- ‘So, where do you get your ideas?’
I know I’ve written on this topic a couple of times before, but it’s one of those questions that never goes away.
Where do you get your ideas?’
This is one of the first questions people usually ask me – and I’m pretty sure it happens to other writers all the time. It kind of makes me want to groan, because it’s next to impossible to give a sincere and considered answer to this question without boring the pants off everyone by talking for an hour. The short, somewhat trite answer might be, ‘Everywhere!’
But if we really want to answer the question, it takes a minute or two longer. Because really there’s no single answer. Ideas don’t come from one unique, unvarying source. Nor do they come in the same way each time. Anything from the world seen or unseen can come to my attention and lead me to think, ‘Hmm, that’s interesting…’
Inspiration, which is what ideas really are, comes from everywhere and nowhere. A snatch of song, a news story, a little patch of colour on a card in the paint section of the DIY store, the turn of a person’s head making you think just for one split second it’s someone else, someone from another time, someone who should be dead. An unexpected view of yourself in a shop window, that odd moment before you recognise yourself, that brief second when you think, slightly puzzled, ‘I know you.’
An overheard snatch of conversation, ‘Don’t lose my hat, man, my hat’s my identity,’ and ‘Of course she never did find out who’d sent it.’ A film, a book, a taste, a smell, a memory, a story your mother told you – you’ve known her all your life yet this is the first time she’s ever mentioned this particular incident.
I have based two full-length stories on dreams, three short stories and one novel on songs, a poem on a piece of art, a novel based on a documentary I saw on TV about ancient tapestries, (Opus Anglicanum: Latin for English work), and another about the Reformation. I’ve written a short story about an arrowhead, and another about ancestral bones and the relevance they might have to a Neolithic man, about a couple of trips to Skara Brae in the Orkneys.
I’ve written a whole series of stories about the fact that all too often people think it’s okay to take the law into their own hands. (I’m looking at you Cressida, MC of the Friendship Can Be Murder trilogy!) I’ve written about work situations, about hopes and plans for the future, about family tree research, about children, and pets, and parents. About love. About the absence of love. About Faith. About fear. About books I read as a child. And books I read as an adult. I’ve written about identity and what it means to be who I am, who you are. I’ve written about death – loads.
I saw a gorgeous man on the bus many years ago and wrote a story about him, (The Ice King – still not ‘available’, but if you’re intrigued, here’s a link to a short bit about him.) I’ve read news reports and been inspired to create my own story around some of those. I’ve written in hospital having just given birth, in hospital awaiting treatment for cancer, at work during my lunchbreak when I felt so depressed I just wanted to run away and hide. I’ve written when sitting on the loo, sitting in the garden, on holiday, in bed with flu, and in cafes all over Britain, Europe and Australia. I’ve written on buses and trains and planes. I’ve written when someone I cared about has died. I’ve even got inspiration from sitting down at my desk every day and just making myself write. Sometimes I’ve written page upon page of ‘I don’t know what to write’, like lines that we had to do at school, and still nothing has come to me and I’ve gone away desperate, feeling that the well has not only dried up, but was only a mirage to begin with.
If you are a writer, you squirrel away in the eccentric filing cabinet known as your brain EVERY single thing that you ever experience, and a bit like doing a jigsaw puzzle or creating a patchwork quilt, you keep trying pieces together every which way until something fits and makes a pleasing and meaningful picture. There’s not really a pattern to it, there’s not a system or a set of regulations to follow. You just do it.
That’s where I get my ideas.
- ‘Features’ of the 1930s.
I’m back to Betty’s Paper again. I wanted to have a look at the features that are inside the magazine. Tell me what you think – do they seem very ‘now’ to you? I was a little surprised by how similar these mags were to the ones we read today. I’m not sure if I expected something different, and if I did, what exactly? Seems like they nailed the art of selling and entertaining even then.
The first thing that caught my eye with these and with some of the others I’ve seen, is that alluring offer of a ‘Free Gift’ emblazoned on the front. That sent me straight back to the 70s and my copies of Jackie and other magazines designed for teenage girls. There was often a free eye-shadow, or a lip gloss or something. They still do that, dont’ they? That was usually the only reason you bought the mag – that and the pin-ups inside! Can I confess right here and now that I had a massive poster of Ben Murphy from Alias Smith and Jones on my bedroom wall?
So an offer of a ‘platinette ring’ with a ‘sparkling stone of sapphire blue’ is going to lure us in with our hard-earned cash, isn’t it? I love the creativity displayed just in that little offer – platinette – sounds a teeny bit like platinum – so it’s bound to be good! I wonder how many girls were told, ‘Marge, it’s just gilt, love.’ And Marge, faithful to Betty’s Paper unto her dying breath would immediately retort, ‘It’s not gilt, it’s platinette!’ And not just any old platinette, either, it’s got a sparkling stone of sapphire blue in it. (Blue glass to you and me.) Free gifts always had a massive appeal, and would undoubtedly have sold loads more copies of the magazine, at small cost to the publisher. Another ‘free gift’ of note from another issue: A butterfly-shaped dress ornament. I bet that was taken out and admired repeatedly, but never worn – because how many opportunities does a hard-working girl get to go out dolled up with a butterfly on her frock?
But apart from the free gift, what features did Betty’s Paper offer? A few weeks ago I touched on the ads which offered all manner of fortune-telling and astrology. But just like today, for the readers of 1930s Betty’s Papers, the combination of both astrology and celebrities were a heady mix.
There is a double page spread on exactly this topic: ‘Confessions of a Hollywood Fortune Teller’. It’s quite clearly a gossip column under another name, and yet again, I take my metaphorical hat off to the cunning and crafty imagineers who created the content for Betty’s. They knew how to get people’s attention. If I could only bottle that stuff…
We start with a section about a girl called Ruby. You’ve never heard of her, right? Me either. Her name was Ruby Keeler. The article goes on to say ‘It’s hard to imagine a lovely talented girl accepting stardom reluctantly and being doubtful about it, isn’t it?’ (as if we’d know) and then, ‘She had come to Hollywood not as a star but as a star’s wife. That was all Ruby wanted to be. She was completely happy just to be Mrs Al Jolson.’ Oh ok, now I’m interested. But I’m a bit of a cynic and I couldn’t help laughing when I read: ‘She had never quite got over the thrill of realising that anyone so famous and splendid as Al could have wanted her–a night-club and vaudeville dancer. ‘I think you’re marvellous,’ he told her.’
Aww bless. Lifestyles of the rich and famous.
Are you a lonely, single night-club and vaudeville dancer? You too could meet someone famous and splendid who will admire you and call you marvellous for no reason other than that you’re young, blonde, beautiful, and can dance and sing. Just write in to Betty’s Paper and you might win a lovely undie set. We promise not to use your real name and address unless you win. Or are featured in our loveliest readers competition.
Seriously, I hope they were happy.
The bit about Ruby ends with, ‘Ruby became a star–rather reluctantly–and although she’s a bigger star than Al these days, I’m thankful to say that it hasn’t spoilt her married happiness in the least.’
(naughty snigger: a comment later on: ‘I sometimes think that Dick is out of place in Hollywood.’)
Another feature in very much the same vein is ‘Untold Love Stories of The Stars’ – the byline says, ‘Intimate Gossip About Hollywood’s secret romances’. Not any more. Secret, that is. they talk about Joan Crawford, June Clyde, and of course, Ginger Rogers, Hollywood’s sweetheart.
”When I marry Lew, I’ll have to learn how to cook,’ Ginger said seriously.’ (Lew Ayres – yes I’ve never heard of him either. Soz Lew.) The caption to the photos of them (two separate ones – obviously Betty’s Paper’s Authority on Hollywood didn’t get close enough for a pic of them together) says ‘Ginger Rogers and Lew Ayres are married now, but kept the gossipers guessing for nearly eighteen months!’ They should have called in the person who did the Fortune Teller of Hollywood article.
I was thrilled to discover Betty’s did a problem page! None of that Ask Auntie stuff. the page is called ‘It Helps To Tell’ then adds, ‘write to Betty about that problem that simply won’t come right.’ The bait? Another freebie of course! this time a cute camisole and french knickers or something like that. ‘This Lovely Undie Set For A Reader’s Problem’. It doesn’t say one each, so I imagine this is for the most exciting, I mean, the most unfortunate problem of the week. All names and addresses will be strictly in confidence, we’re told, but send in your name and address, just in case you win the prize!
What kind of problems do the worried readers of 1935 have? Well, it’s boys, obviously. A worried 18-year-old from Manchester writes, ‘I’m in love with a boy who doesn’t notice me.’ Reading between the lines, it’s clear that said boy, having only recently discovered girls, is now walking out with that fast piece from number 26. ‘On no account,’ Betty cautions, ‘dear, must you do anything to steal this boy away from this girl he has chosen.’ Find someone new, is Betty’s wise advice. Other problems – ‘My friend and I are both unhappy in our home lives and want to go into service in London. We are both eighteen.’ Oh dear. That immediately triggers my maternal WTF response. Two young girls going off to London all alone…????? Take a deep breath, concerned mums, and read on:
What does Betty say in response? ‘First, dear, yes, you are quite old enough to go into service. As a matter of fact, there is a great demand for girls of your age (I bet there is!) But you will find it easier to obtain a position if you first obtain some experience int he province. Your local employment exchange will help you to do this.’
Phew. Looks like Worried of Bradford will stay out of trouble a wee bit longer, then!
Thanks Betty’s Paper for all the fun of yesterday, which seems so remarkably like the fun of today. My conclusion: we haven’t changed a bit. I hope you enjoyed this trip into the 30s. I loved it.
- The red and gold thoughts of Autumn
For me, it is not Spring, but Autumn and Winter that form my season of creativity. I have no idea why this is. I don’t know why, but for me, autumn is not the season for rest and consolidation, but of flights of imagination taking wings.
It seems as though the rest of the world is full of new life in the Spring. Is it because I’m an October baby, my lifecycle naturally goes from Autumn onwards? Or because when we lived in Brisbane, October was in the Spring? But how can five years there undo the habits of the other fifty-four years I’ve lived in the Northern Hemisphere? Or maybe it’s because for parents everywhere in the UK, Autumn is when the children go back to school and you at last get two minutes to sit in silence and just enjoy hearing – nothing. Ah, bliss!
New ideas are taking shape, even before the old ideas have been put to bed. I’m thinking about what I want to say in a new story. I’m having a wonderful time creating book covers, and though I’m struggling to come up with new titles, I have some ideas to mull over.
I’m always drawn to old stuff, I’m drawn backwards into the past. I’m thinking of tea-dances, afternoon picnics on wide sweeping lawns, I’m thinking of couples dancing on a veranda under the stars, the music softened by distance and the soft evening breeze.
I’m thinking rural, villagey, fields, water, trees. I’m thinking of sorrow and haunting, of deeds never talked of, of the guilty secrets of the past. I’m thinking of shame and sacrifice, I’m humming old pastoral songs and rhymes, Scarborough Fair, children’s songs and folk songs, ‘Bobby Shafto(e) Went To Sea, He’ll Come Back And Marry me… Bonny Bobby Shafto(e).’ Or the old folk song and pop hit from the 70s, Whiskey in the Jar – ‘When I was going over/the Cork and Kerry mountains…I saw Captain Farrell and his money he was counting…’’
I’m remembering the duplicitous nature of the minstrel, wandering, legitimately able to plant one foot in each camp, never on any side but his own. A useful means for conveying information, often ill-gotten. And he can sing out in public everyone’s secrets, and how can you stop a man doing that?
I’m thinking of myths and legends, hillsides cloaked in mist, an unseen bird calling in the gloom, of the soft insinuating sound of the wind, like a sigh, like a breath, or like a dragon’s terrible approach. I’m thinking about the returning home of the prodigal, how we carry the past with us, inside, even when we are looking forward and moving on, something draws us ever back.
I’m thinking too of that moment when you come home and you know someone else has been there. Someone who shouldn’t have been there. The stillness—too much—and the silence that waits. Your house feels guilty, complicit, hushed as if someone had been speaking and just this moment stopped when you opened the door.
I am thinking, staring at the falling leaves, driven across the grass by a pushing wind, and I am thinking of long ago, of people who may not have existed, but who could come into being in my imagination. I am thinking of a man at a window staring out, his mind working on things he cannot put into words. I’m thinking of a woman, always waiting, wringing her hands in front of the window, her own shadow cast out across the lamplit stones of the yard. When will he return? Will he ever return? The waiting woman. The unspeaking man.
I’m thinking of a boy coming over the hill. Of grass, green, long, dewy. Of the sun, soft, golden, gentle as a mother’s hand, just touching his hair, his shoulder. How long has he been away? How much has changed? Will anything ever change?
If I never have another new idea, I’ve already got enough to keep me writing for the next twenty years. I only hope that’s possible.
‘Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight,/And all the air a solemn stillness holds.’ Thomas Gray’s Elegy.
Autumn – not for sleeping but for creating anew.
- Stories for a 1930s audience.
Last week I took a look at the kind of advertising you might have found if browsing through an issue of Betty’s Paper, a popular magazine from the 1920s through to (I think) about the 1940s. It’s hard to find out much about the mag without doing some hardcore research (it might come to that), but I know it was at its peak in the 30s, and there are still quite a few issues left to be snapped up if you’re of a mind to buy this kind of memorabilia.
Betty’s Paper wasn’t the only one around. There was also Peg’s Paper (1919 to 40) English Woman’s Journal (1850s to 1910), The Gentlewoman (1890 to 1926), The Freewoman (1911 to 1912), The Lady’s Realm (1890s to 1914), Time and Tide (1920s to 1970s), Woman’s Journal (1920 to 2001) to name the most well known. There were others, often with a more targeted purpose, for example, campaigning women’s suffrage and letting women know what was happening in various groups. Mostly magazines were aimed at middle and upper class women, but Peg’s Paper, and Betty’s Paper were aimed at working class women, and had less educational and more purely entertaining content than other magazines.
Betty’s – and Peg’s – contained short fiction, sometimes as serials, that thrilled the imagination, and owed a great deal to the cinema. There were fashion and style tips, using actresses of the era as role models, and holding them up as examples of the right look to emulate, very much as all the media do today. We looked at the ads last week, and I concluded that, again just as now, many were fixated upon appearance: looking slim, budget fashion that stood up to scrutiny, easy health fixes for people who lived busy lives, working hard and with little time or money to spend on themselves. Perfect for the factory and domestic girls of the 1920s and 1930s.
But what were the stories like that were every week there to tantalise our girls as they took a quick tea break or read for ten minutes before going to sleep?
Firstly, I noticed that the stories were illustrated, a bit like a children’s comic. I know that still happens today, but these struck me as being more dramatic. The men often seem to loom over the women in a authoritative almost aggressive manner. The men also look very old compared to the younger-looking women. Pretty sure all these heroines are about 20 and all the heroes are about 48.
The headlines and taglines too were melodramatic and leaning towards the scandalous. I presume this was a good way to draw in readers and get them to spend their cash – Betty’s Paper was tuppence ‘Every Friday’. When wages were paid weekly in cash, I imagine this was one of the first ‘treats’ a girl would get herself before going home and giving most of her money to her parents.
Anyway – on to the stories. I’ve only got two issues (at the moment hahaha) but between these two issues of 36 pages each, there are eight stories, and seem to be serialised in two or three parts. Some of them masquerade as ‘real life stories’ (see me next week for more…) but the rest are presented as written by ‘well-known’ lady authors. The sensational headings are guaranteed to pique the interest of any normal woman: ‘One Hour of Love Then Tears’, ‘The Sin That Came Between Them’, ‘When Men Are Dangerous’, ‘But She Was Blamed’, and my particular favourite, ‘Back Street Blonde’, tagline ‘she was born to be a man’s girl’.
They read a bit like cautionary tales – be careful, be cautious, be modest, they seem to say. Keep away from MEN. And like Mary Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, they seem to hint vaguely at the dreadful fate that awaits a woman without virtue. This was probably useful information for a young woman with a little bit of her own money able to go out with her friends in the evening in the wicked city and not come home until – ooh – ten? eleven o’clock? The stories are about trying very hard to make a marriage work, about being honest, and morally upright, about protecting your home and family. So they are aspirational, inspirational and improving. But they can be a bit juicy, as this picture seems to show: ‘Guy held her close in his arms. ”I don’t care about anything else–I want you, Dawn,’ he whispered.” Oh Dawn, get out girl, while you can!
Mostly I’m in awe of the writers. Week after week they turned out 5000 words or maybe more, and (I assume) got paid for it. I’ve tried Googling some of the authors whose work features in these magazines: Denise Egerton (Secret Bride), Louise Randall (One Hour of Love – Then Tears), Stella Deans (The Sin That Came Between Them), Cynthia Loring (But She Was Blamed), Jasmine Day (Back Street Blonde). Of these, I’ve found a number of books from the 50s and 60s by a Denise Egerton, and they appear to be romance genre, so maybe it’s the same woman? I haven’t been able to find out anything about the others–who knows–maybe they were all Denise? Or possibly all these ‘lady writers’ were simply the pen names of a grizzled editor with pages to fill and a talent for writing totes emosh romance? I can picture him, tapping away at his typewriter until all hours, cigar ash spilling all down his shirt. I bet his real name was something like Isaac Peabody.
I think these stories offer an intriguing insight into the values and aspirations of working women in the 1920s and 1930s. They’ve actually been the subject of study in a number of British and American dissertations and publications, for example, Peg’s Paper was looked at in Class and Gender: The ‘Girls’weeklies’ by Billie Melman, a section in ‘Women and The Popular Imagination in the Twenties.’ And in this article in The Guardian by Kathryn Hughes.
But lest we forget, what they really were was an escape from the drudgery of everyday life for women with little opportunity to do anything other than dream.
- A shameless plug to a captive audience.
The use of advertising media to sell products to customers is not something new, it’s been around for a lot longer than I ever realised. I think I vaguely knew that advertising ‘must have’ been used before I became fully aware of it in the late 1960s or early 1970s, and I suppose that most of us have seen those hilarious TVs shows featuring ‘how we used to be’ commercials from the 50s and 60s, showing a happy smiling housewife holding up a box of laundry detergent, or a pipe-smoking father in a suit sitting behind a newspaper.
A few years ago, it was so popular to collect old advertising boards, usually made of tin, or printed onto postcards, calendars, place-mats, mugs, mouse mats, you name it. Pears Soap ads appeared on tea-towels and even t-shirts. You know the ones? With the Millais-inspired pics of Victorian children, rosy-cheeked and curly-haired, with frilly collars or petticoats?
But until recently I hadn’t imagined that advertising was rife in the earlier part of the twentieth century, and I’m now convinced, even before that.
Last month I finally caved in and bought a few items I had been looking at a while – and I’m warning you now that this means you will have to look at these over the next couple of weeks. I’ve now received some gorgeous vintage items from Messrs eBay and Etsy.
These included two copies of Betty’s Paper: a magazine aimed at (young) (working class in the main) women from 1935, and one copy of The Picture-Goer. I love this vintage stuff, and as you know, I’m a bit obsessed with the 1920s, and even more so with the 1930s. I was so excited to get my hands on these items. And if you also like this stuff, they are usually not expensive, and there are quite a few of them around! But please don’t buy them all, there are still a few I’ve got my eye on.
Soon I’m going to have a more general look through Betty’s Paper, and maybe even, if you can stand it, through The Picture-goer. But right now, I’d like to take a quick look at some 1935 advertising, and what I discovered amongst the hallowed pages of these once avidly-read magazines.
Th first two pics I’ve shared are for ‘guidance from beyond our world’ – yep, clairvoyance was all the rage from the Victorian era up to…well, I think a lot of people still check their horoscopes and send for readings etc. Now we probably see more in the way of crystals and meditation, whereas back then it was quite literally written in your palm. Note that on the one hand a male figure offers information about the future in a pseudo-scientific manner, the maleness, the use of the title of professor adding authority to make the ad seem genuine and plausible. His odd kimono thingie is his robe of office, as is his hat. It all ties in with the late 19th century and early 20th century passion for culture and art from the ‘mysterious East’.
The second one, Madame Astral, looks far more like the contemporary modern young women’s look – if anything she looks like your sister who had a tent at the church fete last summer. So the reader is being invited to share a sisterly gossip about matters of the heart, just like a cosy and none-too-serious reading of the tea-leaves at home. Good old Betty’s offers coupons to give readers a discount!
I love this. We’d never do this today, would we? or would we? This is the Bettys’ Paper Loveliest Reader competition – complete with photos of the ladies, and… Wait for it – their names and addresses!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
What on earth??????
It was definitely a different era. What, I ask myself, is to prevent any ruthless person rocking up to Miss Metcalf’s at 144 Wanstead Park Road, Ilford??? It seems naive in the extreme, but I can’t decide if that was perfectly okay for those days or was it the height of idiocy even then? Or was it Miss Metcalf’s design, in the hope that a gorgeous single man with a good income, good sense of humour, own home, would arrive on her doorstep with a bouquet of flowers and a pleasing smile? Mind you, the £10 prize money for the winner had to be a big bonus.
Speaking of a pleasing smile, in the corner of the Loveliest Reader comp page there was another ad – for toothpaste. Surely what we get from that is, if you want to be Betty’s Papers loveliest reader, and have strange men turning up at your door, you’d better follow the trend for wavy dark hair, perfect skin and you’d better have fabulous teeth too.
You can tell that Betty’s paper is all about appearance, inspiring women and showing them how to look Silver-Screen-great on a limited budget. In the first half of the twentieth century many young women were earning their own money and had disposable income for the modern commodities that science and technology had created.
So it’s no surprise that these ads are all about looking right. They address clothes, skin, hair and teeth, as well as the hope instilled by the stories and the ads for clairvoyant assistance. It’s all about looking as good as you possibly can – not for yourself, obviously, but so you can catch a man. These were not the days of sisters doing it for themselves.
When I first saw this next ad, with the woman drinking something and the slogan ‘slenderising and modish’ I assumed it was for some kind of diet or weight-loss supplement. But no. It’s for wool. To make your own slim-look sweaters and cardis. Not sure this ad would work so well today (leaving aside the fact that most women simply buy their woollens now) as it immediately sent me in the wrong direction. Or is that just me, coming to the ad with my 21st century eye? Again, here it’s all about looking right – and that means thin. Maybe nothing changes, after all.
Interesting that the slogan is a ‘quote’ from one Lady Georgiana Curzon – her title gives authority to her pronouncement, and yes, she is the wool manufacturer’s ‘fashion adviser’. Note also the family-empire sounding name – well, it probably was a family run business at least originally, but these days everything is General something, or Associated whatnot… no family businesses any more. Again, I feel, but this might be my contemporary perspective, but this sense of family-run, long-standing, aristocratically-endorsed seems to add to the authority and trustworthiness of the ad and the product.
Two more. One is an ad for the cheaper new stockings made from a man-made fibre rather than real silk. They ask,’Which is which?’And add that only your purse will know the difference. The use of the pictures of men to imply that males are looking at your legs, girls, and they’d better be worth looking at would doubtless have worked better if, a) they’d used different pictures of men and b) the men were actually facing the legs in question-or would that have been too risqué?
Lastly, my favourite ad of all. It made me spit coffee all over my t-shirt. Scroll down and take a look at the pinnacle of Betty’s Paper’s fine advertising material. It’s from the back page. It’s the one with the lady purporting to be over one hundred years old and still ‘enjoying’ good health.
Bless her. Mrs Elizabeth Clayton, she doesn’t look as though she enjoys anything. I know we all want to live forever, but this is funny. Again, I love the use of the lady’s address. Did people go there to marvel at the lady and her great age? Surely it’s fictitious, put in to lend credence to the advertisement? But part of me really wishes I could go there and witness the spectacle of Mrs Clayton enjoying life to the full and a hundred years old. I really hope it’s not just cynical advertising but that the old girl had a brilliant life and earned a fortune from companies using her face to astonish the world.
- People Watching
Inspiration comes from all different places. And I’m often asked where I get my ideas. It’s more that ideas come looking for me than I go looking for them. I’m incredibly nosy about other people, and I am an incurable people-watcher.
I don’t advocate, as a writing tutor in Brisbane once told a group of creative writing students, that you should actually follow people to get ideas for your story or to experience what it’s like to ‘shadow’ someone a la detective fiction. BUT I must admit I do covertly eavesdrop and watch people, especially in a coffee-shop situation. I don’t actually record conversations or film people, though it is SOOOO tempting.
I remember overhearing one yoof talking to another about his baseball cap. Yoof #2 was admiring the cap and trying it on. Yoof #1 said, rather anxiously, ‘Don’t you lose my cap, man. That cap is my identity.’
It’s these kind of scenarios that fuel my imagination.
Here’s what happened one day. I must just add, as a disclaimer, that all I saw were two people in a coffee-shop—my imagination, tawdry and cynical, and my love of detective fiction did the rest!
So I was sitting there with my cappuccino and my triangle of ‘tiffin’, in a Coffeebucksta Emporium in the town where I live. And I saw this:
A smart young man, late twenties, in a very modern suit, latest hair-do etc., all smiles and full of conversation. With him a frail and bent old lady in a wheelchair. She was also smartly dressed and her white hair was short and chic a la Dame Judi Dench. But she was way too old to be his mother. Grandmother? Great aunt? Great-Great-grandmother? I mean, she was OLD.
I’m already plotting a story around them. He parked her at a table and went to join the queue. She was reading the paper. I’m thinking, maybe she’s not a relative but his Sugar Mommy?
The idea appeals to me. I can remember several detective novels where scandal ensues due to an inappropriate attachment between a favoured young man and an older, vulnerable (or perhaps not so vulnerable) woman. I like the idea that even in this day and age, a young man can still cash in on his good looks, and an old lady can still enjoy having someone to dance attendance on her.
I decide she probably has someone at home to help with her personal care. And to take care of the cooking and cleaning. I’m picturing a large sprawling mansion, empty of people but stuffed with suits of armour and gloomy, grimy portraits of people who have been dead for hundreds of years. Glass cases of long-dead animals. Lots of wood panelling. Surrounded by vast expanses of grass and tall dark trees. Maybe some peacocks? An old uneconomical car, with her cosseted in the back under blankets, and him in front at the steering wheel.
And I don’t want to think there could be anything sexual involved (eww!) but that he acts as chauffeur, secretary, assistant, companion and entertainer. He flatters her, makes her laugh and she pays him for his smiles.
I think of the people that know her, local villagers? I imagine them talking to me. Or to a policeman sent down from Scotland Yard to investigate some awful crime. Perhaps she’s been murdered? Or him? Perhaps he’s the victim, not the perpetrator? Over our coffee, my informant tells me, (this is in my head, you understand,) “Well of course she gave out that he was her great-nephew, though I’ve never believed it. But she said it—you know—for appearance’s sake. He certainly is a charmer. And so patient. Well all I can say is, he’s worked damned hard for the money she’s left him. If there is any money. No one seems to be too sure about that.”
Was he a little too friendly with the nurse who looked after the old lady? Is that what they’ll say when her body is discovered? Did the old lady resent him giving those smiles to someone else?
Back in the real world, I’m picking up on tiny details. He returns with a coffee for her. Nothing for himself. Which seems odd. He sits. She leans forward and says something to him, and he takes her cup and has a sip of the coffee, and shakes his head. He returns it to its saucer. Too much sugar? Not enough? Does this taste a little odd to you? I’m not sure what is going on, but she doesn’t drink it.
They don’t stay long. I think he was actually in the queue longer than they sat over the drink that went almost untouched. Why didn’t she have her drink? Why even bother coming into the cafe? Why didn’t he have anything? Does she hold on a little too tightly to the purse-strings?
Even though he is smartly turned out, perhaps his shoes are showing signs of wear? Not quite as new or of such good quality as they first appeared? Perhaps she doesn’t pay him so well after all? Are there arguments over money? She thinks he spends too much, or asks for too much. He thinks it’s unfair that he has to beg and plead and justify what he needs, thinks she is too keen on having power over others. Perhaps it’s just not worth it after all? Perhaps it’s time for this ‘arrangement’ to come to an end?
For one mad moment I think about taking her cup for analysis before the table is cleared. Then I remember. Only in my imagination am I a detective. Here in the real world, I’m just another person sitting in a cafe. But in my mind, and in my notebook, I have the bones of a story.
- What I learned from reading Lord Edgware Dies by Agatha Christie.
I’ve always loved reading, and mysteries have always been ‘my thing’. Of all the authors in all the bookshops and libraries in all the world, Agatha Christie and Patricia Wentworth remain my faves, with my girl Pat a nose ahead.
Why do I love them so much when a) there are thousands of modern authors out there, and b) these traditional mysteries seem rather old-fashioned by today’s standards?
There is a definite lure of the era: a time of long frocks, a time of afternoon tea, dinner parties, bridge evenings (I can’t even play bridge) and so forth. Yes, the plots can seem tame, contrived and are often insular, but as Miss Marple often comments, you see every aspect of life in a small village. It’s like viewing a sample of the whole of society under a microscope. I love to see how ordinary (kind of) people react in an apparently ‘safe’ setting when something goes wrong.
I often reread these books. I have read all of Christie’s works at least twice, often many more times than that, and the majority of Wentworth’s. (I’m still working my way through her non-series books.) Some of Wentworth’s books I have five or six different copies of, all with different covers, from different eras, and one of them is quite valuable. I won’t tell you which in case you nick it.
I recently decided to reread Lord Edgware Dies by Agatha Christie. As you can see, I used quite a few sticky notes as I read it and made notes to myself–for funsies–at the same time. I wish I could say there was a special coded reason for using pink and green then yellow sticky notes, but it’s simply that I ran out of pink, then green…
There’s something a bit different about reading a book if you are a writer, and also, if you’ve read it several times before. (And, let’s not forget, it’s been on TV too.) As well as an enjoyable read, it’s been an interesting, and useful experience. Different things struck me this time. Here are a few of them: (btw – contains spoilers!)
Point 1. The book is quite long, I reckon it’s about 90,000 words or so. If you think in pages rather than words, it’s about 340 pages. That’s fairly standard for now, but many of Christie’s most well-known works are considerably shorter. (And Then There Were None, for example, is only 250 pages.) BUT the first clue comes on page 31! Wow! And even more interesting, the first red herring comes on page 30!!!!
p31 – the clue is: ‘A face that you liked but that you would find it hard to know again.’
p30 – the red herring is: ‘…the undercurrents that I sensed were nothing to do with Jane Wilkinson.’
Point 2. There are a lot of characters! It can be hard for the writer to handle a large cast, and just as hard for the reader! To try to keep track of a lot of people without making them all into over-large caricatures takes a lot of skill and hard work. This is something I struggle with.
Point 3. There is a surprisingly large amount of sitting around talking. I know it’s not exactly an action thriller, but it still surprised me how static the story is in many places. Poirot notoriously eschews running from place to place violently searching for clues, preferring to sit and exercise his little grey cells. But still, it was more static than I remembered, and so I feel it would lend itself well to a play or film, (as it has!) because of the economy of sets required. It would be so easy to have a couple of side-boards, a couple of chairs, a different lamp and hey presto! You’ve got a completely different drawing room. Please note, future play-makers.
Point 4. Obviously we have a sidekick. A sidekick, such as ‘ma cher Hastings’, is such a useful device to enable the author to ask and answer questions she puts to the reader. I love Hastings, he is supremely gullible, naive, and a wee bit thick. The perfect sidekick, in fact, as he allows the detective to shine. Hastings, in this book, asks all the questions that the reader might ask given the opportunity, and answers a good many of them himself, almost always wrongly. Having a sidekick enables the author to speak Poirot’s thoughts out loud, so that his detection is not entirely internal, and we, the readers, can be involved.
Point 5. The use of attitudes of the era, and the use of appearances crops up regularly in Agatha Christie’s work. You can tell a wrong ‘un by how they talk about other nationalities, or how they dress or behave.
We see that those who make racial comments are often unmasked later as the perpetrators. Famously, in Death In The Clouds, the two main characters find they have much in common, including their racial attitudes. These commonalities help them to fall in love. But importantly for the reader, they also mark them out as the murderer and his unwitting accomplice.
In Lord Edgware Dies, there’s a touch of that same thing. We can identify some of the worst characters by their espoused attitudes towards other races.
In appearance too, anyone a bit different, or wearing colourful clothes, is set down as dandified and therefore downright suspicious. This works well for Poirot, who is often viewed with mistrust by those–particularly the men–who meet him. We know that Christie hated Poirot, who was probably her most successful character, and possibly got a secret joy from having him so vilely abused by those he met.
But the attitudes of others towards him plays into his hands. They observe his outer appearance, make a judgement about him based on that, and they fall into the trap of underestimating him. Through this, we are invited to laugh at the staid, traditionally-masculine Brit who refuses to get in touch with his feminine side for another forty or fifty years at least. And Poirot emerges triumphant once more–as he should.
Point 6. Suspects are set up and knocked down one by one like ninepins. The reader, along with Hastings, and even Japp, and Poirot himself, turns their suspicions first on one suspect, then these are (reluctantly) dismissed as being the perpetrator. Alibis are given, investigated, found wanting, then reinvestigated and finally the alibi is accepted. Until… well it’s almost become an in-joke that Christie herself invites us to share in – the least likely one is the true murderer. Usually it’s someone who has been suspected, then proved innocent.
This is a satisfying plot device actually, as it means working out timelines and getting your cats, ornaments and salt and pepper pots to help you envision the action on your dining table, just so you can be sure that what you think happens, could in fact have happened.
Point 7. This investigating, dismissing then returning to a suspect develops layers in the plot, and this is the intriguing and absorbing nature of crime fiction: edging closer and closer to a hidden truth, or to a definitive set of events. This is the intellectual riddle that draws readers to this type of fiction, and is so satisfying, because at the end, you think, just as the detective (or the writer) thinks, ‘Ah, now I know everything.’
Point 8. There are other points too, but I’ve waffled on quite a bit. So I’ll end with this: The detective.
The detective of any single book or series is clearly of supreme importance. Hercule Poirot (in this particular book) begins by being lauded by Hastings as a great man, but then as always, Hastings, and the police, and everyone else, loses their faith in him and begins to think he’s past it. Poirot himself declares his greatness, which Hastings wryly smiles over, because neither Hastings nor the reader would ever say such a thing about ourselves, but Poirot does not hesitate to state his abilities and announce his talents.
However, if he is vain, that’s not to say he is confident. He can be humble, he can admit he has made a mistake. In fact if there is one characteristic that defines Poirot for me it is his willingness to admit he has made a mistake and to reevaluate the evidence. He constantly rethinks his approach, going over and over the facts, because if there is one thing he trusts more than his own judgement, it is logic. He knows there must be an explanation and he will not rest until he finds it. The detective and the writer have a lot in common – persistence is everything.
So that’s it. That’s what I’ve learned or observed in Lord Edgware Dies. As a review, this isn’t much cop, but if it’s made you think, ‘I might read that’, then my work here is done. Enjoy!
- Coming soon: The Thief of St Martins: Dottie Manderson mysteries book 5
As you may be aware, (I’ve talked about it a couple of times recently) there is a new Dottie Manderson book in the pipeline. I plan/hope to release it on 27th October, as an eBook and paperback on Amazon, and as an eBook and paperback through other online outlets such as Apple (not the print, though, soz), Kobo, eBook through Barnes and Noble’s Nook, paperback at Barnes and Noble’s online store, and a few other places. Still not at Waterstones, sorry, that would be a dream come true for me, but hey, maybe next year? I can’t give you the links at the moment for anything except the Kindle pre-order page.
The book is called The Thief of St Martins. It’s the fifth book in the series, and I’m really excited about it. If you want to read a sample chapter (that may or may not still be chapter one by the time the book is released, I’m not quite decided, but it will definitely be in there somewhere…) you can find the link to it below this brief description:
We last saw Dottie in the Summer of 1934, discovering that her mother was in fact really her aunt, and that she was the shameful daughter of her mother’s sister, her ‘aunt’ Cecilia Cowdrey. Some months later, to help herself to come to terms with this revelation, Dottie accepts an invitation to spend a few days with Cecilia and Lewis Cowdrey over New Year, although she’s not too sure what to expect.
Meanwhile though, if you’ve missed out on books 1 to 4, here’s a little catch-up: (warning, contains a few spoilers!)
Book 1: Night and Day:
London, November 1933. Dottie Manderson stumbles upon the body of a dying man in a deserted night-time street. As she waits for help to arrive, she holds the man’s hand and tries to get him to tell her what happened. But with his last breaths he sings to her some lines from a popular stage show.
But why, Dottie wonders? Why would he sing to her instead of sending a final message to his loved ones? Why didn’t he name his attacker?
Dottie needs to know the answers to these questions and even though a particular, very annoying young policeman Sergeant William Hardy is investigating the case officially, she feels compelled to carry out her own investigation into the mysterious death.
Book 2: The Mantle of God:
Can a tiny piece of faded cloth really be worth killing for? Is the past ever truly forgotten? Dottie’s new friend William Hardy asks her to find out more about a scrap of fabric found in a dead man’s pocket. But as soon as she starts to ask questions, things begin to happen. It’s not long before someone dies, and Dottie wonders if she may be next. Can the insignificant scrap really be a clue to a bloody time of religious hatred and murder?
Join Dottie as she works to uncover the truth of a distant past, whilst uncovering secrets held by her own closest friends and family. Can Inspector Hardy put the murderer behind bars before it’s too late? Setting aside his own personal tragedy, Hardy has to get behind the polite façade of 1930s London society to find a killer.
Book 3: Scotch Mist:
After the funeral of her friend and mentor Mrs Carmichael, Dottie Manderson is sent on a mission to find the dead woman’s missing son and to inform him of the death of a mother he never knew. Unbeknown to her, Dottie’s close friend Inspector William Hardy has also been sent on a mission, one that will force him to confront his past. His conversation with the Mrs Carmichael just before she was killed opened up questions about his father William would prefer not to ask. A sentimental lawyer has plans to bring Dottie and William together, acting on Mrs Carmichael’s bequest. But after a personal tragedy and some hectic months in his new role, is Inspector Hardy ready for romance? Perhaps if no one got murdered, he could think about other things?
Book 4: The Last Perfect Summer of Richard Dawlish:
Dottie’s had a hectic and difficult time: she’s attended too many funerals, and has just had a massive row with the man she thought she loved. on the spur of the moment she makes a stop off on her way home, in search of a dear friend who needs her help. In any case, a few days rest in a hotel by the sea is just what Dottie needs. It’s not long before she makes the acquaintance of the newly-widowed Penny Parfitt, and her attractive brother-in-law Gervase. Dottie impulsively accepts their invitation to spend a few days at Penny’s home in the country.
Quickly Dottie realises that secrets and intrigues lurk beneath the pleasant surface of their lives. A suicide years earlier casts a shadow. Was it really suicide? Dottie begins to think something sinister has taken place.
But after all this time, can she find out what really happened?
So now that you know a little bit about these, I hope that you feel intrigued enough and inspired enough to give them a try. There are more in the pipeline, but as yet I’ve only planned the first ten books in this series. Will there be more? Yes, I think there will. By book 11 we will be into the war years: the war no one ever thought would happen. So I am looking ahead and seeing the potential for that. How will the war affect the lives of Dottie, Flora, Mr and Mrs Manderson, and of course, William Hardy? Who will fight for King and Country? Who will be left behind, and what will they do to cope with the strain of constant danger? I’m quite keen to get to that point. But there’s so much to do first.
I’m what writers call a ‘pantser’ ie I don’t plan my books in meticulous detail in advance, but I write by the seat of my pants, almost literally making it up as I go along. BUT I do plan loo
sely, sometimes years ahead. But if I told you any of those loose plans now, it would ruin everything, wouldn’t it?
I’d like to say a huge thank you to the wonderful people who’ve said such nice things, and given me so much encouragement with my writing, and with this series in particular. Honestly, you have no idea how amazing it is to know that someone somewhere has read and enjoyed one–sometimes more than one–of my books. Thank you so much.
And thank you too to my family and friends for all their love support and active assistance, ‘without whom’…
- The Film of The Book
Writers are at heart, fantasists, and for many of us, there is no more entertaining—or time-wasting—fantasy than to ask yourself who would play your main characters if some movie mogul had the urge to transform your book or series into a blockbuster movie.
I think we all know that there can be a big difference between how each of us sees our ‘hero’ on the page, and how that is translated to the big screen. For fans, and no doubt, writers, this can lead to a terrible sense of disappointment.
Movies from books that I loved:
The Harry Potter series: I felt they nailed all the characters perfectly
Bladerunner: from Philip K Dick’s short story Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? The late Rutger Hauer is wonderful, as is Harrison Ford and Sean Young. The silence in this work is as speaking as the words.
Bridget Jones (the first one): the same – I loved the characters. In fact I enjoyed the film even more than the book, (apologies to Helen Fielding).
Dial M For Murder/The Perfect Murder: both sensationally wonderful adaptations of Frederic Knott’s play Dial M For Murder: a collage for voices.
Murder on the Orient Express: now obviously there have been several versions of this, and I’ve loved them all.
The Da Vinci Code: well I’m a bit half-and-half on this. I loved that they cast the brilliant Jean Reno as the policeman – when I was reading the book, I thought to myself, ‘You know who would be perfect in this part? Jean Reno.’ I take all the credit for the casting decisions in that direction, (even though they don’t know me and had no idea that this was what I wanted.) And I also like the role of what’s-his-name being played by Sir Ian McKellen. But Tom Hanks? No. Sophie thingie? NO!!!
A Room With A View: just beautiful, and all the more so for not having E M Forster’s sad, cynical epilogue of reality to ruin the spell he’d cast over all those pages. To anyone who hasn’t read the book, I’d say skip the epilogue, it will mar your enjoyment of the work forever.
Anyway, this is the game I’ve been playing at home. ‘Someone Wants To Turn My Book Into A Film’.
I’m talking about my 1930s Dottie Manderson cosy mystery series.
My main characters are:
Dottie Manderson, aged 19 at the start of book 1 which is Night and Day. She is 5’ 7, has dark wavy hair, hazel eyes, lovely skin and a gorgeous, slender figure. She comes from a wealthy background, and lives in London with her parents. She is a wee bit shy, loves her family, loves dancing, and works as a mannequin for Mrs Carmichael. She’s idealistic and a little naïve. In the books, we see her maturing as she learns about the world, and about relationships between men and women. She is nosy and gets into murder-related situations. She is compassionate and detests bigotry and moral ideas that put appearance before compassion and respect.
William Hardy is the detective she frequently ‘runs up against’. (Yes that is a double-entendre, if not a triple…) He is a little older at 28. He is a policeman working his way up the ranks after his father died and left the family penniless. They had to leave their privileged lifestyle and he had to leave his law studies to earn a living. He is (of course) six feet tall, if not a bit more, and well-built. He is fair-haired, and blue-eyed. He has a penchant for a certain dark-haired young lady which makes him awkward and embarrassed at times. He has a slightly different attitude to women than the majority of men of his era in that he is respectful and does not think of women as inferior or as domestic drudges. He is determined to improve his family’s fortunes by sheer hard work and devotion to his work.
There are other recurring characters too:
Mr and Mrs Manderson, Dottie’s parents: Her father is largely to be found behind a newspaper. Her mother is brisk and no-nonsense, but as the series develops we see that there is a deep love between these two, and that Mrs Manderson has a marshmallow heart under the stern exterior.
Flora: Dottie’s older sister is married to George, a very wealthy young man. They are about to become parents for the first time. They are devoted to one another and to Dottie.
Mrs Carmichael: The rough and ready working-class woman who through hard work and dedication has over the course of many years built up a fashion warehouse of her own, and has a loyal clientele. She has a fondness for Dottie, and it is revealed later that she ‘knew’ William’s father many years earlier.
So here’s the big question: Who would play these roles if my books were made into a TV series or a movie? I’ve been thinking about his quite a bit. But I’m somewhat hampered by the fact that I really don’t keep up with who’s who in the acting world, so my ideas are probably really out of touch.
Make sure and tell me who would work better, in your opinion, obviously I need all the help I can get here.
Dottie: I’ve got a couple of ideas.
2. Flora Spencer-Longhurst. Though I must admit they are both a bit older than Dottie is in my books. What do you think?
I’ve pinned some images on my Leading Ladies board on Pinterest, which you can view here:
William: I’ve got almost no ideas for William Hardy. Except for Alex Pettyfer. Can you take a look and tell me what you think? I urgently need help here: you never know how soon someone might knock on my door to present me with a tempting contract…
As for Flora and Mr and Mrs M, what about these lovely people:
Herbert Manderson: What about the gorgeous Jason Isaacs? He’s a little older now (sorry Jason, but you know it’s true) and he’s nicely craggy.
Mrs Lavinia Manderson
Well there’s Kristin Scott Thomas, I think she’d work really well in this role: (can we afford her?)
And for the redoubtable Mrs Carmichael:
Or if she had still been alive, Patsy Byrne (you will remember her as Nursie in Blackadder).
So, dear readers, please help! We need to get this cast list sorted before MGM or 20th Century Fox come knocking on my door.
- The anti-social writer
This is what I overheard in a café in town a while ago: “I find that writers aren’t very nice to work with. One or two are okay, but most of them…well, they very much like to keep to themselves, don’t they? And they don’t like the competition either. It would be nice to have a chat, you know, but most of them just won’t. You get the odd one who will say ‘Hi’, but that’s about it.”
Needless to say, my ears were flapping as I tried (surreptitiously) to hear every word and quickly write it down as I knew I would forget it, and at the same time I’m trying to look casual and eat a caramel-topped, cream-filled doughnut (definitely high on my mental list of priorities, I don’t get out much), and hoping they won’t turn round and see me writing down their every word. I decided Lady Number One must work in a theatre or something, and the café we were in was close to Quad in Derby, where they run both writing doobries and theatrical thingies. (Please pause here to marvel at my expert use of the English language.)
She went on to talk about how some of the actresses had been very moved by the speeches they had to deliver. Lady Number Two was her friend-from-another-workplace and just kept nodding and agreeing.
Now I freely admit that we are all entitled to our opinions…
I apologise on behalf of all writers everywhere if we aren’t as good at chatting as you would like us to be. It’s not always easy talking to someone you don’t really know too well. Just give us another chance…
Quite often it can be difficult to shut a writer up. Once you get them started, they can talk for hours – all that time spent alone with a journal or laptop means they rarely see actual humans, let alone enjoy conversation. But it’s also often said that a writer is busy with an internal life others are not privy to, working away at the coal-face of a tricky plot or puzzling over the intransigence of a character.
But maybe, like everyone else, sometimes writers are just rude. Or shy. Or nervous. Or feeling out of their depth. Or worried. Tired. Or maybe even wondering if their wife is having an affair, or if the kids are in trouble, or yes, about their work, if their plot is shallow or their characters wooden. Maybe they are looking at you and thinking, ‘Wow he/she would be the perfect victim in my next book’. Or an arch-villain.
Do we hear people complaining about dentists not being chatty enough? No. All too often, anecdotal evidence – and TV comedies – tell us that dentists love to talk and only ever require an answer if your mouth is full of putty, fingers, sharp objects, or that scary sucky gadget.
And no one complains that hairdressers don’t talk. Or lawyers. Or retail assistants. Or window cleaners. Usually lack of conversation is a bonus in everyday situations. So why do writers have to be so chatty?
Is it because we’re ‘wordsmiths’?
(I hate that word – so pretentious! Imagine me up all night, filing and drilling and smoothing then peering myopically through a loupe at my carefully crafted, gleaming word. Congratulations, it’s a pronoun!)
But I can’t deny that words are my – our – profession. Does that mean I have to share them constantly? Does a banker hand out free cash to all their friends and acquaintances? If only! Do my marketing and publishing contacts promise me freebies to help me sell my books? Nope! Again – if only!
No. We all inhabit our little solitary worlds. It’s not because I’m a writer that I’m rubbish at making conversation with a total stranger. It’s because I’m a human being. There are loads of things I’m rubbish at, making conversation is only one of them.