stuff like everyday kindness, good manners and doing things to make other people smile gets a look in.

Last week, though, I was talking to some of my students about the marathon charity bike trip that I did a couple of years ago with my wife Carolyn. A young Thai girl asked me what was the best thing about the experience.

You might think it would be some of the landscapes on our year-long route: the majesty of the Rockies, the beauty of New Zealand, the rainforests of Queensland.

Or perhaps all those different cultures we experienced: eating in a hotel that still had bullet holes in the ceiling made by Billy The Kid, the mediaeval cities of Germany, the Guinness factory in Dublin.

No: none of those. The best thing was the kindness and generosity of the people we met along the way.

Okay, we were on a tandem bike so we weren’t exactly threatening. Plus, we were riding for charity so that clearly meant we were ‘good people’.

But, even still, we had so many complete strangers go out of their way to help us – in all of the ten countries along our journey – that the experience completely reaffirmed our belief that most people are actually fundamentally pretty nice.

I want to drink to people.

I want to drink to people.

There are so many examples: the campsite in Canada where we borrowed a stranger’s can-opener and then woke the next morning to find a brand new one sitting on our bike trailer, the lady in Wyoming who gave us a bag of dimes for the dryer after she saw our laundry hanging in the rain, the man in Australia who rebuilt our wheel for free after it was run over by a truck!

And that’s not to mention all the people who fed us, housed us and generally looked after us in one way or another. It still gives me a warm glow to think about it.

Now, I know not everyone’s as fortunate as me. I’ve never really had to go hungry. I had the opportunity for a good education; I’ve never lived in a really high-crime neighbourhood or suffered from racial or sexual abuse.

But. But. But. I know this post only gives you a tiny flavour of my experiences – and it’s a bit of a deviation from my usual ramblings about writing, books and indie publishing but I think it’s probably much more important.

What I want to say is: the next time that reports on the state of the world get you down, remember that they don’t represent what the world’s really like. It’s a few extreme examples. Everyone has bad days but I still believe that – given the chance – there’s even more people out there who are busy doing the kind of good deeds that don’t make the news.

Where Do Betas Live?

Can anyone help? The first draft of my new book is nearly finished – and I’d really like to round up a whole pack of beta readers before moving on much further.

I must admit I’d never heard the term ‘beta readers’ a year ago. (I know, I know – I’ve led a sheltered life and really ought to get out more and talk to people rather than just chat to the voices in my head.)

But, the truth is I started this blog mainly as a way of providing a platform for my books. I didn’t start writing ‘proper’ posts until last summer, which is also when I started really reading other people’s blogs and discovered the huge world that is the blogosphere.

I’ve really appreciated all the things I’ve picked up from reading other people’s blogs – one of which is this concept of beta readers. I suppose it’s fair to say that I understood the concept before learning the term. There are a few people who’ve had the dubious pleasure over the years of having my writing inflicted on them while it’s still in the ‘development’ phase.

But I want MORE! I’m not just being greedy and it’s not that I’ve alienated all my friends and family. One of the main reasons for wanting some extra betas is that my new work is a bit of a departure from the books I’ve written previously. My novels are all different but the three already published under my name all involve elements of mystery, crime, social commentary and contemporary British settings.

Church of the White Rabbits – as you might guess from the title – is a bit more quirky. It’s very loosely inspired by Cold Comfort Farm, an old BBC TV series called A Thousand Acres Of Skye and a love of wild, Atlantic settings. (The humour may owe a bit of a debt to Tom Sharpe. It amuses me, anyway.)

Basically, White Rabbits is the story of an eccentric bunch of characters living on a remote island and how their lives, feuds and desires intertwine as the community approaches the beginning of the 21st century. Kind of soap opera/saga/not quite sure.

If anyone reading this post thinks they might be interested in a spot of beta reading, I’m not looking for a line editor but people who’d be willing to cast their eye over an early draft and tell me what works and what doesn’t. There are links to PDF files of the first four chapters if you want to try them for flavour.

Alternatively, any hints on the whereabouts of beta readers would be gratefully received.

That’s it for tonight. Off to watch the next installment in Treme Series Two. Wonderful storylines and even better music. Perfect for a Thursday night in.

Archaic Or Just Plain Strange

Ah, language. It’s a bizarre thing. I write in English and you’re all reading in the same language but do you really understand what I mean?

With people whose first language isn’t English, the occasional communication problem is only to be expected. But with those of us who share the same mother tongue then surely it should be easier? Right?

Hmm. I’m no longer quite so sure. I use British English – the Queen’s English some would say. (Though as an ardent republican, not me!) But then there’s US English, plus all the other variants.

For instance, consider the following:

‘We’d spent all day travelling and when we got to my friend’s flat I was glad to jump in the lift, get upstairs, relax with a fag and a beer, while parking my bum on the sofa. I slept well that night – and dreamt of nothing.’

Now, a British reader will interpret those words quite differently from a North American and (hopefully) won’t spot any spelling mistakes.

Or how about this one:

‘I was happy to see my little sister again. I gave her an affectionate pat on the fanny while we hugged. Then I sat down and took my suspenders off.’

To an American, I’m guessing that these three sentences seem fairly innocent. For a Brit, though, there’s definitely something suspect going on.

What prompted these latest ramblings comes from the fact that I’m really quite insecure when it comes to my writing. I think that I’m generally getting the hang of how to put a book together but I’m not totally confident about it.

Which is one reason I can’t help looking at the reviews my books are getting on Amazon. And, generally, they’re not that bad. Pagan’s Sphinx is doing particularly well – only published in December but already it’s got 17 reviews on and an average of 4.2*.

I was slightly bemused though by a recent 4* review that concluded with the words: “could have been edited a little better for misspelled words”.

My eyebrows rose. The book has been spell-checked many times and proofread several. I wouldn’t swear there are no typos but I’d be really surprised if there were lots.

Then it occurred to me. If it was me writing the review, I’d probably have written ‘misspelt words’. Now, in British English, that’s not wrong. I happen to like the slightly archaic forms for some past participles – like ‘slept’ and ‘dreamt’.

Unlike Americans, we also double the final consonant when changing the form of certain verbs – so ‘to travel’ becomes ‘travelled’ and ‘travelling’.

I don’t know if this is the problem with Pagan’s Sphinx – I hope so. But I wonder, how do you cope with these variations on our common language? I hate seeing ‘colour’ written as ‘color’. There’s no logic in it, I just prefer my version! (And I must admit, American spellings are often more logical).

Another Americanism that really grates on me is: ‘I wrote him’. No! Please. It should be: ‘I wrote to him’. (I mean, you wouldn’t say: ‘I listen music’. Would you?)

Bad grammar and punctuation are obvious no-nos that can spoil a good book. But it’s a problem when our ‘shared’ language causes the problem. Is there anything that makes you cringe when you read a book written in a different version of English?

Ding, Dong… Still Divided

It’s amazing how one person – Margaret Thatcher – can cause such division in death as in life.

vd-thatcher-witch-408x264On the one hand, we’ve had relentless political eulogies and plans for a state funeral sending the media into a fresh frenzy.

On the other, the song Ding Dong, The Witch Is Dead is soaring up the charts and may reach the No 1 slot by the weekend thanks to a Facebook campaign by some of those who still loathe the woman and everything she did to this country.

Thatcher_imageNormally, I wouldn’t approve of something that celebrates the death of a fellow human being… and yet…

I was a teenager when Thatcher became prime minister and it’s fair to say that the British economy was not in a good state, the unions had too much power (and weren’t using it responsibly) and that the previous Labour government hadn’t exactly done a great job of running the country.

But after news of her death was announced, my eyebrows (and bile) started to rise… and rise… andbitch rise.

There was so much media coverage from politicians and others glorifying what a great leader she was and how she fundamentally changed this country.

Yes, but.

I think too many people have short memories. By the time she was kicked out – by her own political party – Thatcher had very few supporters. The majority of the British public hated her and everything she stood for.

Remember the ‘poll tax’, the destruction of our mining industry (as a way of defeating the unions), selling off our nationalised industries, getting rid of council housing, savage cuts to education and health budgets, etc, etc.

Yes, she transformed this country but for the better? I’d be fascinated to see a balanced study that looks at things like how much – in real terms – we pay now for our water, gas, electricity and phones compared to when we had nationalised industries. We should also include a comparison of how efficient/effective the supply of these services is/was and the number of people they employed.

1947506Any study should also look at where the profits now go. One of Thatcher’s mantras was to do with distributing shares in the privatised industries to the whole country. But how many people now own (or benefit from) shares in BT or the water companies? Who benefits from the revenue from these companies now – the British taxpayer, private individuals, foreign companies…?

She did play a major role in supporting Mikhail Gorbachev and thereby bringing about the break-up of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. She did stick up for the people of the Falklands against Argentine aggression.

But she was also the person who did most to destroy old notions of public service and society, replacing it with the ‘what’s in it for me’ ethos. The gap between rich and poor widened enormously under Maggie Thatcher.

Some might point to her ‘landslide’ election victory in 1983. But that’s a fallacy. Our ‘first past the post’ electoral system is not always democratic. Thatcher won even more seats in 1983 than in 1979 – but she actually got less votes. Far more people voted against Thatcher than voted for her.

So is the campaign to make Ding Dong, The Witch Is Dead a good thing? Yes, because as Adam Jung writes here in the Huffington Post, it’s one way to counterbalance the revisionist tirade from the rest of the media who are too busy eulogising Thatcher to remember what her legacy really is.

On Wednesday, when the British House of Commons was recalled to debate her legacy, the MP Glenda Jackson went against convention with a spirited and detailed reminder of what she felt Thatcher had done:

I’ve got a little bit of respect for Maggie on the basis that she at least had convictions. But… Ding Dong… I’m one of many who won’t be mourning her passing.

Let The Subconscious Steer

Personally, I’m not too hot on planning what I write. I’m too lazy/impatient/easily distracted by alternative story lines (delete as appropriate).


Random image – Danish sculpture

In other parts of my life – when it comes to holidays or what’s for dinner for example – I’m happy thinking ahead. But spending hours (weeks) working out the structure for a novel? Nah. What’s the point?

I’m currently getting close to the end of my next book. Well, the first draft anyway. I reckon that I’m about four chapters or 25,000 words away from the finish.

But I’d come to a bit of a halt recently so I shoved it to one side for a few days while I got on with a different project (something non-fiction I’m working on). Then, the other evening, I decided it was time to pick up the novel again so I just sat down and started writing.

I had no idea what was going to come out and found myself writing a scene involving three teenage boys throwing a dead jellyfish around. I liked the scene but it had no obvious connection with anything that had gone before or that might lead the book forwards.

The next day, though, I was off on a bike ride and it suddenly came to me – for some reason I find my brain is at its most productive when I’m walking or cycling. The new scene leads neatly into a situation that needs to be resolved and also helps set up something else that I need to work into the climax of the novel.

Planning? Pah. Throw away all those self-help, ‘how to write a novel’ books. Just sit down and write. You might have no idea what’s going to come out but you might be pleasantly surprised.

When it comes to the final edit, the scene with the dead jellyfish might get cut (probably not) but that doesn’t matter. It got me moving and on to the next phase. To my mind it’s a lot easier to sit down, write and then edit. By that stage at least you’ve got something to work with.

To me, planning seems like going about it backwards. You’re editing the book and then writing. Where’s the fun and spontaneity in that?

I have ideas in my head but one of the best parts about writing a book is discovering how I’m going to get there. Sometimes it’s obvious, sometimes it comes completely out of the blue. What would I do with a plan? What happens if I come up with an idea for a scene or plot line that just doesn’t fit in?

I may not be the greatest novelist ever but that’s not the point. I’m a writer because I love writing and I love imagining and I love seeing what happens. I say no to planning. Just sit down and let the subconscious steer.

Who’s The Daddy?

Blow the trumpets, roll the drums… I’m a proud father once again!

My novel The Vault is now available in print. (Hope you didn’t think I was talking about children – that would be far more radical and much more frightening.)

The final proof of the book was approved last week and a box of copies of the real thing are – hopefully – winging their way across the Atlantic and should be touching down here next week.

Vault front cover Mar 13In the meantime, though, The Vault is already available via Amazon for the very reasonable price of either $14.99 or £8.99.

I’m continuing to sell the book in aid of my favourite charity, the disaster relief charity ShelterBox, and am giving 50% of all profits to the organisation.

The book is a murder mystery with four intertwining stories. The main thread is about a young schoolboy who’s trying to escape a gang of local thugs but there’s also an armed raid on the home of a reclusive billionaire, a sex offender on the run and the police investigation into the discovery of three bodies in a lake.

If anyone’s interested in buying a copy of The Vault – in paperback or Kindle format –  you can find it at: or

As you can probably imagine, I’m delighted to reach this new milestone. It’s more than six years since The Tale Of Findo Gask was first published so it’s very exciting having one of my novels available in print again.

Those of you with keen eyes who helped with the design process for the cover of The Vault might notice a couple of minor tweaks – the title and my name are a bit bigger (stands out better on thumbnails) and the cover is now a dark purple rather than actual black.

In other news, I’m waiting anxiously for my car to be fixed. The electronic dashboard died recently and at the moment there’s a large hole where my instrument panel should be!

(Makes me long for the days of real instruments with needles that move rather than digital displays… and windows that you could wind up and down!)

Do Me The Honour Of Becoming My Widow

Some very sad news today – Scottish author Iain Banks has announced he has terminal cancer and is unlikely to live for another year.

Iain Banks

Iain Banks – picture from the BBC

I first discovered Iain Banks in 1984 when I picked up his debut literary novel The Wasp Factory in my local library. What drew my attention were all the reviews quoted inside the front cover.

Normally, publishers pick out all the best bits to persuade people how good a book is. Not with The Wasp Factory. The reviews alternated: one saying this was the best thing in decades, the next saying how terrible it was. wasp1

I don’t have a copy but I seem to remember that one review summed it all up. It went something like: “This is a wonderful book but enjoy it I did not.”

After that warning, I couldn’t fail to pick it up. I did enjoy the book – although some some of it was fairly disturbing and there’s one moment that is quite stomach-churning. But all written with wonderful panache and just the right level of black humour to appeal to my own slightly warped sense of what’s amusing.

I went on to read practically everything else produced by Iain Banks – including the sweeping sci-fi epics written under the name of Iain M Banks.

He’s probably one of the writers who has most inspired my own attempts to be an author and if I could produce just one book to stand next to all of his I’d be a proud man.

Iain Banks is a hugely talented writer and will be sorely missed.

Oh yes, if you’re wondering about the title of this post, it’s a quote from Banks’s own announcement and a reflection of his wonderful dark humour. Apparently, having learnt that what he thought was backache is in fact terminal cancer, he proposed to his partner, asking her to do him the honour of becoming his widow.

As the man himself said, sometimes a bit of ghoulish humour helps to deal with those things that can’t be laughed away.