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

My Mother’s Secret – Location

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.

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How to create the perfect villain!

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.

For more on villains and for some writing exercises, please sign up to the Arvon Foundation’s newsletter and look for my writing tips on Antagonistic Antagonists, or download here: Arvon tip & exercise – Villain

Let me know what villains you created!

One Year Later – Dante

I did not die and yet I lost life’s breath…

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’.

Blueprint for a house…and a story

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:

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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…

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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.