Using questions to …

Using questions to incorporate your research into the storyline

This is a technique beloved of crime writers everywhere. The “rookie” asks the “expert” a question which allows the writer to explain background information, character analysis, the howdunnit and the expert analysis. It is a technique which you can use to incorporate the technical information into your story.

One way to do this, is to create a scene where one person is an “expert” and has to explain something to a newbie. It could be a sailor explaining how to tie knots to a trainee or a coroner explaining how to carry out a procedure on a dead body.

This technique is also a good way of getting your research into your story , as long as it is not overused. In my novel Weaver of Words, I wanted to explain to the reader how the process of creating and distributing underground works happened in 1970s Czechoslovakia. I created the character of a printer whose job it was to distribute the retyped manuscripts. The group leader explained to a new convert how the process happened and her role in it. In this way, I incorporated the material I had gathered from a printing museum. The new recruit asked enough questions to keep that section of the story moving and set up the next part of the story.

Used sparingly, this is, I think, a good technique to use.



The books which have inspired me as a writer and helped me learn my trade


Years ago, when I was thinking of becoming a writer, I consulted a few how-to-books by well-known writers and then went on to read their novels to see how their ideas worked in practice.

One of my favourites back in the 1990s was Rita Mae Brown. I read her book Starting from Scratch: A Different Kind of Writer’s Manual (1988), which contained lots of ideas for a beginner writer. And, of course, I read lots of Rita Mae’s own books. Back in those days it was harder to get information about publishers and so on, so this was a really useful manual.

I also owned Patricia Highsmith’s Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (1989) as well as several of her books.

Many years later, when the idea of fiction writing re-entered my head, I looked at other manuals for budding writers. A key text was The Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery written by Robert J. Ray and Jack Remick (1998). The large number of post-it notes inside the book shows how I used it to plot various novels. It is an excellent guide for anyone starting out as a mystery writer. The ideas for character development and plotting are extremely useful.

I have owned several different editions of Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction: A Guide to the Narrative Craft (7th ed. 2006). This is a book which never fails to help and guide. The short stories and extracts demonstrate how the techniques work in practice. Her insights into the writing process are both profound and encouraging. She notes that “most of the time spent writing is not spent putting words on the page.” (2000: 13) So true. I recently spent an entire week flicking through the internet and reading articles about my topic before setting down to type.

Finally, in the list of writing manuals I must mention Derek Neale’s A Creative Writing Handbook (2009), which I have just pulled out of my backpack. What a wealth of information and ideas there are in this book! Like Burroway’s book, there are lots of extracts from successful writing to show you how it can be done.

The fiction books I have read are far too numerous to mention. I am sure that, in some way, practically everyone has had some influence of my writing. The novels which are currently finding their way into my hands time and time again are small classics. Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop is a masterpiece of condensed writing. I love the way she can convey information and atmosphere in such a controlled fashion. The short, sharp sentences say all that needs to be said. Stephen Isherwood’s writing in A Single Man is sparse but powerful. It is a masterpiece of writing. The film, I have to say, is a wonderful companion to the book.

I have been learning how to create characters from Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. This is a marvellous book set in a small town and dominated by one character. From Olive herself, and the people who have been affected by her, we learn about her as an individual. She may not be the nicest character you have read about but Strout presents all sides of her story so in the end you understand her. I read this book straight through so as not to miss any of the nuances. It is a lovely lovely thing.

Always behind the scenes are the novels of Carol Shields. I find myself referring back to her characterisation and storytelling time and time again. Her final novel, Unless, has been one of my favourites since it was published. The storyline is not an easy one to read but it is told so beautifully that I have to keep going back to it.

A thread on a web-forum has just alerted my to The Writing Life by Annie Dillard (1990). The extract I have read looks promising. I can see this book in my hands with a day or two. Why have I never heard of her before? I note that according to Wikipedia she has been influenced by Thoreau, Emerson and de Chardin. It seems to me that I have much to learn from this writer.

The search for inspiration and advice never ends. I read practically every newspaper or article I get my hands on about the writing process. I read books regularly. Some of the books I read are old favourites. Some are books new to me. Once discovered all books have enlightened me in some way whether they were, in my opinion, good or bad books. Not all the books I have read have held my interest to the end but I have admired the craft behind them. And I shall carry on reading and writing.


Deep Writing


Prepared text for a modern printing press

I recently read an article on the topic of “Deep Writing,” in which the author advises that writers need to park their worries and concerns before they start writing. I think that is an excellent point – it is difficult to write when stressed or worried. It is only natural that these stresses get in the way of the though process.

The writer recommends several techniques to create that special kind of “writing world” that “real” writers seem to inhabit. These involve setting timers, parking worries in a box outside the door, not checking emails or websites until the day’s writing is done, writing a set amount each day and so on.

I am NOT one of those writers who can write everyday. In fact, I sometimes don’t write for a whole week. I might think about writing but I don’t do it. As a writer of historical fiction, I spend a lot of time fact-checking and in the process get carried away looking at interesting things which are not necessarily relevant. I think I am a more rounded person because I learn all kinds of random things from the internet. I am not sure I am going to find much use for today’s nugget that the Duchess of Wessex has a computer database of all her clothes, but you never know.

However, I can enter a kind of writing zone when I want to. The whole of this week I have been doing my research with the backdrop of builders working overhead. I got a surprising amount done, considering the noise they made, and happily immersed myself in Wikipedia and various YouTube films. When they disappeared on Thursday evening, I was wound up enough to sit at my laptop and make major revisions to chapter one. Then, I went back to doing other things. I plan to work on chapter two tomorrow but there’s no hurry. The story will come when it is ready.

I sometimes wonder if I would write more if I didn’t have to go out and earn a living. I don’t think I would. I do “deep writing” when my brain tells me it is ready to write. When my brain is distracted then I do other things. Somehow or other, I seem to get to the end of the novels and produce, I think, something worth reading. That, I think, is the aim.

BTW the writer of the original article has had hundreds of articles etc published. That is impressive.

I include the original article for your perusal:




Commiting to the process

I have decided to title this submission “commiting to the process” because that is what I am doing right now. I am commiting myself to the process of editing the second part of my novel based on the KGB Headquarters in Riga and also to the process of preparing the book for publication. In the way that I work, the writing and the preparation for publication happen at pretty much the same time. While I write I think about the blog, the website and the Facebook page. I also think about future readers.

I published the first part of the novel as a stand alone book called Living with the Enemy. At 90 printed pages it was a novella more than a book. I formatted the book, set it up in CreateSpace, Photoshopped a cover and then uploaded the whole thing. After a few weeks, I decided that while I like the title Stura maja for both parts, I do not really like for the first part only. So, I created a new cover with a modified title and uploaded it.

The problem was that there was no title on the spine and no blurb at the back. So, I went back to the drawing board and downloaded the file from CreateSpace to create an integrated cover. Now it looks more like a professional book.

I also went through my epub version on the book and found some typos. I corrected them in the manuscript. This allowed me to reconnect with the book properly for the first time in two months. Now, I am ready to edit the second half of the story and am commited to the process of producing the best book I can with the writing tools (myself and my knowledge) I have at my disposal right now. It may not be the best book I write but it will have been written with due dilligence.

Now that summer is here and my winter job over, I can commit myself once again to the process of being a writer. I can permit myself to take time away from earning a living to writing and completing at least one writing project. I feel, already, as though a weight has been lifted off my shoulders and my fingers can fly over the keyboard once again.