I’m fascinated by the 1930s. That’s why I write a series of detective novels set in the 1930s and featuring Dottie Manderson, a young female amateur detective, as the protagonist. I write cosy mysteries, or cosy crime, and therefore there’s not a lot of space for too much social reality. Besides which, life is already tough enough, we all could do with a bit of escapism now and then, right?
I wanted to show just how different life was back then for everyone, not just women, in the 1930s. I’m writing from a British perspective, as that is my own nationality and my research and my writing centres around this.
Loretta Young, the actress whose soulful expression gave me the character of Dottie Manderson
I often portray the glamour of the era–the fashion, the socialising, all the dancing in long flowing gowns, the polite flirting with gentlemanly fellows in smart evening wear who offered one a drink or a cigarette and didn’t (most of the time) immediately pinch our bums. This glamour and glitz is what I love about it, but even I as a die-hard romantic idealist would have to admit this is the stuff of dreams—of the wonderful cinematic fictions of the time. It’s largely a gloss put over real life to get us through tough times and keep us keeping on. In reality we didn’t dance down to Rio or sip champagne, we were too busy trying to put bread on the table and keep the rent man happy.
So let’s go back to Britain in the 1930s. What was life like for the majority of people?
It was very much a time of transition. Things were still getting back to normal after the war. Attitudes were poles apart with very liberal ideas sitting at the same dinner table as conventional, very reactionary, right wing beliefs. And these differences would grow to a huge divide that came to a head in the 1940s, although as many other things, many of the same issues still rumble on today.
To set the scene for this inter-war period: the gaiety and extravagance of the 20s was over. The harsh reality of the 30s set in with mass unemployment, vast financial meltdowns that would devastate the economies of the richest nations and wipe out many fortunes leaving plenty of millionaires bankrupt and desperate. For the poor, things went from bad to worse, with job cuts and losses, and the increased mechanisation of tasks previously done by human beings left many without work and therefore without the means to feed themselves or their families. But for many middle-class families—those with money, skills and professional qualifications and the less demanding costs of keeping up their homes and lifestyles, things were not too bad at all.
Gary Cooper, irresistibly ‘cool’.
The Great War, as WWI was known, was becoming more of a distant memory, and the Second World War was as yet undreamed of. In fact, there was a common consensus regarding the Great War that ‘it could never happen again’. It was ‘great’ in the sense of huge and terrible, not in our modern sense of brilliant and something admirable. Even language has changed since then! It’s no exaggeration to say that millions of lives were changed forever.
There were an estimated 40 million casualties, a little less than half of whom died, the rest were injured, many very seriously. 40 million. How could such an incomprehensibly vast sum of people die in the space of just a few years? Is it any wonder that people, especially the young, were a little bit crazy, a little bit over-exuberant in the 20s? Yet even in the early 30s, there were already the rumblings and murmurings that would lead to a repeat of the disaster.
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!
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?’
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.
Exactly what we look for in an Art Deco building. Clean lines and plenty of light were important aspects of the design. Very reminiscent of a ship, I always think. I would love to live somewhere like this.
Is there any more evocative style than the one we know as Art Deco? It is immediately recognisable for its elegant lines, swirls, geometric shapes and high contrasts in both colour and texture.
A Tiffany lampshade
After appearing in the first decade of the 1900s, Art Deco actually only reigned supreme until the early 30s, but in the popular imagination it conjures up everything from the Titanic to Agatha Christie’s famous Belgian detective and his obsession with symmetry.
The Seven Stars pub in Earls Court, London. Unfortunately it looks as though it needs a little TLC.
We can still see Art Deco architecture and design all around us. From the smallest ornament for the front of a car to a massive block of flats, they share these characteristic lines of simplicity and brightness.
The iconic Chrysler building, once (and briefly) the tallest building in the world, built towards the end of the era.
It wasn’t just buildings or home decor that got the Art Deco treatment. This is a BMW R7 motorbike from 1934. Even I’d be interested in this! I can almost picture Dottie riding pillion with William.
Another Art Deco house, this time in Florida
Even railway marketing adopted some of the principles of Art Deco, leaving plenty of clear space and using statement images.
The stunning Spirit of the Wind by Rene Lalique. I can’t imagine this on the front of my husband’s Ford Mondeo!
The term Art Deco came from the name of the Paris exhibition in 1925, the Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes (International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts), and has come to mean pretty much all things to all people – anything which is white/cream/gold contrasting with black, anything where the design is uncluttered, or symmetrical, or consists of very straight lines.
The style was associated with glamour, new technology, modernity, and heralded a new era, moving away from the dark, fussy and cluttered styles of the Victorian era and moving forward to embrace the concept of progress. As a style it is still incredibly popular today, and for me, typifies the era of my Dottie Manderson books, a time poised delicately just before the second world war came along to change everything.
No more fussy old Victorian spinach and rust for us! We want something modern and bright!
As a champion-level over-thinker, I’ve been thinking lately about settings for murder. In fact I spend most of my time thinking of places that might be the perfect setting for a dastardly deed. In recent months I’ve looked at village life generally, and of course, that evergreen setting, the country house. And I’ve pondered the usefulness of cities for carrying out or concealing a crime, and even thought about alternative settings to the country house as a destination that might prove a bit too final for some people.
This week I’ve come up with a slight variation on that theme. I’ve been thinking about events in a village or small town and decided that nothing affords more opportunities for almost any kind of shenanigans than a Fair.
A fair afforded everyone opportunities to escape the humdrum everyday world and experience a bit of well-earned fun. There were new goods to browse, your own goods to sell, the pleasurable clinking of coins into a leather purse. Women meeting up to gossip and exchange recipes, family history and perhaps even husbands. Men getting together to drink, to laugh, to commiserate on a bad harvest or celebrate a good one, to buy and sell livestock. Kids running around and getting into mischief with other kids – for once able to forget about the hardships of life and enjoy the noise, the spectacle, and the edible treats.
The fair had so much to offer, and it was a place and a time when normal rules no longer seemed to apply. You were away from your everyday responsibilities, and had a bit of money in your pocket, and lots of novel things to look at. There was the opportunity for freedom for youngsters looking for love – and not just the young. Everything was new and everything was different. It was the most exciting thing to happen in your village for at least six months, and maybe the whole year, so you’d put on your finest clothes and get there as early as you could.
I was thinking of a medieval fair (which might last for several days) ratherthan a modern village fete type of event. This is what I came up with:
Hurrying to the fair. Exciting, new. It’s been a long time since the fair came to town. The usual marketplace is heaving with crowds. They watch the jugglers, the tumblers, maybe dancers. There could be a performing animal of some kind, or a fire-eater, the children’s favourite.
The air is heavy with smoke from the torches and the fires. Whole hogs are roasting over the coals, and chickens too. Apples are dipped in hot sugary toffee and scorch greedy lips; potatoes are hot from the ashes and wrapped in wool, warming the fingers nipped by a light early frost. All this heat creates wavering streams in the air all around.
The sun sets, but the revelry continues, occasionally disturbed by an ale-fuelled brawl that is quickly interrupted by friends keen to prevent blood-shed and ill-temper that will linger long after the fair has moved on.
Lovers quake at the chance glimpse of the objects of their affection, and placid matrons leave go the hands of the dragging children, who run, leaving the mothers in peace to gossip with the neighbours. A dog may bark, or geese squabble.
A lost child might weep as he wanders a little too far, until some kind, burly farmer hoists him to his shoulder to scan the crowds for the wearer of that familiar apron.
It is the village in festival. The men lean on fences or trestles and talk of crops or hunting. Children run in and out of the groups. Everywhere there is noise, chatter and laughter.
The lost little boy is reunited with his mother who hugs and scolds in equal measure, relieved beyond words. She turns to thank the farmer; sees in his face signs of a boy she once knew. When he raises his hat and is gone, she tells her neighbours that once he had been tall and skinny and had blushed when she smiled at him.
She wonders what he saw. She looks down at her ample, matronly form, no longer the slender darting little thing she had once been.
‘Time changes us all,’ she thinks and turning, sees him glancing back at her, still smiling.
It’s made me want to write something bitter-sweet and set amidst the smoking fires of the dark ages. If this has made you want to read a mystery set at a fair or fete, can I suggest one of the following:
St Peter’s Fair by Ellis Peters (set in 1139, the only ‘old’ one here)
The Burry Man’s Day by Catriona McPherson
Dead Man’s Folly by Agatha Christie
A Fete Worse Than Death by Dolores Gordon-Smith (I love a pun) (in fact a couple of authors have books with this title)
Murder At The Village Fete by Catherine Coles
(slightly interesting note: Sean Pertwee starred as Sir George Stubbs in the TV series Agatha Christie’s Poirot episode called Dead Man’s Folly and also played the role of Hugh Beringar in the Cadfael TV series including the episode of St Peter’s Fair.)
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!
Happy New Year, everyone. Not that we’ve had the best start so far. In fact it almost looks like more of the same. Has there been another month crowbarred into 2020 after December but before January? That’s how it feels at the moment, just a continuation of the old year.
But we must try to look forward and not back. Time to be positive!
Janus is the Roman god who has two faces, enabling him to look forward and backward at the same time. It is often (possibly erroneously) supposed the month January is named after him, poised as it is at the beginning of the new year yet with the old year still very much alive in our memories.
Once Christmas is over and the new year begins to beckon, we are seemingly in both places at once. 2020 still dominates our thoughts and yet, 2021, looms on the horizon, bright, shiny and new, full of possibilities, an unwritten page.
So we look forward and back at the same time, for the moment torn in our thoughts and plans, divided in our dreams, not yet able to completely commit to the new, the undiscovered, and still holding onto all that has happened during the miserable twenty (or so it seems) months of 2020.
We long for a fresh start. If 2020 is the experienced adult, bent by experience, then 2021 is the innocent, hopeful child. The joyous optimism of leaving the past behind and reaching forward to something new and good is irresistible. And so we plan and and resolve to make changes in our lives. I am keeping my list of resolutions simple this year: I am going to write more, read more and enjoy life more.
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.
My stories tend to be character driven rather than plot driven. You might think that’s a bit odd for someone who writes cosy mysteries, and you’d be right. Very often in a cosy mystery, you meet a collection of characters who tend to be caricatures, almost, of ‘typical’ people you might meet in the situation where the crime occurs, and it is the story – the plot – that is of primary importance. I’m not saying that my minor characters are fully realised, well-rounded and recognisable individuals, but I try.
The problem for me is that my books usually have a vast range of characters in them (and FYI it’s a nightmare and a half trying to think of names for them all) so there’s not always the space in the story to give everyone their own life without totally confusing the reader. It can be hard for me, let alone the reader, to keep track of everyone. With Night and Day: Dottie Manderson mysteries book 1 I put in a character list à la old-school mysteries, thinking that would be helpful to readers (having been castigated for not putting one in) but I got even more complaints about that. So in the end it was just easier to leave it out.
And I’ve tried to create complex, realistic people as my main characters. They have faults and flaws. It is not my intention to write a book where the main characters don’t grow or change, or are completely perfect. I want them to mess up – and my main characters do that big-time. I want them to be relatable.
In my Dottie Manderson mysteries set in the 1930s, I have two detectives who are the ‘main’ protagonists, Dottie herself and Inspector Hardy, with a supporting cast of around a dozen other ‘regulars’. Then each story has its own characters on top of that. My protagonists are not the isolated individuals of many books in my genre–no brooding detective all alone with their ghosts for me. No, mine both have a family who pop in and out, often the source of useful information or connections, or just serving as a distraction or to illustrate some aspect of the character of my main people. In addition, they also have careers and are involved with work colleagues who again cannot be overlooked all the time.
And then as I say, each mystery requires its own cast of players–the numbers are rising! Making people really stand out can be a challenge. There are reasons for this.
Obviously the first reason is me. I have only a limited experience of life. I think that’s the same for most of us. We always, consciously or unconsciously, bring our own life experiences, attitudes and beliefs, and our flaws and strengths with us when we create anything. It’s been said that authors put something–sometimes quite a lot-of themselves into what they create. How can they not? So I try to compensate for this by doing a lot of research, and by trying to create people who are not much like me. I’m not sure how well I succeed with that.
But I don’t like to read books where the detective is perfect. I’m bored by protagonists who are perfect, who always behave the right way, say the right thing, do the right thing, who think clearly at all times and never get confused, puzzled or befuddled, who don’t lash out, or say the wrong thing, or believe liars or cheats. My characters are all too flawed, and as readers will know, they sometimes make disastrous decisions. And then have to live with the consequences.
In addition to that, I’d like to think the characters grow. I’ve lost track of how many detective series I’ve stopped bothering with because I couldn’t deal with the fact that the protagonists never ever learn from their mistakes, or keep on acting in an implausible or unprofessional manner despite twenty years as a police inspector etc. Because in real life we do learn, most of the time, don’t we? Or we try to.
My character Cressida in the Friendship Can Be Murder trilogy grows a little. As the trilogy goes on, she travels from being a designer-label obsessed airhead to being a caring mother and family-oriented person who doesn’t mind seaside staycations as that brings a lot of fun to all the family. Okay, she does still love a nice outfit, but it’s not the be-all and end-all of her life. And yes, she is still a bit manipulative, but she genuinely cares about the people close to her. which is why she gets into the messes she gets into, trying to help people by getting rid of some of the–ahem–nuisances in their lives. Oh yes, she is still a mass-murdering monster – but a nice one.
In my stand-alone novel, Easy Living, the main character Jane goes from a rose-tinted truth-denying outlook to recognising and facing up to the truth about her relationship – and it hurts her a great deal to come to terms with that. It’s a good thing she has three close – though dead – friends who are determined to stick by her side every step of the way.
Someone recently sent me a personal message on Facebook to outline all the things she disliked about my work. We’re not friends. I hadn’t explicitly invited her to give me any career pointers or to advise me on my work. I say ‘explicitly’ because in a sense, by publishing my books, I have invited a certain level of criticism. And I do believe that we should have free speech and that people should be able to say what they think. I don’t believe in censorship that tells people what they are allowed or not allowed to say or think.
However, part of me wonders what this woman intended to achieve with her message. I admit I don’t really understand why she did it. Did she think I’d immediately promise to rewrite all my books her way? Or that I’d stop writing? Or that I’d learn some kind of valuable lesson from her and turn my life around? Or did she want her money back? An apology? If I have ever disliked a book, I’ve just not read any more by that author. No writer can be all things to all people, and a writing style I like may not appeal to someone else. I’ve never contacted someone directly to tell them I hate their work.
To that person, I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy the book. It’s perfectly fine that you have an opinion. I don’t plan to contact you to explain myself.
Does Dottie grow? I believe she does. When we meet her in book 1 of the Dottie Manderson mysteries, Night and Day, she is very young (19) and is mainly interested in having fun and going dancing. She’s a teenager, after all, and from a well-to-do, privileged background. She works from choice, not necessity, and can please herself entirely with what she does all day.
After two years of stumbling over corpses, she becomes more confident, more caring towards others. She becomes a business-woman and has to learn, almost from scratch, how to run her business. Added to that, as she grows up and goes out into the world around her, she is trying to understand life and human experience, is losing her childlike idealisation of people. Not only was the world of Britain in the 1930s light-years away from life in our era, it was also a time of massive sweeping changes. I like to think Dottie stays true to herself: she passionately believes in working hard, doing the right thing, helping people and giving support to those who need it. She is terminally nosy and always wants to understand what’s going on in people’s lives. In that respect, I believe she is relatable and ‘realistic’, hopefully sympathetic.
Obviously, I’ve only been writing for a few years. I published Criss Cross in 2013, and had only completed six full-length novels before that. So I consider myself still very much a learning writer. One day I hope to be an excellent writer. Until then I plan to grow and learn, and I hope my characters will do the same.
I’d like to thank Judith Cranswick, murder mystery author, for sharing her writing world with us. Hi Judith, thank you so much for coming along and allowing yourself to be tortured in this way! I understand you’ve got some great news to share with mystery book lovers?
Yes Caron that’s right. I’ve got a new book coming out TODAY! Blood Follows Jane Austenis a Fiona Mason Mystery. This time Fiona stays in England and takes her party on a tour of sites associated with Jane and her novels. Fiona’s problems include an antagonistic guest lecturer, a difficult passenger intent on upsetting all and sundry plus the usual dead body. Fiona’s relationship with MI6 chief, Peter Montgomery-Jones has once again become strained. He is busy dealing with the repercussions following the assassination of a central African leader, but she needs his help to prevent the wrong person from being arrested. Although it is the 7th in the series, it can be read as a standalone.
Q1. In case anyone hasn’t figured this out by now, tell us what kind of books you write, Judith?
The quick answer is the kind I like reading. I love whodunits in the Agatha Christie style, lots of hidden clues, red herrings and a relatively small number of suspects.
I tend to call my two series travel mysteries, and they probably come under the cozy umbrella because you won’t find any excessive violence, bad language or sex in them. A touch of romance for Fiona but that’s it.
Having said that, my first published books were standalone psychological suspense novels. I enjoy writing them (I have a couple of ideas I’d love to tackle if only I had the time), but my readers are always telling me they can’t wait for the next Fiona or Harry and Aunt Jessica story.
Q2. What first drew you to writing mysteries rather than, for example, romance or fantasy/sci-fi?
The first novel I wrote was an historical novel, ‘The Tribune’ about a 4th century Romano-British soldier inspired by a trip to Chedworth Roman Villa. The second book was ‘Magic for a Magician’. I entered a fantasy short story competition, fell in love with my 7’2” magician and the story became chapter one. I couldn’t get a publisher interested in either of them.
In the early 2000s, I was reading a great many psychological suspense novels – writers like Nikki French, Barbara Vine, Minette Walters and Val McDermid. I loved the edginess of their novels. That gave rise to my ‘All in the Mind’ and ‘Watcher in the Shadows’ both of which won awards.
My then agent, suggested I try writing books with a series character which led to the first Fiona Mystery – ‘Blood on the Bulb Fields.’
Q3. What comes first for you, plot or characters?
Neither. I start with a scene such as a woman being mugged in an underpass (as in ‘All in the Mind’). How the main character reacts to the situation influences what happens next. I’m not a plotter and for me the fun of writing is discovering how the story line and the characters develop on the journey. Rather like Minette Walters, I never decide on my murderer until the final few chapters. I may have a vague idea who it will be midway through the book but then often change it right at the end.
Obviously, with my series books I do have my small core of main characters (who I hope continue to grow with each book) plus the country where the tour will take place, but from then on it’s just start writing. By halfway, I probably have some idea of where I want to end up, but it’s all very fluid.
Q4. Do you buy books as gifts at Christmas? Can you tell us about any surprises in the Christmas stockings this year? (we promise not to blab)
Choosing books for other people is difficult. I did when family members were small but then changed to book tokens. Only my son has a long wish list of books on Amazon and most of those are reference books.
Q5. What do you do when you’re not writing or reading?
I teach yoga and tai chi and in a usual year I would probably be doing several cruises as a guest lecturer. I began running writing workshops on board ship, then went to giving talks on writing, became a port lecturer and in recent years I’ve been asked to give history lectures. Ancient history is another of my passions.
My husband and I also take several holidays each year, mostly as research for my novels of course. (Well that’s my excuse.)
I spend my mornings either at the gym teaching or doing Pilates or Zumba, and two mornings line-dancing.
Q6. What’s next for your writing?
My next project is another Harry and Aunt Jessica novel set in Persia. Our last holiday, back in November 2019,was to Iran. It’s an amazing country, full of breath-taking architecture, Persian palaces and sumptuous mosques, and a fascinating history. Accompanying our trip was the same history lecturer who came on our Morocco holiday which is what gave me the idea for my first Aunt Jessica Mystery.
Q7. If you couldn’t be a writer, what would you do?
I became a published writer when I retired. I taught geography and eventually became a headteacher.
Q8. What’s the biggest challenge for you as a writer? What can be a struggle at times?
Even though I’m retired, finding time to actually write can be difficult. I don’t write quickly and on average it takes me a whole year to produce a book. Starting a book is never a problem but I’m not a plotter and I do tend to languish in the middle before I get to the final rush at the end. This last year, by far my biggest problem has been research. Long before I even work out the story line, I visit the area as a passenger on an organised tour, which forms the basic framework on which to develop the plot. This year, that just wasn’t possible.
Q9. Do you have a set routine when you’re writing? Do you set yourself a daily word count to achieve?
My best writing time is probably early in the day but, in normal times, I’m out every weekday and life does tend to take over. I may need to stop everything to research and prepare PowerPoint presentations for a lecture cruise. I spend on average six weeks at sea, but preparing the lectures takes at least as long. My overall plan is to write a book a year. The actual writing – first draft – stage takes five to eight months, then comes four major rewrites, then to my editor, major rewrite, beta readers, more rewrites then proof-reader. During the intensive writing stage, I probably have a daily word count of around 500 to 800, but nothing is set in stone.
Judith, it’s been so lovely to catch up with you and good luck with the new book.
Readers who want to know more about Judith and her books can follow this link to Judith’s blogwhere she posts a lot of insights into her books and especially, the journeys that inspire her highly popular books.