Charlie Britten's writing blog

(c) Wikimedia (c) WikimediaWell, why do you?  I know why I love historical fiction but I’m not saying.

Maybe you can’t stand historical fiction.  If that’s you, I’d love to hear from you too.

Why?  Well, the Copperfield Review, a journal for readers and writers of historical fiction, which will celebrate its fifteenth anniversary, wants to hear our views, for a feature in the new year.  An expanded version of my blog post on the Anne of Green Gables Museum in Prince Edward Island, Canada, appears in the current edition of the Review, btw.

A few weeks ago someone put me on the spot by asking me what I meant by historical fiction.  There is no such thing, she said.  It has to be historical something, so let’s think for a moment about the various historical genres, excluding, of course, proper non-fiction history (popular and academic):

Documentary Fiction – blow by blow, and often biographical, accounts of what actually happened, written as (most frequently) drama or film (eg Steve Jobs film, which I haven’t seen)  or in the form of a novel.  TV companies can’t get enough of documentary fiction, especially if it features self-important generals.  I often feel they’ve run out of proper fiction.

Historical romance – Georgette Heyer’s girl-meet-boy stories, normally set in the Regency period, are good examples, if old fashioned ones.   A rollicking good read, all of them.

Fictional biography – Think Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, which featured Thomas Cromwell’s life story, written up in a dense novel.

Historical mystery/ crime – A rapidly expanding genre.  Ellis Peters’ Cadfael series (written in the 1960s and 1970s) is my favourite.

Family sagas – ‘The Forsyte Saga’ by John Gallsworthy, or Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, or (dare I mention it?) Downton Abbey.  I read most of the Palliser novels a long time ago.  (In those days, I was dependent upon the public library and its stock.)

Alternate history and historical fantasyDestiny’s Rebel, by Philip Davies, the last book I read, falls into this category.  It was all about a princess in a fictional land in a fictional world, but loosely based in medieval times.  Much  fantasy fiction is set, very loosely, in the medieval world.  Vampires and zombies may also feature.

Steampunk (a sub-group of historical fantasy/alternate history)  Think G D Falksen and his astonishing pastiches, incorporating jingoism, lots of brass, goggles, dirigibles and all things that fly.

Children’s historical fiction – Same sort of thing, but for kids.

So, what do you like about historical fiction – or not?  Please let me know by commenting.

Wendy H Jones, authorWe are very lucky to have with us this week, Wendy H Jones, whose latest book,  Killer’s Cross, is published today (Monday, 16 November 2015). Wendy writes police-based crime fiction, featuring DI Shona McKenzie in Dundee.  When Wendy, herself a Dundonian, mentioned Ninewells Hospital in a Facebook post last week, bells rang out loud and clear in my head.

Cover of Killer's Cross by Wendy H JonesKillers Cross is the third Shona McKenzie novel.  The previous two, Killer’s Countdown (a best seller on Amazon in October 2014, and consistently since then) and Killer’s Craft (published in July 2015 and also an Amazon and Waterstones best seller), I have thoroughly enjoyed.  (You know how I love crime fiction, Dear Reader!)   I believe that a fourth is being written for NaNoWriMo as I write this. Amazon lists the Shona McKenzie novels as noir, btw, but I wouldn’t.  Now over to Wendy:

  1. Question: I understand that you are writing a fourth Shona McKenzie book for NaNoWriMo. Did you write any of the other three Shona McKenzie books for NaNoWriMo? If so, was the editing humongous (as many other NaNoWriMo writers expect theirs to be)?

Wendy: The bulk of the first two books was written during NaNoWriMo. The basic story was there at the end of the process, but you are right in that this did involve a lot of editing. The books were reviewed and changed a number of times. The endings changed completely in both cases. This was because it suited the book better and gave a stronger climax to the story. Book four is going through the same process but will be edited and reworked in a lot of different ways before it is completed. I am working with an editor to ensure that the book is ready for publication.

  1. Question: Shona McKenzie is fierce, forthright, dominant and with a tendency to put her foot in it. If I met Shona McKenzie face-to-face, I don’t think I’d like her, although she’s great to read about. How did you develop this character? Or did she develop herself as you were writing?

Wendy: Before coming up with the character of Shona, I sat down and answered one hundred questions about her as though she were being interviewed. I did this with all the major characters in the books. I wanted her to be a strong female character as this is often missing in books. Women in literature can come across as vulnerable, and somewhat weak. Given that this is a crime book a fragile character would not work. I agree she is fierce and dominant, but I wanted to portray her as being funny, and in a lot of ways, caring. She did change as I wrote and rewrote the book. You are right about her being dominant. She started out as a lover of fine wine, but she soon informed me she preferred scotch whisky. This was a bit of a problem for me as a writer. I know a lot about wine, but knew nothing whatsoever about whisky. I now know more than I could ever need. .

  1. Question: Why did you choose to write crime fiction?

Wendy: I’ve been reading crime fiction pretty much since I could read. I cut my teeth on The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Famous Five and Secret Seven. I then moved on to Sherlock Holmes and any Agatha Christie I could lay my hands on. It’s been a love affair with crime books ever since. It was a natural progression into writing crime. Also, I had an idea for the first book and just ran with it. This developed into the Detective Inspector Shona McKenzie Mysteries.

  1. Question: Your police characters are always eating. Why is this?

Wendy: I was in the services for many years and food is a large part of institutional life. I know a lot of policemen and they say that there are always cakes and biscuits around the station. Food, eating and hospitality are also a part of Scottish Culture. They say that if you turn up to anyone’s house in Dundee, they’ll immediately say, “You’ll be staying for your tea?” I also wanted to give a flavour of Scotland through the food, hence the pehs, as Dundonians call a pie filled with spicy mince.

  1. Question: Shona is a serving police officer and, in your books, it is evident that you have a thorough knowledge of how the police work. What advice would you have for hopeful police-based crime writers about research? Particularly about familiarising themselves with police procedures.

Wendy: I have a very good relationship with the local police. One of the sergeants came around my house and spent a few hours telling me about everything. I try to stick to things as far as possible. However, I will give you the advice that both he and Val McDermid gave me. Do not write exactly what the police do. If you did that the reader would die of boredom by page three. As an example, the police in Scotland are not armed. If guns need to be used then specialist units step in. That wouldn’t work in a book as your main character needs to be the one to catch them. Tayside Police tweet about DI Shona running around the streets of Dundee with a gun in her hand. So my advice is be as true to life as possible whilst taking liberties where you need to.

  1. Question: As someone who has set up their own – very successful – publishing company and who has just returned from a promotional tour, have you any tips for other writers about promoting their books?

Wendy: When it comes to promoting books you need to be both proactive and bold.  Be enthusiastic about what you’ve written. Ask bookshops if they will take your books. The worst they can do is say no, and I have found most of them say yes. People who work in bookshops love books. Think outside the box and take every opportunity that you can without driving everyone up the wall. I have given talks in libraries, village halls, church halls and a primary school. Yes, you heard that right. I was the visiting author for Scottish Book week last year. The kids absolutely loved it and went home raving about it. I had them writing the opening to a crime book. The teacher said she had never seen them so enthused about writing. I have also done book signings in Costa Coffee, and in local cafes. People who see me in one place and don’t buy a book, often come to find me in another venue and buy signed copies. I buy postcards of my book covers on one side and the blurb and places to buy on the other. If anyone expresses an interest in my books I hand out the postcards. I also have postcards at book signings, if they are not taking place in a bookshop. Many people will take the postcards. I then find that I have a spike in sales on Kindle, Kobo, iBooks etc. The motto when it comes to promoting is seize the day.

Thank you very much, Wendy, particularly for your answer on publicity.  I don’t know about you, Dear Writer, but  it’s the getting it out there and persuading someone to read my work which terrifies me!

Firestarter_coverThis week we are privileged to have with us, Patsy Collins, whose latest novel, Firestarter, is being released in Kindle format today (5 November).  Read the first question in Patsy’s interview and you’ll see why 5 November was chosen as the launch date.   Although Firestarter has been available in paperback since September, I have to confess that I haven’t read it yet, because I read everything on Kindle.  I’m looking forward to it.

Patsy is a full-time writer, with 250 womag stories published (plus others in ezines and anthologies) , 4 novels and 2 books of short stories and is a frequent contributor to Writing Magazine.  Even though Patsy Collins, authorshe is now established, she provides helpful feedback to hopeful writers on writing forums and has been a wonderful writing friend and support to me for many years.  Below are the questions I asked her:

  1. Although Firestarter is available in paperback now, its launch on Amazon Kindle is scheduled for 5 November. Any connection with Guy Fawkes Day?
    Patsy:  Sort of. I think of 5th November as bonfire night, and as this book has plenty of metaphorical fireworks as well as a few flames, I couldn’t resist selecting that date.
  2. Firestarter is your fourth novel. Most novelists have ideas for three or four novels going round in their heads at any one time. Is Firestarter based on ideas which have been with you for a while or did it come to you quite quickly?Patsy:  I started writing Firestarter very quickly after I had the initial idea and just kept going. You’re right about having lots of ideas in my head at once though. There are two others roughly planned out and I have another in the very early stages of plotting.
  3. How do you plan your novels? Do you plan your novels, or are you one of those people who love to see a blank Word screen in the morning and to take it from there?

    Planning seemed to me like a bad idea before I tried to write a novel. I imagined that if I knew the major plot points and how it would come out in the end, it would be no fun to write. I was wrong about that and now plot first.

    My plots are just outlines really and I tend to add in more scenes as I work. As I learn more about the characters they help me to build up the story and provide extra twists and turns. (That bit will probably sound slightly mad to any non writer.)
    4. In Escape to the Country and A Year and a Day, I see your womag roots very clearly, but Paint Me a Picture – my favourite – is more serious. I once read that you took ten years to write Paint Me a Picture. Why was that?

Patsy:  It’s true – it did take that long. In part that’s because it didn’t start off as a novel. It was a short story which got out of hand. There was no planning at all. Not only did I not know how it would end, I wasn’t sure it ever would – before editing it was over 130,000 words.

5.  How do you fix on names for your characters? Mavis Forthright in Paint Me a Picture sticks in your mind like a Dickensian moniker and sums her up beautifully.

Patsy:  In that case you’ll like the Bakewell sisters, who’re sweet (and whom Mavis would probably consider a little tarty) Tony Salmon who’s a bit of a cold fish and Hamish Mustarde who’s hot stuff!

To start with I just pick names, especially first names, almost at random. They might be ones I’ve recently heard, or which come to mind as I type. Then if they don’t seem to fit I change them to something more suitable. Actually, it’s fairly rare that I do change names once I’ve started writing. Like people, characters seem to grow to fit their names, or sometimes react against them in a way which helps form their personality.

Surnames aren’t usually created until I need to put them in the text, so I know enough about the characters to select something appropriate by then.

6.  So far, all the main characters in your novels have been female. Would you ever contemplate writing a novel with a male main character, or do you take Jane Austen’s view about not knowing how men speak when women aren’t present?

Patsy:  Odd you should ask that, as I’m working on a novel for NaNo with a male main character.

I’ve written short stories from a male point of view and not found it to be a particular problem.

I take JA’s point – but I don’t know how fashion conscious young women or middle-aged spinsters talk when I’m not about either. If I stuck to only using characters who think and speak as I do, then I’d write nothing but my autobiography.

7. You always write with a third person point of view and in the past tense.  Is this because you feel more comfortable writing in this way?  Or do you have specific reasons for avoiding first person point of view and present tense? 

Patsy:  I suppose I do feel more comfortable with past tense. I’ve written short stories in present, but it’s harder (for me at least) to sustain it over a longer word count and I feel it can be more demanding to read too.

The choice between first and third person is down to the story. Some just seem to work better with one than the other. I use first quite often in short stories and my NaNo novel is currently in first person too.

8. We’re told over and over again that womag stories must convey lots of emotion.  Have you any hints for us about ramping up the emotion?   

Patsy:  Our own experiences can help us imagine how characters feel and act. Generally we won’t have been in the exact same situation, but that’s what imagination is for. When our character is in love, pain or danger then we should think back to when we were and recall and adapt the details.

I build up in layers. The first draft of the scene might just say ‘she fancied him’. Later I’ll think back to my nearest memory and add in what exactly attracted her – his smile perhaps. Then I’ll explain how that makes her feel and show her reacting to him. It wouldn’t matter if I’d never actually been attracted to a man’s smile. My emotions would be very similar if it had been his voice which I’d liked, or if I preferred women’s smiles.

When it comes to painful emotions, pick your time to write them. It will be upsetting, so make sure you can either do, or write, something more cheerful immediately afterwards.

Try to think of characters as real, complicated people. Even when we’re madly in love, our partner can annoy us. In the saddest of situations a funny incident can still raise a smile.


Thank you very much, Patsy.  I’m very proud report that Bachelor Boy, one of my favourite stories, has this week been published by A Long Story Short.

Available from Allison and Busby.

‘Drawing the Line’ is the first of a series of six books about Lina Townend, wild foster child turned restorer of antiques, living and working with the kindly, grandfatherly Griff (resting actor turned antique dealer).  Yes, Dear Reader, crime fiction again.   Lina, although very happy with Griff, still feels the need to find her own family.  Chancing, at an antiques fair, upon the front piece of a rare book, Naturum Rerum, which she remembers from childhood, she uses it to seek out the place where she read it and, she hopes, her natural father, but, because the book is so valuable, she sets in train a series of burglaries and violent assaults.   The storyline is involved and at times unclear, with some important points glossed over in a few sentences, such as the identity of the stallholder referred to as ‘the man from Devon’, and occasionally stretching the limits of probability too far, with Robin the curate appearing in his car every time Lina needs him to be there.  However, I didn’t mind any of this because the characters are all likeable, believable and well-defined and the story has pace and a real ‘feel good’ factor.   People ‘change sides’ throughout, tempted by the proceeds of crime or, in one character’s case, by ‘being a prat’.  Lina doesn’t know who to trust – except Griff – and we readers are challenged, asked to change our minds about characters all the time.  Lina herself makes one serious mistake about one baddy who turns out to be a goody.  Only one person, Lina remarked, really was who and what he said he was.

The great thing about Lina is that, although she has a huge chip on her shoulder through being in care and is antique-440337_640hardened and cynical, with an occasional tendency to lapse into a female Kevin,  she is emotionally tough and resourceful.  Lina will not let you down.  Unusually for a character in fiction, she is sensible and well-organised.  The story is written in the first person, from Lina’s point of view and in her distinctive voice.  Judith’s knowledge of antiques and the antique business is thorough, with warm stories of camaraderie between dealers, their ways of working and their etiquettes.

‘Drawing the Line’ does not fit as a title for this book – what line, where, how?  However, I would thoroughly recommend it and am ready to read the other five books about Lina Townend.  However, I now have the delightful duty of reading several books written by friends, starting with ‘Destiny’s Rebel’ by Philip S Davies and to be followed by ‘Mortal Fire’ by C F Dunn.  As well as reading, this week, I’ve cleared out the filing cabinet containing all our family paperwork, something which hadn’t been done for at least twenty years.  Dear Reader, it has taken me three whole days,  and left me feeling more physically worked out than if I’d taken proper exercise, you know, the sort you pay for at the gym.  I’ve also managed to pull a muscle/ trap a nerve at the top of my thigh (to put it politely).  At the moment, I’m applying Deep Heat and a microwaveable wheat cushion;  I really don’t feel I could ask a physiotherapist to massage my buttock.  I’m sure sitting on a comfy chair with my laptop and writing will sort it out.

For this post, I wanted to write one of those boring, mundane titles – like ‘QI (Quite Interesting)’ and ‘Not the Nine O’Clock News’ – which draw me in straightaway, but not other people.  Nothing Much Happened was what I had in mind because for writers, this is always a good thing.  If too much is going on in real life life, you can’t write, something I know that better than anyone.  The title above is still pretty boring – admit it – but don’t you feel compelled to read on, to think that something must lie behind it?

With nothing going on in my retired life, I managed to rewrite a story that I had first written for a course led by Sally Quilter in 2013.  Yes, Dear Reader, it took me a whole week, to work myself back into that story, to get my head into the characters again, at the same time taking on board comments made by Sally and other course colleagues, some two years ago.  I know that some writers can write a short story from start to finish in one sitting, make a pretty good fist of it, revise a few bits and sub it, but not me.   As I said, it took me a whole week, struggling with things, for example, like how to write, in a dramatic way, that a character fell over a cobblestone… until suddenly it all took off and then, not only was I ravenous to continue, but bloody determined to finish.   I couldn’t bear the thought of getting back into it all again.   Suddenly, I felt like a proper writer again.

This afternoon I posted the story in the Fiction thread of the Chapter SeventyNine writing community, for comment,  please, from any blog followers who are Ch79 members.  I have to confess that I haven’t been on Ch79 much over the last year or two, but I’ve already received useful reviews from two members.   I felt like I’d gone home.

I’ve also been in contact, through Facebook, with my published author Ian Ayris, whom I knew from my Writers Dock days (another writers’ support community).   The author of Abide With Me and a specialist in urban, gritty fiction, Ian is in the process of setting up a useful editorial agency (but it isn’t live yet).

I also ‘attended’ a webinar led by Anne Rainbow.  Using her Red Pen Editing Cycle, Anne has helped me and a lot of people improve their writing, both through Chapter SeventyNine and on the  defunct More Writing site.  Anne is now running a series of webinars and newsletters, introducing the Red Pen method as a whole – more information is on Patsy Collins’ website Words About Writing and Writing About Words.  The funny thing is that all that time I’d been teaching IT, I’d never taken part in a webinar.  Ho-hum.

I also read on the blog Sally Jenkins  some guidance on how to write a book review.  Sally was reporting on a talk given by book reviewer, Kim Nash, who says, amongst other things that, if you can’t write a nice review, don’t write a review at all.  I agree with that.

So that’s it, really.  A good week.  May all weeks be as productive and uneventful as this one.  As I don’t think I’ll be able to find an image which reflects the content of this post, here’s a photo of the aster, which is flowering in my garden at the moment.



I had an amazing day last Saturday (10 OctoberSt Peter's Church, Eaton Square 2015) at the ACW Writers Day, at St Peter’s Church, Eaton Square.  The speaker at this event, which was attended by upwards of 50 Christian writers,  was Bob Hartman, the American storyteller and writer of many children’s books, many of them Bible stories.  Bob rocked, literally.  His ice-breaker was to get all the grown-up writers to stand up and do the actions for a pre-schoolers’ story.  I’m not usually the one for that sort of thing, but Bob’s bubbling enthusiasm was infectious, even to wooden old me.  Later on he talked about finding the wow factor, and he hit his, bang in the middle, all day, throughout three hour-long sessions.

The event was billed as being for writers for children and young adults but, as I expected, much of what Bob had to say was relevant to all of us: the importance of character, setting and conflict; not including too much detail of setting when a book is to be illustrated (as most books for small children are);   the need to define and understand a problems and conflicts.  In too many stories, the writer hasn’t got a handle on what the real problem is.  The story of Jonah is a good example, because the problem isn’t the whale.  Instead, said Bob, think of the gourd tree at the end.  We talked a lot about how to write up Bible stories as stories, the importance of reading said Bible story first – pretty obvious, isn’t it? – and how to find out about your Biblical character out of just a few verses.  It was amazing how much was already there, ready to be picked out, and I suspect that, if we think for a moment about our own characters, we’ll be astounded about how much we know about them too.

Tea cupsI have recently become ACW competitions secretary.   My job for the day was to help with the teas and coffees – an excellent task for a newbie, enabling me to meet, and to put faces to, my fellow committee members, with whom I had been exchanging emails for several months, and to talk to many other writers.  Everybody was very supportive of each other and interested in their writing.  I came away wanting to do more writing… now.

For more information about the Association of Christian Writers, do take a look at the ACW Website and the ACW blog, and, if you know someone who is already a member, at the (print) Christian Writer magazine.  Membership costs just £28 by cheque or bank transfer or £25 for payments by annual Direct Debit.  As well as the writers’ days, benefits include fellowship and support, useful advice and information – and, of course, competitions.   My first competition as comps secretary will be trailed in the next edition of Christian Writer.  Watch this space.

I nearly didn’t get there because I struggled to locate the church building AND I missed my train home.  As my beloved aunt in Canada said, I truly have no sense of direction, having been far too entrenched, for far too long, in my home-to-college rat-run and too used to making the excuse that I had no time to do anything else.  None of the five or six people I asked was able to give me any sensible directions, as I charged up and down Belgravia streets at ten to ten in the morning, trying to get to an event which started at ten o’clock.  Nobody else ‘knows their London’ either, it appears.  One of them asked me for the St Peter’s Church post code, though.

Dear Reader, you may remember my post on the Anne of Green Gables Museum in August.  Since then I have written a piece The real 'Lake of Shining Waters'on the Museum for The Copperfield Review, which will appear in the autumn edition and, this weekend, the editor, Meredith Allard, has previewed it on her blog, together with some photos taken by my husband.

This morning, as I have a little time to myself, I have tried writing Morning Pages, using Word and tagging my Word document as I saved it.  It came out more like a journal entry, detailing what I was doing now and had been doing for the last few days, unfortunately, whereas I wanted it to be a place where I could set down thoughts and thoughts about settings and emotions which I could use in my writing later on.  I suppose these things will come with practice.  Does anyone know of any sites giving guidance on morning pages, please?  A cursory look on Google just brought up promotionals for journalling sites.

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