Meet Louise Douglas -the RNA’s 2021 Jackie Collins Romantic Thriller Award winner

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I love the description of ‘contemporary gothic mysteries’ – where and when did you first discover your desire to write novels?

Thank you, Valerie and thank you for inviting me to your website, it’s a treat to be here 🙂

You are very welcome!

I’m one of those people who never wanted to do anything but write. When I was a child and people asked me what I was going to be when I grew up, I always answered: ‘Bookmaker!’ I still love that word now!

I was a dreamy child, often in trouble as I never listened to instructions, struggled to concentrate in school and was always getting lost. This was because I was imagining alternative lives in my head and not paying enough attention to the real world. I loved fiction books; loved the pictures, the feel of the pages, the way the stories unfolded. I was often told that writing was all very well but I needed a ‘proper’ job too. Which was fine, as long as it was a job that I could do while I was day-dreaming.

What is it about this genre that attracts you?

I’ve always been drawn to the dark, but that’s because it’s necessary to accentuate the light. I like pre-Raphaelite paintings, epic Gallic poetry and music with a mysterious edge to the lyrics (Nick Cave, Massive Attack). From a young age, I liked exploring old graveyards, because of the way nature takes over, and because of the inscriptions on the gravestones, the stories they tell and the stories they hide. I love that these sad places inevitably evolve into magical and joyous havens for wildlife. It was inevitable I’d be drawn to the kind of books that meld death and love and wild countryside places and big old abandoned houses with secret doors and love letters hidden between the pages of novels.

The night is darkest before dawn; that’s what makes the sunrise so glorious.

Your winning novel was inspired by a real place – is it place, character, theme or another inspiration that triggers most of your plots?

It is usually places that are the inspiration, I can’t say exactly why. But that’s another habit that has carried through from childhood – finding a certain place and knowing that I have to write about it. I remember being about nine years old and riding in the back of my dad’s car, going past a massive old building that was completely derelict and (I know this will sound weird) although I’d never seen it before, I recognised it. It was somewhere in the East Midlands – that’s all I could tell you about it now, but it’s always stayed clear in my mind. That building has become the asylum-turned-reform school that’s at the centre of the novel I’m writing now.

Are you a meticulous plotter or a more organic writer?

Oh, I wish I could plot! I’ve tried everything to turn myself into a plotter, I’ve got a bookshelf full of ‘How to plot…’ instruction manuals, I’ve asked other writers for advice, scoured the internet for tips, I’ve tried and tried and tried and I just can’t do it! Even if I start with a plot within about 500 words it’s all gone to pot and the characters are doing their own thing or turning into different characters altogether and everything that started off clear in my mind has become a mess.

‘Organic writer’ is a lovely phrase but it doesn’t really describe the chaos that I go through every single time. And the not-plotting is so wasteful. I end up deleting tens of thousands of words because I’ve written myself into a dead end. It’s annoying and frustrating and I wish I could be different but it’s the way it is.

You have a love of nature, creativity and the outdoors, does this shine through your work?

Thank you for this question. I do love nature, plants, animals, the moon and stars, the countryside, urban foxes, the oceans, birds, all of it. I hope it shines through in my work because nature is so important to me. One day I really want to write a book about how the outdoors grounds, inspires, heals and calms. Climate change and the threat to the environment terrifies me.

What has winning this amazing award meant to you?

It means the world to me. Being shortlisted gave me a huge boost; it’s done wonders for my confidence. I’m incredibly grateful and proud to have won. And also… to have my name mentioned in the same sentence as the wonderful Jackie Collins is just.. well it’s amazing! Thank you so much to Simon and Schuster UK for sponsoring the award in her name. #BeMoreJackie.

Has your road to success been long or short?

It’s been a long road, with plenty of steep hills, bumps and potholes and I’ve got lost many, many times and had many a flat tyre but I’m still on that road and still enjoying the ride.

What tip would you give your unpublished self-looking back, or would you not change a thing?

I’d tell myself to learn to plot.

How important has being a member of the RNA been to you as a writer?

It’s been important to me both as a writer and as a human being. Through the RNA I met my first ever writer friends; we used to meet once a month in a pub and we laughed and encouraged one another and I realised what a warm and wonderful community it is. It’s a superb organisation run by incredible people.  I admire and respect the way it promotes romantic fiction in its myriad guises, challenges the sometimes patronising assumptions that appear in the press, supports both new and established writers and helps those of us in what is effectively a solitary profession feel part of a collective.  I’m incredibly proud to be part of it.

What is next for Louise?

Book number eight, The Scarlet Dress, has just been published and I’m currently working on the asylum-turned-reform-school book which is my first ever full-on ghost story.  

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Congratulations and I wish you every ongoing success!

Comments, likes and questions can be left below.

Meet award winning author – Val Wood

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Please share with us the amazing route that you took to becoming a published author when you had your first book accepted back in 1993, winning the Catherine Cookson Prize.

1993 seems like a lifetime ago and yet only yesterday. When my first novel THE HUNGRY TIDE was published I was totally shell shocked and astonished that I had won such a prestigious prize as the Catherine Cookson Award. My husband Peter had persuaded me to enter the manuscript, for I didn’t have the faith in myself to consider that it would be good enough, particularly as the competition was open to published as well as unpublished authors. When I was presented with the award by Joanna Trollope on a launch on the River Thames, I had no idea that this was only the beginning.

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You have your own prize now, was this inspired by a desire to also give back to upcoming talent?

I had had great encouragement whilst learning my craft of writing through many years of writers’ workshops, university lectures and discussion groups with other writers. The most pleasing aspect of all, was that most of my fellow writers wanted to write, not with the prospect of being published with a book to show, but to put meaningful words on the page that came from the heart and would interest anyone who might read it. Not forgetting the art of story-telling, which is probably one of the oldest crafts in the world. Most of us, and not only professional writers, have at some time in our lives enjoyed being read to, or have told an impromptu story from our imagination.

Ten years on and being totally committed to my work and with more books under my belt as I became established as a professional author, I began to consider that with the luck and encouragement that I’d had before and during my career, it was beholden of me to inspire others who were as keen to write as I was, and so with the help of an incredible team who organised the detail and with the assistance of the Hull Central Library, in 2013 we set up the annual Val Wood Creative Writing Competition, free to enter and with a prize. We have had many hundreds of entries over the years, we have a good system with skilled readers and I choose the final winners. 

Because of the pandemic the competition has taken longer to organize during this year’s library closures; the winners are about to be announced and we are already planning next year’s competition.

You live and write about a beautiful part of the country but is it the place or a character or a piece of historical detail that triggers the first ideas for your novels?

For me, when beginning a novel, the theme or subject matter is always of paramount importance and because the Victorian period was a symbol of change in industry, science and the women’s movement, I set my novels during this time, often with the background of poverty, injustice, women’s rights or lack of them as in No Place for a Woman, and how they set about righting the wrongs against them. From my imagination I have created women who didn’t want to sit and wait for a husband to claim them and who set out to find their own role in their lives as in Far from Home, and others who found they had made the wrong choice as in my latest novel The Lonely Wife. 

Do you let your characters grow organically on the page or do you plan ahead?

I don’t know my characters until I name them and then I watch them grow into the life I create for them. There are times when I don’t know which direction they will take, or sometimes I know the ending before I am halfway through. It is very important that the characters behave as real people of the nineteenth century would have done and don’t fall into  the trap of twenty-first century manners or speech such as OK or getting sorted, level playing field or even the latest phrase of roadmap! This would totally confuse a nineteenth century character. 

I always give the men in the novels a strong part; my males are considerate on the whole, though some are not and get their cum-uppance! And of course, there is always a romantic element, and I generally fall completely in love with the male protagonist!

Having written so many books based in the region, was it your inspiration to create the Val Wood’s Trails?

Alongside the theme and the characters, I think of the place or setting. I have done this from the very first novel because I need to know where my characters live; I drive out or walk to look at locations in East Yorkshire and I might well have terrified bystanders at some time in the past by standing on the edge of the crumbling cliffs of Holderness; confused others as I stare into space to imagine where a building or street in the heart of Hull might have been before it was blitzed, or clutching a cup of coffee in a café in an East Yorkshire market town that has retained some Victorian element. I place my characters there; this then inspired the idea of bringing those characters to life and allowing readers to follow their trail either physically or online as I did with The Kitchen Maid and The Harbour Girl.

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Pre Covid the libraries were a place that you have supported and being actively involved with so in what ways have you missed this side of your writing life and tried to compensate for it?

During this pandemic, I feel that many people including authors have felt the strain of uncertainty and doubt.  Beginning the present work in progress was difficult; I felt slowed down, uncertain where to begin; this was the first time ever that I have felt this way; I wanted to write a ‘feel good’ story, something to make readers happy and uplifted, but it just wouldn’t come. 

I was sorry to read of your personal loss due to Dementia and understand that you are actively involved in work with the Friends of the Hull Memory Clinic to spread greater awareness and understanding. Have you post-lockdown plans to continue with this?

Since my husband died from dementia in 2009 I have lived alone but haven’t felt lonely; my writing and a loving family saved me from that, but I have missed not being able to meet friends, not feeling safe enough to shop in a store or being unable to visit a favourite historical building. Simple things that we took for granted but won’t ever again.

I told myself to take it easy, to be kind to myself. I have written a book a year since 1993 even through my sad and difficult times, plus several short stories for magazines, essays and lectures and published one ‘long’ short story of 50 pages for a local charity in order to raise funds for a memorial to the people of Hull who died in the Second World War.

So I took a short time out and walked on the green and lovely common land of Westwood here in Beverley and I regained my equilibrium and after a time was able to begin again, deciding that I would continue from The Lonely Wife and write a sequel.

In the past I have been a ‘hands on’ volunteer, being with one charity for almost thirty years; but now in my later years I have changed roles to give support by becoming patron and vice president with charities that I have long supported. I consider that I do very little now but most of us can do some small thing and it is appreciated.

I contemplate that I have been very fortunate in my life, and the schoolgirl who struggled with maths and dates in history, but loved writing stories would not have believed how life could change because of a fertile imagination.

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Which historic figures stand out as inspiring of the women you have researched?

I have learned so much during my writing life and read about some incredible women through my research; Marie Curie who was honoured with the Nobel Prize and under intense pressure from her male peers, went on to invent the first mobile X ray machines and took it herself to the Front during the First World War thus saving thousands of lives.

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and her daughter Louise Garrett Anderson, both suffragettes and campaigners for women’s equal rights as men had, and Caroline Norton who petitioned Parliament to change the laws regarding Custody of Children, and so many more.

What have been the highlights of your career to date: the Honorary Doctorate, being a Times Bestseller, winning the Catherine Cookson Award – all or something else?

Winning the Catherine Cookson Award opened up a host of other opportunities from becoming a Sunday Times best- selling author to being honoured in 2017 by the University of Hull with an Honorary Doctorate for the contribution to literature, my greatest achievement; and in 2019 an invitation to a Royal Garden Party at Buckingham Palace that brought tears to my eyes as I walked through the hallowed portal. All for the love of writing.

What is next for Val Wood?                     

What comes next?  First of all finish the sequel to The Lonely Wife which is running head to head in popularity with The Doorstep Girls. My working title is Children of Fortune and features not only the children from the Lonely Wife as they grow into adulthood but also another child from a different family with a question mark over her parentage. I don’t yet know the ending.

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Charities I support.

Home-Start (Hull) the children’s charity

Sight-Support – Hull and East Riding for people with sight loss 

Butterflies – The Hull Memory Loss Support group.