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.
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
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. Eliot, The 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. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat
I’m not doing a ‘proper’ blog post this week, as I’m frantically busy trying to do a final, final, final proofread of Easy Living ahead of uploading for publication on 29th March.
If you’ve read what I’ve said about it previously, you’ll know I’ve been working on this book for a long time, and it’s very special to me. I’ve made it a lot longer. The first draft was about 80,000 words, and with all the successive drafts and rewrites, that grew to 110,000, even with a lot of waffly, woolly bits being cut out. As I sat down to give the final rewrite before Christmas, the total was up to 113,000. Now, with all my tidying and polishing done, it’s up to 116,000. I can’t help it. I tried to cut it, honest. You know what it’s like. The words keep flowing.
Anyone who’s daft lucky enough to self-publish will know how many little typos seem to sneak through no matter how many times the manuscript has been edited and proofed. I’m still finding a few stray typos, and I’m having a last trawl through for overused words, (my main guilty words are And, So, Well and But. I also have too many gasps of surprise and a lot of anxious biting of lips. This book also features several sexy chuckles!) and culling some of my exclamation marks. I use far too many of those!!! At least six people have worked on this book, but even so, I’ve still found a couple of things to correct. I think I’ve done enough. I hope I’ve done enough. I’d like to work on it for another year or two, but really, I mustn’t. It’s always hard to let go of a book, but in this case, I feel like it’s almost there. As Nina Simone would say, ‘And I’m feeling good…’
To recover from the trauma of getting my eighth novel out there in the big wide world, Mr Caron Allan Author is whisking me off to Birmingham (UK, not Alabama) for an all-expenses paid weekend in a hotel near the city centre, so we are handy for a concert on Sunday night and breakfast at a Wetherspoons of my choice. There will be a sumptuous dinner the night before. There will be ice cream. There will be book browsing and possibly notebook purchasing. I can’t make any promises about restraint or budget-keeping.
Writing tutors, whether in books or the classroom, or by podcast, or webinar, often tell their students, ‘Write what you know.’
Personally, I think that’s some of the daftest advice ever.
First of all, how do you define ‘know’? Know in depth? Vaguely aware of? Have heard about? Worked in that field for thirty years? Know second-hand through others?
Let’s add a bit of common sense. I mean, if you’re writing a self-help book on the subject of ‘Open heart surgery for beginners’, you probably need to know your stuff. I don’t think reading a few books will be enough to make that one work. After all, lives may be at risk. Not to mention kitchen implements and the new lino.
But I’m talking–as always–about fiction writing, which is a whole other ball game. Because if you are writing fiction, you can know anything. That’s called research. You write what you come to know.
There is a whole world out there full of podcasts, webinars, YouTube movies, books in digital, audio and paper formats. There are so many search engine, something-pedias, sites and blogs. Someone will always be able to give you an answer to any question you want to ask. You can even create and download calendars for begone years. I do that for my 1930s Dottie Manderson mystery books.
For my own books, I have researched social culture, art, history, music, languages, religious beliefs, criminal forensics, icky medical stuff, popular figures, myths and legends, psychology, archaeology, literature, historical weather (yes you can do that). I’ve read old books, old newspapers, gone to museums, exhibitions and spoken all sorts of people. I’ve have drunk a serious amount of coffee and eaten siege quantities of cake, all in the name of research. ( I could write a book on coffee emporiums of the British Isles.)
Joking aside, the point is, whatever you’re writing about, you can research it. I mean, how many people who write about Vampires actually are one??? How many people who write about time travel or missions across the universe have actually been into space? If we only write about ‘what we know’, why do any of us write anything other than books about being an ordinary person in an ordinary home and job, who never does anything extraordinary apart from pay their bills on time?
So next time someone says you can’t write your book about back-packing shape-shifters in the Serengeti, tell them that’s a lie. You can write about anything.
This week I have been thinking about words and images and meanings. Sometimes we can’t quite find one single word that expresses the multitude of meaning, or the shades of meaning our imagination conjures up for us. I like to define things: people, words, stories, because I’m not very good at reading between the lines, to use a cliche, and I sometimes don’t understand what a person means if they are not really explicit. I am good at recognising images of shades of grey, not so much with spoken ones.
Someone (Emma Baird!) said that she thinks I am a visual person. And I think she’s right. If I can’t picture it, I can’t write it. But I am always compelled to try to picture ‘it’ – be it a story idea or a cover design or a garden feature, a home makeover.
So when I came up with the absolute vaguest idea for a title and story for book 10 of my Dottie Manderson mysteries, (let’s just remind ourselves, I’ve only recently started writing book 5, so I’m talking a possible publication between 2020 and 2022… I like to look ahead.) I wasn’t able to relax about it because I couldn’t picture a book cover, or a title, and this bothered me.
I was mulling over cold heart, the coldest heart, your cold, my cold, everybody’s cold, colder or coldest heart. It was a nebulous idea that stuck in my head but refused to blossom. A browse through Pixabay’s images usually sets me off in the right direction, but not this time. I was offered images of hearts, literal and metaphoric, and ice cubes. This was not helping.
A thesaurus is often a big help too, so I had a quick look and found suggestions of dead, unfeeling, (yes these were kind of what I was getting at), blue, uncooked (!?) and impassive (again, yes, kind of…). It just wasn’t the kind of thing you could find an image for on the image sites. A dead blackbird, a brick wall, a funeral. Just not quite what I wanted.
Words have so many possibilities, don’t they? Even though a dictionary may define a word, we often use words in a very personal sense, with our own definition overlaying the ‘official’ one. Let’s not forget, no dictionary was beamed down from Planet X with a set-in-stone array of words and their meanings. The meaning of every word in use today – and those we will use tomorrow – has been developed, changed and somehow agreed upon over thousands of years of speech, social interaction, education and writing. It’s really quite amazing when you think about it.
So I was overwhelmed by the possibility of choice and variation of shadow. I set it aside. Uneasily, as it irks me to leave something unsettled.
Then on Saturday I was reading Dead before Death, a sonnet by Christina Rossetti. I love that gal’s poems. And what was the opening line? I’m glad you asked. It was:
Ah! changed and cold, how changed and very cold
With stiffened smiling lips and cold calm eyes
And so, like a tiny bolt of lightning, inspiration dropped on me. The story, and its title, fell into my mind. So, book 10 is to be: Changed and Cold: a Dottie Manderson mystery. Phew. I’m still no nearer to a cover image, (suggestions on a post-card, please) but at least I’ve got something concrete to work on. Now all I need to do is write the next 5 books…
This is one of my favourite quotes on being a writer, and I often use it. Here it is again, in case you’ve missed all the other incidences of it on my blog!
“A book is so much a part of one’s life that in delivering it to the public one feels as if one were pushing one’s own child out into the traffic.” (Quentin Bell, nephew of Virginia Woolf, and author of a number of biographies including the fabulous ‘Charleston’.)
Yes, Quentin, that is exactly how one feels about one’s book!
You see, it’s kind of a weird thing, but as you write, the book/fag packet/old envelope becomes a living thing. And like a child (or ‘one’s own child’, I love that!) it seems so fragile, so vulnerable, so at the mercy of strong winds and icy chills. And once you’ve bundled up said child/book to send it off into the world all alone, there is a certain amount of anxiety that attends its imminent return, and you hang around the front door, or the post box, wringing your hands, hoping for a glimpse, a clue, anything to tell you (or to tell one, I should say) how your baby is faring. and of course, until the parcel is dumped in your greenhouse with a note through the door saying the postman has left you a package, you have no idea what is happening.
Sometimes I look at my piles of paper, neatly wrapped up in the manuscript boxes on my shelves, and think, ‘There you are, all snug and safe, no nasty people are going to hurt you if you stay here with Mummy.’
Of course, if I’m really honest with myself (usually about two o’clock in the morning), it’s me that is afraid of being hurt. And it’s me who is afraid of being unappreciated/viewed as talentless/doomed to be unsuccessful. So really, each story I write, each manuscript is an extension of myself: and my hopes, my dreams.
But if I want something to happen in my life, if I want anything to change, to have any chance of being appreciated, my books read, of gaining, increasing and developing my skill as a writer, of being in some measure successful, I have got to do it–I’ve got to step out into the traffic, or at least, put my child out into it and watch as it survives or dies.
Rejection. It’s something we all fear, I guess. We are born craving acceptance–if we are not accepted we will die. Or at least be put up for adoption. Writers are no different in this respect to newborn babies. We need to be loved.
Or maybe we are more like the loving mothers urging our offspring onto others and not able to see that our little angel has a huge nose or squinty eyes.
I have had a few bad reviews for my books on Amazon over the years. When I first set out on this crazy road of self-publishing back at the end of 2012, I knew that sooner or later it would happen, that I would get a bad review, or maybe poor sales. But when it happened, being pre-warned was no help at all. I went through the usual stages of grief: I started with a kind of ‘so what’ shrug, then went into a depression and a downward spiral, felt like everything I wrote was worthless and what was the point anyway, I was surely kidding myself I could write? I stopped writing. And was even more miserable. Then, I took a big step and asked a Facebook contact, who is a very well-established, successful writer, ‘What do you do, how do you deal with this?’ She told me what I already knew: ‘You can’t please everyone. Accept it and move on. Don’t let it get you down. Don’t let it stop you.’
To begin with, I don’t flatter myself that I have universal appeal, and just as there are books I would not enjoy reading, I realise that my books may not appeal to everyone. But I have to be myself. The thing is, it would be so easy to try to change myself, my style, my genre, everything, in order to please the dissenters who don’t ‘get me’. I’ve tried writing the ‘proper’ way, as I was taught by a number of well-meaning even successful writers and teachers of writing.
But I have to be me: (at this point it would be a huge help if you could visualise someone running down the road into a golden sunset, arms outstretched in triumph, singing “I Gotta Be Me – just gotta be free”). I need to write to be happy but also I need to be happy to write, so I have to make a decision to set aside the slings and arrows, and choose not to let them hurt me or distract me from what I am trying to achieve. I write my way. Some of my sentences begin with ‘And’. I use adverbs without shame. I split infinitives, and I occasionally tell instead of show. Some people actually like that.
So If you’ve had trouble with confidence, rejection or self-doubt, it’s now time to push it aside and forge ahead. If you don’t write your story, paint your picture, make your dress, plant your garden, train your hamster, bake your muffins or craft your craft, who will?
I enjoy writing in a number of different styles and genres, but I’m a cosy mystery gal through and through. Even when I try writing a different genre, at some point my murderous instincts take over and drown out any other attempt to jump generic ship. Maybe I’ve written myself into a plot-corner and I’m not sure what to do, or I feel my story lacks a certain something, or things are going all too easily for one character or another, and there’s nothing for it. Someone has to die. I think it was Raymond Chandler who said (my paraphrase) ‘If in doubt, bring in someone with a gun’. So I think it is fair to say that I lean towards cosy mystery writing, with the occasional ill-fated foray into other genres. But there are so many sub-categories within genres, and the Crime genre is no exception.
For cosy mystery novels, some of the many subgenres include: international mystery, private investigators, women detectives, medical, legal, police procedural, technothrillers, and hard-boiled. The hard-boiled mystery, for example, is what is often referred to as Noir, or gum-shoe crime. they have evolved from the classics of the 40s and 50s and tend to be graphic, violent, and unconventional. The detective is usually an anti-hero, with all kinds of issues, anything goes, and the grittier and grislier the better. Often the end of the hard-boiled mystery is less cut-and-dried, leaving loose ends and a sense of a hollow victory.
The cosy mystery genre is a world apart from the hard-boiled mystery. The cosy is a type of traditional murder mystery with it roots in the Golden Age of mystery writing as penned by Agatha Christie, Gladys Mitchell, Dorothy L Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Patricia Wentworth and many more. The plots often revolve around social situations, perhaps a house party or dinner, as cosies of this type tended to feature the wealthier classes at play, with undercurrents of malice lurking discreetly behind curtains or across the bridge-table. The relationships represented tend to be of a conventional, traditional type, and the novels are usually set in the present or the recent past. The hard-boiled or noir can be more experimental, and is well-suited to futuristic, non-traditional and even non-earth settings.
Cosy means exactly that, these books are pure entertainment, with nothing too terrifying, nothing too realistic. In the Cosy, the story is all about unravelling the central mystery, usually a murder, and finding out whodunit by solving clues and working alongside the detective to find out the truth behind a crime, nearly always a murder*. Cosies will feature good believable characters without a great deal of introspection and issues. Usually there are only one or two main characters, and a host of minor characters, individualised to a greater or lesser extent. There will be a twisty, ingenious plot, and a keep-‘em-guessing array of clues and red herrings. Readers are expected to read between the line sin all conversations and to observe character behaviour minutely.
The cosy does not feature large quantities of gory murder scenes or long descriptions of stomach-clenching forensic information. The cosy does not include explicit sex or stronger bad language. There may be some saucy shenanigans but nothing too graphic goes on ‘on-stage’, any filth is conducted behind carefully closed doors. Life lessons are not usually part of the cosy mystery, nor should you expect comments on social issues or deeply moving emotional scenes. Life is pretty good in the cosy mystery–for everyone except the perpetrator and the victim of course. Here again, in the cosy, the victim is not likely to suffer agonies or torture; death is usually contrived in a quick and ingenious manner.
Usually, though not always, the main protagonist is the sleuth who is going to solve the mystery for us. They will likely–though not always–be an amateur detective, often someone involved on the periphery of the murder. Of late, it has become the trend to write themed cosies centred around a hobby or service. For example, a lot of stories are set in book shops, craft groups or cookery schools, hotels, or might involve pet-sitters, mediums, hairdressers, gardeners, wedding planners, or interior decorators. This allows the author to introduce a range of situations and characters, which is a great way to produce a detective and a series that will keep fans coming back time and again.
The cosy is all about solving a puzzle, and reestablishing the status quo. The book should leave readers feeling ‘Ahh,’ at the end, not ‘OMG OMG!’ and they should definitely be able to pat themselves on the back for a detective job well done. The cosy is intended purely for escapist fun, which is another reason why the author needs to write plenty of them–readers will close one book and immediately reach for the next.
At the end of last year, I made a little foray into the world of Golden Age mystery writers, looking briefly at the work of several well-known exponents of the genre, and in more depth at Agatha Christie, her life and her work.
This week I want to tell you a little bit about my favourite detective story writer, Patricia Wentworth, known mainly for her mysteries, but who also wrote romances.
Patricia Wentworth was her pen name. She was born as Dora Amy Elles in 1878 in India, and was educated at Blackheath School for Girls, now Blackheath High School, London.
She married quite young and had her first daughter. Her husband had two sons from a former relationship, one (or possibly both) of whom died in WWI. Her husband died in 1906, when she was still only in her late twenties. Wentworth moved to Camberley, Surrey, England, where she would live until her death in 1961. Wentworth met her second husband and married in 1920, and had another daughter. It was in Camberley Wentworth wrote most of her novels, with her second husband George writing down what she dictated.
Today she is mostly remembered for her 32 murder mysteries featuring private inquiry agent Miss Maud Silver, a former governess, keen observer of human nature and quoter of Tennyson and the Bible. But there are more than 40 other books which don’t feature detective Miss Silver, mostly mysteries, but there are some historical romances, and some poetry and stories for children.
For many years, I found it very difficult to obtain Wentworth’s books. But with the recent rise of small print runs and small presses, and the resurgence in interest in Golden Age and traditional mysteries, her work is enjoying a new popularity and reaching new audiences. Hodder have reissued the majority of the Miss Silver books over the last ten years, with Open Road Media and Dean Street Press publishing virtually all of the other books between them. Readers are often frustrated to find that the books have different titles in the UK and the USA, so please check carefully that you’re not buying the same book twice under different titles. There is an excellent bibliography on the Patricia Wentworth page in Wikipedia, along with publication dates.
Her work has often dismissed as being ‘old-fashioned’, ‘middle-class’, ‘tame’ and dated, but nevertheless I would say these books should not be so easily set aside.
To begin with, some of these books first appeared more than a hundred years ago, and are still popular. A Marriage Under The Terror won the Andrew Melrose prize in 1910, which earned her the handsome reward of two hundred and fifty guineas, quite a sum in those days. There was much speculation about her use of a pseudonym, claiming that it was impossible to keep her real identity a secret.
So we need to see them within their own era. I would agree with critics that some of the novels are not as strong, or as innovative, as others, that several plot devices reoccur (notably the indoor, uncovered well), and that from time to time, ‘the butler did it’. They are strongly romantic, which for me is a good thing, so they don’t fit comfortably into traditional generic categories, but again that is something that current trends are more flexible about. I know some readers find them too sweet, too and that there is not enough guts and gore—but hey, they’re cosies, get used to it.
The strengths of the books lies in the portrayal of the era, and in the way many of the characters are forced to find their way through unfamiliar and difficult circumstances. They are not all wealthy, they are not all high-born, artistic, celebrities or otherwise fortunate. The mysteries are pleasing, often very clever, and the reader can detect along with the protagonist. The writing is intelligent, clear, and lacking in long flowery descriptions, which I personally detest.
I recommend them for students of creative writing who want to improve their dialogue and character writing skills, their plotting skills or anyone who wants to write novels set in the recent past, or for readers who love a traditional mystery without body parts being lopped off, or strong language, or who prefers romance without sex scenes, or who likes something with a strong sense of morality and a satisfying mystery.
If you want to give them a go, below are a couple of my favourite titles: