29 August 2011


For some books setting is everything - the story couldn’t exist anywhere else.  For others it doesn’t really matter.   
The first question is whether to make it up, or keep it real.  Writers often set books in their home town/city, or in places they've visited.  But equally there are many books set in places the author has never been.  With the internet, libraries, and perhaps having friends in far-flung places, there are many ways of carrying out research about an area.
Driftwood is set in Auckland, Sydney, and an unnamed area at the top of the South Island of New Zealand.  You won’t be surprised to find out that I live in Auckland, and have visited both the other locations.  Driftwood is an example of a book that could have been set in any city.  
In my mind I know exactly where in Auckland Juliet lives, though I don't mention it in the book.  I based the coastal area setting on a real place, but I didn’t name the area because I wanted the freedom to change the topography to suit the story.
Lives Interrupted is set in London, and because it touches on real events I wanted to set it in that city. 
The setting will also have a great impact on the type of characters living there.  Someone who has grown up in a city will have had different experiences, and therefore a different outlook on life and their surroundings, than someone born and raised in a rural setting.
I have a first draft of another novel, as yet unnamed, involving three siblings.  The settings are a Cornish village (Poldrayth), Bristol, and London.  Each is home to one of the siblings, though all grew up in Poldrayth.  The settings reflect the different characteristics of each, and how they think of the others. 
I enjoy developing the settings for my writing, and to me, it is as important as developing the characters.  Poldrayth is based on a real village, but again, as I wanted to play around with the geography of the area, I fictionalised it and created a new name. 
Using real settings is helpful as the reader will already have some knowledge of the place and you don’t have to give a lot of background information.  If I mention London you don’t have to have lived there to conjure up pictures of things you’ve seen or read about it.  Busy. Crowded.  Traffic.  Underground.  Red double-decker buses.  Ancient buildings. Tradition.
Even if you are using a real place you can still blend fact with fiction, and change the geography a little by adding other buildings, streets, or parks.  In Lives Interrupted Kate lives in Wood Green.  I knew some of the area, and also used online maps, but I had already decided on the type of house they were renting, and created the park and shops where Kate met Francine.
One thing we have no control over is how our readers will react to a place.  Some people may think living in London is a dream come true, but to others it might be the stuff of nightmares. 
We're never going to be able to please everyone.  Ultimately we can only make sure the setting we choose is true to the story we want to tell, and to the characters who inhabit it.

26 August 2011


Most of the time I use my laptop for writing, but occasionally I'll use pen and paper.  I especially find it helpful if I’m having trouble with the flow of a scene.  There is something about physically writing that helps my imagination.  However, I’m not sure I could have been a writer if I had to write the whole novel in longhand.  Come to that I’m not sure how I would have got on with creating the whole thing using a typewriter.  Maybe it would serve to make my first drafts tighter and more perfect.
I love technology.  I love being able to move sections of work with two shortcut keys.  Being able to cut out sections and put them in a new file to possibly use again.  Having old versions to go back to when I realise a section I cut weeks before is now needed.  The ease of using Find and Replace to change a character’s name, or to find those irritating weak words that slip into my first drafts.
I can’t write as fast as I can think, but my fingers on the keyboard are much more in synch with my thoughts.  In fact I think it’s my brain that has to do the catching up most times.
I use spreadsheets for section and character outlines, and keeping track of my daily wordcount.
There are some downsides, and the major thing I’ve had to overcome (still working on it at times), is the tendency to keep editing my early drafts rather than just getting the ideas down.
Time-wasting is another downside.  The internet is great for research, writing advice and learning, marketing, and keeping in touch with people, but you can easily spend more time doing that than writing.  And I won’t mention when technology breaks down just in case my laptop hears and decides to have a meltdown.
On that note I’d better do a backup!

22 August 2011


A lot of years ago I was studying for some English Literature papers.  I had a holiday booked, and then discovered the exams started the day after I came back.  I studied up on all my notes before going on holiday, (yes I was a swot!), and took the books with me to read one last time.  As far as I recall they were:  Macbeth, D.H. Lawrence, T.S. Elliot, and Wordsworth. 
The reaction of other beachgoers, people at adjoining tables in cafés etc. was very interesting, and I lost count of the number of people who asked if that was my usual holiday reading.  Umm, no.  A swot I might have been, but holiday reading, not usually.
Which begs the question what is popular holiday reading now.  Not much different I think.  Updated maybe, but the same themes are there.  Look around most airport bookstores and we see: romance and sex, or murders, bombs and a race against time.  Sometimes all these ingredients packed within one cover.
It often feels as though genre writing is less than literary writing.  That it is looked down on as a poor relation.  From my humble position all I can say is that I’ve read beautiful literary books that sang to me, as well as ones that took a lot of words to say very little.  I’ve read genre books that have kept me up hours after I should have gone to bed, that have tugged at my emotions and remained with me long after I finished the last page, as well as those that were cliché ridden and so badly plotted I couldn’t even finish them, and I hate giving up on a book.

19 August 2011

Write What You (Don’t) Know

Some time ago I had an article published in The New Writer with the title of this post.  Write what you know is something I’ve read a million times - okay maybe just a little exaggeration there, but it’s a common enough piece of advice.
I’ve been asked more than a few times if I use people I know as characters.  The answer is an emphatic ‘No’.  I’ve not used myself as a character either.  However, I have used elements of things I know about in my writing.  In Driftwood, Juliet’s job is similar to work I used to do, the settings are places I am familiar with, but the rest is my imagination.
Definitely we should use what we know as a starting point.  Our work, where we live, places we’ve visited, all these may seem humdrum and ordinary, but to someone living in another country they will be a doorway into another world, and isn’t that what we want when we read.

15 August 2011

Making the Future Better

I came across this quote.  ‘If you want the future to be better than the present, you have to start working on it immediately.  Do something today that is better than what you did yesterday – and do something tomorrow that’s better than what you did today.’  Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer – Stamford Graduate School of Business.
Like a lot of people I often think getting to where I want to be involves BIG decisions, and HUGE changes.  But it doesn’t.  Writing and completing a novel is done minute-by-minute and word-by-word.
Sitting down and getting on with it NOW.

12 August 2011

Clearing Out

A number of years ago I worked as a trainer, business people not animals!  One of the courses I trained was a personal efficiency course.  The first part of the course was a workshop session, but the rest took place at the person’s desk/work area, putting all the theory into practice.  It’s interesting that just knowing something doesn’t necessarily help us in the everyday practice of it.
To help me get back into the groove of writing, I realised I had to get my head clear, and for me part of that is having a tidy workplace.  That's just me.  I know plenty of people who happily work with stuff piled high around them.  I can cope with that for a short time, if it’s there for research, or my technical writing projects.  But now was the time to clear through everything, decide what what could be scanned, filed, and what I could throw out.
I am also busy with work at the moment so I didn’t choose the best time, but sometimes things just have to be done.
Everyone knows about the To Do list.  We’ve all made them.  You might even have one sitting on your desk or kitchen counter.  A To Do list is okay, but it’s just the first step.  It can languish there never getting cleared, or looming over you and making you feel worse. 
The next steps are to prioritise the tasks, work out how long each is going to take, and then allocate a date/time to each one. 
I put the tasks in my Outlook calendar, but do what works best for you.  It could be a physical calendar on the wall, a whiteboard, or any of the electronic gadgets we carry around.  The main thing is to allocate time to the tasks on the list, either long enough to finish the task, or at least make a dent in it (and add another date to complete).
I’ve worked on this for the past two weeks and being able to see the wood of my desk (dining table) is such a good feeling.  Just that makes me feel more creative.
It’s not a case of waiting for the muse to call, but doing what I know I need to help it along.  Happy writing.

08 August 2011

Obstacles, Obstructions, Blocks and Barriers

I’ve found it helpful over the past few weeks to re-write two short stories I first wrote a number of years ago.  They’ve existed in various forms and lengths, and are now significantly shorter (and I hope better) than they were.  I actually started one with the idea of it being a novel, but having got to around 25,000 words, and realising that many of those were padding, I decided the best parts would make a good short story.
I’ve worked on these two stories as a way of getting back into Lives Interrupted.  Due to recent circumstances getting back into the flow of editing a novel has felt like climbing Everest.  On numerous occasions I’ve opened my file of 'changes to make and tasks I’ve completed', and not been in the headspace to do anything.  It has been quite a scary experience, even though I keep telling myself it will pass, but working on the short stories has been therapeutic.
I’ve had occasions previously when I’ve been stuck on a plot point, or not been sure how to get to where I think the characters should be heading, but these have been minor obstacles.  I think of them as stagnant times.  The dictionary defines stagnant as:
  • Not flowing or running
  • Stale or foul from standing
  • Characterised by lack of development, advancement, or progressive movement
These definitions are linked by movement, and movement has always been the way I’ve dealt with stagnant times.
I discovered years ago that I had great ideas for plots, stories, articles, letters etc. while I was out walking or running.  And on occasions when I’ve been stuck on a plot point, or the direction to take a scene, I’ve gone out for a walk or run specifically to get the creative juices working.  I’m not sure of the science behind it, but it works, and I’ve read heaps of other articles and blogs that talk about walking your way through a plotting quagmire.
I think it’s got a lot to do with being away from the computer screen, and freeing up the mind to wander.  I’ve also found that taking some time out in a park, or at the beach with a notepad is good.  I usually write straight to my laptop but sometimes the change in writing on paper helps with the creative flow.
This can feel like you’re just slacking off, but I’ve often pushed myself too hard and for too long, and then found just a short time into my walk that the ideas have come.
In a more general way I also find reading useful, probably not so much with specific plot problems, but in a generally creative way, or as a starting point for ideas.
Don’t knock the power of water either.  I’ve heard business speakers talk about the creative ideas that come while taking a shower.
Writing is a solitary profession, and if like me, you work from home for your daytime job, it can mean you spend a lot of time in your own head.  Join other writers, in workshops or events, writing groups.  Failing that you can always fall back on technology and skype or email. 
Other writers know what it's like in that lonely place when things just aren’t working out.

05 August 2011

Other Projects

Earlier in the year I participated in a fundraising event for Christchurch.  It took place in libraries across Auckland with groups of authors reading from their work.  It was a great event and for a good cause.  I read from a short story I had written years ago.  I’ve worked on it over the years although it had been a long time since I’d last looked at it.  Obviously the time lapse was good as I could see it needed more than a little tweaking.  Over the past couple of months I’ve found it difficult to get momentum and motivation, and decided I needed to work on something else to get the creative juices flowing again. 
So over the past few weeks I’ve worked on two short stories and used the deadline of submitting to the writers group, and a competition date to get me going.
It has been good working on another project, and one that is smaller in scale than a novel.  At the weekend I met up with the writers group and received good feedback, on what worked and some useful comments for changes. 
While I usually push myself through down periods by continuing to work, on this occasion it has been good to keep writing, but on something different.

01 August 2011

Writer’s Write

The first day of a new month.  It made me take a moment to consider my goals and how close I am to meeting them.  Not as close as I would like to be, and so I had to take a step back and think of what I’m doing, and can put in place to get closer to meeting them, while there’s still five months left of the year.
Life’s a funny thing, just when you think you have the measure of it, it gives you a big thump to keep you in place.  I’ve had a couple of those thumps recently.  I think there are times we need to be kind to ourselves, not beat ourselves up over words not written, or goals not kept.  HOWEVER, as I told myself this morning, there is a difference between being kind, and letting things go, or giving up. 
I am a writer, and writer’s write.  The best thing I can do for myself, the inner me, as well as the writer me, is to write.
How much have you written today?