To Bludgeon or Not To Bludgeon

Writing murder mysteries means that I constantly have to try to find a different, even grisly way to ‘eliminate’ my victims. Like a lot of writers of murder mysteries, my search history leaves a lot to be desired. Those who know me have sometimes remarked (thinking they were safely out of earshot) that I’m a bit weird. I’m not really. (okay, maybe I am a teeny bit odd, but in a nice way, right?)

I just overthink things and take them a bit too seriously.

Like weapons for example, and the various means of disposing of someone.

I know some writers go over the top to try out a new method of dispatching a victim for their books. They might talk to experts, spend time at chemistry labs researching poisons, do a short course on blood spatter analysis, or go to firing ranges or interrogate forensic specialists. They might purchase a raft of books on forensic stuff, or even, like character Gil Grissom in an early episode of classic CSI, get a pig’s carcass delivered to his place of work and proceed to inflict various atrocities on it. I don’t think I could do that. I’d be unable to forget it was (once) a living creature. I’m not a vegetarian, just a bit squeamish.

It’s quite easy, though to absorb this kind of thing via osmosis. TV shows, factual and fictional, go into the aspect of how a person died to a very useful extent. And as I said just now, there is plenty of literature on the subject, as my book shelves will attest. Then there’s the internet… And news media…

It used to be said that the female weapon of choice was murder. Is that still true in these days of equality?

I’ve poisoned a few people in my time. Fictionally, of course. But the blunt instrument is still my favourite. You can whack someone with almost anything.

Spoiler alert:

If you follow my Dottie Manderson series, you can look forward to a death by blunt object in the upcoming book, The Thief of St Martins. You can read a short taster HERE.

Does anyone remember that brilliant episode of Tales Of The Unexpected from years ago where the woman killed her husband with a frozen leg of lamb, then cooked it and served it to the investigating police officers. They ate the evidence! Fantastic. That’s definitely my favourite episode.

To date, in my books, I’ve had people stabbed, poisoned, die in various forms of road ‘accident’; they’ve been suffocated, executed, shot, strangled and bashed over the head. I like to vary it a bit, but it’s hard to get away from the old-but-good methods.

My murderous main character Cressida in The Friendship Can Be Murder books talks about how hard it is to come up with a murder weapon these days.

The Grandes Dames of the murder mystery genre, practising their art in the early and middle parts of the twentieth century—what one might term the ‘Golden Age’ of detective fiction—espoused the pleasures of poisoning. Fly-papers were meticulously soaked to extract their lethal properties, berries and toadstools were carefully gathered and sliced and diced and surreptitiously introduced into steaming casseroles and tempting omelettes. On every domestic shelf such things as sleeping draughts and rat poison and eye drops sat unnoticed and unremarked, and a home was not a home without at least a few jars of cyanide or arsenic sulking forgotten in garden sheds and garages.

But, sadly, these items are notoriously tricky to come by nowadays in our ‘Nanny state’.

Of course, one watches these TV programmes that explain all about the forensic process, so that one is pre-armed with useful information. Knives wielded by the left-handed protagonist cut quite differently to those employed by a right-handed person. Equally so the short protagonist and the weak slash feeble protagonist.

In addition the actual wound inflicted by a classic blunt weapon can yield so much information about not just the weapon itself but also the attacker—the approximate height, stance, and even weight and probable gender, for example, and the ferocity of attack is sometimes a gauge as to motive and psychology. Firing a gun leaves residue on one’s clothes, gloves, and skin, and, contrary to popular belief, it can be quite a job laying one’s hands on a firearm.

According to the Daily Tabloid, a gun may readily be obtained at certain pubs in our larger cities for as little as £30, usually from a gentleman going by the name of Baz or Tel, but the problem is, these tend to be the kind of establishments one would hesitate to enter in broad daylight, let alone late in the evening.

She’s got a point, bless her, and ‘fortunately’ she manages to find a way round these problems. I’d love to try flypapers! Maybe I’ll save that for my next book.

I’ve also been experimenting with a mad professor and an ‘infernal machine’. I might use that at some point. In another series–still not published yet–I’ve used a fetishist and a special piece of rope that he loves to moon over. Elsewhere I’ve had social leaders employ minions as an execution squad, and of course there’s another old favourite, the fall from a high place.

Most of my perpetrators are people who don’t usually make a habit of ‘this kind of thing’, they just find themselves pushed little by little into a situation where they feel they have no choice but to lash out at the person or persons who is putting them or their comfortable life in jeopardy somehow.

If there’s nothing new under the sun, it is at least pleasing to come up with a bit of variety, though bludgeon has, as Michael Douglas’s character says in A Perfect Murder, (based on Dial M For Murder, one of my all-time favourite films)  ‘a spur-of-the-moment ring about it’. I like the idea of a spur-of-the-moment crime, where the perpetrator loses control and spends a considerable amount of time trying to figure out how to get away with it. It’s not all about the victim, you know!

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How To Get ImposterSyndromeForAuthors.version1

What is it?

Imposter syndrome is a widespread professionally recognised psychological disorder encountered by people in all walks of life, but here I am talking about us writers. It’s essentially a negative, destructive mindset that gets a hold of you and messes with your head. It makes you doubt yourself – more than doubt yourself – if left unaddressed. It convinces you you have no right to stand with your peers or to call yourself a writer. If you let it take a hold of your life, it’s then all too easy to find yourself in a deep well of misery and be unable to function.

I’m speaking from personal experience. It was many years before I realised it wasn’t only me, it was a quite common problem that many people have to overcome, not just once, but sometimes many times in their life. Let’s be clear, I’m not talking about the occasional, short-lived self-doubt everyone has, especially when trying something new. I’m talking about paralysing, life-altering, behaviour changing self-disbelief leading to a deep depression.

What are the signs of Imposter Syndrome?

Check these out, be honest with yourself. If you can say, ‘Yes, that’s me’ to a few of these, maybe you could do with some help to overcome these issues in your life.

  • You don’t see your own strengths. Not just modesty, you really think you’re useless.
  • You believe your luck is running out, that any success you’ve had was a fluke, and is about to leave you forever. You are convinced that it is only a matter of time until people realise you are not a real writer, painter, sculptor, dressmaker, teacher, secretary, doctor, politician, musician… and that you will be publicly denounced for the fraud you are.
  • You feel like you need to work harder than everyone else just to stay in place.
  • You can’t accept compliments, but always feel uncomfortable, even apologetic, and need to rationalise how you ‘accidentally’ did something good or right.
  • You shrug off success as a beyond your control, going-with-the-territory result of your hard work, rather than your ability.
  • You’re a workaholic.
  • You’re a perfectionist and feel you’re never quite finished with a project. When something is done, you see only the glaring flaws.
  • Failure is not an option for you. You feel humiliated, even ashamed when you have to back down or cancel any project you’re working on. You feel people laugh at you or despise you for failing.
  • You’re not comfortable with confidence. You feel awkward and fake when promoting your work or talent.
  • Comparisons undermine and upset your brief flashes of self-confidence, and stop you functioning.
  • You only see the negatives and the limitations of your work. You may have worked hard for years to achieve a certain level of ability, but you only see your shortcomings.
  • You downplay your role in projects or in helping others, saying things like ‘anyone would do the same’ or ‘I had so much help from others’.
  • You have irrational feelings and thoughts such as, ‘I’m useless’, ‘I can’t do it’ and even the dreaded, ‘I’m giving up’. This last is the worst, because you can lose a lot of creative, productive time, sometimes years, even a whole lifetime, because of this destructive mindset. I’ve also known people to destroy their work (I’ve done this) in the belief that it is trash.

So now we know what it is, how do we deal with it?

The important thing is to remember you’re not the only one with these kind of thoughts. I recently read somewhere that ‘experts’ (no idea who) say as many as 70% of people suffer from this disorder. 70%. It’s possible that out of ten people you know, more than half have the same sense of inadequacy and fear that you do, or I do. That’s a lot!

So it’s obvious that it’s not just—YOU—this problem isn’t something that only affects you. Does that help? It helps me A LOT to know that huge numbers of other writers feel the same as me. Just knowing that means that it’s not just me, therefore a lot of my thoughts have to be false.

Some things we can do:

  • Know and acknowledge your strengths. Not everything you do is wrong or weak. Realise that you have assets and talents. If you don’t know what they are, ask your friends, family or trusted colleagues what they think are you best qualities or your biggest abilities. They will surprise you by seeing things that you didn’t even know were strengths. Hold on to what they tell you, write it down to look at when old doubts come back to haunt you.
  • Share your feelings, don’t keep them bottled up inside, afraid to tell anyone how you feel. Often people will respond with compassion, support and even, ‘Yes, I worry about that too’. If they don’t, find another person to confide in, someone who ‘gets’ you.
  • Count your blessings. Old school but it always helps to realise that there are many good things in your life. Start small, it is usually the small things in life that bring joy, rather than the big things. This attitude helps you to develop and keep a positive mindset.
  • Make large projects or tasks manageable by breaking them down into components or sections—this will help you to feel less overwhelmed and less daunted by what you have to do.
  • Grow to understand that it is not a failing to fail. EVERYONE fails sometimes, and you cannot go through life without that. So don’t fear it, but embrace it as an opportunity to learn and grow, and to connect with others as you are open about your fears and your failings.
  • Recognise that you are always changing, always learning. Learning is not something we only do at school. Our whole lives are about moving on and increasing our abilities. Just because you struggle with something now, that doesn’t mean you will always struggle with it. There is always room to develop and to build on skills. So be kind to yourself and give yourself permission to learn new things.
  • Don’t be afraid to admit if something isn’t working for you and give up on it. you will always learn something from any abandoned project. Don’t let it stop you from trying again with something else.
  • Learn to accept compliments without shrugging them aside. Learn to say nice things, positive and nurturing things, to yourself. Refuse to allow mean thoughts about yourself and your abilities to flourish. Try to avoid comparing yourself with others. No one is the same. No one can be the same.
  • Don’t let other people criticise you in a negative way. No one has the right to do that, and it’s usually born out of jealousy or guilt. If someone attacks you in this way, verbally, or on social media, however they do it, walk away, literally or virtually. Cut it off before it gets into you and eats away at your newly acquired self-esteem.

I hope this has helped. You can contact me if you want to talk more about this subject.

Further reading you might find useful:

https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/real-women/201809/the-reality-imposter-syndrome

https://www.themuse.com/advice/5-different-types-of-imposter-syndrome-and-5-ways-to-battle-each-one

https://impostorsyndrome.com/10-steps-overcome-impostor/

 

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10 tips for getting on with your writing

I think most of us have days when we stare into space and can’t think of a single thing to write. Here are my top tips for getting on with it. There’s not anything really earth-shatteringly new here, just practical ideas to keep you—and me—writing. Some are obvious, some are simple, some are just coping mechanisms that have worked for me.

  • Keep social media out of your work area. It’s so easy to ‘lose’ an hour or two just checking your emails or catching up with social media—and this is a really good one for disguising as work. But if you are a media junkie and know you spend too much time oohing and ahhing over other people’s cat pictures or searching for memes, do everything you can to keep internet availability to areas away from where you work. Keep your breaks short—just enough time to eat, drink, pee and then get back to work. (btw Eat, Drink, Pee is the little-known follow-up to Eat, Pray, Love. Less successful because it lacks the strong spiritual appeal of the original.)
  • Plan. Yes, even if like me, you are more of a pantser, when you struggle to move forward with your work, then leave yourself a couple of lines of notes that will give you a kick-start to begin your next writing session. I heard it suggested that a writer even breaks off in the middle of a crucial scene to create an easy pick-up point. However, if like me, you’re a bit forgetful, you might not find this idea too effective. Instead I prefer to scratch down a few lines in pencil, just to give myself a little push in the morning. (Not a morning person!) while it’s still fresh in my mind. I often have an idea in my head of where the story is going to go, but can forget some of this by the next day. This idea is a good one to avoid losing the plot—literally.
  • Take a notebook everywhere. Yes, I know this is an obvious one for writers, but trust me, I can’t count the number of times I’ve had to either abandon a brilliant idea or rush to buy a notebook when out and about. And trust me, notes written on a napkin in ketchup or eyebrow pencil aren’t so easy to read when you get home. You don’t have to take along a huge, heavy notebook, just a teeny one that fits into a pocket will be fine, so long as you always have something with you in case inspiration strikes. For me, any time I’m left alone to stare into space can be a good time to write—on the bus, train, waiting for the bus or train, waiting for loved ones to finish work or try on a dress… or you could get a note-making app on your tablet or phone, I like Evernote. I do a lot of my best writing in a caff with a cappuccino at my elbow. So before you leave the house, make sure you have a notebook and about six pens. Wallet? Check. Keys? Check. Notebook…?
  • Count your words. This is really a coping mechanism for if you are going through a sticky patch. It’s really aimed at people who, like me, write longhand before they transfer work onto a device. Each morning, before you start work staring at the crack on the ceiling, count the previous day’s word total manually. Doing this will mean a) you get a quick overview of what you wrote yesterday and that will help you to get into writing mode, and b) you will feel encouraged to build on what you already have. This works for me when nothing else does, even if I end up discarding half or more of the previous day’s work.
  • Break up the blank. This continues from the one above. If you sit and stare at the white page or screen in dismay and your brain refuses to create, try this:
    • Do Step 4 as above.
    • Then start each new page with the date and running word total in the top left corner.
    • Number the pages bottom right.
    • If you are using chapter headings or titles, write that too, or simply write chapter and the number.

You could also do Step 2 for this point, again to give yourself a little push.

  • Change your routine. This is another one that works well for me. Try sitting somewhere different to your usual spot, give yourself a new viewpoint. Listen to different music—even music you hate can be useful. I used to sometimes sit in one of my children’s bedrooms when they were at school and listen to some of their music. Just changing your daily routine or habits can trick your brain into creating fresh words. Try getting up in the middle of the night, if you’re a morning person, or go out and write in the pub or the library or the park. Anything different is good and will help to lift you out of your slough of despond and help get rid of that wading-through-mud feeling.
  • Revise. If you’re really stick, go back and look at your original premise for your WIP and see if there’s any aspect of your story you’ve missed, ignored or just plain not considered. Did you go down a blind alley? If you don’t have old notes to go back to, write down a couple of paragraphs of what you remember about getting the original idea for your story. How did it work out in your mind? How does that compare to what you have actually written so far? Try to see your story as a whole unit, like a ladder with rungs moving the story forward. What needs to happen to your characters to get the story to the next rung?
  • Read. This is the easy one. I’m not advocating spending weeks and months reading hundreds of books, but just take some time out to read for half an hour or an hour. Refresh your mind, read some poetry, or a familiar favourite book. Again too, you could try something new and different that will get your creative juices flowing. If I’m writing fiction, I read a non-fiction, usually history.
  • Write something else. So often I find the minute I start work on one story, I get ideas coming through for another. Usually it’s another story where I’ve already completed the first draft and am just subconsciously mulling it over. Try your hand at a short story or a haiku.
  • Doodle. Make yourself some brain-storming cluster diagram. Put your key word—or your character name, or anything to do with your WIP, and then bring lots of lines out from the central idea and at the end of each line, write a word or phrase or idea that somehow relates to the key word. You can do this for every character, or every location or plot point etc. You can put down anything that is linked with your main character, or maybe just ideas that are only tentatively linked. You could sit and create a list of words from your title, or your character’s name. You could try Googling your character’s name and see what comes up—but don’t get side-tracked, it isn’t supposed to replace writing but to stimulate it. Try brain-storming something completely different, a colour or a sound that is relevant to your story, eg blue—then write all the things you can think of to do with ‘blue’: the colour of royalty; meaning sad or depressed; lapis lazuli used to be used to make the pigment blue for artists, and was more expensive than gold, so hence very little of it used in paintings, only for the special few key characters, which brings us back to royalty again; the Greeks had no colour for blue, and used the word for brass; the Bible says sometimes when you pray the ‘Heavens are as brass’; does that mean they are blue, or they are hard and impenetrable? Blue is a cold colour, blue is the colour for baby boys—but used to be the traditional colour for baby girls up until the early 1900s, then mysteriously it swapped, so did this result in confusion? Hopefully you see how this technique can generate ideas.

So those are my top tips. Hopefully if you do get stuck with your writing, or you feel like you’re not getting anywhere, one of these might help you to get back on track and find fresh and exciting ideas. Above all if you’re struggling with a particular idea or a specific part of your WIP, don’t panic. Do something else for a little while or try one of these ideas. You’ll soon get your mojo back.

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Gold or silver?

I found these notes in an old journal. I had been pondering the attributes, from a writer’s point of view, of gold and silver, and how whether as metal or colour, they are portrayed in literary works.

Gold is the colour of royalty, of quality, of the authorised, and acknowledged, of states and state, religions and churches and faiths, of the accepted and acceptable, of righteousness.

Gold is pure, incorruptible, reliable, ‘pure gold’, good, honest and forthright.

Gold is given in blessing and to enrich, it is security, savings and wealth. Gold is warm and appealing. It is masculine, and constant; the colour of the noonday sun, giving life to all and sight to all. The ‘gold standard’ indicates a status achieved, a level of existence and compliance, of regularity and trust, and a line by which all else is measured. Gold is laid up for the righteous, we are told.

But silver? No. Silver is ‘other’. Silver is secretive and fleeting, it is mercurial and unremarkable in nature, and always not quite good enough: doomed to be second best. It changes hands easily, each time serving or claiming a new master.

Silver works its arts by night, it is hard, feminine and bright and although it’s the colour of small change, ready money, the easily-obtained (for some people, anyway), it really is a confidence trickster: appearing cheap and easy to get, but actually constantly demanding more from us, just that little bit beyond our grasp.

It is the colour of the stars and the light of the moon, alluring, beautiful, cold. Silvery and secret, sinister and elusive, it dances through the sky, always out of reach, now hidden, now displayed. The thirty pieces of silver, the betrayer’s coin, the turner of hearts and souls, the illicit, the unauthorised, the denied, or the denier.

 

These gorgeous images from Steve Bidmead, Arek Socha, Kevin Schneider and Patricia Alexandre, all at Pixabay.com 

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Working on the WIP

WIP stands for Work In Progress. What we really should call works in progress is WIFITDSE. I know that doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, though. It stands for: Work I Frequently Interrupt To Do Something Else. I know I’m not the only guilty one here…

And what I’m talking about here is not wandering off and doing something totally different. I’m not talking about attending to long-forgotten chores to act as displacement activity, or your basic everyday procrastination. I’m talking about legitimate stuff that still somehow gets in the way. Research. Plotting. Blogging. And of course, everyone’s favourite: social media. (Because as we all know, networking and promo is soooo important, right?)

With my current WIP, oh it’s been so hard to just sit down and get on with it. There are a couple of reasons for this.

One is I’m a bit of an anti-planner. If I plan my book in detail, then something in me just throws its pen and paper down, folds its arms and says, ‘Well, I don’t wanna…’

I do plan—a bit—I know roughly who is going to get snuffed out, and I know roughly who will make that happen. With my Dottie Manderson series, I already know the vaguest outline of the next five books, even though I’m beginning to realise I won’t release some of them for another three years. I know the main theme of each book, the things that will happen to my main character, Dottie. That’s all there in my head. I just don’t have any details.

But some writers I know—quite a few actually—have a chart or a big page or something, all spread out and every chapter documented with who does what, who says what, what happened when they were all having breakfast, that kind of thing. Every page of every chapter is meticulously planned and positioned in the story. They use words like Story Arc and Resolution of Sub-plot.

I don’t do that.

I have a few snatches of conversation in my head, as if overheard from another room, and possibly a couple of facial expressions, and a random mental image of an object. This is all often scrawled on the back of an old fag packet or old envelope then stapled into a notebook. I have sticky notes all over the place, all different colours. But where some (organised, smart) people might have a different colour for a different kind of note, mine are completely random and it’s just a case of whatever I could put my hand on at the time I needed to make the note. During the course of the first draft I scribble a list of characters, their names, ages, occupations, and the only reason I do that is because I get confused by the ‘Mrs X said to Mr X, “I wonder if Mr X has seen Ms X?” I imagine you can see how that might get messy. But it’s my mess, and it’s how I work.

So I’m not really a planner.

And you don’t have to be either, if that’s not your bag, baby. One approach/size does not fit all. Find your method as well as your voice, and if it works for you, stick with it. This is my method, if it warrants such a name, I kicked against it, tried to fit into the popular writing systems and methods that works for thousands of others, and for me they did not work. So I am a big advocate of the ‘go your own way’ method: find the method that works for you. Stick with it, believe in yourself, and don’t let anyone tell you you’re doing it wrong.

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I’ve heard that name before…

“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 story Miss Beckett Changes Her Mind. Amy Harper and Kym Morris from The Silent Woman. (Both novels still lying fallow!)  These are names that sprang fully-formed into my consciousness as I began to write the story. I couldn’t even think of calling any of those people anything else. In fact this whole opening piece came to me in a flash, and I had to run to a stationer’s to buy a notebook to write it down before I forgot it. (Now I just put it into a note app on my phone! Ah technology, I love you so much.)

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

But it doesn’t always work out like that. I can spend hours, days even, agonising over the right name for a character. There are times when I have delayed starting a new story because I can’t seem to find the right name for my protagonist.  though equally, when I am writing a first draft, I sometimes can’t remember the names I’ve already given my characters. I have even written several thousand words with varying numbers of capital XXXXs to denote each character, just to avoid abandoning the story and messing up the flow’. But it can get confusing. In these circumstances I often have to write long explanatory notes to myself of who the person is, as well as the XXXXXXs. there’s usually a Mr XX, a Miss XXX and a Jeffrey X, 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. Too often I hear people moan, ‘No one would be called that, it’s not a name anyone would really be called.’ 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’s already a real person/ 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 and 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 had also written five chapters of the Miss Beckett 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 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’re trying to remember who is who.)

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 ‘in’: Jack, Alice, Freddy, George, 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, 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.

Think of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games heroine, Katniss Everdeen, think 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 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 so 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 creating fiction, you are creating a whole world, so a few names is not much more of a stretch. Just make sure they are not the names of a successful designer.

The characters for my next book.

***

 

My protagonist and me

There is a convention, some say a misconception, that writers base their main character–their protagonist–on themselves. Not me, of course.

I’m nothing like, for example, the main character in my Friendship Can Be Murder trilogy, Cressida Barker-Powell.

Nothing like her.

She lives in a massive house–we could justifiably call it a mansion, it cost millions,  with a husband worth at least another couple of million. Cressida also has a lady who comes in and ‘does’, whilst I have to wash my own dishes, and heat up my own baked beans.

Cressida wears designer clothes, has accessories to match; she goes to dinner and cocktail-parties in smart restaurants; weekends in posh houses; pops off to London for a few days’ shopping, or nips to an exclusive spa for some ‘me time’. Whereas the highlight of my social calendar is going to the supermarket for the week’s groceries.

And–lest we forget–she kills people. Not just one. And not by accident. She deliberately plots and plans and obsesses over multiple murders in a vicious and calculating manner. I never so much as step on a woodlouse if I can avoid it. And if I do–well there are tears, self-blame, and a very charming funeral for all its friends.

And yet …

It was me who researched those murders. I put the ideas into her fictional head. I wrote the words that come from her perfectly-lipsticked mouth. I chose her designer outfits, her bags, her shoes. When she complains about people who annoy her in some way, her impatience is mine, her anger, even her acerbic wit is mine. I even placed her victims in their lives, specially to annoy her.

So when, in those rare and tender moments, she does something nice for a change, that’s me too, isn’t it? (It doesn’t happen often.)

I tried. I had hoped to succeed–at least in part–in making her so, so different to me. Some of her views and attitudes and certainly her experiences and lifestyle are different to mine. But differences can be positive as well as negative. I would never–I hope–kill anything or anyone, but part of me can’t help but admire her decisive (if somewhat ‘final’) method of dealing with things and people she is unhappy about, or her willingness to exact her cold revenge for the sake of people she cares about (those few, few people!) whereas I am very passive, and I agonise and fret and usually fail to act.

It’s quite cathartic sometimes to allow her to do those things I choose not to do. To be able to do the unthinkable, the immoral, to do exactly as she pleases. It’s the kind of vicarious pleasure we get from watching box-sets of evil people doing terrible things and willing them to get away with it.

But she’s nothing like me. Let’s be clear, she is a monster, but she is bold and decisive, and she takes action in ways I never could. She’s nothing like me. She’s not me.

She’s more like my big sister.

If you’d like more information about this trilogy or a sneak preview, please click here!

 

(warning: these books contain terribly naughty words and graphic scenes.)

 

 

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Tips for boosting creativity

If you do try people-watching, take care not to be too obvious

If, like me, you sometimes sit and stare at a blank page for an hour or more without writing a word then give up, you might want to give some of these tips a try. I’ve tried them all and found them useful at one time or another. Some are fairly conventional ideas for productivity, others are just things that have helped me.

Listen to music

You might listen to your usual favourites, let the would or the notes inspire you or conjure up images in your mind. If I’m really stuck, I like to try something completely new. I sit somewhere I don’t usually sit, or listen to music I don’t normally like, or something that’s new to me. I get out of my comfort zone. That’s a great way to boost creativity. When my kids were young, occasionally I used to sit in their rooms while they were at school, or listen to their music, just as a new experience to try and get the creative juices flowing. Or you might pull out something you haven’t listened to for a very long time: songs that were out when you were a kid, or maybe your parents.

Go for a walk

I know this is a commonly prescribed antidote to lack of creativity, but it does work. Go out in the pouring rain and release your inner savage, or go out and enjoy the wonders of nature, or walk along the city streets and visualise your gumshoe on the trail of a bad guy. Physical activity wakes up the body and gets the blood flowing to the brain. Even if you don’t come back from your walk full of ideas, at least you got away from your desk for a while and got some fresh air.

Eavesdrop on other peoples’ conversations

This is a great way to pick up ideas and hear dialogue ‘in action’. It’s also a great way to get punched on the nose if you’re too obvious about what you’re doing. Try not to let them see you making notes, and don’t get so absorbed in their conversation that you exclaim along with their friends. Snatches of conversation half-heard and half-remembered can provide great what-if moments. A writing tutor I had in Australia recommended mystery writers pick a person at the mall and trail them. Again, I cannot emphasise this too much, please don’t do this, it’s a terrible idea. You will get locked up or punched on the nose. (But hey, great stories, right? Do they have a self-publishing programme in prison?)

Visit a gallery or museum

I once attended a writing workshop at a museum where we were encouraged to write short pieces about some of the exhibits. These included Neolithic artefacts and a Victorian christening gown. It was not only a great idea but a memorable experience, plus really good to mingle with other writers. Go to an art gallery or a museum or country house with your trusty notebook and your camera/phone. Take a look at what lies behind the glass and imagine the people who touched, created, discovered, used or found a particular item. People those empty halls with characters: what do they say to one another? Make sketches. Write descriptions. Take photos, or buy post-cards from the gift shop.

Look through the images on Pixabay or Shutterstock or other image sites

See if anything intrigues you or inspires you to write a short story, a poem, a simple description or analyse your own feelings when you look at a picture. What does it make you think of and why? How do you feel? Check out Morgen Bailey’s story writing and poetry writing daily prompts too.

Do you collect anything? If not you, does someone close to you have a collection?

Spend some time writing about the first item in the collection and how it was acquired or obtained. Who did it belong to? What was the last item to join the collection? Why is it so important to the owner of the collection? What would happen if someone stole the collection? How would that make you feel if it was yours? How would you get it back? What would you do? How far would you go?

Sit somewhere different to your usual writing spot

This is a little bit like the music one. It’s about changing stale habits. I usually write at my desk, but sometimes I like to go out to a café or pub to write, or I could even write in a library. I could write outside if the weather is fine. In the past I have even sat in my son’s bedroom at his desk and written for hours. A change is as good as a rest, we are told, and a new ‘venue’ can help to get things flowing, and could offer a fresh perspective on your writing. You could also try using a different notebook or computer, a different pen or write at a different time of day. Try the middle of the night, or first thing in the morning. I’m right-handed, and I once wrote with my left hand for a couple of hours just to try and get inside the mind of the character, to see a different kind of script on my page, it was like reading someone else’s work.

Pick a story from your local newspaper

Write it in your own words; be an investigative journalist and try to think of a new outcome or a way of finding out more, or imagine you are interviewing someone featured in the newspaper, whether a sports’ personality or a victim of a crime. Find a new slant on the facts on the page. Or create mini-version of your own newspaper, with you writing all the features.

Go to the library

And have a rummage through the reference section or any section that interests you; poke through the periodicals and have a nosy at the noticeboard. Observe people. Listen to people. Try to see yourself from the outside, as if you were a stranger. Sit at one of the desks and read or write.

Visit a graveyard

Sounds a bit depressing, I know, but graveyard are wonderful places for atmosphere, and you know – they’re outside – so think of all the fresh air you’d be getting. Wander around and read a few headstones. Look at the style of the gravestones. Try to imagine the people buried there, the lives they lived and how they died, picture their families, their homes and workplaces. Sit in the church or graveyard for a while and try to imagine who might have sat there before you. How did they feel? Can you hear the whisper of an ancient mass? Or the sound of spirits lurking in the graveyard?

Meditate

A little relaxing meditation could release some stress and pent-up anxiety in your life, enabling you to refresh yourself mentally. Sit comfortably on the floor, with a notepad and pen in front of you, turned to a fresh page. Close your eyes. Spend a few minutes breathing deeply and slowly until you feel you could almost doze off to sleep. Then without thinking about what you are doing, take up your pen and begin writing – something, anything, just don’t try to analyse or make sense of any thoughts, but let the words pour out of your pen as if there was nothing between your brain and your notebook. Music or candles and incense sometimes help with this process. I’ve often actually fallen asleep doing this, and woken to find myself still clutching my pen and notebook, but sometimes I’ve written and written and it was as if I was watching someone else doing it. It’s cathartic and intriguing.

 

All of us have times when we can’t seem to write the way we want to, or maybe not at all, or the words aren’t giving our inner self the satisfaction we need. Don’t worry about it too much but allow yourself the freedom to know when you need to rest and do something else, or when you need persist, and to try to help things along.

 

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Sirens

We all love sirens, don’t we? They usually travel in threes, like MacBeth’s witches. When I saw MacBeth at my local theatre a few years ago, the witches’ opening speeches came out of a swirling mist in the darkness, and sitting in the front row, I jumped half out of my skin, even though I knew what to expect. From the moment the play opens with the phrase, ‘When shall we three meet again?/In thunder, lightning, or in rain?’ we have a shivering sense of it already being too late to escape.

Sirens do not always hunt in threes. Sometimes they hunt alone, like the Lorelei siren, singing irresistibly to lure sailors to their death on the rocks of the great river Rhine. Her very aloneness is her weapon. The victim, walking into her lair in confidence, feels invincible, and almost pities the siren about to devour him. I say ‘him’, as sirens are usually depicted as female, and their victims are generally male. Time for a gender swap, maybe?

The siren’s typical characteristics are: physical beauty that is often a mirage or façade to hide something hideous and unnatural. The beauty is used to seduce; song or music soothes the senses or even calls an unnatural slumber to fall upon their prey, or again, to seduce, arousing their victims with promises of love and physical fulfilment. The sirens lie in wait, endlessly patient, ready to snare the unwary, the naive, the innocent adventurer who just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, or any guy who thinks he can take advantage of a lucky situation. As in the mesmerising scene with the sirens in the movie O Brother Where Art Thou? there is a pleasurable anticipation of what might happen. The three sirens wash their clothes in the river, the rhythmic slapping of cloth on stone and water providing the percussion for a seductive call to the watching man’s senses. He is trapped and cannot get away.

Sirens have mysterious powers, and they can bend a man to their will, no matter how good and chaste he may be, no matter how worldly-wise and ‘experienced’ in the ways of love. Maybe he’ll get ‘loved up and turned into a horny toad’, as the men in O Brother Where Art Thou fear will happen to them, but it’s a chance the unwitting victim is always, always prepared to take. Sirens are bringers of doom, of ruin. They are depicted as mercurial, evasive, changing and insubstantial, there one minute and gone the next. No victim will see their true self until his ruin is complete. No one can resist the lure of the siren when she has decided to call them.

But the siren is not the only one who owns this fatal attraction.

The innocent—pure or naive, chaste of body and mind, or merely without guile—this person is as alluring to the siren as she is to him. Evil craves purity. Wickedness pursues goodness to overtake and devour it. Monsters are always appeased—and always drawn in—by their need to consume maidens and the innocent. The dark always seeks the light, because in its own way the light has become the unknowable to those who live in darkness. The siren can never know or experience innocence, because that would mean a denial of her own essential nature—it would require purity and great sacrifice. To follow the way of the innocent is alien and impossible for the siren to achieve. She is forced by her very nature to live outside of society’s acceptance and rules, and must live by instinct alone. Thus, the innocent, completely oblivious of their power, draw the siren after them. The siren is doomed to flutter towards the candleflame of purity as a moth, and just as unable to save themselves.

Which one is the victim, which one is the hunter?

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Blue Sky Thinking: bringing the weather into your writing

October extinguished itself in a rush of howling winds and driving rain and November arrived, cold as frozen iron, with hard frosts every morning and icy drafts that bit at exposed hands and faces.
― J.K. RowlingHarry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Like a lot of Brits, and many writers, I’m a bit obsessed with the weather. I use the weather quite a lot in my writing. I might have my characters attending a funeral on a beautiful sunny day that seems the opposite of mourning. I might have weddings take place in the rain, surely not an omen for future happiness?

We are often told in writing to draw on all of our senses to bring reality and immediacy into our writing. This creates an almost tangible, believable world for our readers to step into in their imaginations.

About midnight, while we still sat up, the storm came rattling over the Heights in full fury. There was a violent wind, as well as thunder, and either one or the other split a tree off at the corner of the building: a huge bough fell across the roof, and knocked down a portion of the east chimney-stack, sending a clatter of stones and soot into the kitchen-fire. Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights

The same is true of the weather. Painting the weather into your story works every bit as well as using sensory information: it helps you to capture a background, a stage or canvas, on which your characters can live out their lives.  Weather often overlaps with sensory description – you make your reader feel the warmth of the sun on their skin, or the raindrops on their face, let them hear the thunder or feel the rising humidity or the biting of a north wind every time the cabin door opens and someone struggles to push it shut again.

The sun did not shine. It was too wet to play. So we sat in the house. All that cold, cold, wet day.
― Dr. SeussThe Cat in the Hat

Where you are writing about a specific time of year, remember that extremes of weather can be used to move a plot forward – an unseasonably warm spring day, or a summer downpour leading to flooding.  In Judith Allnatt’s book “A Mile Of River”, the events of the story unfold in Britain’s long drought of 1976, to devastating effect.  I can remember snow falling in July once in the 1980s when we lived in Aldershot!!!! Later, five years of living in Queensland, Australia – even with its reputation for being damp – made me long for the grey skies and rain of my home. The state’s slogan is ‘Beautiful one day, perfect the next’.the sheer unrelenting sunniness of the place! It made me loath sunshine. One of the first people we met as new arrivals was a cab driver originally from Hull who had been in Aussie for 35 years.  He told us he hated the sun and longed for drizzle. So weather can also be part and parcel of who we are, and affect our outlook on life, even when it’s warm and sunny.

It was one of those perfect English autumnal days which occur more frequently in memory than in life.
― P.D. JamesA Taste for Death

I’ve always wanted to use that phrase so often featured in the Peanuts cartoons: ‘It was a dark and stormy night…’ Originally used by a British writer, Edward Bulwer-Lytton in 1830, it was ridiculed from the off for its ridiculous melodrama.  So I haven’t used it.  But it’s so tempting! I love storms. during a storm, it’s as if anything could happen and normal rules don’t apply.  Likewise we usually think of spring as bright, happy, a time or hope and rebirth…

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
― T.S. EliotThe Waste Land

I have adorned a funeral with pouring rain in one book. It necessitated the use of a very large black umbrella. I always think a large black umbrella is full of possibilities, whether for crime or romance. But sometimes, regardless of your misery and grief, the heavens refuse to open, and the sun insists on shining, the birds sing, almost in mockery of your emotions. And this too, can produce a mood that works nicely on paper, inducing your character to take some form of action.

An unexpected change in weather can bring about a useful shift, a change in plot direction or the mood of your characters, leading to a new scene or to actions you hadn’t anticipated. Don’t forget too, the weather can be variable. In summer, it can be gloomy, cold and wet. In Britain, you might be surprised to know, we do sometimes have glorious summers. Likewise, we sometimes we have mild, dry winters. It’s not always freezing cold and endlessly pouring with rain.

But don’t overdo it.  Use your descriptions of weather sparingly. You don’t need to update your readers on every other page unless it’s a book about climate change, or you’re engaged in rewriting Wuthering Heights. I’m sure Heathcliff and Cathy would have lived happily ever after if they hadn’t lived in such a bleak and lowering spot.

But who wants to be foretold the weather? It is bad enough when it comes, without our having the misery of knowing about it beforehand.
― Jerome K. JeromeThree Men in a Boat

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