When it comes to curating your bookshelf, what genres do you seek out? Are you a stickler for a high-brow literary title, do you adorn your shelves with battered and beloved classics, or is your preference a popular page turner to exhilarate the senses and devour in a day?
We’ve asked three Irish popular fiction writers to share their experiences – the complexities and the artistry of their craft – and to reveal some of the ways they create the characters and the lives that are the bedrock of most popular prose.
I suppose I'm a bit of a vulture, picking over the bones of stories I hear on the grapevine, read about in the newspaper or listen to on the radio. The most important piece of the novel-writing process is, for me, the characters. These are the foundation stones on which everything else will rest – or topple, depending on what kind of a story you're writing.
Characters sometimes come to me fully-formed and rearing to go. Grace O’Brien in Saving Grace did just that and I love her for it. Others you have to chip away at with a chisel and hammer before you uncover them.
It’s like meeting someone for the first time at one of those awful standy-uppy, finger-food-eating events. You start off with small talk. It’s tricky because the music is a bit loud and they’re talking in a low voice with not much in the way of animation. It’s a bit tedious but then BOOM! you chance upon a subject that you’re both passionate about and the thing just takes off. Terry from Rules of the Road was like that. I made assumptions about her before I really got to know her. But she surprised me in the end.
Readers – and people in general – love resolution. That doesn’t necessarily mean a happy-ever-after (although those are pleasant too), but rather a feeling of satisfaction when the last page has been turned and the book closed. The way you might feel after a slice of lemon meringue pie. Sated, and at one with the world.
At the beginning of the book, something happens; a character goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town – many variations of either of those scenarios. If it’s well-written, you’ll be rooting for the central character, despite – or maybe because of – their many flaws. You will follow them down whatever path they take. Even if it’s the wrong path. Especially if it’s the wrong path. Because you know, deep down, that things will, more or less, work out in the end. In these unpredictable times we are living through, readers of popular fiction like to know they are in a safe pair of hands.
All a reader needs is an interest in the world and the people who inhabit it to enjoy popular fiction. The term popular fiction is very wide-ranging. It covers pretty much everything from romance to mystery to thrillers, westerns, science fiction. There’s something for everyone.
When it comes to writing, all you need is a pen and a piece of paper. The back of an envelope will do. Write down a word. Then another. And another. Keep doing that until you have about 100,000 words (you may need several envelopes…).
Have a quick read through when you’re finished, just to make sure it’s compelling, with relatable, fully-formed characters that jump off the page or envelope, and find that sweet spot in readers’ hearts and minds. After that, it’s a simple matter of sticky-taping all the pages together and stuffing it into a jiffy bag. You can send it to as many agents and publishing houses as you like. It makes it more fun when the bidding war starts.
I'm a wearer-of-heart-on-my-sleeve woman, so my books are like that too. If I hear something in life that moves me to great emotion, I take note, because I know it's likely it will also do the same for my readers.
I start by choosing a social commentary theme that I’d like to explore. I find inspiration for characters and plot, from life all around me. A conversation with family or friends, or something I was witness to on the news or on social media.
In My Pear-Shaped Life, I chose to explore the theme of body image and self-acceptance, then I worked on Greta’s character, before moving onto the plot and the world she lives in.
Popular fiction makes us escape, feel and think. With every turned page, we are thrown into the lives of characters, who become our friends or mortal enemies. We fall in love, we laugh, we cry and we are chilled to our bone. These books have the power to make us think about our own lives, often changing how we see ourselves and the people around us. Yes, it often tackles complex and emotional themes, but it does so in a relatable, well constructed, entertaining way.
Popular fiction is written for readers, with one aim, to reach as many people as possible. That doesn’t mean it isn’t well written. In fact, it takes a great deal of time, to ensure a manuscript is an “easy read”, with an engaging plot.
The good news is that people have always read popular fiction: Dickens, Shakespeare, Christie, all writing for the mass market. Unfortunately, there is some literary snobbery at play, with a perceived hierarchy between literary and popular fiction.
When I hear a reader say that popular fiction is their guilty pleasure, it makes me sad. No reading experience should be perceived as any less valuable than another. Read books that give joy and entertain you. Here’s my cautionary tale – while we need genre labels to help readers decide what to read next, if you choose to stay in one book lane, you may miss out on a fantastic read.
When it comes to writing popular fiction, let’s take it as a given that you must have good language skills and a natural ability to tell a story. In addition to this, you need to be able to generate ideas, create authentic characters with well thought out plots. Your people skills are essential too. Taking note of the small and the big moments in people’s lives will add depth and colour to anything you write.
Perhaps one of the most underestimated traits needed is tenacity. I’ve built my career as an author, one book at a time, taking knocks along the way with Katie Taylor-like resilience. Remember, it takes time to get recognition because, in this genre, it’s hard to get the book industry to sit up and pay attention. Awards, reviews, interviews, tend to go to literary authors.
What I’ve learned over the past 10 years is that I have to write every day, even on the hard ones. And lastly, most importantly, dream big and believe that you can and will do this.
Ideas spark from a fragment of conversation, the impression of a place, or a fleeting image, taking root in my subconscious until the germ of a story begins to unfold. The idea for my latest novel, The Perfect Sister, began when I saw a large office block in Dublin city centre being slowly dismantled, and wondered what stories and secrets were lurking between the tattered remnants of floors and ceilings.
Popular fiction, by its very nature, tells stories about people coming face to face with their innermost hopes and fears under the guise of a fictional plot that compels them to effect a change in their lives through resolution and or acceptance.
By escaping into a novel and living vicariously through the lives of the characters, coming to an understanding of their hidden motivations and deep beliefs as depicted through dialogue and plot, it helps us understand facets of ourselves, our motivations and personalities, and to feel less alone.
Popular fiction is a storytelling art that is hugely accessible. Within the genre, there is such a wide variety of stories and dramas about ordinary people, playing out against a diversity of landscapes and narrative techniques. Because you’re writing about the collective human condition, you have to be prepared to dig deep into you own heart and feelings in order to project them onto various characters.
It doesn't mean you need to have experienced the twists and turns in your characters' lives, but you need to be imaginative enough to take the leap to walk in their shoes and be able to fully realise through dialogue, narrative and action, feelings such as anxiety, love, loss, fear, renewal and most of all, hope.
Ciara Geraghty (Rules of the Road), Carmel Harrington (My Pear-Shaped Life) and Zoë Miller (The Perfect Sister), will be taking part in an online panel discussion titled Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me taking place on 15th October as part of the Red Line Book Festival. Book here
Red Line Book Festival runs from October 12 - 18