Why do I write? A guest post by Rebecca Stonehill

Today, as part of the #AlfredNightingale blog tour, I’m featuring a thoughtful guest post by Rebecca Stonehill on why she writes. So, without further ado, I’ll hand over to Rebecca. 

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You know that feeling of complete helplessness after you’ve watched the news? Watching reams of people leaving war-torn Syria, or the latest terrorist attack in a crowded market, or corrupt dictatorships making its own people suffer? Feeling deeply saddened, but not knowing what you can do about it, that the only option is to continue and make the most of our own lives?

I go through all of the above, as almost everyone does. And then, as somebody working in the creative arts, I interpret and personalize situations such as these. Toni Morrison, Pulitzer prize-winning novelist once said of the artist’s task in troubled times: ‘This is precisely the time when artists go to work.’ I couldn’t agree more. It’s an unspoken pact I have with myself, to respond to difficult situations with writing. People have sometimes asked me, How can such a cheerful person like you base your novels in such un-cheerful settings?  (Think: The Spanish Civil War in The Poet’s Wife, Prejudice and Mau Mau Emergency in The Girl and the Sunbird and the Battle of Crete in The Secret Life of Alfred Nightingale.) The truth is, if I didn’t write my way through such difficult scenarios, I’m not sure I would write at all.

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But that doesn’t mean that all this is simple catharsis; I know there are other people out there who feel the same as me and are deeply disturbed by what we as a race do to one another and what we are doing to our beautiful planet. I completely understand why people both write and read chick lit or light romances, so we can remove ourselves from the sober realities that surround us and indulge in some much-needed escapism. This is a hard written art form to do well. Often I wish I could write these stories, but I find that I can’t and that whenever I’ve tried, I’ve failed.

Everybody says I was a serious little girl, reserving my smile for only a few; that child who listened intently, but never put her hand up in class. I’m far less serious these days and love nothing more than a good laugh with friends and family. And yet, that serious child lives on in me. She is the reader who would like to but can’t read anything lighthearted, and she is the writer who returns again and again to mine the depths of human despair in her stories.

Thankfully, there’s a flipside to all this. And that flipside incorporates those stories of courage, resilience and beauty in the face of human suffering. We are a strange, remarkable species – capable of so much destruction and hatred and yet, we also know how to love unconditionally and to be the harbingers of great compassion, generosity and joy.

Through my writing, I try hard to make sense of this complicated world and understand why things have happened. Even more importantly, I look for and create stories of hope, that beautiful little word that allows us to press on through the direst of situations. I am so inspired by tales of courage and resilience and, in many ways, my writing bears testament to the spirit of human bravery.

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Author EB White said that a writer ‘must reflect and interpret his society, his world; he must also provide inspiration and guidance and challenge.’

If I can do any of the above, in any small way, then I believe I have achieved what I set out to do. Where all this will lead me, I don’t yet know. But I have a thousand and one stories bottled up inside me, so the real question is this: where will my need to make sense of the world take me and which story will be released next?

Rebecca Stonehill is from London but currently lives in Nairobi in an old wooden cottage surrounded by banana trees and tropical birds. The Secret Life of Alfred Nightingale, now available, is her third novel. Her other books, The Poet’s Wife and The Girl and the Sunbird, were published in 2014 and 2016.

Rebecca loves to connect with readers and can be contacted on her Facebook page: Rebecca Stonehill books, via twitter: @bexstonehill and through her website: www.rebeccastonehill.com. If you would like to be kept updated with her writing projects, please do sign up here: http://rebeccastonehill.com/signup

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The Battle of the Birds: Guest Post and Cover Reveal by Virginia King

Today I’m welcoming Virginia King to talk about how she chose the title and cover for her latest book. So, without further ado, I’ll hand over to Virginia.

Many authors say that in the process of creating a book, the writing is the easy part. It’s choosing titles and covers where the real work begins.

Title Torture

I was writing a collection of stories re-imagined from the folktales that inspired the modern prequel to my mystery series, Laying Ghosts.

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A strange message. A deserted beach house. A shocking incident from the past …

When a text message from a long lost friend lures Selkie Moon to Crystal Cottage, the chilling events from a house-party four years earlier wrap her in ghostly fingers and turn her life upside-down.

The folktales form a standalone collection but also a companion to Laying Ghosts. I was going through the usual torture of choosing a title when my mystery author friend Ellen Seltz offered to help. She asked for details of the stories in the collection. One involves the 250-year-old murder ballad ‘Pretty Polly’. Ellen found a phrase in the following stanza from the original ballad:

He pierced her body till the blood it did flow,

Then into the grave her body did throw.

He covered her body, then home he did run,

Leaving none but birds her death to mourn.

Ellen suggested None but Birds for the title of the collection and I was thrilled. It had the right amount of mystery and suspense, while hinting at the dark themes in the stories. But because the collection is a companion to Laying Ghosts, I settled on a variation that gives both titles a similar word pattern: Leaving Birds.

Yay, I had my title. Hurdle one vaulted – with panache. Next came the cover. That should be easy given I had my subject on a plate: birds. Then followed the battle of the birds!

Photos or Illustrations?

Covers guide readers to the genre of the book. All the books in my Selkie Moon Series contain mystical clues inspired by folklore, but the mysteries are modern so the covers are a compilation of photographic elements to reflect this. Leaving Birds is not strictly part of the series and it’s a mix of traditional and modern stories, more closely linked to folklore. Should I use an illustrative style of cover so that the reader would recognise the ‘folktale’ genre?

Conducting a Cover Poll

To get other opinions, I polled the subscribers to my Myth Mystery & Mayhem newsletter. Showing them the following two stock images, I asked: Do you prefer a photographic or illustrative cover for Leaving Birds, a folktale companion for Laying Ghosts? These images are samples of two different styles of cover, not the final cover. The theme of the collection is the loneliness of death, and the cover will be black and white.

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How Readers Voted

The almost 100 votes were 65/35 in favour of the photographic image. Then I worried that the pop of red had skewed the vote. If I’d removed it from the illustrative cover, the samples would have been more equal. But the red had an unexpected role to play.

Photographic voters liked:

  • Herons, because they’re regal and mystical
  • The drama of the spooky mood
  • The sense of eeriness and mystery
  • Imagining a great black bird surveying a graveyard
  • The single bird and lack of colour being barren and solitary like death
  • Crows, because they’re linked to death

Illustrative voters liked:

  • Hummingbirds!
  • The pop of red against the stark background
  • The colourful bird suggesting a ray of hope in the loneliness
  • The bird’s wings suggesting a soul soaring away
  • The handwriting feeling personal, dated and creepy
  • The celebration of a life departed instead of the gloominess of death

Taking Care with Stock Images

The two concepts are both stock images which could be used as they are. But Joel Friedlander from The Book Designer says that a good cover is not just a stock image with titles added. It is the compilation of images and graphic effects that create a design. Also, if you use a stock image as it is, you’re likely to see it on other covers.

Playing with Cover Concepts

Taking into account the mood of the folktale collection and the feedback from readers, I briefed my cover designer. We tried a different photo of a lonely bird – a seagull on a chimney – as well as the original heron image. And we blended some handwriting into the background like the illustrative sample.

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As much as I loved the lonely seagull in the stock photo, when I saw it as a cover it just didn’t evoke the powerful mood created by the hunched heron. The handwriting also didn’t fit as well with the gull. The battle of the birds was over. We had a winner. And although I was committed to a black and white cover as a companion to Laying Ghosts, I asked my designer to try out some red on the handwriting – for that pop of colour some of my readers had liked in the illustrative sample.

Cover Reveal: Leaving Birds

Here’s the final cover of Leaving Birds, a standalone collection of creepy folktales with adult themes, and a companion to the modern ghost story Laying Ghosts.

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Leaving Birds contains:

  • ‘The Woman with Hair of Gold’ – retold from a Russian folktale
  • ‘Peig’s Place’ – a modern ghost story re-imagined from an Irish folktale
  • ‘Polly’s Folly’ – the possibly true events behind the murder ballad ‘Pretty Polly’
  • ‘Serendipity Rules’ – the newspaper report that inspired the plot of Laying Ghosts

If you like to get a behind-the-scenes glimpse of books and how they’re written, Leaving Birds also contains insights into how each story inspired the writing of Laying Ghosts.

Laying Ghosts is available:

Leaving Birds is available:

Follow Virginia on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/selkiemoonmysteries

Virginia King FB Nomad Portrait

 

In the Selkie Moon Mystery Series, Virginia King gets to explore far-flung places full of secrets where Selkie delves into psychological clues tangled up in the local mythology.

Before Selkie Moon invaded her life, Virginia was a teacher, an unemployed ex-teacher, the author of over 50 children’s books, an audio-book producer, a workshop presenter and a prize-winning publisher. These days she lives in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney with her husband, where she disappears each day into Selkie Moon’s latest mystery. Bliss.

 

 

Where She Will Shine by Sylvia Anderson

Today I’m featuring Fiona Maclean who writes under the pen name of Sylvia Anderson. Her first novel, Where She Will Shine, was self-published in April. Here’s the blurb:

Where She Will Shine is a contemporary literary work of fiction which concerns the life of a student, Mary MacDonald, in 1960s Scotland. It is a vibrant tale full of contrasts, colour and excitement. When Mary leaves the croft for the “big city” of Glasgow she meets individuals who will change her life forever. Her life is lonely and raw at the start until she meets David Cochrane, who has a life hidden from his mother, but Mary falls in love with him – her first “real love”. 

In the late sixties, the Beatles were in full swing and dance halls were popular as meeting places for young people. It was the generation of full employment and the post war “baby boomers” had a satisfying life. The characters in the book, however, battle with issues which were as topical then as they are now – coming of age, student life, parenthood, rape and homosexuality.

Fiona has written a lovely post about her inspiration for writing Where She Will Shine and, also, her characters. So, without further ado, I’ll hand over to Fiona.

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“My inspiration for my work, Where She Will Shine, came from a visit to a First World War Monument in Perth, Scotland.  The brave war heroes remembered, sacrificed their lives so that the youth of today could shine and make the world a better place.

I enjoyed my student years, for it was a world that my parents had not had the chance to experience.  I’m a ‘Baby Boomer’ and echoes of the war years were still around whilst I grew up – poor housing; austerity; rationing.  I wrote the novel for folk in a similar position, who cherished the chance to ‘shine’ and for others to see inside the emotional head of a first-year student in 1968.

Life could be tough for my eighteen-year-old protagonist, Mary, but it is never as hard as the life of Alice, the waif she befriends in Glasgow and whom she helps to move on and make her life a success.

Mary was an only child – when I think about it, my best friend when I was growing up was an only child and I did envy her having her parents all to herself – I was one of five.  She had a totally different life to mine with extremely caring parents who catered to her every need – be it the beautiful food she ate; her immaculate school uniforms and shoes (mine were hand me downs) or lovely skating dresses (we met at the local ice rink).

I have met poor teenagers like Alice in my work as an Occupational Therapist and always felt pity.  Despite Alice’s brave and gauche front, she longs to be looked after by ‘proper’ parents like Ruaridh and Mhairi.  In the end, this happens to her and she has a good life after a deprived and unsupported beginning.

I have never lived on the west coast of Scotland but have had many holidays there.  It is my favourite place in the whole of Scotland.  Breathtakingly beautiful white beaches and mountains covered with beautiful flowers, make it a place to relax and enjoy nature.  Mary belonged to such a place and it gave her, ‘an ache in her heart’ when she thought of it.  One can imagine the change in her lifestyle when she arrived in Glasgow in 1968 into a student world of riot; the end of the Vietnam War; an intolerance of everything ‘old’ and conmen and women (Jimmy and Yvonne) on every street corner. 

Where She Will Shine is my first novel. I enjoyed writing it and was greatly motivated by ‘The Writing Classes,’ which I joined when I moved to Kuala Lumpur in 2014.  My tutor, Anne Hamilton, was particularly inspiring.  This was a great experience for the other writers commented on everything one wrote and I looked forward to every Monday, for a new exercise.  Kuala Lumpur is a city of very poor and very rich, like most cities in Asia.  I communicated largely with other ex-patriot wives who had gone out there with their partners to support them.  In the sunshine, every day we would walk and talk in the KLCC Park under the Petronas Towers.  It was a magical time and amongst the ex-pat women (forty-four of them), I had understanding, tolerant friends.  I miss them!”

Many thanks for that, Fiona. It’s always delightful to hear about the success of new writers, especially fellow alumni of writingclasses. I’m looking forward to reading Where She Will Shine!

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Where She Will Shine is available as an ebook from Amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Where-Will-Shine-Sylvia-Anderson-ebook/dp/B06Y98WTQ4