Tell me about your books
A:I have self-published 5 books to date.
Sticks & Stones is a collection of nine short stories on the theme of witches and the craft. The stories range from an adaptation of a traditional folk tale to a metaphor for mental illness – Rescuing Robert is based on someone I knew who experienced terrifying hallucinations of a man who was either standing watching him or walking towards him quickly. Cwmdonkin Park is really a poem, about Dylan Thomas receiving his gift of words from the witch goddess, Ceridwen.
The Life and Crimes of Lockhart & Doppler is a collection of short stories and series in the style of the 19th century penny dreadful, cheap popular serial literature. Definitely not meant to be taken seriously. The two protagonists are based on the personas that me and my daughter created for Steampunk conventions. Lucy Lockhart and Theodora Doppler are a mother and daughter team of treasure hunters and collectors (Read also: thieves). They’re meant to be rollicking tales written with tongue firmly in cheek. Saucy bits included, so not for the under eighteens!
Beneath the Skin: Parts 1 and 2 is a Steampunk duology about a young Indian-Irish airship courier who falls foul of a secret organisation within the east India shipping company. Where Sleeps the Serpent? sees the heroine Shakti O’Malley and her small crew encountering sky pirates, Indian police, and a creepy serial killer. The Song of the Nightingale continues with her and her new accomplice travelling to Canada in an attempt to evade the hirelings of The Gentlemen.
The Floating Church is a novella set in the fictional village of Hope Ghyll, Cumberland. A bildungsroman tale that hints at the Biblical flood and Susannah and the Elders.
I also have several short stories published in anthologies, mostly horror stories oddly.
When and how did you start writing?
A: I actually began writing as a child. As many people do, I made stuff up and drew pictures and so on. My dad sent a little story I wrote when I was 7 years old, to the Liverpool Echo newspaper, who published it. There was, at the time, a section called Kids Corner. That was it. Then in my late teens, early twenties, I had a fancy to send something to a ‘women’s’ magazine, they rejected it, so I didn’t bother again. However, I did continue, throughout the years, to dip in and out of writing, short stories, mostly for children, and a little poetry, poor. I went to art college and university for 5 years and studied Fine Art, specialising in Sculpture, got my B.A(Hons). The reason I went into visual arts was because I was convinced that I couldn’t write. I wanted, needed, to express myself somehow and wasn’t adept at using words. I am, practically, a self-taught painter as after leaving university and living in a house with the landlord, I realised that I couldn’t continue as a sculptor – I specialised in life-sized figures in clay, plaster, and casting. So, I learned to paint, it took up less space.
Not until I attended my third Steampunk convention, did I swap the paint brushes for the pen (or keyboard). I was 49 years old. I went to a writing workshop run by the Queen of Steampunk/Horror, Sam Stone, the feedback was extremely positive. My daughter told me to carry on. She said that I always told her to grab an opportunity, whether it came through or not. YOLO, she said, Carpe Diem for the young. So, I continued.
How does a story begin for you? Is it an idea, a conversation, a title, or an image?
A: All of the above.
For example, we were in the car today, off to visit an elderly relative, husband was driving. I was looking at this old church on a roundabout thinking about how we make these structures to ‘contain’ God. But God is everywhere (if you believe in religious ideology). An idea formed, I scribbled a few lines down in my ever-present notebook. When, or if, I return to it, I don’t know. Sometimes an idea pops into my head. Again, another example from this morning, I woke up with a half-formed idea, grabbed a sheet of paper from my bedside locker and scribbled it down. I have tons of such notes. I have one of those magnetic note thingies on our fridge which is where I jot down odd names when they pop into my head.
I listen to the radio in the car a lot. Sometimes the chatter is simply that, often the discussions are only half heard. But sometimes, a phrase, word, or sentence catches my attention and I jot it down for future reference. I rarely begin with – I want to write a story about… I catch glimpses of ideas, a ‘flavour’ of a character, someone rowing a boat in the moonlight – why is he rowing at night? Where is he? What’s his name? His job? What timeframe are we in? These thoughts run through my head in rapid succession, so quickly, that I have trouble getting them down.
What was your favourite research activity you have done for a book?
A: Crikey, that’s a hard one to answer. I enjoy whatever it is I’m working on at that moment, regardless of whether it is about women’s underwear in the 16th century or ballooning speeds in the 19th century. I do both enjoy and dislike the way research leads one off into other avenues. I enjoy it because I find out stuff – for example, did you know that they kept chicken coops above pigpens in the 16th – 19th c, so that foxes couldn’t steal the eggs? And I dislike it because it consumes so much time, probably because of the way I research! Research, for me, is like a constantly growing tree. I may be searching around this trunk, but pretty soon I have been diverted along a different branch, to another, and so on.
If you pushed me, then I’d say that my favourite research has been to do with killing and assassination. I have long been interested in serial killers (I think I might be one if I didn’t have writing as an outlet!), and methods of dispatching people, specifically poisonings. I did a lot of this for my Steampunk duology, Beneath the Skin. Movies have given us weird ideas about how humans die – they nearly always use a garotte incorrectly. My daughter bought me this great book, Poisoned Lives by Katherine Watson, which explains exactly how poisons in Victorian England worked and particularly, how they affected the victims. People don’t go ‘argh, argh’ cough, splutter and die. Some people took days to die, painful, agonising deaths that left a terrible stench in the house. The poisoner was often a relative, or spouse. Imagine watching this person you may have once loved, die like this, AND, they had to ‘care’ for them and clean up after them for these remaining days. Appalling.
What do you do when you get blocked?
A: I assume you are referring to writer’s block, not getting blocked on social media :D
I don’t. I get stuck sometimes, but I have never had writer’s block. When I get stuck, it is usually because I didn’t really know where a story was going before I began. I don’t plan, I’m a ‘Pantser’. I really do hit the ground running, and when the momentum begins winding down, I stop and start work on the next idea, or, I go and work on an earlier WIP that needs redrafting.
I don’t have a problem starting, finishing is my problem. When I have the time and a new idea, I can write for 8 hours a day, just continuous lines of a story coming out. I’m very visual, very tactile. When fully engaged, I am there in that world I am creating. I have been accused of writing purple prose :D
My husband says I should set up a business coming up with ideas for other writers and charging ten quid a go! Ha!
What writing advice have you been given that really helped you?
A: On Twitter, there’s a really supportive Writing Community. One writer, who readers may have heard of, Gareth L Powell, British sci-fi author, often does a Q&A session on his thread. He asks everyone if they have something he can help them with (so supportive). I once asked about all the partly finished novels I had and lack of concentration. He advised me to pick one that I felt most engaged with, or that I enjoyed more than the rest, focus on it until the end, keep ploughing through the editing until satisfied, publish, then you can move on. And do the same with the next one.
‘Finish that story’, has been said a few of times. And to be honest, if I need advice like that, then I’m my own worst enemy. Why should I need someone to tell me to finish what I started, really?
There are a lot of sites that offer help and advice. Lots of courses, many you can sign up for free. I couldn’t pinpoint anything more specific and memorable than what Gareth said. I occasionally read and reread quotes from contemporary and past writers, like this one from Raymond Chandler - Throw up into your typewriter every morning. Clean up every noon. Wonderful. What more do I need?!
What do you consider your greatest writing accomplishment? And which was your biggest challenge?
A: I’m not sure I have had a great accomplishment – yet. I suppose the fact that I keep writing whilst holding down a low wage job could count? Biggest challenge is time, and the aforesaid job. It’s easy to say, write in your free time, but sometimes, one’s mindset isn’t in the right place and I have to force myself to focus. I do feel though, as I have come to writing late in life, that I am running out of time. I am desperately scared of dying without having done something noteworthy.
What do you want your readers to feel when they have closed the last page of your book?
A: A sense of satisfaction. That they were entertained, regardless of the genre, and enjoyed the little world I created for the time they were, hopefully, engrossed.
What would you do if you didn’t write?
A: Paint, sculpt, craft, graphic design. (Be a serial killer?!)
What is your ultimate dream as a writer?
A: To be able to write full time. Give up the day job. Be creatively and financially successful.
What advice would you give other writers?
A: Don’t do it.
But if you’re hell bent on doing it, be honest with yourself first and foremost. Why do you want to write? Do you have to? Is what you have written really any good? Isn’t there something else you can or would rather do?
Develop a tough skin, because once your projects are out there, someone is going to criticise. The creative industry isn’t the place for the faint of heart.
Alexandra is a visual artist turned author. She has a Degree in Fine Art, Sculpture and has been a freelance community artist, painter, graphics tutor and book seller. She currently works as a Learning Support Practitioner in a F.E.
She has several short stories published including, ‘Welcome to the Pleasuredome’, which appears in the horror anthology Game Over. ‘Spinning Jenny’, in The Singularity magazine and ‘The Tale of the Empty Vessel’ in the Deadly Bargain anthology.
Hates pulses. Loves Foamy banana sweets.
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