Brisbane – some memories

The blue-tongued skink I mentioned last week – about a foot to eighteen inches long, and snake-wide! These guys love Comfort Spring Fresh laundry softener…

As you no doubt realise, I sometimes get a bit stuck for ideas on this blog. Last week I talked about where in the world I would like to sit and write, if I could just choose. And I chose a certain little high-set house in Brisbane, Australia.

So this week, I thought I’d share some memories of that time. We lived in Australia from 1997 to 2002, so back in the dark ages now, but it still seems so vivid to us, mainly because it was a life-changing experience.

What I remember mainly about Brisbane and our time there is the wildlife.

So many things happened while we were there, the four of us, what with my hubby working away from home so much, and the children going through secondary school, and me, meeting people, doing courses, going to the Writers’ Convention on the South Bank, but all that seems to fade by comparison with the wildlife we shared our back and front yards with, our streets and parks and school yards with—many of them new to us, some of them frightening, some of them weird, some beautiful.

Lorikeets and a Rosella in the back garden.

Like the possums that lived in the roof of our first home, in Farm Street, in the suburb of Newmarket. Every night when we sat eating dinner or watching television, we would hear it above our heads, the slow roll of a stone from one corner of the roof to the other and sometimes back again, sounding just like a marble rolling across floorboards

And if I was waiting, alone or with the children, for my husband to come home, and sitting on the front step in the fifty seconds of twilight we only seemed to get in Aussie, we would sometimes see a possum come off our roof and onto the telecoms cables overhead, swinging itself along underneath the wire until it reached an intruding tree branch when it would flip upside again, amble on, then swing back under to move along the cables again.

Or the massive cockroaches that seemed ever-present in spite of all the Raid blocks we purchased and distributed in the bottom of the kitchen cupboards or in quiet corners out of the way. At Farm street, an older house, they used to run up the walls at night and terrify us so we felt like we were actually under siege, and out of sheer terror, I would splat them on the walls or floor with a long-handled spatula. It really was the stuff of nightmares. We never got rid of them in that house. We also had maggots falling through the ceiling onto the furniture including my young daughter’s bed. I hate to think what else might have been up in that roof space but we didn’t have the most hands-on of landlords.

Or the blue-tongued skinks that sprawled on top of the compost heap down the garden, gorging themselves on leftover melon, papaya and mango—they would look at me when I went out to the heap with the peelings from dinner, and I was convinced if they could talk they’d say, “So kind, dear lady, but I really couldn’t manage another thing…” They always looked exhausted. I imagined them talking a bit like Donald Sinden, I don’t know why. Or maybe James Mason? Or David Niven. Definitely a posh English accent for some reason. And if I left sheets or towels by the washing machine in the open-air laundry room under the house, chances are I’d find a snoozing lizard sprawled on them when I went back later.

the house at Farm Street – none of the windows had glass except the ones to the kitchen (back) and the sun room (front). These are the front steps where I’d love to write.

I rescued one blue-tongued skink from the oncoming wheels of a bus once. It was in the middle of the road round the corner from our lowset (bungalow) house at Lawnton, a suburb of Pine Rivers shire, about 20 kilometres from Brisbane. The bus only ran once an hour, so that left plenty of time for a dozy skink to meander into the road, fall asleep at the wheel and be in danger of becoming a traffic statistic.

I thought it was dead. It was lying there in the middle of the road, not moving. I’m certain a couple of cars ran over it. Then the bus came round the corner, and the stupid thing lifted its head. It was still alive! I let out a shriek of dismay and launched myself into the road, flagging the bus down then grabbing the lizard with both hands and shoving it into some shade under a bush—lucky I didn’t get savaged by something even nastier.

When I got on the bus, I began to apologise, but Bruce (yes, that really was his name) the bus-driver said, “Well I know you’re a Pom.” Apparently that explained everything.

Good thing he didn’t see me rescue the turtle…

That was along the road from our second home, after Farm Street but before Lawnton. We were living a couple of kilometres down the road from Lawnton at a lovely little town called Strathpine. I was coming home from the shops along a fairly quiet little road, when I spied a snake-necked turtle in the middle of the road .

Now only a few days earlier, Rolf Harris (eek!), on Animal Rescue or whatever it was called, had featured a turtle that had been hit by a car and had to have its shell patched up with fibre-glass. And I convinced myself that was the fate that awaited this chap, if he lived long enough. The young hoons—wild teenagers, to us Poms—loved to drive their cars at crazy speeds over the speed bumps down our road, and I could see the turtle was in danger of becoming yet another tragic victim.

So obviously, I had to interfere help.

I picked it up, and set off towards the creek. I quickly discovered that being a snake-necked turtle gave it an extraordinary range for gnashing at would-be do-gooders, so I had to hold the dinner-plate sized shell as far towards the back as I could to avoid being bitten, and I had to go as quickly as I could. The ingratitude! That didn’t stop me getting scratched by its huge clawed feet though. Eventually I got it to the creek and shoved it in the water. It seemed a bit reluctant to go in—maybe he’d only just left there? Another good deed done.

Snakes were the main wildlife at Strathpine. Well, those, and the spiders, bats, frogs and birds. And some fishing guys said there were often sharks in the creek, but I never went fishing.

The easement, with deluge, though partially drained away.

The birds were wonderful there—I’ve never lived anywhere so fabulously endowed with birdlife. It was because of the Easement.

The Easement was a strip of land between the park and a housing estate on one side, and another housing estate on the other side. Through the middle ran the creek. At one end, more houses, and at the far end, some farmland afforded us great view of cows with their ‘helpers’, the Little Egrets, that usually stood on the cows’ backs to – I don’t know, steer? Supervise? Shout advice slash encouragement?

The idea of the Easement is, when it rains which it does even in Australia, usually a year’s supply arrives in about an hour, and the creek very quickly bursts its bank, so the Easement is just a natural no-man’s-land to accommodate the temporary floodwater for the few days or week until it soaks away.

But on the day it rains…

The easement – sans deluge!

The whole area behind our house used to fill with water, resembling a small—and occasionally quite large—lake. Then all the birds would descend, especially if it was the first rain after a few dry weeks or even months. Cormorants, shags, ibis, white-faced blue heron, butcher birds, noisy miners, rosellas, sulphur-crested cockatoos, galahs, purple swamp hens, coots, magpies, egrets, little and not quite so little, rainbow lorikeets, even, one or twice, pelicans. It was amazing, and all I ever wanted to do was sit and watch. Sometimes I did just that, for hours. And quite often, I’d be menaced into providing the new arrivals with birdfood. (What a Pom!) It really was the most amazing spectacle. The shags used to bathe/hunt in the floodwater then hand their wings out to dry, standing like little black feathered scarecrows, for hours on end. The galahs and cockatoos would hang upside from the phone lines and flap and squawk, like footballers having their after-match shower.

Even the big lizards got in on the act (and probably the snakes too, though I don’t remember seeing them when it was wet, only when it was very dry). My hubby and I sat and watched one for ages as it swam about in the new lake, its long tail making a curving wake behind it. Not sure if this was the same enormous lizard that dug up my shrubbery to lay about 20 eggs in a big hole one day and then covered them and left without so much as a by your leave. We moved to Lawnton before they hatched—I was sad not to be there to see the babies.

Snakes are probably the one terror people associate with Australia. Well, snakes and spiders. Okay, snakes, spiders and crocodiles. And sharks. Don’t forget the sharks. So, snakes, spiders, crocodiles, and sharks. And jellyfish. And mosquitoes. And I’ve told you about the cockroaches. Oh, and the weevils. You have to keep your baking goods in the freezer, otherwise one hot, damp summer you, like me, will discover that your entire supply of plain flour, self-raising flour, cornflour, your bran, your wholemeal flour, your semolina, and your biscuits will be a squirming mass of weevils, and, like me you will scream in horror and disgust (mainly because you’ve just used several ounces of flour in a roux sauce and wondered naively why the resulting mix was two-toned: the top consisting of wriggling, brown weevilly-stuff and the bottom, still white, only slightly-weevilly stuff) and fling out the lot including the expensive Tupperstuff they were stored in, as I couldn’t bear the thought of washing them out and reusing them, then rush back inside to disinfect everything. No baking for weeks and weeks! It was very good for my waistline.

So snakes, spiders, crocodiles, sharks, jellyfish, mosquitoes and weevils. Not to mention the heat. And in Queensland, the humidity, which is sometimes 95%.  Apart from those few things, it’s lovely.

Australia’s most unwanted – the red-backed spider – we had a ton of them. Turns out they are partial to a strawberry planter.

At the junior school, the nice secretary lady had a little book on her desk, so that when the kids came running in from morning playtime (called little lunch) they could identify the type of snake they had just seen for the groundskeeper, and he would go out in his shorts and t-shirt, with his heavy boots and ankle-protectors, and track down the culprit and kill it. And if he couldn’t kill it for whatever reason, or he discovered there were too many for him and assistance would be needed, the playing field (oval) was closed to all pupils forthwith. But that didn’t stop the kids getting bitten by green ants—and that was a painful bite. Green ants are beautiful iridescent ants, about 1 to 1.5 centimetres long, and they have a fondness for young flesh. Okay, let’s be honest, any flesh, and their bite is like the worst stinging-nettle sting you can imagine, and doesn’t ease off for at least half an hour. So as you can imagine, play times and sports days were great fun for all the family.

I know, being the greenest Poms ever to come off the boat, we were a bit over-protective of our children. But I was still gobsmacked when the headteacher of the school sent a letter home to all the parents reminding them to ensure they always make their children wear shoes to school, and to stop sending them barefoot.

It was an amazing experience, mostly weird, often terrifying, but it didn’t kill us, it did make us stronger, and when we came back from Aussie after four and a half years, we were very sad and wondered if we were doing the right thing in coming back. We had some wonderful experiences Down Under, and we still hope to return some day, this time, forewarned!

*

Anywhere in the world!

You might have noticed I sometimes get stuck for ideas for a blog post. When that happens, I usually sneakily use an old one and hope you won’t notice, or I put in an interview, or a short piece about my books etc.

BUT… (and you’ll be proud of me for this) I actually decided to research ‘what to write about on your blog’ and hey presto: Write about ‘If I could spend a month writing anywhere in the world, where would it be?’

That’s easy.

I love to write in cafes. But with lockdown the way it is, I’ve become a stranger to that. And I do have an office where I do most of my writing (picture the smallest bedroom in the house, no longer needed after the children grow up) and I sometimes write at the dining room table, or in the sitting room, snug on the sofa complete with snoring cat.

Many years ago, we lived in Australia, in Brisbane. It’s hot and sticky there, but I enjoyed it. And our first house there was an absolute hovel (sorry Aussies, but it was, honest), but when the kids had gone to school, I used to sit on the front steps with my morning coffee, a few dozen tiny lizards around half the size of a pencil, a couple of plants in pots, and my notebook and pen.

These little guys just need the water from your flower pots!

I could sit there for around two hours until the sun was so hot, I had to go inside. I used to water the plants in the pots, and the lizards would come and drink the water that ran out of the bottom of the pots onto the wooden steps. The lizards were so shy, I had to keep really still so they thought I was a tree or something. Occasionally a kookaburra would sit on the fence and stare at me, but usually it was just a pigeon or a magpie. I’ve searched my photos but can’t find the one I can picture in my mind that shows the steps and the plant pots. You’ll just have to conjure up your own image of front-step perfection, and write there.

Whereas these guys want to lie on your compost heap in the sun and stuff themselves with leftover fruit and veg

The road was called Farm Street, but I’m guessing that was to commemorate where the farm used to be before it was bulldozed to make way for the street. Neighbours would go by and wave or stop to chat. Gradually they got to know the new Brits at number 12. One guy was very sweet and kind when we were afraid to go past something that looked like quite a large snake in the storm drain by the pavement, but the neighbour explained it was a blue-tongued skink, and nothing to be afraid of. We were still pretty nervous to begin with, I can tell you.

Anyway, so I had two hours of writing most weekdays, sitting on the front steps. I can picture myself there, writing three novels in the time we were in that house, only one of which has been published (Easy Living) and the other two are very much still in the ‘I don’t know what to do’ stage of development. One was called Baby Girl and is about a well-known actress whose adoptive mother passes away and so the actress embarks on a search for her birth mother and finds a killer instead. The other one, referencing the new millennium we were about to go into (so a while ago now) was about a pensioner who goes on the run to avoid being legally euthanised because of the growth of population. Both these books were set in Australia and contain long, slightly wistful passages about my favourite cafes – Jimmy’s Uptown, Jimmy’s Downtown, and Jimmy’s On The Mall, all on the same long street in the city centre.

Life changes, and we weren’t really happy with where we were living, and we moved away. But the times of sitting on the steps and writing were as close to perfect as we could get. It was ‘very heaven’.

Jimmy’s On The Mall: It’s a lot more glamorous now than it was when we were in Brisbane over 20 years ago, they’ve added a whole top floor! If we go back, this is the first place I’ll want to go.

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Reblogged: I am interviewed at Maureen’s Lifestyle

Many thanks to Maureen Wahu at Maureen’s Lifestyle for this interview following her review of The Spy Within: Dottie Manderson mysteries book 6 last week.

(you can check out the review here)

Caron Allan Interview

What inspired the Dottie Manderson series?

I’ve always loved the glamour of Golden Age mysteries, and so I wanted to try my hand at something like that. But I wanted to have a young protagonist as most of the books I’d read had older, spinster ladies as detectives. But I didn’t want to write anything too sweet, or too separate from the real world. So in my books, yes, there is glamour and romance, and the bad guy or gal always gets caught (though sometimes not immediately) but there is also heartbreak and the harsh reality of life not being easy, especially as my chosen era of the 1930s is so close to the war.

What is the hardest part of your writing career?

I suppose it’s juggling all the different aspects of being a writer in today’s world – the social media, obviously, I know everyone says they struggle with that, but also all the technical things – covers and document formatting, creating promotional materials, then remembering to share them, setting up a blog and remembering to create something new most weeks. And then remembering to do actual writing too, and stick to my deadlines. So much to do!

Would you ever use a pseudonym?

I always use a pseudonym. In fact have have several, but the only one that I’m using at the moment is Caron Allan. I wanted to use a pen name because to begin with, it gave me the space and privacy to completely mess up without feeling ‘exposed’. And also, I felt my real name was dreary and unromantic!

When writing a series how do you determine where a book should end and it’s sequel should start?

It’s not always easy, and I’m not very good at it, but fortunately because I write mysteries, that kind of gives a natural end, when the perpetrator of whatever dastardly deed is unmasked and taken away in handcuffs, or however they exit the story, it seems right to just have a short wrap-up and end the book. Though I do have ongoing story-lines – mainly the romantic side of things – that continue through the books and aren’t resolved immediately. In book 1 Dottie, my protagonist, is only 19. I think 19 in the 1930s was a lot younger than 19 today in many ways, and so we see her growing and maturing through the books, coming to understand the world, and relationships, but she is very idealistic and so she can be led by her emotions, and is sometimes bruised by life. She’s not perfect, she’s on a journey, and I like that about her. I don’t want to read about or write about a heroine who doesn’t change, and especially one who doesn’t have depth and dimensions to her character.

Who were your biggest critics and cheerleaders in writing this series?

My family are a huge support, my daughter especially is a massive practical help as well as my cheerleader, as writer herself she knows where I’m coming from. I have a couple of very special friends who are also writers and who are so helpful and encouraging.

If you could go back in time which historical figure would you like to meet?

Oh dear, that’s quite hard. I know we’re always supposed to say Marie Curie or someone incredible like that, but maybe just meet my great great grandmother? How did she cope in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century with all the domestic responsibilities and none of the labour-saving devices we have today? Plus she had six kids, and i only had two, so I am in awe of the women of that era. I’d like to meet Agatha Christie, and Patricia Wentworth when they were in their story-writing heyday, and get as many tips as I could, and also express my admiration for their work.

What should we expect from your upcoming series?

Well I will continue my Dottie Manderson mysteries: Book 7, Rose Petals and White Lace will be out around November 2021. In this book, we will see Dottie trying to find out who wants to get a local tea-shop closed down, and why. It’ll be a gentler mystery for Dottie after the previous couple, but nevertheless there will be at least one fatality, and if you’re not a fan of creepy-crawlies, this might not be for you!
I also will be launching a new series, set in the 1960s this time, and featuring the daughter of Dottie’s sister as the detective-protagonist – these will be the Miss Gascoigne mysteries, and begins with A Meeting With Murder. Diana Gascoigne has been ill and goes to the coast for some good sea air to recover, but obviously there are dire doings afoot and she will want to find out who killed an elderly disabled woman. the Diana books will be a little different to the Dottie books, as we know, the 60s were a time of growing freedoms especially for women, and Diana is not an ingenue like Dottie, but a little older, a little wiser and more aware of the difficulties that a woman can face, and she wants independence and more autonomy in her life. But she has the same determination to seek justice and truth.

Would you ever consider writing a biography of your life?

LOL, that would be so boring! I’m not adventurous or glamorous and I’ve done very little with my life other than sit with cats reading or writing. I really don’t think it would sell!

Do you ever experience writer’s block? Sometimes. I don’t agree that it’s not a real thing. I usually find it stems from discouragement, fear or being overtired. I tend to push myself, and I’m always thinking of plots and story ideas, so I get quite mentally tired, and don’t always remember it’s okay to just do nothing and relax. Maybe I need to watch my cats even more than I do! I find rest, music and mundane chores help.

How can your fans reach you and connect with you?

I can be found on twitter: @caron_allan or instagram: @caronsbooks or through my blog, caronallanfiction.com and I’m also on Facebook, but I have to confess I don’t go on there very much, I’m more of a Twitter person.

Find all of Caron Allan’s books on Amazon.

Thanks for stopping by!

Thank you, Maureen, it was fun!

***

 

Living in the Past: the manageable cast

I’m in love with the idea of the closed or walled community.

Whether it is the hallowed halls of the much-loved country house of so many murder mysteries, or Brother Cadfael’s cloistered world, or a virtual closed community such as Miss Marple’s village with its familiar cottages, vicarage, post office, farms and manor houses, or Poirot’s Art Deco mansionette, with neighbours above and below, people you rarely glimpse and often only hear, or to take things a step further, your suspect or your victim could join a coach tour as in Judith Cranswick’s murder mysteries, or cruise on an ocean liner as in Dawn Brookes’ mysteries, or perhaps holiday on an island cut off from mainland, or a flee to a secret commune hidden away in the mountains, living a simple life a century behind the rest of the world. A mystery could be set in a submarine, or a plane, a train, in a hospital ward, on a space station, almost anywhere where there is a limit to how people get in and out of the place.

All these can be viewed as closed communities, separate from the wider world, with no one to turn to but themselves. As such they are excellent settings for a crime novel. This way you can limit and isolate a small group of suspects. ‘It must have been one of us.’

You’d think that with a small number of suspects, say a maximum of ten or twelve, you’d be stuck for ideas, but a number of that size, compared to, say, a group of four, actually gives quite a lot of alternatives, yet it’s not such a huge number as to be too big for readers to get to grips with. Is there anything worse as a reader than muddling the characters and forgetting who is married to who or who did or said that crucial thing which led to that big scene? So it’s got to be easy to keep track of the suspects.

All too often characters are not even remotely who or what they claim to be. In fact we as a reader more or less depend on that being the case. That’s the fun of it, after all. Secrets can be recently acquired or buried (sometimes literally) in the dim and distant past. A young couple who get on well, who seem devoted in every way. How do we really know that they are a couple? Maybe they are cousins? Or even brother and sister—oooh! What if one of them is already married to someone else?

But for me, without doubt, the best type of closed community to have is one where your story is set in the past.

If you situate a story back in the past, to before identity documents and proof-of-life searches, to a time before healthcare records, driving licenses, the internet, mobile phones, credit checks and credit cards, ATMs, CCTV and ANPR, it immediately becomes a hundred times more difficult to keep track of a person’s comings and goings. There’s a reason why there were so many bigamous marriages two hundred, or even just one hundred years ago. You wouldn’t have to travel very far to find a place where no one knew you at all. Even just the next county would be today’s equivalent of moving to the other side of the world.

You could be whoever you said you were. Who was to know any different?

In some ways it could be quite freeing: no more mistakes to hover over your shoulder like Banquo’s ghost. A goodbye to unhealthy relationships, or domineering friendship groups, toxic working environment or sad memories. Hello to bigamy, escaping justice and living the high life. If things happen to get too hot, simply up sticks and move on. A quick change in appearance, and you’re a whole different person, and no one any the wiser.

But this made it very difficult to bring someone to justice: only a parish register would contain the bare essentials of a person’s life: their date of birth/Christening, their marriage, or that of their parents. School or work records, but these wouldn’t usually have a photo or a detailed physical description. There might be the odd police record for those who had crossed paths with the authorities, but those minor obstacles aside, all you really had left was anecdotal evidence.

Of course, some people who commit crimes are not very good at keeping their head down and getting on with their new life, and making the most of the chance of a new start. Old habits resurface, and the crime is committed again, making detection a real possibility. By contrast, though, a person of reasonable intelligence, often incredibly devious or someone who was simply content to lay low and not draw attention to themselves, could reasonably expect to get away with most of the guilty secrets of their past.

But no doubt, they always looked over their shoulder, to make sure no one was watching them.

Hats for fun/frolics – we need to bring these back!

***

A not-so-fond farewell to 2020

Phew, thank goodness that’s over.

It is over, isn’t it? Oh I know the plague has not gone away. But the vaccines are being rolled out, I know a number of people who’ve already had their first shot, and let’s hope the rest of us get ours within the next couple of months.

I’ve seen a number of ‘goodbye 2020’ posts already, so I don’t want to add a long reflection on the travesty that was the-year-that-shall-not-be-named. Instead, I thought I’d share some of my favourite memes from 2020. Oh, and a couple of pics of Malkie Moonpie, he’s had a tough year too.

Stay safe, be kind, be smart, have a happy 2021.

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

The Sinister City…

A few weeks ago I posted a blog about how deceptively innocent country houses and small villages appear, and I offered tips on how to avoid the obvious traps for victims of a murder mystery of the genre we laughingly call ‘cosy’ (or cozy, depending where you hail from).

Because If we think about it, there’s nothing cosy/cozy about murder in the real world. Hercule Poirot, arguably one of the most murder-dependent salary earners in the world, famously said ‘I do not approve of murder’. And yet we humans are fascinated by fictional death. Perhaps because it is so awful, so wicked in real life, we have to discuss it, read it, and plot and plan, as a way of dealing with the unthinkable.  Anyway…

If I left you with the idea that a hapless character in a murder mystery might be safer in the city, let me quickly put you right there.

The city is vast and highly-populated. You might think there’s safety in numbers. But for all that, it’s not a safe haven for the timid person trying to avoid falling foul of a really determined villain. Here are a few of the pitfalls yo will find when trying to lose yourself in the city:

Firstly, even cities sleep. Kind of. You might be safe amongst the crowds during daylight hours (or are you?) but as soon as it gets dark, beware!

Have you noticed that most cities are situated on water? In fact I can’t think of a single British city (someone help me here, please) that isn’t either: on the coast, on a river, or a canal (which I know is kind of the same thing really).

Now we can see how this came about, historically. Access to fishing and shipping  meant a high density of the population was established around watering holes where there was a) water to transport goods in and out of the country, or b) water for industrial purposes (ie power for mills etc), or c) fish (vom–sorry, not a fish eater) or d) that’s where the Vikings/Normans/Saxons/Whoever-they-weres all landed and thought, ‘You know what, this is quite nice’, and so that’s where they stayed. I suppose this isn’t a surprise, I mean, we’re an island, so we’re going to be surrounded by oceans (literally) of water. In fact, if you think about it, we’re all islands, aren’t we? Some are just very very very big. But these many coasts and riverbanks provided harbour, dwelling places and easy access back to the aunties and uncles across the water.

BUT

Have you ever noticed how often innocent people minding their own business get lured to deserted docks, riverbanks, canalsides, and the like? Okay I admit we usually discover they are not so innocent after all. No one goes ‘innocently’ to a deserted dock at midnight to pay blackmailers. But my point still stands – these are dangerous areas and offer life-threatening situations to people who really should have stayed at home.

To begin with, there’s the water – deep, cold and swiftly moving.

And then there’s the innumerable hiding places that can conceal your villain.

And then, there’s all the weird heavy duty iron and steel items left randomly about the place to furnish your attacker with a handy weapon.

If that’s not enough, these daytime-busy places are just totally deserted at night. There is NO ONE to hear your scream. NO ONE.

TOP TIP:  Let’s avoid the docks etc, and try to find somewhere nice and safe to live that is in the middle of the land, miles from any water.

The next danger the urban environment contains is this:

Disused warehouses.

Now these are essentially just the docks all over again but without the water. Miles of crumbling dark buildings, harbouring criminals, twisty-turny corridors, and hundreds of decaying staircases. Why don’t the local governments rip them down and – I don’t know – put up nice little houses with roses in the gardens? I know they get a massive income from renting the space out to Scandi-noir film-makers, or those TV shows where people try to hide from German Shepherds. But come on, let’s think about the safety of your murder victims here.

Loft-style living may be the trendiest aspirational lifestyle, but with few neighbours, eerie parking in the depths of the earth, capacious but very slow-moving lifts that even a sloth could enter when in motion, and huge echoey rooms, this is not self-preservation at its best.

Speaking of German Shepherds, don’t become a recluse and as Bridget Jones said, get murdered but lay undiscovered, and half-eaten by German Shepherds. (okay she didn’t quite say that). (anyway, in my experience, German Shepherds tend to hide behind their owners, or even their owners children at the slightest unusual sound or threatening situation. We had to carry one of ours home once from a long walk, it was too tired. Another one used to be terrified of those bins attached to lamp-posts and also  those shopping bags on wheels old ladies like me have.)

It occurs to me now that most modern victims are likely to be eaten by their house-cat, house-rabbit, or even designer miniature house-pig. If you’ve been dead for weeks and half-eaten when you’re discovered, it doesn’t matter how cute the pet that ate you is, you’re still definitely not a pretty sight. Come on, people, don’t become recluses.

Oh yes. Er…

New housing developments can also be strangely appealing to would-be murderers, and undesirably quiet at night. What was that French murder series a few years ago about the dead bodies all sitting around the table in a newly-built house? Anyway, it was a remarkably dramatic setting, but if you’re the victim, no consolation! Keep away from new-builds – by definition there are few neighbours to turn to in times of crisis.

Shopping malls, business premises such as offices and storerooms, laboratories, libraries, museums (I’m looking at you, Morse, Endeavour and Lewis), run-down theatres, and schools are all places you absolutely should go into without armed back-up, or at the very least, a warm blanket and packet of chocolate digestives if you get locked in. (Btw I once wrote a short story about how eerie and dangerous an office building could be once everyone else has gone home. you can read it here, if you’re very bored indeed.)

In fact there are only a small number of places you should go if you are required to meet a blackmailer (or any villain) late at night:

  1. Pubs
  2. Cafes
  3. Restaurants

These are perfect for a rendezvous that could turn nasty.

TOP TIP: Obviously if we’ve learned anything from fictional victims of crime, it’s to make sure and always tell someone where you’re going and who you’re meeting, there’s no need to be coy about being blackmailed, it can happen to the best of us.

If you can’t do that, take a seat at the bar, and say to the landlord/barman or landlady/barmaid that you are meeting a dodgy blackmailer shortly, and would they mind just popping over every couple of minutes just to make sure you’re still alive. I’m sure that won’t be a problem.

Or…

Maybe just don’t go anywhere or do anything. Just sit in front of your TV or curl up with a book, and hope that your German Shepherd/miniature designer pig is one of the aggressive brave sort who will see off intruders, not the scared kind who try to sit on your lap and whine pitifully whilst surreptitiously checking your sofa for tasty snacks.

Happy reading!

***

Sinister settings: the Country House

What could be nicer than a
weekend in the country? Read on…

I love a mystery set in a country house. I think the country house is a venue that offers glamour, comfort and a large range of accommodation whilst also affording a good number of murder possibilities.

Leaving aside the staff, who glide in, deposit tea-trays, then glide out again, there are notable dangers from the residents of the house and their guests, but I want to consider the rooms the country house offers – and the murderous opportunities a writer can seize with both hands.

Actually this feels very like a game of Cluedo/Clue. Feel free to fish your old game-board out of the attic to count the rooms off with me.

I can feel the hatred coming down on me
from those pics

There is of course the drawing room. Spacious, elegantly furnished, this room is designed for the receiving of victims guests, for polite conversation, and for characters to exchange dangerous remarks or hint at secret knowledge before dinner.

The dining room: renowned for its garishly-coloured walls—usually a deep red or bilious green for some reason—and the gloomy paintings of ancient relatives glaring down, the traditional country house dining room is guaranteed to be a place where strategies are played out and suspicion is likely to cause indigestion. There’s a reason that long dining table reminds us of one of those boards where they pushed models of planes about on a map in black and white films set in ‘Somewhere in England. 1940’.

Hot running water? Lol you’re kidding, right?

If you need to go to the loo, there will be an old-school WC tucked away somewhere off the back passage (pun fully intended). The potential for danger here is very much fifty-fifty: either you’ll get knocked on the head going in or coming out, or you’ll get pneumonia from the intense cold in there due to the stone-flagged floor and the lack of a decent supply of hot water.

When the hostess rises, to lead the ladies from the dining room back to the drawing room, (that’s how the room got its name, a short form of ‘withdrawing room’) the men will remain behind to share alcohol, smokes and dirty jokes, racing tips, or discuss topics unfit for the ears of ladies: sex, politics and business. If a chap decides to step outside onto the ubiquitous terrace to smoke a cigar in the fresh air, or to pace up and down in a rage, or in a state trying to come to a decision, this is the perfect spot for him to get whacked over the head with our old favourite, the blunt object.

Some of the men may grow tired of pacing the terrace or sitting at the dining table blowing smoke and laughing uproariously, and take themselves off for a game of billiards. Apparently all country houses still insist on a billiard room in spite of the fact that 90% of billiard players die from being stabbed by a billiard cue.

Meanwhile in the drawing room, the ladies are tucking into coffee—in spite of the fact that it’s ten o’clock at night—and gossip. Away from the constraining influence of the men, they can discuss things not suitable for the ears of gentlemen: sex, politics and business. Oh and anything that might be termed ‘ladies’ collywobbles’, ie something to do with body parts and times of the month. They will quickly discover who is carrying on with who, and whether their spouse knows. Here too, the theft of the £5 note from the offering plate in church will be unearthed. We will surmise who took Lady Anne’s ruby earrings. It is 3-1 that someone will drink coffee containing some lethal dose of a poison. There will be a few gentle coughs or gasps and the unfortunate lady will clutch her pearls, her face will turn puce, and she will breathe her last, to the dismay of all. The lady of the house—if still alive at this point—will ring for the butler and tell him to phone for a doctor. Or get the doctor from the drawing room, if he is a guest to dinner. Which he usually is.

Plenty of room on top for an agile ninja

If any lady is fed up with gossiping and drinking strong coffee right before bedtime, she can always get away on her own by using one of only two time-honoured plot devices: she can suddenly develop a headache, or remember she has an urgent letter to write. These are the only excuses—apart from death—to get away to your room before half past ten. But beware. Making your escape may be good for your nerves, but you are twice as likely to die from being pushed down the stairs as if you’d waited until everyone else was going to bed before you left the confines of the drawing room. Safety in numbers, people!

And even if you do reach the sanctuary of your bedroom, there are always intruders to beware of. They may try the ‘frontal attack’ method: simply turning your door handle fifty times very slowly before entering and smothering you with your own pillow. Or, if they are martial arts experts, they will be in position long before you enter the room, hidden on the top of the four poster bed, to slither down once you are asleep and—you’ve guessed it—smother you with your own pillow. Or, you might be wakened by the sound of an odd creaking or sinister scraping. On investigating with the help of your trusty torch, you will catch a perpetrator gaining access to your room by means of a secret passage, a sliding wooden panel, or a trap door accessed by moving a book on the third shelf. Obviously, they will then immediately overpower you and smother you with your own pillow.

‘I say, Marjorie, do you think anyone will hear me if I scream from the gazebo?’

The conservatory. What a delightful setting. Here you can sit, warm and dry, and enjoy some tranquility, surrounded by beautiful plants, graceful statues, and perhaps the gentle sound of water trickling from a water feature. Here, too, you will be smashed over the head with a sturdy plant pot, garrotted with gardener’s twine, hacked to death with secateurs, or misted with some rare kind of poison, and in this tranquil–and remote–setting, die because no one else is within hearing to rescue you. Soz.

Country houses are famous for possessing at least one of the following: a gazebo/summerhouse, a tower, an attic, a dungeon, a castellated roof, a veranda, romantic (but haunted, obv) ruins of a priory or abbey, and of course a lake. This might be for boating, or for fishing, but in either case is to be avoided if you do not wish to go to a watery grave.

‘Come and look at the lovely dungeons,’
said no one ever.

NEVER, ever go to visit any of these unless everyone in the house goes with you. The reason being: they can’t all be killers (unless you’re on an old steam train stuck in the snow…) As has already been stated, there’s safety in numbers.

NEVER go to view any of these objects of interest with one or more of the following: a vicar, a young starlet about to make her Hollywood debut, an old family retainer, an elderly peer of the realm, a governess, a chauffeur, a wild young racing driver, a retired colonel, a breeder of rare horses and/or sheep, a botanist, a Viennese tenor, a fencing instructor, a vicar (yes I know I’ve already said that, they need to be mentioned twice, they are super dodgy), a kindly elderly widow lady ‘who has lived in the village all her life, and plays the church organ on Sundays’ – of course she does, the evil old bat, a cousin of the family no one has seen for twenty years (hint: not who they claim to be!), a local doctor rumoured to have a guilty secret, an orchid collector (they are a ruthless bunch and will do anything for a Fairrie’s Paphiopedilum) or a music/drawing/dancing instructor. Why? Do you need to ask? All of the above are either the most likely to be killed, or the most likely to be a killer. Whichever they are, you are advised to keep well away!

In fact, just don’t go. Curl up safely at home with a nice book instead.

***

Why do I write?

It always surprises me when people say to me, ‘Why do you write?’

For me there’s only one true answer–which I can’t give because it sounds rude–‘Why don’t you?’

Because… I just don’t get it. Oh I know these days many people don’t read actual hold-in-the-hand books anymore, and that meetings, conferences, education, leisure, everything has become virtual. Attendees are more likely to add digital notes or better yet, simply record the bits they need so they can listen to them again and again. I accept that tablets and phones see more of the written word than a paper notebook. To me that qualifies as writing, I’m not one of those people who think it’s only writing if you scribe onto vellum with a goose-feather quill.

But when people say ‘Oh I could never write,’ I don’t understand. Do they mean, ‘My English language grammar is a bit shonky and so my writing would not be erudite enough’? Because if so, that’s what editing is for.

Or do they mean, ‘I’d run out of ideas.’? To that I’d say, ‘Welcome to the club.’ Social media is full of people searching for inspiration.

Or do they mean ‘Writing is only for an elite group, and is only endorsed by publication from a traditional publishing house’? To that I’d say, ‘Nonsense, anyone can write if they want to, and publishing is no longer that straightforward. Or that restrictive.’

Or do they mean, ‘It sounds so complicated, juggling all those ideas’? Yes, it is, but you learn how to do that. (Kind of, I mean sometimes you just learn to juggle better and sometimes you learn that it’s okay to drop the odd whatever-it-is you’re juggling.)

At the other end of the spectrum, are those who say ‘Oh you’re a writer? I’ve been thinking of trying that,’ or ‘I’ve always thought I could write a book some day when I’ve got nothing else to do.’ To them I say, ‘Go on then, I’m watching you. Do it, I dare you. In fact, I double-dare you.’

So why do I write? I need to tell myself stories, it’s that simple. I could write a whole thesis on all the wider implications of that, spiritually, physically, emotionally and whatever else. But what it comes done to is that we ALL love stories, even people who tell me, ‘Oh no, I never read books.’ They watch TV probably. Or binge on streamed series. Or maybe paint–that’s telling a story in a visual way. Or perhaps you might write or play or listen to music. That’s a story in aural form. Or you might daub paint on the walls of your cave, draw in the sand with a stick, or whittle a piece of wood into a specific form. It’s all storytelling.

None of us don’t have stories in our lives, it’s there in all of us, a need to create, to experience, to understand and explore. It’s part of our humanity.

***

The reading writer or the writing reader

We are surrounded by words. They are there on the side of your breakfast cereal packet, full of persuasive ideas or nutritional information. They are on the wall of the lift as you make your way from car park to shopping mall. ‘In case of emergency DO this or DON’T do that…’ They are on our clothes – a logo, a designer’s name; they are on the label – how to wash the garment, the size, the fabric constituents.

As I say, we are surrounded by words. We as humans have come a long way from the days when we communicated through pictures. The concept of communication fascinates me. Why do we communicate? Is it to know our allies from our enemies, or to form friendships, assist pair-bonding, or create a safe environment for our children? We developed words because if a buffalo or something similarly huge is rushing towards you, no one’s got time to whip out a slate and chalks to create a nice little scene to indicate the usefulness of running away. So words are more efficient, maybe.

But words change us. From our earliest days on the planet, gazing fondly at our mothers, we learn words. We learn how to physically say them by watching and listening, and we learn what they mean by observing consequences and effects.

We connect not just words together to form a sentence, but ideas together to create a narrative or story. We might hear the words, ‘Let’s go to the mall’, but what we really hear are ideas based on prior knowledge of that as a situation. ‘Let’s go to the mall’ becomes a narrative: ‘Let’s go to the mall – where we will walk about the shops, talking as we go, laughing and enjoying being together, and discussing life issues or relationships, or personal goals and dreams, where will we notice and comment on the latest trends, where we will exchange currency (or more likely swipe a small piece of plastic) for new goods, that we can then take home and discuss at length, creating a new shared experience. Whilst at the mall we will likely go and get some food somewhere, so it will become a social event, we will sit and eat, and talk some more, possibly on a deeper emotional level, and this day will become part of our shared memories and we will often revisit the occasion in our thoughts, and enjoy the time over and over again, and the whole experience from beginning to end will enhance our relationship and sense of closeness.’

It doesn’t always work like this. Sometimes we have a row as soon as we get there, sulk all the way round the shops and come home later frustrated and disappointed, still in a frosty silence. The great tapestry of human experience!

Where am I going with this? It’s just this: simply, words are key to the storytelling of human life, whether an ordinary trip out to buy new jeans, or whether we are sitting curled up in our favourite armchair reading words on a pages, pages bound together in one book, a book enclosed by a hard or soft cover, possibly enhanced with a relevant image on the front.

This is not the first time I’ve pondered on the weird and truly wonderful impact of words on my life. At the moment I’m wrestling with the final edit of my novel The Spy Within, (coming soon to an internet store near you), but I’m making time to read. In the last few weeks I’ve read my dear friend Emma Baird’s romance, Highland Chances, and another good friend’s Paul Nelson’s Cats of The Pyramids, yet another writer friend’s book Undercover Geisha, by Judith Cranswick. I’m now reading Mary Stewart’s The Wind Off The Small Isles, as well as P G Wodehouse’s A Damsel In Distress, and dipping in and out of non-fiction books: The Great British Bobby by Clive Emsley, and The 1960s fashion sourcebook by John Peacock. 

Each of these books will leave a lasting imprint on my life. I’ve blogged before about how what we read–especially when it’s something we love–leaves its mark on our soul, a fragment of its written beauty that will see us through the hard times. And this year has been one of hard times, hasn’t it? I think in the coming months we will all need as many beautiful phrases, sweet or witty situations, dastardly intrigues and happy-ever-afters as we can get our hands on.

Happy reading!

***

 

2020 Autumn Thoughts

If you’ve read any of my blog before, you’ll know that I love the autumn. My birthday is in October, so that’s why I think that for me autumn is the time for rebirth and growth. In the summertime, it’s too hot to work my brain, (apart from this year where in my area, we only had two hot days – but wow, they were soooo hot) so the cooler temperatures of autumn bring a welcome respite from the summer, and a new influx of energy.

Or maybe it’s just that thing that all parents have, where, come September the kids go back to school and finally you have the time to sit and think quietly for more than thirty seconds. My kids are adults with their own lives, but the old routine of the school year still lingers on.

I found this short passage on autumn in an old journal:

The leaves of the plum tree are turning yellow. Although most of them are still green, within a week or two the tree will be bare—how quickly the season marches on, and there is nothing any of us can do about that. In the garden at the bottom of ours, their silver birches are also covered in yellowing leaves.

In the last half hour, almost without me noticing, the world has lost its sunny autumnal afternoon look and is now overcome by the gloomy dullness that heralds the imminent arrival of evening.

The leaves are changing, turning yellow and orange, but mainly yellow. A sickly speckled unhealthy yellow. Soon the branches will be bare and we will be in the grip of winter.

One or two birds dash to the bird table and snatch some seeds. Their movements seem urgent, as if time is running out and they must hide before it’s too late.

The day is fading, night is almost here.

But I’m not the only one who mulls over what autumn means. Here are some thoughts from authors to inspire us all to take up our writing projects and search for the poet inside.

F. Scott Fitzgerald: “Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall.”

Albert Camus: “Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.”

John Donne: “No spring nor summer beauty hath such grace as I have seen in one autumnal face.”

Basho: “Early autumn–/rice field, ocean,/one green.”

But not all authors have the came rosy outlook when it comes to the winding-down of the year. Many portray it as a doom-laden promise of misery and gloom.

Dodie Smith: “Why is summer mist romantic and autumn mist just sad?”

Stephen King: “The wind makes you ache is some place that is deeper than your bones. It may be that it touches something old in the human soul, a chord of race memory that says Migrate or die – migrate or die.”

Francis Brett Young: “An autumn garden has a sadness when the sun is not shining…”

David Mitchell: “Autumn is leaving its mellowness behind for its spiky, rotted stage. Don’t remember summer even saying goodbye.”

So which of the autumn types are you? Are you a happy golden-hue embracing energy-filled person, or are you more of a Mr/Mrs autumn-is-the-end-of-everything? Let me know!

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