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If you are reading this, I suspect you are like me in lots of ways. You’ve had a novel burning a hole inside you for years, perhaps even decades. You may have dabbled in writing short stories and even had some success, but the thought of sitting down and writing a whole book seems just too daunting and time-consuming. There is always a reason not to, which is sometimes as simple as ‘I’m just too old’.
Nonsense! If you want to write a novel, however old you are, don’t let go of that dream however scary it might feel.
Despite being a published non-fiction author, I’ve wanted to write fiction for more years than I care to remember and, now that I’ve laid down my editing quill for the last time, I’ve decided to follow that life-long dream.
If you are an aspiring first-time novelist and over 55 years of age, check out my blog ‘The Winter Hens’ Club’ – for every new writer who isn’t a Spring Chicken! This club is predominantly for women but, if you are a man who fits the bill and doesn’t mind being called a ‘hen’, we’d love to hear from you too.
I hope my blogs will give you some guidance and practical tips and, importantly, some inspiration to open up your laptop, dust off your paper and pens or get out your Dictaphone (if such things still exist!) and get to work on this exciting challenge later in life.
If you would like to contribute to my blogs, contribute your own hints and tips or are over 55 and want to share your writing journey, visit ‘Contacts’ above to find out how to get in touch. I’d love to feature you on my website. Alternatively, follow the Winter Hens’ Club on Facebook.
Good luck and happy writing!
The Winter Hens' Blog #1 September 2023 - So you're no Spring Chicken but you want to write a novel?
So you’re no Spring Chicken and you want to write a novel?
American journalist, Christopher Hitchens, reportedly once said ‘Everyone has a book inside them’ (although I will omit the ending of that quote which was much less positive!).
But the first part is probably true. I’ve been amazed by how many people, who I think I know well, have said ‘Oh, I’ve always wanted to write a novel too’ when I’ve told them what I’ve done – and I would never have guessed it in a million years!
Many people, probably more than we realise, have a desire to write fiction. For a lucky few, this dream is fulfilled early in life and they become household names but, for most others, they have the desire to do it but manage to get through until later life (six decades in my case!) without actually even attempting to make that dream come true.
If you are reading this and are thinking ‘That sounds like me. I’d love to write a novel but I’m just too old’, stop and think again … because that was me one year ago. But, with some encouragement at home and a little planning – like creating a small office in my attic bedroom where I could write uninterrupted – I set to work and, hey presto, eight months later my debut novel ‘The Matchmaker, The Milliner and The Man from Maastricht’ was born.
In this series of blogs, I would like to share my best tips and hints on getting started, how to navigate your way through the whole process of creating your debut novel, the fundamentals you need to write romance (if that’s your thing!) and your publishing options when your book is finished.
So, let’s get started – here are what I call my ‘fundamentals’ – my six personal top tips for starting on the novel writing journey.
1. Write every day
It sounds so obvious, but I think this is probably the number one piece of advice I can give to any aspiring writer. I spent decades thinking about writing a novel but I never actually sat down to write one. I look back now and wonder if I thought somehow my first novel would miraculously write itself! Ending up with 75,000 words or more takes time, commitment and dedication.
If you can, set yourself a timescale goal to help focus your mind. For my novel, I gave myself ten months with a significant birthday in April as my end stop.
Thankfully, I finished in eight months. However, don’t be too hard on yourself if you miss your deadline. Writing is like dieting – if you fall off the path, don’t give up, just start again as soon as you can.
Finding the time is also easier said than done, especially if you have other commitments to juggle like work and family.
So, work when you are most creative and when time allows. We are all different so find what suits you best. I am a morning writer. After a strong coffee, I am happiest sitting down in my office and bashing away at the keyboard until lunchtime. After lunch, my creative juices definitely start to wane so I sometimes use this time to re-read my morning’s writing or do some further research. Or I do the ironing!
2. Sketch out your plot but be flexible
Having an initial plot is important but don’t be surprised if, while writing, you occasionally change course. That is something that makes writing a novel such a mysterious and wonderful process. I’m the lover of a mind-map. Before I started to type a single word, I took a piece of A3 paper and drew out my story arc, names of characters, locations, timescales and key scenes. That helped me when I started to wander off course, but I also know new ideas and scenarios may coalesce from other parts of my storyline and which I hadn’t expected, so this helps me to weave those in to my story as well. You will have your own strategies but learn to accept that writing is like alchemy or black magic – sometimes it just happens and you have no idea why.
3. Spend time on your character’s back stories – it’s definitely worth it!
It may seem like a waste of time when you are chomping at the bit to get writing, but I’ve found spending time creating convincing back stories for my main characters – even if those details never make it into the final novel – is worth every minute. Creating convincing, full rounded characters means that, when you do start to write, your creativity can flow and you don’t have to keep stopping to check what they may have done or said in a particular circumstance.
I keep a notebook with a page per character, and start by writing down their full names, date of birth, family relationships, interesting facts, work experience etc. Cross-referencing characters is also useful and I’ve found this is especially important when making sure dates, ages and event timelines are consistent and logical.
I also find it helpful to keep a running list of ‘questions’ to ask about my characters, eras, places, landscapes etc which I can research and make a note of the answers when I’m not writing. If your characters become believable, real people in your imagination, with past loves, traumas and experiences, it will be much more easy to make them come across that way on the page.
4. Do it ‘Your Way’
We are all different, so write in a way that suits your style. Remember, you don’t have to start on page one and keep writing faithfully in the right order until you reach page 220. Perhaps you want to write the ending first and work backwards. Perhaps you want to plot out what is roughly going to be in each chapter and jump from chapter to chapter.
Personally, I sometimes find it is easier to write sections as the mood takes me and then marry these together as appropriate. Don’t think there is a right or wrong way to write – whatever works for you is always the right way!
5. Find your inspiration
If you are inspired by your subject matter, this will make your words flow more easily and more convincingly. As a first time writer, you will still have to do a lot of research but you may feel more comfortable writing about a subject that you feel you know.
That doesn’t mean to say you can’t set your novel in 17th century Russia or Vienna in the 19th century but you will have to expect it to be a harder process if you have no prior knowledge of the history, culture, political landscape or language of that country and era. If you still want to tackle a subject that you are not familiar with, go for it but prepare yourself for a lot more time spent researching.
However, that doesn’t mean you can’t write about something you are less familiar with, that is why we have imagination (and the internet!).
For my novel, my heroine is a milliner and my hero a geography teacher, neither of which I am or have ever been, but which I was able to research.
However, when I was thinking about a setting for my novel, I decided on Zambia. Like Anna Peel, I also sponsor a child in a school on the banks of the Zambezi river near Victoria Falls and, having visited the school and been utterly captivated by it, I used my knowledge of the landscape and the amazing people to inspire my novel.
6. Don’t sweat the detail
There is always a temptation to make everything you write perfect first time. If you have this urge, I would strongly suggest you try to resist it!
What’s important is getting words onto the blank page. Don’t spend your first day writing 1,000 words, say, and then the next four days editing it to perfection. As I mention above, if you are anything like me your characters can develop voices of their own the more you write which may take your plot in an unexpected direction. If that happens, you may have wasted a lot of time perfecting something that ultimately has to change.
In my November Blog, I will be looking at Epistolary novels, and how to get started writing one!
I hope these suggestions have been helpful but I’d love to hear your own writing top tips. Visit the ‘Contact’ tab above or find me on Facebook to get in touch to share your story.
The Winter Hens' Blog #2 October 2023 - Writing a novel in the epistolary style
Writing a novel in the epistolary style
If you read my novel The Matchmaker, the Milliner and the Man from Maastricht you will see that, rather than a more traditional narrative style, it is written in a series of letters and emails between the main characters – in a style called epistolary.
The word epistolary is derived from Latin, itself from a Greek word, simply meaning a letter … so, any novel that calls itself ‘epistolary’ is one that is written as a series of communications (letters/emails/texts etc) between the fictional characters, as well as other first-person writing like diary or journal entries, or even newspaper clippings and other documents.
While it is not perhaps ‘the norm’, there are actually lots and lots of very well-known examples of epistolary novels. Bram Stoker’s Dracula is probably one of the best known and was actually the first book I read in this style – and I absolutely loved it!
Told as a series of letters, mostly between lawyer Jonathan Harker and his fiancée Mina, as well as newspaper articles, diary entries and even ships’ logs, it uses the style of different first-person narrators to tell the full story.
In a completely different style, there are also famous epistolary novels like Bridget Jones’s Diary and The Diary of Adrian Mole both told in the form of diary entries – great fun but also challenging to achieve successfully as there is only one voice and that person’s perceptions are the only thing you hear as the reader. Another of my epistolary novel favourites is The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – and, I have to say, was the inspiration for me choosing such a long, quirky but, hopefully, memorable title for my own book!
Of course, if you want to try this style of writing but aren’t sure it will be successful for you or for the novel you are writing, why not think about combining it with a more usual narrative style. There is nothing to say you can’t add in letters or other documentation or correspondence within the body of a regular novel to help give a different perspective or give additional information to your reader.
A word of caution here before you think ‘Great, I’m going to write an epistolary novel’, writing in this style is not without its challenges and there are definitely some pros and cons, as I found out while I was writing my novel.
If you choose to write a novel in this style, it can really give an added degree of realism to the story and means you can tell different parts of the story from different people’s viewpoints.
In most novels, the author creates a cast of characters and then tells the story for them through their individual voices. With an epistolary novel, you as the author actually become the different characters – which is a very enjoyable way to write but also has the potential for some pitfalls which you need to work to avoid.
In my book, my main characters – Anna, Grace, Henry, Dann and Izzy – couldn’t be more different. A Devon-born, London-based celebrity hat-maker, an older African woman, a small African boy, a male teacher from the Netherlands and a feisty female police sergeant – none of which I am or have ever been!
We all have a natural way of writing, speaking and thinking so it can be challenging to suddenly ‘become’ different people and quite easy to find all your characters, who have very different personalities, are all speaking like you do. Having or being able to develop something of a writing ‘split personality’ here is a great benefit but so is the work you do on your characters before you put pen to paper.
Developing your characters’ back-stories is key, even if the details you use never make it into the novel at all. Making them convincing, rounded human beings with their own lived experiences will really help you give them the distinct voices you are looking for. Think about the different ways they may speak, what sort of language they use and the tone of what they write. This should all help you to keep them distinct from one another. For instance, if you are writing as a child, you need to think carefully about the sort of language a child would use.
The other problem you may encounter is how to describe people, places and situations only using the sort of language normal people would use when they correspond with each other. For instance, it would be great if one character could describe a volcano to another as ‘a simmering, boiling cauldron, the puffing and belching of white gases like the fume rising from the craggy face of a wizened smoker’ – but in reality, no one ever would talk to another person like that! If my character Izzy was speaking to her sister Anna, she would probably say ‘Gosh, this volcano is hot hot hot- I reckon at least Gas Mark 5. Reminds me of granny when she used to sneak outside for a crafty fag on Christmas day!’.
I have to say though, despite all these challenges, I really like writing in this style. I’ve found creating the different characters and giving them each a voice a very enjoyable experience … so much so that my second novel (I currently don’t have a title but it is a modern reworking of that most famous of love triangles (or should that be ‘square’ as there are four main characters?) ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’ and is going to be largely told in the form of a journal kept by my leading lady, Beth Ellaby.
In short, if you want to write an epistolary novel, my FOUR KEY TIPS are …
- Think about the different forms of written communication you can use to convey your story – letters, emails, social media entries, diaries, journals, notes, logs, scribblings on the back of napkins! Anything goes as long as it enriches the story and is in the form of a written entry.
- Make sure you know about all your characters’ back-stories before you begin. Giving them personalities, backgrounds and lived experiences will help to enhance their individuality.
- Think about the language they use, the way they speak, how they would talk differently to different people and in different situations. This is key in making sure that each of your characters has a distinct and individual voice and they don’t all just sound like you!
- Find new ways of conveying a sense of places, people and situations that doesn’t rely on overly ornate, unrealistic descriptions. When writing in the epistolary style, it is really important to make your words sounds like they would have come out of the mouth of a real person.
So, as long as you bear these things in mind, you will find writing in this style a really enjoyable and rewarding experience. I certainly did!
HAPPY EPISTOLARY WRITING!
I hope these suggestions have been helpful but I’d love to hear your own writing top tips. Visit the ‘Contact’ tab above or find me on Facebook and Instragram to get in touch to share your story.