Okay so yes, it does look better without the light background to the flowers!
I’ve spent quite a lot of the first half of 2021 writing the first draft of my next Dottie Manderson mystery. It’s book 7 in the series and will be called Rose Petals and White Lace. The main mystery centres around weddings and wedding preparations.
No, don’t get excited, it’s not the marriage of Dottie and William. You’ve got to wait a little longer for that, sorry. (But yes, it’s coming, I promise.)
The book is not due out until November, but you know, these things take time, so I needed to crack on with it pretty quickly. I try to bring out a Dottie book every year, usually it winds up being released anywhere between my birthday on 18th October, and Christmas.
What tends to happen is, as soon as a new Dottie book is released, I am so excited I rush ahead to begin writing the next one, then Christmas comes along, and you know, life happens, and everything gets put on hold for a couple of months, then before you know it I’m panicking to fit everything in to the remaining time.
I always plan to have January off as holiday, then intend to begin working hard on 1st February but it doesn’t usually work like that. In practice I’m a terrible deadline evader, and will push them back to the last possible moment. It’s a bit like doing your homework as you eat your breakfast on submission day. So here we are at the beginning of June, and I should have written maybe 70,000 words or so for my first draft. Have I? No!!! Of course I haven’t. I’ve written maybe 30,000 words. That’s pants, obvs. And this means that I will have to work a lot harder in June and July to be ready for my self-imposed deadline of November 1st.
To make matters worse, I’m also doing a final polish/proofread of A Meeting With Murder: Miss Gascoigne mysteries book 1. I had planned to release that one at the end of June, but I seriously doubt it will happen. I’m smart enough now not to be too precise when I let readers know books are due to make their appearance. I suspect Miss Gascoigne will make her first appearance in September.
But this untidy system works for me. Dorothea Brande in her author handbook classic, Becoming A Writer (1934!) stated that writers (like other people only more so) are made up of two very different selves. Therefore during the drafting stage, the prosaic, planning/editing/organised/business-suit-wearing (my business suit is jog bottoms and an old shirt with fluffy socks to keep my feet toasty) side of me allows flaky/creative/disorganised/messy/kaftan-wearing Caron the freedom to do her thing, with fingers crossed firmly behind my back and praying that as it’s worked before it will work again. It’s not really so much a process but more a succession of futile attempts to organise my life like realwriters do. But no, I still don’t enjoy using professional writing software. So I’ve given up on all those things, stopped trying to force myself to work like others do, and gone back to what works for me: a pen and paper. I love the nuts-and-bolts process of writing long-hand in a bunch of notebooks then typing it all up as I go, amending and refining along the way.
But hopefully both books will be finished at some point before Christmas, and both book will be worth reading.
Meanwhile here’s a little bit of a taster for each book: (please note, these may change completely by publication day!)
Kim, welcome. Thank you so much for allowing yourself to be bullied persuaded into answering a few questions for all the readers of fantasy books out there. I would say fantasy is one of the top three if not the top genre in terms of popularity these days, so I know there will be a lot of people eager to find out what makes you tick.
Let’s crack on, shall we?
Q1. What kind of books do you write?
I mainly write fantasy, essentially the kind known as ‘epic fantasy’ set in imaginary worlds where magic is possible and my characters are forced to go on perilous journeys in search of some goal (or themselves). There may be some romantic interest, or some humour, but this is generally secondary to the main story. The later books have an increasingly political content with neither of the warring factions being totally good or totally bad. The Plain Girl’s Earrings is about a young nobleman who naively gets involved in trying to defend the weak, and is soon over his head in trouble.
The Witch’s Box is the story of Maihara, Imperial Princess (with magical powers) in a troubled empire that is collapsing around her. She has high ambitions, but might not the rebels make a better job of running things?
Q2. What were your earliest influences? What did you read as a child?
I remember reading all of the CS Lewis ‘Narnia’ novels, and a lot of Gollancz SF which at the time came in books with yellow jackets. Also various juvenile adventure novels. All of which came from the local library, a resource which unfortunately seems to becoming harder for kids to access these days. Later I continued to read a lot of SF but in later years grew weary of SF and turned to reading general fiction, and fantasy, because the characters were more interesting.
I’m with you on the C S Lewis stuff, and I remember those Gollancz jackets too. I also completely agree with you about libraries – they are a wonderful, and lest we forget, free resource (in the UK at least) which are seemingly used less and less.
Q3. What are you working on at the moment?
I am finishing the final revisions of the third volume of my The Witch’s Box trilogy.
Q4. What can we look forward to in the future from you?
A story about a young woman who, when searching for her missing sister, finds herself in a parallel world where customs and technology differ radically from those of our own world. In other words, this is a ‘portal fantasy’. After that, possibly a high fantasy with lots of magic, with people turning into birds or animals, a battle with an evil magician, an Arctic quest, and stuff. Interest has been expressed in a fourth volume of The Witch’s Boxbut that may be some way off.
Sounds like you are extremely busy, and prolific. Q5. Who are your favourite authors?
GRR Martin, Kate Elliott, Brandon Sanderson, Michael Moorcock, Louis de Bernieres, Robin Hobb, Joe Abercrombie, Alison Spedding, Patrick Rothfuss.
Q6. What do you do when you’re not reading?
I also spend some time on amateur astronomy, gardening, and before the pandemic used to visit National Trust and English Heritage properties, and various museums and galleries, and the cinema. When too tired to do anything else, I watch TV.
Q7. What is your writing process?
Generally I start with an idea and an outline, and work it up to a first draft, which may be revised, lengthened and shown to a select group of critiquers. The process may be repeated several times before I arrive at a final version which could differ substantially from the first draft. I have used the Storyweaversoftware to plan out several of my novels, and it prompts me to think about the plot and overall structure, the characters, the theme and any genre elements. It’s not a magic bullet but it does prompt one to jot down some necessary details. I have tried writing one or two things in ‘pantster’ mode without a detailed plan, and it has generally been a disaster.
I know what you mean about the perils of pantser mode! I am a reformed pantser msyelf, working with only a very skeletal ‘plan’ in my head. Otherwise I usually find that if I make too many or too detailed a plan, I lose all interest in writing my book. I haven’t tried Storyweaver, though I’ve heard good things about it.
Thank you so much, Kim, for coming along to chat about your work. I’m sure your work will continue to make you proud, and good luck with the next book. I hope you will come back and give us an update in a few months.
In the meanwhile, where can readers find out more about you and your books, and where can they buy them?
Kim Cowie has worked as a technician and as a technical author, and has sold articles to non-fiction magazines, as well as two short stories. Kim has always enjoyed reading and writing SF and fantasy stories. Currently he is working on a series of fantasy novels.
It’s been thirteen years since we lived there, but the house looks the same. Even the vertical blinds at the windows don’t look any different. The place has that half-familiar look, as remembered places do. A brick semi, with a small tarmac front yard surrounded by a perimeter of unruly shrubs liberally sprinkled with empty whisky and methadone bottles and syringes.
I know the streets were this busy when we lived here, but I seem to see all the traffic as if for the first time. Why did we choose to live somewhere so congested? But I know why, of course. It was the garden.
The street-front gives the passer-by no clue as to the possibility of a garden. But it was the garden of our dreams. It was because of the garden that for two years we put up with the ridiculously high crime-rate, the constant sense of insecurity, the dark gloomy house, and the heavy traffic.
In case you think I’m exaggerating the crime: the day we moved in, a guy down the street shot his wife in the street, then himself, right in front of their teenage daughters. I know that’s more of a family tragedy than a crime, but it didn’t bode well. Within two weeks we’d been burgled and had our car vandalised twice. Eggs and bottles were thrown at the house. My husband was on first-name terms with the local police officer by the end of the first month. We saw a woman thrown out of a moving car. Truly. We saw another woman repeatedly kicked and punched before she limped away, screaming profanities from a bleeding mouth. We found syringes, empty bottles and condoms scattered in our front yard regularly. We had a man stabbed literally on our doorstep as he leaned on the doorbell at eleven o’clock at night. We had the police come to the door and tell us to stay inside as they were after someone sheltering in our back yard (my precious garden!). Someone tried to snatch my money as I stood at the ATM putting my card away. Drunks were heaved almost senseless out of the pub to sleep the drink off on the pavement outside. My teenage daughter was followed home by two men who tried to grab her. Good thing we lived literally fifty yards from the bus stop where she’d got off. And that she had a good pair of lungs.
But the garden…Oh it was a slice of heaven. One hundred and thirty feet long, and thirty-odd feet wide. That’s huge by inner-city standards. The top twenty-five per cent, nearest the house, was a patio, unevenly paved, and populated with plants in pots. Tiny solar lamps indicated the edge of the patio and the start of the lawn. The lawn took up about fifty per cent of the garden, and was uneven and veined with ancient tree roots and edged by borders containing ugly plants behind even uglier mini-fencing. I know it’s not sounding great at the moment…
Dotted across the lawn and in the bottom twenty-five per cent of the garden were several old apple and pear trees, and a cheery tree. There were two small sheds, all but falling down, and an oval flower bed intruding into the top part of the lawn. The final section at the end of the garden was fenced off and badly overgrown. Paving slabs had been loosely laid, perhaps n an attempt to curb the growth of the weeds, but they presented a grave danger to ankles and toes as the slabs tipped up as soon as you stepped on them.
We gathered these slabs up into two stacks. Then we cut back the trees and shrubs to a tidy and manageable size. We dug up the weeds and created veggie patches and a herb garden. We filled tubs and pots with sunflowers and cosmos and anything that bees or butterflies might like. It was a secret, sunny spot, seemingly miles from the house and the noise of the road beyond, hidden away from prying eyes.
We often used to see a fox snoozing in the sunshine on top of the slab-stacks. Or at night, I’d hear a sound and look out to see three or four fox cubs chasing each other around the lawn or hopping back and forth over the plant pots and yapping at one another. I’m not one of those who believes wild animals are there to be shot or poisoned. I’m definitely a bleeding-heart liberal and proud to be so. My family and I derived great pleasure from watching the birds, the foxes, a squirrel, and some hedgehogs enjoying the amenities of our garden, drinking out of a plant saucer full of rainwater or foraging amongst the bushes.
Our neighbours on either side were very elderly and their gardens had been left untouched for years. The neighbour on the right-hand side had a World War II Anderson shelter at the bottom of her garden, and this was where the foxes lived. The neighbours’ gardens and ours created a little oasis of wildlife-friendly space in the city, and the wildlife seemed to be thriving there. I hope they never bulldoze that block.
The area had once been an orchard. The trees in our garden were donkeys’ years old, and our neighbours had a number of equally well-established fruit trees. The trees were huge, too, due to their great age. I’ve never seen fruit trees the size of woodland oak or beech trees. I suppose normally when orchard trees reach a certain age, they are replaced, to ensure maximum yield.
It was the kind of garden that made us strive to overcome all the other obstacles to living happily in that location in our attempt to create a home. It was the kind of garden you long to pick up and take with you.
That house was never a home, and we were so glad to leave it. But the garden belonged to another age, and another plane altogether. We still drive past the house regularly, the house itself so dimly remembered, and yet we continue to rave about the perfect little world hidden away behind it.
Yes, that is my cat, in a deep blissful sleep in the middle of the rather long grass – never seen her so carefree as she was here.
I think I’ve mentioned a couple of times that Dottie Manderson’s latest outing, The Spy Within, book 6 in the Dottie Manderson mystery series, was quite a lot longer than I’d anticipated. Because of that, I had to cut out a large number of words, two or three major scenes in fact that I felt muddied the waters and delayed the action a little bit too much.
But as scenes, I felt they worked really nicely. Authors are often told to ‘kill their darlings’ – for me this isn’t so much about killing off a beloved character but chopping a scene that works really well, earns its wages and yet in spite of everything, just doesn’t belong. It is often with great reluctance that I cut out a scene then have to find another way to bring in the information the reader needs to figure out what’s going on.
This next scene is a case in point. If you haven’t read The Spy Within, or the previous books come to that, maybe you should browse elsewhere for the next ten minutes or so – spoilers abound!
So in The Spy Within we see William Hardy – police inspector – and Dottie Manderson – amateur sleuth – discussing Dottie’s beau Gervase Parfitt (boo, hiss!). William has been asked to investigate allegations of corruption and other possible crimes lodged against Gervase Parfitt who is an ambitious assistant chief constable. William has also been told to enlist Dottie’s help in finding evidence, as his superior officers know she is a friend of William’s, and is on the point of becoming engaged to Parfitt.
But what the higher-ups don’t know is that the relationship between William and Dottie is far more complicated than that and there is quite a lot of baggage that needs to be resolved. William tries to get out of asking her, but is told he must. Reluctantly he tries to find a way to tell her that Parfitt is under investigation – which he believes will devastate her – and yet still be able to gain her trust and get her to help him.
In the final version of this book, William has a couple of attempts at doing this. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that he has passively allowed his old fiancee back into his life, and both women are jealous of one another from the outset. The conversation becomes an emotional minefield for both Dottie and William.
You will also see some of my notes to myself in the midst of the scene – I often leave myself reminders or notes when writing my first draft; these serve as signposts when I come to revise the manuscript later.
Here it is:
William arrived at a quarter to three. He had invited her to meet him at three o’clock.
He had felt that the conversation might go better if they met at the Lyons’ corner house nearest her fashion warehouse. For one thing, after their last meeting, he didn’t really expect her to turn up at all, or if she did, he thought she’d likely be very late. He was fully prepared for her to still be furious with him. So long as she didn’t look at him with that bleak, defeated look, it should be all right. Rage he could deal with, but he doubted he could cope with that cold misery. Or tears.
At least if he was in a Lyons’, he could just order more tea and cake whilst he waited, if she came very late. Or, if she was furious, he thought—or hoped, might be more accurate—she might keep her temper in check in a public place, whereas in her home, or his, she could very well pick up the teapot and throw it at him. Not that, given the current situation, she was at all likely to offer him tea, he realised now. In any case, he hoped she wouldn’t do that in Lyons’, though he was by no means certain.
She arrived five minutes early. Punctuality was important to her, he remembered belatedly, and besides, she was a busy woman these days with a business to run, which by all accounts, she did very well.
She had pulled out the chair and sat down before he had a chance to leap to his feet and pull it out for her. She glared at him.
Clearly she was, as expected, furious. He forgot every word of his carefully planned, meticulously crafted speech, and stared at her, dumb. She raised an elegantly curved eyebrow.
He said, ‘Er…’ and executed a kind of half-rise together with a sort of bow and bumped his knee on the leg of the table, making the vase of flowers jump. He swore loudly at the sharp pain that went through his knee. Several other patrons tutted and shook their heads. Dottie frowned and looked away.
He removed the end of his tie from his saucer, wiped the dribble of tea from his shirt and bent to pick up his wallet that had fallen on the floor, only narrowly missing hitting his head on the edge of the table. Dottie had to conceal a smile.
‘Damn thing,’ he said as he replaced the wallet in his pocket. More tutting and head-shaking from an elderly lady at the table behind them.
Dottie noticed that the leather was rather shiny and new looking. His initials, W F H, for William Faulkener Hardy, were embossed in gold on the front of the wallet. Dottie preferred the old, battered wallet he had had for years.
‘Did she buy that for you?’ she couldn’t help asking.
He paused in the middle of dabbing at his shirt. ‘What, the wallet? Oh, er, yes.’ He blushed. Everything was going wrong. ‘She said the old one was too shabby.’
‘It was,’ she said. ‘Although I preferred it.’
She was looking at him now less as though he was a bug that wanted squashing and more as a smelly dog that needed to be put outside in a kennel. He felt it was progress.
‘I can’t get used to this one. And it’s bigger, so I can’t keep it in the inside pocket I kept the old one in, which is why I keep dropping it all the time.’
It seemed the subject had run its course, as she made no reply.
‘Tea?’ he asked. She shook her head. The hovering waitress frowned and stalked away.
‘What do you want, William?’
At least she’d used his first name rather than his rank and surname. Another point for progress, he decided.
(note to me: when has he told her about his doubts about Gervase and the fact that he is tasked with investigating him???) ‘I thought we should talk about Parfitt, and how I would like you to help me.’
She made a little grunting sound, more or less an affirmative. Then she turned and flagged down the waitress. ‘Just a pot of tea, please.’
‘Certainly madam, and for the gentleman?’
William was about to order tea, but Dottie said, with a fierce look at him, ‘He’s not having anything. He’s about to leave.’
‘Very good, madam.’ The waitress bobbed and returned to her area to make the tea.
William said nothing, deciding not to push his luck. He quickly outlined what he wanted her to do. Before she could comment, the waitress appeared with the pot of tea, milk jug, and cup and saucer.
There was a long pause as Dottie dissolved a sugar lump on her spoon then stirred it in. He thought it odd, and wondered when she had started taking sugar in her tea. As she set the spoon in the saucer, her hand trembled slightly. Only now did he realise how upsetting this all was for her.
In a very low voice, one that only she could hear, he said, ‘Dottie.’ He tried to take her hand but she snatched it away.
‘What would Moira think?’ she snapped. ‘You can’t go around holding girls’ hands now you’re engaged.’
Heads turned once more. Dottie’s temper subsided. She sat back in her chair, her attention fixed on her hands folded in her lap.
He felt he should apologise, but didn’t, couldn’t. The silence stretched between them until it had gone on far too long for him to apologise. In the end, he simply spoke from the heart, but quietly.
‘What a bloody mess.’
He watched a tear roll down and splash onto her skirt.
‘Yes.’ She didn’t dare look at him.
He reached for her cup and took a drink of her tea. Waited another minute, then said, ‘Well, we’re stuck with it, and it’s all our own blasted fault.’
‘Yes,’ she said again. But this time she reached for a handkerchief and discreetly blotted her eyes. Only as she put it away did he see, first that the white cotton handkerchief was a man’s, and next, that the monogram in the corner was WFH. (in my rough notes for this scene I’ve got William Edward Hardy – so I need to check whether I’ve given any of these middle names out in my books so far – obv need to keep to that.) It was one of his own handkerchiefs—one of several he’d given her over the year and a half of their acquaintance—that she was using.
He reached across and took her hand. She didn’t try to stop him. ‘I want you to know I’m so, so sorry. For everything. Dottie, I so deeply regret…’
She pulled her hand away now. Her voice wobbled as she said, ‘What use is that now?’ She sighed, then added, ‘It’s all right, William. It’s my fault, I know that. I should be the one…’
The waitress went past, and Dottie broke off. She sipped her tea. It steadied her. An elderly couple pushed past to find a seat. William looked about him, surprised to see how quickly the place had filled up in the last few minutes.
But the short interval was enough to allow her to compose herself. When she spoke, it was in a more measured, firmer tone.
‘Are you absolutely certain about Gervase?’
Parfitt’s name was like a splash of cold water in William’s face. But it was as well to get back to marginally safer ground.
Remembering that she had once—briefly—thought she was in love with the man, William said gently, ‘Oh yes, quite certain. There’s no doubt, I’m afraid.’
She nodded. Leaning forward, she gripped her teacup in both hands. ‘Tell me what you want me to do.’
This is what happens: you get your notebooks ready, and your pens. You dig out all the scraps of paper you jotted down notes on over the last six months or so. You read them carefully and get yourself back into the 1930s, maybe put on a little Al Bowlly to create the mood. Then you carefully read all your other little bits and pieces – the entry in your journal that you wrote two months ago talking about how excited you were to start your new book. You’ve been playing around on Canva creating a book cover, then you killed half an hour here and there creating mock-ups promos on Book Brush.
And then it happens. There’s a slight breeze in your office, the curtain stirs, the pages of your notebook riffle at the corners. You hear a sound. You hold your breath listening hard. Yes, you hear it, softly at first but growing louder, more insistent.
It’s the siren song of the Other WIP – like the other woman/man in a romantic relationship – it’s sole purpose is to try to seduce you away from your current WIP with the promise that you will be happier with them, and trying to lure you away from your ‘one-true-love-WIP’, who, it says, doesn’t understand you and isn’t fulfilling your needs.
It’s hard to resist the call when it comes. Every little argument you raise up in rebuttal it knocks down flat with tempting scenes you could write, or snappy names for the characters you are refusing to bring to life. You hear snippets on the TV or the radio and the siren says, ‘Oh that would work very nicely in chapter 7, where…’ Or potential cover images throw themselves in your path every time you have to quickly pop over to Pixabay or Shutterstock. Everywhere you look the universe seems to scream out in favour of the Other WIP, and no matter how often you say the magic formula: ‘It’s not your time. You’re not until June and July!’ the words grow weaker and less convincing every time you utter them. You refuse to look at the little pile of notebooks lying ready for your attention later in the year. Oh dear, there’s a fine film of dust on them. You feel a twinge of guilt.
Oh how pretty, how fresh, how alluring the promise of the new story is. How bright the ideas are. The promise of ‘happy ever after’ is there, and the story vows it will be everything you’ve ever wanted to write.
As you glance back metaphorically over your shoulder at the sulking form of your Current WIP, you can only see the problems: the plot holes, the saggy bits where it won’t quite gel, where the characters do whatever they like, or they won’t do anything at all. You see all those repeated actions, once so sweet and appealing, now just irritating. It feels as though you’ve been writing this book for years instead of just a few months. You tell yourself you’re just tired, and that if you work through this bit, things will be easier, more fulfilling.
But then it calls you again…
How do you choose? Stay on the straight and narrow road, sticking to discipline and your (slightly vague and woolly) plan? Or go for a joyous run ‘off-piste’ – pantsing it from morning to night? Yes, you know you’ll regret it come revision time, and you’ve got no first draft to revise, but there’s a tiny suspicion lurking in the back of your mind that maybe it could actually be worth it.
This week I’d like to welcome Debaleena Mukherjee to my blog.
Debaleena and I go way back. We’ve never met (who knows, maybe one day?) but have been friends for years. We first met online through a shared love of murder mysteries. Talking about books led to talking about family, work and cake. The important things in life! Debaleena has also been a staunch supporter of my writing, and I am proud now to be able to do the same. Debaleena writes poetry, the first volume of which was published a few months ago by Blue Rose Publishers.
Debaleena, welcome. It’s amazing to have this conversation with you! Congratulations on publishing your first book of poems, I’m sure there will be many more. I wasn’t entirely surprised when you announced the book was coming out – you’ve always shared such lively and passionate posts on Facebook and Instagram. Your powers of description are so vivid that I often feel as if I’m there with you. I particularly love your posts about the various festivals you celebrate.
But let’s move on. My first question is, What do you write?
I write poems; and I am now experimenting with short stories. It started with Facebook posts, Book Club reviews: that’s how we met, remember! I would write little notes about my day; like little letters to myself . Then I translated a Bengali poem for someone very close. And I could do it, although I’d been very hesitant and nervous about poetry. Poetry has always been “the impossible dream”. After that little translation, I got a bit braver. One night I started out very very tentatively. And I saw I could do it: very rough and cobbled together; but I could feel my thoughts in my words. My writing is just as the title suggests – Ink smudged dreams: by the reading light. All written in the later hours of the night when I would drowse, browse and write. They are not about any coherent thoughts or convictions. They are more of inarticulate thoughts, emotions: ramblings you could say. So the poems were written.
There is a strong observational thread in your writing, so lovingly shared, that marks you out as a great writer. Question two, What were your earliest influences? What did you read as a child?
I’ve always been a bit of a dreamer; the cobwebs in my mind have never been swept away. As a child I remember, I would sit quietly for hours together, playing in my head. Now this head game was very interesting. I would imagine different scenarios- people, families, foreign countries I’d seen in photographs. I would spin stories in my head about people and places. Then I would imagine myself in castles and mansions. But it all had to be happy. This head game continued and I loved it. Later I would look at houses ; especially old houses; distant windows, silhouettes of people through the windows and concoct stories about their daily lives.
I really can’t remember a time when I didn’t read. Before I learnt to read, I would love looking at illustrated books, magazines. I remember I had a book on dolls and I would look at it all day long. Then, once I learnt my ABC: I found the Ladybird series of fairy tales. Let me tell you the enchantment still remains as fresh as ever. Those covers! My favourite was The Beauty and The Beast. That started my life long enchantment with fairy tales. By the time I was ten, the Enid Blyton world became my world. I simply lived in those books. They were like a perpetual picnic life for me. Of course Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, school stories, they kept appearing in my life, and my head was a lovely place to visit. Then of course Mr. Rochester entered my life when I was twelve or thirteen – all ready to fall in love. By fifteen I got to know Mr. Darcy, whom – I know you’ll be shocked – I did not love. Mr. Knightley was my hero! Then came Charlotte Bronte’s books- Shirley, Villette. And Louisa May Alcott. I used to imagine myself as Jo. We all do. I decided that Professor Bhaer would be my love for life. Until I read about some other character the next day, that is! Isn’t it delightful: to fall in love with so many heroes all at once! And I have a macabre taste for horror. So I wallowed in gruesome murder mysteries. Then I was given an Agatha Christie book: The Man in the Brown Suit. After that there was no looking back. Christie led me to Victoria Holt, Bram Stoker, Sherlock Holmes and Father Brown. As well as a wide range of Bengali literature of all genres. I am also a fan of romantic fiction, esp the mean and moody hunks that are Mills and Boon heroes!
We read very similar things as children and young people, it seems, I was into all those books too. I’ve already touched on this next question a bit, but, next question, do you believe your culture influences your writing, and if so, how?
Oh yes! My culture has a profound influence on my writing, as you can see in my poems. They are imbued with a sense of belonging to my land and my people in every which way. This is more pronounced in the sections in my book, The Prayer and Hymn to the Earth. I am writing about my way of life. I realised that I’ve chosen colours, comparisons, ambience that are totally inherent to my culture. I’ve grown up reading our mythological stories, the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, as well as my parent tongue-Bengali literature- folk tales, fairy stories, poems. For me Gitanjali by Tagore is the ultimate prayer book.
I think culture can often be an almost hidden extra character in our writing. But looking ahead, what can we look forward to in the future from you?
Now that my mind block is gone, and I’ve tested the waters, I have become quite adventurous. Poems definitely. I’ve discovered this about myself that as I grow older, poetry grows more appealing. I find that I now can interpret life and emotions better through poetry. It is an instinctive response.
Like I told you – short stories. I am trying my hand at those. It’s very challenging but extremely interesting. And intriguing. Writing in someone else’s skin, creating another individual, different points of view: I find it extremely fascinating. I have to construct a short story, not just pour it out. So it is a constant process of study too. I have to keep going back to little research, references to literary devices, unity of time, place and action; and above all keep a firm track of all the threads.
Oh short stories are the slippery slope to novels! That’s exciting news for us! We’ve talked a bit about the books that influenced you, but who are your favourite authors? Do you have certain favourite books you return to again and again?
I am glad you asked “authors” and not “author”? You know we cannot have just one favourite. Ever. I of course love re reading the classics like Jane Eyre, Emma, the Little Women series, Rose in Bloom. My comfort and enchantment lies in Mary Stewart’s books. I read them whenever I need a holiday of the heart. Elizabeth Peters is another favourite. I started reading Georgette Heyer pretty late in life, but I find her delightful. What shall I say about Patricia Wentworth! I adore Miss Silver and I still pine for Frank Abbot. One author who is a verbal illumination is Eva Ibbotson. I find her books poetic prose. I simply love medieval mysteries, and I keep discovering authors in this genre. Even more, I like the thrillers based on archaeological mysteries, religious relics, and mythological mysteries. And now: there’s Dottie Manderson. I am loving this return to the cozy mystery genre, very exciting and warmly familiar. Like I said, and I know you too agree: that one cannot have just one favourite.
Absolutely – and I know that like mine, your to-be-read pile is very substantial! What do you do when you are not writing or reading?
I am a homemaker. And not a very efficient one at that please! But I try. I do try! I cook. I cook traditional meals every day. Very often there are kitchen secrets that I dare not share. Of splattered oil, exploding blender. But yes, I prepare our Indian, especially Bengali cuisine ( that sounds so much more impressive than “food”). I enjoy baking, more so because I eat most of the cake myself. Music! That is my soul balm. I love to listen to oldies goldies: English, Hindi and Bengali. Instrumentals are my ‘go to’ solace when I am tired of words. And as I’ve been told “I have the spirit of enquiry”. Do you think it’s a polite way of saying I am nosy? I love people watching. My best pastime is to sit in a cafe and watch the world go by. As I watch people, I make stories about the passerby in my head. Another thing is that I haunt bookstores; especially old books, pre-loved books. All the obscure, dusty corners: I am very good at finding treasures there. Long drives with music in the car. I sit absolutely silent in the car and I soak up the peace and the purr of the car.
I’ve often heard you talking about the meals you prepare – your descriptions make the mouth water. But I remember that you used to be a teacher. How has that inspired you or helped you with your writing?
It gave me insight. That’s the crux of my teaching experience. I’ve learnt to probe into people’s minds and see stories there. Teaching young teenagers and college students made me more receptive and absolutely non- judgmental. That helps when I write. I learnt from students and colleagues, that as a teacher I am not dealing with folders that you open at 9.am and shut at 5 pm. Everyday I found something new in my work. And that influenced my writing . Most of all it heightened my sense of humour as well as the perception of the Absurd in life. Not to forget teaching made me quite tech savvy about which I love preening and boasting.
Debaleena, it’s been an absolute delight and I’d love to talk more about these things. In the meanwhile, where can readers find your book?
Thank you so much Caron for this wonderful and warm interaction. And for giving me this opportunity to talk to you. You’ve always been an inspiration. You encouraged me all the way. But I still envy you Dottie. Thanks so much for helping me reach out to readers with my Ink- Smudged Dreams: by the Reading Light. They’re just that- dreams, that as I penned down, the ink was not candid and clear; but smudged in places with tears, and vivid in places with smiles.
Debaleena, my pleasure xx
ABOUT DEBALEENA MUKHERJEE
Debaleena is a homemaker, who has also been a teacher and college lecturer over the course of years. She grew up in Jamshedpur and did her schooling at Sacred Heart Convent School,Jamshedpur, and Rajendra Vidyalaya, Jamshedpur. She has done her Masters and M.Phil in English Literature from Jadavpur University, Kolkata.She lives with her husband in Bangalore, and she has a twenty four year old daughter. Reading is Debaleena’s way of life. That’s what she is always doing. She enjoys the moonlight and roses kind of music. She loves travelling to places from the pages of history text books. Haunting bookstores is her pastime. She loves going on shopping expeditions for shoes, bags, and bling. Observing people as they go about their lives, fascinates her. At the end of the day she needs her recliner, her books, and coffee. With some cake.
ABOUT THE BOOK
Ink-Smudged Dreams: by the Reading Light is a collection of poems. Poems that reflect the many facets of my life: maybe any woman’s life. Certain moments, fleeting experiences, lasting impressions, unknown anxieties, silly apprehensions, humble realisations, intense joys and every hurt felt; these are the poems’ moods . And above all a growing perception that life is not about tomorrow: it is about today. But all these are not my consciously addressed ideas. Each day, they have gently enfolded me. Then in the quiet of the night, I would sit down and pour my heart out on paper. Drowsy, blurred, and very close to my heart. These are those ink-smudged dreams by the reading light.
You can find Debaleena on Facebook as Debaleena Mukherjee from Bangalore, and on Instagram as m.debaleena
I think I may have written about this topic before, but I feel it’s one of the most under-estimated skills any writer can have. (Persistence, I mean, not repeating yourself, I do that all the time. Actually that is useful too, for helping me to remember things through repetition…)What is persistence?
To me persistence means a dogged determination to the point of stubbornness to keep going, overcome resistance in yourself and the world around you, to press on towards a goal you have no tangible proof you will ever reach. It means turning your back on discouragement, detractors, self-doubt (which most writers have in abundance?, laziness, weariness, even pain and illness to MAKE yourself achieve something specific or reach a certain goal.
Why is persistence a useful tool to have in your arsenal? What does it contribute to your life or work?
is character-building – you come to realise you are capable of more than you may have believed initially.
is prioritising – you realise that the most important things in life don’t come without you working hard for them.
you learn to persevere, and build resilience and inner strength.
you learn to trust yourself and believe in yourself.
you come to value the results of your hard work.
when times are tough, you have previous experience to draw on to get you through.
How to be persistent:
Eat well, sleep well, take care of yourself, allow yourself down-time.
Develop a routine. Routines can enhance creativity, rather than block it or stifle it. A routine means you are mentally prepared at a certain time to undertake a specific task. that means half the work is done already!!
Keep a journal to record your feelings, even the negative ones. Allow yourself to rant or wail if need be. Don’t forget to record your successes, though, as these will keep you going during tough times when you feel like nothing is working.
Talk to people who understand and support you. You don’t need to be alone in the middle of your struggle.
Set manageable goals, even if it means doing a larger number of smaller tasks rather than a few big tasks. Breaking a large task or goal into small pieces is the key approach. By chipping away at a large task bit by bit you will make progress – it may not be easy to see the results right away but it is easier to work this way in the long haul, and achieving many small goals is excellent for your confidence. This is also a great way to talk yourself into tackling what feels like an impossible or overwhelming job.
Don’t listen to your negative thoughts. Learn to recognise then ignore your inner critic who tells you things like: ‘this is a waste of time’, ‘you’ll never be good enough’, or ‘it’s too hard for you’, and that old favourite, ‘not everyone is destined to succeed’. This is probably the hardest thing to overcome, and really requires you to laugh at the inner voice or negative thought and say ‘so what, I’m going to do it anyway.’
Roll up your sleeves, grit your teeth, and get on with it. Don’t wait until you are ‘in the mood’ or feel inspiration strike. Nine times out of ten, inspiration waits for you to make the first move. Show the universe – and yourself – that you are going to do this.
Reward yourself and feel proud of your achievements. And don’t whatever you do, punish yourself if you feel you have fallen short of your goal. Remember too that pride in a job well done is not a sensation that you necessarily get right away. If you have been engaged for a long time on a demanding project, it can take quite a while to recover, then feel a sense of satisfaction. Be patient, be kind to yourself.
Basically persistence is being super stubborn, and refusing to give in or back down. Find what you want to do and do everything in your power to do it.
Just remember, you can do anything you set your mind to, but it takes action, perseverance, and facing your fears.
Now here’s a thing. I thought this was something only I did, and that it was (yet another) symptom of me being slightly unhinged (well I’ve got one working hinge but the other two are a bit shonky).
But it turns out it’s a real thing!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Can you tell I’m excited slash relieved about that?
Because I have something called Ordinal Linguistic Personification. Basically, I see numbers as having a personality and a gender. Yes. Numbers. I know it’s a bit ‘out there’, but it turns out that people other than me have been doing this in one form or another for years. It was first noted back in the 1890s. Presumably as they slammed shut the asylum door on the poor woman.
People who have this – well I can’t call it a problem, or a gift, but what is it? A method? That implies they’ve planned it and worked on it, so let’s just say they have a ‘bent’ – just a quirky view of things – these people are called Synthetes. Sounds like a Greek philosophical sect from 500bc. Anyway, these are people who ascribe attributes to inanimate objects and scientific concepts that would not usually have a personality or character traits. For example, they may associate a particular colour with a number or a sound, or associate a particular colour with the name of a month or a time of year. In some ways we all do this, as we will usually associate winter with cold colours (if you live in the northern hemisphere especially) or autumn with warm, russet colours, and spring with bright and pastel shades. You can do a test online where you see a name of a month or a letter, or hear a sound and are asked to ascribe a colour to it.
Except that for me, January is yellow. Obviously. And May is turquoise. October is white… (ooh it’s just occurred to me that the birthstone for October is opal – and they are often white… coinkydink?)
I don’t give numbers colours. But I do give them genders and personalities. I first noticed this when doing sudoku puzzles. I see 2, 5 and 8 as female. 1, 3, 4, 6 and 7 as male, and 9 as either/both genders. I also see them as having a personality or a character, although some are better defined than others. And it’s only the numbers 1 to 9.
For example, I see 8 as a duchess type character, the older woman, past her prime but still powerful, though vulnerable to enemies who seek her position (note to self: does this mean I see numbers as able to somehow spontaneously change, or are they fixed in a perpetual state of ‘about-to-happen’?)
5 is a martyred matriarch, self-sacrificing but resentful, always looking over her shoulder to preserve her position. But on the positive side, she holds everything together and keeps things running smoothly. Weird, I know.
2 is a young woman. Beautiful. Ambitious but with a heart. She can work with either 5 or 8 but is often out on her own, working to fulfil her own aims. She can also be dutiful and supportive.
1 is the young upstart, brash, impetuous, full of himself, selfish, not taking anything too seriously. 3 is his sidekick, but a kind of watered-down version. 4 is the shark, he is ambitious, super ambitious, demanding, hungry for power, loving no one but himself.
6 and 7 I see as paternalistic or avuncular males, they are the backbone of the ‘family’, working away silently in the background, not brilliant, not charismatic but solid, dependable, carrying the weight of the puzzle and more or less capable. Of the two, 6 is the older, more experienced, and more dominant. 7 is not taken all that seriously by anyone (me!) but he’s a decent chap and useful in a crisis. (What kind of crisis does a sudoku puzzle have, you may ask? It’s where there are very few other numbers and 7 is the only one you’ve got to start you off. although this can apply to any number they happen to put in the grid…ah, my ‘theory’ doesn’t work. Oops. Good thing I write fiction.)
9, as I said, for me can be any gender, and is either the arch-deceiver or manipulator, unknown, lurking, dangerous, or can be the detective/saviour, rooting out all the secrets that everyone frantically tries to conceal.
Can you see how for me as a mystery writer, these ideas can develop nicely into a plot with actual human characters? It’s a kind of cross between a board game and a number puzzle.
I think more scientists should be penguins.
This ties in quite well with what I was talking about a few weeks ago when I discussed the concept of the manageable cast. A book such as a cozy mystery needs to have a finite range of characters that give breadth and depth to the story without overwhelming the reader with too many characters to remember. I think between 9 and 12 characters is enough, though I have to admit my books regularly have twice that number and more. I used to add a list of characters in the front of my books, to help readers to keep track, but I stopped doing that.
Scientists have studied the phenomenon of this strange thing of Ordinal Linguistic Synthesis, and have suggested it may be due to different parts of the brain interconnecting. one part of the brain deals with facts and figures, and scientific concepts, and another part deals with imagination and creativity. To me it sounds like two people sharing an office and occasionally picking up the other person’s notebook or phone. Wires get crossed, and ideas that are usually separated can converge.
I’m not too bothered what it is, it helps me with my writing a little bit and I find it intriguing. and it entertains my creative mind whilst my prosaic mind tries to solve the sudoku puzzle.
Malcolm aka Malkie Moonpie, in happier times, chilling with his blue mousie
I’ve been busy with a number of writer-things, but life gets in the way sometimes, as I’m sure many people have discovered. This pandemic isn’t helping of course, as we all struggle to stay in command of our mental health or to establish and keep to new routines that work around different circumstances.
I usually set aside March and April to write the first draft of my latest Dottie Manderson mystery, which I will then revise, rewrite, edit, revise, rewrite etc until it is published in the autumn, usually October or November, occasionally not until December. This year I plan to release book 7 – Rose Petals and White Lace – towards the end of November.
But my writing in the first half of March hasn’t gone too well, and I feel that I’m a little behind schedule, though I’m fairly confident I can pull that back – this week is already going quite well.
I love this image though I’m starting to see similar ones everywhere. Should be released in Summer 2021.
But I’ve had some issues. I have a subscriber email list through Mailchimp, and I had loads of problems with that, which took over a week to resolve, (though the bods at Mailchimp were very helpful) meaning that my newsletter went out over a week late – no big deal really, but things have a knock-on effect.
And then I had issues with this blog – I have another blog too (ooh big secret) and that one was overwriting everything I did on here, and seeing that this one is my priority, that was not good. Again it took several days to sort out, and at one point I was on help/support chat for almost two hours as they and I tried to figure out what to do. Again, the lovely ‘happiness engineers’ (yes that’s what they’re genuinely called) at WordPress were absolutely wonderful, but it all takes time out of the working day.
This was me and technology this week and last. Not a happy pairing.
I write in one of three places at the moment. I might write at my desk, with or without my computer, or I might write longhand sitting at the dining room table, or maybe I will huddle up on the sofa with my feet on a pouffe, my notebook on my lap and a cup of coffee precariously balanced on the arm of the sofa. Possibly with half of a sneaky early Easter egg on the side. (We always buy Easter eggs early before supermarket stocks dwindle, then can’t resist their siren call and end up buying a second lot.)
You’ve seen this pic hundreds of times. I didn’t used to be one of those people who snaps everything they eat but then I began to see it as useful blog material! Looks like I was writing The Thief of St Martins when I took this one.
Once upon a time I used to write in cafes. Yes, I’m one of those. You see them, don’t you, or used to. Cafe writers. Huddled in a good spot in a quiet corner where they can see the counter, and the door, and are close to the loo but not too close. A notebook, maybe two, several pens in case the first three run out, a large frothy muggacino and a tempting crumbly pastry nearby, a paper serviette careful deployed to protect both notebook and jeans. Perfect. I love to sit in a cafe and write. There’s something quite relaxing about being silent in the midst of bustle, where you can observe but not participate. Plus it’s given me plenty of blogging material in the past as I watch those around me living their lives. I can’t wait to get back to that. This month has been tough.
As some readers may know, our beloved tabby cat Malcolm was poorly and died last week, which was an emotional shock for us as a family. If you’re not a dog/cat/mini hedgehog/micro pig lover, then you may be rolling your eyes now and saying ‘What the bleep, this woman is so wet!’ But it’s horrid to lose a companion you’ve had in your life for 13 years just when they appear to be making a good recovery. On the upside, we still have 23-year-old tortie, Mabel, who we never thought would outlive both the bigger, stronger boys.
Subject to tweaking at a later date – can’t decide whether to keep the white background bit or lose it.
Consequently, I’ve got a bit behind in my writing. By rights, I should have half of a first draft for Rose Petals written, and be eagerly anticipating moving onto another book which at the revision stage of production, namely Miss Gascoigne Book 1: A Meeting With Murder, which I had hoped to publish in the summer. I’m hoping that will still be done on time, I know my schedule and what I am able to take on, and let’s face it, working as a writer, I don’t need to stick to office hours only.
March is an odd time of year. It’s a wait-and-see time of year, neither winter and the time of rest and recharging, nor summer and the time for growth and expansion. I feel impatient to be moving on quickly, yet I can’t go any faster. I feel a bit frustrated at what I see as a failure to meet my targets, but I know that any progress is better than none, and I have always been too impatient.
Stay strong, everyone. Soon you will be able to go outside, and even – hooray – hug your loved ones. Or write in a cafe.
Mabel. 23 years old (that’s 98 in cat years) frail, wobbly on her legs, half the time doesn’t know where she is or what she’s doing, hardly any teeth, yowls ridiculously loudly between 2am and 5 am, and still more resilient than Malcolm or Maurice.
In 1918, the Great War was over. There were an estimated 40 million casualties, a little less than half of whom died, the rest were injured, many very seriously. 40 million. How could such an incomprehensibly vast sum of people die in the space of just a few years? Is it any wonder that people, especially the young, were a little bit crazy, a little bit over-exuberant in the 20s? Yet even in the early 30s, there were already the rumblings and murmurings that would lead to a repeat of the disaster.
While their menfolk went to war, thousands of women left their homes to take on their jobs. For many, working outside the home was a new and liberating experience. But when the war was over, the men came back and they wanted their jobs back. The newly emancipated women were in many cases reluctant to go back home to cook, clean and have babies.
And let’s not forget that millions of men simply never did come back, and their wives, sweethearts, mothers, daughters and sisters had to become their own breadwinners. It has often been said ‘working class women have always worked’ but even they tended to be mainly working in a domestic or a factory setting.
Factories, so often decried as a nightmare of modern life, in fact brought new freedoms to many women. They had their own money for the first time, they mixed with other women and learned new skills, often embracing possibilities that had never been available before. How could they give all that up? On both sides of the gender divide, there was social tension over the conflict between a desire to maintain the status quo, and a desire for freedom, equality and progress. This continued to grow and as we know, gender equality is still an issue today.
For the majority of the middle classes it was all new. Many of them had never done anything like that before, having been daughters at home, then married women who were by default homemakers. But they had to have a living, so they went out and got jobs, and undertook training and they learned how to function in the job market.
It’s not very surprising that they also wanted the same advantages as men in terms of pay, sick pay, working conditions, opportunities for advancement and education, and pensions. Women had won the right to vote in 1918, following many years of campaigning by both men and women. But the right to vote was only for women over 30 who were married. (Or who were voted representatives, an almost, but not quite, impossible task) Was it presumed, as was often said, ‘Your husband will tell you how to vote’? It wasn’t until 1928 that everyone, regardless of gender or marital status, was allowed to vote, but it wasn’t until 1967 that this came down to everyone over 18.
Jewellery and other accessories in the colours green, white and mauve were a sign of solidarity and support for the women’s suffrage movement.
In the 1930s there was still the sense of something new, something experimental, and many women either didn’t want the responsibility of political decision-making, or lacked the information they needed. Women began to move into political life, but still very much in a supporting role. Nancy Astor was the first British MP to take her seat in Parliament in 1919, with Margaret Bondfield, a Labour politician becoming a cabinet minister in 1924. By the 1930s things hadn’t changed all that much but there was a sense that it could change. Looking back at that time, an MP named Edith Summerskill said, ‘Parliament, with its conventions and protocol, seemed a little like a boys’ school which had decided to take a few girls.’ Only 2% of MPs were female, and they were—of course—white and wealthy. But in 1931 there was an election where female candidates took seats from other females, a first for Britain in that there were more women entering the political arena and even more being voted into office.
As far as gender went, though, until very recently there were only two acknowledged genders, and only one acceptable sexual orientation. Crossdressing, as it was called, was viewed as laughable, ridiculous or of dangerous and perverse tendencies equated with mental derangement.
Homosexuality was not decriminalised until 1967. Before that, there was a risk of imprisonment if you were caught in the act. But the changing of the law did not change attitudes overnight and for many, their experiences didn’t change a great deal. Homosexual relationships were still condemned as sinful, shallow, transient and perverted. Even if there were merely suspicions that you were anything other than heterosexual, career prospects could be ruined: gay people could not serve in the police force or the armed forces, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who remembers, as recently as the 70s, the scandal surrounding the exposure of gay MPs who then were forced by public opinion to step down, their careers over. Homosexuals who kept their orientation a secret and enlisted in the armed forces could face prison or at the very least a dishonourable discharge from military service, which would cause scandal and disgrace not just to those immediately involved but to family members and known associates.
I’m so glad things are changing. Although let’s not forget that in many nations, it seems as though attitudes are going backwards rather than forwards with societies becoming less tolerant and less accepting as homosexuality is outlawed and discriminated against, and even actively, often violently, oppressed. I wonder if, within my lifetime, we will ever see true equality in terms of gender, sexual preference, skin colour, age, or any other perceived difference between person number 1 and person number 2. It’s been said that it takes 100 years to change an attitude. I think that, sadly, it’s a lot longer than that.
Admittedly this is from the late 1800s rather than the 1900s, but I’m using it anyway! 🙂