Receiving criticism about your writing can be excruciating. It sometimes feels like a personal attack because fiction comes from the heart, from the soul. But learning to accept feedback graciously and even to welcome it is what will elevate your writing. Here’s my story on the Royal Literary Fund’s podcast:
Many of our most common and beautiful garden plants have come from far-flung locations throughout the world, brought to us by intrepid explorers who have literally risked life and limb in their search for the rare and exotic. Our gladioli originally came from South Africa, rhododendrons from the Himalayas, the monkey puzzle tree is indigenous to Chile, the regal lily was discovered in China and many of our most exquisite orchids originate in the Amazon. The stories of some of these men – for they were mostly men – who travelled the world in search of flowers, and got themselves into scrapes – attacked by bandits, gored by a bull, capsized from a canoe, fell off a cliff – inspired my story, The Priest and the Lily.
Set in 1865, just after Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species, on his radical theory of evolution, The Priest and the Lily is about a Jesuit priest, Joseph Jacobs, who sets sail from Bristol for Outer Mongolia. Joseph, passionate, idealistic and driven, wants to discover rare plants and animals and make a name for himself in scientific circles back in Britain. The young priest is accompanied a Buddhist monk and a horseman; as they travel across the steppes, he hears stories of an astonishingly beautiful white lily. Finding this lily becomes his dream. But to discover where it grows, he will encounter many dangers, for he will have to face the savagery of the White Warlord, a Chinese General intent on seizing power in Mongolia, as well as the far more powerful Yolros lama, the living incarnation of the Buddha. And in his quest for the lily, Joseph will meet a woman who will show him something far more precious than a flower.
I spent years researching my story – and travelled to Outer Mongolia, where I had my own mini adventure. We were due to spend three weeks travelling by jeep and horseback in order to meet the tribe I was going to write about in my novel. Unfortunately, my luggage ended up in Russia, and I had to set off in just the clothes I was wearing! Thankfully I was wearing my walking boots!
Mongolia is stunning: it is a country of seemingly endless skies and steppes, with incredibly hospitable people. At the time of writing this blog, we’re in the grip of COVID-19, and everyone in the UK as well as many other countries, is currently in lockdown at home. I hope that my novel can, in some small way, help take our minds off this situation, transporting us to a country and a time far from own immediate experience, and perhaps, too, allow us appreciate what Joseph comes to realise – that it is love, which is more important than anything else on this earth.
Thank you to Victoria Goldman for hosting this blog on her website: Off-the-Shelf Books.
Really excited to share my new novel with you – The Priest and the Lily. It’s now available to buy from Amazon as an ebook. The paperback is coming soon.
Here’s what it’s about:
In 1865, Joseph, a young Jesuit priest and plant-hunter, sets out on a dangerous journey through Outer Mongolia, a land virtually unknown to the Western world. Charles Darwin’s radical theory of evolution has just been published, and Joseph is driven by his passion for science and his love of God. As he crosses the Mongolia Steppes with a Buddhist monk and a local horseman, he hears rumours of a rare and beautiful white lily. He believes that if he finds this flower, his fame and fortune will be assured.
But then Joseph meets Namuunaa, a shaman and the chief of her tribe.
And it is Namuunaa who will teach him the true meaning of his desire…
‘You will journey far beyond the boundaries of your imagination. You will meet and seize your heart’s desire.
It will be the death of your soul.’
An epic journey, a story of East meeting West, and of a love that transcends culture, faith and ultimately tragedy.
Let me know what you think!
I recently saw a set of three mugs in one of my favourite shops. They read:
I’m the oldest child – I make the rules.
I’m the middle child – I’m the reason we have rules.
I’m the youngest child – the rules don’t apply to me.
I had great fun creating Bethany’s character. She’s the middle child in the Flowers family in my psychological thriller, One Year Later. She’s a TV presenter – which was also my former career (this is a picture of me at the start of my TV career as a wildlife presenter for the BBC).
One of the producers I worked with was talking about another presenter and said, ‘He’d stab his grandmother to get ahead.’ I had to put that quote in my novel!
Bethany is feisty, fiery, independent, driven and ambitious. She’s also a victim of TV culture where women have to look young and sexy no matter what show they’re presenting, whereas men are allowed to be on our screens at any age, looking, frankly, a bit dishevelled. Bethany is also a victim of the casual sexual discrimination and abuse against women that still exists in this industry.
He said, “Bethany, your problem is you’re smart without being intelligent, good looking without being pretty, and approachable in a girl-next-door-way, but no one in their right fucking mind would want to be your neighbour.”
Bethany talking to Nick about her TV producer in One Year Later.
Setting is so important to me. It’s almost like another character, setting the tone and the mood as well, as obviously, the location. My last four psychological thrillers, Bone by Bone, The Stolen Child, My Mother’s Secret and One Year Later, are all, or partially set in Bristol, where I lived for many years.
The novel I’m currently writing, Labyrinth, is set in London. I wanted a bigger, better-known backdrop, grittier and more urban. But, what I’m obsessed with (as anyone who’s read anything I’ve written will know!) is nature. I’m interested in the interstices between the suburbs and ghettoised wildlife; how nature creeps in, even to the grimiest, grittiest streets, and how we carry a love and fear of the wild within us all.
So what better place to set Labyrinth than Hackney! It’s pretty darn urban, but encompasses Hackney Marsh, Walthamstow Nature Reserve, the Lee Valley, and pockets of reed beds in the recently completely Olympic Park. Parakeets fly through the ash trees bordering the River Lee and coots stride across the tow path.
Cue a number of research trips! The latest one was this week – I sneaked a quick walk along the Lee with my mum before I met up with my publishers.
My exciting news is that I’m working on a new book. Provisionally called Labyrinth, it’s a re-imagining of Vertigo, the movie directed by Hitchcock. It’s a slight departure for me, as it’s less psychological thriller / family drama and more of a crime thriller. It’s set in Hackney in London, and as you’d imagine, from a re-take of Vertigo, there’s a lot about heights…
My story is about ex-cop, Maddison Jones, who suffers from vertigo. She fails to save a young woman from committing suicide, The girl falls to her death from the twelfth floor of a block of flats. The stress pushes Maddison’s vertigo to Meniere’s Disease, which is vertigo combined with tinnitus and she ends up on sick leave, struggling to leave the house.
(The picture of the double rainbow over an apartment block in Hackney Wick is by my talented sister, Emma O’Connell.)
I’m really excited to announce that my novel, The Priest and the Lily, will be published soon as an ebook, and then in paperback. This is an epic, historical tale, for fans of Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, and Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses.
Set in 1865, it’s about Joseph, a young Jesuit priest and plant-hunter, who sets out on a dangerous journey through Outer Mongolia, a land virtually unknown to the Western world. Charles Darwin’s radical theory of evolution has just been published, and Joseph is driven by his passion for science and his love of God. As he crosses the Mongolia Steppes with a Buddhist monk and a local horseman, he hears rumours of a rare and beautiful white lily. He believes that if he finds this flower, his fame and fortune will be assured.
You will journey far beyond the boundaries of your imagination. You will meet and seize your heart’s desire. It will be the death of your soul.
But then Joseph meets Namuunaa, a shaman and the chief of her tribe.
And it is Namuunaa who will teach him the true meaning of his desire…
This novel was originally published in 2009 as The Naked Name of Love, by John Murray, who also published Darwin’s The Origin of Species! It was such an honour to be published by the same publisher!
The rights have now reverted back to me, so I’m publishing it on KPD, with my original title. I’m looking forward to sharing the new cover with you and seeing what you think…
I’ve always loved Italy, so when I needed a seemingly idyllic holiday for my family in One Year Later, my current psychological thriller, it made sense to choose Italy. I’ve certainly enjoyed remembering the delicious Italian food I’ve eaten on all those trips, the sandy beaches and the slower pace of life…but as the Flower family discover, their remote idyll is a lot more dangerous than it seemed at first…
‘From the air, when I checked on Google Earth before we came, the island is shaped like an embryo, curled around the scoop of an inlet, its backbone a reptilian hump, Maregiglio tucked on the inside of its tail. We’re driving along its spine: the land is dusky green and scrubby, with none of the features that would normally say Italy to me – no sunflowers or olive groves, Tuscan villas or vineyards – only the sea, glittering as sharp as flint, on either side of the island. When we finally see the town, it looks like an ice- cream cone, a swirl of houses in apricot and peach, with the castle, the colour of drying sand, at its peak. There’s a harbour and a spit of beach, packed with plastic sun-loungers and parasols, a wide sweep of promenade edged with date palms.’
Nick. One Year Later
Sadly I didn’t get to go back to Italy to ‘research’ my novel, but had to rely on my imagination, Italian friends and Google Earth.
I made up the Little Lily Island that the Flowers stay on though…
Happy New Year! The snowdrops are out in the garden, looking lovely.
Thinking about this year – I’d really appreciate your feedback on what you would like to hear more about. I’m working on a couple of exciting book projects – more on them soon – but in the meantime, what would you like to hear more of? Please could you complete this short survey (takes 2 minutes, promise!).
Everyone who completes the survey will be eligible to WIN one of my thrillers of their choice.
A winner will be chosen at random on MARCH 1st.
I’m so thrilled – my fourth psychological thriller is out on 1 August. Just in time for you to pack in your bag for a beach holiday! It’s partly set in Somerset and Bristol, but mainly on a seemingly idyllic island in Italy. It’s available to pre-order.
Some secrets won’t stay buried….
Since Amy’s daughter, Ruby-May, died in a terrible accident, her family have been beset by grief. One year later the family decide to go on holiday to mend their wounds. An idyllic island in Italy seems the perfect place for them to heal and repair their relationships with one another.
But no sooner have they arrived, than they discover nothing on this remote island is quite as it seems. And with the anniversary of the little girl’s death looming, it becomes clear that at least one person in the family is hiding a shocking secret. As things start to go rapidly wrong, Amy begins to question whether everyone will make it home…
In May 2017 we bought a house in Somerset. It was originally built in the 1950s and for almost two years we’ve been renovating it. And it’s finished! I hesitate to do a huge cheer in case something else falls apart or starts leaking – but we are absolutely delighted. In fact, our house was shortlisted for an award (LABC SouthWest Building Excellence)!
While we were working on the house (yup, it’s a stressful as everyone on Grand Designs tells you), it made me think about the similarities between building a house and writing a novel. Both kinds of projects require vision, creativity, tenacity, an eye for the big picture, being dogged about detail, technical skill, imaginative flair and fair amounts of sheer blood, sweat and tears.
Here’s what I learned about the parallels between designing a house and plotting a novel:
Vision: We had a clear idea of how we wanted our house to look – we sent a nine page brief to our architect. Julian Mills of Orme Architecture then drew a picture of what our house was going to look like, and I do believe, it’s come out as we’d all hoped it would! With a novel, you might have a vague idea of what’s going to be in it, a general feeling for its shape, a wisp of atmosphere, a hint of the kinds of characters that will people it. You might want to create an ideas board or a mood board, as we did on Pinterest (and I also do for whatever novel I’m working on). You can have a look at my previous mood boards here.
However, at some stage, you’re going to want to firm up this vision so that you can communicate your idea succinctly to publishers and agents to make them excited about your novel, as well as understanding what they’re going to get when it’s finished. There’s nothing so dispiriting as giving your novel to an editor who was expecting something totally different…
Blueprint: Orme Architecture used the original design and our thoughts to create a blueprint. This enabled us, the client, to see what our house would be like, as well as showing the builders exactly what to do, from which wall to take out, to where the light switch should go in my office.
You wouldn’t start building a house without planning it first…why do the same with your novel?
Some of you may not like planning your novels. You may just want to start writing. And that’s fine, but my advice is, you may spend a long time writing your way into finding out what your novel is actually about, and even longer editing it if you haven’t created a blueprint. This is your outline for yourself, which you may wish to share with your writer’s group, your agent and your editor. It tells you how the plot will unfold and how you’re going to structure your novel.
Creating a blueprint is the skeleton for the novel, upon which to hang your beautiful words and well-crafted sentences. Effectively, it’s going to tell you where the walls will be built (major twists) as well as where the light switches will be fitted (minor revelations). It’ll help keep your writing focused on your theme: in our house it was minimalism, white walls and wooden floors, with a Swedish vibe; in a novel, it might be on identity, for instance, which was one of the themes in my thriller, The Stolen Child.