Past into present: Christina James on writing ‘Sausage Hall’

This month’s guest post comes from novelist Christina James. Christina James is the pen name of Linda Bennett, Director and Commissioning Editor for Crime at Salt Publishing.

Linda held one-to-ones at this year’s Festival; you can read more about her experiences here:


Sausage HallSausage Hall is the third of the DI Yates novels. They are set in South Lincolnshire, in and around the market town of Spalding. They take place in the present but are rooted in the Spalding of the past. I’m interested in how often the present collides with the past.

Both my grandmothers lived in extraordinary houses. My great-grandparents moved from Castleford to start a general shop in Westlode Street, in Spalding, in the late nineteenth century. The shop occupied what would have been the front room of the house, so the sitting-room was upstairs. It was a shrine to late-Victorian taste: china dogs, small tables littered with many knick-knacks and a large glass case containing a stuffed-bird arrangement. When I knew it in the 1960s, it was exactly as it had been when created by my great-grandmother in her youth seventy years before.   Some of the action of In the Family, the first DI Yates novel, takes place in this house.

The house that my maternal grandmother lived in was even more extraordinary. She had been in domestic service since she was fourteen and had trained as both a nursery nurse and a housekeeper. Her last job was companion to a very old lady who lived at a substantial house called The Laurels, in a village called Sutterton. The old lady was the widow of a gentleman farmer much older than she. The Laurels was packed with quaint furnishings, but the most astounding thing about it (though as a child I just accepted it as normal) was that the walls were hung with sepia photographs of the husband when he’d been on safari in Africa as a young man. They must have been taken in the 1870s or 1880s; in many of them, he was accompanied by black women wearing very little except strings of beads. Sausage Hall is set in this house. It is about a murder that occurs in the present, but is strongly influenced by what happened in the house in the past.

LMB colourI’ve been asked to write about the challenges that faced me when writing Sausage Hall. The greatest was one from which I failed to extricate myself single-handed. I spent Christmas 2013 in Germany to attend a family gathering and immediately travelled to China as part of my day job. Almost as soon as I came home, I had to serve on a jury. These things together conspired to prevent me from writing for a six-week period. Consequently, when I returned to it, my sense of the timescale of the novel was defective and some of the chapters were out of sequence (this also owing to a practice I’m trying to break of writing the main plot and the sub-plot as separate entities). These anomalies demanded a great deal of help from my editor and my keen-eyed daughter-in-law, who, perhaps because English is not her first language, reads very carefully and has an excellent memory. I’ve learnt two lessons from this: to write in sequence if possible and also to make sure that I write daily or at least several times each week, even if I manage only a paragraph or two or a passage that has to be discarded when I revise.

A challenge that faces all authors, but especially if they write series, is to ensure that characterisation and names are consistent across the novel(s). This might sound obvious, but as an editor I’ve found that many authors, just as I do, change the names of their characters during the course of the book or give them attributes which are inconsistent with what’s already been published. Again, I’m lucky to have my daughter-in-law’s help; but it’s discipline that’s demanded here. Particularly, if you’re writing serials, it’s essential to keep a file of your characters’ details: their names, how they look and behave, what they’ve done in the plot(s), their backgrounds and quirks.

I’ve mentioned revision. Revising isn’t exactly a challenge for me, because it’s something I strongly believe in; getting it right is something else. Both as an author and an editor, I’d say my mantra is revise, revise, revise. Never be satisfied with your first draft. I usually revise each day’s writing on the following day. I then revise again when I’ve completed ten chapters or so and again (several times) when the book is finished. But it’s not just about changing what you write to find the mot juste: it’s about making the narrative seem effortless. Ars est celare artem. A challenge indeed.

Writing groups

Writing, for most of us, is a solitary occupation. At some point, however, we may decide to try out our ideas, our stories or our poetry on a few trusted readers. This is a huge step; it exposes us, makes us vulnerable. Yet if a writer wishes to connect with an audience, it is a step he or she must be prepared to take.

As a creative writing tutor, I am often asked about writing groups: where to find one, mostly. But writing groups vary enormously in aims and practice and it is important to find one that is right for you.  What are you hoping for? What do you need?  Most groups offer support and mutual appreciation – a valuable confidence boost.  A few bring in guest writers to discuss an issue of craft or technique, while others are all about the writing critique – feedback on new creative work.

I’m lucky enough to belong to a fabulous writing group. We meet in the backroom of a pub to discuss each other’s work-in-progress.  The talk is appreciative, supportive, but also enquiring and interrogative. Each of us is seeking to improve the work we bring. I discover something new every time.

If you would like to join a writing group, ask at your local library or community centre. If there isn’t a group already then perhaps consider setting one up. Invite like-minded writers to join you, or simply put the word out, but first, consider the group’s purpose.  If the aim is to critique each other’s writing, then establish a few ground rules. For example, how often will you meet? Will there be a timekeeper?  Will comments be made one at a time around the table, or is the group happier with a free-for-all approach? Sometimes it helps if each participant is asked to mention one aspect that is working well, and one aspect that might be improved. Or you may decide that this is too prescriptive.

A writing group works best where trust is established and everyone understands that any critique is about the words on the page, it is NOT a judgment on the talent of the writer. An early draft is just that – work-in-progress. It helps to come with an open mind both as a writer, and as a first reader. The rewards can be wonderfully transformative!

Suggestions for the writer:

  • Only bring work that you are prepared to have freely discussed.
  • Bring plenty of copies – your fellow writers will give better feedback if they have your piece in front of them.
  • Read your work out loud – you will hear things you don’t ‘see’ on the page.
  • Don’t ‘explain’ the piece first – let it speak for itself. You can always provide some context later.
  • Remember that your fellow writers can help you identify problem areas and suggest strategies to resolve them.
  • Listen carefully to everyone’s views, make notes.
  • Spend some time after the workshop considering any suggestions for improvement, but don’t automatically apply them; suggestions are only helpful if they make sense to you.

Suggestions for first readers:

  • Read the piece slowly and carefully, making notes on the copy.
  • Always look for something to praise or admire.
  • Avoid negative or personal comments; aim for constructive criticism. Phrases such as ‘Have you considered…?’ or ‘It might be strengthened by…’ are useful!
  • Mention presentation issues such as typos and punctuation by all means, but don’t focus on them above all else.  Consider aspects such as structure, voice, language, mood, dialogue, characterisation, point of view, pace and narrative momentum, where appropriate.
  • If something isn’t working in the piece, but you’re not sure why, it is okay to say so.
  • Respect the writer’s vision and ownership of their work – recognise differences in taste.

Tea, coffee, wine work wonders, too…