Saturday, 10 May 2014

Meeting my readers

There's no such thing as an average reader

I was privileged to spend time with the novelist Sylvian Hamilton in the years leading up to her too-early death in 2005. We talked about books and writing, and she shared some of the exciting aspects of being published, like the creation of the cover design for what was sadly destined to be her final book, and her scrapbook of fan mail. Back then, if a reader enjoyed a book, the only way they could communicate this to the author was by writing to them, usually via their publisher. I remember Sylvian’s delight whenever a new card or letter arrived, and how carefully she added them to her collection.

These days, readers have a plethora of ways to contact authors and give their verdicts on books they’ve read. No Stranger to Death has been reviewed on Amazon (all 5-stars, so far), GoodReads and blogs, and I’ve received messages from readers via my own blog, Facebook and Twitter. I also have friends who live locally who’ve told me to my face what they thought. However, last week was the first time I met total strangers who had read my book. I attended the monthly get-together of a local book group, and a few days later, I stood up in a village hall to do a reading and answer questions. Here are some of the things these experiences taught me.

Readers don’t care how a book gets published
None of the book group members realised I had self-published No Stranger to Death. Some had bought it from a shop, others had used Amazon, one had taken it out of a library. Their motivation for choosing to read it was that I was a local author and ‘it looked good’. While I was selling and signing copies in the hall, no one asked who my publisher was. That said, an elderly gentleman expressed concern that he had ‘only’ borrowed a copy from the library: did I get any income from that? I was happy to reassure him that Scottish Borders Council had purchased the libraries’ copies from me, and told him about PLR. 

You can never know your characters well enough
Although I don’t go as far as noting my characters’ shoe sizes and favourite foods, I‘ve lived long enough with them in my head to know how they would react in most circumstances. But I was completely thrown to be asked what Zoe Moreland’s star sign is. My confession that I didn’t know earned the response that she must be a Scorpio, due to her ‘emotional strength’.

Everyone experiences a book differently
I asked the book group if anyone had guessed whodunit. They had all suspected different characters, one of whom was a kindly doctor, the least likely killer you could hope to meet. And that was why it had to be him: he was ‘too good to be true’. The legacy of multiple murderer Dr Harold Shipman obviously lives on in some people's minds.

Readers can develop feelings for your characters too
I love reading and getting caught up in a story, so this shouldn’t surprise me. But I never expected anyone else to feel so strongly about the people I created. A book-group lady was particularly upset at what a bully one of Zoe’s fellow doctors was, given all the other awful things happening to her at the same time. Another reader said that when she got to the part where Zoe’s car goes out of control she found herself saying, ‘No, no, no’ out loud. And as for what everyone wants from the book’s sequel: I’ve been told to bring Neil back, make sure Mather and Kate end up together, and tell what happens to Zoe in the light of her mysterious visitor on the very last page.  

How readers choose their next book is a mystery
Remember the book group said they chose to read No Stranger to Death because ‘it looked good’? I asked them what factors contributed to this, but they couldn't point to a single aspect, such as cover design or blurb. Others, however, do have specific criteria by which they select a book. During the second event, I met a lady who enjoys crime fiction but will only buy a book if she doesn’t think it will be ‘scary’. I was happy to reassure her that although I deal with dark themes, she won’t find extreme violence or graphic descriptions of blood-soaked crime scenes in anything I write.

It was amazing and gratifying to hear how characters, places and situations I have created are now in other people’s heads. If I learnt one lesson from meeting readers it is that No Stranger to Death was a different experience for each of them and they all had unique responses to it. These responses are impossible to predict, proving that one of the best piece of advice for writers is ‘Write for yourself’. Write something you would enjoy reading and there’s a good chance others will enjoy it too.

Photos courtesy of