Q&A with Donna Harper, Award-Winning Author
Please welcome Donna Harper to our Featured Q&A series at Writer’s Fun Zone. She is the Honorable Mentions to the 2017 Genre Novelist 1st Chapter Contest, I sponsored (Beth Barany) in conjunction with the 2017 San Mateo County Fair Literary Arts Stage. Donna’s story, “Focus on Death,” along with all the winners, will be featured in the book, Carry The Light. I really enjoyed her tale! If you’d like to be considered for an interview, check out our guidelines here.
DONNA IN HER OWN WORDS
I am 56 years old and have worked as an Administrator for a busy department in Oxford University for over 15 years. I have an Oxford BA and an MA. I love writing and am working on several novels. In creative writing classes I was named Queen of Death because someone always dies in my fiction writing. I have been married for over 34 years and live with my husband, two grown-up sons, who have both moved back home and two ginger toms.
On to our interview!
1. Tell us who you are and what inspires you to write.
I’m a middle-aged housewife with two grown-up boys. Many things inspire me but most of my ideas come from a plot genie who lives in my head. He pesters me to write after hearing a comment someone made, or a memory inspired by a smell. He usually pops up just when I’ve gone to bed, so I keep a notebook and pen close by. If I’m downstairs, he whispers in my ear until I note it down. Characters from the novel I’m writing also discuss ideas in my head. I wouldn’t mind, but sometimes they’re better than my ideas.
2. How did you get to this place in your life? Share your story!
I’ve always wanted to write and began an historical novel, but life kept getting in the way. When I tried to write again, I realised my writing was flat. In my thirties, I decided to go to college to see if I missed anything in high-school English classes. College led me on to university where I received a BA (HONS) and MA in History from Oxford University. After attending creative writing courses, I understood what I was doing wrong and realised crime and detectives were my genre. I found that I’m good at killing people – on paper!
3. What are you most passionate about?
I am passionate about writing. I am attempting to finish my first novel, but need to scatter some clues and red herrings about first. I have already started my second novel and am writing down plot ideas for the third. They are all detective novels, involving the same female detective. I also write short stories and enter them for competitions. I have come third in a 24-hour short story contest and won an honourable mention for another short story. Now I have an honourable mention for the opening of my first novel. What a thrill that is. I am also (thanks to that darned genie!) writing the plot for another novel. This one is about an off-duty detective who traces the life of a much disliked (dead!) homeless woman back to her beginnings and tells how she came to be who she was. The premise being: don’t judge a book etc. but look (and think) deeper. I am also passionate about all things Apple and have just about all their gadgets. My iPad Pro is my best friend and goes with me everywhere.
4. Can you tell us a little bit about your writing process, routine, and/or rituals around your writing?
I prefer to be alone to write. I need to be able to get inside my head and listen to the conversations going on in there. Occasionally I find myself in a coffee shop with time on my hands so I have a CD of a fantastic thunderstorm on my iPhone. If I decide to write with people around, I’ll pop my headphones on and listen to that; it drowns out all the noise around me and there are no words to distract me. It’s brilliant; the best storm I’ve ever heard. At home, I have a study in the converted half of our attic and go up there early to write, usually before anyone gets up. I can concentrate up there because the skylights only show the sky, so there are few distractions. I always keep a sharpened pencil and post-it notes close to hand, for ideas to follow up later. Surrounded by my bookcases and with a cat or two curled up beside me, I’m free to write. My family knows to only come up if they’re carrying a fresh coffee for me.
5. What are a few challenges you faced in creating, marketing, or publishing your creative work? And your solutions to them!
And your solutions to them. I haven’t reached the point where I need to start marketing my work yet, but one of the challenges in creating my novel was finding the time and the place to write. Time is still a regular issue, but I write snippets whenever I can and often lock myself away on the weekend. What I am doing though, is telling people I meet about my main novel. So far, most of them are keen detective novel readers and want to know more, so I’ve started collecting email addresses from them and will email them when my novel is published so they can buy a copy. I also attend webinars regarding marketing, to make myself aware of what I will need to do later. There is a lot of material out there relating to this subject, both in hard copy but more so on the Internet. I subscribe to several writers who regularly post information regarding creating, marketing and publishing your work. Whoever said writing a novel was the hardest thing to do, never tried to publish or market one.
6. What do you wish you had known before you started writing fiction?
Plot and sentence structure. I had never heard of them when I began writing fiction – I just wrote what came to mind. It’s much easier now, of course, because with computers you can jiggle words or sentences, or even whole pages around. When I first started, it was with pencil and paper, so it was much harder to change your mind about where a paragraph went because you’d have to write the whole thing out again. I also wish I had known about grammar. I was at school at a time when (apparently) the Government decided that there was no need for grammar to be high on the national curriculum and so we were never taught it. I had always loved English at school and came top once for writing a story where I married Donny Osmond, but no-one mentioned adjectives or flowery diction. I knew of them, but never knew how to use them (or not) when writing fiction. Growing up, Jean Plaidy and Anya Seton novels were the only reading material to hand, then I found Jane Eyre and the Tales of Udolpho. I have since learnt how to write well-rounded characters and plots.
7. What’s next for you in your creative work?
Next? My second detective novel. It’s about the lies people tell; to themselves as well as to others. Surprise – lots more people die! And more short story competitions too. I also dip in and out of yet another novel I’m working on, which is a modern-day dystopian world. The world has gone “to hell in a handbag’, as the song goes, after North Korea has launched a nuclear missile into space to test it, just as a giant EM wave shoots out from the sun – the two collide and hell arrives on earth. The main protagonist here is a divorced mother with a teenage son. She’s a vet in a small country village. They end up travelling the country after its been devastated, with an ex-army guy who’s been living in a yurt in the woods near their village. He unwittingly has knowledge others need to put the world back to rights again, but the bad guys are after him too.
8. Is there anything else you wished I’d asked? Please share!
That’s difficult to know. Perhaps where I am from. I think if I was reading your article about someone else, I would be interested in where that person lives and whether that’s where they come from originally. Not necessarily what town, but which country, just to place them somewhere. In case you haven’t already guessed I’m English, from England.
ABOUT FOCUS ON DEATH
Detective Isabelle Brennan is back at work after a breakdown when her beloved father was jailed. Izzy is determined to clear his name. Then Marc Penn dies in the centre of Oxford. He was at university with Izzy’s dad and despite being dead, still impacts her life. People connected to Penn start dying. Can she handle this case? An older partner is foisted on her and an old flame is after the promotion this case will bring. Izzy discovers Penn also knew her mother. The evidence blows her mind. Will she save Penn’s last living relative and perhaps her career?