A sneak peek of Miss Gascoigne book 1: A Meeting With Murder

As you may know, I’m working on the first book of a new series. It’s another cosy mystery series featuring a female amateur detective. The series is to be known as the Miss Gascoigne mysteries, and Diana ‘Dee’ Gascoigne is the detective. It will be released on the 30th September, and the Kindle version is available to pre-order. The paperback and large print paperback will be published shortly after the eBook.

If you have read any of the Dottie Manderson mysteries set in the 1930s, some of these names may sound familiar.  Dee Gascoigne is the baby Diana who is born at the beginning of The Last Perfect Summer of Richard Dawlish. Now it’s 1965, and Diana is almost 30, recently separated from an abusive husband and still carrying a not-very-secret for her not-quite-cousin Bill Hardy, eldest son of Dottie and–you’ve guessed it, William Hardy from the Dottie Manderson mysteries. (SPOILER!!! They do get together, don’t despair!)

In A Meeting With Murder, Dee has just lost her job due to the scandalous fact that she plans to divorce her husband–divorce was still a very big issue in the 1960s, then following a bout of bronchitis, Dee goes off to the seaside to recover. Of course, even in a small village, or perhaps because it’s a small village, there are malign forces at work. Dee, like her aunt Dottie, feels compelled to investigate, and perhaps start a whole new career for herself.

Here’s a short extract from A Meeting With Murder: Miss Gascoigne mysteries book 1.

I hope you like it!

Dee had a leisurely afternoon. She took another walk around the village, marvelling that she didn’t happen to meet anyone, considering the place was so small but well-populated. She had afternoon tea with Cissie in what was rapidly becoming a ritual, one that she would miss a great deal when she finally returned to London.

That evening, Dee looked at the two letters yet again, mulling over them long and hard. She knew them by heart now. Not that there had been much to learn, both were short and direct.

The first one, in the usual style of cut out words or single letters from magazines or newspapers, said simply, ‘Your seCREt shame will NOT be a secret much lONger.’

The second, more recent one, said, ‘Your bAstard cHILd will pay for YOUr sin.’

The word bastard had been made up from several sections of type: the b was a separate letter, then the Ast were together, presumably formerly part of a longer word. The next a was a single letter again, then the final two letters, rd, were once more part of the same word, and likewise, the YOU of your was formed of a word in capital letters with an extra r added to the end.

On the one hand, it was laughable that anyone would think this was still a scandalous secret in the modern era. But on the other, Dee remembered what Cissie had said to her when she first explained about the poison pen letters. It must have been a shock, Dee decided, for Lily to open the envelopes and find these letters inside. To think that someone who knew her, someone familiar she no doubt spoke to on a regular basis, had composed these spiteful notes.

Dee sat for a long while pondering the letters. At last, she put them away, neatly folding them and slipping them into the zipped mirror pocket of her handbag for safe keeping.

The next morning she was up bright and early, had her breakfast, and humming along to a song on the radio, she tidied the cottage and got ready to go out to meet her brother’s train, eager to see him, eager to tell him everything she’d learned. She came out of the dim house into bright sunshine, and walked directly into a man going past the cottage.

Then as he gripped her arms to steady her, and helped her to stay on her feet, she saw who it was.

‘Oh!’ she said, covering her sense of shock by becoming angry instead of flinging herself into his arms. ‘So Scotland Yard finally turned up, did they? A bit late in the day.’

The tall man in the smart suit—surely a little too smart for ordinary daywear, especially in the country, Dee commented to herself—took a couple of steps back, clearly as shocked as she was at having literally walked right into her as she came out of the front door of the cottage as he and the other man with him were walking by on their way from the railway station to the pub.

Just looking at him was enough to set her heart singing, much to her annoyance. Meanwhile he was frowning down at her with what was known in the family as the Hardy Frown, his dark brows drawn together over long-lashed hazel eyes that were just like his mother’s.

‘What the hell are you doing here anyway? You’d better not be interfering in my investigation. I’m not like my father. I don’t allow private citizens to meddle in official police business.’ He was holding his forefinger up in a lecturing manner. 

‘Oh shut up, Bill, you’re so bloody pompous,’ Dee said and stormed off.

Hardy sighed.

‘I take it you know that lady, sir?’ the sergeant asked, eyes wide with curiosity, following the lady as she went.

‘You could say so, sergeant. Listen to me. On no account are you to tell that woman anything about this case. Don’t give her documents to read. Don’t accidentally leave your notebook lying around for her to ‘just happen to find’ and snoop through. Don’t answer any of her questions, or tell her our line of questioning, or anything about our suspects, or just—anything. She comes from a long line of nosy women. Do you understand me, sergeant?’

‘Ye…’ the sergeant began.

‘Because if you do any of those things, believe me, I shall make your life a living hell.’ Hardy caught himself and stopped. Then added, with just a hint of a smile, ‘Not that I don’t already, I expect you’re thinking.’

‘Oh sir, as a mere sergeant, I’m not paid to think.’ Sergeant Nahum Porter risked a grin at the inspector.

Stifling a laugh, Hardy said, ‘I’m very glad to hear it. Now come on, we’ve got things to do.’

many thanks to clash_gene at Shutterstock for the wonderful cover image.

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Reading history

I was an only child and I spent a great deal of time on my own. We did not have a lot of money but we always had a collection of books, and of course library cards.

Books intrigued me. There were grown-up books with lurid enigmatic dust jackets, pictures of strangers lurking in darkened doorways, or a single outflung hand, or an image of lip-sticked women with broken pearl necklaces. These I was not allowed to read as they were ‘too grown-up’ but I liked to look at the covers.

Then there were the books that had either been my mother’s or one of her brother’s or sister’s: Enid Blyton’sThe Island of Adventure’, Malcolm Saville’s Lone Pine Five series. I read the ones we had again and again, struggling at first with the more advanced language of the Saville books, but not wanting to put them down – something in those stories gripped me. And when I became old enough to have pocket money, aged 9 or 10, I began to spend all my money, from birthdays and Christmas too, on any books I could get my hands on. By the time I was 11, I had hundreds.

Now more than 50 years old!

I can remember making paper models of Famous Five and Lone Pine Five stories, cutting out little people–and of course the dog–and things like tents and bicycles. I also wrote to Malcolm Saville and was thrilled to receive a letter back, signed by him and enclosing a Lone Pine Five badge—he was already in his late 70s or early 80s at that time.

I can remember writing my own stories on the back of scrap paper, and stapling them together inside a ‘cover’ made from a cereal packet which I decorated with crayons. I made dozens of little notebooks for myself.

An aunt gave me a massive book on Christmas–the complete works of Lewis Carroll. I loved that. Alice in Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass, of course, but even the essays, the letters, acrostics and puzzles, and, new to me then, the magical Sylvie and Bruno stories. I read ‘Twas Brillig…’ in German—or tried to—before I even started to learn the language, and it too was magical.

I can’t remember the day when I suddenly thought ‘I could do this, I could be a writer’. I can only remember that those early books gave me something that I longed to participate in. By the time I was 10 or 11, it was a fully fledged ambition. I wrote stories and made covers for them from cereal packet carboard. My teacher took them seriously and critiqued them.

Poems that inspired me, and filled me with encouragement, a sense of story, and with awe: Jabberwocky. Daffodils by Wordsworth. I read it as a child and felt I could really see them—the simple imagery was something I could understand and relate to. The haunting opening line of Walter de la Mare’s The Traveller—‘Is anybody there…?’

The first Enid Blyton ‘detective’ story I read.

It wasn’t until I was older, in my mid-teens, that I began to see writing as something I wanted to do in a professional capacity—but I was told I didn’t have the right background, or the right education, the right skills, that kind of thing. Did it stop me? No, of course not. If you’re passionate about a thing, no one and nothing can stop you. I told myself I could write ‘just for myself’, not to try to be published. So I saw myself as a hobbyist.

Formal studies at school and through university courses made me learn to see books as works, and view them from the outside, so to speak, not just immerse myself into them as an experience. I learned to understand techniques and things like plots and motifs and point of view. I discussed meaning and learned phrases like ‘unwitting testimony’. I honed my own writing skills and learned important grammar stuff. A lot of the books I ‘had’ to read didn’t appeal to me beyond the course. But I learned so much about books and writing.

Mrs Dalloway

Wow, I was staggered by the whole concept of stream-of-consciousness writing. And this was one of those works that really made you think. I was in bits by the end.

The Colour Purple

It was the direct yet otherness of the language that showed me how to reveal pain, to gain the reader’s sympathy and it made me want Celie to find her children and be happy. It felt all-engrossing. When she finally started addressing her letters to her children and not to God, it felt like an arrival. An emotional one.

Pride and Prejudice

It was what wasn’t said that I found touching. And also the gentle humour. I had never realised until I read P & P that ‘classics’ could be enjoyable.

The Wind In The Willows

The richness of the language, definitely wasted on children, was what inspired me. That and the busy minutiae of the animals’ everyday lives, so clearly people by any other name.

Patricia Wentworth & Agatha Christie

My cosy mystery heroines. The ‘safety’ of their stories and her worlds, the cosiness, the black and white certainty of each story is so restful and enjoyable. The intellectual wanting to know ‘why’ and ‘how’ and ‘who’. The satisfaction of revealing the culprit and vindicating the innocent. Christie sometimes added an extra layer of meaning, but overall I feel that her books remain cosy.

These were the books and the authors that got me started on the slippery slope! What are your book memories?

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These fragments I have shored against my ruin

I first shared this blog post in 2016. To date, it’s still my best-performing blog post. Not sure if that is because it’s one of my shortest – I am quite a waffler these days.

But I love that line. It’s line 431 from T S Eliot’s The Waste Land. The first time I read the poem, when I got to this line I burst into tears, because it seemed such a beautiful summation, of the poem, of my life, everything. Words do that to me–I’m a very emotional person, I’m glad to say.

I believe that our lives are made up of fragments. We are, in essence, a walking, talking collection of every experience we’ve ever had. This includes what we’ve read. Words.

So often I am out and about–yes, I escape now and again–and I hear something, see something, smell something which provokes a memory of something I’ve read. Most often it is snatches of conversation I overhear, being nosey and a crime writer, which as we all know gives me special dispensation to eavesdrop on others. (‘I ain’t been dropping no eaves, sir, honest.’) Words seem to lead to more words.

I hear someone say, ‘The wonderful thing…’ and mentally I’ve added ‘…about Tiggers is Tiggers are wonderful things.’ (I didn’t promise it was anything erudite!) Or someone may say ‘Wherever I go…’ and I think to myself ‘there’s always Pooh, there’s always Pooh and me.’ (By the way, Winnie the Pooh is not just for kids. Just read the chapter called The Piper At the Gates of Dawn…)

It’s not just A A Milne, though. So often snatches of Shakespeare, Agatha Christie, songs, poems, plays, hymns, prayers, all sorts of words come into my head. I can’t look at spring flowers without thinking ‘A host of golden daffodils’ or ‘April is the cruellest month’. (The Waste Land again!) A tall person becomes ‘thou painted Maypole’. A mouse is a ‘wee sleekit cowrin tim’rous beastie’. (Burns of course, who else?)

If something annoying happens, I hear Miss Marple whisper, ‘Oh dear, how extremely vexing,’ or I hear someone say something stupid, and Mr Bennett’s frustrated, outraged, ‘Until you come back…I shall not hear two words of sense spoken together’ comes to mind. I share his pain. In extremis, ‘I shall be in my library; I’m not to be disturbed.’ (Not unless there’s cake or Midsomer Murders.) Or I might hear Miss Silver’s indulgent, ‘In their own way, men can be quite useful.’

Or if sorrows come in, it’s Matthew Arnold’s painful comment filled with longing, ‘Ah love, let us be true to one another,’ because he believed that one another was all we have. (Dover Beach).

Or…

There’s always another wonderful sketch of words from someone who lived many years before my time. Or a contemporary. Or the next generation. We all use and need words.

And because of this, none of us can ever come to a text, for the first time, or the tenth, ‘cold’ or ‘new’. There is really no neutral approach in the human soul. We bring with us the sum of all our experiences and emotions, our world-view and our beliefs, and those inform what we read, and mercifully sometimes, what we read can inform all those things too.

When I was studying literature ‘back in the day’, I remember The Waste Land was one of our set texts. Critics deplored it, dismissing it as a pastiche, a patchwork quilt of other peoples’ work, revealing only a good memory for quotations. Students shuddered and declared it was one of the worst experiences of their life. But for some of us, there was a sense of ‘wow, I never knew poetry could be like this!’

When I read his words, ‘These fragments I have shored against my ruins’ (line 431), I said to my tutor, I think he is saying that literature, that words, will save us in times of crisis, bolster us when we are at a low ebb. I was told I was wrong, but in spite of that, I still choose to believe this could be one meaning of these, for me, immortal words. These fragments of remembered stories, poems, previous experiences, feelings, of words, I have stored up, internalised, to use as a defence, shored against my ruin, my unhappiness, times of want, misery, sorrow and confusion. Ruin.

For me it is a reminder that many things in life are transient, passing, temporary, but I will always carry within me the sum of what I have read. Just read Shakespeare’s sonnet 18 and tell me I’m wrong. It’s short, it’s sweet, it’s got a cheeky grin at the end. It’s perfect, and all human life is there.

***

Don’t use that language with me – revisited!

Warning: contains coarse offensive language!

‘She said whaaat???’

This is a cheap and nasty slight rewrite of a post from two years ago. Sorry. My brain just isn’t working today. Readers of a nervous, highly moral or religious disposition, please look away now.

These days we aren’t as shocked as we once were when someone drops the F-bomb. In fact pretty much everyone seems to say it now. Even I do – my mother would have been horrified, if she had still been with us.  I think we’ve just got used to what we usually refer to as bad language. so used to it, it’s practically become everyone’s favourite adjective or adverb.

I’m in danger of lapsing into one of those scenes so typical of the older generation: You know them. The sort of thing that starts with an old bat saying, ‘When I was young…’ But there’s no denying it was a different world. Do you remember how the newspaper used to headline such things as ‘The Filth and The Fury’? That was when the Daily Mirror blasted the Sex Pistols for their language in 1977? Or what about the infamous December 1976 Bill Grundy interview where the interviewer goaded Johnny Rotten into using the F-word on TV ‘for only the third time in the history of British Television!

‘Well I’ll go to the foot of our stairs!’ exclaimed Marcus in surprise. ‘Oi, Marcus, what you on about?’ Burt and Harry wanted to know.

You could hear pearls being clutched for miles around. There was public outrage. Or so we were told by the media. Middle-aged people all over the country shook their heads over the decline of social morals and called for national service to come back. Elderly gentlemen said that was not why they went to war.

I privately thought, so what? But I was a teenager back then, and I think most teens probably thought the same, even then, when away from our parents or teachers, we routinely used the worst possible of language.

Does anyone remember Mary Whitehouse and her campaign to clean up Britain? She wanted to rid the country of ‘filth’. She said references to sex were ‘dirty’, and bad language was disgusting. Not just any actual sex scenes, but even just talking about it. (She was perfectly lampooned in an episode of the detective TV series, Endeavour.)

‘Well hush my mouth.’

But bad words are practically as old as the Ark. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them sprang from that time. Can you imagine trying to herd a bunch of animals into a boat and getting poo on your foot or a slobbery tongue in your face and NOT swearing? We all know cats are notoriously slow to come inside, you stand there for ages with the door open, trying to coax them. I know I would have had a few choice words to say.  Probably, ‘Stop mucking about you idiots, and get on the f-ing boat, I’m getting f-ing wet here.’

Chaucer and Shakespeare used their own versions of our modern insults and foul words, and paved the way for colourful terms to enter everyday English. (which were removed from ‘school’ texts…much to our teenage frustration!) These bad words greatly enriched our approach to incidents, frustrations, injuries, and annoyances that require relief through a vigorous use of very expressive language. Because apparently, studies have shown that swearing relieves stress and enables us to cope in stressful situations. I know it helps me!

‘I say Barbara, your mother’s language is a bit rough, what?’

I should just add, in Britain we call it swearing. That is to say, using bad language. Not making an oath in a court. That’s a whole different kind of swearing. No, I’m talking here about what in America is often called cursing. But you could call it all kinds of things: blaspheming (possibly), using expletives, foul language, or as we say in Britain ‘Effing and Blinding’, (a euphemism for saying Fuck and Bloody).

The term for this is  using a ‘minced oath’ or ‘minced words’ – to take a profanity and adapt it to render it less offensive. We use this in everyday speech when we say of someone ‘They don’t mince their words’, which basically means, they are extremely forthright in what they say, usually offensively so. Some examples of minced oaths: Feck, Blooming/Flipping Heck, Oh Shoot, Darn it, etc.

While we’re discussing the differences between the US and the UK, let me just say this: Bloody was not traditionally a mild swear-word. I’ve seen blog posts and social media stuff where they ‘define’ certain English words and they always say ‘Bloody’ in England is the same as ‘Damn’ in America. That’s just not true.

‘He made me do it; I just couldn’t cope anymore with his Effing and Jeffing!’

It used to be the third worst word you could say when I was a kid, and its use would certainly bring a very stiff penalty in terms of punishment both at home and at school. It’s not mild. Or rather, it’s only mild in comparison with the F-bomb and C-word. It used to be fairly normal to have one’s mouth washed out with soap if using these words. It would make you vomit – obviously – and was definitely a very unpleasant experience designed to make you think twice about using bad language again. Usually the threat of it was enough to make you reconsider your choice of words. Damn was a much milder word, but still forbidden.

Tibbles had hoped his new owner would have a little more class. But no, the same old F-words morning, noon, and night.

Now in my contemporary trilogy, the Friendship Can Be Murder books, there’s a fair bit of this kind of bad language. We see it in society, it’s used all around us. And it’s used as much by the well-to-do, like my ‘heroine’, Cressida Barker-Powell, as by people from other walks of life. Although when she is about to become a mother, she makes a determined effort to guard her language, keeping the ‘eff’ part of the word but discarding the rest of the letters. I wanted my contemporary books had to reflect the world they are set in, for me at least, to make the characters seem more real, more natural and believable. I do not believe in censoring ‘bad’ language.

But when it came to writing my 1930s murder mysteries, the Dottie Manderson mysteries, that required a whole different approach. Because the Dottie Manderson books are far more polite, more traditional, almost (but by accident rather than design) qualifying for the ‘clean’ subgenre of the mystery or romance categories.

‘Pardon my French.’

Now I know—I guess we all know—that the kind of language we hear today all around us, was not all that different back then in the 1930s. But there were several provisos: it was not ‘ladylike’ to use bad language. There was a strong paternalistic, protective culture of ‘Ladies’ present’, which meant, ‘Guys, there are women about, mind your language’; and then there was a much stronger emphasis on politeness, being conventional, being acceptable and so on. If a person used bad language, it called into question their respectability and good breeding. Bad language in public in particular was far less common and just not socially acceptable. But it did exist. Even in the 60s and 70s, we used to be told that if a policeman heard us swearing, we would be arrested and locked up and given only bread and water for the rest of our lives.

So in my Dottie books, I stick with tried and trusted old favourites such as ‘blast’, ‘bother’, (my mother’s favourite was ‘Botheration!’), ‘Good Lord’: you couldn’t say Good God except in cases of sincere anxiety or shock as it was believed to be, ‘taking the name of the Lord in vain’, or people would think you were drunk, immoral or even worse, poor.

But there was always ‘My Goodness’, ‘My Word’, and ‘What on Earth…’ to fall back on. I love some of the very mild exclamations of that era, such as ‘Well I’ll eat my hat’ or ‘Well I’ll go to the foot of our stairs’ – completely meaningless and bizarre words!

When I hear ‘goodness gracious’ or ‘goodness gracious me’ I always think of ladies who spill tea on their frock when pouring it from a Spode teapot. Obviously these ladies are sitting at a picnic table in a sunny patch of the garden, and are wearing a straw hat. They have on a print dress and pearls. It’s a meaningless phrase and completely pointless. But covers the embarrassment of clumsiness and gives relief to the urge to scream when the hot tea soaks through the frock onto their leg.

‘Lots of people are going to the foot of their stairs’ Daily Telegraph March 17th 1973

Only very occasionally do I permit a gentleman to say Bloody or Damn in a moment of anger. Even then, he’ll be expected to apologise afterwards. Obviously. Or he wouldn’t be a gentleman.

There was then virtually no use of the now almost universal OMG, or the long form Oh My God, which I have even heard from 5-year-olds, which seems wrong. These days we also have the popular phrase, ‘Shut the front door’, which is a minced version of the surprised, often disbelieving retort, ‘Shut the fuck up’! and basically means, ‘I can’t possibly believe this tall tale you are telling me.’

With the recent translations of the first four Dottie Manderson books into German, there had to be some discussion about the ‘levels’ or severity of naughty words. It was quite difficult to explain some of the euphemisms we use now, or back then, and hard to find an acceptable and era-appropriate equivalent. I also had to apologise for our use of ‘Pardon my French’ which is a term we Brits still use to apologise for using bad language. Sorry, sorry, sorry, to French-speaking people everywhere. I recently heard a new one on TV (The Goes Wrong Show!) where the show’s ‘director’ apologised for the show’s swearing ‘Or as my mother calls it, Scottish language.’ Again, so so sorry to all my friends from Scotland – but this one made me spit coffee all over myself.

‘Goodness gracious me!’ said Lady Maud as the hot liquid splashed onto her afternoon gown. ‘Now I’ve got to change my sodding frock.’ ‘You mean your sodden frock, Maud,’ said Sir Reginald severely.

 

***

Zonya and her Big Knickers

T-bar sandals, stretchy hairband and an anorak – my outfit screams the Swinging Sixties!

This is an old post that I am re-sharing today. In fact it’s a life writing piece, based on my memories of my ‘auntie’ Zonya. So it’s not a fictional piece, though I might not be remembering it exactly! When we look back on a memory we add layers of our accumulated experience onto the memory, and of course the passage of time means that all too often we look back and remember the colours far brighter, the events far happier than they perhaps really were.

But Auntie Zonya was a unique and wonderful lady. Her real name was Doris, but she had been, many years earlier, a dancer and had changed her name to sound more in keeping with her exotic stage life. I only knew that later. At the time–we’re talking about 1964 or so until around 1974, I knew her only as Auntie Zonya. She was tiny, she was plump, she had the reddest of red hair–again only later did I realise this was not a natural red, but out of a bottle.

A Georgian house, similar to ours in the street where we used to live.

She turned up living in a room across the corridor from my mum and me where we lived in a lovely old Georgian villa that had been converted into cheap bedsits. She was older than my mum by about thirty years, so she kind of became a big sister/surrogate mum to my mum, and a very loving aunt to me.

Anyway, one day she was ‘babysitting’ me and we went shopping. For knickers. Here’s what happened:

Thinking back to when I was a child, I remember once being in a department store, in Tunbridge Wells, England, in the mid-1960s. I can picture the scene as if I were an onlooker.

I’m buying big knickers with Auntie Zonya. It’s a lesson in economy versus quality. I am wearing a skirt my mother made me and a jumper. My hair is in a long dark-brown plait down my back as always, and I’m probably wearing either a frock my mother made me or stretchy leggings and a home-knitted jumper.

I mean, they’re huge, right? And making a comeback!

They look the same—same size, shape, style and colour, yet these knickers are less than half the price of those others. I’m learning the difference between branded goods and their cheaper, store’s own label counterparts. Zonya, in other ways so stylish and chic for an older woman, favoured the larger undie. Knickers built like modern cycle shorts—up to the waist, down to the knees—and incredibly, sometimes even with a pocket in the waistband. Crimson, stretchy cotton with a little line of black lace trim at the waist and knee.

I can’t imagine wearing anything so huge. By comparison, my underwear at age six or seven or whatever I am is really quite skimpy and small.

We are in BHS or somewhere like that, comparing their own brand of cheap-and-cheerfuls with a far more expensive generic brand-name knicker. Seeing my doubtful looks, she assures me these are warm, comfortable and very, very durable. I’m not convinced. Maybe they will swallow me whole. And the colour! Red like holly berries or Zonya’s lipstick or red like a London bus or a pillar box. Really, really red.

We snap the elastic a few times experimentally. It seems sufficiently sturdy and reliable and so economy wins out and the cheapy knickers are purchased.

I remember it as a fun, ordinary outing, one of the few memories I have of shopping when I was small. I realise now never did ask her how she got on with them.

Sorry it’s a bit grainy. This is Zonya and I at London Zoo, 1965.

If you want to read more about Auntie Zonya, here’s another short piece:

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Writing Genre Fiction – part two

Famously NOT adhering to generic conventions…

Three weeks ago, I wrote in part one of Writing Genre Fiction that all genres, including my favourite genre of cosy mysteries, have conventions. And what is a convention? The Oxford English Dictionary defines convention as: ‘a) general agreement, esp agreement on social behaviour etc by implicit consent of the majority; or b) a custom or customary practice, esp an artificial or formal one.’

Here is a quick recap of the main conventions of books in the cosy mystery genre:

  • No excessive gore or violence, no realistic trauma, bad language is mild, no sex scenes.
  • Usually feature a small cast of characters in an idealised setting, often a country house or a village.
  • There must be clues and red herrings.
  • The emphasis is on the puzzle of the crime and readers solving that alongside the sleuth.
  • The sleuth is usually an amateur, not a police professional, and is often female. Though of course, not always.
  • The ending is (generally) cut-and-dried and is often resolved with a gathering of all the main suspects and other players of the story so that the sleuth can reveal the truth behind the crime(s). There may be ongoing storylines that are not resolved, but the crime itself should be resolved at the end of the book.

(I’d be the first to say, my own books don’t always adhere to these guidelines. Sorry.)

Very often authors will strive to write something ‘new’ and may feel that it has all been done before, or that the conventions are ‘old hat’. But for readers who enjoy reading mysteries, doing something different just for the sake of it is not always a good way to win their approval – they love the conventions and expect the author to stick by them at least to a greater extent.

Readers have certain expectations

No reader will be happy if you kill off someone’s pet. And it goes without saying that if you bump off your main character’s love interest or a close relation or friend, you will be vilified forever. Likewise if you allow your character to – well – act out of character, readers will notice and be unhappy. Reader expectations are high once you have set out to create a series, and you absolutely have to do what you can to respect the reader’s investment of emotion as well as time and money into your work.

But in actual fact, the range of options available to the author is limited, because as we know, ‘There is nothing new under the sun’ (the Bible: Ecclesiastes 1:9! See, I can do research!) and also, ‘Is there a case where one can say, “Look, this is new”? It has already existed in the ages before us.’ (the Bible: Ecclesiastes 1:10)

And if it had already all been done in Biblical times…

But just because you are constrained by generic convention does not mean you can’t be creative or original. This is where the twists and turns of the plot become the essential ingredient to muddy the waters and cover your tracks . Sorry about the mixed metaphors.

Writing unique or ‘different’ genre fiction can seem difficult – you only have 26 letters to play with, and everyone uses them, right? And if all these conventions and tropes have been used before, if there’s nothing new under the sun, how can we find our unique voice? How can we say something new or fresh? Again this is where plot twists and devices and your own unique way of using those 26 letters comes into play.

He’s about to sing, the Lament of the Trope

Like writing, music is another creative art that has genres and stylistic conventions. And whilst I am not a musician, I am passionate about music. And guess what? Composers of music can be every bit in need of all their ingenuity as writers when it comes to creating something fresh and ‘original’. Just to give you an extremely simple illustration: all these songs are in the key of C Major.

Ain’t No Sunshine by Bill Withers

Stairway To Heaven by Led Zeppelin

Hallelujah by Jeff Buckley

Bad Romance by Lady Gaga

But they are not the same, are they? I was actually a teeny bit surprised to realise they are all in the same key. And of course, there are other keys than just C Major – and all the keys are made up of notes, which when combined in conventional ways, create chords. Chords are grouped together one after the other (called progression, ie moving forward) to create a tune. (Or for the writer, these would compare to scenes or chapters). Here’s another set of examples:

These four songs all heavily feature the same chord progressions. It is the I-V-vi-VI Progression/C-G-Am-F known as the Optimistic chord progression for its uplifting sound. (I think these chords are for guitar – sorry, now I am really revealing my technical ignorance.)

No Woman No Cry by Bob Marley

Right Here Waiting by Richard Marx

Run by Snow Patrol

Let It Be by The Beatles

But again, they are so different, aren’t they? I could go on: these are G Major works:

Another One Bites The Dust by Queen

Wake Me Up When September Ends by Green Day

Brown-Eyed Girl by Van Morrison

You Shook Me All Night Long by AC/DC

Or other chord progressions. If the previous ones are termed the ‘optimistic’ progression, these are the ‘pessimistic’ chord progressions: these are the same chords, just reshuffled to give a different effect. The I-V-vi-VI Progression/C-G-Am-F becomes vi-VI-I-V or Am-F-C-G, and these can create a sense of sadness that ranges from the merely plaintive to downright Throwing Myself Off A Cliff:

The Sun Always Shines On TV by A-Ha (a bit plaintive here and there)

Hurt by Johnny Cash (definitely a cliff moment… but sad songs can be beautiful, and uplifting too – giving catharsis.)

Angels by Robbie Williams

or one of my favourites, Wake Me Up by Avicii

Can you see how different these are though they are using, at least in part, the same conventions?

Coming back to writing, with a small cast of characters, it can be really hard to conceal the guilty party from the avid reader who will often have read hundreds of mystery books and have an excellent working knowledge of the generic style. Enter the trope – a recognisable kind of set plot idea that is often in use in certain genres. In romance, you have tropes such as ‘fake romance’, where the main couple pretend to be in love, often to appease persistent match-making relatives and end up falling in love for real; or you can have ‘enemies to lovers’ (think Elizabeth and Mr Darcy) where the couple begin by hating the very sight of one another but end up by loving the person once they get to know one another better.

In cosy mystery writing, a common trope might be the country house mystery – a closed community, a small number of suspects, a specific set of relationships, and the stage is set for murder in a kind of extremely popular notion but very idealised version of a pre-WWII English country house. The country house could be something other than a country house. For example your story could be set, not in a house but on a train, in a submarine, on a space station, on an island, in a bomb shelter. almost anywhere, in fact, so long as the setting is enclosed in some way. Or you might use any one of the countless other tropes,  the locked room trope, or you might use the disappearing corpse trope, or the gaslighting/I think I’m going insane trope…

Just because you are bound by conventions, doesn’t mean you can’t find your own voice, and your own style, and using the generic conventions means you can increase the readers pleasure as they can anticipate and understand what you are doing. If anything, sticking to the rules of your genre can give you greater freedom with a good, solid framework to build upon.

‘The Author, in the music room, with the typewriter…’

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Some small happy things – people watching again!

These days it’s quite hard to find something positive in the world. Life is tough. Even 2020 and the onset of covid is enough to fill me with a gentle nostalgia, those seem like fun times compared to right now. But kindness and goodness is not dead and gone, no matter what we read in the media or see on TV. If your mental health is at an all-time low, as many of us are finding, just look around you and you will find small things to make you smile.

Today I saw:

An elderly man ask a young mum struggling with a screaming toddler if she was okay. He wasn’t complaining about the noise. He wasn’t telling her how she should raise her kid. He just asked if she was okay. She said she was, thank you, and told him that her child had just been vaccinated and was crying because of that. But the man’s simple kindness made me happy. Because sometimes we just need someone to ask, right?

And as I was waiting for my other half, a woman–a total stranger–asked me about something I was holding – bird food (as usual!). ‘Is that stuff any good?’ she asked me. ‘Because my sister-in-law bought some and it’s like sawdust. The birds won’t touch it.’

I told her the birds that come to my garden wolf it down like crazy. ‘I’ll get some,’ she said, so I told her where I got mine.

‘It’s a bit pricey, ‘ I warned her.

‘That doesn’t matter,’ she said. ‘My dad’s 96, and watching the birds gives him so much pleasure, it’s worth it just to make him happy.’

Aww. Obviously that small encounter warmed my heart too.

As my mum used to say, good things come in threes–when we got back to our car, the rain had started, and everyone was in a rush to leave. A young dad and very small girl cute in her school uniform, arrived to get into the car next to ours, and the dad said to the little one, ‘We’ve got to get home quick, I’ve put the washing out!’

I smiled. he wasn’t too worried, the child wasn’t being hurried or pushed along, they were just taking life in their stride, calm, relaxed, happy. As I said, small things, nothing earth-shattering, but the mundane minutiae of everyday life. That’s what makes me smile.

Actually there were more than three–the cafe owner where we went stayed back a few more minutes after closing to make a cup of tea for a late customer, an elderly woman. The staff in the shops I visited were cheerful and friendly.

So that was a good day. I had a lovely chatty  lunch with my family, the sun shone (briefly) and I saw at first hand some simple things that showed me that there are good people in the world, and not everything is horrible. And I thought I would tell you.

Next week, I promise, it will be more about writing genre fiction.

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Autumn brings renewal

I know I say this every year, but for me, it is not Spring, but Autumn and Winter that form my season of creativity. I have no idea why this is. I don’t know why, but for me, autumn is not the season for rest and consolidation, but of flights of imagination taking wings. I get quite excited about the approach of autumn and winter. Maybe it’s the cuddly jumpers, I don’t know.

It seems as though the rest of the world is full of new life in the Spring. Is it because I’m an October baby, my lifecycle naturally goes from Autumn onwards? Or because when we lived in Brisbane, October was in the Spring? But how can five years there undo the habits of the other fifty-six years I’ve lived in the Northern Hemisphere? Or maybe it’s because for parents everywhere in the UK, Autumn is when the children go back to school and you at last get two minutes to sit in silence and just enjoy hearing – nothing. Ah, bliss!

New ideas are taking shape, even before the old ideas have been put to bed. I’m thinking about what I want to say in a new story. I’m having a wonderful time creating book covers, and though I’m struggling to come up with new titles, I have some ideas to mull over.

I’m always drawn to old stuff, I’m drawn backwards into the past. I’m thinking of long print frocks, ladies in beads, feathers in their hair, tea-dances, afternoon picnics on wide sweeping lawns, croquet. I’m thinking of couples dancing on a veranda under the stars, the doors open to let out the soft lamplight and the music from the gramophone. The music is softened by distance and the soft evening breeze ruffles hair.

I’m thinking rural, villagey, fields, water, trees. I’m thinking of sorrow and haunting, of deeds never talked of, of the guilty secrets of the past. I’m thinking of shame and sacrifice, I’m humming old pastoral songs and rhymes, Scarborough Fair, children’s songs and folk songs, ‘Bobby Shafto(e) Went To Sea, He’ll Come Back And Marry me… Bonny Bobby Shafto(e).’ Or the old folk song and pop hit from the 70s, Whiskey in the Jar – ‘When I was going over/the Cork and Kerry mountains…I saw Captain Farrell and his money he was counting…’’

I’m remembering the duplicitous nature of the minstrel, wandering, legitimately able to plant one foot in each camp, never on any side but his own. A useful means for conveying information, often ill-gotten. And he can sing out in public everyone’s secrets, and how can you stop a man doing that?

I’m thinking of myths and legends, hillsides cloaked in mist, an unseen bird calling in the gloom, of the soft insinuating sound of the wind, like a sigh, like a breath, or like a dragon’s terrible approach. I’m thinking about the returning home of the prodigal, how we carry the past with us, inside, even when we are looking forward and moving on, something draws us ever back.

I am thinking, staring at the falling leaves, driven across the grass by a pushing wind, I’m lost in my thoughts. I am thinking of long ago, of people who may not have existed, but who could come into being in my imagination. I see images in my mind, people, objects, places, and weave stories about these imaginary characters.

I am thinking of a man at a window staring out, his mind working on things he cannot put into words. What should he do? Has the time for action finally arrived?

I’m thinking of a woman, always waiting, wringing her hands in front of the window, her own shadow cast out across the lamplit stones of the yard. When will he return? Will he ever return? The waiting woman. The unspeaking man.

I’m thinking of a boy coming over the hill. Of grass, green, long, dewy. Of the sun, soft, golden, gentle as a mother’s hand, just touching his hair, his shoulder of his white cotton shirt. How long has he been away? How much has changed? Will anything ever change?

If I never have another new idea, I’ve already got enough to keep me writing for the next twenty years. I only hope that’s possible.

‘Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight,/And all the air a solemn stillness holds.’ Thomas Gray’s Elegy.

Autumn – not for sleeping but for creating anew.

***

Finding inspiration – coming soon to a cafe near you!

I often talk about sitting in cafes, notebook and pen in front of me, along with a cappuccino and – ooh, naughty – a bit of cake. It’s my favourite thing.

Yes, I know we have coffee at home. And even – occasionally, cake, or I could buy a supermarket cake and eat a slice at home for a fraction of the cost of a cafe. Or, I could bake a cake of my very own – it could be any size, shape or colour. I could have any flavour I like, and it could be a tray-bake, a torte, a good solid fruit cake with cherries on top, a long sugary loaf oozing with bananas or dates. It could be a sponge with ganache or cream or even just jam in the middle. It could have nuts on the top, or frosting, or strawberries in a creamy heap.

There are just two problems with that: 1. I’m a terrible cook. And 2, that wouldn’t inspire me to write. Which is, after all, the whole point of this exercise.

I love to go to cafes with my family, singly or en masse. But those are occasions for talking and laughing, not times for me to be alone with my thoughts. And as we know, ‘You can’t write if you’re never alone.’ (It was Winifred Watson who said that. She was a very successful author in the 1930s who gave up writing once she married and had children. Her book Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day was made into a film starring Ciaran Hinds and Frances McDormand and I highly recommend it.)

Also, I love people-watching. Sitting in a cafe is a bit like sitting in a theatre, with the play going on around you. For around £6 or £8 you can get a lovely piece of cake, a gorgeous big cup of frothy coffee (and not have to wash up the dishes afterwards) and a stage-side seat to LIFE. Just make sure you’ve got plenty of paper and a couple of spare pens.

TIP: Never, ever tap people on the arm, ask them to repeat what they’ve just said so you have more time to write it down, don’t ask them how to spell their auntie’s dog’s name, and never, ever say out loud, ‘Wow, he’s a moron, you should dump him’ or ‘How dare she say that to you!’ or that kind of thing. People don’t mind you watching them discreetly, just don’t make it too obvious.

I’m often asked where I get my ideas. But inspiration comes not from one, but from many different places. It’s more that ideas come looking for me than I go looking for them. I’m incredibly nosy about other people, and I am an incurable people-watcher. This fuels my imagination and leads me to ask myself questions, develop scenarios until… ooh, look, a chapter from a story!

I don’t advocate, as a writing tutor in Brisbane once told a group of creative writing students, that you should actually follow people to get ideas for your story or to experience what it’s like to ‘shadow’ someone a la detective fiction. BUT I must admit I do covertly eavesdrop and watch people, especially in a coffee-shop situation. I don’t actually record conversations or film people, though it is SOOOO tempting.

Tip: If you sit in a cafe or restaurant with your notebook open in front of you and your pen tapping on your chin as you ponder, I guarantee staff will panic-tidy the whole area near you, smile and ask if you’re well, and possibly ask if there’s anything else they can get you – even in self-service cafes. At first I didn’t know why that was, now I’ve realised it’s because they think I am a food critic! Once I made the mistake of saying that I was a writer, and got a look that was half eye-roll and half disgusted sneer. They left me alone immediately.

And so that’s why I go to cafes and eat cake. What’s your excuse?

***

Life Springs Ever Green

I’ve been thinking about colour(s).

There’s a surprisingly large amount of theory about colour. Colours have meanings, they create feelings and emotions in us. So much so, you can have colour therapy, where you sit in a room (white I assume, or maybe completely dark) and they bombard you with light in the colour you require to produce the effect needed. I quite like that idea. Maybe I’ll try it sometime.

Picasso had his Blue Period, then his Rose Period, where these colours dominated his work in a range of hues.

I don’t know if other artists, or writers, have times of colour. I see it in my life from time to time, a particular colour seems to draw me, or mean more, or stand out or in some way influence me. This year my colour is green.

When I was a teenager, wanting to wear teenager-black all the time, my mother nagged me out of it. She associated the colour black with depression, grief and mourning, with oppression and poverty. So I can understand why she hated to see me swathed neck to ankle in black. But it’s a colour people–especially teenagers–wear when they are still trying to find their identity, or when they are part of a crowd of others who all wear black, it ‘goes’ with that mind-set of searching earnestness.

And of course we always say black is a slimming colour, and if you are a larger lady like me, you’ll find huge chunks of a retailer’s range of clothes are only available in black. It’s also the colour of formality so you find loads of people wearing black in offices, you see everywhere the ladies in their black trousers with a shirt or jumper or a jacket and slinky top. I used ot have a ton of black ‘work’ trousers. I think it’s also a practical colour, again in clothes, seeming to show the passage of time less noticeably than other colours and going with pretty much everything, and suiting pretty much every complexion.

Red is the colour of guts and courage, of anger, of ‘Stop!’ and ‘Attention’. Red used to be associated with masculinity, no doubt due to its use in military uniforms, of blood, of bravery. For this reason, (I’m talking about 120 years ago) pink was the accepted normal colour for baby boys as a kind of watered down red suitable for little men. Yep. Pink was for boys, blue was for girls.

Why? Well as we all know females are at constant risk of madness and hysteria due to their female body parts, and therefore have to be swathed in blue from earliest babyhood to calm them down. Blue is a calming colour!

I think it was a member of the royal household around the 1910s who first defied convention and clothes her daughters in pink – and thus a new convention was born. Now, as soon as we see a baby in pink, we know it’s a little girl.

I can remember when my daughter was very small, and clothed (partially at least) in pink, an elderly lady said to me ‘what a beautiful baby, what’s his name?’ And I smiled and replied, all the while thinking silently to myself, ‘mad old bat, clearly she’s a girl, look at all the pink!’

Yellow is another colour I love, but depending on the shade, doesn’t always suit me. Yellow is believed to promote higher thinking, creativity, reasoning and logic. It’s also a happy uplifting colour, as we know when we get a lift every time we catch sight of a patch of daffodils after the dreariness of winter.

For a long time, I’ve been wearing black, grey and blue (jeans mainly), with white or occasionally burgundy accents.

but for the last few weeks, I’ve been craving green. I’ve dusted off my existing green tee-shirt, and bought another one. And I’m enjoying looking at greenery in pictures. I’m not looking at beach scenes (blue & sort of sandy brown), it’s the green of leaves and grass etc that appeals ot me. I get a kind of little ‘bong’ in my chest when I see them (Remember Lovejoy and the sensation he used to get in his chest when he ‘divvied’ a true antique?)

So I’m giving in to my green period – a time of rebirth, perhaps, or of tranquil moments, rest and recovery. or a time of peace and a return to nature? Who knows? I just know that this is what is feeding my soul at the moment.

Of course green is also the colour of jealousy – the ‘green-ey’d monster’ of Shakespeare’s Othello. Or of inexperience and innocence – also Shakespeare, (Anthony and Cleopatra)  ‘My salad days. When I was green in Judgement.’

But I’m ignoring that side, I don’t think I’m particularly a jealous person. And I’m too old to be inexperienced, although I love to learn new things. So I’ll just embrace the restorative and peaceful nature of Green.  Have you found the colour that fills you with joy?

Here are a few quotations about ‘green’:

Green is the prime color of the world, and that from which its loveliness arises.

Pedro Calderon de la Barca (17th century Spanish dramatist)

 

The garden of love is green without limit and yields many fruits other than sorrow or joy. Love is beyond either condition: without spring, without autumn, it is always fresh.’

Rumi (Persian poet from 13th century)

 

‘When the green woods laugh with the voice of joy, And the dimpling stream runs laughing by; When the air does laugh with our merry wit, And the green hill laughs with the noise of it.’

William Blake (UK Poet/Artist 1700s-1800s)

 

‘All theory, dear friend, is gray, but the golden tree of life springs ever green.’

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (German author/poet 1700s-1800s)

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