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  • Don’t look back in anger.

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    When I was studying history as part of my Literature and Arts degree programme, we debated the the purpose of studying history, and decided on something like this definition: ‘we study the past to illuminate the human present and plan for the future’. The past is vital to humans. I’d say the past pervades our lives continually. If the past is an important part of our lives when we are young, I’ve been told that as people grow older, the past assumes even greater importance. Certainly I’ve seen this in people I know, and in my own life. The past can sometimes have an almost unbearable significance.

    Why do we live in the past? Is it because the outcome is known to us? I sit safe? Or a source of disappointment with a sense of ‘the road not taken’? Do we seek to relive our ‘glory days’? Or have we left something behind that we haven’t quite finished with? I often wonder if the past is/was quite as I remember it, as our memories are so subjective. And I wrote ‘is/was’ because even as I put pen to paper, I realised that in many ways, the past is ongoing. As often as I remember it, it lives on, never ending, never a closed file but always, always, always being updated, catalogued, reviewed, reevaluated, upgraded and rewritten.

    Does the past really fade away, or is it ever-present, a continuous ongoing exploration that runs in parallel with our own sense of ‘now’? The future is seen, in the words of Star Trek (or was it William Shakespeare ;D  ?) as the Undiscovered Country, and the past must surely be the air-miles capital of our emotions.

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  • Don’t trust him! The Unreliable Narrator is out to get you!

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    Like all stories, mysteries are told by narrators. Even mysteries told in the third person have a narrator, though the story is told by an omniscient narrator with a kind of ‘bird’s eye view’ of the story and its characters. But if you are reading a mystery written in the first person, the ‘I’ of the story is your narrator, and in this very intimate world of the first-person narrator, you as a reader need to be on your guard because the main mission in the life of the first-person narrator is to pull the wool over your eyes!

    This is very often how the author introduces red herrings. You as the reader get drawn into the world of the first-person narrator, he or she seems nice, or maybe they are really horrid, but either way, they unfold to you the plot of the story as they see it and it all seems very plausible and it is only at the end you realise that they missed out crucial information or disguised themselves or presented events in a rather biased manner, with the intention of thwarting your attempt to solve the mystery yourself.

    Maybe they are seeking to divert suspicion from themselves, or even if you know what they did and how they did it, it is important for the first-person narrator that you sympathise, even condone what they did. They deceive you with half-truths, half-lies or even simply accidental misinterpretation. The bumbling narrator is in many ways the worst. They disarm you with their apparent incompetence, they admit to being forgetful, or unsure of their facts, and all the time—all the time—they are deliberately drawing you into their web.

    They might throw you off the scent by seeming to reveal some great truth; they admit to some minor sin in order to distract you from your hunt for clues. Their very openness, the revelation of their intimate thoughts, feelings and actions actually conceals greater guilt—the guilt of deception. Even worse, the author actually uses them to control your reaction to the story and how information is revealed to you. Often in an apparent display of ‘fairness’ they will actually allow the narrator’s flaw to be revealed early on in the story, in the hope that you will have forgotten it by the time the story reaches its denouement. The author manipulates your sympathy, forcing you to acquit the narrator of wrong-doing as you stand in the place of the judge and jury of the action of the story.

    Now that you know this, you are forearmed, and will be on the lookout for these artful devices!

    A few noted novels with unreliable narrators:

    Agatha Christie’s infamous The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

    Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho

    Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin

    Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl

    Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita

    Ian McEwan’s Atonement

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  • Nomads like us, or, I like it here.

     

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    Back in the mists of time, before cities were built, before the towns and the offices and the shopping centres, before ports were built to allow boats to dock, before anyone thought of issuing a passport or a visa, there were humans. People. They spoke all sorts of languages and didn’t always understand one another. Disputes were settled in a variety of ways. I might give you a goat or sheep from my flocks in reparation for any damage you received at my hands. Or I might whack you with a big rock, and possibly face the dire consequences if my actions were discovered and your people didn’t like it. Or I might marry one of your relatives and we would just get over it.

    That is what people do. Have always done. Once upon a time, we didn’t understand about borders and governments and territorial rights. We followed the herds. The herds migrated, to find pasture that didn’t die back in winter or get covered by twenty feet of snow, or they migrated to reproduce in more favourable climates, or, who knows, maybe they just got bored.

    But wherever they went, we went after them. The herds, of any kind of deer or any kind of cattle, or I don’t know, maybe gigantic sweeping herds of emu or ostrich, or chickens the size of buffalo, they were everything to us. They were our food, our tools, our clothing, our lighting, even, later, our power and status. So we always had to be near the herds, and when they migrated, so did we.

    But migrating for both herds and humans took its toll. There was always the potential for disaster, for predators to take advantage of the migrants, for climactic events to cause disruption and problems. For humans, it meant people with children travelling huge distances and arriving in a maybe less fabulous place than expected. sometime there was a terrible storm or hurricane, or there might have been a wildfire, or flooding. The elderly sickened and died, babies were born on the trail, and babies and mothers alike struggled to deal with the demands of the journey.

    So one day, a character who was probably a national hero, gifted with foresight, radical and willing to take a huge risk, embracing blue-sky, out-of-the-box thinking, looked at all his or her community members as they packed the moose ready for the journey, and he or she thought to themselves, ‘Stuff that, I’m not going through all that again. Remember last time, when Granny got sick and she almost died? And she was barely 35!’

    Or maybe they thought, last year’s place was too far from fresh water, and although the herds were strong, they were hard to catch on that uneven land. This place is nice. The water’s right there a stone’s throw from the tent, I can see for miles over these lovely rolling hills, the hills protect the land, so that summer leaves late and spring arrives early. I’m staying right here.

    So they used some of their animal sinews and their flax or plant stem ropes, and they whittled a bunch of stakes, and they roped in some of those herds, and there they stayed. And when everyone came back next spring, lo and behold, there they were still, fat and sleek and healthy, and not totally exhausted from the long journey. So the following year, a few more crazy people decided to follow suit. Their wives and children and old people flourished, their flocks and herds produced young, and numbers multiplied.

    I’m not a historian – as you can no doubt tell – and yes, this is probably hopelessly idealised and unrealistic. But my point is this: territorial borders are man-made and arbitrary. We do not – contrary to what many believe – own the land on which we were born or where we live. We are just there. I don’t normally post a political message. And I don’t want to debate endlessly. I just want to point out that in my own view, we are all immigrants. We are all nomads.

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  • I didn’t recognise you in that media!

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    Apparently we all lie on our CV or Resume. I never did, but then I was brought up to believe that my sins would find me out, so I never took the chance. It would have been tempting to award myself a PhD in Business Management in the hope of landing a job paying big bucks, but I always knew that sooner or later, someone would come along and ask me that one deep question that would reveal my ignorance in all its glory. So I never lied on my CV.

    But just like trolling, it seems we can often leave the straight and narrow behind once we get close to our keyboards. Bending the truth on your social media profile is okay, even desirable. Don’t get too carried away–the internet really isn’t as anonymous as we like to think. Out there somewhere are all the people who spotted that you had ditched another class back in the day, or that you got a terrible grade for that science homework, and they will tell all at the least opportune moment.

    So keep yourself and your reputation squeaky clean. Don’t be tempted to exaggerate, let alone downright lie. There is no bigger fall than a public one, especially if you are hoping to use social media to market yourself for work or online business.

    Keep to the truth. Don’t say you are a New York Times bestselling author if only your mum and your cat have read your book. Don’t post a profile pic of yourself that is thirty years/300 pounds out of date. Tell us what you have done with your life, we will understand if it’s not all been unalloyed success, we’ve all been there. Skate over the grimmer details by all means, but keep to the truth and don’t bluster or make excuses. Don’t spam. Don’t batter people with ‘buy my stuff’ messages and never, never, never put someone down if you don’t want it done to you.

    Thanks for reading. Rant over.

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  • A couple of simple tools to help the Indie author.
    Night and Day by Caron Allan

    Night and Day by Caron Allan. I created this ebook cover in Canva, using a gorgeous image from Pixabay and slightly changing the colour. The wonderful font is a Canva one and is called Text Me One. I love it!

    If like me you’re an Indie author with a low or non-existent budget, you will always be on the look-out for something to help you save time, money or boost sales. Ideally all three.

    My two favourite new (to me) sites for 2016 were these: Readers Gazette and Canva.

    Readers Gazette is a promo thing, they tweet your books to approximately 100,000 followers. You have to sign up and obviously in order for them to tweet your book to their followers, you need to spend some time entering the information about yourself and your books on their site. But get all the information together before you start and it shouldn’t be too much of a pain. Their site isn’t a total breeze, and I admit I got a bit lost once or twice, but with trial and error, I got all my books onto their site. When you sign up for free, they tell you it will take 30 days to get the promos up and running, or you can pay them the teeny fee of $5 – yes, that’s what I said, $5 – and they will start within a day or two. I find that even after being with them for at least six months, they still tweet my books two or three times a week, and they ring the changes so it’s not always the same book that goes out. I don’t have any exact figures but I am convinced the result is improved visibility for me and my books, and therefore, improved sales. And obviously, if you retweet their promo of your book, it gets seen by even more people. The great thing about retweeting, is you can add a little quote or snippet or special offer to the tweet to really catch the eye of anyone who sees it.

    Readers Gazette is at: readersgazette.com

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    A recent Tweet from Readers Gazette sister page RGBookWorld

    Canva is also free – woohoo – and it is the most wonderful site to build ebook covers, create social media headers, social media posts and even promotional materials such as bookmarks and thank you post cards – and so much more if you are looking beyond simply offering writers’ tools. You can create from scratch, or near scratch or if like me you’re a bit technically challenged, they have tons of wonderful templates to choose from, with stunning backgrounds and a huge range of fonts. Some of the images do have a charge attached, but these charges are pretty small. However they have oodles of free images, and you can also upload your own. Then, when you have created your fab new whatever, you can download it in several different formats, for example, jpeg or pdf, and use as you wish. Another thing I love about Canva is that they often have little how-to tutorials, so if you want to improve the look of your website, Facebook page or Twitter page, then this is the place to go.

    Canva is at: canva.com

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    Taking the idea from the way Readers Gazette (and others) Tweet my books, I used Canva to create this promotional graphic which is actually a Facebook Header – simple style, quick and easy to do, but eye-catching.

    This week someone contacted me just to tell me how much he liked these graphics. I so wish I’d heard about both these sites before 2016!

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  • Reflections on a visit to an exhibition

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    I had a reason for going to see this wonderful exhibition. It took place at the V & A – the Victoria and Albert museum in London. The exhibition is of medieval English embroidery, called Opus Anglicanum, (English Work) and I am planning using some of the information I gained in my next murder mystery novel The Mantle of God: a Dottie Manderson mystery, so when I heard about the exhibition I was keen to get down to London and take a look. Of course, life gets in the way sometimes, and in fact the exhibition is almost over, as it finishes at the beginning of February, so I nearly missed it but I am so glad I finally made it.

    Due to it being the off-season, the number of visitors wasn’t quite as large as usual, and the organisers were happy to allow everyone to wander around and browse to their hearts content, and also due to the busy but not crowded exhibition, I was able to perch on a bench and gaze fondly at the Butler Bowden Cope, which was the main item I had come to see ‘in the flesh’, and I was able to sit and make notes without feeling a need to hurry along and make way for others. The items were fabulous, far beyond what I had expected, and beautifully displayed. Here is a little of what I felt and noted:

    ‘The red velvet background was, as I expected, greatly faded away to a soft, deep pinky red although here and there it remains fresh and vibrant, and the threads of the velvet fabric were worn and even almost bare in places. As is typical, tiers of Biblical scenes and characters are interspersed by smaller tiers of angels ad twining branches form vertical barriers between sections.

    ‘The figures are more or less uncoloured now, but their hair still shines softly gold or silver, and here and there a vivid patch of blue cloth has retained its glorious colour. Lions peer between branches of oak, their heads realised by spirals of tiny pearls, for the main part still intact after, what, almost 700 years? 700 hundred years – I can hardly believe it.

    ‘Actually, I feel rather in awe. Of the creators, their skill, and even of the measure of inspiration they enjoyed, and the execution of the work: it all touches me, and I feel grateful, even tearful as I look at these beautiful garments and draperies. Who knows how long it will be possible to move these often fragile items and take them to other audiences? And then, when they are gone…will we be left with photographs and facsimiles? Somehow it isn’t enough just to go and look, I feel a need to record my experience, to capture it for the future.’

    The cafe, too, is well worth an hour of contemplation! Entrance to the main part of the museum is, as ever, free, but the specialist exhibitions such as the Opus Anglicanum, have to be booked and paid for. But this is surely a once in a lifetime opportunity, so I certainly didn’t mind paying the price of £12.

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  • Janus, or the art of looking both ways at once

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    Janus is the Roman god who has two faces, enabling him to look forward and backward at the same time. It is often (possibly erroneously) supposed the month January is named after him, poised as it is at the beginning of the new year yet with the old year still very much alive in our memories.

    Once Christmas is over and the new year begins to beckon, we are seemingly in both places at once. 2016 (what an awful year, in so many ways) still dominates our thoughts and yet, here it comes, 2017, looming on the horizon, bright, shiny and new, full of possibilities, an unwritten page.

    So we look forward and back at the same time, for the moment torn in our thoughts and plans, divided in our dreams, not yet able to completely commit to the new, the undiscovered, and still holding onto all that has happened during the twelve months of 2016.

    We long for a fresh start. If 2016 is the experienced adult, bent by experience, then 2017 is the innocent child.The joyous optimism of leaving the past behind and reaching forward to something new and good is irresistible. And so we plan and and resolve to make changes in our lives. I am keeping my list of resolutions simple this year. I am going to write more, read more and enjoy life more. Good riddance, 2016. Thank God you’re here, 2017!

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  • Sleepy old 2016 begins to wind down!

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    Happy Christmas, everyone, and wishing everyone good health, happiness and lots of pressies! Thank you for following my ravings for another year, and for all the comments and quips. See you in 2017.

  • Thrystery or Mystiller?

    OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhat’s the difference between a mystery and a thriller? Admittedly, more and more these days, genre-straddling and genre-mixing books are appearing, but traditionally, there is a difference between the mystery and the thriller.

    Mysteries are all about the crime. Usually a murder–because that is the ultimate crime in this kind of book–has been committed or is about to be committed. Mysteries are books where the emphasis is on detection and solving the mystery, often with clues for the reader to solve along too. The important thing for the mystery is answering the question ‘whodunit’? Mysteries are also concerned with character, motive, and with the details of crime solving. If the mystery is a police procedural, there will be more about the ‘official’ approach to crime and the detective must operate within the constraints of the law, but is aided by forensic science and can question suspects more openly, whereas in the traditional amateur sleuth story,  there will be a more relaxed approach and the sleuth is free from legal restraints to conduct the investigation in a different, sometimes novel, way. For example, the methods of Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot. Often the amateur sleuth must detect in secret.

    By contrast, thrillers are a race against time. The main thrust of a thriller is the pressure to solve a crime or prevent a crime or major disaster before ‘it’s too late’. Thrillers often cover a lot of ground – the protagonist may go from country to country or city to city in search of the answers, where mysteries are usually centred around a single location. Thrillers are less about detection and clues, and much more about tension, pace, and events. Usually minor characters are fewer and less important to the investigation, and crime or murder is not always the main thrust of the story. There may or may not be a detective, but where used, these are usually professionals. If there is murder, it is high profile, often a serial killer. For example, experts Alex Cross or Robert Langdon.

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  • It doesn’t just happen…

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    People always say, ‘hey I’ve often thought of writing a book!’ I usually just smile and say, ‘you should try it!’ It’s hard to know what else to say, given that according to the adage, we all have a book in us. In fact almost everyone I’ve ever told ‘I’m a writer’ has said that same thing. ‘Oh I thought about writing a book once, I had such a great idea.’

    It makes me sad when people who seem really keen never do it. They have a great idea, but somehow that enthusiasm never gets converted into an actual writing process. The book isn’t born. They talk about it a lot, but they don’t do it.

    Why is that?

    Surely everyone knows by now that if you sit around waiting for inspiration, you will never do any writing? And then others seem to think they have to train first. They go to college, or they take classes, and they read a lot of books about writing a book.

    But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how much you read about it, you have to make yourself sit down and do it. Take up your pen and walk  write. Because the only way to learn how to do something, really learn, is to do it.

    Now, here we go: Christmas is coming, you’ll likely get a few hours to yourself here and there. You won’t have to get up early for work, nor stay late, nor be too tired when you get in. so settle everyone down in front of the TV with their chocolates and glasses of fizz, and take yourself off to some quiet place – the bathroom will do (at least you can lock yourself in) – and write. Just write a page about why you want to write. And the next day,w rite another page, about what you want to write about. And the day after that, write a description of your main character. And every day for the next forty years, write something, even if it’s only a page. You don’t need to show anyone. You don’t need to get it edited. No one needs to criticise your plot structure or your story arc.

    Just write for your own enjoyment, and then when someone says to you, ‘I’m a writer,’ you can say, ‘Hey, I am too!’ Wouldn’t that be great?

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