Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Catch up on some movies

We've watched three movies on DVD over the last week or so that have been worth noting.

Let me put in a plug for our local library while I'm at it: they provide DVDs at $2.00 a pop for a week, and $2.00 a pop for TV series, which you can have for a fortnight. I wanted to catch up on the first series of Broadchurch the other day, because I'd missed some episodes. In the end we got it from a video store, and it cost $10.00. I found it in the library yesterday as one of the 'top of the picks' at $4.00, and I could have had it longer...  It's a great service, and we've made some really interesting discoveries as a result, even watching two entire series of DVDs in Italian: Inspector Montalbano was one of them. And then we went on to learn Italian as well...but that's another story.

First up on the movie front was Last Passenger. It's about a small group of people who get left on a train that's refusing to stop - the driver turns out to be someone, they think, who wants to commit suicide in a spectacular way. Dougray Scott and Kara Tointon star, and do a good job. The whole film takes place on the train and for the most part maintains its sense of tension. There are a few spots where things could have moved along a bit, and the plot probably doesn't want to be investigated too strongly, but overall this was a nicely tense ride. There's an affecting performance from the seven-year-old boy, Joshua Kaynama, a little boy caught up in a situation he doesn't understand and who's asked to do the impossible at one point.

The second movie was much more sure of its pacing: the tension barely let up for a moment, even when there were conversations between various baddies. This was 7 Boxes, a film made in Paraguay, which apparently isn't well-known for top quality movies; in fact several of the cast seem to have started their film careers in this movie (!)

It's about a young man whose job is wheelbarrowing purchases for customers in a market. (The wheelbarrow isn't your garden model but a long flat thing that obviously takes muscle to handle.) These wheelbarrow boys have to compete with each other to get the work, and it's tough. When the boy, Victor (Celso Franco) gets an opportunity to take seven boxes 'around the block' for some devious characters, he jumps at it, because it's going to be very well paid. The boxes of course contain something much worse than he imagines, a nasty fellow-barrow boy has been shunted out of the job by accident and wants to get it back, and those sending the boxes on their way have got things considerably tangled, much to their horror. The piece is well plotted, and all the elements keep crossing and intercrossing until there's a violent climax in which Victor almost dies.

In spite of the tension and violence there's quite a bit of humour, lots of fun with cellphones changing hands, a nice bickering relationship between Victor and Liz (Lali Gonzalez) his know-all friend who obviously thinks girls can do anything, and all manner of other enjoyable details. This movie also takes place in a fairly confined area: small in South American terms, anyway. Everything happens in a huge (and I mean huge) market area, a market that seems to go on in a maze for miles in every direction.

The last movie was Saving Mr Banks. Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks star, Hanks playing a generous second fiddle to Thompson's wonderfully arrogant performance. Thompson is P L Travers, the creator of the Mary Poppins stories. Her books are sacrosanct and the idea that Walt Disney (Hanks) should make one of his awful animated movies out of them appals her. She's been holding out for twenty years, but now she's starting to need the money, and is finally persuaded to go to Los Angeles and meet Disney, and see if she can agree to anything. There's almost nothing she wants to agree to, which makes it difficult for the Hollywood people, but in the end...well, you can imagine the end because you know Mary Poppins got made and was one of Disney's most successful films ever.

Interwoven with the modern story (set in 1961) is Travers' childhood. She had an imaginative father of Irish stock, in Australia, but he was an alcoholic, and for all his intentions to keep his promises, seldom could. In spite of this Travers, as a child, adored him, and shared his wonderful fairytale view of the world. Her childhood is a tragedy, in fact, and this has affected her adulthood, so that in spite of writing a wonderful set of stories she has become a bitter old woman. Perhaps she wasn't quite as difficult as the filmmakers make her out to be, but she was certainly opinionated, and the 'family' (the Banks family in the book, and Poppins herself) were extremely precious to her.

It's a classic Hollywood movie in the old style, with a cast of great actors (Colin Farrell plays the relatively small part of the father, and Rachel Griffiths makes a brief appearance as an aunt who obviously was in part a model for Mary Poppins). Very enjoyable, and emotional.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Ranting about books and reviews

I've done book reviews for at least twenty years for our local newspaper, and occasionally for a couple of small magazines as well. We're never paid for these reviews, except insofar as we get to keep the book we've reviewed. I could count the number of times I've been paid to review a book on the fingers of one hand...probably half of a hand.

Anyway, up until recently, when we got a new book editor, it was pretty much the norm that you got sent a book and you reviewed it. Rarely did you say to the book editor that you didn't like the book; you just got on and did the job. With our current book editor we not only get a choice as to what we review but if we decide after we've started the book that it's just not a good fit, then the book can go back and be replaced by another one. That's a great bonus.

All that by way of introduction. What I really want to say is that up until e-books really took off, I didn't tend to concern myself with the fact of how often a book was published that seemed to me to be tosh or rubbish. I assumed that the publishers thought that somehow or other they could make money out of it.

With the advent of e-books, however, I find it more and more amazing that books that are poorly structured, have weak characterizations, lose the plot, fail in the climax and much more that's really not good (and I'm talking in particular about fiction, of course) still get published. 

Last year I reviewed a good deal of fiction, and some of the writing was extraordinary: extraordinary in the sense that I still can't comprehend how it got past any sort of editor in a publishing house. I know that the editorial system is different to what it used to be and that there are perhaps less people working on the publication of a book than in the past, and that in the heady old days books could be sent to an editor, sent back for revision (often based on discussions between the editor and the author), revised, rehashed and eventually brought into a state fit for public consumption.

Plainly that doesn't happen much anymore. One book I read, supposedly a thriller, spent pages on the backstory of each character as they appeared, lost the reader by introducing new characters seemingly at random, and then, most amazing of all, in the middle of the climax, gave us more back story about the villain. (Even more amazing was the fact that the author was a former editor himself.)

Another story spent a long slow time building up to what should have been an exciting climax, with a forest fire in the mix, and then dribbled away after having basically under-written the finale. Not only that, the author 'forgot' to use the forest fire, which he'd mentioned umpteen times during the course of the story and which he appeared to be treating as a matter of some significance. The story was also told by two different characters, a father and a son, and you never quite knew which one was narrating when. (On the plus side there were some very good scenes in this book and a good sense of atmosphere.)

Another book took an immense long time building up the tension to the extent that you wondered if anything of consequence was ever going to happen. It did, but there was a considerable possibility that the reader would have abandoned the book long before he or she reached that point.

Another book, one that made me increasingly queasy as it went on, was merely a series of chapters that hung together because they were narrated by the same character. There was often little overall connection, and the ending was so peculiar that it invalidated anything that had gone before. The book was set in the period building up to the French Revolution, and certainly that horrific time did finally make an appearance in the story at least (unlike the forest fire above).  But in fact the Revolution had little to do with the overall story. It was about a gourmet who wanted to savour all sorts of weird tastes, and proceeded to tell us the various things he was cooking and eating, most of which were quite vile. I'm not giving anything away by saying that at the end it appears he finally decided to eat human flesh as the climax of his life. I only persevered with this story because the individual sections were very well written, and it seemed to be going somewhere. But the somewhere I was hoping it was going to was altogether different to what the author seemed to be offering.

I'm not going to tell you what these books are, because the surprising thing is that often other people will love a book I dislike intensely, As happened with one of Alexander McCall Smith's recent books that I read. I thought it was awful and said so in the review I sent to the editor. In the end the book editor decided to get a second opinion on it. The second reviewer enjoyed it more (though there was a bit of a sting in the tail of their review still), and was able to say so. I found it tedious and badly written. McCall Smith does have his off moments, but this was the most off of all. For me.

There was another book that I got about a quarter of the way through and couldn't take any more: it concerned a doctor who seemed to hate the human body and was continually telling the reader how vile it was. And then there was a murder he'd committed which he was going to make sure someone else was stitched up for it, and at the same time he'd seduced this other person's daughter. Such a horrible character. Yet another reviewer thought it worth reading.

I ploughed my way through a 500-page murder mystery last year. It was full of remarkable writing, but far too long, and in its length seemed to lose its way, trying to throw too many red herrings in the reader's path as well as not being quite sure about its characters. Furthermore it was improbable in the way the narrator of the book was supposed to have produced a first book that was a runaway bestseller (we never heard anything of what this book was about) and his mentor had also produced an extraordinary bestseller in his own youth, extracts of which were produced in the book and showed that in no way could it have become the "American classic" it supposedly was. Amazingly, this book itself has been a runaway bestseller.

And then there was the book about a girls' school - another murder mystery - which was mind-rendingly overlong and full of foul-mouthed characters. Another story in which the author tried to convince us of the unconvinceable.

This has been a bit of a blog of two halves - and a rant. Sorry about that. Promise to do better next time.




Monday, January 12, 2015

What Does Super Jonny Do When Mum Gets Sick?

I'm part of a group of Facebook where a number of New Zealand self-published authors get together to help and encourage each other, discuss problems and suggest solutions. I've only been with the group a few months, but it's proved very valuable.

It's also helped some of us to promote our books a bit further, something that I'm also doing on Google+ plus with a different set of authors, ones who are rather more far-flung around the world.

Anyway I recently received a copy of Simone Colwill's book for children, What Does Super Jonny Do When Mum Gets Sick? It's about a little boy whose mother goes into hospital with an illness (the illness is unspecified in the book). The little boy, who sees himself as a superhero, asks How can I help? 

A number of hospital workers, ranging from the doctor down to the cleaner, all say they can help, but Jonny wants to give each of them something of his own as well. Unfortunately, Jonny feels his offers are unrecognised. I offered to help, but no one would listen. Discouraged, he comes up with several imaginative but unrealistic options to save his mother. She tells him, however, that he's already helped; each of the things he gave away was useful to the various hospital workers, though not necessarily in the ways he'd envisaged. Ultimately, she tells him, his superhero hugs are the best thing of all.

The book's delightful illustrations by Jasmine Ting give the easy-to-read story plenty of zip and zing, characterise the different people nicely, and add their own quirky humour and detail.

Finally there's a page of suggestions as to how to use the book in different situations: schools, hospitals, doctor's waiting rooms and so on.

This is a book that children will enjoy even apart from the crisis of a mother being hospital, and parents and medical professionals will find valuable.

Friday, January 09, 2015

Michael Caine on learning lines

I read a small book by Michael Caine called Acting in Film over the holidays. It was timely, as I'm due to start rehearsals in another play in a couple of weeks. What's that got to do with acting in a film, you might ask. Quite a lot, as it happens. Certainly there are differences, but in one respect in particular Mr Caine offers some excellent advice, and that's about learning lines. What he has to say may not be everyone's view, but I found it helpful.

The first thing of note is this: The first step in preparation is to learn your lines until saying them becomes a predictable reflex. And don’t mouth them silently; say them aloud until they become totally your property. Hear yourself say them, because the last thing you want is the sound of your own voice taking you by surprise or not striking you as completely convincing. If you can’t convince yourself, the chances are that you won’t convince the character opposite you, or the director. You’re your first best audience long before anybody else hears you. So don’t be an easy audience. Keep asking for more. I learn lines on my own; I never have anyone read. Nevertheless, I try to learn lines as dialogue, as logical replies to what someone else has said or as a logical response to a situation. You’ll never find me going down the page with an envelope, blocking out my own speech and revealing the one before because it then becomes nothing more than “cues” and “speeches.” If you haven’t grasped the logic of why you say a particular thing, you won’t say it properly or convincingly. And if your thoughts aren’t linked to what you’re saying, then you won’t be able to say a line as if you invented it on the spot. So you must be familiar with the whole conversation, not just your own bits. One of the most crucial jobs you’ll have as an actor will be to know what you’re thinking when you’re not talking.

I've found as I've got older that fluency is something I struggle with, that sense of being able to say the line without stumbling over a particular word. Caine writes here that the lines need to become a predictable reflex, your 'property.' He notes elsewhere in the book that the difference between working on stage and working in movies is that the stage actor learns more about his part as he goes through rehearsals, but a movie actor is expected to turn up on the first day of the shoot and get on with the job as though he'd been rehearsing for months. But I've found more and more that if I know my lines in advance, before I start rehearsal, I feel much more confident. Of course, if it's a big part and you've only been informed that you've got the part a little while before rehearsals start, then you may still be getting the lines under your belt once you start rehearsing. However, with this current part (which is a small one) I'm going to aim to have my lines learnt before we start rehearsing. It boosts the confidence enormously, and that's something Caine is all for doing.

He adds: Say your lines aloud while you’re learning them until you find what strikes you as the best possible expression of that particular thought. If there are plausible variations, develop them, practice them, too; but keep them up your sleeve. If the director rejects your brilliant interpretation, you’re not left in a blank state of horror. You've already imagined and prepared other reactions to demonstrate. And most important, you’ve allowed for some element of malleability in your performance. Give your best reading as if it were the only one possible; but your mind should be hanging loose enough to take a leap, if necessary. For the moment, go with the line readings that seem to you the most valid. It may take some doing, but once the thought process is right, the words will follow. So much of it really is a matter of repetition, of saying the lines over and over again until you’re sick of them; until someone can give you a cue, and you can say, feel, and react to the whole cycle of events, including those related to everyone else’s parts. That confidence is your safeguard against terror. Otherwise, in the tension of the close-up, when you’re standing there and someone is saying, “Quiet! Turn over! Speed! Action!” you may well go, “To bum or not to bim, that is the question!”

Of course the stage actor doesn't have anyone insisting you say the thing correctly from the word go, but some directors do make you tense, and if your preparation of the lines is sound, then at least you won't be forgetting the lines because some other aspect of the rehearsal has upset your equilibrium. Anyway, even as an amateur, it's good to have a professional attitude. 

He also writes: It may sound like a contradiction, but you achieve spontaneity on the set through preparation of the dialogue at home. As you prepare, find ways of making your responses appear newly minted, not preprogrammed. In life, we often pick up the thought that provokes our next remark halfway through someone else’s speech. Thoughts don’t leap to the mouth automatically. We don’t interrupt at every occasion when a thought formulates itself; or, if we do, we don’t have many friends. Similarly, in a film script, your internal thought processes might well start articulating themselves long before you get the chance to speak. The script sometimes directs you to interrupt, but if it doesn’t, your thought may start well before you get a chance to respond. There may be a key word that triggers you during the sentence the other actor is saying. So pick up on that; form your thought and be ready to speak. For example: Other Actor: I’ve got to get a bus to Clapham—I’m already late for my date. You: You won’t get far. There’s a bus strike. The other actor doesn’t stop talking after he says “bus,” so you can’t get in and say your line at the actual moment of thought recognition. But when you hear the key word “bus,” from that point on you know what you’re going to say directly after he stops. You can show this by your reaction. And that bit of acting can only come from serious listening.

This is good advice altogether, but again the important thing for me is that achieving of spontaneity by being thoroughly prepared. And part of preparation is trying out all sorts of ways of saying the line, so that it doesn't sound stale. 

There are a host of other things in the book that apply not just to film acting but to acting in general, and I think any actor could benefit from it.  

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Promoting your product

I've been spending a lot of time in the last year promoting my three e-books. It's a tough task but it has to be done. Sometimes it's fun, sometimes it's a chore. You meet interesting people online in the process, and there's always plenty of advice as to how to do it better - too much, perhaps.

But one thing is certain, if you're not a big name and not already a big seller, you're going to have to be patient and let the sales trickle in bit by bit.

I was thinking about this while walking the dog this afternoon. I came across a sign on the roadside which had blown over (not the one in the picture; that's just an example, and doesn't look as if it would blow over easily). It was advertising firewood and so on. I wondered if it would have been anymore effective even if it had been standing up.

Firstly, it was right on the corner of the road that the customer was expected to go up. No warning further down the road, nothing. Just the one sign.

Now this isn't a road where motorists are doing any great speed, but even at 50 kmph, it takes a bit of doing on the motorist's to read the sign, understand it, think about whether he really wants that product, think about whether he really wants to stop or if he's got better things to do; it takes him time to realise the sign relates to the road they're just about to pass, to discuss it all with his wife, to find a way of turning around and then going to investigate. Even if he thinks about all this and decides to come back later, it's possible he'll forget, or find something else more urgent needing to be done.

I know all this because I've often not stopped when going through the orchard area in Roxburgh. At 100 kmph it's even harder to make all these decisions.

At the very least there needs to be two or three signs further down the road at considerable intervals (and yes, I understand that's all a cost to the seller), each one pointing to the road that's coming up, and giving the driver plenty of time to consider whether he wants to make the effort of stopping and buying the product.

Without those warning signs, however, it's unlikely anyone will stop, unless they're absolutely desperate for what's on sale.

Now compare this to an author trying to sell his/her book on line. If I post a tweet, or a facebook comment once, and don't bother again, all I've done is announce to a few possible followers that I have a product. Big deal. If they happen to know me, happen to have read my previous books and enjoyed them, then it's vaguely possible they may suddenly decide on the spur of the moment to purchase the latest one.

It's more likely they'll pay no attention at all. In a digital sense, they'll keep driving.

However, if I post tweets at regular but not annoying intervals, and make them different, enticing, and interesting (that is, not just sales blurbs, but like real tweets or comments) then over the course of time, interest will be aroused, and the reader/follower may think: I remember that from a week or two ago. I might be interested.

They may still switch off and go to the next more interesting tweet or pretty picture. But after seeing these tweets/comments several times, couched in creative ways, they may start to say: Yes, I will look into this. They may click on the link, investigate further, check out the sample. They may even buy.

But notice what a long process this is.

This is why advertisers keep on hammering away at us on TV, in the newspapers, online. They know that the first time we won't pay any attention. We might like the ad, if it's clever, but as for the product, we may find we have no use for it, or it doesn't appeal just at that point. But over successive weeks, months and so on, the product starts to click in our memories, and we slowly change our view. We may resist forever - some ads make me resist, though obviously the advertisers don't realise that. Equally, we may finally think: now's the time.

Perseverance, creativity, continual exposure. All keys to telling the world that we authors have got something they'd like to read. Just this week, a person who has their own online app and with whom I've had a lot of contact via email about what he's selling, suddenly announced he'd bought my book. I think the only way he'd have known about it is because it's on the bottom of my emails. And has been for months.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

Picking blackcurrants

Just spent nearly an hour out in the sun with my wife and grandson picking blackcurrants. We have two bushes: one was chock full of fruit, the other was obviously having a sabbatical. Almost nothing on it, and the bush itself was looking a bit peaky.

One year both bushes went on strike, and there wasn't even a sign of fruit. That was definitely an anomaly, and the only time it had happened in the thirty-five plus years we've been in the house.

We used to make blackcurrant jam, but often it would get wasted, as jam isn't so popular as it used to be. The last few years we've made blackcurrant juice. It comes as a not too thick syrup which needs watering down to make it into a drink. This is very popular.

We've had various fruit trees around the house over the years, one or two self-sown - in the wrong places, of course. The fruit has varied on these, sometimes edible, sometimes not, and sometimes the birds have got in first.

When I was a child we had a great big gooseberry bush in one back corner of the section. I would gorge myself on it, year after year. The gooseberries were always sweet and enticing. I've tried to grow gooseberries here too, but the bushes we've had have always done very little in the way of fruit, and usually have died off long before they've reached anything like their prime. However, at the moment we have two relatively new bushes flourishing in a different part of the garden. They obviously need more sun than the old ones were getting. I'm expecting to be able to go out and pick gooseberries some time soon. I've had one, and I'm hoping that's the 'first fruit(s)' of a bumper crop. The weather has certainly been hot enough, and there's been plenty of rain.

Meanwhile, my wife's making tomato chutney....so we smell of a combination of chutney and blackcurrant bush: one of the nicest smells around, I think.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Interviewed by Ognian Georgiev

Christmas has come and gone and my mind has become a blank on some things in all the rush.

For instance I can't quite remember now how I happened to come into contact with the Bulgarian sports journalist, Ognian Georgiev. It may have been on Google+, but I honestly don't remember! Anyway, Ognian is doing a series of interviews on his blog. These are conducting digitally, with the questions being sent to various authors around the world. The authors reply at their leisure, and the result, with a bit of additional comment, is uploaded to Ognian's blog. Apart from being a journalist (he covered the 2012 London Olympics, amongst other things) Ognian has himself written a book, The White Prisoner – Galabin Boevski’s secret story. This is the story of the way in which Boevski's Olympic fame vanished overnight when he was caught at the Sao Paulo airport with cocaine in his luggage, and imprisoned for nine years. 

Ognian has posted interviews with a wide variety of authors already on his site, and is continually adding more. The authors write in a variety of genres, and most of them are people I've never heard of, so it's an interesting way to discover a heap of new authors.

My interview, which mostly relates to The Mumbersons and the Blood Secret, is number 130 and can be found here. 

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Acting in Films

Acting in Film: An Actor's Take on Movie MakingActing in Film: An Actor's Take on Movie Making by Michael Caine
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a shorter book than I expected. Nevertheless, it has a great deal of valuable advice, especially for actors working in the movies. I don't anticipate doing this myself in the near future, but I do a bit of acting on stage (as an amateur) and some of what Caine says here is applicable to that. I like his basic down to earth approach, no frills, just good solid hard work. It's his professionalism that shines through in this book. Don't think of being an actor (a professional one, anyway) if you're not prepared to give your all to the time you're being paid to work.
He's helpful with learning lines, and with working on a character; while he's not a method actor, his 'method' is sound and useful. He's very helpful in making the distinction between stage work and screen work. There are still very good stage actors who get caught out when they first work in a movie.
The book started life as transcripts from a masterclass Caine did, which explains it's rather bitsy style. However, it's a good little book for actors, and I'm certainly glad to have come across it.

View all my reviews

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Goodbye Chair

I've recently been sent a copy of Jo Carson-Barr's book for preschoolers, The Goodbye Chair. It's about Nicholas, who on one hand is excited that he's going back to see his preschool friends after a two-week break, but on the other is sad that his grandmother, who's been staying with the family, is going back home.

The story includes a kind of counting game, as well as couple of surprises on Nicholas' part at the end, when he shows his grandmother than he can count in Maori, and also use a little sign-language. (His Nannie has some deaf friends.) At the back of the book we're reminded that New Zealand has three official languages, English, Maori, and the New Zealand form of Sign Language.

Not to quibble about Carson-Barr's book, but apparently English has never been designated an official language here; it's a de facto official language. In spite of that many Government documents state that English is an official language. Curious!

I enjoyed the story. It's one most parents would be able to read to their children over and over (always an essential element in a children's book for me). But what adds hugely to the book are the attractive and fun illustrations by Carson-Barr's son, Simon Barr. At first reading they give an idea of the characters and their surroundings, but as you look at the pictures more closely you see there are a number of humorous additions to the story, imaginative things that Nicholas might be thinking (such as the flood caused by his Nannie's tears with its accompanying sea creatures), domestic details, and even some in-jokes that parents will appreciate, such as the train with the author's name written on it. This not only appears on the cover, but also inside the book, where the 'smoke' consists of cinema tickets.

Altogether an attractive book which should go down well with children and parents alike.



Thursday, December 11, 2014

An interview with writer, Rosanne Higgins

Hi, Rosanne, thanks for being willing to be interviewed about your first book, Inmates and Orphans, which I’ve recently read ˗ and enjoyed.

Can you tell us a little about yourself?
First of all, thanks for doing this, Mike!  I am glad you enjoyed the book. I am an anthropologist and small business owner living in Western New York. My husband and I own two doggy daycares. My business keeps me busy for about 60 hours per week so I do my writing and research in the evenings and on the weekends.

60 hours a week, and then you do your writing! So when did your passion for writing begin?
Very recently.  Until now, all of my writing has been for scholarly publications.  I have been a reader all of my life but I never thought I could write fiction.  It was a struggle at first, but after a while the characters just told their own story. Now I’m hooked!!

How many books have you written to date?
So far I have written Orphans and Inmates and A Whisper of Bones. These books tell the story of the Sloane sisters and their experiences at the Erie County Poorhouse and the Buffalo (New York) Orphan Asylum during the early nineteenth century.
Tell us about your first book. What was the idea that sparked it off?
For the past 15 years my scholarly research has focused on the asylum movement in the United States during the nineteenth century and the health consequences of poverty. While going through the inmate records for the Erie County Poorhouse, I came to know the people who sought refuge there.  I felt compelled to share their story, and I decided the best way to do that was to write a novel. 
Do you find your characters come alive as you write, or are they already real people in your mind before you start?
A bit of both, I think. I have a sense of the character before I begin to write, but often one or more of them will do or say something that takes me by surprise.

Yes, I know that feeling: in the first draft of my next book the characters kept arguing (as it were) as to who was going to be the real villain! Did your story change at all while you were writing it, or was it pretty much as you planned?
Orphans and Inmates came out much as I had planned, but that was not the case for Whisper. Some characters I hadn’t thought about showed up and a few threads in the story did not end as I had expected they would.

Was writing the book  a harder journey than you thought it would be?
Yes and no. Telling the actual story was easier than I expected, I suspect because I have been thinking about these people for so long. The problem for me is that I am terribly disorganized, and it took me a long time to develop an efficient system of notes that I could refer back to when I needed to recall certain aspects of a particular character, place or event.

Some people say that being a writer is the loneliest job in the world. Would you agree?
No, actually, I would not agree. I have become a “regular” in the research library at the Buffalo History Museum and I enjoy visiting with the staff and the other people who use the library. I have also met many kind and extremely talented people (like you!) along the way. I think now that we have so many social media options like-minded creative people can find each other very easily. When I am actually writing, I am never alone. My office is usually shared with two German shepherds and a standard poodle. Often I am stepping over furry bodies when I get up from my desk!!

I know that feeling. I've been babysitting two large dogs recently (we have a small dog of our own) and trying to find room to walk is sometimes an issue. 
What kind of writer are you, that is, do you write to a schedule or do it when the zone takes you?
I am very efficient and usually productive when I set myself to any task (I drive my husband and my son nuts!). I think because I juggled an academic career with a family for so many years I learned to use my time wisely. Those skills have served me well now that I juggle my business, family, research and writing. With a house full of dogs and kids, I learned to work well under pressure and in complete chaos. When I set aside time to work I always get something accomplished. If the characters are not talking to me, I try to outline the chapter I am working on or go back to organizing my notes (a never ending battle for me!).

Sounds like good advice for most writers. So apart from struggling to organize your notes, what's the most frustrating part of being a writer for you?
Marketing! I am still shocked that I wrote a few books that people outside of my family actually want to read! The hard part is taking this tiny amount of success and growing it larger. Like so many other writers I am short on both time and money. The trick is finding that cost effective way to generate interest in your work. I am trying to build a network of talented and innovative writers in the hopes that together we can figure it out!

Yes, a lot of self-publishing writers, I think, hear the stories of those who made it big in what seemed a matter of weeks. They don't hear about all the thousands who have sold just a few copies and wonder what they're doing wrong. So what has been the greatest lesson you have learned since becoming a writer?
I think the greatest lesson learned is that the self-publishing process is not that difficult. Any writer can produce a high quality book at a reasonable cost and distribute it through platforms like Amazon or Smashwords. Getting people to buy it is the trick!

How involved are you in deciding on the cover?
 I am very lucky to have an incredibly talented husband and business partner. I describe to him my ideas for the cover and he puts together a sketch for the designer. We work with a company called Ebook Launch, and they have done a fantastic job translating the concept sketches for both books into great covers.

You sent me an example of how the cover of Whisper of Bones evolved from your husband's sketch to the finished product. I thought it would be interesting to let readers see this [sketch and final cover at left] 

What are you currently working on?
I am working on the third book in the Orphans and Inmates series. I am also working on a non-fiction piece on the cholera epidemics in Buffalo, New York, during the early nineteenth century.  I don’t think that will be a book, but there is a story there that definitely needs to be told.  I may just write a series of blogs.
How important is networking for you?
Networking is very important for all writers. I have learned so much from all of the people I have met along the way. Speaking as someone who grew up before computers were in every household (before computers at all!), I find it a small miracle to have connected with people like you, who live all around the world! I used to correspond with my cousins in Scotland as a child and it took weeks to receive a reply to my letters. You and I can communicate daily! In many ways that makes networking much easier, but the building of relationships still take time. A solid network of creative, innovative and motivated people is critical, I think.

Yes, I'd thoroughly agree, and it's not something that you can just jump in and do. You have to have online conversations with people, learn to trust what they're saying, and discover what you can offer each other. It also concerns me that some young writers ("I've written ten books" I saw one posting today) haven't really done more than produce a first draft. They don't realise that books take a lot of work. 

What, then, do you think is the biggest obstacle for writers getting their books out there today?
I think all too often people jump in the pond, so to speak, and become totally overwhelmed. There are so many other writers out there trying to do the same thing. I think the biggest obstacle is trying to build a network of like-minded people who can all help each other toward a common goal.

What advice would you give to any budding writer out there?
Go with your gut. If it make sense to you, do it. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and say what you really think. Start with the people who know you and build your audience and your network out from there. Above all else, keep writing.

What platforms do you use to promote your work?
As far as social media, I use Facebook and Google+.  I also have a blog and a website. I am very fortunate that my scholarly research is similar to my novels and I do local speaking engagements to promote both.

Many thanks for being willing to be interviewed. Finally, where can people find your book?
Here are three places to start:

Three Rendell movies

Here be spoilers...

We've watched three episodes from the ongoing series, Ruth Rendell Mysteries, over the last few days. They're not all from the same year, but have been bundled together as a package. The titles are Master of the Moor, Vanity Dies Hard, and A Case of Coincidence. 

Master of the Moor dates from 1994, and stars a youngish Colin Firth. It was made a year before his appearance in Pride and Prejudice. This was the least satisfactory of the stories. It seemed to be dragged out considerably over the three episodes. Firth plays Stephen Walby, a man whose main love is the moor. After meeting a woman artist working on it one day he's shocked to find her dead body the next. The detective working on the case immediately senses that Walby is the killer, and aims to charge him. Then another woman goes missing and Walby is able to lead the police to her body without difficulty. Meanwhile Walby's lonely wife, Lyn, played by Emma Croft, starts an affair with the young Londoner filling in at the local pet shop his for his sick uncle. He discovers that she's still a virgin, in spite of having been married for four years. Walby, whose mother left him suddenly when he was a boy, has been psychologically affected, and has an odd relationship with women. His father was also badly affected by his wife's departure, and, while he continues to work at his old job, is on medication and seeing a psychiatrist.
It's all a bit heavy going, not helped by the policeman seeming to be as odd as everyone else. A new character is introduced late in the proceedings (new in a sense; we've seen him before without knowing who he was - and he's odd too!) and is briefly suspected by Walby himself, and then Lyn is killed. The whole thing turns upside down and Walby and his Dad prove to be the murderers between them. Not one of Rendall's best - unless it's the adaptation that's at fault. The cast do their very best with it, but since they're all hiding things from each other it becomes a bit overwrought.
We were a bit inclined not to watch the second film, but it turned out to be much better, and keeps you guessing right till the end.
It concerns a wealthy woman who marries a younger man, who's not of the same station (as the woman's unpleasant uncle keeps reminding everyone). The main thrust of the story is that eventually the woman begins to suspect she's being poisoned and finally comes to the conclusion that it must be her husband, because he wants to get his hands on her money. But intertwined with this is a complex story about the woman's friend who apparently goes missing. Halfway through we think it's the husband who's killed her off. The suspicions keep shifting until at the end we realise that we should have known who the murderer was all along (we're kept guessing in part because we're not even sure that there has been a murder!) This was a much more satisfactory piece, with lots of red herrings, some clever casting (it has hints of Hitchcock's Suspicion, especially in the way it casts a handsome young man as the husband, but one who could easily be an outright liar), and a continually involving story.
Michael Fitzgerald, in a
completely different role.
The third film, A Case of Coincidence, is shorter than the other two, and concerns the murder of five women in a marshland area. Four of the women, it turns out, have been murdered by the same man (this is discovered in a rather odd way, and isn't very believable), but whether the fifth was killed by the same man or not, isn't so easy to work out...for the police, that is. We're pretty certain early on that she wasn't. Her husband, a top surgeon, lives something of a separate life from his wife, and after her death keeps fainting or sweating heavily or being given medication and put to bed (by a fellow-surgeon, a female, who's plainly madly in love with him) and not really getting back to work. His over-protective mother turns up and treats the woman surgeon like a kind of high-class maid, but the surgeon herself is equally over-protective. Fatally, as it happens.The half-wit murderer of the other four is accused of the fifth murder as well, and is hung. But the husband, as we guessed, murdered his wife, and seemingly because someone else has been tried and hung for the crime, can't be convicted. This seemed a bit odd.
However, the cast is superb, and does a terrific job with a rather unbelievable story (it's an adaptation of a short story by Rendall, and it seems almost as though the adaptor had got himself in a bit of a tangle). Michael Fitzgerald (see picture), as the 'half-wit' man convicted of the crimes, is marvellously moving.