We had a wonderful literary salon last week with our guest, the best-selling writer and former publisher Antonia Hodgson. Book doctor Andrew Wille joined me as co-chair along with a fab room of writers all fired up to discuss the intricacies of Plotting, Process and Page-turners.
Antonia’s Tom Hawkins historical crime series has scooped numerous literary awards and been chosen for both the Richard and Judy and Waterstones book clubs. Her debut novel in the series The Devil in The Marshalsea was published in 2014 but it wasn’t the first book she’d written. Antonia said that the first book published is rarely the first book written and even if it is there’s usually a hinterland. While working as a full time editor, Antonia spent five years quietly writing a novel about vampires that never saw publication. She joked that when she started no one had been writing about vampires, half way through everyone was and by the time she’d finished no one wanted a book about vampires.
We delved into Antonia’s development as a writer. She’s been thinking up stories in her head since childhood and even if the stories didn’t always get written down, being in a kind of story-telling mode mentally - constantly inventing characters, dialogue and creating scenes - was a useful apprenticeship for a budding writer. The more you can flex those story telling muscles the better. Just as a musician needs to learn scales etc, writing stories is like any other process, you must develop the right story-telling muscles to improve. She recommended reading broad and wide too. Antonia grew up with a library at the bottom of her road where she read everything on the shelves. Her publishing background, situated in a world that’s obsessed with stories, contributed indirectly to her development as a writer. During her publishing career Antonia acquired books across many genres led by whatever gripped her attention and reflecting her broad reading tastes.
Andrew wondered how Antonia came to write historical crime fiction and she described it as an accident of her curiosity. Research is “a treasure box” - a period of exploration and discovery. A small section of her non-published vampire book was set in the early eighteenth century. It’s a time she didn’t know much about and it became apparent that it was a neglected period which piqued her interest. To her bafflement and fascination she wondered why the period was overlooked in fiction. She’s since realised that the concept of neglected or marginalised things, be it stuff or people, is a reoccurring theme in her writing. “History is about the stories we like to tell ourselves…”
We discussed the importance of setting in her novels and how it provides opportunities for creating suspense and narrative drive. Book One, set in the Marshalsea Debtors Prison of 1720’s London, tells of a time before the establishment of a police force. It’s also an era when class and gender could mingle in a way that the Victorians couldn’t. The prison was a closed world where the governor and the turn keys had the inmates by the purse strings - a bit like a modern festival where everything is expensive! It was also a deadly place, rife with disease and injustice and was described by a primary source as “hell in epitome”. Antonia’s idea for the the novel began with a character; a young gentleman and gambler, Thomas Hawkins, who thinks too highly of himself. Antonia wondered what would happen with this character if she placed him under immense pressure in the crucible of a prison environment. The setting, complete with a classic locked room mystery, forced the structure and helped create incredible tension.
When thinking about a new book idea Antonia likes to get into a creative head space by playing around. She enjoys exploring possibilities and keeps it all quite open for a while. She’ll visit places like the British library for inspiration and pull down random books to read. It’s vital to allow that sense of play so the subconscious can start working. For Book Three of the series, Antonia knew she wanted to write a country house novel set away from London. She took herself to Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire and discovered a wealth of archives, including a collection of housekeeper’s records. She came across hand-written lists of food orders. The housekeeper responsible was entrusted to handle large sums of money suggesting that she was held in a position of trust even though she wasn’t gentry. Making these sort of connections can bring the past to life and help build real characters rather than constructs.
It’s important to find your own methods of writing. You have to find what works for you. Antonia bought along one of her preliminary notebooks for The Devil In The Marshalsea complete with loose sheets of paper, lots of “scribbling”, research and a hand drawn map of the prison. The notebook is filled with lots of “what if” questions and rejected answers that she whittled down until the story began to form. Sometimes all it takes is a sentence, which is how she found the character of Tom Hawkins - “Tried being good, tried being bad. Failed at both.”
Antonia’s method in a nutshell:
Daydream. Explore. Play. Seek out inspiration. Research and make notes.
Look out for physical letters, personal notes and trial transcripts. Read pamphlets, poets and playwrights of the day to get a feel for voice and language.
Do lots of character work with descriptions. Track where they are in the narrative and add plot points.
Try not to make assumptions about what people’s lives were like and avoid cliche and constructs.
Write the first draft with momentum and flow.
Write 30,000 words - get it all down and set it aside.
Put it away for a few weeks or as long as possible to gain perspective.
Read the manuscript aloud to yourself to hear repetition and to check pace and flow.
Scribble notes as you go along on the page and then rewrite again. And possibly again.
Hand it over to your editor (or a trusted reader).
Editing is an immersive activity - you provably will not want to do anything else until it’s done.
With every project Antonia’s learned to be more accepting of the inevitability and cyclical nature of the process. Whenever she finishes a first draft she always thinks it’s the worst thing she’s ever written. She now knows after writing and publishing several books that this simultaneously true and not true - it’s just part of the process.
So, what makes a page turner? It’s difficult to pin down but there must be must be a sense of urgency about it or a driving point coursing though the narrative and pulling the reader through. Look for questions and ideas that excite you or make you go oooh! Play with the reader’s expectations - catch the reader out. Make sure you read a lot in the genre you’re writing in.
With thanks to Antonia for generously sharing her writing wisdom and also for reading us a wonderful scene from Book Four, her work in progress. Big thanks to Andrew and the audience too.
Our next salon is on Monday 13th May. Emma will be back as co-host after her travels with her new book. We’re delighted to be welcoming the acclaimed children’s writer, Candy Gourlay. I’ve just finished reading Candy’s most recent novel Bone Talk and can’t wait to talk about it. Set in the highlands of the Philippines in 1899, it tells the story of a boy, Samkad of the Bontok people, whose way of life is changed forever by invaders, ‘the Americans’. It’s beautifully researched and written. Apart from collecting garlands of literary praise & prize shortlists it’s interesting to see that the book is endorsed by Amnesty International for upholding many fundamental human rights and depicting what happens when these rights are taken away for us…Candy is currently the Book Trust’s writer in residence and also runs one of the most savvy author websites you’ll ever visit. I’ll be asking for lots of pointers! Please do join us for what promises to be a great conversation. Hope to see you then!
Links & References:
Antonia Hodgson, Andrew Wille, The British Library, Fountains Abbey, Robyn Young, Anthony Richards, The Beggars Opera, Tai Chi, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, Bechdel Test Movie Test, Historical Writers Association, The Crime Writers Association, Capital Crime, Goldsboro Books, Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival