Character Influences – From James Hadley Chase to Khadi Easton-Street

By Foday Mannah

I attended an all-boys boarding high school in Sierra Leone where a popular pastime was reading novels that stereotypically were designed for boys; think Frederick Forsyth, Jack Higgins, and Robert Ludlum. For some reason though, the author most popular in our high school and indeed the sub-region was James Hadley Chase.

With the benefit of experience and hindsight, Chase’s novels have significant flaws whilst being rather predictable and stereotypically offensive: they all featured at least one beautiful woman who is deceptive and would no doubt sleep with the dominant male protagonist; there were often heists and other get-rich-quick schemes that fell flat; people of minority races are employed in menial jobs with their physicality outlined in pejorative details etc. Chase’s novels largely reflect the backward attitudes of his era, although I confess to still reading them today as I still find them fairly entertaining.

Once we hit university, one of our lecturers who taught us a course on the novel, was quick to point out that our high school favourites were not novels in the strict sense, glibly dismissing them as “crime and sex fiction.” In essence, they were flaky and undesirable creations that had no right to share the title of “novel” with the likes of works produced by the Bronte sisters, Thomas Hardy, Chinua Achebe, John Steinbeck, Mongo Beti and James Baldwin, all of whom we studied on the afore-mentioned course. This opinion no doubt rankled slightly as we believed that our childhood favourites held merit. We for instance all agreed that we liked Chase because he “described people and places very well.”

In one of his novels, So What Happens To Me?the protagonist Jack Crane who narrates events in the first person, describes his initial meeting with a minor character, Wes Jackson:

Wes Jackson stood in the doorway of my cabin like an undersized King Kong. He was about 6ft 5ins, massively built and around thirty-two or thirty-three years of age. He had a turnip-shaped head that sat on his vast shoulders without suggesting he had any neck. His small nose, his small mouth and his small eyes struggled to survive in a sea of pink-white fat. His jet black hair was close-cropped. He wore heavy black shell glasses that slightly magnified his sea-green eyes. He was immaculately dressed in a blue blazer with some fancy badge on the pocket, white linen slacks and some club tie pinned to a white shirt with a large gold tie pin.

Chase’s lucid attention to detail is impressive whilst he also manages to convey the narrator’s disapproval of Wes Jackson with word choice that suggests ridicule. Indeed later in the novel, the relationship between the two unravels.

Chase also does something very well which is by no means original; the use of imagery to aid description. From the very early years we teach children about similes, metaphors and personifications and how they enhance description. In the example above, the metaphors which compare Wes Jackson to King Kong and his head to a turnip are effective in outlining his physicality whilst also being funny. As an aside, I also like Chase’s simple repetition of the word “small” to describe Jackson’s eyes, nose and mouth.

On the novel course I mentioned above, we studied Chinua Achebe’s ThingsFall Apart, the tragic story of Okonkwo who finds himself unable to cope with the advent of colonial rule in Nigeria. Achebe opens his seminal novel by establishing Okonkwo’s character in engrossing detail:

Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond. His fame rested on solid personal achievements. As a young man of eighteen  he had brought honour to his village by throwing Amalinze the Cat, the great wrestler who for seven years was unbeaten …

And later on the same opening page, Achebe focuses on Okonkwo’s physicality:

He was tall and huge, and his bushy eyebrows and wide nose gave him a very severe look. He breathed heavily, and it was said when he slept, his wives and children in their out-houses could hear he breathe. When he walked, his heels hardly touched the ground and he seemed to walk on springs, as if he was going to pounce on somebody…

Again note the effective use of imagery especially to describe Okonkwo’s gait. Furthermore, in a couple of paragraphs, Achebe manages to establish Okonkwo’s physical strength and power, a key thread of the novel which amongst other things examines the concept of true manhood.

An idea I find useful in creating characters is writing random paragraphs on people from real life, at times changing their names for obvious reasons. One thing that stuck with me whilst watching television a while back was hearing John Cleese talk about how he had got the inspiration for Basil Fawlty from a real life obnoxious hotel owner. Cleese then spoke about how they built the rest of the programme around the premise of this single character thereby creating an endearing classic of British television.

One of my random character paragraphs currently on ice focuses on a lady from my childhood named Khadi Easton-Street:

Eventually, the romantic carousel that was Tabara’s life came to a standstill, and one of his lady friends became a constant. Like Tabara’s sister, she was also named Khadi and to avoid confusion, everyone called her Khadi – Easton Street, a nod to her home address. Khadi – Easton Street was light-skinned with obedient hair that flowed down her back, in addition to being a disciple of high-heeled shoes. She was also the custodian of a couple of gold teeth which flashed when she smiled. Khadi -Easton Street added further lustre to Tabara’s visits, and it was agreed by all that she would make a most illustrious wife. It was rumoured that her father was a seaman who travelled to far away locations, lending her even more sophistication.

I realised that I went a bit overboard with the metaphors, hence one of the reasons why this is still in storage. I however realised that Khadi Easton-Street deserved her own story, something to work on in the future. I also realised that describing characters is largely instinctive and flows naturally whilst being influenced by several factors. In describing the character above, I had no fixed formula in my mind, but on the contrary just wrote her as I remembered her. Whilst realising that the description is by no means perfect, there are several aspects worth preserving which can be fine-tuned with editing.

Characters resonate and appeal due to a myriad of factors: background, physicality, circumstances, actions, conflicts etc. We have encountered these characters all our lives from bedtime stories to adult life. And all of them are memorable for specific reasons: from Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne, a highly-skilled secret assassin who suffers amnesia to Margaret Atwood’s Offred who endures a harrowing existence under an oppressive dystopian regime. And whether we encounter them in “true novels” or in “crime and sex fiction”, they all strike chords whilst remaining memorable and endearing.


How to create likeable characters

I recently heard Sarah Perry, author of the Essex Serpent, being told by a reader that they didn’t much like the novel’s protagonist, Cora. They went on to add that they certainly didn’t see why the other characters in the novel were so attracted to her. I held my breath. I was poised to hear how poor Perry would deal with such a comment, feeling the excruciation on her behalf as if a reader had just told me that they didn’t think much of my character. But Perry’s reply surprised me, ‘Well, you know,’ she said to the reader (in words to this effect), ‘Cora isn’t real, it’s all just a story I’ve made up, and Cora, like all characters, is just a plot device.’ I was holding my breath again, but for a different reason this time, exhilaration, my mind raced at what she’d just said. It was so refreshing and yet so at odds with how I feel about the imaginary person I carry about in my head and miss terribly when I’ve finished writing the story. The interviewer too sounded astounded, as if the author was pulling back the curtain Dorothy-style to reveal that characters aren’t magical beings at all.

As I let this idea settle I decided the truth lies somewhere in between, characters are indeed plot devices, but the characters we fall in love with appeal to our emotions as well as our heads. There is something about memorable characters that inspire us, they possess traits we admire, and make us wish that we were them. Strong characters are often game changers, but the question I grapple with is; do they actually have to be likeable? Some of the best characters, the ones that really stay with me, aren’t especially likeable but they are compelling. Take Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Ketteridge, and just about all of Lionel Shriver’s protagonists. These individuals are different, interesting and intriguing but I wouldn’t want to be them, or friends with them.

And what does likeable mean, anyway? I recently took The Land Girl on a blog tour and I was interested to see the reactions to Emily, my protagonist. Reader/reviewers really liked how she transformed significantly during the course of the novel, they liked that she stood up to authority, learnt from her mistakes and fought for what she believed in. Emily’s passionate too about the thing she cherishes the most, and this was also an admirable quality. These things combined seemed to be what made her likeable.   Whether or not she should be likeable, whether heroic would be a more appropriate word, and whether it’s a necessity of particular genres are all questions I continue to mull over. I often wonder if male characters are held up to the same scrutiny and expectation of being likeable. It isn’t the case in real life, and I suspect fiction reflects that exactly.

What Perry says is true, characters are constructs, but we also create a life that our reader inhabits. If we as writers breathe life into characters, let them make mistakes but ultimately become heroes of their own lives, then surely we create a being who is so much more than just likeable.



Cover reveal for The Land Girl

I’m very happy to share the lovely cover of the Land Girl. This will be my second novel with HQ Digital, and it focuses on the dramatic changes the first world war brought to women’s lives. Here is the blurb…

War changes everything…

Emily has always lived a life of privilege. That is until the drums of World War One came beating. Her family may be dramatically affected but it also offers her the freedom that she craves. Away from the tight control of her mother she grabs every opportunity that the war is giving to women like her, including love.

Working as a land girl Emily finds a new lease of life but when the war is over, and life returns to normal, she has to learn what to give up and what she must fight for.

Will life ever be the same again?

The ebook is available from the 8th July, and the paperback through Amazon on 8th September 2018.

And here it is…


On Inspiration – by Foday Mannah

The question as to where writers get inspiration from  naturally differs depending on individual circumstances; suffice to say that real life usually significantly impacts what’s produced creatively.

Now for a little story: when I graduated university back in the nineties, I was employed for six months as a high school teacher of English. Rather ironically, teaching in Sierra Leone was a profession often treated with derision and disrespect; something you settled for until something more lucrative came along. Salaries were patchy and light whilst new teachers often received nothing for their first few months of employment. Indeed the school bursar often declared that new teachers could not be paid because “the computer had not come with our names!” Now you must remember that at this time, an understanding  of the capabilities of computers  was limited, and as such this excuse for non-payment of salaries to new teachers was accepted with resigned grace. In essence the Ministry of Education and indeed the school authorities could not be blamed if the computer failed to come with our names! Which formed the basis of a short story that I once wrote – a teacher who quits after “the computer did not come with her name,” to find a questionable form of employment as a means of providing for her disabled husband and twin daughters.

In fact my time as a teacher in the home country provided further rich pickings for another piece I am in the process of drafting. The narrative addresses the relative nature of poverty and deprivation and how this affects characters. Back in Sierra Leone, only TWO members of the teaching staff had cars – the headteacher, a deceptively avuncular fellow who lost his job whilst I was there, and a Physics teacher who had studied in America and as such considered his talents wasted as a mere high school teacher.

On migrating to Scotland in the late nineties, I took up employment for a temp agency which involved working as a waiter or labourer or waiter depending on the circumstances. Imagine my surprise therefore when after a mere month in the country, a pastry chef offered me his banger of a car for free? The car was a typical jalopy which had an amicable relationship with rust; however I was over the moon and could not understand how one person could give a whole car to another person for free. This forms the foundation for a short story, the climax of which involves the car being stolen by yobs before being wrecked and abandoned in a gratuitous act of vandalism.

Living away from home also means that I draw massive inspiration from social media, especially Facebook. The sheer volume of experiences and circumstances faced by people on a daily basis is fertile ground for creative writing. Themes that have been worth exploring recently include political intolerance, religious conflict, gender inequality, natural disasters, epidemics etc. Facebook is akin to a giant plenary session where burning issues are discussed with passion and engagement. Another advantage of social media is it times simply provides a forum for reminiscing on shared experiences from the past. A recent thread for instance saw me asking people to list superstitions and beliefs from the home country and the end product was a poem that simply listed some of my favourites: washing your face with coconut water grants you intelligence; if a millipede walks across your palm you’ll be blessed with lovely handwriting; you should not look into a mirror during a funeral procession as you’ll see a reflection of the deceased etc.

The writer’s mind typically always wanders and you often find yourself thinking about scenarios worth exploring in fiction: with so much political violence and ethnic conflict in parts of Africa, how about a dystopian society within which all political parties are banned and Western education is no longer the determining factor to holding political office? Perhaps in this story, all schools are closed down with education the exclusive responsibility of chiefs and the elders of different ethnic groups as was the case in the pre-colonial era.

Inspiration is at times a mere chunk or titbit of human existence that develops into something much more far-reaching and significant. A task whilst studying at Falmouth University asked us to experiment with an “unreliable narrator.” My take on this task was simply a boy who does not tell the truth. This then developed into a boy who pretends to be a child soldier as a means of gaining access to the care and comfort afforded to child combatants as a means of rehabilitating them. The ramifications of this lie then ends up driving the rest of the plot.

And so it continues. Thanks for reading and happy writing! 😊




Where do you get inspiration for writing?

Over the next month or so our writing collective will be opening up the discussion on sources of inspiration for our writing. It’s common for us writers to be asked where we derive our ideas, but I don’t find the question easy to answer because I tend to accumulate inspiration from all over, like a magpie hoards shiny objects.

Some of my earlier contemporary stories drew on my life experiences. The untimely death of a college friend, the adjustment to moving away from my hometown and career struggles have all inspired stories of which I’m very much a part. One piece of writing, developed during a stressful time in my life, makes me cringe a little as it was so autobiographical that it wasn’t really a story at all, but a way of helping me work through a difficult time. I was too close to the situation at the time to realise that, even so the writing of it helped me to process and accept what was happening to me, but I do wish I hadn’t shared it quite so freely!

My debut novel The Lido Girls was first inspired by my own love of swimming and a nostalgic interest in British seaside resorts in the early twentieth century. But it was a visit to the Osterberg Union Archive that really ignited the story; the archive of this prestigious women’s physical education college keeps a handwritten spreadsheet that indicates what schools or sports teams their students progressed to after graduating, but as soon as the women got married their records stopped. I discovered that because of high unemployment after the war the government introduced a marriage bar, so careers came to an end upon marriage. Although some women resurfaced to work part time, teaching keep fit classes, in the main their careers were marked as deceased, it was over. This fuelled my interest in the social history of women of the time, and I began to read, and my reading took me in many directions, some just interesting but others inspiring and helped me to layer my characters with an understanding of their lives and the challenges women faced in the early twentieth century. Books, particularly stories or biographies written in the interwar years, are invaluable to my research. It’s a cliché, but from the comfort of our sofas we really can travel anywhere and to any time period and walk in the shoes of others.

My second book (due for publication in August 2018) was inspired partly from the research for The Lido Girls, but also from a course I did in horticulture, I really enjoyed the practical sessions, out in the field, digging and planting, the camaraderie with the other students and the friendships made. I could just imagine how liberating that would have felt for women experiencing all of these things for the very first time during World War 1, especially after a life of corsets, afternoon teas and strict social conventions.

A pair of satin evening gloves that belonged to my great aunt became the germ of inspiration for my new project, which will hopefully become my third historical fiction novel. I was intrigued by the gloves when they were uncovered from the attic because my great aunt was the most unlikely person to own evening gloves, but then I learnt that she’d started out as a shop girl for Harrods and then became a buyer for their accessories department. From this detail, I’ve been inspired to develop a protagonist, a secondary main character, a setting, a time period for the story. It’s amazing how quickly these things can grow.

Where do you get your writing inspiration? Do you have to look for ideas, or do they find you?

Ta da! It’s my novel’s cover reveal

Until fairly recently, the whole idea of making a big deal of the unveiling of a novel’s cover was a new one on me. I appreciated that a cover was an important part of the overall package but I suppose I imagined that covers simply got uploaded, or went to print, along with the rest of the book. So, over the last few months I’ve watched with interest as publishers reveal covers on social media. I’ve found myself getting caught up in the excitement of being amongst the first to see the artwork and get a flavour of what the novel is all about. With my marketing head on, I began to see that it makes perfect sense to use the cover to build excitement and anticipation of the upcoming publication.

I’m really very taken with my cover, and I’ve found it a challenge to keep the artwork to myself. So for it to finally be ‘out there’ came as a relief. But the reveal was more than just a sharing exercise. It has helped me to begin the conversation with potential readers and book bloggers as well as other authors. There was plenty of chat and excitement about it on social media, admittedly a lot of it was mine, culminating in my phone overheating and presenting me with a blank screen at about 11pm. As I tried frantically to restart the phone, I began to wonder if it was pointing me towards a metaphor of some sort that I needed to interpret and heed. So, I went to bed and hoped that ‘get some sleep’ was the silent message being transmitted.

Waking up today it seemed as though the reveal had been a success and, I’m happy to report, my phone switched on at the first time of asking. Pre-orders had been placed and the Amazon ranking had risen, and most exciting of all, I could now hear the whir of the machinery; the countdown to the launch is underway. Next stop 2nd October.

And here it is….

The Lido Girls_FINAL

The Lido Girls is available to pre-order from Amazon.

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It’s a deal!

Late last year I was offered a publishing contract. Unsurprisingly,  once the words reached my ears, it was hard to focus on what else my new editor was saying. Important information as it happened, such as when the publisher wanted the second novel, a novel that was nothing more than a short pitch at that moment. I was too busy playing the phrase ‘two book deal’ on a loop in my head.

That initial moment of euphoria eventually subsided and then I read the notes I’d taken during the meeting; at least I’d written something while my brain was off doing high kicks. That’s when it really sank in and I had to go and lie down, stare at my ceiling and contemplate the deadlines.

After that came the signing of a two-e-book deal with HQ Digital an imprint of Harper Collins/Harlequin. And then a busy and exciting start to the year. Lots of research, plotting, word counts and, of course, editing my debut. What I’ve discovered is that after years of honing my craft; getting to grips with plot, character, how to write a synopsis and pitch letter and the rest of it, I still have a lot more to learn.

It was a high point to receive the editorial feedback. This was the first stage that advised how I needed to revise the novel to bring about its full potential. Making those suggestions happen, and doing them justice very nearly sent me over the edge. I may have sent an email to friends saying that I hated the novel and I never wanted to see it again. The friends talked me down, suggested gin and a night off from editing and thankfully that worked.

After that came the line edits where I discovered with relief that the first round of
revisions had actually gone OK. I thought I was on the home straight, until I got the copy edits back. Now with my fresh eyes on the manuscript I began to notice discrepancies, clunky sentences, repetition. With each change came concern that I might never let the manuscript go out into the world and I would just spend the rest of my days in a deranged state of perpetual editing; a tweak here, a tweak there. I called in a beta reader to break this pattern and reassure me that it makes sense.

Every time I hit send and it goes back to the publisher I am edging closer to publication, and when that day finally arrives I really will need gin and a lie down, in no particular order.

My debut novel will be published with HQ this summer. Follow me on Twitter @Allie_Burns1 for the latest news.