Inspiration from art

The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition opens to the public next week. I was lucky enough to sneak in early and pick up some word wrangling inspiration.

There were over 1,300 pieces on display. Here are three that might help you crack your next story.

1. Opening image

Divinity, Lola Flash

Struan Murray says he started Orphans of the Tide with one strong image in mind: a whale stranded on a chapel rooftop.

Exhibitions are always packed with visual story starters. And, for me, Lola Flash’s photo of a mysterious praying figure against an upturned boat has the hallmarks of a cracking opening image.

  • Who are they?
  • What do they want?
  • Where have they come from?

I can’t look at it without wanting to reach for a pen to find answers.

Lola Flash’s Divinity

2. Setting

Green Kitchen, Bogotá, Caroline Peña-Bray

Green Kitchen, Bogotá, Caroline Peña-Bray

I have a dreadful habit of writing first drafts in a vacuum – with characters doing things in spaces that are impossible to picture.

But getting the setting right makes telling the rest of the story so much easier. That’s where a good gallery can help.

Look at the personality bursting from Caroline Peña-Bray’s ramshackle kitchen. It’s hard to imagine any scene set here not being full of noise and life, too.

What do your settings – from the colours on the walls to the amount of clutter crammed onto the shelves (or not) – say about your characters? If your settings aren’t saying much, perhaps they’re not working hard enough.

For more world-building inspiration, make a beeline for the RA’s architecture room, where full models of buildings and cities are laid out in front of you. They’re such a help if, like me, you’re not great at visualising the places in your book.

3. Character

I Bite & Sting: Mosquito and Jellyfish, Stephen Chambers

I Bite & Sting: Mosquito and Jellyfish, Stephen Chambers

Have you ever seen a more terrifying, ready-made villain than Stephen Chambers’ jellyfish? This etching gives me the creeps, and also gets me wondering what evil sting plot is going on behind those very big eyes…

Galleries are great places to find your next characters – heroes, pets, sidekicks and evil jellyfish overlords alike.

The RA Summer Exhibition is on from 22nd Sept-2nd January 2022. Tickets are £20-£22 (and if you buy anything, you get a free ticket the following year). If you make it along, tell me about your favourite pieces in the replies. #RASummer

Practical tips

Building a website

Disclaimer: I have *no* idea how to build websites (this one’s my first). But if, like me, you want a website that doesn’t cost a fortune, this might help.

1. Platform vs

There are a few web design platforms, like SquareSpace, built with newbies in mind. I opted for WordPress because I’d love to add my own code to the site one day and, from what I can tell, WordPress is one of the few places that lets you. (I did a Python coding course once and am determined to use it!)

But…it’s only easier to add code if you choose the right WordPress. Which I didn’t.

Yep, there are two versions of WordPress – with the same look and logo. (which this site’s on at the mo) and is good for beginners because…

  • It’s free (once you’ve bought your domain name)
  • It hosts the site for you
  • It’s designed with blogging in mind – so it’s really easy to write posts like this

There are paid options too, which you can sign up for to get rid of adverts and get a bigger choice of templates. I accidentally bought one of these packages initially, thinking it would let me add my own Python code later. When I realised I was wrong, getting a refund was nice and easy.

But gives you more control

Ultimately, this was the platform I should have chosen because even though you have to find and pay for your own hosting, you can also add your own code. So you get a lot more say over the final look and feel.

That said, I think is probably for people who already have some web design game (which I don’t). So even though I chose .com by mistake, I think I’ll stay here a bit longer while I’m finding my feet. Expect another blog next year on the trials and tribulations of transferring a website from .com to .org!

2. The theme

Pick one with enough pages

The Twenty Twenty Theme…and my actual homepage for half an hour last Wednesday

I’m no designer, so knew I’d need a template to build my site. They’re called themes and they have all the navigation you’ll need built in. If you choose the right one.

I originally picked a one-page design called Baker. I thought it looked really slick…until I wanted to add more pages and came unstuck.

If you know you’ll want more than a single-page site, it makes sense to pick a theme with more pages in mind. (I’m now using the free Twenty Twenty theme instead.)

But, be warned: if you switch themes, take your site offline first!* I didn’t and for half an hour last Wednesday, I claimed to be a leading Swedish museum of modern art. Which, of course, one of my friends spotted and used as an hilarious excuse to prank email me art questions…

For half an hour last Wednesday, I claimed to be a leading Swedish museum of modern art

There are enough free themes on to get you started. But you can always upgrade to get more.

*You do that by going to your dashboard, choosing Settings – General – Privacy and checking the ‘Coming Soon’ box. You can also switch any page you edit to ‘draft mode’.

3. Make it yours

Why Canva is awesome

I was chatting to my author friend, Amita and admiring her website, when she revealed her design secret: Canva. The site lets you design web banners, social media pics, logos…and the ‘3Things’ images I’m using to promote these blogs.

Canva’s great, because it gives you a way of making your site look a little bit different, even using a standard theme. It’s easy to use and, so far, I’ve been able to do everything I need with the free version.

To get started, it helps to know the size of pic you want, so you can build the right template (otherwise, re-sizing is a pain without upgrading to the premium account). All my blog ‘featured images’ as WordPress calls them, are 1200 x 675 pixels.

It’s a lovely tool, and one I wouldn’t have thought to use on a website without Amita’s help. To thank her, I think we should all pre-order her historical fiction 2022 debut, The Circus Train which is full of magic and science and medicine and, frankly, sounds fabulous.

Have you attempted to build an author website yet? What top tips would you share? Let me know in the replies.

Gifts for writers

Gifts for writers

1. Literary postcards

Obvious State

Selection of Obvious State Postcards from the SHE collection

Obvious State are a New York-based brand, but they also have a UK Etsy shop. When I signed with my agent, my husband gave me their SHE postcard box (in the pic above). Each card features a quote from a famous female author, set against a striking illustration.

Although I can’t find this exact set in the Etsy shop at the mo, they have smaller packs of 24 literary postcards with very similar designs. They also make prints, notebooks, bookmarks and even t-shirts.

All perfect gifts for writers who like pictures as much as words.

2. Medic bag

Galen Leather

Writer’s Medic bag and personalised pencil case

I stumbled across Galen Leather when another writer posted pics of their (currently sold out) Writing Box, which was apparently inspired by Thomas Jefferson’s portable writing desk.

But I love their new medic bag even more. Not least because the bag – designed in the style of a Swiss army medic bag – is also a tribute to Galen’s founder, Zeynep, who sadly died in 2019. This was her last design, and boy does the final product do her proud.

It comes in two sizes and a few colours. I have the smaller one in Forest Green. It’s large enough to carry six pens and a couple of highlighters in separate holders plus a phone and small pencil case. It’s also got pouches for cards, a zip pocket, keyring and space for an A5 notebook or two.

And, quite frankly, it’s fun. I love its vintage look and the way its magnetic sides let you spread its contents over a desk. This is definitely the type of bag that would get attention on author visits. I know child me would have been besotted by it too.

A perfect gift for writers on the move who want to carry their stationery in style.

3. Beautiful hardbacks

The Folio Society

Folio edition of Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys

Oh my goodness, I love, love, love The Folio Society. One of my lifetime #WriterGoals is to write a book that Folio later publishes. So if you know anyone at The FS, feel free to pass that on… 😉

Their hardback, illustrated editions of loved books are real works of art. And they have a decent range of children’s books, alongside nonfiction and fiction titles.

My Folio copy of Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys is stunningly illustrated by Francis Vallejo and comes with fabulous spiderweb spredges (sprayed edges).

Best of all, while being lovely to look at, The Folio Society’s books feel robust enough that you’re not scared to sit down and actually read them. Which, afterall, is still the point of a book.

A perfect gift for anyone who wants a special edition of a favourite story to treasure forever.

What would you buy the word wrangler in your life? Or is something special on your wishlist?

Leave a reply to let me know (then maybe we can go shopping)