I went to BeaconLit Literature Festival (their first one!) last Saturday and below is my report of the afternoon…
Having dropped my faithful hound (not actually a hound, he’s a Jack Russell / Cairn cross) at my mum’s in Tring, Hertfordshire, I crossed the border (fortunately no patrol guards or passport checkpoint required) into Buckinghamshire – the county of my birth.
I haven’t been to Ivinghoe very often but I do remember it being typically English. My stop was The Lawn, a large expanse of green slapped bang in the middle of the village, and would easily pass (except for the lack of markings) for the host of cricket matches, fetes and the occasional dog show.
I offered my assistance but they had everything in hand so I sat on one of the bar stools and Facebooked and Tweeted my arrival.
Within a few minutes, novelist and interviewee Dave Sivers arrived and (after a hug) we had a quick chat before I headed to the ‘green room’ (the church’s new tearoom) where the other authors were being sent.
I was also outnumbered by staff (6:1) there until I spotted S.J. Bolton who was having her breakfast (so I left her alone).
We then went back into the main marquee by which time there were more people there including crime writer and interviewee Alison Bruce who I had a quick chat with.
Emma Maier, the Chair of BeaconLit, started the event by explaining how the literary festival came together and gave her thanks to all those involved behind the scenes, guest authors and sponsors including The Art Council. The pupils of local schools had done a short story workshop and their stories are available to read. She then did a bit of housekeeping (fire safety etc) and the literature festival was officially opened.
Dave (Sivers) moderated the first panel, ‘Murder and Mayhem’ and introduced SJ Bolton, Alison Bruce and Elena Forbes, and then asked them to tell the audience about themselves.
- SJ explained that she writes contemporary novels in the gothic tradition; creating an atmosphere where the reader is nervous, and if they listen hard enough they can hear the beating of black wings. She’s interested in forensics and science, and enjoys combining the two.
- Alison also writes contemporary novels, set in Cambridge (“the Cambridge of locals, not the University”). Alison wrote her books with a character (Gary Goodhew) she hadn’t read in other crime books but wanted.
- Elena writes about an incredibly good-looking, but flawed, third-generation Italian DCI. Her books are set in London but she has written it as a series of villages; smaller settings. She wishes she wrote gothic having heard SJ speak but she does write ‘dark’.
Dave asked the panel whether their detectives were flawed intentionally.
- Alison explained wrote Gary for one scene because she has a friend called Gary Goodhew who wanted to be in a scene. And she kept using him. When she finished the final draft, she was crying because she couldn’t leave her detective behind. 🙂
- SJ’s Lacy Flint is hiding so that’s not her real name. Her job is to uncover the dark secrets of other people but doesn’t trust anyone because of her escapism. SJ thinks the outsider is a recurring theme in literature. The author intends that we like them and the reader wants to see them finding their place in the world.
- Elena said that often the character is flawed; broken family life, alcoholic etc., not a conventional team player which makes them more interesting to write about.
- SJ added that most of us feel like outsiders at some stage in our lives. Alison agreed but we have to have our own ‘brand’ of outside or we would be like everyone else (which made the audience laugh). She said that characters often sort themselves out in one aspect but then another part of their life crumbles. That’s life, isn’t it!
- Elena the quoted Rebus and Harry Hole that they got worse over time.
- SJ has a former police contact and said that the police are damaged because they have to deal with so many issues over their career. She writes about it and it’s not real. For her friend it goes on.
- Alison has written two real historical crime books and found it really disturbing because she couldn’t change it.
Dave talked about time issues when writing and asked the panel whether their characters age in real time.
- Elena doesn’t want her character to age because he will become more bureaucratic. He’s approaching his 40th birthday and she wants to keep him young.
- SJ won’t take Lacy Flint too far. She’s written four books with her and probably won’t write much more, she wants to keep her story fresh and feels there’s a limit before she moves on to someone else.
- Alison has written six books about Gary Goodhew (book five is out in September) and is contracted to seven books which will probably be that. She’ll see how she feels when she comes to writing. He’s only in his 30s and is quite happy to keep him young.
- SJ wonders whether some series go on too long and quoted Jack Reacher. She said that Lee Child is one of the best writers she knows but that some of the little detail (him not changing his underpants!) is beginning to bug her
- Alison said he (Lee) probably has other books he wants to write because he’s stuck with Jack Reacher.
Moving away from characters, Dave asked the panel how much research they do.
- Alison said that if research is too interesting, you don’t do any writing. She does two types of research (1) that the bones of the story are viable (2) specifics. She has a Home Office pathologist friend and asked him to check blood pooling details when a tied up character has a nose bleed, and he tried it to check! (Sounds like a fun friend!) She has other experts she can call upon for other details.
- Elena said that research is essential but it should inform the book but not overload it. She also has a range of contacts. She said that the location is most important and has also included Bristol recently and knows it well. She walks around the places she writes about so she can get the atmosphere.
- SJ does her research in two stages as Alison does, and had a story where snakes take over a village location, similar to Ivinghoe. She will often spend 2-3 months before she writes, and doesn’t research as she goes along but just check details.
Dave then asked why they went for crime.
- SJ said that like Alison she wanted to write books she wanted to read, and enjoys reading the genre.
- Alison has tried to write something else; comedy and romance, but gets to page two and someone dies (I know that feeling!). Tragedies happen in most families and she finds the life-changing, and community-changing and that it’s relatable. She added that it’s very therapeutic getting it down on the page, and she’s bumped off her ex next-door neighbour!
- Elena writes real-life nightmares; what we dread, what we hope won’t happen to us or the people we love.
- Alison said that we have lines we don’t cross. Elena mentioned pets and children.
- SJ killed a dog, and received hate mail!
- Alison had too but made it so subtle no-one noticed enough to contact her.
Questions were then invited from the audience…
1. How much do you plot?
- SJ plots because her books are so complex.
- Alison wrote the first book because she had the idea in her head but then saw Murder Most Famous with Minette Walters where she (Minette) said that her characters take over but it didn’t work for Alison and she plots everything, even her short stories.
- SJ asked Alison if she uses any particular software. Alison said she uses Scrivener for accumulating the research but pen, paper and sellotape as she plots her characters and then moves them around the floor and puts them together at random.
- Elena has the general arc in her head; principle characters, basic crime. What she loves about the writing process are the detours. You do have to plan the book but then when you come to write it, it often deviates from that plan.
- SJ added that each book will be different.
- Alison said they don’t necessarily get easier. SJ agreed.
2. What is your writing practice?
- Elena said, “I have children, need I say anymore?” She added that holidays and sick days are a nightmare but she writes every day when she can, resenting family life taking her away from her book. Writing every day, she said, does keep your brain active, even just one hour a day, but don’t expect it to be perfect. Don’t get frozen that it feels bad. Review it later.
- SJ also has a child and is disciplined, writing 2-3,000 words a day.
- Elena said that 1,000 words a day is a good day. This is why everyone is different.
- One of SJ’s fellow Transworld writer had a 2-hour lunch break and wrote a book a year. She said that if you want to write you find the time somehow. Too true!
- Alison promises herself that she won’t do the same each time; she sits in front of her computer but often nothing will come out. She’s written under tables (including at her music-writer husband’s gig). If she has a deadline she’ll have three hours sleep and wrote 40,000 words in 24 hours and gets to the point, about halfway through the book, where she either has to give up or carry on, and she’s always carried on.
3. How much of real crime goes into your books?
- Alison read about a woman who killed her two-year-old child when she herself had a two-year-old child, and Alison lives near Soham so knew about that case well, although she’s not used either of those cases.
- SJ if too high profile felt that another writer would already have picked up on it so tries to get her ideas elsewhere.
- Elena finds real events interesting to read but not so much to write.
I was going to ask how the panel got their books, whether they were picked up by agents / publishers but the session ran out of time.
There was an hour break before the second panel (‘Pain and Passion’) and there were various options including book signing and children’s story. I had a chat with the local authors then went into a creative writing workshop.
Claire Steele that talked about the sort of workshops she does, concentrating on ‘reading group’ fiction (literary, contemporary fiction) and then gave us a series of exercises including taking items out of a bag, calling out keywords, colours, memories, etc.
It was really inspirational and very collaborative.
Claire does a variety of workshops in the UK and overseas and can be contacted at email@example.com.
‘Pain and Passion’
- Kate said the women in her books are strong and she used to be in the army so it’s a great basis, so knows “a little about quite a lot of stuff”, including potholing.
- Carole writes romantic comedy novels. Her 21st novel has just come out and she’s working on her 25th. She mentioned her latest novel.
- Sue is a novelist, short story author and columnist but her first love is her novels, describing them as “gritlit”.
Dave asked which of their heroes they liked the most.
- Carole writes two novels a year and was asked by her new publisher to write a Christmas novel. She wasn’t keen to start with as she doesn’t like Christmas so set it in the Massai Mahra. A Buckinghamshire hairdresser meets a Massai warrior, Dominic, and brings him back to Milton Keynes and hence the comedy. Dominic turned out to be lovely and the readers love him, writing to Carole asking if he’s alright!
- Sue said her character James is her least favourite. She also has a Dominic who is damaged. Ratty (Miles Rattenbury) is her favourite character. He’s acerbic, leader of his gang, does things for his friends but a rebel. He’s the most popular character with readers and the only one who has his own fan mail, and one of two characters who have had their own interviews!
- Kate has two favourite heroes; the protagonist and antagonist in her latest novel because but then mentioned about falling in love with Ulysses (one of her character’s nicknames) and wanted to marry him!
Dave then mentioned Jane Austen, thought of as the first romance writer, and asked whether romance has changed over the years.
- Sue said modern women are much more independent.
- Kate hasn’t read Pride & Prejudice (nor have I) but has seen the films (I’ve seen the one with Emma Thompson). Jane wrote about people falling in love and that still holds true. People meet each other in different ways but the end result is the same. Kate added that newspaper columns have births, marriages and deaths, and the one in the middle is the only one we have a say in. I like that!
- Carole said there are few romantic novelists who don’t like Jane Austen, although she doesn’t buy into the ‘I don’t like you, oh actually yes I do’ plot. I have a mug with that as the one-line synopsis. 🙂
- Sue said we also need to acknowledge how much the heroine drives the book. She has another goal or quest apart from meeting (or avoiding!) the man.
Dave asked what comes first when planning or writing the novel.
- Sue said they are linked and it’s hard to define which comes first. She likes to scribble and look at the characters from different point of view; from another characters (e.g. mother of son vs wife of husband). She added that her notes are a compost heap.
- Kate said it varies from book to book. Thinks it gets easier but it really doesn’t. She initially knows something about her character. Mentioned an earlier book ‘Chalet Girl’ where the character needed somewhere to live so it was a perfect scenario. Sometimes her characters have different skills. Like Sue, her notes are compost but often there is good stuff at the bottom, once it’s mulched!
- Carole admitted she is organised and said when she gets paid for her latest book she goes to the travel agent and books a holiday. Her book coming out this Christmas features a character who couldn’t afford a holiday but decides to be a Christmas planner for a millionaire, contrasted by a Christmas set in a Young Offenders institution. Carole recommends getting the Daily Mail as a rich source of inspiration. She writes 8a.m. to 6p.m. every day and tends not to deviate from the plot because she produces two books a year.
- Sue asked Carole about getting a character doing something that they just want to just for the research. Carole went paintballing and hadn’t expected to use it but then found herself writing something where the experience was perfect so she included it.
Dave then asked the panel whether there is room for crime in romance. How nasty can it get?
- Carole says they’re popular in the US but are uneasy bedfellows here in the UK. She quoted Janet Evanovich being incredibly popular in the US but not so much here. Carole did try and write crime but didn’t feel comfortable.
- Kate loves Mary Stewart and thinks there is a place for romantic suspense, although publishers don’t seem to want to publish them.
- Sue enjoys reading romantic suspense and thinks there is a place for it. She has a admiration for crime writers especially for their intricate plots. She had a character she couldn’t quite ‘get’ but then had him walk into a pub and kick someone off their chair and it went from there.
- Kate said Louise Bagshawe (aka Louise Mensch, former local MP) writes romance with suspense and they are page-turners.
I then asked the panel how they got published.
- Kate self-published and sent disc to printer for 2,000 copies. She then sent the books to 59 addresses in her address book and further networking sold 16,000 copies. She then sent Army Wives to a publisher with that track record.
- Carole started writing for TV and entered a Writing Magazine competition which she won (£1,000!). She spent the money on a writing course (Fern Farm, Norfolk) where Margaret Pemberton read her manuscript and recommended an agent. Carole sent it off Christmas week – at a time when agents used to get 150 submissions per week (now c.350pw). As it turned out hers was the only book to hit his desk on Christmas Eve so he took it home. He took her on and sold the book a week later. She does recommend getting an agent first, adding publishers look for successful eBooks.
- Kate added if writing romantic fiction to join the Romantic Novelists Association’s New Writers’ Scheme as they will give you a critique of your book and will recommend agents. Carole said to go to the meetings then you’ll meet the agents and publishers first-hand.
- Sue wrote two (bad) novels (her words!) and was advised to sell 20 short stories to magazines then submit a novel. Her first novel sold when she’d sold 87 short stories and a serial. She joined the RNA New Writers’ Scheme and wrote several books while on the scheme. Margaret James was the team at the time. Sue was then taken on by Laura Longrigg. Transita published the first book but then went back to non-fiction. She then talked about her ‘Love Writing’ (how to) book. Sue explained that she had a bereavement and wasn’t going to write novels so was going to leave Laura. Laura tried sending her book out again but it didn’t work and they parted ways (favourably). Sue then spotted an award application to paste a synopsis, which she did and they asked to see her book. She was then invited to a meeting and they bought the book.
- Kate said if you want to write, you have to. She wrote while moving six times in seven years and having three children in four and a half years.
The draw was then made to win the panel’s books (won by a fellow writer and Facebook friend of mine – congratulations, Steven!) and then Dave thanked the panel and audience, and asked everyone to complete the feedback forms, and the festival closed. It was a really enjoyable event. Emma, Dave and colleagues should be proud. 🙂
Based in Northamptonshire, England, Morgen Bailey (“Morgen with an E”) is a prolific blogger, podcaster, editor / critiquer, Chair of NWG (which runs the annual H.E. Bates Short Story Competition), Head Judge for the NLG Flash Fiction Competition and creative writing tutor for her local council. She is also a freelance author of numerous ‘dark and light’ short stories, novels, articles, and very occasional dabbler of poetry. Like her, her blog, https://morgenbailey.wordpress.com, is consumed by all things literary. She is also active on Twitter, Facebook along with many others (listed on her blog’s Contact page).
She also recently created five online writing groups and an interview-only blog. Her debut novel is the chick lit eBook The Serial Dater’s Shopping List and she has six others (mostly crime) in the works.
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