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Oct 02 2016

Writing Superheroes: Dianne Ascroft

Her superpowers come from tea and chocolate – and the odd small caramel latte. Read on and find out more…

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According to Wikipedia, ‘a superhero is a type of heroic character possessing extraordinary talents, supernatural phenomena, or superhuman powers and is dedicated to a moral goal or protecting the public.’ Sounds like a writer to me!

Join me as another one of these unsung superheroes invites into their personal ‘batcave’.

If you were to write the ‘origin’s episode’ of your writing what would be the most important scenes? What did your early efforts look like? Are they still around to be used as bribes and blackmail material?

I’m an only child and my mother and grandfather were voracious readers so I learned to love reading early. I think it was a natural progression from reading to writing my own stories. I was also a prolific pen pal and, during my teen years, I regaled my penfriends with long accounts of my life in Toronto. The longest letter I ever penned was 64 pages long, written to a friend during the couple of days when I was recuperating after having my wisdom teeth removed.

In my early 30s I moved to Belfast and worked in the university bookshop for several years. Meeting local authors regularly, I began to wonder whether I could also write fiction. So when a short story I submitted to a writing contest on Belfast’s Downtown Radio was selected for broadcast, I was thrilled and this small success encouraged me to pursue my interest in writing. In hindsight, I know that the story needed polishing but it was my first ‘publication’ and I was delighted. Although I never let anyone listen to it, there is a cassette copy of the broadcast still buried somewhere in the bottom of a drawer at home.  

 

dianne-ascroft-headshotAll superheroes have their mild-mannered secret identity, what is yours? I promise we won’t tell.  

I spend most of each day in an office, answering the telephone and doing clerical tasks, while mentally plotting how my heroine will cope with the privations rationing brings and the hazards of smuggling or the worry that her sweetheart may be deployed into battle on the Western Front any day. We live on a farm so when the day job ends there’s chores at home too. I don’t really mind helping around the farm as I enjoy the outdoors and am an animal lover. Although it’s important to me and I set time aside for it, writing generally has to fit in around everything else I’m doing.

 

Who are your partners in crime? What are their superpowers?

My editor, Gabriella West, is great. She’s a thorough editor and, after studying at Trinity College Dublin and living in the United States, she has a good grasp of British/Irish and American English. This is important to me as my novels contain an equal number of British, Irish and American characters so my editor needs to be familiar with word usage on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean as well as either side of the Irish Sea. For my book covers, I work with two fantastically talented cover designers who capture the atmosphere of my stories and the era in the images they produce. I’m always pleased with the work of Lori Grundy, Cover Reveal Designs, and Amanda Harris, Stunning Book Covers.

Several writer friends are a great help; they encourage me and offer suggestions regarding my story drafts. They include E M Powell, June Considine, Rachel Zaouche and other members of the Irish branch of the Historical Novel Society. Members of Fermanagh Writers, my local writers group, are also supportive and, because my stories are set in the county, they often offer unique insights that improve my work.  

 

Where do you get your superpowers from?

I’ve never really been certain about this but, most likely, they come from tea and chocolate – and the odd small caramel latte. To be on the safe side, I ensure I always have an adequate supply of them.

 

Where is your secret lair and what does it look like?

When we moved to the farm where we now live, about a dozen years ago, I commandeered the smallest bedroom and installed my computer there. For a while, I did my writing in that room but my husband missed me and began to wonder if I was actually living in the house as he rarely saw me. So I got a netbook and moved to the dining room. I’m next door to the living room so I can chat with him and listen to interesting television programmes while I work. This reassures him that I am still resident in our home.

I write at the dining room table, often with a cup of tea on the table beside me, and one of our cats draped across my knee. There’s a small window on the wall opposite and a patio door beside me so the room is bright and cheery. But, since they look out onto the side lawn and the farmyard respectively, the view doesn’t distract me – unless, of course, a hare hops through the farmyard and stops to glance around, or a cow escapes from a field and comes wandering over for a nosy at me through the patio door.

 

What kind of training do you do to keep your superpowers in world saving form? How do you insure they are used only for good?

I believe it’s important for writers to read so I always set aside time for it. I read a wide variety of fiction, not only my own genre. It’s a relaxing pleasure and reading a variety of books teaches me about writing styles and plot pacing. I also always have a Second World War novel on the go as that is the era my books are set in and I want to know what intrigues other writers and readers about the era. There is such a huge range of stories within this sub-genre: from political and military novels, where the heart of the story centres around battles and military campaigns, to historical sagas that tell the stories of women coping on the Home Front. Although my stories fall into the latter, I think it’s important to be familiar with every aspect of the genre.

It’s also important to write regularly. Even when I’m in the middle of revising a manuscript, I have another new story that I’m working on and I set aside a certain amount of time each day to add scenes to the new one.   

 

Granted, you probably don’t’ get to wear your superhero costume a lot, but if you did, what would it look like?

Secretly I’m one of the heroines in my stories so it’s the 1940s look: crisp cotton blouses, A-line skirts that swish as you move (ones left over from before the beginning of the war and the introduction of clothes rationing), flat shoes and ankle socks. Of course my hair is in soft curls to my shoulders (might need a wig for that) and I cover my outfit with a delicate wool cardigan. I love the poise and style that women of that era had. My normal attire is cotton shirts, jeans and a fleece with trainers. I don’t have the 1940s stylish dress sense at all. 

 

What is your kryptonite? What are the biggest challenges faced in your writing?

Probably the most difficult aspect of the writing process for me is deciding what the theme of the story is and how the plot has to develop to reflect this. I spend time thinking about a new story and jot down my ideas before I begin to construct the plot. Once I have a list of ideas and information about the characters and the events in the story, I try to pull them together into a coherent plot. I then check to be sure the story flows in a believable way and each character’s actions and the reasons behind them make sense. When I begin writing the story I frequently refer back to my plot outline to be sure it is still on course.

 

What was the supervillain that threatened to stop your latest project and how did you vanquish it?

My most recent book is a collection of three Short Reads that were written and released individually between June 2015 and August 2016.  I gathered them into one book and released the collection in August 2016. Finding time to work on my writing projects is always one of my biggest challenges. Besides having a day job and responsibilities at home, I’m also involved in running our local writers’ group and the administration work for that can eat into the day. The only way I can cope with all my responsibilities is to allot specific amounts of time to each task. So, even if I’m very busy with other tasks I set aside time each day to write too. I don’t let everything else push my writing out of my schedule.

 

What important lessons have you learned along the way?

There are so many but one that stands out for me is to write what interests you. We are often told to ‘write what you know’ but that’s not necessarily as important as writing what inspires you. Research can help fill in gaps in your knowledge. You need to find something that will keep your attention until you finish writing the story. My current series was inspired by the area where I live in County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland. The county has a rich and varied wartime history and, after I moved to the area more than a decade ago and learned about this history, I became fascinated by it. During the Second World War army camps and flying-boat bases sprung up throughout the county, and approximately a quarter of the population were military personnel. It must have been so different from the quiet rural area that I know. Once I heard about the county’s history, I started rooting in books, original newspapers and personal accounts to learn about the era, and many of the ideas for my stories were sparked by snippets of information I stumbled across during my research. 

 

What have been the best/most memorable experiences along the way?

The social aspect of writing is wonderful. I’m delighted with the friendships I’ve made. I enjoy meeting readers and other writers in person and on social media. A writer friend, Rachel Zaouche, and I founded a Facebook group called The Second World War Club to bring readers and writers of wartime fiction together (we have expanded it to include World War I fiction too). In the group I enjoy working with other writers to help each other with our writing projects and chatting with readers about wartime novels. This group, as well as others such as the Historical Novel Society, that bring readers and writers together are great places to be.  

Writing has also given me the opportunity to do things I wouldn’t have done otherwise. Some of these include meeting Mary McAleese, the then Irish president at her official residence, Áras an Uachtaráin; performing at festivals and cultural events in venues as diverse as museums, shopping centres and castle ruins; and hearing my stories broadcast on Downtown Radio and BBC Radio Ulster. I’ve also had the satisfaction of contributing stories to anthologies that benefitted various charities, including The Book Bus, Books Abroad and Room To Read, organisations that promote literacy around the world, and Bright Eyes, a local animal sanctuary.

 

If you did this again what would you do differently and what would you not change?

I was in my early forties when I began writing so, if I had the chance, I would start earlier. I enjoy writing so much I would love to have spent more years doing it.

Over the years, I’ve built up a network of friends who share my passion for writing. Some of them live locally and others are dotted around the world. I value their help and support, and am very glad to have met them. I would not change this for anything.   

 

What is the best (writing or otherwise) advice you have ever gotten and why.

Write first then tackle all the other associated tasks. I’ve heard this from more than one person and it’s so true. There are so many other tasks besides writing that are integral to producing and marketing books. It is easy to get caught up in designing book covers, planning marketing campaigns, and having a presence on social media. It can be fun and rewarding, and most of it is necessary but it all takes time. And this time should first be spent on writing. If you don’t have a book, there’s no point planning a cover or a marketing campaign.

 

Tell us about you new book and why we need to drop everything and get it now.

The Yankee Years is a collection of stories set in World War II Northern Ireland. After the Allied troops arrived in this outlying part of Great Britain, life there would never be the same again. The series strives to bring those heady, fleeting years to life again, in thrilling and romantic tales of the era. I have released the first three stories in the series individually (The Shadow Ally, Acts of Sabotage and Keeping Her Pledge) and as a collection, The Yankee Years Books 1-3. All three of these stories are Short Reads or Book Blasts as James Patterson describes short stories that are long enough to be published individually.

 

What’s in store for you in the future? Do you have any other big projects on the horizon?

The Yankee Years series will keep me busy for a while yet. I have so many more stories that I want to tell. One of those, and my next project, is a novel set at the opposite end of the county from where my first three stories are set. An Elusive Enemy is a ghost story and a Second World War tale combined.

One of the new Short Reads in the series, Allies After All, will be included in Pearl Harbor and More, a collection of short stories set in December 1941 by ten authors who write wartime fiction. Pearl Harbor and More is a limited edition ebook which will be released at the beginning of November 2016 and available on Amazon through the early months of 2017.

 

 

 

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