Interview with Diana Jackson

Diana JacksonDiana has been a good friend of mine for a few years now, but as she usually writes traditionally-published historical romance fiction it would’ve been a little incongruous to have featured her on this blog. However, she’s recently independently published a murder mystery novel, Murder Now & Then, which I read prior to its publication and can heartily recommend.

I spoke to Diana just before the launch of her book and asked her a bit more about the book as well as what inspired her to write her historical romance books based on the island of Alderney.

What first drew you to the island of Alderney and sparked your fascination and passion for the area?

Family holidays on Alderney when in my early teens are filled with happy memories, but it was not until we visited as adults that my father began to talk of my great-grandmother Harriet, who was born on Alderney in 1865. I stood looking out from the Butes — the very place my blog photo is taken in fact, and tried to imagine her life at a time when the island had 5,000 inhabitants (there are only around 2,000 today). This included military personnel and workers on the various forts which are dotted around the coastline. Intrigued, I spent a summer of intensive book research which eventually led to the writing of my debut novel Riduna, a name that Alderney is also known by.

How much research and preparation goes into writing historical romances before you finally sit down and type ‘Chapter 1′?

My research for Riduna was spent with my head in often dusty tomes, whereas for Ancasta ~ Guide me Swiftly Home, its sequel, I reached out to experts in their field: archivists at the Shuttleworth air museum — an authority on early flying boat development and the Schneider Trophy, who lives in Calshot; the curator of the Hampshire Regimental Museum in Winchester and also, more unusually, to a fisherman, well known on Alderney, who gave me a fishing lesson and checked through the relevant chapters. Several of the above people kindly read the whole manuscript prior to print to check for authenticity. The research led the plot, rather than the other way around. It was also professionally proofread and edited.

Murder Now and ThenOn to your new book, what gave you the idea and inspiration for trying your hand at a murder mystery?

I was in touch with GreatWarCI, the Channel Island Great War group whilst researching for Ancasta ~ Guide me Swiftly Home and one of them sent me a ‘did you know…’ email. It was regarding a lass from Jersey in 1919 who was murdered in Haynes, Bedfordshire, only three miles from where I live. Although there were rumours at the time and one man stood trial, there was never a conviction. I visited the grave in Haynes and this sparked the plot of Murder Now and Then. I don’t think any author can explain where the ideas come from as their novel evolves. The story is set in 2019, the anniversary of Lucille Vardon’s (not her real name) death, with flashbacks to the original story. I already had an idea of a murder mystery for a short story and these threads merged quite naturally.

How different was the process of writing, compared to your usual style of work?

Writing the murder mystery was far more complicated in many ways. In order to have ‘red herrings’ and subplots to disguise the truth (although there are hints along the way) I tried a linear time line but ended up with a large board of post-its for each of the key characters on one axis and time on the other. I had an idea of where each chapter was heading but, if there was something not quite right, I’d sleep on it or go and do something completely different and invariably the solution had come to me by morning.

How much research went into looking at policing procedures?

I read a great deal of crime novels over the last couple of years which follow a pattern of procedure and I was also put right on a couple of key issues by my beta readers, but I had the advantage that I was projecting into the future. I reasoned that procedures may be quite different in 2019. I had to predict enough change to make it believable without it being sci-fi, which it was never intended to be. Unlike many crime novels, the police are not the key characters in the novel but I did want them to be thought of as real people with their own issues.

Murder Now and ThenDo you write purely for entertainment or do you try to deliver some form of message through your work?

Of course my novels are to entertain, but I hope, too, that readers find they gain a greater awareness of the events and social history explored in the Riduna series. These novels are also about issues pertinent to today, for example displacement and that powerful magnetism of the place of our family roots (also reflected in Murder Now and Then). Murder Now and Then, however, explores the unexpected consequences of our actions and those of our ancestors, decision and the cards life has dealt us. I don’t see any of my characters as inherently evil. Neither is it a tale of two cops solving a murder mystery — far from it. The story unravels as you get to know the characters and their vulnerabilities and strengths.

A nice fun one — If your books were adapted for TV or film, who would you see playing the main roles?

In Murder Now and Then I would love Penelope Wilton to play Joanna, the farmer’s wife. I could certainly see her being a bit bohemian and can imagine her assuming a believable role of the accused.

I would also choose the less well known Rene Muren, who’d be great to play Anna Beret because she actually comes from Jersey. With make-up and costume she could also play the part of Lucille Vardon, her distant relative who was murdered in 1919.

Diana’s books can be found on Amazon and other good retailers (please note that the Kindle version of Murder Now and Then sports a different cover to the paperback), and more information can be found on her websites:

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This is the article the Huffington Post refused to publish

Some of you might be aware that I have a column at The Huffington Post.  On 28th March 2014, I wrote an article, which I have reproduced in its entirety below, in which I attacked certain sections of the media (mainly social media) for declaring people guilty before trial. The Huffington Post refused to publish the article.

The reason given was that they didn’t want to focus on any articles which discuss ongoing legal matters. This is the same Huffington Post which carried the following stories today:

And they’re just three that I found within the first two minutes of casually browsing the front page. Double standards much? Or are they perhaps worried about something else? Could it be the fact that it’s their website and their articles which is often guilty of condemning potentially innocent people?

Here’s the article in full, of which they halted the publication. You can decide for yourself.

With all of the news about missing planes and trigger-happy South Africans recently, it would be easy to miss the story that a male nurse has been re-arrested in connection with the deaths of three patients at Stepping Hill Hospital in Stockport. You also might have missed the news that Jimmy Tarbuck has had all charges dropped against him in relation to allegations of sex offences. These two stories both went largely ignored, yet remain intrinsically linked.

 

The link is innocence. Back in 2011, Rebecca Leighton was questioned by police in connection with the Stepping Hill murders. The internet, as it does, went apoplectic. People were calling for the death sentence. In a moment of level-headedness, I posted a tweet appealing for calm, stating that she hadn’t even been charged, let alone found guilty in a court of law, and that she should not even have been named in the media. In response, I received a barrage of tweets from people saying I was defending her and should be ashamed of myself. I even received a series of tweets from the granddaughter of one of the murdered Stepping Hill patients, stating that she hoped members of my family were murdered too.

 

All charges against Rebecca Leighton were dropped. A similar pre-Twitter event occurred with the arrest of Christopher Jefferies, who was arrested for the murder of Joanna Yeates. He, too, was cleared and Vincent Tabak was sentences for her murder. At the time I publicly stated that I wasn’t entirely convinced Jefferies was guilty. Something didn’t seem quite right. Perhaps it’s my background as a crime writer which gives me some sort of developed intuition into guilt. Who knows? Either way, this isn’t me saying ‘I was right all along’. Well, it is, but not about that. It’s me saying I was right all along that we should not be so quick to judge people just because they’ve been arrested for something.

 

Anyone can be arrested for anything. I could leave my house and walk to the shop now and find out that a bald bloke wearing a terrible shirt committed a horrible murder around the corner twenty minutes ago. I’d then be arrested and questioned by the police. To be honest, I’d be pretty pissed off if that was then reported in the newspaper. I’d be even more pissed off if the general public took to social media to declare me guilty. Wouldn’t you? Consider it. You could be next.

 

The justice system goes like this: You get suspected, then arrested, then charged, then sentenced in court. Until that very last part has been completed, you’re innocent. That’s the law. Let’s all have some humility and do our best to remember that.

What Should Authors Do about Bad Reviews?

Screenshot-at-Mar-12-09-01-28Receiving a bad review can be one of the most distressing things for an author. Trust me, it doesn’t get any easier with time or frequency, so the upshot is that you’re going to have to learn to deal with it.

Maybe you think this doesn’t concern you. After all, your new book is great, right? Perhaps it is. Either way, it’s going to get bad reviews. Here’s the simple bit: all books get bad reviews. Any book exposed to enough readers will be on the end of an absolute slating from some corner or other. That’s the subjective nature of art. Take a look at some of the reviews below, which I’ve taken from Amazon:

All I can say is that I think this is one of the most boring and, at times frankly irritating, murder mysteries I’ve ever read. I didn’t think there was any suspense or any shocks … The characters are not engaging in the slightest – I was almost willing them to be killed off. I forced myself to finish the book because I stupidly paid £4.99 for it, but otherwise would have abandoned it early on. (The only reason I bought it was because it had so many fantastic reviews, which I am at a complete loss to explain.) I couldn’t wait for it to finish as it was a tedious tome from the start. I’m only surprised that so many people enjoy this tripe!

Sounds terrible, right? In fact, I can attest to that book actually being one of the greatest murder mysteries of all time. Perhaps the greatest. It’s also the third-biggest-selling book of all time in the English language, and has shifted more than 100 million copies. It’s Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None.

How about another?

This is the single most appallingly (sp.) overrated nonsense I have ever had my displeasure to read. It starts badly and just gets worse. The descriptions are turgid, the characterisation unbelievable and the use of language frighteningly dull.

Truth is I have never managed to get past the first of the three books that make up this shockfest. When I say always I must confess that I have attempted to read this thing three times and always come to the same conclusion – it is too bad to be worthy of my time.

Wow. What a stinker of a book. Nope, it’s J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. The second-biggest-selling book of all time, with more than 150 million copies sold and a huge film franchise behind it.

How about this, then?

A very disappointing book – only the opening and closing quotations of note. Heavy handed prose, characters have no depth and the central theme … just doesn’t work and fails to convince…

Well you’re good at spotting patterns, anyway. That’s Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, the best-selling book of all time with more than 200 million copies sold. What I’m trying to say is that even the three most popular books of all time will still receive a terrible review from time to time.

Of course, Amazon wasn’t around then but I’m pretty sure there’d have been bad reviews in the press for A Tale of Two Cities in the 1850s, too. Had Dickens succumbed to them and believed them, Great Expectations might never have existed two years later. Had Christie decided enough was enough, we’d have missed out on 40 of her 66 novels.

Read this words and then read them again until they’re firmly lodged in your mind: A bad review does not equal a bad book. In fact, no books are bad. All books are purely subjective and all reviews are only the reviewer’s opinion — nothing else. One of my books has a review saying ‘This is the best book ever’ and another saying ‘This is the worst book ever’. They can’t both be right. In fact, they are. And they’re both wrong, too. Opinion is subjective, and for one reader it was the best book he’d ever read and for the other it was the worst.

Oh, and whatever you do, don’t respond to negative reviews. It never ends well. The trick is to separate yourself from the book. The review is someone’s opinion of your book; it’s not a fact about your book and it’s certainly not a criticism of you personally.

Do you have any tips for dealing with criticism and bad reviews? If so, leave a message in the comments box below.

5 Quick Ways to Improve Your Writing

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The great Brazilian footballer Pelé once said: ‘Never think that you know everything. There is always more to learn and every day we get to know something new.’ Although he was referring to football, it’s a quote which can easily be applied to anything and, probably, everything.

Writers in particular tend to feel an overwhelming sense of inferiority and a desire to improve which I’ve not seen quite so pervasively in any other industry. It’s one of the things which makes me love writing and other writers so much. It’s easier said than done, though, so I’ve put together a few ways in which you can help improve your writing in a fairly short space of time.

  1. Take acting classes. This is probably the most valuable way in which I’ve improved my writing recently. I’m not suggesting you enrol in stage school, but take a look at local classes and workshops. There’s bound to be some form of drama workshop available. They’re a lot of fun and get into the nitty gritty of being a character and understanding the nuances of speech and the movement of a story in ways which you just can’t get through reading and writing. It’s a great way to get the creative juices flowing.
  2. Go to the theatre. Probably the second-best option compared to actually participating, but still one of the best ways to catch the flow of dialogue and understand the rhythms of drama. This might all sound like basic stuff, but it’s something which all writers need to be constantly looking at and refining.
  3. Read books on the subject of writing. This comes with a caveat. There’s a lot of crap out there. It’s difficult to know what’s crap and what isn’t, but you can eventually judge for yourself. I’d suggest reading the following three books and then using what you’ve learnt from them to judge the signal:noise ratio of everything else:
  4. Read a wider variety of books. Get out of your comfort zone. This is the only way in which we ever learn. Did we discover the Americas and the New World by sitting at home and doing what we’d always done? No, we did it by venturing into unknown territory and grabbing the bull by its horns. Do the complete opposite of what you usually do and see what happens. You might be surprised.
  5. Watch more films and TV dramas. Again, this is probably a rung lower on the ladder than visiting the theatre and taking acting classes, purely because films and TV dramas tend to be a lot more polished and, as a result, slightly less real than the stage. But to get yourself into the rhythms of drama and to really get a feel for plot and character without having to venture out of your house (see point 4!) this is a good way to get those creative juices flowing.

 

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8 things to remember when formatting e-books

If you are a self-publisher, chances are at some point you will need to format an e-book. While it would be nice if the manuscript file you’ve been working on for months would magically transfer over to e-book format and look great, it isn’t really possible. At some point, you’re going to have to do some formatting. Here are some of the key things you need to remember when it comes to e-book formatting.

  • E-books don’t have pages. Your book will look different on each platform. It all depends on what kind of e-reader people are using and how they’ve set it up to display the text. This means the concept of ‘proper’ pages like in a printed book goes a little bit out of the window.
  • Be careful with page breaks. This relates to the point above. E-books don’t have pages in the proper sense, and too many page breaks can end up looking awkward on an e-reader screen.
  • Make sure you make a new version of your manuscript file for formatting purposes, and keep a back-up copy. You don’t want to take the risk of turning the whole thing into a disaster if you should have a serious formatting mishap.
  • Don’t have your word processing programme set to ‘print layout’, as the separate pages will make it harder to determine what your e-book will actually look like.
  • Get rid of as much of the blank space as possible. Even though it might feel wrong not to leave blank space at some points in the book, resist the urge.
  • Follow the guidelines on the publishing platforms you’re using. They’re there for a reason
  • Check it before you publish it properly. You can use tools such as the Kindle application for PC or Mac to check your Amazon e-book, and Adobe Digital Editions for Smashwords epub files.
  • There are people out there who will format your e-book for you for a fee. If you have been driven insane by trying to format your e-book or really aren’t sure how to go about it, hire someone to do it for you. Whatever you do, don’t publish the book without someone formatting it first.