47: Ruth Leigh (Writing comic characters)

Danielle Krage interviews novelist Ruth Leigh. They focus on her delightful Isabella M Smugge series, and what it takes to create a comic character that you can develop and sustain across multiple books. Ruth is also the author of the Jane Austen-inspired book A Great Deal of Ingenuity, and The Little Book of Unexpected Poetry.

Chapters

00:00 Introduction and Background

01:57 Origin Story of Isabella M. Smugge

06:48 Creating a Funny and Complex Character

09:45 Developing a Series and Balancing Character Arcs

11:34 Turning Up the Comedy in the Setting

14:06 Using Conflict to Drive the Story

17:30 The Importance of Setting in Comedy

20:23 Writing Process and Balancing Comedy and Heart

25:23 Favourite Comic Influences

29:43 Prompts and Exercises for Writing Comedy

32:19 Building a Writing Community and Getting Feedback

34:38 The Impact of Reader Feedback

35:27 Real People and Names in the Books

36:47 Overcoming Fear of Events

37:31 Starting Small and Building Confidence

38:58 Finding Comfortable Opportunities

39:06 Where to Find More about Ruth Leigh

Links

https://www.ruthleighwrites.co.uk

https://www.instagram.com/ruthleighwrites

https://twitter.com/Ruthleighwrites

https://www.tiktok.com/@ruthleighwrites

CLICK HERE FOR TRANSCRIPT

Danielle (00:00.77)

Today, I am thrilled to have with me writer Ruth Leigh, who wrote the most delightful Isabella M. Smugge series, which I’ve been reading recently, laughing at, loving, buying the next one immediately. And I was really thrilled to engage with the comic characters in the novel and see how they developed over the series. Ruth’s such an expert at this. So very fun to be able to have a real deep dive into comic characters today. But before we dive in, Ruth, is there anything else people should know about you and your connections to comedy?

Ruth Leigh (00:34.557)

Well, I was thinking about this today, Danielle, and really, I should be able to tell you that I grew up in a house full of laughter, that I was exposed to classic comedy. This is not the case. It had never actually struck me before, but I was thinking about what I was going to say to you today. And although we listened to the radio or the wireless as it was known, we didn’t have a television, and comedy shows in the 70s were, let’s say of mixed quality, some were genuinely funny and I suppose I must have picked something up from that. But it wasn’t really, there wasn’t a huge amount of laughing going on. So I thought to myself today, now what is it about me? Why do I want to make people laugh? Why is comedy such a big thing with me? And maybe it’s because there wasn’t a lot of it perhaps in my early childhood or in my childhood. And when I did come across laughing or a joke, to me it was disproportionately funny. So yeah, I guess that’s what I’d like to say to you really. It had only occurred to me because I knew I was coming on with you.

Danielle (01:27.99)

Oh, that’s so intriguing. And yeah, that gives me lots of pause for thought when I think about myself as well. I love that as an answer, amazing. So I did want to ask you about Isabella M Smugge, the fabulous Issy in your series. And I wanted to know what her origin story was…how she came to be, because writers have so many different ways of approaching characters. Some people talk about them arriving fully formed. Some people… it’s things that they’ve seen. Where did she come from? Because she’s such a fabulous character.

Ruth Leigh (01:57.421)

Thank you. I appreciate you saying those lovely things about her. She has got a great origin story, in fact. It’s a good one. So I have been a freelance writer since 2008. That was my job. And I was also a caterer. So I was running these two things along, as well as bringing up three children living in a Victorian house in the countryside. So everything was marvellous. And I’d worked jolly hard on the freelance and it takes a long time to build up customers. And I got to a point in February, 2020, when I was sitting at the dining room table where I used to work, feeling quite smug in fact, which is not something I generally feel. I’m thinking, gosh Ruth, you’re doing really well. If this carries on, if all this work keeps on coming in, you’ll have to start a waiting list. So that was February 2020. And then of course, the next month, things changed. And I lost probably 75% of my work. So I suddenly had all this time on my hands, which is not something I’ve been used to because I was always doing something.

So fortunately, I’d been writing for a national blog since the October before, which was great for me because as a freelancer, they don’t want you to make jokes. That’s not what it’s about. You know, freelancing is very delineated and so it should be, you have a job to do, you deliver your words by a certain time and those words have an effect, but joke-making isn’t part of that whole process.

So I’d been into this sort of blog and I’d written a few funny things and people seemed to like it. And in the April, I was sitting at my dining room table and believe me when I tell you, I’m not exaggerating the comic effect, my roots were showing, my garden was full of weeds, there was dust everywhere, piles of children’s clothes I hadn’t got around to putting away and probably never would. All the children were upstairs, not doing their online homework, even though they’d been told repeatedly to do it. And I was sort of looking around at this terrible mess and I’ve been exposed to the usual kind of lockdown stuff about people making banana bread and living their best lives and I was just sick of it.

So I started giggling to myself, I remember this very clearly, and thinking, do you know what, I’m going to make up a ludicrous character, a woman who is the exact opposite of me. So she had to be rich, skinny, posh, enormously successful in whatever field she was in, I didn’t really quite know. So I was sitting there laughing to myself, scribbling notes on the back of an envelope as you would do and I thought she’s got to be called Mrs Smug because she’s so smug and annoying so I came up with the name which had to spell out I am Smug so I took a while thinking about a posh girl’s name Isabella…I M Smug.

So I looked at it Isabella M Smug I thought well it doesn’t really work and I couldn’t tell you why. But for some reason I added in GE and it became Smugge as in Bruges because it’s so pretentious. So I wrote this piece which was called The Utter Joy of One’s Craft and it was written in that voice of this dreadfully pretentious, annoying, successful woman. So three paragraphs… oh I’m so blessed to live in my beautiful Jordan house, oh my children play the lute, oh my agents on the phone again, oh my European tour. Dreadfully, dreadfully annoying. So I wrote three paragraphs in this awful woman’s voice. Then I reverted to me. And said…obviously my life’s the opposite of that. And it was a funny piece.

Anyway, as a blogger, all you really want is for lots of people A, to read it, and B, to comment on it. And this happened. Lots and lots of people saying, oh, this is hilarious. You know, Isabella M Smugge, what a funny name. You should write a novel about her.

So I said, I don’t write fiction, don’t be ludicrous. So the next month, I wrote a very serious think piece about women’s mental health in lockdown, how we’re adversely affected by constantly comparing ourselves to people on Instagram, you know, that kind of thing. And I threw in Isabella again at the end. And that afternoon, a beautiful sunny day in May, 7th of May, 2020, I was over in the polytunnel with my husband, fossicking about, not a euphemism. And my phone kept pinging away.

I know, true. And lots and lots and lots of people were saying really nice stuff and saying this is hilarious, you’ve got to make this into a novel. And then suddenly a message came in from this chap who I’d vaguely heard of, who was a member of the same group, saying actually I think this would make a fantastic novel. I have just become a literary agent, said he. Why don’t you send me over a couple of sample chapters and a story arc and I’ll pitch it for you for nothing. So when I’d sort of come round from my swoon, my husband said right, you’re a writer, get over there, start writing, I’ll make some tea.

So I opened up the laptop and typed the first thing, the first sentence of Isabella M. Smugge, which is…this morning I woke up at 6 a.m., got up, did my stretches and 40 lengths of the pool and said to myself, Isabella, you’re a lucky girl. And that was the beginning. And the point was that I’d written her as a joke. She wasn’t a fully fleshed-out character. I didn’t really think I was gonna come back to her. And yet suddenly, because someone had given me permission to write about her, I find myself sitting down and out poured this fully formed character. And that’s how it happened.

Danielle (06:48.566)

That’s amazing. What a fabulous story. And I want to ask you off the back of that, like it may have been instinctive, but it may have taken some work…because you mentioned the word pretentious, for example, and she does have this eally strong voice and really strong actions, which I love. And there are things about her that could be said to be pretentious, but how did you do such a great job of making the most of that for comic potential, but also balancing it so that we do care about her and not just hate her. Because I think that’s such an interesting balance and you’ve really pulled it off.

Ruth Leigh (07:27.413)

Thank you. Yeah, that now I don’t mean to sound like, well, pretentious when I say this, I didn’t really think about it, it just came out. And I always say to people, it’s not because I’m some kind of literary genius. That’s not it. I think because I was 53 when this happened to me, you know, so I’m not a young thing. And I spent my life reading voraciously. When I say voraciously, I don’t mean a book a week. I mean, 10 books a week. I mean, I read all the time, everything. And so my head was full of narrative flow and characterization and how writers do it right. So I think because I read all that and I had nowhere else for it to go, it kind of funnelled itself through Isabella and I sort of, I suppose I thought about my favourite novels which would make me laugh but also make me sad, you know, poignancy has to be woven in.

And I kind of employed, I suppose, what you might call a roller coaster sort of principle, which is funny, you know, when she prances into the playground and…oh, good Lord, these women aren’t even wearing makeup. How frightful, you know, saying these ludicrous things, but then dropping in…. I think how I first started to do it was dropping in certain phrases. So she would say something like, I wouldn’t want you to think that I had an unhappy childhood. And you’re thinking immediately, hopefully, if I’m doing my job right…oh, hang on a minute, this woman appears to be hideous, but really she’s just a sad little girl who wants to be loved. And that’s how I kicked it off. That’s how I wove in the things that make you think, oh, Isabella, you know, that’s really sad. No wonder you’re like that.

And then I also had the whole thing about introducing not too many characters but enough contrasting characters that she would bounce up against, like Leanne Bloomfield, you know, the terrifying playground mum with no filter who calls her smug and has no respect for her at all. And at the other end of the spectrum, this very warm, kind, giving woman, Claire the vicar’s wife, who she becomes friends with. But then it’s not that simple. You have to make it funny by her making rude comments about the vicarage and what a mess it is and can’t vicar’s afford coffee machines, this sort of thing. But then finding out that Claire is a recovering addict and alcoholic. So it’s kind of like funny, sad, funny, sad, funny, sad. And after about, I think the first chapter and a half, I planned to make Isabella start to accidentally show that she’s actually a decent person underneath all the pretension.

Danielle (09:43.15)

Oh, that’s a brilliant answer. Thank you. And you’ve touched on this lovely cast of characters, both family and friends. And I love how we see those relationships develop across the series. Again, really well done. Any tips for writers who are starting out and know in their minds that actually they do want it to be a series, but whether it’s to give them potential in the action or for the character arcs.

Ruth Leigh (10:10.505)

Yeah, don’t write yourself into a corner. That’s it really. I knew straight from the beginning that I needed to give her a big family. Not because when I wrote the first one, I knew there’d be a series because I didn’t. But about three-quarters of the way through, I realized I had so much more to say that there would have to be a second book. So at the beginning, I thought, well, what I need to do is give myself a broad canvas, even if he’s only a one off. So she’s married to a man who is one of four brothers. So we’ve got all those potential sisters-in-law and potential progeny. We’ve got the mother-in-law. We’ve got her side of the family. So I would always say don’t write yourself into a corner.

Agatha Christie always said when she was interviewed that she regretted making Hercule Poirot so old. I think he’s something like 80 when we first meet him. Because of course she had no idea that he would go on to be the protagonist of so many novels. So I deliberately made her sort of late 30s so she’s got plenty of time. You know, the menopause might come along at some point. So I placed everybody in a place that meant I could develop them and keep going with them.

Danielle (11:11.394)

That’s super smart. Great advice there. And that might save everyone some pain. I love it. And when we were messaging about doing this interview, you mentioned how you love to kind of look at and show our world, but turned up to 11. And so for readers that haven’t engaged with the series yet, and  I highly recommend that you do…But for people who haven’t engaged yet, could you give a few examples of what you mean by that? What it looks like potentially to have things turned up to 11 or where they might have started from?

Ruth Leigh (11:42.261)

Sure. So I knew that Isabella had to be an influencer because that was exactly the right job for her. So I deliberately inflated her figures on social. So when we first meet, she’s got 2 million followers on Instagram, fairly unlikely, but it just shows that she’s larger than life. And one of the things I had a huge amount of fun with, which is one of the things I enjoy most was making up paid partnerships for her. So Isabella’s, series is set in our world in our time, you know, it really is set in 2020-2021 and I tie it into the calendar and I do mention real things that happen minus Covid but when I did things like paid partnerships which she would have, I turned them up to 11 as I say.

So for example she endorses a brand of pillows called Plump No More’s and that’s a bit funny but not that funny so I had to make it much funnier by adding in all these caveats to why these pillows were so marvellous, because she often says I only endorse things I think are marvellous, so they’re self-plumping obviously. I mean that’s impossible you can’t have a self-plumping pillow but Isabella M. Smugge would have one, she just would, and I think they’re lavender infused and of course they’re goose down so there were all these little caveats to sort of turn it up make it funnier

And whenever she endorses a product, I try to give it a funny or a pretentious name. And it was only very recently that I met a reader at an event who chortled away for a bit and said, I love your jokes in French. And no one else has actually noticed it, or if they have, they haven’t told me. So I discovered that if you take a fairly boring product and translate it into French, it immediately makes it sound pretentious. So there’s lots of that scattered through. You know, she can’t get in the shower without telling you about her magnificent eye cream, which of course I translate and add some adjectives into.

So it’s recognisably our world, so you know she does go on the playground, people do get nits there is PTA drama, what else happens? You know, stuff that happens to us all happens, but because she’s this larger-than-life glamorous creature…everything with her is just a little bit larger, more magnified, you know, hence the whole line about turning up to 11 because that’s true, it is, it’s recognisable but funny too, I hope.

Danielle (13:55.09)

Yeah. Well, that’s, that’s fabulous. And I wanted to ask you about conflict, because you’re really good at putting Isabella through it and the second book is even called The Trials of Isabella M. Smudge, I read it at the weekend. And I would love any tips for people for how to think about conflict in relation to characters and comedy.

Ruth Leigh (14:06.339)

Yeah. Oh, wait till you read The Trials, poor woman. Right, well it has to be real, that’s the tip. It’s got to be real and authentic because readers can spot fake conflict a mile off. There’s no point in doing it for the sake of it because you’re halfway through a chapter and you think, oh things are going too well, I better chuck in some conflict. You have to lay the foundations carefully, you have to do the groundwork.

So I knew from the minute I sat down to write the first book…that there had to be a reason why Isabella was so desperate for love and affirmation. Why is she so keen, you know, constantly showing off online? Well, it must be that she had an unhappy childhood. So what does that mean? That means parents who fought all the time, perhaps a very difficult mother, an acrimonious split, being sent away to boarding school. So that’s the foundation of Isabella, why she is as she is.

So we immediately had Mummy, the terribly posh, apparently cold who I think, let’s hope that if people buy The Diary of Isabella M Smugge, which is the result of this, they will continue, and I won’t be issuing a spoiler. Johnny is a hate figure. I don’t think that’s too strong a phrase. People loathe Johnny. They’re always telling me how much they loathe him. So that’s her husband. And when you first meet them, they’re in an apparently very happy, successful marriage. But Mummy and Johnny loathe each other. So there’s that conflict as well. So we’ve got that. She’s brought that with her up to Suffolk where she moves to.

But then we have to have people on the playground who take against her. So Leanne Bloomfield doesn’t like the look of her at all. Leanne has always lived in Suffolk. She’s from the village. She’s related to everybody. It’s her place. And suddenly this pretentious female comes prancing onto the playground showing off. And worse of all, this woman’s oldest son is having a fight with Leanne’s son and getting him into trouble as she sees it. So we’ve got that conflict as well. So you can’t have one-dimensional conflict. If I just had Isabella and her mother fighting throughout the book, that would have been really boring and nobody would have been interested. But it’s different layers.

And then having people that she has conflict with having conflict with each other. It’s like, what’s it like? I’ll tell you what it’s like. It’s like building up a mille-feuille. You know, you have thin layers of conflict building up and in between you sandwich the narrative and by the time you finish and you put your spoon through it there’s a satisfying crackle as you crack through the layers of conflict. Gosh, that’s a good metaphor.

Danielle (16:46.63)

Yeah, that’s great. A really good description. Yeah. And that explains a lot because as you’re saying it is like, oh, I can absolutely see what you mean within the books about that. And I can also think of examples in my head and other books that I’ve read, where the writer probably unknowingly has not layered in enough. So it does look a little bit forced. So I love that. That’s really a really great way of putting it. Thank you.

Ruth Leigh (16:49.132)

Ooh, I just thought that!

Danielle (17:13.394)

Oh, so many things I want to ask you, but you mentioned about the fact that at the start of the first book Isabella moves. So she moves from London. And I wanted to ask about how you think the setting in the books is quite integral to the comedy that you’ve developed.

Ruth Leigh (17:20.35)

Hmm, incredibly integral. I mean, I chose Suffolk because I did that too. I moved from Essex to Suffolk 18 years ago to a small village and it could have been anywhere. But because I live here, I wanted to use that sense of place. So there were a couple of reasons I did it. One, because you have to start a book, you have to hook people in straight away. So she’s come from one place where she absolutely belongs. She knows everybody, she’s comfortable. And she’s gone to another place where she knows nobody and she doesn’t belong. So it’s the whole fish out of water trope. You have to have your protagonist being made very uncomfortable and learning lessons through it, but not too obviously. So I chose a village in Suffolk because it is awash, simply awash with comic and narrative potential.

As the books have gone on, I have made up less and less. There are two set pieces in book three, which I…literally lifted from life. One about a dance show when we had a local shortage of American tan tights and blue eyeshadow. This happened. And one about a Christingle, which I helped run when there was a punch-up at the dress rehearsal between a wise man and a shepherd and half the heavenly host got nits. And there was an outburst of sickness and diarrhoea and we lost Joseph and two shepherds. You know, this actually happens. So because it’s a small community, everybody knows everybody. A lot of people are related and have always been here. You know, it’s not like London. It’s much more traditional. You’re going to have big characters and Isabella is going to have to fight to be accepted.

And also I know the place and I know everybody because I came here with young children. I used to run the toddler group I was the chair of the PTA. I’ve been right through primary school. You can’t help but pick up inspiration along the way, even if you don’t know you’re doing it. So when this was all happening to me and I had young children, I never thought I’d end up being a novelist, let alone a funny one, but it was all here. And then when I started writing, I thought, oh, I could use that. So it’s a very rich source, I think, of narrative inspiration. Also, being so beautiful, it’s great for Isabella because she’s used to London life, and suddenly she’s out in this incredibly beautiful part of the country, which of course she turns to her advantage and uses for her socials but I also rather like the idea of her very slowly and uncertainly starting to be affected by her surroundings. I like that idea.

Danielle (19:54.002)

Yeah. So again, a lovely way of putting it. You’ve got such lovely, clear ways of explaining it. That’s really inspiring. And I wanted to ask because you make it look really easy on the page to get comedy on the page and it’s not easy, but you really managed to do it with, you know, the character, the voice, the action, the setting and get them all working. So I’d love to know in terms of your process and it may have been different for the books….You’ve talked about how you layer in conflict. Do you in your process have to layer it in different ways. Or does it tend to come out like pretty much as it is? Basically, how much do you plan? How much do you have to go back through and think, right, I’m going do a pass punching up the dialogue? What does it sort of look like? Like where you are right now?

Ruth Leigh (20:34.682)

Yeah, I’m not a planner, I’m a pantser. Well, I’m a panzer, that’s the thing, and I’m on Book 4 at the moment. I’ve got to deliver Book 4 on the 4th of March, so I’m very much in that place at the moment. And I just gave my husband, he’s my first reader, the latest chapter, and he came back chuckling saying that’s the funniest one yet, so that’s a relief.

I don’t consciously plan it. No. I have ideas in my head. So each chapter, so each one’s a month. So we start in September, we end in September. And I’ll have like five or six lines saying what’s going to happen. So go skiing, fight with Johnny, Milo starts toilet training, poo on floor. So my notes just look peculiar. But I know I’ve got to have funny stuff, but sad stuff and thoughtful stuff as well.

And what I’ll tend to do is write a funny bit. So in…I won’t spoil it, but in number four, she’s hosting this new kind of group. And I knew I had to make everything go wrong. So she’s great on being prepared and everything looking perfect, but everything goes wrong. And she’s found on her hands and knees, you know, scrubbing at the island and the cat’s sick and all this sort of thing. So I need to add in probably enough comedy to keep people laughing.

But then my favourite thing to do is to…write a really funny scene, but then have a kind of…sort of shot to the heart where she realises something or she says something. So the classic example is where she’s talking about…and this did come out naturally, I didn’t think about it, it came out naturally. And I always, if I’m doing a reading at a group when I’m doing a speech or a talk, I will always quote from this. It’s always the same. I read it out, it’s really funny and everyone’s laughing. And then I read out the last line, everyone goes, oh, and I do as well. And I wrote it. It’s genuinely sad.

She’s pondering in book two about where things are and she’s sitting up against her Plump No More pillows and she’s talking about her moisturising socks and her deeply hydrating, stroke me hand nightgloves sort of thing and talking about how you should maintain your marriage and then she says..all night long I dreamed of Jhonny and when I awoke my award-winning pillow was wet with tears.

And that’s just terribly, terribly sad because she spent the last page and a half telling you that everything’s fantastic. But then she lets you have a tiny glimpse into her heart. And that’s what I do when I’m writing. I want to make people laugh. I really do. I want to make them laugh. I want to make them think, oh, it’s hilarious. I want to find out more. But I also want to give them a tiny little glimpse into sometimes great sadness, sometimes the pain of realising that someone you thought was great isn’t.

So that’s how I tend to do it. I think when I read it back after it was published I was quite pleasantly surprised myself at how I’d done it and I didn’t remember doing it but I think because I’ve read so much funny stuff over the years, so many great books, I think I know again that roller coaster thing it’s got to be funny sad funny sad. So I don’t plan it particularly it just seems to happen. I don’t know that sounds a bit maybe that sounds a bit pretentious I don’t know.

Danielle (23:43.274)

No, it doesn’t at all. It makes sense that you say with you being such a voracious reader, but it’s also really helpful the way you describe it. Because I think when we hear how it actually works for a writer, it might give us a different way of trying because sometimes. For example, writers will talk about that you have like a big action scene and then you have to have like a more reflective scene afterwards, but it being a whole scene. Whereas what’s interesting with Issy, as you say, sometimes it’ll be a page and a half of this and it’ll just be a line or two lines that completely undercuts and get to the heart. So it’s interesting to know as well that can be done in a sentence or two, or it could be a whole scene. So fabulous to hear about that.

Ruth Leigh (24:18.385)

It can. I think it’s more effective. Less is more. Less is more. I’m not a fan of flowery prose, although ironically I have to write a lot of it because she is. But generally, you know, I think you have to really respect your reader and believe that they’re there with you and they deserve, you know, something to just make them not have to work too hard, if you know what I mean. I mean, you know, there’s a lot in my books, but I don’t want it to be a difficult read. Hence, you know, lots of funny stuff and then a couple of lines or one line which gets you straight to the point and because the chapters again are deliberately chopped up into small sections I can do that, I can end with a row of hashtags which she often does or I can end with a one-liner. And then that gives people a moment to go, oh, gosh, and sort of take a breath before they go on to the next part of the chapter. And that was a deliberate thing. And it also reflects her life and her writing style being an influencer and a blogger. You know, the people that she’s writing for don’t have a very long attention span. So that kind of reflects who’s writing the books.

Danielle (25:23.146)

That’s so clever. I love it. And it works for me as a reader as well. It’s great. You have that real page turning quality of wanting to know what’s happened next and say, I bought the second one as soon as I finished the first one, because I had to know what happened next. But also then you do want to spend time with it. Like the hashtags, it does slow you down a bit, which is nice too. Because sometimes it is nice to be slowed down to let it sink in and look at the joke and be like… oh, that’s what it is.

Ruth Leigh (25:34.901)

That’s so good!

Danielle (25:52.787)

So I do want to ask you, because you mentioned being a voracious reader…I know it’s, I have friends who read at the level that you do and it’s always so hard when I ask them for favourites because they’re like, what do you mean? I have a hundred favourites. But what sort of comic things come to mind for you, that have really stuck with you. Are there two or three that come to mind? It could be any media, whether it’s books or films.

Ruth Leigh (26:20.245)

Well, yeah. Okay, so P.G. Woodhouse, obviously, you know, he’s so clever, and he works so hard to get it bang on, you know. Some of his classic pieces, I would say are the most perfect examples of written comedy, just terribly, terribly funny. And what’s really interesting about him is that because he’s, you know, he’s a relatively recent writer, I mean, it’s 100 years ago, when he started, but he’s still around very much in the public consciousness. And he left a lot of notes and letters where you can actually see where he started from, and where he got to, which makes the perfection even more impressive. It’s like the scaffolding around it makes it even funnier. So him definitely.

Margaret Atwood actually, now she’s not normally seen as a funny writer but some of her early stuff is hilarious. I love her. Carol Shields, she’s another Canadian writer who I love. Larry’s Party, things like that. I mean very funny. Barbara Pym, Excellent Women, which I would say is probably in my top five of favourite novels ever and also so delightfully funny. It just pleases my nerdy brain greatly.

And then of course, Jane Austen, who is hilarious. And I have written around Jane Austen as well. I’ve written a book of short stories around Pride and Prejudice, which a huge amount of research in it. And there’s so many jokes that we don’t necessarily get today. Because I’ve read around my subjects so much, I’ve read so many scholarly works around it, you can actually see these incredibly funny jokes the in the novels that don’t tend to get picked up in the adaptations. So she’s very funny and clever.

What else? Oh, we’re not talking just about books. Motherland. It’s hilarious. And it skewers a particular place and time, you know, the school playground in the same way that Issy does. And the other thing which I’m listening to again for the umpteenth time is a Radio 4 series called Gloomsbury by Sue Limb, which is honestly the funniest thing in the world. It’s the Bloomsbury set. So it’s Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf. It’s just terribly funny.

So things, you know, broad comedy I like very much if it’s clever, but I think the word I keep coming back to is clever comedy. I’m not perhaps such a massive fan of slapstick or broader comedy, although that’s not always the case. You know, some things really make me laugh, but I do like it when someone has taken the time to make a clever joke, you know, that isn’t perhaps the thing you get straight away. It takes you a little while. So that’s the kind of thing that’s always influenced me.

Danielle (28:50.574)

Oh, what a load of marvellous recommendations. Thank you. And a bit of a left turn now, because I wanted to ask you about the fact that you also run workshops for writers. And at the weekend, I was oggling a picture on Instagram of the tea and treats that you’d laid out as well. It looks so good.

Ruth Leigh (29:05.197)

Oh, the cups! Haha, yeah! Those cups though, how about those cups?

Danielle (29:20.366)

Because you do run these workshops, it gives you that other perspective as well of different writers who are coming to you with writing starting points and different writing challenges. And I just wondered whether you have any favourite prompts or exercises, I know it might be a bit specific to the group, but for people who say know that they want to write comedy, know that they’re interested in fiction, whether that be short stories or articles, or maybe even starting off on a novel. Are there any particular exercises or prompts that you love to start people on?

Ruth Leigh (29:43.601)

Oh gosh, yeah, absolutely. I’ve got quite a handful actually, because I did some workshops last year as well in the village, as well as these ones here in the Palace of Creativity. And I came up with a couple, which is…. generally the writer as eavesdropper. So because I do so many events, I’m always round and about, you know, selling books at lots and lots of events, I overhear the most fascinating snippets. And the thing is, you never get to hear the end of the story.

So the half-day workshop, and this workshop, I won’t say where, but I was at a local Grade One listed mansion. Very posh, very lovely, really great day, beautiful sunny day, and this dear old lady came walking past my stand with a big wicker basket full of lavender. You know, birds were singing, the sky was blue, she was smiling, everything was lovely and middle class, and I was thinking oh how lovely. And then behind her came this woman of about 50, who was clearly her daughter, who was absolutely furious. Her face was corrugated with rage. And she came steaming up to this woman and shouting…Mother, I can’t believe you’ve done it again. And I was like, what has she done? I was intrigued to know what this dear old soul could possibly have done. But of course, I was sitting there, so imagine the screen is what I can see, and they moved out. I was like, oh…but I couldn’t jump up and follow them because I had to sit there and sell books.

So I use that as a prompt for workshop folks. You’ve got five minutes, I’d like you to tell me why she’s angry. And then I think later we turned it around and we did it from the mother’s point of view, and some of them came up with the most hilarious stuff. You know, the mother was a shoplifter, or she used to be the gardener at this place and she’d been unfairly sacked. So she was nicking as much of the foliage as she could. You know, so something like that, because it’s open-ended, it’s got comic potential, but you can equally write it as a tragedy.

When you overhear snippets or you see half a story, and I’m never gonna know why, no one ever is, it gives the people who come to the workshop so much elasticity, if you like. They can do anything with that. And quite often they write something incredibly funny as a result, which is great. So that’s a very good one to start off with.

Danielle (31:50.246)

That’s fabulous. Yeah. I would love to do that. Great. And again, like you say, flipping around for the point of view. Oh, so many ways to play with that. Really fun. And listeners, you did hear that right, the Palace of Creativity, which doesn’t that sound awesome? I was like, I want to go to the Palace of Creativity. Yeah. It’s fabulous. I wanted to ask you a little bit about getting feedback for your work, if you do. Or if not, community, because I know that you also know the lovely Fran Hill, one of our previous guests, who did a fabulous episode on observational humour, which is a delight. If you haven’t listened to that one, go back and listen to that one too, listeners.

But like you say, you’ve been a writer for a long time, but moving into fiction, having a series, what do you think would be helpful for people to know about developing a writing community and or getting feedback?

Ruth Leigh (32:23.117)

Oh, I do! Oh, yes! Yes, she’s amazing. Oh, it’s so good. So good.

Both those things are extremely important. And I always say to people who come to workshops, how important it is. So I’m a member of a number of groups in Suffolk and nationwide. I’m also a member of messenger groups. So Fran and two other writers, Georgie Tennant and Deborah Jenkins and I go under the name of the Incomprellers. I won’t go into that now while we’re called that, we just are. And we’re there, you know, every day pretty much we’re messaging each other, holding each other up. You know, and one of us has a down day, which we frequently do… oh, I’ve got writer’s block. I hate my cover, everyone hates me, you know, all that sort of stuff. We sort of build each other up because I always say writing is a very lonely business. And when it’s just you sitting in front of a blank screen or a blank page, desperately trying to come up with something can be quite dispiriting.

So I’m a member of lots of groups and I go out a lot. I mean, I’ve got something like, I think, 56 events books this year, different things, you know, talks, craft fairs, plant shows, that kind of thing where I go and talk.

Danielle (33:39.094)

Wow.

Ruth Leigh (33:40.681)

So that’s the first thing, super important not to be alone. Even if you can’t get out the house, and there are lots of writers who can’t do that for whatever reason, you can still be members of an online community as I am too, very important.

And as far as the feedback goes, well, my goodness, I’m really fortunate because I get stacks of it. Isabella seems to inspire people to take to the email which I’m really happy about. So I often get emails from people who’ve just discovered her or people who’ve got suggestions about where she might go which I absolutely love. And when I’m out and about which I often am, people will come up and just say the most wonderful things.

So I was in a market in Bury St Edmunds recently and because I’ve been working really hard on the events for two years now it’s starting to pay off. People are starting to recognise me quite often. They’ll come up and say…. I’ve already got some of your books I’d like the rest. And this lady I see her in the distance and she was running, not running, running but sort of trotting towards me with this huge smile on her face which is always good I feel. And as she got closer she shouted, I love you! And then she said, I love you and all your works, which was incredibly specific and I was like… oh gosh, thank you so much, so I love you too. And it was brilliant because she had been bought the first Isabella as Christmas present by her next-door neighbour who is a member of a writing group that I am in. And she, I think, I don’t know if she had a bit of a hard time or something, but Isabella had just really done it for her and she bought the rest and it had just become a really important part of her life and she wants to tell me.

So that kind of thing when you…I frequently sit in The Palace thinking, you know, I’m never going to be able to replicate what I did before or, you know, why am I even bothering, why don’t I get a proper job working in Aldi, you know, you do doubt yourself and when someone says something like that…they’re not saying it because they’re trying to be nice to you. They must really like your stuff. So these are like, what are they like? They’re like manna in the desert to writers.

You know, if you ever think should I write a review of somebody’s book? Yes, you should. Should I drop them a line? Will they mind? No, they won’t. I love it when people get in touch. And often when I speak to them, they’ll come up with something, or they’ll use a phrase and I think, Oh, I could use that. So more and more in the books. As I say, I’m not making it up and lots of the names as well are actual people I’ve met. So from book two, a lot of the characters with their names are real people, mostly in Suffolk, because I’ll meet someone at an event and if they buy all of the books or they’re the first person to buy a book at an event or I just really like them, I’ll say would you like to be in the book? And they say cool, yes please, which means I don’t have to make up names anymore.

So nearly all the character names are real people and that’s another side benefit I suppose of the feedback which I hadn’t really seen coming.

Danielle (36:25.742)

That’s fabulous. And because, I mean, you, like you say, you’re doing a tremendous amount of events and events can be so brilliant as you’ve described them for being able to meet readers and make those genuine connections and get your hard written work out into the world. But for some writers, that’s a really scary prospect. So as someone who’s been able to do it so successfully, any advice for the kind of writer that loves people, but if I said…. right, you’re going to be at an event, it’s going to be next week. This is what it’s going to look like. Might feel quite anxious. What would be some advice?

Ruth Leigh (37:01.193)

Yeah, well often other writers do say to me, I couldn’t do what you do Ruth, I just can’t think of anything worse. And I’d say, okay, well, you know, I don’t say this straight away, but once they got to know me a little bit, I’d say, well, you know, you’ve beautiful words. Don’t you want people to read your beautiful words? And they say, oh yes. And I say, well, if you don’t go out with them, then you’re kind of almost depriving them of the chance. And they say, oh yes, I suppose so. So I always say, start with something you feel entirely comfortable with. And my advice is always the same, look at where you are. Circles, you know. Are you perhaps at a church? If you’re in a church community then it’s, you know, you can say to somebody who runs a ladies group…oh do you think I could come along and just have a few books out, maybe just have a little chat? They’d probably say yes, you know.

If you’re a member of a school, your children at the school, perhaps you could come in and do some reading with the children, talk about what you do if it’s children’s work. So start somewhere where you already know some people and they already like you and they’re invested in you. Everyone’s got circles like that. And then slowly but surely, every single time you do that, you will learn something new, as I have done. And then you can slowly perhaps start to build up. So you might even find yourself auditioning for the WI, as lots of writer friends of my acquaintance have done, as I’ve done. And it’s amazing how, when you’re standing there, and there’s a room full of people who have come specifically to hear you in your words, how much that can do for your confidence.

The first few times it’s terrifying, it is, you know. You think, what if I mess it up? But if you start small and just don’t…people always, people always say, oh you know, get out of your comfort zone and that’s all very well. But there’s a reason that zone is comfortable and sometimes that could be around things that nobody else knows about, trauma perhaps or painful stuff in the past and you’re just not ready to make that leap and that’s fine.

But there are always going to be opportunities. Perhaps you go online, perhaps you do some online work, you do talks online if you don’t feel comfortable facing actual people. So slow and steady, I would always say.

Danielle (38:58.294)

Yeah, I totally agree with you. I think that’s brilliant advice. There’s so many ways now to find the next step without it having to be on a brightly lit stage in front of 200 people. So like you say, I think that’s great advice and within circles where you will feel a bit more comfortable… like easing yourself into the water. I love it.

Oh my goodness, Ruth, what a delight talking with you today. So I really want to ask before we wrap up where people can go to find out more about you and your fabulous work.

Ruth Leigh (39:06.293)

Well, they can come visit my website, which is Ruthleighwrites.co.uk. I’m also on all the social media platforms at Ruthleighwrites. Those are the main ones. You can email me, of course, that’s on my website as well. And on the website, there’s an events tab so you can see where I’m going to be. I’m up for giving talks. I go all over the place. If you want me to book me up, you can do that as well.

Danielle (39:48.162)

That’s perfect and I’ll put those in the show notes. Thank you so much for your time today, Ruth.

Ruth Leigh (39:52.354)

Absolutely. Thank you so much, Danielle.