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 randomly 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 at an unusual angle, that odd moment before you recognise yourself, that brief second when you think, slightly puzzled, ‘I know that face.’
An overheard snatch of genuine 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. What about 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. People-watching is endlessly fruitful. I’ve written about beloved family friends recalled from my childhood.
I have based two full-length stories on dreams. Three short stories and one novel on songs. One novel (The Mantle of God) based on two documentaries I saw on TV. One was about ancient tapestries: Opus Anglicanum which is Latin for ‘English work’, and the other was 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 trip 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, main character of Criss Cross etc, from the series Friendship Can Be Murder.)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 – it’s 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 a whole page that just says, ‘I don’t know what to write’, like the lines that we had to do at school when we got into trouble, 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, that I’m an imposter and just fooling myself.
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 thing one fits with thing two and makes a pleasing, 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.
Extras complaining to the author about not having a name – again.
Last week was all about the main characters – the detective, the villain, the side-kick and of course the victim(s).
This week, I’m interested in thinking about the minor characters – or extras – in my head I see these as a kind of walk-on part, much like those in any TV show or movie. They don’t always have lines. Sometimes they don’t even have names. They might be described as ‘an elderly dog-walker’ or ‘the woman behind the shop counter’. They crop up everywhere the story goes – in shops, houses, on village greens, in museums, and at dinner parties.
But why are they there?
Extras fulfill a number of criteria and needs for the author and the reader.
they can deflect attention away from the culprit or villain.
they can provide the reader with useful clues or snippets of information.
equally, they can provide us with (less useful, sometimes) red herrings and wrong-turns.
they enrich the story so it doesn’t consist of just your four main characters, unless that’s the whole point of the story.
they can give us a sneak-peek of something that might happen in a later book if this is a series.
they act as a kind of commentator or dramatic chorus to comment on the action or criticise or laud the ‘hero’.
But life as an Extra can be tough and is often unpredictable.
Police or other people in authority (completely unaware all too often that they themselves are Extras, can bully them or wrongfully arrest an Extra and accuse them of terrible things they haven’t done.
You need a huge range of skills as you may be called upon to perform almost any task from forensic assistant to chambermaid.
As an Extra, you might be completely overlooked by the reader who doesn’t even notice you, let alone what a magnificent job you do pretending to be an elderly dog-walker when you’re really a young woman in her twenties on her way to college and you don’t even like dogs.
Alice was at the party with two friends. Who were they? No one knows.
And they never remember your name, which is why you have to have a description attached: Miss Jones, the games mistress at school where victim used to teach. You might even find yourself very near the bottom of a long list of characters, a list designed to help readers remember all the people in the book they’ve met but don’t remember.
No one asks your opinion. ‘Tell us, Poirot,’ they cry, at the end of the book. ‘Who did this dastardly deed? and why?’ I mean, all the Extras probably know this information too, don’t they. But no one ever asks them. They just come in with the tea tray and leave without anyone noticing.
Likewise, no one ever asks an Extra if they’re okay and how they feel about being shut up in a big country house with loads of stairs, and a murderer roaming about bumping people off willy-nilly.
And as if all this is not enough, when the author gets bored, you might even end up as the next victim, just to ‘spice things up a bit’.
How is that fair? It’s not just a policeman’s life that’s terrible hard. Try being an Extra for one book, let alone a whole series. I’m only surprised they don’t have a union.
‘I hate being in crowd scenes,’ said the person in the red outfit. ‘So do I!’ said another person in yellow. ‘It’s so anonymous.’
I love murder mysteries. I doubt this comes as any kind of a surprise to most people reading this blog. Characters in a murder mystery fall into one of two categories: they are either part of the Big Four, or they are Extras. This week I want to quickly chat about the Big Four.
Who are the Big Four?
The Big Four are the main characters without whom we would have no murder mystery. They are: The Victim(s), The Villain(s), The Side-kick(s) and The Detective(s).
And yes, they often come as a pair or even more, not just as a lone individual. Detectives, for example, often come as a pair – one an amateur and one a professional. Villains too, can sometimes deliberately confuse the reader by sharing the limelight with another villain, and share the crimes too.
And who doesn’t love a high body-count? Why stop at one Dastardly Deed when you can have two, or three, or…
Let me introduce you…
Victims, as avid mystery lovers know, are always bumped off for a reason. And obviously it is The Detective(s)’s(s’)(??) job to discover why and bring the perpetrator to justice.
The richer, the more arrogant, cruel, cold, grasping, greedy and crafty our victim is/was, the better we like it, don’t we? We can then take a vicarious pleasure in their demise as we would never, ever do such a thing ourselves in real life. And the worse they are, the nastier and more creative their all-too-timely death should be. BUT.
They can’t be so bad that we don’t care if their killer evades detection.
In my view, ideally there should be two or three of these demises per mystery because, if I’m honest, I’m always a bit disappointed if there’s ‘only’ one.
The Victim is there for one reason only–to make us, the reader feel clever: to provide something for The Detective to detect, of course.
Whenever I hear the word ‘villain’ I always think of a man in a swirling black cape and top hat, twirling his moustaches menacingly (or smugly, either will do)and saying ‘Mwah haha’.
Sadly, the days of Dick Dastardly have gone, (drat, drat and double drat) and nowadays The Villain can look like anyone:
A little old lady.
A stalwart Major-type.
A handsome young man on his honeymoon. (I’m looking at you, Death on the Nile.)
A nurse. (Sad Cypress)
Even a child. (Crooked House)
The Villain is often charming, often invokes our sympathy due to baggage and issues, and can even make us think, ‘Aww well, she/he’s had a tough childhood, maybe we should kindly overlook those four grisly murders and let her/him have a new chance at life.’
We must be on our guard at all times throughout the book until the moment this villain is unmasked.
The Sidekick has a demanding role. They are there as a kind of placeholder/proxy for the reader.
They must be clingy to the point of irritating, sticking by The Detective’s side when they really should go away and leave him/her alone to think things through. But no, they stick around at all times, asking stupid, inane and tedious questions, so that we don’t have to. We sit at home in our comfiest armchair and loudly exclaim, ‘Rookie mistake, I already knew that…’ but really we’re thinking, ‘Ooh I wasn’t sure, but now that you mention it…’
The side-kick – desperately needed to help us survive the journey
So they are there to help The Detective and the reader to find the evidence and the clues and to arrive at the truth of the mystery.
In fact they don’t create a dialogue, but they are the dialogue – through The Side-kick, the reader can talk to The Detective and The Detective can talk to us.
The Detective can be anyone.
Rather like The Villain, The Detective can be a law-and-order professional, or someone from an associated profession (forensics, psychology…), or an amateur with a gift, a nurse, a priest (The Complete Father Brown stories) a stalwart major-type, a nurse, a handsome young man on his honeymoon or even a child (The Sweetness At The Bottom Of The Pie).
The Detective has one job and one job only: to find out whodunit and bring them to justice.
It’s essential that her or his main characteristics include:
Passionate desire for justice, even at risk to self, it goes without saying, I hope.
Incredibly close attention to detail: ‘Sacre bleu, this dust is 3.14159 milimetres in ze thickness, therefore the killer was the maid and the crime was committed on Tuesday afternoon.’* The whole case may depend on just this kind of minuteness.
‘Mesdames et messieurs, allow me to reveal at last, the identity of the criminal’.
Very keen observation skills: ‘Zut alors, the footprints in the mud are of a depth of 3.14159 milimetres, therefore we must find a person of 6 feet 1 inch who weighs 189lbs.’
From the two above attributes, we can also see that they must be good at mathematics too.
Lastly, the Detective must have a huge ego: We readers love to have all the suspects in a room at the end of the story, and to be taken step by step through the crime to learn the identity of The Villain, and to have the satisfaction of them being led away in handcuffs. Therefore it is essential that our Detective loves to show off just a little and to deliver a lecture on how clever he/she is and how many different things we missed.
So next time you are reading a mystery, keep a handy notebook and pen by your side, so you can check for all these points!
*must supply own white hat
*sorry btw, for me all fictional detectives are Hercule Poirot, even when they’re not
Let’s play a game of ‘what shall we do this weekend’.
I’ve been thinking about how amazing it would to travel back in time to the actual 1930s* instead of just daydreaming/writing or pretending/obsessing about it…
This is what I’ve come up with:
Things I’d be excited to do/try:
A posh weekend at a country house with lots of people who are glamorous and speak nicely.
Ditto the big frocks and hair-dos.
And gloves and hats.
And the four/five/six course dinners.
Going to the house of someone posh for ‘drinks’.
Dancing to the radio in a kind of impromptu disco at home with dinner guests.
The excitement of talkies – films with speaking actors!
Meet Gary Cooper when he was young and gorgeous…
And knowing there is a study or library, and perhaps even secret passages.
And bell-pulls to summon people from the depths of the house. I’d be like a child, ringing the bell then have to run away as there would be no legitimate reason to ring for them…
Maybe a maze? Or a rose garden? Or both? What about a croquet lawn? I am certain I’d be an amazing talent when it came to croquet. I can always bowl a great croque.
It might be nice to – very occasionally – have all the men stand up out of politeness when I come into the room. Or stop using bad words because I am in the vicinity and am a ‘lady’ (until they get to know me better, of course).
Travelling by steam train in the actual era they were used, not just on a preserved line in my usual jeans/t-shirt combo.
Things I’d miss terribly:
Being able to say all those bad words that are so good for stress relief when things go wrong. In the 1930s, I’d probably be vilified for my potty-mouth. Though to be fair, most of my rage is triggered by modern technology so it wouldn’t be an issue in the 1930s, when a telegram was still pretty exciting, and indoor plumbing was all too often a thing reserved for the gentry.
Sorry if I’ve destroyed your illusions about the way a writer speaks/acts/looks, btw.
My freezer, and my microwave.
Going to a cafe ALL the time to sit and watch the world go by whilst pretending to write.
The Internet (sorry to all you nay-sayers).
Nipping to a supermarket – even on a SUNDAY to get the bits and pieces I completely forgot I urgently needed.
Books by all my favourite post-1930s authors such as Ann Cleeves, Helena Dixon, Julie Wassmer, Helen Forbes, Emma Baird…
TV: Midsomer Murders/Death in Paradise/Vera/Madame Blanc/Strike/Van der Valk/Darby and Joan/Three Pines/The Chelsea Detective/Dalgliesh/Whitstable Pearl… (can you spot a trend here?)
All my modern vaccinations – I don’t want to catch diptheria/small pox/scarlet fever etc
Being able to slob about in jeggings and a baggy jumper – because I reckon there could be times when looking posh 1930s-style might just be too much effort…
Being allowed an opinion about anything other than babies, flower arranging or hair-dos.
So what do you think? What would you be desperate to see/try/person to meet? Or what would you miss the most? Or what about another era? What would be your perfect era to visit if that were possible?
*obviously I’m dragging my poor family along with me – I wouldn’t dream of going anywhere exciting without them.
I’m a few days into my new writing now, and things are starting to get muddled interesting.
Like an idiot, I decided to keep writing the story I was already writing, which is of lower priority than the new one. And, at the same time, I’m wrestling with THE NEW BOOK and trying to keep my head clear – and the right characters and scenes in the right book. I must admit, my brain is beginning to complain about the hard work it’s having to do.
One of my main problems is names. Place names, character names, I forget most of them apart from those of the major characters. I resort to writing an X as a placeholder for the character’s name. the trouble is, by the time I’ve written a few pages, this can be complicated. it’s not as though my characters exist in isolation, they are a sociable bunch and soon they are out of the house and wandering along the street to have tea and cake or a pint of beer with loads of other people, all also known as X.
Occasionally, in a bid to keep things straight in my mind, I might put ‘write Pete’s mate’s name here’. But this doesn’t work either, as Pete – annoyingly, has several ‘mates’ and sees them all as often as possible.
And then there are the places, the settings. At the moment they are variously recorded as ‘Pete’s mate’s pub‘ or ‘Pete’s mate’s lock-up‘ or Cemetery/Graveyard/which one do I mean?
Now if I was more like you, dear reader, and properly organised, I’d probably have remembered to create myself a list beforehand.
Well, in fact, in my defence, I did write out a list, but I can’t find it. I think it’s in a notebook, but I’m not sure which one and by the time I’ve found it, the fabulous idea for my scene might have fizzled away, so I plod on with my Xs and my hints. I like to do things my way. It may not be tidy, elegant, efficient, or even sensible, but it’s worked for me, kind of, so I stick with it. By the time I come to rewrite, I will have fixed all these little annoyances and – theoretically – created a nice, polished draft.
Though once I forgot and Mr Amazon had to email me and say, ‘This book you’ve uploaded looks like it might not be your final version, would you like to check and make sure?’ Nice chap. he was right. There were the ‘Pete’s mate’ and Xs. Oops, good thing this was spotted by Mr A!
So what am I writing?
Well, I’m working on the not-at-all-urgent book 4 of the Criss Cross trilogy (go with me here) as I decided I would extend the series to a ‘ten years later’ scenario, I just felt suddenly inspired. Book 4 will be called Dirty Work, and I have no idea when it will be out, sorry.
The more pressing new book is book 2 of the new series, the Miss Gascoigne mysteries. it will be called A Wreath of Lilies, and you can find out a teeny bit more here. It’s going to be a while before it’s finished, so don’t get too anxious. It’ll be October, I should think, a year after book 1.
Here’s a reimagined post from three years ago, slightly updated for you. I still need your help with this big problem!
Writers are at heart, fantasists, and for many of us, there is no more entertaining 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 or a Netflix/Acorn TV/Prime/Paramount/You-get-the-idea weekend TV binge.
I think we all know that there can be a massive difference between how each of us pictures our paperback ‘hero’, 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/TV Series from books that I loved:
Inspector Gamache from Louise Penny’s fab Canadian-based crime series, now known as Three Pines on TV streaming services. Alfred Molina has brought the most wonderful gravitas, compassion and depth to the role. You’ll need a tissue or two for this series, though.
The Harry Potter series: I felt they nailed all the characters perfectly – Yay!
Dial M For Murder or the remake The Perfect Murder both sensationally wonderful adaptations of Frederic Knott’s stage play Dial M For Murder: a collage for voices. (It helped that the sexy Viggo Mortensen was in The Perfect Murder.)
Murder on the Orient Express now obviously there have been several versions of this, and I’ve loved them all, although for me, Peter Ustinov was always a little better at portraying Poirot at his most mournful and ridiculous, and also managed the quality of moral indignation much better than others, although David Suchet was truly excellent in the TV series. I remember when the first episode aired, I held my breath as it began, waiting to see how this ‘new’ chap would manage the character, would it be everything I hoped for? It was, and more!
Sorry but I am not at all a fan of Kenneth Branagh in this role. At all. He’d have made a great Hastings. Ish. I mean, Hugh Fraser really nailed that part and made it his own. For me the new movies are all panorama and no substance. I hate them.
Dalgliesh: There has been a new outing for this with Bertie Carvell (Jonathan Strange and Mr Norell, remember? Also lots of other stuff including Midsomer Murders…) and in the title role of Inspector Dalgliesh, created by P D James. Bertie gives us a beautifully nuanced role, and the opening credits are sooooo beautiful to look at, I could have them on my wall and gaze at them all day long. Feels slightly out of its era, with a sense of being in the 60s rather than the 70s, but that’s easily overlooked as you get stuck into each story.
Whitstable Pearl: Kerry Godliman, whose stand-up comedy I absolutely love, plays the title character, a private detective with a restaurant in this series based on Julie Wassmer’s fabulous series. I love this show!!! It helps that it’s set in Whitstable on the North Kent coast in the UK, which is very close to where many of my ancestors come from. If you haven’t read it or watched it, there’s no excuse, stop reading this and do it now.
Anyway, this is the game I’ve been playing at home. ‘Someone Wants To Turn My Book Into A Film’.
I’m talking now 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.
The original image I used for the covers for the Dottie Manderson series. Apart from the blue eyes, she was the perfect match for Loretta Young. Image by Artsy Bee from Pixabay.
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 quickly develops 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 or as potential conquests. 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 Herbert is largely to be found behind a newspaper. Her mother Lavinia is brisk and no-nonsense and all about etiquette and social niceties, 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. In book 1, Night and Day, they are about to become parents for the first time. They are devoted to one another and to Dottie.
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 you 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. I originally based Dottie on the 1920s actor Loretta Young, but you know, time doesn’t stand still, does it?
Though I must admit they are both a bit older than Dottie is in my books. What do you think? Do you know of another actor who might be better?
William: the problem here is that I originally based William on the young Gary Cooper acting in the 1920s and 1930s… So I’ve got almost no contemporary ideas for William Hardy. Except for Alex Pettyfer. Or maybe Rick Edwards, who isn’t even an actor… 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 or flood my email with requests , pleas and big fat cheques.
As for Flora and Mr and Mrs M, what about these lovely people:
Being a writer is an experience that goes in cycles, for me at least. As soon as the final draft of a book is complete, and all the other checks are done, the book is published and the cycle ends. But then, it’s not very long before the cycle begins all over again, with the first few tiny wisps of ideas and before you know it, I’m into the first draft creative part of the process again.
Once upon a time, this used to begin around September for me. I don’t know if that’s because when my children were young, that was when they went back to school after the long summer holidays and I had two minutes to sit in peace with a notebook and a cup of coffee.
But these days, it’s the beginning of the year that is this creative time for me now, and the second part of the year is always spent in revisions, rewriting, chipping away at the block that is my rough draft.
When I’m creating, dashing out those mad, unfocussed, often-discarded new chapters of a new book, I love to do this is a cafe. There’s something about being surrounded by anonymous, happy bustle that helps me immediately find my ‘zone’, roll my sleeves up and get on with my next scene.
I know I often talk about sitting in cafes, notebook and pen in front of me (my first drafts are always longhand), with a cappuccino and – ooh, naughty – maybe a bit of cake. It’s my favourite thing.
Yes, I know we have coffee at home. And even – occasionally, cake, or I could buy a supermarket cake and eat a slice at home for a fraction of the cost of a cafe. Or, I could bake a cake of my very own – it could be any size, shape or colour. I could have any flavour I like, and it could be a tray-bake, a torte, a good solid fruit cake with cherries on top, a long sugary loaf oozing with bananas or dates. It could be a sponge with ganache or cream or even just jam in the middle. It could have nuts on the top, or frosting, or strawberries in a creamy heap.
There are just two problems with that: 1. I’m a terrible cook. And 2, that wouldn’t inspire me to write. Which is, after all, the whole point of this exercise.
I love to go to cafes with my family. But those are occasions for talking and laughing, not times for me to be alone with my thoughts. And as Winifred Watson said, ‘You can’t write if you’re never alone.’ (She was a very successful author in the 1930s who gave up writing once she married and had children. Her book Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day was made into a film starring Ciaran Hinds and Frances McDormand and I highly recommend it.)
So there I sit. Usually ideas have been bubbling for a while at this point, or I may have made a few cryptic notes – not always helpful as I don’t always remember what I was on about. Soon I’m scribbling away, and if I don’t fill 10 or 12 pages in my notebook, I feel rather cheated. If I write more than that, you can bet I will float out of that cafe on cloud nine, feeling pretty smug and pleased with myself. That would be a good day’s work.
So that’s the current situation at Chez Allan. I’m currently working on a new Dottie book – the first draft of Midnight, the Stars and You: Dottie Manderson mysteries book 8 is already a whopping 1500 words long. To put that in perspective, the finished draft should be at least 80,000 – so it’s not even a chapter. But it’s started, that’s the main thing. And another book is at around the 20,000 word mark, which I’m really happy about.
Later on, I will be getting on with Miss Gascoigne book 2. Not sure yet what the title will be, I had an idea but now I have another, conflicting idea, and my poor writer brain can’t decide which one is best, so that’s on the back-burner for a few weeks. But I’ve got so many notes and ideas!!!
It’s a time of great excitement, and giddy childlike anticipation. It’s a bit like being a toddler sitting on the floor surrounded by all my toys and trying to decide what to play with first.
My whole family has been ill practically all of December and we’re still trying to get ourselves well now. My daughter even had to take me to A & E on Boxing Day – yep, you’ve guessed it – Strep A. The very nice young man gave me a ton of penicillin, and I took most of it, and fortunately can now – almost – breathe. The cough is not shifting though. Wish I had shares in paracetamol…
So I’m a bit slow to get back to social media and just everything.
All I’m going to say then is this: I wish everyone a wonderful, happy, healthy and productive 2023.
As a couple of wise young men once said, be excellent to each other!
I have a very childish love of snow. I get such a sense of excitement in the pit of my stomach as those first few flakes trickle down, a little teasing gift from the heavens, as if someone up there is saying, ‘Don’t take it all so seriously, it’s okay to smile and play.’
Yes I know for most people it’s a pain in the neck, or a real inconvenience, and like all weather, in extremis it can be dangerous.
But still, if we get to the end of winter, and we’ve had no snow, I feel so cheated. I love its silent majesty. I love the sight of pure snow, unwalked, untouched. I love the snow which is speckled with bird tracks, or cat prints, or human prints, that say, someone has walked here.
So I thought it was time once more for a few literary quotes. Forget about me, what do writers say about snow?
That’s it for December, and for 2022. Thank you to everyone who has supported me, my work and this blog. It’s greatly appreciated. Whatever you do to celebrate the end of the old year, may it bring you joy and a little closer to those you love.
This week I thought I’d share a flashback-kind-of-thing.
It’s been ten years since I published my first book.
(I was about to write something about that, but then I reread what I’d just written – ten years since… Isn’t that what addicts say? I wonder if I am actually an addict? This writing thing – it’s impossible to stop. Maybe I need professional help?)
Anyway… I was going to say, it’s been ten years since Criss Cross: Friendship Can Be Murder: book 1hit the Kindles and bookshelves, and firstly, where has the time gone, and secondly, I bang on about my other books but this series gets overlooked. So I thought I’d share with you chapter one of Criss Cross, and also just mention quickly in passing that next year, I plan to bring out book 4 in this series. The series started life as a trilogy but I just love these characters so much. So Dirty Work, book 4will be out in the mid to end of 2023.
If you feel like reading on, I should just add, there are BAD words in this chapter, and it is VERY long. Oh and it’s written in the first person in diary entry-form. Sorry, I know (now!) that everyone hates that:
Sun 24 June
To my darling Cressida
Happy Birthday, Sweetheart! Have fun writing down all your thoughts and plans and dreams, then when we’re old and grey we can sit together on that terrace in Capri and watch the sun go down, drink a glass of wine and you can read me the spicy bits from this journal and we will have a good laugh and talk about the old days!
With all my love forever and ever
Same day: 10.35pm (Cressida writes:)
She must die!! I hate her!! I refuse to put up with her a moment longer, she is an evil, conniving old bitch without a grain of family feeling and it’s time she was dead!!
Mon 25 June—2.35pm
Have you noticed how some people just never seem to realise they’ve gone too far?
I was going to start off my new journal with something terribly erudite and wise. Like a new school notebook, I particularly wanted the first page to look lovely. But I suppose it really doesn’t matter if the first page isn’t perfectly neat and everything: the whole purpose of a journal is to pour out one’s innermost thoughts and give vent to all the frustrations that, as a nicely brought-up person, one can’t give full reign to in ‘real’ life, and so obviously even the first page can get a bit messy. And now just look at it!
But I digress. I must explain from the beginning…
It was my birthday yesterday. 32 already. God, I’m old! I looked at myself in the bathroom mirror this morning and even in the flattering south-facing light and all steamy and fresh from the shower, I’m absolutely certain I could see the tiniest line down the left side of my face from my nose to the corner of my mouth—I’m convinced it wasn’t there yesterday. Wonder if I’ve left it too late for Botox?
Among a number of very extravagant birthday gifts, my Darling Thomas gave me this sweet little journal. I’d mentioned weeks ago that I used to keep a journal when I was a melodramatic teenager, and how nice it was just to write down everything that happened and to really get it out of my system and add in lots of ‘grrr’ faces and heavy underlining, and lo and behold, the dear man, he surprised me with this journal for my birthday. So here I am.
It’s an absolutely beautiful book. It has a hard cover with a weird kind of gothicky design in the most gorgeous shades of black and purple and gold, with a magneticky bit in the front flap to keep it closed, and the pages, somewhere between A5 and American letter-size, are edged in gold too, so it feels very glamorous to write in—In fact I was a bit afraid to begin the first page, hence all the fuss about it looking nice and neat, I almost got a kind of writer’s block!
But all my good intentions and deep thoughts and years of accumulated adult wisdom and the desire to create something really special went out the window when my cow of a mother-in-law turned up on a ‘surprise’ visit and now my first page—well second really, under that really sweet little message from Thomas—Is absolutely ruined! I only hope to God Thomas doesn’t read it!
Not that she’d remembered it was my birthday any more than my own mother had—oh no! One can’t expect her (or either of them in fact!) to keep track of trivial little details like that. No, she needed Thomas’s advice about some financial matters, and thought she’d pop over. After all what’s an hour and a half’s chauffeured drive here or there? Of course she didn’t bother to ring first, see if we were in or free or anything. Clarice is used to everyone falling in with her plans.
‘I knew you wouldn’t be doing anything important,’ she says as she breezes in, dropping her coat in the middle of the hall, frowning around at the décor before settling herself in the drawing room, demanding tea. Not just the drink! By ‘tea’ she means that Victorian/Edwardian meal between luncheon, as she calls it, and dinner. She expected crustless sandwiches, crumpets, cakes (large and small), scones, jam and cream, the works. And copious amounts, of course, of tea-the-drink. China, not Indian. With lemon slices in a dainty little crystal dish, not 2 litres of semi-skimmed in a huge plastic container.
Thomas reminded her that it was my birthday and that consequently we had plans for the evening. She waved a negligent hand. Her hair, a shade too brave, was salon-perfectly waved if somewhat stiff-looking, and her clothes were at least one generation too young for her, but hideously expensive as well as just—well, hideous. Did I mention I hate her?
‘Oh that can be set aside. You can easily go out some other evening. My financial affairs are of the first import.’
Thomas looked at me. He didn’t want to fight with his mother and I knew there would be no point in trying to push him to resist the onslaught, so for poor Thomas’s sake, I sighed and shrugged and he sat down next to the old dragon and asked what she wanted to know. Meanwhile I dashed off to ring Monica Pearson-Jones and a few others, to let them know that we would either be horribly late for the theatre party, or quite possibly not turn up at all. I have to admit I was feeling quite cross and rather sorry for myself. However, Huw and Monica’s machine had to take the terrible news, as they were out. I hoped to God they weren’t already on their way.
When I got back to the drawing room, Clarice was banging on about her bloody cats, and Thomas was all glazed over and away-with-the-fairies-looking. Clarice just looked up and taking in my flat tummy and slender waist (which take me hours to maintain, btw) glared at me and said ‘so, still not knocked up yet then?’ And before I could respond with a frosty, well-constructed rebuttal, she turned to Thomas and said, ‘I told you she wouldn’t be any good. Why you couldn’t marry that Filipino girl the Honourable Addison-Marksburys brought back with them, I’ll never understand. Very good child-bearing, the Filipinos. And it’s not as though she would have expected you to take her anywhere.’
Thomas said nothing helpful, of course, just sat there like a rabbit in the headlights. And then, before I could recover my breath enough to pick my jaw up off the floor, at that moment, Huw and Monica arrived. I raced out into the hall, thinking I might be able to head them off, but just as I was discreetly mumbling to them just inside the front door, Thomas dashed out looking frazzled and dragged them in for a cuppa. Huw, only too glad to wade into a fight, immediately went in with Thomas, whilst Monica exchanged a ‘families, what can you do!’ eye-roll with me and we followed on at a more sedate pace, I with the awful sense that things were about to go even more horribly wrongerer!
How right I was. I could see Clarice eyeing them up and down. I knew she wouldn’t like Huw, because he can seem a tad brash on first meeting. He might have the breeding she prefers, but he doesn’t always act like a gentleman. Plus he takes great delight in saying exactly the wrong thing. Loves to shake things up a bit, does our Huw. But Monica, well, she’s lovely! Clarice couldn’t possibly find anything objectionable in Monica, surely?
She found something.
After eyeing them very obtrusively for several full minutes and barely murmuring even the merest of pleasantries when Thomas made the introductions, Clarice said to me, quite loudly enough for them to hear, though it was supposed to be a whisper,
‘Married his secretary, did he? She looks that type. Coarse. Rather Cheap. Eye to the main chance, one would imagine.’
Monica turned to glare, but before she could say anything, and as Huw was about to stroll to her defence, Thomas got their attention by forcing cake on them, but to no avail as, inspired once more, Clarice leaned towards me with another little gem.
‘He’s obviously a drinker. And looks like a bit of a lech, too. Just like Millicent Huntingdon’s first husband. Thoroughgoing bastard, that one. No back-bone, morally speaking.’
Our friends left just seconds later, Huw saying something over his shoulder about a ‘vile old bag.’ In fact the duration between Clarice’s comment and their car careering off down the drive was less than thirty seconds. I think that’s probably a record. I say ‘our friends’ but after the insults from Clarice, we’ll probably never see them again. Then of course, on being reprimanded for her poor manners, Clarice sulked and kept going on about how she didn’t know what the younger generation were coming to and blaming Thomas for not executing better judgment.
‘In more ways than one,’ she said, and eyed me with malice once more.
So as I was saying to begin with, some people just never seem to realise they’ve gone too far!
I mean, the vast majority of normal people, people like you and I, we just instinctively know the correct way to behave. We apologise when someone else bumps into us, we begin every complaint with ‘terribly sorry to be a nuisance, but…’ We’re nice. Pleasant. We have a kind of in-built mechanism, straight as a line in damp sand, an invisible barrier which prevents us stepping beyond the realm of reasonable and acceptable behaviour.
Some people do not.
Some people never read the signs, they ignore all warnings and plough doggedly on, intent only on saying what they want to say and doing what they want to do. They don’t care about your feelings. They turn up unannounced and uninvited, they change your plans without considering your wishes. They don’t notice the look on your face, the halting of your phrase, they are oblivious to the cooling of the atmosphere around them. They never notice that infinitesimal pause before you continue to hand around the petit-fours, a fixed smile plastered on your face, inane pleasantries tripping off your tongue. Some people remain completely and utterly ignorant of all the signs.
Everyone else, metaphorically speaking, has grabbed their handbags and jackets, collected their madeleine-tins from your kitchen, tossed the keys to the Range Rover to their husbands, dashed out of the door leaving kisses still hanging in the air, and are already on the slip road to the motorway whilst That Person is still looking vaguely around as a few motes of dust drift gently down to the Axminster. They are wearing that idiotic expression that says, ‘who me? What could I have possibly said?’ or even worse, ‘well I only said what everyone else was thinking’.
And they are always, always, always completely unaware when they have outstayed their welcome.
There’s only one way to deal with people like that.
One way and only one way.
You have to kill them.
They never take the hint, you see. They fail to detect the slight frost in your demeanour as they witter on, insulting your loved ones, criticising your friends, your home, your life. Such people cannot be taught, changed or reasoned with. In the end, it’s just easier for all concerned if you get rid of them before they truly become a Nuisance and make everyone with whom they come into contact completely and utterly miserable.
And if that seems a little harsh, just think for a moment about what these people do to your self-esteem, to your inner calm, to your peace of mind. When the phone rings, these are the people whose voice one dreads to hear. One begins to dread all family occasions and holidays because of That Person. Frankly, it’s just not worth the emotional and psychological trauma of putting up with them. Life is quite challenging enough. And that is the stage I’ve now reached with Clarice.
That said, it’s one thing to say to oneself, Monday, water plants, collect dry-cleaning, go to library, bake fairy cakes for the One-to-One drop-in day-centre fundraiser, and quite another thing to just sort of slip onto the bottom of your to-do list, ‘oh and kill mother-in-law and get everything tidied up because dinner will be on the table at seven o’clock sharp due to drinks at eight-thirty at the Pearson-Jones’.
Things—unfortunately—just aren’t quite that simple.
The Grandes Dames of the murder mystery genre, practising their art in the early and middle parts of the twentieth century—what one might term the ‘Golden Age’ of detective fiction—espoused the pleasures of poisoning. Fly-papers were meticulously soaked to extract their lethal properties, berries and toadstools were carefully gathered and sliced and diced and surreptitiously introduced into steaming casseroles and tempting omelettes. On every domestic shelf such things as sleeping draughts and rat poison and eye drops sat unnoticed and unremarked, and a home was not a home without at least a few jars of cyanide or arsenic sulking forgotten in garden sheds and garages.
But, sadly, these items are notoriously tricky to come by nowadays in our ‘Nanny state’.
Of course, one watches these TV programmes that explain all about the forensic process, so that one is pre-armed with useful information. Knives wielded by the left-handed protagonist cut quite differently to those employed by a right-handed person. Equally so the short protagonist and the weak slash feeble protagonist.
In addition the actual wound inflicted by a classic blunt weapon can yield so much information about not just the weapon itself but also the attacker—the approximate height, stance, and even weight and probable gender, for example, and the ferocity of attack is sometimes a gauge as to motive and psychology. Firing a gun leaves residue on one’s clothes, gloves, and skin, and, contrary to popular belief, it can be quite a job laying one’s hands on a firearm.
According to the Daily Tabloid, a gun may readily be obtained at certain pubs in our larger cities for as little as £30, usually from a gentleman going by the name of Baz or Tel, but the problem is, these tend to be the kind of establishments one would hesitate to enter in broad daylight, let alone late in the evening.
Remember, it’s very difficult to get a decent glass of Merlot in this kind of hostelry, and one can’t just go in and hang about without making a purchase of some kind. If you do just go into the bar and stand or sit in a corner, the other patrons are likely to stare and nudge one another. They may even whisper to one another, ‘wot jer fink er game is then?’ or possibly, ‘Oi Tel, woss up wiv er, she too good fer us or summink?’
This is especially the case when one gentleman approaches and states that he and his friend, Gaz or Stevo or even ‘Arrison would like to buy you a beverage of some description, usually a Mojito or similar, and you are forced to politely but firmly decline. They are apt to be offended.
And if you do order a nice glass of Merlot, there’s always a momentary look of confusion on the face of the Landlord as he tries to recollect whether he has a corkscrew within easy reach, or how long ago he opened the half-empty bottle on the back counter—was it recently enough to avoid the expense of opening a brand new bottle?
Then he’ll ask if you’d like ice and lemon. Might as well add a cherry-on-a-stick and a little umbrella! And there’s no point in trying to charge it to your Diamond Visa or Titanium Amex—they much prefer to deal with cash. It’s altogether a rather unpleasant experience.
In any case, Baz or Tel are always surprisingly suspicious when one asks them if it would be possible to purchase a small Eastern-European revolver, something with a fairly hefty slug but small enough to slip into a small Louis Vuitton clutch-purse, or at a pinch into a Mulberry shoulder bag, or even, and here I may be straying into the realms of fantasy or James Bond (same thing, I suppose), even into the top of one’s stocking.
The gentleman invariably looks a bit puzzled and says something along the lines of, ‘‘ere that sounds a bit dodgy Darlin’. I don’t do nuffin like that.’ Well, of course it’s a bit dodgy, one points out, one is illegally attempting to buy a gun in a corner of the car park of a fleabag pub at eleven o’clock at night, and paying cash into the bargain. How could one possibly see it in any other light than dodgy? It doesn’t matter if you offer them £100, £200 or even £500 at this point, they just walk away shaking their heads and saying, ‘screw that, I don’t wanna get cort up in nuffin dodgy.’
I ask you.
The criminal classes aren’t what they once were. But what other choices does one have?
A pillow over the face in the dead of night is liable to leave a filament of goose-down in the lungs of your chosen recipient. This will immediately be detected by any half-decent forensic examiner and blabbed all over the Car-Crash Telly channel in a late-night special called Toffs Who Kill or something of the kind.
A bit of a bump with the car in a quiet part of town on a wet Wednesday afternoon may lead to eyewitnesses or CCTV footage recording your number plate for posterity. For goodness sake, tiny fragments of paint from the wing of your vehicle may embed themselves in the depths of the wound you inflict, and these same may be delicately reclaimed by a steady-handed science-nerd in a lab coat wielding a pair of sterile tweezers.
Murder is a difficult road to travel. But one must bear in mind the old maxim that nothing worthwhile is ever attained without a struggle. Therefore it is imperative to be utterly committed, to be dedicated in one’s approach, to persevere in the face of adversity and to make copious notes so that one may learn from one’s mistakes. And of course, it goes almost without saying, each stage must be planned in intricate, even tedious, detail.
Today I went to my local stationer’s—It’s so vital, I feel, that one supports local businesses wherever possible—and bought two notebooks, a small index card box, a set of ruled index cards, and a rather nice fountain pen. My husband seems to be under the impression that I require these items to catalogue my shoe collection. Sweet! And not a bad idea…but first things first.
Now, I’ve worked out I have approximately six weeks in which to plan and carry out my little project, and still have time for a decent mourning period before we have to be in Scotland for the ‘glorious twelfth’, my Thomas’s cousin Jessica (lovely woman!) always has a house party. Actually this year it’s the glorious thirteenth as the twelfth falls on the Sabbath, and one never shoots in Scotland on the Sabbath. Der! Thomas loves his shooting, so although I’m not a lover of messy pastimes, I always like to encourage him to relax and have a bit of fun, stockbrokers work so hard don’t they, and such high stress levels, one obviously doesn’t want them to crack up under the pressure!
Not, of course, that we would need a mourning period as such, as Thomas hates his mother almost as much as I do, but one must maintain appearances, and I’d need a good week, I’m absolutely certain, to sort out the contents of Highgates—she has accumulated so much old tat, although most of it is stored in boxes in the disused bedrooms, and has been sitting there untouched for simply decades. But it will take me a full day just to sort through the Spode and other china and porcelain in case there are any little gems lurking amongst the dross.
There are also two rather elderly and smelly cats that will have to be put to sleep, and of course the whole legal side of things to sort out. Thomas will have to see to that.
Then there’ll be the funeral to arrange.
Now one thing I do think is really important, and that is to ensure a really beautiful casket is purchased. And of course, it’s no good skimping when it comes to fittings, not if you want to do the job properly. Brass, highly polished, is the only thing that will do. Not that horrid plated stuff that rubs off as soon as you touch it. That’s what happened to Thomas’s colleague Miranda Kettle (she’s got the biggest nose I have ever seen, and the smallest chin! Nothing grows in the shade, does it?). She skimped on her mother’s coffin. We all noticed the green stain on the pall-bearers’ gloves, of course. No one said anything obviously, and in any case, Miranda herself didn’t notice. She had her nose buried in an extra-large gentlemen’s handkerchief most of the time, she was so inconsolably upset. Poor woman. Absolutely distraught throughout the entire funeral. Thought the mortgage had been paid off years ago! Such a beastly shock.
Same day: 5.45pm
I’ve just had a bit of a break to think about this a little longer. So I went to sit out on the terrace with a cup of tea. Then it came to me, and I had to dash indoors and fetch this journal.
Of course, the very thing!
The scourge of society nowadays: the house-breaker. Or, more precisely, the drug addict, who, as the tabloids will no doubt report, desperate to gain some funds for another few grammes of white powder to snort, breaks into a nice house in an attractive part of Ely in the hope of some opportunistic gain. Then is surprised by a feisty, elderly lady with a bit of oomph about her, and during the course of a desperate struggle, the evil perp bludgeons the poor old dear and makes off with some loot.
Meanwhile, I could be enjoying a well-deserved break at a health spa in—ooh, let me think—Cambridgeshire, perhaps?
This might actually work!
Things to do:
Purchase rubber gloves, not those cheap ones, they make me itch.
Ditto black woollen ski mask or balaclava
Also some black shoe polish (for face, obviously, so must make sure I purchase a ‘gentle’ formula) as I believe we’re actually out of black shoe polish at the moment.
I think I already have a black (or navy would suffice at a push) pac-a-mac somewhere in the rear cloakroom from that ill-fated walking holiday of 2010—Thomas had wanted to try something different—suffice to say, we went straight back to Antigua after that.
Oh, and black slacks.
Next, book visit to health spa. Tell Thomas am going away for a couple of days to a nice, reputable place in Cambridgeshire. Must buy a copy of The Lady in case none of my pals can think of anything in that area.
Will need to purchase a cheap, disposable holdall for disguise. (Could use a plastic grocery bag, I suppose, but it’s not really me. Also, this might scream homicidal housewife slash amateur-hour and want to look like I know what I’m doing, right tools for the right job etc etc but can’t actually use one of my own in case it’s traced back to me).
No need to buy a bludgeoning implement, as plenty of scope at Thomas’ mother’s house. Lots of beastly vases and figurines—some really quite large and heavy and ghastly but without any actual value—and, as will obviously have gloves on, can leave figurine in situ once used, no need concern oneself about disposal of same. Actually leaving the weapon behind looks better from a not-going-equipped point of view. More impromptu.
You know, I’m so excited. I really think this might actually work. Must just go and fish my little filofax out of my bag to work out a timetable. Then I can start writing in the headings on my index cards. Ooh Goody!