I had a wonderful chat with two of my favourite crime fiction writers, Vaseem Khan & Abir Mukherjee, for their Red Hot Chilli Writers podcast – out today!
Luckily I had two books to talk about, ONE YEAR LATER, as well as THE PRIEST AND THE LILY. We talked about camping in lockdown, as well as arriving in Outer Mongolia with only the clothes I was wearing, as my luggage had been left in Russia…
Today I ran a lesson about villains for homeschool with my nine-year-old daughter. She loved it and created a supreme baddie: Galactica, Queen of the Galaxy, who is 962 years old, born when an asteroid crashed into the Milky Way. She’s composed of ‘stars, dust gas and magic in lady form’. Great fun, and a suitable topic for primary school English, but actually, it’s a pretty critical subject for any writer.
If you want to create a villain with your child for homeschool, we began by thinking of our five favourite villains, what movie or story they featured in, and writing why they make such great antagonists.
We then created our own villain, and you can too, by downloading my worksheet: My villain.
Adults, if you want further background information, or help with your own writing, please have a look at the video, the rest of this blog and check out my exercise and tips.
So why do you need a villain? Well, without a baddie, basically, your story lacks drama. There will be no uncertainty, excitement or tension. An antagonist can provide conflict, which will help create this drama. The antagonist will also elevate your protagonist, the central character in your story, by stretching him or her because they’ll need to grow, change, and summon deep inner resources to defeat the villain – as long as your baddie is a worthy opponent.
However, an antagonist need not be a person: if you’re writing a supernatural or horror story then your villain could be a creature or a ghost or a wizard. But in other genres, your villain could be a force, a concept, a trait or a psychological state. For instance, in 1984 the antagonist is ‘the Party’, the human (or inhuman) face of ‘Big Brother’. In spy thrillers, there is often a conspiracy or a government cover up; in LA Confidential, the hero is battling his own alcoholism; in Sense of an Ending, the opponent, seems to be Vanessa, but it’s actually the anti-hero, Tony’s, own character flaws; in Solar it’s global warming.
My two tips on creating a decent villain are first, have empathy. Get inside your baddie’s head. Almost no one thinks they’re doing the wrong thing or that they’re immoral – everyone can justify their actions.
And secondly, the villain isn’t always who you think it is. Check out my thrillers – in all three, Bone by Bone, The Stolen Child and My Mother’s Secret – the antagonist isn’t who you think it is.
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’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…
I always like to have a theme or a leitmotif running through my novels and in this one, One Year Later, it’s Dante’s The Divine Comedy.
There’s the obvious aspects – it’s set in Italy, it’s hot as hell, but it’s about a young man’s journey through nine circles of hell; it’s about salvation and redemption, as one lovely, astute reviewer pointed out.
Above all, when one is grieving, it really can feel that you are alive, but you have lost life’s breath and found yourself within ‘a forest dark’.
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 wouldyou like to hear more of? Please could you complete this short survey (takes 2 minutes, promise!).
Everyone who completes thesurveywill be eligible to WIN one of my thrillers of their choice.
Is anyone in a Book Club? I must admit, I don’t really have time, although I’d love to be! I have a Book Buddy instead, which is much more random and sporadic, but she inspires me to read books I’d never have chosen myself, and then we go for a walk or a drink when we can fit it in round kids and work and chat about the book, as well as everything else!
If you’d like to discuss One Year Later in your Book Club, here are some questions to get you started.
When we bought a large plot of land and a house that we were planning on renovating in Somerset, I had the idea to set my next psychological thriller, One Year Later, partly in Somerset.
In the garden of our house we found the ruins of an old cottage…and I started thinking, what if a child were playing amongst the ruins and it collapsed? It became the basis of a terrible scene in my novel…
‘I was lucky, the doctor said later, that I hadn’t been buried alive. I was lucky, he added, that I hadn’t died.
Since then, but only to myself, I’ve always rephrased his statement: I’m lucky my sister didn’t kill me.’
Nick. One Year Later
I told my husband what I was writing and he was so freaked out he got a stone mason to shore up our ruined cottage and make it safer. This is what it looks like now – a lot of the vegetation shrouding it has been cleared away, and one wall has been repointed.
‘We walk through the garden, and the beam clips the outline of the ruined cottage. I pause alongside it, feeling the familiar surge of panic, the sickening sensation I still have in dreams, of falling, of being buried alive. It’s shrouded in ivy; a sycamore has grown through the bread oven, the roots like something out of The Blair Witch Project.‘
I wrote my psychological thriller, One Year Later, in Bristol, but at the time we were renovating ahouse in Somerset. We spent the summer camping in the garden and dreaming about moving in one day. It inspired one of the settings for my forthcoming novel. The Flower family, who are somewhat dysfunctional, grew up in Somerset.
‘The Pines is a rambling farmhouse that our parents, David and Eleanor, converted years ago, and although it no longer has the land it came with, it still has a huge garden. It sits on the lower slopes of the Mendips in Somerset, the woods behind, green fields gently falling away in front of it. On a good day – and 15 August, with its clear blue skies, was one of those days – you can see over the tops of the seaside towns of Clevedon and Weston-super-Mare and all the way across the Severn estuary to Wales. It’s where we grew up, Amy, Bethany and I.’
In the garden of the house in Somerset that we’ve been renovating is a small pond. In my next psychological thriller, One Year Later, a toddler drowns in a large pond in the garden of a rambling farmhouse. One year later, the family meet on a remote island off the coast of Italy for her anniversary in an attempt to reconnect and heal, but will everyone make it home?
‘Ruby-May holds out a bunch of tiny purple flowers in her small fist. Her fingers smell of spearmint. She opens her mouth and green water pours out; skeins of pond weed are tangled in her baby teeth.’ Nick. One Year Later
Thankfully our pond is neither big nor deep – and I do love the water lilies and the dragon flies…