Top Five Writing Tips from Christopher William Hill, Author of ‘Playwriting’

Playwriting by Christopher William HillChristopher William Hill is an award-winning playwright and radio dramatist. He was writer-in-residence at Plymouth Theatre Royal and tutors regularly for the Arvon Foundation. His latest book, Playwriting: From Page to Stage, is published at the end of August.

Here, Christopher shares his top five tips for any budding playwrights…

1. If you sit around twiddling your thumbs hoping for divine inspiration to strike you may well be waiting for the rest of your life without once putting pen to paper (or finger to keyboard). As a wise man once said – if you can’t get it right, get it written.

2. Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can start today. Even half an hour’s solid writing can produce immediate results. If you write just 200 words of your play in thirty minutes, that’s 2,000 words in ten days, or 20,000 words in a hundred days (roughly equivalent to a full length play). See how quickly it all adds up?

3. If you find it brain-crushingly scary to start with Act One, Scene One – find another way. Start in the middle of the play if you want, or even at the end. So long as you end up with a complete play it doesn’t matter how you go about constructing it.

4. Without conflict there is no drama, so make the lives of your characters as difficult as you can – thwart their aims and ambitions at every turn. There’s no reason why your play can’t have a happy ending – but it should be a hell of a ride getting there!

5. Don’t let anybody bully you into thinking there’s a right way or a wrong way to write your play – you have to find the way that’s best for you.

Playwriting: From Page to Stage will be published on 31 August 2012. It is available to pre-order now with a limited time only discount of 30%.

E. V. Thompson on Writing Historical Novels and ‘The Bonds of Earth’

The Bonds of EarthI am often asked why I chose to write Historical Novels when there is much in my own background that would be of interest to readers. The easy answer is that I am essentially a private person who prefers to keep work and home life separate. Were I to set my stories in the present day I feel readers would imagine they could detect some of my own exeriences in the novels – and they could well be right!

As it is, by having my characters living more than 100 years ago the time gap is too much to be put down to personal experience. Nevertheless, my research shows time and time again that those who lived, for instance, in the Victorian era, had emotions and experienced situations that had quite as much impact on their everyday lives as they would have today – however improbable such situations may seem to be.

For instance, in my book The Bonds of Earth, to be published by Robert Hale in November this year, a farm on which the young hero has worked since he was a boy is given to him by a grateful farmer. Far-fetched and stretching imagination too far?

Well, when I returned from Africa to live in Cornwall some forty-odd years ago I bought an old cottage from an 83 year-old farmer. As a young boy he began working on two farms, one from dawn until midday, the other from midday until dusk, seven days a week.

When one of the farmers died childless, leaving behind a seriously disabled widow, the now newly-married farm labourer and his wife took her in and cared for her until she too died, but before doing so she made a gift of the farm to the young man who had done so much to help her and her husband.

When I knew him the one-time farm labourer was an old man, but he was still as indomitable as he had been as a boy, despite living in a world that had changed almost beyond recognition during his lifetime.

The life of that old man planted the seed of a story that remained with me until I felt able to embellish and make use of it in The Bonds of Earth.

E. V. Thompson

E. V. Thompson has written numerous novels. His latest, Beyond the Storm is out this month in paperback and available to pre-order now. The Bonds of Earth is set for publication in November 2012.

Theresa Le Flem on Writing ‘The Sea Inside His Head’

The Sea Inside His Head A daughter of the artist Cyril Hamersma, Theresa Le Flem was raised in London and married at nineteen. After having three children in quick succession she trained as a hairdresser, took up pottery but ended up working in a factory to pay the bills. After her eventual divorce she married again in 2006. Finally, having the support of friends and family, and with her children settled in New York and Kent, Theresa is able to follow her passion for writing and express her strong views about social injustice. She is an avid listener of Radio 4 and a keen gardener, growing all of her own vegetables. The Sea Inside His Head is her first novel.

In this interview, Theresa tells us where her ideas come from and how she goes about writing a book.

Where did the idea for The Sea Inside His Head originate from?

When the idea for The Sea Inside His Head first came to me, it was Christmas Day 2006, and I was sitting by a roaring coal fire. Feeling so happy and secure, my thoughts turned to the past when my life was far from easy. The atmosphere of the old mining-village came back to me, and I remembered not so much the tension of the miners’ situation but the peace of the churchyard nearby. It was the contrast of the anxiety, poverty and aggression associated with the strike, set against nature, in all her timeless freedom, which gripped me. A phrase came into my mind, I reached for my notebook and I was away!

What sort of process do you follow in your writing? Do you plan in advance?

I don’t plan at all until I get to know my characters, and they themselves create the novel. I have glimpses of scenes and I write these on scraps of paper and lay them out – like stepping stones – across the floor. Then I move them around until I have the plot. Writing fiction gives me freedom to re-visit the past and meet characters who might otherwise be just faces in a crowd. I can wander through rooms I remember as a child, and recall arguments from a safe distance. Writing acts like a scrapbook for my memories. It’s also a great healer… I hardly ever watch drama and shy away from violent scenes on TV and film because I don’t like being on the receiving end of someone else’s imagination. But when I’m the one in control it’s not scary. My writing is very visual.

Once an idea for a book strikes me – just a feeling, an atmosphere, or anything really – I begin to research and the bare branches gradually produce buds, leaves and send down roots. It’s a three dimensional organic experience. I use books for research mostly, although the internet is useful. But without having faith that there is a reader out there, who will read what I’ve written, I don’t think I could write. I need to voice my imagination, but more than that, I need to know someone is out there listening. I can easily imagine The Sea Inside His Head as a film.

What books do you read in your spare time?

I read mostly classics, my favourites being D.H. Lawrence, Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens. Their portrayal of characters is just stunning.

The Sea Inside His Head is published on 30 April 2012 in hardback and is available now to pre-order with a 30% discount for a limited time only.

David Hodges on the Importance of Location in Crime Writing

For me, the ever changing moods of the Somerset Levels have provided the ideal inspiration and my last three crime novels have been ‘penned’ in the six years I have lived with my wife, Elizabeth, on the edge of this beautiful, haunting semi-wilderness in the south-west of England.

The glorious sunsets, which touch the lattice-work of rhynes with glittering shards in the autumn twilight, the spectacle of thousands of starlings weaving their weird, intricate patterns across the darkening sky before vanishing mysteriously into the waterlogged fields like smoke returning to the Genie’s magic lamp, the heron rising like a ghost through the swirling dawn mist towards the dismembered, phallic-like symbol of Glastonbury Tor.

Sights and sounds that cannot fail but to awaken the primeval spirit in all save the most insensitive observer, harking back to mankind’s very beginnings – thrilling the senses and firing the imagination.

Small wonder then that I have chosen this wonderful evocative landscape as the backdrop for my latest novels – what crime writer could resist that captivating influence?

Setting a crime novel in an identifiable location, rather than some fictitious place that is the product of the author’s imagination – as I did in my earlier novels – has its advantages too. Not only does it project the illusion of reality by blurring the distinction between fact and fiction, enhancing the credibility of the plot, but it tends to heighten the interest of the reading public as well.

People enjoy stories about the places in which they live or work. They get a kick out of being able to recognize this or that street in this or that town or village, which, in turn, has the effect of drawing them into the action of the story to the point where they can begin to feel personally involved.

When living in Oxfordshire, prior to moving to Somerset, the exploits of Colin Dexter’s celebrated fictional detective, Inspector Morse, in and around the dreaming spires of Oxford certainly had that effect on me and I am quite sure Ian Rankin’s Rebus novels, set in Edinburgh, and those featuring Peter James’s Roy Grace in Brighton work the same way for their resident readerships.

So the local touch is certainly popular, which is why I have now gone down this route with my own novels. ‘Slice’, my first crime thriller with Robert Hale, may not have actually named names, but it was primarily set in the Bridgwater area and I chose my own local church in Mark village for the grisly climax. With my current novel, ‘Firetrap’, however, the local connection is very evident and the sequel, ‘Requiem’, due out later this year, follows the same line, as my feisty woman detective, Kate Hamblin, and her public school boyfriend and colleague, Detective Constable Hayden Lewis, pursue ruthless psychopathic killer, Larry ‘Twister’ Wadman along the mist-shrouded droves of the Levels and the shadowy urban streets of Bridgwater and Highbridge.

Twister could still be out there too, hiding in the gloom and flexing his powerful hands, as those cold dead eyes of his search the neighbourhood for his next victim. Time to lock those doors and windows, pour a stiff drink and keep the poker handy. And above all, don’t answer the door!

– David Hodges

Slice and Firetrap by David Hodges are available to buy in hardback now. 

Slice is also available to buy in ebook format from all good ebook retailers, while Firetrap is scheduled for ebook release in August 2012.

Requiem is scheduled for release in hardback October 2012.

Crime Writer Roger Silverwood on How to Plot a Thriller

Roger Silverwood is the creator and writer of the Inspector Angel mysteries. The eighteenth book in the popular series The Cheshire Cat Murders is out this month in hardback.

The only valid reason to write is because you want to. There is no golden way to success. It is not a luxury hobby or something to pass two hours on a wet Sunday afternoon. It is hard work, but persist, find the right market, and you have a chance of success.

Below I show you how you might structure (or plot) a story that could be quite chilling. This plot idea of mine was first published in WRITING NEWS and shortly afterwards in RED HERRINGS, the Crime Writers Association’s house magazine. Perhaps it might help you.

Firstly, I need a super ending; one that has to have lots of opportunities to produce chilling/interesting/mysterious/entertaining reading.

‘How about an amateur taxidermist who adores his dog so much that when the old pet dies, he stuffs it? Then his grandmother dies … He adores her too, so he stuffs her and puts her down the cellar. Then his mother, then his wife … It becomes so intriguing that he might (or he might not) go out at nights looking for subjects. Say the girl next door brings a parcel of cosmetics that the postman left, sees the light in the cellar and goes down there … he sees her looking … what does he do? The taxidermy is starting to get out of hand. I’d already decided that if I wrote this, it would be from my pet policeman character’s point of view.

‘The next important thing is to look for a motive. I wouldn’t pursue a storyline if I couldn’t find a strong, valid motive. A history and a fear of loneliness … can’t be away from his loved ones … memories of a super caravan holiday in Mablethorpe … it might work. I would need to fill out the storyline with more nostalgic reflections …

‘Then I’d add a subplot … say there is a woman, Nerissa, who fancies him. One afternoon he gave her a lift to a shop or paid for a cup of tea, or she tripped and dropped her shopping and he helped picking it up … momentarily touched her arm … something trivial. She thinks it’s serious. She cooks, brings him cakes, apple pies, offers to cut his hair … she’s always at the door … in the house …she won’t go away. She mustn’t discover his secret, how can he get rid of her? Is there only the one way?

‘I’d complicate the narrative by having another plot running. Say he used to be a policeman. The regular coppers will talk shop to him about the missing people, confide in him a little maybe … he can “help” them.

He realizes he’ll have to move the bodies, his house might be searched – very dangerous – he has to take them somewhere. It’ll have to be at night …

‘I would introduce another crime. Something close by, so that the “investigation” around him (or of him) possible. A serious traffic offence, fiddling the firm’s petty cash or something … also to provide red herrings.

‘Then I’d want a running tag. He’s driving the neighbours potty learning to play the violin. He keeps taking the exam and failing. Or he’s in the Slim Quick Slimmer’s club, competing hard to lose two stones and become slimmer of the year.
‘All that, is what I know as the writer. Now I have to look from the perspective of the reader (and my pet policeman character).

‘The plot would be fed out to the reader in dribs and drabs … people keep disappearing, lots of chemical, wax, cosmetics and unusual substances are being delivered to number 17 Cheyne Walk. A man annoying his neighbours by playing the violin. Funny smells from the cellar. He says he’s varnishing his violin to improve the tone. Neighbours say they saw his wife in the front seat of his car. He says she’s gone back to her mother.

‘Although they can’t find a single body, the police interrogate him … the answers are not acceptable. They interrogate him again. He can’t answer them satisfactorily. He is arrested. He is eventually tried and found to be insane and sent to Broadmoor. Then the authorities learn he has passed the violin exam, or won the Slim Quick prize.

‘The last lines of the final page of the book might read like a newspaper report:

A Mablethorpe caravan site owner was treated for shock after he found five dead bodies and a dog in a static caravan round a table like a family tea party; they were all wearing excessive make-up.

Will it work as a book? Is it too far fetched? Would it make a good read? I wonder … There is still a lot of work, research and rewrites to do before I finish, celebrate with a bottle of champagne and vow it’s the last book I’ll ever write.

The next day I’ll start another. It’s agony, but I like it.

Actually, after much deliberation, I decided not to go ahead with this plot because I couldn’t make an Inspector Angel story out of it, and everybody wants me to write about him. I gladly forsake the copyright to any reader who wants to take the plot and write a book round it. Why don’t you have a go?

– Roger Silverwood

Previously Published in: Red Herrings/Writing News

Copyright: Roger Silverwood

The Cheshire Cat Murders is available to pre-order now in hardback.

The Snuffbox Murders is out now in ebook.

Author Interview: Steve Hayes and David Whitehead Discuss Sherlock Holmes and Writing as a Team

Sherlock Holmes and the Queen of Diamonds was released by Robert Hale last month and sees Holmes brought in to help a friend track down a missing person. Authors Steve Hayes and David Whitehead talk about what it’s like to write as a team and what drew them to Sherlock Holmes.

How did your writing partnership come about and what made you want to write as a team?

David: Steve had written a Black Horse Western called Gun for Revenge, which I enjoyed very much. A mutual friend named Tom McNulty, who saw the review I posted to the Yahoo Black Horse Westerns group, mentioned it to Steve. Steve emailed me to say thanks and I guess we both just clicked from there. As our friendship grew we discovered that there were certain subjects or projects we were both drawn to, and the idea to collaborate sprang from that. It’s an amazing thing—here is one half of the team in sunny California, the other in not-so-sunny Suffolk, England. We’ve never met but have spent countless hours on the phone and indeed talk every day. While we are in many ways complete opposites, it’s those very differences that somehow gel to make a very happy and productive whole.

Steve: Exactly. This is a partnership that almost didn’t happen. As David mentioned, but for McNulty I never would have read the review or contacted David. Once I did, and we got to know each other, I realized he was as serious about writing as I was and did not expect me to do all the work, as other collaborators have in the past. I’ve written with many famous writers, some who have won Academy Awards, and so I was well-tutored in the ways of collaboration. I just needed to know that Dave was a true professional. After that, the rest was easy.

What are the ups and downs of writing as a team?

David: I think it can easily become a perilous path if you don’t have the right attitude going into it. Steve and I both park our egos at the door. Neither one of us has any desire to upstage the other. If one of us comes out with a particularly dazzling idea or turn of phrase, that’s great, because it reflects well on the other one. There is of course much discussion and a fair bit of give and take, but overall I believe we have enjoyed a very cordial and productive partnership which has so far resulted in twelve books and a number of related projects.

Steve: As all good writers know: “You have to be willing to kill your babies.” David and I are. We also know that there will always be other stories that a special phrase or line of dialogue can fit into. As a pro—especially in television or screenwriting—the term “Nothing is written in stone” becomes a mantra.

Steve Hayes

What drew you to writing about Sherlock Holmes?

David: I’ve been a Holmes fan for as long as I can remember. I wrote my first pastiche, The Adventure of the Pentonville Twins, when I was just fifteen. But Sherlock Holmes didn’t really feature in our plans until Steve mentioned one day that he’d had an idea for a Sherlock Holmes story. Actually, at that point, Steve saw the project more as a western in which Holmes appeared. I saw it more as a Holmes story in which there were some western influences. We took it from there.

Steve is absolutely fearless, as anyone who knows him will tell you. But I myself approached the project with considerable trepidation. I certainly didn’t want us to produce a story that would in any way offend the Holmes purists. I wanted it to be as close to the style and spirit of Conan Doyle as possible, but not merely an imitation. If you’re not careful, it’s very easy to make these things seem contrived. I’ve read plenty of pastiches where the authors have tried too hard to capture Watson’s distinctive voice. Some of Holmes’s deductions in these books, which were of course so brilliantly described in the originals by Conan Doyle, often come across as somewhat laboured or deliberately manufactured. We didn’t want to fall into those same traps. We wanted Holmes’s solving of the mystery to seem entirely natural, the result of his great intellect, wide-ranging knowledge and ability to simply observe. As a result, I believe we ended up with a very good, very original story that will hopefully please Holmes fans of every stripe … plus those readers who simply enjoy a good Victorian mystery!

Steve: I’m not the fan of Holmes that David is. By that I mean I didn’t know that much about the character other than what I’d seen in movies. I’m old enough to have been in Hollywood in the Golden Era and I got to meet Basil Rathbone several times. He was Sherlock Holmes in my eyes. And has been ever since. Having David’s knowledge of Doyle’s Holmes and his background turned what I saw as a western for Brad Pitt (my agent got good feedback from his people, who said Brad was interested in playing Jesse James; which he did finally, although that particular movie tanked) eventually became a genuine Holmes’ story. Holmes’ fans can thank David for that.

With all the new stories, film and TV adaptations, how do you think Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would react to the Sherlock Holmes phenomenon that his stories created?

David Whitehead

David: Well, we don’t really have to speculate, because the phenomenon began in Doyle’s own lifetime. As we know, he always considered Holmes to be a distraction from his true calling as a serious historical novelist, and he came to resent Holmes because of that. I don’t really think he ever fully understood just what the character meant to the public, and indeed, when he killed Holmes off, he did so “even if I buried my bank account with him.” And you can see why. It’s a bit like asking an artist to paint the same still life every day—after a while there’s just no challenge in it. Now, when Steve and I finished writing Sherlock Holmes and the Queen of Diamonds, we went straight into a supernatural adventure called Cast a Deadly Shadow, which was about as far removed from Holmes as you could get.Steve: I think Doyle would be delighted. Variety is the spice of life, isn’t it?

What is your favourite Sherlock Holmes story, and why?

David: Definitely The Hound of the Baskervilles. It is just perfection on every level, though some of the Devonshire geography is a bit questionable! It has a wonderful legend, a cruel and cunning villain, a great location, some wonderful examples of Holmes’s deductive abilities, a fantastic cast of characters, more red herrings than a fishmonger’s stall and, perhaps most importantly, a wholly satisfying denouement. It truly is one of the great stories of all time, in my opinion. The only irony is that Holmes himself is largely absent for most of the book.

Steve: I don’t have one. But The Hound of the Baskervilles is as good as any.

What do you think are the key ingredients to making a great piece of crime fiction?

David: Originality. Pace. Credible characters caught up in relatively incredible events. Something that’s just a bit different.

Steve: I agree. But also the opening “hook” is vitally important. It’s important in any genre, but in mystery or crime fiction is it is vital if you want to keep the reader’s interest. That was hammered into me in every production meeting of every television show or movie I ever wrote. Hook the reader/viewer, give them fascinating characters, and keep up the pace and everyone goes home happy and satisfied. Even the poor lowly writer!

Sherlock Holmes and the Queen of Diamonds is out now in hardback