Guest author: Sara Bailey on writing Dark Water

A big welcome today to Sara Bailey, who is here talking about writing her debut novel, Dark Water. Sara and I met on an online course several years ago where we were both learning to edit our work so I saw this novel in it’s very early stages. Thrilled for Sara that is now out in the world and doing so well. Over to you, Sara. 


The most common question I’ve been asked since the book came out is ‘How do you write?’ Which I’m taking as, ‘How do you find the time?’ Well, when I’m working on a book, I try to set up a routine. It’s changed a bit since I moved to Orkney, and since I got a puppy, but essentially it’s the same. Clear the decks and my mind and get on with it.

As soon as my husband leaves for work and I’ve had my second cup of tea, I pull on dog walking clothes, grab the whistle (as only thing Molly the dog responds to when we’re out), the dog and head to the sea. It’s a five-minute walk down the hill to one of Orkney’s most glorious beaches. Every day it’s different and no one could fail to be inspired by the breath taking views I live with on a daily basis. This morning it is bright and windy and the bay is beautiful with great stretches of sand and rolling indigo waves bringing in the tide. Molly knows the way now and she’s off, head down, sniffing out and hiding amongst the sand dunes to leap out at me when I reach her. Occasionally she’ll try and chase a seagull, but they always get away.

The sea is rough today, indigo and turquoise. Other days it can be almost black or white with reflected light. It can be flat calm or great walls of glass that crash in terrifying thunder on the beach, hurling seaweed, shells and pebbles, dead seals, seabirds, a bottle or part of a creel, then retreating back, dragging flotsam and jetsam back into it’s tidal maw. There are four seals bobbing about in the bay today. I love their curiosity and soulful eyes. Selkies play a definite role in Dark Water, so I watch out for them whenever I am down on the beach. Most of the myths and legends of Orkney come from the sea and I can’t think of a better source of inspiration.

When I was first asked by Amanda to write this guest blog my mind went blank. She had very kindly suggested that I write about the themes of my debut novel, Dark Water, which pretty much floored me – themes? What themes? Oh yes, those, ah..

Writer’s shouldn’t be lost for words or unable to explain the themes and layers in their books – all this should trip off the tongue. But it doesn’t, not for me, because each time I think about the novel I realise that it’s about something else. I suppose the most obvious theme is water, specifically the sea but it is also about truth, if truth can be a theme and it’s about friendship and island living.

Orkney as a setting is ideal for these themes because firstly islands have their own rules, their own truths if you like and their own way of seeing things. As an island, of course, it is surrounded by water and the water is both part of the island and separate. It is the gulf you have to cross to become a part of the mainland and it can be the reason you are shut off, sometimes for days at a time. The sea provides sustenance and livelihood for many. It has to be treated with respect. No ones knows this better than islanders.

Friendships on an island are more important than anywhere else or anything else – you rely on your neighbours so much more on an island – by necessity if not always by design. In the book, the two girls are almost an island in themselves. As outsiders they cling to each other in a sea of families and familiarity bound by decades, centuries even. They rely on each other so much more than they would have done if they’d met, say somewhere in England or mainland Scotland.

When Helena returns to the island, there is a sharp contrast with her life in London. In London, she is surrounded by a sea of people, but she is very isolated, with few if any close friends. Back in Orkney, we, like her, are struck by how much she is part of the fabric there.

Helena has her own version of the events she left behind, and much of the novel is concerned with what she will allow herself to remember or acknowledge.

I don’t want to say anymore in case of spoilers. Let’s just say, sometimes it’s hard to tell which way is up and which is down.


Thanks for coming, Sara. Orkney sounds like a wonderful place to live, write and walk.

You can get a copy of Dark Water here; and connect with Sara on Twitter.

Year of Indie Debuts: Lost in Static

Welcome to Christina Philippou today. Her debut novel, Lost in Static, is out now with Urbane Publications and she’s also the founder of BritFic – a collective of contemporary fiction authors. I really enjoyed Lost In Static and it raised many questions in my mind about perceptions, truths and the lies we tell each other and ourselves.

Hello! Firstly, thank you to Amanda Saint and Retreat West for having me on the blog today.

I’m here to talk about my debut novel, Lost in Static, which looks at the same events from four (sometimes very) different students’ conflicting points of view. So what made me write a novel from four perspectives? I’ve always found multi point-of-view narratives fascinating, but the ‘pass the baton’ style always felt like there was so much left unsaid. A few novels have crossover narratives, like Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet, but I wanted to get under the skin of the characters and show how easy it is to misunderstand others’ words and actions when you are not in their head.

Misunderstandings are easy to come by, and the novel keeps coming back to this as the characters struggle with the events that unfold. Add in a large dose of immaturity (they are university first-years) and a whole host of secrets, and the versions of reality are skewed depending on which shade your glasses are (although it must be said that none of them wore rose-tinted ones).

I became rather obsessed with misunderstandings as I was writing Lost in Static. I found myself telling friends snippets of information and then listening intently to how they recanted the story to third parties, or discussing events that we’d both attended and hearing very different interpretations of happenings. It made me appreciate the intricacies of multi-POV narratives, but also the importance of talking things through, both in fiction and in real life.

So many words in, and all I’ve talked about is the structure of the book and the misunderstandings it creates, but that is what drove the narrative – the need to show how differently people from very similar backgrounds and cultures can view things. It’s been fascinating to read reviews coming in, as the characters that readers identify with are as different as the characters themselves.

But there is more than the just the issue of misunderstandings in the novel, even if some of the themes are more lightly dealt with. Given that it’s set in a university, the coming-of-age theme is almost inevitable, though some characters grow more than others. This, too, was intentional, as people grow up at different speeds and certain (usually unsavoury) situations force people to grow up much faster than the norm.

Then there’s all the social issues that arise in a university setting – casual racism, sexuality, substance use (and abuse) and, although not all dealt with directly in the novel, they still influenced the mood of the writing.

But beneath it all is the story itself, a tale of growing up that is coated in mystery. Having grown up on a reading diet of Agatha Christie and Alistair MacLean, Lost in Static was not immune to the need for secrets and (non-gratuitous) violence in the plot…

And that’s the flavour of the book and the themes and influences behind the writing. But if you have any questions, feel free to ask – you can find me on my blog, Twitter, and Facebook.


Thanks for coming, Christina, and best of luck with the book.

If you’d like a copy you can get one here.

Author interview: CM Taylor on the transformational arc

I saw CM Taylor (aka Craig) deliver a workshop on Character is Destiny at the York Festival of Writing and was hooked on the ideas he introduced in it. So much so that I invited him to come and teach an expanded version at a retreat. The Character is Destiny Retreat took place in March 2017 and there were two 3-hour workshops expanding on the ideas that intrigued me at York.

Delighted to have Craig here on the blog today talking about character development and the transformational arc.

Craig, you co-wrote a horror film that’s coming out soon about writers retreating to a remote island and terrifying things happening (I’m sure our retreat won’t be like that!) – can you tell us how writing characters for the screen and novels differs and also how and where it crosses over?
Yeah, that’s correct. The thing which makes a writers’ retreat an apt subject for a horror film is the same thing which makes it appropriate for advancing yourself creatively. You take yourself out of a normal environment, and put yourself in a situation where you can go into yourself, and, with the help of others, engage with your emotions and creative truths.

But about characters, and how writing characters for screen and prose differs, well, one of the main differences I would say is that in screenwriting you need to leave room for the actor and the director. In prose, you are the writer, the actor, and the director, and how you portray the character is the totality of that character’s portrayal. Whereas with screen, you are merely providing the ingredients which the director and the actor will cook up between them. You need to leave room for actors to act.

Plus in screenwriting you work a lot with sub-text. For example, the character can say the opposite of what they really feel and the actor’s face will convey this duplicity and conflict. Like in a film someone can say, “Yes, my Lord”, but their face and tone and body-language can mean, “I will kill you tomorrow.” So in screenwriting you don’t write the, “I will kill you tomorrow” bit, but in prose you kind of have to, because you do not have a twenty-foot high actor’s face to show the concealed meaning. So prose is more of a spoon-feeding kind of medium in a way, the sub-textual elements are fewer.

Now, there is all this stuff in creative writing teaching about showing not telling, and prose writers can learn a lot from screenwriters about that skill, but fundamentally, prose is obliged to be a slightly telling sort of medium. The kind of radical, bone dry showing-only that screenwriters trade in will just not work in prose. The reader does need to be told a little bit.

The unique strength of the novel as an art form is that it can slide behind the eyes of a character in the way that other mediums can’t. We can fall into the mulch of consciousness in the novel. It it is the closest thing to mind-reading humans have invented. Yet. So it’s concerned with interiority and the depiction of moment-by-moment consciousness in a way which the screen is just not. We can say almost exactly what is happening in the mind of a person in prose. But in screenwriting we have to convey what is happening in the mind of the person only through those things which can be seen. Actions, speech. Music can hint at unseen feelings too. And there are the techniques of voice-over, or a character writing a diary, say, or something of this nature. But in terms of the narrative arts, the totality of the un-mediated interior life is available most directly in prose.

The similarities between the two forms of narrative art is that their subjects are themselves subject to the same forces. In the novel and on screen, character is subject to the forces of personal history, subject to the forces of relationships (love, family, tribe, work), subject to the forces of the wider world, (what we might call history or society or war or the environment), and, (although many stories leave this aspect out), they are also subject to cosmic and religious impulses. Those are the four nooses which story tightens around a protagonist. So in both screen-writing and prose writing these same existential human pressures come to bear. And the goal of the writing is the same, to show a person in the grip of events and time, and to show how they change or do not change with regard to their experiences.

That really is narrative art. The depiction of the effects of time upon life.

The focus for this workshop is all about creating an emotional transformational arc for your characters alongside the main narrative arc and plot – can you tell us why you think this is so important to master for novel writing?
Well, psychologically, I think that there is a profound, subconscious, didactic element to stories, and the reason why we consume them with such unrelenting gusto is because they teach us how to live. We see a character in a transitional moment in their life, we see a character forced by life to make a tough choice, and we are desperate to see what they will do, so that we can judge if we would have done the same, so we can judge how different they are to us, or how not different at all.

We gulp down story so that we can see how characters negotiate the changes and horrors of life which await ourselves. On a subconscious level, characters are our avatars whom we scrutinise for advice about negotiating painful change. Stories are wiser than their tellers. They are our elders.

But as to why transformational screenwriting models of how best to depict moral and emotional change – be that heroic or tragic change – in narrative art are particularly pertinent to prose writers, well, a lot of writers of prose are perhaps overly attached to individual words and sentences, and paragraphs, at the expense of scenes and sequences and plot outcomes.

Screenwriters think more structurally on the whole. Prose writers tend to be hacking through the story jungle with a machete, while screenwriters are above the jungle in a chopper, burning that mother down. And I think if you were to honestly recall a favourite novel, years after you have finished reading, what you would probably remember is the fate of the character, or an amazing scene. In short, what happened to them. How they struggled under which forces.

The beauty or not of individual lines, or words, or purple passages, while perhaps paramount to the writer when they are writing, is not that which most readers take away. Narrative is concerned with fates, with what happens to a person when they are put under certain pressures. The pattern of choices a character makes which taken together results in a fate. So it is very important for writers of prose to deal with structure, to understand the underlying shapes of structure. And that’s where I go to screen-writing to steal that structural knowledge. There is without question an underlying structure to narrative art, in particular in the instance we are talking about here, with regard to how characters can be shown to change or not change under external and internal duress over the course of a story. There are real, teachable working models for this.

Which novels do you think have nailed this and why?
Well first of all, different types of novels, different genres of novels, deal with this in different ways. A geopolitical thriller will not trade in heavy emotional transformation, but if it wants to hook more readers in, readers who are interested in human meaning and not just the mechanics of plot, if it wants to add feeling to action, then it can in some unobtrusive simple, structural way deal with emotional transformation. Similarly, a literary novel may be almost exclusively concerned with the emotional development or transformation of the hero or heroine. There’s a whole genre of this – the bildungsroman, the novel of spiritual progress. So any genre can trade in the transformational arc.

A couple of novels I love that work well on the scale of human transformation and in very different ways are Staying On by Paul Scott, and The Van by Roddy Doyle.

Now The Van is a work of humorous social realism, set on a working class estate in Dublin and it concerns male friendship. Two unemployed guys, listless, low in self esteem, decide to set up a fast food van to sell to people coming out of the pubs after World Cup games. Brilliantly simple. Now because it is working on the level of social realism, the transformation here is going to be similarly realistic and small. We are not talking Macbeth here. So, through running a chipper with his mate, the main character gets the respect of his wife back because he’s been active not passive, and he loses his friendship with his partner who becomes bullying and domineering, and he gets his own self-respect back because he’s done something.

So it’s a very small plot. But it takes our hero from a passive moment in his life, through to a wiser sadder place where he holds knowledge of his friend’s character, but where he has a better marriage and more self-confidence. An irreversible change has been made in his character. It’s brilliantly done.

Now in terms of emotional change, Paul Scott’s Staying On concerns a timid wife, obliged to stay on in colonial India by her stubborn and uncommunicative husband. Now in the story he ultimately dies – in fact it is stated on the first page that he does – leaving her stranded. But he is ill first, and during the course of the illness she establishes a timid – to some extent imaginary – relationship with a friend from England, allowing her to confess her difficulties with her husband, and she works up the nerve to force her introverted husband to finally state their financial realities.

So that is again played out on a very micro level. Yes, the illness and then death of the husband is the huge external thing, the change, but the real meat, the emotional transformation, is internal, and comes from her pursuing a friendship in which she is able to gain support for her neglected emotions, and being able to ask her husband for some financial accountability which she never has felt entitled to do before. So she is bereaved and stuck but emboldened at the end. It’s a beautiful book.

What can the writers who take this workshop with you expect to learn?
Well I aim for very practical outcomes. There is a method that I use which fosters a writer’s theme, what they care about most, integrates that theme with character transformation, and then integrates character transformation with plot development. So the three main aspects of narrative art – theme, character and plot are all treated as part of the same moving concern and the same evolving structure. And it’s done in a way which privileges theme, and in such a way that character change is the glue which holds theme to plot, and we treat character change as a process which can be learned and mapped and replicated.

Many models of story are top-down, plot first, and they have their place, but the one I teach here is particularly interesting for prose writers because it privileges the writer’s emotions and themes and seamlessly integrates those with the structural aspects of writing. So what I expect everyone in the class to be able to do at the end of this retreat is have a replicable system of linking theme to character to plot. Now intuition can be great, but it can also be awful. Sometimes if you rely on intuition and inspiration you will be right and sometimes you will be wrong. So what I hope to do is offer a simple, repeatable method whereby you can test the usefulness of your inspiration against a system for unifying the three main aspects of writing.


Author interview: Dean Lilleyman

Delighted to welcome Dean Lilleyman back to the blog today. He last visited to talk about his debut novel, Billy and the Devil, which is a reading experience not to be missed. He’s back now on the launch of his new book, The Gospel According to Johnny Bender, which I also thoroughly enjoyed and highly recommend.

Book blurb: ‘Once upon a time there was a village called Edendale, and some people were good and some people were bad and some people were in-between. Do we know who is what yet? I don’t think we do…’

During the celebrated carnival of 1979, the villagers danced beneath a mirror-ball, as a young girl drifted dead in the river. Who knew the truth of things? And would the truth matter? Now it’s 1999 and Edendale is holding another carnival. An anniversary to commemorate the life-changing events of twenty years before, by pretending it’s 1979…again. One day, two decades apart, the mirror-ball turning in the dark to light a truth.

Dean, I loved how the 2 days from 1979 and 1999 were weaved together and showed how the past influences the future, and also how some things never change. Can you tell us where the inspiration for this dual timeline story came from?
This all started from a mishmash of things scribbled on my walls, which is how I tend to put stories together. I like the idea of things forming themselves, no questioning why. The more things that get scribbled the more the glue seems to happen. I definitely write from where I’m at, so I guess there’s a relationship between these things, even if they do feel unconnected at first. I think the truth of the thing starts to show itself this way, maybe because I’m not presuming I know.

The Johnny scribbles started coming at a time where my life was dancing fuck-it on one end, but rattling loose at the other. These two ends definitely started to show a clash in the scribbles. For sure the past was trying to grab the now by the scruff and say hang on fella, the future a shrug, the now grinning a so what? Looking back, I see all this as a massive influence on how Johnny happened. And with the scribbles it’s not just what’s happening to me at the time, it’s the stuff I’m taking in. Books, films, music, whatever. Like jamjarring sparks.

When Johnny was coming together, one of the things was definitely seventies disco. It seemed to be soundtracking my headspace bang on. And the more I listened, the more it made sense. As Dennis says to Debbie in the book, soul music is oh baby I want you so much but I can’t have you, while disco says hey, yesterday’s gone, tomorrow’s not even here, only now now now, so let’s do it. There’s a gamble of moment here. Time. This fed another bunch of scribbles about the end of things. Culture seems rammed with this sense of precise guillotine endings from way back. Religious doom declarations, Nostradamus, Hollywood narrative, the end. But what if when one song ends, another begins? On and on, god, a DJ. History repeating, yet with little changes, but the core truth still hums, much like the best dance tracks. A structure that shaped the rhythms of this novel for sure. And, I knew I had to trap all this into an isolated place. So, Edendale.

Three of my favourite stories do this brilliantly. Under Milk Wood. Winesburg, Ohio. The Wicker Man. This instinct that time was to play a big part in this story, the idea that ends become beginnings, made it clear I needed two timelines dancing together. This seemed to offer up a strong frame for the thing that was shouting out about this story. Obsession. What happens when you try to get back something that is dead, gone. If Billy was about being drunk, no love, then much of Johnny is about being drunk on love, a love that becomes an obsession, that becomes a madness, and how far that madness could take you into the deepest hole, a fucked up Plato’s cavern showing the same shadow play over and over, “It’s the same old song, but with a different meaning since you been gone,” on and on. But. Tangent. William Goyen was once asked in an interview what starts him writing. He replied, “It starts with trouble, you don’t think it starts with peace, do you?”

The headiness of a night dancing and drinking, and how it differs but also kind of remains the same for younger and older people, is really well captured and has been used to great effect in driving the plot forward as well as creating atmosphere. How did you choose which songs to use in each part?
The songs are joined at the hip to what’s happening in the story, by lyric or feel or both. I suppose it became a kind of mixtape, or maybe several mixtapes over the course of a relationship. The first one is probably called I think I like you. The second, I think I love you. The third, I want you forever. The fourth, please don’t go I can’t live without you. I think there’s something very beautiful in trying to tell someone something in a song, or a mixtape, or a poem, story, novel.

Johnny Bender is a wonderful narrator that brings a surreal and sensitive element into the story – is he the character that came to you first?
When the wall scribbles became a loose storyline, got painted over and scribbled as a tighter idea, I felt strongly I needed a narrator. A compass. I liked the idea of this story having a flavour of folk tale to it, a bit like Lars von Trier’s Dogville. It makes a good contrary to the fuck-awful goings-on within. Makes the tone richer. As a character, Johnny is definitely modelled on the Shakespearean fool. Talks in riddles, sounds radged, but, if you listen properly and go with the flow, he’s telling you some big truths. When Johnny arrived, it wasn’t long before Blackbird got there too. That’s when I knew I had my story.

Just like in Billy and the Devil you capture small town, small minded England so well – what is it that drives you to delve into the psyche of these kind of characters?
When I first started writing, the writer that grabbed me by the scruff was Raymond Carver. Ordinary people, ordinary problems, delivered in a way that registered the importance of these problems to the character concerned. Feels real. Sounds a bit grandiose, but we’re all the centre of our own universe aren’t we? Our problems are important, because. But, with Edendale, I wanted to play with stereotypes too, twist them a bit, in the same way Sherwood Anderson does in Winesburg, Ohio. In that book he opens with a surreal prologue where an old man has a dream about the beginning of all things. The dream shows him a long line of people queueing up to collect their own personal truths before they enter life. For some people these truths become everything about them, so much so that they become grotesques, their truths walking ahead of them in all they do.

In Edendale there are most definitely people like that. Ordinary people who have become grotesques because of their truths. Mr King is one. Preaching community, yet we see him for what he is, a self-obsessed dickhead obsessed by power. And yes, some people in Edendale are bigots because of this grotesquery. But. Look outside. Turn the news on. Catch the bus into town. So-called shortfalls of resources being blamed on immigration, spawning violence and irrational knee-jerk reactions sparked by lies from self-obsessed powermongers, gobbled up by a worrying mass of people because they want a better quality of living, or some return to a Britain that never really was, buying the empty canted promises of these terrible manipulators, these liars so ridiculous they should be laughed at, but, they’re not, they’re gaining power and momentum based on these lies. History repeating.

But perhaps I’m naïve. My own personal politics, perhaps near childlike. But. Worldwide we seem to have enough resources. The problem is, and if there is going to be an end of times it’s going to be from this: money is now politics and money is now power, more than it has ever been, and yet in one swipe so many problems could be sorted by the simple act of sharing. But the fat cats won’t will they? They want to keep their voice the loudest, and in the world we live in, the loudest are the richest. And it is always, always, the underbelly that suffers, the ordinary people. Always.

Today I saw a video of Syrian children playing in a bomb crater, a bomb crater that had severed the water supply to a large part of a city, the pipe filling the crater with dirty water, and, the children were swimming, and laughing. I couldn’t tell whether this was the most uplifting thing I had seen, or the saddest. Powermongers either side, and these kids in the middle. I don’t even pretend to understand what the fuck is happening over there, and who is doing what for why, but I know this: these are ordinary people trapped by something they have no say in, and yet, we watch, build walls, close borders, stop these people escaping horrors that we are fortunate enough not to even be able to imagine.

In Billy and the Devil, there’s a scene where a farmhand kills a runt while Billy masturbates in the barn loft above, watching. Runts are not profitable. They cost too much to rear, and don’t put on enough bodyweight for saleable meat. It costs nothing to swing them by the back-legs, smash their head into a wall and be done. This is how the world works. History repeating. Again, again. But. 1930s Germany. A group of young people who wanted nothing to do with the rise of dangerous right-wing politics did something remarkable. They met in cellars, and danced to jazz records. Despite the fact that they could be locked up for doing so. In Syria, the kids swim in bomb craters. Tomorrow, they know, is uncertain.


As alway, thanks for your honesty and passion, Dean, which jumps off the page in both your novels as well as your interviews for Retreat West.

If you’d like to read The Gospel According to Johnny Bender then you can get a copy here. Keep up to date with Dean and his writing on Twitter and his website.

What do you think about the themes of history repeating itself on a personal and political level? Are we always doomed to relive the same mistakes from the past over and over or can we break the cycles? Let’s talk!

Competition: Win a place on the 8 Month Novel Course

We love a comp at Retreat West! The latest is to win a place on the online 8 Month Novel course starting in January 2017. Deadline for entries is 20th November 2016.

It’s a mix of creative writing course through exercises and readings and 1-1 mentoring from Amanda Saint, and by the end you’ll have a short first draft to go away and work with, along with an editorial report to help you develop it. The course is for a maximum of 5 writers to work together at a time and there’s an online forum space where you can chat and share your work with each other. You can get the full info on it here.

You can win one of the places on the course by entering the competition – all you need to do is pay the competition entry fee and submit up to 500 words pitching you and your story idea and why you’d like to do the course. Full T&Cs below.

A winner will be chosen from all entries received by the closing date and will get to join the online, collaborative course in January.

Last time 2 writers won a place – Poppy Peacock and Jacqui Stearn – and they start their course next week. Although the competition is just for one of the places on the course, I found it impossible to choose between them so you never know, this could happen again for the January course too!

Competition T&Cs

  • You can enter as many times as you like with different novel ideas but must submit them separately and pay the competition entry fee of £15 each time
  • All entries must be written in English and received by 23.59 on 20th November 2016
  • The prize is a free place on the online 8 Month Novel Course starting 27th January 2017 and it is not transferable and there is no cash alternative
  • By entering the competition you agree to take part in the course if you win and to having your details announced on the website and in the newsletter
  • Enter using the button below


Guest author: Katherine Hetzel on writing fantasy

Delighted to welcome Katherine Hetzel to the blog today. I’ve known Katherine for several years now after first meeting online then in person at the Festival of Writing in York, where we see each other every year now. She’s also previously won a short story competition and her story, The Colour of Life, provided the title for the first anthology of winners published by Retreat West.

She’s here today talking about her debut children’s novel, Starmark, which was published earlier this year. Thanks for visiting the blog, Katherine.


Fantasy has always been my favourite thing to read. It offers an escape from the everyday and ordinary and gives me the chance to immerse myself in new, impossible worlds inhabited by people who aren’t a bit like me, but who I can imagine being. I suppose it was inevitable then, that I should begin writing what I most loved to read: fantasy. It also has the advantage of not needing much research – I can quite literally make everything up!

I wrote for children because I saw as a volunteer ‘listener’ to readers in my local primary school’s classrooms, so many children who hated reading. As a confirmed bookworm, and with two bookwormy kids of my own, I wanted to change that. With the arrogance of ignorance, I began writing my first novel about ten years ago.

StarMark is actually my second novel but the first to be published. It’s a rags-to-riches story (because I’m a sucker for a happy(ish) ending) about Irvana, who discovers her past, which changes her future (a phrase I have pinched from a five star review on Goodreads with the reviewer’s permission!)

I think as a child, I wanted to be something different, something special. Perhaps we all did…I knew I wasn’t, though. So I used a lot of my imagination pretending to be ‘discovered’ as someone important with a real purpose in life. As an adult, with a very normal life (whatever that means) I found that in the fantasy I was still reading, birthmarks were often used as a device to indicate destiny.

Perhaps some of that childish desire to be special stayed with me even into adulthood, because that’s the point I started from when I first had the idea for the novel. Instead of Cinderella’s shoe, there’d be something on the skin – a magical mark which turned to gold at the coming to power. That’s what made you ‘special’. But…but…what if you had that mark and didn’t know? And someone else discovered it before you did? What kind of story would that make?

That’s when Irvana’s world came to life.

It’s very much a ‘pantsed’ novel rather than a ‘planned’ one, partly because during the eight years it took to achieve publication with Bedazzled Ink, I learned so much about the craft of writing and myself as a writer. The goalposts kept moving and I lost count of the number of edits I completed. I needed to create a world different enough for the reader to imagine comfortably but not so different to their experience they couldn’t connect with it. I needed strong, memorable characters that children could identify with, ones they could imagine having as friends – or enemies.

Most importantly, I needed to remember what it felt like to be a child so that I could see everything through Irvana’s eyes and feel everything through her body.


Although aimed at children, I’ve been surprised by how many adults have read StarMark too. Perhaps because it’s a story about growing up, about seeing where you came from, how it shaped you, and about accepting who you are meant to be? I reckon that’s something most of us can relate to, whatever our age.


You can get a copy of StarMark here and there’s a reading guide to go with it too, available here.

Katherine’s second novel, Kingstone, will be published by Bedazzled Ink in June 2017 and she’s currently working on The Crystal Keeper’s Daughter.

You can keep up to date with her writing and other news on her website and on her blog.