Sunday, 17 May 2015

T is for Terror


Terror, according to my dictionary is the feeling/emotion of great fear. I imagine it to be fear almost at the point of paralysis… A frightening place indeed. ..

 No one word sums up the aim of thriller/horror writing as this one word does. All horror stories aim to engender this feeling of fear in the reader and the most successful stories do just that.  
Fear is one of the strongest emotions and it creates a powerful response; it is a fail safe for humans to alert them to danger and ready their bodies for ‘fight, flight or freeze’. You can see where this comes from in prehistoric man, when faced with a threat they either had to run for their lives, stood and fought, or froze to make themselves invisible to predators (rather like rabbits in the headlights).

The hormone responsible for this mechanism is adrenalin and we produce it whenever we feel scared or afraid. It readies our muscles for action (wobbly legs and shaking), it revs up our heart pump (pounding pulse) and increases our breathing rate ready to supply extra oxygen to the large muscles of the legs. Our eyes open wide ready spot the danger and our brains and senses become extra sharp. Skin tightens and pales as blood is diverted away to the major muscles and our stomachs contract down so as to not interfere with the process. All major organs of survival go on high alert. Adrenalin can even make the bowel and bladder muscles relax involuntarily. Fear is so powerful that it can be totally disabling in the wrong circumstance i.e when the body is not under threat but nevertheless the emotion is running amok and irrational fears/terrors are born. (Terrified people are generally those who are so disabled by fear that they literally freeze.)

It is also true that people can become addicted to adrenalin. They love the ‘high’ it produces and search for ways to initiate this response, for example, putting one’s life at risk by participating in dangerous sports.

But for most people, the way they get their thrills is by watching a high action/scary/ movie or reading a book that’s full of jeopardy and danger. They can imagine themselves in the risky situation and that is enough to produce the adrenalin response. This is why people watch and read thrillers – that is the thrill – but in a safe way. In other words people want to be scared!! Then, when they come out of the reading experience, they can feel relief that what they read was not real and return to their everyday world feeling safe and secure.

The way I see it, the fiction writer’s (or thriller writer’s) job is to increase suspense and ratchet up the tension to produce that feeling of fear, usually empathising with the main character. So the reader is in a steady state of fight or flight waiting for…. Whatever! 

As Alfred Hitchcock said, “There is no terror in a bang, only in the anticipation of it.”

So, what do you think? Are you scared reading thrillers? Do you feel ‘terror’ or is your emotional response a little less scary?


Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Premonitions and Prophecies.

Premonitions may be quite a useful tool in thriller writing. They can and do indicate future things (usually going horribly wrong) - and they are often arbiters of death, dying or some other catastrophic event.
Premonitions fascinate us because our understanding of how things can be foretold (or foreseen) without the aid of the usual human senses does not lie within the normal limits of our innate abilities. How can a person look into the future and – some would say - why would a person want to look into the future? Through the ages, from time immemorial, there are countless instances and stories about premonitions and seeing future events that could not possibly have been foreseen. Or so it seems…
I think most of us would agree that there are stories where we are stumped for answers and a quick straw poll of any largish group of people would, I am sure, come up with one or two stories that defy the laws of existence. And it all adds to the mystery…

One of the most famous people who claimed to foresee the future was, of course, Nostradamus. His writings and prophecies are with us still today – 500 years later. When I looked up his work and his life I found the following:
“Recent research suggests that much of Nostradamus’ prophetic work paraphrases collections of ancient ‘end of the world’ prophecies (mainly Bible-based), supplemented with references to historical events and anthologies of omen reports. He then projects those into the future in part with the aid of comparative horoscopy. Hence the many predictions involving ancient figures such as Sulla, Gaius Marius, and Nero, as well as his descriptions of "battles in the clouds" and "frogs falling from the sky."
But even when all the charlatans are taken out of the equations we still remain fascinated with the idea that some people can predict the future and some ordinary people can have ‘once in a lifetime’ premonitions ( especially about a loved one).

In my own writing (The Witcheye Gene) I used the concept for one of my characters but the visions only came about because of a particular familial characteristic of different colour eyes. And it was quite limited otherwise it can seem contrived and in the worst way seem like a ‘deus ex machina’ . But I did find it quite fascinating to research and include it in my plot. It actually ratcheted up the tension when one person could foresee something but no one else believed them.

So do you use the idea of premonitions in your writing?

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Expecting the Unexpected.

One of my all time favourite programmes from the late 70’s was Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected. The music for that series still lingers in my mind and although I can no longer remember much about the stories I do recall being fascinated by the unexpected endings. I spent most of the programme trying to second guess what the ending would be.
Roald Dahl

What a great writer Roald Dahl was – and not only of children’s stories. The unexpected twist ending is still something that totally captivates me when I read a new story. Even if the story itself has been a little humdrum – if there is a good twist ending that I never guessed, it will leave me with the belief that it was a great story and I will have a wondrous smile on my face. How could I not have guessed, I will say to myself… And sometimes I even go through the story to check where I missed the signpost. For there should always be a sign post of some description but it does not have to be (nor should it be) obvious.

Twist endings are difficult to pull off as so many writers either signpost too obviously or not at all. Then the reader feels cheated if it comes totally out of the blue – how could they have spotted it, they ask? That twist also needs to be believable according to the plot of the story. For instance you cannot have a character suddenly exhibiting a trait at the end of a story that was not there in the rest of the story. “Able to jump tall buildings and save the day” kind of thing…

I have tried to do twist endings in many of my own short stories and also tried it in a novel. It is infinitely more difficult in a novel but it is possible. I’m never too sure if it worked well in my own novel (The Witcheye Gene) but readers have told me they did not guess who the villain was until towards the end.  

Memo to self – read Dahl’s tales of the unexpected again!

Do you try to use twist endings? Are you good at disguising them?

Sunday, 15 March 2015

So where do the ideas come from?

It is a question I often get asked - as does every other writer. But for the writer of horror/supernatural stories the questioners are even more fascinated by how or why the ideas strike. The answer, of course is they come out of my imagination but they may have been sparked by something I have seen, heard or experienced. Or sometimes tiny nubs just appear from apparently nowhere… But I don’t believe they are apropos of nothing, they have just oozed up from my subconscious.

Perhaps I can give an example of how it worked for me with one project.

The original idea for my latest book “The Afterlife of Darkmares” came to me from apparently nothing?? I had been tossing around some occult-type romance ideas that might seem fairly believable when the thing suddenly presented itself. It was simply an image and I can still clearly remember the  ‘eureka’ feeling it gave me. The picture in my mind was of a 12 year old boy standing rigidly in a graveyard, hands by his sides, his glossy black hair - pageboy style -  gleaming in the sunlight.  His clothes were old fashioned – as if he’d stepped out of the pages of some 60’s magazine. He wore a buttoned up paisley shirt, a hand-knitted waistcoat and  smart black trousers.  There was something very off centre about him…

Where that image came from, I have no idea, but it must have arisen from something in my subconscious mind.. The scene was so vivid I used it as a jumping off point for my story. At that point I had no idea what my story would be about but I knew I had to use that scene somehow. The boy is called Grif and he is central to the story and the entire plot of the supernatural romantic thriller “The Afterlife of Darkmares.”
I then used free writing to further explore and develop the idea.  As I did this and the plot began to identify itself I became more and more excited and enthused by my slowly ripening story. For me this is the best part of writing a book. The creating of the story!!.
Eyam Church
These pictures are all from the real-life place that is the setting for the book and around which the plague village story is woven. 

The Plague cottages
The Celtic Cross

Cucklett Delf

So what is your favourite part of writing a story? Do you dream up ideas or characters first?

Friday, 27 February 2015

The Flawed Villain

 To say a villain in a thriller story is flawed is like saying coal is black! Of course a villain is flawed, I hear you say, otherwise he would be a pretty poor antagonist. A good villain has a personality that most of us would not aspire to as he may be capable of the most dastardly acts. I am however talking about a villain who may be flawed because he/she has some decent human traits that show us he isn’t totally bad. The only villain who could be said to be totally bad is the devil himself, I guess. Most others started out as innocent babies and children but maybe something happened to make them bad. Or maybe not – maybe they simply have more of the undesirable human traits in their genetic make up. Nasty traits do exist to some extent in all of us, but hopefully most people have control of those urges and anyway have more humanity and caring for fellow humans. 
How villainous a character is depends mostly on the type of story you are writing. If it is a love rival or a corporate executive he may not be so nasty in all areas of his life but on the other hand if it is a horror/supernatural villain he may have no redeeming features. For example a bad character may be wicked and malicious to people but may love animals! In this way he is a flawed character and not true to the caricature of evil which we may assume him to be. 
Always, when using villains, a suitable adversary/hero is necessary and it is the juxtaposition of their characters that allow the most conflict and tension in a story.  The hero who has faults is a much more interesting character than the perfect boring type of individual. I think we can relate better to  
him because he is flawed – as we all are too. Similarly, we all know people who we consider to be horrible individuals but we know (maybe deep down) they will have some redeeming characteristics too.
For me, giving my villains one redeeming human trait, amongst all the vicious, nasty ones, makes them much more interesting ( and indeed fun) and if their malevolent ways came about because of something that happened to them – well, it just makes them all the more intriguing. Not nice and not worth rooting for but maybe a little more human.

Do you give your villains redeeming traits?

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Write like a film director?

One of the things I found hard to get to grips with when I first started writing thrillers was the idea of tension or conflict on almost every page. ‘What, every page,’ I asked myself? Surely not…

But then I realised that the kind of reader I was aiming for wanted and expected a thriller to be a fast-paced page turning epic that took them on a roller coaster of a ride until they came to the satisfying ending. Okay, perhaps not always that fast, but it is definitely a different kind of read from a literary, Jane Austen - type story.

One reason for this is that nowadays readers are also used to watching movies and TV that fast cut to the action and leave little in – between. When I am writing I visualise every scene as if I am watching a film and I cut in and out as if I’m a film director.

I am not saying that all types of fiction should be like that – far from it - but if you are going to go with a genre you’d better give it due thought. As to veer away from it, is bound to disappoint readers who expect a certain kind of read with a certain kind of genre.

Seeing my story as a film may not always work out well but it gives me a way forward, at least. I also try to infuse each scene with some degree of tension even if it is only a character’s inner thoughts which may be in turmoil. There are of course, other things that can add to tension such as setting, weather and bigger picture happenings (e.g. war, plague or world events).

Scene and chapter endings are also places where tension should be enough to ensure a reader continues to read - in other words, the cliff hanger ending. Not always easy, but one way is to leave a scene early in the middle of conflict (and sometimes switching to another point in the story) so that the reader must continue to read to find what happens.

All if, buts and maybe’s you say… But that’s how I do it…

So what about you? Do you cope well with tension and conflict in your writing?


Saturday, 7 February 2015

Target practise?

Target practise

One of the things I slavishly try to follow is word counts. I can no more give them up than I can just eat one small square of chocolate!
I set a target for the week and then for each day depending on what else may be required of me in terms of the rest of my life, and then I go for it! You’d think that would be great, eh? Not a bit of it. You see for me it’s all or nothing… If something gets in the way and I have less time, I will abandon the day. It’s a case of ‘have a chance of getting there or not bother at all’! Can’t be healthy can it? Once I start however it would have to be a pretty serious emergency for me to forgo my target and settle for less.
 In my defence, I am generally realistic with what I can achieve – I learnt a long time ago that not being realistic was a sure fire recipe for disaster and next to know words done at all!! My method does get me there though so I have learnt to trust my instincts and respect my need for targets.

I think it may be the ‘tick off’ bit of my psyche that controls this. I love’ to do’ lists and can’t help but experience a sense of achievement when I tick something off. The word count sheet is similar and I feel satisfied when I can tick off that I made my target. Mo matter if the actual words are total garbage!! As someone said, elsewhere, you can’t revise or edit something you’ve not actually put down on paper. Now that’s another story…

So do you make word count lists (or time spent lists) and then stick to them?

Saturday, 31 January 2015


To foreshadow, according to my dictionary, means showing or suggesting an event beforehand. It is a fabulous thing to use in thriller writing and it can be used as much or as little as you like. It can be a very slight hint or could be a full scale seeing the future in some form or another.

In terms of gendering suspense, I think it is invaluable. It signifies to the reader that a particular thing is important and it raises tension so that the reader keeps the pages turning. I think foreshadowing is used to some degree or another in all romantic thrillers. It can be as subtle as an atmosphere or as obvious as a piece of information or an object of interest.
As writers we may shorten sentences and paragraphs, speed up speech and ratchet up the action to indicate that things are rising to a climax or something important is about to happen.  In films, we are all familiar with the notion of background music telegraphing turning an ordinary event into something sinister. This too is foreshadowing although one could think of it as creating a sense of foreboding.
The main thing about foreshadowing is that we use it early in a piece of fiction and then deliver on the promise later in the story. It is a skill that takes a degree of practise, I feel, in order for it to not appear obvious. The reader should have an ‘ah ah!’ moment later in the story and it should come as a bit of a surprise - if it’s done correctly. But one that when they look back, they see it was correctly done and they were not hoodwinked. The other thing is that if, for example, you show a gun early on in a story the reader will expect it to go off at some point later. So then you are using reader expectation to foreshadow and event for later in the tale.

So is foreshadowing another tool to make fiction enjoyable? I think so… 

So, do you use foreshadowing in your writing? Do you find it easy?

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Emotive or What?

When out with friends for a chat and catch up, we often talk about the books we have read (or not read as the case may be).  My friends sometimes think I’m a bit ‘nuts’ as I tell them I often don’t finish novels.
I am a person who hates to waste time so I will only carry on reading a book if the writer has caught me up in a story (involved me emotionally). If I am not enjoying a book I will cast it aside and not waste further time on it. It doesn’t even have to be a really bad book for that to happen – it may simply be that it is boring me a bit. I know that sometimes if I continue it will get better but why should I bother when there are so many other juicy books to get stuck into. On the other hand I know people who will persevere with a book – provided it is not that bad! The engine that turns so-so fiction into well-loved and remembered books? Emotion!

When I ask friends what a book is actually about and they cannot remember I know it wasn’t that good. For me the plot has to hang together well and the story must engage some kind of strong emotion in me. Whether that is horror, happiness, sadness or sorrow, an emotion of some kind must be there. When I think back to books I read as a child/young woman I find it is the emotion I remember most clearly about the story.  

I generally judge a good book by how well I can remember it weeks later. If it truly stays with me, I know it was a great book. One such novel in recent months was “The Incredible Pilgrimage of Harold Fry”. That book almost brought me to tears at the end and I can remember most of it even though I read it a while ago! Whereas the one I read last week was fairly good but I can’t remember it without a prompt!

 Do certain stories have a big impact for you?

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Playing the Name Game

What is in a name?

Am I the only writer who agonises over names for days on end?  I guess I find it difficult because I think names are so important in characterisation. They give the reader clues as to what kind of person they should expect. It may seem arbitrary as we are all given names by our parents - when they have no idea what sort of people we will eventually turn out to be.  Then again, many parents agonise over their children’s names too! We give children names and then hope their characters turn out to be what we would want for them. But in the world of fiction we try to choose names that suit the character we are trying to create.
For instance, age and era play a big part in my choices. A woman who was born early 19th century would not be called Rhianna or Stacy. Just doesn’t ring true, does it? But Arabella or Victoria does. The age of characters is also important in deciding names. I can easily imagine an older man called Hector or Jeremiah but not a young boy. I think most readers meeting a character with these names would automatically have in their mind’s eye and older man even before any physical description is given.
Whether your character is the antagonist or protagonist is also important in naming. Although sometimes one might want to increase surprise by giving an evil character an innocuous name… I think it depends on how you are trying to present your story.
Male heroes names tend to be strong masculine names – they are not usually called Fred or Bert - but female heroines may also be strong ‘no nonsense’ names too. I wouldn’t choose a name like Ophelia or Primrose if I wanted my heroine to be seen as strong and capable. But then again, it is all a matter of personal choice… In fact, the more I think about it, the more I like Ophelia!!

When we are introduced to people in real life we may be told their names but it is not the only information we have of them. We can see how they behave, what they look like and hear them speak. We can make judgements about what sort of person they are (although we may turn out to be totally wrong, of course!)

But in writing fiction we have to give a strong first impression by words only to have the reader ‘see’ our character in their mind’s eye. I believe this is why names are so important. My two latest books had numerous name changes before I settled on names I liked.

In ""The Afterlife of Darkmares" all the character's names had something to do with gardens or countryside. It simply made me think harder to come up with names. For example the old lady was called Cora Gimbletree and the main character's was Kate Linden. There was also Redwood, Culpepper, Garford and Blackthorn - surnames of other characters. It also helped that the story was set in a small village in rural Derbyshire.

By contrast The Witcheye Gene had modernish names such as April, Gregory and Vince. However the main character was called Kendal ( which had a backstory all of it's own) because her parents were in Kendal Cumbria when they discovered they were having her. But I chose carefully for the name of the villain... I cannot tell here as it would spoil the story...

How much importance do you give to naming your characters? Do you agonise or go with the story and change the name later to fit the character?

Sunday, 11 January 2015


"Society bristles with enigmas which look hard to solve. It is a perfect maze of intrigue."
Honore de Balzac

Intrigue - I just love this word.
It conjures up a misty twilight kind of world for me as I associate it with mystery and skulduggery. Almost a Sherlock Holmes kind of world in my mind… 

Maybe that is why I tend to think of it as a kind of old fashioned word which is rather less used nowadays. It suggests a halfway stage between outright puzzling questions and curious, rather vague, passing fascination with something or other.
When I looked ‘intrigue’ up in the dictionary, I found it can in fact, mean a puzzle or questionable scheme. But interestingly it can also mean conspiracy, double dealing, trickery and even, of course an affair.
n writing romantic thrillers it is unquestionably the raising of interesting questions and mini puzzles of the ‘will he/won’t he succeed’ variety that make up the entire plot of an edge of your seat thriller and a romantic read to boot. In other words the story must intrigue the reader from start to finish and that intrigue should rise to full on tension as the conflicts escalate and the hero get’s into worse and worse trouble.
So when I write my novels, I start with some intriguing questions (enough to pique reader interest, I hope) and pose some attention-grabbing dilemmas but then things get rough!

A good dollop of skulduggery helps as does some trickery on the part of the villain. Together with a spoonful of double dealing and a large splash of romance you have the recipe for a darned good roller coaster read.
Do you use intriguing questions to pique the readers interest at the start of a book?

Tuesday, 6 January 2015


Hurry, hurry... Sale now on.

"The Witcheye Gene" reduced in price for a few days only! get your copy now! or


Kendal MacIntyre has fought long and hard to overcome the emotional scars of an unhappy childhood to create the successful boutique business she now has. Having lost her husband to cancer she is driven by one thing only – to see her daughter April have all the advantages in life that she herself was denied. So when someone appears to be snooping, she is terrified that her shameful secret will wreck April’s chances in life and she stubbornly refuses to acknowledge the hereditary trait of ‘special’ sight. But when an evil killer threatens the very existence of her family, she knows she must face her demons if she is to save the one thing she cares about.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

All you need is Love

LOVE - (All you need is…)

Where would we be without love? More to the point where would our writing be without it? For in one way or another it features in most works of fiction. When I say love I’m not just talking about the romantic notion of love, I am talking about the emotion of caring for something or someone in an unconditional way.
For me the notion of love is intrinsically linked to its opposite, hate. This dichotomy is the engine which drives most rollicking good stories. There is nothing readers like more than to ultimately see love (and other similar admirable qualities) triumph over evil. Whilst I may not write particularly romantic stories, love always features (in some form or another) in all my fiction. 
Love is one of the most basic of human emotions and we have all experienced it at some point in our lives. It is so strong that artists over the ages have written about its power in songs and verse. It is the very bedrock of human happiness and without it we would all be hard put to survive.

The most primitive and basic form of love is that of mother and child. Love is the protective umbrella that we are all reared under and mother love can - quite literally - achieve almost impossible tasks.
What a fabulous premise to underscore a great story! And what a great adversarial emotion to stand against a destructive protagonist…
In my novel writing, ‘love conquers all’ is a frequent theme – it may be parental love, it may be romantic love or it may even be love of a belief, place or group of people.  ‘Love thy neighbour’ is also a common theme when one or more people are racing to save a population or even the whole human race. I have often heard of great sacrifice in order to save one single pet! So love at its best is a very admirable human quality that most of us understand.

Whilst some may think it a simplistic theme, it is a mighty powerful ally in the structure of a modern story. And far from being solely the thematic concern of the romance genre, it ought (in my opinion) to suffuse all our fiction.

The antagonism of love and hate makes for rich pickings in terms of rising tension and suspense and, as fellow human beings, we can all empathise with and cheer for the main characters who think it worth fighting for.

The story is generally richer for a good dose of love and we readily identify with the emotion and therefore the impact of the story is increased.

So do you use love (especially unconditional love) in your writing? Do you think it enhances your story?