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

On the Shelf: October 2022 reads

I was on holiday in October, so I had plenty of time to read!

In October, I read the following books:

  • In Five Years by Rebecca Serle
  • The House in the Cerulean Sea by T J Klune
  • The Lollipop Shoes by Joanne Harris (Chocolat #2)
  • The Club by Ellery Lloyd
  • The Last to Disappear by Jo Spain
  • The Last Party by Clare Mackintosh
  • No Country for Girls by Emma Styles
  • Fahrenheit 451 by Raymond Bradbury
  • Apples Never Fall by Liane Moriarty
  • On the Road by Jack Kerouac
  • Reputation by Sarah Vaughan
  • Walden by Henry David Thoreau

The stand-out title for me was definitely The House in the Cerulean Sea by T J Klune. My cousin recommended this fantasy title, and it blew me away. It reads like a children’s book but has some strong adult themes and I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite like it. Definitely one I intend to read again, maybe tucked up under a blanket on Boxing Day. It’s a feel-good read for when real life gets a bit too much!

The Club, The Last to Disappear and The Last Party were all thrillers set in exclusive resorts. As such, there were a few similarities between the books. They’re all good suspense thrillers and I particularly enjoyed the setting of The Last to Disappear, which is set in Lapland.

No Country for Girls was billed as the Australian ‘Thelma and Louise’ and has two great teenaged characters on the run. I also really liked the setting of this book, the Australian outback.

Fahrenheit 451 was another recommendation from my cousin, and I loved it. It felt very dark and prophetic, and I couldn’t help wondering what Raymond Bradbury would think about social media. It was a bit depressing, but one of those books that stay with you long after you finish reading it.

Another author who might have something to say about social media would be Henry David Thoreau who writes about his time in isolation at Walden Pond. I really enjoyed this account of his attempt to live a simple life, away from society, and there were some real take-aways from the book, not least the benefits of vegetarianism and living a life more attuned to nature. Again, I think this may be a book I will come back to.  

On the shelf: September 2022 reads

I read mostly crime fiction in September 2022. I read:

  • The Night Hawks by Elly Griffiths
  • The Grave Tattoo by Val McDermid
  • A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson
  • The Mystery of Three Quarters by Sophie Hannah
  • Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
  • Hope to Die by Cara Hunter
  • Dirty Little Secrets by Jo Spain
  • Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner

My two favourite reads were A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson and Dirty Little Secrets by Jo Spain.

A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson is a YA book about a grade A student, Pippa, who is investigating a murder in her hometown for her A-level project. The murder is very close to heart as the victim, Andie, and the alleged killer, Sal, were both students at Pippa’s school. With the help of Sal’s brother, she sets out to prove that Sal was innocent, but they quickly find themselves in danger.

The book is told in narrative and in diary logs, which is quite fitting for the story. I thought it was a really clever and original take on the crime thriller genre and I look forward to reading the other two books in the series.

I loved Dirty Little Secrets by Jo Spain. A woman is found dead in her home after three months casting suspicion on all the neighbours of a gated community. The detectives soon find that every household had a reason to want to silence the victim, who has made it her business to uncover everyone’s secrets. It kept me guessing until the end and I loved the resolution.

The Grave Tattoo was also a really good book as it was all about Wordsworth and I really enjoyed the combination of a contemporary thriller with a literary mystery. It was a very unusual book, and I loved the Lake District setting which is a place I know well.

Crying in H Mart is a very moving memoir of the author’s relationship with her mother and her connection to her Korean heritage. It is a book full of food which made me want to try more Korean dishes.  

On the shelf: August 2022 reads

I binge read my way through August with a total of 14 books! I read:

  • The Idea of You by Robinne Lee
  • The Truth about Lisa Jewell by Will Brooker
  • A Slow Fire Burning by Paula Hawkins
  • The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey
  • An Unfamiliar Landscape by Amanda Huggins (short story collection – proof)
  • The Drift by C J Tudor (proof)
  • Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maas
  • What I Know About Love by Dolly Alderton
  • The Night She Disappeared by Lisa Jewell
  • Both of You by Adele Parks
  • Magpie by Elizabeth Day
  • The Secrets of the Storm Forest: The Strangeworlds Travel Agency #3 by L D Lapinski
  • Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche
  • The Road Trip by Beth O’Leary

The Idea of You was a Richard and Judy pick and a fun read. It’s a romance between a woman in her late 30s and a member of a boyband with all the trials and tribulations of a relationship under the spotlight.

The Truth about Lisa Jewell is a non-fiction book charting a year in the life of bestselling author, Lisa Jewell. I enjoyed the insight into her writing process and her moments of doubt and triumph. This book would particularly appeal to writers.

The Mermaid of Black Conch was a beautifully written story which stayed with me long after I finished it. I enjoyed the different voices in this book and the way it explores themes of misogyny and colonialism through a traditional mermaid tale.

An Unfamiliar Landscape was a review copy of Amanda Huggins’ latest collection of short stories. Huggins’ atmospheric and evocative prose has the power to transport you to places all over the globe while tunnelling deep into your soul. The tiniest details make the greatest impact as Huggins explores grief, relationships and self-discovery. A masterclass in short form fiction.

C J Tudor is one of my favourite writers so I practically mugged her at Harrogate Crime Writing Festival for a proof of her latest novel, The Drift, which will be out in January 2023. This is quite a departure for C J Tudor in terms of genre but has the same page-turning element of her other books, with a clever twist.

Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maas was recommended to me by author Abby Davies, and I thought it was absolutely brilliant. I have also bought the workbook that goes with it and am making my way through it. Maas dissects every aspect of what makes a novel become a bestseller and encourages you to dedicate yourself to improving your own writing. Following all the advice in this book will be hard work, but I think it will be worth it! Definitely one I will be rereading many times.

Magpie by Elizabeth Day was one of the best books I read this month. It’s very well written and very dark. I loved the twist and the conclusion. It was a very accomplished thriller, and I am looking forward to reading her other books.

I’m really pleased that I have read Half of a Yellow Sun because I didn’t know much about the civil war in Nigeria in the 1960s. It was a very distressing read at times and I struggled with it for that reason, but I was glad I persevered. I loved the characters who will stay with me for a very long time.

After that I needed a lighter read, and I really enjoyed The Road Trip by Beth O’Leary. Imagine spending a long car journey to a wedding with your ex! That’s the situation Addie and Dylan find themselves in this romantic comedy.

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!