‘You’ll know her by her brown wavy hair, healthy tanned face and of course she’ll be wearing lipstick.’
Those were the instructions my Western Isles friend Jean gave to her neighbour who was collecting me from the ferry in Stornoway last week. I’d met the girl once before two years ago and she was supposed to recognise me by that description (and she did!).
It made me think about how we describe characters and what we might consider important. Jean might well have said, ‘She’s middle aged, a bit overweight and has ten-to-two feet.’
When Jones and I were serving our creative writing apprenticeship working together and apart on our debut novel ‘Eight of Cups,’ we had not only to create characters in our respective heads but also communicate with each other so that we shared a common perception and sense of who each of these people were.
As a result of that process we developed a very useful ‘Character Descriptor Sheet’ which I’ll be sharing at the Mirren Jones workshop, ‘Is There a Novel in You’ in Blairgowrie, Perthshire on 12th October, as part of the Bookmark Blair book festival. It’s a light hearted interactive event designed to generate ideas for stories, work up characters and share tips and tricks. For example, we always select and allocate an astrological sign to each of our characters. Research around typical characteristics of each star sign can help us to enrich character descriptions and their actions.
The theme for this year’s Blairgowrie Book Festival, Bookmark Blair, is PLACE.
‘A strong sense of place is important for transporting your readers to the world of your story. A well-crafted sense of place is often said to be like another character in the story, adding depth and a unique atmosphere’. Fiona Thackeray.
I’m looking forward to attending Fiona Thackeray’s writing workshop on the Saturday morning 11th October, as I am well aware that my powers of description nowhere near match my ability to write dialogue. In her writing, my co-author Jones is far more accomplished and focused on the external world than I am and we have had to learn to shift our natural writing styles to become more similar, and allow the story to become more internally coherent.
Having recently returned from The Isle of Lewis where Eight of Cups was conceived and progressed, I am reminded of how important place can be to mood, action and intention. In the Outer Hebrides, the weather and the landscape reduce man’s presence to something far less significant than is normally experienced. It is a place of big skies, racing clouds, beautiful rainbows, swirling and powerful winds, stunning beaches, bleak and silent moors and an ever-changing environment in which any action must take place.
It’s summer. The sky here in Perthshire is heavy with threatening rain clouds and we keep fingers crossed that the weekend will stay dry. It’s also the season for lists. That time of the year when the newspapers run out fresh ideas to fill their many column inches.
Having worked in academia and in organisational development in all sectors of the NHS for many years I (Mirren) am very familiar with giving feedback. There are recommended techniques and formulas. For example, Pendleton’s rules focus on the appraisee:
• ensure that she is ready to receive feedback;
• ask for her observations first before you share yours;
• focus on what has gone well;
• rather than count her faults, jointly identify and agree areas for improvement.
That’s all fine and well. I’ve been appraised many times and been handled both gently and harshly. One boss who didn’t like me airing my views in an open forum because they differed from his, almost reduced me to tears when he asked for ‘a quiet word’.
Recently, however, I’ve experienced feedback of a different kind. Not about the quality of my work, or my level of understanding or development. More about how I look and sound.
Jones and I agreed we needed some more recent photographs. So it started with a professional photo-shoot. John from Alyth Photography came to the house, brought a flattering background cloth, positioned me so that my best side was apparently on-show and taught me to stand with my body at an angle and my face to the front to minimise my width! I can’t fault his work but I was shocked at the final result. Was that matronly woman really me? Great photo! everyone said. Shows that even positive feedback can hurt!
Kirkmichael Summer Festival hosted a ‘Meet the Author event’ last month.
The concept of light has always been important to me. I love the sunlight, prefer being out of doors, hate the dark, and loathe the short winter days. From a recognised date in October, until the sun begins to return to this hemisphere, I suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder due to lack of light.
When it comes to writing and being productive, I can reflect back happily on two months during winter 2011, on mornings spent writing in Tenerife, after a leisurely cup of tea on the sun-bathed balcony. Eight weeks and a third of a book drafted, with still time to show visitors around, visit local markets, dine out on wonderful fresh fish and walk daily unencumbered by coat, hat or scarf.
The Canary Islands in winter are home to many creative snowbirds, headed south for the ideal conditions to live out their intended life.
We’re delighted to welcome author Valerie Holmes today as our first Guest on Mirren Jones’ Diary. Valerie is a well-established writer, having had over 30 titles published by Linford Romance/Mystery series, which are now finding their way into the eBook world. She writes both contemporary and historical novels. She is also an experienced creative writing tutor, working with The London School of Journalism and Writing Magazine.
MJ: Hello Valerie – it’s great to have you as our very first guest here – thank you so much for agreeing to be interviewed.
VH: Thank you for asking me as a guest onto your blog. It is very kind of you both.
MJ: We’ve lots of questions for you Valerie, but let’s start with one about the very thing we’re engaged in right now – Guest Interviews. We’re hoping we meet your high standards on this with our interview because you’re very successful and well-versed in conducting fascinating Author interviews yourself – you’ve 19 on your Blog (starting in January 2013, at the rate of one per month) with well-known and award-winning authors such as Peter Lovesey and Jo Beverley.
VH: That is very generous of you to say so.
MJ: What is the particular appeal of these interviews for you personally, and how do you go about choosing authors for upcoming slots on your blog?
VH: When I decided to open a blog, I wanted it to be a place that would share inspiration and experience. I have been fortunate to meet some very experienced authors in my career to date, who have served their apprenticeship. Their careers and advice are inspirational and I hope that new writers who read my blog would find them so too.
How can two people write a novel together? How do you decide who will write what? And what happens when you disagree?
In 2008, Elaine Atkins from Wales and Marion Duffy from Scotland published their debut novel Eight Of Cups under the pseudonym ‘Mirren Jones’. Their second novel, Never Do Harm, will be published later this year.
When out and about at ‘Meet the Author’ events, members of the audience are at first full of questions about the practicalities of co-authorship – the what, where, when and how of writing as Mirren Jones.
Very quickly, however, the talk turns to inter-personal issues, such as who’s in charge? And what do you argue about? It’s an intriguing phenomenon – a fiction-writing partnership.
Successful song writing partnerships roll off the tongue – Lennon and McCartney, Roger…