Seeing The Wood Through The Trees

Featured Image 'Seeing the Wood through the Trees'

Promoting a better understanding of mental health has been the theme of my blog recently and this time I’m writing about Asperger’s. There is a character in LETHAL TIES, (my debut psychological thriller, out soon) who has the condition: AS often affects more males than females, so it seemed more natural for this person to be a boy. Connor is fostered, yet there is something unique about his character.

Handling various themes behind this book, I have concentrated on the human element. I’ve shared important facts about my two main characters, Joe and Maisie, their personalities, their back stories and the struggles that affect them in adulthood. Connor however, is still a teenager.

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT CONNOR

  • The truth about his parents is kept a secret, as both are considered to be psychopaths with no compassion for others.
  • Connor’s birth mother (when released from prison) did not bond with him and cruelly rejected him.
  • So Connor has been in and out of care homes since infancy.
  • He has been in various foster placements, none of which were successful.
  • He is later diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum.
  • But two people tirelessly campaign to foster him to give him a chance.

Connor is not central to this novel and features very little. He is none-the-less a significant character who plays a vital role in the climax. With much of the emphasis on childcare and fostering, it is the way people bond with Connor, as well as his developing personality (as he gradually lowers his guard) that adds an extra string to this story; how youngsters are perceived and treated, especially those raised in care.

A Real-life Story about Asperger’s

With this in mind, I would like to focus on a real person (as opposed to my fictitious character), someone who is close to me but who I had the pleasure of interviewing a few weeks ago, particularly about growing up with Asperger’s. Being on the spectrum is not exclusive to males. Females too have the condition and although the core characteristics of Asperger’s does not differentiate between the two, it can affect them in other ways. 

Here is Rose’s story

Born in 1999, Rose began her early years a happy little girl at the March School in Lavant where she made lots of friends. Things changed, however, when she went to High School; an experience that sparked a journey of self-discovery. 

I began by asking her what happened there, and it emerged she had endured a spate of bullying.

Starting secondary school

“Girls are generally catty, especially at that age, but quite often things passed over my head. I felt isolated because I didn’t really understand myself. It was a big period of adjustment and I didn’t know who my friends were. I didn’t understand the jokes they made, why they could be a bit cruel, or how to cope in a friendship with anyone. My primary school friends were in separate classes and making new friends, but I found it really difficult. I was constantly self-conscious which can make you feel insecure and the smallest comment will stand out to you.”

I too was bullied in lower school and remember how it felt. But I was curious to know how she dealt with the situation.

“I didn’t feel I fitted in, so I left school. This was my decision and it worked quite well for me because it was in that period I was diagnosed with ‘Asperger’s’, so it was just a year to get my head together a bit. Time to figure out coping strategies, understand myself and other people to get that confidence back. But by the time I returned to school, it wasn’t as scary any more.”

Research

Looking online, I found a list of symptoms on Medical News Today which almost echoes this:

  • Jokes, sarcasm, and irony may cause distress and confusion.
  • The person may have a highly literal interpretation of the world. 
  • Irony and humour may be difficult for them to understand, leading to frustration and anxiety.

Going back to Rose’s diagnosis, I asked her what insights she got from her assessment.

“I wondered if I might have Asperger’s. Then we watched this one short documentary as a family and everyone looked at me and said: “that sounds like you.” This was diagnosed in one sitting, which does not happen with girls. The majority are mis-diagnosed or not diagnosed, but because I was at that critical age (joining High School) it seemed to fit the framework and they thought, yep, you’re definitely Aspergic, high-functioning, but it’s not necessarily going to hinder your life.

I remember at that time I was very, very rigid. Like if anything changed, even for the better, I wouldn’t be able to compute it and it would trigger a weird panic! When I understood that I wasn’t just being a brat, I wanted to work on the side I thought was negative. With a year out, in my own little bubble, no interferences, I sort of got myself into the right headspace to make the most of my situation. To try and not lean on it and think well, I’ve got this diagnosis, which means I can be a twat and get away with it… more the opposite. I can work on myself and I will. Yeah, I was definitely in a better place to go back to high school when I did.”

Reactions to stressful situations

When she was in her own little bubble, with her own routine, without anyone coming along and changing anything, it made her feel safe and in control. But I wondered if she could remember a scenario that triggered a panic response.

“When I was very young, we were going for lunch next day at Gun Wharf and I can’t remember where I wanted to go but had it in my head we were going there. But when lunchtime came, they wanted to go for tapas and I absolutely lost it! Like it was so unjust and so unorganised. I had already planned what I was going to have and it felt almost robbed from me. But I soon learned this was only going to upset me in the long run and those I was with. It was somewhat difficult when you had someone kicking off like I was in that situation a few years ago.”

At home or with family, she was more likely to release bottled up emotions through meltdowns, another symptom mentioned in the article on Medical News Today. But how did she feel once she returned to the school environment?

Friendships

“I’d be grateful for any friendships really. Friends were a good influence in many ways and helped me build my confidence. I am quite trusting. There was a period of time through secondary school and college, when everyone would constantly describe me as being ‘too nice’ and ‘a pushover.’ I didn’t like people saying that. Being called ‘kind’ is a positive thing but everyone took me as a proper ‘people-pleaser’ and constantly singing the praises of me doing anything for anyone to fit in… Yet if I was ever anything but amenable, I’d be made to feel like I was being unreasonable.”

In other words, whenever she felt like being assertive?

“These people were tactical bullies. Bullying is not the sort of thing that gets to me, it goes over my head because you don’t necessarily care about that person or their opinion. It’s people who are close to you who tactically and emotionally abuse you. Its also camouflaged, like it will go on for years before you realise that person is not a good influence. With this one particular friendship, I felt it for a long time but every time she complimented me it was a back handed compliment – even things that sounded caring, there was an underlying threat. Tactile, manipulative stuff – it was clever and it was bitchy – proper narcissistic behaviour. Eventually there was a turning point when I didn’t like her any more. I felt on edge and she demanded so much time. Genuinely nasty people latch on to you, play the whole best friend card but its not what a friendship should be, i.e. someone you can talk to, have a laugh with.”

I was sad to hear this, it seems to reflect the classic social isolation suffered by those with Asperger’s; difficulty in developing social skills, making and keeping friends. Like males, females on the spectrum are likely to experience bullying, which may manifest itself differently based on gender. No matter how subtle or overt, exclusion and bullying can be profoundly traumatising and affect the self-confidence and sense of security of the target individuals. 

I asked her what strategies she had devised to avoid stressful situations.

“One thing with Asperger’s is you’re also likely to suffer from anxiety and depression. I developed a ritual, (which I’ve managed to shift now). When I tried to get help for it, they said, ‘if you didn’t have a diagnosis of Asperger’s you’d now be getting a diagnosis for OCD and this is just another symptom,’ but put so much stress onto one tiny thing. This one tiny ritual, it was ridiculous really. I remember once, I was talking to a professional (I think she was meant to be an OCD therapist) but with these rituals, you attach to something to them; like if I don’t follow this ritual, something bad will happen, like my family is going to die… So I would touch wood. I would touch it in a certain way. If I tried to stop myself from doing it, I’d think well, what if I don’t do it and something bad DOES happen? It’s easier to just do it! Yet this therapist looked at me in the most condescending way and said ‘how long have you been keeping your family safe then?’ I thought fuck off, you should understand, and I know it’s not fashionable, but that pissed me off so much.”

Stopping a ritual would have been a big deal for her, since it is reported: ‘People with AS may have rules and rituals that they methodically maintain to reduce confusion. A surprise change in routine can sometimes cause upset or anxiety.’

Still on the subject of anxiety, I was curious to know what other interests/obsessions she had i.e. what brings her comfort or makes her feel happy.

“Listening to music, walking the dogs. I really like walking the dogs on my own. I put music on (those little earbuds) and because I like writing, I start imagining one of my screenplays and let the music inspire me. I am quite a creative person and use this as my creative time. It gives me ideas.”

I’d like to mention at this point that after sixth form, Rose studied for a degree in English Literature and Creative Writing. She graduated in 2020.

“Music is really important in writing. I used to always like writing short stories but screen plays are my favourite format now. In everything I’ve written, characters have been central. I’ve written a comedy, a thriller, and a sort of teen drama/ghost story. So they do also have a lot of plot. This was what I wanted to do for my dissertation but it was also very serious and I wasn’t in a very serious headspace. I didn’t actually want to write anything ‘head wanky’ or dark. So I thought, I’m just going to write a comedy and I don’t know if it was particularly ‘funny,’ but it was in the style of the Royal Family/Gavin and Stacey. Good characters.

My screenplay, set in a Welsh village, was about a local pub burning down. The pub was the hub of their community, a real tragedy for the locals, and became a bit of a witch hunt to find out who was responsible. I chose to do a creative dissertation, as there was no way I was going to write a 10,000 word essay, because quite frankly, I didn’t think I would stick at it… so I thought I’d write a screen play and then, after I’d submitted my idea, my lecturer told me that no one has ever gotten a 1st on a creative dissertation. I thought, okay so I’m not going to get a 1st on my dissertation but I’ll do my best… and I did get a first!”

I told her I would love to read her screen play and asked what her ambitions were? If there was anything in the world you could have, what would it be?

“A detached cottage in the countryside, dogs, a partner… my family close by and screenwriting. It’s completely down to luck and some stuff is so subjective, you don’t know who’s going to be reading it. You send it to a publisher and you don’t know what they’re looking for.”

On UK Lockdown

The coronavirus pandemic hit the nation pretty hard and has exacerbated mental health problems especially among young people. How did she cope with this?

“I loved it, I was absolutely buzzing… No really! Lockdown was fine, we get on well as a family, we have a garden, the sun was shining and there was a lot we could take advantage of. I didn’t like my job at the time. This was at Nando’s and it was a good job – I mean, if you’re going to work for a restaurant I couldn’t imagine working for a nicer company, but I was never going to do well because of the hours and lack of routine. My shifts were changing every week. It could be any day and at any point of the day. Office hours suit me so well, because it’s routine and I know what’s what.”

Her words yet again reflect how important routine is.

“But it was also very scary and I was particularly worried about Mum. What would happen if Mum or Grandma got it? I mean some people get just like, a flu and some people get this long COVID and they’re buggered for life! Potentially even someone my age could end up dead! What I’m finding the most anxiety inducing thing is – like in the summer when I could go to the pub and mix with my friends, I was loving it… but I’ve also been scared I might become a hermit. The thought of going into the supermarket is like, there are other people and other people are dirty and might have the virus. I’m worried that could escalate into not wanting to mix with people!”

Did she miss going out and socialising with other people, though?

“Yes. If you’d asked me a year ago I would probably have said the opposite; because I didn’t like my mates. I think it’s about the friends you have. The friends I had this time, last year, would have been pressurising me to go out and break rules and it’s like – I’m just going to follow lockdown, thank you. I don’t want to go out. Just want to watch telly, do some internet shopping, have a beer…

One thing that has always been a pickle for me socially is the distance from town. I haven’t really got any friends in the village. So, if I’m going out with my friends, I’ve got to drive, which means I can’t drink (not that it’s all about drinking) but if you’re meeting in a pub it can be a bit bloody annoying. If I do drink I have to walk back and I have done this, but it took bloody hours!”

Vulnerability and Threat 

I wanted to say this was dangerous; going into town, drinking and walking back home in the dark. I asked her if she was aware of the perils in life.

“God yes, I mean we were walking up to the Trundle the other day and saying this is hazardous underfoot. And then I remembered that’s where we used to do our long-distance running, when I was at the March School and thought, that’s a health and safety nightmare, running on the Trundle but we used to do it. That was only what, 10 years ago? And things changed so quickly.”

The paths around the Trundle are very uneven with chalky dips and hollows.

“And that was another thing about the Trundle. There were people there bombing down on bikes and I was thinking, oh that’s so scary! But I remember when I was a kid – and Mum and Dad as well – cycling full pelt, then somersaulting in the air because I got caught on a stone, crashing down… and I just got up again and got back on my bike. I didn’t make a fuss, none of this ‘health and safety.’ Whereas now I’m thinking God, they’re so reckless! I used to be tough with injuries and now… I get a paper cut and I start crying.”

Something else she told me that I found alarming was: 

“Women with Asperger’s have an 80% chance of committing suicide and 90% chance of becoming addicted to drugs and I thought ‘fucking hell, those are awful statistics.’ That’s not a great position to be in but they’re just statistics.”

This begs the question, what help is available on the NHS for anxiety?

“In regard to getting help for mental health (Time to Talk), you’re either not mentally ill enough or ‘too far gone’ and if you are somewhere in between the two, you are added to a two year waiting list by which point your problems have gotten out of hand.”

It is reassuring to know mental health problems are better understood but from this statement, it strikes me there is still a lack of provision. I know Rose has Asperger’s but one of the last things she confessed is how much she really wants to rise above it and turn it into something positive. That symptoms like depression, anxiety needn’t be a problem. (NB. names were changed to protect some people’s identity and the stats quoted might not be exact as quoted by Rose on the date of her interview).

Featured Image 'Seeing the Wood through the Trees'

INSIGHTS

A most enlightening conversation, this got me thinking about my own character again, Connor, and whether I could see any clear comparisons. 

Historically, women have been less likely than men to be interested in transportation, computers, or astronomy. Connor is fascinated by science and nature, has a powerful need to understand the world around him, loves to hide and be the silent observer.

Girls are more likely to be passionate about literature, the arts, animals, environmental activism (you only have to think of Greta Thurnberg), and other topics with relational themes. There are no limits to the variety and depth of interests or expertise for both females and males with Asperger profiles.

Signs of AS include obsessive interests, formal speech, rituals, social isolation, clumsiness or awkwardness, a lack of empathy and sensory difficulties. Rose revealed a couple of these signs but not all. Other conditions related with AS are anxiety disorders, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Young children with AS are often unusually active. By young adulthood, they may develop anxiety or depression. 

For more information on Asperger’s visit: https://www.autism.org.uk/advice-and-guidance/what-is-autism/asperger-syndrome

Connor like Rose, has suffered bullying, feels isolated from his peers who consider him ‘weird’ and towards the end of my book, he is even accused of being ‘a psycho’ amongst the less educated.

ANOTHER INTERESTING STORY

Dan Jones, my author friend who I’ve mentioned in previous articles, has written a book on the subject; ‘Look Into My Eyes: Asperger’s, Hypnosis and Me.’

Dan too has a diagnosis of Asperger’s. His book is an absorbing and fascinating autobiography that offers rare insights into the workings of the autistic mind from babyhood to adulthood, the impact it had on his family and how he learned to cope with the condition.

Dan gave me a lot of help in shaping my new book, offered priceless advice about his work in children’s homes, introduced me to the late Graham Lovell, (whose life story provided some powerful insights) and his book comes highly recommended. On Dan’s YouTube channel, he publishes guided meditations to help people relax, manage stress and sleep easier, essential resources for this strange new world we live in.

What’s next? In the run up to publication, I’ve exposed some of the complex psychological issues embedded in my characters, while at the same time trying to raise awareness into mental health issues. Next time I’m taking readers on a tour around the story’s West Sussex setting, some specific places mentioned and their context in the plot of LETHAL TIES.

Girl in a forest: FACING YOUR CHILDHOOD FEARS

Facing your Childhood Fears

Continuing with themes behind Sussex thriller, LETHAL TIES, with a special emphasis on mental health, I would like to introduce another main protagonist in this story. Maisie. She might appear professional on the outside but on the inside, her world is falling apart.

A possible survivor of child abuse like Joe, Maisie turns to psychotherapy. This post looks deeper into the symptoms of abuse, a turmoil that affects her every day life, as well as other young adults like her.

  • What are the origins behind Maisie’s recurring nightmares?
  • For what reason does she have a phobia of forests?
  • What causes her to suffer anxiety and panic attacks?
  • Maisie finds it hard to settle into relationships, lacks confidence, has a fear of intimacy.
  • But can psychotherapy regress her enough to unlock those painful childhood traumas?

What could have happened in Maisie’s life to trigger such powerful responses? Let’s start by examining her experiences, starting from her early childhood.

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT MAISIE

Maisie Bell, a character from LETHAL TIES
  • Maisie lost her entire family in a car accident when she was small.
  • Traumatised beyond reason, she became withdrawn, froze people out, shied away from relationships and made herself unlovable.
  • Condemned to live in a children’s home, she befriended Joe and later Sam.
  • She also remember’s the home’s creepy owner, Mr Mortimer.
  • Her memories are vague, but something bad happened in that home, something that has haunted her right up to present day.
  • Her lucky escape came when she was fostered by a loving couple in Kent, with whom she spent the rest of her childhood.

A character driven thriller, there is a mystery at the heart of this story.

Maisie has never forgotten Orchard Grange, the children’s home she and Joe lived in, nor the parties Mortimer dragged them to. Neither can they forget their friend, Sam, a vulnerable 11-year old boy who disappeared one night… He has been missing for twenty years.

Nightmares 

Trees seems to be a common theme in Maisie’s thoughts. In addition to her unusual phobia – where the very thought of walking into a forest brings on a panic attack – she sees trees in her recurring nightmare; specifically a spidery network of branches silhouetted against a night sky.

Maisie has no recollection of what happened on the night of the party she was taken to, other than what Joe has spoken of himself. It’s as if this memory has been erased, leaving a terrifying black void. But from leaks in her subconscious mind, (resulting from therapy) she begins to form the impression that whatever trauma happened took place in some forest…

Tree branches silhouetted against a night sky

Why Panic Attacks?

Thinking of a conversation I had with a senior officer from the Metropolitan Police, who handled child abuse cases, I was advised that recovered memories from psychotherapy cannot be relied upon. He did say however, that one of the most powerful triggers in recalling memories originates from smell, e.g. a particular aftershave at the time the abuse took place. 

In Maisie’s case, it is the musty smell of forests, traces of leaf mould and damp soil that has her reeling in fear, every time she goes near them.

TYPES OF THERAPY

For people like Maisie who suffer some form of trauma in childhood – something that impacts on every day life – there are various types of help available. 

In the first instance there is counselling. Just talking about problems can be a huge help as opposed to bottling them up inside. Even a fear such as a common spider phobia can be attributed to something harrowing in the past. Facing childhood fears is never pleasant, but in some cases may act as a release valve and once addressed can help the individual to move forward.

Counselling is available on the NHS but in some cases, may not go deep enough to get to the root of more complex traumas. This being the case, the next stage may be to look for a less general, more specific type of help.

Psychotherapy

When stressful events that people experience or witness make them feel unsafe or vulnerable, psychotherapy can help by eliminating or controlling troubling symptoms, in order to function better and improve well-being. Like counselling, psychotherapy is designed to get people talking about their symptoms, and devising coping strategies to improve mental health. 

Regressive Therapy involves placing a patient into a relaxed state, or inducing a mild hypnotic trance, so they can recover painful memories. These may include childhood traumas. 

Anyone considering this type approach needs to do their research though, make sure the therapist complies to accepted medical standards and is accredited with governing bodies such as BABCP (British Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies), BPS (British Psychological Society) or UKCP (UK Council for Psychotherapy). Some examples of regression can be dangerous and have even been known to implant harmful ideas.

CBT

CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, reference: Mind-health.co.uk) is designed to help patients understand their current thought patterns. This may include such things as their mental image and beliefs, but is used to identify harmful thoughts and misperceptions, anything that may be holding them back in life. It is possible that negative thought patterns can be reversed by trying to do things differently, which may in turn help the patient discover new paths in life.

IN THE CONTEXT OF MAISIE 

Maisie’s phobia of woods, anxiety attacks and nightmares are the cognitive responses that have a negative impact. But at a deeper level, her fear of intimacy is the more harmful issue that stops her from enjoying a happy, fulfilling life and settling into a lasting relationship. This is not unusual in abuse victims as I have read in various blogs I’ve researched. Thus, in one of her therapy sessions, she describes her first sexual experience as traumatic; that she became so frozen, so tense it felt more like consenting to a rape. 

A hooded figure used as an illustration in my blog

LETHAL TIES is a work of fiction, intended as a suspenseful, twisty novel, but also addresses some of the mental health issues that prevail in today’s society. Next time, I’m writing about Asperger’s with a view to promoting a better understanding of the condition.

Confronting The Demons Within

A homeless man

In the run up to the publication of Sussex thriller, LETHAL TIES, I’ll be discussing some underlying themes behind the story. If anything good is to come out of this though, it is to raise awareness of some of the complex emotional issues modern-day people face.

The abuse of young people is nothing new. People will have read about cases such as the Rotherham children’s homes (2015). Even footballers have spoken out recently of being sexually abused by their coaches, as revealed in a long-awaited report, ‘Football’s Darkest Secret‘ broadcast on BBC1.

But when I started writing Lethal Ties, I wanted to focus more on the long term psychological effects, rather than the abuse itself. 

  • The sense of powerlessness.
  • Low self-esteem.
  • Anxiety and depression.
  • Addiction to alcohol and/or drugs.
  • Serious mental health disorders leading to suicidal feelings.

This story was always intended to be character driven, an emotionally charged psychological drama that delves deep into the minds of the characters.

Abuse can take many forms, be it physical, emotional, sexual or neglect, but leaves a scar of damage on the victims. Thinking of my characters, the long-term effects are very different. Maisie seems content. Raised by kind, caring foster parents, she has a successful career, a flat, the stuff most young adults dream of. Yet deep down, she is troubled; suffers anxiety and panic attacks, finds it difficult to form relationships. Joe on the other hand has made a complete mess of his life and with no career prospects, spends his life drifting from place to place, sleeping rough. 

Joe, however, is the one I want to focus on, starting with his experiences.

What you need to know about Joe

  • Joe has suffered a troubled childhood, including physical abuse at the hands of his violent criminal father.
  • Incarcerated in a children’s home, he is abused in ways he does not even understand yet, a truth that comes to light gradually.
  • Being suspicious, Joe has stood up to the boss, Mr Mortimer, but with terrible consequences. So when an 11-year-old boy vanishes, he fears the worst.
  • It is a slow drip feed of fear and threat that forces him to escape the home, but a campaign of intimidation that follows him into his adult life. 

The Consequences

Like many abused kids in care, Joe, the runaway, falls into a downward spiral of crime, prison, drug addiction and ultimately ends up homeless. This is not uncommon. Abused boys tend to gravitate towards trouble in the same way as girls turn to prostitution. For kids made to feel worthless, this often becomes their path in life. Nobody wants them, people have treated them badly, so therefore they must be bad. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Joe Winterton, a character from LETHAL TIES

Research into Joe’s Character

Writing the first draft, I had never really met a man like Joe, but all that was about to change when in September 2019 I was introduced to Graham Levell, by my author friend, Dan Jones. Dan, who worked in a number of children’s homes in the 90s, (the era of Joe’s back story) shared his own experiences, which went a long way in helping me depict the hostile environment inside the children’s home. Introducing me to Graham however, turned out to be the biggest inspiration behind Joe’s character.

The best part of Graham’s story is how he turned his life around. I have included a tribute in the book, but feel a powerful need to get it out there. For those who download my book, the tribute appears at the end, but publishing it on my blog is important  – not just to spread the message, but to make his life more meaningful.

Tribute to Graham LEvell

Graham’s story began when he worked at Butlins but at the age of fourteen, decided to leave home and spend the next fortnight sleeping under Bognor Pier. At no time did I get the impression this was traumatic, more an adventure, as he colourfully alluded to the homeless culture in Bognor. 

“That was before they put down anti-homeless alarms. Sit on a bench for too long, it makes a horrible noise so you can’t sleep.” 

Graham had dreams of going to college, to avoid the predetermination he would follow the path of many local youngsters and work at LEC. The more he talked, the more I got the impression he was unhappy with his life. Working at Butlins however, the next turning point was Dan’s girlfriend discovering he was sleeping rough; as a result, they invited him to come and stay with them. This was 1997, at a time when he had been gravitating towards other troubled youths, getting into drugs and alcohol. He described himself as quite a suspicious, cynical person.

“I mean I don’t have any lasting relationships and Dan was just about the only person I had a long friendship with.”

Dan Jones and Graham Lovell 1999
Dan Jones with Graham Levell 1999

Shortly after this, the police got involved. His mum had reported him missing and Social Services intervened; said he couldn’t stay with Dan (19) and his girlfriend, and that as a fourteen-year-old runaway, they felt uncomfortable about it.

In the next part of Graham’s life, being in care, some really enlightening stories began to emerge. I asked him about the process of being fostered, which he described as being “really scary… where they used to force us into these gatherings. It was all well-intended, but all a bit weird and false. Social workers present, theatre groups… others were just ‘happy clappy’ Christians.” 

During these gatherings, he would meet all sorts of people – girls who had been sexually abused – but with the lads, he remembers a sense of brotherhood, the usual teenage dominance (chest beating), and then laughing and joking about the different foster carers they’d had. 

“There were some right bastards out there caring for people… One couple used to have the kids living in a caravan at the end of their garden and then drag them indoors for bridge games every Wednesday night, and the kids would be made to work this huge great big garden and were generally slaves and dogsbodies around the house. These days, they wouldn’t pass the fostering board.”

An interesting transition from being in care arose when Graham ended up working in care himself. But before this could happen, he needed an education. He missed a lot of schooling, messed up his GSCEs (was even threatened with suspension) but turned things around in the sixth form and finally achieved his dream of going to college. It was amazing how fast he adapted, joyfully describing how this was the making of him; first studying a National Diploma in performing arts and a Diploma in vocational education in business. 

“They worked me ragged for four years but I had some wicked tutors and started mixing with people who were fairly decent.”

Graham Lovell (17) receiving an award for Educational Achievement

Best of all, Graham achieved a National Diploma, went on to do a Professional Development Certificate, then a Professional Development Diploma (which is a level 5 certificate) and was hailed as 1 in 10,000 kids to come out of care with a degree level qualification (in Health and Social Care).

I feel blessed to have had this one-to-one with Graham, who gave up his time entertaining me with his stories and accomplishments. To an author this was gold dust, and as the conversation gathered momentum, he became more animated, describing his work in care homes with troubled youngsters, one of which was for young offenders and substance misusers. 

“They would get wrecked and come back late after staff had locked the doors… and I was a bit of a soft touch, because one of the rules was ‘three warnings and you’re out’ – and I wanted to keep the kids with me until my dying breath. There was no way I was going to let anyone else look after my kids, because I knew what it was like to have no one you could depend on around the corner. I mean, they used to throw me through doors and everything… I got the shit kicked out of me loads of times BUT no one else was going to look after them. Not as good as me and my team.”

So when did Graham turn his life around? He was quite frank. 

“When I got my ex-wife pregnant. With a little baby on the way – the first of my three daughters – I got a job selling mobile phones to retail. Business supplied the learning and I found myself taking on a lot of what they taught me in terms of sales and communication. Knowing Dan, too, was a massive help.”

Graham won various awards in quality of business (still has the glass statue), and even Dan said he felt like a proud father to see him achieve success. This was the start of his professional development.

A darker side of Graham’s musings emerged in some of the stories he came across about kids in care; from a high functioning autistic boy left to fend for himself in a studio flat who became almost feral – to a three-year-old child raped by his adoptive father. He ended up in a foster placement and it completely went undetected, but he used to sleep in the same bed as his foster father and nothing was ever said. 

“He was schizophrenic when he came to me, because this had been a repeat pattern with every placement, but looking after him around 2007, he became the abuser. If it happens from an extremely young age it becomes a sense of normality…”

This was one of the last things Graham spoke of, the referral files he used to read, which would make him cry; cases of abuse that emotionally floored him: 

‘Awful. Absolutely awful. This is why I would never let my kids go, because I’d seen what they’d been through… I could never be a social worker because I would KILL people.’

I will never regret meeting Graham, not only to hear his amazing story, he became the biggest inspiration behind Joe’s character. I’ve even included some of his quotes, one being that kids in care have a huge chip on their shoulder. 

“You’re either a victim or a fighter.”

Anyone who knew Graham might recognise a little piece of him in Joe, from his flickers of insight to his sunny personality, his compassion and sense of humour. For all the while we were talking, I sensed neither bitterness nor regret. Graham was a genuinely lovely guy – had the gift of the gab, portrayed life in a colourful, humorous way and had a wicked laugh. 

What I did not know at the time, though, was that he had mental health problems and battled with bi-polar disorder. Sadly in 2020, with his existing problems exacerbated by the impact UK lockdown had on single people during the coronavirus pandemic, Graham died from an overdose of his medication. It broke my heart to discover the loss of this inspirational man, but he often spoke of suicide among males and took his life before I had a chance to properly acknowledge his help. My time with Graham is a memory I will forever hold dear. So I hope I have, in some way, kept his spirit alive in sharing this emotional tribute.

******

Conclusion

There are better safeguards in place for children now, especially in residential care and foster care, as Graham refers to in one of the sound clips I kept.

There is also more awareness of emotional problems, a better understanding of conditions like Asperger’s, bi-polar disorder, anxiety and depression. Social media too, plays a vital role.

There is no doubt that abuse has a terrible impact on people lives and on society as a whole. But what else can be done to break the cycle? 

The underlying premise of my book is that victims MUST come forward and report their abuse, a mantra one of the senior police officers I spoke to insisted on.

If abuse carries on undetected, nothing can be done, the cycle continues and some victims may themselves turn into abusers. Victims should always be listened to and while it is known there are fantasists, some who invent stories for personal notoriety or compensation, genuine victims have nothing to fear or to be ashamed of. 

Raising self-esteem is another form of help, which goes a long way in helping some people turn their lives around, but this does not just apply to abuse victims. This applies to anyone with underlying mental health issues, which stem from a variety of causes: Job loss and redundancy; the stigma of unemployment; excessive weight gain; a relationship crisis such divorce or bereavement; alcoholism, drug addition, debt, homelessness… the list seems endless but what I am trying to say is that if you can find it in your heart to be kind, to listen to people instead of maligning them, it could make a huge difference to the way they feel about themselves.

To conclude, here is another sound clip from Graham.

Graham Lovell 2020
Graham Levell 2020

In my next post, I’ll be introducing another character; Maisie, the deep underlying traumas that affect her every day life, not to mention the invisible enemy who is watching her. LETHAL TIES will be launched on April 18th 2021.

Entering the Final Phase of a #WIP

Atmospheric image of oak trees

It’s been a while since I mentioned writing, especially my current work in progress (WIP).

This standalone novel is a psychological thriller set in 2015 located in my home county of Sussex.

Sadly my writing took a nose dive in 2019 when I lost all confidence. I started the book in March 2019 but then things went a bit wobbly. It was like learning to ride a bike again. As soon as I made some progress, I would read it back and shake my head. Stop. Edit. Have another stab at it and still it didn’t engage! Grrrr! I was tearing my hair out with frustration, I even shed tears, thinking the creative power in my brain had been switched off. Even when we took a holiday in the most beautiful part of France, I read some good psychological thrillers to see if I could figure out where it was going wrong. I was inspired enough to embark on another complete re-write. But then the dreaded Coronavirus struck, leaving me so anxious, I was unable to move forward again.

Outline Synopsis

Joe, Maisie, Sam.
We were three kids in a care home, too young to protect ourselves.
Three friends who were inseparable until the night Sam went missing.

The story is centred around a group of fictitious children’s homes that existed in London in the 90s. Maisie, a professional woman at 32, has psychotherapy, unable to understand what lies at the root of her recurring nightmares and panic attacks.

Joe meanwhile, has led a troubled life from serving time in prison to being homeless. When the two characters cross paths in 2015, they recall memories of the strange parties they were taken to by the home’s sinister owner, Mr Mortimer… but what happened to Sam? 20 years ago he vanished, never to be seen again.

Yet as Joe tries to turn his life around, he is subject to a campaign of online abuse that makes them wonder if their enemies are still around – until a police investigation is launched.

A homeless man

Back in the writer’s chair

By mid April it struck me I needed to take a different approach; look at the nature of the police investigation at the heart of the story. Going through the chapters, I identified which parts needed research and further delighted to get some help. Speaking to a senior police officer who worked on similar cases to the one I am writing about, I have found a new direction. So I finally thrashed out the nuts and bolts of the investigation

With a brand new focus, the next hurdle was getting inside the heads of my characters. They took a while to come out, especially Maisie. So by the time I was immersed in a second re-write, I drafted her scenes in first person, something that enabled me to think like her, imagine her life and feel her anxiety (something which comes naturally.)

Joe’s character has been easier. Writing his part in 3rd person, he is a likeable rogue with fire in his belly; an angry rebellious young man at the pinnacle of his life. Now all he wants is justice.

Last of all, I wanted to be able to picture my characters which is where Pinterest came in useful. You only have to key something as obscure as ‘auburn hair’ in your search and dozens of faces appear. I found the right faces for both Maisie and Joe (depicted as Jack Falahee), as well as their childhood friend Sam.

Characters from a psychological thriller I am writing

Joe, Maisie, Sam.
We were three kids in a care home, too young to protect ourselves.
Three friends who were inseparable until the night Sam went missing.

The remainder of the story

I have now drafted out a huge part of the story and about to tackle the final phase. But with a full synopsis worked out, I think I have an adequate foundation to complete a first draft. Wish me luck because if I succeed I’ll be looking for beta readers and an editor.

I’ve seen lots of fellow authors rediscover their writing passion during these strange times and hope this will be the start of something promising. That aside, I’ve really enjoyed getting back into it.

From Autumnal Beauty to Life Changing Fears

Today feels strange. This time last week, we were enjoying a beautiful autumnal walk in West Sussex, picking blackberries, chatting to friends and I was telling my friend, Maureen, (who has worked in the NHS as a nurse and an allergy consultant) how worried I was about my in-laws. Now one week later their lives have been turned upside down.

A Stressful Year

To summarise, Peter’s dad, Tony, had to give up driving in May. He was unwell. No-one knew this but after having his diuretic medicine withdrawn without explanation, he was suffering from excess fluid retention, then had two car crashes in a single afternoon and wrote off his car and one other. Thank God no-one was hurt. But he has a permanent catheter now and with social services and nurses stretched to breaking point, it is Peter’s mum, Joyce who has taken on 100% of his care. Sorting his catheter bags out, day and night, would be stressful for anyone but at 91 years of age, she has found it hard to cope since no assistance is available. We do everything we can to help, from trips out to taking them shopping and to the doctors but I asked Maureen if there was anything else we could do to alleviate Joyce’s burden. Last week she developed a rash, only to be told she had shingles (hardly a wonder considering the stress in her life).

She gave us the number of One Call, based at Bognor Hospital, where all the community nursing team are based. Suggested we spoke to one of the Bersted Green District Nurses. Despite our explanation and pleas though, they could not help. This was despite Maureen’s concerns: “It needs sorting before mum ends up in hospital too.”

Sadly things have taken a turn for the worse. Joyce was given a strong codeine based pain killer which made her dizzy and sick. Later that afternoon, she tripped over and hit her head, resulting in a swollen egg sized bruise. As if this wasn’t bad enough, she suffered another fall two days later and was admitted to hospital with a fractured hip. The bruising on her face is horrific but one cannot imagine the impact the surgery has had. In the meantime, Tony is at home, a 91 year old man with dementia, complex health issues and there is still no help available, despite all One Call’s reassurances, (given their extenuating circumstances). Needless to say this has been a traumatic week for the whole family.

All the while Joyce is in hospital, she is being looked after but the thought of her coming home terrifies me. Peter and I are lucky to live a few doors away. But they are two vulnerable elderly people, who have no help, left very much to the mercy of fate in the hours we cannot be there. With the current state of affairs, it is unlikely she will even get a nurse popping by to check up on her in the aftermath of her surgery.

We will have to await the outcome…

Am I Still Writing?

Yes and no. Rosebrook Chronicles is currently being produced as an audio book which I am really excited about. The recordings have been done and I am listening to the stories. The voices, the conflict and the way my own fiction is coming to life is quite surreal.

My newer work of fiction, however, is definitely on the back burner. Earlier this month we lost our faithful dog, Barney, our gorgeous white cat, Theo, in June and with this latest crisis concerning Peter’s parents, my mind is too clogged with sadness to find any inspiration. There simply isn’t room for creativity at the moment.

I did however, manage to get some more research done, thanks to an author friend, Dan Jones. Dan worked in a number of children’s homes in the 90s (the same era my book is set) and was happy to share lots of anecdotes relating to his experiences. Furthermore, I had a chat with his friend, a man who lived in and out of care before suffering problems such as alcohol, drugs and homelessness. How strange this mirrors my character, Joe Winterton, who endures much the same fate (with the addition of getting into crime and serving time in prison before ending up on the streets.) My other main character, Maisie, is a young woman who bumps into him 20 years later and helps him back on his feet. Yet in the back of their minds lurks the mystery of their friend, Sam. In 1995 Sam disappeared and nobody knows what happened to him, an answer they pledge to solve.

Trees at night time taken on a journey through Climping, part of the research for my new book.

I am looking forward to integrating these new insights into the story but only when the time is right. I was hoping to have a first draft in place by the end of the year, but can’t make any promises. We just need to get our lives back on track first.

Looking at New ways to Promote a Series

Where has this year gone? It seems a long time since I’ve added a post to my blog so the best way to remedy this is to offer some promotion tips.

Following on from my blog tours in January and April, I did some promotion with our authors networking group, CHINDI (which stands for Celebrating and Helping Indie Authors). This year, CHINDI brought out a new ‘Author of the Week’ initiative and so I decided to take my turn in May.

I haven’t got a new book out yet to promote
so I instead tried to focus on some different areas of book promotion.

  • Tips on Research
  • An Author Interview (guest blog)
  • Photos on Instagram
  • My Video Trailers
  • Pinterest Boards

Here is a summary of the posts I wrote which were generously published on the blogs of other authors in the group

May 14th Read my article on research as featured on our CHINDI website.

This light-hearted blog describes some of the early research I did for my decade spanning thriller series and the joy that was yet to be discovered for this whole series.

Short link: http://wp.me/p5GaN3-Ox

Screenshot of Google Earth on the website of CHINDI authors

May 15th Crime mystery author Isabella Muir featured my 2nd post on research.

This article goes deeper into the different techniques of research I used for later books in the series from YouTube to visiting places and interviewing real people.

https://isabellamuir.com/2018/05/15/undertaking-research-for-a-crime-thriller-some-useful-tips/

The Old Bailey image on the website of Isabella Muir

May 16th A virtual but warm-hearted interview with Angela Petch in Tuscany

My author Q&A with Angela was a real joy to put together with lots of stuff about writing, books, inspiration, our writing aspirations and photo sharing on Instagram.

https://angelapetchsblogsite.wordpress.com/2018/05/16/a-chat-by-the-river/

Tuscan mill image on the blog of Angela Petch

May 17th A guest blog on the website of Carol Thomas discussing book trailers

Earlier this year Carol Thomas very kindly taught me how to create a video trailer and in this very helpful article we explain the process for my Beginnings book trailer.

http://www.carol-thomas.co.uk/guest-post-creating-book-trailers

May 18th Talking about Pinterest with historic romance author Patricia Osborne

This article explains how authors can use Pinterest to depict characters, plot structures and create a setting for a novel, as I did for the decades in my own book series.

https://patriciamosbornewriter.wordpress.com/2018/05/18/helen-christmas-guest-article/

Pinterest images for Retribution Book on the blog of Patricia Osborne

I really enjoyed my time as CHINDI Author of the week and a big thanks to everyone who took part and promoted my articles

So what next?

Pleasures gets another revamp

PInterest board for PleasuresI am just about to finish another edit on Book 3 Pleasures before I finally draw a line under this series and start something new. Completing the series was a challenge but one I thoroughly enjoyed. By the time I had written Retribution (in two parts) however, I realised how much my writing style had evolved over the years. So my next goal was to bring the first two books up to the same standard, thus I relaunched a new edit of Beginnings in January and a new edit of Visions in April 2018.

Pleasures was probably the book I enjoyed writing most of all but that too needed some work! It’s been three years since I touched it, so it was time to take another look. The style of writing wasn’t bad but there was room for improvement given comments from reviewers and Beta readers from overwritten descriptive phrases to a ‘show and not tell’ approach.

Pleasures is due for a relaunch in August. Reviewers/book bloggers are welcome to a free copy. No obligation to review but if you’ve been following the series just enjoy the book!

And finally…

After much deliberation, I will be taking all my titles out of Kindle Unlimited so that they can be distributed to a wider audience. This means that the entire ‘Same Face Different Place’ series will soon be available for readers who prefer Nook, Kobo and Apple i-Books.

I hope to publish the links in my next blog but until then, enjoy the lovely sunny summer we are having in England. Bye for now.

Researching Art by Sandra Danby

I am very pleased to welcome author, Sandra Danby, to feature on my Blog as a guest. In celebration of her new book, ‘Connectedness,’ Sandra talks about her research into the wonderful world of art.

‘Connectedness’ is the 2nd book in her ‘Identity Detective’ series, a story that revolves around the art world, adoption and romance, from London to the cliffs of East Yorkshire and the orange blossom streets of Málaga in Spain.

So how did you, go about your research for this book, Sandra, and will you tell us about the story and the characters?

Author, Sandra Danby
Author, Sandra Danby

“Novelists are always asked ‘how much of the book is about you?’ With my first novel I could honestly say not much, apart from sharing an occupation with my heroine. We are both journalists. My new novel Connectedness is slightly different. It is second in the ‘Identity Detective’ series and so again features journalist Rose Haldane, but the main focus is on a birth mother seeking to find the daughter she gave up for adoption twenty-seven years earlier. In creating Justine Tree, I used two locations close to me – Yorkshire and Spain – and I gave her a profession I have not experienced. She is an internationally-successful artist.

This was a clever plan that gave me the opportunity to go to loads of art museums and exhibitions and say I was ‘researching’. I’m lucky enough to live near London and have become a regular visitor to Tate Modern, Tate Britain, the Royal Academy of Arts and the Victoria & Albert Museum. All feature in Connectedness. I quickly realised that not only did I need to understand more about art, artists and how they create their work; I also needed settings. I immersed myself in exhibitions, books and television programmes, absorbing information and sifting the bits I might be able to use.

Art museums, the Tate Modern and Royal academy of arts

A quick scan of my Art Research folder shows that I read [or at least flicked through] a wide variety of sources from Essential Crochet by Erika Wright to Modern Art: A Very Short Introduction by David Cottington. I quickly focussed on Tracey Emin as an example of an artist who puts all her emotions and experiences into her art, something I wanted for Justine; though in Justine’s case, what you see is not always what you get. Most useful were two Emin books, My Life in a Column is a collection of her articles for The Independent newspaper; Strangeland is her memoir from her childhood in Margate to her rise to fame as a YBA [Young British Artist] in 1992.

Art as portrayed by Tracey Emin
Tracey Emin, an example of an artist who puts all her emotions and experiences into her art.

So from Emin I drew her emotions and the fluidity of technique from drawing and painting to embroidery and installation. I embraced the outwardly chaotic appearance of Emin’s art and hopefully showed Justine’s process of making it; sometimes chaotic, but also considered. To that I added the Spanish link. Pablo Picasso was born in Málaga – near to where I spend part of the year – and I decided to use this link [more art museums to visit!] to add an unpredictable twist to Justine’s student story in 1983. Picasso brought artistic gravitas to my research and to Justine he brought collage, the technique that introduces the teenager to her artistic path.

Ceramic jug decorated with fauns, by Pablo Picasso 1951 [photo: Musee National Picasso-Paris]
As a teenager, Justine experiences a torment of betrayal, jealousy and anger and begins to paint outdoors. Here’s a short excerpt that in my head is set on a clifftop footpath on Bempton Cliffs in Yorkshire, where I grew up:

Knowing she might throw up, Justine ran until she had no breath left, sinking to the ground with a puff of summer dust. She cried for a long time, for lost love and lost friendship and then, recognising betrayal, she got angry. She opened her satchel and took out a sheet of drawing paper, orange furry pencil case and tube of paper glue. She weighed down the paper with lumps of chalk culled from beside the path and then, careless of the dust and grass seed flowing freely in the soft breeze, she created her first collage. A tangle of gull feathers, grass, dock leaves and smears of mud made of the dusty earth mixed with tears. She carried the half-finished jumble to her father’s shed where she carefully dismantled it, sorted and re-assembled it, fixing it together permanently with some plaster-like stuff from his workbench. She rescued a Frosties cereal packet from the dustbin and then, imagining it was the boy’s A-grade physics essay of which he’d been so proud, she tore it into strips. She sat holding a felt tip pen feeling empty of words until they spilled forth from a subconscious thesaurus: Traitor. Betrayal. Envy. Hurt. Jealousy. Theft. Unfair. Friend. Pain. Lies.”

About ‘Connectedness’

TO THE OUTSIDE WORLD, ARTIST JUSTINE TREE HAS IT ALL… BUT SHE ALWAYS HAS A SECRET THAT THREATENS TO DESTROY EVERYTHING

Book cover of Correctness by Sandra Danby

Justine’s art sells around the world, but does anyone truly know her? When her mother dies, she returns to her childhood home in Yorkshire where she decides to confront her past. She asks journalist Rose Haldane to find the baby she gave away when she was an art student, but only when Rose starts to ask difficult questions does Justine truly understand what she must face.

Is Justine strong enough to admit the secrets and lies of her past? To speak aloud the deeds she has hidden for 27 years, the real inspiration for her work that sells for millions of pounds. Could the truth trash her artistic reputation? Does Justine care more about her daughter, or her art? And what will she do if her daughter hates her?

This tale of art, adoption, romance and loss moves between now and the Eighties, from London’s art world to the bleak isolated cliffs of East Yorkshire and the hot orange blossom streets of Málaga, Spain.

A family mystery for fans of Maggie O’Farrell, Lucinda Riley, Tracy Rees and Rachel Hore.

An extract from ‘Connectedness’

Prologue

London, September 2009

The retired headmistress knew before she opened the front door that a posy of carnations would be lying on the doorstep beside the morning’s milk bottle. It happened on this day, every year. September 12. And every year she did the same thing: she untied the narrow ribbon, eased the stems loose and arranged the frilled red flowers in her unglazed biscuit-ware jug. Then she placed the jug on the front windowsill where they would be visible from the street. Her bones ached more now as she bent to pick them up off the step than the first year the flowers arrived. She had an idea why the carnations appeared and now regretted never asking about them. Next year, someone else would find the flowers on the doorstep. In a week’s time she would be living in a one-bedroom annexe at her son’s house in a Hampshire village. She walked slowly back to her armchair beside the electric fire intending to tackle The Times crossword but hesitated, wondering if the person who sent the flowers would ever be at peace.

1
Yorkshire, May 2010

The clouds hurried from left to right, moved by a distant wind that did not touch her cheek. It felt unusually still for May. As if the weather was waiting for the day to begin, just as she was. She had given up trying to sleep at three o’clock, pulled on some clothes and let herself out of the front door. Despite the dark, she knew exactly the location of the footpath, the edge of the cliffs; could walk it with her eyes closed. Justine lay on the ground and looked up, feeling like a piece of grit in the immensity of the world. Time seemed both still and marching on. The dark grey of night was fading as the damp began to seep through her jeans to her skin. A pale line of light appeared on the eastern horizon, across the flat of the sea. She shivered and sat up. It was time to go. She felt close to both her parents here, but today belonged to her mother.

Three hours later, she stood at the graveside and watched as the coffin was lowered into the dark damp hole. Her parents together again in the plot they had bought. It was a big plot, there was space remaining.

Will I be buried here?

It was a reassuring thought, child reunited with parents.

The vicar’s voice intoned in the background, his words whipped away by the wind. True to form, May was proving changeable. It was now a day requiring clothing intended for mid-winter, when windows were closed tight and the central heating turned on again. Or was it that funerals simply made you feel cold?

‘Amen.’

She repeated the vicar’s word, a whisper borne out of many childhood Sunday School classes squeezed into narrow hard pews. She was not paying attention to the service but, drawn by the deep baritone of the vicar who was now reciting the Lord’s Prayer, was remembering her first day at art college. The first class. Another baritone. Her tutor, speaking words she had never forgotten. Great art was always true, he warned, and lies would always be found out.

In her handbag was a letter, collected from the hall table ten days ago as she left the house for Heathrow and Tokyo. She had expected to return home to London but, answering the call from her mother’s doctor, had come straight to Yorkshire in the hope of seeing her mother one last time. The envelope, which was heavy vellum, and bore smidgens of gold and scarlet and the Royal Academy of Arts’ crest, was still sealed. She knew what the letter said, having been forewarned in a telephone call from the artist who nominated her. It was the official invitation. If she accepted, she was to be Justine Tree, RA.

About the ‘Identity Detective’ series

Rose Haldane reunites the people lost through adoption. The stories you don’t see on television shows. The difficult cases. The people who cannot be found, who are thought lost forever. Each book in the ‘Identity Detective’ series considers the viewpoint of one person trapped in this horrible dilemma. In the first book of the series, Ignoring Gravity, it is Rose’s experience we follow as an adult discovering she was adopted as a baby. Connectedness is the story of a birth mother and her longing to see her baby again. Sweet Joy, the third novel, will tell the story of a baby abandoned during The Blitz.

Author Bio

Sandra Danby is a proud Yorkshire woman, tennis nut and tea drinker. She believes a walk on the beach will cure most ills. Unlike Rose Haldane, the identity detective in her two novels, Ignoring Gravity and Connectedness, Sandra is not adopted.

Author Links

‘Connectedness’ at Amazon: https://amzn.to/2q6qy5Z
‘Ignoring Gravity’ at Amazon http://amzn.to/1oCrxHd
Author website: http://www.sandradanby.com/
Twitter: @SandraDanby
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/sandradanbyauthor
Goodreads: http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/6563021.Sandra_Danby
Pinterest: http://www.pinterest.com/sandradan1/

Photos [all © Sandra Danby unless specified] show the author, Sandra Danby, Royal Academy of Art – banners on Piccadilly, Tate Britain – front steps, Tracey Emin, quilt, I do not expect 2002 [photo: Tracey Emin] – Ceramic jug decorated with fauns, by Pablo Picasso 1951 [photo: Musee National Picasso-Paris] and the book cover of Correctness.

Thanks for sharing this, Sandra, and it’s been great to learn more about the research you undertake for your series. I have read your first book,  ‘Ignoring Gravity,’ and found it a deeply moving tale. After reading this, I am really looking forward to getting stuck into your second novel. Enjoying research is something we both have in common and like you say, it’s a good excuse to lose yourself in interesting places.

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s a suggested tweet:

How CONNECTEDNESS author @SandraDanby researched art & turned reality into fiction #amwriting via @SFDPBeginnings https://wp.me/p2b3Yf-oO

The Wonderful New World of Screen-writing

I’m following an online course in screen-writing at the moment, to gain a deeper understanding in the world of film.

The latest exercise is to develop character outlines. So in the context of ‘Beginnings’ allow me to introduce Jake Jansen.

Helen Christmas writes about one of her main protagonists Jake Jansen. Jake, 23, is from Holland. 
He is a talented musician with his own band and plays at music festivals. 
He is hired for a special gig.

Jake on stage

Major actions:
He plays a concert at the birthday party of a prominent labour MP and witnesses two suspicious characters on the day of a car bomb. When interviewed by the police he truthfully relays what he saw but is abducted and stashed in a basement cell. After being rescued, he finds a house to hide.
He falls in love with Eleanor.
He escapes an ambush at Waterloo Station, heads for Toynbee Hall, accepts a refuge in Bethnal Green.
He knows he is on someones’s wanted list. Tries to figure out why. He dare not phone home for fear of his enemies tracing him.
He sits down in the town centre and does some busking but is fitted up with drugs.
He hides Eleanor under the floorboards to protect her and their unborn baby.
Jake accepts his lot in life, ready to face his destiny.

Wants and needs:
Jake wants to escape his captors and go home. By the time he and Eleanor escape, he decides that their only choice is to hide. He also wants to protect Eleanor; to marry her and spend the rest of his life with her. His major want AND need is to survive.

Basic psychology:
Cautious. Unwilling to take unnecessary risks. Jake is intelligent. He is not impulsive, just strives to do what is best for everyone but with an underlying craving for justice. He is a talented musician, a good singer, plays the guitar, is creative and writes songs; a dedicated friend with huge ambitious for his rock band. Jake is loving, courageous and kind.

Superficial affect:
He seems to care as much for others as he does for himself. Eleanor senses a gentle nature and a pure heart. Why anyone would want to kill him is a mystery. He comes across as polite and respectable.

Jake's beautiful green eyes
One of Jake’s features is his mysterious green eyes

Physical characteristics:
Slender build, a chiselled face, he possesses a certain beauty; his complexion pale, his green eyes sharp and alert. There is something slightly hippie-like about the way he dresses; dark, auburn hair, worn long in a ponytail.

To his enemies he has a look of vulnerability, something which appeals to their sense of power. He looks like an easy target.

COURSE INSTRUCTIONS: This is just an outline, so stick to that format and make lists; avoid long prose descriptions.
Something to share on the padlet board.
This has been an amazing insight into screenwriting and I am really enjoying the  course.

Crime Writers Panel with 3 Chichester Authors

Joining forces with authors of the same genre is a great way of promoting fiction. On June 20th, three thriller writers from our networking group CHINDI (Celebrating and Helping Indie Authors) got together to engage in a lively panel discussion on what makes a good crime thriller; including research, character development, creating exciting plot lines and what keeps a reader on the edge of their seat…

The talk took place at Hennings Wine Merchants in Chichester, who very kindly supplied the venue and the wine. So what did we talk about? Here is a resume of the discussion we participated in on the night.

Crime Writers’ panel with Michael Parker, Helen Christmas and Christine Hammacott (L -R)

Christine Hammacott led the discussion by introducing the three of us in turn. Christine has been writing for over 20 years and started as a result of a day job. As a graphic designer she was frequently presented with copy that quite honestly was pretty terrible. Having loved to write, she joined a creative writing course, entered a national writing magazine competition and won first prize which gave her the confidence to try something larger. Her debut novel ‘The Taste of Ash’ was published in 2015.

Helen Christmas has been writing stories ever since she was a child and has a passion for writing. “I always dreamed of being an author and in 2012, finally took the first step in getting my work published with my ‘Same Face Different Place’ series set in the dark, criminal London underworld. I never imagined at that time that it would develop into a series. In 2015 I won a short story competition, ‘Write Across Sussex’ my first literary success and this greatly inspired me to keep writing.”

Michael Parker left school with no qualifications but had a natural ‘leaning’ towards English that set him on the path to writing. Michael has written for as long as he can remember, but not with the success he first coveted. Michael’s first novel, NORTH SLOPE was published by Macmillan in 1980. His second THE SHADOW OF THE WOLF in 1984 by Robert Hale. The intervening years have seen some massive changes in publishing with publishers merging and opportunities dwindling. And this has been a frustration to us all. It was not until 2007 when Michael  saw his third novel published. Since then he has published about a book a year.

Michael has worked as an office boy, a Merchant seaman, a plaster’s labourer, a deck hand, a cinema projectionist, an RAF Technician and a maintenance technician in the food industry. He has also worked in the Middle East and lived Spain, settling on the Costa Blanca with his wife, Pat. So Michael has plenty of resources to draw on for his writing.

So that’s a little bit about the writers, now on to the discussion:
WHAT EXACTLY DO WE WRITE AND WHY DID WE CHOOSE THE THRILLER GENRE?

Books by thriller writers Christine Hammacott, Michael Parker and Helen Christmas.

Michael: I call myself a thriller writer, but I really am a stand-alone author. I write stories set in different time periods and different places. North Slope. (Alaska 1968 — Discovery of oil). Hell’s Gate (British East Africa, 1898), Shadow of the Wolf (1943 — Nazi wolf packs and secret radar), plus many others.

Why did I decide to write in this genre? I can only really write what ideas come into my head, and they do not always end up as modern thrillers.

Helen: I have written a mystery suspense series which spans four decades. ‘Same Face Different Place’ begins in 1972 when a prominent British MP is murdered in a car bomb explosion. Everyone assumes the IRA is responsible but there is a witness. A young musician from Holland is the only person who can throw the spotlight onto the true culprit. But as powerful members of the ‘Establishment’ they arrange a contract to silence him.

I am a big fan of thrillers and have always enjoyed reading this genre. I love conspiracies, especially when they involve police cover-ups and organised crime.

Christine: The Short story competition I entered was called ‘Curiosity killed the Cat’ which obviously infers something bad happened as a result of being nosy. It was about a busy-body who liked poking around in other people’s houses but in this instance there was a break in and her fingerprints were all over a neighbours house.

I was reading Minette Walters and Nicky French around that time and decided that if I was going to spend time writing I should chose a genre that was commercial and that I stood a chance of being published in. It was also because I like to find out about people, how what is shown on the outside isn’t necessarily a true reflection of a person’s character and that is what the psychological suspense genre is all about.

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A LOT OF CRIME THRILLER WRITING IS PLOT DRIVEN. WHAT’S THE MOST IMPORTANT ASPECT OF YOUR WORK, PLOT OR CHARACTERS?

Christine: Character. I develop the outline of a character at the start of a book but get to know them as the book progresses. That’s the joy of writing for me. I throw problems at my main characters to see how they will react. In The Taste of Ash I have my main character Zoe trying to move on from a fire that has destroyed everything and leaves her feeling like a refugee. But to make her physically as well as emotionally vulnerable I have her hobbling around on crutches for the entire book too.

The plot is a morphing structure for me. I write scenes that are pulled into a structure. It’s much the same process as designing where you need to assemble the elements and key points so that you can create the overall balance and make it work. It’s a long winded way of doing it and I wouldn’t recommend it but it works for me.

Michael: I let my characters do the talking and walking, therefore my stories are character driven. There has to be a plot of course, but it doesn’t always turn out the way I thought it might.

Helen: Both. My first goal was to create strong characters that people would love or hate. From my very first novel, as the characters developed, some of them gradually became more evil… I wanted to depict every human emotion: love, hate, passion, jealousy and revenge (to name a few). Once you have a cast of powerful characters, it helps you to drive the plot.

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HOW MUCH RESEARCH DO YOU NEED TO DO FOR YOUR BOOKS?

Helen: I like to do lots of research for my books as it is so important in crime fiction to add authenticity to your book. I often visit real locations, to research such scenes as a chase across the London Underground or an escape from a house in Pimlico. The London Underground is on three levels so it was really important to get the escalators the right way round, which I confess to having got wrong in my 1st draft, something a die-hard commuter on the tube might have picked up on.

In addition, it is vital to get police procedures right which might involve approaching your local constabulary. I was lucky to spend an afternoon with crime thriller writer, Marion Kille and her husband (who spent 30 years in the police force). I learned about the forensics used in gun crime as well as the criminal conviction process which was vital for my 3rd book.

Christine: I write contemporary fiction so most of the content is observed from every day life. However it is important to get facts right where possible. I watched numerous videos on fires and a retired fire officer read the fire scenes for me. The Portsmouth police were really helpful and a showed me round the police station and talked through photo fit procedures although of course over time these things do change. Sometimes you have to use artistic licence though. There is a particular scene in a pub that doesn’t exist in real life but that I needed so that my character could see someone through a side window but not get to them through a crowded pub.

Michael: I began writing before Amazon and Google were invented, so most of my research was done using the local libraries or talking with people who experienced the subject I was researching. Nowadays I can research on line and uncover much more than I could years ago.

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IS THERE A PARTICULAR AUTHOR WHO INFLUENCED YOUR WORK?

Michael: Hammond Innes was the reason I wrote my first, published novel. I planned to write something set in Canada but ended up in Alaska (North Slope). It was while I was researching this novel that I read an autobiography written by an English teacher who went out to Canada in the early 1900s to teach English to the Innuit Indians. That was where I learned how Husky dogs are bred and how vicious they can be: something I used in the book.

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THRILLERS AND SUSPENSE BOOKS KEEP READERS ON THE EDGE OF YOUR SEAT. HOW DO YOU GO ABOUT DOING THIS?

Helen: I build up the suspense slowly, but to keep readers really turning the pages, I occasionally split two alternating scenes. I start with one scene (say, a character who has picked up a clue about his missing relative) while in another scene his girl friend is about to be attacked. Leave the latter scene as a cliff hanger and return to the first and your readers will be hankering to know what happens i.e is she going to survive?

Christine: I love playing with the rhythms. Creating tension and a lull in the structure with fast and slow paced scenes and a gradually building undercurrent of fear. The suspense structure in The Taste of Ash starts with a fast paced opening, eases back as we get to know the characters and situation then starts to build tension and suspicion that culminates in a fast paced climax.

So that completed the session and to round off the evening, authors took questions from the audience. This post has also been published on the CHINDI authors website.

Visit to the Surrey Hills (Teaser) – 3rd January 2017

HAPPY NEW YEAR EVERYONE and this is my first blog for 2017. So I’ll kick of with the latest progress on Book 4 Retribution.

wotton

It was at the end of the summer I finished my first draft… but unable to leave any stone unturned, there was one more significant place I needed to complete my research. In the final scenes of this saga, Eleanor is lured to a remote farm. It’s a place I remember from years ago; Leith Hill in Surrey. Having already written the scene beforehand, I am now approaching the end of my second draft and have edited it as follows: so here is a short extract and it includes a little teaser.

Eleanor gripped the seat edge as they surged around the next bend. Nestling in the heart of the Surrey Hills, the village of Wotton was more remote than she thought; flanked by fields on corn on the approach road, the next turn plunged them down a thickly wooded lane. It seemed even more perilous than the road to Aldwyck; steep banks carved into the hillside, dense with an overhead canopy of forest. A suffocating darkness enclosed them with just a brief scattering of lights escaping from another branch in the lane – one that led to a remote country hotel…

“So this is Wotton,” she said numbly. “Ironic isn’t it? It seems hard to imagine, Jake being here all those years ago – Perry loitering in some remote spot by the roadside…”

“Forget the past,” Dominic snapped. “It’s now we’ve gotta worry about.”

Her hand crept to her neck, fumbling with some sort of pendant. Dominic sighed. Even in the gloom, he didn’t miss the terror on her face. This was the last roll of the dice, his grip on the wheel tightening as they crept down the lane, the signpost to Leith Hill looming. Eleanor’s eyes whipped from left to right as he rolled into the car park.

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Same Face Different Place is a series of novels that begins in the 70s and stretches over 3 decades. The fourth and final book will be released in 2 parts starting with Retribution Phase 1, which will be published in Spring 2o17.

A remote pocket of countryside or a deadly trap? (Book 4 Retribution)
A remote pocket of countryside or a deadly trap? Book 4 Retribution.