I've set up this blog so that all my friends, relations and colleagues in the world of writing can keep up to speed with what I'm doing - from now on, I'll never have to say sorry for not keeping in touch.

Or anyway, that's the plan.

So do please link up with me on Facebook and Twitter - https://www.facebook.com/margaret.james.5268 and https://twitter.com/majanovelist

You can find my novels as digital downloads on Apple iTunes, Kobo, Kindle and Nook, and most are available as print paperbacks, too.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Madness and mystery in Naples and Devon - chatting to Cathie Hartigan about her debut novel Secret of the Song

Hello, Cathie - welcome to my blog on this rainy morning! 

I'm delighted you've agreed to chat to me about your debut novel Secret of the Song, a time slip story set in Renaissance Naples and 21st century Devon.

MJ: What was the original inspiration for this novel?

CH: A few years ago when I was in a small choir we were given a song to sing by Carlo Gesualdo, one of the main characters in my book. I’d never heard of him. The music was difficult and we all got very grumpy. Although the music was written back in the 16th century, it sounded very discordant, almost avant garde. The choirmaster then told us about Gesualdo’s notoriety. When I did some research into his life, I was hooked.

MJ: What particularly attracted you to writing a time slip story?

CH: It was at the same rehearsal that I first wondered whether madness could be somehow transmitted in music such that it affected the musicians who performed it. When I think of those ‘maddening’ tunes that seem to go round and round in the head for days on end, earworms they’re called, then it seems quite likely. I thought I would write a contemporary novel about a singer finding out about Gesualdo and then wondering if a piece of music could be cursed, but when I read the witness statement by young Silvia Albana, I was so taken by her plight, that I decided to interweave her story. She was the seamstress and confidant to Gesualdo’s wife, a princess who behaved so recklessly that she endangered both herself and poor Silvia.

MJ: How do you work – are you a planner and are you most definitely in charge, or do you let your characters guide you into their stories and do you take your cues from them?

CH: I have a plan but it isn’t very exact, although I do know what the big questions are that I’m trying to answer. Writing a few chapters in order to really immerse myself in the world helps me too, and I get to know the characters more thoroughly. That’s usually when I pause and tighten up the plan.

MJ: As a classical musician and singer yourself, do you feel you have a mission to encourage more people to take an interest in classical music and – if so – was this one of your motives for writing this novel?

CH: I certainly felt I had a mission when I trained to be a music teacher but that was quite a long time ago. Now I think the best way to encourage anyone to do or enjoy anything is to be passionate about it. I absolutely love singing the sort of music I have written about and if I can enthuse my readers to go and listen to (or better still, sing) any Italian or English songs written during Tudor times, it would be fantastic.

MJ: Who is your favourite character in Secret of the Song?

CH: That’s very difficult because I’m so fond of several, but I think it’s got to be Mollie. She’s the precocious ten year-old daughter of Lisa, my contemporary heroine. There’s considerable negotiation that goes on between mother and daughter. There’s one particular scene I’m fond of where Mollie has a secret and Lisa is trying to find out what it is, even though she’s always told Mollie that secrets shouldn’t be revealed.

MJ: Do you have any tips for people starting to write a first novel?

CH: Ask yourself what your novel is about and keep asking until you can answer with confidence when someone asks you. Try practising on already published novels.
Think about your plot in terms of scenes. Start each one with intrigue and end with sufficient jeopardy (not necessarily life-threatening) to make your reader want to turn over.

Five quick questions

Do you feel more at home in a town or in the countryside?

I’ve lived in both and while I’m now more at home in a city, I do miss having the breathtaking beauty of the Devon countryside on my doorstep.

If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?

I love Devon so it would have be here, and I’m not a great traveller, but a small pad in London and perhaps the Dordogne, and somewhere near Florence, and maybe by the Med…

Who are your favourite composers?

I keep coming back to Bach when I play the piano, but I have a very eclectic mix of music on my phone. All sorts from the Renaissance period, but I also have Mozart, Brahms, Puccini, and quite a few albums by Pat Methany, the jazz guitarist.

Do you feel any other writers particularly influence your work?

I think all my reading has influenced me, but I remember loving a book by Barbara Trapido and thinking, she can turn the emotion on a pin. She could do funny and serious equally quickly and yet it didn’t jar. Could I do that?

What’s next on the writing agenda for you?

I have notes and a few chapters for two novels. One is a historical novel in which I revisit Renaissance Italy and it features one of the Catholic plots against Elizabeth I, and the other is a contemporary story about a restoring an old property in the face of considerable opposition. I’m not sure which novel will come first in my affection yet.

Thank you, Cathie - it was good to talk.  Many congratulations on the publication of this lovely novel, and here's to great sales now and in the future! 


Friday, October 9, 2015

Sophie Duffy talks about her latest novel

Bright Stars is Sophie Duffy's new novel, out this month and already twinkling in the Amazon skies! I caught up with Sophie yesterday when we had a coffee in the Debenham's cafe overlooking Exeter Cathedral, and we had a lovely chat about Sophie's story. It features four friends who were at university together and whose later lives don't quite work out in the way they might have expected - or planned. 

MJ: I see this novel is partly set at Lancaster University.  So were you a student there yourself and is this story based on any of your own experiences?

SD: Yes, I studied English there from 1986 to 1989 and I borrowed heavily from the landscape there at that time, both geographical and political. But the story and characters are most definitely fiction. I later got an MA in Creative Writing which I studied for by distance learning. It was strange going back for summer school and revisiting old haunts. Lancaster University is going from strength to strength and I think it’s quite a unique place to study. As long as you don’t mind wind and rain.

MJ: Where did the character of Cameron come from – did he walk into your head and say write about me, is he based on anyone you know?

SD: I wrote the first draft of Bright Stars in the third person from four points of view - Bex's, Tommo's, Christie's and Cameron’s. I wanted to show how four completely different people can become friends when they are thrown together in a confined space. But something didn’t quite work. Someone asked me whose story it was and that made me realise it was indeed Cameron’s story. So I didn’t set out to write in a Scottish man’s voice but that’s how it ended up.

MJ: How did you get into the mindset of a man?

SD: Cameron’s not a testosterone-fuelled man. He’s a sensitive soul. Doesn’t like sport or beer. He’s a little quirky and different and that’s the kind of character I like writing about, so I just went with it.

MJ: What’s your favourite part of the creative writing process?

SD: The last quarter of writing a novel, when it all starts to come together and makes a whole. I love it when that happens but it is a slog getting there.

MJ: Who are your own favourite authors and have any of them influenced your own writing?

SD: I love the Thomas Hardy and George Eliot – their use of flawed, complex characters has definitely informed my writing. I also love writers who use a sense of humour to show the extraordinary in the ordinary – David Lodge, Kate Atkinson, Barbara Pym are my favourites.

MJ: You’re a very successful contemporary novelist. Do you have any ambitions to write historical fiction?

SD: I would love to write an historical novel. In fact, my current work-in-progress begins in the 1920s, so I am creeping backwards… I would also love to write a ghost story and am mulling over some ideas.

MJ: What are you working on now?

SD: I’m writing about the life of a female undertaker – a profession that has always fascinated me. Not that I am morbid or anything.

MJ: As a prize-winning author who is also involved in mentoring and judging the work of other creative writers, do you have any tips for people just setting out on their creative writing journeys?

  • Do a writing class or join a writing group.
  • Read lots of current books.
  • Just write. Anything and everything. You have to write a lot of rubbish until something good bubbles up. 

MJ: Thank you, Sophie - it was good to chat!

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

When the weather outside is frightful, Christmas is so delightful...

What? It's only August! It's still high summer!

Yes, that's absolutely the case. But Christmas is coming and the CreativeWritingMatters team - that's Sophie Duffy, Cathie Hartigan and I - have been busy putting together an anthology of short stories, quizzes and puzzles for the festive season that we hope will make you feel all warm and cosy, whatever the weather.

We've written a selection of stories about all the aspects of Christmas that mean most to us. It's the season of goodwill, but at Christmas time there is often some tension in even the most loving families. What about those who have no families? Or who have been let down or hurt at the time of year when everyone feels it's their duty to be positive and happy? What does Christmas mean to them? We would like to share our thoughts with our readers.

As for quizzes and puzzles - we've done our best to make these sometimes easy, sometimes challenging, sometimes difficult and sometimes almost impossible. We hope there's something for everyone there - and, if you just can't get the final answer to the final puzzle, all is revealed at the end of the book.


Saturday, August 15, 2015

Valerie Holmes and I celebrate the publication of her new novel

Hello Valerie!
It’s lovely to have you here on my blog today.  Do help yourself to a cupcake. Chocolate or vanilla? I’ll just get the coffee frother going and then let’s talk about your lovely new novel for Endeavour Press: To Love, Honour and Obey.

Oh, a chocolate cupcake would be lovely!
 Please tell us about the genesis of this new novel – who or what inspired it?
The title conjured up the image of a man who had all three qualities, but the last one caused him inner conflict as he desired to be free to choose his own path in life. Beth, by contrast, has love  and life in abundance, but has been forced to obey. So it was one idea feeding into and evolving another.  

Where is it set, and why?
I often set my stories against the very beautiful and dramatic scenery of moor, dale, sweeping bays and the dramatic headlands of North Yorkshire, where I grew up. Great places for action and adventure. The region has a strong history of smuggling in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, which I find fascinating.  
You’ve written lots of short novels that have been successfully published.  This is a longer book.  How different was the writing experience?
It made a change to be able to take the storyline further and spend more time developing my characters. After having had 36 novellas published in print, which I have been uploading as eBooks, it made quite an enjoyable change and challenge.
I know you love history.  What is it about the past that’s so appealing?  Tell us about some historical novelists who have inspired you?  Whose readers do you hope will love your own longer stories?
I like to develop adventure wrapped around a romance or involving a love story. I have been inspired by many authors across the genres: Bernard Cornwell, Conn iggulden, Georgette Heyer, Daphne du Maurier, Diana Gabaldon and of course Winston Graham's Poldark. 
 What is next for Valerie Holmes, fiction-wise?
I am currently working on another novel The Ebton Legacy, which will be set within the North Yorkshire region, and also the second mystery in the Nick Penn series to follow Dead to Sin, called Dead Man's Pain. I also have an entirely new project beginning in 2016 and more titles to prepare of my backlist, so I have a lot more work in progress.
I also have a number of short stories on www.alfiedog.com
As the author of over thirty novels that have been published in paperback, large print and as ebooks, what advice would you give a new writer just setting out on the journey?
Study the markets by all means, but write what you feel passionate about and enjoy the experience. Be determined, dedicated and keep learning as you develop your craft. Keep writing and don't give up if you really want to make it through. 
You teach creative writing.  Do you feel everyone has the potential to become a storyteller?  Or are storytellers born rather than made?
There are many skills a writer that can be taught. However, the imagination and passion have to come from the person. So I believe everyone has the potential to be able to write a story. 
Five Quick Questions
 Do you prefer:
 Cat or dog? Dog
 Town or countryside? Coast :)
 North or south? Ooh - I enjoy both for different reasons. I live in one and enjoy visiting the other.
Present day or the past? Oh, that is easy - definitely the present. I love reading about the past, but prefer to have the creature comforts, technology and freedom of the present day.
Company or solitude? Company - friends and family are very important to me.
Thank you, Valerie.  It’s been great to talk to someone as inspiring as you.  Good luck with the new novel!
Thanks so much, Margaret, for inviting me and for your  support.
Love the adventure!
New book release - buy To Love, Honour and Obey on Amazon!

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

RNA Conference 2015

The highlight of my year - or one of them, at least - is always the annual RNA Conference.

The Conference is held in various locations all over the UK. But this year it took place at Queen Mary, University of London, where I went to university myself 25 (ahem - well, I do make things up for a living) years ago. QM is to be found in the heart of London's East End and has always been an amazing place. While I was there as a student, I had a really good time. I got an education, too.

Conference organiser Jan Jones did a brilliant job once again and we're all hugely grateful to Jan. Who could ever take over from our lovely Jan and her sidekick, the indefatigable Roger Sanderson? Organising a conference for the RNA makes herding cats look like a breeze in a brewery. Yes, I love a good mixed metaphor!

It was great to see so many old friends again. These are people I've known most or even all my writing life, and with whom I keep in touch via private messaging and social media. But it's always wonderful to see them again, have a chat and a hug and (of course) a glass or two of wine. Hello again, Freda, Jane, Linda and Rhoda - looking good, ladies!

Some highlights of the Conference this year  - and this is the result of a quick poll I did at the Conference itself - were talks by various members of the RNA, particularly the sessions given by Julie Cohen, Rowan Coleman, Liz Harris, Sue Moorcroft and Pia Fenton. Below, Pia and Sue show us how to get inside our characters' heads and also inside some very gorgeous kimonos that Pia has collected over the years on her many visits to Japan.

It wasn't all work and chatting.  There was time for some leisurely walking and idling. I made some new feathered friends by the canal, which back in the day was full of coal barges and wasn't a pretty sight, but is now home to a wide variety of wildlife and a few houseboat people, too. Who would have imagined finding this almost rural tranquillity in the heart of London's old East End, which was bombed to bits during WW2 and was once home to some of the poorest, most disadvantaged slum dwellers in the UK?

The gala dinner on Saturday evening was wonderful. Perfect service, lovely food, a great atmosphere - who could ask for anything more? The last time I was in the Octagon Library I was revising for my finals, which was a far less jolly occasion. But it was time well spent. I got my degree.

What do writers need in order to be happy? One fabulous venue, to which we'll add a mix of industry gossip, general catching up and great food that we didn't have to cook ourselves.Then we'll all go home inspired and happy. My fellow Choc Lit authors and I were delighted to meet up for a group photograph and you'll see we scrub up really well. I think so, anyway!

See you all again next year!

Sunday, June 21, 2015

A patchwork of history

What do writers do all day?

When they're not writing, they're imagining, and sometimes they go on outings to fascinating places, which is what a group of Exeter Writers did yesterday.

A group of writers prepares to boldly go...

We went to Poltimore, which some of you might remember from the BBC's Restoration series. Alas, Poltimore didn't win, so it's still waiting for a zillionaire with a stack of cash to happen along.

Do we need hard hats?
No, we're writers - we're hard enough!

As a nation, we're practically buried under the layers of our history. Devon is particularly rich in history, featuring the Jurassic Coast charting the birthdays of the world from aeons before human beings came along to, more recently, some astonishing buildings in various states of magnificence or - sadly - decay.

Poltimore House near Exeter is in a state of decay and needs millions spent on it. Well, if it's to be restored to anything like its former glory it does. When it was sold by the Bampfylde family in the early years of the 20th century, its decline had already begun, and its subsequent tenants did little to preserve its beauty. It became a girls' school, then a boys' school, then a private hospital, then an NHS hospital, and finally a private nursing home. But, as costs mounted, its resources diminished and  finally it was abandoned. The vandals moved in, stealing, stripping, looting, scavenging and burning. It's now home to a very vocal flock of jackdaws, lots of pigeons and a few bats. Some of its former magnificence still remains, however, and there are many features worth preserving.

The Tudor Tower and Courtyard

The Georgian Plasterwork

The Entrance Hall

Nowadays, several teams of volunteers, who are determined the place should be magnificent once again, are working on its restoration. We salute their efforts and can assure you Poltimore is well worth a visit. Anyone who is interested in volunteering to get involved in the restoration project can get in touch via Poltimore's website -  http://www.poltimore.org/

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

A feast of midsummer gorgeousness

Today, my special guest is Alison May, whose delicious romantic comedy Midsummer Dreams is published this June, appropriately enough at midsummer!

Welcome, Alison – come in, sit down, have a glass of something light and sparkly and some chocolate-coated strawberries?

Thank you kindly. *swigs enthusiastically*

These days, you’re making quite a name for yourself with your brilliant adaptations of the storylines from some of Shakespeare’s plays. What made you choose A Midsummer Night’s Dream as the inspiration for your new book?

Well obviously A Midsummer Night’s Dream was a serious and considered choice. What definitely didn’t happen was that I went to my first meeting with my publisher and panicked and said the first Shakespeare play that came to mind when she asked what I’d be working on next. That absolutely and categorically didn’t happen at all.

I think what did entice me about A Midsummer Night’s Dream was the way that it interleaves fairies and magic with the ‘real world’ characters. I write what I tend to call ‘rationalist romance’ so I knew I didn’t want it to be a paranormal novel, so the challenge was how to bring the magic in while staying in the ‘real’ world.
Tell us a little about the heroes and heroines of your story?

There are four main characters and they’re all a little bit broken at the start of the story, although I don’t think they necessarily know that themselves. Dominic and Emily have got their lives all mapped out. Alex has no plan at all, but thinks that suits him just fine. Maybe the fourth character, Helen, is the only one who realises that she’s stuck in limbo. Although I don’t think she has the smallest clue what to do to change her situation.

I like writing about characters who are trapped in some way, usually by their own flaws or failings, and all four main characters in Midsummer Dreams definitely fall into that category.

Did you have any input when it came to designing the gorgeous summery cover? What does it tell us about the novel?

The cover is all down to the genius of Berni Stevens. I think what it tells you about the novel is summed up by both the images and the tagline – Four people. Four messy lives. One night that changes everything.

I love the way the characters on the cover almost look like they’re penned in by the foliage around them. It’s beautiful but at the same time maybe a tiny bit claustrophobic? Mainly when I look at this cover though, I just jump up and down shouting ‘So pretty! So pretty!’

I hope you’ll be happy to share a little background stuff with me? Do you come from a family of writers or are you the family maverick? When did you first decide you wanted to write fiction, and what drew you to romantic fiction in particular?

I’m not from a family of writers, but I am from a family of readers. I remember trips to the library with my mum from a very young age, and I grew up in a house full of books and bookshelves.

I’m not entirely sure what drew me to romance. I do read a lot of romantic comedy and contemporary women’s fiction. I love writers like Marian Keyes, Mhairi McFarlane, Sarra Manning, Julie Cohen and Jane Lovering. So probably it just comes down to writing what I love!

Do your heroines take after you in any way? Or are they the kind of person you would like to be?

I seem to write two different ‘types’ of heroine. The ones that are outwardly confident – like Trix in Sweet Nothing or Helen in Midsummer Dreams, and the type who wear their neuroses on their sleeves – most obviously Henrietta in Sweet Nothing, but also the heroine I’m writing at the moment, Jessica. I’m probably more the first type myself, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have any neuroses; I just do my best to save them up and put them in a book!

Planner, vague outliner or planning phobic – when it comes to working out the storyline in a novel, who are you?

It varies. I seem to be becoming more of a planner as I get older and more haggard and world weary. For Sweet Nothing and Holly’s Christmas Kiss  I started with nothing but the vague plot idea, and then I wrote into the ether and hoped for the best. Now I tend to have at least a few notes and an idea of the shape of the book before I start. It almost always changes massively as I write though.

Five quick questions:

What is your best time of day for writing?

Morning. Or very late at night.

Who are your favourite romantic hero and heroine?

Benedick and Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing. Closely followed by the Doctor and River Song from Doctor Who.

If you could interview any historical figure, real or imaginary, who would it be and why?

The Doctor. Because he’s the Doctor and, well just because he’s the Doctor. Failing that I would have loved to have met Terry Pratchett. I’m genuinely gutted that I’ll never get the chance.

Do you have any special non-writing ambitions?

To fly away in the TARDIS. Are you sensing a theme here?

What’s next on the agenda for Alison May? I bet it’s not updating Titus Andronicus

Yeah – I’m going to do a rom com version of Titus Andronicus. Why ever not? Seriously, I’m just getting my third Christmas Kisses book ready to send off to my publisher. That story is all about Jessica, a woman who had the perfect first kiss but followed it up with a disastrous marriage.

After that, I’m not quite sure yet. There are certainly Shakespeare comedies I’d still love to adapt, but I might do something a little bit different first. Watch this space…

Four people. Four messy lives. One party that changes everything …

Emily is obsessed with ending her father’s new relationship – but is blind to the fact that her own is far from perfect. 

Dominic has spent so long making other people happy that he’s hardly noticed he’s not happy himself. 

Helen has loved the same man, unrequitedly, for ten years. Now she may have to face up to the fact that he will never be hers. 

Alex has always played the field. But when he finally meets a girl he wants to commit to, she is just out of his reach. 

At a midsummer wedding party, the bonds that tie the four friends together begin to unravel and show them that, sometimes, the sensible choice is not always the right one.

About Alison

Alison was born and raised in North Yorkshire, but now lives in Worcester with one husband, no kids and no pets. There were goldfish once. That ended badly.

Alison has studied History and Creative Writing, and has worked as a waitress, a shop assistant, a learning adviser, an advice centre manager, and a freelance trainer, before settling on 'making up stories' as an entirely acceptable grown-up career plan. 

Alison is a member of the Romantic Novelists' Association, and won the Elizabeth Goudge Trophy in 2012. She writes contemporary romantic comedies, published by Choc Lit. In addition to Midsummer Dreams, she is also the author of Sweet Nothing and the Christmas Kisses series.

You can find out more about Alison’s books at www.alison-may.co.uk/books/ or by following her on Twitter @MsAlisonMay