First, create your setting

An Art Deco style house, rather like a ship, I think

When writing any fictional work, the author has to create a setting. Even if all the action takes place in one room, the author needs to make the room appear real and convincing. And usually, a setting is much larger than one single room, whether it is a grand country house, a quaint village, a ship in the middle of the ocean or a space station located in a distant nebula. The physical space ascribed to a story is essential for the characters to exist: without a setting, the story just wouldn’t come alive in the imagination of the reader.

But as authors, we have a dilemma: is it better to use a fictional setting, or to set a story in a ‘real’ place?

Some authors love to set their works in a real place. In times past, when the average person didn’t travel afield very far, books set in foreign lands were exotic and almost as exciting as taking a trip yourself. The author could conjure the sights and smells, slipping in cultural references such as language, mannerisms, behaviours, and traditions, then adding layer upon layer of experience for the reader by including descriptions of places and geographical features they might never see. You could find yourself in a desert, or on a mountain-top, at the bottom of the sea with Jules Verne or travelling by mule to an isolated archeological dig in an Agatha Christie novel.

Not all country gardens include a summer house or gazebo

For the author, there are advantages to using a real location for a book. To begin with, it makes the surroundings easier to describe, if you only have to look out of your door, or bring up images on the Internet. It’s easier to keep track of your characters, especially in a crime story where you have to create alibis and where there is a need to account for a character’s movements or whereabouts at any given time. And because the author is describing a real place, it’s easier for them to keep their details accurate, and therefore they seem all the more convincing, giving the reader a sense of being in a ‘real’ place.

But there are disadvantages to this too.

To begin with, the real geography or setting might not work with your story, and if you include things that don’t exist, your readers will not be happy. And trust me, they will notice! Equally, real towns or country houses are vulnerable to change—once again change might mean that your story no longer works, or is less convincing, or just doesn’t interest the reader as much.

Another problem is the rise of Literary Tourism, or as I call it, the ‘Morse’ effect—this is where readers love a setting so much they want to go there and see it for themselves, and sometimes do this is large numbers, like tourists visiting the city of Oxford to follow in the steps of Colin Dexter’s creation, Inspector Morse. As we all know, a little tourism is a good thing—it boosts local economy and provides jobs, not to mention selling books or TV shows and making everyone happy. But a lot of tourism can breed resentment in a locality if it causes inconvenience, or even environmental damage. Visitors may throng about a particular spot that features in a book and this can be unacceptable for a number of reasons. And what if the author is highly critical or disparaging about a particular real place? I don’t see that book, or its enthusiasts being welcomed with open arms.

Be careful when featuring real inhabitants in fiction

For me, the setting is a useful, nice-to-have but not essential part of my books. The main emphasis is on character and events. So do forgive me if my settings a sometimes a bit ‘samey’. In this way, I sometimes build my fictional country house as an amalgamation of all the other, real-life country houses I’ve visited, not faithful at all to one specific building.

I personally prefer this ‘Midsomer Murders’ approach—have a fictional area within a real part of the country. This is the glorious middle ground, where you loosely build your story on what is actually there, but do the typical author thing of ‘changing the names to protect, etc, etc’. This way you can create the sense of a real place with all the quirks and characteristics of that place, but which is as flexible as the author needs it to be. You can incorporate any number of variations to fit your future works as well as the one you have on the go at the moment. And best of all—no one will ever be able to say, ‘In chapter four, you have the car park at the end of the road by the pier, but in fact it’s actually at the opposite end of the town.’

All you need to do is remember where all the features of your fictional town are. I suggest drawing a map. Otherwise, the same reader will be able to say, ‘In chapter four, the car park is at the end of the road by the pier, but in chapter seven, you’ve put it at the other end of the town.’ And by the time you get to this stage, it probably would have been easier to use a real place, after all.

I definitely need to set a book in Norway–no doubt I’ll have to travel there for research purposes. Sigh. Life’s tough.

***

A Clue of Detectives

One of Christie’s most controversial works!

I don’t know what the collective noun is for a bunch/murder/flock of detectives, but ‘clue’ has a nice and appropriate ring to it, I thought. Last week, a friend of mine, author Elizabeth Roy told us a bit about the Detection Club – a famous where successful authors collaborated together and compared notes. How I would have loved to be there at one of their meetings! Here is another snippet from Elizabeth about the Club.

The Detection Club was first founded in 1930 but it’s still going strong today. Many famous names are among the ranks of both members and club presidents, including: G K Chesterton, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Julian Symons, H R F Keating, Simon Brett, Len Deighton, Ann Cleeves, Val McDermid, Peter Lovesey, Peter James, Martin Edwards, and Michael Ridpath. You might wonder why Arthur Conan Doyle was not included, but in fact he was invited to become the club’s first chairman, but had to decline due to his poor health, and sadly he died later in 1930, leaving G K Chesterton to preside over the creation of the club as its first president.

One of the most important functions of the club was to educate, compare notes and generally discuss crime writing as an academic pursuit, and to attempt to create guidelines, or ‘fair play’ rules for the best quality of crime writing. the famous oath only really scratched the surface of these guidelines:

“Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God?”

Member Ronald Knox is now, mainly, I would suggest, known for his Commandments, also referred to as the Knox Decalogue which went as follows:

A A Milne

The criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to know.

All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.

Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.

No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.

No Chinaman must figure in the story.

No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.

The detective himself must not commit the crime.

The detective is bound to declare any clues which he may discover.

The “sidekick” of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal from the reader any thoughts which pass through his mind: his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.

Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.”

Of course the great thing about rules is that they are made to be broken, and I’m glad to say that many of the members and even–gasp!–the presidents–have broken at least one of these rules in their writing, whilst many others have been removed or altered.

Rule 1, for example, is akin to the common writing instruction that if a gun or some similar attention-catching object is mentioned at the beginning of a story or novel, it should be used by the end of the novel or story.

Rule 5 has more to do with the fact that in the 1930s, inscrutable, mysterious Chinamen were seen as figures involved in Chinese tongs and the drug trade. Because of those associations and stereotypical beliefs about Chinese culture, readers could be counted on to believe that a Chinese person would know mysterious, nearly undetectable ways to murder people through the use of martial arts, drugs, or even the occult. In any case, it was sadly all too common in both books and movies in the early twentieth century to automatically apportion blame to anyone seen as an outsider or to a person of different ethnicity. I’d like to think those days are well and truly behind us now.

Ngaio Marsh

As far as rule 9 goes, Watson was a competent medical doctor, hardly unintelligent. His brain may not work the way Sherlock Holmes brain does, but whose brain does work the way Holmes’s brain does? So, the Watson doesn’t have to be unintelligent. That character just needs to be someone who needs the detective character to explain his or her reasoning. We need them to perhaps just explain to us the detectives reasoning in a straightforward, logical manner.

All in all, lovers of all subgenres of crime fiction owe members of the detection club a huge debt of gratitude. Without them and their huge array of works, our lives would be infinitely poorer.

Further reading:

The Detection Club. Wikipedia.org.

Knox’s commandments

The Detection Club and ‘fair play’

At agathachristie.com

Dorothy L Sayers news article

***

An apology. And (finally) The Killer Speaks

Since this whole covid thing hit, I’ve noticed I’ve become quite–erm–well, doolally is what my mother would have called it. I’ve gone a bit forgetful and dopey. And the most recent example of this is when, two weeks ago, I posted a blog entitled ‘More killer words’, and I actually said:

‘I mentioned a while ago (I’ve already forgotten when it was…) that one of the best parts of a murder mystery is when the killer is ‘on-stage’ and speaks.’

Well it’s taken me until last weekend to figure out where I said that, and it was in my subscriber newsletter – so no, I never did start that conversation here on my blog. On the blog we had the sequel but not the prequel, if you see what I mean. Sorry about that! So now, without further ado, I bring you the original (horribly long, feel free to completely ignore it) The Killer Speaks:

You know how, at the end of a murder mystery, they assemble all the suspects, and the police, and the investigator—whether an official officer of the law or an amateur sleuth, or even a paid private eye—tells everyone how the crime was done? I love that bit.

On the one hand, it bugs me that it’s done at all in fiction, because clearly, in real life the police don’t bring all the suspects to Great Aunt Madge’s house and, when everyone is sitting comfortably, begin to recount the case from the very beginning, filling in each step with a bit of evidence or some superhuman deductive reasoning. And usually I hate it when things in books aren’t done ‘right’.

But I love that big reveal, and the complacency of the investigator, having everyone there to listen to his/her theories. I love the ego of it, the pomp, the ‘you will all listen to me’ arrogance, and so even though I strive to make my own stories more or less believable, I sometimes just give in and go with that wonderful sense of occasion.

I’m not an expert on the Golden Age of murder mystery writing, but I am very familiar with some of the well-known authors of that time, notably Agatha Christie and Patricia Wentworth, and I have read quite a bit by some of their contemporaries: Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy L Sayers, Margery Allingham, Georgette Heyer. And I’m pretty sure it was this bunch who created the concept of this kind of finale. Or perhaps if we go a little further back, we will find Sherlock Holmes setting this up as the ultimate in wrap-ups, or Wilkie Collins’s Sergeant Cuff. I’m not clear where it began. I just know I love it.

We so often read of Poirot standing in front of a group of rather irritable, seated suspects whilst he expounds, his manner a cross between hectoring and lecturing. Miss Marple, by dint of her age, is usually seated, sometimes knitting, and has a far more hesitant, apologetic style, and is so self-deprecating. Both Poirot and Marple suffer from moral outrage: a murder is an affront and will not be tolerated mainly on the grounds of moral integrity rather than the unbiased basis of the law.

I enjoy ‘listening’ as they bring their case. But then comes the point I love the most.

The killer speaks.

Because this is the reason we hang onto Poirot’s thoughts for so long. We want to hear (read, I mean really) the killer say in her or his own words, WHY they did it. Yes, we do need to know how. And where, and with what weapon, we want to know about motives and alibis, but oh so often, the abiding desire in us is to know WHY. Why did they do such a terrible, irremediable thing?

We are often told that anyone could kill given the right circumstances and sufficient motive. Many of us doubtless would say, ‘No, I would never, could never kill. I can’t even bring myself to kill a woodlouse or a spider.’

I have asked myself if I could kill. I have killed bugs and beasties, generally by accident or out of sheer clumsiness. But I’ve never—as far as I’m aware—killed anything bigger than a bee. Unless you count calling the rat man. That I suppose is more like being an accessory, or conspiring to kill… From the rat’s point of view, they’d probably say I was a murderer. To me it’s different. I suppose murderers always say that.

But if it was a case of happening upon a person who was deliberately harming someone else, and I saw a way to stop it, what would I do? I’d like to think I’d never turn my back on someone in desperate need. But how far would I go?

So I think that’s why we—all of us avid crime fiction fans—enjoy getting to the pinnacle of a mystery, following the clues, deducing and pondering, and hanging onto every word to find out ‘the who’ and ‘the why’ behind the whole thing. As the killer shifts in his or her seat, the spotlight shifts to them, and this is their big moment. The chance to explain their WHY. We hold our breath, not daring to make a sound in case we miss a word. They lean forward, look us in the eye, they clear their throat, and they speak…

Which book finale have you read which gave you the biggest buzz? Do you prefer your killer to go down denying and fighting, or do you prefer your books to end with a kind of proud and well-bred admission of the truth?

Get in touch! Let me know what you think!

In the meantime, in case you haven’t read it–you won’t need to now you know who the killer is–you can click here to go to one of my own ‘big moments’ when the killer speaks. This is taken from my novel The Last Perfect Summer of Richard Dawlish: Dottie Manderson mysteries book 4. And it absolutely does contain a ton of SPOILERS.

***

Hold very tight please, it’s all change once more

The latest version – surely this can’t upset anyone? (Answers on a post card…)

I don’t like to change my book covers too often. As a reader and book collector, I understand how frustrating and disappointing it can be to have a nice little row of matching books and then, just before you get a full set, ‘someone’ decides to change the covers.

I changed my Dottie Manderson covers about a year ago.

The original Night and Day cover was this one, six years ago when the book was first published:

Remember this one? My first love.

I still love it, but people complained it looked too much like a romance and nothing like a mystery. So eventually, I changed it.

I tried this one:

And this one:

This one:

And finally settled on this one, which has to be my favourite so far.

But when you’re a self-published or Indie author, you have to make business decisions based on cold hard facts and not (as I tend to) on gut instinct or warm fuzzy feelings. So when Amazon announced that following their new policy implementation, they would not now allow me to advertise my book with this cover (the one above) due to the depiction of ‘excessive gore’, I swallowed my pride and my emotional attachment to ‘my baby’ and went off to sulk cry create a new cover. Because you’ve got to advertise, right? How else will readers discover my books?

So sorry, sorry, sorry, but I’ve had to change my covers yet again.

But it’s quite hard to think of a cover image that suits the genre but doesn’t depict blood splatters, weapons, women in the middle of a scream, cadavers, all that kind of thing. I’ve seen loads of covers lately which show a building. that seems to be a new trend, and certainly it’s a safe way to go. In addition, you need an image that looks good as in black and white as it does in colour, is clear and easy for the eye to interpret in a tiny thumbnail size. It’s hard to find the perfect image.

I brooded over images of old-fashioned street lamps dimly lighting a patch of pavement.

I browsed silhouette after silhouette of ‘vintage women’ images. Most of them were either Edwardian era or 1920s flappers. So I freely confess I ran out of ideas.

Then, I thought, ooh what about the chap Dottie finds at the beginning? He was wearing evening dress…

So the new cover idea was born as soon as I set my eyes on this:

Hopefully it’s simple, easy to understand, eye-catching and also makes readers think, if not of the 1930s, then at least ‘not now’. And if not exactly exuding mystery, then hopefully their first thought won’t be, ‘ooh I can’t wait to read this sci-fi or this romance’. In any case, I can’t possibly offend anyone with this, can I? There’s no gore whatsoever, and I’m hoping this cover will live for a while before needing to be updated.

Now I’ve just got to change all my advertising material and social media stuff. This could take a while!

Image by Tani T at Shutterstock: https://www.shutterstock.com/g/tanitk

***

A writer’s guide to naming characters

“That which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet”

William Shakespeare – Romeo and Juliet.

Shakespeare’s suggestion that names are not important is hopelessly wrong for writers. Who hasn’t sat, staring at a blank sheet of paper, agonising over what to call a character? And if it’s your protagonist, that only makes it harder. Without a character, you have no story.

Occasionally a name for a character just comes to me: Meredith Hardew from a book I plan to release next year, A Meeting With Murder: Miss Gascoigne mysteries book 1, and Cressida Barker-Powell from Criss Cross: Friendship can be Murder: Book1 published 2013 (whose name was a deliberate mutation of Parker-Bowles). These are names that sprang fully-formed into my consciousness as I began to write the story. I couldn’t even think of calling any of those people anything else. In fact this whole opening piece came to me in a flash, and I had to run to a stationer’s to buy a notebook to write it down before I forgot it. (Now I just put it into a note app on my phone! Ah technology, I love you so much.)

At forty-six, Meredith Hardew, with her handsome features, trim figure and excellent dress sense, was frequently taken for at least ten years younger than her true age. Not that she was in the habit of seeking out flattery, for she was one of those women who never thinks about herself, what she’s wearing or how she looks. She was far too busy running errands for someone or other.

Coming 2022

But it doesn’t always work out like that. I can spend hours, days even, agonising over the right name for a character. There are times when I have delayed starting a new story because I can’t seem to find the right name for my protagonist.  Though equally, when I am writing a first draft, I sometimes can’t remember the names I’ve already given my characters. I have even written several thousand words with varying numbers of capital XXXXs to denote each character, just to avoid abandoning the story and messing up the ‘flow’. But it can get confusing. In these circumstances I often have to write long explanatory notes to myself of who the person is, as well as the XXXXXXs. There’s usually a Mr XX, a Miss XXX and a Jeffrey X, or a Gladys XXXX, so it gets a bit muddled. But it does help me keep writing.

However, I can’t always trust myself when a name does just spring into my head. Like the time I wanted to call my main character Ben, then I needed to give him a surname. Sherman. Hmm, I thought, Ben Sherman sounds really good. It’s as if those two names were meant to go together somehow. What a great, natural-sounding name for a character, I thought. It sounds just like a real person. Which should have been my clue. So I told my daughter about my new hero Ben Sherman. She rolled her eyes heavenward in what can only be described as her ‘For God’s sake, Mother!’ expression. Turns out there is a real person, a famous designer, with that name. I was right, it did sound just like a real person. Oh well. Back to the book of baby names again.

That lightbulb moment when you realise your character has a famous person’s name.

Names can be absorbed by osmosis from society or culture, and we don’t always know where they’ve come from. I usually check my friends’ names on Facebook or for authors on Amazon to be ‘on the safe side’. I don’t want to use a well-known person’s name especially if my character is not a very nice person! I had also written five chapters of the Miss Gascoigne story before I realised that two of the main characters were named Meredith and Edith. Edith had to become Sheila. You need to keep the names quite dissimilar to avoid confusion, unless that is germane to your plot. Never feature, for example, Jack Peters and a Peter Jackson in the same book. I’ve known it happen, and the confusion accidentally created by the author seriously impacts on the enjoyment of the story! You can’t suspend belief if you spend all your time trying to remember who is who. At least, don’t do that if there is no deliberate intention to confuse the reader.

Names go through trends. So if you’re writing historical fiction, don’t give your character a modern name. If in doubt, turn to a census of the time for ‘in’ names or look to the royalty of the day. Equally if you’re writing modern stuff, don’t give young characters the names of your parents’ generation, few little ones these days or for the past 20 or 30 years have been called Barbara, Sandra, Hazel, Nigel, Richard, etc. They have a slightly ‘previous generation’ sound to them. However, go back a bit further to the grandparents’ generation and you’ll hit all the names that are now so ‘on-trend’: Jack, Alice, Freddy, George, Emily, Henry and so on. I hope in the next generation after this one, my name will be back in again!

When it came to creating character names, Dickens was a master. He used names to ridicule his characters, to reveal societal trends and attitudes, and to denote characteristics or personalities. Think of Gradgrind and M’Choakumchild in Hard Times, you can’t imagine them being good people, or warm and caring. These are hard names for hard people. Or think of Uriah Heep, Mr Cheeryble, Squeers. He also used another technique that is still useful for writers today. He used to take names that were ordinary and just slightly change them, creating something different and yet somehow familiar. Thus Philip became Chilip.

it can take a while to work things out…

That always makes me think of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games heroine, Katniss Everdeen, or of Margaret Attwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale – the woman Offred was the ‘property’ of Fred. Also for fabulous names it is impossible to beat Alistair Reynolds’ Pushing Ice character, Chromis Pasqueflower Bowerbird. So writers, don’t be afraid to play around with names and have fun. Changing one letter or the order of the letters can make a world of difference, and this works especially well with Sci-fi or Fantasy character names. Maybe Isaac can become Istac or Casai, Sophie can be Phosie, Mary can become Maare, John could become Hjon, Dohn, Joon.

In writing fiction, the names of your main characters are essential to the reader’s enjoyment and for creating a convincing world. Just make sure they are not the names of a successful designer.


See, easy!

 

***

Rereading old work: the critical self

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.

***

Tropelessly devoted to mystery books

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.

caronallanfiction.comI 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.

How many can you think of? What’s your favourite?

***

The ‘other’ WIP

Not long now!

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.

Because.

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.

Decision time!

***

 

Persistence is futile – I mean – essential

 

I think I may have written about this topic before, but I feel it’s one of the most under-estimated skills any writer can have. (Persistence, I mean, not repeating yourself, I do that all the time. Actually that is useful too, for helping me to remember things through repetition…)What is persistence?

To me persistence means a dogged determination to the point of stubbornness to keep going, overcome resistance in yourself and the world around you, to press on towards a goal you have no tangible proof you will ever reach. It means turning your back on discouragement, detractors, self-doubt (which most writers have in abundance?, laziness, weariness, even pain and illness to MAKE yourself achieve something specific or reach a certain goal.

The scariest moment is always just before you start. After that, things can only get better.”
― Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

Why is persistence a useful tool to have in your arsenal? What does it contribute to your life or work?

Persistence:

  • is character-building – you come to realise you are capable of more than you may have believed initially.
  • is prioritising – you realise that the most important things in life don’t come without you working hard for them.
  • you learn to persevere, and build resilience and inner strength.
  • you learn to trust yourself and believe in yourself.
  • you come to value the results of your hard work.
  • when times are tough, you have previous experience to draw on to get you through.

How to be persistent:
  • Eat well, sleep well, take care of yourself, allow yourself down-time.
  • Develop a routine. Routines can enhance creativity, rather than block it or stifle it. A routine means you are mentally prepared at a certain time to undertake a specific task. that means half the work is done already!!
  • Keep a journal to record your feelings, even the negative ones. Allow yourself to rant or wail if need be. Don’t forget to record your successes, though, as these will keep you going during tough times when you feel like nothing is working.
  • Talk to people who understand and support you. You don’t need to be alone in the middle of your struggle.
  • Set manageable goals, even if it means doing a larger number of smaller tasks rather than a few big tasks. Breaking a large task or goal into small pieces is the key approach. By chipping away at a large task bit by bit you will make progress – it may not be easy to see the results right away but it is easier to work this way in the long haul, and achieving many small goals is excellent for your confidence. This is also a great way to talk yourself into tackling what feels like an impossible or overwhelming job.
  • Don’t listen to your negative thoughts. Learn to recognise then ignore your inner critic who tells you things like: ‘this is a waste of time’, ‘you’ll never be good enough’, or ‘it’s too hard for you’, and that old favourite, ‘not everyone is destined to succeed’. This is probably the hardest thing to overcome, and really requires you to laugh at the inner voice or negative thought and say ‘so what, I’m going to do it anyway.’
  • Roll up your sleeves, grit your teeth, and get on with it. Don’t wait until you are ‘in the mood’ or feel inspiration strike. Nine times out of ten, inspiration waits for you to make the first move. Show the universe – and yourself – that you are going to do this.
  • Reward yourself and feel proud of your achievements. And don’t whatever you do, punish yourself if you feel you have fallen short of your goal. Remember too that pride in a job well done is not a sensation that you necessarily get right away. If you have been engaged for a long time on a demanding project, it can take quite a while to recover, then feel a sense of satisfaction. Be patient, be kind to yourself.

Basically persistence is being super stubborn, and refusing to give in or back down. Find what you want to do and do everything in your power to do it.

Just remember, you can do anything you set your mind to, but it takes action, perseverance, and facing your fears.

Gillian Anderson

***

 

Living in the Past: the manageable cast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***