Learning While I Write

While ‘Speaking in Silence’ is awaiting its proof reading, and while I am mapping the next book, ‘Starting with Secrets’, I thought it high time I did some more learning.

You may remember that when I started on the Larkspur Mysteries, I introduced a deaf character, Joe Tanner. To better understand him and his language, I signed up for an introduction to British Sign Language (BSL), and passed the basic course. This was useful not only for forming the character, but also for my own learning, and I learnt a little about the history of BSL, particularly that it was outlawed in Victorian times. This meant that Joe would have invented his own version of it, which he and Dalston did as they grew up in the workhouse. That was typical of what happened back then, and is the reason BSL has so many regional variations in its signs.

Introduction to the Victorian Age

That was then, this is now, and I have now signed up for a course called, ‘Introduction to the Victorian Age.’ It’s a diploma course run by the Centre of Excellence. Recently, my husband passed a Sociology diploma course with them and has now embarked on a philosophy diploma. The Centre of Excellence prices its courses at reasonable amounts, has won five worldwide business awards, and all their courses are certified or accredited. Now and then, they have promotional offers, and last week, we bought three courses for €58.00, where the original price should have been €450.00. So, not a bad deal at all. If you want to know more, head to the Centre of Excellence and have a look around. It costs nothing to investigate, and you will find all kinds of courses from Earth Sciences to Animal Care.

They have 25 different writing course that might interest you.

What am I about to learn?

My course is titled an ‘Introduction to the Victorian Age’, and you might wonder why I am doing this. Having already written 16 books in my Victorian mystery series, don’t I already know about the age? Well, yes, I know some, and I do my research, but usually on specific novel-appropriate topics. For example, I read a great deal about Jack the Ripper when writing ‘Deviant Desire’, and a lot about workhouses when writing ‘Guardians of the Poor.’ I have books on my shelf that range from The Cleaveland Street Scandal to Victorian architecture, and from the Victorian country house to slumming, but I haven’t yet read much on the early part of the era, the industrial revolution and what took place before the 1880s when my books are set. The Victorian era began when Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837 and lasted until her death in 1901. The course I am about to embark on begins with her ascendancy to the throne, Prince Albert and his death, and moves on to look at gender, society and class.

Then there is a module about the industrial revolution and the ‘rise of the factory’, followed by one that covers the labour movement, slums, urbanisation and city improvements. I will then look at crime in Victorian times (can’t wait for that!), punishment, the Whitechapel murders gets its own section (can’t wait for that either), and there is a module about science, religion and fear. Health and medicine, the Empire, the Irish famine in the 1840s are all covered too, as are the arts and culture.

As you can see, there’s a lot in it, but I don’t have to rush. Once you’re signed up for a course, you can take as long as you want to complete it, and that means months or even years, so there’s no pressure. There are marked assessments along the way (marked by qualified tutors), but no need to sit an exam. My aim is to do the modules as and when I can, and use what I learn to further improve my historical accuracy. As I also have copywriting work and two novels in the pipeline, my time is restricted, but I will do my best and I’ll keep you informed on progress as I go.

Here’s the link again in case you want to know more about the courses. Centre of Excellence.

And what of Larkspur? I mentioned I am planning the next in the Larkspur series, and I am. Speaking in Silence should be with you early in August, but I have already drafted chapter one of the next book, ‘Starting with Secrets.’ Actually, I have been making notes on the one after that too, and I’ll be updating you every Wednesday on my Work In Progress blog. My current plan is to write a two-part story to bring the Larkspur series to an end. There will, therefore, eventually be seven books in the series, though who knows? I may write more. The next one, ‘Secrets’ starts off the two-parter, and should be followed by ‘The Larkspur Legacy’, which will be similar in design to ‘The Clearwater Inheritance.’ I’ll say no more just now, and will leave it for my Wednesday WIP blog, and turn my attention to Queen Victoria.

P.S Cover reveal for Speaking in Silence is on its way later this week!

Disability Pride Month: Joe Tanner

Disability Pride Month occurs in July “to listen to what the voices of disabled people have to say about their rights and what they need“.

The month was chosen to recognise that, the then President of the United States, George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into law on July 26, 1990. (Wiki)

As this month is Disability Pride Month, I thought I’d write a short piece about my “disabled” character, Joe Tanner. I put the disabled in “ ” because Joe wouldn’t have seen himself as disabled. He’s deaf and has been since birth, and yes, that’s a disability, but all the same, he wouldn’t (or doesn’t) consider himself disabled.

These days, it’s difficult to write about how Joe was treated because the language of that time is now considered offensive, but we shouldn’t take offence at history, because there’s nothing we can do to change it; it is how it was. Being deaf in the late 19th century wasn’t easy, and although there had been schools for the deaf since the 18th century, they were small, private and expensive. Also, sign language was outlawed in 1880 and was discouraged as taught communication for 100 years. When Joe Tanner was born in 1871, his parents didn’t know what to make of him. Although his father was a vicar, he had a very short fuse, and Joe’s early life wasn’t pleasant. Frustrated that their son couldn’t communicate, Joe’s parents left him at the Hackney Workhouse and buggered off to America. Joe was about seven at this time, and was immediately put on the ‘idiots ward.’

This is where you mustn’t take offence to the language.

According to the glossary on Peter Higginbotham’s marvellous site www.workhouses.org:

Idiots and Imbeciles were two commonly used categories of mental subnormality.

Definitions varied over the years, but in broad terms:

Idiots, the most deficient, were unable to protect themselves against basic physical dangers.

Imbeciles, a less severely deficient group, were unable to protect themselves against moral and mental dangers.

It’s also likely that many deaf people entering a workhouse would have ended up in the hospital wards or sent to an asylum. In Joe’s case, he should have been sent to a school, which probably would have done him no good anyway, but he was lucky. Not only did he have an understanding workhouse matron, but he also met Dalston Blaze.

Here are some extracts from the chapter in ‘Guardians of the Poor’ where Dalston meets Joe for the first time. Joe was seven, Dalston six, and Mrs Lee was the workhouse matron.

The matron demanded to know what was happening, and a grubber said the boy had refused to stay on the idiots’ ward, and they were trying to get him back there. Dalston knew of the idiots’ ward, and of the one on the floor above, which was for the imbeciles, but he wasn’t allowed up there. Even if he was, he wouldn’t have gone, the noises and screaming were too frightening.

As the matron tore the grubbers down a peg, Dalston crept closer and stood facing the boy. Without knowing why, he knew that what was happening was wrong. If a boy misbehaved, he missed a meal, everyone knew that, and perhaps, he thought, this lad has been naughty. It wasn’t uncommon for the schoolteacher to whack a boy’s arse for misbehaving, but if this lad had just suffered that, he wouldn’t have been able to sit.

Mrs Lee tried to talk to him, but he balled himself tighter, and in the end, she told the grubbers to go about their business, and leave the lad alone.

Dalston, intrigued by the boy, stays with him when the staff give up, and the two start to communicate. Their language begins with drawings and moves on to finger and hand signs. In the story, Dalston (who is hearing) and Joe do what many deaf people did; they invented their own language. Although British Sign Language (BSL), as we now call it, was abandoned in schools in 1880, many deaf people continued to use it in their own groups, homes and meeting places. That’s why there are now so many regional variations in BSL.

Dalston and Joe go on to appear in all of the Larkspur Mysteries either as main characters or supporting cast, so I have been able to explore Joe’s character more as the series goes on. I thought it was important that Joe didn’t end up as a ‘feel sorry for’ character; I didn’t want him to be the one being looked after or treated in any way differently to the other characters. He’s a gay, young man in Victorian times like all the others around him, except he can’t hear. He can communicate, but not everyone can return the communication, not with sign language at any rate. However, other characters are learning some of it, they can always write things down, and none of them treats Joe as inferior. He is, after all, an excellent and natural horseman, he drives the carriages, and he studies archaeology while solving old murder cases.

With Joe, I wanted to show a disabled character in the same way as I show my others. Therefore, he’s not always fun and happiness, he has flaws, he gets frustrated, and he has a temper. He and Dalston’s first year together out of the workhouse (aged 19 and 18 by then) was not always an easy one, and like any young couple, they had relationship problems – none of which were due to Joe’s deafness. Joe’s also got a naughty sense of humour, and uses his sign language to his advantage, talking about people without them knowing what he is saying.

Book five of the Larkspur series, ‘Speaking in Silence’ also concerns a young man with a disability, though it’s not a physical one. Because of something that happened in his past, Edward Hyde has chosen not to speak more than one or two words to anyone (apart from his one friend). It’s his way of withdrawing from the world because of an incident that left him contemplating suicide. So, his disability is, you might say, an emotional one, but it is one he can be ‘cured’ of. That’s what the book is about, getting Edward’s voice back – although emotional recovery from his trauma will continue long after the story has finished.

For both these characters, Joe Tanner and Edward Hyde, I wanted to present my differently-abled characters as positive, non-victims (although Edward was) and to make them as good/bad, nice/nasty, grateful/churlish as all the others. Hopefully, they both present positive images of deaf or emotionally scarred people, and we see them do heroic things that we all wish we had the courage to do.

However readers take them, what they do in the books makes me proud, and that’s my way of wrapping up this post about my ‘disabled’ characters for Disability Pride Month.

Speaking in Silence is due out at the beginning of August

The Larkspur Series begins with Guardians of the Poor’ and it’s Joe you see on the cover signing the word ‘deaf.’

Work In Progress 3.10

Speaking in Silence

We’re into week ten of the writing of this new Larkspur Mystery and I am pleased to tell you, I have only eight chapters left to edit before I can say I have a draft for my beta readers, Neil and Jenine. The MS is booked in for proofreading on the 20th of July, and I am still aiming for the end of July/start of August to have the finished novel ready for you.

My to-do list now looks like this:

  • Finish the fine editing
  • Reread for a final check
  • Create the blurb
  • Find images suitable to make a cover and open negotiations with Andjela
  • Proofreading
  • Layout
  • Check everything and reread
  • Upload to Amazon
  • Hope for the best

While all that is going on, you won’t be surprised to learn that I have started thinking about the next book. The next two books, actually, because I am planning a two-book finale to this series along the lines of ‘The Clearwater Inheritance.’ I am teeming with ideas, and have already outlined various scenes in my head, but I must find a way to connect them. All I can tell you right now is that I am planning to incorporate many of the characters from both Clearwater and Larkspur, have three or four storylines running at once all leading to the same end, so all will be connected, take my characters to some wild and exciting places, and tie up many threads. Some of these threads were started in Deviant Desire, and before that, Banyak & Fecks, so I have lots of rereading and remembering to do (thankfully, I keep my ‘bible’ and notebooks). There is also a special ending to consider, and all being well, you’ll be able to read the second book of the two at or by Christmas.

Watch this space.

Thank goodness for my author notebooks and ‘bible’!

This Author’s Summer

Summer is well underway on our little island. Temperatures are in the low 30s but don’t stop me from working. I’m used to the temperature outside being up to 45 degrees in the middle of summer, and I spend a lot of time avoiding the great outdoors. When I do, I stay in the shade. While inside, I work at my desk with my shirt off, a towel between my arm and my mouse, and a large, noisy fan blasting at me from the side. I also do most of my work in the morning, getting up at 4.00 and working through until 11.00, then taking a break, and returning around 13.30 for another couple of hours before taking a siesta.

A summer’s view from our balcony

While all that’s going on inside, there’s a lot going on outside. As you might know, I live on Symi, an island in the Aegean not far from the larger island of Rhodes. We have day-trip boats coming in every day during the summer, sometimes up to five of them. They come from Rhodes bringing interested visitors on a day out who meander around the harbour or are herded in groups by tour guides with little flags. The backstreets can become busy down there between certain hours, and I don’t very often get down unless it’s for bank, post office or ferry business. We have a bus and taxis, but as I don’t own a car, I prefer to walk even though it’s about 400 steps down and 400 back up again. Needless to say, I don’t do that when it’s 45 degrees.

Living on a Greek island isn’t always as idyllic as you might think. Recently, our water pump was playing up, and we had to get another one installed. I should explain that we are not on a constant mains water supply. We can fill up our tank three times a week, and if it runs dry, then that’s it until the next filling-up day. Because the main water cistern beneath the house was invaded by tree roots and is unusable, we have a large plastic one on our flat roof. This holds 500 litres, and that’s usually enough for two of us, but without a pump to pump the water from the tank to where it’s needed, we’re ‘dry.’ Anyway, we had to replace the water pump this week because the old one sounded like it was about to blow, and I’d rather pre-empt a ‘dry’ spell, particularly as we had Neil’s brother visiting.

One of our local restaurants that we visited when Neil’s brother was here. The ‘Kali Strata’ offers a new, modern twist on traditional Greek dishes…and a great view!

Another thing about living here is that it’s not always convenient to travel. We were aware of this when we decided to settle here, so I’m not complaining, just pointing out what it takes to get from A to B. We and Neil’s brother have been invited to a wedding in Inverness later this year. James (the bother-in-law) lives in Vienna, so for him, it’s a train to the airport, a flight, a wedding, a couple of nights in a hotel and a flight home. For us… Well, that’s a different matter. I’ve done my research and made a spreadsheet, and the cheapest way for us to do this trip in November involves this: An overnight boat from Symi to Athens. Night at the airport hotel (very costly but the flight is an early one). Flight to Edinburgh, couple of nights there, train to Inverness, hotel, wedding, hotel, train to Edinburgh, hotel, flight to Amsterdam, flight to Athens, hotel for two nights, overnight boat home. James will be away from his home for three days, but we will be away for 12, and that’s without taking a holiday (although we are seeing grandchildren and visiting family).

This will be us in November lol

But enough rambling from me. I must get back to my fine editing of ‘Speaking in Silence’ and racking my brains for a cover idea. You can discover how the next Larkspur Novel is coming along by looking at my regular Wednesday WIP blogs.

Work In Progress 3.09

Speaking in Silence

It’s done! The first draft, that is, and we have arrived at Bodmin station at 95,000 words. Now, after a brief stop, we must make the return journey to London as we embark on the rewrites and editing.

A view of Bodmin Road Station, Cornwall in c.1895

This novel turned out to be slightly different to the others, and that made the journey an interesting one. Speaking in Silence is a mystery. It takes place in Cornwall and London, it brings in two characters who have, until now, been in the background, and it is based on a newspaper report from 1891. There, the similarities with the other Larkspur Mysteries end. Don’t worry, it still contains your favourite elements, but in a different way.

The content is darker than I’ve previously dabbled with because the protagonist is a victim. He’s also the one who hardly speaks, which presented another challenge when writing. Also, the mystery isn’t written as: This is strange, how are we going to solve this? It is written so the reader asks, ‘What are they doing?’ We know ‘they’ are up to something, and we know what they want to achieve, but, hopefully, you won’t work out what it is they are doing and how they achieve it until the end. Then, in the denouement, you’re told exactly how it happened.

I expect that makes little sense, but it will all become clear in the end, and the end of the journey, I hope, will be sometimes in July. Meanwhile, here’s an unedited taster from draft one.

Outside, foxes and owls scoured the grounds for their prey, while inside, a dim light burned in the drawing room until well past two in the morning. Figures paced before the window, apparently speaking in silence as no sound escaped the casements, and they disturbed nothing and no-one. At two fifteen, a light in an upstairs bedroom came on, and three silhouettes sat at a desk with paper and pen. Another discussion began, and one wrote while the others offered ideas. A little later, one sat in a chair while another busied himself around his head with scissors and a razor, until all three were satisfied with the results of their labours.

If that wasn’t strange enough, at the back of the house, another two men came from the kitchen and crossed the yard. At two twenty-five, they lit lamps in an ancient building that had once been a barn and set to work. There was no speaking, but there were sounds; the hissing and bubbling of liquids in jars, the clank of crucibles on iron stands, and the opening and closing of heavy books. All this took place beside a light which grew increasingly discoloured, once being orange, and then red, to glow purple just before the stable clock chimed half-past three.

Speaking In Silence
JACKSON MARSH
I love this watercolour of Victoria College’s first chemistry lab, I can imagine our young men working in here

Doing Your Denouement

I have just written the denouement for ‘Speaking In Silence’, and it’s prompted me to talk about the subject and what I learnt from the process of writing the novel.

All my novels tie up at the end, but they don’t always come with a classic denouement. The closest I came was in ‘Unspeakable Acts’, the third Clearwater novel, where James Wright explains the villain’s motivation and method. ‘Speaking In Silence’ is slightly different to other mysteries I’ve written because it’s more of a ‘What are they doing?’ mystery for the reader, who won’t know what until the climax, and won’t know how until the last scene, the denouement.

What is a Denouement?

The word is borrowed from the French and originates in Latin, as this snippet from Etymonline tells us:

1752, from French dénouement “an untying” (of plot), from dénouer “untie” (Old French desnouer) from des- “un-, out” + nouer “to tie, knot,” from Latin nodus “a knot,” from PIE root *ned- “to bind, tie.”

[PIE = The roots of the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European language are basic parts of words that carry a lexical meaning, so-called morphemes.]

In other words, denouement means to untie a knot. In literary terms, it means the final part of a play, film, or narrative in which the strands of the plot are drawn together and matters are explained or resolved. Or, as the dictionary also states: the outcome of a situation, when something is decided or made clear.

In other-other words, it’s that bit at the end of an Agatha Christie when Poirot stands in the drawing room and tells the assembled characters who did it and how. Of course, the technique is used in all forms of literature and creative writing, and doesn’t have to pertain to a crime story. The denouement of Romeo and Juliet happens after the two main characters are dead, for example, even though we all saw how they died.

What to Consider When Writing a Denouement

The following is based on my experience. There are plenty of free writing-advice websites that will give their own views, but having just looked at a few, they are very similar to what I worked out for myself.

Keep notes as you write towards the end

First of all, as I wrote my way through the first draft of Speaking In Silence, I made a note every time a character was seen to do something with no explanation; every time I dropped in a question mark for the reader if you like. This was to make sure I didn’t leave any knots still tied at the end. I do this with every novel, and it’s a good way to avoid the trap of ‘I’ll remember that for sure’, only to say later, ‘What was it I had to remember?’

The notes also help me see if I have given too much away to the reader, and if I need to take out anything too obvious. Thinking about ‘Silence’, I’m worried the reader will catch on to what’s happening well before the end, and so the climax won’t be a surprise. (It doesn’t have to be. I’ve found readers are as happy to say, ‘I didn’t see that coming’ as they are to have proved themselves right.)

Don’t Witter on for too Long

Says he… My denouement happens in dialogue, and I’m not sure if that’s the done thing or not, but it’s what I have done. The chapter is currently 4,000 words long, but it’s not all explanation. Some of it is character thoughts, reactions and other story matters, and the explanation of how they did it comes from four characters, not one, so there is more than one voice, and more than one point of view. They are explaining themselves to Lord Clearwater, so we are in his head, and when I felt the others were being too detailed, I had him slow them down because I imagined that’s what the reader would also be thinking.

Beware Repeats

I was conscious of not repeating what the reader already knew. They would have seen X do this and that, and the idea of the denouement isn’t to go back and relive the action, it’s to explain the reason for the action. Yes, you have to place the explanation in context, but that can be done in a few words. Also, once something has been explained, there’s no need to repeat the explanation from another character’s point of view. In my scene, with four people untying the knots, I made sure they all contributed, but they only contributed something new or added a detail that cleared up another question mark.

Show Not Tell

That old chestnut again. Think about that Agatha Christie scene when Poirot has everyone in the drawing room, the dining car or wherever, and you’ll see he does a lot of talking. Now think film, and you’ll notice there are flashbacks showing the action. That’s one way of giving the explanation, but it’s a filmic one. The way to present a ‘show’ denouement is to write a scene where the action unknots the rope, rather than dialogue doing it for you. It’s not easy, and in my opinion, some stories require a dialogue explanation. If I had written the ‘how they did it’ into the action during the book, there would be no deepening mystery. If I had written the ‘how they did it’ into the climax, it would have cluttered up the pace. The only way I could make it work in ‘Silence’ was to have the four characters tell Clearwater — who knows what they have done — exactly how they did it.

Keep to the Rules

Although it’s right at the end of the book, my denouement still keeps to the rules of character arc and development, scene structure, location, description and pace. It’s not just one long dialogue of this-then-that. There is some character-created humour, we come away with the sense that a particular character has changed, and we know where we are (Clearwater’s drawing room with the footman coming and going). As well as all that, the scene ends with a great big question mark which will lead us into the next instalment. Not exactly a cliff-hanger because the reader knows the answer to the question, but the characters don’t.

Other Advice Answered

I pulled a few random tips of denouement writing off the internet. I’ve justified my ending against them.

Keep it short. Each part of my explanation is short, but there are a lot of things to explain, and that, I did on purpose.

The denouement validates the story. I always aim for this (see the end of ‘Fallen Splendour’ for my favourite story validation). The denouement validates what has changed for a character or a situation.

Convey a new normal. I have left the reader knowing a particular character will now be better off, and one will be worse off. That is their new normal.

Characters’ futures. Similar to the new normal; the conflicts have been resolved, and normalcy returns to the characters, although that normalcy might/should be changed. I’ve also put in a question mark, and the denouement is followed by a short epilogue which takes us towards the next story.

Epilogue Vs Denouement This is summarised very nicely at this page from masterclass.com:

Denouement is an essential conclusion to plotted conflict, while the epilogue is an optional afterward in which the author shows readers how characters have fared after the events chronicled in the work.

In ‘Speaking In Silence’, the epilogue concerns the villain and leads us into the next story. I now have a completed first draft and can set about rewriting the whole thing and improving it, all the while, aiming towards that all important denouement.

‘Speaking in Silence’ should be ready by July, and you can keep up to date with its progress on my weekly Wednesday WIP blog.

Making Your Book Titles Count

I’ve often been asked how I come up with the titles for my novels, so today, I thought I’d look at a few and explain how they came about.

Just the other day on Self-Publishing School, Chandler Bolt wrote a piece titled ‘Book title ideas: Choosing your own & generators to use.’ In his article, he says titles are short hooks that advertise your book by using the fewest possible words, and suggests that potential readers take less than five seconds to decide whether or not to buy the book. Some things to bear in mind, he says, are to

  • make the title memorable,
  • make sure its genre-appropriate and
  • make it intriguing.

I agree with everything he says in his article (it’s well worth reading), and it caused me to reminisce about how I came up with some of my titles.

What Comes First, the Title or the Story?

Good question. I just experimented with a book title generator and, to be frank, wasn’t impressed. It was a basic thing where you selected an adjective and a noun, and it bunged the in front of random words. It generated things like ‘The Enchanted Pencil’, ‘The Imaginary Vase’ and ‘The Crazy Coffin‘. Okay, fun if you’re looking for inspiration and you don’t mind every book title starting with The, but it wasn’t really my style. I could have done better by opening a dictionary at random and picking the first two words I came across.

Actually, let’s try that…

The Queer Informant

The Predynastic Deuterium


The Putty Cushion

Now we’re just being silly. Let’s get back on track. Where in the world did ‘Deviant Desire’ come from?

Deviant Desire

Deviant Desire started out as Something Lamplight, or it might have been Something Gaslight, because I wanted a title that reflected the background of the story, Whitechapel in 1888, during the time of the Ripper murders. As I was writing the book, I thought more about the title, and suddenly ‘Deviant Desire’ popped into my head. I hadn’t read that article I just mentioned or anything like it, so this was instinctive, but the more I thought about it, the more sense it made.

Deviant Desire works on several levels. The main character, Silas Hawkins, is a renter and a trickster, so he’s a deviant. He’s also gay and so is the other MC, Lord Clearwater, so according to the lores of the time, they are both deviants. When they meet, they fall for each other, crash, bang, wallop style, so there’s your desire.

Meanwhile… The villain of the piece is killing young men as a way of laying a trap for our hero. He, the villain, has a deviant desire, not only to trap the hero, but a desire to kill, and if that’s not deviant, I don’t know what is.

Twisted Tracks

The title for the follow-on novel to Deviant Desire, Twisted Tracks, took a little longer to come up with, but it works in the same way. A villain is enticing the hero to a confrontation, and he does it with various twisted clues, including an anagram, a twisting of words into other words. Our hero and his friends follow the clues, the tracks left by the villain, and everything climaxes on a runaway steam train which, of course, runs on tracks. Until they run out…


Unspeakable Acts

The trend continues in book three of the Clearwater Mysteries with Unspeakable Acts. The trend of using succinct two-word titles, an adjective and a noun, but without ‘The’ in front of them. While thinking of this title, I wanted to continue using words that the Victorians used for gay men and their sexuality. So far, we’ve had deviant and twisted, and another common thing was to refer to gay sex as an unspeakable act. The story of book three concerns a performance at the Royal Opera House at which someone is due to make a speech, but if he does, he will be assassinated, therefore he can’t, or, in other words, his speech is unspeakable. The performance is of an opera, so the word ‘acts’ has a couple of other meanings (the division of a play, what the actors do on stage), and it all ties together with the background theme of the Clearwater collection, the dangers of being gay in Victorian times.

And more…

I could outline every single one of the 11 Clearwater titles, but it would become repetitive. In summary, though, they all have double meanings: Fallen Splendour (book 4) refers to a line from the major clue of the mystery, ‘The splendour falls on castle walls’, and also refers to someone’s downfall; Bitter Bloodline (book 5) refers to the taste of a Transylvanian wine, a blood feud, and Bram Stoker; Artful Deception (book 6) centres on an artwork and theatrical tricks, while hero and villain try to outwit and deceive each other; Negative Exposure (book 9) refers to being photographed naked, having the negatives of those photos printed and therefore exposed, and because of that, a man’s secret coming into the open, thus, also being exposed.

You’ll note that for books seven and eight, the titles differ. We’ve moved on from the use of deviant et al., and the titles are longer. Home From Nowhere (book 7) was a line that came to me when the characters were speaking. As often happens, I let them speak and, later, edit what they say. In this one, Fecker says to Jasper something like, ‘Like me, you have come from nowhere’, and later, Jasper says to Billy, ‘I feel like I’ve come home.’ Oh yes, I thought, Jasper (the MC) has come home from nowhere, and there we go.

One of a Pair (book 8) is another play on words. Jasper is one of a pair of young men falling in love, and Billy is the same as he’s the other half of the pair. There’s another meaning to the title which I can’t tell you in case you haven’t read the book, but if you do, you will realise the relevance.

Banyak & Fecks, The Clearwater Prequel

Banyak & Fecks was the first time the title came before the story. I’d been thinking about a novel detailing how these two friends met. Deviant Desire opens with them in the East End, and they are already very close by the time we meet them, so how did they get there? My husband said there should be a prequel telling us just that, and I wanted to write something more character driven rather than full-on mystery. I wanted it to be about Banyak & Fecks, as they call each other, so that had to be the title, and it is.

The Larkspur Series

Still trying to keep to the title-writing rules of catchy, intriguing and memorable while sticking to my own deviant desire for titles to have more than one meaning while being relevant to the plot, I moved into slightly different territory for the Larkspur series.

Guardians of the Poor, the title of book one, refers to the real guardians of the poor, those who oversaw, ran and were responsible for the workhouses. It also refers to the two main characters, and how they do something which improves the life of those in a workhouse; they become guardians of the poor in another sense.

Keepers of the Past keeps up the rhythm of the series titles, and refers to archaeologists and a cult member (perhaps), while Agents of the Truth completes the three-part telling of Dalston and Joe’s story. It also refers to archaeologists and men working for the Clearwater Detective Agency.

Seeing Through Shadows

For book four in the Larkspur series, I wanted something a little more atmospheric, and I wanted to get away from the rhythm of ‘Plural Noun of the Single Noun’ of the first three books. Seeing Through Shadows gives us a verb, a preposition and a noun, so a different rhythm, while remaining succinct and a little intriguing. Do we see through shadows? Aren’t we just seeing what they are shadowing? I mean, if there’s a shadow on the wall, are we seeing the shadow or the wall? In the story, we’re not sure what we’re seeing, so that fitted rather well.

I am currently working on Speaking in Silence, which is an oxymoron, because you can’t speak without making a sound. Yes, okay, so we have sign language and writing, but that, strictly speaking, isn’t speaking. Speaking in Silence refers to those things which are left unsaid, and in the story, there are many of them. The most difficult ‘unsaid’ part of writing this novel has been keeping information from the reader; that’s the thing I am not saying; the silence if you like. The reader will find out what’s going on in the end, but I wanted to keep them in the dark for as long as possible. I hope it works. We will have to wait and see. Also in this story, there are lots of things that the characters don’t say, but in the gaps in conversations, they and we understand their meaning… It’s complicated to explain, and you’ll have to wait a couple of months before you can read it when I hope all will be revealed.

Other Titles

I’ve written more than the Clearwater and Larkspur series. You might have heard of or read The Mentor Collection, for example. They are ‘Older man mentors younger man in love, lust and a few other things’, kind of stories. The titles aren’t tricky, though again, there is a pattern. All four are ‘The Mentor of…’ somewhere, and that somewhere takes the classic form of adjective and noun. Here, the adjective suggests loneliness or isolation (reflecting the younger, lost-his-way character) and the noun is something stable, a home (representing the older character).

The Mentor Series

Thus, we have: The Mentor of…

Wild Hill Farm

Barren Moor Ridge

Lone Marsh House

Lost Wood Hall

As Wildhill Farm, Barrenmoor Ridge etc., as they are also place names.

To Finish

As usual, I am rambling on now, and I am sure you got the point some time ago. So, to finish, I thought I’d return to that random title generator and come up with some more Mentor titles. This isn’t just for fun, I also want to highlight what I believe: that the author should come up with the title, and not use one of these random word-pickers, although they might spark ideas for stories. Perhaps. How about reading…

The Mentor of the Perfect Fireplace

The Mentor of the Haunted Coffin

The Mentor of the Happy Wheelbarrow

The Students of the Windy Wind

Remember: keep the title succinct, intriguing, genre-specific and, if you can, consider the rhythm.

See you on Wednesday for more WIP news, have a great weekend and happy reading!

Work In Progress 3.07

Speaking in Silence is now arriving at Exeter.

If you have been following the ‘Speaking in Silence’ journey from London Paddington to Bodmin, you will know that it’s been an interesting train ride so far. In the word count scheme of things, I’d say I was now at Exeter, being at roughly 72,000 words, with the destination being 100,000 or thereabouts. After some shunting around in a yard several miles back, I have had a clear run from Bristol, and am now approaching the final reel. The final ‘act’ as they say in film terms.

I started the ‘Speaking in Silence’ journey knowing that I wanted it to be about two characters who appeared in the last book, but who we don’t yet know; Henry Hope and Edward Hyde. In this story, Edward is the protagonist, and yet, not only does he hardly speak, he also hardly communicates. That poses a few challenges for the author. Unlike Joe Tanner, who is deaf and communicates through sign language, Edward has taken a vow of semi-silence. The only person he speaks to is Henry, and Henry knows why. We, the reader, come to learn why Edward chose to do this, and we come to understand there is only one thing that will enable him to feel able to speak again. Justice. Therein lies the plot of the novel.

That was what I started with 72,000 words ago, and the rest I have, quite literally, made up as I have gone along, including the characters of Henry and Edward and a hell of a lot of backstory, which trickles out over time. I have used the flashback technique, and it was only while writing those scenes that I came to know the characters. They introduced themselves to me while Henry was telling me his and Edward’s story if you like, and that didn’t happen until I was quite a way into the story. That’s why we had the shunting around a few miles back, and I had to backtrack and change the point of view of some of the earlier chapters. If there’s a lesson there, it’s ‘know your characters before you start’. (A note to fellow authors, if you would like to stretch your character’s bio then you can always drop in for a ‘character interview’. Contact my PA for more details jeninesymi@gmail.com).

To give you a flavour of the novel, and without giving anything away, here’s a short excerpt from the first draft – unedited so excuse any errors. The skeleton is a character who will remain nameless for now, and I have changed the name of the second character to ‘John’ so as not to spoil things for you. John, the villain, is going to see the other villain at his new lodgings in Greychurch:  


The skeleton’s previous lodgings above the ‘Princess Alice‘ had, John thought, been about as low as a man could go, but when he took a deep breath and entered the ‘Hops and…’ as the broken sign described it, he realised he had been wrong.

His foot fell on a rat, but it didn’t squeal because it was dead, but the child playing with it gave him a mouth of abuse, which he ignored. Dishevelled heaps, rather than people, sat at the few tables, some sucking on pipes whose fumes hardly disguised the stench of damp clothes, sweat and something else he didn’t like to think about, while across the room, no more than ten feet from the door, two men stood at a trestle table that served as a bar, while three rested against it on the floor, either drunk or dead. The most unnerving thing about the place, however, wasn’t the landlord with wooden teeth, only one eye and one hand, nor even the miasma of fire, pipe and opium smoke, but the silence. No-one even looked at him, no-one jereed at a well-dressed man from the west of the city entering their destitute realm, and nobody, apart from the child, made a sound.

These people, if he could call them that, might still be able to hear, he thought, and so he prepared to whisper to the disfigured landlord. As he leant over one of those asleep at his feet a movement to his right caught his eye. One of the heaps unwound itself from the table it had been slumped across and dragged itself to its feet. It said nothing, but a skeletal hand emerged from the sleeve of its black gown and beckoned to John like death, before gliding towards a door beside the makeshift bar.

Pleased to be with someone he knew, albeit vaguely and nefariously, John followed the skeleton through to a passage, and down a set of steps to a cellar. Ahead, the scurry of clawed feet suggested their path was clear, but still, when they arrived below ground, several pairs of pink eyes glinted in the candlelight, watching from the crevices for the time they could reclaim their dominion.


The Princess Alice pub was one of the pubs frequented by prostitutes in the East End of London at the time of the Ripper crimes

More on my WIP blog next Wednesday, but don’t forget to be here on Saturday for my other weekly post.

Work In Progress 3.06

Speaking in Silence

The WIP news this week is that I am up to 55,000 words and chapter fifteen of the Larkspur Mysteries book five, Speaking in Silence. On our train journey from London to Cornwall, we have reached somewhere around Bath or Bristol, and that’s appropriate because it means I’ve just met the villain of the piece coming the other way. Chapters 14 and 15 are set on a train journey from Cornwall to Devizes, in Wiltshire, and in the story, the train has recently left the city of Bath.

You know when you get halfway through a draft and suddenly think to yourself, ‘Something’s not right’? Well, I had that twice during the last week, so some of my workload has been fixing a couple of things, or rather, fixing one, and thinking about how to fix the second.

In the first instance, I’d left what they call a plot hole and needed to go back and fill it in. This meant adding an extra chapter so that what a character did next would make sense.

In the second instance, I realised I have started the story from too many points of view. Simply put, it opens with the villain, cuts to Silas’ POV, then to Frank’s, then back to Silas’, and then there’s a backstory section from Henry and Edward’s points of view. The story was originally to be about Frank and his involvement with someone else’s story, but now I am further in, I realise it’s not about Frank at all. So, the earlier scenes that are from his POV need to be from someone else’s, Henry in this case, and so they need rewriting.

Hey ho! That’s how it goes. Now, having told you this, I am going to get on with chapter 16 and move the story into its second half.

What’s On Your First Page?

The importance of the first few lines

In showbiz, they say, ‘It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.’ When writing a novel, I say, it’s how you start and finish.

While standing in the bookshop or browsing through Amazon, many people will pick up a book and look at the cover first. If the cover and title grab them, they will then read the back blurb. If that intrigues them, they will read the first line, and if that appeals, they may read the first page. After your cover, title and blurb, your first page is the most important part of your book, so today’s blog is about what a first page should do. You can expand that to the first couple of pages or the first chapter, but really, what the first page should do is grab the reader and drag them into the story.

Opening Lines

Before we get into an examination of what’s on your first page, I wanted to have a look at some opening sentences, just to make a point:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)


It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)


There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.

C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952)

And the point is, it’s not only the first chapter or page which should engage, the very first line should too. When I wrote the first line of The Mentor of Barrenmoor Ridge, I wanted to sum up the entire story, set the background and inspire the reader to look forward. This is what I came up with:

John Hamilton was refusing a job at Everest base camp when he caught sight of the youth who would change his life.

Barrenmoor Ridge is about a mountaineer coming to terms with the death of his lover while rescuing a younger man from a mountain and falling back in love. The first page opens halfway through a scene, as all good scenes should, they say. Having just written that, I thought I’d examine some of my other opening lines to see whether I followed my own advice.

Andrej waited until the darkest hour before he untied his wrists with his teeth, and freed his feet from the knots.

[Banyak & Fecks]


Jasper Blackwood’s life changed beyond recognition on the morning of 27th July 1889.

[Home from Nowhere]


Liam Dent was wondering if the time was right to come out to his best friend when the man who would nearly kill them stepped on his foot.

[The Students of Barrenmoor Ridge.]

You can see, there’s something of a formula, but not always. The opening for ‘Other People’s Dreams’, my first novel, is an advertisement:

Do you want to live out my dream?

One yacht, a thousand islands and all the time in the world.

36-year-old guy with the money and the fantasy seeks four fit, young, gay lads to crew his boat in the Greek islands. (No experience necessary)

You must be trustworthy, attractive, loyal, adventurous, uninhibited and free from June through to September with no ties.

All expenses and living allowance paid in return.

Certain strings attached.

Write with photo to Jake, Box No. 2006

The first sentence in your novel is as important as all the others, but is usually the first one someone will read before deciding whether to buy a book. Grab ’em from the start and hold ’em until the end. But before they even reach the end of chapter one, they need to get past the first page…

Meanwhile, on the First Page

One Stop For Writers (OSFW) released a guide, ‘How to Craft a Winning First Page’ (see the image), and I am using that as a guide while I examine the openings of two of my novels. The details of each section are on the image, but below, I’m comparing what OSFA suggests against what I did. Bear in mind, I hadn’t read this advice or any like it when I wrote the two novels I’m going to look at, The Mentor of Barrenmoor Ridge (2018), and Deviant Desire (2019).

The notes on the image expand the OSFW advice, but in summary, it suggests five things a first page should do:

  1. Start in the right spot – begin just before a major event in the main character’s life
  2. Show – basically, don’t start with too much backstory (plenty of time for that later)
  3. Tighten up – don’t be wordy, don’t drag it out (plenty of time for that later too)
  4. Raise a question – create intrigue
  5. Build empathy – make the reader like the MC

How do my two examples compare?

The Mentor of Barrenmoor Ridge

The Mentor of Barrenmoor Ridge

Here’s the opening line:

John Hamilton was refusing a job at Everest base camp when he caught sight of the youth who would change his life.

Start in the right spot. Catching sight of the impact character (Gary) is the catalyst for the love story that follows. We also enter the story halfway through a discussion. That’s a common trick used by Shakespeare among many others. Other good ways to open are on a journey in progress, with an argument, with a bang, or right in the middle of some action. When I wrote Banyak & Fecks, I originally started with Andrej (Fecks) standing over the ruins of his burnt-out home and remembering his childhood. That section is still in the first chapter, but it was too slow for an opening. Now we start with him escaping from a camp, stealing back his knife, and running from certain death. A little more grabbing than a character feeling sorry for himself.

But I digress…

Show. I.e., trimming down the backstory. My Barrenmoor Ridge first page contains lines such as, ‘You were talking about another base camp season,’ he said, showing us that John has worked at Everest base camp before, he’s got something to do with mountaineering, and a discussion has happened before we arrived. Showing, not telling, is something that confuses many aspiring authors, and it can be a hard one to get your head around. I tell plot and action all the time, because sometimes you have to, but I always aim to show things like emotion and feeling. Rather than saying ‘he felt sad’, or ‘John was angry,’ show John crying or kicking over a chair and shouting. The reader will imagine more and thus, be drawn further into the story and character. In Barrenmoor Ridge, John is distracted and not concentrating, and he’s shaking because of something or someone he’s just seen.

Tighten up. There are two paragraphs on my first page that tell us where we are, what’s going on, and give us some atmosphere. We are in the climbers’ café in Inglestone, where cigarette smoke hung in the clammy air mixed with the blue fog of over-fried food. That’s enough to set the scene. We don’t need too many other details of the café beyond the tablecloths and plastic bottles of sauce.

Raise a question. Hopefully, the opening line, John’s trembling hand and a couple of other things raise questions. Who did he just see? Why is he trembling? Why is he refusing a job? How will his life change?

Build empathy. In the opening scene/page, John is doing what most of us have done: meeting with someone in a café and having breakfast. It’s what in screenwriting terms they call ‘the normal world.’ However, the second character tells him, ‘Not just any season,’ she said. ‘Possibly your last. You’re not getting any younger.’ So, we now know he’s getting on a bit, it’s a special opportunity, and he’s done it before. Over the page, we learn that John is getting over the death of his lover, so hopefully, that builds more empathy.

Having just reread that opening, I know I could have done better for a variety of reasons, but, in my defence, it was only my second novel as Jackson, and I was still building my style. A year later, I wrote what was to be a standalone novel based around the Jack the Ripper murders (although in an area of London called ‘Greychurch’ where the Ripper was killing rent boys). Deviant Desire then became the first in an ongoing series of Victorian mysteries, but that wasn’t my original intention. Had it been, I probably would have begun the story in exactly the same way.

Deviant Desire

Opens with:

Silas Hawkins was searching for coins in an East End gutter when a man four miles distant and ten years older sealed his fate.

Can you see the similarities between that and Barrenmoor? Yeah, well, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.

Start in the right spot. That opening line tells us that the catalyst is on its way; Silas’ life is about to change because of what someone else is doing off stage. The first paragraph goes on to say that even if Silas knew what was to become of him, he wouldn’t have been bothered, because Silas wasn’t the kind of youth to shy from a challenge, not even one that might threaten his life. (Ooh, something dangerous is coming…)

Show. This is about cutting out too much backstory, remember? Well, there isn’t any on the first page, but there is plenty in later chapters. Although this opening is ‘wordy’ in that it is descriptive, that is to set the atmosphere of an October night in London’s East End in 1888. You can’t write about the Ripper and not have atmosphere. Thus, I get a bit Dickensian while making the reader want to know more about Silas’ past:

In these times, hunger was a keener motivator than sense. It drove need, need drove experience, and in the four years since he had turned his first trick, experience had prepared him for the dangers of life.”

There is some backstory there, four years since he had turned his first trick, but I didn’t really go into detail about those four years until nine books later when I wrote the prequel, Banyak & Fecks, and the story in which those four years come back to haunt Silas, Negative Exposure.

Tighten up. I refer you to the section above about atmosphere. However, the story starts with a bold statement that tells us something major is about to happen to this man who is searching through rubbish leftover at a market hoping to find food. He’s hungry, cold, and he ‘turns tricks.’ We also learn a bit about his character while reading what I hope is suitable and descriptive prose.

Raise a question. As with Barrenmoor, the questions arise from the opening sentence. Who is Silas Hawkins? Why is he searching for coins? Who is the man four miles distant? Why should he change someone’s life? Is the ‘ten years older’ relevant? Will we get an older/younger romance? Later on the page, we learn he’s been turning tricks and we might wonder why, how, and will we get to know more about that?

Build empathy. If you don’t feel sorry for a gamin (street urchin) rooting through trash so he can live, shivering, prostituting himself even during the time of the Ripper and generally not having a pleasant life, then you need to work on your empathy skills. Joking aside, it’s the writer’s job to make the reader feel empathy. Hence, phrases on this page such as Every night on the grimy, gaslit streets was dangerous, and every unlit customer a potential killer, but the threat of starvation gnawed harder than the fear of violence.

A Few Last Words About the First Words

There is a practise in the film script writing world to do with how you introduce a character and how you say goodbye to them. It’s a case of first impressions count, but so do last ones, and the same applies to novel writing. I’m not necessarily talking about the main character here; the rule applies to all characters and to the novel itself. How you meet an entire story is as important as how you meet the MC and others, but so is how you leave it.

Take from the attached advice from One Stop For Writers what you will, but I am going to end with an ending.

In Deviant Desire, we meet Silas on that grimy street, and we leave him 300 pages and one adventure later somewhere entirely different. As for the story, it starts thus:

Silas Hawkins was searching for coins in an East End gutter when a man four miles distant and ten years older sealed his fate.

By the time I got to the end, I decided it was to be an ongoing series, thus, it ends with a different character whose name I have omitted so as not to spoil the story for you.

Revenge was not something [he] thought he would ever contemplate, but he found the idea of it suited him and, as he ordered an ale, he turned his mind to a variety of ways it might be exacted.

Continued in part two, Twisted Tracks

Remember, it’s about how you start and how you finish. It’s about how you introduce your reader to your story, how they leave the story and how the story leaves them. The mark of good storytelling comes when a reader finishes a book wanting to know what happens next to the people in it. This means they have connected with the characters and their world and don’t want the journey to end. The mark of a good first page is to do the same in reverse: to make your reader want to take the journey in the first place.

You can join me on my writer’s journey by tuning into my regular Wednesday work in progress blog. Currently, we’re journeying through Speaking In Silence, the Larkspur Mysteries book five.