‘That new striker for United is here for the interview,’ came the message. Geena sighed and dragged herself to the reception area. Another inarticulate footballer with a repertoire that entirely consisted of the usual three phrases: ‘The lads done good’, ‘We’re training hard’, and ‘It’s a game of two halves’. It wasn’t exactly the hard-hitting journalism she’d dreamed of as a student.
In reception he looked up from FHM as she approached. He unfolded himself from the seat. He was tall, he was blond, he sported a diamond stud in one ear. He wore an expensive suit as if it were a cardboard box and he was the gift inside. Wow, he’s gorgeous, Geena thought, and she slapped a smile on her face as she stepped forward, her hand outstretched.
‘Hi, Justin, so lovely to meet you, sorry to keep you waiting,’ she said.
Her hand was grasped firmly and released. No sweaty palm, no prolonged contact, he didn’t even stare at her boobs. That was a huge surprise. A good start, she was forced to acknowledge.
‘I’m so grateful to you for sparing me some time today,’ he began in a smooth, public-school voice. ‘I realise you have a somewhat hectic schedule and I was fully prepared to have to wait a few days but as I’m sure you’re aware, the publicity is always very welcome.’
She blinked at him. ‘Oh – er – well, it’s – er…’
He smiled again. Sexily. Gorgeously. White even teeth. Good skin, not as orange as celebs usually were, and he didn’t appear to be hungover. She led him into her office, invited him to sit. And he sat. Not lolling, but actually sitting, ninety per cent upright at least. Amazing.
She positioned her dictating machine and with a smile, indicated they were beginning. ‘Well, Justin, perhaps you can tell me a little more about your move to United.’
He smiled again. It suddenly struck her he was here alone: no entourage, no agent, no coach, no WAG. Just Him. Wow. Again.
‘Well Geena–I hope you don’t mind me calling you Geena? I saw this as an excellent opportunity to further my career by playing for a high profile, high status club, but at the same time I really believe it is good for the club too, because I’m confident I can bring an element to the team’s game which has been a little lacking in the last season or two.’
‘And have you met your new teammates yet?’
‘Yes, we’ve had two practice sessions together, and of course, I’m researching the footage available. I have great faith in my colleagues–they’re all keen and talented athletes, and I feel that this move will be mutually advantageous. I intend to work very hard to justify the manager’s faith in me and the huge transfer fee they have invested.’
She caught a whiff of his designer cologne as he leaned forward to take a sip of his designer water. ‘Tell me about team tactics,’ she suggested.
‘One thing I really believe is that the game can be won or lost in the mind as well as on the pitch. I think it’s a wise man who comes out of the dressing-room after half-time and views the second half as a new game, a fresh opportunity to test himself.’
Quite so, Geena thought. It was two hours before she realised he’d said what they all say: ‘We’re training hard’, ‘It’s a game of two halves’ and ‘The lads done good’. He’d just said it in a posh voice with big words and a nice smile.
I self-published my first book in January 2013, so nine and a half years ago.
(note to self, you should have waited until January 2023 so you could do a 10-year anniversary post.)
(note back to self from self: I might still do that, no one will remember that it was only six months earlier that I did this post, will they?)
The book was Criss Cross, and it was the first book of a trilogy called initially the Posh Hits Murders then I changed that rather clunky title a few years ago to the Friendship Can Be Murder mysteries.
Why did I self-publish?
I finished the book in 2012, (congrats, self, it’s been ten years…) and finding that people were still rather scornful of self-pubbed books – and still are today, btw – I tried to persuade around thirty publishers and agents to take it. The responses varied from dusty silence for months on end with tumbleweed rolling by, to responses two or three weeks later of ‘Sorry it’s just not for us, so sorry, but no,’ to responses by return of mail, saying, in effect, ‘Hell no!’
Some people said, ‘We enjoyed it but it won’t sell, it’s not commercial enough. It doesn’t fit into a genre.’ (True)
Lots of them said, ‘Good luck with that.’
And so that was why I thought I would ‘give it a go’ as a self-published author. Whilst waiting for replies from the latest victim, I had read quite a lot about self-publishing and thought it sounded like something even I, technologically challenged as I was, could do. So I did.
It was a long and difficult process as I had never done anything like that before. I knew very little about editing, or formatting of manuscripts. I was still working full time, so I had very little time to do anything ‘extra’, and I had no spare cash to pay anyone to do anything for me. In those days I didn’t know any other writers either so I had no one to ask. I learned it all from a book. and from research on the Interweb.
And then apart from the technology, I had another issue: I was really really scared!
What if people didn’t like it?
What if I discovered that I was genuinely a terrible writer?
What if the publishers and agents had been right and it was a huge failure? Well that one at least wasn’t too much of a problem – if it flopped, who would know or be worried apart from me?
It took a while to overcome my fears and just go for it. But eventually I got tired of wondering ‘what if’ and just – did it.
And yeah, it’s not made me a millionaire. I sell something like 100 of my Dottie Manderson mysteries to every one of the Criss Cross books I sell. But every month I sell a few, a nice little handful of eBooks and paperbacks and even large print paperbacks.
And yeah, not everyone likes it. One of my earliest reviews – which could have stopped my writing career right there if it wasn’t that I am super stubborn and contrary, was a one star review that said ‘This is the worst book I have ever read.’
Quite honestly they did me a favour. Because that was exactly what I had been dreading all that time, so once it came, everything else seemed okay. And by that time book 2 was out, followed by book 3 and book 1 of the Dottie Manderson mysteries.
I think most writers dream of getting an offer from a publisher to publish their works. That’s never happened to me and I don’t know how I would feel or what I would say if it did. I kind of just kept on with the self-publishing as it seemed pointless to waste time trying to place my books when they could be ‘out there’ within a day or two. I make a nice living now from my books. Currently I have ten books published and two more about to come out later this year. I’m not a millionaire. To be honest I’m okay with that. I love the creative control of my books and I enjoy working with other authors to edit or proofread their works or to offer ideas or support.
And I have received so much help from many lovely authors. Now, I quite often get emails or message from readers telling me they like my books. I usually apologise first. then thank them.
Readers, you have no idea how amazing it is when someone tells you that something you came up with out of thin air has given them pleasure. Thank you, wonderful readers, for your kindness and support too.
What’s the book about?
So what’s Criss Cross about?
Loosely speaking, it’s a murder mystery. But it’s written in the form of diary entries by the protagonist, Cressida, and is from a limited-ish first person point of view.
(And those are some of the aspects of it that were not commercially viable for a publishing house.)
She’s terribly posh and entitled, and has a plan to kill off her mother-in-law who is making her life a misery.
I can’t really say it’s a mystery as quite a lot of what happens is told to the reader directly by Cressida. But of course, she herself doesn’t always know what’s going on, so there is that element of mystery. But there is a strong chick-lit vibe, and there’s romance.
(More reasons why it’s not a good choice for a publishing house.)
As the story moves on, the body count piles up, because stuff just happens, as Cressida quickly discovers. Outwardly self-sufficient and uncaring, she is really a fairly lonely person who builds herself a family, and it is these relationships that she wants to protect at all costs.
It’s humorous, a bit snarky, but warm and occasionally poignant. Each story leads on from the previous one, these don’t quite work as stand-alones, I’m afraid.
Like many writers, I have written a lot of stuff that, for a number of reasons, hasn’t been published. It might be absolute rubbish, or it’s unfinished, or I am, as always, too busy on other projects…
That’s the case with a book of 110,000 words that I wrote in 23 days flat back in about 2005 or 2006. The story is called The Refuge. I mention it from time to time on here, and have posted a couple of extracts (click to follow the link to chapter one, if you’re a bit bored). The premise is that Britain is at war: towns are under attack from air raids, soldiers have invaded the country, and are subduing and capturing etc, as tends to happen in wartime. (Sounds a bit ‘current’, doesn’t it? And that’s one of many reasons this book is still on a shelf and not ‘out there’. It’s a bit real. )
The main characters are Anna, a journalist, and Mark who was a government advisor. They knew what was about to happen and had a few days to prepare. They move to an area near some caves, planning to hide there with Anna’s family, until it’s safe to emerge. As Anna and Mark make their escape they find it impossible to turn their backs on survivors they meet so the group quickly grows in size.
I often talk about ‘closed communities’ and how useful these are in mysteries to stage the crime. But what if it’s an actual community, a village, hidden for decades, maybe even centuries from the outside world? My characters find themselves in just such a place. They and their new friends have to fit in, and adapt to a new way of life.
Research for this book really made me think. What if this really happened? If I had to leave my home, knowing I might never come back, what essential items would I take with me? I think if there are more people rather than fewer, that actually helps as between you, you can carry more.
My first thought was, obviously, food. And water. But…
Am I going somewhere where there is no food or water? If so, what am I going to do? I can’t possibly carry and keep fresh sufficient food to keep me alive for a year, let alone the rest of my life. Can I? And I’m not alone, so we need more.
So I had to ask myself, how long might we be gone for? Are we going for a few days in the hope ‘it’ will all be over by then? If we can learn anything from history, (and current affairs) it’s that these things tend to linger on much, much longer than we expect or hope.
If we’re going ‘forever’ then a couple of packets of noodles and a few bottles of water isn’t much good, is it?
So are we leaving just so we can died quietly somewhere on our own terms? Or are we going to make a new life, to support ourselves ‘forever’?
If the latter, we need:
a) more information about what ‘resources’ are at the place we plan to head to.
b) based on that, are we going to become a hunter/gatherers? Farmers? Or are we going to take refuge in a community broadly similar to our own, where there is an established supply of food and water and hopefully other amenities?
It really wasn’t as straight forward as I initially thought.
My refugees in The Refuge decided they would initially camp out until they had a chance to figure out what to do next. The important thing in the first instance was just to get away. So they planned to take tents, sleeping bags, water, water purification tablets, matches, candles, some food, a spade, a few basic tools, etc.
Being sentimental humans, they gave into the urge to rescue their pets: Anna turns up with two cats in a cat basket, and Mark arrives with his German Shepherd. No doubt the dog was a bit more useful than the two cats, but at least the cats can forage for themselves…
I’m assuming it’s a given that my family are coming with me, so I asked myself, what would I take – what were the things I couldn’t bear to be separated from?
FOOD and WATER.
Not sure the baby photos, my notebooks and pens, or my reading materials would be a good idea. They’d be heavy and not actually contribute to keeping us alive, though they would give us something to entertain ourselves with in moments of leisure, or in a pinch, something to fling onto the fire…
If we had a chance to plan ahead, we could have everything neatly packed in backpacks and possibly take a few extra items that fell into that ‘not quite sure’ grey area:
Knife for veg/any cutting tasks; forks, spoons, plastic bowls, water in large plastic bottles, antiseptic or disinfectant, aspirin, loo paper (or??? I can’t decide about this one…); mirror, tweezers, scissors, plasters/bandages, clothing – just a couple of changes for each person. Some sturdy boots (on our feet so no need to carry), waterproof jackets. Comb, toothbrushes, face flannels and maybe small towels, soap for clothes and people.
Candles? Matches, definitely. Firelighters or briquettes, washing line, pegs, string, folding chairs (a luxury? But I can’t stand up for the rest of my life, nor sit only on the ground…) rope. Waterproof sheeting. Binoculars.
A screwdriver? Probably not – again – I’m just not sure, this is where I need a bloke to advise me. (Sisters can’t always do it for themselves.) A saw, hammer, nails, cutters? Am I building a shelter for myself, or…?
Large plastic bowl, kettle, small bowls to eat from, a wooden spoon? Small pans? Dried milk, tea, sugar, porridge, oil, stock cubes, dried beans, rice, tinned meat.
Tent or tents according to the number of people, sleeping bags.
These are all for our own survival. But what if, like Anna and Mark, we find ourselves in an already-established community? ‘Stuff’ might be less important and maybe psychology would be more important? What about the moment of our arrival? How would we fit in?
I think I’d feel eager to please. Eager to like everything, to approve of everything, to be accepted, understood and grateful, to be liked. Excited, keen. Then, a few months later, when difficulties arose and the ‘honeymoon’ period was over, I might feel lonely, homesick, and wonder if I should have just stayed where I was.
What about clashes of ideology? We might agree in public but at home, in private, we can say what we really think, do what we believe is right. Or can we? How private or safe are we really?
In my book, the small village is isolated, self-sufficient. It doesn’t cope well with ideas and attitudes from outside. I had to think about how relationships remained intact through the stresses and strains of everyday life in a new place. What about fallings out and antagonisms – how much do they affect everyone else?
For my people, going to the village instead of trying to cope on their own, meant:
initial relief at being with others, as this meant more support, the village was better established, more resilient, had a more structured way of life than simply living in a few tents. There was a sense of having reached a goal that seemed almost normal.
But then came the struggle to fit in when they realised attitudes, beliefs and way of life were different. It was hard to find common frames of reference. And although the majority adopted/embraced/adapted to the new way of life, a small number won’t/can’t seem to fit in.
Not all the villagers would welcome the new arrivals. There might be tension which leads to a sense of ‘us and them’, which could boil over into aggressive behaviour and even violence.
This in turn could mean that for some of the newcomers, there was a tendency to stay in the same groups and not to blend in.
And then of course, because I am a mystery writer at heart, I couldn’t resist adding a bit of difficulty of my own: the new arrivals have a gradual realisation that this is not a perfect society but is it possible or are they even morally justified in attempting to bring about change? Is it even okay to suggest change when you are an outsider, and need them more than they need you?
I had to consider that some of my characters might, eventually, feel they were not able to stay in this new place, no matter how convenient or safe it seems.
But at this the point, they may well discover the truth: no one is allowed to leave.
Secondhand. Preloved. Used. Old. Whatever you call books that are not new, it amounts to the same thing: neglected; unloved; abandoned; discarded. Even the ‘amusing’ epithet of ‘preloved’ simply indicates love that has been given then withdrawn. No longer loved.
Yes, I know that many people see these places as Aladdin’s caves filled with wonder and possibility. Not so for me. For me, a secondhand (let’s call it what it is) bookshop is a bit like going to an animal shelter. My first response in both cases is always one of dismay – there are so many here! Secondly, I think, ‘how can I possibly save them all?’
I went into two such shops today.
In shop one, I was frustrated by the lack of genre categories or alphabetical ordering. I felt I had to scan the entirety of the store to be sure I didn’t miss anything vital. As it was, when I paid for my ‘finds’, or as I prefer to call them, my ‘adoptions’, I couldn’t shake the certainty that I’d missed something. But the ‘usual guy’ was on holiday and the woman standing in for Usual Guy was not versed on what was where. She laughingly told me that if Usual Guy had been there, he could have immediately told me where any of my chosen authors might be stationed. Ha ha! Oh my aching sides. Not. They also had an overflow into an empty shop front next door – and even though I could see literally dozens of boxes heaped up, she wouldn’t let me go in there and poke about, and neither could she tell me what was there. I took my five rescue-books and left, slightly disgruntled.
The second shop was somewhat different, and yet, underneath all the glamour, exactly the same. It was squeaky clean and neat as a new pin. I see books neatly stacked on actual shelves or laid out in boxes, spines uppermost, and the boxes have labels such as ‘Romance’ and ‘Family Saga’, and also ‘Romance and Family Saga’. I stand in the doorway to get my bearings and the proprietor bustles up in a housecoat, carrying a duster.
She asks if I’m looking for anything in particular. Really all I want to do is browse. How can you tell someone that you won’t know what you want until you see it? But I fear she is not really, in spite of the location, a bookish person. I have a sense that browsing is not to be encouraged, and I drag my ‘little book of books’ out of my bag. I tell her I have quite a long list. She’s not bothered by that. She’s waiting. So, under pressure, I panic and begin to blurt out a few names.
‘Patricia Wentworth!’ I feel a bit like Harry Potter frantically trying to come up with the right spell. She gives me a sad smile, and shakes her head.
‘Not done much for a while, has she?’
‘That’s because she died in 1961.’ I explain. I could tell her the day and month, but I’m not convinced she’d be interested, so probably for the first time in my life, I just shut up.
She nods. ‘Ah.’ It appears that being dead is a major hindrance to having your book in stock at a secondhand bookshop. I’d have thought it was the perfect spot, but no. I’m a bit worried about continuing with my list, as I feel most of my favourites are a bit on the no-longer-with-us side. But she is looking at me with an air of expectation. I’m not sure she’s really helpful, I think she just wants to get back to the dusting.
‘Victoria Holt? Mary Stewart?’
That smile again. The same shake of the head. Sorry. I look at my list again and wonder if there’s any point in carrying on with this charade. I feel already know the answer, but perhaps due to some previously-unnoticed masochistic tendency, I ask anyway.
‘Nope, not him either.’
‘Her,’ I say and turn away, intensely irritated. I scan the shelves. They are packed with books by people who are dead – how come my authors aren’t here?
‘Try the clearance boxes out front.’ She suggests. I nod. Somehow even as I rummage through these boxes I know I’m wasting my time. Eventually I give up.
And as I walk away, I’m pretty sure two whole shelves of Jean Plaidys and Catherine Cooksons shouted after me, ‘Take us with you!’ and ‘come back!’ and possibly even, ‘Help!’
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 crush for her not-quite-cousin Bill Hardy, detective inspector, and 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. Next, 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 to whom she no doubt spoke 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.
‘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.’
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’s ‘The Island of Adventure’, Malcolm Saville’sLone 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’sThe 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.
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?
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).
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.
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.
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.
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…’