Poppy Denby: the truth-seeker

I am delighted to welcome Fiona Veitch Smith to my blog today. Author of the fabulous Poppy Denby Investigates series, she talks here about her third book, The Death Beat, as well as fake news and the need for good journalism.

At the launch party of the new book in my Poppy Denby Investigates series I was interviewed by a former broadcast journalist from ITV. She referred to the central character of my novels – a reporter for a London newspaper in the 1920s – as a ‘truth-seeker’. I was delighted that that was how she perceived Poppy.

She then asked me if I was trying to say anything about journalism and whether or not I felt the profession had been discredited. I said that I was most definitely trying to say something and I hoped my books were a celebration of the best of journalism as a key component of a well-functioning democracy. The journalistic profession at its best is a seeker of truth, an exposer of falsehood and an upholder of justice.

THE TRUTH WILL SET US FREE

The host of this blog, Claire Musters, has just released a book called Taking Off the Mask, that challenges us to live authentic, truthful lives. That’s what the best journalism helps us as a society to do – it takes off the mask of institutional falsehood. I haven’t been living under a rock for the last couple of decades, and am well aware of the self-inflicted image-destruction journalism has undergone, from the death of Princess Diana, to the phone tapping of Millie Dowler, to the obsession with celebrity culture. However, that side of the profession has always been there – even in Poppy Denby’s day. But alongside it is, and always has been, a dogged determination to hold those in power to account, to expose corruption and to help live out the God-inspired teaching that truth will set us free. That is why I became a journalist. And that is why I have written Poppy Denby the way I have.

In the fourth book in the series, which I’m currently writing, the rival newspaper to the Daily Globe – the London Courier – is an example of the worst kind of journalism: printing false, distorted, sensational news. But Poppy and her colleagues seek to work to a higher standard. They don’t always get it right, and the question of whether the ends justify the means is always an open one, but their underlining ethos is that they will not stop until the truth is revealed.

THE FAKE NEWS ERA

So where does this leave me and my books in the age of ‘Fake News’? In planning The Death Beat, I decided Poppy and her boss Rollo would work on The New York Times long before Donald Trump became a presidential candidate and started spouting his politically charged ‘fake news’ accusations at every media outlet that didn’t present him in a good light. The ‘failing New York Times’ (in his words) has been one of his most vocal opponents. As a young journalism student I was raised on a steady diet of New York Times articles as prime examples of excellent reportage and design. So for me it was an honour to send my heroine there for three months.

Fake News does exist. It’s when people deliberately make up unverified and unsubstantiated stories and distribute them (mainly through social media) to undermine or stir up trouble. Writers of fake news are employed by shady propaganda farms, not mainstream media outlets. Although I realise too that the mainstream media is not squeaky clean, we must be careful not to tar all journalists with the same brush. Fake news is not the same as news with a political or social bias. Unfortunately the public struggles to tell the difference and now anything they don’t like or agree with is labelled and discredited as ‘fake news’. This is a very unhealthy place for us to be. The way forward from here is far bigger than this little blog post, but I hope that my books might at least help to remind people why we need journalists – even if we don’t like what they have to say.

Fiona Veitch Smith is the author of the Poppy Denby Investigates series. Book 1, The Jazz Files, was shortlisted for the CWA Endeavour Historical Dagger 2016. Book 2, The Kill Fee, was a finalist in the Forword Book Review mystery of the year, 2017, and book 3, The Death Beat is out now. Fiona has worked as both a practising journalist and as a lecturer in journalism. Found out more about her series at www.poppydenby.com

 

Cultivating thankfulness

My daughter took this picture to help me celebrate!

In honour of Thanksgiving, I have decided to blog about thankfulness. For those of you who have followed my blog for a while, you will know that I did a series on thankfulness a while ago so I was going to choose my favourite post from that. However, I have just been writing about new ways to connect with God for a piece in January’s Premier Christianity magazine, and I have talked about cultivating thankfulness in that – so have decided to take my own advice! In that article,  one of my suggestions is to list things to be thankful to God for each day, so here are mine (actually for the month of November, as Thanksgiving falls towards the end of it). I am thankful for:

The ongoing health and wellbeing of my beautiful family – they are such fun to be around.

The chance to do a job I love but still be around most of the time for my children.

Completing my first month in a new role at Premier Christianity – the first that has lured me back into an office for over 18 years!

Not just one but two books published this month! I know I’ve spoken rather a lot about Taking Off the Mask, but the new one, Cover to Cover: 1, 2 & 3 John: Walking in the truth can be purchased here.

An incredible set of friends, many of whom celebrated with me at my first official book launch.

A wonderful, supportive church family, who responded so well to Steve and I sharing from the heart this month.

An amazing first musical evening at my daughter’s new secondary school – the talent was incredible.

 

Publication day!

I was quiet during the whole #MeToo viral campaign – mainly because I had just started a new job and life was incredibly busy. But I was really struck by something that Reese Witherspoon said about things needing to come out into the open in order to be healed.

That, I think, is so true – and can be related to our spiritual walk too. It wasn’t until I had been completely exposed and the big issues in my marriage and in my own walk with God had been dealt with, that I could begin to take those first steps of walking as a leader with real integrity and honesty.

I really feel God redeemed my worst mistakes and has actually turned the fruit into my main ministry – being vulnerable and open in order to encourage others to be too.

My book, Taking Off the Mask, is out today. In it, I am incredibly honest about my somewhat shameful past – although it holds no shame for me today. He allowed me to be exposed, brought everything out into the light, in order to bring His healing. I know God has forgiven me and has also called me to share my own journey and what I have learned along the way in order to encourage and challenge others.

I do hope that that is what my book does for those of you who read it. It is a straightforward, honest book. It does contain questions in order for you to dig deeper, to look at how you respond to some of the issues I’ve faced and raise in the book.

If you would like to buy it from me, those of you in the UK can do so here at the reduced price of £8.99 (with free postage).

Thanks for your continued support – and if you are on Facebook do come to my Facebook live event at 7.30pm GMT.

Author profile: Sue Russell

Sue Russell’s fascinating new book, A Vision of Locusts, has just been published. I asked her some questions about it – and about writing in general.

Could you briefly describe how you first started writing?
At some level I knew I wanted to be a writer from a very early age – maybe even 5! I was always reading and making up stories, and as time went on I branched out into children’s stories, poetry and other things. With work and family life writing got crowded out but it was always there, the quiet insistent voice, the unappeased itch. My complaints made a group of friends issue the challenge to pin down the first draft of the adult novel I had always wanted to write – before my 50th birthday. Leviathan with a Fish-hook was the result, but it took another 8 years of hiding it away, revising and editing, writing a sequel, submitting and being rejected, for it to appear in public.

You have written various books, which you would describe as all fitting into the genre of ‘realistic contemporary British Christian fiction for adults’. What do you mean by this, and would you say this latest book  fits into this category too?
‘Realistic contemporary British Christian fiction for adults’: it’s a bit of a mouthful but yes, I am aiming it at an adult audience (although arguably A Vision of Locusts, with its adolescent protagonist, could be read by young adults also). It is written openly from a Christian viewpoint with some Christian characters, but without, I hope, any in-your-face heavy sell or preaching. The backgrounds are British, a stumbling block for some, an attraction for others, or so I gather; the time-settings are recent – 1990s to 2011 so far. I tend to write stories that happened about 5 years before the time of writing!

As for realistic, my characters, whether Christian or not, are, I hope, real believable people, with doubts and fears and failures as well as delights and triumphs. I feel there’s a place for portraying Christians as normal people with recognisable life issues, and I like to think my clergy characters go some way to redressing the poor image of ministers in the media. The ones I know are self-sacrificing, genuine, hard-working, sometimes even saintly. They certainly aren’t weak-chinned buffoons.

The premise of the book is fascinating – could you give a brief description and explain where the inspiration came from?
To be honest with you, I don’t remember. Where do ideas come from? Where does inspiration spring? I suspect it all comes from several sources, among which may be one’s own particular leanings. I had the idea of a small Christian community threatened by a malevolent outside force. I’ve long been interested in the thin wall between what is deemed normal and what isn’t, in our own age. (In some of my other books mental illnesses are present.) I leave it to the reader to decide just what is the issue with Paul/Will. The idea of an unlikely heroine isn’t new, nor the idea that salvation may come out of left field. But as with most novels, I suspect, as the story unrolled  and the characters took on life,  a fair bit of my original concept altered.

Your characters are strong, and it is great to get an insight into their thoughts throughout the book – was that an intentional device to help the reader feel more connected to them?
I’m not sure whether the insights into the characters’ thoughts in Locusts was intentional or not – it seemed to be the best vehicle for understanding their private motivations. I have used internal monologue quite a lot in my books, and with the Christian characters in particular it’s a way of showing sincere faith struggles as well as how the characters cope with the general problems of life.

Could you give us an insight into your writing process? For instance, do you map out each story first or does it evolve over time? How immersed do you get into the characters and scenes – do you work for an extended period of time solely on the book or do you fit the writing around other things?
My writing process seems to have altered with each book. I am in some ways less confident now than I was all that time ago when I plunged blithely in and just wrote: perhaps because I know more now, and also because I dislike the prospect of major rewriting arising from gaping plot-holes! So I do a lot of research, note-taking, cogitating, making diagrams, reading how-to books (some more helpful than others) and conferring, before chapter one gets under way. Things can and do change en route – new ideas pop up – it’s just that with a plan these changes are less likely to derail the story! Once I hit my stride I can write very fast and for concentrated periods, but I will stop and do something else in between; otherwise (quite apart from the demands of normal life) I might just get a bit unhinged – it’s very easy for characters to take on more reality than perhaps is healthy!

Do you have another project you are thinking ahead to now?
My next project is in fact already well under way, although I haven’t yet written a single word of the story itself. After a lengthy period of thinking I’m beginning to understand how this story will pan out and what its intended payoff will be. Any more than that will be a spoiler!

 

 

 

Trade launch

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I know some of you who read this blog regularly are writers – others are interested in the writing world. So you have probably picked up on the fact that I have a new book coming out in November – the book I’ve had on my heart to write for a good few years – Taking Off the Mask.

I recently attended the Christian Resources Together retreat, an event held in Derbyshire, England, for retailers and suppliers in the Christian publishing world. I was there to promote the book: my publisher, Authentic, had kindly done some advance printing so that we could provide bookshop managers and other retailers with copies.

Taking Off The Mask Front Cover

You will see a lot more of this image on my website in the coming weeks, but here’s the cover of my book!

As it was my first time being invited to pitch a product to the trade, as it were, I thought I’d give you a few insights into what it was like:

I was feeling quite daunted before I left – about the idea of having to ‘sell’ my book and be ‘on show’ continually. I also wondered whether I would be left to find my own way around, eat meals with strangers etc. However my publishers looked after me so well, and the other members of the Association of Christian Writers that I saw there were so friendly and encouraging too, that I needn’t have been worried. (One of the perils of being an introvert!) I also wondered whether anyone would want to come to my book signing, but all the books that were printed went in a very short space of time – and my hand just about held out (although my handwriting did get rather scrawly – sorry to those who received a messy signature!).

One of the main things that was stressed throughout the retreat, and which I definitely picked up, was that we are all family together – bookshops, publishers, authors etc. We all want the same thing – to produce good-quality material that honours God and get it out to the people who want to read it. It filled me with a lot of hope, as I enjoyed that sense of togetherness.

Since being back, I’ve connected with some of those I met on social media – and taken a big gulp each time I’ve seen one of them post a picture of my book and say they have started reading it! After such a long journey to get the book to where it is today it’s incredibly exciting, but also humbling (and slightly scary if I’m honest) to see it in readers’ hands…

 

How I found my voice

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Today I am delighted to welcome James Prescott to my blog. I have known James for quite a while; we conversed on social media for months before discovering that we live in the same town! We are also both part of the Association of Christian Writers, which provides great support.

 I was privileged to be a part of James’ book launch group and can honestly say I have found his new book invaluable; challenging yet full of grace. So many of the lessons God had been teaching him were ones that He had been speaking to me about too, so the book resonated with me a lot. So I was keen to get James to write a guest blog for me. Here he describes the process of writing his book, and how it helped him to find his voice…

For most writers, the writing of their first book is the culmination of them finding their voice. It comes at the end of that process. But for me, it was completely the opposite.

My first trade book Mosaic Of Grace: God’s Beautiful Reshaping Of Our Broken Lives was published in February. But the first draft was written in the summer of 2013. At that point I’d been writing for a long time – but I’d still not found my own unique creative voice. The idea for a book about grace had come along in the previous nine months, from reading, reflecting, listening to sermons and talking with friends.

In the process I realised there was a message about grace that hadn’t been shared. A new perspective that needed to be given voice. I’d written two e-books by then, so was ready to explore writing a book.

Starting the journey
I had no idea about how to plan, structure or write a book. I had no idea about the publishing world whatsoever. I wrote the book, not expecting it to ever be published. I had no reputation, no following and had no chance of a book contract. Self-publishing wasn’t an option financially. So I was writing merely for myself.

By complete chance, I connected with a book editor on social media. They offered to read my book, initially offering advice. This quickly evolved into them editing the whole book. They’d do private edits on their own time, then we’d do Skype calls working through the text together, editing, rewriting, improving.

Learning along the way
Because it was a very rough draft, with no plan, and I’d got no experience, the book needed a lot of work. There were a lot of rewrites and additions to be made. There were large sections to take out. And this all took time.

Even during this process, I had no idea if or how the book would be published. It was still just an idea, a promise, a dream. But the book was taking shape. And, in the meantime, I was getting a masterclass in how to write a book, and indeed, on writing itself, from my editor.

It took time, but, by mid 2016, we had a final draft to work from. And we were talking about her small publishing company putting the book out.

Finally, this thing was going to happen. And, ironically, I was still learning about grace. The truth of the book was being exposed to me all the time. I began seeing it in every area of my life. I came up with ideas for coaching, for other books, all of which began, in some way, with the simple idea that we’re enough, we belong, we’re loved. We’re accepted as we are, for who we are, not for what we do, what we own, our relationship status or social status.

Taking time out
It soon became clear that writing the book was just the beginning of the process. In 2014, about eight months after I wrote the first draft, I got to a point where I needed a break. My blogging had lost focus, direction and joy. I couldn’t go on. So I stopped public writing. I decided I would simply write privately, for myself, every day – for as long as it took. As long as it took to find my voice, to connect again with my true creative spirit.

It was liberating. I felt alive for the first time. And it was the most creative, fresh period of my life. New material and ideas were pouring out of me. It took time to get there, but, once I did, it was like a new spring of water bursting out of the ground…you couldn’t stop it.

And the irony I didn’t see at the time, was that it was by returning to myself, to my true self – the self which grace said was enough – that I found my voice.

I had written this book, and lived it, and, in the process, had found my authentic, honest writing voice. Grace had literally brought me (in particular my creative side) to life.

An increase of momentum
I wrote a short e-book, which is currently available on my blog for free, about this season of my creative journey, and some lessons I learned. This really launched my blog, and my subscriber list and following grew. Suddenly, I had people interested in my work, people who might buy a book I wrote. And I still had the book I was working on, which I really wanted to share with people.

Grace had helped me find my voice.

Mosaic Of Grace New Cover Black EdgeMeasuring success
When Mosaic Of Grace was finally published earlier this year, there was, naturally, a focus on numbers, on sales, on marketing and promoting the book and its ideas. But when I got people’s e-mails and messages with stories about how the book had changed their lives, how it had been healing and life-giving to them that reminded me again of where this all began. With grace. Those stories mattered, and still matter, way more than the sales figures.

The book’s success wasn’t dependent on sales figures – with just one message like that, I knew all those years of work were worth it.

From start to finish, this book, and everything about it – the writing, editing, publishing, promotion – had all been a process, teaching me about grace. It was a process that changed me, before it changed anyone else. A process that helped me find my voice.

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James Prescott is a writer, blogger, podcaster, writing coach and bestselling author of Mosaic Of Grace: God’s Beautiful Reshaping Of Our Broken Lives, available on Amazon here. He hosts the weekly ‘Poema Podcast’, and you can read his blog, get free e-books and find out more about his books and coaching at www.jamesprescott.co.uk. You can find him on Facebook and also follow him on Twitter & Instagram.

Book news

me-with-contractI have interrupted my usual weekly devotional to bring you two pieces of exciting news! I can now officially share with you that my book, Taking off the mask: learning to live authentically, will be published in November by Authentic Media. This is the book I have had on my heart to write for a few years now. It starts with my own personal story (which I posted here recently), but then looks at the insights God has been teaching me over the last 12 years or so about why we seem to hide our real selves from those around us. I have learned a huge amount, about myself and others, and hope that it will be a blessing to all of you. I will of course keep you updated on any exclusive book-related news (including the finalised title, as it is a working one for now) in the coming months.

insightintoburnoutAs well as receiving my signed contract for Taking off the mask back, February has also seen the release of my latest co-written book for CWR’s Insight series: Insight into Burnout. Stress leading to burnout is sadly so rife in today’s busy and demanding culture, and this book takes a look at the reasons behind that, what it does to us physically, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually, as well as offering effective ways of overcoming and/or avoiding burnout. We look at how to get more balance in our lives as we seek to serve God and those around us too. To purchase a copy, please click here (it is currently on sale!).

Reflections on writing a series

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The two Claires finally meeting!

Having connected with the author, C.F.Dunn, through the Association of Christian Writers’ Facebook page, and then interviewed her for magazine articles, it was a joy to be able to celebrate the final book – and meet Claire face to face finally (see photo)! I asked her to write a guest blog about her own reflections on coming to the end of writing a series…

mortal-fire-smallI can’t say I knew what I was doing when I started writing my debut novel – Mortal Fire – although I felt compelled to write for a reason I did not yet understand. Nor did I know where the journey would take me. For the first few years I struggled with how I could justify spending all that time writing when I could be doing something more, well, obviously Goddriven, I suppose. After all, working at school with our inspirational special needs students was both a vocation and an immense blessing. However, write I felt I must, and so I ploughed on.

For a good while after my first book was published I didn’t feel like a writer. It must be a fluke, a kindness on the part of my wonderful editor, Tony Collins. It was only when the third book – Rope of Sand – was released that I began to think, ‘Golly, this is real,’ and after book five that I said, ‘I am an author!’

Now that The Secret of the Journal series has ended, one of the questions I’m most frequently asked is: how do you set about bidding farewell to a series after hundreds of thousands of words have been lavished on building characters and story lines, setting scenes and constructing dialogue? Well, first of all, by the time you get to the final book, you know your characters – good and bad – and have come to love, respect and cherish them. They might have been a construct of the imagination at the beginning, but by the end they have taken on a life of their own.

If you have been successful in drawing multi-faceted people, they interact with other characters in the series as naturally as you would in real life. Sure, you place them in danger or put them into artificial situations – that is, after all, part of the art of drama – but their reactions should be as natural as if they lived and breathed off the page as well as on it. So, how hard is it to say goodbye?

9780745868773By the time you reach that magic final book – Fearful Symmetry in my case – the world you have created is part of the beating heart within you: you live and breathe it day in, day out over years. As a result, finishing it – wrapping it all up and concluding it – might potentially be traumatic. Yes, it has been a major part of your life and you’ve cried with them, sweated and suffered with them; but does any part of you die with them when you write The End?

Not a bit of it. You gave them life and you’ve set them free in the imaginations of your readers and there your character friends will flourish for as long as the words can be read.

And long before you finish writing that final book, new voices have slipped into your consciousness – beguiling, persistent – and you find yourself constructing a new universe and fresh situations into which you can release them to begin their own journey, and the foundations of a new series are lain.

No longer do I feel all at sea, but understand the greater truth behind that compulsion to write. That understanding has developed and grown along with the series. As I set out on the next journey with my new characters, I know where I’m going and where I want to be and – most important of all – why.

cf-dunn-picC.F. Dunn is the author of The Secret of the Journal series, published by Lion Fiction. The fifth and final book in the series – Fearful Symmetry – has been recently published. An educator at heart, she and her husband founded a school in Kent for children with dyslexia, autism, and anxiety. Returning to her roots as a historian, C.F. Dunn is currently working on the first book in a new historical series set in 15th-century England – a period of complex personalities and turmoil at the heart of the realm, where the king wore an uneasy crown.

Insight into Self-acceptance

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I am pleased to announce that my latest book, co-authored with the wonderful Chris Ledger, is available now. I am really proud of Insight into Self-acceptance, as I know how many of us still struggle to accept the love that God lavishes on us – often it is because we do not know how to love and accept ourselves.

In the book, we look at some of the enemies of self-acceptance, including shame, guilt, unforgiveness, our own inner critical voice and the internal scripts and rules we set for ourselves. Then we spend time exploring some of the tools we can all utilise in our daily lives, such as mindfulness, self-compassion, knowing who we are in Christ and thankfulness. Here is some info from the book’s jacket:

Many of us struggle to believe that we can be truly loved and accepted just as we are. Perhaps we know that God loves us, but are still striving to feel ‘good enough’. Understanding some of the obstacles to self-acceptance can lead to a breakthrough in our relationships with ourselves, with others, and with the loving God who already accepts us.

If you would like to find out more, or to buy a copy, please click here.

Joining a writing group

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Last month I spotted a message on a local Facebook forum page, asking local writers if they would be interested in joining a new writers’ group. Both myself and a friend found the invite at the same time, and answered positively. So, a few weeks ago, we went to our first evening together. I was apprehensive – glad my friend was also there, but concerned I did not know the person running the group – or anyone else that could be there. My writing is so open and honest, and blatantly about my life and faith, that I wasn’t sure how it (or I) would sit in such a group.

I soon learned that my fears were unfounded. While it did make me feel really vulnerable, and it is going to take me a while to get used to reading my own writing out to others, the host was charming, laidback and very welcoming. She also kept a tight ship regarding ensuring we had time to write. I will definitely be going back, and will also share on here some of the tips that I learn and exercises that we do in the hopes that it will spark some ideas in you too.

That night we were each given an envelope with five words cut out of magazines in them. We then had 15 minutes to write either a story or five stand-alone paragraphs that included one of the words. Yes that’s three minutes per paragraph! I literally stopped typing the final one as the timer went off to say time was up. I froze: I simply wasn’t sure I could share what I had written without editing it first. I didn’t even have time to go back and read through it! But share it I did – and I’m going to go one step further here and let you read it too.

The exercise certainly pushed me, and it was interesting to see how different our approaches to it were (mine was still very much involving my everyday life and family). If you are looking for inspiration for ways to get writing – or want to do some completely different writing to your usual – why not try the exercise yourself? While the time limit did feel constraining, there was a freedom (and necessity) to write about whatever first popped into my head. I’m going to complete the exercise with my daughter sometime as I think it will be a really fun thing to do with her…

Home. That place of safety – and of comfort. The noise can be deafening, the squabbles annoying, but the joy – and the love – exuberant and rejuvenating. Home. The place I always long to be if I am away from it for too long. Home.

 

The delight of watching the children’s pure pleasure as they ran about the field, throwing themselves down and ragging together in the long grass. The discovery of new paths through the wood, their occulation of leaves and undergrowth as they explored a different area. The high point: when they both ‘fought’ to hug me and the three of us turned into one great mass of arms and legs, hysterically laughing as we fell into the grass. . .

 

The smell is excruciating, the acrid air intoxicating – not in a good way! Rammed up against a man’s already sweaty armpit, I sigh as we pull into yet another station and another body squashes into the already unhealthily crowded space…
No I do not miss commuting . . .

 

I loved those weekends before kids, when as four couples we would escape to a B&B or cottage regularly at weekends. The days were for exploring – the evenings for hilarity. The latter usually involved murder mysteries, and inventive and almost certainly hysterical costumes. Why are my costumes more likely to be pirate or star war based today?! 😉

 

I live with gadget man. Pretty much every second of every day he is glued to something. I do think it is a sign of the times – we don’t do well without our smart phones and laptops today do we – but he definitely overloads on technology daily. Our son seemed to develop the same love as soon as he could crawl. Rather than moving towards a toy and sitting quietly to play with it, as his sister had done, he always managed to find his way to some gadget or other, or the power lead attached to it, and then began to pull it apart. Obviously he was a genius and was simply learning how it worked…