Thursday, 4 October 2012

What type are you?

I’ve written before about trying to be less of a pantser and more of a plotter now I’m writing my second novel.  This has met with some success. Although I’ll never reach the stage of outlining an entire plot before starting to write, one approach is producing such good results that I doubt I’ll ever stop using it.  I’ve mentioned this in an earlier blog post: developing characters with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), as recommended by Jeff Gerke in his excellent book Plot versus Character.

You can read in detail about MBTI on Wikipedia, but I don’t want to get too hung up on it, as it’s only a jumping-off point for creating rounded characters who behave in credible ways. In a nutshell, this psychological typing uses four opposing pairs of ways of thinking and acting (labelled dichotomies, although you don’t even need to know that).

  • Extraversion (E) – Introversion (I)
  • Sensing (S) – Intuition (N)
  • Thinking (T) – Feeling (F)
  • Judging (J) – Perception (P)
There are 16 possible combinations of these dichotomies, and there are tests you can do to find out what type you are.  According to the Humanmetrics Jung Typology TestTM  (which is free to take),  I am, apparently, an INFJ and I like what I read about them.

"INFJs are gentle, caring, complex and highly intuitive individuals. Artistic and creative, they live in a world of hidden meanings and possibilities. Only one percent of the population has an INFJ personality type, making the most rare of all types."
They are also ‘as genuinely warm as they are complex’ and are liable to have messy desks! 

All very interesting, you say, but how does this help to create compelling characters? I’ll give you a recent example. My novel calls for a person who runs my main character’s office. She’s reliable, to the extent of being put-upon, but has the potential to be dangerous if ever her devotion to her employer wavers. I’ve called her Helen for now.

Gerke’s book lists the 16 Myers-Briggs personality types with brief descriptions. I read down the list, looking for the one that sounds closest to the vague outline of the character in my head. One leaps out at me, though it’s usually not that clear-cut and I often have to take a second run at the list to identify the best fit. Helen feels like an ISFJ: A serious observer of others, overwhelming desire to serve others, often taken advantage of, responsible.

This is where I deviate from the process suggested in Plot versus Character. I google ISFJ (just the letters, you don’t even need to put in Myers-Briggs) and get page after page of profiles. They overlap, of course, but this serves to emphasise the most prevalent characteristics Helen should have. Then I transfer the characteristics I think are most important or could be useful to the story to one side of a table. Here are a few:

Prizes harmony, withdraws from conflict

An over-protective parent

Abhors waste of money

Rarely gets the praise/recognition deserved

Rich, inner world, excellent memory for details. Sensitive to others’ feelings

Respects tradition and laws

Learns best by doing, not reading theory

Has well-developed sense of space, function & aesthetics. Beautiful home, good interior decorator, great gift-giver

If has negative feelings, these may build up inside until they turn into firm judgements against individuals which are difficult to dispel

Has strong feelings of inadequacy

Family is central to life. Often possessive of loved ones. Has few close friends

Once that’s done, I fill in the other side of the table with examples of how these aspects of Helen’s character can be illustrated or used. Some are trivial: I’ve decided that because of her homemaking compulsion she buys fresh flowers every week for the office. Some may be problematic, e.g. ‘respects tradition and law’ if I decide to make her a suspect, but I can also use the table to see ways around these. So, if Helen can be persuaded to behave badly, this will probably come out of her devotion to her family. Some I leave blank if nothing comes to mind at this stage. I'll revisit this profile regularly when I'm plotting, and for writing scenes Helen appears in.

It took almost a day to create this profile of Helen, but I consider that time well-spent. I know her well enough to plunge her into the action. She’ll still surprise me – that’s one of the joys of writing – but I’m confident that I now have the tools to make her believable and well differentiated from my other characters.

Do you pre-plan your characters or do they develop organically as you write? I’d love to know, so please leave a comment below (if you can, I know Blogger is uncooperative sometimes). And if you try out the Humanmetrics Jung Typology TestTM  on yourself, tell me what you think of the results.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Going places

Picture by Paul Stevenson, @goldylookfleece
I’m doing my best to apply the lessons I learnt while writing No Stranger to Death to creating its sequel. This includes recognition of my shortcomings and finding ways around them, rather than railing against an inability to carry out tasks I’m certain other people could accomplish standing on their heads (which is itself a skill I never mastered).

Take descriptions, especially of buildings and places. I am, apparently, one of a rare breed: under-writers. My first draft of anything is pretty sparse and editing usually means adding words rather than taking them away. I lost marks for this in my most recent OU course, with my tutor telling me that although I ‘write well’, my sentences and paragraphs are far too short for the academic world. 

While a propensity for brevity isn’t necessarily a bad thing if your main aim is to tell a first-rate story, it does stand in the way of conjuring up the magic ingredient which writers these days are encouraged to strive for: a sense of place.

I didn’t choose to set my books in the Scottish Borders simply because it’s ‘what I know’, but more because it’s what my main character doesn’t know. As an incomer to rural Scotland from an English city, Zoe isn’t just challenged by unfamiliar people and disturbing events but by these alien surroundings. She comes across sights, sounds and smells she’s never experienced before, and yet – alright, I admit it, like me – she finds unexpected pleasure in many of them and gradually starts to feel at home. This is all part of her ‘journey’, her personal development.

So, how to convey what the Borders is like? I’ll leave it to VisitScotland to inform the world about our castles, abbeys, stately homes and museums, and Zoe is unlikely to take up golf any time soon. This is where a notebook, latterly a smartphone, comes in handy. Sometimes driving, more often walking the dogs, I record the small things I encounter. The blue flash of a kingfisher, the sound of a chainsaw in the distance (would a true ‘townie’ know what it was?), the smell of woodsmoke. Stuff that makes me smile, like watching a border collie (what else?) herd sheep up a narrow road, and that makes me sad, like a young deer dead on the verge.

Rather than try to invent buildings, I use elements of existing ones. The picture below is  of a large house I’ve visited a few times in the past. Its frontage, galleried hall and huge coloured-glass skylight are combined in Book 1 with the kitchen and a dressing-room from another house I worked at for a time. 
An ideal setting for unpleasant goings-on?
For more general views of the area, I know I can turn to Twitter friends who are keen photographers. Paul Stevenson, who goes by the Twitter name of @goldylookfleece, kindly emailed me the gorgeous picture at the top of this post (and agreed to it appearing here) when I asked him if he had any landscapes with poppies.

When I need to write a detailed description of a particular setting, I go in search of one or maybe several which can be combined. Book 2 opens with the discovery of a body which has been pulled out of the River Tweed after being thrown off a nearby bridge. I was pretty certain the Union Chain Bridge, which links England and Scotland a few miles from Berwick-upon-Tweed, would be suitable.

The Tweed: England on one side, Scotland on the other

The Union Chain Bridge
I found lots of photographs online of this bridge, as it’s famous for being the oldest suspension bridge still carrying road traffic. However, my recent visit told me so much more than a Wikipedia entry and Flickr images could. For example, the Union Chain Bridge:
  • undulates when a car goes over it, which feels like you’re standing on a boat
  • creaks and groans, and if there’s a breeze the vertical struts rattle
  • is partly covered in green paint that’s flaking off in large patches
Not pretty but ideal for my purpose
These observations have enabled me to describe not just the bridge itself but Zoe’s experience of it. And – an unexpected bonus – that flaking paint has become a clue for the police when deducing how the body ended up in the Tweed

Perhaps when I’m published I won’t have time to research locations away from my desk. But until then I shall continue to seek them out, take photographs and note other details such as sounds and smells, to enrich my writing.

Do you feel the need to base your locations on real places, or is it just me?

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Book 2: Making progress

A writer at Harrogate
A triumph of hope over experience. Often quoted, this remark is said to be Samuel Johnson's response on hearing of an acquaintance's second marriage. It could also apply to what I'm doing now: writing a sequel to a first novel which has yet to find its audience. I've always been an optimist.

Work on this second novel, called A Stranger Coming Home, is going well. Having had no deadline (and no idea what I was letting myself in for) when I started writing No Stranger to Death, I was able to try out different creative techniques to find what suited me best. This time around I already have my modus operandi. Or so I thought.

As I’ve blogged about in the past, I discovered to my surprise that I’m a pantser, incapable of planning an entire novel before I write it. I do, though, need to know what crime it centres around, and have an ending to work towards. Book 2 being a sequel, I already have a setting and a readymade cast of characters, bar the ones killed off or otherwise rendered unavailable by events in Book 1.

At the risk of sounding a complete amateur, I admit I enjoy reading how-to-write books, though definitely not the ones promising you can write a novel in an unfeasibly short space of time if you use their foolproof system. If I get stuck (‘blocked’ would be over-stating it) I find reading a textbook prods my imagination into action. Recently I’ve been helped in this way by Jeff Gerke’s Plot versus Character.

Gerke’s premise is that there are two types of writers: those for whom plot ideas come easily, and those more adept at creating characters. I put myself firmly into the first camp, and have thus far shied away from grinding out detailed character biographies as I know many ‘plotters’ do. However, Book 2 requires someone who is only referred to in Book 1 to make an appearance, so I gave Gerke’s ‘layering’ technique for character development a go. And it worked.

From deciding which of the 16 Myers-Briggs personalities he is, to making his personal heroes Bernie Ecclestone and Jackie Stewart, and having him thrown out of agricultural college in his first term, I’ve mapped out Robbie Mackenzie. In the process, how he influences events and reacts to situations has become clear, and his part in the drama will be far bigger. He has also supplied an alternative – or possibly additional – ending to the entire novel.

I can’t promise to create every one of my characters in such detail, but now I have one more tool to use when needed. And this has been a timely reminder that in many ways, but especially as a writer, I also continue to be a work in progress.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Three little words

Middle-aged, sensible, a bit turquoise?
Last weekend fellow writer Barbara Henderson and I attended an event in Hawick (rhymes with ‘oik’) here in the Scottish Borders. Nicola Morgan and Sara Sheridan braved the floods to speak about marketing, social media and e‑publishing. It was marvellous to have writers of their calibre visit, and I brought home pages of notes. Nicola also kindly published on her blog some of the resources she had referred to.

One of Sara’s suggestions was that we should all go away and think of three words to describe ourselves. Not ourselves as people though, but (and this is where it gets tricky) as our writing ‘brand’. So, middle-aged, sensible and turquoise-wearing won’t do for mine, although those are the three words which immediately sprang to mind.

Surely you can’t communicate much with just three words? Read the examples below, some of which you’ll recognise, and think again.
TLC for backs (Zerostress chairs)

Spellbinding crime fantasy (my mate Dave Sivers)

Never knowingly undersold (John Lewis Partnership)

Vorsprung durch Technik (Audi, proving the words don’t even have to be in one’s own language to be memorable)
I’m not going to tell you what my three words are. I can’t, because I still haven’t decided on them. When I do, rest assured I’ll share them with you.

In the meantime, how would you describe yourself or your ‘brand’ in three words?

Wednesday, 4 July 2012


Some things are impossible to explain. Like why I find the Scots accent irresistible, how I can be middle-aged when I still feel 22, and why it’s so important to me to gain something many of you had by the time you really were 22: a degree.

In my early 40s I studied English and Scottish Literature at Edinburgh University. It was a lovely time, unfortunately cut short by a lack of funds (grants had already gone, fees were just coming in, an idiotic bureaucrat ‘forgot’ to process my application for a bursary). I took a job which I hated, and to console myself I started to write seriously in my spare time. Yet that dream of achieving a degree never went away.

Several years later we were a lot better off but I could no longer face regularly driving 50 miles each way to Edinburgh. So I applied to study with the Open University. My time at Edinburgh gave me credits which meant I ‘only’ had to do four courses to gain a BA (Hons) in Humanities with Literature (though sadly without a specifically Scottish element). I was self-employed by then, and could work half the week, study the other half.

I did three courses in as many years, my favourite being History of Cinema and Television. My husband enjoyed all that mandatory film-watching; I hated having to take exams again. My marks were pretty good, once I stopped being pulled up for writing lines and paragraphs which were ‘too short’ (they probably lacked sufficient adverbs and adjectives as well). So I’m well on the way to achieving dream number 2: getting a degree.

However, dream number 1 – being a published novelist – still rules. I took 2011/12 off to complete my first novel, start my quest for an agent and begin writing book two. This week, as June became July, I faced a big decision. Is this the right time to embark on my final year of study, the most important course of them all, the one which decides how good a degree I get?

The answer had to be ‘yes’, even though it means I must be more organised. I’ll have to go back to designating set days for specific tasks, abandon the luxury of fiction-writing every day. And you know what? I think this will concentrate my mind, make me more productive, not less.

Another choice: which course? I swithered between A300: 20th century literature – texts and debates and AA316: The 19th-century novel. Heaney, Woolf, Ginsberg, Du Maurier, Eliot and Brecht versus Austen, Bronte, Dickens, Eliot, Flaubert and Conrad. Conrad? Memories of A-level English all those years ago flooded back, of wading through Nostromo and hating every line of it.

The reading list for A300 also includes a Scottish classic, Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song, as well as sci-fi in the shape of Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Finally, the clincher: while both courses require six Tutor Marked Assignments (essays), only AA316 has an exam at the end of it. A300 has an End-of-module assessment which is done at home at one’s own pace.

Decision made. A300: 20th century literature – texts and debates, here I come! Eventually, I hope, earning the right to hire one of the fetching gowns seen here for my graduation ceremony.

Nineteenth or twentieth century literature: which would you choose?

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

CrimeFest 2012

RIP Maillie
It’s a sad fact that we’ll always remember exactly when Maillie, our beloved geriatric, insomniac cocker spaniel had to be put to sleep: the night before CrimeFest 2012. As a result, bystanders on Berwick station the next morning must have thought I was leaving my husband for at least a year when I tearfully said goodbye to him before climbing onto the Bristol train. I was still puffy-eyed by the time I got off at the other end, but by that time elation had also kicked in.

I took advantage of an early-bird offer to buy my 2012 ticket at the 2011 event, so that weekend had been a long time coming. And I wasn’t the only one getting excited. On Thursday 24th May, Twitter was buzzing with people converging by various modes of transport on southwest England. (One morning in the lift down to breakfast I met a lady whose flight from Canada had taken less time than my train journey!)

I remembered to pack my camera but failed miserably to take more than a handful of pictures. None of which recorded any of these highlights: 
- Sharing a taxi to the hotel with Steve Mosby, who seemed surprised I recognised him by his tattoos. He’s far less frightening than his books. You can read Steve’s take on CrimeFest on his blog, although, strangely, he doesn’t mention his encounter with a seagull.

- Meeting lots of people I’d never met before but, thanks to Twitter, being greeted by them as a friend and spending hardly a waking moment alone all weekend. I’m bound to leave someone out, so I won’t even try to list them. You know who you are and thanks for making me feel like I belonged. Although I must mention, apropos of my earlier blog post which asked if Dave Jackson could possibly be as nice as he claims: yes, he is!

- Staying up way past my bedtime every night. I proved this to my husband by texting him at one in the morning, although he claims my message made little sense. Can’t think why.

- Being charmed and inspired by featured guest author, Sue Grafton, author of the Kinsey Milhone ‘Alphabet’ series. This was Sue’s first visit to the UK since 1995 and she came across as a genuinely warm and generous lady (although I wouldn’t have wanted to be her ex-husband!).

- Picking up my prize in person from organiser Sarah Hilary for being runner-up in the FlashBang writing competition, The CWA Anthology M.O. (edited by Martin Edwards).

- Seeing Penny Grubb’s The Doll Makers and buying a copy on the strength of the amazing cover alone.

- Realising at the Thursday night quiz just how poor my knowledge of crime and thriller novels is compared with that of Rhian Davies (who blogs at It’s a crime (Or a mystery …), Martin Edwards and, well, everyone else in our team. But having a great time anyway.

- Talking to Jeffery Deaver about black pudding and Peter James showing me photos on his mobile of his racing car.

- Glorious weather that made eating a delicious Italian meal outside on Saturday evening feel like I was holidaying at a Mediterranean resort.

Charming Scotsman

- Being able to tell the difference between Craig Robertson and Michael J Malone. Okay, so they’re both charming baldy-heided Scotsmen but I still can’t believe people mix them up. I met Craig a couple of years at Harrogate and commend his book Random as one of the best crime fiction debuts I’ve ever read. Michael was at CrimeFest to launch his first book, Blood Tears, and I’ve come home with a copy of that as well.

A different charming Scotsman

 - Getting Tanya Byrne’s Heart-Shaped Bruise in my goody-bag when I was planning to buy it. 

- Hearing Liverpudlian writer Cath Bore so lovingly describe her home city that she made me ache to visit it.

- Attending Professor Sue Black's passionate presentation of the Million for a Morgue appeal. Her backing group - Jeffery Deaver, Peter James and Lee Child - wasn't bad either.

- Being able to tell everyone who’d listen that up here in Scotland we’re having a crime writing festival too: Bloody Scotland, 14-16 September in Stirling.

- Winning a rather fetching Bristol blue glass vase in the gala dinner raffle.

And to cap it all, since I got back I’ve wangled another weekend away in July, so will be attending Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate too. I’m not sure if it’s dignified for a middle-aged woman to get this excited . .

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Speaking in tongues

Doris the Editor: Blissfully unaware
I’ve been talking to myself a lot lately. Or rather, reading out loud parts of my first novel. The dogs don’t care, the cat’s stone-deaf and my husband is used to it. However, I find it disconcerting. You see, in my mind I have a perfect Scottish accent and can sound convincingly like any man, woman, child or barking dog. But reading aloud I’m just a middle-aged woman with a received pronunciation (RP) English accent.

Did I say ‘accent’? Like everyone else, my way of speaking sounds to me as if it’s the norm. But now I’m living in Scotland, albeit the part which probably has the highest percentage of English people in its population, so that illusion has been shattered. Two incidents also brought this home to me.

Boots opened its first chemist shop in 1877. I wasn't there.
My early adult life was spent in London, working in the buying offices of Boots the Chemists. In the late 1980s, Boots decided it was too costly to maintain a London base when it owned a huge amount of real estate in Nottingham. Many of us relocated to the Midlands, generously rewarded for agreeing to live and work alongside people we had previously only known on the telephone. Up there, I made a very good friend who shared my enthusiasm for cats and crime fiction. She said to me one day, ‘We thought you were dead posh at first, talking like you do. But you’re quite normal really.’ Thanks, Barbara, wherever you are now.

At the age of forty I became a mature student at Edinburgh University, studying English and Scottish literature. For the first year we were required to study English Language, including phonetics. I can’t say I particularly enjoyed this, but I found the work on regional accents fascinating. Etched on my memory, though, is the occasion when I was instructed to stand up in the lecture theatre and repeat several phrases as a living example of RP. I was mortified.

The reason why I’m doing a lot of reading out loud is not just for editing purposes, although that is part of the polishing process which everything I write goes through. This week I’ve recorded a YouTube video! I read the opening of No Stranger to Death for the Pulp Idol competition being run by Liverpool’s Writing on the Wall project. And although that chapter reads well on paper and Kindle, did my voice do justice to it? Only the judges can decide that, but luckily the portion I read has only my main character, Dr Zoe Moreland, in it and she’s English. My three minutes were up before the young, male and Scottish policeman makes an appearance.

Beautiful Hexham library
I was lucky enough to attend recently the launch of Mari Hannah’s The Murder Wall as part of Hexham Book Festival. Mari chose to have an actress, Phillippa Wilson, read excerpts from her book, and I thought this was such a great idea (not that Mari couldn’t have done it herself). Phillippa had just the right accent and added so much to the words she was reading.

Robert Burns wrote in his poem To a Louse about our inability “To see oursels as ithers see us”. I would add “To hear oursels”. In a perfect Scots accent, of course.

Robert Burns by the wonderful Peter Howson

Sunday, 29 April 2012

That's my Kindle in the fetching turquoise stripey case
I wrote earlier in the year about my decision to take part in the Eclectic Reader Challenge and the reasons behind this. Several months have passed and I admit I haven’t made huge inroads into my list of titles. Which is peculiar, because I always have a book on the go. In fact, all I seem to have done is change the list a bit, and not in a making-it-easier way. It now looks like this.


The Murder Wall (Mari Hannah)
Me Before You (JoJo Moyes)

Deathwatch (Nicola Morgan) and Pure (Julianna Baggott)
A Game of Thrones (George RR Martin) or The Passage (Justin Cronin)
Science Fiction
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said (Philip K Dick)
Bluestockings (Jane Robinson)

The Odessa File (Frederick Forsyth)
Great Expectations (Dickens)
My favourite genre

I have already written about some of my initial choices, but here’s how I filled in most of the gaps.

A Twitter friend, Rebecca Bradley, recommended Jojo Moyes’ Me Before You as an excellent example of a modern romantic novel, and the Amazon reviews back this up. This is a genre I never knowingly read, but at least I’m consistent: I don’t watch romantic movies either.

I thought I was on firm ground when I chose Deathwatch by Nicola Morgan as my YA read (a genre which didn’t exist when I was growing up). I’m an admirer of Nicola’s no-nonsense approach to getting published, and it was she who persuaded me to sign up for Twitter. However, when I was deciding whether to read the Berwick Book Group’s April choice, Pure by Andrew Miller, I came across a book of the same name by Julianna Baggott which sounded much more tempting than Miller's. It’s set in a post-apocalyptic world where many of those who survived ‘the Detonation’ have to live with whatever they were touching at that moment fused to them, be it a toy, a chair or even another person. Those images alone made me load this book on to my Kindle. So I'll be reading two YA novels.

What is it about fantasy novels that they have to be so huge? Here again I have two candidates, but I doubt I’ll be able to manage them both this year. A Game of Thrones (780 pages) was chosen because my husband loves the TV serialisation and I thought I might persuade him to put down his WW2 non-fiction and read it after me. Then I saw a review of The Passage (765 pages) and it sounded too interesting to ignore. I might have to resort to eenie-meenie-minee-mo.

The recent rumpus about TV reviewer AA Gill being mean to Professor Mary Beard helped me make my non-fiction choice. I read a profile of her which said she used to parody the image of female intellectuals by wearing blue stockings. This reminded me that I had bought myself Bluestockings, which explored the fight for women to get a university education back in the days when ‘doctors warned that if women studied too hard their wombs would wither and die’. I was especially pleased to have chosen this book: as I took it down from the shelf a £20 note fell out, a Christmas gift from an aunt.

Finally, I’ve plumped for The Odessa File to fill the thriller slot, in honour of Frederick Forsyth’s appearance at this year’s CrimeFest in May. I have never read any of his work before, although I’m a big fan of some of the film adaptations. It’s not often I watch a film and read the book afterwards, so this will be doubly interesting.

So that leaves literary, historical and horror fiction, and this is where YOU come in. If you have any favourites in those genres, please let me know in the comments below or tweet me @JanetOkane (I’ve come to realise that unfortunately some folk have problems leaving comments on Blogger blogs).

I promise to make my reading selections based on your recommendations!