Lots of people say it, and it’s true – writing is one third actual writing, and two thirds all the other ‘stuff’ – editing, arranging promotions, thinking and plotting, editing, organising cover images, learning how to do things with your computer that you’d never hear of ten years ago, editing… you get the picture.
This year, many hours have been taken up with other stuff, but I’m happy to say my writing time is back on track again. I’m also happy with the blog tour we had for The Cold Cold Sea re-release. There was a great mixture of articles, reviews, and extract posts, all arranged by Kelly at Love Books Group, and I’d like to say a big ‘thank you’ to all the bloggers who gave their time and space on their websites to my book.
You can read the book’s prologue HERE, and the first chapter HERE, if you haven’t already. There’s an article about choosing location HERE, and one of the many reviews HERE. Another blog post I’d wanted to share here seems to be unavailable now, so I’ll put the article I wrote for it here instead – how The Cold Cold Sea came about, and how to create suspense in a novel:
A book usually starts when some small thing in life gets me thinking, what if…? The Cold Cold Sea began to niggle in my head years ago, when I was researching my family tree. First of all, I talked to my parents and uncle, then I wrote asking more distant relatives about their extended families. A third cousin sent over a diagram of her own family and a couple of others. One of these consisted of father, mother, and three children, and beside the youngest child were the words, Agnes drowned. That was all. Horrified, I called my mother.
It turned out that Mum had never met this family, but vaguely remembered that Agnes had died, aged eleven, on a trip to a swimming pool in the 1940s. I couldn’t get this child out of my head. She was related to me, yet I’d never heard of her. How had her parents coped with such a loss? How would anyone cope with such an awful tragedy, such an unbearable new reality in their lives? That was the ‘what if…?’ moment. What if they didn’t cope?
This little episode shows us two ways to add suspense to a book. One, write the book around a situation that in some way touches the reader. Who wouldn’t be moved at the thought of losing a child? And two, make the reader care about the book’s characters. If they come across as real, believable people trying their best to deal with whatever life has chucked at them, suspense grows because we care.
In The Cold Cold Sea we have Maggie, on holiday with the family in lovely Cornwall. One day on the beach she looks away for an instant, and in that instant, little daughter Olivia disappears. Into the sea? Maggie doesn’t know. We also have Jennifer, who is trying to deal with something in her past so awful she can’t even think about it. And Phillip, who is helping Jennifer – no one sees that he is screaming out for help too. But the reader knows. This is another way to create tension: give the reader more information than the characters have. The reader sees what is going on with Jennifer, but Phillip can only guess, and Maggie has no idea.
The Cold Cold Sea isn’t a ‘whodunnit’, or even a ‘whydunnit’. These things are clear to the reader almost from the start. The suspense is in wondering how on earth the characters are going to get out of this situation.
I used a different way of creating suspense in The Paradise Trees. Alicia is arranging end of life care for her father. Meanwhile, the village psychopath is watching her and her daughter, waiting to pounce. Here, the bad guy is introduced right at the start; Alicia knows him and he knows Alicia – but which character is he? We learn what this man wants to do, about his childhood and what makes his twisted mind tick. But is he Frank the doctor, Kenny the pet shop owner, Doug the head of the local care home, or Derek, one of the nurses there? The reader doesn’t know, and Alicia doesn’t know she’s being targeted. Then the psycho strikes…
This technique can be adapted by letting the reader know who the bad guy is, but leaving the characters in the dark.
I like these ways of writing suspense fiction, because they’re character-based and don’t involve the reader making assumptions that aren’t necessarily correct. The downside is, there’s rarely a ‘twist you won’t see coming’ involved!
It took a long time to write The Cold Cold Sea. It isn’t about Agnes who drowned, but I’ll always be grateful to my distant little cousin. We all have our collection of ‘memory-people’, those we remember with love. And Agnes is right there in mine.