How to write a thriller

In a few days time I’m heading to Ted Hughes’ old house, Lumb Bank, in Hebden Bridge, to teach an Arvon Foundation course on how to write a literary thriller, with fellow author, Adam LeBor. I’m looking forward to meeting guest author, Felica Yap, who wrote, Yesterday, as well as returning to the wilds of Yorkshire where I grew up.

 

 

Most of what one can learn about writing a thriller will apply to any kind of fiction – character, plot, setting, dialogue, language, style and voice are, of course, vitally important. But what is critical in a thriller is information: who knows what, and when and where and how did they or will they find it out? The key is to think about what is going to happen next. If you set up a question in the first few pages, finding out the answer is what will keep readers turning the pages. 

Think of Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, which begins:

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.

Immediately this raises small questions: what is Manderley? Who is telling us this story? Why aren’t they at Manderley anymore? What is so special about Manderley that our unknown narrator dreams about this place? And then quickly we’re introduced to the larger questions: who was the first Mrs de Winter? What was she was like? What happened to her – and what will happen to our protagonist? These questions are what keep us reading.

The two main ways the writer can heighten this sense of anticipation is through the structure of the novel, and via suspense. The structure of the novel is essentially about presenting information in a particular order. For example, in a psychological thriller, moving the second most thrilling or exciting moment in the story to the prologue can create anticipation because we know that something bad is going to happen, yet in the first few pages, that terrible deed has not yet occurred.

For instance, here’s the prologue of Bone by Bone.

BONE BY BONE Prologue

Another example of how structure can lead to anticipation is through the withholding of information, by delaying telling the reader the answer to a question: leaving a scene early, just before the information is about to be revealed, is one way to do this. The resulting cliff hanger will hopefully make the reader want to find out what happens next. Think of Harry Potter: The Philosopher’s Stone by JK Rowling. When the Dursleys are hiding on a boat at sea and someone beats down the door and steps inside, we’re on tenterhooks – and this is where the chapter ends.  

Of course, endless cliff hangers could well become annoying, so another way of delaying answering the question is by complicating the story. This can be done by adding more information and greater levels of complexity – through a sub-plot, for instance, or by switching the Point Of View to another character.

Suspense, in contrast, is about who knows what at which point. Do the characters know, or only one of them? Does the reader know the secret but the characters do not? For instance, in My Mother’s Secret, the main protagonist, Emma Taylor, knows the secret, and her daughter, Stella, is trying to discover it. The reader finds out the secret about half-way through the novel, but the daughter does not – which is dramatic irony – and, I hope, has readers swiftly turning the pages, hoping against hope that Stella doesn’t do anything too foolish to jeopardise everyone’s safety….

I write, ‘My mother has a secret.’ 

 

If you’re interested in writing novels but missed signing up to my Arvon course, do ask me about assessing your manuscript or work-in-progress.

 

Cake competition!

My Mother’s Secret is out in paperback! To celebrate, I’m launching a competition.

As I’m sure you’re aware my love of cake has made its way into My Mother’s Secret. Not only is the protagonist, Emma Taylor, a baker, but quite a few kinds of cake are mentioned throughout My Mother’s Secret.

So what better way to celebrate the paperback release than with cake and prizes!

I’ll be holding a competition on my Facebook page from the 7th – 14th of October to see if anyone can guess how many types of cakes there are in My Mother’s Secret! The winner will receive a signed paperback copy of My Mother’s Secret and a £10 voucher to spend in Hart’s Bakery! I spent quite a bit of time at Hart’s Bakery when I was researching My Mother’s Secret, and ‘Kate’s’ (the bakery that Emma Taylor works at) is based on it, so it only seems fair to let you indulge there too!

All you need to do to enter is post your guess on my Facebook page and tag @SanjidaKayAuthor with #MyMothersSecret. If you add a photo of your favourite sweet treat you’ll be entered TWICE!

The competition ends on the 14thof October and I’ll be selecting the winner the following day.

Good luck!

 

 

I’ll be your coach

 

I’ve just returned to working for charity, First Story, this month. First Story’s aim is to change young people’s lives through writing, particularly those who might be disadvantaged socio-economically, and/or suffer from a lack of confidence. I had my first creative writing workshop with the school I’ll be Writer in Residence for last week. Before I met the group of students I’ll be working with, I was wondering what to tell them. I want to inspire them to be writers, as well as to give them the confidence to flourish, but I’m not sure that I personally feel like a teacher, or even know that creative writing can be taught. In spite of having published twelve books, I don’t have any qualifications in teaching and I have none in English past the age of 15.

So what I said was:

I am your space: I am your space in which to think about and practise the craft of writing. 

I am your permission: I give you permission to be writers. 

I’m never going to say to a single one of these young people that they are rubbish, that they cannot do it, that they need to demonstrate proficiency in key aspects of the curriculum, pass an exam or sit a test. I hope that having the time, space and permission to ‘have a go’ will help them blossom, both now and in the future.

Finally, I said:

I am your coach. 

In most subjects taught in schools today, the educational model we follow is that you attend classes, practise, learn, graduate and then make your way on your own. But in sport, the model is that you are never, ever done. Everyone needs a coach. Even the greatest football player or Olympic athlete needs a coach. There isn’t a fool-proof path to become a premier league player, nor to win a gold medal at the Olympics. What players do is that they learn, they practice and they are coached. It is a never-ending process of attempting to improve under the guidance and tutelage of a person who has your back. The way to become a great cyclist, gymnast, football player or even a writer is with help. It is not, as someone tweeted at me recently, about reading a few articles online and doing it by yourself.

As Atul Gwande, surgeon and author of Checklist, says, ‘Coaches are on to something profoundly important…They build on your skills and address your weaknesses.’ Gwande, who is seen as being top of his field in general and endocrine surgery, hired a coach, thinking that this fellow surgeon, would have little to teach him. After the first session, the coach had made pages of notes on how Gwande could become a better surgeon. Two years later, Gwande’s techniques had indeed radically improved.

For me personally, I’ve benefitted greatly for the coaching I’ve received from my agent, Robert Dinsdale, my many editors over the years, and my writing buddies. In my role as a Royal Literary Fellow, I frequently receive training and coaching from other fellows. I still believe that I could benefit from more help and dedicated coaching for my thriller writing. (Any volunteers?!) As Gwande says, ‘It’s not how good you are, it’s how good you’re going to be that really matters.’

 

Diversity in Fiction

I’ve written as a Jesuit priest in Outer Mongolia, a nine-year-old in inner city Bristol, a child abductor, an angry teenager, a man in his twenties, a Victorian lady trapped on an island in the Southern states of America at the turn of the Civil War. I’ve written about slaves, Buddhist lamas, racketeers and drug addicts, accountants and artists, actors and academics. As a writer, I want to tell any story I’m moved to, from the perspective of any character I wish, regardless of their race, religion and culture – or perhaps because of it.

My own background is that I’m half Bangladeshi, half Irish and grew up in Africa, Ireland, England and Wales in a Protestant-Catholic household, only distantly knowing the Muslim-American side of my family. Yet I rarely, if ever, read about anyone from a culturally diverse background in British fiction. 

Many years ago, when Zadie Smith burst on the literary scene with White Teeth, and Salman Rushdie was still in vogue, I thought the situation was about to change. Cut to the present day. The long lists for most literary awards are still filled with white authors. The multi-culturalism this country is famous for is rarely represented in literature. You can buy a Dansak, raw sauerkraut, Thai green paste and a Za’tar rub in your local supermarket, but have you found a novel where the majority of characters represent the Nigerian-Welsh, the British Somali, the Ukrainian-Bristolian and the Russian-Irish kids in my (Asian-Irish-Scottish) daughter’s class?

In my own genre, crime, BAME (Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority) writers only make up 4% of all authors. Mixed race characters and authors are still few and far between. Worse, according to a report, Writing the Future, commissioned by Spread the Word and edited by Danuta Kean, which was published in 2015, BAME writers are often pressurised to produce characters and settings that conform to white middle-class stereotypes of racial minorities, and the places (‘exotic’, ‘gritty’) they believe them to live. Publishers tell me that my market, like that of the majority of writers in this country, is largely 35-55 year-old white women. Yet in a scant thirty years, it’s predicted that one in five people in this country will be from an ethnic minority.

For me the situation is a broader issue.  As Kean says, ‘The big elephant in the room is class and socio-economic background.’ Those in the publishing industry, including agents, editors and people running literary festivals, are overwhelmingly white, middle or upper class. They, unlike many BAME candidates, are often educated privately and attended Russell Group universities (at a time when only 7% of the UK population has been privately educated and only 1% attended an Oxbridge University). Furthermore, BAME would-be publishers are frequently from families who can’t afford to subsidise them for a year or so as an unpaid intern in London. Kean comments, ‘Change is cosmetic and has not been structural or institutional.’

In other words, it’s not simply that British and American literature is not ethnically diverse, but that the very people deciding what is to be published and how it should be edited are largely not from diverse backgrounds, either in terms of their culture or their class. In this country, the children that borrow most of the books from libraries are British Asian…and yet, and yet, as adults, Asians are not buying or reading books. I’ve rarely attended an event where I was not in the minority solely down to my skin colour. And I’m still not reading books or seeing screen plays where the main characters are British Asian, so maybe this sector of the population are giving up because they are so overwhelmingly underrepresented in British fiction.

I think it’s fantastic that there are now initiatives to encourage more BAME writers into fiction, but until the publishing industry itself becomes more representative of the population as a whole (and pays interns and junior staff  better), I fear these small shoots will not produce the multiplicity of multi-coloured blooms we crave.

 

Stories within stories: The books mentioned in My Mother’s Secret

I’m delighted to welcome Tasha Locke to my blog this week. Tasha graduated from Bristol University this year with a degree in English Literature. I met Tasha through my role as a Role Literary Fund Fellow at Bristol University. Her insight into literature prompted me to ask her if she’d write the Book Club questions (My Mother’s Secret Book Club Questions) for you. There are a number of  novels mentioned in My Mother’s Secret, mostly by one of the main characters, bookish teenager, Stella Taylor, who is in a Book Club at school.  Stella is obsessed with Jane Eyre, but it’s Henry James’ The Golden Bowl that runs like a leitmotif through my thriller… Over to Tasha.

 

The novels mentioned in My Mother’s Secret provide layers for both the characters and the plot. These novels all present love in an unconventional, often forbidden, light. The debates on these novels in Stella’s book club get us to think about the complexities and themes of My Mother’s Secret. 

Introducing the theme of adultery to My Mother’s Secret, Stella’s book club first read The Golden Bowl by Henry James. The group can’t agree whether the book is about love, sex, or betrayal. Their book club debate invites us to reconsider our own opinions about betrayal and deception in relationships, which becomes increasingly important as the story of My Mother’s Secret goes on. 

The bowl from The Golden Bowl is also symbolic in My Mother’s Secret. In James’ novel Maggie Verver is about to get married and is gifted a golden bowl by her best friend and fiancé (who happen to be lovers) that has a crack in it. The symbolic crack in James’ The Golden Bowl mirrors the secret in My Mother’s Secret – but not just Emma Taylor’s, the mother and main character in the novel. It is not until the final twist of My Mother’s Secret that we realise the significance of Stella’s earlier statement: ‘the only person I know who’s read it is my dad.’

Another novel mentioned in My Mother’s Secret is Jane Eyre. My Mother’s Secret opens with a quote from Jane Eyre and Bronte’s gothic setting of Thornfield Hall resembles Tyntesfield, the estate outside of Bristol, where parts of My Mother’s Secret are set. Tyntesfield, like Bronte’s Thornfield, becomes a place of secrecy, deceit and even ghost-like doubles.  

Jane Eyre is Stella’s favourite book. She moulds herself on Jane, and, appropriately, her Instagram name is Mrs Rochester. Stella’s desire to find out what her mother’s secret is frames her narrative in a Jane Eyre-esque Bildungsroman, and the secret, like the character of Bertha in Jane Eyre, becomes the threat to her teenage romance. 

Stella’s teenage crush Adam – MaddAddam on Instagram – builds an unlikely connection between Jane Eyre and Margret Atwood’s novel Oryx and Crake. Whilst placing teenage love on social media is fitting, Atwood’s post-apocalyptic dystopia seems worlds away from Bronte’s 19th century England. But the twist in Stella and Adam’s love story – the reason their love must remain forbidden – draws these two novels together.

My Mother’s Secret invites a re-reading of one of Jane Eyre’s most famous lines, which Stella quotes:

No woman was ever nearer to her mate than I am: ever more absolutely bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh.

Stella will regret wanting love like that… like Adam says of Atwood’s ‘speculative fiction’: ‘it means that everything could happen right now’.

Stella’s book club, and the books they read, provide a platform for the reader to speculate on the relationships in My Mother’s Secret. But the constant twists prove that these books cannot be relied on; the complexities of love in My Mother’s Secret is utterly new.

 

 

Cover reveal for My Mother’s Secret in paperback!

I love the new cover for the paperback of My Mother’s Secret. It’s not radically different – apart from Sam Carrington says, ‘Brilliant!’ on the front cover – but the colours are really eye-catching.

It’s out 4 October. The audio version is here already, if you feel like giving that a spin!

And in other news, The Stolen Child, will be published in Poland in autumn, with a gorgeously atmospheric cover.

 

 

 

Wuthering Heights – the novel that has influenced me the most

When I was a teenager, I steadfastly refused to believe that so-called ‘classical literature’ could be better than the assortment I chose from the local library. What did these authors have to tell me? By this time in my life I had lived in several countries, attended eight out of what would be ten schools and knew no one else who was mixed-race. I feared so-called classics would be dull, staid and part of ‘the establishment’ that I was so busy rebelling against.

And then I read Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. Brontë’s tale, set on Haworth’s bleak and beautiful moorland resonated with me, partly because I spent my teens living on either side of Ilkley Moor.

 

 

As a sixteen-year-old, I understood Cathy’s passion:

‘He’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same.’

I was shocked by the power and the savageness of some scenes: the one in which Lockwood grabs a child’s wrists and saws them across broken glass still haunts me. But most of all, what struck me was how easy to read this story was: it is a gripping, page-turner; the writing is beautiful and profound; there is something about this multi-generational tale of love and loss that moved me then, and moves me still. As a teenager, I thought it spoke directly to me: do you choose the person who rocks your world but is ultimately unstable, or the one who is boring but steadfast and will give you security? 

Now, or course, I see more layers and nuances in Brontë’s novel. My fiction has always been gothic with an almost super natural element running through it. I’ve read, and re-read Wuthering Heights, and in my second psychological thriller, The Stolen Child, I turned back to the Yorkshire moors as the setting for a kind of demonic love story. It was a great excuse to re-read Wuthering Heights.

 

For more on Wuthering Heights, I’ve recorded two podcasts for the Royal Literary Fund. Here’s the first one:

 

My Favourite Book, part 2

 

One Year Later

As My Mother’s Secret has been wending its way into the world, I’ve been working on another psychological thriller. It’s called One Year Later

One year ago, the Flowers family gathered at The Pines, a rambling farmhouse in Somerset, to celebrate the youngest child’s third birthday. Tragically, the day before her birthday, Ruby-May drowned in the garden pond while her grandfather, David Flowers, was meant to be looking after her.

One year later, Ruby-May’s anniversary is fast approaching. The three Flowers siblings, Nick, Bethany, and Amy, who is Ruby-May’s mother, decide to hold the anniversary of the child’s death on a remote island off the coast of Italy. They’ve barely spoken to each other for a year, and none of them have seen their father, David, since the funeral. This is their chance to heal and come together as a family before it’s too late.

But as the extended family, including partners, children and hangers-on, gather in what appears to be an idyllic location, a rural farmhouse next to a stunningly beautiful beach, David shows up, still refusing to admit he was culpable. As the tension escalates, buried secrets will be uncovered…and not everyone may make it home…

Originally called The Anniversary, the novel is book-ended by scenes in Bristol and Somerset, where I live, but most of the action takes place on a tiny island off the coast of Italy. Sadly, I didn’t manage a research trip, as my husband pointed out I’ve been to Italy more than enough times to satisfy most normal people, and I should just do what writers are meant to – use my imagination. Fortunately, the weather this summer is breathtakingly-hot, which helps, although I would much rather be on a beach than at my desk.

One Year Later will literally be out one year later…August 2019. Just in time for your summer holiday.

 

 

Just Giving – Writing Desks

We are lucky to have been born into a time and a place where we have food, shelter, water and a decent education. Not everyone has these rights. My daughter and I are sponsoring a little girl called Mavellous who is eight-years-old.

Mavellous lives in Zambia and is the youngest of eight children. Every morning she has to walk five miles a day to fetch clean water. There are 100 children in her class and she has to share a desk with seven other children. We asked Action Aid what Mavellous’s school needed most and they said writing desks: forty of them at £30 each.

Since, as you’ve probably gathered, we like baking, my daughter and I have started pop-up cake sales to raise the money to buy writing desks. I’m sorry we can’t share our cakes with you (although maybe if you head over to the south-west…!) but if you’d like to contribute, or simply cheer us along, here’s our Just Giving page.

 

Launch party for My Mother’s Secret!

It’s hard to believe, for me at least, but after doing little else but think about the characters in My Mother’s Secret for a year and a half, my novel is out in the real world! We had a fantastic launch party at Waterstones, Bristol, with locally-brewed beer and locally-bought prosecco, and squidgy cakes inspired by the ones baked by my protagonist, Emma Taylor.

My wonderful friend and talented voice-over artist and presenter, Gillian Burke, read the part of Emma Taylor, and rising star, Abbi Bayliss, read the part of her daughter, Stella. I put my Northern accent to good use and read Lizzie Bradshaw’s section, which is quite dark. I hope I haven’t scared my daughter for life.

 

Big thanks to my lovely husband, Jaimie Rogers, my publicist, Kirsty Doole, and sister, Emma O’Connell, who kept the show on the road!

 

 

 

My Writing Toolkit

Book blogger and health journalist, Victoria Goldman,  asked me to tell her what my essential writing toolkit is for her blog, Off-the-Shelf Books. Here goes:

Office

Our exciting news is that we’re renovating a house in rural Somerset. In the meantime, we’ve downsized so I no longer have an office, but a desk in the corner of an open-plan room. I look out over a small, but beautiful green garden that backs onto an urban nature reserve. Jays and blue tits peep through the window. I can’t think if there’s any clutter, and I like to have a flower or two next to me. I work on an Apple Mac and a laptop. This has revolutionised my life: because everything is in the cloud, I can pick up my laptop and go, without having to check it’s saved, and I no longer have that awful realisation that I’ve spent hours working on the wrong document. 

Notebooks

I love having different notebooks with lovely covers. I have one for ideas, one for quotes and overheard snippets of conversations and a working one, with what I need to do next. It helps me keep track of where I am – for instance, My Mother’s Secret is just about to be published out, but I’m still talking to readers about my previous thrillers, Bone by Bone and The Stolen Child, whilst editing the fourth one, The Anniversary. I find writing long-hand is a good way of generating ideas too, although I actually type my novels straight onto the computer.

Exercise

Writing is incredibly sedentary, so I need to move! I get up before anyone else and do an hour to an hour and a half of the Tracy Anderson Method. Tracy is a trainer in the states; I stream her classes, which are a combination of light weights and dance cardio. At the weekends I run or go mountain biking. I love walking. One of the characters in My Mother’s Secret lives in the Lake District, so it was a great excuse to head up there for ‘research’. I find walking helps with creativity and general resetting of one’s mental equilibrium.

Coffee and chocolate

I start my writing day with black coffee and 80% dark chocolate. I’m lucky enough to have a fantastic coffee roaster, Extract, at the bottom of our road and I buy their organic espresso, which tastes of hazelnuts and cocoa. Apparently.

Candles

I light a candle when I start working. I like scents that are quite sharp when I’m concentrating: my favourite is St Eval’s Rosemary and Bay; and then soothing, like Sandalwood, when I want to unwind. I love being surrounded by greenery so I fill the house with lots of plants.

Protein shake

I get through that mid-afternoon slump with a protein shake, usually made of fruit and vegetables, non-dairy milk and protein powder. I normally add spinach; this one also has raspberries and coconut milk.

Headphones

Since we’re all in one room, there’s quite a lot of ‘negotiation’ about who gets to watch downhill mountain bike racing, How to Train your Dragon, or have some peace and quiet to write their novel. I spend quite a lot of time wearing headphones and pretending I can’t hear anyone speaking to me. I listen to audiobooks and podcasts when I’m doing chores; I’m a big fan of The Story Grid podcast and book, which is by editor Shawn Coyne and is aimed at helping writers and editors improve.

Cake

My daughter and I love baking: this is a cake that I made for one of my sister’s for her birthday. It’s a great way to relax and a slice of cake feels like a nice treat after a week of writing several thousand words and drinking spinach smoothies!

 

What’s your essential toolkit?

In a thriller, nowhere is safe…

This is a blog post I wrote on the importance of setting for The Asian Writer, and I thought would be most appropriate as I’ve just got back from a quick trip to the Lake District, where My Mother’s Secret is partly set.

 

There’s a thin band of cream silhouetting the cranes that hover over the half-built office blocks in the city centre. I head home, below an arc of houses that will be bright as jewels when the sun comes up. At this time of the day, it’s beautiful; the river is still, and seagulls fall above it, like flecks of confetti. 

 

I love Bristol, where I live, as anyone who’s read my first thriller, Bone by Bone, might be able to guess! For my third, My Mother’s Secret, I’ve returned to Bristol as a location, but also placed another character – Lizzie Bradshaw – in Leeds and the Lake District. The settings in my novels are extremely important to me, but I’m certain a well-drawn location enhances any book. Can you imagine Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children without the blooming buzzing confusion of Delhi, or Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney without the smell of money and crack-hustle of New York?

A detailed backdrop in fiction helps create a tangible world for one’s characters, as well as being a tool the writer can use to heighten tension or thicken the atmosphere. My main character, Emma Taylor, lives in a leafy suburb of Bristol: Long Ashton. The ‘world’ this woman inhabits tells us a lot about who we think she is: middle class, comfortably off, the kind of person who shops in M&S for a treat and takes her youngest daughter to ballet lessons. It seems calm, safe, secure. Emma, though, is tense and anxious: she’s hiding a secret from everyone she knows, so Long Ashton appears the perfect place for her. Similarly, her job as a baker makes us believe she’s in a cosy, comforting cafe, filled with the scent of bubbling yeast and buttery croissants. When the reader discovers the bakery is actually in a tunnel beneath a train station, it might, perhaps, start ringing alarm bells. In contrast, Belle Isle in Leeds city centre, where Lizzie Bradshaw works, really is a dark and dangerous place.

 

A couple of boys around thirteen, but already taller than her, were hanging about on the street corner, and there was another group of young men in the centre of the housing estate, smoking and swigging from cans. She could hear the wind, boxed in by the flats, moaning round the corners. Chocolate wrappers and newspapers rustled across the ground, and a Staffordshire terrier tied to a bench with rope growled at her through bared teeth. 

 

 

Stella, Emma’s fourteen-year-old daughter, is determined to discover what her mother’s secret is. She’s a spiky, book-obsessed girl, and constantly reads Jane Eyre to make herself feel less anxious. Many of the Bristol scenes take place at Tyntesfield, a gothic mansion near Long Ashton.

William Gibbs’ collection of curiosities is stacked up and draped in sheets, but my torch picks out a few that haven’t been covered up: a glass dome with tiny, stuffed hummingbirds, the smooth carapace of an ostrich eggshell, a jade-green ammonite. This would be the perfect place for someone to stalk us. There are so many hiding places. 

The architecture and the claustrophobia of the rooms mirror both Stella’s gothic obsession, and the escalating tension in Emma’s life. The suburbs and the city centre are densely populated: as Emma says, ‘I like being surrounded by people – it feels safe;’ Lizzie, who lives in a remote village in the Lake District, feels safe precisely because there is no one around. She tells DI Simon Duffield, ‘You can walk for miles and never see a soul. Please, let me go home. I’ll be safe there.’ But, of course, in a thriller, nowhere is safe and the places we feel most secure are often the most dangerous.

 

The editor of The Asian Writer interviewed me for her new podcast. I was her first guest! It’s here if you’d like to listen:

 

 

 

 

How to tell a good plot

My seven-year-old daughter is teaching me how to plot. She’s drawn a story mountain for me, which shows the start, build up, climax, solution and the end (she’s obviously inherited her ability to spell from her mother). She’s broken down the key elements of a story she’s writing to demonstrate how it works. 

 

 

It’s about a girl called Jasmine whose horse is stolen. Jasmine follows hoof prints in the mud, and discovers a broken robot in a ditch with ‘Dr Evil’ stamped on it. With the help of her friend, Summer, they mend Tim the robot, and he leads them to Dr Evil’s house. Dr Evil has enslaved a group of robots and they’ve been collecting prize animal specimens from around the world on his behalf. The girls free the robots and they help them release all the pets. 

 

 

Obviously, it needs more work, but if I hothouse my daughter a bit more, she might keep me in prosecco in my dotage! But actually, the story mountain is a pretty good way of thinking about plot (in fact, I do ‘plot’ my stories on a graph before I start writing, although I know that sounds completely nerdy!).

Even at such a young age, my daughter, pretty much like every kid can do, has captured the key ingredients for a story: a beginning, a middle and an end. Plus there’s a hero – Jasmine, and a villain – Dr Evil. Her story also features some other essential characters: the friend and mentor (Summer); villains who become friends (the robots); victims (the animals, especially the horse, Faye) and a mentor figure (the mother, Sanjida, who is a vet and in the final scene checks that Faye is unhurt). Faye is the symbol of ‘desire’ in the story that motivates the characters: both Jasmine and Dr Evil want Faye, albeit for different reasons. The story also has some other essential elements: an inciting incident, a crisis and a climax – more on these shortly. 

 

 

What I think every story needs are at least three acts corresponding to the beginning, the middle and the end (although, you can of course have multiple acts). In the beginning section, you need an inciting incident: this is the event that forces our protagonist to act – or decide not to act  – but is what starts your story. Think of Nick Dunne in Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn finding his front door open, his living room turned upside down, and discovering that his wife, Amy, is missing. We immediately think: What has happened to her? What will he do?

This is followed (in the middle section) by what editor, Shawn Coyne terms, progressive complications for the protagonist, where he or she faces increasing as well as different difficulties (not several of the same type of difficulties). And boy, in Gone Girl, do Nick and Amy get put through the ringer in terms of the difficulties they face, from the police, to the press, to ex-boyfriends, thieving friends and Amy’s insane quiz… 

 

 

There is then a crisis, which is often described as the worst point for the protagonist; it’s a seemingly inescapable predicament or insurmountable dilemma. In the final act, there’s a climax, which could either be a showdown with the antagonist or could be internal – the main character battles with his or her internal predicament. If the inciting incident is – what will happen?, the climax is the unexpected but inevitable result of the opening event – this is what happens. 

 

 

The ending is the resolution, which ties up loose ends and lets us see how the dust is going to settle. Fairy tales and children’s stories often begin, Once upon a time, and end, happily ever after. And although readers tend to want a story to finish on an emotionally satisfying note, an open, unhappy and/or uncertain ending can also provide closure, even without the happy ever after. 

I’d highly recommend Story by Robert McKee and The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne for more detailed discussions on how to plot. And in the near future, I’ll do a breakdown showing how I plot my novels.

 

Let me know if you have any comments or questions!

 

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The octopus and the pirates

I’m giving a talk on plot at Novel Nights on Wednesday 23 Many. This is a wonderful monthly event, organised by writer, Grace Palmer, in Bristol. A writer talks about an aspect of their work, and local authors and aspiring writers read short extracts from their work-in-progress, all over a glass or two of wine.

If you happen to be in Bristol, do come along – the details are here. The full story, about how to plot, will be on the blog on Sunday 27 May.

In the meantime, here’s a sneak preview, inspired by a story my daughter wrote for me when she was four. Like most kids, she fascinated by dinosaurs and pirates. Now, if I could come up with a movie concept – Jurassic Park meets Pirates of the Caribbean – I’d be minted.

 

 

Book Club Questions for My Mother’s Secret

 

I love reading and writing – obviously! And I then love meeting up with people to chat about what I’ve read, maybe over a glass of wine!

In case you’d like to talk about My Mother’s Secret in your book club, we’ve put together some questions to get you started. You can download them below. Do email me if you have any of your own, or have a look at a Q&A with me.

 

My Mother’s Secret Book Club Questions

My Mother’s Secret Q&A

In the meantime, I’ll let you into a secret – the character I like best in My Mother’s Secret!

Do let me know who you like best!

 

My Mother’s Secret is out now!

My Mother’s Secret is out now! It’s available to buy in bookshops or from Amazon. You can read some extracts from it if you’d like to, or find out more about the book by downloading these links.

My Mother’s Secret – Prologue

My Mother’s Secret – Chapters 1 & 2

My Mother’s Secret Q&A

The wonderful writer and the editor of the Asian Writer, Farhana Shaikh, interviewed me for her new podcast, Dear Writer. She had some lovely, sensitive questions and we discussed writing from fear, why I write thrillers, the link between nature and creativity and being British Asian.

And here’s a short interview with me talking about My Mother’s Secret.

 

 

Let me know what you think!

 

 

Hiking for writing II

Happy Earth Day! Today, we’re celebrating our extraordinary planet, and trying to end plastic pollution.

In a month I’ll be heading to one of my favourite places on earth, Langdale, in the Lake District, to go hiking and to talk about My Mother’s Secret in the Sticklebarn, a National Trust pub! I can’t imagine a more perfect combination: walking, wilderness, writing, reading, meeting old friends and new, and a cosy pub. Did I mention that my talk is in a pub? Oh, and the Sticklebarn brews it’s own gin and vodka!! (You can find the details here).

The view from the Sticklebarn

One of the settings for My Mother’s Secret is Elterwater, near Langdale.  I’ve been going for a few years and staying in the fantastic Elterwater Hostel. You can read more about my experience here, if you’re interested. So when I was wondering where my character, Lizzie  Bradshaw, and her husband, Paul, could live, it seemed like a no-brainer. I imagined Paul working as a National Trust warden out on the Langdale Pikes (a spectacular set of mountains), and as a part-time barman in Sticklebarn. Obviously that meant I had to keep returning for further ‘research’!

The metal frame of their thirty-year-old backpack creaked as Paul adjusted the straps. She ran through their names in her mind: Pavey Ark, Thunacar Knott, Pike of Stickle, Loft Crag, Harrison Stickle – the five Langdale Pikes. If they even managed a couple of these hills, they’d be doing well.

They’d taken the path directly behind the back of the Sticklebarn pub, where Paul worked part-time at the weekends, past the gold blaze of larches in Raven Crag, and now they were heading along the ridge, with Dungeon Ghyll roaring below them.

I’ll be writing about using setting and location in fiction for the The Asian Writer, so do look out for that post.

I’ve written before about the joy of hiking for writing as I believe walking can help one be more creative. I’m not alone; many writers, from William Wordsworth to Charles Dickens, used walking to help them think about their work.

Recently, I came across some research by behaviour and learning psychologist, Marily Oppezzo, from Stanford University, on how walking can help trigger new ideas. Marily has run several studies on movement and creativity, but in one, she asked people to brainstorm how an everyday object, say a key, could be used creatively. The definition of creativity she used was that it had to be novel and appropriate, in other words, no one has come up with that idea before, but also, appropriate for the situation (so, we all know keys open locks – so another use for a key that is unusual but fitting). The people doing the test either sat down or they walked on a treadmill in a windowless room.

What her team found was that the people on the treadmill came up with twice as many ideas! As a result of her research, she’s come up with a few tips: she says to decide on a topic you want to brainstorm first, then go for a walk, think of as many ideas as you can, and jot them down at the time (either take a notebook or record them in your phone).

This is also how I work: I put a writing problem into my subconscious, and then later, I’ll go for a walk, take it out and turn it about. Big hikes with company are fantastic in a different way. I won’t necessarily be able to concentrate on knotty problems on the way up Thunacar Knott, but I will return refreshed and reinvigorated by the walk, the wildlife and my inspiring friend; ready to crack on with the next novel!

I do hope to see you in the Sticklebarn pub for a chat about writing, walking and, maybe, gin!

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In praise of the National Trust

It’s perhaps no surprise that two of the settings in my third thriller, My Mother’s Secret, are based at National Trust sites. For me, the best part of being British is the National Trust. I love the fact that the charity preserves great swathes of our countryside (over 248,000 hectares), including parts of the Lake District, fens and forests, 775 miles of our coastline, as well as conserving nearly a million works of art and over 500 historic houses, castles and ancient monuments.

 

As a trained zoologist, what’s most important to me personally, is the investment in our wildlife. More than half of the species in this country are in decline and need help urgently. Peter Nixon, the National Trust’s Director of Land, Landscape and Nature, said, ’Birds such as the cuckoo, lapwing and curlew are part of the fabric of our rural heritage. But they’ve virtually disappeared from the countryside. We want to see them return to the fields, woods and meadows again, along with other wildlife which was once common and is now rare.’

I’m a keen walker, but not everyone can trek along our rocky Cornish coastline, or hike up Scafell; another aspect that I think is wonderful is how accessible the charity has made our heritage, whether you’re five or eighty-five. Plus the cakes in the tea rooms are pretty nice!

 

The spoken word flies away, the written word remains. 

         Inscription in Latin in Tyntesfield library

 

 

Many of the scenes in My Mother’s Secret are set at Tyntesfield, a gothic mansion and parkland just outside Bristol. Because I’m drawn to nature, I generally have some wildlife in my books (Paul Bradshaw’s son, Dylan, for instance, is helping Bristol University track foxes in Ashton Court), but also, as a thriller writer, I like the juxtaposition of urban and wilderness. As human beings, we’ve evolved to be frightened of being away from our tribe, of being on our own and in the dark in a forest or other wild place. Including these settings in a thriller feeds into the fear we feel when we read a tense passage, where the protagonist could be danger.

 

‘My voice bounces around the old stone walls, and the echoes make me even more scared. I’m crying properly now. How could he just go out and leave me? The pain drowns out my shame, just for a few moments. I take out my phone, but there’s no signal here. I’m starting to feel really frightened. I’m on my own in the dark, and no one knows where I am.’

Stella

 

I’m also interested in exploring what historic sites mean to us today: perhaps, as someone who is mixed-race, I feel this more acutely, but many were built using money from slavery. At the very least, the families that originally owned them, such as the Gibbs at Tyntesfield, inherited or made a fortune, whilst those less fortunate toiled in their fields or scrubbed their stairs for a pittance.

 

‘We drag our heels, going slower and slower, as the path winds steeply down through the ironically named Paradise, with its tree ferns and palms – all part of the Victorians’ plunder of Third World countries, to bring back rare stuff and show off. Everything is ornate. Even the benches are made of stone and carved with Tudor roses. All those poor people, chipping granite just to get some stale bread.’

Stella

However, I do think it’s important that these mansions and monuments are preserved, so that future generations understand where we came from and how many once lived – and that the surrounding estates and parklands are preserved to help our wildlife flourish.

 

sanjida oconnell pinterest

If you’d like to see some more photos of the settings that inspired me, do have a look at my Pinterest board.

 

 

 

 

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Party like a writer!

I’d love you to come to my book launch party if you can make it! It’s 7 p.m. Friday 11 May at Waterstones, Bristol. There’ll be readings from My Mother’s Secret, and since the lead character, Emma Taylor, is a baker, it’s only right and proper that we should have plenty of cake! There will also be fizz, beer and soft drinks to wash it down! It’s a free event, but do RSVP so we know how much cake to bake!

I will also be discussing plot at Novel Nights on 23 May at 7.30 p.m. and reading in one of the locations featured in the novel – Sticklebarn, Langdale in the Lake District on 26 May. Please check my Events page for details.

If you’re interested in finding out a bit more about what inspired me, have a look at this mini video, or take a look at In Conversation with…

 

My Mother’s Secret Q&A

If you’d like to download a free sample of chapter one and two, told from Emma, and her daughter’s perspective, they’re here:

My Mother’s Secret – Chapters 1 & 2

My Mother’s Secret is available to pre-order.

 

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