Friday, 31 July 2015

Parallax, Congruence and the Unmarked State – how to write from a perspective other than your own

by Catriona Troth

What a dull place the literary world would be if we could only create characters just like ourselves!

Yet many authors are scared off creating characters with a different ethnicity, say, or a different sexual orientation, than their own, for fear of getting it wrong – offensively wrong.

Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward started running their Writing the Other workshops to help writers address those fears and to give them a shot at getting it right. Fortunately for those of us not able to attend one of the workshops, their wisdom has now been distilled into a small ebook.

The book is full of great exercises you can try, pitfalls to avoid and examples of good practice. It also goes into the psychology of our human tendency to simplify and generalise, to make things in our own image. If you are interested, I hope you’ll go ahead and download the book.

What I’ll try and do here is to summarise a few of the key concepts.

(Note that the differences that Shawl and Ward focus on are race, sexual orientation, (dis)ability, age, religion and sex. They discount class as being of lesser importance in most of North America, but British writers, in particular, might want to include that too.)

The Unmarked State:

A figure crossed the park and sat down on the bench.

What is your first mental image of that person? Before you stop and think about it? Before your writer’s brain starts getting creative?

There is a fair bet that, for many readers, that image will begin something like ‘male, white, young, able-bodied...’

It’s when you start to deviate from that unmarked state that things start to get interesting.


Parallax is a way of describing the shift in viewpoint that is needed when you step into someone else’s head.

A couple walk down the street holding hands.

If that couple are a white man and a white woman, then in most places in the Western world, that walk down the street is an unremarkable act. But what if that couple were a white man and a black woman? Or two men? Depending on the location, their experience of walking down that street could be completely different from the first couple’s.

Even if all three couples pass along the street unmolested, the way they perceive their surrounding will not be the same. What does each couple think as they approach a group of teenagers drinking lager outside a pub? A policeman talking on his radio?

Allow your characters their own biases, grounded in their experiences of the world.

(Here's a great real life example of parallax from a recent edition of the Guardian.)


It’s important to take into account those changes of viewpoint when you create a character. But it’s also important to remember that race, sexual orientation etc are not the be-all and end-all of someone’s personality, even if those things are central to your story.

If parallax is about the difference in viewpoint between your character and the reader or writer, congruence is about finding points of similarity or empathy.

In my novella, Gift of the Raven, Terry is mixed race child who has been abused, and those things profoundly affect the way he looks at the world. Yet, like just about any other Canadian boy his age, he is also crazy about ice hockey.

In Tamim Sadikali’s Dear Infidel, the moment when the four cousins wax nostalgic over a Carry On film makes this Asian family celebrating Eid seem suddenly like any other British family.

Going more than skin deep

Those are the principles, but how do you go about making those shifts in perspective?

Here are a few of Shawl and Ward’s tips:

· READ – but make sure you are reading primary sources, not something filtered through someone else’s perspective.

· TAKE A WALK ON THE WILD SIDE – go places you wouldn’t normally go; feel what it’s like lose the invisibility of just being one of the crowd

· TALK TO PEOPLE – interview someone from your character’s background (but be open about why you’re doing it)

· RECOGNISE THE LIMITATIONS OF YOUR UNDERSTANDING - Shawl talks about writers who are either invaders, tourists or guests. Invaders barge in unannounced, snatch what they want and destroy what seems valueless to them. Tourists are expected. They may be ignorant, but they listen and are willing to be educated. Guests are invited and the relationships they build are long-term and reciprocal.

Most writers attempting to create characters very different for themselves should probably assume they are tourists. Be respectful, listen carefully, learn as much as you can, but acknowledge that your perspective remains that of an outsider.

In my novel, Ghost Town, for example, Baz grew up with no knowledge of his father’s culture and is only learning about it now, as an adult. That gave me wriggle room to explain the gaps in his knowledge.

So go ahead create diverse characters who are nothing like you. Just follow the advice of Joseph Bruchac in a recent Twitter chat on diversity. Remember four words to live and write by: 
Honesty, Empathy, Knowledge, Respect

Thursday, 23 July 2015

A Taste of Triskele
Ah, the lazy days of summer. It’s hot, or not. You’ve set up the lounger/hammock/comfy chair. You’ve prepared a cocktail/opened a beer/brewed a cuppa. The next decision is what to read.

If only there were a sample platter: short, digestible and appetising stories with plenty more where that came from...

Ta da!
Triskele Books invite you to come adventuring through time and place.

We’ve picked eight of our most evocative tales to transport you otherwhere. But that’s not all. To truly experience the destination, each story is accompanied by a local recipe.

Our motto? A little of what you fancy does you good.

A Taste of Triskele
A tale, a place, a time, a taste.
Eight delectable short stories, each set in a distinctive location, accompanied by a local dish.
Fall in love with honey, bite into bitterness, sweeten the secrets, indulge your excesses, tickle your palette and free your imagination.
Whether you’re on a beach or in your own back garden, escape into extraordinary worlds.
Bon voyage. And bon appétit.

Available at Amazon

Available at Smashwords

Friday, 17 July 2015

Narrator Paul Hodgson talks ACX and Audiobooks

In the second part of our series looking into audiobook options now available for authors via ACX, we talk to narrator, Paul Hodgson, who has recently done a superb job narrating the first of JD Smith's epic historical fiction novels - The Rise of Zenobia.

Hi, welcome to Triskele Books blog. I’d like to ask first a little about your background and how you became a professional narrator?

I trained as an actor at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama – not that I’m Welsh, they were the only ones who’d have me – and worked professionally in theatre, TV and radio in London for a while before moving on to a writing career. On moving to the US (I married an American in the meantime) I returned to acting and founded a professional company, the Everyman Repertory Theatre, in Camden, on the coast of Maine in the far North East of the country, at the same time as holding down a full-time writing position. When I got fired from that – who needs journalists any more – the consequent drop in income precipitated me into doing what people have been telling me I should be doing for a long time – reading audiobooks. I started with a mammoth 22 hour commission of Alec Waugh’s The Balliols – a much better book than anything Evelyn ever wrote, and just continued from there.

What do you enjoy about narrating novels?

I love the preparation, research and character work. I’ve always spent a lot of time mastering accents – the Maine accent is a tough one and I’d only ever do it among friends or out of the state – and voices, especially when reading to my kids when they were growing up that it is that piece I enjoy the most. It’s like any performance, acting isn’t about pretending, it’s about making it real. Finding the emotion inside you that already exists and using it for the narration.

Obviously, with the creation of ACX there’s now more focus and opportunity for indie-authors to get involved in audiobooks, how do you see this change in the process affecting the market?

It seems to me that any change that opens up the market is a good change. The “mainstream” publishing business is a tough one, but people still really enjoy reading and listening to books so the demand is much wider than the mainstream business recognises.

When you’re searching for a new project, or considering author approaches, do you look at whether they are indie or traditionally published and would this affect your decision?

I’m just looking for a great story with cracking dialect.

What do you look for in a book to narrate?

 See above!

Do you think audiobooks will become more popular, and so more profitable with easier access to services like ACX?

I do. ACX is a great system for marrying authors with narrators. Most of my books so far have been direct commissions from Audible, but that’s a one-time fee, however successful the book is. I’d far rather share in the book’s success. That way I care more about how it’s doing.

What do you think makes a successful relationship between author and narrator?

Communication, communication, communication. Of course, if the author loves everything you’re doing, the communication piece is less important, but if there are issues then it is essential.

As an author, I’ve found the whole experience of working with yourself via ACX stress-free and enjoyable. How have you found working within the new service via ACX?

Without my studio and my proof/editor it would have been incredibly stressful, but fortunately they know what they are doing and I can just sit and read. Working with you has been a breeze and a pleasure. Don’t forget I’m an actor, a little praise goes a long way. As Laurence Olivier said in answer to Dustin Hoffman when he asked him why actors did what they did: “Look at me! Look at me! Look at me! Look at me! Look at me…!”

OK, we’re not that bad.

The Rise of Zenobia is available via Audible

Friday, 10 July 2015

Interview with Susie Day

JW Hicks talks to Susie Day, author of The Twice-Lived Summer of Bluebell Jones.

Did you always mean to write for young people?

Since I was seven. Then I forgot all about it. It wasn’t until Harry Potter hit (and sent me back to reread lots of beloved books) that I remembered, and binned all my overwrought undergraduate Works Of Fine Literature in favour of much more important stuff.

Which are the unforgettable books you read as a child?

The Twits by Roald Dahl, because it was the first book I ever chose for myself from a bookshop. The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken, because it was the first book I didn’t finish; being ‘a good reader’ was important to my self-perception, and it was a big step to accept that I could choose not to slog through something I didn’t like. Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild, because I refused to read it for years (urgh, ballet, how girly) and then discovered Petrova felt exactly the same.

I must confess that the final pages of Twice-Lived Summer made my eyes prickle. How were you affected when you wrote them?

Sorry! (Well. A bit.) It was a hard book to write, for a number of reasons. I actually wrote 50,000 words of a different take on the ‘living one year twice’ idea before realising it didn’t work, and starting over. Hooray for understanding editors. And during that time someone I worked and lived with died unexpectedly, leaving young children, which made me shrink away from following through with the darker side of the story. It felt both inappropriate and exhausting to make fiction about tragedy in that environment. But that’s life, I think. It rolls on regardless. Books need to acknowledge that too.

Are your stories tightly structured, or loosely formed, developing as the work progresses?

I’m not a planner, alas. I’ve tried! But if I write a beautiful chapter plan, I deviate from it so much by chapter 2 that it’s wasted work. Before I start a new book I need a sense of the shape and size of it, of character, a few pivotal scenes, and to know the ending (what it will mean or feel, if not clear detail). It makes editing harder and longer, but it seems to be what suits me.

Bluebell’s book is all Wales, isn’t it? How strongly does growing up in Wales influence your writing?

I grew up with the sea at the end of my road (murky pebbly Penarth beach from the top of a cliff, mind, so don’t get too misty-eyed). Going down Barry Island as a kid was my best thing ever. It wasn’t till I watched Gavin & Stacey in England, with English people, that I really clocked that there was stuff for me so distinct and familiar there that they found quirky and alien.

I have a complex relationship with my own Welshness - I’ve lost all my lovely SWelsh vowels (not on purpose, just osmosis from the voices around me), and being from Penarth in the first place doesn’t endear you to some - but I am Welsh. I will always be that person correcting friends who say ‘England’ to mean ‘the UK’. When I was young, I always found it frustrating that children’s books always seemed to be set in London; if there was ever something in Wales it was fantasy, drawing on some legend. Writing Bluebell let me nudge against that, and also draw on my own teenage memories of seaside towns, massive seagulls, funfairs, chips and hope.

Your writing style is so very readable, what’s the secret of its appeal to young readers, and how important is it that you have disabled and LGBT characters in your stories?

Thank you! Readability isn’t something I consciously think about - I’m just trying to tell the story that fits these characters - but I suppose I try to fuse the memory of what I loved in books as a kid with the children I know and work with now. I think that fusion is probably also what motivates me to make my work inclusive. I grew up on classics, wonderful books, Narnia and Swamazons and Malory Towers and I still love and recommend those stories - but they don’t reflect the world I live in, and not only because talking lions don’t exist here. Representation matters. To all of us.

Some authors’ work comes over as patronising, does working with teenagers save you from this heinous crime? If not what does? And have you any tips on how not to talk down to your readers?

Sometimes you wind up talking down to your audience in ways you never intended. My first novel for young adults, Big Woo, was about social media and internet relationships, as well as being a funny story of ordinary mortifying teenage shenanigans. I set out to write something even-handed about online life, that acknowledged that we might need to be mindful about what we share while emphasising the vast joy and value that friendships formed by keystrokes can have. Looking back, I didn’t get the balance right. The book gets used in US schools as a scary warning: ‘if you aren’t careful online, look what can happen.’ I can’t think of anything I’d find more patronising as a young adult.

I think starting from a position of ‘I’m trying to figure this Life thing out too’ not ‘I’m old, I’ve done this, I have all the answers’ is probably a good beginning. I work in a boarding school with teenagers (boys aged 16-19), and the best conversations I have with them are the ones where I acknowledge at the start that I don’t have an instant fix or a magic remedy to whatever’s up; that my job is to listen to them. It’s got to be a team effort. Reading should probably feel the same.

Your novel has a cast of fabulous characters, Bluebell’s unflappable, not easily embarrassed parents, her wonderfully drawn sister Tigerlily, and her motley collection of friends. Do these characters come to you fully formed, or do they grow as you write?

Blue, Tiger, and her mum and dad were set in stone pretty quickly; I usually begin with characters and build from there. I knew I wanted a nervy girl with a spectacular big sister (I’m the youngest of four so I know what that’s like x3). I knew I wanted them to stay in a caravan park a little bit like the one at St Mary’s Well Bay in Sully. Then I saw a rockabilly band that had a splendid woman drummer, and the family set-up was sorted. The friends were a mix of people my big sister hung out with when she was a teenager, and people I imagined I’d hope to be mates with if I were Blue, starting over in a new town and trying to redefine myself.

Read JW Hicks's review of The Twice-Lived Summer of Bluebell Jones here.

Monday, 6 July 2015

Marketing Benefits of Writing What and Where You Know

Guest post by Girl Cop author, Sandy Osborne

They say ‘write about what you know,’ so as serving officer, it seemed natural for me to use this resource and set my romantic comedy novels against the backdrop of a police station. Girl Cop the life and loves of an officer on the beat and Girl Cop in Trouble are loosely based on my experiences as a probationary officer and as I joined in the early ’90s I also wanted to set the story in that era.

Of course back in those days we didn’t have mobile phones or email which make it so easy for relationships to take off quickly today. Back in the 1990s love had to wait for fate to take its natural course which was sometimes a long and frustrating road. My first novel reflects my heroine, Sally’s heartache as she experiences this frustration with her courtship of Alex. It was sometimes tricky to keep within the correct era as texting and the general ease of contacting people is something we take for granted these days.

My novels are set in the historic city of Bath with real places and landmarks being included in the storyline. This in itself has proved an invaluable marketing resource. Even those readers who don’t know the places personally, recognise the locations - and Bathonians and those who have visited the City have provided really positive feedback. The anecdote relating the Bennetts Lane challenge has attracted a lot of great comments – some people have even gone out of their way to visit the road!

The Bath Tourist Board gift shop asked to stock the books and the independent bookshops display them on their ‘local interest’ stands. My most impressive scoop though was as the result of including a scene at the plush Bath Priory Hotel and Spa. I contacted the manager of the hotel and asked for permission to describe a romantic dinner in their Michelin starred restaurant. Not only did they say ‘yes’ but they also offered a meal for two as the prize for a draw at the launch of my book. The support didn’t stop there – they followed this up by offering a mini break alongside a review of the first book in My Weekly magazine (I approached the magazine myself and it has an impressive readership of over 300,000.) I have kept both relationships going and My Weekly are running the offer again with a review of Girl Cop in Trouble next month!

The first My Weekly review described Girl Cop as ‘Bridget Jones in Uniform’ which I take as a great compliment as I am a massive fan of Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones trilogy and the tag line describes my books in an instant. I am now able to quote this in press releases and best of all I have been able to use it as an endorsement on the cover of Girl Cop in Trouble. Setting my novel within the Police and in the city of Bath has undoubtedly provided a boost up that all important marketing ladder in the self publishing world.


Sandy Osborne is a serving Police Officer who has self published her two novels with SilverWood Books. Sandy’s writing started after an unflattering picture of her running a charity half marathon was printed in her local paper and she felt compelled to respond with an amusing account of her training programme. She now shares her knowledge and tips for self publishing success with a diary of speaker events at Literature Festivals and with writing groups. A percentage from the sales from Girl Cop the life and loves of an officer on the beat and Girl Cop in Trouble is donated to The Police Dependants’ Trust and St Peter’s Hospice.


Girl Cop the life and loves of an officer on the beat Amazon

Girl Cop in Trouble Amazon

Author Website

Twitter @Girlcopnovel