Of course, I don’t wear the anorak all the time. It’s for special occasions.
I thought I’d tell you ten things you might not know about me. Why? Well, we’re all besties now, right, so that means I can off-load some of my mess special characteristics and just—you know—really be myself with you.
I got a 10-yards swimming certificate when I was ten years old. So if I’m ever on board a boat that sinks really, really close to the shore, I’ll be fine.
When I was out for a walk with my family in a park when I was eleven years old, I needed to go to the bathroom, and there were no bathrooms, so I went behind a tree, and a man and his dog came over and asked if I was okay. (I didn’t realise there was a path behind the tree as well as in front of it.) I was too embarrassed to say I was peeing, so I made up a totally unlikely story about losing my pocket money behind the tree and said I was looking for it. Crouched there as I was, I half-heartedly raked through the leaves by my feet. The only problem was, this kind man decided to help me look for it…. It was about five long minutes before he must have realised what was going on, and with a panicked expression got up, said goodbye, and that he hoped I’d find my ‘pocket money’, then he and his dog ran! Aww. My parents laughed, but I was mortified.
I failed my English Literature ‘O’ level. Though I later went on to complete a Bachelor’s degree in English and History so I certainly showed them!
I also failed my Sociology ‘O’ level. Ironically, it was the only subject I really studied hard for. I must have guessed how bad I was at that subject. To make matters worse, my teacher told my parents I wasn’t going to pass and so they had to pay for me to be allowed to sit the exam. All for nothing. Is it too late for a resit?
I love cats and dogs but I’m allergic to fur and dander.
I love learning new languages, but I am hopeless at it. I always get the different languages muddled in my head, and I may start a sentence in French, but I’ll just as likely end it in Spanish or German…
I once peed myself laughing with my cousin, then had to throw myself in a handy nearby river to disguise my ‘accident’ so as not to get into trouble with the dreaded parents. I was about twelve at the time. I was a horrid child! I also fell into a river on Boxing Day, then sat in a tree in my underwear hoping my clothes would dry in the breeze and went home an hour later frozen half to death in sopping wet clothes. Me and bodies of water do not get on.
My work experience week coincided with my sixteenth birthday, and I was sent to spend a week with the local newspaper. I spent my sixteenth birthday covering court cases as a junior reporter. It was fascinating and I got well and truly bitten by the true crime bug!
I once rode my bike into a fence and smashed it. And I took myself to the front door of the fence owner to confess all. He was so astonished at my honesty that he let me off. (Another pre-teen escapade!)
I got thrown out of our school’s church service for asking too many questions about God. I wasn’t even a disbeliever, I just was asking tricky theological questions, which apparently was not okay. (Still eleven!) Oh well. I also got a prize in school prize giving for Religious Education, so maybe they forgave me after all.
So yeah. That’s me. I can kind of see how I ended up being a writer.
Just found the pic below – it was a school photo, obvs. This is your bonus awful thing about me – my face! You can’t see it but I’ve got a two-foot long plait behind me, but people still called me Sonny, Laddie or Young man when I was a kid.
I thought I’d already shared this, but I can’t find it anywhere, so here it is, a sneak peek of the opening scene of chapter one, possibly for the second time. (and sorry, too, it’s a bit long…)
Book 8 of the Dottie Manderson mysteries finds Dottie fed up with waiting and all the fuss, and just wanting to get on with being Mrs Detective Inspector William Hardy. She and her mother and her sister all want different things, and Dottie thinks, ‘It’s my wedding, it should be how I want it!’ An unexpected invitation could be just what she needs. How wonderful it will be to get away to a weekend house party and forget all the worries of organising a wedding!
Of course William, like all husbands-to-be everywhere has no interest whatsoever in the problems of the right kind of lace or the perfect place setting. In any case, he’s got a special kind of investigation going on, one that means bringing a good friend to justice, stretching his loyalty to his profession almost to breaking point.
Dottie Manderson was already fed up to the back teeth with parties. Admittedly, she thought, one expected parties in June. And just lately life had been nothing but. Tennis parties, tea parties, afternoon dancing parties, mid-morning tea parties, dinner parties, drinks parties in the evening, it was endless. And now, socialising in London was giving her a sense rather too much like continually stepping over graves—those of dead friends as well as dead relationships. Wherever she went, dragged along by her mother or her sister, or her mother and her sister, to various events in so many houses and gardens, she was continually running into people she either knew, or had heard of through other acquaintances.
This evening was a case in point. They were at the Sir Nigel Barrowby’s lavish Tyne Square townhouse for dinner and dancing. Dottie hid behind the same half-glass of white wine she had been clutching for almost two hours and looked about the room.
Over there by the fireplace, hanging on the arm of a man with a military moustache, was Anabella Penterman nee Wiseman of the New York Wisemans, married to Dottie’s almost-beau Cyril Penterman less than a year and a half ago, and yet now if the gossip columns were correct, the couple were very publicly living separate lives, and divorce seemed to be on the cards. The woman had glanced at Dottie four times now, though only managing a polite smile the first time, every other occurrence accompanied by a bright hard stare. Dottie noted that the woman had lost a lot of weight, and her left hand held no rings.
Then, on the opposite side of the vast drawing-room was the Honourable Peter St Clair St John giggling rather childishly, in Dottie’s opinion, with a couple of really quite young girls.
‘Far too young for him,’ Dottie murmured out loud.
‘Oh definitely, dear,’ replied a woman standing a few feet away. She drew a little closer, saying in a low tone, ‘I don’t know what their parents are thinking, introducing them to that wolf.’
‘Is he a wolf?’ Dottie turned to face her companion, a blonde woman in her early thirties, immaculately turned out. Dottie felt a slight flash of recognition but couldn’t quite reach at the woman’s name. ‘I always found him a bit dull, if I’m honest. And only ever interested in himself.’
Belatedly she wondered again who she was speaking to. It wouldn’t do to say that to a close relation.
‘Well, absolutely. His only interest in his life has always been himself. A thoroughly tiresome younger brother, I don’t mind telling you. But once he gets a girl to himself, he’s all hands, from what I hear.’
Too late Dottie recognised Christiana St John Milner, the widow of the Milner empire since her husband, the Honourable Sebastian Wilcott Milner had passed away under what Dottie had always regarded as odd circumstances during an avalanche when out skiing with friends in the Swiss Alps just–what–surely it was barely six months ago, Dottie thought, yet here was the young widow in a daring dress of figure-hugging gold lame, not a single sign of mourning about her.
Catching Dottie’s glance at her dress, Christiana smiled and held out her hand. ‘I don’t think we’ve ever been formally introduced, though I’ve seen you at a number of events over the last two or three years. Christiana, please.’
Dottie shook her hand. ‘Dottie Manderson. Just Dottie.’
‘Not Manderson for much longer, I hear,’ Christiana said.
‘No, that’s true. Not for long now. The wedding is in August.’
‘Lovely. And am I right in thinking that he’s not one of our lot?’
Dottie tried not to be offended. She’d heard this a lot in recent weeks, and should really have become used to it. But still, it grated.
‘He works as a police officer, I expect you mean,’ she said, carefully keeping her tone neutral.
Christiana looked mortified. Her hand came out to just touch Dottie’s arm. ‘Oh, I’m so sorry. Please don’t think I meant…’ she sighed. ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it quite the way it may have sounded. Oh this is a terrible start to a friendship. I’m not a snob.’ Looking into her glass, she said softly, ‘Believe me I know all too well how hard it is to find a good man. And when one is lucky enough to find him, one thanks one’s lucky stars and refuses to let go.’
‘I’m sorry too,’ Dottie said. ‘I’m afraid there have been a number of critical comments, and I’m feeling rather on the defensive. William’s family had an estate but unfortunately it was sold a few years ago to cover—er—’
‘Death duties?’ Christiana suggested helpfully.
Dottie gave slight shake of the head and a wry smile. ‘That. And debts.’
‘Ah! Well, there are plenty of those amongst the so-called upper-crust And even the aristocracy, as we both know. I can look around this room and tell you who is solvent and who hasn’t got the proverbial penny to bless himself with. Let’s start with my idiot brother. Broke,’ she smirked at Dottie, ‘Definitely not got a penny to his name. I’m so glad you didn’t fall for him.’ She discreetly pointed out two other men and a woman and said, ‘Broke,’ for each of them.
Dottie was astonished. Christiana was right. These four people were four people who Dottie would have practically gone to her grave believing to be financially stable, solvent. Inadvertently she took a gulp of her horrid wine. She grimaced ad swallowed quickly.
‘But my father is thinking of going into business with Lord Dalbury and his friend Milo Parkes. They’ve been having talks all week at Father’s club.’
Christiana looked concerned. ‘Oh my word, no! Please warn your father to get out whilst he can, they will bleed him dry!’
Dottie nodded. ‘I’ll tell him. Thank you for the tip. It’s astonishing isn’t it. As you say, one takes everyone at face value, and we make assumptions based on what we see.’
‘Which prompts me to ask, Dottie, what do you think of my dress?’
‘Oh it’s lovely!’ Dottie didn’t even have to stop and think about that.
‘It’s actually an old one of my mother’s. Yes, really, it’s more than twenty years old. She had some beautiful gowns and coats and things. Furs. Some of them were terribly expensive, and my brother wants to get rid of them. Sell them. He needs the money.’
Dottie said nothing, wondering—or rather suspecting she might know where this was leading.
‘I’m having a house party next weekend. I know it’s horribly short notice, but I was wondering if you’d do me a huge favour. I was hoping you might know a few people who would be interested in buying Mother’s things. I don’t want them going to just anybody, but if they were people you could recommend, I might not mind too much. I don’t want it to feel like village jumble sale with everyone pawing over my mother’s things. But if I can help Cyril, I feel I have to do so, he’s so wretchedly clueless. Could you spare me a weekend to come and visit, and bring your lovely fiancé, of course, and if you could just go through Mother’s things and tell me what might fetch some cash, and who might be interested… there aren’t many ‘names’, Mother went rather her own way in fashion, although there are some Carmichael and Jennings items you might be interested to see. Well, perhaps you’ll think about it and let me know. You can telephone me, I’m on Belgravia 139.’ She grabbed Dottie’s arm and said in an urgent tone, ‘Do say you’ll think about it, please. This means so much to me.’
‘I will,’ Dottie promised, and had only time to repeat these words as the music suddenly began, and a young man came to ask Christiana to dance.
Notebooks for A Wreath of Lilies: Miss Gascoigne mysteries book 2
I’ve mentioned a couple of times this year that I am writing a new book. Three new books, to be precise. (four really, but that’s a secret, shh!)
Most people, when I meet them for the first time, stare at my silver hair and ask if I still work, or am I retired? And I tentatively tell them I write novels – ‘Just cosy murder mysteries, a teeny bit like Agatha Christie,’ I say. Usually their response is, ‘I’ve often thought about writing a book.’
Sometimes people who are nosy, bored or just desperate to make conversation, ask me how I do the actual writing, do I have a system, use special software, and so forth. I’m not sure my very simple, low-tech approach could be called a ‘method’ or a ‘system’ as such. But my ‘system’ is very simple, straightforward, and I always do things more or less the same way. And anyone can do this, it’s not a natural gift, I don’t believe. You can learn how to write.
This is what I do in eight easy steps:
I love books, and stories and I read a lot, and have done so since I was very young. This makes me imagine stuff, and create ideas and more importantly, plot ideas, in my head. I spend a LOT of time staring into space or doing sudoku etc as I mull stuff over in my mind. That’s stage 1, if you like.
I make a few notes in a notebook. Mine are actual paper notebooks, but other people use virtual notebooks on their computer, laptops, kindles or phones, or on the back of cigarette packets, till receipts or loo roll. Later I transfer these to a Word doc on my computer (see below, point 4) by tedious typing or even more tedious dictating.
Then, at some point (between a week to twenty years later), I get a set of matching (this is very important) (not really, I’m kidding!) notebooks, and I
Just because I’ve got a lot of notebooks doesn’t mean it’s a fetish out of control… Everyone has fifty or sixty ‘spare’ notebooks, don’t they?
start writing my story. Longhand. It’s like, sooo old-fashioned it’s not true. Actually writing with a real life pen on actual paper: for me, this very physical or manual sensory experience is what helps my creativity. This is the first draft.
Once I reach the ‘messy’ stage–where I can no longer remember what I’ve written, who the characters are, or I’ve lost track of the timeline, I then type or dictate these into Word docs on my computer. I set up 54 documents per book: one for ‘the whole thing’ which is my second draft master document, then: one for characters, one for notes inc research and ideas, one for useful ‘of the era’ stuff, eg for my 1960s books, I have lists of top ten pop songs, most recent TV shows, movies, movie stars, that kind of background detail. Then finally, I have 50 Word docs numbered 1 to 50, and these are where I type up my handwritten first draft scenes.
Dirty Work notebooks: the new fourth book in the Friendship Can Be Murder ‘trilogy’.
I know this sounds like a tedious process, but as I am doing all that typing up, it is giving me a chance to a) reacquaint myself with my story and what I’ve written so far and who everyone is, and b) I can amend dodgy phrases or waffley bits as I go, resulting in a better, second, draft which usually contains lots of questions to myself listing things to check up on or to remember later, and c) I can see what’s missing, duplicated or just plain not working or not necessary.
I then copy each of these 50 docs into the master ‘whole thing’ document, and ta-da! I’ve got a full second draft, ready for revising and rewriting.
Then, ‘all’ that’s left to do is: first, go through and check for typos and inconsistencies. Second, to go through and answer all my own questions, double-check all my ‘don’t forgets’, and delete those all from the master copy. Third, reread, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite until it’s as smooth and gorgeous as I can possibly imagine it. Then, when I’m at the point I feel like throwing it out of the window and running away to join the Foreign Legion (I’m 62 and creaky, so they wouldn’t take me, anyway) I rewrite it again.
Then it’s time for editing. Eventually I will give a last proofread, kiss it goodbye, and upload it to You-Know-Where, amongst other platforms. See? Easy!
Putting it like this on the page or screen, it certainly sounds fiddly/dull but hopefully you can see that it’s not hard. The idea of writing a book, in and of itself, is not the hard bit. The bit people often struggle with, especially if they are one of the people who say ‘I’ve often thought about writing a book’, is the persistence: keeping on with it past the time when it is fun and exciting, past the self-doubt, the ‘why am I doing this?’, past the angry, resentful, and anxious, ‘Who do I think I am, thinking I am good enough to write a book?’, past the ‘but I’d rather watch TV or smooch with my OH’, and on into the calm, resigned waters of ‘Well, it’s too late for regrets, I’ve done it.’ And finally you emerge into the ‘OMG, I did it’ sense of achievement that comes way, way after all the difficult bit is over.
Persistence is what you need. That is actually the tricky bit. Overcome your mind and you can do anything.
I’m giving in to the long-suppressed urge to share a scene from the new murder mystery I’m currently working on. It will be called A Wreath Of Lilies – you may well have seen me banging on about it already. This will be the second book of my new-ish 1960s series featuring Dee Gascoigne as a private detective. If you haven’t already seen it, you can find out more about book 1 – A Meeting With Murder – here.
Here’s the blurb-type thing (which may change…)
On her first ‘official’ investigator case, Dee Gascoigne is off to the village of Hartwell Priory, where locals are up in arms over the proposal to dig up the deceased ancestors buried in the local cemetery in order to make way for three hundred new houses.
As if things aren’t tense enough, a group of hippie-like ghost hunters arrive and hold a seance. A message from beyond the grave seems to indicate that a grave has been forgotten.
Or was it just an illegal burial?
This book will be out in October, and like all my books, will be available in eBook form, paperback and large print paperback, from Amazon, and regular-print paperback only from ‘other’ online retailers and libraries. Here’s a sneak peek, in case you’re interested, hope you enjoy it.
Dee Gascoigne was the only person in the train carriage. She had a newspaper in case she got bored, as it was a long, slow journey to Hartwell Priory, a village close to the North Essex coast. And if the newspaper was not enough, she had a novel in her handbag – the Agatha Christie book that she had wanted to read for some time and that she’d been given by her cousin Jenny as a birthday present. Next to the brand new copy of A Caribbean Mystery was the envelope Monty had given her. She had better not lose it. It contained some cash to pay for her expenses, and a couple of sheets of paper that outlined her new ‘case’. She used the word in her mind, and it thrilled her to the core – she was actually on a case. In addition to these she had a letter of introduction and a handful of business cards so that she could be confident in the face of any challenge to her – call it what it was – nosy questioning.
If there was something that could be called a ‘gift’ in Dee’s character it was her ability to ask far too many questions, and it was pleasing to know that these could now be asked officially on behalf of Montague Montague of London, legal services.
Only yesterday, Thursday September 2nd 1965, Dee had been sitting in Monty’s office, hoping almost against hope it had seemed, that he could help her.
It had been practically six months since she had left – or been asked to leave – her job as a modern languages teacher at a very nice school for very nice young ladies. Since then she had found herself at a loss over what to do with her life.
Then, in the Spring, she had been sent off to the seaside to convalesce after an illness and had stumbled into a murder mystery exactly like those she so dearly loved to read. (Here she glanced with fond anticipation at the little bit of the cover of A Caribbean Mystery that she could see nestling in the top of her open bag). She had helped her dratted sort-of cousin, Inspector Bill Hardy, to clear up the mystery, risking her own life and limb to do so, but was the man grateful? Not at all. ‘Keep out of police business in future,’ he had growled at her at her mother’s birthday party, grabbing her arm in a vice-like grip and steering her away from the celebrations where she had been enjoying a lively discussion with her aunt, his mother, who also loved to ‘dabble’ in mysteries. He had a bloody cheek, Dee fumed to herself.
Anyway… Where was she? She had lost herself in the midst of feeling angry with Bill. She certainly wasn’t going to think about how handsome he had looked in his formal dinner suit, nor about how much she liked the way his dark hair crinkled behind his ears and at his neck now that he was wearing it a little longer as many young men did these days.
She had been out of work for some months now. Oh, she had been invited to several interviews for positions at other schools, but it always came down to the same thing: she just didn’t want to go back to teaching.
Yet what else could a recently separated woman do? People were so sniffy about the idea of a woman leaving her husband. It was this scandalous action on her part that had cost her the job in the first place.
And then, seemingly from nowhere, when all hope was lost and the money she had borrowed from her parents was dwindling to a pitifully tiny amount, dear, dear Monty had asked her brother Rob to get her to come and see him.
‘I’ve got something in the way of a job idea that might interest you,’ M’dear Monty had wheezed at her across his vast oak desk. Eighty if he was a day, and about to start his fifth retirement, Monty’s legal expertise had saved Dee’s family on more than one occasion.
She had been all ears. Could he really be serious? She held her breath waiting to see what he said. Even if it was a typing job, she’d have to take it. Not that she could type, not really. But she could no longer pretend that she wasn’t desperate. Her pride – that thing that goeth before a fall – was now in tatters.
‘Most law practices engage investigators to find out things for them. To carry out research, or to go to speak to people, that sort of thing. Montague’s is no different. But the fellow I have been using for the last two or three years has – er – shall we say – found it advantageous to his health to quickly move to South America. Therefore I now have a vacancy.
‘Dear Rob has kindly given me full account of your exploits down in Porthlea – delightful place – in the spring, and I think you could be just what I’m looking for. I know your inquiring mind, (nosiness, Dee told herself) and that you are an intelligent woman. Resourceful too, (crafty, Dee amended) and I know that I need have no doubts whatsoever about your moral integrity.’
She was on the point of speaking, but he held up a hand to halt her. He added, ‘Oh I know this is rather new to you, M’dear, but I feel you have a certain bent for investigating. In any case, I need someone right now, and if I may be blunt for a moment, you need the money. Can I persuade you to give it a try? If it doesn’t suit you, M’dear, no harm done on either side. What do you say?’
Well, what could she say?
‘My goodness, Monty dearest, I’d love to!’
And so here she was, on a painfully slow train that seemingly stopped at every rabbit hutch and milepost, heading to a place she’d never even heard of: Hartwell Priory.
She knew it was a tiny place, barely more than a halfway point between the busy port of Harwich and the city of Colchester in the county of Essex. She was to find her way to a guesthouse and rent herself a room for the week. Monty seemed to think it could take her several days, perhaps a whole week, to find out the things he needed to know.
She had money for her expenses, and the promise of ten pounds in wages, whether she was successful or not. Oh, she prayed she would be. The last thing she wanted was to let Monty down after his kindness.
The guard peered at her through the window of the connecting door to the next carriage. He’d already clipped her ticket and was checking to see if any new passengers had boarded into her carriage. They hadn’t of course, it had been almost an hour since she’d seen anyone other than the guard.
The business cards Monty had so clearly had printed before he even knew what she would say, stated simply: Miss Diana Gascoigne, Associate, Montague Montague of London, legal services. And the letter of introduction, was exactly that, short, to the point, impossible to quibble with or gainsay:
‘To whom it may concern,
I confirm that Miss Diana Gascoigne is an associate of this company, Montague Montague of London, legal services, and that she is employed by myself and under my instructions.
The Honourable Montague Montague QC, Bart.,’
The connecting door opened. Dee glanced up. The guard, a young man in his twenties, said,
‘We’ll be there in two minutes, miss. Watch your step getting down, it’s quite a drop to the platform.’
‘Do you need help with your suitcase?’
‘Oh no, that’s quite all right, thanks.’ She beamed at him.
He blushed and left, and Dee closed her handbag with a snap, got up, grabbed her raincoat and hat, and hefted her case down off the luggage net and began to make her way to the corridor. The train slowed and the long narrow platform appeared beneath the window.
She had arrived.
grateful thanks for the image go to Shutterstock and more especially, Agalaya:
Point of View – or POV as it’s usually called – is an important consideration when writing a story. Sometimes the POV is a foregone conclusion: if you are writing your autobiography, then it’s all going to be from your point of view, written in the first person: ‘I was born in 1945, the war had just ended…’ And then, if it’s a book about someone else, then it’s going to be third person more often than not. ‘He/she/they were born in 1945, the war had just ended…’
Sometimes writers like to experiment with strictly limited points of view, and this can be a huge challenge. It is quite a task to write everything based around what ‘you’ did. ‘You were born in 1945, the war had just ended…’ If you’re not careful it can end up sounding rather like an episode of ‘This Is Your Life’ – even if you’re writing fiction. But it can be very controlling and a bit voyeuristic and sinister, so works well if used in small doses in psychological thrillers.
Very often writers will combine POVs to show the viewpoint of different characters. For example, there might be a scene which is written from the point of view of a stalker, watching someone, and the writer might employ the second person POV here, as I’ve just mentioned. There might be a scene which starts, from the stalker’s POV, ‘You were born in 1945, the war had just ended, but you never knew poverty or hardship because of your family’s wealth and your privileged lifestyle.’
I spy a plot twist coming…
Then, the writer might switch to a third person POV and show the life of a wealthy oil magnate and his family, who are calling in the police due to receiving threats or realising that they are being stalked. The advantage of using these two differing viewpoints is it saves the writer from being forced to use the dreaded, reviled ‘little did they know, but..’ ploy. We, as readers, are able to ‘see’ what is going on, and the pressure builds as we wait, helpless, to see what will happen as these two opposing POVs come closer and closer together. It’s a great way to increase tension, make the story feel claustrophobic and to give the reader those chills down the back of the neck that are the hallmark of a terrifyingly good thriller with everything to be played for.
Getting ready to check my new story for inconsistencies, blunders and plot tangles
Although most of my books require the use of the traditional third person POV, I like the first person POV. I once read that this is the tool of a new or inexperienced writers, but I disagree with that. I love the first person viewpoint because it immediately plunges the reader into a more intimate involvement with the story, it’s as if the action is all happening to ‘me’. It can be quite a tricky one to write as there are a few things to bear in mind with this POV. It can be hard to be consistent with tense and viewpoint. A writer can drift into a third person POV without realising they’ve done it until later when they reread, and then they are stuck with a lot of rewriting! And because the first person POV is very limited, the reader can only ‘know’ what the first person POV knows. It’s a useful way to drip-feed information to the reader, but there are difficulties in enabling the reader to know what’s going on if the narrator themselves is in the dark, so to speak.
This is also a great way to get the reader taking a wrong turn. It’s the writer’s job to draw the reader into the story in such a way that they forget that the narrator, with their crafty use of the first person POV, may not, in fact, be telling the truth. The unreliable narrator is a wonderful plot device especially in mysteries or thrillers – this will always lead to a huge twist at the end of the book as the reader suddenly sees clearly how they have been misled. Think of (spoiler alert)The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie. These days it’s heralded as a stunning piece of misdirection, but at the time of its release, Christie was accused of not playing fair with the reader, and of cheating. I’m definitely in the first camp – I think it’s an incredibly cleverly constructed story. Even knowing how it’s done doesn’t diminish the pleasure I get from rereading what I feel is arguably Christie’s best work.
When a writer sits down to begin work on a new story, the POV is the first thing they need to decide. POV determines the course of a whole story.
This is one of the first questions people usually ask me – and I’m pretty sure it happens to other writers all the time. It kind of makes me want to groan, because it’s next to impossible to give a sincere and considered answer to this question without boring the pants off everyone by talking for an hour. The short, somewhat trite answer might be: ‘Everywhere!’
But if we really want to answer the question, it takes a minute or two longer. Because really there’s no single answer. Ideas don’t come from one unique, unvarying source. Nor do they come in the same way each time. Anything from the world seen or unseen can randomly come to my attention and lead me to think, ‘Hmm, that’s interesting…’
Inspiration, which is what ideas really are, comes from everywhere and nowhere. A snatch of song, a news story, a little patch of colour on a card in the paint section of the DIY store, the turn of a person’s head making you think just for one split second it’s someone else – someone from another time, someone who should be dead. An unexpected view of yourself in a shop window at an unusual angle, that odd moment before you recognise yourself, that brief second when you think, slightly puzzled, ‘I know that face.’
An overheard snatch of genuine conversation: ‘Don’t lose my hat, man, my hat’s my identity,’ and ‘Of course she never did find out who’d sent it.’ A film, a book, a taste, a smell, a memory. What about a story your mother told you – you’ve known her all your life yet this is the first time she’s ever mentioned this particular incident. People-watching is endlessly fruitful. I’ve written about beloved family friends recalled from my childhood.
I have based two full-length stories on dreams. Three short stories and one novel on songs. One novel (The Mantle of God) based on two documentaries I saw on TV. One was about ancient tapestries: Opus Anglicanum which is Latin for ‘English work’, and the other was about the Reformation. I’ve written a short story about an arrowhead, and another about ancestral bones and the relevance they might have to a Neolithic man, about a trip to Skara Brae in the Orkneys. I’ve written a whole series of stories about the fact that all too often people think it’s okay to take the law into their own hands. (I’m looking at you Cressida, main character of Criss Cross etc, from the series Friendship Can Be Murder.)I’ve written about work situations, about hopes and plans for the future, about family tree research, about children, and pets, and parents. About love. About the absence of love. About faith. About fear. About books I read as a child. And books I read as an adult. I’ve written about identity and what it means to be who I am, who you are. I’ve written about death – loads.
I saw a gorgeous man on the bus many years ago and wrote a story about him, (The Ice King – it’s still not ‘available’, but if you’re intrigued, here’s a link to a short bit about him.) I’ve read news reports and been inspired to create my own story around some of those. I’ve written in hospital having just given birth, in hospital awaiting treatment for cancer, at work during my lunchbreak when I felt so depressed I just wanted to run away and hide. I’ve written when sitting on the loo, sitting in the garden, on holiday, in bed with flu, and in cafes all over Britain, Europe and Australia. I’ve written on buses and trains and planes. I’ve written when someone I cared about has died. I’ve even got inspiration from sitting down at my desk every day and just making myself write. Sometimes I’ve written a whole page that just says, ‘I don’t know what to write’, like the lines that we had to do at school when we got into trouble, and still nothing has come to me and I’ve gone away desperate, feeling that the well has not only dried up, but was only a mirage to begin with, that I’m an imposter and just fooling myself.
If you are a writer, you squirrel away in the eccentric filing cabinet known as your brain EVERY single thing that you ever experience, and a bit like doing a jigsaw puzzle or creating a patchwork quilt, you keep trying pieces together every which way until thing one fits with thing two and makes a pleasing, meaningful picture. There’s not really a pattern to it, there’s not a system or a set of regulations to follow. You just do it.
Extras complaining to the author about not having a name – again.
Last week was all about the main characters – the detective, the villain, the side-kick and of course the victim(s).
This week, I’m interested in thinking about the minor characters – or extras – in my head I see these as a kind of walk-on part, much like those in any TV show or movie. They don’t always have lines. Sometimes they don’t even have names. They might be described as ‘an elderly dog-walker’ or ‘the woman behind the shop counter’. They crop up everywhere the story goes – in shops, houses, on village greens, in museums, and at dinner parties.
But why are they there?
Extras fulfill a number of criteria and needs for the author and the reader.
they can deflect attention away from the culprit or villain.
they can provide the reader with useful clues or snippets of information.
equally, they can provide us with (less useful, sometimes) red herrings and wrong-turns.
they enrich the story so it doesn’t consist of just your four main characters, unless that’s the whole point of the story.
they can give us a sneak-peek of something that might happen in a later book if this is a series.
they act as a kind of commentator or dramatic chorus to comment on the action or criticise or laud the ‘hero’.
But life as an Extra can be tough and is often unpredictable.
Police or other people in authority (completely unaware all too often that they themselves are Extras, can bully them or wrongfully arrest an Extra and accuse them of terrible things they haven’t done.
You need a huge range of skills as you may be called upon to perform almost any task from forensic assistant to chambermaid.
As an Extra, you might be completely overlooked by the reader who doesn’t even notice you, let alone what a magnificent job you do pretending to be an elderly dog-walker when you’re really a young woman in her twenties on her way to college and you don’t even like dogs.
Alice was at the party with two friends. Who were they? No one knows.
And they never remember your name, which is why you have to have a description attached: Miss Jones, the games mistress at school where victim used to teach. You might even find yourself very near the bottom of a long list of characters, a list designed to help readers remember all the people in the book they’ve met but don’t remember.
No one asks your opinion. ‘Tell us, Poirot,’ they cry, at the end of the book. ‘Who did this dastardly deed? and why?’ I mean, all the Extras probably know this information too, don’t they. But no one ever asks them. They just come in with the tea tray and leave without anyone noticing.
Likewise, no one ever asks an Extra if they’re okay and how they feel about being shut up in a big country house with loads of stairs, and a murderer roaming about bumping people off willy-nilly.
And as if all this is not enough, when the author gets bored, you might even end up as the next victim, just to ‘spice things up a bit’.
How is that fair? It’s not just a policeman’s life that’s terrible hard. Try being an Extra for one book, let alone a whole series. I’m only surprised they don’t have a union.
‘I hate being in crowd scenes,’ said the person in the red outfit. ‘So do I!’ said another person in yellow. ‘It’s so anonymous.’
I love murder mysteries. I doubt this comes as any kind of a surprise to most people reading this blog. Characters in a murder mystery fall into one of two categories: they are either part of the Big Four, or they are Extras. This week I want to quickly chat about the Big Four.
Who are the Big Four?
The Big Four are the main characters without whom we would have no murder mystery. They are: The Victim(s), The Villain(s), The Side-kick(s) and The Detective(s).
And yes, they often come as a pair or even more, not just as a lone individual. Detectives, for example, often come as a pair – one an amateur and one a professional. Villains too, can sometimes deliberately confuse the reader by sharing the limelight with another villain, and share the crimes too.
And who doesn’t love a high body-count? Why stop at one Dastardly Deed when you can have two, or three, or…
Let me introduce you…
Victims, as avid mystery lovers know, are always bumped off for a reason. And obviously it is The Detective(s)’s(s’)(??) job to discover why and bring the perpetrator to justice.
The richer, the more arrogant, cruel, cold, grasping, greedy and crafty our victim is/was, the better we like it, don’t we? We can then take a vicarious pleasure in their demise as we would never, ever do such a thing ourselves in real life. And the worse they are, the nastier and more creative their all-too-timely death should be. BUT.
They can’t be so bad that we don’t care if their killer evades detection.
In my view, ideally there should be two or three of these demises per mystery because, if I’m honest, I’m always a bit disappointed if there’s ‘only’ one.
The Victim is there for one reason only–to make us, the reader feel clever: to provide something for The Detective to detect, of course.
Whenever I hear the word ‘villain’ I always think of a man in a swirling black cape and top hat, twirling his moustaches menacingly (or smugly, either will do)and saying ‘Mwah haha’.
Sadly, the days of Dick Dastardly have gone, (drat, drat and double drat) and nowadays The Villain can look like anyone:
A little old lady.
A stalwart Major-type.
A handsome young man on his honeymoon. (I’m looking at you, Death on the Nile.)
A nurse. (Sad Cypress)
Even a child. (Crooked House)
The Villain is often charming, often invokes our sympathy due to baggage and issues, and can even make us think, ‘Aww well, she/he’s had a tough childhood, maybe we should kindly overlook those four grisly murders and let her/him have a new chance at life.’
We must be on our guard at all times throughout the book until the moment this villain is unmasked.
The Sidekick has a demanding role. They are there as a kind of placeholder/proxy for the reader.
They must be clingy to the point of irritating, sticking by The Detective’s side when they really should go away and leave him/her alone to think things through. But no, they stick around at all times, asking stupid, inane and tedious questions, so that we don’t have to. We sit at home in our comfiest armchair and loudly exclaim, ‘Rookie mistake, I already knew that…’ but really we’re thinking, ‘Ooh I wasn’t sure, but now that you mention it…’
The side-kick – desperately needed to help us survive the journey
So they are there to help The Detective and the reader to find the evidence and the clues and to arrive at the truth of the mystery.
In fact they don’t create a dialogue, but they are the dialogue – through The Side-kick, the reader can talk to The Detective and The Detective can talk to us.
The Detective can be anyone.
Rather like The Villain, The Detective can be a law-and-order professional, or someone from an associated profession (forensics, psychology…), or an amateur with a gift, a nurse, a priest (The Complete Father Brown stories) a stalwart major-type, a nurse, a handsome young man on his honeymoon or even a child (The Sweetness At The Bottom Of The Pie).
The Detective has one job and one job only: to find out whodunit and bring them to justice.
It’s essential that her or his main characteristics include:
Passionate desire for justice, even at risk to self, it goes without saying, I hope.
Incredibly close attention to detail: ‘Sacre bleu, this dust is 3.14159 milimetres in ze thickness, therefore the killer was the maid and the crime was committed on Tuesday afternoon.’* The whole case may depend on just this kind of minuteness.
‘Mesdames et messieurs, allow me to reveal at last, the identity of the criminal’.
Very keen observation skills: ‘Zut alors, the footprints in the mud are of a depth of 3.14159 milimetres, therefore we must find a person of 6 feet 1 inch who weighs 189lbs.’
From the two above attributes, we can also see that they must be good at mathematics too.
Lastly, the Detective must have a huge ego: We readers love to have all the suspects in a room at the end of the story, and to be taken step by step through the crime to learn the identity of The Villain, and to have the satisfaction of them being led away in handcuffs. Therefore it is essential that our Detective loves to show off just a little and to deliver a lecture on how clever he/she is and how many different things we missed.
So next time you are reading a mystery, keep a handy notebook and pen by your side, so you can check for all these points!
*must supply own white hat
*sorry btw, for me all fictional detectives are Hercule Poirot, even when they’re not
Let’s play a game of ‘what shall we do this weekend’.
I’ve been thinking about how amazing it would to travel back in time to the actual 1930s* instead of just daydreaming/writing or pretending/obsessing about it…
This is what I’ve come up with:
Things I’d be excited to do/try:
A posh weekend at a country house with lots of people who are glamorous and speak nicely.
Ditto the big frocks and hair-dos.
And gloves and hats.
And the four/five/six course dinners.
Going to the house of someone posh for ‘drinks’.
Dancing to the radio in a kind of impromptu disco at home with dinner guests.
The excitement of talkies – films with speaking actors!
Meet Gary Cooper when he was young and gorgeous…
And knowing there is a study or library, and perhaps even secret passages.
And bell-pulls to summon people from the depths of the house. I’d be like a child, ringing the bell then have to run away as there would be no legitimate reason to ring for them…
Maybe a maze? Or a rose garden? Or both? What about a croquet lawn? I am certain I’d be an amazing talent when it came to croquet. I can always bowl a great croque.
It might be nice to – very occasionally – have all the men stand up out of politeness when I come into the room. Or stop using bad words because I am in the vicinity and am a ‘lady’ (until they get to know me better, of course).
Travelling by steam train in the actual era they were used, not just on a preserved line in my usual jeans/t-shirt combo.
Things I’d miss terribly:
Being able to say all those bad words that are so good for stress relief when things go wrong. In the 1930s, I’d probably be vilified for my potty-mouth. Though to be fair, most of my rage is triggered by modern technology so it wouldn’t be an issue in the 1930s, when a telegram was still pretty exciting, and indoor plumbing was all too often a thing reserved for the gentry.
Sorry if I’ve destroyed your illusions about the way a writer speaks/acts/looks, btw.
My freezer, and my microwave.
Going to a cafe ALL the time to sit and watch the world go by whilst pretending to write.
The Internet (sorry to all you nay-sayers).
Nipping to a supermarket – even on a SUNDAY to get the bits and pieces I completely forgot I urgently needed.
Books by all my favourite post-1930s authors such as Ann Cleeves, Helena Dixon, Julie Wassmer, Helen Forbes, Emma Baird…
TV: Midsomer Murders/Death in Paradise/Vera/Madame Blanc/Strike/Van der Valk/Darby and Joan/Three Pines/The Chelsea Detective/Dalgliesh/Whitstable Pearl… (can you spot a trend here?)
All my modern vaccinations – I don’t want to catch diptheria/small pox/scarlet fever etc
Being able to slob about in jeggings and a baggy jumper – because I reckon there could be times when looking posh 1930s-style might just be too much effort…
Being allowed an opinion about anything other than babies, flower arranging or hair-dos.
So what do you think? What would you be desperate to see/try/person to meet? Or what would you miss the most? Or what about another era? What would be your perfect era to visit if that were possible?
*obviously I’m dragging my poor family along with me – I wouldn’t dream of going anywhere exciting without them.
I’m a few days into my new writing now, and things are starting to get muddled interesting.
Like an idiot, I decided to keep writing the story I was already writing, which is of lower priority than the new one. And, at the same time, I’m wrestling with THE NEW BOOK and trying to keep my head clear – and the right characters and scenes in the right book. I must admit, my brain is beginning to complain about the hard work it’s having to do.
One of my main problems is names. Place names, character names, I forget most of them apart from those of the major characters. I resort to writing an X as a placeholder for the character’s name. the trouble is, by the time I’ve written a few pages, this can be complicated. it’s not as though my characters exist in isolation, they are a sociable bunch and soon they are out of the house and wandering along the street to have tea and cake or a pint of beer with loads of other people, all also known as X.
Occasionally, in a bid to keep things straight in my mind, I might put ‘write Pete’s mate’s name here’. But this doesn’t work either, as Pete – annoyingly, has several ‘mates’ and sees them all as often as possible.
And then there are the places, the settings. At the moment they are variously recorded as ‘Pete’s mate’s pub‘ or ‘Pete’s mate’s lock-up‘ or Cemetery/Graveyard/which one do I mean?
Now if I was more like you, dear reader, and properly organised, I’d probably have remembered to create myself a list beforehand.
Well, in fact, in my defence, I did write out a list, but I can’t find it. I think it’s in a notebook, but I’m not sure which one and by the time I’ve found it, the fabulous idea for my scene might have fizzled away, so I plod on with my Xs and my hints. I like to do things my way. It may not be tidy, elegant, efficient, or even sensible, but it’s worked for me, kind of, so I stick with it. By the time I come to rewrite, I will have fixed all these little annoyances and – theoretically – created a nice, polished draft.
Though once I forgot and Mr Amazon had to email me and say, ‘This book you’ve uploaded looks like it might not be your final version, would you like to check and make sure?’ Nice chap. he was right. There were the ‘Pete’s mate’ and Xs. Oops, good thing this was spotted by Mr A!
So what am I writing?
Well, I’m working on the not-at-all-urgent book 4 of the Criss Cross trilogy (go with me here) as I decided I would extend the series to a ‘ten years later’ scenario, I just felt suddenly inspired. Book 4 will be called Dirty Work, and I have no idea when it will be out, sorry.
The more pressing new book is book 2 of the new series, the Miss Gascoigne mysteries. it will be called A Wreath of Lilies, and you can find out a teeny bit more here. It’s going to be a while before it’s finished, so don’t get too anxious. It’ll be October, I should think, a year after book 1.