Friday, 27 March 2015

Monday, 23 March 2015

Jessie Burton, KTW Quote of the Month

“Every woman is the architect of her own fortune.”

When I read an aphorism  like that, I know I've found a strong heroine who isn't going to disappoint by going all fluffy in the presence of testosterone-ridden muscles and sharp, male jawlines.

The Miniaturist is set in Amsterdam, at the end of the 17th Century. I was rather expecting Girl with a Pearl Earring (Tracey Chevalier, HarperCollins,1999) all over again, which, for me, was a beautifully written romance, but a romance, none the less. The endorsements to this debut novel, which are plastered all over the cover, should have told me otherwise. “Full of surprises” says SJ Watson. “Fabulously gripping” says the Observer. 

I was hoping for exquisite detail…miniaturist detail, in fact, and that I got, but I also found I was reading an absolute page-turner. I  turned the pages of this book all the way from Aberystwyth on the west coast of Wales, to Barnsley, in Yorkshire, on some very slow, long-and-winding, cross-country trains. I hardly noticed the dark, satanic mills, the still snow-capped Pennines or the little towns that moved past my carriage window, because I was in Holland, where silk rustled and sumptuous feasts were consumed as deals were done for the slave sugar of the West Indies…and Nella, eighteen, innocent but savvy, hopes that married life will be the tulip bed she dreamed of as a child. Romance of any kind fails to blossom, and she soon discovers that Jonhannes, the wealthy merchant she’s married, has secrets which will lead them into escalating danger.  In fact, the only the thing that her husband gives her in their marriage is a cabinet house; a doll-house sized, but vastly expensive, replica of their home in Amsterdam. An elusive miniaturist creates tiny items to fill the house, each of which eerily predict the shocks Nella begins to experience.

Despite the fact that The Miniaturist soon became an international best seller, I've taken my time about  reading it because my first encounter was last summer’s Guardian review –

Rachel Cook was not particularly nice to Jessie Burton's first book, and I have to admit, she put me off. But the word-in-the-library was of a wicked page-turner, so in the end I threw reviews to the wind and read it. 

Jessie Burton.
Photograph: Katherine Rose Katherine Rose/Katherine Rose
The Miniaturist has flaws, that's undeniable. I understand exactly why Cooke says, “somehow it fails to convince. Again and again, I found myself thinking: that would not happen. We are expected to take so much on trust…Emotionally, they move from A to Z in the blink of an eye, and nothing in between.”

In writers’ terms, this single problem is the result of a little bundle of plotting issues, which beset us all, and which take time and effort to overcome; implausibility. Like Rachel Cooke, there were times I felt like echoing Victor Meldrew, from One Foot in the Grave, crying; I don’t believe it!

I’m not going to tell you which bits of this book I couldn’t believe. It’s a cracking read, with a vivid period setting, distinctive, even striking characters and a story so seductive and outrageous, it drags you in by the collar of your coat. But, having read the book yourself, you might, as a writer, want to ask yourself what you can learn from its problems. Are there sections of your own stories that are implausible? And if so, what can you do to alter that, so that your eventual readers don’t turn into grouchy Victor Meldrews who long to throw your novel across train carriages?

Naturally you want the reader to feel fully committed to what’s happening on the page. But some confusion arises between being convincing and suspending disbelief, which is what happens when readers are so caught up with the fiction, that they are prepared to go along with what the narrator is telling them, even when it patently could not happen ‘in real life’. New writers mistakenly believe that they can be as implausible as they please, and readers will suspend disbelief when reading their work. Completing a fictional tale isn’t a magic key to the good will of the reader. They will suspend disbelief for you, but you have to work hard to gain their trust beforehand. I recommend five strategies for this problem; 

  1. The reader needs to feel grounded within the story. Overload of information, or conversely, lack of relevant information (usually because the writers hasn’t taken into consideration that the reader isn’t familiar with what the writer is telling them), are two major factors. The reader needs time and help to absorb the details of the story. In The Miniaturist, Burton researches her time-period very well, even adding a glossary. But, Nella, as Rachel Cooke points out… “has a sensibility more akin to that of a 21st-century teenager than a 17th-century one: outspoken, determined, reflexively feminist.” This cut me adrift from her as I read – was she really from the 17th Century?
  2. Communication with your reader. Stories (or parts of a story) appear implausible because the writer has assumed that the reader ‘will understand’ what they are writing about. Don’t ever assume that; check as you go that your plot is comprehendible and that there are clear links as you move along it, filling in details that will help your reader to keep up with plot developments. It annoyed me, when Nella recalled, towards the novel’s end, all the ‘thrilling conversations’ she and Johannes had, because the reader hadn’t been privy to any of these. We’d barely seen them communicate and when they did, Johannes would peremptorily curtail the dialogue. And yet, Nella seems to gain an affinity with him that I could not credit. 
  3. Character development and identification. It’s often the character, especially the narrator, who convinces the reader the story is believable. Your characters should be well-developed on the page, so that the reader can identify, possibly emphasize with them. This links closely with communication above; it will be the narrator who communicates the plot and fills in those all-important linking details. Rachel Cooke writes; “We know their tastes, but little of what lies in their hearts; we know all about their failings, but their motivation remains elusive.” 
  4. Cause and effect. When the causes of character action are solidly imbedded in the story, leading directly to the naturally realized effects, the story is likely to feel convincing and believable. There is one plot-line in Jessie Burton’s novel which is never fully explained, and as that concerns the title of the story…the miniaturist who makes strangely predictive furninture for the cabinet house…I felt decidedly let down by this. However, I must commend Burton for the ending to her book. I thought her denouement and final flourishes were cracking – not only plausible, but shocking and perfectly balanced. 

  1. Motivation should always be driven by character emotion.  Cook writes, “I had the sense that the novel's characters were simply figures (from a doll's house, perhaps) to be moved around on an Amsterdam-shaped board.” I agreed At times, Burton concentrates too much on her fabulous plot, and forgets the emotional motivation of her characters.  Motivating your characters successfully isn’t easy, but here’s a little template that will help you make that check:
    1. The author wants certain things to happen. This creates poor motivation.
    2. The actions further a character’s objectives. This creates strong motivation. 

Please don’t let me put you off reading this amazing book. The Miniaturist is a popular choice with bookclubs, and I can see why. It would generate discussion about the era and setting, the story and characters, but especially the themes and events of the book, which are unsettling and powerful. And anyone searching for aphorisms will find an abundance within this story, which is why I’ve chosen Burton as my “Quote of the Month”.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Seven Writing Secrets to Share

Nina Milton is sharing 

Seven Writing Secrets 

with Bea Davenport.

'I thought that would be a great place to bury a body'... 


#1 In the Moors
Sabbie Dare is the most compelling protagonist I’ve met this year, and Milton’s tale is riveting: LibraryJournal 

#2 Unraveled Visions
nominated for submission to the  Killer Nashville Silver Falchion Award
 in the category of Best Novel: Literary Mystery/Suspense/Thriller 
#3 Beneath the Tor
for release in the US December 2015

Nina Milton is guest blogging for crime novelist and children's writer
 Bea Davenport 

Read author and OCA tutor Nina Milton's great Q and A session here.

Friday, 13 March 2015

Writers Aloud - The Royal Literary Fund

Any desk or table will do -
but is paper and pens really all you need to get started?
Writers' stories are often a help to other writers. They at least demonstrate that other writers have it hard. 

Writing is often the last thing in a person's priorities, as I can tell from the reasons my writing students give me when they ask for extensions to their assignments. First will come their own health, and after that the raft of other pressures on their time; overload from work, problems with children, caring for relatives, and money worries. 

Writing shouldn't cost you much, you'd think – the price of paper and ink. But writers need time, and space, and the equipment to present their work well.

I have just happened upon the website of The Royal Literary Fund for the first time. This is a UK charity that has been helping authors since the 18th century. It provides grants and pensions to writers in financial difficulty; it also places writers in universities to help students develop their writing.  

I discovered its podcast pages, which are full of interest to writers.

Writers Aloud, I enjoyed listening to other writers tell their stories; Max Adams’ podcast rang particular bells for me as I’ve always believed walking and writing go hand in hand, and famous writers, from Dickens to Byatt, walked themselves into their stories, which is what I do now.

is full of video features in which writers talk about their work.

Vox is a series of bite-size audio recordings in which RLF Fellows explore topics such as why they write.

is a weekly series of articles where writers write about their craft. 

The RLF came into being in 1790 when the founder, the Rev David Williams, was moved by the death of an elderly writer in a debtors’ prison. Although that plight would not befall most authors today, they can still need some financial support if they are to pursue their writing and eat as well. All of the fund's money has come from donations and legacies, and goes towards helping writers in professional difficulties where setbacks have resulted in loss of income, as well as providing pensions for older writers who have seen their earnings decrease. 
Nina Milton at work in her writing space
The Royal Literary Fund is right to be proud of its heritage, but their website proves they are also well up to date and relevant to writers today.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Announcing the Third Novel in the Shaman Mysteries: BENEATH THE TOR

I’m proud to announce that the third of the Shaman Mysteries Series is in production, so now I can reveal not only the title of the book, but the cover picture too! 

As a hard-knock kid, Sabbie Dare knew she was different – she saw through the veil that hides other planes of existence. Now she has a shamanic therapy business, she’s still stepping headlong into trouble – when clients unwittingly bring danger with them. 

by Nina Milton

On a Midsummer night on Glastonbury Tor, beautiful Alys Hollingberry dies suddenly after dancingaway the night…  
Beneath the Tor continues the dark, atmospheric edge of the previous two books in the series. Sabbie has a mysterious past herself, which she’s only just beginning to unravel, a theme that links the trilogy.

So here, for the first time, is a rundown of the three books in the series:

In the Moors 

A body is found buried in the eerie depths of the Somerset Moors. Detective Sergeant Reynard Buckley is sure that shaman Sabbie Dare’s new client, Cliff Houghton—a wounded, broken man—has something to do with the chilling crime, but Sabbie believes Cliff is being set up. Continuing the therapy she'd begun with Cliff, Sabbie uncovers repressed memories hearkening back to a decades-old string of abductions and murders. But after another little boy is abducted, only Sabbie can prove Cliff's innocence . . . and find the real culprit before any more lives are shattered.

Sabbie Dare is the most compelling protagonist I’ve met this year, and Milton’s tale is riveting. Perhaps readers will figure things out before Sabbie does, but the visceral suspense Milton creates is commendable, not to mention terrifying. I like pairing her work with Elly Griffiths’s atmospheric English mysteries; Library Journal

Unraveled Visions 
The day after shamanic therapist Sabbie Dare receives a palm reading at the Bridgwater Carnival, she learns that a police detective has been killed and the gypsy fortuneteller has gone missing. Sabbie’s newest client—a scared woman with an angry husband—has also disappeared. Despite warnings from Detective Inspector Rey Buckley to stay away from the investigations, Sabbie can’t ignore the messages of danger she’s received through her shamanic journeys. But as close as she comes to the answers, Sabbie discovers there are people who want to keep the truth buried forever.

It’s impossible to refrain from rooting for such a plucky protagonist…Nina Milton skillfully integrates the shamanistic elements into her mystery making in this sequel to last year’s In the Moors - an absorbing tale. The return of Sabbie Dare is awaited with interest. – Sheila M. Merritt 
Mystery Scene Magazine

Beneath the Tor
In production
On a Midsummer night on the Glastonbury Tor, beautiful Alys Hollingberry dies suddenly after dancing away the night. Sabbie Dare and her friends are in shock and when her shamanic guru, Wolfsbane, confesses that Alys may have unwittingly taken drugs during his ritual, Sabbie’s shock turns to horror.  
After receiving sinister, anonymous emails about Alys, her grieving husband,  Brice, approaches Sabbie for help. She turns to the spirit world for guidance, but receives only enigmatic replies. She tries seeking some practical help from her boyfriend Detective Inspector Rey Buckley, but he is embroiled in problems of his own. Sabbie feels isolated, and as she heads closer to the truth about Alys’ death, a deranged killer is also heading towards a final victim, and both are closer to Sabbie than she knows.
Nina Milton has created a unique fictional world in her Shaman Mystery Series,  featuring Sabbie Dare as a young shaman.  They each have a cracking pace and convey the evocative landscapes of Somerset.  Always, the depictions of shamanic journeying are vivid and authentic. Reading them  kept me up at night much later that I wanted, because I could not bear to miss the next bit.
 Ronald Hutton author of ‘The Triumph of the Moon’, ‘Shamans’ and ‘Pagan Brtain’

*Further news and details about Beneath the Tor will be revealed soon. If you're a Shaman Mystery fan, do subscribe to my blogsite so that you can keep up to date with developments.