Wednesday, March 23, 2011


How Rowan Coleman makes her characters so realistic

“I'm terribly nosy,” admits Rowan Coleman with a giggle. “I am very interested in people: what makes them tick, and their motivations: why people do, think, act and say what they do. I am really interested in how they interact. For me that's the heart of a book.” Which might explain why Rowan's readers find her characters so realistic.

Rowan Coleman worked in bookselling and publishing for seven years before winning Company Magazine Young Writer of the Year in 2000. Since then she has had eight books for women published, including 'The Accidental Mother,' The Accidental Wife' and 'The Baby Group'. She has also had published five books in the Ruby Parker books - a series about a 13 year old girl who happens to be famous. Rowan's first paranormal adventure for teens, 'Nearly Departed' was also published in 2010, written under the name Rook Hastings and has just been selected for the Manchester Book Awards.

Rowan describes her books as character driven, and she puts a lot of time and thought into creating her characters. “Obviously plot is important, but I think if you don't have fully fleshed, three- dimensional characters, then nothing works as well as it should do,” she says. “The characters come from an amalgamation of things I might see on a train or at a bus stop.” Although some of her characters might have been used before. “The character in Happy Homes (her most recent novel) was originally in a short story I wrote for Woman & Home, and I thought she had a lot of potential so I wrote a whole novel around her.”

To start with, Rowan spends several months thinking about her characters. Then she writes a biography for them. “I write down their secret longings, their quirks and flaws, and do that for each main character and it's quite exciting – the further in you get. From the four or five main characters, other characters and plot ideas will be generated. It's like the building blocks for the book,” she explains.

Rowan doesn't have a series of questions but she needs to know how old the characters are, their family background and what they look like, and this comes at the planning stage. “I physically base my characters on people I've seen or know. The character I'm writing about now looks exactly like Keira Knightley – I can't help it, that's just how she looks.” She laughs. “I hope it's positive thinking and it'll be made into a film!”

But it's not just how they look. “Their voices are very clear. The rhythm and tone – and they speak even when you don't want them to, like in the middle of the night.” She pauses and sounds almost apologetic. “If you don't write, I think a lot of people find that difficult to get their heads around. For most writers it's the same: you have these weird personalities in your head that are very real, living breathing people and it's quite hard to talk about that in case people think you need medication!”

Next step, Rowan writes her biographies in a notebook. “I'm dyslexic and the connection between head and hand works better if I hand write it – it comes to about 5 pages per character.” But once she's written that down she tends not to need to refer to her notes again.

The past is always important to Rowan's characters. “My books usually take place over two or three months and always what's gone before is crucial to what is happening now,” she explains. “The book I'm writing now, the childhood and early teens is very significant to the character and the plot.”

Knowing when characters are ready to write about can be difficult, but Rowan is intuitive about hers. “It's when they become independent people, living and breathing,” she says. “When you don't have to think about what they say or how they behave.” Getting to this stage takes Rowan two or three months, but then she will write the entire book (about 100,000 words) in the next two or three months.

Until recently, Rowan only ever showed her work to her agent and editor, but the arrival of another writer friend has changed all that. “We've started an ideas club,” she explains. “We meet every 2-3 weeks and bounce ideas off each other, with the strict understanding that we take only our own ideas away and it's strictly confidential.” She laughs. “You know what writers are like.” This, she finds, helps her see things she hadn't thought of. “I find it really useful: we talk about plot and characters and it gives you a fresh eye.”

Conflict is obviously important in a novel, but something that Rowan finds difficult. “I find it hard to put my characters in terrible situations because normally I really like them,” she says. Even so, she puts her characters through “a heavy helping of real life and real situations” such as rape, murder, drugs, alcoholism and domestic violence. “It makes it more interesting to write: it's more like real life,” she adds. “For me a good story is one the reader falls into, is part of, doesn't want to put down and feels sad when it's finished.”

Feedback from her readers clearly validates what Rowan does. “My biggest thrill is when someone says they identify with one of the characters,” she says. “That to me is the pleasure of writing. I've had loads of brilliant feedback on Facebook and Twitter – they like believable characters that they can relate to, they like the romance, they like the humour.”

She has also found out what some of her readers don't like. “I've been told off because most of my characters are deeply flawed and some readers don't like that. And I very rarely write a neat and tidy ending – there's always ends left untied and some readers don't like that.” She pauses. “I don't think you necessarily have to write for other people – it could be just as valid not to, but I definitely write for other people. That's always in my mind when I'm writing.”

Meanwhile Rowan has a busy time ahead. When we spoke, she was busily planning her wedding in three weeks' time, and is writing another novel for adults. “Then I think I'll tackle something for young adults – I think there's a gap in the market for something that hasn't got vampires in!”

But a busy life obviously suits Rowan. “Writing is just my absolute joy,” she says. “When everything's flowing, I don't think there's a better feeling in the world.”

Happy Home for Broken Hearts is published by Simon & Schuster in August 2010
Immortal Remains is published by Harper Collins in September 2010

Writers' Forum 2010


How Sue Mongredien balances writing adult novels with children's books

“It feels like the Holy Grail because it's really hard to crack,” says Sue Mongredien, “but I love it.” Sue is talking about writing picture books for children – her most recent achievement as a writer of over 100 books, and many more in the pipeline.

Sue's publishing career started in 1992 when she began working for Random House in the children's editorial department. “I began to get a feel for what made a good book,” she says. She started writing a teenage novel in secret “because I didn't want anyone to say 'you only got your book published because you work in publishing,'”. I sent it to an agent under a false name and they sold it – after that, I just got the bug.”

She was commissioned to write much more for children, but it wasn't until Sue had her own children that she started writing adult fiction. “I started an evening class in writing and wrote about how I loved being a mum, but how it was so domestic - and boring in some ways - and that turned into my first novel. I really enjoyed writing a longer piece and exploring the characters and taking them to extremes.” Her first Lucy Diamond novel was published in 2006 and since then she has written for adults as well as children. “I really like that – it's a better balance.”

So what about the name Lucy Diamond? “My first novel was quite racy so I needed a different agent and he said he thought I should use a pen name and keep the genres separate,” explains Sue. “I'd just written a children's story about Lucy and the Diamond Fairy and he said, 'what about Lucy Diamond?' I loved the name, and that was that.”

The disciplines involved in writing children's books are very different from novels. “With picture books, you're very limited – it can be about 300-500 words and it's like a puzzle. Every word counts and you have to think visually,” Sue says. “You can't use descriptions as the pictures have to do the work. And you have to think in terms of a two page spread - there has to be enough story to justify the illustrations.”

Picture books might be short, but the structure is the same as a novel. “They still have to have a plot, and you have to develop the characters - they need to go on a journey but you have to condense it into a much smaller space.” Sue clearly enjoys every aspect of this new challenge. “And it's lovely to have an artist do beautiful pictures to go with your words!”

When it comes to children's books, this is a different practice. “Children's books are about 6,000 words each, and I start with a synopsis, then I do a chapter breakdown, planning out really carefully what will happen in each chapter, which has to end on a cliffhanger,” she explains. “There has to be some movement of the story in every chapter and I chart when it's all going to happen. I find that so useful in children's books, because you can see the peaks and troughs, when the big action's going to happen and build up to the resolution at the end.” Writing for children also means using vocabulary suitable for that age level. “I have to consider if a 5 year old would understand certain words, and if they are a reluctant reader, I really have to grab them from the word go,” she adds.

The Lucy Diamond books are written differently again. “These novels are about 100,000 words each, and I don't really plan that much. I just sort of blunder off.” Sue laughs. “I start off with my characters and I know the theme, and I tend to know how it will end up but not how the characters get there. I work that out as I go along.” She pauses. “There's much more room to explore characters and themes in an adult novel. Often, once I know what's going to happen I go back and plant a few seeds at the beginning and I do quite a lot of editing.”

Because children's books have much shorter deadlines, Sue works on both at the same time, “but the novel is always going along in the background. I quite like working like that – I like the balance and it suits my moods.”

Sue's output is phenomenal by most standards, but she clearly enjoys the different challenges the books all bring. “Last year I wrote one Lucy Diamond novel, about 20 children's books at around 6,000 words each, and one picture book,” she says cheerfully. “A novel takes just under a year, whereas I can write the first draft of a picture book in about an hour but I go over it and over it. A children's book takes about 2 weeks for a 6,000 word book.”

Sue believes her training as an editor has helped her to manage her workload. “The children's books take a short period of time, whereas I'm thinking about the novel all the time - when I'm washing up or doing chores – I even dream about the characters.” She pauses. “Having been an editor I'm always really organised about deadlines. I've never let them waft by.”

The mark of a good story, Sue believes, is very good characters. “Ones you care about, believe in and want to keep reading about. Style is important too: I like a warm style of writing so you feel like a friend is talking to you and that's how I try to write, and engage the reader.”

Sue's workload continues apace, with several more Lucy Diamond novels in the pipeline as well as many more children's books. One of the many things she loves about being a writer is her own children's roles as critics. “They're very earnest, particularly the oldest, who is quite harsh with me now! She's given me loads of ideas and titles which is fabulous.”

Feedback is also very important for Sue. “I get lovely letters and emails from children, and I love going to schools and seeing their faces when I'm reading them stories. When they laugh, it's just brilliant! But I also get lots of emails about the Lucy Diamond books which is fabulous because writing a novel is such a solitary thing.” She pauses. “To have someone write and say 'I really enjoyed it,' makes it all worthwhile.”

Sue's most recent children's series is The Secret Mermaid, published by Usborne.
Sweet Temptation by Lucy Diamond is out now, published by Pan

Writers Forum 2011


How one writer bases his thrillers on a core of fact –
then wraps it up in a contemporary setting

“I've never suffered from writer's block,” says James Becker. “To me one of the most alluring sights is the title of a book on my computer - centred, underlined and in bold type - from then on it's a new adventure.” Which is just as well given that he currently writes three novels a year: mediaeval thrillers as James Becker, Second World War thrillers as Max Adams and mainstream thrillers as James Barrington.

James has been writing thrillers from his home in Andorra since he left the Royal Navy in 1983. “For all the books I try to base the story on historical or current fact and build something around it,” he says. His next Max Adams book is called Right and Glory which is the motto of the Royal Engineers: his hero is a Corporal in the Royal Engineers. “That book was centred round a fort in Belgium called Eben Emael which it took the Belgians 8 years to build using German contractors,” he explains.

“The fort was designed to stop a German advance into Belgium and was an incredibly well defended fort with a garrison of some 1200 men, but the Germans took it in 20 minutes exactly. My guy Sapper Dawson is an explosive expert and he, with an officer, watches the German attack and realises the Germans must have a new type of explosive charge. So Dawson gets into the fort, steals a charge and there's a long race from Belgium to one of the Channel ports to deliver it, dodging the German army.”

James's interest in military matters comes from his time in the Royal Navy. “I was in the Fleet Air Arm for 21 years,” he says. “I joined as a pilot but I had a detached retina in my right eye which stopped me flying. So I ended up doing Air Traffic Control and other jobs.” Although it is his agent, Luigi Bonomi, who suggests what James should write about. “For Transworld, the Dan Brown type of thriller is the sort of thing I'm interested in anyway because at school I did mediaeval history,” James says. “With the Max Adams ones, Luigi was having lunch with my editor who was looking for someone to write Second World War thrillers, and Luigi said, 'oh James will do that, no problem!' So it's not something I had a burning desire to write but something I've always had an interest in.”

His readers tend to know a lot about their subjects, which means the historical background has to be highly accurate. “Without a doubt the mediaeval thrillers are the hardest to write, because there's so much involved working out the historical reality,” James says. “I have a friend who's a specialist researcher so I hand the manuscript over to him. He corrects where I've gone wrong and hopefully at the end it's historically accurate, even if the story is pure fiction.” James adds, “I use Google Earth a lot – you can get a snapshot of what the place looks like and it gives you the topography of the area so you can work out where things should happen. The detail is absolutely invaluable.”

James spends about a month researching a novel and working out the plot, and allows 3 months for the actual writing. When it comes to editing, his wife, Sally, comes in. “She tends to read the first draft with a large red pencil and will put a red line across a page and say Boring or Too Technical.” He laughs ruefully. “She's almost invariably right, so it's one of those things you put up with.” After those corrections, he prints it out again. “I find you see more mistakes on the printed page than you do on the computer screen. The other thing I find strangely helpful is to read it aloud; it's amazing how your ear hears things that your eye doesn't see.”

When it comes to his own literary taste, James tends to go for plot driven books. “The plot is the major part of the book though you need good characterisation. I particularly like good dialogue – for example Jeffrey Deaver – his dialogue is sharp and crisp and his characters are likeable. Nelson De Mille is another one who handle all aspects of the book really well. I tend to read the blurb on the back first and if the plot interests me I will buy it.”

James is under no illusions about his own books. “I make no claims that they are literary giants – I'm a jobbing author and I write straight commercial fiction. They are holiday reads designed for the masses. I hope the readers enjoy the story, I hope they empathise with the characters and I hope they like them enough to buy the next book. That's the bottom line.”

Given the content of his books, James has found feedback from readers tends to be very varied. “The Transworld mediaeval thrillers tend to completely polarise the readers – I either get one star or five stars on Amazon,” he says. “People who aren't very religious really love the books, and those who are religious really hate them. I always include an author's note saying which bit is fact and which is fiction and I try to justify what I've written. I'm not knocking Christianity, I'm saying what they are telling you is not correct - this is what actually happened in first century Judea.”

But he adds, “I get emails from people around the world saying how much they've enjoyed the books which is very gratifying. I reply to everyone because I think if they take the trouble to write to me then the least I can do is take the trouble to respond.”

Looking ahead, James has a busy workload. “I'm finishing The Nosferatu Scroll, set in Venice for Transworld. It's a slight departure from the other books as there's no historical setting - it's a mystery chase thriller with a vampire component. My next project is to come up with 6 synopses for the next Max Adams books and about 6 synopses for the next James Becker books for Transworld.” And as if that wasn't enough - “I also lecture on cruise ships so I'm preparing for two cruises in November and December this year.”

His schedule would make many writers shudder, but James clearly loves his work. “I can remember reading about a writer who was asked, 'do you find you can only write when the muse takes you?' and he said 'absolutely. I make sure the muse is right there over my shoulder at 9am every morning.' Writing is a job – you have to get on and do it.”

He pauses. “I love the freedom of writing. It's an addictive feeling to think – 'Well, what is he going to do now? Kill this guy?' And knowing I can make him do exactly what I want! It's a very exciting feeling.”

The Nosferatu Scroll by James Becker is published by Transworld, 2011
Right and Glory by Max Adams published by MacMillan, 2011
Manhunt by James Barrington published by MacMillan, 2011

On the Water

“'On the water' means every day of my life,” says Diane Bush, a deceptively diminutive figure who spends her days instructing people on motorboats and RIBs (Rigid Inflatable Boats), racing Sunbeams around the Carrick Roads, being part time skipper of the Flushing Ferry and as a member of the RNLI crew at Falmouth. “Before that I was coxswain of the Isles of Scilly Ambulance boat, which is the only boat run by the Ambulance Service,” she adds. “It's a 34ft twin jet propelled catamaran and seen as a challenge even to the local boatmen.”

Diane has lived in Falmouth for the last 12 years and runs South West Powerboating with her partner, instructing powerboat and motor boat training. “We do shore based courses so we can tailor the courses to people's needs. I am RYA trained for powerboats and one of 4 female RYA Yachtmaster instructors for motorboats,” she adds. “The best bit about teaching people is when they get the hang of the boat. The reward on their faces when they've cracked it is wonderful.”
Diane's father encouraged her love of boats when she was young. “On holiday, I'd be on the water the whole time with various different sports and activities,” she says. “I started off windsurfing at the age of 13 because my parents couldn't afford a boat, then my father got his first motor boat when I was 20.”
Having married a sailing addict, I was interested to hear what Diane loves about motorboats. “The time factor is different,” she explains. “You have enough time to shoot somewhere more sheltered. And they're more predictable – you can be somewhere like Fowey in a couple of hours whereas with sailing it can take 4, 5 hours or longer.” She laughs. “It's much warmer in a motorboat and you can shelter from the rain which is useful in this country.” And sailing? She sighs. “I love the peace and quiet of it all. When the wind's in the right quarter, you can't beat it.”
Diane must be the only sailor I've ever met who hasn't managed to get into serious trouble on the water. “I did get caught up on an anchor chain off Mersey Island when I was windsurfing. Thankfully my father was around and dragged me out.” But she was 14 at the time. “I've had a few hairy moments but I've managed to get myself back ashore,” she says cheerfully. “I have to be careful now we've got the school – the last thing I want to do is call the orange and blue boats out.”
Diane's first job was instructing windsurfing at Bude, followed by teaching dinghy sailing. The job as skipper of the Scilly Ambulance was advertised in the West Briton and not one that she ever expected to get. “But I knew I'd regret it if I didn't take it. I had to learn all about the different islands, and pass a Quay to Quay licence,” she explains. “One day, going over to St Agnes, the waves were bigger than the boat so we decided to leave it till another day.”
It was Diane's interest in powerboats which led her to the lifeboats. “I wanted to join the RNLI to give a little bit back and help others out who aren't that fortunate. The most frightening thing was getting to know the limits of the boat – going out in conditions that you wouldn't choose to go out in as a boating person,” she says. “You have to go out in it to appreciate it. But the craft are absolutely stunning.”
Dealing with fatalities is part of working with the RNLI, but Diane is philosophical. “We usually go to the boathouse for a cup of tea after a shout, and if there's anything unpleasant, that tends to be the time when everybody talks about it. Then you go home and everybody responds in a different way.”

But fitting in the RNLI with working life isn't easy. “Because we have this centre, I can't just leave people in the lurch if my pager goes off, so I explain to customers what I do and if they're happy for me to go on a shout, then I'll go,” she says. “Otherwise, I help launch the boat and come back. It's a hard balance sometimes but we're just round the corner from the lifeboat station which makes life easier.”

When it comes to her greatest achievement, Diane grins. “It's getting on the crew. But it's a team effort – there has to be different knowledge and experience or it wouldn't work. I hope I can carry on doing this till I retire – or they kick me off.” She pauses. “The best thing is making a difference to someone's life – you save them, get them medical assistance or treat them.”

But she has advice for those who spend time on the water. “Check the conditions, know your own limits and that of your vessel, and make sure you have the relevant safety kit on - and know how to use it.”

In addition to her many other jobs, Diane and her partner run the Flushing ferry on Sundays “and any other day we're needed.” So how does she fit it all in? She shrugs and grins. “Well, the summer goes by pretty quick.”
As for time off - “I crew on one of the Sunbeams in the summer – they're one of the oldest fleets in the harbour,” she says proudly. “They're very easy to sail – they're well balanced because of their age and it's one design racing so it's not handicapped.”
We're sitting in Diane's office, overlooking the marina. “What I love most about being on the water is the challenge,” she adds, her eyes lighting up. “Conditions are always different which makes for an ever-changing environment. You never stop learning.” She pauses and looks out at the beckoning boats. “If you take the water away from my life, I don't really have much else. It means everything to me.”
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Cornwall Today April 2011