- The Van Gogh Effect – or the need for a role model
When Vincent van Gogh wrote to Emile Barnard in 1889 from the asylum in which he had voluntarily placed himself, he said he was suffering under an absolute lack of models. He was not talking about people to pose for him to paint, he was talking about people to look up to, professionally, people he aspired to follow and to learn from.
Alice Walker, in her book In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens quotes this and discusses it in her essay, “Saving The Life That Is Your Own – the importance of models in the artist’s life”. She highlights the need for writers–and other artists too–to find worthy and strong role models to help us grow and develop our skills. Her book helped me hugely as an aspiring writer. There have been a number of books which have influenced me as a writer and my writing over the years.
In her 1934 masterpiece Becoming A Writer Dorothea Brande said, “A writer writes” which we hear everywhere, and you may think it’s an obvious statement to make, but think about it for a few minutes, it’s deeper than you think. It’s not about writing being just a one-off event, but an ongoing relationship with words.
And as I commented recently, novelist Mary Wibberley inspired me when she said in her 1970s book, To Writers With Love, “Don’t look down”. Winifred Watson, now almost unheard of, but once an uber-successful author (Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day and many more), said “You can’t write if you’re never alone”, all of which have been meaningful to me, but Alice Walker taught me that in spite of this, I need others to look up to and observe and learn from. I cannot grow or function in isolation.
It has never been easier than today to find others for inspiration and support. Many of my closest friends are other writers I have come across through conversations on social media. And they have got me through so many tough times, times when I felt discouraged, or felt like giving up, or felt like nothing seemed to be working. I am so grateful to them. If I ever win an award, my ‘Without whom…’ speech will be long and tearful. The internet is full of tips, hints, writing websites, blogs, epublishing platforms, how-tos and advice, writing circles, book reading groups, as well as technique and knowledge webinars. But we all need the human element. There is no need to suffer under a lack of models any more.
“Writing is a lonely job. Having someone who believes in you makes a lot if difference. They don’t have to makes speeches. Just believing is usually enough.”
― Stephen King: On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
Another inspiring work for me has been Stephen King’s On Writing.
It is an odd thing, being a writer, because just like other ‘normal’ jobs, sometimes you don’t want to do it, you don’t want to write, or you’re fed up with everything you write: it feels stale or trite or clichéd or flat or bumpy or… Sometimes you hate being a writer. Sometimes you have written something so good, you become convinced you have depleted in one sentence the reserve of ability you have, and that you will never be able to write again. Other times you feel as though you’re banging your head against a brick wall, desperately trying to get an idea out. We all know how hard it can be to get your beginnings and middles and ends to fit neatly and seamlessly together into a cohesive and delicate whole.
Van Gogh said, “However hateful painting may be…if anyone who has chosen this handicraft pursues it zealously, he is a man of duty, sound and faithful.” It does sometimes feel as though, as writers, we are undertaking A Quest as we try to ensure our red herrings are subtle but present, and our sleuths remain believable and appealing yet somehow stand out from the crowd of other fictional sleuths. Loathing may be present for at least a third of the book. You may well come to dread the very thought of looking at your draft again. But look at it you must, for the good of the book, and your writer’s soul. And you have to make yourself do it even if you don’t want to. You can’t just sit and wait for inspiration to strike. As many well-known and successful authors have commented, if you wait for inspiration you’ll probably never write a thing.
“I only write when I am inspired. Fortunately I am inspired at 9 o’clock every morning.”
― William Faulkner
Van Gogh went on to say, “What I am doing is hard, dry, but that is because I am trying to gather new strength by doing some rough work, and I’m afraid abstractions would make me soft.” Like him, we devote ourselves to diligently plodding through our notes, our research, our first drafts and our revisions. At times it feels like hard, dry work. But we cannot leave it until later. If we do, we will lose our impetus, we will forget that special key phrase, that small detail on which the whole plot turns. Therefore it’s important to keep going, keep moving forward. But you don’t have to do it alone. Join a group, make friends, open up to others and as they embrace your work, you can embrace theirs.
Be careful with your criticism. Remember their style may not be yours, their story may differ from yours, their experiences, their character – they are not you. But like you, they have a dream – so try not to trample, but to encourage. One harsh word or thoughtless comment can make someone give up writing for weeks, even months, so be kind, be gentle. We creatives are sensitive people. You may not ‘gel’ with everyone, but those you do, support them wholeheartedly. Try to keep an open mind. You may not like or agree with what people say about your work but listen to them anyway, consider what they say, don’t get miffed or precious: you need these people and they need you. Together we can get our work drafted, revised and rerevised, edited, rererevised, proofed then put it out there into the world for the reading public.
- Sinister settings: the Country House
I love a mystery set in a country house. I think the country house is a venue that offers glamour, comfort and a large range of accommodation whilst also affording a good number of murder possibilities.
Leaving aside the staff, who glide in, deposit tea-trays, then glide out again, there are notable dangers from the residents of the house and their guests, but I want to consider the rooms the country house offers – and the murderous opportunities a writer can seize with both hands.
Actually this feels very like a game of Cluedo/Clue. Feel free to fish your old game-board out of the attic to count the rooms off with me.
There is of course the drawing room. Spacious, elegantly furnished, this room is designed for the receiving of
victimsguests, for polite conversation, and for characters to exchange dangerous remarks or hint at secret knowledge before dinner.
The dining room: renowned for its garishly-coloured walls—usually a deep red or bilious green for some reason—and the gloomy paintings of ancient relatives glaring down, the traditional country house dining room is guaranteed to be a place where strategies are played out and suspicion is likely to cause indigestion. There’s a reason that long dining table reminds us of one of those boards where they pushed models of planes about on a map in black and white films set in ‘Somewhere in England. 1940’.
If you need to go to the loo, there will be an old-school WC tucked away somewhere off the back passage (pun fully intended). The potential for danger here is very much fifty-fifty: either you’ll get knocked on the head going in or coming out, or you’ll get pneumonia from the intense cold in there due to the stone-flagged floor and the lack of a decent supply of hot water.
When the hostess rises, to lead the ladies from the dining room back to the drawing room, (that’s how the room got its name, a short form of ‘withdrawing room’) the men will remain behind to share alcohol, smokes and dirty jokes, racing tips, or discuss topics unfit for the ears of ladies: sex, politics and business. If a chap decides to step outside onto the ubiquitous terrace to smoke a cigar in the fresh air, or to pace up and down in a rage, or in a state trying to come to a decision, this is the perfect spot for him to get whacked over the head with our old favourite, the blunt object.
Some of the men may grow tired of pacing the terrace or sitting at the dining table blowing smoke and laughing uproariously, and take themselves off for a game of billiards. Apparently all country houses still insist on a billiard room in spite of the fact that 90% of billiard players die from being stabbed by a billiard cue.
Meanwhile in the drawing room, the ladies are tucking into coffee—in spite of the fact that it’s ten o’clock at night—and gossip. Away from the constraining influence of the men, they can discuss things not suitable for the ears of gentlemen: sex, politics and business. Oh and anything that might be termed ‘ladies’ collywobbles’, ie something to do with body parts and times of the month. They will quickly discover who is carrying on with who, and whether their spouse knows. Here too, the theft of the £5 note from the offering plate in church will be unearthed. We will surmise who took Lady Anne’s ruby earrings. It is 3-1 that someone will drink coffee containing some lethal dose of a poison. There will be a few gentle coughs or gasps and the unfortunate lady will clutch her pearls, her face will turn puce, and she will breathe her last, to the dismay of all. The lady of the house—if still alive at this point—will ring for the butler and tell him to phone for a doctor. Or get the doctor from the drawing room, if he is a guest to dinner. Which he usually is.
If any lady is fed up with gossiping and drinking strong coffee right before bedtime, she can always get away on her own by using one of only two time-honoured plot devices: she can suddenly develop a headache, or remember she has an urgent letter to write. These are the only excuses—apart from death—to get away to your room before half past ten. But beware. Making your escape may be good for your nerves, but you are twice as likely to die from being pushed down the stairs as if you’d waited until everyone else was going to bed before you left the confines of the drawing room. Safety in numbers, people!
And even if you do reach the sanctuary of your bedroom, there are always intruders to beware of. They may try the ‘frontal attack’ method: simply turning your door handle fifty times very slowly before entering and smothering you with your own pillow. Or, if they are martial arts experts, they will be in position long before you enter the room, hidden on the top of the four poster bed, to slither down once you are asleep and—you’ve guessed it—smother you with your own pillow. Or, you might be wakened by the sound of an odd creaking or sinister scraping. On investigating with the help of your trusty torch, you will catch a perpetrator gaining access to your room by means of a secret passage, a sliding wooden panel, or a trap door accessed by moving a book on the third shelf. Obviously, they will then immediately overpower you and smother you with your own pillow.
The conservatory. What a delightful setting. Here you can sit, warm and dry, and enjoy some tranquility, surrounded by beautiful plants, graceful statues, and perhaps the gentle sound of water trickling from a water feature. Here, too, you will be smashed over the head with a sturdy plant pot, garrotted with gardener’s twine, hacked to death with secateurs, or misted with some rare kind of poison, and in this tranquil–and remote–setting, die because no one else is within hearing to rescue you. Soz.
Country houses are famous for possessing at least one of the following: a gazebo/summerhouse, a tower, an attic, a dungeon, a castellated roof, a veranda, romantic (but haunted, obv) ruins of a priory or abbey, and of course a lake. This might be for boating, or for fishing, but in either case is to be avoided if you do not wish to go to a watery grave.
NEVER, ever go to visit any of these unless everyone in the house goes with you. The reason being: they can’t all be killers (unless you’re on an old steam train stuck in the snow…) As has already been stated, there’s safety in numbers.
NEVER go to view any of these objects of interest with one or more of the following: a vicar, a young starlet about to make her Hollywood debut, an old family retainer, an elderly peer of the realm, a governess, a chauffeur, a wild young racing driver, a retired colonel, a breeder of rare horses and/or sheep, a botanist, a Viennese tenor, a fencing instructor, a vicar (yes I know I’ve already said that, they need to be mentioned twice, they are super dodgy), a kindly elderly widow lady ‘who has lived in the village all her life, and plays the church organ on Sundays’ – of course she does, the evil old bat, a cousin of the family no one has seen for twenty years (hint: not who they claim to be!), a local doctor rumoured to have a guilty secret, an orchid collector (they are a ruthless bunch and will do anything for a Fairrie’s Paphiopedilum) or a music/drawing/dancing instructor. Why? Do you need to ask? All of the above are either the most likely to be killed, or the most likely to be a killer. Whichever they are, you are advised to keep well away!
In fact, just don’t go. Curl up safely at home with a nice book instead.
- Why do I write?
It always surprises me when people say to me, ‘Why do you write?’
For me there’s only one true answer–which I can’t give because it sounds rude–‘Why don’t you?’
Because… I just don’t get it. Oh I know these days many people don’t read actual hold-in-the-hand books anymore, and that meetings, conferences, education, leisure, everything has become virtual. Attendees are more likely to add digital notes or better yet, simply record the bits they need so they can listen to them again and again. I accept that tablets and phones see more of the written word than a paper notebook. To me that qualifies as writing, I’m not one of those people who think it’s only writing if you scribe onto vellum with a goose-feather quill.
But when people say ‘Oh I could never write,’ I don’t understand. Do they mean, ‘My English language grammar is a bit shonky and so my writing would not be erudite enough’? Because if so, that’s what editing is for.
Or do they mean, ‘I’d run out of ideas.’? To that I’d say, ‘Welcome to the club.’ Social media is full of people searching for inspiration.
Or do they mean ‘Writing is only for an elite group, and is only endorsed by publication from a traditional publishing house’? To that I’d say, ‘Nonsense, anyone can write if they want to, and publishing is no longer that straightforward. Or that restrictive.’
Or do they mean, ‘It sounds so complicated, juggling all those ideas’? Yes, it is, but you learn how to do that. (Kind of, I mean sometimes you just learn to juggle better and sometimes you learn that it’s okay to drop the odd whatever-it-is you’re juggling.)
At the other end of the spectrum, are those who say ‘Oh you’re a writer? I’ve been thinking of trying that,’ or ‘I’ve always thought I could write a book some day when I’ve got nothing else to do.’ To them I say, ‘Go on then, I’m watching you. Do it, I dare you. In fact, I double-dare you.’
So why do I write? I need to tell myself stories, it’s that simple. I could write a whole thesis on all the wider implications of that, spiritually, physically, emotionally and whatever else. But what it comes done to is that we ALL love stories, even people who tell me, ‘Oh no, I never read books.’ They watch TV probably. Or binge on streamed series. Or maybe paint–that’s telling a story in a visual way. Or perhaps you might write or play or listen to music. That’s a story in aural form. Or you might daub paint on the walls of your cave, draw in the sand with a stick, or whittle a piece of wood into a specific form. It’s all storytelling.
None of us don’t have stories in our lives, it’s there in all of us, a need to create, to experience, to understand and explore. It’s part of our humanity.
- Alliteration and her sisters
Round the rugged rock the ragged rascal ran.
We all know that one, don’t we? Though I usually get rugged and ragged back to front. I have to remind myself that whilst a rascal can be rugged or ragged, a rock can pretty much only be rugged.
As we learned in junior school, alliteration is putting together words with the same initial letter. In the case of the above phrase, R, the pirate’s favourite letter. This repetition is the foundation of our childhood tongue-twisters. English is not the only language to have these:
Les chaussettes de l’archiduchesse, sont-elles sèches? Archi-sèches. (translation: The archduchesses socks: are they dry? Very dry.)
Ces cerises sont si sûres qu’on ne sait pas si c’en sont. (translation: These cherries are so sour, we’re not sure if they are (cherries).)
Schnecken erschrecken, wenn sie an Schnecken schlecken, weil zum Schrecken vieler Schnecken Schnecken nicht schmecken. (translation: Snails are shocked when they lick snails because to the surprise of many snails, snails don’t taste good).
Der Grabengräber gräbt die Gräben. Der Grubengräber gräbt die Gruben. Graben Grabengräber Gruben? Graben Grubengräber Gräben? Nein! Grabengräber graben Gräben. Grubengräber graben Gruben. (translation: The gravedigger digs graves. The ditchdigger digs ditches. Do ditchdiggers dig graves? Do gravediggers dig ditches? No!
Gravediggers dig graves. Ditchdiggers dig ditches.)
So now you know! Feel free to use these at virtual-parties, to amaze and impress your friends.
Alliteration can be a useful literary device when writing, and like most literary devices, it is used to make the reader feel, view or interpret your writing in a particular way by creating a mood or appearance. But use it sparingly. The problem with any literary device, is that all too easily it can draw attention away from what you’re writing and turn the focus to how you’re writing. This will distract your reader from your story in the same way you can sometimes fail to see the puppet-show because you’re focusing on the strings. Having spent all that time gently leading the reader to suspend disbelief, you don’t want to ruin things by breaking the spell now.
Here are a few more literary devices:
Sibilance is the repeated use of an S sound, or a hissing sound. You put together words with lots of S, SH and soft C sounds: Sid’s silly scented snake slithered smoothly across the shiny façade. Unlike with Alliteration, the repeated sounds don’t have to be confined to the beginning of the word.
Assonance is the repeated use of vowel sounds: cut jug, heed beat, or the same or similar consonants with different vowels: jiggle juggle, dilly-dally.
Consonance is the repetition of matching consonant sounds: ruthless cutthroats, repeated reports. It can quickly descend into Alliteration if only the initial letter(s) are repeated!
These are used to create a certain mood, or an attitude, or making the reader see a character or setting in a particular way. These can also imbue your writing with a poetic or lyrical quality. You might want your readers mesmerised by a particular scene if you are going to follow it with something spectacular: the calm before the storm effect. Think of movies where there is a soft love scene before the hero goes into battle.
In fact most poetry contains one or more of these devices. Think of Wordworth’s poem I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud, with all the repeated Ls, the Hs, the Ds, the long vowels of wandered, lonely and cloud. Or Buckingham Palace by A A Milne, with its repeated lines and rhyming words.
Or in this, one of my favourite short poems, there is a clever mixture of all these devices – see if you can spot them!
Song by Christina Rosetti
When I am dead, my dearest
Sing no sad songs for me;
Plant thou no roses at my head,
Nor shady cypress tree:
Be the green grass above me
With showers and dewdrops wet;
And if thou wilt, remember,
And if thou wilt, forget.
I shall not see the shadows,
I shall not feel the rain;
I shall not hear the nightingale
Sing on, as if in pain:
And dreaming through the twilight
That doth not rise nor set,
Haply I may remember,
And haply may forget.
These literary devices can have a unifying effect, making all parts fit together with a repetition of shared letters and sounds, or by ensuring the reader remembers certain sounds or words. But like all good things, in prose it needs to be used in moderation. Don’t make your writing just a collection of tongue-twisters!
- The reading writer or the writing reader
We are surrounded by words. They are there on the side of your breakfast cereal packet, full of persuasive ideas or nutritional information. They are on the wall of the lift as you make your way from car park to shopping mall. ‘In case of emergency DO this or DON’T do that…’ They are on our clothes – a logo, a designer’s name; they are on the label – how to wash the garment, the size, the fabric constituents.
As I say, we are surrounded by words. We as humans have come a long way from the days when we communicated through pictures. The concept of communication fascinates me. Why do we communicate? Is it to know our allies from our enemies, or to form friendships, assist pair-bonding, or create a safe environment for our children? We developed words because if a buffalo or something similarly huge is rushing towards you, no one’s got time to whip out a slate and chalks to create a nice little scene to indicate the usefulness of running away. So words are more efficient, maybe.
But words change us. From our earliest days on the planet, gazing fondly at our mothers, we learn words. We learn how to physically say them by watching and listening, and we learn what they mean by observing consequences and effects.
We connect not just words together to form a sentence, but ideas together to create a narrative or story. We might hear the words, ‘Let’s go to the mall’, but what we really hear are ideas based on prior knowledge of that as a situation. ‘Let’s go to the mall’ becomes a narrative: ‘Let’s go to the mall – where we will walk about the shops, talking as we go, laughing and enjoying being together, and discussing life issues or relationships, or personal goals and dreams, where will we notice and comment on the latest trends, where we will exchange currency (or more likely swipe a small piece of plastic) for new goods, that we can then take home and discuss at length, creating a new shared experience. Whilst at the mall we will likely go and get some food somewhere, so it will become a social event, we will sit and eat, and talk some more, possibly on a deeper emotional level, and this day will become part of our shared memories and we will often revisit the occasion in our thoughts, and enjoy the time over and over again, and the whole experience from beginning to end will enhance our relationship and sense of closeness.’
It doesn’t always work like this. Sometimes we have a row as soon as we get there, sulk all the way round the shops and come home later frustrated and disappointed, still in a frosty silence. The great tapestry of human experience!
Where am I going with this? It’s just this: simply, words are key to the storytelling of human life, whether an ordinary trip out to buy new jeans, or whether we are sitting curled up in our favourite armchair reading words on a pages, pages bound together in one book, a book enclosed by a hard or soft cover, possibly enhanced with a relevant image on the front.
This is not the first time I’ve pondered on the weird and truly wonderful impact of words on my life. At the moment I’m wrestling with the final edit of my novel The Spy Within, (coming soon to an internet store near you), but I’m making time to read. In the last few weeks I’ve read my dear friend Emma Baird’s romance, Highland Chances, and another good friend’s Paul Nelson’s Cats of The Pyramids, yet another writer friend’s book Undercover Geisha, by Judith Cranswick. I’m now reading Mary Stewart’s The Wind Off The Small Isles, as well as P G Wodehouse’s A Damsel In Distress, and dipping in and out of non-fiction books: The Great British Bobby by Clive Emsley, and The 1960s fashion sourcebook by John Peacock.
Each of these books will leave a lasting imprint on my life. I’ve blogged before about how what we read–especially when it’s something we love–leaves its mark on our soul, a fragment of its written beauty that will see us through the hard times. And this year has been one of hard times, hasn’t it? I think in the coming months we will all need as many beautiful phrases, sweet or witty situations, dastardly intrigues and happy-ever-afters as we can get our hands on.
- 2020 Autumn Thoughts
If you’ve read any of my blog before, you’ll know that I love the autumn. My birthday is in October, so that’s why I think that for me autumn is the time for rebirth and growth. In the summertime, it’s too hot to work my brain, (apart from this year where in my area, we only had two hot days – but wow, they were soooo hot) so the cooler temperatures of autumn bring a welcome respite from the summer, and a new influx of energy.
Or maybe it’s just that thing that all parents have, where, come September the kids go back to school and finally you have the time to sit and think quietly for more than thirty seconds. My kids are adults with their own lives, but the old routine of the school year still lingers on.
I found this short passage on autumn in an old journal:
The leaves of the plum tree are turning yellow. Although most of them are still green, within a week or two the tree will be bare—how quickly the season marches on, and there is nothing any of us can do about that. In the garden at the bottom of ours, their silver birches are also covered in yellowing leaves.
In the last half hour, almost without me noticing, the world has lost its sunny autumnal afternoon look and is now overcome by the gloomy dullness that heralds the imminent arrival of evening.
The leaves are changing, turning yellow and orange, but mainly yellow. A sickly speckled unhealthy yellow. Soon the branches will be bare and we will be in the grip of winter.
One or two birds dash to the bird table and snatch some seeds. Their movements seem urgent, as if time is running out and they must hide before it’s too late.
The day is fading, night is almost here.
But I’m not the only one who mulls over what autumn means. Here are some thoughts from authors to inspire us all to take up our writing projects and search for the poet inside.
F. Scott Fitzgerald: “Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall.”
Albert Camus: “Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.”
John Donne: “No spring nor summer beauty hath such grace as I have seen in one autumnal face.”
Basho: “Early autumn–/rice field, ocean,/one green.”
But not all authors have the came rosy outlook when it comes to the winding-down of the year. Many portray it as a doom-laden promise of misery and gloom.
Dodie Smith: “Why is summer mist romantic and autumn mist just sad?”
Stephen King: “The wind makes you ache is some place that is deeper than your bones. It may be that it touches something old in the human soul, a chord of race memory that says Migrate or die – migrate or die.”
Francis Brett Young: “An autumn garden has a sadness when the sun is not shining…”
David Mitchell: “Autumn is leaving its mellowness behind for its spiky, rotted stage. Don’t remember summer even saying goodbye.”
So which of the autumn types are you? Are you a happy golden-hue embracing energy-filled person, or are you more of a Mr/Mrs autumn-is-the-end-of-everything? Let me know!
- Coming soon-ish: The Spy Within: Dottie Manderson mysteries book 6
This is an update on the progress of Dottie Manderson book 6 – The Spy Within. Like most of my posts about new books – it begins with an apology. I know, I know in a rash moment of optimism and craziness I said ‘coming Summer 2020’. Even as I said it, my fingers were crossed and I was telling myself, ‘But Summer can be any time between June or August, right?’
But you know, guys, look at what the rest of 2020 has been like. I’ve got a good excuse, haven’t I? Probably the best I’ve had so far. Therefore I’m pleased – though slightly worried – to announce that I plan to release The Spy Within ‘some time’ in October this year. That’s not long! (Note to me: Oh heck, that’s really not long! Argh!) I’m sorry it’s late, but it’s been a tough one. I know I say that about all of them.
To begin with, for some reason it was really, really long. I waffled far more than usual. So I’ve had a lot of tightening up to do. And I had too many strands of plot to juggle. (Sorry about the mixed metaphor). I’ve therefore had to cut loads out, constantly asking myself, ‘Yes that’s fine, but does it really tell us anything new?’ ‘How does it get us further forward?’ It’s quite hard to cut out a scene you love but which deep in your heart, you know serves no purpose at all. I have a document which is all outtakes. Not as funny as the ones you see on TV, that’s for sure, and getting longer every day.
The Spy Within is another crossroads story. Dottie is faced with some new and demanding situations, and of course uses her genuine love of people to find out the truth behind certain rumours and to ferret out answers to help William. We are going to find out a bit more about William’s background, meet a couple more of his family, enjoy quite a few afternoon teas (always high on my list of priorities), and finally the Mantle will come together, a year after the case in which it first featured. (The Mantle of God: Dottie Manderson mysteries: book 2.)
If you are Team Gervase, get ready for some hard truths to be revealed. And – hint, hint – to see your fave wiped off the slate. Sorry about that. Sorry not sorry. Haha.
If you are Team William, get ready for things to finally start going your way. (Less of a hint, more of a massive nudge.) You might need chocolate, wine or your preferred indulgence/support for emotional scenes.
Chapter One is the only part of the book fully revised and currently not surrounded by warning signs, men in hard hats, and scaffolding, and if you’re
bored enoughtempted, you can read it here. Hope you like it.
- The Audience Were The Winners!
As I’ve mentioned before, not only do I keep a journal, but I sometimes find useful or interesting stuff in there and it gets rehashed as a blog post! I’m an avid people-watcher. People fascinate and astonish me in equal measure. This is a journal entry I wrote in July 2011. Remember those heady days when we used to go out of the house, unmasked, and sit perilously close to complete strangers? That’s what my daughter and I did that evening. I swear this is all absolutely true.
Wed 20 July 2011:
My daughter and I had the most bizarre experience at the theatre this evening. The play was a ‘murder mystery farce’ called Death By Fatal Murder.
Actually the bizarre experiences began well before we got to the theatre, when we went for dinner at Pizza Express. When we were seated at a table for two in the pretty busy restaurant, a couple were soon seated next to us. They were a bit odd. Or maybe they had just never eaten out before. Anyway there they were, seated at the table next to ours. We soon became aware that there was a discussion between them about money. He had a £20 note and a huge handful of change which he counted out on the table twice.
The waitress brought them a large-print menu, and after leaving them for a while to choose, another waitress came to take their order. The chap told her he only had £20 and so had to be careful not to overspend. Also, he said he didn’t like mozzarella. For at least twenty minutes–we had ordered drinks, waited, ordered food, waited, received and eaten our food–he asked the waitress questions about the menu items.
She tried to persuade him to have a pizza without cheese but with ham and peppers. She suggested chicken on his pizza. He asked for chicken wings. She explained they didn’t serve chicken wings. She suggested a chicken salad, but he thought that was too expensive. He asked what goat’s cheese was like, but was afraid he might not like it. He asked what parmesan was like. Again, he thought he might try it, but what if he found he didn’t like it after all?
The waitress was helpful in the extreme. If he’d been the mystery shopper from hell, she must have passed the test with flying colours. But instead the chap and his girl decided they would go and eat somewhere else. As they left they told her they were going to try Nandos.
That was the warm-up, now for the main entertainment.
At the theatre, we got to our seats at 7.10pm for a 7.30pm show. I’d thought we were cutting it a bit fine. Others cut it finer. To begin with we were virtually the only ones there, but the place filled fast. A massive lady sat on the other side of my daughter, so she was pretty squashed as the seats were narrow and she had me (also massive) on the other side.
A tall well-dressed man with a HAT (it’s Derby Playhouse, not the National Theatre) entered and sat three or four seats along from us with a tiny little old lady we presumed was his mum, wearing her best outfit, and with handbag and theatre programme too. She looked very excited. Along from them, a middle-aged chap and his wife and their 20-something daughter, both wearing lovely frocks, took their seats.
The curtain went up. The set was lovely, the music was 20s/30s, but pretty good, the story set during WW2, so not quite right, but never mind.
It was the most farcical farce to end all farces. It was awful. The main stars were Leslie Grantham, Dirty Den from Eastenders, no doubt he’d done loads of other stuff, but that’s all I knew him from, I don’t watch a lot of TV. And there was also Richard Gibson, Herr Flick from ‘Allo ‘Allo.
But… the audience was definitely the main attraction.
Behind us and slightly to one side, sitting next to two utterly mortified late teen-early 20s women, was a chap. As soon as the play began, he opened and began to eat from a HUGE bag of Quavers. He made the most incredible amount of noise grabbing them out of the bag and eating them. It took him ages, and it wasn’t just me who turned to glare at him.
Also behind us was another guy who kept saying very loudly ‘What the f**k?’ and doing huge nausea-inducing snorting sniffs through his nose. Whether he was referring to Quaverman or the play or the Little Old Lady, I don’t know.
The Little Old Lady. Well. Every single word, action, expression or movement brought gales of laughter and guffaws from her. And her laugh was a cross between the Granny in the Tweety-Pie cartoons and Barbara Windsor in the Carry On movies. She laughed longer, louder and more frequently than anyone else in the place. She clearly had a wonderful time, and I have to admit, some of the time, it was her everyone was laughing at, not the play.
Then came the intermission.
Some people had bags of sweets. Some, including Little Old Lady, came back from the reception area with an ice cream tub with a little plastic spoon sticking out of it. Quaverman had another big bag of quavers.
But Dad, Mum and Daughter in the posh frocks had…
During the intermission I glanced along the row to see Dad with a huge bag of something long, thin and green. I thought at first maybe it was a kind of jelly sweet, like those little sugar covered very tangy bootlaces or sticks. He opened the bag and pulled out a massive handful and passed them down the row to his family members, holding out their eager hands. Whereupon they popped the pods and scooped out the peas and devoured them.
Honestly, they were peas. See, even now, it seems too mundane yet bizarre to be true. You know when in a daydream you think, what if I stumbled into a parallel world, how would I know? This is how. Real life is the most peculiar experience imaginable, and fiction cannot possibly live up to it.
Then I thought, maybe they are just trying to find a useful way to pass the tediously long intermission? Shell the peas, save time later when you arrive home from the theatre starving and ready for your slow-cooker chicken casserole or whatever, whack the peas into the microwave, and hey presto, a lovely quick vegetable side dish.
But no, it was their intermission snack.
Don’t get me wrong. I love peas. And straight from the pod–yummy. But ever so slightly odd for the theatre, wouldn’t you say?
And it’s not like they were organic hippies, rejecting the modern commercial and industrialised production of food. They drank Coke.
The people sitting next to me frowned at my almost convulsive laughter as I took in the whole strange scene, and for a minute, as I tried not to pass out, I couldn’t remember if the play was what was happening on the stage or in the rows of seats.
The girls were commiserating with one another on getting stuck next to Quaverman, apparently he wasn’t just loud, he sprawled, too.
Then the intermission was over.
Quaverman was clearly high as a kite. He screamed with laughter and called out comments such as, ‘Yeah, you tell him!’ to the bumbling detective. He was practically standing on his seat and completely oblivious to anyone else. Even the cast were sending him sidelong glances.
One of the actors–the bumbling detective–had to ‘accidentally’ spit tea on his junior colleague. Then he couldn’t keep a straight face, and for several minutes both of them kept corpsing to the delight of the audience who laughed and applauded.
Eventually the ordeal was over–the play was awful–sorry Leslie and Richard, not your fault, guys–the ending nonsensical even for a send-up of the detective-farce genre. The audience was definitely the winner. I felt a bit as though I had taken part in one of those live-action, unrehearsed, ‘theatre of the absurd’ type things.
Little Old Lady trotted out happily with her programme in her hand to mark the occasion forever. Someone said, as we left, ‘What great writing’.
Only if the dramatist wrote the lines for the audience as well.
- 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.”