A September escape!

We’re off!

Yes, it’s that time again – we’re off to the seaside for a week’s lounging about and eating whatever we fancy so long as it’s chips or ice cream. My hubby loves fish, I detest it–I hate the smell, I hate the taste, I hate the feel, I just hate it…the thought of eating fish makes me feel really poorly.

Which is odd, because my stepfather had a fish and chip shop. Or maybe that’s the reason. On the other hand, before my mum met my stepdad, we lived near Hastings on the East Sussex coast of Britain. (Yes, the same Hastings as the Battle. Though the Battle of Hastings took place not at Hastings itself, but just inland from there. Now there is an abbey to commemorate the battle and the town has grown up around it, famed for–what else–gunpowder production… and the town is called, not very surprisingly, Battle… Ahem, what was I saying?)

Oh yes, and at Hastings I spent time on the beach and often saw the fishermen bringing in their catch, huge fish in massive buckets, flipping up and down as they gasped for air–this made a huge impression on me and I so much wanted to grab them all and release them back into the sea. So maybe that’s why a) I love the sea, and b) I hate eating fish.

But we are not going South, we are travelling East, and going to Cromer for the first time. I have been told it’s great, so I’m very excited. As an asthma sufferer, I also enjoy going to the coast for my health, so I’m hoping to be able to breathe freely in the good sea air.

I’m taking books to read. I’m hoping to have a lazy time, just sitting about and reading. I have Agatha Christie’s Destination Unknown, for some reason she didn’t write a mystery novel called Destination Cromer. I’m also taking Jeanne M Dams’ Smile And Be A Villain (love a Shakespeare quote…), and Merryn Allingham’s The Bookshop Murder. I really don’t think I’ll have time to read all three–there is a country house to visit, and a preserved railway, (sadly not in steam at the moment) and of course I am taking work with me.

What, you cry!!! Yes, it’s true, I am taking with me the manuscript of A Meeting With Murder: Miss Gascoigne mysteries book 1 to do last minute checks and faffing. It’s due out in a little over four weeks, (taking slow, calming breaths…) and I just want to have one last look through to make sure all the characters have the right names, and that there aren’t any missing chapters, or you know, stuff like that, the sort of thing that can get easily overlooked in the excitement of the moment.

And while I’m away, the wonderful Stef is making a start on the translation into German of book 5 of the Dottie books. The English title is The Thief of St Martins, and in German it will likely be called Der Diebstahl von St Martins. We are hoping/planning for a December release of that book.

Also in December, book 7 of the Dottie Manderson mysteries: Rose Petals and White Lace will be released. The eBook versions of both Rose Petals and White Lace and A Meeting With Murder

Readers of the Dottie Manderson mysteries have been incredibly patient, as it’s been almost two years since book 6, The Spy Within, was released.

So I’m off, and I’m leaving you with another tiny extract from Rose Petals and White Lace:

He halted the car at the side of the road. Ahead of them were two huge wrought iron gates, the only opening in the high stone wall that ran parallel to the road.

‘Where are we?’ Dottie looked at William, but he just smiled and got out of the car. As always, he came around the front of the car to open her door for her, putting out his hand to help her.

‘Watch your step as you get out, the bank is a little muddy here.’

He slammed the car door shut. She took his arm and he led her towards the gates. She was consumed with curiosity but determined to make him speak first. At the gates, there was no plaque or other sign, no family name carved in the stone, nothing to say where they were. Beyond the gates was a long, winding drive through overgrown fields of grass. At one side of the gates, part of the wall had crumbled away and it was possible to clamber over it and into the grounds.

Stopping to brush the dust from her skirt conferred by the stones, Dottie grumbled, ‘Just remember you’re a policeman, and can get into trouble just as easily as anyone else by breaking and entering.’

His only response was another enigmatic – and irritating – smile. He took her hand again and tucked it into the crook of his arm. They set off along the drive. After a couple of minutes’ walking, Dottie noticed the drive was sloping downwards, and around the next bend, there was suddenly The View: it was as if the whole valley lay spread out at their feet. Trees, farms, fields dotted with cows, sheep and horses. And to their left, halfway down to the valley, a large old house of greyish stone was sprawled beneath trees, as if taking an afternoon rest.

And now she knew where they were. It had to be…

‘Oh, William, it’s so beautiful!’ she told him in a hushed voice. ‘Great Meads. Your old family home.’

He smiled at her now, and she could see he was feeling emotional. His eyes glistened suddenly and he had to clear his throat a couple of times, in that way that men have. He indicated about them with his hand.

‘Of course, we would never have let the grass get so overgrown as this, and the wall would have been mended immediately.’

She squeezed his arm. ‘Of course.’ She spared a thought to wonder if it had been him who broke the wall down to gain access. She could absolutely picture him doing exactly that late one evening when no one was around.

‘Is anyone living here at the moment?’

He shook his head. ‘It’s been closed up for almost a year.’ He looked about him as if feeling rather lost. ‘Look, darling, I hope you don’t mind coming here like this. I—I just wanted you to see it, just once, don’t know why. It just seemed—important. I like to come and take a look at the place anytime I’m up here. I think there’s a part of me that doesn’t want to forget it.’

‘Of course,’ she said again. ‘Your father was born here, your grandfather, probably several generations before that were all born here. You were born here. You love this place. It’s part of you. And it always will be. Next time we come, we shall bring a camera and take some photos. They would look wonderful on the walls of your new house.’

He nodded vaguely, only half-listening. They walked on. After a moment he said softly, ‘Our new house.’

***

The Language of Flowers #flowersinbooks #literaryquotes

Flowers. They are always mentioned in books, right?  Whether they are a metaphor for the transient nature of life, or for resilience, or else portrayed in a more traditional way as indicating someone’s feelings or emotions, they are the writer’s favourite motif.

In one of my books, they represent something sinister–a kind of veiled threat, when Cressida received dead flowers from an unknown source. But flowers have been written about for centuries by some of the world’s greatest authors.

Do you recognise all of these quotations? There’s no prize, but you can feel very proud of yourself if you do! Hopefully after reading a few of these, you’ll feel as though you’ve had tea in the garden on a sunny afternoon.

“If a kiss could be seen I think it would look like a violet.”

L. M. Montgomery: Anne Of Avonlea

″‘Really, there’s nothing to see.’ Nothing… only this: a great lawn where flowerbeds bloomed…”

Philippa Pearce: Tom’s Midnight Garden

“How extraordinary flowers are… People from a planet without flowers would think we must be mad with joy the whole time to have such things about us.”

Iris Murdoch: A Fairly Honourable Defeat

“A morning-glory at my window satisfies me more than the metaphysics of books.”

Walt Whitman: Leaves of Grass

“In joy or sadness, flowers are our constant friends.”

Okakura Kakuzo: The Book of Tea

“Through primrose tufts, in that green bower,

The periwinkle trailed its wreaths;

And ’tis my faith that every flower

Enjoys the air it breathes.”

William Wordsworth: Lines Written in Early Spring

“Nobody sees a flower – really – it is so small it takes time – we haven’t time – and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.”

Georgia O’Keeffe

“All day in grey rain

hollyhocks follow the sun’s

invisible road.”

Basho (translated by Harry Behn)

“Have you blossoms and books, those solaces of sorrow?”

Emily Dickinson: Letters

 

“All the men send you orchids because they’re expensive and they know that you know they are. But I always kind of think they’re cheap, don’t you, just because they’re expensive. Like telling someone how much you paid for something to show off.”

Winifred Watson: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

“You can see the goldenrod, that most tenacious and pernicious and beauteous of all New England flora, bowing away from the wind like a great and silent congregation.”

Stephen King: Salem’s Lot

 

“And over walls and earth and trees and swinging sprays and tendrils the fair green veil of tender little leaves had crept, and in the grass under the trees and the gray urns in the alcoves and here and there everywhere were touches or splashes of gold and purple and white and the trees were showing pink and snow above his head and there were fluttering of wings and faint sweet pipes and humming and scents and scents.”

Frances Hodgson Burnett: The Secret Garden

“There has fallen a splendid tear

From the passion-flower at the gate.

She is coming, my dove, my dear;

She is coming, my life, my fate.

The red rose cries, “She is near, she is near;”

And the white rose weeps, “She is late;”

The larkspur listens, “I hear, I hear;”

And the lily whispers, “I wait.”

Alfred Tennyson: Maud Part 1

***

Dates for your diary! #newbooks #cozymysteries

Okay so I know I’ve kept promising and promising, but really soon, I promise, cross my heart and so on, there will be an actual new Dottie book this year and of course, the Miss Gascoigne mysteries new series will also be starting, which is a spin-off from the Dottie Manderson series.

(Sorry if I’m repeating myself, I know you know this stuff really, this is just for the occasional accidental tourist to this site!)

So without further ado here it is:

A Meeting With Murder: Miss Gascoigne mysteries book 1 :

A 1960s-era traditional mystery series set in Britain and featuring Dee Gascoigne, a newly separated woman who has just lost her job and is wondering what to do with her life. Dee has a family who love her, and a rather massive crush on her not-quite cousin, Inspector Bill Hardy, who struggles to keep the women of his family out of police investigations.

The eBook will be out on 7th October 2022, with the paperback and large print paperback coming out probably a day or two earlier.

The eBook will only be available from Amazon. It will also be available through Kindle Unlimited.

The ‘normal’ paperback will be available from most online stores including Barnes and Noble, D2D, Scribd, and many others.

The large print paperback will also only be available from Amazon.

If you’d like to know more about this series, please click this link to go to the Series Page for the Miss Gascoigne mysteries.

And here’s a teeny snippet from the book just to whet your appetite: It’s May 1965, and something bad has happened to Dee’s neighbour…

The stairs were right ahead of her as she entered the house. The interior was dim; only the first three or four stairs were illuminated by light coming in at the open front door. With a pause to allow her eyes to adjust, as well as to try to get her nerves under control, Dee placed her hand on the panelled wood of the enclosed staircase and began to ascend. The steps were steep and shallow, and with no rail on either side, it was a precarious climb in the near darkness. How on earth did Mrs Hunter manage, she wondered. Perhaps the old lady had a bedroom downstairs? At the top, she paused and took a calming breath. She turned to the left and as instructed walked along the gloomy corridor to the end, where a door stood open, spilling a little pool of yellowish light into the hallway.

She felt a deep reluctance to enter the room. Already she knew this was no ordinary moment. There was a musty stale smell, and something else besides. The metallic scent of blood on the air. She was still puzzling over the idea of there being blood as she went into the room. After all, no one had said anything about…

She stopped dead. Staring at the scene, her brain scrambled to make sense of the picture in front of her. A person—Sheila, yet not Sheila anymore—was seated in an armchair beside a small circular table. On the table was a wine bottle and a single glass with a small amount of wine left in it.

Unwillingly, yet knowing it could not be avoided, Dee turned to look at Sheila Fenniston. She had fallen slightly to the side, leaning against the edge of the table, and her head lolled back, her eyes half-open, her gaze fixed upon something Dee couldn’t see. Sheila was wearing a nightdress of a surprisingly demure variety, and all over the front of the white cotton was a dark reddish-brown stain. Sheila held her hands in her lap, and all down the forearms and on the lap of her nightdress was the brown sticky mess of blood. It had run down on either side of her and formed two puddles on the thin aged carpet. And there by her right foot, glistening softly in the half-light was the razor, dirty with blood.

Dee put her fingers to Sheila’s neck, knowing it was pointless. The skin was cold. There was no pulse. Dee backed out of the room, groping her way down the stairs. She closed the front door behind her and said, her voice faint, ‘No one can go in. Sheila’s dead. We must get the police immediately.’

*

Meanwhile, back in 1935, Dottie is ready for another outing as Rose Petals and White Lace: Dottie Manderson mysteries book 7 is now available to pre-order prior to release on 9th December 2022.

Once again, the eBook version of Rose Petals and White Lace will be out on 9th December 2022, with the paperback and large print paperback coming out probably a day or two earlier.

The eBook will only be available from Amazon. It will also be available through Kindle Unlimited.

The ‘normal’ paperback will be available from most online stores including Barnes and Noble, D2D, Scribd, and many others.

The large print paperback will also only be available from Amazon.

If you’d like to know more about this series, please click this link to go to the page for the Dottie Manderson mysteries book 1-4, or this link for the Dottie Manderson mysteries books 5 onwards.

Here’s a sneak preview from Rose Petals and White Lace to get you in the mood:

It’s 1935, and Dottie Manderson is helping out Inspector William Hardy’s sister, Ellie, who has a problem in her tearoom:

Lunch was, if anything, busier. Every table was occupied both inside and out, and the spare chairs at Dottie’s table had been borrowed to be set around the other tables where there were more than four people in the party.

Everything was going beautifully when two tables away, suddenly a man exclaimed loudly and in a disgusted tone, ‘Good God! What on earth is this doing here?’

There was no time to see what ‘this’ was, for he immediately dropped it onto the floor and stepped on it. Very rudely, he shouted, ‘Girl!’ to Ellie or Ruth who were already both making their way over. Ellie looked as though she felt ill, whilst Ruth looking angry. Dottie got up for a better look at what was going on, thinking Ellie might need her help.

Looking down at his plate, now the man said, ‘What? I can’t believe it! There’s another one!’ His annoyance rose and he looked about him angrily. ‘Where’s the manager?’

Ellie reached his side, clasping her hands and saying, ‘Excuse me, sir, may I help?’

He rounded on her in his fury, and she took a nervous step back. Red-faced, and with his voice reaching everyone in the building, he shouted, ‘Get the manager, you stupid girl. This is an utter disgrace! In all good faith I came in here with my family and ordered some food, only to find not one but two maggots on my plate!’ He was on his feet, towering over her, and Ellie was patently alarmed. Dottie glanced back towards the bakery counter and noticed that Andrew was ignoring the situation, calming greasing loaf tins, his back to the tearoom. For a brief moment Dottie wondered if he was actually deaf.

‘Darling, I’ve found another one!’ the woman with the angry man declared, leaping to her feet in revulsion and taking two steps back. She had a napkin to her mouth as if for protection, or to prevent herself from being sick. Around the tearoom, there was a deathly hush; everyone had turned to watch and listen.

‘Don’t gawk, you idiot, get me the manager! Now!’ the man yelled in Ellie’s face, a tiny spray of spittle flying from his mouth to her cheek.

Ellie began to stammer an apology, adding, ‘I am the m-manager.’

The man directed a scornful look up and down her frame. ‘I’ve never heard anything so ridiculous in all my life.’

I hope that has got you in the mood. This book will be chock full of creepy-crawlies and bugs of all kinds, so if they make you itchy and uncomfortable, make sure you have some nice soothing tea and biscuits on hand when you start reading. I always do!

***

Focussing on the rewrites

I wrote my first draft of the new book A Meeting With Murder: Miss Gascoigne mysteries book 1 in the first half of the year. In fact I started it towards the end of last year, but well, life, I guess, got in the way, and so here we are, eight weeks to release date and I’m still rewriting.

I’m not too worried at the moment, I know I have plenty of time. But it’s a weird experience reading your own work and shaking your head, alternately in despair or pride, thinking, ‘Did I really write that?’ Sometimes my word surprise me – I didn’t know I knew that word – other times I think ‘Ugh, this is awful, it makes no sense at all.’

One of the useful things ot pick up is the consistency, or otherwise, of language. I want the characters to sound as natural as possible and not too stiff and cardboardy. I’ve also realised I need to create a bit more tension and a sense of mystery. And I’ve spotted a biggish plot hole – it’s a relief to have spotted that now and not six weeks after the book is published!

I’ve got notes all over the place reminding myself about a range of things from character names to remarks along the lines of ‘need to bring him into it a bit more’. I love a sticky note. Unfortunately they don’t always stay in place and tend to gravitate towards one another. So now I have a jumble of sticky notes pertaining to several different books. I tell myself I will remember which is which, but I think I’m probably just kidding myself on that score.

I’m wrestling with what to leave in and what to take out. As this is the first book of a new series, there’s a certain amount of telling not showing (the opposite of what is usually recommended), of scene-setting and introduction. I will need to revisit the opening chapters a few times to see if I really need all that background info.

Then there are my old bugbears: repetition and too many qualifiers. I repeat so many words and phrases. Sometimes it’s a really good one:

Mrs H had been virtually drooling over the news, her gummy mouth open in a wide grin, her large loose lips wet with bubbles of saliva in the corners of her mouth.

I really like this phrase, but unfortunately I’ve used it about six times in this book and it’s lost its power. So I need to decide which is the best place to use this, and the most ‘eww-inspiring’. So five of those have got to go!

I also realised (from the read-through) that I use some words much too often. I found that I’d described everything as little – the little village, the little house, the little street, the little sitting-room. it was all too little. So the red pen had to deal with those.

Other words I use far too often:

So

And

He felt that/She felt that

He thought that/She thought that

The next morning…

And it’s not just words – I use far too many ellipses, dashes and emdashes. The writer in me loves to qualify, over-explain and enhance everything, the editor in me says ‘Ok, I’ll let you keep three of each…’ Out comes the red pen again.

I’m still only halfway through. Here’s hoping I can keep to my deadline and somehow bring this book to completion in time for releasing on an unsuspecting world.

***

 

Interview with a Footballer – a short story

‘That new striker for United is here for the interview,’ came the message. Geena sighed and dragged herself to the reception area. Another inarticulate footballer with a repertoire that entirely consisted of the usual three phrases: ‘The lads done good’, ‘We’re training hard’, and ‘It’s a game of two halves’. It wasn’t exactly the hard-hitting journalism she’d dreamed of as a student.

In reception he looked up from FHM as she approached. He unfolded himself from the seat. He was tall, he was blond, he sported a diamond stud in one ear. He wore an expensive suit as if it were a cardboard box and he was the gift inside. Wow, he’s gorgeous, Geena thought, and she slapped a smile on her face as she stepped forward, her hand outstretched.

‘Hi, Justin, so lovely to meet you, sorry to keep you waiting,’ she said.

Her hand was grasped firmly and released. No sweaty palm, no prolonged contact, he didn’t even stare at her boobs. That was a huge surprise. A good start, she was forced to acknowledge.

‘I’m so grateful to you for sparing me some time today,’ he began in a smooth, public-school voice. ‘I realise you have a somewhat hectic schedule and I was fully prepared to have to wait a few days but as I’m sure you’re aware, the publicity is always very welcome.’

She blinked at him. ‘Oh – er – well, it’s – er…’

He smiled again. Sexily. Gorgeously. White even teeth. Good skin, not as orange as celebs usually were, and he didn’t appear to be hungover. She led him into her office, invited him to sit. And he sat. Not lolling, but actually sitting, ninety per cent upright at least. Amazing.

She positioned her dictating machine and with a smile, indicated they were beginning. ‘Well, Justin, perhaps you can tell me a little more about your move to United.’

He smiled again. It suddenly struck her he was here alone: no entourage, no agent, no coach, no WAG. Just Him. Wow. Again.

‘Well Geena–I hope you don’t mind me calling you Geena? I saw this as an excellent opportunity to further my career by playing for a high profile, high status club, but at the same time I really believe it is good for the club too, because I’m confident I can bring an element to the team’s game which has been a little lacking in the last season or two.’

‘And have you met your new teammates yet?’

‘Yes, we’ve had two practice sessions together, and of course, I’m researching the footage available. I have great faith in my colleagues–they’re all keen and talented athletes, and I feel that this move will be mutually advantageous. I intend to work very hard to justify the manager’s faith in me and the huge transfer fee they have invested.’

She caught a whiff of his designer cologne as he leaned forward to take a sip of his designer water. ‘Tell me about team tactics,’ she suggested.

‘One thing I really believe is that the game can be won or lost in the mind as well as on the pitch. I think it’s a wise man who comes out of the dressing-room after half-time and views the second half as a new game, a fresh opportunity to test himself.’

Quite so, Geena thought. It was two hours before she realised he’d said what they all say: ‘We’re training hard’, ‘It’s a game of two halves’ and ‘The lads done good’. He’d just said it in a posh voice with big words and a nice smile.

*

2012 © Caron Allan

 

A quick catch-up with Criss Cross

I self-published my first book in January 2013, so  nine and a half years ago.

(note to self, you should have waited until January 2023 so you could do a 10-year anniversary post.)

(note back to self from self: I might still do that, no one will remember that it was only six months earlier that I did this post, will they?)

The book was Criss Cross, and it was the first book of a trilogy called initially the Posh Hits Murders then I changed that rather clunky title a few years ago to the Friendship Can Be Murder mysteries.

Why did I self-publish?

I finished the book in 2012, (congrats, self, it’s been ten years…) and finding that people were still rather scornful of self-pubbed books – and still are today, btw – I tried to persuade around thirty publishers and agents to take it. The responses varied from dusty silence for months on end with tumbleweed rolling by, to responses two or three weeks later of ‘Sorry it’s just not for us, so sorry, but no,’ to responses by return of mail, saying, in effect, ‘Hell no!’

Some people said, ‘We enjoyed it but it won’t sell, it’s not commercial enough. It doesn’t fit into a genre.’ (True)

Lots of them said, ‘Good luck with that.’

And so that was why I thought I would ‘give it a go’ as a self-published author. Whilst waiting for replies from the latest victim, I had read quite a lot about self-publishing and thought it sounded like something even I, technologically challenged as I was, could do. So I did.

It was a long and difficult process as I had never done anything like that before. I knew very little about editing, or formatting of manuscripts. I was still working full time, so I had very little time to do anything ‘extra’, and I had no spare cash to pay anyone to do anything for me. In those days I didn’t know any other writers either so I had no one to ask. I learned it all from a book. and from research on the Interweb.

And then apart from the technology, I had another issue: I was really really scared!

What if people didn’t like it?

What if I discovered that I was genuinely a terrible writer?

What if the publishers and agents had been right and it was a huge failure? Well that one at least wasn’t too much of a problem – if it flopped, who would know or be worried apart from me?

It took a while to overcome my fears and just go for it. But eventually I got tired of wondering ‘what if’ and just – did it.

And yeah, it’s not made me a millionaire. I sell something like 100 of my Dottie Manderson mysteries to every one of the Criss Cross books I sell. But every month I sell a few, a nice little handful of eBooks and paperbacks and even large print paperbacks.

And yeah, not everyone likes it. One of my earliest reviews – which could have stopped my writing career right there if it wasn’t that I am super stubborn and contrary, was a one star review that said ‘This is the worst book I have ever read.’

Quite honestly they did me a favour. Because that was exactly what I had been dreading all that time, so once it came, everything else seemed okay. And by that time book 2 was out, followed by book 3 and book 1 of the Dottie Manderson mysteries.

I think most writers dream of getting an offer from a publisher to publish their works. That’s never happened to me and I don’t know how I would feel or what I would say if it did. I kind of just kept on with the self-publishing as it seemed pointless to waste time trying to place my books when they could be ‘out there’ within a day or two. I make a nice living now from my books. Currently I have ten books published and two more about to come out later this year. I’m not a millionaire. To be honest I’m okay with that. I love the creative control of my books and I enjoy working with other authors to edit or proofread their works or to offer ideas or support.

And I have received so much help from many lovely authors. Now, I quite often get emails or message from readers telling me they like my books. I usually apologise first. then thank them.

Readers, you have no idea how amazing it is when someone tells you that something you came up with out of thin air has given them pleasure. Thank you, wonderful readers, for your kindness and support too.

What’s the book about?

So what’s Criss Cross about?

Loosely speaking, it’s a murder mystery. But it’s written in the form of diary entries by the protagonist, Cressida, and is from a limited-ish first person point of view.

(And those are some of the aspects of it that were not commercially viable for a publishing house.)

She’s terribly posh and entitled, and has a plan to kill off her mother-in-law who is making her life a misery.

I can’t really say it’s a mystery as quite a lot of what happens is told to the reader directly by Cressida. But of course, she herself doesn’t always know what’s going on, so there is that element of mystery. But there is a strong chick-lit vibe, and there’s romance.

(More reasons why it’s not a good choice for a publishing house.)

As the story moves on, the body count piles up, because stuff just happens, as Cressida quickly discovers. Outwardly self-sufficient and uncaring, she is really a fairly lonely person who builds herself a family, and it is these relationships that she wants to protect at all costs.

It’s humorous, a bit snarky, but warm and occasionally poignant. Each story leads on from the previous one, these don’t quite work as stand-alones, I’m afraid.

If you fancy reading a bit more, you can find a sneak peek here.

NB – just to let you know, I’ve been toying with the idea of continuing this series, so who knows – watch this space, it might end up a series.

***

Van Gogh and the need for models

When Vincent van Gogh wrote to Emile Barnard in 1889 from the asylum in which he had voluntarily placed himself, he said he was ‘suffering under an absolute lack of models’. He was not talking about people to pose for him to paint, he was talking about people to look up to, professionally, role models, people he aspired to follow and to learn from. He was faithfully working on his painting, turning out canvas after canvas, but had no one close by who could help him grow as an artist.

Alice Walker, in her collection of essays entitled In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens (such an inspirational book, I still have the battered copy that I bought in 1989 in London’s Tottenham Court Road at a bookshop specialising in feminist and womanist works) quotes this moment in Van Gogh’s life, and discusses it in “Saving The Life That Is Your Own – the importance of models in the artist’s life”. She highlights the need for writers–and all artists–to find worthy and strong role models to help us grow and develop our skills. Her book helped me hugely as an aspiring writer in my late 20s.

There have been a number of special books which have influenced me as a writer over the years. Here are some of them. (Some of them are quite old now, but I think you can still get them…)

In her 1934 masterpiece Becoming A Writer Dorothea Brande said, “A writer writes” which writers hear everywhere, and you may think it’s an obvious statement to make, but think about it for a few minutes, it’s deeper than you think. It’s not about writing being just a one-off event, ‘I wrote a book’, but an ongoing, permanent relationship with words. This book is considered a little out of date by some or a bit patronising, but for many writers, Brande’s book is the seminal work aimed at writers who are right at the start of their writing journey, or who have lost their creative impetus and need a fresh perspective.

Writing a book can be compared to climbing a mountain, and the higher you get the more scary it feels if you stepped back from the process to look at what you were doing. So, as Mary Wibberley in her book To Writers With Love said, ‘Don’t look down!’ – just keep moving forwards until you reach the end. Or should that be, THE END. She also commented that finding your story is rather like creating a sculpture out of a block of stone. It takes time, and you shape the story roughly then polish and hone, several times. This book was another huge help to me as a new writer.

Alice Walker taught me that in spite of this need writers often have to be alone to concentrate on their writing, we also need others to look up to and observe and learn from, to share our journey with, to laugh with, to cry with, and everything in between. I–and you–cannot grow or function in isolation. And life’s journey is too hard to spend all your time alone.

It has never been easier than today to find others for inspiration and support. Many of my closest friends are other writers I have come across through conversations on social media. And they have got me through so many tough times, times when I felt discouraged, or felt like giving up, or felt like nothing seemed to be working. I am so grateful to them. If I ever win an award, my ‘Without whom…’ speech will be long and tearful. The internet is full of tips, hints, writing websites, blogs, epublishing platforms, how-tos and advice, writing circles, book reading groups, as well as technique and knowledge webinars. My advice is to dig into these writing groups, make friends and be kind. We all need the human element. There is no need to suffer under a lack of models any more.

It is an odd thing, being a writer, because just like other ‘normal’ jobs, sometimes you don’t want to do it, you don’t want to write, or you’re fed up with everything you write: it feels stale or trite or clichéd or flat or bumpy or… ‘hard, dry…’ Sometimes you hate being a writer. Sometimes you write something so good, you can’t believe it came from you. Or you become convinced you have depleted in one sentence your entire reserve of ability, and that you will never be able to write again. Other times you feel as though you’re banging your head against a brick wall, desperately trying to get an idea out, and you can’t even remember what a verb is.

Van Gogh said, “However hateful painting may be…if anyone who has chosen this handicraft pursues it zealously, he is a man of duty, sound and faithful.”

All Van Gogh’s works now with free cat

It does sometimes feel as though, as writers, we are undertaking A Quest as we try to ensure our red herrings are subtle but present, and our sleuths remain believable and appealing yet somehow stand out from the crowd of other fictional sleuths. Loathing may be present for at least a third of the book. You may well come to dread the very thought of looking at your draft again. But look at it you must, for the good of the book, and your writer’s soul. And you have to make yourself do it even if you don’t want to. You can’t just sit and wait for inspiration to strike. As many well-known and successful authors have commented, if you only write when inspired, then you’ll probably never write a thing.

Van Gogh went on to say, “What I am doing is hard, dry, but that is because I am trying to gather new strength by doing some rough work, and I’m afraid abstractions would make me soft.”

Like him, we devote ourselves to diligently plodding through our notes, our research, our first drafts and our revisions. At times it feels like hard, dry work. But we cannot leave it until later. If we do, we will lose our impetus, we will forget that special key phrase, that small detail on which the whole plot turns. Therefore it’s important to keep going, keep moving forward. But you don’t have to do it alone. Join a group, make friends, open up to others and as they embrace your work, you can embrace theirs.

Be careful with your criticism. Remember their style may not be yours, their story may differ from yours, their experiences, their character – they are not you. But like you, they have a dream – so try not to trample, but to encourage. One harsh word or thoughtless comment can make someone give up writing for weeks, even months, so be kind, be gentle. We creatives are sensitive people. You may not ‘gel’ with everyone, but those you do, support them wholeheartedly. Try to keep an open mind. You may not like or agree with what people say about your work but listen to them anyway, consider what they say, don’t get miffed or precious: you need these people and they need you. And more than one viewpoint is valid. Together we can get our work drafted, revised and rerevised, edited, rererevised, proofed then put it out there into the world for the reading public, sharing one another’s triumphs as well as the doubts.

***

 

Flight and Refuge

Like many writers, I have written a lot of stuff that, for a number of reasons, hasn’t been published. It might be absolute rubbish, or it’s unfinished, or I am, as always, too busy on other projects…

That’s the case with a book of 110,000 words that I wrote in 23 days flat back in about 2005 or 2006. The story is called The Refuge. I mention it from time to time on here, and have posted a couple of extracts (click to follow the link to chapter one, if you’re a bit bored). The premise is that Britain is at war: towns are under attack from air raids, soldiers have invaded the country, and are subduing and capturing etc, as tends to happen in wartime. (Sounds a bit ‘current’, doesn’t it? And that’s one of many reasons this book is still on a shelf and not ‘out there’. It’s a bit real. )

The main characters are Anna, a journalist, and Mark who was a government advisor. They knew what was about to happen and had a few days to prepare. They move to an area near some caves, planning to hide there with Anna’s family, until it’s safe to emerge. As Anna and Mark make their escape they find it impossible to turn their backs on survivors they meet so the group quickly grows in size.

I often talk about ‘closed communities’ and how useful these are in mysteries to stage the crime. But what if it’s an actual community, a village, hidden for decades, maybe even centuries from the outside world? My characters find themselves in just such a place. They and their new friends have to fit in, and adapt to a new way of life.

Research for this book really made me think. What if this really happened? If I had to leave my home, knowing I might never come back, what essential items would I take with me? I think if there are more people rather than fewer, that actually helps as between you, you can carry more.

My first thought was, obviously, food. And water. But…

Am I going somewhere where there is no food or water? If so, what am I going to do? I can’t possibly carry and keep fresh sufficient food to keep me alive for a year, let alone the rest of my life. Can I? And I’m not alone, so we need more.

So I had to ask myself, how long might we be gone for? Are we going for a few days in the hope ‘it’ will all be over by then? If we can learn anything from history, (and current affairs) it’s that these things tend to linger on much, much longer than we expect or hope.

If we’re going ‘forever’ then a couple of packets of noodles and a few bottles of water isn’t much good, is it?

So are we leaving just so we can died quietly somewhere on our own terms? Or are we going to make a new life, to support ourselves ‘forever’?

If the latter, we need:

a) more information about what ‘resources’ are at the place we plan to head to.

b) based on that, are we going to become a hunter/gatherers? Farmers? Or are we going to take refuge in a community broadly similar to our own, where there is an established supply of food and water and hopefully other amenities?

It really wasn’t as straight forward as I initially thought.

My refugees in The Refuge decided they would initially camp out until they had a chance to figure out what to do next. The important thing in the first instance was just to get away. So they planned to take tents, sleeping bags, water, water purification tablets, matches, candles, some food, a spade, a few basic tools, etc.

Being sentimental humans, they gave into the urge to rescue their pets: Anna turns up with two cats in a cat basket, and Mark arrives with his German Shepherd. No doubt the dog was a bit more useful than the two cats, but at least the cats can forage for themselves…

I’m assuming it’s a given that my family are coming with me, so I asked myself, what would I take – what were the things I couldn’t bear to be separated from?

Family photos.

Writing.

Books?

FOOD and WATER.

Not sure the baby photos, my notebooks and pens, or my reading materials would be a good idea. They’d be heavy and not actually contribute to keeping us alive, though they would give us something to entertain ourselves with in moments of leisure, or in a pinch, something to fling onto the fire…

If we had a chance to plan ahead, we could have everything neatly packed in backpacks and possibly take a few extra items that fell into that ‘not quite sure’ grey area:

Knife for veg/any cutting tasks; forks, spoons, plastic bowls, water in large plastic bottles, antiseptic or disinfectant, aspirin, loo paper (or??? I can’t decide about this one…); mirror, tweezers, scissors, plasters/bandages, clothing – just a couple of changes for each person. Some sturdy boots (on our feet so no need to carry), waterproof jackets. Comb, toothbrushes, face flannels and maybe small towels, soap for clothes and people.

Candles? Matches, definitely. Firelighters or briquettes, washing line, pegs, string, folding chairs (a luxury? But I can’t stand up for the rest of my life, nor sit only on the ground…) rope. Waterproof sheeting. Binoculars.

A screwdriver? Probably not – again – I’m just not sure, this is where I need a bloke to advise me. (Sisters can’t always do it for themselves.) A saw, hammer, nails, cutters? Am I building a shelter for myself, or…?

Large plastic bowl, kettle, small bowls to eat from, a wooden spoon? Small pans? Dried milk, tea, sugar, porridge, oil, stock cubes, dried beans, rice, tinned meat.

Tent or tents according to the number of people, sleeping bags.

These are all for our own survival. But what if, like Anna and Mark, we find ourselves in an already-established community? ‘Stuff’ might be less important and maybe psychology would be more important? What about the moment of our arrival? How would we fit in?

I think I’d feel eager to please. Eager to like everything, to approve of everything, to be accepted, understood and grateful, to be liked. Excited, keen. Then, a few months later, when difficulties arose and the ‘honeymoon’ period was over, I might feel lonely, homesick, and wonder if I should have just stayed where I was.

What about clashes of ideology? We might agree in public but at home, in private, we can say what we really think, do what we believe is right. Or can we? How private or safe are we really?

In my book, the small village is isolated, self-sufficient. It doesn’t cope well with ideas and attitudes from outside. I had to think about how relationships remained intact through the stresses and strains of everyday life in a new place. What about fallings out and antagonisms – how much do they affect everyone else?

For my people, going to the village instead of trying to cope on their own, meant:

initial relief at being with others, as this meant more support, the village was better established, more resilient, had a more structured way of life than simply living in a few tents. There was a sense of having reached a goal that seemed almost normal.

But then came the struggle to fit in when they realised attitudes, beliefs and way of life were different. It was hard to find common frames of reference. And although the majority adopted/embraced/adapted to the new way of life, a small number won’t/can’t seem to fit in.

Not all the villagers would welcome the new arrivals. There might be tension which leads to a sense of ‘us and them’, which could boil over into aggressive behaviour and even violence.

This in turn could mean that for some of the newcomers, there was a tendency to stay in the same groups and not to blend in.

And then of course, because I am a mystery writer at heart, I couldn’t resist adding a bit of difficulty of my own: the new arrivals have a gradual realisation that this is not a perfect society but is it possible or are they even morally justified in attempting to bring about change? Is it even okay to suggest change when you are an outsider, and need them more than they need you?

I had to consider that some of my characters might, eventually, feel they were not able to stay in this new place, no matter how convenient or safe it seems.

But at this the point, they may well discover the truth: no one is allowed to leave.

 

***

 

Book Shelter Blues

DSC02093

Secondhand. Preloved. Used. Old. Whatever you call books that are not new, it amounts to the same thing: neglected; unloved; abandoned; discarded. Even the ‘amusing’ epithet of ‘preloved’ simply indicates love that has been given then withdrawn. No longer loved.

Yes, I know that many people see these places as Aladdin’s caves filled with wonder and possibility. Not so for me. For me, a secondhand (let’s call it what it is) bookshop is a bit like going to an animal shelter. My first response in both cases is always one of dismay – there are so many here! Secondly, I think, ‘how can I possibly save them all?’

I went into two such shops today.

In shop one, I was frustrated by the lack of genre categories or alphabetical ordering. I felt I had to scan the entirety of the store to be sure I didn’t miss anything vital. As it was, when I paid for my ‘finds’, or as I prefer to call them, my ‘adoptions’, I couldn’t shake the certainty that I’d missed something. But the ‘usual guy’ was on holiday and the woman standing in for Usual Guy was not versed on what was where. She laughingly told me that if Usual Guy had been there, he could have immediately told me where any of my chosen authors might be stationed. Ha ha! Oh my aching sides. Not.  They also had an overflow into an empty shop front next door – and even though I could see literally dozens of boxes heaped up, she wouldn’t let me go in there and poke about, and neither could she tell me what was there. I took my five rescue-books and left, slightly disgruntled.

The second shop was somewhat different, and yet, underneath all the glamour, exactly the same. It was squeaky clean and neat as a new pin. I see books neatly stacked on actual shelves or laid out in boxes, spines uppermost, and the boxes have labels such as ‘Romance’ and ‘Family Saga’, and also ‘Romance and Family Saga’. I stand in the doorway to get my bearings and the proprietor bustles up in a housecoat, carrying a duster.

She asks if I’m looking for anything in particular. Really all I want to do is browse. How can you tell someone that you won’t know what you want until you see it? But I fear she is not really, in spite of the location, a bookish person. I have a sense that browsing is not to be encouraged, and I drag my ‘little book of books’ out of my bag. I tell her I have quite a long list. She’s not bothered by that. She’s waiting. So, under pressure, I panic and begin to blurt out a few names.

‘Patricia Wentworth!’ I feel a bit like Harry Potter frantically trying to come up with the right spell. She gives me a sad smile, and shakes her head.

‘Not done much for a while, has she?’

‘That’s because she died in 1961.’ I explain. I could tell her the day and month, but I’m not convinced she’d be interested, so probably for the first time in my life, I just shut up.

She nods. ‘Ah.’ It appears that being dead is a major hindrance to having your book in stock at a secondhand bookshop. I’d have thought it was the perfect spot, but no. I’m a bit worried about continuing with my list, as I feel most of my favourites are a bit on the no-longer-with-us side. But she is looking at me with an air of expectation. I’m not sure she’s really helpful, I think she just wants to get back to the dusting.

‘Victoria Holt? Mary Stewart?’

That smile again. The same shake of the head. Sorry. I look at my list again and wonder if there’s any point in carrying on with this charade. I feel already know the answer, but perhaps due to some previously-unnoticed masochistic tendency, I ask anyway.

‘Ellis Peters?’

‘Nope, not him either.’

‘Her,’ I say and turn away, intensely irritated. I scan the shelves. They are packed with books by people who are dead – how come my authors aren’t here?

‘Try the clearance boxes out front.’ She suggests. I nod. Somehow even as I rummage through these boxes I know I’m wasting my time. Eventually I give up.

And as I walk away, I’m pretty sure two whole shelves of Jean Plaidys and Catherine Cooksons shouted after me, ‘Take us with you!’ and ‘come back!’ and possibly even, ‘Help!’

It’s the ones left behind that hurt the most.

***

A sneak peek of Miss Gascoigne book 1: A Meeting With Murder

As you may know, I’m working on the first book of a new series. It’s another cosy mystery series featuring a female amateur detective. The series is to be known as the Miss Gascoigne mysteries, and Diana ‘Dee’ Gascoigne is the detective. It will be released on the 30th September, and the Kindle version is available to pre-order. The paperback and large print paperback will be published shortly after the eBook.

If you have read any of the Dottie Manderson mysteries set in the 1930s, some of these names may sound familiar.  Dee Gascoigne is the baby Diana who is born at the beginning of The Last Perfect Summer of Richard Dawlish. Now it’s 1965, and Diana is almost 30, recently separated from an abusive husband and still carrying a not-very-secret crush for her not-quite-cousin Bill Hardy, detective inspector, and eldest son of Dottie and–you’ve guessed it, William Hardy from the Dottie Manderson mysteries. (SPOILER!!! They do get together, don’t despair!)

In A Meeting With Murder, Dee has just lost her job due to the scandalous fact that she plans to divorce her husband–divorce was still a very big issue in the 1960s. Next, following a bout of bronchitis, Dee goes off to the seaside to recover. Of course, even in a small village, or perhaps because it’s a small village, there are malign forces at work. Dee, like her Aunt Dottie, feels compelled to investigate, and perhaps start a whole new career for herself.

Here’s a short extract from A Meeting With Murder: Miss Gascoigne mysteries book 1.

I hope you like it!

Dee had a leisurely afternoon. She took another walk around the village, marvelling that she didn’t happen to meet anyone, considering the place was so small but well-populated. She had afternoon tea with Cissie in what was rapidly becoming a ritual, one that she would miss a great deal when she finally returned to London.

That evening, Dee looked at the two letters yet again, mulling over them long and hard. She knew them by heart now. Not that there had been much to learn, both were short and direct.

The first one, in the usual style of cut out words or single letters from magazines or newspapers, said simply, ‘Your seCREt shame will NOT be a secret much lONger.’

The second, more recent one, said, ‘Your bAstard cHILd will pay for YOUr sin.’

The word bastard had been made up from several sections of type: the b was a separate letter, then the Ast were together, presumably formerly part of a longer word. The next a was a single letter again, then the final two letters, rd, were once more part of the same word, and likewise, the YOU of your was formed of a word in capital letters with an extra r added to the end.

On the one hand, it was laughable that anyone would think this was still a scandalous secret in the modern era. But on the other, Dee remembered what Cissie had said to her when she first explained about the poison pen letters. It must have been a shock, Dee decided, for Lily to open the envelopes and find these letters inside. To think that someone who knew her, someone familiar to whom she no doubt spoke on a regular basis, had composed these spiteful notes.

Dee sat for a long while pondering the letters. At last, she put them away, neatly folding them and slipping them into the zipped mirror pocket of her handbag for safe keeping.

The next morning she was up bright and early, had her breakfast, and humming along to a song on the radio, she tidied the cottage and got ready to go out to meet her brother’s train, eager to see him, eager to tell him everything she’d learned. She came out of the dim house into bright sunshine, and walked directly into a man going past the cottage.

Then as he gripped her arms to steady her, and helped her to stay on her feet, she saw who it was.

‘Oh!’ she said, covering her sense of shock by becoming angry instead of flinging herself into his arms. ‘So Scotland Yard finally turned up, did they? A bit late in the day.’

The tall man in the smart suit—surely a little too smart for ordinary daywear, especially in the country, Dee commented to herself—took a couple of steps back, clearly as shocked as she was at having literally walked right into her as she came out of the front door of the cottage as he and the other man with him were walking by on their way from the railway station to the pub.

Just looking at him was enough to set her heart singing, much to her annoyance. Meanwhile he was frowning down at her with what was known in the family as the Hardy Frown, his dark brows drawn together over long-lashed hazel eyes that were just like his mother’s.

‘What the hell are you doing here anyway? You’d better not be interfering in my investigation. I’m not like my father. I don’t allow private citizens to meddle in official police business.’ He was holding his forefinger up in a lecturing manner. 

‘Oh shut up, Bill, you’re so bloody pompous,’ Dee said and stormed off.

Hardy sighed.

‘I take it you know that lady, sir?’ the sergeant asked, eyes wide with curiosity, following the lady as she went.

‘You could say so, sergeant. Listen to me. On no account are you to tell that woman anything about this case. Don’t give her documents to read. Don’t accidentally leave your notebook lying around for her to ‘just happen to find’ and snoop through. Don’t answer any of her questions, or tell her our line of questioning, or anything about our suspects, or just—anything. She comes from a long line of nosy women. Do you understand me, sergeant?’

‘Ye…’ the sergeant began.

‘Because if you do any of those things, believe me, I shall make your life a living hell.’ Hardy caught himself and stopped. Then added, with just a hint of a smile, ‘Not that I don’t already, I expect you’re thinking.’

‘Oh sir, as a mere sergeant, I’m not paid to think.’ Sergeant Nahum Porter risked a grin at the inspector.

Stifling a laugh, Hardy said, ‘I’m very glad to hear it. Now come on, we’ve got things to do.’

many thanks to clash_gene at Shutterstock for the wonderful cover image.

***