By Chris Penhall
Finding Your Voice – And How I Found Mine
Finding our writing voice is something we strive to do when we first pick up our pens, or open our computers. For some it comes easily, for others it takes a while. It evolves and changes as we become more confident and more prolific.
So, I thought I’d share my story about how I found my own voice through the process of writing my novels.
A memory of something I posted on Facebook came up on my feed yesterday. It was something I’d written when I’d finally decided to actually write that book I’d always meant to start for many, many years.
It said: Preparing first line of novel… Once upon a time… no… in a Galaxy far far away… no… in the beginning there was… no, it was damp, cold and grey outside and (insert main character’s name) longed for a hammock under a palm tree somewhere really, really hot, where she could wear her flip flops every single day, and the word cardigan did not exist.
And although that quote doesn’t sum up the plots, the longing for a palm tree somewhere really, really hot, has been at the core of my three Portuguese novels. And in all my five novels, the word cardigan does not exist (although I have nothing against cardigans per se… I like a nice cardigan myself).
It took me a while to work out how I wrote, though, because that post was written nine years before my first novel, The House That Alice Built, won the ‘Choc Lit Search For A Star’ competition and made my childhood dream to be a published author come true.
And now, much to my surprise, I’ve had four more books published and have just finished number six. My writing is still constantly developing and there is always so much to learn. But I remember where my first novel was supposed to be set and, when I first put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, the finished story was based somewhere entirely different. It was only by trying to write it that I found my own voice via an online course and a mentor, plus many rewrites and a lot of rejections!
However, back to the beginning.
I came up with the idea of my first book while on holiday in Cyprus. I wanted to write about the idea of escape, and holidays are about escape, aren’t they? But, what if the escape isn’t straightforward, or becomes something else entirely? Anyway, that was on my mind when I was doing the paperwork so I could pick up the hire car I’d organised. The lady behind the counter said to me, completely out of the blue, “They may call it the island of love, but I’ve had nothing but trauma with men since I got here.” Now, that deserves some further investigation, doesn’t it? But unfortunately, all I could do was give her a supportive smile, as there was a long queue behind me and I had to leave it there.
The premise for the book was now firmly in my head. And in Cyprus, too. After all, it’s known as the island of love, as she said! So, I started to write: I developed the characters, began to think about the plot and thought about the location. But I couldn’t get any further and I realised that, as I’d only been to Cyprus three times on holiday, I didn’t feel I could write about it with the depth I wanted to.
Until that moment, I hadn’t fully worked out I wanted to write about the location of the book in that way. So that was lesson one: you don’t really know how you want to write until you start.
And then I found that I could move ahead. If I wanted to write about somewhere I knew very well, then the main action of the novel needed to be in Cascais near Lisbon in Portugal, where I had lived. The three years we had spent there were indeed an escape and completely life-changing. On cold winter’s evenings, I’d imagine myself there, walking down to Fisherman’s Beach, or sitting in a sunny Portuguese square.
It was perfect! At that stage, I wrote from the point of view of three characters – Alice, Kathy and Luis – but I couldn’t get to the end of the story. So, I treated myself to an online course and finished the novel. Hurrah! Then I sent it out. And I received many rejections.
But, along with the ‘thank you very much it’s not you it’s us’ e-mails I received, one told me it was very good and simply needed more work, so I shouldn’t give up. And after I’d picked myself up from the despondent floor where I’d puddled, I treated myself to a mentor.
Now… That was really the turning point. It was suggested that I wrote it from the perspective of the main character, Alice. This would give it more depth, and also that I should write it in the first person.
It was at that point I realised that, being able to see everything through her eyes, was how I wanted to write, but also to describe where she was, as if she was in a film moving through the story. So, I decided to carry on writing the story in the third person, but from Alice’s perspective. Changing the structure of the novel was a lot of work, but this was the version that won the competition and got me my publishing contract. So it was worth it. Although, when I was in the middle of it all, I wasn’t so sure!
So, what I’m trying to say is, finding your voice comes from starting to write, and learning what works for you. It has to be stressed that you should also enjoy what you find out along the way.
I’ve learned and adapted as I’ve written, with two more published Portuguese novels, another submitted to my publisher, and a book, very close to my heart, set on the coast in south Wales, which is where I’m from. However, my latest novel, Summer In Your Eyes, released in the summer of 2023, provided me with another challenge. How do I write what I write in a London-based novel? London is iconic, its landmarks famous all over the world. Given that in my stories the locations are almost characters in themselves, how could I navigate that in London and make it interesting and engaging?
Of course, I realised, it’s not just the locations. All my main protagonists, Alice, Miriam, and Layla (and now Bella for the Portuguese Paradise book four just submitted) see where they are living in different ways because of their personalities and their personal stores. So, what about Holly Merriweather, the lead in Summer In Your Eyes? Well, she’s a travel blogger and movie fan. And that’s how she sees London – like a giant guide-book and film set – this is the key to describing her surroundings.
And so, although I already knew this, another major learning point for me is that I’m not just finding my voice, I’m finding my characters’ voices as well. This is something that changes and evolves from book to book and has become easier as I go along. However, I did need to adapt this when it came to Summer In Your Eyes, because of the nature of the story and the setting.
I’m having a couple of months off writing anything in particular before I begin writing my seventh book. I’m sure that, although I’ve found my voice, it’s going to shift a little yet again, once the tiny seed of an idea I’m working up in my imagination begins to come to fruition. I’m looking forward to the challenge. And that’s my lesson. Just to write, and the voice will come.
Chris Penhall is a writer and freelance radio and podcast producer who writes uplifting stories in gorgeous places and won the 2019′ Choc Lit Search For A Star’ competition, sponsored by Your Cat Magazine, for her debut novel, The House That Alice Built.
She has written three novels in her Portuguese Paradise series: The House That Alice Built, New Beginnings At The Little House In The Sun and The House On The Hill: A Summer In The Algarve and she has written two stand-alone novels: Finding Summer Happiness and Summer In Your Eyes. All are available in e-book, audio and paperback.
She also has her own occasional podcast: Talking To My Friends About Books, in which she chats to her friends about books.
A lover of books, music and cats, she’s also an enthusiastic salsa dancer, a keen cook, and loves to travel. She is never happier than when she’s gazing at the sea.
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That’s my lesson. Just to write, and the voice will come!