Stories have shaped our lives: Rolonda Watts

By Roz DeKett

Rolonda

Rolonda Watts

“I’ve seen the power of stories and how they change people’s lives,” Rolonda Watts says.

“I think that stories are the most powerful thing about human experience. It’s the only thing that we as human beings really own, our story.”

We’re deep into a conversation about her new book, Destiny Lingers, a romance novel that was ten years in the writing. And it’s not just about finding your first love again. Rolonda digs into her personal story—of both prejudice and happiness.

“I wanted to tell this story because I feel as if I’m one of the last generations that actually remembers the two Americas,” she says.

“I remember drinking ‘colored’ water. That was a true story in the book about the teacher pinning the note on my chest, saying I couldn’t go to the park with the class because I was black and they didn’t allow blacks and Jews.

“I remember that. Today, kids can be anything they want—black, white, green, LGBTQ—and it wasn’t that long ago that it was against the law.

“Destiny and Chase, my lead characters, are both coming from families that are very, very, prejudiced. There’s a line in the book where she says ‘he couldn’t play with me because I was black, and I couldn’t play with him because he was poor.’ Classism and racism are such a big deal.”

The inspiration of Maya Angelou—keep the story going
Maya Angelou endorsed Rolonda’s novel, and more than that, she was pivotal in encouraging Rolonda to keep going during the years of writing.

“She was my mother and father’s best friend, and  my auntie, by proxy,” Rolonda says.

Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou (photo: Creative Commons)

“Auntie Maya was really there for me a lot, and she was always my inspiration for writing. She was very excited when she knew I was working on this novel. She was very much there for me, on every level.

“As she would say, she was ‘tickled brown’ that I was working on it—she was like, you’ve got to keep the story going. I want to know what’s going to happen. And that’s what she said in her endorsement for my novel.”

Rolonda and I spoke in the first week of April.

“Monday is [Maya’s] birthday,” Rolonda says. “We spent so many Easters and Thanksgivings and Christmases together, and April 4 is also the date that Martin Luther King was killed, so she didn’t celebrate her birthday on that day.

“But it is her birthday, and I think she would be very proud to know that this book is finally on the store shelves.”

A love for her country
Rolonda wanted to celebrate changing attitudes in her novel, as well as recording memories of prejudice. The book’s North Carolina setting has strong personal significance for her, especially Topsail Island.

“I love the island,” she says.

Sunset

Topsail Island. (Photo: http://www.topsailbeach.org)

“My grandparents founded the first beachfront community for black people in the state of North Carolina. Before 1948, blacks weren’t allowed on the beach.

“For them to create this community in 1948 and for me to have grown up there … this was something I wanted to save forever, because I love Topsail Island. It’s a love for my country, our progress. Time moves on, destiny lingers. Love conquers all.

“I also wanted a character who didn’t give up on people and didn’t give up on love, despite the adversities that she faced. We see a young couple saying ‘we refuse to carry this into a new generation.’ And I think a lot of us have to make those decisions. You can’t say it’s only white people who are prejudiced. Black people are as prejudiced as anybody else.

“And so it was really my ode to the island and to America, and changing times.”

Words can take people away
Of all the things that Rolonda does—journalist, talk show host, actor and more—being a writer strikes the deepest chord for her.

9781491768648_COVER.indd“I think it’s a strong art,” she says.

“It’s an in your face, take it or leave it art. And I just love the idea that words can take people away to places that they wouldn’t dare go alone.

“It’s such a powerful art. Words have so much power to move nations, to move people, to move hearts and souls. I do many different things but the one common thread throughout everything is that I’m a storyteller.

“I think throughout the history of humanity stories have shaped our lives, and given us direction, and given us hope.

“And I hope my story does that.”

© Roz DeKett

Follow Roz on Twitter here and on Facebook here.

About the author
Rolonda Watts is an Emmy and Cable Ace award–nominated journalist, television and radio talk show host, executive producer, actor, comedienne, voice artist, speaker, humanitarian, and author. She can currently be seen on Dr. Drew on HLN. She can also be heard as Professor Wiseman on “Curious George,” as the announcer for “Divorce Court,” and as warrior priestess Illoai in the latest League of Legends video game. In 2016 she will have a recurring role on the Bounce TV series “In the Cut.” She holds degrees from Spelman College, a master’s degree from Columbia University, and an honorary doctorate from Winston-Salem State University. Rolonda lives in Los Angeles, California. Destiny Lingers is her first novel.

You can learn more about Rolonda on her web site here and on Twitter here.

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Sometimes you need to do something different: Kate Ellis

By Roz DeKett

kate2012

Kate Ellis. Photo copyright: www.matthewpover.com

Kate Ellis is nothing if not prolific.

The House of Eyes, just published, is the twentieth novel in her Wesley Peterson series of crime novels set in the South West of England. She has five crime novels in another series about Detective Inspector Joe Plantagenet, set in Yorkshire. She’s just finished editing the fourth draft of next year’s Wesley novel. The first book in what might be a new trilogy will be out later this year. And she also writes short stories.

“I’m writing one at the moment,” Kate tells me.

The continuing success of Kate’s main longest-running series, the Wesley Peterson novels, lies partly in how she ties in present-day crimes with archeological mysteries. Wesley, a Detective Inspector, has an archeology degree and his best friend Neil Watson is a local archaeologist.

It’s also partly in the development of her characters and their personal stories. Wesley’s marriage isn’t totally perfect and there’s always the suggestion of something with another regular character.

We become familiar with the hopes and disappointments of his friends, colleagues, and family members in the series.

I asked Kate how, as a white woman, she came to create a main character who’s a black man.

“Quite easily I think,” she says. “I’ve got a friend from Trinidad and I think her family are quite similar to Wesley’s, a medical family, very well-educated.

“He almost appeared fully formed. He’s a character I really like. He’s one of the good guys.”

Choosing sand over grit
Wesley and his Liverpudlian boss, Gerry Heffernan, track down their killers in and around the town of Tradmouth. No great leap of the imagination is required to recognize the English town of Dartmouth with its surrounding Devon towns and villages. Totnes becomes Kate’s New Age town of Neston; her Morbay is inspired by Torbay and Torquay, with the addition of a rough housing estate.

So how did a Northern writer (Kate is from Liverpool, studied drama at Manchester University, and lives in the Greater Manchester area) settle on the leafy lanes and beautiful beaches of Devon for her crime novels?

IMG_1164

Dartmouth. Photo copyright: Kate Ellis

“I didn’t particularly want to write about the gritty inner city,” Kate says. “And if you write about a northern city, [publishers] want it really gritty.

“I knew South Devon really well. We’d been visiting there since the 1980s, and we’d got to know people, got to know the area, and it’s an interesting area. So using different names, I can use my imagination and change things around.

“And also the place has a lot of history. It’s a very interesting area, full of possibilities.”

Those possibilities were very important to Kate in finding a location that would meet her two passions: history and crime.

The first book she wrote was a crime novel set in Tudor Liverpool. But when she began sending that out, agents told her that while they liked it, the market was saturated with Medieval and Tudor crime novels—Kate laughs.

“So, I hit on an idea,” she says. “I’d write a present-day crime, which I’d always intended to do anyway, and have a historical case in the background. The Merchant’s House was the first one that was published.”

That was in 1998, and Wesley Peterson had his first case.

houseofeyesDoing something different
While steadily producing a Wesley Peterson book a year, Kate has also published five novels about Detective Inspector Joe Plantagenet. The idea for those was sparked by a visit to York, where Kate’s son was studying for an archaeology degree. (She’s also a member of an archaeology group; apparently it runs in the family.)

During the visit, Kate took a guided tour of York, said to be one of the most haunted  cities in the country. Inspired by one of the ghost stories, Kate wrote her first Joe Plantagenet novel.

“Sometimes you need to do something different,” Kate says. “I got so many ideas.” The ghost stories continue to fuel that series.

Obviously, writing is a full-time job for Kate.

“Routine is very important,” she says. “Making yourself sit down whether you feel like it or not. You have to make yourself sit down and write. I try to do about 2,000 words a day when I’m actually writing.”

Kate writes up to two books a year as well as short stories. Next up is another departure, A High Mortality of Doves, which will be out in November. Kate has returned to historical crime, setting the story in Derbyshire in 1919. It’s a stand-alone novel but she has plans to develop it into a trilogy. And The Devil’s Priest, the Tudor mystery set in Liverpool that was the first novel she wrote, is now available on Kindle.

So will she keep going with Wesley after his twenty-first book next year?

“I’m not sure,” Kate says. “I’m just going to play it by ear.”

Whatever she writes next, Kate always has one goal in mind for her readers.

“That they’ve read a really good book,” she says. “A really good mystery, and the end’s come as a surprise.”

© Roz DeKett

Follow Roz on Twitter here and Facebook here.

About the Author
Kate Ellis was born in Liverpool and she studied drama in Manchester. She worked in teaching, marketing and accountancy before first enjoying writing success as a winner of the North West Playwrights competition. Crime and mystery stories have always fascinated her, as have medieval history and archaeology which she likes to incorporate in her books. She is married with two grown up sons and she lives in North Cheshire, England, with her husband.

Kate’s novels feature archaeology graduate Detective Sergeant (later Inspector) Wesley Peterson who fights crime in the “mean streets” (or should it be “mean lanes”?) of South Devon. Each story combines an intriguing contemporary murder mystery with a parallel historical case. She has also written five books in the spooky Joe Plantagenet series set up in North Yorkshire as well as many short stories for crime fiction anthologies and magazines. Kate was elected a member of The Detection Club in 2014. She is a member of the Crime Writers Association and Murder Squad. Kate is currently working on her twenty-first Wesley Peterson novel.

The House of Eyes was published in February 2016, by Piatkus.

You can learn more about Kate and her writing on her web site here. Follow her on Twitter here.

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It’s about telling a good story: Maha Gargash

By Roz DeKett

Maha

Maha Gargash

As Maha Gargash notes herself, few books come out of the United Arab Emirates that are written by and about Emiratis.

So her second novel, That Other Me, is a rare gem in more ways than one. Beautifully written, meticulously detailed, humorous and warm, it explores Emirati life in the 1990s through the eyes of three characters bound by family ties and struggles.

“You’ll be reading about a very different, much more conservative culture,” Maha says. “A segregated society, a different way of doing things.

“But the feelings are universal. The same emotions, the same kind of worries. So whoever reads it would be able to relate to it.”

The change of pace in Maha’s country is so rapid that some aspects of the society she writes about are alien even to Emiratis.

“This was in the nineties, but I’m sure the youth who read it now would think, oh my goodness, it’s so ancient, did they really do these things at that time?” she says.

Maha is herself an Emirati, born in Dubai where she now lives. She studied in Washington DC and London. For more than twenty years, she worked in television in Dubai, directing and making documentaries. She was also involved in Nights of Dubai, an early singing reality show much like American Idol,  which features in That Other Me as one of her characters, Dalal, tries to become a star in the glamorous Arab showbiz world.

“A lot of the things take place in Cairo because I dealt with many people in TV, singing  and the film industry in Egypt, which is the center for Arab cinema and stars,” Maha says.

Getting below the surface in Dubai
I suggested that her novels offer an insight into a slice of Arab life that even frequent visitors, ex-pats, or immigrants in the UAE might never see. Maha agrees, telling me that native Emiratis make up only ten percent of the country’s population. (She asked me to check this figure; I did, and she’s right).

“[Visitors] will definitely not know what’s going on in local society unless they have a good friend who takes them to the house, and that happens less and less,” she says.

“People will come here, they’ll hardly meet any locals, and they would definitely not see something like the societies that are described in here.

“So I had to think about who’s reading this book and make sure they’re not alienated. Whoever is going to read it, whether they know about the society or not, needs to be able to connect to the characters and the story.”that other me 2

So Maha goes to some lengths to explain things that Western readers might find mysterious, without making the reader feel that things are being explained, by bringing a sentence here or there into the flow of the story to shed light where needed.

“Which is a tricky business,” she says. “But I always think about that when I write my novels.”

Perhaps most important of all, Maha’s deep and detailed research means that her novels also preserve rapidly vanishing features of Arab life—from the dramatically changing infrastructure of Dubai to the eclipsing of aspects of Emirati culture and society.

Her first novel, The Sand Fish, is set in the fifties and was an international bestseller, praised for its pure, poetic language as it tells the story of three wives in one household.

“I think it’s important to have kind of a record,” Maha says.

“I did a lot of research [for The Sand Fish] to find out what life was like in the fifties, the kind of social structure, the kind of lifestyle, which the younger generations don’t know anything about.

“So that was really important to me, to get that out in a descriptive way so that a reader can open the book and enjoy it, and feel like they’re there. And with the second book, again it’s nice to see the mechanics of the society, how people interact, what’s important.

“But at the end of the day it’s about telling a good story.”

Betrayals and secrets
And a good story depends on the characters.

“I’m always interested in people and what motivates them,” Maha says. “What gets their blood flowing, and especially families. There’s a lot more at stake when you’re talking about families.

“I put the three characters in this situation where there are betrayals and secrets. Each one of them sees themselves in a way, or would like to be a certain way, but there are things always holding them back.

“All three characters don’t really know who they are. They’re not exactly the way they see themselves. But we as readers understand what they are.”

Whereas The Sand Fish told the story from one point of view in third person, Maha pushed herself in That Other Me to take on, in first person, the voices of three very different characters.

“At the beginning I had two girls, and then I thought I need to put the man too. And then I regretted it because it was much more difficult,” Maha says, and laughs.

The male character, Majed, was the hardest for her to get to grips with and to understand, to see from his point of view what was important for him.

“Not just as a male: as an Emirati male, as an Arab male, from a culture that’s very conservative,” Maha says.

“This was very difficult for me because you have to get into his head and think like a male, on issues such as shame, your place in society. How important are these things? And they’re very important for both males and females, but I think more so for males because if they fail at that, then they would be looked upon as failures in society.

Sand Fish“Our society is a very closed society. It’s one that judges, it’s one that even if it doesn’t judge, you’re always judging yourself. And as a male you’re doing it doubly so, so the females of the family do reflect upon you.”

As she was writing, she had male friends review her drafts.

“And they’re like, no, no, no … he’d never be like that,” Maha says. “I had to change him, make him more gruff, more tough, and it was a very alien thing for me to do, because women express themselves much more.

“But for males, and especially in this society, a lot of these feelings have to be hidden very, very deep, and even when he discusses his problems with his male friends, really he doesn’t discuss anything.”

Which, as Maha says, doesn’t sound that alien in any society. Universal feelings indeed.

© Roz DeKett

Follow Roz on Twitter here and Facebook here

That other meAbout the author
Maha Gargash, an Emirati born in Dubai to a prominent business family, has studied in Washington DC and London. With her degree in radio and television, she joined Dubai Television to pursue her interest in documentaries. Through directing television programs that deal mainly with Arab societies, she became involved in research and scriptwriting. Her first novel, The Sand Fish (HarperCollins, 2009) was an international bestseller. That Other Me was published by the HarperCollins imprint Harper Perennial in 2016.

You can learn more about Maha on her website, www.mahagargash.com

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A different kind of book each time: Lisa Lutz

By Roz DeKett

Lisa Lutz credit Morgan Dox

Lisa Lutz. Photo: Morgan Dox

“This book is a blueprint for what I would do if I were running from the law,” Lisa Lutz says.

The Passenger is Lisa’s ninth book, a  crime thriller published on March 1, 2016 by Simon & Schuster.

We start with Tanya, stepping over the body of her dead husband whom she assures us she didn’t kill. But we just have to take her word for it.

And before long we realize her name isn’t Tanya, or any other name that she assumes as we get to know her, and we have no idea who she is or what she’s running from.

“I wanted to write a book about identity,” Lisa says. “If you aren’t anyone, if you have no real place in the world, how do you make an identity?

“And if you’re running from your past, what past are you running from? As Tanya, and whatever her subsequent names are, these new identities that she then leaves behind also become problematic.

“So she is a product of all the people she’s been, even the fake ones.”

As Lisa researched the book,  trying to figure out how you acquire a new identity in this day and age, she took the approach of writing it as if she herself were looking for a new identity.

“I don’t know anyone who could give me new papers,” she says.

“I ultimately wrote a book about living off the grid, because it is so impossible to live legally under a fake, an assumed name.

“And that was the most interesting thing about this process.  You can’t become someone new anymore. You just have to hide.”

From comedy to crime
Lisa lived in San Francisco for a number of years and spent some time working for a private investigator. In her New York Times bestselling Spellman Files series, Lisa takes a quirky and comedic approach to crime writing—they are, as she puts it, primarily comedic novels that borrow much from the detective genre.

But as a writer, she pushes the genre boundaries and keeps her readers guessing in more ways than one.

“I think a lot of people tend to stay in a similar genre,” Lisa says. “If they write comedy they stay in comedy, which was never my intention.”

After the Spellman Files series, Lisa wrote How to Start a Fire, a very different novel. She’s also written a children’s book, How to Negotiate Everything, and Heads You Lose with David Hayward.

“I have lived in the world of crime writers for so long and been called a crime writer, even though I hadn’t really written a proper crime novel,” Lisa says.

“I read them abundantly, and always had intended to write something that was very much part of that genre.

“So, arguably The Passenger is the first book I’ve written that can be easily labeled in terms of genre … it’s a crime novel.”

The right way to tell the storyJacket image
Many authors writing in different genres use different names, and that was a consideration for Lisa.

But if you’re shifting genre focus with each new book—Lisa doesn’t plan to write another series, for example, and the book she’s writing now is less a thriller and more a straight crime novel—taking  on a new name each time isn’t practical (despite what Tanya does in The Passenger).

“When I think of a story that I want to tell, I never think in terms of genre,” Lisa says. “I just think, what’s the right way to tell this story?

“The Spellman Files felt like a comedy. And with The Passenger being a crime novel and being about isolation and loneliness, I felt like the writing had to be spare.

“Even though there may be some humorous moments, it’s a much darker novel and it doesn’t make sense to tell it in a comedic way.

“So you have to figure out the right way to tell a story. And it’s always about the story more than it is anything else.”

As readers, we fall in love with certain characters and want to keep reading about them. Or we’re attuned to a certain type of book from an author and we can run through an airport bookstore, see the author’s name, and know what we’re in for.

With The Passenger, Lisa’s Spellman Files readers might be in for a surprise—a good one.

“I know that you disappoint readers who want the same thing,” Lisa says.

“I think you just have to hope that you find the readers who are little bit more flexible with what they like, or open to new things.”

But despite The Passenger being a darker psychological thriller that keeps you guessing until the very end, it still has its moments of humor.

“I couldn’t forsake it completely,” Lisa says, and laughs.

© Roz DeKett

Follow Roz on Twitter here and on Facebook here.

About the author
Lisa Lutz is the New York Times bestselling author of the Spellman Files series, Heads You Lose (with David Hayward), and How to Start a Fire. Lisa won the Alex Award and has been nominated for the Edgar Award for best novel. She lives in upstate New York.

You can learn more on Lisa’s web site, www.lisalutz.com, and follow her on Twitter.

About the book
THE PASSENGER
Simon & Schuster
Publication date: March 1, 2016
Hardcover price: $25.99
Hardcover ISBN: 9781451686630
E-book ISBN: 9781451686654

Also available on audio

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It’s got to be relatable and real: Lucy Holliday

By Roz DeKett

Lucy Hollidayauthorphoto_Credit_LucyHolliday

Lucy Holliday. Photo credit: the author

Lucy Holliday has three books coming out in the space of a year, and they all rest on Hollywood icons.

But far from being biographies of her chosen three (Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, and Grace Kelly) they form a three-book series about an invented, struggling actress.

Lucy’s heroine is failing actress Libby Lomax, whose romantic life is also in the pits. She finds friendship with and help from one screen goddess per novel, appearing in her life courtesy of an accidentally-acquired old couch.

The first of the books, A Night in with Audrey Hepburn, has just been published by HarperCollins in the US. Next up is A Night in with Marilyn Monroe. Later in 2016, A Night in with Grace Kelly will appear, the three novels tracking a little behind the publication dates in the UK, where the first two are already out.

Hearing voices in her head
As Lucy has progressed through the books, part of the challenge has been in taking Hollywood icons and turning them into somebody who springs off the page … as a fictitious character.

“[I’m] trying to get a balance between making them real but on the other hand not themselves, because otherwise I could just write a biography of Audrey Hepburn, or Marilyn Monroe,” Lucy says.A NIGHT IN WITH AUDREY_COVER (1)

“So they have to be larger than life. I’m putting them into the 21st century which is fun but tricky. And I hope I’ve got the balance right.”

So how do you go about making a person so real in your own mind that you can then create them on the page as characters?

“It’s the voices,” Lucy says, and laughs. “If I can hear the voice in my head, then I know I’ve got it.

Audrey_Hepburn_Wayfarers

Audrey Hepburn. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons

“So Audrey, that came very easily, because her voice is so distinctive. I could hear her straight away. Marilyn took a little bit longer, because you’re fighting against the cliché of that Happy Birthday, Mr. President stuff, trying to make her a bit more real.

“And Grace Kelly’s even harder because her actual voice is just much less clear to me.”

Lucy is still working on A Night in with Grace Kelly. It strikes me that differentiating these screen stars from each other (when you’ve seen one icon, perhaps you’ve seen them all) must be quite difficult, no matter how many books about them you read, or how many times you watch their films.

And indeed, it is.

“That’s the problem that I have going from Audrey Hepburn to Marilyn,” Lucy says.

“And even more so doing it the third time. It’s more magnified. Because although, obviously, they’re completely different, they’re all from a similar era, and if you’re not careful, you can get locked into reproducing the same thing with a slightly different twist. And I didn’t want that.

“On the other hand there’s got to be a link, because they’re all helping the heroine move forward in her life. But they’ve all got to sound different.”

Making the fantastical real
Lucy is blending a fantasy element with down-to-earth, present-day romantic fiction. She doesn’t sketch in Audrey, Marilyn, and Grace as “apparitions” but as real people in Libby’s life. For example Audrey, as flesh and blood in Libby’s tiny flat, wrestles with the coffee machine, something she’s never see before.

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Marilyn Monroe. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons

Believing it herself (“I totally believe that Libby, the heroine, is seeing these people … I’m not completely insane,” Lucy says, possibly trying to convince herself as much as me) is only part of the writing.

For readers to be able to immerse themselves in the magic, the story has to work.

So what makes it work?

“Friendships,” Lucy says. “In this genre I think you need to really crack the female relationships, the heroine and in this case, movie stars. Or the heroine and her friends, best friends, or her mom or her sister.

“They’re the most important ones. And then you have some nice men, or not very nice men. And they can be a little bit less real, those relationships, because you want the fluffy romance and you want the hero who’s sweeping you off your feet.

“So there are layers of reality. And if the relationships with the women are real, then everything else can be fantastical.”MM cover

And like all authors, Lucy wants her readers to keep turning the pages because they want to find out what happens.

“So it’s got to be relatable and real,” she says.

Writing the romance aspects comes easily, and she also thoroughly enjoys the research, which consisted of watching every film and reading all the books she could find on her three chosen stars.

From that, she could let go of much of what she’d learned and write at the tip of the iceberg, creating her characters from depth of knowledge about them without being weighed down by it.

Finish before you start

But writing any novel is astonishingly hard, and a trilogy of novels that bring three of the great screen goddesses to life in the context of the present day seems amazingly difficult.

So Lucy works by, as she puts it, writing backwards.

“By which I mean that even though I set out with a plan, by the time the book’s on the shelf it looks nothing like what that was,” she says.

Grace_Kelly_1955

Grace Kelly. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons

“I need to get it all out, sometimes even a draft of 200,000 words, massive and embarrassingly poor. That’s not in any way false modesty, it’s just excruciatingly bad; chunks of dialogue, scenes that I think I’m going to write about.

“When I’ve got that, only when I’ve got that, can I write the book. I can then see end. And I write the beginning. So I always call it writing backwards.

“Openings are always hard. So, finish before you start.”

Making up stories
Lucy has the background to ground her heroine Libby’s life as an aspiring actress in reality. At one time, she “toyed with the idea” of a career in musical theatre.

“You see people on stage and you think, I want to do that, and then you realize they actually have to be really, really good,” she says.

But writing goes back even further. Lucy began to write stories for herself when she was around five years old, driven, she says, by boredom.GK cover

“It was the late seventies,” she says. “There wasn’t much to do. I used to make up stories.”

And Lucy is still making up stories; but now you have the chance to read them.

© Roz DeKett

Follow Roz on Twitter here and on Facebook here.

About the author

Lucy Holliday is married with a daughter and lives in Wimbledon, London. A Night in with Audrey Hepburn, her first novel, is the first in a series of three books following the life and loves of Libby Lomax. You can follow Lucy Holliday on Twitter here.

Photo credits

“Marilyn Monroe” 1952 by RKO. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

“Audrey Hepburn Wayfarers” from Breakfast at Tiffany’s trailer. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

“Grace Kelly 1955” by Sterling Publications. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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We’ve all got a book in us: Elizabeth Jackson

By Roz DeKett

Elizabeth Jackson

Elizabeth Jackson

Elizabeth Jackson’s second novel, Kicking Over The Traces, takes the reader through a dramatic year in the life of her gypsy heroine, Florence.

When her mother dies, leaving Florence nothing but a red coat, she gives up the gypsy life and settles in a small cottage on the North Yorkshire moors. Set between the two World Wars, the story weaves its way between the gypsies and the “settled” folk.

“My mother was a gypsy,” Elizabeth says. “My father wasn’t. I’m half gypsy.

“So I’m fortunate, it’s all there. I’ve got it in my blood, even though I’ve always been in the settled community. I’ve had family members who called in, not now so much but when I was younger.

“My mother missed it terribly, when she settled down.”

There’s always going to be a culture clash
Elizabeth’s gypsy relatives had property and travelled during the summer with a bow-top wagon and horses, selling linen door to door. Elizabeth’s mother was raised by aunts after her mother died when she was eight years old. She became an outcast when she ran away at the age of twenty-seven to get married, although eventually her gypsy relatives accepted her choice.

painting great grandparents

A painting of Elizabeth’s great-grandparents. Photo from author’s collection.

Perhaps because of the way Elizabeth’s mother left the gypsy life to join the settled people, the differences between the two communities form a permanent theme in her books.

“There’s always going to be the gypsy and the non-gypsy thing,” Elizabeth says. “There’s always going to be a culture clash in my stories.”

A gypsy approach to the story?

Buxtons

The family with their bow-top wagon. Elizabeth’s mother is the girl on the left. Photo from author’s collection.

You could say that Elizabeth’s approach to writing is born of her gypsy blood. She starts with the characters and then writes by travelling through her story, without knowing what’s coming next, much as her ancestors travelled day to day in their bow-top wagon, stopping somewhere new every night.

“I don’t plan a chapter,” Elizabeth says. “I don’t plan anything.

“I write down my characters. I give them a name, a description, traits. I do this with the five main characters of my book. And then I give them a setting.”

The setting is always Elizabeth’s beloved moors of North Yorkshire.

“And then it takes off,” she says. “I just write. I sit down and I think what are you going to do next? Where is it going to take me, this chapter? That’s so liberating.”

The moors are not just the setting for her stories. They provide Elizabeth with inspiration too. On one occasion, she was driving with her husband across them.

“It was a really bleak, awful day,” she says. “It was desolate. I saw this tumbledown building, and I said, I’ve got to go and have a look. And it was magnificent.

“It was so wild, and there was nothing there. I thought, wonderful. This is going to be my scene. This is my setting on the moors.”

The tumbledown shack and its wild and beautiful surroundings became Florence’s home in Kicking Over The Traces.

But writing wasn’t always so easy.

A hundred words a day
From the age of ten or eleven, Elizabeth imagined herself as a novelist. She even picked out a title at that age, Language of Thieves, a phrase she stored away on learning it was one of the meanings of the word “cant.”

languageofthieves

Elizabeth’s first novel

And finally, fifty years after she picked out the title, her first novel was published, and sure enough it’s titled Language of Thieves.

As Elizabeth started on her second novel, she planned her characters and wrote the first chapter. And then life intervened. Her husband became very ill (he has since recovered) and she nursed him for a year; they moved, and for a while lived with their son as they waited for the building of their current home.

After putting her book on hold for more than a year, Elizabeth found it very hard to get back into writing again.

“I didn’t think I’d ever finish the book,” Elizabeth says. “I thought I’d never get into these characters again. I’d forgotten what it was about when I’d left it for a year.”

It was the encouragement of her friend Barbara Bos (who runs the blog Women Writers, Women’s Books) that got Elizabeth going and kept her going.

“I couldn’t have written it without her,” Elizabeth says. “She said, write every day, just a hundred words even. And she did that until I was really back into it. She was absolutely wonderful.”

Back in the saddle
Now, Elizabeth is working on her third novel, a sequel to Kicking Over The Traces.

“I love living my characters, I love living in my head, which is terrifying!” she says, and laughs.

“I would be very happy to never have a book launch, and never talk to anybody about it. I’d be very happy to stay in the background and never promote my book. But to actually see it in print, that was wonderful. And I think, did I actually write that?”

1900

The Buxton family, c. 1900. Photo from author’s collection.

It’s early days yet as she gets going on the sequel, and Elizabeth thinks she may take the story to the next generation. But what matters to her is that she’s writing.

“I was sixty when my first book was published,” she says. “And I think if I can be published at sixty, anybody can.

“Write it, because we’ve all got a book in us. And be true to yourself while you’re doing it. Don’t try and emulate anybody. Just be you.”

© Roz DeKett

Follow Roz on Twitter here and on Facebook here.

All photos © Elizabeth Jackson.

About the author

traces cover

Kicking Over The Traces

Elizabeth Jackson is a writer and psychotherapist. She is married with two sons and has lived in North Yorkshire, England, all her life. Kicking Over The Traces is her second novel, published by Robert Hale in October 2015. Her first novel, Language of Thieves, was published by Robert Hale in 2011.

You can learn more about Elizabeth on her web site here and follow her on Twitter here.

Both books are available on Amazon.com (in the US) and Amazon.co.uk (in the UK).

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Writing is about revision: the wisdom of Hallie Ephron

By Roz DeKett

The battle with the draft seems never-ending. There’s nothing quite like taking a preliminary 70,000 words, pulling it apart and throwing out what doesn’t work, and realizing you only have 16,000 words  you can live with. For a full-length novel.

That’s happened to me.

So it was an enormous relief when I heard author Hallie Ephron speak at

Hallie Ephron

Hallie Ephron at the Writer’s Digest Annual Conference in New York City, 2015

the 2015 Writers Digest Annual Conference on revision—and learned the draft she felt was fit to be seen for her latest novel, Night Night, Sleep Tight, was draft number 36. And that was before it went to the publisher.

Not only that, draft number 36 landed at 310 pages, while her discarded content (what she calls her “out file”) came in at a mighty 236 pages.

Hallie’s message? “Writing is about revision.”

Hallie Ephron is a best-selling author, an Edgar Award finalist, and a three-time finalist for the Mary Higgins Clark Award.

Everything that follows here is from my notes taken during Hallie Ephron’s talk. It’s her process and her revision structure. I’ve cobbled bits of it into my own novel-writing process, and so far everything I’ve tried has helped. And it may help you.

Revision is an iterative process, a process of working “from large to small.” The process of revision is lengthy, and that’s before it even goes to the agent, the publisher, the editor – and they’ll want more.

So to get through it, you (or at least I) need to know there’s a method in the madness. (That’s Shakespeare, not Hallie. But you get the picture.)

Here’s Hallie’s method.

printed

Printed! Now what?

First, finish your draft. Then print it. Re-read it. Have your scene-by-scene outline and decide what to fix. Take breaks between revisions. Trust your gut. Repeat.

But how do you decide what to fix?

Don’t jump in and re-write: make a list
These are things to look for as you read your printed draft – and not re-write (yet). Instead, make a list.

  • Structure: the opening, turning points, conflict, resolution, stakes
    • If it’s boring to you, it’s going to be boring to readers
    • Read for shape and structure
  • It doesn’t have to be “dramatic” – it could be a really interesting character who has a conflict in her life
  • Look at your main character—what is the goal trajectory?
    • Not the same at the end as at the beginning
  • Is the character’s voice in the scenes? It needs to be
  • Do you have a strong narrative voice? And it’s the character’s – not yours!
  • Credible surprises
  • Not many coincidences

How to make a scene
Not that kind of a scene!

As she reads her printed draft, Hallie makes a scene-by-scene outline. You want a “hook” at the end of every scene, a “grab” at the beginning of the next scene.

A good way to think of it is like a movie. At the end of a scene, a person exits; at the start of the next scene, a person enters. It might be a different person, but it drives the action. Every scene has to deliver something to the novel, and that takes conflict and action.

Ask yourself: does each scene start with establishing narrative? This doesn’t have to be fancy; the establishing narrative opener Hallie gave as an example was “Half an hour later I was in the dentist’s chair.”

Here, Hallie prints her scene outline and cuts it up, so she can re-arrange and see how things are looking. Like many writers, I use large Post-it® notes stuck on my wall—but the result is the same. You can see the flow and what needs to be moved, added, or taken away.

October 19 2015

How my home office looks

Make a list of all the changes you’re going to make. In Hallie’s method, you’re going to sort this list, from big to small.

Working from large to small—flying high
Having reached this point, Hallie returns to writing. She has a system: she calls it flying high, then flying low. Flying high is look at the big things—the structure, the story, the pacing.

  • Read through by characters
    • Read the scenes to see that character’s trajectory
    • Characters don’t have as much life when you start writing; now you can go back and enrich them by layering things in that you know, having finished the draft
  • Read each scene as a stand-alone
    • Does it have a narrative arc?
    • A tipping point in each scene? A change?
  • Read through the sub-plot
    • Make sure it contributes something to the main plot
  • Read for narrative voice
    • The character’s – not yours
    • Pick words only that character uses

Then … print and start over … or if it’s where it needs to be, move on.

Working from large to small—flying low
Flying low, in Hallie’s parlance, involves editing the revised manuscript. And she focuses on specifics here too.

  • Pump up the verbs—the verb is your friend
    • Replace weak verbs like “is” or “was” with verbs that convey action
    • Adverbs must go—editors hate them, agents hate them, they will get you rejected and it’s lazy writing
  • Pump up the dialogue
    • Add attitude, conflict, and humor
    • Stick to “said” or “says” – maybe, “asked” or “asks” – the words themselves and what Hallie calls the “physical business” (brief descriptions of what the speaker is doing) carry the dialogue
  • Strengthen your sentences
    • Readers pounce on beginnings and ends
  • Bridge material and transitions
    • Summary narrative
    • Make it short

And again … print and start over … until you’re satisfied.

That’s all it takes!
Simple, right?

But as Hallie said, “Narrative voice is your single strongest tool as a modern novelist.”

It’s worth the work.

© Roz DeKett

Hallie Ephron is a great speaker; go and see her if you can. You can learn more about her on her web site here and follow her on Twitter here.

Follow Roz on Twitter here and on Facebook here

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