- The perils of information dumping.
Writers are known for doing a lot of research, aren’t they? Or perhaps it depends on the kind of thing they write. It’s probably possible to write a book and not need to do much research at all.
Some writers seem to do tons of research, and they make sure that you, the reader, get to read all of it. ALL. OF. IT. They present it to you like a magician pulling a bunny out of a hat. This is called an information dump. Throwing all your research in this way can be tedious, and will slow down the pace of the story drastically. I mean, yes, it’s nice to offer these insights or explanations to your reader, but I don’t think it’s a good plan to completely exhaust your reader, overwhelming them with information so they feel like they’re cramming for an exam.
Do I really need to know the source of the leather used to make the hero’s shoes, or the style of the traditional hand-stitching that finished them off? I mean, unless that pushes the plot forward, I seriously doubt it’s something I need to know to enable me to enjoy the book. I skip all this type of stuff in books—there’s not enough time in my day or patience in my soul to read about the handstitchedness of a chap’s shoes. I doubt I even need to be told the hero is wearing shoes—I think it’s pretty much taken as read that he or she is wearing shoes, don’t you? Unless you’re the author or Kinky Boots or some other shoe-related plot, I don’t think it’s useful or helpful.
I don’t do a lot of research for my novels. Well, that’s not strictly true. If it’s something that interests me, I can waste hours on it, but if I’m purely trying to find out about something ‘ordinary’ then I can take it or leave it. I nip in, check the fact, and nip out again. Then I try to drip-feed it into the story if relevant–a little here, a little there.
As a writer mainly of murder mysteries, I know more than I really need to about methods of killing, about the human body after death, about the psychology of a killer—those are the things that intrigue me. My search history on my computer is enough to make a grown man blanch. But I try not to crowbar it all into my story except where it’s relevant.
As my main character in the Dottie books is ‘involved’ in the fashion industry, and because of personal interest, I spend quite a lot of time researching styles, technology relating to fabric production, and the mechanics of getting a frock to a customer from drawing board to shop assistant. And I’ll admit, quite a bit of this does get put into the book: readers have told me they enjoy the clothing details.
A lot of my research is conducted online, of course, as so much of everything is done these days. But any time I go out, I look for architectural features or cultural ideas that could come in useful in a book. I take photos of everything when I go out. (Or used to, back in the day when going out was a thing we all could do).
I’ve got tons of books too, on fashion history, cultural history, domestic and social history, and even on forensics.
For my research into designer brands—I’m not a designer brand kind of girl—for my Friendship Can Be Murder trilogy, I basically scanned Harrods website and selected the most expensive (insert item of choice here) I could find on their pages and awarded it to my protagonist. But those books have been around for the best part of ten years now, so may well be a bit out of date.
So if you plan to write a book and need to do some research, or if like me you are simply really nosy, here are my top favourites for online research:
Google maps – you can look around any town, not just in the UK but many other countries. Fancy a stroll around the streets of southern France? No problem. Want to drive through Warsaw? Easy peasy. Get a feel for the places you write about and see the real life layout (even if from two years ago) of your location. You can also get an approximate journey time and route all laid out for you. I love the internet!
Timeanddate.com – create yourself a printable or downloadable calendar from 1926. Or any other year from history. Want to know when there was a full moon in the Victorian era? No problem. Was Easter Sunday in 1958 in March or April? When was sunset or sunrise on a particular day? It’s all here. Super useful.
Wikipedia – yes everything seems to be on Wiki – but use with caution and try to verify the information here on other sites too, to ensure accuracy.
Want old street maps of London? Try maps-of-london.com
You can also get loads of useful information from police websites, every police service has them.
Newspapers online – so much useful material there.
The Victoria and Albert museum has a wonderful website. And no doubt other museums have, too. We’re all online nowadays, aren’t we?
Britainexplorer.com has information on interesting places. I used it to find out about a particular country house with priestholes or secret passages.
Another time, I needed to know about everyday life in Britain in the 1930s, and researched telephones. Now we take a phone for granted, but in the 30s they were still pretty new and very much the preserve of the well-to-do. This blog post from italktelecom.com was very helpful
And when Dottie got her first car in The Thief of St Martins, I needed to know all about motoring in Britain in 1935. Check out this:
But if you take away anything from this, I hope it is, it’s easy to find out information you need, but use it carefully, don’t overwhelm your reader with information that is perhaps interesting to you but not actually needed.
- To catch a killer…
This post kind of continues from my recent post about how the killer in a traditional murder mystery such as the ones I write–or try to–is always ‘one of us’. It’s important that the killer IS one of us. I have to say, if I read a mystery and the perpetrator is revealed as someone barely mentioned, or the author uses that old chestnut, the guilty butler, or any other member of staff, I am SO bitterly disappointed–with both the story, and in fact the author. Because it just feels like a letdown, like the author ‘phoned it in’, as they say, ie couldn’t be bothered to do a proper job. Even some of my favourite authors indulged in this heinous practise!
In his essay, The Decline of the English Mystery, George Orwell wrote, ‘The perfect murderer is a humdrum little man (or woman, I say!) of the professional classes.’
I think most people could agree that when they read a murder mystery, the most satisfying part of the book is trying to beat the sleuth to the finish line. Or at least, to be able to nod sagely at the end and say, ‘I knew it!’ as the killer is revealed.
We’ve come a long way from this scenario: ‘God must search out the solution to this crime because only He knows the secrets of the heart.’ (Revelations of a Lady Detective, William Stephens Hayward 1864) Now, as the reader ‘we’ want to take God’s place and work it out for ourselves. Is it because we want to impose a rigid order on our lives, have complete control over something? Who knows. We could write a philosophical paper on why we enjoy crime books when we (most of us, anyway) are vehemently opposed to violence.
I have to say, I do get a thrill when the murderer turns out to be someone I had completely ruled out or overlooked. I like to be surprised but I also, more than anything, like to be convinced. So if the evidence is flimsy or entirely circumstantial, I don’t buy into it at all. I need to know the why of it far more than how or all the other questions. After all, in a traditional type of murder mystery the guilty party must have a compelling and urgent necessity to take such a drastic act. Otherwise, they could simply move to another town and live under a new name. Or something normal like that…
So here are a few must-haves for the killer of a traditional murder mystery:
- They have to appear innocuous or be excluded from being ‘the one who did it’.
- If possible they should be genial, amiable and pleasant to most people, and get on with everyone (apart from the victim 😉 )
- They will be very aware of every move the victim makes, and take a lot of trouble to keep themselves informed.
- They need to be pretty intelligent to outsmart–for a while at least–the sleuth who will be coming after them.
- In spite of being pleasant, genial etc they also should reveal–gradually–an arrogant side with a large dollop of superiority complex: they believe they are able to outwit everyone, and are better than anyone, and that their motive completely justifies or exonerates their action.
- Lastly, they will crave attention and status; this means they love to get involved in the investigation into the death of the victim. They want to keep themselves informed in order to plan their next move, and to make sure they are safe.
In mysteries, many killers merely carry out the act to cover their butts: the victim knows something, or has the power to do something that threatens the killer’s safety in some way, whether it is their actual liberty at risk, their financial position, their social status, or the safety or fidelity of a loved one. It must be an utterly compelling reason for them.
If they are truly psychopathic, they will feed off the admiration of others and continually find ways–subtle and not-so-subtle–to make sure everyone knows how clever they are. Sometimes this will lead them to offer to help the detective, or sometimes this will lead to another death, as they either have to cover up the first crime, or feel a need to display their ingenuity.
In the case of serial killers, another death can be the result of their urge to experience that sense of fulfilment and power they got from the act of killing itself. They crave that thrill as an addict craves their addictive substance. The pressure is then on for the sleuth to find the killer to prevent yet another death. And often, the author will ensure that tension ratchets up a notch or three by having the next potential victim someone the sleuth really cares about.
Wow, that turned dark and non-cozy very quickly, didn’t it?
In fact the powerful killer is no such thing: as the story reaches its denouement, they are revealed not as powerful but weak, because they do not have the ability to be satisfied with being ordinary.
But that’s why we love these books–it’s so easy to sit back in our comfy chair and close the book, thinking, “Well, I would never do such a terrible thing.”
- One of us?
In the old Golden Age of detective fiction, there is always some Countess clutching her pearls, casting disapproving looks at the corpse leaking blood onto her Aubusson carpet, and declaring that surely the perpetrator is some stranger, some tramp or wandering vagabond. ‘It can’t possibly be one of us.’
For me, the thrill of these books is the certain knowledge that, yes, it is most definitely one of ‘us’. One of these characters, so genteel, so polite, offering around the drinks decanter, or standing when a lady comes into the room, or smiling pleasantly and asking after the vicar’s marrows, it’s one of them. Most of them have known each other for years and see each other almost every day out walking the dog or playing tennis, or at drinks parties or dinner parties, at bridge evenings and coffee mornings.
We always want to assume that those around us are just like us, and thereby comes the assumption that no one ‘like us’ could possibly do something so sordid as kill another person. This implies loss of control, unacceptable levels of emotion, and of course, a denial of the never-say-die attitude that instils us with hope for a better tomorrow. Or if not better, at least no worse.
So when Major Blaine is found underneath the billiard table with his head bashed in or a hat pin piercing his eye to skewer his brain (sorry about that graphic image, the situation got really bad, really fast, didn’t it?) no one I know could possibly have been the one to commit such an act. Therefore – it could only have been done by someone ‘not from here’.
But when we look at those around us, how well do we really know them? The Countess, so used to having her own way in everything, and with a reputation to maintain. Or the major’s wife. She’s known for her knitting circles and good works, but is she ever at home? How often did the major actually get his wife’s attention? What about the vicar’s wife, busily visiting the elderly and infirm, taking care of the vulnerable, dispensing wisdom, and charity. Does she really deep down love her neighbours? The Vicar, does he really need to spend so much time shut away in his office? What’s he really doing in there? What about Miss Simpson, the village busybody, who knows everyone and everyone’s history. They say she has a heart of gold, but is she really over that old romance? After all, she’s never married, does she still carry a torch for that certain someone? What about the village doctor—I bet he knows a secret or two. Then there is the visiting artist along with his famous ‘temperament’. The aunt from another village, always poking her nose in and gossiping with the neighbours. The daughter just returned from university full of frustration with our old stagnant way of life and plans for the future, and of course, the elderly father who once threatened the organist with his walking stick for driving too fast through the village.
Surely no one I know would commit such a vicious crime?
But now I think of it, how well do I really know them? As I watch them gathered around the corpse, the various emotions—triumph, relief, satisfaction, fear, horror, dismay, anger, sorrow—fleetingly appearing on each face in turn, I feel as though I am in a room filled with strangers.
Any one of them could be the killer… that’s the beauty of it.
- The Blue Dress
This week I thought I’d dig out a short story I wrote a few years ago, inspired by a writing prompt from Morgen Bailey on her site. A very short story. I was really into Flash Fiction at the time, although this one was special for me and I have often been tempted to write more about this character. This story was included in a compilation of work that was briefly available (it wasn’t popular!) under the title (I think it was partly the title that killed it 🙂 ) of The Commuter’s Friend. So here it is, I hope you like it.
The Blue Dress
“They’ve found something, sir.” A young policeman addressed him through the car window. Inspector Smith heaved himself forward on the seat and got out of the car. Seemed like these days he was always tired. Time to quit, go fishing, get away from all this. He’d given them thirty-five years, they’d had enough.
“Is he still alive?” he asked the constable. He looked too young to be a copper. Looked like he should still be in the Scouts. They all did, with their degrees in Criminology or Psychology, and their fresh faces, still with acne, some of them. The constable shrugged.
“The paramedics are still working on him. It doesn’t look too good, sir.”
Inside the funeral parlour, the assistant who had raised the alarm watched as a couple of paramedics laboured over the undertaker. The scrawny white chest was bared for the use of the defibrillator. Smith turned away, the image frozen, a moment in time, imprinted on his mind—a few greying hairs in the middle of the chest, the prominent ribs supporting the pale skin.
“How did you know this wasn’t just a routine call?” The constable was at his side, and the question was a welcome distraction. As Smith responded, they turned about and headed for the rear door. “I mean, we were called out to a robbery gone wrong, and straightaway, you knew. It was like magic, sir.”
Smith halted in the doorway and looked at the youngster.
“There’s no magic in this game, son. As soon as we went into the flat upstairs, I saw the dress.”
“I saw it too, sir, but it didn’t ring any warning bells with me.”
Smith looked at him. “You didn’t find it a bit odd that an elderly bachelor should have a blue dress hanging on a mannequin in his bedroom? A blue dress that clearly dated from the 1950s, and was the size of a girl of about 12 to 14 years of age? It didn’t make you wonder if the undertaker had a secret? You didn’t find any of that at all unusual, constable?”
The constable flushed, and looked down at his feet. “Well, I suppose…”
They headed into the back garden. There was a concrete area set aside for client parking. Beyond that a tall hedge enclosed a private garden. Some men in plastic all-in-ones had dug up a small patio area surrounded by climbing roses. In any other time or place, it would have been simply a beautiful bower of contemplation. One of the men got to his feet and beckoned the police officers over. He pointed into the shallow pit.
Smith looked. A cold hand clutched momentarily at his heart. He nodded and turned away. The constable was at his elbow like an eager puppy. “Sir? Do you know who it is, sir?”
Smith nodded again. He sighed.
“Jessie Flynn. 13 years of age. Missing since 1958. The owner of that blue dress.”
- How to rewrite a first draft
Sorry, it’s a ridiculously long post this week. It’s a remodel of a post I did for good author friend Emma Baird back in August of 2017:
I love rewriting.
There, I’ve said it. I think I could be the only person in the history of the world who actually enjoys rewriting. In fact, I like it a lot more than writing the first draft. I hate that bit. Okay, maybe not hate. I love the thrill of writing the first 50 pages or so, when it’s all fresh and exciting, and the story begins to unfold on the page. I love, love love that.
But… sooner or later I always hit the first-draft wall. I know it’s partly because I don’t plot, so I get suddenly overwhelmed with two issues: ‘This is rubbish’ and ‘I’m lost and don’t know where I’m going’. I’m a pantser, so sue me, I hate to plot. But it makes the initial experience of writing a draft rather an emotional, rivers-deep-mountains-high kind of affair. But… rewriting, oh that is a whole new thing. I LOVE rewriting. You are free from the ‘burden’ of creating and, you can step back from your work, examine it carefully, and then you can begin to polish and tidy.
This is my favourite quote by any writer. It inspired me so much in the 80s and 90s when I knew I wanted to be a writer, but didn’t know how to be a writer. Mary Wibberley was a writer for Mills and Boon, so her book was aimed at writers of romance, and that’s why she was setting that word count of 56,000 words as an aim. For many years, as I tried to learn how to write, I would not relax and have confidence in myself until I had reached that 56,000 word point: when I reached that, I knew I could finish the book, even if it ended up being twice that length.
The point Mary was making was this: Don’t try to revise as you go. I know there are always a few people that system works for, but trust me, it’s not for most people. You get so bogged down in the detail that you never progress. You can spend your whole life perfecting chapter one and never move on.
Write the whole book, from beginning to end, always looking forwards, pressing on till you reach that glorious, astounding moment when you type: ‘The End’. If you can’t remember the names and places mentioned earlier in the story, just do what I do and put a massive X in its place. Or a note to yourself highlighted in bright yellow, so you can’t miss it as you scroll down the page. Or refer to a list of names and places you create as you go along.
It’s so much easier to revise a whole book. Like creating a sculpture, you’ve got that solid block to chip away at. You know where the story is going. You know the shape of it.
After finishing your first draft, don’t immediately start revisions. Unless you are on the clock and the deadline is almost on you, put the book away for as long as you can. This is the perfect time to write another book. Yes, really! Especially if you intend to write a series. Leave your first draft for at least a few weeks, ideally a few months, or even a year. You will need to approach it next time around with a degree of detachment to get out of writer mode and into rewriter or editor mode.
So you’re ready to start.
Read it. Don’t write anything. Don’t type, don’t tweak, fiddle, twiddle or jiggle. Just read the whole story through from beginning to end. You are trying to get an overview. Become a reader.
Then, later, go through it again but read it – as much as possible – out loud. I know that can be difficult to manage but it really will help you find some problems you otherwise will not notice. This time, make notes on how you feel about the book. Does the plot progress logically? (unless an illogical plot is essential to your story!) Do you have that sensation of tripping up as you read—a bit like when you miss a stair and think you’re falling—that’s when there’s a problem, usually a plot problem. Your spidey-senses will show it to you. Try to pinpoint what it was that made you feel like that. Put a sticky note on the page, or if you’re reading a computer file, highlight the section, or bookmark it, or make a new note in the Track Changes section.
If you’re frustrated by not being able to make changes as you spot them, or worried you might forget, again, make notes in the Track Changes feature of Word, or pencil notes in the margin, or use sticky notes if working with a paper copy. Just don’t change the body of the book yet. Hopefully after rereading the whole book, you will be able to see the strengths and weaknesses of your draft. You will see what needs to go. If not, give it to a trusted friend or writing pal to read. Ask them to be honest and not just pat you on the back. Rewriting can feel very much like ‘fixing problems’ or putting right things that are wrong. This can be quite demoralising. Don’t get into this mind set of ‘It’s no good, I’m no good’. Everyone has –or should have–a terrible first draft. Remember, you’re polishing, refining. Think of rough diamonds compared with the final polished article. You’re putting flesh on a flexible framework. It’s all good.
Save your file in its original state, then copy it and rename it. Rename as ‘final version’ or ‘second draft’ or something like that. If it goes to pot, you’ve still got your original first draft if you need it. (You won’t… but it’s like a security blanket.) Start tinkering.
Start with the easy stuff like typos, clarity, and grammar.
Then check consistency of character description and behaviour; the names and personal details of all characters; check place-names are correct and consistent throughout. Work with your timeline – is it clear when the events of the book take place. Is it dark at the right time, or have you got someone outside and seeing perfectly clearly at ten o’clock at night in winter? Weekends, summer-time, these can give characters different routines to the one for weekdays.
Then move on to point of view. With POV, consistency is everything. If you’re writing anything other than an omniscient third person viewpoint, then there will be things your characters cannot know until it is revealed to them. Make sure you’ve nailed that.
Next, check for all those words you overuse. For me, that’s words like So, And and Also. A friend of mine uses Thus in almost every paragraph… it’s really annoying. Check how often your characters do the same thing: mine are always gasping, sighing, biting their lips or tossing back their hair. They also glare a good deal. I’m rationing myself with all these overused expressions.
If you use unusual words to describe something, don’t repeat them more than once because unusual words stick in the reader’s mind and break the spell: the worst possible offence you can commit as a writer of fiction is to pull your reader out of the book and into the real world where they are a reader, not a character in your story. You want them to read your book, not remember they have laundry to do. Make less use of unusual words such as coterie or Schadenfreude, words that really stand out from the page. Find synonyms for words you need to repeat, so they seem less noticeably repeaty. (I know that’s a word, don’t nag me about it.) If you use cliches—please don’t—but if you absolutely must, do it just once, don’t repeat them.
Check hyphenation, apostrophe use, adverbs and speech tags. I don’t agree with the ‘never use adverbs, they’re evil’ approach, but do use them sparingly. (See what I did there?) Keep metaphors and especially similes to a minimum, unless writing poetry, they are also irritating, and often amount to little more than another cliche. Don’t use fussy speech tags: he responded, she retorted, they exclaimed, etc. Once in a while is fine, but to begin with, you don’t need to tag every speech, just enough so the reader can keep track of who said what. The word ‘said’, 90% of the time, is the best speech tag there is, it’s invisible, the reader ignores it.
Never, ever use the word ejaculate to mean exclaim. We don’t live in the world of the Famous Five anymore, if indeed we ever did. You just can’t do it without making your reader burst out laughing or become highly offended.
Check your tense scenes or action scenes for long, meandering sentences that slow the reader down and take forever to read, or have to be reread to try to figure out the meaning. Check slow, reflective, emotional or romantic scenes for accidentally humorous clangers, or break-neck short sentences that rush the reader too quickly through the text.
Read it again. And again. Tweak as you go, now, but remember some changes will have a knock-on effect and need to be addressed multiple times throughout the book, so don’t forget to change every instance of a word throughout the book, not just once. Be cautious with using find/replace as some words will be a syllable in a longer word. If you change his to hers, for example, using ‘replace all’, you will end up with words like machersmo instead of machismo and other similarly hilarious but disastrous typos. Now pass the draft to your close friends/beta-readers/book group, for your first round of feedback.
Then—I hate to say it—you need to do it all again. I read somewhere that if you don’t hate your book by the time it is published, you haven’t done enough work on it, and believe me I’ve come so, so close to hating a couple of my books. Your book is not ready for your editor or proofreader until you are absolutely convinced that it’s perfect. Trust me, it won’t be. But it’ll be pretty close. As an editor, there’s nothing more heartbreaking than getting a script that is little more than a first draft. It’s like seeing a neglected, unloved child. So show your baby some love.
When you make your first sale, it will feel like it was worth every minute.
- Don’t use that language with me!
Warning: contains coarse offensive language!
These days we aren’t as shocked as we once were when someone drops the F-bomb. I think we’ve just got used to what we usually refer to as bad language.
I’m in danger of lapsing into one of those scenes so typical of the older generation: You know them. The sort of thing that starts with an old bat saying, ‘When I was young…’ But there’s no denying it was a different world. Do you remember how the newspaper used to headline such things as ‘The Filth and The Fury’? That was when the Daily Mirror blasted the Sex Pistols for their language in 1977? Or what about the infamous December 1976 Bill Grundy interview where the interviewer goaded Johnny Rotten into using the F-word on TV ‘for only the third time in the history of British Television’. You could hear pearls being clutched for miles around. There was public outrage. Or so we are told. Middle-aged people all over the country shook their heads over the decline of social morals and called for national service to come back. I privately thought, so what? But I then was a teenager, and I think most teens probably thought the same. Does anyone remember Mary Whitehouse and her campaign to clean up Britain? She wanted to rid the country of filth. She said references to sex were ‘dirty’, and bad language was disgusting. (She was perfectly lampooned in an episode of the detective TV series, Endeavour.)
And yes, I know that naughty words are as old as the Ark. No doubt some of them sprang from that time. Can you imagine trying to herd a bunch of animals into a boat and getting poo on your foot or a slobbery tongue in your face and NOT swearing? I know I would have had a few choice words to say. Probably, ‘Stop mucking about you idiots, and get on the f-ing boat, I’m getting wet here.’
Chaucer and Shakespeare used their own versions of our modern insults and foul words, and paved the way for colourful terms to enter everyday English. These greatly enriched our approach to incidents, frustrations, injuries, and annoyances that require relief through a vigorous use of very expressive language. Because apparently, studies have shown that swearing relieves stress and enables us to cope in stressful situations. I know it helps me.
I should just add, in Britain we call it swearing. That is using bad language. Not making an oath in a court. That’s a whole different kind of swearing. No, I’m talking here about what in America, is often called cursing. But you could call it blaspheming (possibly), using expletives, foul language, or as we say in Britain ‘Effing and Blinding’, (a euphemism for saying Fuck and Bloody), the term for this is using a ‘minced oath’ or ‘minced words’ – to take a profanity and adapt it to render it less offensive. We use this in everyday speech when we say of someone ‘They don’t mince their words’, which basically means, they are extremely forthright in what they say, usually offensively so. Some examples of minced oaths: Feck, Blooming/Flipping Heck, Oh Shoot, Darn it, etc.
While we’re discussing the differences between the US and the UK, let me just say this: Bloody was not traditionally a mild swear-word. I’ve seen blog posts and social media stuff where they ‘define’ certain English words and they always say ‘Bloody’ in England is the same as ‘Damn’ in America. That’s just not true. It used to be the third worst word you could say when I was a kid, and its use would certainly bring a very stiff penalty in terms of punishment both at home and at school. It’s not mild. Or rather, it’s only mild in comparison with the F-bomb and C-word. It used to be fairly normal to have one’s mouth washed out with soap if using these words. It would make you vomit – obviously – and was definitely a very unpleasant experience designed to make you think twice about using bad language again. Usually the threat of it was enough to make you reconsider your choice of
Now in my contemporary trilogy, the Friendship Can Be Murder books, there’s a fair bit of this kind of bad language. We see it in society, it’s used all around us. And it’s used as much by the well-to-do, like my ‘heroine’, Cressida Barker-Powell, as by people from other walks of life. So my contemporary books had to reflect the world they are set in, for me at least, to make the characters seem more real, more natural and believable.
But when it came to writing my 1930s murder mysteries, the Dottie Manderson mysteries, that was a whole different bag of fish. Or is that a different kettle of cats??? Because the Dottie Manderson books are far more polite, more traditional, almost qualifying for the ‘clean’ subgenre of the mystery or romance categories.
Now I know—I guess we all know—that the kind of language we hear today all around us, was not all that different back then in the 1930s. But there were several provisos: it was not ‘ladylike’ to use bad language; there was still the strong paternalistic, protective culture of ‘Ladies’ present’, which meant, guys, mind your language; and then there was a much stronger emphasis on politeness, being conventional, being acceptable and so on. Bad language in public in particular was far less common and just not socially acceptable.
So in my Dottie books, I stick with tried and trusted old favourites such as ‘blast’, ‘bother’, (my mother’s favourite; Oh botheration!’), ‘Good Lord’: you couldn’t say Good God except in cases of sincere anxiety or shock as it was believed to be, ‘taking the name of the Lord in vain’. Or there are always My Goodness, and What on Earth… to fall back on. I love some of the very mild exclamations of that era, such as ‘Well I’ll eat my hat’ or ‘Well I’ll go to the foot of our stairs’ – completely meaningless and bizarre words! Only very occasionally do I permit a gentleman to say Bloody in a moment of anger. Even then, he’ll usually apologise. There is virtually no use of the now almost universal OMG, or the long form Oh My God. These days we have a relatively new popular phrase ‘Shut the front door’, which is a minced version of the surprised, often disbelieving retort, ‘Shut the fuck up’.
With the recent translations of Night and Day into French and German, there had to be some discussion about the ‘levels’ or severity of naughty words. It was quite difficult to explain some of the euphemisms we use, or to find an acceptable and era-appropriate equivalent. I also had to apologise for our use of ‘Pardon my French’ which is a term we use to apologise for using bad language. Sorry, sorry, sorry, to French-speaking people everywhere.
As always, to observe our language (bad) from the outside, was absolutely fascinating for me.
- Things to think about when getting a book translated
When I decided to take the plunge and get my first Dottie Manderson book, Night and Day, translated into German and French, I think I realised that there would be a few conversations with the lovely ladies doing the work for me about the nuances of language. Questions along the lines of do I mean huge, big, large, gross, enormous… you get the idea. There are so many words to choose from, how do you know what is the best fit? There is not one word for big, or for fat, or… There were issues around the mention of a character’s fat, swollen ankles from being on her feet all day and being an older woman. In English, the word fat can mean podgy or overweight, but it can also mean grease, oil, butter, lard…
Fortunately the people I was lucky enough to work with are experts at what they do. their English is excellent, and they are experienced in making these kind of decisions. Because it’s not enough to simply translate verbatim and hope the result is still the same story. It won’t be.
And even at the end of this process, when the translated works are ready to be
inflictedpublished, there is still a bit of a question in my head as to whether these are now new works or are they the same?
So translation is not just about changing the words on the page from one language to another, there is the task of making it work in the new language, of polishing a new manuscript and ensuring it is easy to understand, that it works–that’s the only way I can think of describing it–in the new language, giving the new reader a beautiful reading experience.
There are new idioms to find, because cliches, sayings, idioms, metaphors, similes and proverbs in English don’t necessarily translate into another language and retain the original meaning. In the English book, I mention that someone inherits suits from his dead brother-in-law. ”Every cloud,’ he says.’ In Britain, and hopefully other English-speaking countries, we know that is short for the proverb ‘Every Cloud Has A Silver Lining’. But what if your language doesn’t use that saying? In the German and French versions we opted for phrases that translate as ‘After the rain comes sunshine’ – the same, but different.
Then there is the need to retain a certain amount of ‘Englishness’ or else I’ve lost one of my main USPs (unique selling points): people read my books because they are set in the 1930s and in England, or Scotland, (so far) and those things are not incidental but crucial to the ‘feel’ of the books.
For this reason, we made the decision to keep some of the original phrases and words in the new translations. For example, Detective Sergeant William Hardy is still known by that British title, and we didn’t translate his first name to Guillaume, for example, or Wilhelm. This was the same for the other characters. The places names remained the same, as did some words such as Pub, Pint (not so much as a unit of measurement but more in terms of ‘that’s my pint’) and Bobby (as a slang word for a policeman) along with a few others.
This works to add to a sense of reading a British book, just like the imagery you get in a British film or TV series where they put in quaint country villages with thatched-roof houses, red pillar boxes, red phone boxes, and red double-decker buses. It’s set-dressing and gives the reader a sense of being in a different place, being in the story. It’s the same as putting on costumes or using other props in a film, contributing to the experience, and hopefully enjoyment, of the audience.
Importantly though, I was assured that German and French readers would perfectly understand these few phrases, just as we would understand if a German character was introduced as Herr Schneider or a French person was introduced as Mademoiselle Lions. Most of us understand a few basic words, even if we are not fully fluent with another language. I bet if I said to you Neunundneunzig Luftballons you’d know exactly what I meant, even if you don’t speak German. Similarly, if I said, Du vin, Du pain, you’d easily finish that well-known phrase from our fave cheese advert of the 80s and 90s.
Most noticeably we kept the title o f the book the same as the original. That was a complicate decision, as I had anticipated changing the title to Nacht und Tag for the German (obvs) and Nuit et Jour for the French. Author Mel Parish has already asked why we–or I, I should say–made that decision. But in conversation with Stef Mills, the lady who did the German translation, this question of title cropped up, and it was one we had to really think about. The title here is taken from the title of the song written by Cole Porter and made popular in first the musical, then the film Gay Divorce from 1932 onwards.
Spoiler: At the beginning of Night and Day, Dottie Manderson finds a man dying in the street, and he was murmuring this song which she recognised. Later, she has to sing to the policeman, William Hardy, the brief snatch of the song she heard. It’s not to help him with his enquiries, as she thinks; it’s just so he can listen to her voice a little bit longer. Aww. So you see, the song is key to the story, and I knew from the start it was what I wanted to call the book.
(Btw I had planned to include the whole of the verse first the dying man, then Dottie sings, printed in the story in full, but I had to remove it, because when I tried to obtain copyright approval, the amount asked was far beyond what I could afford it, so to avoid copyright infringement, I had to take out the words, which was a pity.)
But… back to the translation – so you can see that the title and reference to the song was important, but when we discussed it, Stef told me that in Germany, the phrase when used as an idiom is always said the other way around – German people don’t talk of night and day but of day and night. In Britain, we kind of use it either way round. More importantly she told me that the song title is widely known by fans of Cole Porter, but always known by the English title. Then Eden Rébora, the lady who was tackling the French version of the book, told me the same. So it seemed best to keep the title the same for all language versions. Ta-da!
Yes, you’ll notice I didn’t change the covers either. Some readers might remember that a few weeks ago I asked on FB for people to vote for their favourite book cover from a group of four: the existing one and three other, new ideas. As the votes were really evenly spread, with a very slight lead on the existing cover, I left the cover exactly the same. I was a bit surprised by this outcome as I’ve often wondered if the cover ‘worked’, as writers tend to obsess about everything. So it’s quite nice to know it does. People tell me they always think of Dottie as they read, as she appears on the cover. (The lovely image is just a stock photo, from Artsy Bee on Pixabay.)
So finally: The paperback versions of the French and German editions of Night and Day are already available on Amazon. And the eBook versions will be released on 25th June, but are available to pre-order right now, also from Amazon. Ultimately I would like to release the book in Polish, Spanish, Italian and maybe other languages, but at the moment, it’s just these three.
Stef and Eden are already working on book twoof the Dottie Manderson mystery series: the Mantle of God. Another title that led to lengthy discussions, but this one will be translated, as it’s not a song title or anything like that. The French will be Le Chape de Dieu, and the German, Das Gewand Gottes.
- Night and Day: the Dottie Manderson mysteries are reaching out to new audiences
At the beginning of this year, with sales doing better following the release of book 5 of my Dottie Manderson mysteries series, I decided it was a good time to branch out to non-English translations. Partly it was because of the increasing sales from other countries, and partly it was because Amazon had made some changes which made it easier to reach, in particular, readers in mainland Europe.
So I’m very proud and pleased to announce that book 1 of my 1930s mystery series (with a heavy side helping of romance) will be released in German and French on 25th June. Other languages may follow, at least I really hope so! The books are already available for Pre-order, if you or someone you know are interested.
No, before you ask, I will not be embracing languages such as Klingon, Dothraki or Valyrian. Sorry. Es tut mir leid, je me regrette, przepraszam, lo siento.
Huge thanks for the hard work and patience of French Translator/Editor Eden Rébora.
And huge thanks too to Stef Mills, translator and editor, for all her hard work on the German version. You can find out more about Stef on her website here:
To those lovely people who have shown interest in books about a young woman from Britain in the 1930s, and all the scrapes she gets herself into: thank you so much, I really appreciate your support.
- The Thing Above All Things
In life we all have stuff we love. I’m not talking about our family, our friends, our pets, obviously we love those above all else and before all else.
I’m talking about the thing that makes us get up in the morning, that keeps us up late at night, the thing we can’t wait for Monday, or Friday, or whenever we do this ‘thing’, for. I’m calling it ‘the thing above all things’, the one thing to rule them all. What is that one big thing in your life?
Some people love their garden, or their dog. Or they like to whittle driftwood into an elaborate recreation of Queen Victoria’s coronation. Some people paint, often beautifully. I do not. I can draw sunglasses. I can draw flower doodles. I can draw little row boats on a wave. That’s all I can draw. I can’t paint. I’m not even very good at colouring in, because I’m not good at following rules—or staying in the lines. I love art, I find it a constant inspiration, colour and shape inspires me always, but I cannot draw.
I used to sew but I was never very good at it, and I could always buy something far better for a lot less money than I could make it, so I felt bad about how much it cost me to make something that was never quite right. I used to knit, but ditto.
I tried to learn the violin, but I was useless, I made a noise similar to the sound you get when you turn the handle of a rusty mangle. It was bad.
I like to garden, but I get bored after a while. Also, I feel a reluctance to uproot weeds, as they’re flowers too, right? I mainly leave my garden to do what it wants, and feel very grateful to be able to enjoy the resulting chaotic beauty. I’m a slave to feeding the birds, hedgehogs and squirrels. I like bird-watching, but usually go into a daydream and forget to actually watch the birds, Or I feel like I’m getting in the way of them feeding or gathering nesting stuff. There’s quite a lot of nesting stuff in our garden. The birds have not yet had to resort to pulling fluff out of my cat.
I like to meditate, but I fall asleep in the middle and wake up with a stiff neck. I like to bake, but can’t be bothered following a recipe, and anyway recipes are just a suggestion, aren’t they, just one of a number of suggestions of how you could create a cake? I’ve got an oven that turns itself off when it feels like it, I’m guessing that’s not always the best for baking.
So I write.
I think I have always written. That’s what I tell people, anyway. I can remember writing VERY short stories on the back of envelopes and scrap bits of paper when I was really small. I created this book cover from a Weetabix or Cornflake packet when I was in junior school, so maybe 10? If I’m not writing, I’m thinking about writing, or I have just stopped writing. Or I’m trying to do something else (to make me a more rounded, more interesting person) but really, I’m just wishing I was writing.
I even got a short story out of the experience of learning to play the violin. That’s my actual violin up there at the top of the page, I never did go back to learning to play it, but I sold it for LOADS as it was quite special. You can read the short story here, if you feel like it. It’s not so much a short story as what actually happened, so technically a life writing piece.
Have you found it yet?
Your one thing? What is your be-all and end-all?
In life we sometimes think, if I were twenty years younger I’d have a go at that. Or if I had more money, more time, more energy, if I was taller, slimmer, had a better education or had done that course…I would…
*insert dream Thing here*
I say, why not now? Why is discovery and experimentation only for the young? How many years might you have ahead of you? Do you want to waste the next twenty thinking, wow, I could have done that or learned that or gone there by now. Even if you only have days, weeks, months of life left ahead of you, do you really want to spend that time looking over your shoulder at what you could have done? Don’t miss out.
Do it now. That one thing above all other things. Don’t let fear stop you. Because what’s the point of having nothing to look back on but regrets?
- The unreliable narrator – she’s out to fool you!
Like all stories, mysteries are told by narrators. Even mysteries told in the third person have a narrator, though the story is usually 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. As the reader, you get drawn into the world of the first-person narrator, he or she seems nice, they explain things to you and tell you what the other characters are like or about their secrets. They are your feet, eyes and ears as you step into the story and begin to explore the fictional world of the book.
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. You are drawn inside 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 deliberate intention of thwarting your attempt to solve the mystery all by 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 their actions and approve their motives. 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 a sticky web of their own creation and you cannot escape until you read the words, ‘The End’.
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. Can you believe it? So 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 wrongdoing as you stand in the place of the judge and jury to examine the action of the story. The author actually laughs as they write those lines that will trap you then surprise you. He he he.
Now that you know this, you are forearmed, and will be on the lookout for these artful devices.
Here below are a few noted novels with unreliable narrators: (sorry to spoil that for you…)
I also tried this with my Friendship Can Be Murder trilogy.
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