Thursday, October 22, 2009

Psst! Don't tell anyone, but ...

This, ladies and gentlemen, was a very hard post for me to prepare.

I know what I write – after three years of scribbling, I damn well should – but telling people what I write … hmm, that’s sort of like sticking pins in my eyes.

For the longest time, I found it impossible to admit that I even wrote. I’d sneak off to the computer, telling my husband I was off to do some “typing”, quickly minimising the screen if he walked by … sigh. What a twit. Nowadays, I’m fine with telling others that I write; it’s just the “what” that trips me up. I guess it’s because it’s mainly family and friends who ask that question, and when I start to answer I can see them thinking “Oh, my God! YOU - our wife/daughter/mum/sister/friend - are writing THAT?!” I guess what I write challenges the view some of my nearest and dearest have of me; not that what I write is anything outrageous, in my humble opinion - it’s just not what others expect of me.

Well, time for them to get over it, and for me to get over myself. And what better place to do so than in the company of other writers – “an advance of authors” being the collective noun, or so I’m told - who just know me as one of them.

So. What I write is what I love to read – historical suspense, a combination of genres that just does it for me.

I do love a good historical, suspense or otherwise - Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome Series, Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, works by historical novelists such as Catherine Delors, C.W. Gortner, Philippa Gregory, Margaret George, Michael Cox, Tasha Alexander, Ariana Franklin … I’ve devoured them all. I’m fascinated by how people lived their lives in times gone by, and experience such a thrill when a writer effortlessly (seemingly!) transports me to the past - whether it’s ancient Egypt, Tudor England or nineteenth century Constantinople, I’m there.

I also love being on the edge of my seat, holding my breath with anticipation, when I read. Ah, the suspense! Bodies dumped in streets, innocent victims preyed upon, unpredictable plot twists and turns, heroes and heroines who must choose between taking a stand and risking their lives, or allowing chaos to reign unchecked … books such as C.S. Harris’ Sebastien St Cyr series, Mark Frost’s The List of Seven, most of Stephen King’s offerings, Silence of the Lambs … these all spring to mind as tales of suspense that I just could not put down.

I’m aiming for that same mix - suspense in an historical setting - in my own book, BLOOD OF THE HEART. In part, it deals with a darker side of the human condition; how it is that some people appear outwardly normal – the quiet, keeps-to-himself neighbour, for example – yet are able to snuff out another’s life without compunction, bringing pain and suffering into the world. And what is it that motivates others to do the exact opposite; to do their utmost to help others, to ease pain and suffering? And what happens when these delineations – to harm or to heal – begin to blur?

It’s also about ideals we cherish – reputation, liberty, identity; what it means to have them, and what happens when, one by one, they are taken away.

It’s through my main character, Isabel Knight, and my antagonist, Philippe, the Marquise de Cheverny, an artist and a serial killer, that these themes have become a story.

In 1864, Isabel is a newly minted physician who travels to Paris, the world centre of nineteenth century medicine, in the hope of finding a cure for her father’s debilitating ailments, and of finding some way to put her medical skills into practise. But Isabel lives with a gaping hole in her memory; one entire month of the previous year has been cleanly excised from her mind. She has chosen to try to accept her condition - her mind has clearly decided some things are better not to know, after all; but when a body is discovered dumped on a Parisian boulevard, mutilated by Isabel’s own distinctive, pearl handled scalpel, a medical symbol cut into its chest, the memories begin to flicker into focus – and what she sees makes her blood run cold.

The French police and British Embassy officials circle round her; when another body appears, murdered in the same manner, she becomes their prime suspect, and faces an agonising plight; to clear her name and to stop the murders, she must enter the killer’s game of cat and mouse – and pray that when the memories come tumbling out, she does not come to discover that she is exactly the same as the one she hunts.

It’s not all dark, however; Isabel just cannot help but have a sense of humour, a dry comment always at the ready, which is one of the reasons I love writing her. Philippe, too, is capable of being quite charming, despite his depravities.

So, I’m nearly finished the first draft. I hope (fingers and toes crossed) to be done by Christmas, when I will shove the thing in a drawer for a good six weeks, after which I will get stuck into it with my scissors and lashings of red pen!

I’m going to be a snip-hog, and post two exerpts - Isabel going hammer and tongs with one Mr Skelton, money-lender and thug (a minor character who causes her grief when her shady brother won’t repay his debts); and Philippe, at work.

And my questions for you:

What is your favourite mix of genres to write, or read, or both? And why?

And – because I’m nearing this point and I’m damned curious - what do you do when you reach the end of you first draft? Let it sit and percolate for months? Or type THE END and whip right back into edits?

Oh, and don’t forget, if you comment before 12 noon EST, Friday, October 23rd, you’ll be in the running to win one of Claire’s book picks. They're a fabulous selection; I'm so bummed I can't enter!


  1. An advance of authors? Is that cos we're always advancing on people (agents, editors, friends), manuscript in hand, saying "read this!"?
    I used to finish a draft and then just leave the book! Poetry, articles, essays for submission I would edit, but for some reason I never once thought of taking my novels to the next level. Then I joined the forum and suddenly started wondering what the heck I was waiting for? But I still find it nerve wracking to go back and reread. I always get that "what if it sucks?" fear. I jumped into editing and rewriting for The Face of A Lion even as I was writing and researching, mostly cos I write in chunks, so a lot of stuff had to be rejigged as I went. But it wasn't until last spring, when I finally stopped looking at it every day, and waited a whole two months before rereading the entire book in order, that I got some serious editing done. So this time around, once the first draft is complete, I'm going to try harder to let it go for a bit...

  2. As for genres... I guess my default favourite is YA. Since that covers everything! Historical, suspense, romance, scifi...
    I love both Claire and Lord John's voices in the Outlander series - if I wrote in adult povs, those are the kinds of voices I think I would adopt (especially in terms of sentence length and vocabulary). Sort of a mix between Dorothy Sayers and CS Lewis.
    Yet when an idea comes and I start writing, that sort of voice doesn't come. Invariably, it's YA. Thinking of it now, Austin might well have been my first male YA pov! Before and after him, it's always girls about 17 years old.
    Guess I'm just not quite finished exploring that stage of life...

  3. Tee hee, we're so alike in this way, Rach. I hid my writing from the world for a long time. When I finally got the nerve, I printed up a page, gave it to my sister, and told her that it was an excerpt of a book I was thinking of buying that I'd printed from the internet -and what did she think of it? Totally lame of me. Thank God she didn't rip it to shreds.

  4. OMG...I totally hid my writing too. Only "came clean" so to speak when my family started noticing how much I was on the computer. Lest they think I had become a gambling/porn/online shop-aholic (take your pick), I finally told them. NOT sure it helped any in the end. WRITER was by far scarier to them than a lot of other vices for some reason. LOL.

    As for what books I enjoy. I have to admit I'm a child of horror. I LOVE to be scared. But honestly, I'll read just about anything. The only thing I really demand is a certain likeability factor with the characters. You have that, you've probably snared me as a reader. And seriously, I read a TON of YA. Goes to show how stellar that particular group is at the moment. It's my first stop in the bookstore.

  5. Funny, but I've never hidden the fact that I write - probably because I've been writing stories since I learned to write, so it's an accepted fact in my family that Helen writes. I do hide what I write though. I lost a lot of confidence a few years back - I think the weight of the it's just a hobby/you don't think anyone will actually publish that comments finally got to me. Took a long time with "The Artist's Way" to get my confidence back, at least to the point that I can share again with family, a few friends, and of course the amazing folk at Books and Writers.

    Anyway, that's not what you asked. Genres - what I read most is murder / mystery / psychokiller nut-job - and that's what I started writing when I decided I was actually capable of writing a full-length novel. I have a couple of those parked on the back burner.

    I never really read much historical fiction (except the obligatory Georgette Heyer during my otherwise unromantic high school years). Then I found myself writing one! So I've started reading more of them in between the psychokiller bloodfests. I particularly like Anne Perry's Victorian murder mysteries, which give me two genres for the price of one. "Blood of the Heart" definitely appeals to me, so more please!

    What do I do when I reach the end of the first draft? I'll tell you when I eventually finish something!!!!! I think I'll probably do cartwheels, and pop a bottle of champagne. I suspect it will be important to resist the temptation to start revising it straight away, and I'll need a lot of will-power to stick it in a drawer and forget about it for a few months first.

  6. Deniz - Yes, I can see how chunk writing can lead you to jump into edits straight away, if you already know what holes need to be plugged and so on. I suspect I'll find it VERY hard to let my MS just sit. I'm notorious for fiddling with the same scene over and over and over and over, until my eyes are crossed. I'll have to find some discipline, somewhere!

    And genres - I really haven't read much YA, to tell the truth. I have the first two of the Twilight books sitting in my TBR pile, and I did read the Harry Potter series, but that's about it. I think I need to broaden my horizons ...

  7. Kristen - LOL! What *would* you have done if she said it sucked? (g) I'm mighty glad she didn't, and that you decided to jump into the world of writing where you obviously belong. :-)

  8. Jen - see, another YA advocate. I really must dive in and have a read of some, especially as my oldest son is about to turn eleven. He's a total book freak, reads at the level of a thirteen to fourteen year old and, as he devours at least three books a week, I'd love to recommend some new authors to him.

    Any hints?

  9. Helen - Oh, I love Anne Perry's book. She brings Victorian London to life so vividly, and plots a very tight mystery. You might like the series I mentioned in my post, the Sebastian St Cyr mysteries by C.S. Harris. Set in Victorian London, Sebastian St Cyr is a nobleman with a dark past who the police call upon to help investigate murders involving the "ton". The books are darker than Anne Perrys, but fast paced and absorbing, IMO.

    And make sure you let us know when you finish your book. It's such an accomplishment to type "The End" - we'd love to share a glass of cyber-champagne with you! :-)

  10. Hi Rachel - did you add to this thread? Ah, I see you did!
    Lots of great suggestions there!

  11. It seems like I'm the only one of the four of us who *didn't* hide that they were writing- I went the opposite way. I told friends, teachers, bus drivers, customers in shops, telephone salespeople... well, maybe not quite, but it had to be close. I couldn't *stop* telling people I was writing. And as a result I ended up with approximately four million people asking me, on repeat, "Are you finished yet? Whatever happened to that novel?" etc etc etc.

    Because you know where I went after I finished my first draft- down a dark and ugly rabbit hole, where I discovered that I hadn't really finished anything at all. I just thought I had. In reality, I had to start all over again.

    It's taken me two years (plus a couple of new jobs, a baby, a big move, buying a house and the usual life interruptions) to realise that it's okay to not get it just right first time. And now I'm ready to dive back in and make it perfect (g).

    Somehow I think you'll do it differently, though- it seems to me that your ducks are all in the right kind of row (g).