Book group questions for my trilogy ‘Between the Mountains and the Sea’

An email last week (thanks, Lesley) prompted me to think for the first time about book groups reading my books, either as a whole trilogy or just one of the three. I know that the library service in Cumbria has sets of each of the books for loan for this purpose, and I meet people who have read my books with their group, but I didn’t realise that this sometimes entailed using pre-written questions.

ruth_sutton_triolgy covers

I’ve had a go at creating several questions, in the hope that they might engender some interesting discussion. They seem a bit vague and generic, and I’m sure readers can think of better ones for themselves, but here goes. There are four for each book, and three more that apply to the whole trilogy, which could be adapted for any of the books. Some of the questions for an individual book could be applied for the others too. Mix and match.

I would really love to hear these discussions myself!

A Good Liar

1. How are the characters of Jessie and John introduced to the reader? What do you initially feel about them? Do they develop as the story proceeds, and in what ways?

2. What do you make of Jessie’s affair with Andrew? What does it show about her character, and his?

3. Which passages from the book did you particularly enjoy, or not, and why?

4. This was the author’s first novel: what feedback or advice would you offer her for the future?

Forgiven

1. How is life in a mining community conveyed? Did you find it convincing?

2. Jessie’s independence is threatened in various ways during this story. How does she deal with these developments, and how do you feel about the choices she makes?

3. Do you believe that Maggie genuinely loves John, or is she attracted by what he can offer her?

4. How does the relationship between Jessie and Agnes develop? (This is especially interesting if you’ve witnessed it from the beginning in A Good Liar). What do you think about Agnes’ motives and behaviour?

Fallout

1. How is the character of Lawrence Finer introduced? Do you find him convincing, and what does he add to the story?

2. Do the technical details in this book about the Windscale reactor and the 1957 fire interest you? What could the author have done to improve this aspect of the story?

3. Some of the characters, e.g. Tom Tuohy, were real people working at Windscale in 1957. How does the author weave together fact and fiction. Does it work?

4. The ending of the book, and of the whole trilogy, is left open-ended. Is this satisfying? How would you have liked the book to end?

Between the Mountains and the Sea: the trilogy as a whole

1. Three different communities and decades are explored during the trilogy: what sense did you get of time and place in each of them? Were they convincing and interesting?

2. Does the dialogue contribute to your understanding of the characters? What did you like or dislike about the approach to dialogue?

3. What issues does an author have to consider when writing a trilogy? How has the author dealt with some of these issues?

If you find these questions useful, or have some better ones, let me know. And if you actually use them for a book group discussion, I’d love to know that too, and anything of the feedback or interesting insights that resulted. The next book Cruel Tide, due out in November 2015 is a crime story, and I think the questions might be a bit different.

About ‘noticing’

In the past few days I’ve met many new people, re-connected with friends I’ve not seen for years and heard so many stories, told in many different voices. Half my mind has been on the content of our conversations, but I’ve also been noticing habits of speech, how people walk, all sorts of things about them that I’m storing away to use in future. People won’t reappear in my fiction as complete replicas of those I’m seeing around me. I’ll take a turn of phrase here, a posture there, an over-heard snippet of conversation and many other apparently trivial observations, stir them up and leave them for a while. Then I’ll discover which details bob to the surface when next I’m creating a fictional persona. My memory may need a jog, so I’ll make a few notes:  just a hint – a smell, a hand, a scar, a voice – an impression to spark a later response.

It’s clear to me that these observations have always been part of my fascination with people, but I’m now more specific and intentional in my ‘noticing’. And I’m more curious too, about the backstory and how and why someone’s idiosyncratic characteristics have developed. Give your imagination space to play and you can capture so much interesting stuff. Even if I’m not sure yet about the plot and shape of Book 4, I’m beginning to find some of the characters, and consider how they may react and behave in challenging circumstances.

I think I already have the central character. She is someone I already ‘know’, with a rich backstory already in place. Now I have to find the people around her, or against her, and provide the circumstances in which all them can reveal who they really are. Once the final painstaking stages of publishing Book 3 are behind me, then I can let the fun part of Book 4 really start. It won’t be long.

 

 

The joy of words, spoken and written

Sometimes my working life seems to be in two distinct parts – the education work and the fiction writing – that have no connection with each other and are mutually exclusive. These days the balance of time has tipped towards the writing, but while working in a school yesterday I had the curious sensation of the two worlds colliding, not in terms of the content, but in terms of the skills and the way I’m using my brain.

The content of my education work is so embedded after thirty years of experience that It seems to occupy the same space as the imagination I use when I’m writing. This cognitive content may have been learned sequentially but now its different subsets merge and flow into each other, making connections without any effort on my part. I think of something, an idea or a fact, and it immediately connects with something else.

When I’m working, presenting to a large audience as I did yesterday at Rosebrook Primary School in Stockton, I have to find the words to describe and explain the connections that have jumped into my mind. Those words have to be spoken, and immediate. The fast processing and reaction is – for me – the intellectual equivalent of an extreme sport. I guess it gives me the same rush, although the only danger is that the words will dry up, or tumble out randomly, or offend someone. I’m pretty sure I have offended people in the past by saying exactly what I was thinking without employing the filters that kick in when you slow down. Very occasionally, when I’m tired or unwell, I can’t find the words I need, but that’s rare. Over time I’ve learned to just let my mind relax and focus, not distracted by anything except the focus or the question I’m responding to. I try not to listen to myself, although occasionally I’m aware that what I’m saying is just right. The downside is that the words are ephemeral and what my listeners actually hear, through the filter of their own experience and values, may be different than what was said.

My experience of writing is much shorter than my experience of speaking. If I write as fast as I talk, the words usually flow, but they sound like spoken words not written ones. To shift from the spoken to the written form requires different structures, tighter, more concise, more measured, more thoughtful – more ‘poetic’. That’s where the re-drafting and editing start, for which I need to slow down. Speaking the written words out loud helps, and I’m now half way through doing that for the penultimate version of ‘Fallout’, before it goes to Charlotte, my editor. This will be her first sight of most of the ms. and I value her judgement so much that waiting for her reaction has made me nervous. I know I will need to take more time, adding and deleting before any final polish, but that goes against the grain of my habitual impatience. ‘Life is short’ has been my motto for decades, probably since my father’s sudden death when I was nine: I’m learning slowly to control the urge to rush.

Spoken or written, fast or slower, words are a constant joy. I hope something else carries me off before I lose them.

A new post – the morning after

This is how it's supposed to work

This is how it’s supposed to work

Learning is a funny business: you hear about something, make notes about it, try it out, talk about it, and then you close down the machine, go elsewhere, have a meal, watch Borgen, go to bed, wake up the next day  and try to remember what you learned the day before. Ah….Um…

On the second day of a two day course you are asked to start by using all the skills you learned yesterday.

Uploading the picture was the first challenge, needed help. So I’m trying that again. This portrait of Jane Austen was found on Wikimedia, downloaded and then inserted. This time I did it without help.

This was the only portrait, by her sister Cassandra

This was the only portrait, by her sister Cassandra