Author Interview: Jennifer Burkinshaw

Have you ever killed off a character your readers loved?
I’m afraid so, but it’d be a huge spoiler to tell you which character and in which book, wouldn’t it?

What advice would you give to a writer working on their first book?
For first time authors, I would check that you are learning your craft. Telling a compelling story is a really complex and difficult thing to pull off. I’m still learning all the time even though I have invested in an MA in Creative Writing, being part of a writing academy and critique group.  You’ll need some tools to structure your story and develop character arcs.  There are lots of good books about writing too – see the next question!

What books helped you the most when you were writing your books?

Story Genius by Lisa Cron. This book helps you develop the readers’ emotional connection with your characters by focusing on how what happens to them affects them; changes them as they struggle with an internal problem, a misbelief that stands in their way from before the story started.

What are the essential characteristics of a hero you can root for?

A hero you can get behind for me needs to be flawed but also have integrity and courage. We need to be able to understand why they do that they do. I’m a big believer in the ‘save the cat’ idea too – that early on in the story, the hero does something admirable. In Happiness Seeker, this is part of the inciting incident, when, despite her own phobia, Allie goes down onto the sinking sands of Morecambe Bay to warn a lad about the dangers.

What do you do to get inside your character’s heads?

I do ‘method writing’ – the equivalent of method acting, I suppose. So to get all the emotions in, I think of a time when I experienced something similar. For example, in ‘Happiness Seeker’,  the beautiful sheepdog of one of the characters goes missing. This happened to me and I didn’t know whether or not I’d ever know what happened to Millie. I did because she eventually turned up at someone else’s back door but I remember vividly the fear I’d never not only see her again but not know what had happened to her.

What inspired the ideas for your books?

For both my books, setting came first. Igloo is set in the French Alps where my family used to have a little chalet we spend a  lot of time at. My sons would build igloos in the snow and I started to think what it would be like if you met someone in such a small space – which is exactly what happens to Nirvana.

Happiness Seeker is set on a town near Morecambe Bay on the southern edge of the Lake District, England. It’s a stunning but treacherous tidal estuary I’ve spend a lot of time at as my parents live (d) there.  When I was a drama teacher, I once took a school trip there – so I wondered what if. What if the students on this trip didn’t heed all the warnings about the Bay; and I developed Allie, my main character and narrator who likes to keep control, follow the rules – until she meets a mysterious lad on the shore and discovers he’s in a terrible plight she needs to help him with.
What is the most valuable piece of advice you’ve been given about writing?

To make it about ONE thing – in terms of having one beating heart or engine in your book. It’s also important to have the main ‘beats’ of your story sorted before you start writing, I think.

What part of the book did you have the hardest time writing?

By far the most painful was in Happiness Seeker when two of my characters are stuck on the Sands of Morecambe Bay with the tide due very soon. I’ve walked across this lethal bay several times, but with a guide so I was safe. How it would really feel to face death imminently I had to try really hard to imagine.

What, to you, are the most important elements of good writing?

What’s most important to me as a reader and a writer is that I connect with the characters intensely, feel what they’re feeling.

Which of the characters do you relate to the most and why?

I relate to both my main characters very closely, Nirvana (aged 16) in Igloo and Allie (aged 17) in Happiness Seeker as in my head, I still feel like a teenager. I remember feeling as intensely about everything as they both do. But Nirvana is more rebellious than me! Allie ends up breaking the rules in a much more radical and serious way and it nearly costs her her life but for all the right reasons. I’d like to think I’d do the same but I know I wouldn’t!

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Amazon: Jennifer Burkinshaw