How Far Would You Go in the Name of Research?

With apologies to all those who’ve already read about my stand-up comedy shenanigans!

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Margaret K Johnson asks:  How far would you go in the name of research?
We have all heard about method actors who go to extreme lengths to get into character for their roles. These actors feel they need to really experience the lives of their characters.  For example, to play the character of Christy Brown in My Left Foot about a disabled man, Daniel Day-Lewis refused to leave his wheelchair for the whole duration of the filming. Robert de Niro became a taxi driver for his role in Taxi Driver, and learnt to box for Raging Bull. It’s also very common for actors to gain or lose weight for their roles – Christian Bale weighed only 122 pounds for his role in The Machinist, and Ann Hathaway lost 25 pounds and cut off all her hair for her role in Les Miserables.

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Joan of Arc was brought up as a pheasant and other gaffs

When I was 11 years old, I had to give a talk about Joan of Arc in a French class. Since I was quite a shy girl this was a fairly big deal for me, but I gamely went out in of the class when it was my turn to speak. Then I opened my mouth, and the trouble started. “Joan of Arc was brought up as a pheasant,” I confidently asserted, and was momentarily disconcerted when the whole class fell about laughing. Seconds later, with flaming red cheeks, I attempted to correct myself. “I mean, a peasant….” But it was too late; the damage was done. Nobody listened to anything else I had to say.

ImageUnsurprisingly, that incident blighted my public speaking carer for some time. Speaking in public became something of a phobia, to the point where I never even put my hand up in class to answer a question. Much later, I decided to do something about it, and gradually chipped away at the problem by setting myself small tasks to achieve. For example, I joined adult education classes and set myself the goal of making 1 contribution per lesson. It was terrifying at first, but gradually my comfort zone expanded until I enrolled on a public speaking course. Gulp! But on that course I made a speech that – intentionally – made people laugh. It was such an amazing feeling! I went on to train to be an adult education tutor, and taught for many years as well as writing fiction.

Three years ago, I gave up teaching because I was earning just enough from my writing to support myself. I was finding it hard to juggle writing with parenthood and teaching, and I needed to free up some brain space. It’s been a highly productive time for me, but I do miss the performance side of teaching, and I do feel the need to keep using my public speaking muscle since it was so hard for me to develop it. I definitely didn’t want to risk reverting to that post Joan-of-Arc-is-a-pheasant me! Maybe that’s why I had a go at stand-up comedy last year. (If you haven’t read about that, here’s the link to the post about it). Certainly, it’s why, just lately, I’ve felt the need to get out there to speak about my writing. My first official author talk took place last week at the All Saint’s WI in Norwich, and I’m glad to say, it seemed to go very well. The group were very welcoming, they were interested in what I had to say, and they all willingly took part in the activity I set them. Hurrah! One of them even summed up what my women’s fiction books are all about by asking, “Are your books about women gaining empowerment?” Yes! Yes, they are.

Thank you, All Saint’s WI, and in fact, thank you Class 1I at The Broxbourne School, because without the memory of you lot, it wouldn’t mean half so much to me to be able to give a talk in front of a group of people I don’t know.

Writing Process Blog Tour

Today I am posting as part of a writing process bog tour – my thanks to Kathryn Freeman for inviting me. Here’s a link to Kathryn’s blog. Kathryn writes for romantic Choc Lit, and her current hero is a racing driver. Must have involved a lot of very interesting research…

So, as part of the tour I have to post my answers to 4 questions about my writing and the way I write.

1. What am I working on? I’m currently working on my 3rd women’s fiction novel and a romance novel. Both these books have a theme of deception, and as always with my writing, they’re about self-esteem and personal growth as well as love. I’ve also just got a historical romance set in the First World War down from the attic to read through – I wrote it a long time ago, but with it being the anniversary of the start of WWI, it might be worth taking another look at. My initial glance tells me that my heroine is a bit of a wimp, so it needs some work!

 2. How does my work differ from others of its genre? Hmm, tricky one – I’m tempted to say, “ask my readers”. But actually, the feedback I’ve had from several people about The Goddess Workshop and The Dare Club is that the subject matter/premises are quite original. People find this refreshing, but it does make the books harder to place, because people do like to pigeonhole books. STOP PRESS! I have written a short story – Emma’s Choice – aimed at readers who haven’t read The Dare Club yet, to give them a taste of the novel. Emma’s Choice is FREE from today, 10th Feb until Friday 14th Feb. OK, advert over!


3. Why do I write what I do? Well, I’m lucky enough to have been able to write in a wide range of genres since as well as women’s fiction/romance, I also write readers for people learning to speak English. These have included romances, but also fantasy, a thriller, horror, human interest, fact books… I do enjoy variety and challenge with my writing. But to relate the question to my women’s fiction novels, I’ve always been interested in groups of people who are thrown together and have to get along. This is what happens in both The Goddess Workshop and The Dare Club, and it’s something I’ve experienced myself through my teaching and by going on adventure holidays alone. At first there are tensions, but gradually the group bonds as it has a common aim. In my novels the aims are improved self-confidence and self-esteem. My books are about empowerment, and that’s something that is very important to me personally.

4. How does my writing process work? It depends. Sometimes I write a book very quickly. Other times life has forced me to leave something and I’ve returned to it years later. But generally once I have an idea – which is often inspired by one character that comes to life for me – I make notes until I feel ready to start. I need to know how a novel is going to end, and I need some touch stones – major events along the way. I also make sure I’m certain of the overall theme of the book. For example, in The Dare Club, which is about a group of newly-separated people challenging each other in an attempt to forget about their problems, the thing that drives the characters and the plot is that by the end they will all have learned that the most challenging – and most important – thing of all is to tell people how and what you feel. Keeping a theme in my mind makes a book hang together. Whenever I’ve written without a clear idea of a theme, I’ve usually got lost or had to do countless rewrites. I’m very disciplined about my writing. Sometimes I will start writing in my notebook early in the morning – as early as 5.30am on occasion. When I return from the school run, I type this up and then carry on writing on the computer. After I’ve written about a third of a novel, I feel able to plan the rest of the story in quite a lot of detail, and I do this by brainstorming all my ideas onto post-it notes then arranging them in order. I put this plan up on my wall behind the computer screen and tick scenes off when I’ve written them. Of course things do change sometimes. My characters don’t always agree with my plans!

The writing process blog tour continues next week with 2 people I have met via Twitter. Here’s a bit about them, and I hope you’ll read their posts.

Susan Buchanan lives in Central Scotland with her partner Tony and their baby daughter, Antonia. She is the author of three novels in the contemporary fiction and chicklit genres: Sign of the TimesThe Dating Game and The Christmas Spirit. Her fourth novel, What If, is expected to be released summer 2014.

 Karen Soutar is a writer by night, and a driving instructor by day, putting her Lady Jekyll and Mrs Hyde personality to good use. She has written stories all her life but started blogging in March 2013 and began publishing her fiction on her blog. Karen writes horror, fantasy and erotica flash fiction and short stories, and is working on her first novel. She is studying Creative Writing with the Open University, and has recently started to dabble in poetry. When not writing or driving, Karen is a devoted rock chick, and self-confessed crazy cat lady. She lives in a village in central Scotland with her husband and three cats.

Inspiring Friends

When I first began writing, a male friend was convinced I’d based the hero of my romance novel on him. Like my friend, my hero was a landscape artist, and I probably had used little things I’d observed about the way my friend approached his painting. However, my hero didn’t share his passion for drawing the inquisitive cows that meandered over to inspect his paintings, and neither did he have my friend’s very wild red hair or his habit of existing all week on extremely large pans of vegetable stew.

Obviously though I do use my experience of friendship in my writing – both The Goddess Workshop and The Dare Club are about friendship groups and how the support of good friends can help you to triumph in life. Friends have helped me to get where I am today and help to keep me here – by that, I mean they have been and remain an important source of encouragement, support and life-affirming fun.


Just recently I have laughed out loud at friends’ tales of embarrassment while using ladies’ urinals at music festivals, and wrongly-pressed Facebook buttons that have led to people to jump to completely erroneous conclusions. I know friends wonder if I’ll use such things in my novels, and I might do with permission! For me, little things like this can be the starting point to me conjuring up characters or even whole novels. For example, one friend recently told me that her way of getting over a broken heart was to challenge herself to do one new thing every week – how inspiring is that? It could definitely be a starting point for a novel. Hmm, yes, I might write that one, one day!

Another friend was recently very generously open to me about her experience of breast cancer – and this helped me to form my character of Colette in The Dare Club. I’m sure she would never say that Colette was her though – Colette is very much herself; she is just experiencing similar things to my friend.

So thank you to the friends who constantly inspire me. If you ever feel an urge to become writers, then feel free to use me in your books! Well, unless I tell you things after I’ve downed a few glasses of wine that is… X