I’m a great one for learning new things – I have recently taken up watercolour painting, for example, thoroughly enjoy my tap dancing classes and even after many, many years of salsa dancing, still have lessons. Every day is a school day, even if I think I know what I’m doing – sometimes I realise I don’t, and sometimes I realise I can improve.

That’s how it is with my writing. I’m always reading, always thinking of ways to get better, and that means I often think back to how and why I have written certain things in certain ways.

So, in the first of my ad-hoc series – Chris Penhall’s Author Top Tips, I’ve been thinking about my first novel, The House That Alice Built. It is set in Cascais near Lisbon in Portugal, where I lived for a few years a long time ago. It made a huge impression on me and I can conjur it up in my mind whenever I need to.

But…when I started writing my book, I couldn’t describe it how I see it. I had to see it through my leading lady’s eyes. Alice Dorothy Matthews is running away and not dealing with anything, which is how she finds herself in Cascais for a holiday in the first place. She was a talented artist but has not only lost that part of herself in order to get a good job to pay the mortgage, she has lost her confidence.

But Cascais is vibrant and colourful and inspirational.  So, when I look at this photograph I see:

A beautiful iconic scene represented in many an Instagram post, and one very familiar to me at a particular time in my life – I see the blue sky, the sea that changed colour as it ebbed under the sone bridge I took the photo from the red striped lighthouse…and I hear people laughing and chatting, peacocks calling from the park on the other side of the road that you can’t see..I can smell pine and wild herbs and – would you believe – coconut oil oozing from sunbathers in the summer….

But that’s not what Alice sees – she paints and she photographs and she sees how the colours change as the light moves, the patterns the breeze makes on the water….the green algae clinging onto the rocks below, and she thinks about how she would bring that to life with watercolours….

So, what do your characters see? If you fancy trying it, here’s a little exercise:

Write a paragraph about

what you see

What 72 year old ex-waitress Lulu would see when she thinks about meeting Filipe when she was a 22 year old backpacker, and their first encounter on that bridge

What 32 year old cyclist Jerzy would see as he paused to drink some water there in the middle of a training run

What 40 year old wild swimmer Jolene sees a few days after she has broken her foot, so she can’t go in the water anytime soon.

How different are they, and how does that description give a hint as to their character…

And now try the same thing with this photograph  taken  in  Barbados




And then, take a couple of your characters, chose a photograph and try the same thing

That’s the first top tip. I’ll be posting some more soon