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Just recently I have started getting e-mails from people offering to review my book(s). Of course, they want to be paid and I would never pay for a review – even from a prestigious organisation like Kirkus. For one thing, Amazon will punish you if they find out. Nor would I ask for payment in return for a review.
But paying for reviews is only one way self-publishers and independently published authors can waste loads-a-money. Here, courtesy of Anne R Allen and Nate Hoffelder are some more:
Today I’m going to introduce you to Melanie P Smith. Melanie was born and raised in Utah and she loves it there. Why?
“That’s easy. It’s the scenery. We have five National Parks here in Utah; Zions, Bryce, Canyonlands, Arches, and Capitol Reef. If you love the outdoors — which I do —it would be hard to find an area that has more beauty than the state I call home. We have mountainous hiking trails, desert backroads great for exploring, as well as lakes and reservoirs that are perfect for swimming and fishing. And, to top it all off, I’m extremely lucky to have an amazing view of the Wasatch Mountains (which are part of the Rockies) from my front yard.”
Melanie is a prolific writer who works in several genres. Her background is in law enforcement. How far does that experience feed into her stories?
“My knowledge and experience definitely play a large part in my writing. They say write what you know. Two of the genres I write in are Criminal Suspense and Police Procedurals. I believe my background helps to make my stories accurate, realistic and exciting. I have to admit, on occasion, a savvy cop or a background investigation also finds its way into my paranormal work as well.”
Of all the genres she has written in, which does she most enjoy writing and reading?
“I love to read, but I can’t say I have a favourite genre. Give me a good story and I’m lost for hours.
As far as writing goes, I could never pick just one genre. I guess that’s why I’m a multi-genre author. Criminal Suspense and Police Procedurals come natural for me. I like knowing I can use my knowledge and years of experience to entertain my readers. My paranormal and fantasy work provides an outlet for my more creative and imaginative side. I enjoy writing both, in different ways.”
She also works very hard on behalf of other independently published authors,producing promotional materials and videos. This requires skills not usually associated with her professional background but it transpires that she did acquire them in her job:
“I guess you never know how your education and experience will help you later in life. I have an associate degree in marketing which gives me a solid foundation to start with when it comes to layout, design, and promotional techniques. I also created a lot of promotional material for the Sheriff’s Office. When you think of law enforcement, you don’t typically think of marketing. However, during my time with the office I was tasked with developing programs and brochures for various events, as well as web design and maintenance, and public safety and education videos — especially for our volunteer Search & Rescue team. All of this combined has given me experience using various computer programs and marketing concepts that I now use to promote myself and others.”
Her book covers, the e-magazine and the promotional videos Melanie produces all look very slick. I think any traditional publisher would be proud of them. I asked if she thinks it is important for independent authors to present an image that matches that of ‘household name’ authors?
“Professionalism is important in any industry and publishing is no exception. Traditionally published authors have the backing of specialists to handle much of the work for them. But I strongly believe, if we want to get noticed, independent authors must find a way to compete in the same market. Eye-catching covers, attention grabbing videos, and interesting promos can help us get noticed. Unfortunately, that’s only the first step. In addition to having an interesting story, we also need to keep that professionalism going with top-notch editing, formatting and content.”
With so many books published, including several series, and all the other work we’ve just discussed, I wondered how she finds the time. How does a typical day in the Smith household look? When and how does she relax?
“When I started writing for fun again, I was juggling a full-time job and trying to write in my spare time. In 2016, I retired from law enforcement and I’m now blessed to do what makes me happy — write. I rarely go a day without writing and if I do, I miss it. Writing as an independent author can be a full-time job, but for me it’s a job that I love. I also enjoy relaxing and I’ve always been adventurous. My husband and I both ride Harley’s and living in Utah gives us a ton of options. There’s nothing like a relaxing ride on a rural back road or taking in all the sights and smells of a scenic forest as you cut through the air on top of a motorcycle. We also love to camp, and Utah offers a ton of places to get out in the wilderness to ride our ATV’s or relax in front of an open camp fire. My motto has always been work hard, then play hard.”
Which aspect of the publishing business does she most enjoy? Which does she wish she didn’t have to do?
“I enjoy writing and I enjoy the comradery I have found with fellow authors around the world. That is the one thing I missed when I retired from law enforcement. I also enjoy helping other authors. I truly believe it takes a village and the more we help those around us, the more satisfaction we get, and the more success we will enjoy.
I am terrible at selling myself and my work. I can do the writing and even create the promo stuff, but when it comes to creating that perfect tagline or selling my work as the next best thing that you just can’t live without… I’m terrible at that.”
I have already pointed out that Melanie is a prolific writer. Proof of this is in the fact that she has just published the third book in one of her series’ and plans to have one from another available by the end of January:
“I just published the third book in my Thin Blue Line Series – Subterfuge. Where it fits; well, that is a little tricky. Technically, it is the third book in the series,but chronologically it is actually the first. If you haven’t ready any of my work, there is no problem picking this one up and giving it a try.
Young girls are disappearing in groups of three, their bodies callously discarded by a killer whose methods stun even the most seasoned detectives. Agent Skeeter Perkins is a world-renowned profiler. He’s been with the FBI for over a decade and has made a name for himself catching the worst serial killers known to man. His current case, a man the media has dubbed the “Scientist” is no different. But,when Perkins and his team start to close in, the stakes become personal. Skeet must put everything on the line as he plunges headlong into the most desperate hunt of his life.
The third season of Paige Carter will be completed at the end of this month (December). I hope to have it available for purchase by the end of January. In the meantime, you can read the entire third season (9 episodes) on my website. If you’re new to Paige Carter, just subscribe to my blog and get the entire first season as my gift just for signing up. http://geni.us/Blogsignup
Paige Carter is a police procedural series. Each season contains 9 Episodes (or short stories) where Paige and her colleagues solve a local crime. It has been compared to Blue Bloods or Longmire.”
Is there an aspect of the publishing business that she wishes someone had warned her about before she started?
“I wish I had known just how much work it would entail. One of the benefits of self-publishing is that you control everything. One of the challenges… you control everything. The big publishing houses have a small army to assist with every aspect of publishing. As Indie-Authors we must manage it all ourselves. We do our own accounting, IT management, marketing, production, formatting, editing, and sales… or we find professionals to do it for us. It’s a lot to jump into without a little help along the way. Instead of wearing one hat in the process, we have to wear them all. This requires patience and an ability to know our strengths and weaknesses. No matter how amazing your first book, there is very little chance you will hit that publish button and become rich overnight. Our work must be professional and high-quality. Readers want to focus on content and the story, not get distracted by poor layout, sloppy grammar, and punctuation or spelling errors. Our work defines who we are as authors and generates our business reputation. Because of this, our novels must be as close to perfect as possible before we hit that publish button. Nobody can do this alone – we all need professionals to assist us.”
Talking of surprises, I wondered if she was prepared to reveal something about herself that might surprise her readers?
“I’ve always been adventurous but if my readers have visited my website, they already know this from my about page. They might be surprised to know I can operate a backhoe and I know how to drive an M113 tank.”
My ‘date’ this time is Dublin born author Max Power. In his response to my first question he agrees that his Dublin childhood is an important influence, but goes on to say that it is only part of the story.
“The Jesuit maxim of ‘give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man’ is not something I buy into. It’s never too late to change direction. Perhaps the greatest influence in my writing has been the deaths of my mother, my father and my elder brother who died all too young aged 53. I struggled with grief when my mother passed in particular and I know in hindsight that I was damaged by not dealing fully with the loss at the time.
Love, loss and death are central themes in all of my books, I suspect largely because of how my life has developed. I have been asked for example, why I write across genre. For me there is no line that divides the twisting paranormal tale of Darkly Wood from the book I wrote about a little boy whose name I never reveal. Both are written in my voice and it is a voice that comes directly from my head to tell the reader a story.
I am a simple story teller, no more, no less.
Other writers will understand the huge effort that goes into writing a book, but I like to think that whoever reads my stories is sitting comfortably and hearing the lilt of my voice with each written word. It is certainly what I like to feel when I read a book and I spend a lot of time when editing, focusing on words that hopefully achieve this. I guess therein lies the craft.”
Like so many indie authors, Max’s writing journey began quite late in life although he had always had stories in his head waiting to be unleashed.
“I have always been a writer I guess and I devoured books as a reader for as long as I can remember. I have a vivid recollection of being beaten by a De La Salle Brother for writing the title of my essay at the top of every page, just like I had seen in books. He ignored the fact that while every other boy in the class barely managed to fill one page for their essay, mine was 12 pages long. The shock of being punished for working so hard was unbearable at the time.
I have worked hard all through my life and part of that involved extensive travel, including a full year living and working in Australia. Along the way my children had to be reared and as you say, life gets in the way. I tend to work on multiple projects at once and one such current rewrite dates back to a book I first wrote in 1990. In short I have always tipped away, but I have finally reached a place in life where I have a little more time to dedicate to my writing and therein lies the answer.”
His first three novels were published in 2014. Subsequent books have appeared at longer intervals in what turns out to have been a deliberate marketing strategy.
“One of my primary degrees is in marketing, so I knew I had to get a batch of books to market to have any chance of developing a profile as a writer.
The first book I published was Darkly Wood, a true labour of love for me. I had already written first drafts of the next two books so in the first year I was working to a very specific plan – 3 books. I always work on multiple projects. Right now for example I am finishing Darkly Wood III, rewriting a book I mentioned earlier, a thriller called Apollo Bay set in Australia, there is a story set during the Irish Famine, and one that has a loose connection to Little Big Boy as well as a couple of other projects in development. I like to move from project to project at different stages as I feel it keeps me interested. I never have writers block and I think my methodology has a lot to do with this.”
A recent reduction in published output is undoubtedly the result of what I chose to refer to as “a brush with ill health”. Turns out that was something of an understatement.
“My ‘brush with ill health’ saw me go to hospital for a relatively routine procedure. Unfortunately on the table things went wrong and to put it simply, my heart stopped and I had to be revived.
I had suffered a heart attack and ended up in a critical care unit for two weeks. It was a wrecking ball through my life. I am still relatively young and I went from being a healthy, fit man, to someone who couldn’t walk up the stairs without stopping for a break.
People asked me what was it like and I do have decent recall of what happened, though not a full memory of course. I was conscious up to the point a nurse climbed onto the table and started to squeeze a bag of fluids to which I was attached. I distinctly remember that the mood in the room changed and another nurse took my hand. She calmly told me that everything would be fine – that I would be fine.
I understood in that moment, I’m not sure why, that I was dying.
My life didn’t flash before my eyes but I felt an overwhelming sense of sadness. I’m melancholic by nature although I cover it up for the greater world. I suspect in those moments, as I briefly crossed over, my natural self took over. I just felt sad for those I was leaving behind, my darling Joanna and my wonderful children. When I came around I was changed.
Bizarrely for a man who is a total sceptic and has no time for ghosts, spirits etc, I discovered that I now have a new dark companion who I have blogged about so I won’t go into detail here. I strongly suspect it is a delusional apparition, but there is a very dark and frightening, portentous element to his visits that make me uncomfortable.
In the last year I have had a run of bad luck health wise, mostly relatively minor things, but they have hugely impacted my writing time. As I type, I am struggling with a shoulder injury and to be honest, I have a serious pain in my backside with the recent list of creaky, old man ailments that have hunted me down one after the other. But on the bright side, my trips through the world of medicine are always good food for my blog.”
Max’s often satirical, and always very funny, blog has a large following. He offers this advice to bloggers wishing to emulate his success:
“I approach my blog very differently than most bloggers – or at least I think I do. It is not a commercial enterprise, nor an exercise in narcissism. I love telling stories. Even in the flesh I never shut up. My blog is an extension of that side of me. I sit at my laptop and have a little wander through my thought process. I will tell a story, usually multi-compartmented, and my goal is either to bring a smile or just to share some often very honest truths about myself.
It’s not a confessional but I know from interactions with readers of my blog, that I often connect with others going through similar experiences. It is a sampler if you will, of my writing. It is my penny dreadful in a way, a teaser of me and a good place to practice being concise, which is important for me as a writer.
The advice I would give for whatever value that might be, is to know what you want to write about.
If you have to struggle each time you sit down to write a blog, then you haven’t discovered what it is you are trying to achieve.
My blog is what it is, it does exactly what it says on the tin. I do use imagery and spend more time choosing my images than I do actually writing the blogs as I understand the importance of the visual impact – again my history in the world of marketing coming out.
Like all my writing advice, I go back to the heart of what writing should be.
Be interesting, be relevant and always think of your audience first.
Some writers think too much of themselves and forget that ultimately they need to engage and entertain their readers.”
He does not (yet) have a special place for his writing:
“I write anywhere. Kitchen table, sofa, office at lunch break, hotel rooms when I travel, there is no special place. We moved to our current house three years ago and there is a space I’ve got my eye on, but with one grown lad, Joanna’s 93year old mother and three dogs, I have yet to find the time to confiscate and decorate. I write every day, if only a small amount it doesn’t matter. I alternate from a first draft, to editing different drafts or rewrites, and it is a slow process but I keep at it.”
Although his books are strongly character driven they are mostly worked out in his head before he begins committing them to paper.
“I write every book in my head, start to finish. It can take months for me to develop a story, my mind is a whirlwind of noise, it never stops and that can be a bad thing. But among the clutter there is always my latest planned project. When I am happy with it, I sit down and write it through start to finish without any edits until I get the story down. My books are entirely character driven and perhaps the best example of this is Wormhold in Darkly Wood II. He changed how the book developed and was entirely responsible for me writing book III.
Originally he was supposed to have a far smaller part in the book, but as I inked him to life, I fell madly in love with his twisted horror and I couldn’t help myself and he became central to the story. I couldn’t end the book without curtailing his wild twisted beauty, so I replotted and realized I would need a huge book to get to where I wanted to go. The upshot is a third book in the series that wasn’t originally planned.
In general I allow my characters to take their natural course, but they ultimately stick to the end goal. I’m a far more technical writer than most people would notice. Writing a book in the first person without ever using the character’s name was an enormous challenge and within Little Big Boy for example, there was a need to write about terrible things that the reader had to understand but the narrator, my Little Big Boy didn’t understand and on occasion had to be oblivious to the events in the story.
It may sound simple, but I literally slaved over words, phrases, sentences and paragraphs, to achieve something that reads like it is falling off the little boy’s tongue, all the while revealing the sometimes unrevealable as my main character was too young to see or understand context and circumstance. I loved writing the book because I think I got into the space I needed to get to write it, the head of a seven year old boy. I also hated writing it, because I was very ill during the process so I struggled a lot getting this one finished.
Larry Flynn drove me to distraction. He is such a simple character in theory, but I understood his secret backstory so he diverted me quite a bit. I think both Larry and James Delaney in Bad Blood, had their own meanders but thrillers are easier to keep in line as they have a much more fixed structure if everything is to work out.”
As I imagine we all know, the standard disclaimer “any resemblance to real people is purely coincidental” is only half true and Max is not afraid to admit it.
“Little Big Boy has my face on the cover. I wanted a little boy on the cover and there were no copyright issues with my own photo. I stole many bits and pieces from people I knew in my childhood, but it was very much a case of taking all the fragments and creating something new.
In Darkly Wood some of the characters despite the strangeness of the tales, have origins in people I have met, but again they are only shadows of real people falling on my invention.
I did use one real name that might surprise people when they hear it. My daughter’s boyfriend has a friend called Zachary Westhelle Hartfiel. He is as Irish as they come despite his name and when I met him I told him that I simply had to steal his wonderful name for my book. I turned him into a swashbuckling chap in the vain of Black Adder’s version of Sir Walter Raleigh. He came to a dark end though. I would say that in general my main characters are pure inventions of my own, created in my mind as I plan my story.”
As you might imagine, Max includes a number of classics among his favourite writers.
“I love Charles Dickens, Henry James, George, Elliot, for example but I have a broad taste beyond the classics. Stephen King’s The girl who loved Tom Gordon is one of my favourite books but most people miss this short little gem in his catalogue of more famous books. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad is a cracker and I enjoy Flan O Brien.
Perhaps my favourite book, is still The Little Prince for its simplicity and for Alexander du Saint Expurés interesting life, I think I’d have to have him to dinner or a pint. As always with people I meet, I want to learn about them primarily. New people fascinate me and I think we have most to learn by simply listening.”
I always like to end my ‘dates’ by asking the subject to reveal something surprising abut themselves.
“There are things that if I put on paper people literally wouldn’t believe and tempted as I am, I’ll keep the strangest ones to myself. I can tell you that I have an empathic ability to feel the physical pain of others by touch. I can touch someone and from that touch I can literally pinpoint a point of pain on their body. I keep that to my self – until now – only Joanna can back that assertion up. There’s that and the fact that I have no tickles, never had. I used to tell my kids that they all fell out as I snapped back up from the bottom of a bungee jump – a little embellishment I know, but I simply can’t help myself I’m afraid.”
I thanked Max for some fascinating insights into his life and his writing. Do please check out his books, if you have not already done so. Probably the best place is on his website where every blog is ended with a set of links to your local Amazon store. He is also on Facebook.
My latest date with an indie author arrived a bit late, but was well worth waiting for, as I am sure you will agree. I am grateful to Sylva Fae for interrupting her holiday to answer my questions.
Sylva grew up in Lancashire where, “[If] there were hard times for my parents . . . they kept them well hidden from me and my brother. I had a simple but fun childhood, and I look back with fond memories. My parents were artists who had a love of travel and the outdoors. My dad especially loved travelling and would prioritise holidays abroad over buying expensive toys etc – he wanted us to experience new places and learn about other cultures first hand. My mum was the driving force behind buying a farm, which became a sanctuary for injured wildlife and unwanted pets. When not chasing hens and goats out of the house, we often went on adventures around the local moors and would play in the fresh air while my mum sketched the landscape.”
She now lives in Cheshire and owns a woodland in Shropshire. I wondered how that came about and what were the pros and cons.
“When my eldest daughter was a toddler we booked onto a supposedly child-friendly campsite. It turned into a nightmare of rules and regulations with tents regimentally spaced in a crowded field, then there was a horrendous rainstorm! Faced with keeping a rowdy toddler entertained in a tent, we gave up and came home. We had envisaged a relaxing camping experience, sat around the fire as the sun went down, space for our daughter to run wild and have fun, but instead we got the opposite. With a little research, we discovered that there were companies selling plots of woodland. We spent the summer pottering around different sites, until we found our vision of the idyllic woodland camp, hidden in the Shropshire countryside.
Everyone thought we were mad buying a woodland, and they’re probably right but we love it.
We have created a camping area with a fire pit and benches, that is enjoyed by many of our family and friends. Our three girls have the opportunity to experience a little of the childhood we had. They run wild, climb trees, make dens and have learned to cook on a campfire. It’s great to get them playing and learning new skills in the fresh air rather than slaves to technology, like so many other young people nowadays.
Drawbacks? None that I can think of. The woods provide us with a safe place to camp, fuel to heat our house over winter, and as an investment, the value of the land has more than doubled in the nine years we have had it. The only thing I wish was different is that we’d done this years earlier.”
When I asked her about the challenges involved in her past career as a teacher of children and young adults with special needs, she explained how she “fell into this line of work quite by accident, mainly because most of the other teachers were daunted by the challenge the groups presented.
“I never saw disabilities or learning difficulties, I only saw people who approached learning in different ways.
I planned my lessons to enable them to achieve at a rate and in a meaningful way to each individual. It was incredibly rewarding but also frustrating in that the current education system doesn’t fully recognise the achievements these young people make.
The lessons I learned from working with groups of this nature have enhanced my life, and the skills I now carry forward are valuable in many situations.”
Many of Sylva’s books are based on stories she created with her young children very much in mind and contributing to the process. I asked how she thought they compared to traditional children’s fiction like Enid Blyton’s “Famous Five” and “Secret Seven” or more recent works like the “Harry Potter” books.
“I grew up as an Enid Blyton fan, I think I read pretty much every one of her books. I do have a few chapter books, aimed at a similar level on the go, but my main focus is producing picture books. My own children loved the rhyming stories by Julia Donaldson, and the repetitive Hairy Maclary books by Lynley Dodd, and I aspire to create stories that will engage children in the same way.
As her children get older she is adapting her style: “I wanted to create the picture books as memories for my girls of the stories we created together, but already they have outgrown them. I have a few middle school chapter books in the works and a young adult book half written. I must say that I do love the picture book style most of all, but maybe that will change as my girls grow.”
Asked when and where she writes, she explains that since taking voluntary redundancy from her teaching job she writes while her girls are in school – and continues:
“Well, that’s always the plan but inspiration seems to come mostly at night, so I often work in the evenings as well. I type ideas on my mobile phone as they come to me so I’m rarely away from writing. I love to ponder story ideas while I’m sat on a log at the campfire.”
Next we talked about the difference between traditional publishing and self-publishing:
“I was offered publishing deals by two small press publishers but I didn’t feel completely happy with either. I’m not sure what it was that held me back, but I decided to publish independently instead, and I’m glad I did as both publishers have since gone out of business.
I did discover a fantastic publisher through my good friend and children’s author Paul Ian Cross. The Little Lights Studio in Vienna has created a bedtime stories app for families, and I’m proud to have been a part of this project from the beginning. I have five stories in the app and I’m in the process of writing five more.
So now I self-publish books but have a modern publisher for online stories – it’s quite a good combination for me.”
Like all the best children’s books hers are prolifically illustrated – by the author:
“I spent a long time trying to find an illustrator to create the pictures I have when I write. I discovered several things – I am very picky about the styles I like, illustrators are justifiably pricey, and I only like the most expensive! Because of this I stalled for a couple of years, unable to afford what I wanted but unwilling to compromise. I then discovered I could create my own illustrations quite by accident. It started just as a bit of fun creating the story characters for my children, but after showing a couple of my writer friends, they gave me the confidence to illustrate my own stories. Cover design is really just an extension of the illustration process so I do that too.”
Editing, however, is something Sylva regards as too important to undertake herself:
“Editing is definitely something I seek support with.
I believe in supporting other authors and have always offered my services as a beta reader and proof reader to anyone who needs it.
Now we have a faithful network of friends who share skills on a pay-it-forward basis. My work is currently being edited by children’s author Millie Slavidou.”
Noting that Sylva’s website has been rather neglected of late, I wondered how much effort she puts into marketing, probably the most difficult aspect of publishing for us independents.
“You are right! I started the blog after advice from experienced author Lesley Hayes, to write every day. She persuaded me to set up the blog and has encouraged me from the start. As soon as I found the way to illustrate and publish my own books, my energies have gone into that, and yes my poor little blog has been neglected. This is something I want to rectify. My next marketing plan is to reinvent the blog and use it as an additional marketing tool.
I think our best marketing tool is interacting within our community. The more we become involved and support one another, the more help we receive with marketing of our own books. You get what you put in.
I particularly enjoy doing live marketing events, reading to children and answering their questions. Young children are my main audience so their feedback is the most valuable.”
When I asked about her reading preferences she produced a long list of independent authors, including some who have, or soon will be, featured in these ‘dates’.
“I love a good psychological thriller, I want to be kept guessing right until the last page. Since I started beta reading for my writer group, I have read around many genres, perhaps ones I wouldn’t have chosen previously but it has been a great experience. Independent authors like Lesley Hayes, Nico Laeser and Val Tobin are current favourites of mine. In expanding my genres I’ve also discovered authors like Susan Faw, Eric Lahti and Melanie Smith. Each has a different style but I have learned so much from each of them. I would love to meet any of my indie author friends, as I feel we have become friends despite never meeting in real life.”
I like to ask my subjects to reveal something about themselves that might surprise their fans – or, in the case of a children’s author, the fans’ parents. Sylva offers three things:
“My debut book Rainbow Monsters won the Chanticleer Little Peeps award for best in category.
Perhaps not surprising given that I own a woodland, but I run a bushcraft and wild camping group when I’m not writing.
I’m a secret geek! I won the US Navy cryptology challenge two years running despite having no prior knowledge of cryptology or related subjects. Russian newspapers speculated that the winners were being recruited into a top-secret government taskforce, and
my local newspaper suggested I might be a spy!
Of course I’m not a spy, I only did the challenge because I enjoy learning new skills and I’m tenacious in pursuing my goals.
I guess I apply this same tenacity and persistence to my writing too. There is no luck in becoming an author, it takes a lot of hard work and a willingness to learn new skills constantly.”
My ‘date’ this time is with a Scottish writer who has lived for more than a quarter century in Australia. Cathy Donnelly lives in Frankston on the Mornington Peninsula in the State of Victoria. Here is her description:
“It is a coastal city about an hour from Melbourne and is a great place to live. I am fortunate to be able to walk on the beach almost every day. When I was in Scotland I bought all the waterproof gear so I can walk even when the waves are thrashing against the rocks and the sea wall. Everything I need is no more than 15 minutes’ drive away – the bay, the library, the shops, where I attend the local writing group and lovely botanical gardens.
I love working in my garden and feeding the many species of birds that come to visit. They used to come for dinner in the evening but now it is breakfast and a snack during the day as well. It always makes me smile to see them lined up on the decking rail, singing their hearts out, or just waiting patiently until I notice them. The kookaburras take the food from my hand and the magpies bring their babies and leave them while they go off and do what they do. They obviously trust us not to harm them as they are known to attack anyone who gets near their young.
We get the different seasons here, which I love. It can reach 40 degrees sometimes in the summer but not usually for weeks on end. You know relief from the humidity will eventually come. The area also has a reputation of having all four seasons on the same day.
Nevil Shute, the author of A Town Like Alice and On the Beach, used to live here. Some of the scenes in the movie version of On the Beach were filmed around here and there is an old photo of Gregory Peck standing on the same station I caught the train from every day for the 15 years I worked in Melbourne.”
Despite her long sojourn in Australia, it is Scotland and its history that inspires Cathy’s writing.
“I moved to Australia when I was forty and although I have lived here for 26 years now, Scotland is still home. I visit my family every two or three years and its beauty still takes my breath away. My sister, Linda, and her family live in the house I was brought up in.
It is so special to still be able to sleep in my parents’ old room and visit the village where I went to school and grew up in. I love the familiarity and the memories.
I was checking with my other sister, Wilma, on Skype the other night about the time it would take for one the characters in my new novel to travel by car from one of the tourist hotspots near her, to Edinburgh. The route is mostly two-way roads through villages. She said it depended on the ain’t thats. You could be driving along the road doing the speed limit when suddenly the car in front of you slows right down, causing all the cars behind it to put on their brakes. The locals call these drivers aint thats because they know at least one person in that car is pointing out of the window and saying “ain’t that beautiful”. It happens all the time. I am sure everyone knows that the Scots are well known for their calm demeanour.”
Like Kate Mosse, Cathy uses the idea of reincarnation and other time-shifting devices to take her protagonists to different historical periods.
“I have always been fascinated by the concepts of past lives and time travel. They open up such possibilities from a personal point of view, and more so when it comes to telling a story. With my first novel Distant Whispers, I was able to combine quite a few of my interests – reincarnation, the Knights Templar, Alexander the Great, religions – using these concepts. I thoroughly enjoy the scope it gives me in my writing.”
I asked Cathy about the lessons that could be – and perhaps have not been – learned from the many conflicts that feature in Scottish history.
“History was one of my favourite subjects at school so I knew even as a child that the English and the Scots had always fought amongst themselves, and against each other, throughout their ancient history.
The kings and queens, nobles and gentry, could do what they wanted in those days. It could be that they were just bored with their daily lives or easily offended, but no matter what the reason, one side would do the wrong thing and it would be “round up the peasants” and off they went to pillage and destroy.
I used to think all this history was just that – something in the past, but for some reason the Scots, as with the Irish, do not forget easily. They can carry a grudge for a very long time. I listened to some of the debates and discussions about Scotland independence. I am a very patriotic Scot but I had to ask myself – why do we need it?
We may share the same island and have the same royal family, but the Scots, the English, and also the Irish, all have their separate identities.
I have never considered myself anything but Scottish.
I have noticed that Scots do not seem to mind if their accent is mistaken for Irish when they are overseas, but God forbid if someone asks if they are English. I do not think there would be many Scots who do not have English relatives.
In the lead up to the vote for independence, I asked a friend, who is a fierce, obsessive, Scottish Nationalist, how would it work regarding pensions, health care, borders etc. Her answer was “just let’s get independence and we can worry about all that later.’
On the English side, I do not think they care one way or the other. They recognise we are Scottish and they are English and we both have pride in our heritage.
So, the answer to your question. There are still many people who have repeatedly failed to learn any lessons from the past, but I do understand that it is an emotional issue and you cannot knock being proud of who you are and where you come from.”
Cathy has only recently begun using a computer for writing:
“I have an office area set up at home with my computer and files, but I find I get more inspiration from writing by hand. I wrote my first novel, the majority of my second one, and most of my short stories by hand on the train journey to work, or in bed at night. It was quite an adjustment for me to try to put it straight onto the computer, but when the house is quiet and all I can hear are the words going around in my head, I am getting used to it. I still look forward to taking my notebook to bed and just letting my thoughts wander.”
I usually ask my subjects to tell me which writers they most admire but I already know from a previous interview she did with Millie Slavidou that she is a fan of David Mitchell and his book Cloud Atlas. What was it about that book and its author that so affected her?
“Cloud Atlas took the theme of reincarnation to a completely new level. It was a complex story in so many ways and I was blown away by the writing, the characters, the locations, the timelines. I read it a second time immediately after the first reading, and have watched the movie three times. I can say without hesitation that this will always be my favourite story. You ask what I would hope to learn from David Mitchell if I spent time with him? I am really not sure if it is possible to learn genius.”
To date Cathy has not used a professional editor:
“My background is proofreading of Cabinet and Ministerial briefings so I assumed I would be okay with the grammar and spelling components of writing. Obviously, that is not all that is needed in writing a novel. I was fortunate that a couple of people offered to read my first novel before publication and a friend who is a Scottish history expert read the second one. Thankfully they all picked up things I had missed and made very useful suggestions for which I was very grateful. It is all a learning curve and I hope to get some beta readers, and also a professional editor, for my new novel.
I think a first novel is very precious and there is always the fear that if you get someone else to read it they might come back and say it is awful. I am over that now and realise the benefit of having the opinion of others.”
Many independent authors find marketing the hardest part of the business of writing. Cathy has succeeded in getting her books stocked in the heritage sites that feature in them, something I’ve tried myself. I wondered what other marketing techniques she has found useful.
“For me, marketing is definitely the hardest part of the business. I am learning as I go. I am fortunate that Wilma, pushes me along. She took my Scottish novel There is a Place to the VisitScotland tourist shop in Aberfoyle, which is near the main location in the book, and asked them if they would consider stocking it because of the local interest.
As a result, they invited me to do a book signing when I was there last year. It was not as scary as I thought it would be. I am going home again next year and they said to let them know and they would arrange a signing for the new one.
I would also say that being part of the Indie Author Support & Discussion Facebook group has given me more confidence to put myself out there. The members share what they think works and what does not, and their support has helped me move outside my comfort zone. When I release my new novel, I will make sure I have a clear plan on how to market it.”
Cathy is currently working on her third novel and she revealed a little about it.
“Memories of the Night Sky is the story of Catriona, an author who begins to dream stories she feels compelled to write. It is set in Scotland in the present day, the 9th century and in 1307 and involves Druids, Knights Templar and forbidden love. I enjoyed being able to incorporate my interest in different spiritual traditions and pagan rituals.
I am working on the first edit at the moment and hope to have it ready to publish by the end of the year.”
I like to conclude my ‘dates’ by asking my subject to reveal something about themselves that might surprise their readers. Here’s Cathy:
“For decades I thought of joining a coven and training to become a witch – a white witch, of course. I have lived and worked in various places around Australia so I kept putting it off until I settled. When I did settle in Frankston I thought the time was right, but do you know how hard it is to find a coven? I thought they would be everywhere but alas, no. I am now in my sixties. I wonder if it is too late? Perhaps not.”
Another plaint from a writer fed up with being ripped off.
via Book Sales