Ruth Hogan on WritingJan 17, 2021
Writing holds all kinds of magic, and often brings joy and healing in unexpected ways. It also gives us the opportunity to immerse ourselves in unknown worlds and get to know a whole cast of fascinating characters. And one writer who loves this immersion and exploration is Ruth Hogan, who uses physical objects and photographs to get in touch with the fictional worlds she writes about.
Ruth Hogan is the bestselling author of the Sunday Times bestseller and Richard & Judy Readers’ Award winner, The Keeper of Lost Things. She’s also the author of bestsellers The Wisdom of Sally Red Shoes, Queenie Malone’s Paradise Hotel and the forthcoming Madame Burova (due to be published April 2021). In this blog post, Ruth discusses how she dives into her characters’ worlds, and the surprising trails of delight she finds (and shares!) along the way.
Writing is more than a job
For me, writing isn’t a choice – it’s an obsession. A compulsion. Getting published was better than winning the lottery (and the odds were not dissimilar!) and I count myself lucky every day that I get paid for doing what I love.
But even if no publishing deal had come along, I know that I would still be writing at every opportunity.
I always describe myself as a ‘method’ writer. Whenever I start a new book, I surround myself in my writing space with pictures and things that relate to the plot and the characters. I create the world of the book and then pretty much live there until it’s finished.
I often use photo books for inspiration, particularly those by photographers who make pictures of people and social situations – photographers like Diane Arbus, Martin Parr, Tony Ray Jones.
I always describe myself as a ‘method’ writer.
And for each book I write, I have a soundtrack. I love film music and the way it evokes a sense of place, a feeling or a certain atmosphere. My soundtracks can be simply music, or songs or a mixture of both. Often they don’t have any obvious relevance to the story, but they take me to the place in my head where I need to be to write.
Finding and sharing lost things
When I was writing my first novel, The Keeper of Lost Things, I used to pick up the lost things I found – on the streets, public transport, wherever – and take them home. I would photograph them in situ first and post the items on social media. I became a keeper of lost things myself and ended up with three suitcases full of the things I had gathered up.
I was lucky enough to hold the launch party for the book in an antiquarian bookshop belonging to a very dear friend of mine, and he allowed me to use the whole shop window for a launch display. We filled it with all the lost things I had found and wondered if anyone would come forward and claim anything. Someone did. The book was published in January, and a little girl spotted her panda glove in the window. She had been given the mittens for Christmas and had lost one of them soon afterwards. Their reunion was a little piece of magic.
Getting to know my settings
I always strive to establish a strong sense of place when I’m writing, and my second book was partly set in a cemetery closely modelled on my local Victorian cemetery where I often walk my rescue dogs.
I’ve always loved cemeteries. I never understand why so many people find them morbid, macabre or spooky. It’s as though they are afraid that death is something that will rub off on you somehow. But it was never like that for me. Even as a child. We used to go to the cemetery as kids, even though we weren’t supposed to – that was part of the attraction.
I took inspiration from the headstones there – stealing names and inventing entire lives (and deaths) from the few lines engraved on marble and granite memorials.
I took inspiration from the headstones there – stealing names and inventing entire lives (and deaths) from the few lines engraved on marble and granite memorials. I wandered around the cemetery feeding the crows and speaking my characters’ dialogues out loud.
My first book event for The Wisdom of Sally Red Shoes was held in the chapel there and I have since led several Sally Red Shoes-themed guided walks around the cemetery, pointing out graves, names and views that are mentioned in the book. But best of all, I am now President of the Friends of Foster Hill Road Cemetery.
Writing about settings I love
One of the joys of being a writer is being able to write about people and places that you are passionate about. My third book, Queenie Malone’s Paradise Hotel, is set in Brighton, a place I love so much that when my husband proposed, my acceptance was conditional on us eloping to Brighton and being married in The Royal Pavilion!
It was particularly important for Queenie to be set in Brighton because it needed to be somewhere colourful, a bit barmy but also inclusive. Somewhere where differences are tolerated or even celebrated.
I particularly enjoy writing about people who are different in some way. I describe them as being ‘cracked in the kiln’ – people who are on the edges of mainstream society, people who don’t give a damn what other people think of them, or people who are damaged in some way. This perfectly describes my cast of characters in Queenie, which is why they were so much at home in Brighton.
I particularly enjoy writing about people who are different in some way. I describe them as being ‘cracked in the kiln’ – people who are on the edges of mainstream society, people who don’t give a damn what other people think of them, or people who are damaged.
Finding my fortune
My latest book, which published on April 1st, is also set in Brighton and my leading lady, Madame Burova is a Tarot reader, palmist and clairvoyant. The book was, in part, inspired by the life of Eva Petulengro, who read cards and palms for celebrities and royalty, and whose booth can still be seen on the seafront at Brighton.
I have always been fascinated by fortune tellers and Tarot cards, and I had several readings before starting on the book. I should have known that that would never have been enough.
I was fortunate enough to find, through the recommendation of a friend, a wonderful woman who has been giving readings for many years and has clientele all over the world. She agreed to act as a consultant on all things Tarot related in the book.
She also agreed to teach me how to read the cards myself. I took a beginners’ course and became completely hooked. I studied and practised hard for months and eventually passed the advanced course, reading for complete strangers. My inaugural outing as a ‘professional’ Tarot reader was at a summer fair. My first client sat down, paid, and requested a general reading. I was charging for my services, but the money was going to a charitable cause.
The first cards I laid were Death and the Emperor. My Tarot teacher had always insisted that I must be honest about what the cards said. She told me that I should find a sensitive way of conveying the message, but that I couldn’t change the content to make it more palatable.
Death can often mean a fresh start or a new beginning, but not on this occasion. ‘The cards are showing me the death of a father figure’ I began rather tentatively. The woman opposite me gasped and then nodded sadly. ‘My dad died last week’ she told me. I’m embarrassed to admit that I almost punched the air with relief that I had got it right. Fortunately, I was able to give her a good deal of positive news too.
- Enjoy our writing class with Ruth Hogan in our Catch Up TV area when you sign up for the coaching, classes and community with an online creative writing course at The Novelry.