Today I’m delighted to invite Katharine D’Souza to my blog. Katharine writes contemporary novels and the occasional short story. She lives in Birmingham, UK, where her stories are set, although she hopes their themes are universal. She’s fond of reading, drinking tea or wine, and eating cake. These things have been known to feature in her fiction.
I create characters you could meet walking down the street and then I make them walk down the streets of my home city, Birmingham. I’m cruel to them, though, and throw practical problems and emotional dilemmas in their way to see how they cope. My aim is for readers to have a vicarious but real experience that makes them consider how they’d react in the same situation, because these events could happen to any of us.
The protagonist in your latest novel, Deeds Not Words, is Caroline, a museum curator. What can we expect from her?
Caroline loves history, it’s why she got into working in museums. There’s more to history than what history books record though, and when Caroline uncovers secrets from her own family’s past she’s forced to reconsider her own future. Her training as an historian means she’ll be committed to accurate research and able to make links right through from ancient times to the present day. History is made of stories; this time Caroline’s discovering her own.
You’ve already mentioned that you use your hometown as the setting for your fiction. How does your environment influence your writing?
I’ve lived all my adult life in Birmingham and am definitely inspired by the city. There’s nothing obvious or pretentious about the place, and Brummies are very good both at being practical and at seeing the funny side of things. I hope I do a decent job of representing this in my books.
Hilary Mantel says that a Catholic upbringing is the only qualification a writer requires. Do you have any writing qualifications?
Well I did have a Catholic upbringing, although I’m not at all religious now. I’m not sure I agree with what I guess was a flippant comment though. While there’s plenty of drama in many religions, what writers need is the ability to observe, ask questions and analyse motivations. Those are personality traits you either possess or don’t. The craft of writing, from use of language to story-telling structures, can be taught, but I don’t have any formal qualifications. Just many years of doing this and learning from feedback on my work. I attend a great writers’ group and have had individual tutoring via manuscript appraisals. My learning style is very much self-directed and I doubt the structure of a creative writing course would suit me.
I’m very much in agreement. I started a creative writing MA and gave it up very quickly after I found that having too many differing opinions stifled the voice I was trying to develop.
Is your writing generally plot-driven or character driven?
The characters come to me first, along with a general theme around which I build a plot. In the books I love reading, it’s always the characters I remember. They’ve got to be interesting and plausible if a reader is going to spend many hours inside their heads.
Do you have a method for creating your characters’ names and what do you think makes them believable?
It’s very rarely referred to within the books, but several of my character’s names have a meaning which relates to a defining characteristic of theirs. Caroline means ‘free woman’. I think she lives up to it. In my earlier book, Park Life, one of the main characters is Craig whose name means ‘rock’. One of his challenges is whether he can be reliable. It’s not what he actually wants. I wouldn’t force it though. The name has to suit the character and fit their position in society.
Who do you show your first drafts to?
Absolute first drafts: no-one. Revised versions of the opening or critical scenes, I share with my writers’ group for some no-nonsense feedback. It’s great to get input from writers whose opinions I trust as to whether the story is working or not in those key scenes. Once I’ve polished things up a bit, copies of the whole novel go to my beta-readers for editorial opinions. They generally also tell me that I still haven’t learnt where the commas should go!
Some writers like quiet, others the noise of a coffee shop or the rumble of a train. Do you listen to music or have noise around you when you write or do you need silence?
My habits vary. I can write in public as long as ‘public’ means ‘no-one I know’. I have written on trains, in libraries and in cafés. The odd bit of people-watching and gazing out of windows helps me and I don’t find the noise a distraction. However, if I’m writing at home, I need total silence and absolute privacy.
What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Keep writing. But don’t get stuck on one project. I have a first novel which I can now see is the one on which I learnt to write and is so flawed it’s unsalvageable. I stuck with it for years and did learn a huge amount from doing so. But it’s only now I’ve moved on and applied what I learnt to other novels that my writing has really improved. Also, read a lot – both in your genre and more widely, classics and recently published books. While you’re reading, try to pin down what you’re enjoying about each book and what isn’t working for you. Then analyse the writing to see how the author did that.
When did your own love affair with reading begin?
I’ve been able to read for as long as I can remember, certainly from before I went to school. My fondness for books grew out of the fact that my short-sightedness wasn’t diagnosed for quite a few years. Books made sense to me because I could hold them close to my face and get lost in their stories. The real world was a blurry and confusing place by comparison! I wear contact lenses now and can assure you that while I am safe to drive and operate machinery, reading will always be my first love and source of sanity when the world continues to prove itself a confusing place.
45% of adults in the UK buy few, if any books and only 25% read ‘regularly’. As with most things, those adults who do read tend to read obsessively. Do you have a serious book-buying/reading habit?
I probably finish a book every couple of weeks. I certainly prefer reading to watching TV, but of course I have to balance it with all the other commitments of life. I feel sorry for people who don’t read fiction. They don’t realise the intense emotional experiences they’re missing.
What were the key factors that influenced your decision to become an indie author?
I submitted both my novels to literary agents in the ‘traditional’ way and both times received responses which were encouraging about the quality of my writing but unconvinced how ‘marketable’ the stories were. Well, I knew that the readers who’d love them did exist, so set myself the challenge of finding them on my own. It’s going well so far – I get some brilliantly enthusiastic responses to the books. I’d say readers are too diverse to be summed up in a corporate strategy. They demand choice and I’m very happy for my books to be among those on offer.
Who designed your book covers? If you used a cover designer, what brief did you give them?
J D Smith Designs (http://www.jdsmith-design.com/) made my covers for me. For Park Life we worked through a few iterations of my concept of an urban park in which people’s lives were unfolding. Then we already had a ‘house style’ to apply to the visual for a woman reacting to something in a museum for Deeds Not Words. I’m really pleased with how they look and have noticed readers are tempted to pick them up, so we must have got something right.
If you’re not too superstitious to answer, can I ask what you’re working on at the moment?
I’m currently working on a new novel. Once again it’s set in Birmingham and tells the story of a radiographer whose life would be easier if her X-rays could reveal what’s going on in the hearts and minds of her friends and family. They’re certainly acting very strangely…
You can find out more about Katharine by clicking on the links below:
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