Thank you for inviting me to chat with Novel Kicks, Laura.
A Degree of Uncertainty explores how a Cornish community is being ripped apart by its growing university, with an influx of students upsetting the balance of things and challenging the way life has always been. Some residents — and business people — see it as progress and welcome the expansion. Others feel threatened by the change in dynamics.
Against this backdrop of small town politics, the story is very character driven, exploring love, friendship, loyalty and betrayal. The shifting community pits friends, neighbours and colleagues against each other and reopens old wounds…
Do you think character or plot is more important in a story?
I think that’s a little bit like asking which is more important, a bra or knickers… I agree that some books are weighted more in favour of one or the other, but for me, you need both. That doesn’t mean the plot has to be a rip-roaring rampage punctuated with multiple murders and endless twists, but the storyline needs to travel from A to B.
That said, I can really enjoy a book where a deeply plausible character goes on an emotional journey and, in essence, very little happens. But I don’t think the best plot in the world will stand up in the hands of characters in whom readers don’t believe or, worse, don’t care about.
What would be on a playlist for this novel?
One of the two key protagonists is Harry Manchester, a proud Cornishman and successful local businessman who vows to save his beloved community from being overrun by students and ruined by change. Harry is a keen music fan and ex-drummer and he often seeks solace in Queen music, letting the lyrics guide his mood and — in one instance — his actions. So it would have to be Queen’s Greatest Hits. (He also has an incident where his Bohemian Rhapsody ring tone goes off at an untimely moment, but that’s another story…)
What was the biggest challenge when writing your first book?
Starting a book is a challenge. I’d had the idea for a while and I began making notes and sketching out characters and plot, but actually writing those first words seemed like a terrifying leap!
I did a ‘Starting to write your novel’ course with the literary agency, Curtis Brown, which gave me the tools to plan and start the book. It also gave me a huge dose of confidence as I was chosen as ‘Most promising student’ on the course, and was rewarded with a one-to-one tutorial with one of the agents. That was a massive shove in the right direction, and the novel began…
What’s your typical writing day like? Where do you like to write? Do you prefer silence, do you need coffee?
I am a journalist as well as an author so I am pretty much always writing. I keep fairly conventional hours, tending to start about 8am and work through until about 5pm. I’m fortunate to live in Falmouth in Cornwall, a university town which inspired A Degree of Uncertainty, so I often take my laptop out to one of the beach cafes for coffee and a change of scene. In summer I take regular breaks to sea swim, paddleboard or walk or run along the coastpath, but in winter I tend to hunker down by the woodburner… As long as I have my notepad or my laptop (oh and a ready supply of coffee and tea) I can work anywhere!
It was a story that was crying out to be written. The book is fiction and set in an imaginary Cornish town a little further west than Falmouth, and the characters are products of my imagination, but the challenges and issues which feature are all around me. From letters and stories in the local paper, the Falmouth Packet to conversations with friends as well as overheard snippets in cafes, I picked up on the polarising effect of the university and could genuinely see both sides.
A small town community divided in this way had so much dramatic potential that I just started scribbling and the story pretty much wrote itself. I have been told the characters really come off the page and, for me, that is what drove the story on. So, planning — what’s that?!
Do you tend to edit as you go or wait for a first draft?
A little of both. I edit a little as I go if I can see or feel clearly that something needs changing, but the old adage ‘don’t get it right get it written’ rings largely true. I can see how you can halt progress and thwart momentum if you try to perfect everything as you go along, so a very thorough edit of the first (and second…) draft is also essential.
What’s your favourite word and why?
Ooh, good question! It might be quibble. There’s a lot of that going on in Poltowan, my fictional Cornish town…
There are many! I’d love to meet Rebecca, the absent yet so present eponymous enigma of Daphne du Maurier’s masterpiece. And some of Graham Greene’s brilliantly tortured characters…perhaps Pinkie, from Brighton Rock. But not on a dark night…
Any advice for someone who is thinking of writing a novel?
Just do it! It can be hugely rewarding, and who knows where it might take you?
About Nicola K Smith:
Nicola is a freelance journalist based in Cornwall, contributing to a diverse range of titles including BBC.co.uk, Guardian.co.uk, The Times, Coast and Sainsbury’s Magazine. She has written another novel set in Cornwall, which is nearing completion, and is also working on the sequel to A Degree of Uncertainty.
Nicola is an avid reader, counting Graham Greene and Daphne du Maurier among her favourite authors. When not reading and writing she can be found paddleboarding, kayaking or cycling around Cornwall…
Say hi to Nicola on Twitter – https://twitter.com/NicolaKSmith
Click to buy A Degree of Uncertainty via Nicola’s website or click to view on Amazon UK.