Month: May 2017

Writing a sense of place

Capturing the sense of a place

‘It feels very rooted in its landscape’ – Bryan Wigmore

‘Take this book to the Glens of Antrim and read it with the waves crashing on the shore’ – Annie Rose

In my first reviews of Waters and the Wild, a theme is emerging of how strong the sense of place is within it. I’m pleased about that, and relieved. I love books with a really strong sense of place* and hoped to achieve the same when I set out to write Waters and the Wild. I hoped to capture not just the look of the Antrim Glens but the feel of them too.

How does a writer go about capturing the land in a book? How do they make it real enough that a reader can imagine being there?

Here’s what works for me:

It’s not enough to just describe. To pull a reader into the story enough that they can feel part of the setting, the writer has to play with the senses.

Take this passage from Waters and the Wild:

‘The hill was bleak, the wind raw. What heat there had been from the sun was gone. Rain started, a ferocious downpour that quickly soaked Amy to her skin. A smell rose from the ground, heavy and cloying. Her breath came in quick gasps, her chest rising and falling. The smell grew stronger.

Someone’s old, cold breath, close to her; someone watching her. She shuddered. Puddles pooled on the path, reflecting the dark sky and scudding clouds. The sense of breathing circled her. Something touched her behind the ear, on the back of her neck. She didn’t dare look behind. To look would be to know this was real, not a voice that could be dismissed. She strained her ears for the sound of movement, for the whisper of a word, but there was only the noise of the pouring rain. She opened her mouth to say no, to plead for her freedom, but no words came out.’

In that passage, the senses are touched in just about every way: getting soaked through; a smell that’s old and cloying; a touch on her skin; the noise of the rain. The only thing not touched on is taste – but it might be, in another scene. The excerpt isn’t just about what Amelia sees and thinks, but what’s around her and what she is experiencing. It’s the old ‘show, don’t tell’ advice – and for drawing us into a scene it is absolutely needed.

2. Clarity.

Avoid purple prose. Sure, it’s nice to get a great metaphor in there (I still love the line in Inish Carraig when John describes the sea at Ballycastle as a moving slab of rock, because on a grey day that’s exactly what it is like) but it’s also easy to overpepper the narrative and lose the very thing you’re trying to make shine. Choose your descriptors with care, give people enough to be able to see the scene with clarity, and then move into the character. Speaking of which:

3. Blend your character actions with the scene.

The moment the character or narrator pulls back into ‘telling’ description, any sense of place is eroded.

 Instead, when you’re writing the scene, ask yourself what you can use to further the character and scene requirements but also enhance the setting. A shaft of sunlight?  Let your character sit on a sunny rock and tip their head back to the sun, rather than telling us there is a sunny rock. A shadow falling – the air chills, doesn’t it? Have your character show that. If it’s a spooky scene, you can use that to build tension and those accepted hints that something is going to go wrong. Horror films use that all the time, leaving us shrieking at the screen, ‘don’t go in there!’ Why? Because, for building tension, it works.

4 Don’t be afraid to paint the scene.

I know, I know, I’m saying above to use character actions and not just describe. But if you have a place that forms part of a longer scene the last thing you want is your reader being pulled out while they reconfigure what is what. If you need a gate to be there, mention it. Use the above tips, for sure – a ray of light falling on the red-painted wood, whatever you want – but make sure that gate is placed. Because when (as has literally just happened in the last scene I wrote) your character falls through that gate escaping a fairy horde, you don’t want your reader stopping to figure out where the gate came from.

5. Use the character’s voice, and give context.

All through The Time Traveller’s Wife, Henry mentions the El. He doesn’t stop to tell me its a transport system or what type it is – it is assumed by the fact he goes to the stop to catch the El, by the fact it makes him late for work, by the sliding doors, that I will work out what it was, and I do.

I turned myself in knots about this over Belfast Lough. When I say lough I mean either a large lake or a sea-inlet. When others outside Ireland and Scotland hear lough, they think only of a lake. But Belfast Lough is a sea estuary. Do I stop the action and tell my readers its an estuary, that looking down it you could make out the mouth of the Irish sea? My characters don’t think that – they think ‘there’s the lough’. What to do? (In the end I stuck a stranded passenger ferry on it and hoped that would be enough to give the all important context.)

I suppose, finally, for me the last piece of the puzzle is to have my characters feel something for the land that matters to them. Something that makes it real. Because once it’s real to them, it can be made so for the reader.

* To this day, I’m pretty good on geography questions about Malaysia, not because I’ve been there but because Noel Barber’s Tanamera was slavish in its capturing of the place. Sometimes, in a sudden downpour, I’m reminded about how he described the rain in KL, how it soaked to the skin in moments in a warm torrent.

On Belonging

This is a blog that’s been circling me for a day or two, about themes and the like, and where they come from. What we take from our own selves and put into our books, sometimes unconsciously.

As many of you know, I’m from Northern Ireland, that divided little part of the world that challenges and rewards, often in equal measure. Many people think the divisions here are over religion – and they do, indeed, follow religious lines – without realising the deeper rifts that drive them. Our culture, our upbringing, our beliefs. Our need to belong.

Belonging is important here. You belong to a community. You might well belong to a religion. You belong to the UK, or Ireland or, increasingly it seems, Northern Ireland (where I have always put my identity and sense of belonging). It’s important to work out where you belong, here, in the maelstrom of myriad beliefs. And it’s important to recognise others have their own right to belong to wherever – or whatever – they chose to.

I suppose that belonging and the working out where I sat within it were central to my understanding of myself. And, with it being a central part of me, it’s probably not surprising its a recurrent theme in what I write.

What is more surprising – to me – is where that theme emerges. It is, of course, in Inish Carraig. John and Henry, and Josey, spend lots of time working out their allegiances, what matters and what to fight for. In Waters and the Wild you’ll see Amy struggling to work out her identity, separate from that imposed on her.

I might always have expected that theme to emerge in my Irish work. I might argue my other-worldly works stand apart from my understanding of Northern Ireland, but they’re really quite entwined in it. Just because my work lies in the realm of genre fiction doesn’t remove their relevance as works set in and about Northern Ireland and its people. I may have no desire to write the Great Norn Irish novel but I don’t want to hide my voice from the community that shaped it either.

What I didn’t anticipate was how important, and central, the theme of belonging is in my Abendau books. Abendau, my world a million miles from NI. Abendau, a place I escaped to, that had no connection to the real world. Abendau that is, still, the most personal thing I wrote, that was the first book I wrote and, as with most first works, the one I was passionate about and closest to.

When I wrote Abendau’s Heir I struggled to tell anyone what my theme was – it was too close for me to see it. That is what writing does and is, an exposure of what is central to us, even if we didn’t feel it needed to be exposed.

Kare searches, throughout the trilogy. He is a cuckoo, he belongs nowhere. Even with his family, they are nomads in space, not anchored anywhere but with each other (family is another theme of mine, it seems – as summed up by Bryan Wigmore in this review I close him off from the world he is brought up in and remove from him the possibility of belonging. When he reaches the Banned, he never fully fits in. It is Sonly and Lichio’s home, never Kare’s. And he rejects Abendau, and his mother’s palace, utterly.

I always knew I waes writing about a cuckoo. I just never knew why.

I won’t spoil about where things go but I do believe identities. In fact, that is what book 3 – and therefore the trilogy – is all about. Where people fit. Choosing it for themselves. The freedom that comes from being in the place you fit and the bravery it sometimes takes to find that place. That there are no easy answers and you can’t just be given a destiny or heritage that will solve everything – no matter how alluring that may feel.

Which means this week, I learned something new – that Abendau is as rooted in my Northern Ireland as anything else I write. Which gives it a heart and a soul I never fully realised as mine.


I’m in the middle of launching my fifth book, Waters and the Wild, and I thought I’d talk about what goes into a book launch – not just in the interest of shameless self promotion, but also in the hope of sparking a few thoughts in others facing the same thing.  

I think this whole launch-thing is easier with later books but they do miss the crucial buzz of a first book where people find out about your shady existence as a writer and are excited to try the book. For book one my family and writing friends were the main cheerleaders and sources of the ra-ra-ing that went on.
For later books, I find that has expanded somewhat into actual – get this! – readers. I also have an awful lot already in place. Goodreads page, check. Amazon author pages, yes. Which makes getting reviews in early a little easier – and thanks to everyone who has taken a review copy.
So how did I go about deciding what to do with this book and who to approach? Apart from my now patented method of blag-say-yes-panic-later.
Firstly the book itself is important. This is a fantasy, based in a very specific location (the Glens of Antrim). As such, and unlike my weird space opera worlds, this has a market locally (which has already been touched on with Inish Carraig – but fantasy is the more accessible of the two markets to non-genre readers, I find.) But I have a market online – as most authors do. Ergo, any marketing strategy has to straddle both.
One thing that I do know about Waters and the Wild is that the prologue catches people’s attention in readings (its had a couple of trial runs). It’s short, it’s standalone and it’s decidedly a little bit weirdly creepy, hinting that there is more to this story than immediately evident. I want to get that prologue out there, have people hear it and want to know more. To that end, I have some readings set up. (See the bottom of the blog for lots of places I’ll be) But I might also play with getting a copy of me reading the prolugue up onto You Tube.
I also want to bring my existing readers with me. Not all sf readers read fantasy, for sure, and military sf (Abendau) is not always a good match to fairy-fantasy-books (who knew?), but there is good cross over in the two markets. Which means that I need to ensure my current readers know about the book.
How do I connect with those readers? I do have a mailing list (very small, and with significant crossover to my facebook platform) and I will be sending out some information via that. If I get time, I might jazz up one of the chapters that didn’t make the final cut but that I still like and send it out. But I’ll also be using my other platforms – facebook, twitter, lots of forums and what not.
Will I do a facebook launch this time? Maybe. They’re fun but there have been a lot of them recently and people might be getting a little weary of them. Mostly, this time, it’s face to face and person to person. To that end, then (cue shameless self promotion):
Where can you find me:
Waterstones Coleraine, 20th May 2pm, kicking off a reading event with Women Aloud NI
Belfast book festival, 16th June 5.30pm, talking all things scifi (so Abendau and Inish Carraig get their moment to shine) alongside Naomi Foyle
Belfast book festival, 17th June, 2pm, where I’ll be with the Women Aloud ladies reading that prologue again
Q-con, 17th June – I’ll be at Blackwell’s in the student’s union (except for when I hightail it to the BBF for my reading slot), chatting to anyone and trying to figure out the gamers’ cosplay
I should be at Titancon at the Wellington Park hotel on 8thand 9th September. Their literature night is on the 8th, it’s free and it’s an awesome night. Guests have still to be confirmed but the likes of Peadar O’Guilin, Pat Cadigan and Debbie McCune are often there.
I’m then hightailing it to Dublin on the 6th October until the 8th to join Octocon, where I’m sure I’ll be on panels between propping up the bar.
Keep your eye out on facebook, twitter, wherever I hang around for other happenings on the radio, in the newspapers and mags, too.


Being the sort who can’t write books that are all the same market, I’ve found myself straddling the various worlds of publishing.  

This week, I’ve been knocking around some indie resource sites. Trad authors, take note – if you ever want to know how to market yourself and your book, go talk to the indies. They know so much about how Amazon works, where to get reviews, about blog tours and hops, mailing lists and loads of other goodies. The work they put into marketing their books – with no publisher support, remember – and building their brand is jaw-dropping. I have huge respect for them.
So, of course, me being me and wanting to do well at this writing lark, I should have immediately ran off and explored All The Things. But I didn’t.
Why not…?
Partly this is to do with the law of diminishing returns. I’ve tried multiple book sites that list my book on offer (speaking of which, Inish Carraig is 99p next week… just saying…) and, frankly, the returns are rarely much more than I spent on the promo, especially once I calculate the time to set it all up. Next week, I have an ad on Book Barbarian (who I find always bring me in more sales than the cost of the ad) and that’s it. Sure, I could go and place some more, and I’d get more sales and better ranking but that would fall off quickly. It’s not worth the additional effort for me.
Ditto, review chasing. I know, I know, I know, I need reviews. I know some authors who are very good at getting reviews. They ask people directly for them, they are happy to contact those who’ve liked the book and suggest a review. Others are great at finding bloggers who review books.
For me, reviews mean most when they’re genuine and not sought. When someone liked my books enough to want to leave them. I know this is naïve, I know it goes against Marketing 101, but I’d rather have ten really honest reviews, than 10 that came in because I chased them. I think it shows in the review, when someone wrote it just because they wanted to and not because they thought they had to.
Last week, the first ARC reader of Waters and the Wild, the wonderful Annie Rose, fed back to me that they’d loved the book and were planning to tell everyone they knew that they loved the book and recommend it. That, to me, is worth ten Amazon reviews. Ditto this week when I had a surprise review go up in a well-respected journal. I like that it happened outside the Amazon sales-obsession bubble, that it wasn’t written to bring me up to the magic-50 review number, but because the reviewer found the book to have merit. That means more than any amount of drummed-up-to-bring-sales reviews could (and carries much more influence).
This publishing world never stops. I could rejoin a marketing site and pay some money to them and it could be just as wasted as the first time I did. I could book a sales-outlet a day next week and sell a hundred extra books for one week only. I could join more forums and spend less time on the ones I like, and have greater reach but less impact (and considerably more stress).
Etc etc.
There is, honestly, no end to what I could do to be better at marketing, to get more margin, to receive more reviews. But I don’t think I want to do it all.
So, what now? If I don’t want to do the things that successful indie authors do am I dooming myself to failure?
I don’t think so – because I’m not sure all the widgets and knowledge equal success. Certainly, not all of the authors using them seem to be breaking through – just like in every corner of the publishing world, some don’t. I don’t think they guarantee success any more than a dream-trad-publishing contract does. I do think they guarantee stress for me and that I’d be constantly measuring myself against expectations and others’ sales.
Just as in my consultancy work I can decide what works for me, how much to market and where and why, so I need to do in writing. Within that choice, there is a balance – and it’s up to me to find that balance. I think, in exploring the indie world, I’ve found my line in the sand. I’ve realised where I don’t want to waste my writing time (because, make no mistake, writing marketing time is stolen from my writing time), and where I am happy to (this blog!) and it’s liberating to do so. 
Because, in deciding, I haven’t failed. Instead, I’ve chosen.

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