Interview with Marianne Wheelaghan, bestselling author and director of writingclasses.co.uk

Today I’m welcoming Marianne Wheelaghan to the blog. Marianne is the author of The Blue Suitcase and The Scottish Lady Detective series, which includes Food of Ghosts and The Shoeshine Killer. She’s also the director of the excellent writing school, writingclasses.co.uk, which I attended and whose alumni and teachers continue to be an incredible support to me.

Welcome, Marianne!

Marianne

Firstly, could you tell us a bit about your writing and books?

I write both crime and historic fiction and am interested in exploring themes to do with “home” and “place” as well as “identity’ in my writing.

Food of Ghosts and The Shoeshine Killer are my first two crime novels in the bestselling Scottish Lady Detective series and are inspired by the time I spent living in the Pacific.

My first non-crime novel is the bestselling The Blue Suitcase. It is inspired by letters and diaries I discovered after my mother’s death and tells the true life story of a Christian girl growing up in Silesia in Nazi Germany.

How did you begin writing?

I have six sisters and two brothers. Growing up with so many siblings meant it was sometimes a bit difficult to get heard. My way of standing out was to tell stories. I suppose I must have been reasonably good at it because telling stories quickly became “my thing”.  It was only as an adult I started to write certain stories down and quickly realised there was nothing I’d rather do. I enrolled on a Master’s degree in Creative Writing with Lancaster University to help hone my skills. This changed my life. Not only did I develop my writing skills, but I gained the confidence I needed to take my writing seriously.

The Blue Suitcase

Marianne’s debut novel

Your debut novel, The Blue Suitcase, was loosely based on your mother’s experience of living in Silesia at the time that Hitler came to power. Could you talk a little about how the idea for the novel came about?

Shortly after my mother’s death I was helping my father sort out her personal things. We discovered a scuffed, blue suitcase full of her letters, diary extracts, photos, old postcards and faded documents, written in German, my mother’s first language.

My father wanted me to translate the documents – I’d studied German so it was not as mad as it sounds. I was appalled at the idea, my mother had been a very private person. I thought it a terrible intrusion of her privacy to read her private stuff. But Dad wouldn’t give up. You see, my mother was from Germany but she never talked about her family life before coming to Scotland after the end of WW2. In fact, you could say my mother’s early life was a mystery – we weren’t even sure where she was from in Germany. Dad believed knowing what was written in the letters and documents would bring her closer to him. I resisted doing what he asked, until we discovered this photo of Mum’s family.

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Mum is the smiling girl at the front of the photo, next to the older man – I recognised her immediately. The other people in the photo are her family – who knew I had so many aunts and uncles? However, it was not seeing all the family that made me change my mind, it was, rather, seeing the picture of Hitler on the wall behind them: if you look carefully, you can see it above my grandfather’s head. I was totally shocked at the sight of it. My mum was a good, kind, thoughtful person and although I didn’t know her family, I couldn’t believe they were not also good people. So why was there a picture of Hitler, a war criminal, on their living room wall?

Around this time I was also very aware of a book that had been around since 1996 called Hitler’s Willing Executioners by Daniel Goldhagen.  In it, he argues that the vast majority of ordinary Germans were “willing executioners” in the Holocaust. The book was scathed by historians, and in the words of Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg, “it is totally wrong about everything and worthless”. However, seeing this photo of Hitler on my grandparent’s wall made me wonder if, after all, there could be some truth in Goldhagen’s theory. I decided to translate the documents to see if I could discover the truth once and for all.

The more I read about Mum’s life, the more shocked I was by what I discovered. When I finally finished translating everything I was both astounded and horrified and felt compelled to share my findings. Like thousands and thousands of ordinary Germans, my mother was not one of Hitler’s willing executioners, far from it. Like thousands and thousands of other ordinary Germans, she was a victim of Hitler’s terrible regime. As if that wasn’t enough, after the end of WW2, in peace time, my mother’s family, along with millions of other Silesian Germans, were forcibly expelled from their home. I knew what I had to do. It was time to set the record straight and the idea for The Blue Suitcase was born.

Food of Ghosts

Book 1 of the Scottish Lady Detective series

Your Scottish Lady Detective Series is set in the Pacific Islands, specifically Kiribati and Fiji. Why did you choose to set the novels in this region?

When I was growing up we didn’t have a lot of money. This meant we never went on holiday like others did and treats were for birthdays and Christmas only. But one thing we had all year round were books, hundreds of them, bought by my mum and dad from second-hand shops and jumble sales. They included, amongst many others, almost all of Agatha Christie’s 66 novels, RL Stevenson’s Treasure Island and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Stacpole’s The Blue Lagoon. These books fuelled my imagination and shaped my dreams. When I wasn’t reading, I was travelling around the world in my head, voyaging to faraway, unspoiled places, populated by gentle, innocent people.

Then, one day I was lucky enough to get a job in some of the lesser developed countries in the Pacific, namely Papua New Guinea, Kiribati and later Fiji. I was going to live my dream. The reality, however, was very different from what I expected. Yes, there was unspoiled beauty and traditional culture and kind people, but there was also a dark side to life there. My paradisiacal countries were wonderfully different, but also wonderfully not so different.

It struck me that travelling was not so much about going to new places, as seeing our surroundings with a fresh perspective, and seeing it all: the good and the bad and the ugly. As Marcel Proust once said: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in looking with new eyes.”  As a writer, I wanted to share this lightbulb moment with others and I did what writers do, I wrote a book, or two. Why a crime novel? I believe a good crime novel can tell us as much about the darker side of society as any literary novel. Plus, I have many fond memories of reading an Agatha Christie or Margery Allingham into the wee hours, riveted until I found out who had done it. I wanted to recreate that feeling of suspense in my readers. So Detective Sergeant Louisa Townsend, AKA The Scottish Lady Detective, was born. Maybe not surprisingly, DS Townsend is a kind of modern day Miss Marple: a tad more gritty than cosy, she doesn’t suffer fools gladly but can also be kind, who is shrewd and intelligent but who can also make mistakes and even behave downright silly sometimes, and who has a dark side of her very own.

The Shoeshine Killer

Book 2 of the Scottish Lady Detective series

What challenges did you encounter when writing your novels and how did you overcome these?

In the Scottish Lady Detective novels, one of the biggest challenges is to bring totally alien peoples and places to life for the reader, and in doing so make the unfamiliar, familiar. I hope to achieve this by using very specific sensory details in the writing, so the reader really sees the magnolia trees, hears the traffic, tastes the overripe mangoes, smells the earthy market smells, and feels the giant drops of warm rain on their skin.

The biggest challenge when writing The Blue Suitcase was distancing myself emotionally from writing about my mother. I struggled with this until I had an epiphany: I would create a fictional family, very much like the true family but not exactly the same. This worked. Much of what happened to my fictional family happened to my real family, but some stuff didn’t, although it could have. Certainly, everything that happened in the novel is based on true historic fact: if didn’t happen to my family, it happened to someone else’s family.

Could you tell readers about writingclasses.co.uk? How did the school come about?

I decided to set up writingclasses for two reasons: I love writing and wanted to share my passion for it with others. I also believe to teach a skill is an honourable way to earn a living and in the words of Hanif Kureishi “I felt if I knew something, I should pass it on.”  

How are classes taught?

Today, with massive online open learning courses (MOOCs) becoming a part of everyday life, it is difficult to understand how in 2002 online courses of any kind, but especially short courses, were unusual.  As a lover of online learning, I was determined that writingclasses should offer short online creative writing courses, the kind of courses that I would have loved to have attended when I began writing. In my opinion online learning offers a flexibility that face-to-face classes simply cannot. Students can join in at a time that suits them, there is no being early or late and no need to find childminders/babysitters. For those of us juggling work and family life, learning online gives us access to courses that would have otherwise been denied us.

One of my favourite elements of the courses was that tutors read and commented on all assignments (quite often in other courses I’ve taken, tutors leave the critiquing primarily to students and, while peer review is always helpful, it’s the expert guidance of a more experienced writer which is most sought after). Why did you decide on this model?

 As all beginner writers know, one of the hardest things to find is an experienced writer who will read your work and give you honest, constructive feedback. This is why attending a course can be so helpful. However, when I was a beginner writer taking short courses, a tutor might give feedback on one piece of writing, possibly two, but never three. In my opinion this is simply not enough. We writers learn by our mistakes. It follows that the more we write, the more mistakes we can potentially make and the greater the opportunity we have to develop our writing skills, always assuming we have an expert at hand to help us recognise what the mistakes are. This is why on all writingclasses courses students are encouraged to write something new every week, why  “making mistakes” is obligatory, and why our experienced tutor-writers give helpful constructive feedback on every piece of creative writing the student submits during the course.

Several of your students have gone on to become published writers, myself included. Could you talk a bit about your students and why you think it is that so many have been successful in their writing?

A little bit of encouragement and feedback can go a long way but, ultimately, the students who succeed are, very much like yourself, the ones who do not give up.  Determination and staying power are often as important as ability and creativity.

And, finally, are you working on anything at the moment?

I am writing two books – the follow on from The Blue Suitcase and a third Scottish Lady Detective novel set in Edinburgh.  I’m not sure if it is a good idea to write two books at the same time. Time will tell ;-).   

Thanks so much for coming by to talk with us about your writing and teaching!

Readers can learn more about Marianne and her writing by visiting her website: http://www.mariannewheelaghan.co.uk/

Check out the courses on offer at her writing school: http://www.writingclasses.co.uk/courses.html  (Tip: The next semester starts on the 3rd October so do sign up early to guarantee your place– they’re great value!)

Follow her on Twitter: @MWheelaghan and @solovewriting

Buy her books: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Marianne-Wheelaghan/e/B004AQKRXA/

https://www.amazon.com/Marianne-Wheelaghan/e/B004AQKRXA/

 

 

 

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My winning one-liner!

Last month I entered the Mslexia / thortful.com one-liner greeting card competiton. This morning I received notification that…you guessed it, I won! Woo hoo!

Here’s the lovely design they came up with based on my one-liner.

my winning card!Thortful will be selling the cards on their website. So, if you like it, you’ll be able to purchase one.

I’ll let you know more later, when I have more details. 🙂

Thanks for reading!

UPDATE: The cards are now available to purchase via the thortful website, using this link: https://www.thortful.com/card/57c09aebe4b06a370b86f390 

As I’ve now received mine in the post, I can confirm that they’re very good quality, A5 size and printed on paper from sustainable forests. 🙂

My review of Sandlands by Rosy Thornton

book cover

At that, the crease smoothed away and she smiled at him. ‘Oh, don’t worry, we’re still appalling know-it-alls. We dig things up, but then we photograph and catalogue, record and document, and as often as not we put things back. It’s not the finds so much as the findings. Not the objects but the stories they tell.’

Sandlands is a collection of sixteen linked short stories, all taking place in and around the small coastal village of Blaxhall in an area known as the Sandlings in Suffolk, England. Life and death, past and present, overlap in these stories, coming full circle. The victories, losses and betrayals of past generations come back to haunt the present, forever imprinted upon both the physical landscape as well as the realm of memory and imagination.

In ‘Nightingale’s Return,’ birdsong fills the air as a recently retired clerk travels from his native Italy to visit the farm in Suffolk where his father worked as a prisoner of war during World War Two. In ‘Mad Maudlin,’ one of the more unsettling stories in the collection, a pub lodger stays up late to compare old video footage of the pub from decades before. ‘Silver Studded Blues’ is a story of regeneration and renewal and the surprises which nature sometimes brings, wrapped up in the story of a man who has spent his entire life in (nearly) the same place.

Thornton’s stories are quiet, delicate and full of wonder. They slowly weave their way into your heart, where they remain.  They are poignant, poetic, lush with the landscape, wildlife and history of Blaxhall and beautifully written but, above all, they are perfect. By perfect I mean perfectly composed—each word earns its place, and then some. Each character, each setting, each paragraph hearkens back to another, lending a satisfying, almost musical, quality of resonance within the stories and, indeed, within the collection.

As I read, I found myself turning each story over, wondering what had really happened. This wasn’t because the writing was unclear at any point but more a result of the writer wanting the reader to make his or her own mind up as to what had occurred. Thornton’s stories are multi-layered and nuanced in such a way that they lend themselves to varying interpretations, a feature I very much enjoyed.

I’m looking forward to reading more of Thornton’s work and, perhaps, even visiting the Sandlings someday.

Sandlands is published by Sandstone Press and is available from Amazon UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B017KU9E9K/ 

Amazon US: https://www.amazon.com/Sandlands-Rosy-Thornton-ebook/dp/B017KU9E9K/

You can follow Rosy Thornton on Twitter: @rosy_thornton

Visit her website: http://rosythornton.com/

 

Interview with Marie Campbell about her debut novel Baby

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I’m delighted to be welcoming the talented author Marie Campbell to the blog today to talk about her debut novel, Baby, which was released by The Conrad Press on 13 July 2016. In addition to being a writer, Marie is also a trained proofreader and a fellow alumni of writingclasses.co.uk. As readers may recall, I recently reviewed Marie’s novel for Lothian Life. If you’ve not yet read my review you can do so here: http://www.lothianlife.co.uk/2016/08/baby/ 

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photo taken by Karen McGowran Photography

Welcome, Marie!

Firstly, could you please tell readers about Baby?

Thanks so much for having me, Kendra. My book, Baby, is a psychological thriller, based in Edinburgh, where I live. In it, Michael Stanton, goes to work one day and doesn’t come back. Everyone thinks his pregnant girlfriend, Jill, should accept that he has left her. But she just won’t believe that Michael would walk away from her and their unborn child. Increasingly desperate and alone, she is determined to find him.

What Jill doesn’t know is that Michael’s beautiful ex, Anna, wants him back, and won’t take no for an answer. And it isn’t just him she wants…

Where did the idea for the novel come from?

I like to explore the dark side of human nature, and look at the lengths seemingly-ordinary people will go to get what they want. Although this is my first book, I have also written many short stories, and in the main, they tend to have a dark side. I like to think ‘What would happen if…’. In the case of Baby, I thought about what would happen if someone believed they had an absolute right to something, and what they were willing to do to achieve that. I wanted to include strong, believable characters, and also to explore the flaws that exist within them.

The premise of the story is quite frightening. Being a mother yourself, did you find any of the scenes difficult to write?

To some extent, yes, but I find that I do tend to write about things that scare me, perhaps as a way of confronting them. Being a mother is a massive part of who I am, and I hope that I was able to convey the genuine, deep emotion that comes from that.

The novel is written in such a way that I couldn’t help but turn the page every time I got to the end of a chapter–I literally read the novel in two sittings, which is unusual for me. Was this purposeful on your part and, if so, how did you achieve this?

That’s amazing to hear – thanks so much. That’s what I hoped for and I’m really pleased that you think I’ve been able to achieve it. I think telling the story from the alternative viewpoints of Michael and Jill helped to maintain the momentum – hopefully readers want to read on because they want to find out what is in store next for each of them. They are both experiencing very different, but often equally traumatic, things at the same time.

Michael is still attracted to Anna, though he tries his best to hide it. There are many points in the novel where I found myself wondering why he didn’t try harder to escape. At times it almost felt like Michael didn’t mind having been abducted—as though he were suffering from some form of Stockholm syndrome. Why did you decide to write the story in this way?

Although Michael is utterly committed to Jill, he does, as you say, still find Anna attractive. I wanted to get across the fact that he is entranced by her, and that, throughout his captivity, he becomes dependant on her, almost to the point where he is so confused that he thinks maybe he doesn’t want to leave. I added the sexual elements to intensify his confusion and desire. Anna is a complicated, dangerous, but strong character, and I wanted her to be in control of the situation and to maintain her belief that what she was doing was the absolute right thing for all of them.

Could you talk us through the writing of the novel?

Five years ago, after having a baby, taking a career break from the Civil Service and moving house, I wondered what I could do to fill up all of the free time (!) I had. Writing was something I have always had a passion for, and I had dabbled with short stories, diaries and journals for years. So I decided to embark on an online writing course, as you mentioned above, with writingclasses.co.uk. Another course followed, by which time I had quite a portfolio of short stories. I started entering competitions and was even successful in a few of them. But what I really wanted to do was write a novel. Something that maybe someone would actually want to buy and read. A novel-writing course followed. As you know yourself, this was serious stuff – posting large chunks of previously private work and awaiting the critique of fellow students and tutors.

I loved doing the course though, and by the end of it I had the makings of a book – only around 40,000 words, but it was a start. My tutor from the course became a very good friend, and she supported and encouraged me to complete what I’d started.

By March 2014, I had a version of my book that I was happy with. And then all I had to do was find an agent. And then a publisher.

How did the novel come to be published?

Well, as I mentioned earlier, the first step was finding an agent – I knew that traditional publishing didn’t lend itself to unsolicited manuscripts from unknown authors. I armed myself with a copy of the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook and began working my way through the list of agents. Some wanted an email, some wanted a letter. Some wanted a 100-word synopsis; others 300 words. Three chapters or fifty pages – I gave them what they asked for and waited for a reply. And some of them did respond. But it took six long months before James Essinger of Canterbury Literary Agency agreed to represent me. And then we began the process of tweaking, deleting and adding new chapters.

When it was finally as good as we both thought it could be (and very different from that rough first draft), James started the submission process. Some publishers responded, offering feedback and comments but saying they weren’t taking new authors. Others asked for more, and said they wanted to read it again, but it took a very long time, and many changes and amendments, before The Conrad Press, a publishing company based in Canterbury, Kent, took on my book.

What advice would you give to a new writer who is just starting out?

I’m no expert, but I would say just go ahead and write. Writing every day, or as much as possible anyway, is key to honing your craft. There have been many periods of time in my life when, for various reasons, I haven’t written, but I know now that practice is hugely important. I also remember my English teacher telling me not to ‘hide my light under a bushel’ when I wasn’t keen to read out my work in class. It’s taken me many years to heed this advice and be less secretive about what I do.

Doing courses has also been a massive help for me. And joining online forums and groups, where readers, writers and bloggers can connect and talk about all things books. Joining a local writing group is another great idea. Oh, and never leave the house without a notebook and pen (hard back A5 and blue rollerball for me, or, on the rare occasions I forget, a Minions notepad and broken crayon from the depths of my handbag…). You never know when inspiration might strike.

Do you plan to write any more novels?

It’s my intention to always write novels, from now on. I’ve started work on my second, another psychological thriller, this time exploring revenge.

Finally, how can readers keep in touch?

In lots of ways. One of the things I’ve really enjoyed doing is setting up a newsletter, which lots of people have signed up for. Receiving replies to these has been a great way of connecting with readers, and I’ve taken on board one of the suggestions I received via this route, in that my next book will be set in the North East of England, where I was born and lived before moving to Edinburgh eight years ago. If anyone is interested in signing up for the newsletter, they can do so here. Baby also has a Facebook page, Baby – Marie Campbell, and you can also find me on Twitter  @mariecampbell72. I also have a website Marie Campbell – Writer.

Thank you for the interview and a big congratulations on the publication of Baby!

Thanks for having me Kendra, it was an absolute pleasure.

Readers can obtain Baby from Amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Baby-Marie-Campbell-ebook/dp/B01IEB920K

Baby can also be purchased directly from The Conrad Press website: http://theconradpress.com/our-books/

The print copy is also now available on Amazon:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Baby-Marie-Campbell/dp/1783019646/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1470301480&sr=1-3&keywords=baby+marie+campbell

 

 

My review of Tregunna by Carla Vermaat

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I sit down, leaning a bit forward, hoping that my sweater covers the bulge on my belly. I don’t know if anyone told her that I am wearing a stoma bag. It’s not something I can easily ask her.

Firstly, I’d like to say that Carla and I are both members of the Writers, Authors, Readers group on Facebook. It was here that I first learned about Carla’s novel—a detective story set against the beautiful, dramatic scenery of Cornwall. As I was just about to embark on a short holiday to Cornwall, I decided to give it a try. And I’m glad I did as the novel is a compelling and swift read with many interesting components to it.

The story opens with a five-year-old girl discovering that her parents have been brutally murdered. This murder is one of many in the area which has gone unsolved over the years. Meanwhile, back in the present-day, Inspector Andy Tregunna has just taken on his first murder investigation. The body of a woman has been discovered in a car park by two ten-year-old twin boys. Figuring out the identity of this woman and piecing together the various components of her life is hard enough, but Tregunna must also learn how and where she died and, most importantly, who would want to kill her.

Unfortunately, Tregunna’s progress is slow and his increasing stomach pain and worries about his health only make matters worse. When he’s forced off the case due to an emergency operation to remove a cancerous tumour from his colon, he not only has to contend with unsympathetic colleagues while also trying to get to grips with a stoma, but he also realises that the body in the car park is linked to other deaths and disappearances in the area. In order to solve the murders, Tregunna will have to break all the rules and work his sick leave, if his body will allow him.

Inspector Tregunna is a refreshing change from the usual hard-boiled and, sometimes, insensitive male detective. When we first meet him he’s reflecting on how difficult it was to see his first body, that of a young man who’d been hit by a lorry. Later we see him struggling to come to terms with his new disability and the possibility that the doctors may not have been able to remove all of the tumour, meaning he’ll have to undergo further disruptive, complicating and potentially painful treatments. Despite all of this, Tregunna continues his investigation of the case, with some help from a sympathetic and astute female colleague.

I enjoyed this novel and look forward to reading book two in the series, What every body is saying, which was released on the 28th June.

The Tregunna series is available from Amazon UK: http://www.amazon.co.uk/-/e/B0125J6E1W/

Amazon US: http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B0125J6E1W/

Follow Carla Vermaat on Twitter: @carla_vermaat

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/carla.vermaat1

Check out her website: http://www.carlavermaat.co.uk/index.html