24th August 2019
It takes courage to change one writing career for another. It takes talent to succeed at both. And Rhona Whitefordchanged from being a highly successful children’s author to writing accomplished adult novels with an imaginative twist. On this month’s An Author’s Mind, she explores the challenges involved in writing her debut adult novel, Breaking Points. An intriguing prospect. Welcome, Rhona!
Rhona: Delighted to be here! It’s a thought-provoking experience!
Lizzie: So, Breaking Points! With no spoilers, can you briefly put us in the picture?
Rhona: Personal and professional stress leads to a dreadful event: a violent murder in a primary school. Set in inner-city Manchester in the present day, the story opens with the discovery of a newly dead body in the school storeroom by a teaching assistant, Janice Maidly. The narrative then swings back two weeks earlier and each day brings huge problems and intolerable stress for several people involved with the school. Throughout this, Janice Maidly is the only one who could not have committed the crime. The identity of the killer and the victim are revealed only when the tale reaches the day of the murder and someone discovers their breaking point.
Lizzie: Is there an important theme (or themes) that this story illustrates?
Rhona: Although primary schools are, in the main, thrilling little places with a heady ozone layer of happiness, they can sometimes be insular and laced with tensions, both professional and personal. So, my theme is the microcosm of the workplace and how personalities interact.
Lizzie: In Breaking Points – a murder mystery – what is the predominant moral issue? Who understands what is ‘right’ here or does no-one?
Rhona: The moral issue is ‘bullying’, both in a private relationship and in the workplace. In this story, several characters fully understand ‘right’ from ‘wrong’ as defined by our culture and try to live by the rules. Others have their own definition of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ and live by those rules.
Lizzie: How would you describe the genre of your book, if any? What drew you to this genre?
Rhona: I’d place the book in two genres; crime and psychological crime thriller. I enjoy reading both genres because the scenarios are, by definition, dangerous, often shocking and usually life-threatening. I want to see how individuals handle these situations, their relationships with others and, most importantly, where their humanity lies.
Lizzie: When writing, do you like to plan in detail or set up a situation and see where it takes your characters?
Rhona: I have the main idea and the ending planned out in my head, but then, when I start writing, situations can develop where I may have to change my focus. In this book, when I’d finished the first draft, I decided to change the identity of the victim, so I rewrote it all. This was very interesting and made the whole book more poignant. The replacement victim was my daughter’s idea.
Lizzie: Who is your favourite character and why?
Rhona: This is the teaching assistant, Janice Maidly, who finds the body. She has more life-changing problems than any of the other characters but handles everything with a dignity and single-mindedness that I’d like for myself. She has an inner iron.
Lizzie: Do your characters change in your story? Is this important?
Rhona: Some of them do, some more than others in response to the situation. Yes, I think it’s important to show that events can change lives and personalities. It’s part of the human condition and it’s what I look for as a reader; I want to know how people react to life, how they handle it, what happens to them.
Lizzie: If you were a casting director for a film/tv version of Breaking Points, who would you cast in which roles?
Rhona: For a start, Jason Issacs would be the judge, David Mortlake, husband to Christine Mortlake, the Headteacher. I’m thinking of Sarah Lancashire for her role; she can play a lot of different characters so convincingly. Then:
– Jon Gilray, irate parent (tough, strong personality) – Richard Madden
– Katrina Gilray, his wife – Michelle Keegan
– Samantha Jameson, deputy headteacher – Keely Hawes
– Simon, Sam’s partner (teaches A level English at high school) – Rupert Penry Jones
– Janice Maidly – teaching assistant – Suranne Jones
Lizzie: They say all fiction is autobiographical. What is the most significant event/setting for you personally in the story and why?
Rhona: This story isn’t autobiographical, but, like everyone else, sometimes I’ve faced stressful situations and, of course, I’ve worked in primary schools all my life. The most significant event is the murder because it’s a truly awful thing to happen and, in this case, one person was so far beyond the limit of their endurance that they reacted in a physical way that was almost primaeval.
Lizzie: What moments in the novel do you like best?
Rhona: I like all the conversations between the characters because they’re people I got to know and all of them have an edginess that makes me (even as the writer!) want to butt in. For a favourite event – I love David smashing Christine’s antique chair to get her attention before reading the riot act to her.
Lizzie: How do you research a novel? How do you include what you learn?
Rhona: For this novel, there was little research in the normal way because I’ve been in many schools, I was born in Manchester, played in those streets as a child and I’ve visited Beaumaris in Anglesey a great deal. So much for the settings, but as far as the characters go, they are inventions made from the habits, appearance, approach to life, relationships, reactions, modes of speech of many people. Some of them are mine, but most of them come from people I have known. The only disclaimer is that I don’t think any of the people I’ve met has murdered anyone.
Lizzie: What first draws you into a book? The cover? The blurb? The first sentence or paragraph? Why? How did this affect your production of this novel?
Rhona: I’m drawn by the title, genre and cover first and foremost, closely followed by the blurb and the opening paragraph. I’ve tried to make my novel something I’d snatch up to read myself.
Lizzie: What did you learn about you, writing this book?
Rhona: I decided that writing is difficult and absorbing and I’m not that clever…
Lizzie: What comes next?
Rhona: I’ve now finished writing my second novel and am on to the third. The second is a different genre, one I love reading. It’s a time-slip historical novel set in both the present day and the 13th century in Aberffraw, Anglesey. It’s called The House Between Time and is in production, currently being edited. I’m thinking about the cover before I contact my designer. The third novel is called The Undertaker’s Daughter and is an historical novel set in Victorian Manchester where a serial killer preys on professional young women.
Lizzie: How far along are you with your new project?
Rhona: I’m a third of the way through, enjoying myself, having re-read every Victorian author I love (Mrs Gaskell, Dickens, the Brontes) to get the authentic sound of contemporary voices.
My focus is strong female characters and how they navigate their way through a variety of situations. Having explored modern settings and situations I know well, I am now exploring outside that arena with historical female characters; from 12th century wise women and queens, Victorian businesswomen and séances to victims of domestic violence and women in power positions such as head teachers. My female characters are placed in stressful situations and mostly come out on top, but in no way do I intend to diminish the power of the male characters, which is usually immense and fabulous.
Lizzie: Thank you, Rhona. Lots of food for thought here!
Rhona Whiteford began as a primary school teacher and enjoyed it enormously, only leaving the floor temporarily to have her family, but then, as she says, she ‘somehow slipped into another career as a writer. I became a free-lance, self-employed writer and worked on educational resources for primary school teachers for the big commercial publishers – and for the next 30 years. I was never out of a school. I co-authored with a colleague for some books, but found it easier to work independently and I had more than 150 books published in this time. Fifteen years teaching creative writing as Writer-in-Residence at a primary school showed me the fun in children’s fiction, so I developed my own imprint, Wild Dog Books Ltd I now illustrate and publish my own children’s books. I also discovered some stories I wanted to write for the adult market and I run writing workshops for people who also want to write.’
As Rhona explains: ‘I live in Lancashire, in a country park and we have horses, dogs, two adult children and a creative garden. I prefer Mozart to any other music, read for several hours a day and write for the rest. Working from home, at something I love, is the best life I ever imagined. I share it with my husband. But to find out more about Rhona and her activities including her writing workshops, Write that Book, at Barton Grange, Lancashire, see her website.
And, to buy any of her books, see Amazon and/or her website.