Tag Archives: Real life

Who is Juliet in ‘Juliet’s Story’?

Juliet ReeceWhen I began writing Juliet’s Story, Book 2 of The Voyagers trilogy, I thought deeply about the kind of woman I wanted as my heroine: age, physical appearance, personality, talents, flaws, fears, family, job or career…everything that makes a person who he or she is.

So that people wouldn’t say, ‘Oh, I see you’ve modelled Juliet on yourself’ (I hate that), I made her taller than me, with very dark hair (I’m fair) and twenty years younger (I wish!). But I couldn’t resist giving her a similar career background. If I hit it right, Juliet’s career would define her in so many interesting ways which I could use as major plotting devices in the story.

My own background is in the property world. I started an estate agency in 1988 and expanded it and ran it for 17 years, then sold (unfortunately to two conmen), so I could write fiction. Instead, I found myself writing Seller Beware: How Not To Sell Your Business before I could tackle a novel.

Denise Barnes Estate Agents

Having your own business is fraught with problems, long hours and staff issues, and Juliet’s is no exception. She sells other people’s businesses at Reece & Co. She’s been running it for nine years and has neglected herself in the meantime: she’s a bit overweight, smokes (she gives up early on in the novel), is a poor sleeper, a non-going gym member, doesn’t take proper holidays…she’s in a much worse state than I used to be, but you get my drift.

Juliet has worked hard in her business to prove to her parents she can be successful at something. Her sister and brother are more intellectual and have brilliant careers, while Juliet feels inadequate. She married Gerrard, ten years older and a stuffy lawyer, not because she truly loved him but because her parents approved. She finally takes charge, and when the story opens she is recently divorced, but exhausted by the demands of the business. She longs to go to Australia to follow in her grandparents’ footsteps (see Annie’s Story, Book 1 of The Voyagers trilogy). But there’s another powerful reason for wanting to be there. Though how can she leave her business, not to mention her ailing father?

Like Juliet, I might have been tempted to take off to Australia for a few months given the opportunity, but it would have been an equally terrifying decision to put my business in someone else’s hands, as well as leaving an agoraphobic mother. However, unlike Juliet, I have a sister living in the same village who would keep an eye on Mum, and so I was able to take proper holidays without too much worry.

When you throw problems and miseries at your hero and heroine to reflect or exceed those in real life, you are the master of their fate. But working out how your characters get out of their multiple difficulties can often solve some of your own problems. Is the brain even more perceptive than we realise?

Do other writers feel the same? I’d love to know.


Juliet’s Story will be published on 25 January 2016.
Pre-order now Amazon UK  Amazon US  Kobo

Readers who swear they’re in your novel!

JulietcoverIt’s amazing how many times people ask me if I’ve put them in my novel. They look at me with real suspicion and even disbelief when I always answer: No!

Recently someone accused me of putting her in my latest novel to be published at the end of this month: Juliet’s Story, Book 2 of The Voyagers trilogy. She said, ‘You’ve based Juliet on me, haven’t you?’ Frankly, I was astounded. The woman in question is nothing at all like my heroine, either physically, mentally, or emotionally. They are in a different age group, and the opposite in height, weight, hair and eyes. Juliet runs her own business, and sails to Australia on a freighter – neither of which my friend would ever dream of doing.

smolking girlThen it hit me – they are both smokers! Except this person still continues to smoke and my heroine gives up quite near the beginning of the novel. But that’s such a small thing in common to assume I used her as a template for my heroine.

Someone else who I’ve known a very long time said that as a writer I ought to make up my characters and not base them on any real person. She said I should use my imagination! What on earth do writers do except use their imagination?

I tried to explain that as in the song from The Sound of Music, nothing comes from nothing. That we writers take bits and pieces from several people, consciously and sub-consciously, to make an original character. It might be something as subtle as a gesture. One of the passengers, Trevor, on Juliet’s freighter constantly rakes through his thinning curls; that was taken directly from one of my ex-employees, but this man’s personality was not like Trevor’s at all. Or I might come across someone with an unusual feature.

turquoise eyesA woman I know has stunning turquoise eyes – a colour I’ve never seen on anyone before – so guess what colour eyes my latest heroine has? Or I might ‘borrow’ someone’s hobby. I needed a ‘wind-down’ interest for Juliet, and so I have her making greetings cards. I wouldn’t have thought of this if a certain literary agent didn’t have the same hobby.

I guess the lesson learned is that non-writers have little concept of what it entails to write a novel. And thank goodness. There are enough authors in the market without millions more joining us!

Characters that don’t exist – until you create them!

Denise UWC launchI haven’t asked permission to quote Lionel Shriver in the following comment, but as she was one of the contributors to the Mslexia diary (August 2015), I don’t think she’d mind. She says:
‘Cherish the excitement of creating something from nothing – bringing non-existent characters to life, making things happen with the tips of your fingers…’

I know this might sound silly but I felt a thrill of recognition when I read this. For it’s exactly how I feel. I immediately flicked through my first published novel and watched the characters spring into action. A turn of the pages and I saw how they coped or not, and the outcome of the decisions they made. They are so real to me that I can’t imagine they don’t truly exist. Perhaps they do actually live – now they’ve been born – but on a different plane. Fanciful I know, but it’s fun to think of them getting on with their lives beyond my creation.

I recently ran into a woman who’d come to my book launch in Tunbridge Wells earlier this year and had bought a copy of Annie’s Story, (the first of The Voyagers Trilogy). She said, ‘I’m not happy with you.’

Rather taken aback, but thinking she was joking, I smiled and asked her why.

‘You let (so-and-so) die in Annie’s Story and you had the power to let (him/her) live.’ She was quite indignant.

I was amazed she’d taken it so seriously. But she’d obviously become absorbed in the story (which is what every author dreams the reader will do) and was upset with an outcome that to me had to happen. But of course I could have changed my mind at the last and let the person recover.

We all accept that writers are omnipotent but what we might not fully take on board are the powerful emotions we stir up in the readers’ minds. If it’s a good story it might stay with them for a long time. They might even be influenced by it. Act on it. That doesn’t mean our stories have to have a perfect ending, as writing a novel normally reflects real life with its ups and downs, but we do have a kind of responsibility to our readers.

Thinking about this woman’s remark a few days later, I decided she’d actually paid me the best compliment. She’d believed in my characters as much as I believe in them. And as a writer you can’t ask for more.

Christmas chats and cheers

Terri, Tessa, DB_sepiaTerri, one of the girls from our small (but select!) writing group invited the other member, Tessa, and me to her Christmas party. Terri lives in an Edwardian mansion in Royal Tunbridge Wells which she and her husband have practically had gutted, to get both the exterior and the interior looking as handsome as the day it was built. Actually, more so, with its mod cons and Terri’s decorating flair.

Terri came to the door looking ravishing in a shiny black-sequined dress with plunging decolletage, showing off her curves to perfection. ‘You’re last,’ she said, as she took my coat and stood while I changed into party shoes. ‘We’re waiting for you so we can eat.’

I looked at my watch. Getting on for eight-thirty. ‘I thought it would just be a drink and nibbles and wouldn’t matter when I arrived.’

‘No, no, it’s a sit-down, so we can have proper conversation.’ She looked at me quite sternly. ‘You haven’t eaten, have you?’

Thank goodness, I hadn’t. Unless you count half a small avocado and a bit of cheese and cracker. She led me into the kitchen where catering-sized casseroles were bubbling away with something which smelt really good and spicy. ‘Vegetable curry,’ Terri answered my unspoken question. I licked my lips in anticipation.

With a glass of Harrods’ champagne in my hand I wandered through the house, as ex-estate agents can’t help doing. Everywhere was decorated just like you see in the ‘country living’ magazines: candles flickered over a Merry Christmas banner as you stepped into the cavernous reception hall; swags of greenery floated across the mantelpieces of several fireplaces and followed the curved banister to the first floor, and a ceiling-sweeping tree stood in the library, dressed in golden birds and white baubles, and a thousand glittering lights. The two candlelit dining tables beckoned me to grab my tray, choose my food, and sit down and relax amongst convivial guests.

Inevitably, Tessa and I sat next to each other and talked about our writing. She’s a published romantic novelist and professional editor, so she always has updated news of what’s going on in the publishing world. Soon some of the other women at the table were drawn into the conversation. Then one of the husbands, an Aussie, had quite an in-depth discussion with us about the difference between men’s and women’s reading matter, and the reasons why. Apparently, men like to cut to the chase in a perfectly logical and linear way (natch!), and women emote over relationships and go off at tangents, thereby affecting their choice of books. Strangely enough, he didn’t come across as chauvinistic, but was telling it as he saw it and was keen to hear whether we agreed. I was surprised he was so interested in the subject, but we later learned his father was a published poet, and he’d even written a few himself. He certainly came out with some ideas and opinions which are sure to find their way into the personalities of my future male characters, especially the alpha heroes!

It was good to know the other non-writing guests were interested in the process and impressed with all the work involved, both during and after the book is finished. They weren’t aware that the writing is one of the easiest bits of the process. The hard work, I explained, is when you think you’re finished. That’s when it’s just about to start.

‘May I top your glass up with more bubbly?’ Terri’s husband asked me, and did so without waiting for a reply. Now that’s what I call a real alpha hero!

Brief Encounters with London taxi drivers

taxi_bigbenTaxi drivers are a pretty diverse lot. Most of them enjoy a friendly chat. Some of them are really interesting with the added bonus of having a wry sense of humour, and I often learn useful snippets of information. But some drivers can be quite morose.

I use London taxis frequently and always make an effort to make some contact with each one. If they look sulky or uninterested in me and where I’m going, it becomes a challenge to change their mood. Take last week. I gave the driver a big smile as I asked him to take me to Mayfair and he just nodded. As I stepped into the taxi I said a cheerful ‘Good morning’, and didn’t even receive a reply. So I added, ‘Now what’s made you so grumpy today, when the sun’s shining?’

Yes, I know I take the risk that I will receive a short sharp retort but it’s a risk worth taking. This taxi driver immediately gave me a wide grin and said, ‘Sorry, love. I didn’t mean to be.’ We proceeded to have a stimulating talk about setting the world to rights – often their favourite subject.

When they ask me what I do and I say I’m a writer they are almost always impressed. One said, ‘I had one of you romantic writers in the back of my cab the other week.’ I asked who it was. ‘Katie Fforde,’ came the unexpected reply. ‘I know her,’ I said, delighted. ‘She’s lovely. And a best-selling writer, too.’ He was very pleased he’d met someone so famous!

I always ask very politely if I may leave one of my bookmarks on the back seat. (You never know who might climb in after you’ve vacated.) This would be awkward if I’d remained silent until I got to my destination. But by now we’re old friends and without fail they say, ‘’Course you can, love.’ If I haven’t already told them what it’s about they usually ask me, and have occasionally ended up buying a book there and then. (Every published writer should carry a copy of her latest book at all times.) If I really like them and they seem genuinely interested, I give them a book instead of a tip. By the time I’ve done the honours and signed, there’s a good chance I’ve missed my train. But I’m not grumbling.

At the moment I’m promoting Seller Beware: How Not To Sell Your Business, which is probably more appropriate than handing them a romantic novel, as taxi drivers still tend to be male. But this is what happened the other day when the driver dropped me off at Charing Cross station.

‘May I leave a bookmark of a book I wrote which was recently published?’ I asked.

‘Not this one, is it?’ he swung round in his seat and held up my Seller Beware bookmark. I was astounded. ‘Out of all the 22,000 cabs in London,’ he parodied in a dreadful Bogey accent, ‘you have to ride in the back of mine.’

We burst out laughing.

‘I’ve given away about 30 Seller Beware bookmarks to London taxi drivers in the last year,’ I said, ‘so what are the chances of that happening?’

He drove off, still chuckling.

I love these brief encounters. Now all I have to do is make sure I get a smut in my eye before I step into the next taxi and hope the driver’s got a clean hankie, ready to whisk it out! Who knows where that might lead me!

Mixing Writing With Pleasure

OklahomaIt’s hard to concentrate much on my writing projects this week as I’m singing in OKLAHOMA! at the Assembly Hall in Tunbridge Wells. You know, the theatre with the bum-numbing, shifting-in-three seats. I’m only a chorus girl which may not sound too taxing until you step onto the stage and the lights are on you and you have to remember that you’re an alto so mustn’t forget to harmonise when your brain is screaming to sing the melody. That’s the only pressure – oh, and remembering which side of the stage you’re supposed to come on. But it’s all great fun, and when the audience show their delight in loud, prolonged clapping and whistling, I can barely sing the last notes of the encore I’m so overcome.

But somehow this week I’ve managed over the last couple of days to plug on with Book 3 of my trilogy: The Voyagers. Gone will be the fairy-tale world of this week: the last notes of the orchestra died away, the stage lights dimmed and cut, and the final curtain fallen. I may look in the cold light of the real world next week at what I’ve written and see a load of unconnected nonsense, but I hope not. My aim is to have taken the story further towards its inexorable ending – maybe not quite such a fairy-tale ending as OKLAHOMA! but satisfying and hopeful, nonetheless.

I wonder if other writers feel the same way if their usual routine is broken up beyond recognition for a few days or even weeks and months. This can happen if you suddenly have to take the role of carer (I’ve had that too for the last year), or become poorly yourself, or there’s a family problem or an unusually heavy workload to plough through. I suppose the only antidote is to adopt a new routine as quickly as possible which will allow some space and time, however short, to write. Yes, the writing might need a whole lot of polishing when you are back to normal, but maybe coming out of your regular routine will have thrown a fresh light on your writing project and you will tackle it with all the vigour and determination it deserves.

LadyMag_HarryOh, I did have a small publishing success recently. I sent a short piece to The Lady magazine (the one with Prince Harry on the cover) for their regular column The Lady & I, found on their letter page My prize is a Panettone, which apparently has leapfrogged over mince-pies so far as popularity in Christmas cakes is concerned. I’m waiting for the delivery which should be any day soon, although I have such a weakness for it, if I get it too early there will only be a few yellow crumbs come Christmas!

If that happens it certainly won’t be a beautiful morning, or even a beautiful day!