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  • Jingle all the way!!!

    I’m taking a short break for the Christmas holidays. I’m just about to release my next novel – the fourth in the Dottie Manderson murder mystery series set in the 1930s. That’s the second book I’ve released in what has been by any standards a bloody horrible year. I am SO looking forward to seeing the end of 2018 and looking ahead to 2019. Roll on New Year’s Eve. I don’t usually drink but I’m thinking I might get hammered this year (that’s half a glass of wine!). Either that or spend the evening in bed with a book and a box of chocolates.

    The highlights:

    My family and friends got me through some of the toughest experiences of my life this year. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

    I’ve had some seriously good royalties this year from my books – thank you lovely book-reading public.

    I’ve met some wonderful people in Dalmuir, Scotland who dragged themselves away from their TVs and family to listen to me witter on about self-publishing and cosy mysteries.

    I’ve enjoyed getting to know people this year who were more like acquaintances before, namely: Emma Baird, author extraordinaire, and amazing cook. Angela Lloyd, pursuing literary excellence and a sterling cheerleader! There have been others but those two outdid themselves in being amazing to me.

    I succeeded, goodness knows how, in getting two more books written and published this year.

    The lowlights:

    My mum died at the end of November after a couple of awful years battling with dementia. I have not known anxiety like this before.

    My dad has also got Alzheimers. That still racks up the anxiety points.

    The admin and legal aspects involved in sorting out the lives of elderly people who can’t look after themselves and need help.

    My cat had to have an (expensive) eye operation. Again. So glad cats only have two eyes and not as many eyes as they have toes.

     

    That’s kind of all I want to say. Thanks again to all the WordPress blog readers, Twitter bods and Pinterest peeps and Facebook bods who have been so encouraging and supportive and have said (sometimes) nice things about my books. Instagram guys–I really mean it this time–I’m going to get to you soon. Maybe find a safe place to hide?

    Have a lovely Christmas and a happy and safe and loving New Year. See you in 2019!

     

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  • The Last Perfect Summer of Richard Dawlish: coming VERY soon!

    It’s nearly here! The fourth book in my 1930s Dottie Manderson mysteries is about to be released. I’m still clutching it possessively and cooing over it, but I promise, I absolutely will deliver it to be published on the 17th December for Amazon Kindle and 3rd January 2019 for other formats, including paperback, Nook, Kobo, iPad and more. It is now available for pre-order, if you would like to do so.

    It’s been a bumpy journey, but phew… almost there, and I’m already planning the next book in the series and the next non-series book to publish. I’m not sure I can equal the output of many modern authors who put out six or more books a year, but even if I only publish two books this year or next, I shall feel pretty smug, let me tell you. Because as Aldous Huxley said, ‘A bad book is as much of a labour to write as a good one, it comes as sincerely from the author’s soul.’ A lot of people come up to me and say, ‘I’m thinking of writing a book,’ or ‘I feel I have a book in me,’ and my response is the same: go ahead and write it!

    Here, if you haven’t already seen it, is the first chapter of The Last Perfect Summer of Richard Dawlish: a Dottie Manderson mystery book 4. It is rather long, I’m afraid, but I hope you like it.

    Chapter One: Hamfield, just outside Nottingham, June 1919.

    The war was over. That was the main thing. That was all that mattered. Not the lives lost. Nor the devastation. Not the hostile, resentful power struggle throughout Europe. Not even the victory. In the end, all that mattered was that the long years of anguish and despair had come to an end.

    Up and down the country, people celebrated the fact that life could now go back to normal. Whatever that was. Women left their war-jobs in the factories in their tens of thousands, and went home to cook, clean and have babies. Men lay aside their rifles and bayonets and took up their hammers and saws once more. They hammered their swords into ploughshares, figuratively if not literally, and tried to forget what they had seen.

    Across the nation, there were street parties, tea parties, balls, lunches, drinks evenings, galas and dances to celebrate the return of the heroes and the return of everyday life as it had been years earlier.

    No one mentioned the dead.

    The Member for Hamfield and West Nottingham, the Honourable Norman Maynard, with his charming wife Augustine, hosted one such event at their elegant home in the leafy suburb of Hamfield.

    It was a glorious evening. The weather for the first week of an English June was perfect: warm and sunny, with a cloudless blue sky and the merest hint of a breeze ruffling its fingers through the early roses, bringing their fragrance lightly into the house.

    The ballroom, a recent and somewhat garish addition when viewed from the outside, inside flowed neatly on from the other reception rooms. By the simple expedient of moving the furniture and flinging wide the folding doors that separated the rooms, the whole of the downstairs was transformed into a vast space where guests could mingle, and roam drink in hand, from the dancefloor to the buffet and back again.

    In one corner of the ballroom, on a small, purpose-built raised platform, the little orchestra played a series of popular dance tunes, and couples, young and old, circled the floor just as they had done five years earlier. All around them, people gathered in little groups, laughing and talking. Cocktails of all kinds were knocked back in massive quantities.

    And obviously, no one mentioned the dead.

    The war, Richard Dawlish reflected as he sipped his champagne cocktail with great reluctance, might never have happened.

    No one mentioned the dead, but he could still see them: their clutching, decaying flesh protruding from muddy dips and hollows, and at night the rats would come out of their hiding places and nibble the naked vulnerable limbs. Richard didn’t even need to close his eyes. The images were always before him. He carried them with him wherever he went, whatever he did, in his head, in his dreams, his mind, his eyes. He began to think they would never leave him. Even when he was an old man, he would still see those corpses, like so many strange species growing in a wasteland of mire.

    Turning, he looked out through the open doors at the long lawn surrounded by blossoming borders. Was this what those millions had died for? A perfect flat green lawn? He took another drink. He couldn’t think of anything else to do, so like the others, he just took another drink.

    Behind him in the ballroom, someone tapped a spoon against a glass to get everyone’s attention. The chattering stopped, the laughter faded, and everyone turned to face the Honourable Norman Maynard positioned at the front of the stage. He embarked upon a rambling, largely predictable second-hand speech, culminating in, ‘So let us raise our glasses in a toast as we welcome back our heroes, and thank them for their part in keeping England’s green and pleasant land free of tyranny and destruction.’

    There were loud shouts of ‘Hear, hear’, and ‘Just so’, and everyone repeated some jumbled form of the toast and drank. Maynard then said, ‘And another toast to celebrate the fine achievements of some very special young men in the field of combat, and who are here with us this evening. Please join me on the stage: Captain Algy Compton!’ There was a loud and raucous cheer. Maynard continued, ‘Next, I’m very proud to be able to honour my son, Group Captain Michael Maynard.’ There was a further, louder chorus of cheers and catcalls, then someone at the back shouted, ‘Thinks he can bloody fly, so he does!’ There was general laughter, though some of the ladies tutted at the language. Norman Maynard, smiling proudly, responded with, ‘Aye, well, from what I hear, he can fly!’

    ‘Showed the bloody Boche a thing or two, let me tell you!’ came another voice from the back. Again, everyone laughed, and Maynard said, his good humour slipping slightly, ‘Indeed. But let’s keep it polite, gentlemen, remember the ladies.’ He looked down at his bit of paper. ‘Er, next on the list, is some young scallywag by the name of Second Lieutenant Gervase Parfitt. A second lieutenant at only twenty years of age! That’s a sterling achievement, Gerry, my dear boy!’ A lanky youth nodded, and received with blushes the back-slaps and cheers of those around him as he made his way forward.

    The audience, less bored now and enjoying the fun, turned back to Maynard, whose glass was being topped up by a servant. ‘And we mustn’t forget Gervase’s little brother Reggie, better known as Sergeant Reginald Parfitt,’ Maynard paused to drink his toast, then went on, ‘Then there’s yet another of these overachieving Parfitt brothers, this time it’s none other than Artie, a Lieutenant in His Majesty’s navy, which as we all know, is just some strange, salt-water name for a Captain! Lieutenant Arthur Parfitt, ladies and gentlemen. Then last, but by no means least, my nephew Algy’s comrade-in-arms, Lieutenant Richard Dawlish. Richard, my dear fellow, do step up with the others for the photograph. Let’s have some applause for this excellent display of British—er, and colonial, of course—manhood.’

    Richard had smiled dutifully and raised his glass for each toast. He had wondered if he would be mentioned and was a little surprised that he was. As a ripple of polite applause went around the room, he made his way forward, embarrassed but smiling. Maynard shook his hand, then the six young men stood together whilst the photographer arrived to capture the moment for posterity. The photographer had some difficulty getting the right light reading and focus, no doubt due to the dozens of dazzling artificial lights in the ballroom coupled with the bright sunlight coming in from outside.

    ‘Your black face is mucking up his lens, Dickie,’ Reggie laughed. He swayed, clearly fairly tipsy. The others joined in with the joking and laughter. Richard smiled politely and said nothing.

    ‘Everybody stand perfectly still, please,’ called the photographer.

    ‘Don’t call him Dickie, he doesn’t like it,’ Gervase said.

    ‘Oops I forgot! So sorry, Rich-ard,’ Reggie said, slapping Richard’s shoulder. Reggie pronounced the name with the emphasis on the second syllable, in an attempt at mimicking Richard’s strong Jamaican accent. Again everyone laughed, and Richard looked at his feet.

    ‘Hold still gentlemen, and—smile!’

    It seemed to take the photographer forever to get everything how he wanted it and take the wretched photo, but at last they were free to go back to the dancing and drinking.

    Richard felt a hand on his arm, and looked round to see Miranda Maynard, smilingly standing on tiptoes to plant a kiss on his cheek. She kept her arm through his, a show of solidarity it seemed. She, the darling of the ball, and he the outsider with the black skin, united against the rest of them.

    Richard couldn’t help but notice one or two ladies shaking their heads in disapproval. These ladies muttered to their gentlemen escorts and together they all turned away. Richard was neither surprised nor offended. The British almost universally despised him for his skin colour. And not only them. Even the enemy soldiers he’d come across had been surprised to observe a Jamaican among the ranks of the British armed forces that had overwhelmed them. Especially a Jamaican who gave orders. In their eyes, his honoured achievements and Courage Under Fire would never rise above his complexion.

    Miranda gazed into his eyes. ‘Take no notice, darling. They don’t know you as I do. They can’t help being fearfully ignorant.’

    She kissed his cheek again. Richard felt she was in danger of incurring her parents’ wrath. He was about to tell her he wasn’t upset by the cold shoulders around him or the comments, but she carried on speaking.

    ‘Algy, Michael and the rest of them are planning a little drinks party in the pavilion. They’ve snaffled a couple of crates, Mike said, and I’m going down to join them now. Algy is bringing Dreary Deirdre, but in spite of that it should be laugh. You could come too, it’ll be good to let our hair down away from this stuffy lot. And you can keep that awful limpet Reggie away from me. What about it?’

    It sounded like a good idea to Richard.

    ‘And you never know,’ Miranda said softly for his ear alone, ‘you and I might finally get some time alone, if you know what I mean.’ She gave him a wicked smile. Yes, he thought, he knew exactly what she meant.

    ‘I don’t know. They didn’t invite me, they might prefer it if I didn’t come along. I was thinking of getting back to my lodgings.’

    She slanted an eyebrow at him. ‘Good idea, I could come with you.’

    That wasn’t what he had in mind. He hastily added, ‘On the other hand, why not, we deserve to relax a little.’ Miranda wrapped herself around his arm and giggled.

    Ten minutes later they reached the ‘pavilion’, as the Maynards called it, but which to Richard appeared to be a spacious if somewhat dilapidated summerhouse. Two wide, long steps led up to the door, and the group of young men and girls were sprawled all over the steps, smoking cigarettes and drinking beer.

    ‘Hello Dickie-Dick-Dick!’ Arthur Parfitt called and cackled at his own hilariousness. Like his brother Reggie, he was quite obviously very drunk.

    ‘Don’t call him that, you know he doesn’t like it, Artie.’ Miranda snapped, folding her long skirt neatly about her and taking a seat on the bottom step. She took a drag of her friend’s cigarette, and watching him through the blue swirling smoke, like the starlets she’d seen in her favourite films, she added, ‘It’s not like you to be so queerly bitchy.’

    ‘That’s because he’s a bitchy little queer!’ Gervase, drunk, said. Everyone, including Richard. Laughed at that.

    Artie clapped his hand to his heart as if mortally wounded and subsided theatrically onto the step. ‘Oh Miranda, Gervase mon frère! I’m cut to the core by your marvellous jibes! Though actually, darling, I prefer to be called Artie. It’s better than Arthur any day of the week. Anyway, Dickie knows it’s just a bit of fun, don’t you Dickie-Dick-Dick?’

    Richard ignored him, and took a seat on the other side of Miranda. He accepted a bottle from one of the other girls. She must be Margaret, Richard thought. Her errand completed, she turned back to Gervase, who put a possessive arm about her shoulders. Beyond her, Algy and his girlfriend Deirdre were kissing with complete abandon, ignoring the others nearby. Richard hoped things wouldn’t get too out of hand. The fourth girl was Miranda’s little sister Penny, a sweet kid who looked almost as uncomfortably out of place as Richard felt. She was too young to be drinking beer and talking about the kind of things the rest of them were likely to talk about. He’d give it half an hour, walk Penny back to the party, say goodnight to the Maynards, then make his escape.

    He sat in the shade of the large and very beautiful copper beech. It was no blue mahoe, and the leaves were far smaller but they were still more or less heart-shaped, like those of the trees from his homeland. He repressed the aching flashes of memory: playing outside his grandfather’s hillside home, of the little village where his family had been schooled for the last three generations. Lois looking into his eyes, the sound of her laughter. Not long now. He’d be home in six weeks, and still be able to enjoy the long Caribbean summer.

    There was an aged swing hanging from the lowest branch of the beech, and at intervals one or other of the girls went to sit on it, and the men took it in turns to push them, although really it was a contest to see who could get the girl to fall off, perhaps flashing her underwear at the same time.

    Miranda was chatting with the other girls, and Richard drank another beer Algy handed him, then found he had another in his hand, and he drank that too without even really thinking about it. After half an hour or so, Miranda stubbed out her third cigarette, took his hand, removed and set down his fourth bottle of beer, and pulling him to his feet, drew him off into the copse of rhodedendrons and azaleas, amid catcalls and jeers.

    They were gone for twenty minutes. When they returned to the group, both of them were sullen and silent. Miranda went to sit with Deirdre, Algy, Margaret and Artie. Richard sat for a moment beside Penny before asking if she wanted to go back to the main party. She jumped up, relieved, and they set off back to the house.

     

    ‘How any lady can go home just on one shoe and not notice is beyond me,’ Norman Maynard’s butler remarked. It was early the next morning, and he, the footman and two maids, were surveying the scene of the party with dismay. They had brought boxes into the ballroom to clear away the debris, which consisted of discarded food, drink, crockery, glasses, napkins, items of clothing, cigar and cigarette butts, the lady’s shoe in question, a cigarette case, two pipes and a host of other oddments. The house was a mess, and on inspection it was discovered that the lawn outside was hardly less strewn with rubbish.

    George Blake, the footman, was despatched to the pavilion to clear up after the ‘secret’ drinks party enjoyed by some of the young people. He was pleased to go, as it meant he could enjoy a sneaky cigarette and dawdle for a few minutes in the sunshine. He paused to light his cigarette as soon as he rounded the shrubbery which hid him from the house. He stood for a moment, holding the smoke in the back of his throat before raising his head, eyes closed and his face raised to the sun, then slowly releasing the held breath. It was a perfect morning.

    But as he neared the pavilion, something odd on the ground caught his eye. As he came up to it, he saw it was the narrow piece of wood that formed the seat of the swing. He picked it up. Coming slowly closer to the pavilion, the hair on the back of his neck prickling with caution, he beheld the body of Richard Dawlish, hanging by a rope from the stout lower branch of the copper beech tree just beyond the building. The man’s tie was hanging loosely down, his hands swinging freely by his sides, the feet together and turning as if by their own volition as the body swayed with the breeze, first to the left, then to the right, then a little left again, his boots still smartly polished. George Blake vomited onto the bottom step of the pavilion, then throwing aside his cigarette and wiping his mouth on his sleeve, he ran back to the house, saying over and over to himself, ‘Oh my God, oh my dear God.’

    Under the watchful eye of the local police, Richard’s body was cut down and carried into the house, where it was laid upon a table in a back room. Several of the young men were up and about by this time, and stood about the room, eyeing the proceedings and sharing cigarettes. The Honourable Norman Maynard was consulting quietly with his friend, Edwin Parfitt, the chief inspector sent out from Nottingham. For once, no one felt much like making jokes about Richard’s name.

    Gervase, pale and shocked and looking far too young, said, ‘Never thought he’d be the sort to hang himself. Bit of a quiet one, a loner, perhaps, but suicidal? What do you think, Algy, was he the mental sort?’

    ‘I wouldn’t have said so.’ Algy’s hand shook as he lit a cigarette. Reggie and Artie were already smoking. Reggie’s hands shook as badly as Algy’s and he said, ‘No one knows what someone will do when they’re a bit queer in the head. Penny said he was saying all sorts to her last night. She was glad to get away from him and back to the party. Drink makes some people more depressed rather than cheering them up. And old Dickie had had an awful lot to drink.’

    As the door opened to admit the doctor, Miranda was also there, shocked, her hand to her mouth as she took in the scene. She pushed past the doctor and rushed to Richard’s side, sobbing hysterically, forgetting that she wore only her nightgown and that her negligee was not tied about her. Gervase Parfitt and her brother Michael between them tried to drag her away.

    ‘Come away, old girl, nothing we can do for the poor fellow now,’ Mike said.

    ‘You don’t understand!’ she cried, turning to face the lot of them. ‘None of you understand. I loved him! We were going to be married!’

    Then she fell down in a dead faint upon the floor.

     

    *

     

  • Books are life!

    Is it possible to gauge the influence our reading has on us over time?  Think back to the first books you read as a child, can you still remember them? Have you read those same books as an adult and still found the same ideas and images grabbing you as they did in those early days? It was my mother who encouraged my love of books, reading, and this led to writing. This is particularly important as my mum died this week, so I’ve been very introspective, thinking gratefully about her life.

    I can remember her reading The Wind in the Willows and The House at Pooh Corner to me when I was a very young child.  I can remember that sometimes I was bored, sometimes I couldn’t find my way through the complex language to the story inside. But I loved the story-reading process, loved the new ideas and characters, and I always longed for the next chapter, begged her not to stop reading.  I can remember thinking, when I’m a grown-up I can read and read and read and  no one can tel me to stop and go to sleep.  (Didn’t know about Life then!) I can remember reading fairy stories from a huge colourful book to the poor guy who came to mend the boiler, when I was no more than 5 or 6.  I suppose I also loved having a captive audience!

    I can remember being so inspired by the stories I read that I started writing my own stories – not usually more than a page long to begin with – and not usually very interesting. Even then I had a pen name, and signed my work ‘by Sammy’. That wasn’t even one of my (many) imaginary friends, it was my own creative self.

    The books that have shaped my life?  I loved Treasure Island, Jane Eyre, the Famous Five, the Lone Pine Five, all the usual books that kids in the 1960s read. The Wind in the Willows taught me that children’s stories don’t have to be facile.  Shakespeare’s plays taught me that I have a brain and I’m not afraid to use it.  Enid Blyton’s books showed me that being nosy is a sure way to get into trouble and end up tied up in a cellar (but oh the adventure!).  Many, many books taught me to believe I could write,  Agatha Christie, Ellis Peters, Dorothy L Sayers and Patricia Wentworth taught me what I wanted to write, and that you don’t have to be highbrow or obscure to be a good writer.

    I was thrilled to discover there were all kinds of works:  poetry, plays, fiction, non-fiction. There were genres. I could read romance, I could read classic, I could read crime. I could read fantasy-crime from Jasper Fforde and Tom Holt. I could read J B Priestley and J M Barrie, Arthur Conan Doyle and William Makepeace Thackeray. I could read translated works. There are just sooooo many books, and given time, I could read – if not all – then a pretty good number. Books made me take that leap of faith, experiment, and when things didn’t work out, I had somewhere to go to recover.  If all else fails, they make a bloody big pile you can hide behind.

    But over all of this, the books themselves, crowding about me like friends, took over my life to the detriment of all else – apart from my family of course 🙂 and I can honestly say that nine times out of ten, I’d sooner spend my money on a book than a bar of chocolate – and those who know me know that is really saying something.

    ***

  • Let’s have a catch up – and what Dottie means to me.

    On Monday I took part in (was arm-wrestled into) in my first ever ‘thing’ as a writer! This was a big deal for someone who a) hardly ever sees actual people in the flesh, and b) has never done anything remotely ‘public’ before, not even a school play. I even got my university diploma through the post.

    So I turned up on Monday evening with Emma Baird the writer – couldn’t get out of it, she along with her minion husband Sandy, came and collected me – and whisked me off to the mysterious outer reaches of Dalmuir and its library. I didn’t tell anyone, but my nerves over this upcoming event inspired several urgent trips to the loo, but when I arrived, and was greeted by the amazing library staff, then a trickle of keen and friendly event goers began to arrive, and I thought, ‘Aha this might actually work, these people clearly believed me when I said I was a writer. I can get away with it!’

    We had rehearsed, which was good, because it’s very hard to know if your planned answer is actually helpful, or interesting, so we had done our dry run (not so dry, it was alcohol-fueled) the day before. And to my astonishment, the evening went really well, it was hugely enjoyable, and we were both very relaxed. Emma read a bit of my book Night and Day out loud, then she interrogated asked me a couple of questions, then she read a bit of her book Artists Town, I asked her a few questions, then it was the turn of the audience to ask questions. I know I lost my thread a bit here and there–something I am prone to do, and went into my rabbit-in-the-headlights mode, but everyone was very patient and kind, and I would absolutely recommend having a go–and if anyone should rashly ask me again, I might even say yes. So that was that.

    Thank you lovely, lovely people of Dalmuir and environs.

    Meanwhile, both before and after the event, I am/have been engaged in tidying up my novel The Last Perfect Summer of Richard Dawlish prior to it being published in about three weeks’ time. It is the fourth of my Dottie Manderson mysteries and sees Dottie facing a number of challenges, not least of which is to discover the identity of a murderer.

    You might already know, if you’ve followed my previous posts, that this is a series of cosy mysteries set in Britain in the 1930s. It’s an era that thrills me, and my deep love of cosy mysteries has lasted for fifty years, as I began reading Agatha Christie and Patricia Wentworth at quite a young age.

    Now cosies are quite big business these days, and there are loads of them on the market. A lot of them are ‘themed’ in that they are set around a particular interest or activity, or all take place in one setting. So you will find a large number of cosies set in bakeries, flower stores, book clubs and seaside resorts or country towns. This is in fact a good deal of their appeal.

    Typically a story involves a crime, often a murder, and the mystery is solved by one or two amateur sleuths  who may or may not be carrying on with a handsome policeman or woman. My books are just the same in that respect: Dottie is a young woman who gets involved, to her family’s dismay, in ‘scrapes’ and ‘exploits’. But where I try to create a difference is this: the way I see it, life is not cut and dried. It doesn’t fall neatly into twenty or twenty-five chapters, with a neatly wrapped up ending. So unlike most books, you will find that usually the end of one of my books is in fact a beginning. I try to wrap up the murder (though notably, I didn’t fully do this at the end of the novella Scotch Mist, and some of you really didn’t like that! Sorry!) but there are often open questions at the end of my books, and Dottie sometimes takes a while to find the answer. Sometimes the answer isn’t exactly what we thought all along. It’s a bit of a risk on my part, and some people haven’t enjoyed that.

    I hope you will stick with me and give me the benefit of the doubt, because I’m trying to ensure that the reader is with Dottie on her voyage of discovery about life. I love these books, (contrary to what one reviewer has suggested) and Dottie means so much to me, she has become real in my imagination. She is very young, still only twenty years old in book four, so not ‘of age’, and she has so much to learn about life and the world around her. She has been brought up in a well-to-do family, and her life has been sheltered and comfortable. Gradually she is coming to see that not everyone is wealthy, not everyone is happy, not everyone is honest, and that things don’t always get solved or set to rights straight away. She is growing, maturing and becoming a strong woman. Even though my books are cosies, they are not (I hope) tame, dull or cold. I hope you can get behind that!

    ***

  • Perilously close to Dalmuir…

    Ooh dear. So here’s the thing. There’s this lovely lady called Emma Baird. She is a writer. And I’m going to blame her for this because in all honesty, I can’t remember if I said to her, ‘Wow what a great idea if…’ or if it was her who said that to me.  So let’s blame her. Next Monday, not today but next week, she and I are going to step WAY out of our joint comfort zones and stand–or sit, they might have chairs–up in front of easily tens of people, and talk about what it’s like being a writer, and in particular what’s it’s like being an Indie or self-published writer. (note to self: check blouse for food stains, you know what a messy eater you are and no one needs to see that.)

    So if you are in the Dalmuir area at 7pm next Monday, the 19th November, and you think, ‘Ooh, it’s a bit chilly out here, what shall I do?’ go into the library and sit down and listen to a saintly Scottish young woman and a mad old bat from England (that’s me) waffle on about what writing is to them, why they do it, how they do it, and why that means you could do it too. Because, think about it, you could!

    Isn’t that amazing? Because five years ago, no one had even heard of me, and now, at least 12 people know me and have read my books. I’m exaggerating. It’s about 11.

    Seriously though, it’s been a weird five years, full of highs and lows, full of challenges, tears, and ecstatic ‘OMG it worked!’ moments. There was that one crazy day shortly after I published my first book Criss Cross (which is still FREE for eBook download btw) when someone I didn’t know bought a copy of my book. If you have never done this, I really don’t think you’ll understand, unless you paint and people buy your work, or you sing and people pay to listen to you, or… that kind of thing. It was one of the most genuinely surreal moments of my life. Because yes, I know I had written it, rewritten it, edited it and uploaded it to the relevant platforms for the exact purpose of selling it to unwary members of the public, but even so, I cannot help but marvel at this magical revelation: someone bought my book.

    Once, a couple of months back, ‘someone’ (no idea who, well, I have a couple of ideas, but no specific evidence) mentioned my book on Twitter, and in one (glorious) afternoon and evening I had 3800 downloads of the eBook. And this of course led to increased sales across all my books for a few days. That has happened a couple of times actually, and it is so strange when you can almost see the little dot that represents your book sales going up and up and up before your very eyes. To think that someone I don’t know, whom I may never meet, who probably lives thousands of miles away from me or perhaps, just a mile down the road, has chosen my book. That is why I do this. It’s not about the money, though that helps, I’d be lying if I said it didn’t matter, but it’s not the main reason. the main reason is that weird connection thing, where you have written something that someone else thinks, wow, I’d like to read this.

    So thank you for buying my book, nebulous, anonymous person-I-have-never-met. I really hope you enjoy it. And as for you Dalmuirites: get ready!

    ***

  • Autumn brings introspection, and our new annual tradition

    I’m always going on about nature and how it makes me reflect on life in general and my writing in particular. Outside my window is a damp, red-yellow scene. We’ve had a fairly mild autumn here in Derby, England with only a little frost, and unusually for us here on our little hill, a lot of rain. It’s never quite enough rain for me. Ever since we came back from Australia, almost seventeen years ago, I’ve been kind of obsessed with rainfall.

    But autumn brings with it a conflict of pace. In town, everything is gathering speed as we head towards Christmas; the shops are already selling glittery shiny stuff and there is red tinsel everywhere. But away from this commercial world, the earth is heading towards its winter sleep. The leaves fall, gently, wearily, laying themselves on the ground with a sigh. The animals are hoarding foodstocks, and searching for warm hideaways. Crops come to the end of production, the last petals fall from the roses, herbs turn to straw, and the trees reach naked limbs into the chilly air.

    There is so much inspiration to be gained from an observation of the natural world at the moment. As I bring one novel to an end, and prepare to start another, as our new annual tradition of NaNoWriMo gets under way, we all will need all the help we can get with our writing. Now is a time when we are lured by sleep, yet we have to dig down deep to find the stamina and the energy to stick with it and write on into the gloomy days of winter.

    My advice is, write early if you can. Get your 1660 words or so written as early in the day as you can. All too often we get to evening and have run out of time or impetus. If you can relax secure in the knowledge you’ve already done your daily word count, you will feel justifiably smug for the rest of the day.

    And don’t forget, if you are taking part in NaNoWriMo, keep your WIP on your computer up-to-date: you can’t verify a word count at the end of the month if your story is all written by hand on scraps of paper, or even in your sparkly new notebook! Write as many extra words as you can at the beginning, as you will need this to ease your way towards the end. But hang in there, keep writing, don’t panic. It will come together. Take the occasional day off if you need to, but remember to make up the word count so you don’t fall behind and leave yourself with a Herculean task late in the month.

    See you on the other side.

    ***

     

  • So what has Agatha Christie done for us?

    Following my two recent posts about Agatha Christie and her famous–or infamous–disappearance, I thought it would be good, and only fitting, to bring the focus back onto her profession output: between 1920 and 1973-ish she wrote 66 detective novels under her married name, Agatha Christie, 6 non-detective novels as Mary Westmacott, and 14 short story collections. In addition a number of her works were adapted for the stage, or were plays that were novelised. How many of us can hope to produce so much work over a period of over 50 years? Even now, in the 21st century, her work is still being adapted for television or filmed for the ‘big screen’. Her work is available in a huge range of languages, and in Braille, large print, and as audiobooks. I’m sure there are few authors who could claim such a massive audience over such a sustained period of time. And forty years after her death, her novels are being reprinted and are easily getting into the upper reaches of bestseller lists. Wow! Let me just take a moment to think about that.

    But far from setting out to be a great author, she only started writing at all due to a bet with her sister, and a certain amount of boredom. Yet she has arguably created some of the best and worst detectives in the genre, and some of the most devious and controversial plots to ever trick and mislead the reading public. If we sometimes today find her plots predictable or jaded, that is because we can easily forget that she and a few other trailblazers have, through their work, made us as readers more sophisticated and at the same time, have aroused expectations to fit the genre. We should try to place the books in their original era if we can, as then they were even more fresh, unusual and very, very clever.

    So if you’ve been living on the moon, and haven’t read anything by Christie before, or if you’ve only lately come to detective fiction via some other nefarious genre, what are the five books you should read by Agatha Christie?

    Well obviously you’ve got to read the first Poirot book, not that sequence is an issue with Christie as it is with many authors. But it’s always interesting to a) read an author’s first book, and b) read the first book to feature a well-known detective. So you absolutely must begin with The Mysterious Affair At Styles, published in 1920 and featuring Hercule Poirot: I would say the world’s foremost fictional detective. This is a phenomenal debut, and an intriguing mystery. Later Christie decided she didn’t like Poirot, and she tried to kill him off, but her publisher kept the book on ice for decades before allowing its release. Poirot is rather a comical detective, with personality flaws in the form of vanity and self-importance. His strengths lie in his deep thought processes and his use of logic to work out the details of a crime, that and a reliance on bigotry that overlooks the usefulness of a foreigner on the part of many he comes into contact with. Styles was the real name of Christie’s own childhood home.

    You also HAVE to read two other classic Poirot’s: Death on the Nile and Murder on the Orient Express. These have become genre classics almost

    independent of their creator, and the TV series and various film versions have definitely assisted with that. These books have masterful plots featuring an ensemble cast, and represent neat variations on the country house theme by being a ship and a train. The exotic locations just add to the pleasure.

    Miss Marple is one of Christie’s other detectives, and is almost as well known and loved as Poirot. She is a single old lady who knits and gossips. She solves mysteries by the simple expedient of listening, asking questions and knowing a great deal about human behaviour. This is largely the result of her long life experience, and that she lives in a small community where everyone knows everyone. Like Poirot, she is often overlooked as a threat to the plans of baddies and evildoers. The best Marple book to start with, in my opinion, is again the book that introduces us to the character, a volume of short stories first published in 1933, The Thirteen Problems (or in the US this is called The Tuesday Club Murders). Another famous Marple book is Nemesis and it is also excellent.

    Okay, I said five books, and there they are. But I can’t resist adding a bonus one: Death Comes As The End. It was published in 1945, and is a traditional-style murder mystery, but it is set in ancient Egypt, and the background was gleaned by Christie from her archaeological exploits with husband number two, Sir Max Mallowan. It’s a great story, full of fascinating detail, and inspired me to learn more about history of all eras.

    I hope that, having read all the above books, you might feel an impulse to go back and read all her works. They are well worth the effort, and I am sure you will agree, not only are they entertaining and enjoyable, you will also feel that you have come to know the woman behind the works too.

    ***

  • Murder, Mayhem and Indie Publishing

    Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear… breathe, Caron, breathe…

    High Heels and Pink Glitter

    Dear lady, this month thou shalt stand up in front of people and attempt to inform and entertain… Not much of a tall order is it?

    Up there on this year’s to-do list, which always includes something along the lines of Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway, was’do a workshop/book event’. As someone who’d rather have a tooth pulled out sans anesthetic than stand up in front of an audience*, this is a biggie. I’ve published four books so far and this is my first ‘launch’.

    Night and Day by Caron AllanTo ease the experience, I bullied roped in another writer to join me and billed it as a Q and A session. Given that most people think they have a book in them, why not appeal to that audience by positioning our event as an exploration of the world of indie publishing? And unlike me, my author chum makes decent money from…

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  • Searching for Agatha

    The newspapers had a field day and speculated about disguises.

    As I said last week, literally thousands of people joined the search for Agatha Christie in December 1926 when she disappeared for eleven days. Her car was found, run off the road, at a place called Newlands Corner, in Surrey, in the South of England. Her fur coat was still in the car, and there were some clothes in a suitcase, and some documents, notably an expired driving license. It was assumed–or feared might be a better word–that she had either been kidnapped or murdered–or as her depressed state came to light, had committed suicide.

    Indeed, in interviews a few years later, Agatha Christie did admit she had had suicidal thoughts, but it was her Christian belief that suicide was a terrible sin that prevented her from carrying it out. We can see this attitude so often in the news and fiction of that era. When someone kills themselves, they are seen not only as sinful, but as weak, selfish, lacking in moral backbone, and cowardly. So it wasn’t particularly a viable alternative for someone in desperate straits. But to go away, to be completely unknown and anonymous, that was a whole different thing. The prospect of disappearing–even if only for a few days–must have been a tempting one.

    Agatha and her daughter Rosalind

    But how did she get from Newlands Corner to Harrogate, a distance of 230 miles, having abandoned her car? True, she didn’t check into the hotel for twenty-four hours after leaving home, but I really don’t think could have walked it, no matter how ‘outdoorsy’ she was known to be. She left the house at about 9.45pm on Friday night the 3rd December 1926. The met office reported it as slightly above the average for the time of year, and dry, and about 40f or 4c: which is still pretty chilly. (You can read old met reports here–if like me you revel in that stuff: it’s a fascinating site)

    In an interview later, quoted in Surrey Life magazine (Originally published in Surrey Life magazine October 2008/Words by Alec Kingham) says ‘For 24 hours, I wandered in a dream, then found myself in Harrogate as a well-contented and perfectly happy woman who believed she had just come from South Africa.’ It’s not mentioned here but stated elsewhere, that this newly-invented character was a widow, and I find that interesting: is that why this character was happy? Notably, Agatha was said not to have been wearing her wedding ring, though in view of the wreck of that marriage, perhaps that’s not entirely surprising, though the wronged party often does continue to wear their wedding ring, especially until the divorce is finalised. The breakdown of a long-term relationship is known to trigger a deep sense of bereavement.

    Alec Kingham claims that Agatha walked to an inn in Shere (interestingly, this is the same small neighbourhood where Archie had gone to a weekend house-party of a friend, and to be with his mistress) and she stayed there  overnight, then went on by train the following day, a tortuous route via local lines to reach Guildford, and from there to London, across London and then on to Harrogate, arriving at the Hydropathic Hotel in the evening.

    In my view, she had to have planned it. I’m not talking weeks or months, just a couple of hours is all she would have needed. But I don’t believe this could have all been accomplished off-the-cuff. Is it possible her secretary helped? She was supposed to have been unaware of what had happened, other than the fact that Colonel Christie had left the house for good with his belongings following a final scene, and that Agatha herself went out a little later.

    It’s been suggested that the site where she crashed the car had been deliberately set up to resemble a crime scene. And certainly if anyone could have planned and created such an event, she could. Who else would carry an expired driving license on her if not a mystery writer out to set up her own disappearance?

    Archie Christie told the police that she had once said that if she wanted to disappear, she knew exactly how she would do it, and she maintained she’d never be found. Perhaps that’s why the newspapers featured her photograph with various disguises such as different hair colour and styles, and with glasses.

    Certainly she’d have needed money. She had to travel all the way to Yorkshire, presumably by at least three trains and either underground or bus across London. Even in the 1920s, you’d need hard cash for that. And luggage–no respectable hotel will take a guest with no luggage at all, even if they said at the reception desk, ‘Oh I’m only staying for a day or two, the rest of my stuff is in the car.’ So let’s take it as read she had at least a small holdall or suitcase, with a change of clothes. And some cash.

    She knew where she was going, she had everything she needed with her. She had to have planned it. Whether or not she had any help from another person remains a mystery, but this could not have been a spur of the moment occurrence.

    ***

  • Hatless and coatless at 6am: Agatha’s famous disappearance.

    1926 was the worst of years for Agatha Christie in spite of her successful career as one of the world’s most famous detective fiction authors. Her sixth novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was published that year. Yes it was, and still is, massively successful, but it had its critics and detractors, becoming almost a notorious book, and a difficult one to follow up.

    Agatha’s husband Colonel Archibald Christie took himself off, overseas then to London, leaving Agatha to cope with first the illness, then the death of her mother, alone. She had the task of clearing her childhood home, again, without her husband of 12 years’ support. Meanwhile, he had announced he was having an affair with Nancy Neele, the former secretary of a friend, and that he wanted to end his marriage to Agatha and marry Nancy.

    After a brief reconciliation in 1926 which Agatha described as ‘a period of sorrow, misery and heartbreak’, on the 3rd of December he packed his bags and left for good, stating that he wanted a divorce. That was the day Agatha disappeared. He went to a friend’s for a weekend house-party, planning to meet Nancy Neele there. She left the house late that evening, and was not seen again for eleven days.

    Her car was found abandoned off the road at Newland’s Corner in Surrey. It’s a fairly remote spot, even today, and a beautiful, popular place for walking. Her fur coat and a suitcase containing clothes and an expired driving license were found in the car, prompting fears of kidnapping or worse. It was all over the news, with sensational headlines such as ‘Where is Mrs Christie? Foul Play?’ and my personal favourite, from the Surrey Times: ‘Riddle of Newlands

    Corner: Strange Disappearance of Authoress: Hatless and Coatless at 6am’. It’s easy to see how exciting this all was for everyone not actually involved. A mystery author caught up in her very own mystery. She had left home the night before, so the ‘At 6am’ bit was a melodramatic invention. But they came by that because a man claimed to have been stopped by a woman who asked him to start her car for her, and the description answered hers. It’s all a bit tricky to piece together now, as this was supposed to have been at Newland’s Corner, so did she drive off then come back to the same spot? Or did he just want his fifteen minutes of fame? Anyway, she was gone, and it wasn’t until the 14th December that she was found, 230 miles away.

    Agatha Christie was found at the Hydropathic Hotel (now called the Old Swan, a lovely-looking place) in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, where she had been staying, registered under the name of Mrs Teresa Neele, purporting to be a widow from South Africa. It was said that she had seen the newspaper reports and had even joined in with the speculation about the fate of the missing author. Staff and guests at the hotel had seen her dancing the Charleston, doing crosswords, reading the newspaper and playing Bridge, apparently unaware of the furore her disappearance had caused.

    And it was a furore, too. There were an estimated 500-1000 police officers involved in the search for her, and approximately 15,000 people volunteered to help in the search of the area in Surrey. Bloodhounds, Beagles and German Shepherds sniffed the area, and even her own fox terrier was brought in to try to track her down. Local ponds were dredged or searched by divers, airplanes flew over the area.

    In the literary world, her colleagues were keen to help: Arthur Conan Doyle took a glove of Agatha’s to a medium as he feared she was dead, but received no help from the ‘other side’. Dorothy L Sayers searched for clues and generally did her bit as a sleuth to try to get to the bottom of the problem. Rewards were offered and Archie Christie wanted Scotland Yard to be called in.

    A couple of people said they made this discovery and rang the police to claim the £100 reward, a member of the hotel staff, a musician in a band playing in the hotel. Whoever did it, the police, and Archie Christie arrived in a media flurry to claim both. Christie and the truth about what happened. Officially, she hit her head and lost her memory. Archie got her to a psychiatrist or two to bear out the story, and then took her home to recover.

    The theories abounded. Some said it was a fake, a mere publicity stunt to boost book sales (not that she needed to). Others said the memory loss was genuine, amnesia is not always total. Psychiatrists seemed to be divided in their opinions. Officially, the line was never wavered from: she hit her head when she crashed her car, and she lost consciousness. When she awoke, she thought she was someone else. Still other opinions suggested she had sought revenge on Archie, and wanted to either panic him, or make him realise how much he still loved her, or even, in extremis, to have him arrested for her murder.

    But she came home, the marriage was dissolved, somehow life got back to some kind of normality. And the books continued to be written, Including Unfinished Portrait, a book under the pseudonym of Mary Westmacott, where a woman attempts suicide, prompting parallels to be drawn with Christie’s own life. 

    My personal view is, this was a woman at a crisis point in her life. Her mother had died, her husband was leaving her, and a successful career was a daunting and unforeseen prospect for a shy country woman. She was known to have suffered periodically from depression and had by her own admission had thoughts of suicide, though her Christian upbringing precluded that as an option. I think she just had to get away, fix herself, rest, and the amnesia story was the only half-credible way out of the fix. These days celebs and career people dash off to little refuges and retreats to get away from the media. In those days, I’m not sure they did. I just think she felt out of options.

    ***

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