On the Shelf: December 2022 reads

In December 2022 I read:

  • The List by Carys Jones
  • The Festival by Sarah J Naughton
  • Good Girl, Bad Blood by Holly Jackson
  • Silent Victim by Caroline Mitchell
  • Stay Close by Harlan Coben
  • As Good as Dead by Holly Jackson
  • Dead Man’s Footsteps by Peter James

The List and The Festival were both great psychological thrillers – fast paced with interesting characters. I particularly liked the setting of a music festival which made for lots of chaos and confusion. The tension between the reunited friends was also very realistic.

Good Girl, Bad Blood and As Good as Dead by Holly Jackson are the second and third books in the A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder trilogy and I enjoyed them both. I would definitely read more of Holly Jackson’s novels. I particularly liked the main character in this trilogy and her feisty attitude!

My favourite books of 2022

I read 96 books in 2022.

My favourite books (in the order I read them) were:

  • Call of the Penguins by Hazel Prior
  • The Dying Day by Vaseem Khan (The Malabar House Mysteries #2)
  • Bullet Train by Kotaro Isaka
  • The Burning Girls by C J Tudor
  • Sea Defences by Hilary Taylor
  • Magpie by Elizabeth Day
  • A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson
  • Dirty Little Secrets by Jo Spain
  • The House in the Cerulean Sea by T J Klune
  • The Foundling by Stacey Halls
  • It Ends with Us by Colleen Hoover
  • The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

On the Shelf: November 2022 reads

In November 2022, I read:

  • The Foundling by Stacey Halls
  • You Don’t Know Me by Imran Mahmood
  • Hide by Nell Pattison
  • It Ends with Us by Colleen Hoover
  • Insomnia by Sarah Pinborough
  • Letters to my Daughter’s Killer by Cath Staincliffe
  • The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar
  • Good Girl, Bad Girl by Michael Robotham
  • Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker (non-fiction, research)

Two of my favourite books this month were historical fiction: The Foundling by Stacey Halls and The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar. In both cases, it was the characters that really drew me into these stories as much as the setting.

You Don’t Know Me was adapted into a TV series which I watched earlier in the year, so I already knew the plot. It’s a very powerful book exploring racism and the criminal justice system.

I read It Ends with Us by Colleen Hoover in one sitting! I literally could not put this down. I really wanted to read Colleen Hoover’s books because they are so popular, and I can see why. Again, it’s the main character that absolutely hooks you in. At first, I thought this was going to be a standard romance but then things take a darker turn, and you just have to keep reading to find out what happens next.

Letters to my Daughter’s Killer was a re-read. This book had a profound effect on me when I first read it. It’s a very moving story about grief, anger and forgiveness.

Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker was research for my next book. This is a fascinating insight into why and how we sleep and the impact it has on our physical and mental health. It’s also very accessible and easy to read if, like me, you’re not much of a scientist.

An interview with…Hilary Taylor

I was very fortunate to read a proof of Hilary Taylor’s debut novel, Sea Defences, which is due out on 12 January next year.

Sea Defences is a stunning debut with evocative descriptions, strong characterisation and a simmering tension which builds to a thrilling finale. Fans of Broadchurch, in particular, will love this book. 

In this blog post, Hilary talks about her journey to publication and what she’s working on next.

Please introduce yourself and your new book

Hello Sarah. Thank you for hosting me on your blog. I’m Hilary Taylor. I live in Suffolk and worked for many years as a primary school teacher. My debut literary novel, Sea Defences, will be published by Lightning Books (eye-books.com) on 12 January 2023. It tells the story of Rachel, a trainee vicar who learns the terrifying power of the North Sea when her six-year-old daughter goes missing on the beach. She is drawn into an unlikely friendship with defiant loner, Mary, whose son is nursing a secret. The book has been described as a searingly honest psychological drama. 

When did you start writing? Can you tell me about your journey to publication?

I started writing seriously and submitting my work about 25 years ago, in the days of postage stamps and padded envelopes and actual paper rejection slips. It’s been a long road! 13 years ago I began entering short story competitions – and winning prizes, which spurred me to keep going with longer work as well. Although I had plenty of full manuscript requests from agents, none of them wanted to represent me (except one, who tried to sell a couple of picture books I’d written). My short fiction continued to do well, and in 2018 one of my stories won third prize in the Bath Short Story Award. That story, also titled Sea Defences, was the basis for this novel. Again, I had interest from agents, but no takers, and then a fellow writer suggested Lightning Books. I submitted, and a few weeks later they offered me a deal.

Sea Defences is your debut novel. How have you found the experience so far? Was there anything that surprised you?

I’m guessing that the experience of working with my small indie publisher (who, incidentally, was a British Book Awards Small Press of the Year regional winner in 2022) is very different from what it would be with a bigger publisher and an agent. It’s a year since I signed the deal, and throughout that time I have worked directly with one main person at Lightning Books, as well as being able to talk to the ‘boss’! Communication has been excellent, so I know what’s happening and feel involved at every stage.  I don’t think anything has surprised me yet – apart from the fact that I’m a published novelist at last!

Who are your favourite authors?

The ones that spring to mind are Rose Tremain, Helen Dunmore, Susan Hill, Carys Bray, Rachel Joyce, Patrick Gale, Claire Fuller, Joanna Cannon. And when I’m in the mood for crime, my go-to author is Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine.

What advice would you give to other people wanting to write?

  1. Read. It’s probably true that most writers write the kind of books they like to read. Maybe don’t over-analyse, but it’s worth thinking about why you like those books. How does the author do it? And if you read something you don’t like so much, think about the reasons for that, too.
  2. Write. No rules about how or when. Just do it. Hone your craft by practising, and by reading books about writing if they are helpful. But remember that there’s no single right way of doing things.
  3. Even if you aim to write long, write some short pieces from time to time. It feels different, and can be refreshing. And writing to a limited wordcount is excellent practice for cutting out the unnecessary. When I was researching life in the 1940s for my current work-in-progress, reading about ‘Make do and Mend’ gave me the idea for a flash fiction piece which went on to win second prize in the Flash500 competition.
  4. Find your writing community, even if it’s just one or two others. Writers can be a very supportive bunch.
  5. Learn how to pick yourself up and carry on when your submissions get turned down. Think about what success looks like for you. It’s different for different people.

Finally, what are you working on now?

I’m writing the first draft of a novel set partly in the 1940s and partly in the 1990s. The idea was sparked by a page in an old family photo album, where some photographs had been removed. Alongside the captions was an ambiguous note, written years later in spidery handwriting, mentioning an adoption which none of my family members had ever heard about. A mystery surrounded the identity of one person. Intrigued, I explored a series of ‘what if’ questions, and the novel idea began to take shape.

You can order Sea Defences from eye-books.com as well as via Amazon, Waterstones and other bookshops.

Follow Hilary on Twitter and Instagram: @hilarytaylor00

Writing a Book: Week Four – Getting Creative

My first draft is MESSY! Really messy!

Yesterday I decided to change the plot extensively. It was too predictable. Everything felt like it had been done before. The plot felt OK when I did the synopsis but when I came to actually writing the scenes, I found I was getting bored and that wasn’t a good sign.

So, I gave my characters free rein. One of them decided to marry the bad guy – which definitely wasn’t in my original plan – and a new point-of-view voice emerged. My main characters also aged a decade. They might go back to being younger at some point.  

I’ve lost control of my story!

But I think that’s a good thing. It’s alright having a plan, but if it’s not working, then you just have to throw it out of the window and see what happens. There is no point in resolutely sticking to a plan that you know isn’t right.

Life has taken over a bit this week and as a result, I have slipped behind on my schedule. I had planned to write the first 20,000 words of the first draft by the end of August, but I have only managed 16,028.

I am not overly worried about this. I have redone my schedule so instead of aiming to finish the first draft by Christmas, I have given myself another month. As this book is not under contract, this isn’t a problem. Hopefully I will now finish the first draft by the end of January 2023.

Writing a book, week 3: developing characters

This week I have been mostly working on and thinking about the main character (MC) in my novel.

At the moment, my entire story is told from a single point of view, which is unusual for me. There are two timelines, so my character is talking in the past and in the current day (and at times, when she was a young teenager) so in total there are three voices, all belonging to the same character. I am trying to make these voices different because circumstances have changed her outlook on life. All of them are written in close third person.   

There are lots of personality quizzes you can complete online to develop your characters, but I find the best way to get to know my characters is just to write and think like them as much as possible. I often do ‘free writing’ where I will write as my character about what is happening to me or something that’s in the news. None of this goes into the book, but it helps me get a feel for their perspective on things and find out what they care about.

I also like to write out a character’s whole life story from when they were born (including details like their parents, siblings, grandparents) until the day they die even if that is not in the book. I like to know everything I can about their whole life before the action starts. This includes things like what kind of clothes they wear or what music they like.

I don’t spend a lot of time describing the physical appearance of my characters, unless it is relevant to the plot. I think most readers prefer to use their imagination but if I have written that they have blonde hair or green eyes, I make a note of that to make sure I am consistent.

A question some writers ask is ‘what does my character want?’. They then make it increasingly difficult for the character to achieve it. This creates conflict. Another question is ‘what does my character need?’ which is often different from what they think they want. That creates resolution because at some point they will have to give up what they desire for what they really need.  

I have had a few moments of doubt this week, largely because I feel like I don’t know much about the setting of the novel and need to do some research. I have tried to power through my doubts as I know I can work on that in the editing. For now, it’s more important to get those words down!

Progress week 3: 12,010 words

Writing a book, Week One – the blank page

Is there anything worse than staring at a blank page? You have all these ideas but the minute you open that notebook or Word document, you don’t know where to start.

I think the main problem I face when starting a book is that I want everything to be perfect. I want that first line to be brilliant, quotable even. I want that opening page to shine. But usually at this point I just have some random thoughts that have no coherence. I don’t want to make a mess of that first page.  

The solution to the blank page? Start writing. Don’t worry about the quality. You can come back and fix that later. Don’t worry if you’re not starting at the beginning of the story. Don’t worry if it doesn’t make much sense. Just write whatever comes into your head. It may not make the final cut but that’s fine. The important thing is to get the words out.

Tell yourself this is draft zero, the ‘vomit draft’, and that everything will be edited many, many times. It doesn’t have to be good, it just has to exist.  

I started my new book on Monday, 1 August. It’s a novel I first started writing in 2018 but I abandoned it after 30,000 words. I know where I went wrong and my main character – Kelly – has been in the back of my mind ever since, wanting me to tell her story.

So how do you start a novel? Well, every writer is different, but I started by re-reading some craft books. My favourite is How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method by Randy Ingermason. I don’t follow this method to the letter but it’s the one that works best for me. You alternate working on your plot and developing your characters so when you get stuck on one you shift over to the other. You also start with the synopsis and then expand out which works for me as I don’t always write chronologically.

I also like Stealing Hollywood: Screenwriting Tricks for Authors by Alexandra Sokoloff. Sokoloff recommends the four-act structure which is similar to a three-act structure but with a significant midpoint.

This time around, I am reading Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass. This was recommended by a writing friend of mine and it’s the first time I’ve read it. It’s a bit intimidating but it is making me up my game.  

The first thing I did was sketch out what I know about the plot so far and the main characters. I sort of know what is going to happen at the beginning, middle and end although I’m not 100% sure how I am going to structure the story yet. There are three chunks of time in the novel and I’m not sure whether to present them chronologically or have two timelines running concurrently. I’m going to worry about that later.

I put together 20 plot points which will take me from the start to the end, but I may move things around a bit. This is enough for me to start writing. 20 plot points is 20 scenes and, at around 500 words each, that will give me the first 10,000 words. I will then go back and expand each scene and add others in between.

I don’t always start writing at chapter one. I write whatever interests me at the time, so I may write later scenes, but I do try to keep them in some sort of order.

I write in a Word document, and I label each scene with a heading so I can easily move them around. Some people use Scrivener for this, but I prefer Word. I usually number my scenes but for some reason, I want to name them this time. That may well change, but it feels right for this book at the moment.

I am aiming for 4,000 words a week, but I managed 6,175 words in my first week. This was largely because I transferred some across from my original draft. I knew I wanted to keep at least two scenes even though the rest of the book is going to change. At this stage I am not doing much research, but I keep a running list of what I need to find out about.

In between writing sessions, I keep a notebook with me at all times, and every time I have a spare 20 minutes or so, I sketch out ideas. Sometimes these are lists of things I want to include, or they might be snippets of conversation between the characters or free writing when I write whatever comes into my head.

I am aiming to complete this first draft before Christmas (4,000 words a week for 20 weeks) but I know other things will get in the way, so I just have to hope for the best! 

The Wedding Murders has a new cover!

My second novel, The Wedding Murders, has a new summer jacket!

I must admit I loved the old cover with its bright colour contrast but I think the new jacket is a closer reflection of the story. I particularly love the discarded high heels!

If you love closed-door mysteries, lots of 90s nostalgia, and a fast-paced plot, check out The Wedding Murders on Amazon UK or Amazon US

It’s also available as a paperback from Waterstones.

A COVER AND A NEW TITLE FOR BOOK TWO!

You’re invited to the wedding of the season…but you might not live to tell the tale!

The cover of my second book was revealed on social media this week and I love it!

I love the striking contrast between the red, white and black. Coincidentally these were the colours of my own wedding which makes it extra special.

Some of you will know that I originally called the book The Wedding Guest, but the title was changed after discussions with the publisher, One More Chapter.

The Wedding Murders features Libby Steele, a plus-one at a celebrity wedding. She’s the guest of her boyfriend Matthew who used to be in a Britpop band with the groom. It’s the first time the band have been reunited since their acrimonious split in the 90s and Libby soon realises they all have secrets to hide.

When a bridesmaid goes missing just hours before the ceremony, Libby suspects there’s a killer on the loose…

I was lucky enough to get an endorsement from the amazing Sophie Hannah which blew me away. This is what she said about the book:

‘This gripping murder mystery will keep you riveted from start to end. Fans of Lucy Foley and Agatha Christie will love it.’ 

You can’t get much better than that! But here are some of the other lovely endorsements I’ve received from published authors:

‘An intensely compelling, riveting story with a nail-biting climax!’ Abby Davies, author of Mother Loves Me

‘A fast-paced thriller with plenty of twists and turns’ Sophie Flynn, author of All My Lies 

‘A gripping tale with plenty of twists and turns making for a most enjoyable read!’ Roz Watkins, author of The Devil’s Dice

I really enjoyed writing this book. It will be published as an ebook in February 2022 and a paperback in April 2022 and is available to pre-order now.

If you’re a book blogger, you can request a review copy on Netgalley.