Here’s a bit of what it’s about, then I’ll tell you what I thought.
Incarcerated in the gloom of a Highland asylum, a young mother finds illicit love. And death.
Kate Sharp’s family is a mystery. Her mother, Ellen, disappeared into the shadows of Craig Dunain psychiatric hospital when Kate was a child. When her grandmother dies, Kate is desperate for answers. What were the circumstances of her mother’s life and death? Who is her father?
Kate’s not the only one trying to uncover the truth. The remains of two bodies with murderous injuries have been found buried in the forest next to the former hospital.
And someone else is searching for answers, and he will stop at nothing to find them.
As the tale of Ellen’s tragic unravelling unfolds, the secrets that led to her death are exposed, along with the shocking truth about Kate’s father.
Unaware of the danger stalking her, Kate continues her search.
Will she find the answers? And can she save her own life?
If this was on a popular online store, I’d give Unravelling five stars.
First of all let me just say, I’m not very good with writing reviews – I tend towards the brief, so I’m trying to be more expansive here.
I read it in three sittings: session one was out of mild curiosity – was this a book I felt I could get into, was it the kind of the thing I would enjoy? I find it hard to take part in a blog tour if I haven’t genuinely engaged with the material – I don’t want to lie to my readers. So I quickly read the opening 30 or 40 pages.
The second reading session was a panicked, ‘Eek I almost forgot and there’s only four more days until my post is due out…’ so I read another 50 or so pages, thinking, I like how this is unfolding, I’m definitely intrigued, I’m confident I am going to love this book.
The third sitting, with 250+ pages to go was one of those, ‘I don’t care how long it takes, I am not putting this book down for anything except Rege-John Page or Theo James.’ I mean, I was hooked.
Reader, I devoured it.
And this is my conclusion:
Unravelling by Helen Forbes is an engrossing, claustrophobic psychological thriller. It was tense at times, and sorrowful. The insights into serious mental illness were so emotive, and I admit I blubbed. It was compulsive too – as I said, I just hadto read on, I had to know.
The ending was swift and satisfying, and hopeful.
For me, I felt that Kate’s story was in a way a – not redemption exactly – more a second chance for Ellen. I can’t explain (words are my job too! Rolls eyes.) It was the pay-off that we the reader got after the long personal journey of self-discovery of both Ellen and Kate.
I enjoyed the style. To begin with I was a little confuzzled by the shift in points of view, but got used to it, you can identify the narrators easily enough. I think it was a bold move to separate Kate’s story into two halves and put Ellen’s story in the middle. I’m not sure I’d have made that choice myself, but I think it works, though when I came back to the second part of Kate’s story I had to quickly ‘revise’ what had happened in the first part. But I think it worked, and as I say, I was hooked – it was definitely an unputdownable, engrossing read, and I highly recommend this book!
Do check out Helen Forbes’ website – link here – to find out about the DI Joe Galbraith books, also set in Scotland, and about the author herself.
You can also catch up with Helen and all her news on the following social media:
And please review the book if you love it – let other readers know what’s good! You don’t have to write an essay – just a quick comment of ‘Loved it’ or ‘highly recommended’ – it’s okay to be brief, because every little helps as they say. Thanks!
I always expect far too much of myself and can easily get exhausted, and that’s when colds etc come in to grab me while I’m low. that’s what’s happened this week. Having given myself far too much to do this year, I am now taking a short break to recuperate as the lurgey has claimed me.
Although I know I’m not the only one. Apparently we are all catching colds and viruses now as we tentatively begin to mingle with the outside world once again and our immune systems – sitting smugly at home for the last sixteen months, are now under siege.
So this week I’ve been playing with my Friendship Can Be Murder series. I decided it was time to give them new covers, and also to create a nicer looking paperback, and now my new latest fun thing: large print paperbacks.
None of these tasks are difficult – quite the opposite – but they do require concentration otherwise I suddenly become aware I’ve been scrolling, scrolling, scrolling (Rawhide!) and not paying attention to the size of the font or the style requirements. It’s a bit like driving a familiar route then suddenly ‘coming to’ and realising you have no recollection of the last two miles – yet you and the car appear to be in one piece, so something must have gone right…
Another thing I’m doing is awaiting the final proofed copy of the German version of Scotch Mist: Dottie Manderson mysteries book 3 a novella. Books 1 and 2 in German have been out for a few months now, and are selling okayish, so it seemed right to move on to book 3, and I’m hoping to get book 4 out towards the end of the year.
Meanwhile, the French translations have been giving me some issues, and I am likely to need to have them retranslated. They are currently in the hands of a lovely lady who is an expert in English and French, so I await her verdict… And the Polish paperback versions are selling well on eBay and Abe’s Books (an Amazon company). Yes, I am still seething that Kindle doesn’t support the Polish language: even the ones sold on Amazon Poland don’t… It never occurred to me that such a thing would be possible. How can Kindle support so many other languages and not a mainstream European language spoken by an estimated 40 million people???????????????? Can you tell I’m still angry about that? And although in theory the Polish version is available in paperback from Amazon, I’ve been unable to get a copy myself, so it doesn’t bode well for readers. So if you do have an urge to read Night and Day in Polish (Noc i Dzień: Tajemnica Dottie Manderson 1: Polska wersja językowa) you’ll get a brand new copy form Abe’s Books and even eBay with no bother at all. Again, still fuming… Anyway, moving on…
I am excited to announce that the first audiobook will be rolled out around the end of this month. It seemed to make sense to do Night and Day: Dottie Manderson mysteries book 1 first, and so that’s the one I went with. It should be widely available in online stores. (Everything crossed as I say that…) The narration is provided by Mandy Gasson in conjunction with Findaway Voices. I will post a publication announcement as soon as I know it is available.
Oh yes, I knew there was something else… I’ve also been releasing the large print edition of my books. So far the first four of the Dottie Manderson books have been released in large print, and as already mentioned, I am also releasing the large print paperbacks of the Friendship Can Be Murder ‘mysteries’ this week, though they may take a week or so to filter through to the product pages of Amazon. next month, I will release the next two Dottie books in large print and also one for my stand alone novel Easy Living. Yay!
And now it occurs to me that the non-English versions will also require large print paperbacks… *sigh*
Gary Cooper in a gloomy mood ever since reading his first novel again after ten years.
I read a blog post elsewhere this week, in which a writer talked about rereading a book he had written and published years earlier, and his reaction to it. That set me thinking.
How do I react to reading my own work after a break?
I think it’s a bit like looking at baby photos of yourself, or making a special cake or a meal for a particular occasion. Or indeed whenever any of us do anything creative or out of the norm. Maybe you’re not like me, but I know a lot of people are just like me: a bit inclined to only see their faults, to see the wonky bits, the bits that had to be patched up at the last minute, the crooked hem of the new dress or the edge where the cake got stuck in the tin and you had to put a bit extra icing on there to disguise it. We tend to be overly self-critical, which is sometimes a good thing: we strive that little bit harder to improve and to do well, but on the other hand, it makes it hard to feel proud of our achievements or to accept praise from others.
When I read things I wrote years ago, I feel quite uncomfortable. I am sometimes pleasantly surprised and think, ‘ah, this isn’t as bad as I expected’, but there are definitely times when I groan to myself and wonder what on earth I was thinking. I cringe at some of the laboured metaphors, the overly descriptive passages and my almost fanatical use of The Three: I tend to group my descriptions in threes. In fact if you browse, read or peruse any of my works, writings or output, you will definitely, absolutely, surely notice, observe and see that a lot of what I write is grouped into threes! Who knew?
I’ll just quickly fix this bit. Oh, and this bit. Oh now that bit doesn’t work, oh well, I’ll just…
Well, I did for one, although not until someone pointed it out to me. I try to weed some of them out, unless I am deliberately emphasising a point, and keep them to a minimum. But years ago… No, they are there in all their triplicated glory.
As is my terrible grammar – I just never really know, what, to do with those, commas,.
I used adverbs liberally too (haha, like that!) but I’m not quite so obsessive about those. I don’t mind the odd one, whereas many authors absolutely scour their pages and destroy them without mercy. I like the odd adverb. Sometimes an active verb can be a bit too much, especially if the writer uses loads of them. I’d rather read ‘she said hastily’ than ‘she gabbled’ or ‘rattled’.
Stop authorsplaining and let me read your damn book!
What I don’t like is a ton of adjectives. You know when you read something like, ‘The old sprawling ramshackle creeper-covered house had a battered and pitted, badly-fitting oak door and four tiny grimy windows that peeped out from beneath an elderly ragged thatched roof in much need of repair.’ Just tell me it’s an old house in poor repair, I can furnish the rest from my own imagination. I just haven’t got the energy to read through tons of adjectives. the same with character descriptions or the characters’ clothes. I don’t really care if their shoes are hand-made in Italy from the finest, most supple leather and stitched by angels from their own hair. Just tell me they cost a fortune, I’ll get it.
It needs a bit of work…
The other problem with old work is that it can have you itching to reach for a pen and begin ‘improving’ or ‘correcting’ it. But is that a good idea?
One of the advantages of self-publishing is that you can tweak your books if you need to, with little disruption to the reading public, to stock availability and relatively negligible damage to your finances. Not so the trad-pubbed, of course. There a revision might cost a packet both in cash terms and in terms of reprinting, delays, supply hiccups etc, and will only be undertaken if absolutely necessary. But an Indie book is not too difficult to fix if there are issues with it that are likely to lead to poor reviews, which might have a knock-on effect on sales.
You can’t go through history deleting all the anoraks and t-bar sandals. Sadly.
So I don’t think it’s a problem if you correct an annoying typo or an inconsistency that is mentioned a few times in reviews. That’s just courtesy. But if you give into the urge to revise, it can be quite hard to stop tinkering, and then before you know it you’ve changed the book so much it could be a whole new project, or you can actually break it, leaving gaping plot holes and chapters that no longer hang together.
I think when it comes down to it, with earlier work, you just have to accept it for what and how it is, like your wonky teeth in that old photo. Acceptance is not always easy, and to leave your old book alone is sometimes the hardest decision to make.
If you read romance as a book category, you are probably aware of the concept of a trope.
A trope is, in a way, a kind of cliché or a stereotype. Although those words have a negative connotation. It’s more a set idea or plot outline that is used many times over, hopefully with variations on the theme. There is the Cinderella trope, or we might call it a rags-to-riches story. There is the second-chance trope, or another is the Romeo-and-Juliet ‘doomed love’ trope.
And so it is with mysteries. We all know about country house or closed community mystery.
There are quite a few often-repeated ideas. Each time the story is told, we hope the author will bring their own new slant on a familiar trope. Agatha Christie was of course the Queen of the trope: want a closed community? How about a familiar one: the country house mystery? For example, The Mysterious Affair At Styles, or The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. that’s all very well, but there are a variations on the country house. think of Murder On The Orient Express. The country house is exchanged for a snowbound train. Or you might prefer Death On The Nile – a boat instead of a train instead of a manor house. Or what about Death In The Air – a plane instead of a boat instead of a train instead of a manor house. Or a hotel: At Bertram’s Hotel.
They all work brilliantly: a closed, finite circle of suspects the detective can investigate one by one, and eliminate until the only one left is the killer. Though of course, knowing Christie, the killer is usually someone we’ve investigated then eliminated, just to put the reader off the scent.
Or the romance genre’s trope, doomed love: this works well in mystery too. (Spoiler alert) I’m thinking of Death In The Clouds again, and this is also a second trope for Death On The Nile, and another book I love, Evil Under The Sun. These all have doomed lovers, doomed because they must suffer the consequences of their actions, or doomed because one of them is manipulated by the object of their affection, who is not what he or she seems.
I love the combination of two or more tropes in the same book. These can work well together to muddy the waters a bit for the armchair detective, making us focus on the wrong thing and miss finding the killer before Poirot or Miss Marple.
Other great tropes for the mystery genre include:
The Evil Victim: seemingly bringing their dreadful fate upon themselves and supplying us with a large cast of suspects and a large variety of motives. I love this one! These can be a spiteful domineering mother – Appointment With Death – or a tyrannical retired colonel living in a village – The Murder At The Vicarage.
Or you may prefer what I call the Not Quite Eden trope: A number of people nip off for a well-deserved holiday, sometimes in an exotic location (Death In Paradise, I’m looking at you) but – who knew – they take their problems or issues with them, and in the summer heat, things come quickly to a head. with disastrous consequences. Here we have our old friend Evil Under The Sun again, and Christie’s great Miss Marple book, A Caribbean Mystery.
There’s the Locked Room trope. This crops up in Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, in the short story, Dead Man’s Mirror and another of my favourites, the novella, Murder In The Mews. The novel And Then There Were None has also been likened to a locked room mystery but in my view this falls under the closed community trope rather than locked room as such.
There’s the Disappearing Weapon trope. I like this one too! (Look away now to avoid another spoiler!) Think of the removed trip-wire in Dumb Witness, for example, which led lesser mortals than Hercule Poirot to believe a ‘mere’ accident was the cause of death.
There is also the Missing Victim trope, one which is another favourite of mine, and is used a couple of times in Robert Thorogood’s Death In Paradise.
There are many more.
Here are a few other trope ideas that you might find interesting:
Revenge trope: Where the perpetrator is exacting revenge on parents, on siblings, on children, or any love or business rival who thwarts their ambition. This is probably as much a motive as it is a trope. This may include the Fake Reunion/Reconciliation. And often too, the Disguised Persona/Hidden Agenda. (Think Christie’s Pocket Full Of Rye)
Spiritual Assassin: This trope includes someone who feels they have a mission from God to punish wrong-doers. (Dan Brown uses this one a few times…)
The Unreliable Narrator: notoriously employed by Christie in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Also used more recently in Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. This is not always a popular trope with the reader who can feel a bit cheated – or maybe it’s more like embarrassment at being duped? When I read Roger Ackroyd for the first time, I was amazed and thrilled by being so brilliantly deceived.
I also enjoy the Double Trouble trope- where there are two different, often unrelated, independent killers. This makes it very much easier to misdirect the reader, fill the story with convincing alibis and make red herrings a doddle.
My absolute favourite mystery trope – and one that I use in my Friendship Can Be Murder trilogy – is the Whydunit. This is the style made famous in the TV series Columbo. You know who did it, you see it right from the start, but the joyous thing about the story is watching the often-ridiculed, apparently shambling detective put together their case with meticulous attention to detail and finally confront the murderer with overwhelming evidence that they are unable to refute. It’s all about the discovery of motive and opportunity, and of course, the search for clues. I love, love love this trope. And it has the merit of being easier to write for the author!!! There is no concealment, only great attention to detail.
Last year I posted a couple of articles about women’s magazines from the 1930s. (If you missed them, you can find them here.)
Over the last two weeks I’ve been fortunate enough to acquire two more vintage magazines aimed directly at women. what impressed me about these was first of all, that this magazine – Woman’s Own – is still in circulation and massively popular today. The second thing I noticed is that there really isn’t a lot of difference between the WO of 1934 and those of 2021.
Have women’s concerns changed very much in 90+ years? I’m not sure they have. for many women, the home and family is still one of the most important things in life, and I’m not saying that in a patronising way, nor ignoring the fact that women today have many more opportunities to have a career, and that the concept of ‘the family’ is miles different – and rightly so – to that of the 1930s.
But at rock bottom, many women are interested in and still worry about how to care for, manage or improve their relationships, their attractiveness, their budget, and their partners and children.
My Woman’s Own mags are from Feb 1934 and this week’s copy – by chance I nabbed a ‘diet special’. Here are a few snippets that struck me as interesting:
Hubby Management: It’s the wife’s job to make her home as welcoming as possible to induce the man (and man ONLY!) to stay at home instead of going out gallivanting. tips are given on how to do this, though the mags expert – whoever that was, possibly (we don’t know!) a bloke – comments that some men will always stay out and shouldn’t get married in the first place. Too late if you’ve got one of those, girls!
We have the readers’ letters, essentially a problem page. My faves are ‘should cousins marry?’ (Surely they know the answer to that?) and the ‘worried wife’ letters. I feel for the worried wife. She knows exactly what the answer will be but doesn’t want to admit it. Poor woman. Did she sling him out? Or – as I feel is more likely – did she just suffer in silence?
There’s a load of fashion tips and ideas, mostly, I was interested to note, clothes you could make at home. This magazine is aimed at the upper working class and lower middle class, women who have a little money but not enough to buy off-the-peg items and certainly not bespoke. ‘Home economy’ was one of the watchwords of the day, and it included apparel.
I personally think this looks absolutely horrid, and a cross between a Christmas panto costume and something out of Red Riding Hood. This one below is slightly nicer, but again, still all your own work.
Although the models in the designs look about 35 to 40, in fact some of these are aimed for teenagers from 14 years of age. not much difference in those days between what mums and their daughters were wearing.
And of course, the eternal battle with the scales. I was interested to see things haven’t changed much here either, although some of our modern ingredients – chorizo and the whole gluten-free plan would have been completely alien to women of the 1930s.
A 2021 diet with the useful and inspiring ‘before and after’ stats.
Looks like this lady – a nurse, not a nun as I first thought – was following the crap-yourself-thin diet. 18lbs was a good result! Was she just a bit constipated after Christmas? All those mince pies…
Looking good appears to be a perennial issue for many women. We want to keep our looks as long as possible, after all, and keep ourselves in good condition. So I suppose it’s not surprising magazines for women contain so many hints, tips and advice. With the growth of city populations, the expansion of the suburbs, many women would have been cut off from their usual channels of information: mothers, grandmothers, aunties. Equally, magazines adopt a sisterly or motherly tone to offer the advice so desperately needed in those times. Today, magazines are more likely to have a friendly, conversational tone, inviting you to confide and share like a friend coming alongside to offer a sympathetic ear.
I’m in awe of the fact that this magazine has been around so long. It’s fascinating to read that the same ideas preoccupied women before my mother was born, as they do now. We may have Smartphones, the Internet, Netflix and Just Eat, but at the end of the day, we still want to look good, feel good, and keep our man where we can see him.
These days, celebs are the friends who come alongside to help us with our issues, and our mags have happy realistic images not creepy devil-children on the cover!
Okay so yes, it does look better without the light background to the flowers!
I’ve spent quite a lot of the first half of 2021 writing the first draft of my next Dottie Manderson mystery. It’s book 7 in the series and will be called Rose Petals and White Lace. The main mystery centres around weddings and wedding preparations.
No, don’t get excited, it’s not the marriage of Dottie and William. You’ve got to wait a little longer for that, sorry. (But yes, it’s coming, I promise.)
The book is not due out until November, but you know, these things take time, so I needed to crack on with it pretty quickly. I try to bring out a Dottie book every year, usually it winds up being released anywhere between my birthday on 18th October, and Christmas.
What tends to happen is, as soon as a new Dottie book is released, I am so excited I rush ahead to begin writing the next one, then Christmas comes along, and you know, life happens, and everything gets put on hold for a couple of months, then before you know it I’m panicking to fit everything in to the remaining time.
I always plan to have January off as holiday, then intend to begin working hard on 1st February but it doesn’t usually work like that. In practice I’m a terrible deadline evader, and will push them back to the last possible moment. It’s a bit like doing your homework as you eat your breakfast on submission day. So here we are at the beginning of June, and I should have written maybe 70,000 words or so for my first draft. Have I? No!!! Of course I haven’t. I’ve written maybe 30,000 words. That’s pants, obvs. And this means that I will have to work a lot harder in June and July to be ready for my self-imposed deadline of November 1st.
To make matters worse, I’m also doing a final polish/proofread of A Meeting With Murder: Miss Gascoigne mysteries book 1. I had planned to release that one at the end of June, but I seriously doubt it will happen. I’m smart enough now not to be too precise when I let readers know books are due to make their appearance. I suspect Miss Gascoigne will make her first appearance in September.
But this untidy system works for me. Dorothea Brande in her author handbook classic, Becoming A Writer (1934!) stated that writers (like other people only more so) are made up of two very different selves. Therefore during the drafting stage, the prosaic, planning/editing/organised/business-suit-wearing (my business suit is jog bottoms and an old shirt with fluffy socks to keep my feet toasty) side of me allows flaky/creative/disorganised/messy/kaftan-wearing Caron the freedom to do her thing, with fingers crossed firmly behind my back and praying that as it’s worked before it will work again. It’s not really so much a process but more a succession of futile attempts to organise my life like realwriters do. But no, I still don’t enjoy using professional writing software. So I’ve given up on all those things, stopped trying to force myself to work like others do, and gone back to what works for me: a pen and paper. I love the nuts-and-bolts process of writing long-hand in a bunch of notebooks then typing it all up as I go, amending and refining along the way.
But hopefully both books will be finished at some point before Christmas, and both book will be worth reading.
Meanwhile here’s a little bit of a taster for each book: (please note, these may change completely by publication day!)
Kim, welcome. Thank you so much for allowing yourself to be bullied persuaded into answering a few questions for all the readers of fantasy books out there. I would say fantasy is one of the top three if not the top genre in terms of popularity these days, so I know there will be a lot of people eager to find out what makes you tick.
Let’s crack on, shall we?
Q1. What kind of books do you write?
I mainly write fantasy, essentially the kind known as ‘epic fantasy’ set in imaginary worlds where magic is possible and my characters are forced to go on perilous journeys in search of some goal (or themselves). There may be some romantic interest, or some humour, but this is generally secondary to the main story. The later books have an increasingly political content with neither of the warring factions being totally good or totally bad. The Plain Girl’s Earrings is about a young nobleman who naively gets involved in trying to defend the weak, and is soon over his head in trouble.
The Witch’s Box is the story of Maihara, Imperial Princess (with magical powers) in a troubled empire that is collapsing around her. She has high ambitions, but might not the rebels make a better job of running things?
Q2. What were your earliest influences? What did you read as a child?
I remember reading all of the CS Lewis ‘Narnia’ novels, and a lot of Gollancz SF which at the time came in books with yellow jackets. Also various juvenile adventure novels. All of which came from the local library, a resource which unfortunately seems to becoming harder for kids to access these days. Later I continued to read a lot of SF but in later years grew weary of SF and turned to reading general fiction, and fantasy, because the characters were more interesting.
I’m with you on the C S Lewis stuff, and I remember those Gollancz jackets too. I also completely agree with you about libraries – they are a wonderful, and lest we forget, free resource (in the UK at least) which are seemingly used less and less.
Q3. What are you working on at the moment?
I am finishing the final revisions of the third volume of my The Witch’s Box trilogy.
Q4. What can we look forward to in the future from you?
A story about a young woman who, when searching for her missing sister, finds herself in a parallel world where customs and technology differ radically from those of our own world. In other words, this is a ‘portal fantasy’. After that, possibly a high fantasy with lots of magic, with people turning into birds or animals, a battle with an evil magician, an Arctic quest, and stuff. Interest has been expressed in a fourth volume of The Witch’s Boxbut that may be some way off.
Sounds like you are extremely busy, and prolific. Q5. Who are your favourite authors?
GRR Martin, Kate Elliott, Brandon Sanderson, Michael Moorcock, Louis de Bernieres, Robin Hobb, Joe Abercrombie, Alison Spedding, Patrick Rothfuss.
Q6. What do you do when you’re not reading?
I also spend some time on amateur astronomy, gardening, and before the pandemic used to visit National Trust and English Heritage properties, and various museums and galleries, and the cinema. When too tired to do anything else, I watch TV.
Q7. What is your writing process?
Generally I start with an idea and an outline, and work it up to a first draft, which may be revised, lengthened and shown to a select group of critiquers. The process may be repeated several times before I arrive at a final version which could differ substantially from the first draft. I have used the Storyweaversoftware to plan out several of my novels, and it prompts me to think about the plot and overall structure, the characters, the theme and any genre elements. It’s not a magic bullet but it does prompt one to jot down some necessary details. I have tried writing one or two things in ‘pantster’ mode without a detailed plan, and it has generally been a disaster.
I know what you mean about the perils of pantser mode! I am a reformed pantser msyelf, working with only a very skeletal ‘plan’ in my head. Otherwise I usually find that if I make too many or too detailed a plan, I lose all interest in writing my book. I haven’t tried Storyweaver, though I’ve heard good things about it.
Thank you so much, Kim, for coming along to chat about your work. I’m sure your work will continue to make you proud, and good luck with the next book. I hope you will come back and give us an update in a few months.
In the meanwhile, where can readers find out more about you and your books, and where can they buy them?
Kim Cowie has worked as a technician and as a technical author, and has sold articles to non-fiction magazines, as well as two short stories. Kim has always enjoyed reading and writing SF and fantasy stories. Currently he is working on a series of fantasy novels.
It’s been thirteen years since we lived there, but the house looks the same. Even the vertical blinds at the windows don’t look any different. The place has that half-familiar look, as remembered places do. A brick semi, with a small tarmac front yard surrounded by a perimeter of unruly shrubs liberally sprinkled with empty whisky and methadone bottles and syringes.
I know the streets were this busy when we lived here, but I seem to see all the traffic as if for the first time. Why did we choose to live somewhere so congested? But I know why, of course. It was the garden.
The street-front gives the passer-by no clue as to the possibility of a garden. But it was the garden of our dreams. It was because of the garden that for two years we put up with the ridiculously high crime-rate, the constant sense of insecurity, the dark gloomy house, and the heavy traffic.
In case you think I’m exaggerating the crime: the day we moved in, a guy down the street shot his wife in the street, then himself, right in front of their teenage daughters. I know that’s more of a family tragedy than a crime, but it didn’t bode well. Within two weeks we’d been burgled and had our car vandalised twice. Eggs and bottles were thrown at the house. My husband was on first-name terms with the local police officer by the end of the first month. We saw a woman thrown out of a moving car. Truly. We saw another woman repeatedly kicked and punched before she limped away, screaming profanities from a bleeding mouth. We found syringes, empty bottles and condoms scattered in our front yard regularly. We had a man stabbed literally on our doorstep as he leaned on the doorbell at eleven o’clock at night. We had the police come to the door and tell us to stay inside as they were after someone sheltering in our back yard (my precious garden!). Someone tried to snatch my money as I stood at the ATM putting my card away. Drunks were heaved almost senseless out of the pub to sleep the drink off on the pavement outside. My teenage daughter was followed home by two men who tried to grab her. Good thing we lived literally fifty yards from the bus stop where she’d got off. And that she had a good pair of lungs.
But the garden…Oh it was a slice of heaven. One hundred and thirty feet long, and thirty-odd feet wide. That’s huge by inner-city standards. The top twenty-five per cent, nearest the house, was a patio, unevenly paved, and populated with plants in pots. Tiny solar lamps indicated the edge of the patio and the start of the lawn. The lawn took up about fifty per cent of the garden, and was uneven and veined with ancient tree roots and edged by borders containing ugly plants behind even uglier mini-fencing. I know it’s not sounding great at the moment…
Dotted across the lawn and in the bottom twenty-five per cent of the garden were several old apple and pear trees, and a cheery tree. There were two small sheds, all but falling down, and an oval flower bed intruding into the top part of the lawn. The final section at the end of the garden was fenced off and badly overgrown. Paving slabs had been loosely laid, perhaps n an attempt to curb the growth of the weeds, but they presented a grave danger to ankles and toes as the slabs tipped up as soon as you stepped on them.
We gathered these slabs up into two stacks. Then we cut back the trees and shrubs to a tidy and manageable size. We dug up the weeds and created veggie patches and a herb garden. We filled tubs and pots with sunflowers and cosmos and anything that bees or butterflies might like. It was a secret, sunny spot, seemingly miles from the house and the noise of the road beyond, hidden away from prying eyes.
We often used to see a fox snoozing in the sunshine on top of the slab-stacks. Or at night, I’d hear a sound and look out to see three or four fox cubs chasing each other around the lawn or hopping back and forth over the plant pots and yapping at one another. I’m not one of those who believes wild animals are there to be shot or poisoned. I’m definitely a bleeding-heart liberal and proud to be so. My family and I derived great pleasure from watching the birds, the foxes, a squirrel, and some hedgehogs enjoying the amenities of our garden, drinking out of a plant saucer full of rainwater or foraging amongst the bushes.
Our neighbours on either side were very elderly and their gardens had been left untouched for years. The neighbour on the right-hand side had a World War II Anderson shelter at the bottom of her garden, and this was where the foxes lived. The neighbours’ gardens and ours created a little oasis of wildlife-friendly space in the city, and the wildlife seemed to be thriving there. I hope they never bulldoze that block.
The area had once been an orchard. The trees in our garden were donkeys’ years old, and our neighbours had a number of equally well-established fruit trees. The trees were huge, too, due to their great age. I’ve never seen fruit trees the size of woodland oak or beech trees. I suppose normally when orchard trees reach a certain age, they are replaced, to ensure maximum yield.
It was the kind of garden that made us strive to overcome all the other obstacles to living happily in that location in our attempt to create a home. It was the kind of garden you long to pick up and take with you.
That house was never a home, and we were so glad to leave it. But the garden belonged to another age, and another plane altogether. We still drive past the house regularly, the house itself so dimly remembered, and yet we continue to rave about the perfect little world hidden away behind it.
Yes, that is my cat, in a deep blissful sleep in the middle of the rather long grass – never seen her so carefree as she was here.
I think I’ve mentioned a couple of times that Dottie Manderson’s latest outing, The Spy Within, book 6 in the Dottie Manderson mystery series, was quite a lot longer than I’d anticipated. Because of that, I had to cut out a large number of words, two or three major scenes in fact that I felt muddied the waters and delayed the action a little bit too much.
But as scenes, I felt they worked really nicely. Authors are often told to ‘kill their darlings’ – for me this isn’t so much about killing off a beloved character but chopping a scene that works really well, earns its wages and yet in spite of everything, just doesn’t belong. It is often with great reluctance that I cut out a scene then have to find another way to bring in the information the reader needs to figure out what’s going on.
This next scene is a case in point. If you haven’t read The Spy Within, or the previous books come to that, maybe you should browse elsewhere for the next ten minutes or so – spoilers abound!
So in The Spy Within we see William Hardy – police inspector – and Dottie Manderson – amateur sleuth – discussing Dottie’s beau Gervase Parfitt (boo, hiss!). William has been asked to investigate allegations of corruption and other possible crimes lodged against Gervase Parfitt who is an ambitious assistant chief constable. William has also been told to enlist Dottie’s help in finding evidence, as his superior officers know she is a friend of William’s, and is on the point of becoming engaged to Parfitt.
But what the higher-ups don’t know is that the relationship between William and Dottie is far more complicated than that and there is quite a lot of baggage that needs to be resolved. William tries to get out of asking her, but is told he must. Reluctantly he tries to find a way to tell her that Parfitt is under investigation – which he believes will devastate her – and yet still be able to gain her trust and get her to help him.
In the final version of this book, William has a couple of attempts at doing this. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that he has passively allowed his old fiancee back into his life, and both women are jealous of one another from the outset. The conversation becomes an emotional minefield for both Dottie and William.
You will also see some of my notes to myself in the midst of the scene – I often leave myself reminders or notes when writing my first draft; these serve as signposts when I come to revise the manuscript later.
Here it is:
William arrived at a quarter to three. He had invited her to meet him at three o’clock.
He had felt that the conversation might go better if they met at the Lyons’ corner house nearest her fashion warehouse. For one thing, after their last meeting, he didn’t really expect her to turn up at all, or if she did, he thought she’d likely be very late. He was fully prepared for her to still be furious with him. So long as she didn’t look at him with that bleak, defeated look, it should be all right. Rage he could deal with, but he doubted he could cope with that cold misery. Or tears.
At least if he was in a Lyons’, he could just order more tea and cake whilst he waited, if she came very late. Or, if she was furious, he thought—or hoped, might be more accurate—she might keep her temper in check in a public place, whereas in her home, or his, she could very well pick up the teapot and throw it at him. Not that, given the current situation, she was at all likely to offer him tea, he realised now. In any case, he hoped she wouldn’t do that in Lyons’, though he was by no means certain.
She arrived five minutes early. Punctuality was important to her, he remembered belatedly, and besides, she was a busy woman these days with a business to run, which by all accounts, she did very well.
She had pulled out the chair and sat down before he had a chance to leap to his feet and pull it out for her. She glared at him.
Clearly she was, as expected, furious. He forgot every word of his carefully planned, meticulously crafted speech, and stared at her, dumb. She raised an elegantly curved eyebrow.
He said, ‘Er…’ and executed a kind of half-rise together with a sort of bow and bumped his knee on the leg of the table, making the vase of flowers jump. He swore loudly at the sharp pain that went through his knee. Several other patrons tutted and shook their heads. Dottie frowned and looked away.
He removed the end of his tie from his saucer, wiped the dribble of tea from his shirt and bent to pick up his wallet that had fallen on the floor, only narrowly missing hitting his head on the edge of the table. Dottie had to conceal a smile.
‘Damn thing,’ he said as he replaced the wallet in his pocket. More tutting and head-shaking from an elderly lady at the table behind them.
Dottie noticed that the leather was rather shiny and new looking. His initials, W F H, for William Faulkener Hardy, were embossed in gold on the front of the wallet. Dottie preferred the old, battered wallet he had had for years.
‘Did she buy that for you?’ she couldn’t help asking.
He paused in the middle of dabbing at his shirt. ‘What, the wallet? Oh, er, yes.’ He blushed. Everything was going wrong. ‘She said the old one was too shabby.’
‘It was,’ she said. ‘Although I preferred it.’
She was looking at him now less as though he was a bug that wanted squashing and more as a smelly dog that needed to be put outside in a kennel. He felt it was progress.
‘I can’t get used to this one. And it’s bigger, so I can’t keep it in the inside pocket I kept the old one in, which is why I keep dropping it all the time.’
It seemed the subject had run its course, as she made no reply.
‘Tea?’ he asked. She shook her head. The hovering waitress frowned and stalked away.
‘What do you want, William?’
At least she’d used his first name rather than his rank and surname. Another point for progress, he decided.
(note to me: when has he told her about his doubts about Gervase and the fact that he is tasked with investigating him???) ‘I thought we should talk about Parfitt, and how I would like you to help me.’
She made a little grunting sound, more or less an affirmative. Then she turned and flagged down the waitress. ‘Just a pot of tea, please.’
‘Certainly madam, and for the gentleman?’
William was about to order tea, but Dottie said, with a fierce look at him, ‘He’s not having anything. He’s about to leave.’
‘Very good, madam.’ The waitress bobbed and returned to her area to make the tea.
William said nothing, deciding not to push his luck. He quickly outlined what he wanted her to do. Before she could comment, the waitress appeared with the pot of tea, milk jug, and cup and saucer.
There was a long pause as Dottie dissolved a sugar lump on her spoon then stirred it in. He thought it odd, and wondered when she had started taking sugar in her tea. As she set the spoon in the saucer, her hand trembled slightly. Only now did he realise how upsetting this all was for her.
In a very low voice, one that only she could hear, he said, ‘Dottie.’ He tried to take her hand but she snatched it away.
‘What would Moira think?’ she snapped. ‘You can’t go around holding girls’ hands now you’re engaged.’
Heads turned once more. Dottie’s temper subsided. She sat back in her chair, her attention fixed on her hands folded in her lap.
He felt he should apologise, but didn’t, couldn’t. The silence stretched between them until it had gone on far too long for him to apologise. In the end, he simply spoke from the heart, but quietly.
‘What a bloody mess.’
He watched a tear roll down and splash onto her skirt.
‘Yes.’ She didn’t dare look at him.
He reached for her cup and took a drink of her tea. Waited another minute, then said, ‘Well, we’re stuck with it, and it’s all our own blasted fault.’
‘Yes,’ she said again. But this time she reached for a handkerchief and discreetly blotted her eyes. Only as she put it away did he see, first that the white cotton handkerchief was a man’s, and next, that the monogram in the corner was WFH. (in my rough notes for this scene I’ve got William Edward Hardy – so I need to check whether I’ve given any of these middle names out in my books so far – obv need to keep to that.) It was one of his own handkerchiefs—one of several he’d given her over the year and a half of their acquaintance—that she was using.
He reached across and took her hand. She didn’t try to stop him. ‘I want you to know I’m so, so sorry. For everything. Dottie, I so deeply regret…’
She pulled her hand away now. Her voice wobbled as she said, ‘What use is that now?’ She sighed, then added, ‘It’s all right, William. It’s my fault, I know that. I should be the one…’
The waitress went past, and Dottie broke off. She sipped her tea. It steadied her. An elderly couple pushed past to find a seat. William looked about him, surprised to see how quickly the place had filled up in the last few minutes.
But the short interval was enough to allow her to compose herself. When she spoke, it was in a more measured, firmer tone.
‘Are you absolutely certain about Gervase?’
Parfitt’s name was like a splash of cold water in William’s face. But it was as well to get back to marginally safer ground.
Remembering that she had once—briefly—thought she was in love with the man, William said gently, ‘Oh yes, quite certain. There’s no doubt, I’m afraid.’
She nodded. Leaning forward, she gripped her teacup in both hands. ‘Tell me what you want me to do.’
This is what happens: you get your notebooks ready, and your pens. You dig out all the scraps of paper you jotted down notes on over the last six months or so. You read them carefully and get yourself back into the 1930s, maybe put on a little Al Bowlly to create the mood. Then you carefully read all your other little bits and pieces – the entry in your journal that you wrote two months ago talking about how excited you were to start your new book. You’ve been playing around on Canva creating a book cover, then you killed half an hour here and there creating mock-ups promos on Book Brush.
And then it happens. There’s a slight breeze in your office, the curtain stirs, the pages of your notebook riffle at the corners. You hear a sound. You hold your breath listening hard. Yes, you hear it, softly at first but growing louder, more insistent.
It’s the siren song of the Other WIP – like the other woman/man in a romantic relationship – it’s sole purpose is to try to seduce you away from your current WIP with the promise that you will be happier with them, and trying to lure you away from your ‘one-true-love-WIP’, who, it says, doesn’t understand you and isn’t fulfilling your needs.
It’s hard to resist the call when it comes. Every little argument you raise up in rebuttal it knocks down flat with tempting scenes you could write, or snappy names for the characters you are refusing to bring to life. You hear snippets on the TV or the radio and the siren says, ‘Oh that would work very nicely in chapter 7, where…’ Or potential cover images throw themselves in your path every time you have to quickly pop over to Pixabay or Shutterstock. Everywhere you look the universe seems to scream out in favour of the Other WIP, and no matter how often you say the magic formula: ‘It’s not your time. You’re not until June and July!’ the words grow weaker and less convincing every time you utter them. You refuse to look at the little pile of notebooks lying ready for your attention later in the year. Oh dear, there’s a fine film of dust on them. You feel a twinge of guilt.
Oh how pretty, how fresh, how alluring the promise of the new story is. How bright the ideas are. The promise of ‘happy ever after’ is there, and the story vows it will be everything you’ve ever wanted to write.
As you glance back metaphorically over your shoulder at the sulking form of your Current WIP, you can only see the problems: the plot holes, the saggy bits where it won’t quite gel, where the characters do whatever they like, or they won’t do anything at all. You see all those repeated actions, once so sweet and appealing, now just irritating. It feels as though you’ve been writing this book for years instead of just a few months. You tell yourself you’re just tired, and that if you work through this bit, things will be easier, more fulfilling.
But then it calls you again…
How do you choose? Stay on the straight and narrow road, sticking to discipline and your (slightly vague and woolly) plan? Or go for a joyous run ‘off-piste’ – pantsing it from morning to night? Yes, you know you’ll regret it come revision time, and you’ve got no first draft to revise, but there’s a tiny suspicion lurking in the back of your mind that maybe it could actually be worth it.