Since this whole covid thing hit, I’ve noticed I’ve become quite–erm–well, doolally is what my mother would have called it. I’ve gone a bit forgetful and dopey. And the most recent example of this is when, two weeks ago, I posted a blog entitled ‘More killer words’, and I actually said:
‘I mentioned a while ago (I’ve already forgotten when it was…) that one of the best parts of a murder mystery is when the killer is ‘on-stage’ and speaks.’
Well it’s taken me until last weekend to figure out where I said that, and it was in my subscriber newsletter – so no, I never did start that conversation here on my blog. On the blog we had the sequel but not the prequel, if you see what I mean. Sorry about that! So now, without further ado, I bring you the original (horribly long, feel free to completely ignore it) The Killer Speaks:
You know how, at the end of a murder mystery, they assemble all the suspects, and the police, and the investigator—whether an official officer of the law or an amateur sleuth, or even a paid private eye—tells everyone how the crime was done? I love that bit.
On the one hand, it bugs me that it’s done at all in fiction, because clearly, in real life the police don’t bring all the suspects to Great Aunt Madge’s house and, when everyone is sitting comfortably, begin to recount the case from the very beginning, filling in each step with a bit of evidence or some superhuman deductive reasoning. And usually I hate it when things in books aren’t done ‘right’.
But I love that big reveal, and the complacency of the investigator, having everyone there to listen to his/her theories. I love the ego of it, the pomp, the ‘you will all listen to me’ arrogance, and so even though I strive to make my own stories more or less believable, I sometimes just give in and go with that wonderful sense of occasion.
I’m not an expert on the Golden Age of murder mystery writing, but I am very familiar with some of the well-known authors of that time, notably Agatha Christie and Patricia Wentworth, and I have read quite a bit by some of their contemporaries: Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy L Sayers, Margery Allingham, Georgette Heyer. And I’m pretty sure it was this bunch who created the concept of this kind of finale. Or perhaps if we go a little further back, we will find Sherlock Holmes setting this up as the ultimate in wrap-ups, or Wilkie Collins’s Sergeant Cuff. I’m not clear where it began. I just know I love it.
We so often read of Poirot standing in front of a group of rather irritable, seated suspects whilst he expounds, his manner a cross between hectoring and lecturing. Miss Marple, by dint of her age, is usually seated, sometimes knitting, and has a far more hesitant, apologetic style, and is so self-deprecating. Both Poirot and Marple suffer from moral outrage: a murder is an affront and will not be tolerated mainly on the grounds of moral integrity rather than the unbiased basis of the law.
I enjoy ‘listening’ as they bring their case. But then comes the point I love the most.
The killer speaks.
Because this is the reason we hang onto Poirot’s thoughts for so long. We want to hear (read, I mean really) the killer say in her or his own words, WHY they did it. Yes, we do need to know how. And where, and with what weapon, we want to know about motives and alibis, but oh so often, the abiding desire in us is to know WHY. Why did they do such a terrible, irremediable thing?
We are often told that anyone could kill given the right circumstances and sufficient motive. Many of us doubtless would say, ‘No, I would never, could never kill. I can’t even bring myself to kill a woodlouse or a spider.’
I have asked myself if I could kill. I have killed bugs and beasties, generally by accident or out of sheer clumsiness. But I’ve never—as far as I’m aware—killed anything bigger than a bee. Unless you count calling the rat man. That I suppose is more like being an accessory, or conspiring to kill… From the rat’s point of view, they’d probably say I was a murderer. To me it’s different. I suppose murderers always say that.
But if it was a case of happening upon a person who was deliberately harming someone else, and I saw a way to stop it, what would I do? I’d like to think I’d never turn my back on someone in desperate need. But how far would I go?
So I think that’s why we—all of us avid crime fiction fans—enjoy getting to the pinnacle of a mystery, following the clues, deducing and pondering, and hanging onto every word to find out ‘the who’ and ‘the why’ behind the whole thing. As the killer shifts in his or her seat, the spotlight shifts to them, and this is their big moment. The chance to explain their WHY. We hold our breath, not daring to make a sound in case we miss a word. They lean forward, look us in the eye, they clear their throat, and they speak…
Which book finale have you read which gave you the biggest buzz? Do you prefer your killer to go down denying and fighting, or do you prefer your books to end with a kind of proud and well-bred admission of the truth?
Lily Anderson has it all. A beautiful son, a wealthy fiancé, and a luxury apartment in Edinburgh. But Lily is living a lie. Estranged from her family, she’s tired of covering up the truth about her relationship with Nathan Collesso.
Lily’s not the only one with troubles. Her friend, Sam, is being pursued mercilessly by a rogue cop determined to silence him. Living on the streets, Sam sees and knows too much.
As Lily’s wedding approaches, a desperate bid to escape leaves her with a head injury and a missing fiancé. Did she harm Nathan? Did she kill him? She can’t remember.
The net tightens, entangling Lily and Sam in a web of deception that stretches from Edinburgh to Poland. Hard truths come to light, and every decision Lily has made since the day she met Nathan Collesso comes back to haunt her.
One false move, and she could lose her son, her friends and her life.
Hi Helen, and welcome!
Thanks for agreeing to virtually come along and be grilled on my blog. Last summer, I had the happy task of joining in with your blog tour for the release of your thriller Unravelling, which I thoroughly enjoyed. So I was really excited to take part in the blog tour to promote the release of your new book, also a thriller: Deception.
I thought I’d be cheeky and ask you a couple of questions while I’ve got you here. Kind of.
C: What was the inspiration and motivation behind the new book, Deception?
H: Deception began in my head with the character, Lily Andersen, a young mother with a child and a keen social conscience. Unusually for me, I could visualise her clearly, and I felt compelled to write her story. I always knew she was going to have problems with her partner, but I’m not sure even I was prepared for the utter depravity of Nathan Collesso. I was also keen to explore the idea of unconventional friendships. Someone like Lily was bound to show compassion towards Sam, but I wanted to take their relationship further, showing how people with very different lives can form strong bonds and support each other through adversity.
C: Do you think your legal training and experience enables you to approach your work from a different perspective? How do you bring your work into your writing?
H: My past experience as a social welfare lawyer has undoubtedly influenced the themes in my writing, which include addiction, mental health issues and domestic abuse. I worked closely with Women’s Aid in the past, and many of my clients were survivors of domestic abuse, a hideous problem that is often unseen. I like to think there is a strong social commentary running through each of my novels, which has definitely been inspired by my legal experience.
C: How important to you is setting. Do you feel the settings you use imbue your books with something special?
H: As a reader, I love writing that promotes a strong sense of place. It’s crucial to my enjoyment of fiction. When I wrote my first novel, In the Shadow of the Hill, several people commented that the Isle of Harris was like a character in the book. It wasn’t consciously done, but I think it’s something that has recurred throughout my writing. I lived in Edinburgh for several years, and that’s where I first began to write. It is a beautiful city, full of character, particularly the Old Town, where much of Deception is set. But, like any city, there’s more to it than what you see on the surface, and I hope I’ve succeeded in bringing a darker side of Edinburgh to life.
C: What’s next in the pipeline for Helen Forbes and for Scolpaig Press?
H: My next novel, Queen of Grime, is also set in Edinburgh. It features Erin Flett, a crime and trauma scene cleaner from a deprived area of the city, who has a dark secret that endangers her and her family. Interestingly, the idea arose while writing Deception. Originally, the Deception character Julie Ross was a crime and trauma scene cleaner, but there was so much going on already that I couldn’t do justice to the storyline, so I decided to change Julie’s occupation and save the idea for a new project. I’ve really enjoyed writing Queen of Grime. Researching the subject of crime and trauma scene cleaning has been interesting, and not for the faint hearted. I hope I’ve managed to lighten the story with some humour, much of it black. Queen of Grime will be published by Scolpaig Press later this year, and I am now writing a second in the series.
Many thanks Helen for taking the time to talk to me and many congratulations on the new book!
Let me say first of all, I loved the book. It was at times a difficult read, dealing with some of our hardest social issues in modern-day Britain. But don’t let that put anyone off reading this fast-moving, twisty-turny story.
I felt the story was insightful, the characters were cleverly, convincingly drawn and not all of them were the kind of people you’d want to spend time with. It was easy to ‘take sides’ so to speak with those characters who seemed to be genuinely good, yet at the same time, I wasn’t quite sure if I was being duped, as it quickly became clear that several people were being less than open about their pasts and about what was going on in their everyday lives in the ‘now’. It’s hard to know if you are trusting the right person at times.
I don’t want to spoil the story for those of you who haven’t yet read it – most of you as the book only comes out today! But there was one moment about halfway in the book when I just sat back and thought, I just didn’t see that coming. (Hats off to You Helen, I’m not usually surprised!)
Deception is exactly what it says: there is deception lurking in every character’s story, and at times the story is quite dark, but there is a sense of resilience and hope at the end of the book which makes the journey worthwhile and ultimately uplifting.
Fans of thrillers definitely need to read this book!
About Helen Forbes:
Helen Forbes is an author of Scottish crime fiction. She lives in her home-town of Inverness, in the Scottish Highlands. Helen began by writing contemporary and historical fiction, with no intention of turning to crime. It was a chance remark at a writing group about one of her short stories that led to her debut police procedural novel, In the Shadow of the Hill, set in Inverness and South Harris, featuring Detective Sergeant Joe Galbraith. Madness Lies is book 2 in the DS Joe Galbraith series, set in Inverness and North Uist.
A standalone crime thriller, Unravelling, was published by Scolpaig Press in July 2021.
I mentioned a while ago (I’ve already forgotten when it was…) that one of the best parts of a murder mystery is when the killer is ‘on-stage’ and speaks. It’s the highlight of the story for me–their moment of crowing glory or abject defeat. This is the moment when we the audience have already heard the detective’s wild accusations or seen their insurmountable proof. Then, turning to the perpetrator, the audience holds their collective breath. And then the killer speaks…
After The Funeral by Agatha Christie is one of my top ten of her books. I just love the way, right from the start, the reader is deceived. (I’ve tried to do this without spoilers, but there’s only so much I can do and still make my point!)
Here is an extract of the denouement. Poirot has been outlining his case. Then the killer remarks:
‘No, one doesn’t bother to look at a mere companion-help… A drudge, a domestic drudge! Almost a servant. but go on, M Poirot. Go on with this fantastic piece of nonsense!’
So Poirot does go on.. and it’s too late now for the killer to save him/herself. I love it when the killer challenges the detective in a rather snarky way–we know they are about to get their comeuppance. Of course Poirot has more up his sleeve. When it comes, it is, of course, irrefutable. The murderer realises they’ve given themselves away irretrievably, but if they can’t have their way, then nothing else much matters:
‘You don’t know how boring it is to listening to somebody going on about the same things, hour after hour, day after day… Pretending to be interested… And nothing to look forward to…’
All too often, the murderer has a side-kick who is apt to be thrown under the bus at the final moment, for their ineptitude. Side-kicks are notorious for saying the wrong thing to the detective in the final showdown:
‘…darling, it’s not true. You could never kill anyone, I know you couldn’t…it’s that horrible girl you married. She’s been telling lies about you….’ said the side-kick in Christie’s A Caribbean Mystery, only for the villain to turn on them and snarl:
‘For God’s sake, you damned bitch… shut up, can’t you? D’you want to get me hanged? Shut up, I tell you. Shut that big, ugly mouth of yours.’
Life’s tough for a side-kick. The murderer will always be centre-stage, their vanity demands it.
What about the ending of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd – a controversial book in its day, one of my favourites, and still hugely popular. Here, after revealing the murderer, Poirot says to him/her:
‘It would be most unwise on your part to attempt to silence me as you silenced M. Ackroyd. That kind ofbusiness does not succeed against Hercule Poirot, you understand.’
To which the murderer responds, with a characteristic touch of vanity:
‘My dear Poirot,’ I said, smiling a little, ‘whatever else I may be, I am not a fool.’
It is important for him/her to be appreciated and treated with respect, even though they are a cold-blooded killer. At least for the reader, justice is served–or about to be–whilst for the killer, their dignity is more important than their life.
The best ‘killer speaks’ moment is when the murderer is unable to maintain their aplomb and with terrifying and self-condemning rage, they launch themselves at the detective–for whom this is usually all in a day’s work–and the game is most definitely, and fatally, up. This is that moment in Evil Under The Sun – my number one Agatha Christie novel:
‘Poirot said: ‘You will be interested to hear that both you and (……) were easily recognised and picked out by the Surrey police… They identified you both…’
(…..) had risen. His handsome face was transformed, suffused with blood, blind with rage. It was the face of a killer–of a tiger. He yelled:
‘You damned interfering murdering lousy little worm!’
He hurled himself forward, his fingers stretching and curling, his voice raving curses, as he fastened his fingers around Hercule Poirot’s throat…’
That, ladies and gentlemen, is a satisfying conclusion! The murderer must have his or her moment in the spotlight, to explain their motivation. It’s all very well to know how they did something, and of course, vital to know who committed the crime, but if you don’t know why – it’s one of those puzzles that can never be put to rest.
There’s one thing we can say for sure about the changing taste of different decades. We might do it differently but we still do it. Party, I’m talking about, you smutty people. We humans have always loved a celebration. And no matter what we’re celebrating, that will definitely include music, and if at all possible we can all ‘get down and get with it’.
Here are a few playlist recommendations, depending on your era of choice.
If you fancy partying like it’s the 1740s, check out these bad boys, guaranteed to get you in the party mood as New Year comes around:
CPE Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto in A Major (There are not enough harpsichord concertos if you ask me.)
Thomas Arne’s Rule Britannia. I’ll admit this is not for everyone, especially if you’ve suffered under our oppressive yoke. Sorry about that. Blokes with a superiority complex, boats, flags and guns, what can you do? But it is a banging tune.
GF Handel’s Hercules Oratorio (no, I don’t know it either…)
CPE Bach’s Harpsichord Concertos in E and D minor, and in E major. I feel like CPE has got himself stuck in a rut here, but again, if you’re good at something, maybe it’s a good idea to stick with it.
And finally, Vitali’s Chaconne in G minor – a great end to a fabulous evening.
Or say you’re in the mood for something a little more modern, you could boogie down with my amateur sleuth Dottie Manderson and the best of them to these fabulous tunes from the 1930s:
My absolute favourite from the 1930s:
Midnight, The Stars and You. Such a romantic title, and romantic concept. What more does anyone need than those three things? This was brought to us by the Ray Nobel orchestra, featuring Al Bowlly (of course) on vocals. It was famously used in The Shining, and is the title of my next-but-one Dottie Manderson mystery, book 8 which should hopefully appear either at the end of 2022 or the middle of 2023.
Let’s not forget also, other 1930s crowd-pleasers such as Stormy Weather (another wonderful and evergreen song) by Leo Reissman and his orchestra and with Ethel Waters singing .
Then you could move on to Night and Day, a Cole Porter song from 1933, I love the Ella Fitzgerald version.
Or you might like another one by Al Bowlly – how about The Very Thought of You. another romantic one for close-up smooching in dim lighting. Ah!!
And you could round the evening off with a rousing chorus of one of the follwoing:
Judy Garland – Somewhere Over The Rainbow
Cab Calloway – Minnie the Moocher (not as good as his late-life version as per The Blues Brothers, in my opinion.)
Artie Shaw – Begin the Beguine – another perennial favourite, I absolutely love this one. Or if you want a different approach to this classic, you could try the really wonderful Louis Armstrong version…
These Foolish Things – the Benny Goodman/Teddy Wilson version with Billie Holiday.
Not quite right for your bash? How about something from the 1960s? Get your beehive hair-dos and drainpipes ready…
Now you can really have some variety – try putting together a list featuring some of these great 60s tunes:
Daydream Believer – The Monkees
Concrete and Clay – Unit 4 + 2
Always Something There To Remind Me – Sandie Shore
Natural Born Bugie – Humble Pie
Nights in White Satin – Moody Blues
I Only Want To Be With You – Dusty Springfield
Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow – The Shirelles
Yeh Yeh – Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames
Do You Love Me – the Tremeloes
Maybe that’s a bit too up-to-the-minute for you and you want something a bit classier? How about some great dance music from the Regency era? This is the era that invented line-dancing, albeit somewhat more stately than we have now:
Let’s open with the amazing Beethoven piece for piano, Für Elise. That’ll really get ’em all out on the dancefloor.
Then next, maybe we’ll shake things up a bit with a singalong, the opera Adelina by Generali and Rossi
Or maybe an excerpt from an opera by Beethoven – he was The Man in the early 1810s, with Schubert close behind. This might be the perfect moment to play a bit from Symphony number 8 in F major. Let’s all hum along with the chorus…
For a bit of slow dancing with your beloved, you can’t beat Schubert’s String Quartet in C major.
Due to the rather lengthy nature of this kind of music, we’ll leave it there, closing the evening’s entertainment with Ferdinand Ries’s bestselling top-twenty hit, Concerto for Two Horns. (Admit it, you were missing the concertos, weren’t you?)
One thing is for sure, since time immemorial, humans have loved to come together to celebrate something–anything–and that has included music, dancing, big frocks, bigger hair and quite possibly alcohol.
Happy New Year! May 2022 be everything you long for. Just go easy on the resolutions.
I’ve been (w)racking my brains to think of something different to say on here for the last two weeks. I give up. I’ve raided social media for all the ‘100 incredibly brilliant best ideas to use on your blog’ and none of them quite seem to fit my mood at the moment.
And then I thought about including a sneak peek of one or other of my WIPs but I’ve done that before, so…
Here’s an extract from a spooky supernatural-genre novel I wrote, ooh a hundred years ago. Still not published, although it is almost finished, so who knows… the working title is The Silent Woman. Enjoy. (Btw it’s REALLY long, feel free to check back next week for something shorter…)
Amy found herself a seat in a corner of the dining-room. She could hear the sound of trampling feet above her as the IPA crew – about seven people in all – were getting into their positions ready to start filing the start of the night’s vigil.
Suddenly there was the sound of a car horn from outside and in response, thunderous footsteps came down the stairs and raced across the lobby to the front door. Then Amy heard the sound of voices, getting gradually quieter as the people went upstairs once more and downstairs part of the hotel grew still around her, waiting, watching in the darkness.
Amy settled herself again, the threads of her concentration had been broken by the disturbance. She felt edgy. Some part of her was afraid that every time she got settled and began to concentrate on her environment, a bunch of IPA crew-members were going to blunder in like so many untrained puppies and crash about and spoil things. It seemed inevitable that they would, if only for the sake of appearances, carry out at least a brief investigation in the dining-room after what Stephanie had told them.
The room was pretty dark. A little light crept in at the terrace doors and was reflected by the mirrored wall at the back. It felt musty and disused in here. Amy felt there was something eerie about being alone in a large room full of empty chairs and tables dressed for a meal that no one would eat. She longed to throw the windows wide and let some fresh air into the place. The dining-room, with its sense of abandonment and the eerie images in the dusty mirror, was peopled with enough ghosts already, without anything paranormal that might yet occur.
There were sounds from upstairs and Amy wondered if she was missing any excitement. She had reached the stage of the investigation she termed ‘stupid o’clock’, mainly because after sitting alone in a dark room for an hour she knew her concentration levels would dip and she would begin thinking about her life with all its doubts and dissatisfactions.
Voices in her head pointed out that sitting here like this wasn’t going to pay her bills – not now, not ever. And, she didn’t have a plan, she didn’t have insurance, she had an overdraft she couldn’t repay, and her freezer was empty. More importantly, as her mother had pointed out to her on more than one occasion in the three months since she had given up her ‘real’ job, she also no longer had a boyfriend.
If she had any sense, she would walk out of here right now, drive back to her motel room, get some sleep and first thing in the morning drive all the way back to London and beg her former boss to let her have her old job back. She could say she had been ill, had a breakdown or something – she could get some counseling and be back at her desk first thing on Monday morning. Why the hell had she quit? The money had been great, she had the prospect of promotion after a year or two, she had fringe benefits, a nice office, parking, and last but by no means least, there had been Lyle Best – the sexiest man in a three-piece suit, now her ex-boyfriend.
But this was stupid o’clock, and she didn’t have any sense, so she continued to sit where she was and wonder what she was going to do with her life.
Maybe even Lyle would take her back? She had loved him once, maybe it wasn’t too late?
‘Oh God!’ Amy groaned to herself and leaned back in her chair. ‘What am I going to do?’
She heard a sound, a plain ordinary, everyday sound. It came from right in front of her. It was a sound she could hear a hundred times a day and not think anything of it. But here in the darkened dining room, knowing she was all alone, it was definitely a supernatural occurrence.
Someone had just cleared their throat.
Everything else left Amy’s mind. A quick glance round showed her absolutely nothing, just as she had expected. She concentrated her thoughts, her emotions, reaching out as she had learned to do, trying to communicate with whatever spirit or entity was out there. She spoke:
‘Hello? Is there anyone here in this room with me? If you would like to speak with me, I’m ready to listen.’
She spoke quietly but clearly. She hoped she sounded confident but not arrogant. Too often, in person or on television, she had seen the brash way investigators marched into someone else’s space and started to lay the law down or make demands. Often any paranormal events made them flinch and shriek or startled them into bad language. Amy had lost count of how often she had thought, it’s that mouth of yours that cost you any findings, spirits don’t expect someone to barge into their sphere and then start mouthing off, it’s just so – wrong. That kind of rudeness seldom got the results they hoped for with spirits from an older, more mannered era.
She waited for a few moments. When nothing else happened she added,
‘If you can’t speak to me, you might be able to make some other kind of sound. Maybe you could try something else?’
Almost before she had finished speaking a candle on a nearby table fell onto its side. The sudden sound almost made her jump, even though she’d been half-expecting exactly that sort of thing. But it was an encouraging sign. She nodded her approval.
‘That’s great,’ she said, enthused, ‘can you set it up again?’ And whilst she waited she fished in her bag for her small flashlight. Finding it, she clicked it on and focused the narrow beam on the candle. Although the torchlight was weak, she could clearly see the candle rolling to and fro on the tablecloth.
‘You almost got it that time, keep trying, this is excellent!’ She said. An idea came to her – she should be recording this! She felt annoyed with herself for overlooking such a vital aspect of the investigation. She tried to find her cell phone in her shoulder bag but it was hiding. Reluctantly she had to take her eyes off the candle and concentrate on finding her phone.
Finally she found it, she selected the video-record mode and held up both the flashlight and the phone, jiggling them until she had both a firm hold and the light was directed on the candle.
The candle was once again upright in its holder. It stood there, proud and steady in the centre of the table.
‘Wow!’ Amy exclaimed involuntarily. ‘That was amazing! How did you do that? You really had to concentrate hard on that, which shows you have tremendous strength. Is there any way you could show me again?’ Hearing herself, she cringed. I sound like one of the other lot, she thought.
Obligingly, the candle fell over, and as Amy watched, it seemed to wobble and roll about on the table, twice rising a short distance up in the air before falling back again.
The door from the hallway burst open and four people entered, a cameraman and a boom-mike operator entering backside-first into the room. A powerful beam of light played across Amy’s face, blinding her momentarily. As she turned, she saw the IPA guys beyond the beam of their flashlights, and out of the corner of her eye she just saw the candle as it eased itself back into an upright position for the second time. Amy let her arm drop but the beam of the IPAs flashlight illuminated her phone.
‘Sorry to bust in on you, sweetheart, I guess you’ll need to go outside if you want to text your boyfriend, it’s just that we’re trying to run an investigation here, and we need to come into this room now.’ It was Jake. Of course, she thought, why am I not surprised?
She was angry, and got to her feet, ready to argue her right to stay, but as soon as she stood up, she had a strong sense of all the energy draining from the room. Suddenly the room felt hollow, like an empty shell. Whatever she had been communicating with had now left. Which made everything okay.
‘Fine. See you later. Good luck with your investigations,’ she said sweetly. She saw that Nice Guy was watching her closely as she put away her flashlight and phone then hitched her bag onto her shoulder. He wasn’t fooled. She winked at him as she went past on her way to the door, only to collide with a tall dark figure in the doorway as she did so.
‘Excuse me,’ said the voice, a pleasant female voice, a deep contralto. The Medium, Amy realized. They always brought in a medium on these night-time investigations. Not the same person each week, the medium usually arrived blindfolded to make it clear to the audience that they were doing a cold-read from the venue and had not been tipped off with any advance information. Which on some shows they often were, though Amy wasn’t too sure about the IPA, they seemed genuine enough, if somewhat inept.
‘Sorry,’ Amy said, ‘my fault, I wasn’t watching where I was going.’ She continued on into the hallway.
In the lobby she stood for a few seconds debating where to go next, and as she stood there thinking it over, a sound behind her made her turn and even before she saw him, she knew it was Nice Guy.
‘Hi,’ he said. ‘I’m really sorry about crashing your investigation. That’s kind of the way they expect to do things in the IPA. They always think they’re top dog.’
‘It’s okay,’ she told him. ‘Whatever it was in there has gone now anyway. I’m just trying to decide the best place to go next.’
‘Sure. Um, what about upstairs? We kind of skated through pretty quickly, but I think there could be something interesting up there. Um, did you capture anything on your phone?’
She looked at him, assessing him. Was he to be trusted?
In the end she was saved from making a decision: Noisy Boss appeared in the doorway and said to Nice Guy,
‘Yo Steve, we’re burning daylight here, if you can spare some time from playing footsie with your girlfriend, we’ve got an investigation to run.’
Noisy Boss, clearly fancying himself as the star of a big Stateside show, disappeared back into the dining-room, grouch-lines etched deep between his eyebrows. Steve hesitated as he looked at Amy, clearly torn between duty and a promising lead.
‘Trouble in Paradise?’ Amy asked sweetly. Steve frowned at her and turned on his heel and went back into the dining-room. Through the open door she could hear Noisy Boss snarling,
‘And where’s that goddamned psychic got to? Considering what we are paying her, you’d think she could manage to turn up on time once in a while!’
Interesting, she thought, the Medium had been there a second ago. Amy headed for the stairs.
The staircase was old. It was paneled at the side, and the newel posts were elaborately carved. Although the wood was dark, Amy didn’t find it oppressive, and the carvings were of pleasant images – fruits and leaves, flowers and birds, not the usual gargoyles and monsters of Gothic craftsmen. The handrail was very smooth, worn by generations of hands sliding over its surface. She hadn’t really noticed it earlier but now she saw that the staircase had been the living centre of the Old Mill and a partaker of its history. In her mind’s eye she saw the continuous coming and going on the staircase that was the building’s life – generation after generation of workmen, businessmen, sales people, customers, office workers, guests, not to mention the people who had stayed in the building as hotel guests, and the army of cleaners, chambermaids, receptionists, catering and waiting staff, all running up and down these stairs. The stairs were the artery that fed the old building its life-blood. Nothing would happen in this building without its impression being left here, imprinted in the very fabric of the place, in the wood that was now under her feet and surrounding her.
Amy began to climb but didn’t make it beyond halfway up the stairs before being enveloped by a sense of oppression. She felt as if something was pushing down on her head, her neck, her shoulders. She found she had an almost irresistible urge to turn and run back down to the lobby.
‘Are you there?’ she asked softly, looking about her and adding. ‘Can I help you? Do you …?’
But there was no time to finish what she was saying. She felt a sudden onslaught of anger rush over her and the sharp sound of a voice snarling ‘No!’
Then, just as abruptly, Amy had a sense that the something or someone had gone, completely gone, and the oppression lifted and she ran lightly up the remaining stairs, pausing with relief in the wide open area at the top of the stairs and she turned to look back down, puzzling over what had just happened.
A door opened nearby, not by ghostly but by mortal hands, and the tall figure of the Medium appeared, a powerful torch in her hand. She saw Amy and began to draw back into the room, with a murmured apology.
‘It’s okay, I’m not doing anything.’ Amy called, ‘at least, I did just have a kind of weird experience on the stairs.’
‘Really? What happened?’ The Medium came over to join Amy and they both stood looking down the stairs. Amy quickly told her. In the semi-darkness she saw the Medium’s eyebrows lift and she nodded.
‘Interesting! Kym Hallam, by the way. I’m their tame Medium.’
‘Nice to finally meet you. I’m Amy Harper. I’m their two-bit rival. Um – I think they’re looking for you actually. Noisy Boss seems a little cranky. They’re in the dining-room. I thought I saw you there?’
‘Noisy Boss? You mean Jake? Yes, he usually is a little cranky! I just had to step out for a moment. Okay, well, I’d better go see what they want. I think you should have some success up here, there’s definitely something here – maybe in that second room on the right.’
‘What about that room you just came out of?’ Amy asked thinking she was being diverted from something good. Kym just laughed.
‘That’s the bathroom! Too much coffee!’ And she went downstairs.
Amy checked. She opened the door of the room Kym had just exited. The soft murmur of water in pipes and the gleam of porcelain made her back out of the room with a smile. It was a bathroom!
Amy stood for a moment to get her bearings, trying to remember which was the room where she had spoken to Analina. She knew it was on the right somewhere, a short way along the corridor. And Kym had suggested she try the second door.
But when she drew close to the second door, it didn’t seem quite far enough along the corridor though she wasn’t completely sure. But she as went on a little further to the third door, that seemed a better fit with her memory.
She reached out to touch the handle, and as she did so, she felt a sudden chill and a shiver stole through her body. All senses alert, she halted and looked around.
There was a figure, shadowy, to her left, a little behind her. Amy turned right round and stepped back against the wall. The figure was already fading, and all Amy could really discern was that the shadow seemed smaller than the one she and Analina had seen earlier that day.
It was gone, leaving Amy with just the vaguest impression of size and shape. She was convinced it was not the same shadow she had seen before. She waited but nothing else happened, so she stepped up to the third door again, turned the handle and taking a deep breath, went inside the dark room.
That was the bit she always hated – stepping into a dark room – she knew it was simply the fear of the unknown, and that once she got in there she would be fine, but it was just that moment between gripping the handle and entering the room, when she had no idea what might be there behind the door waiting in the silent stillness. She didn’t like the uncertainty of that little aperture of time.
A veiled moon slanted a shaft of light in at the window, catching everything in its path and turning it silver and black. The rest of the room seemed even darker by comparison, and Amy stood by the door for several seconds, waiting for her eyes to adjust to the change in light so she could make out the interior of the room.
She could make out the general shapes of the twin single beds ahead of her, the window of course was easy, the robe, the door through to the ensuite bathroom. She went across to the bathroom door and opened it, adding a little more light to the room. The bathroom itself was all white porcelain and empty air.
Turning back she saw a small armchair near the window, drawn up to a little side-table. That would be perfect, she thought, and crossed the room to make this her vantage point. She settled herself in the chair and waited, looking around for any clues to what might be going on in this place. After a few minutes she began to ask the usual questions, but even as she asked them, she knew there would be no responses. She felt so strongly that there was nothing and no one in the room apart from herself.
After twenty minutes or so, she decided to go back next door to the room Kym Hallam had suggested.
The curtains were shut in this room and therefore the room was much darker. Amy decided to leave the door from the hallway standing open to let in a little light, and as before, she opened the door to the ensuite bathroom, to let the light in from there too. These actions gave her enough light to see the contents of the room and putting away her torch, she saw the room was a mirror-image of the one next door. She went to sit on the chair by the window again. And she sat and waited.
This room felt different. Although it was dark, it was a warm, friendly darkness. Walking into the room had been like hiding under the bed-clothes on a cold winter’s morning and having another five minutes’ snooze – it was comforting, enveloping, reassuring.
Amy tentatively began to ask the usual questions, was anyone there, would they like to speak to her, if they couldn’t speak, would they like to make some other sound. The room was heavy with a sense of expectation, of interest. When she tried to describe it to herself, she felt it was as if the room was listening, waiting, getting together the courage to make itself known.
But nothing happened. For an hour Amy persisted, alternating listening with speaking, allowing plenty of time for a spirit – or anything – to respond. In the end she decided it was time to move on. But at the door, on an impulse she couldn’t explain, she turned and said, as if assuring someone,
‘I’ll be back tomorrow night. Think about what I’ve said. If you change your mind, you can talk to me tomorrow night. Bye for now.’
She closed the door gently.
Now. There was one place left that she wanted to check out. Analina had told her about experiences when cleaning on the third floor, particularly room 303. So it seemed a logical choice to make that her next port of call.
The worst thing about her newly-chosen career, she thought as she picked her way up the first few stairs, was the ever-present danger of tripping over something in the dark and hurting herself. Health and safety was a nightmare in the paranormal investigation industry. She giggled a little as her imagination ran through a series of mental images of white-coated men with clipboards tsking with disappointment over her unsafe working conditions as she battled through dark, obstacle-filled rooms calling out ‘knock twice for yes, once for no’. She stopped on the stairs trying to get her giggles under control so she could get on with the next task.
Immediately an angry thought came into her head;
‘This is no laughing matter.’
Sobering at once, Amy said out loud,
‘Who said that? Show yourself!’
Suddenly a black shadow rushed at her, she leapt back, shocked, and fell down three steps before she managed to clutch at the handrail and stop herself, her strangled cry of surprise still hanging in the air as she nursed her ankle. There would be a bruise tomorrow, she told herself, taking a minute to regain her composure before looking back up to the top of the stairs to where she felt the entity was waiting.
She stood up, leaning on the handrail for support. She tested her ankle. It hurt but it was okay.
‘Now look what you did!’ She snapped, looking up, chin high, determined to hold her ground. ‘That’s not a very nice welcome for your guests. I want an apology!’
There it was, the dark angry shadow she had seen with Analina only that morning. This shadow was in a whole different league to the other, much smaller and less intimidating shadow. This one oozed menace, brooded, and even as she watched it seemed to grow a little. Amy could feel the waves of fury coming from it, directed at her, at anyone, trying to drive away not just Amy but all life it encountered.
Determined to provoke another reaction, Amy stood her ground, fixing all her attention on the shadow. It was a form of spirit, she knew, but just not as strong as the usual kind of passed-over spirit people associate with conventional ghostly hauntings.
‘I’m not afraid of you,’ Amy said softly. ‘I’ve seen your kind before. You think you can bully people into doing whatever you want, just as you did in life, I’ll bet. But I’m here to tell you that you’re wrong. I’m the one in charge here, whether you like it or not.’
Behind and below her she heard the sound of running footsteps and inwardly she groaned. The IPA crew! Sure enough a girl and a guy carrying cameras and sound equipment were running up the steps towards her almost backwards in their attempt to film the two main IPA investigators arriving on the scene. Behind them, Amy could also see Kym, eyes bright with interest, hurrying up the stairs.
As Amy turned back towards the entity again, the shadow rushed at her for the second time, and a wave of air, as hard as a physical impact sent her falling back again, and this time she fell onto her backside, momentum causing her to slam the back of her head into the wall. She lay on the floor, stunned for a second or two, but aware that somewhere, about a million miles away, male voices were excitedly asking,
‘What in hell was that?’
Resisting the urge to curl up and go to sleep, Amy opened her eyes to find Kym kneeling over her, and the sound of rummaging and the sound of a click followed by a shaft of light piercing her eye, causing her to yelp and recoil. The beam then shone in her other eye and Kym said,
‘I don’t think you have a concussion.’ Then, ‘I trained as a nurse in my previous life.’
‘What happened up here? Tell us exactly what happened, starting from the moment you left the dining room.’ Noisy Boss Jake demanded. The young girl with the mic pushed it closer to Amy’s face. Amy groaned as the pain flashed through her head.
‘Speak to the camera,’ Jake urged. Amy tried to move, but Kym motioned to her to stay put. Kym said,
‘She’s not able to tell you anything right now, she needs to get somewhere more comfortable and really, I’d be a lot happier if she went to the emergency room.’
‘I thought you said she was okay?’ Jake snapped. Kym snapped back,
‘I said, I didn’t think she had a concussion, which is not the same as saying she’s okay. In any case, kindly remember that Ms Harper is not a member of your team, so you can’t tell her what to do and she has no obligation to share any information with you at all. Her only obligation is to her client.’
‘Well,’ Jake said in an I-told-you-so voice, ‘her client is my …’
‘…our,’ Steve chipped in.
‘…our client. So she needs to let us know everything she has discovered up to this point.’
‘If you share all your discoveries with her, I’m sure Amy will be happy to share hers with you.’ Kym pointed out mildly.
There was a long silence. Then Jake said,
‘This is ridiculous. Let’s get back to what we were doing. Are you coming?’ He addressed this last bit to Kym. He might just as well have told her to pick a side, or to say who she wanted to be her friend.
‘No.’ Kym said. ‘Amy needs to go to the emergency room. I’m going to take her there right now. We’ll catch up later.’
‘Now look, we’re paying you to assist us …’
‘Yes well, I don’t think anything else is going to happen here tonight.’
‘Oh really? What, your spirit-guide gone on strike or taken a vacation or something?’ Jake sniped. Kym gave a weary sigh.
‘I told you before, Jake, I don’t have a spirit-guide. This is just a gut feeling. It’s my professional opinion. I’m telling you Jake, it’s over for tonight. Now, if you still want my help I can meet up with you at dinner later and let you have my report. It’s up to you. But right now, I’m taking this woman to the hospital.’
Jake looked like he wanted to say more but in the end he made a frustrated sound and turned on his heel, snarling, ‘Women!’ as he stalked away.
Kym helped Amy up. Amy leaned on her and together they went slowly down the last few stairs and headed for the lobby.
‘Shadow person?’ Kym asked.
‘Hmm,’ Amy said, her hand pressed against her forehead.
‘Same as the other one? Or a different one?’
‘Different. Bigger. Really, really angry. Able to speak in my head. Powerful.’
‘Jeez!’ Kym said, impressed.
They got to the front door, and paused. Kym asked,
‘Got anything to collect?’
Amy had been about to shake her head then thought better of it, opting instead for less-demanding speech.
Outside the cold air of the pre-dawn night hit them and Amy felt partially revived.
‘Could you just take me back to my motel room? I don’t want to go to the hospital.’
‘Well, I don’t know …’ Kym was doubtful.
‘You said you didn’t think I had a concussion.’
‘Yes, again to clarify, I said I didn’t think you had a concussion. Does anybody listen to a word I say? You need to get checked out.’
‘I just want to go back to my room and lie down. I’ll be fine, I just need to rest.’
‘Okay, but if you die before lunch, just don’t come back and haunt me, okay?’
Amy was helped into Kym’s car. Kym shoved Amy’s coat and bag onto the back seat and got in and started up the engine. In a sudden panic, Amy sat bolt upright and said,
‘What about my car?’
But Kym was already reversing out of the lot.
‘Don’t worry, I’ll persuade one of the IPA guys to bring it back to your motel later.’
‘It’s the motel near the dual carriageway.’ Amy said, ‘but I can’t remember the name of the place.’
‘It’s okay, relax. There’s only one motel. We’re all staying there. Now stop getting yourself all worked up, or you really will make yourself sick.’
Amy apologized twice and said thank you three times, then settled back and they drove the remaining distance in silence. When they reached the motel, Kym ran around and helped Amy out and got all her stuff. She held the bag whilst Amy rummaged in it and finally found the key to her room and also the key to her car which she handed to Kym.
‘Do you need any help with anything like undressing or – you know, anything else?’ Kym asked, a delicate wrinkling of her nose indicating she was hoping for a negative. Even with the pain, that made Amy smile.
‘No it’s okay. I’m just going to kick off my shoes and that’s it. Except – could you get me some water and some painkillers?’
Kym could and did. Five minutes later she softly closed the door behind her and went back to her car. Amy was lying on her side, sleeping peacefully.
When Amy awoke it was already late afternoon. She ached all over and felt as though someone was drilling into her brain with a road-drill. She had her introductory appointment at the second venue, The Silent Woman pub-restaurant followed by a second night’s work at the Old Mill Hotel to get through. She only hoped she would survive.
She hobbled to the tiny bathroom, her ankle was swollen and painful to stand on. But at least she could get around, she thought as she washed down her next dose of painkillers with water straight from the bathroom tap.
She remembered the plastic tooth mug and gulped down three more tiny glasses of lukewarm water. She washed her face and neck but didn’t feel up to a shower. She combed her hair with extreme caution, avoiding her bruises, and made up her face with more care than usual in an attempt to disguise the pallor. She put on fresh jeans and a cardigan over a silk t-shirt instead of her usual business suit and heels – she needed comfort above all else tonight, and she pulled on two pairs of socks as she needed the extra padding to give her ankle a little support. When she had given up her ‘proper’ career to begin her paranormal investigation business, Amy had promised herself she wouldn’t let her standards slip, but looking into the mirror now she saw they hadn’t so much slipped as plummeted. On the other hand, she thought, as she recalled her little daydream the previous night about health and safety – she was definitely going to learn from her mistakes – if she was going to fall downstairs in the dark, she was no longer going to do it in three-inch Italian heels and thin silk trousers.
She packed more painkillers in her shoulder-bag in case this dose needed back-up. She packed extra flashlight batteries and a pack of chocolate cookies, and felt like a veteran.
It was time. She walked the short distance from her motel room to the diner-style restaurant.
I don’t like to change my book covers too often. As a reader and book collector, I understand how frustrating and disappointing it can be to have a nice little row of matching books and then, just before you get a full set, ‘someone’ decides to change the covers.
I changed my Dottie Manderson covers about a year ago.
The original Night and Day cover was this one, six years ago when the book was first published:
I still love it, but people complained it looked too much like a romance and nothing like a mystery. So eventually, I changed it.
I tried this one:
And this one:
And finally settled on this one, which has to be my favourite so far.
But when you’re a self-published or Indie author, you have to make business decisions based on cold hard facts and not (as I tend to) on gut instinct or warm fuzzy feelings. So when Amazon announced that following their new policy implementation, they would not now allow me to advertise my book with this cover (the one above) due to the depiction of ‘excessive gore’, I swallowed my pride and my emotional attachment to ‘my baby’ and went off to sulkcry create a new cover. Because you’ve got to advertise, right? How else will readers discover my books?
So sorry, sorry, sorry, but I’ve had to change my covers yet again.
But it’s quite hard to think of a cover image that suits the genre but doesn’t depict blood splatters, weapons, women in the middle of a scream, cadavers, all that kind of thing. I’ve seen loads of covers lately which show a building. that seems to be a new trend, and certainly it’s a safe way to go. In addition, you need an image that looks good as in black and white as it does in colour, is clear and easy for the eye to interpret in a tiny thumbnail size. It’s hard to find the perfect image.
I brooded over images of old-fashioned street lamps dimly lighting a patch of pavement.
I browsed silhouette after silhouette of ‘vintage women’ images. Most of them were either Edwardian era or 1920s flappers. So I freely confess I ran out of ideas.
Then, I thought, ooh what about the chap Dottie finds at the beginning? He was wearing evening dress…
So the new cover idea was born as soon as I set my eyes on this:
Hopefully it’s simple, easy to understand, eye-catching and also makes readers think, if not of the 1930s, then at least ‘not now’. And if not exactly exuding mystery, then hopefully their first thought won’t be, ‘ooh I can’t wait to read this sci-fi or this romance’. In any case, I can’t possibly offend anyone with this, can I? There’s no gore whatsoever, and I’m hoping this cover will live for a while before needing to be updated.
Now I’ve just got to change all my advertising material and social media stuff. This could take a while!
Welcome to Marsali Taylor’s A Shetland Winter Mystery blog tour! this is to celebrate the release of Marsali’s new book which comes out next week on the 9th December, published by Headline Accent.
This is the second time I’ve participated in one of Marsali Taylor’s blog tours. To read the previous one, please click HERE.
About Marsali Taylor
Marsali Taylor grew up near Edinburgh, and came to Shetland as a newly-qualified teacher. She is currently a part-time teacher on Shetland’s scenic west side, living with her husband and two Shetland ponies. Marsali is a qualified STGA tourist-guide who is fascinated by history, and has published plays in Shetland’s distinctive dialect, as well as a history of women’s suffrage in Shetland. She’s also a keen sailor who enjoys exploring in her own 8m yacht, and an active member of her local drama group.
About A Shetland Winter Mystery
It’s the dark nights in the run up to Christmas, and sailing sleuth Cass Lynch’s first night on dry land is disturbed by strange noises outside her isolated cottage. Tiny footprints in the moonlit snow trail from her front door before mysteriously disappearing. Soon Cass learns others were visited by the same tiny feet in the night.
It looks like ingenious local teenagers playing tricks – but what happens when festive games turn deadly?
Cass soon finds out as a schoolboy disappears, leaving only a trail of footprints into the middle of a snowy field. She’s determined to investigate, but uncovering the truth will also put her in danger . . .
I hadn’t heard of trows before, but I kind of get what they are: little people, pixies, sprites or maybe leprechauns. They are–surely–mythical–but it is fascinating to read about them because I think we all know someone who genuinely believes in this kind of thing. and the rest of us kind of want to believe, especially during the long winter evenings when we snuggle up with a book, ready to leave this world for one that happens in our imagination.
So I really enjoyed the opening part of the book where the trows were visiting houses, capering about, using their magic to play tricks, to create spectacles and generally mess with everyone’s heads. It’s exactly the kind of thing you can imagine getting completely out of control very quickly, like a trick or treat at Hallowe’en, with each new escapade attempting to outdo the one before.
Imagine one big amazing trick or event–and it’s more or less an open secret who was really behind it–not the trows after all, but local kids out for a bit of cheeky fun. And then one lad doesn’t come home… Where can he get to on a small island?
How long do you wait before calling in the police? It was clear only the boy’s mother thought there was anything amiss, and yet… and yet… It’s all too clear that something else is going on–two somethings actually, and both malicious, threatening. Pretty soon everyone is in a panic trying to find the teenager.
And then news comes in of a dead body, pulled out of the water…
There is a sense of claustrophobia, in spite of the wide open spaces here. I feel like everyone is looking at their neighbours and wondering, ‘Was it you?’ It’s tense, it’s slow-moving but finely tuned, you almost feel like holding your breath in case someone knows you’re watching. A sheer joy to read, and definitely one for a winter’s evening or two.
To help you get even more out of this series than just the sheer pleasure of reading it:
Create a wall-chart to check off which kilt Gavin is wearing in each scene.
Take a tot of your favourite alcoholic beverage whenever you read the words Cat or Kitten. (I had a Cat called Kitten once…)
Create another wall-chart, this time of all the people mentioned in the books and all their familial and social connections. I think you will find, as I have, that these characters feel like people you actually know.
Learn all the vocab for any sailing-related activity.
Learn all the different types on knot and practice them in case you ever need to use them ‘in real life’, whatever that is.
Learn all the Shetland words contained in the glossaries or at the beginning of chapters.
Consider pestering Marsali (but in a nice way, don’t make her miserable or you will be her next victim, nor do we want her to put Gavin in jeans/business suit) to write the next book.
Jenny S Burke and I have been talking about books and writing for several years, and I wanted to share with you this very creative lady’s latest blog post in which she talks about what went into the making of her children’s book Winter’s Child.
Over to Jenny:
‘Once upon a time, there was a fierce winter. Snow drifts towered above me like white storm waves . . . cold, soft mountains I could tunnel into or slide down.
I was a young child when my family drove from the east coast to northern North Dakota. We gathered with relatives at my grandfather’s farm for Christmas.
There were no kids near my age, so I explored this new world on my own. “Winter’s Child”, my new book, has roots in this experience.
“She played in deep snowdrifts as tall as her head, And flew down the hills on her small wooden sled. She built snow castles with icicle towers. She played all alone for hours and hours.”
We built an enormous igloo from blocks of packed snow. A cold snow bench wrapped around the inner wall; snow sconces held candles. I “helped”.
A dozen relatives crowded close on the circular bench while a blanket covered the entrance. Candlelight added flickering shadows.
Within this primitive cave, I felt connected to generations of family and to our world.
The sea called to me. I grew up and moved to the south to become a marine biologist. But I missed the snow.
One day, I folded a piece of paper and cut out a fanciful snowflake with leaping dolphins. A story grew in my mind.
I wrote the fairy tale but needed more fantasy flakes to complete the book.
Years later, I had designed and drawn many pen-and-ink flakes.
Now I realized that this story needed to be in rhyme, like an ancient tale shared by firelight.
I soon learned that if one line can’t properly rhyme with the next line, you need to start over with a whole new stanza. Yay.
Finally, the long story-poem was finished! I field-tested “Winter’s Child” with children and adults and adjusted a few pages.
What size should the book be?
7.5 inch wide X 9.25 inch high allows for generous margins, with room for illustration and text on each page. The 14 point font is easy on the eyes.
Next, the illustrations! A chance to experiment and gnash my teeth in frustration.
The fanciful flakes looked lost on a page; they needed frames to hold them. I drew boxes, printed the book, and studied the empty frame above each poem.
What would capture the essence? I wanted stylized pix with a feel of stained glass windows.
I pencil-sketched a picture in each framed box and began to draw, but . . . How do you draw the Wind?
How do you draw a T. rex cloud that’s shifting apart?
I removed cloud limbs, made marshmallow teeth, and made the cloud more fluffy in humorous contrast to the dangerous, sharp-edged predator.
I drew simple flakes for background snow. Now the poem and pix were finished. Even better: the very last word of the poem-story is . . . “end”! 🙂
At last, the cover! Mariah and Wind are playing amongst the bare trees. One ancient tree wraps around the spine, connecting the covers.
“Winter’s Child” is an upbeat, original fairytale in rhyming verse with fanciful illustrations.
It’s a story of the power of friendships, which truly do change the world. I hope you enjoy this book as much as it challenged me to properly complete my “once upon a time.”
Thanks to all who helped. Thanks for stopping by!
About Jenny S Burke:
J. S. Burke is an author, artist, and scientist. She’s worked as a marine biologist, studying creatures of the dark abyss and diving on coral reefs. Her stories blend imagination with real science and author experiences. She lives with her family, rescue companions, and dragons!
The award-winning Dragon Dreamer series grew from her years at sea, a fascination with the alien, intelligent octopuses, and a love of dragons.
Burke has worked as manager of a marine research program and has five published marine research papers. She has degrees in Math, Science, Marine Science, and Education. Burke has been certified to teach High School Math, H.S. Science, Middle Grades (all subjects), and Gifted students.
Shakespeare’s suggestion that names are not important is hopelessly wrong for writers. Who hasn’t sat, staring at a blank sheet of paper, agonising over what to call a character? And if it’s your protagonist, that only makes it harder. Without a character, you have no story.
Occasionally a name for a character just comes to me: Meredith Hardew from a book I plan to release next year, A Meeting With Murder: Miss Gascoigne mysteries book 1, and Cressida Barker-Powell from Criss Cross: Friendship can be Murder: Book1 published 2013 (whose name was a deliberate mutation of Parker-Bowles). These are names that sprang fully-formed into my consciousness as I began to write the story. I couldn’t even think of calling any of those people anything else. In fact this whole opening piece came to me in a flash, and I had to run to a stationer’s to buy a notebook to write it down before I forgot it. (Now I just put it into a note app on my phone! Ah technology, I love you so much.)
At forty-six, Meredith Hardew, with her handsome features, trim figure and excellent dress sense, was frequently taken for at least ten years younger than her true age. Not that she was in the habit of seeking out flattery, for she was one of those women who never thinks about herself, what she’s wearing or how she looks. She was far too busy running errands for someone or other.
But it doesn’t always work out like that. I can spend hours, days even, agonising over the right name for a character. There are times when I have delayed starting a new story because I can’t seem to find the right name for my protagonist. Though equally, when I am writing a first draft, I sometimes can’t remember the names I’ve already given my characters. I have even written several thousand words with varying numbers of capital XXXXs to denote each character, just to avoid abandoning the story and messing up the ‘flow’. But it can get confusing. In these circumstances I often have to write long explanatory notes to myself of who the person is, as well as the XXXXXXs. There’s usually a Mr XX, a Miss XXX and a Jeffrey X, or a Gladys XXXX, so it gets a bit muddled. But it does help me keep writing.
However, I can’t always trust myself when a name does just spring into my head. Like the time I wanted to call my main character Ben, then I needed to give him a surname. Sherman. Hmm, I thought, Ben Sherman sounds really good. It’s as if those two names were meant to go together somehow. What a great, natural-sounding name for a character, I thought. It sounds just like a real person. Which should have been my clue. So I told my daughter about my new hero Ben Sherman. She rolled her eyes heavenward in what can only be described as her ‘For God’s sake, Mother!’ expression. Turns out there is a real person, a famous designer, with that name. I was right, it did sound just like a real person. Oh well. Back to the book of baby names again.
Names can be absorbed by osmosis from society or culture, and we don’t always know where they’ve come from. I usually check my friends’ names on Facebook or for authors on Amazon to be ‘on the safe side’. I don’t want to use a well-known person’s name especially if my character is not a very nice person! I had also written five chapters of the Miss Gascoigne story before I realised that two of the main characters were named Meredith and Edith. Edith had to become Sheila. You need to keep the names quite dissimilar to avoid confusion, unless that is germane to your plot. Never feature, for example, Jack Peters and a Peter Jackson in the same book. I’ve known it happen, and the confusion accidentally created by the author seriously impacts on the enjoyment of the story! You can’t suspend belief if you spend all your time trying to remember who is who. At least, don’t do that if there is no deliberate intention to confuse the reader.
Names go through trends. So if you’re writing historical fiction, don’t give your character a modern name. If in doubt, turn to a census of the time for ‘in’ names or look to the royalty of the day. Equally if you’re writing modern stuff, don’t give young characters the names of your parents’ generation, few little ones these days or for the past 20 or 30 years have been called Barbara, Sandra, Hazel, Nigel, Richard, etc. They have a slightly ‘previous generation’ sound to them. However, go back a bit further to the grandparents’ generation and you’ll hit all the names that are now so ‘on-trend’: Jack, Alice, Freddy, George, Emily, Henry and so on. I hope in the next generation after this one, my name will be back in again!
When it came to creating character names, Dickens was a master. He used names to ridicule his characters, to reveal societal trends and attitudes, and to denote characteristics or personalities. Think of Gradgrind and M’Choakumchild in Hard Times, you can’t imagine them being good people, or warm and caring. These are hard names for hard people. Or think of Uriah Heep, Mr Cheeryble, Squeers. He also used another technique that is still useful for writers today. He used to take names that were ordinary and just slightly change them, creating something different and yet somehow familiar. Thus Philip became Chilip.
That always makes me think of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games heroine, Katniss Everdeen, or of Margaret Attwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale – the woman Offred was the ‘property’ of Fred. Also for fabulous names it is impossible to beat Alistair Reynolds’ Pushing Ice character, Chromis Pasqueflower Bowerbird. So writers, don’t be afraid to play around with names and have fun. Changing one letter or the order of the letters can make a world of difference, and this works especially well with Sci-fi or Fantasy character names. Maybe Isaac can become Istac or Casai, Sophie can be Phosie, Mary can become Maare, John could become Hjon, Dohn, Joon.
In writing fiction, the names of your main characters are essential to the reader’s enjoyment and for creating a convincing world. Just make sure they are not the names of a successful designer.