She’s such a character!

My stories tend to be character driven rather than plot driven. You might think that’s a bit odd for someone who writes cosy mysteries, and you’d be right. Very often in a cosy mystery, you meet a collection of characters who tend to be caricatures, almost, of ‘typical’ people you might meet in the situation where the crime occurs, and it is the story – the plot – that is of primary importance. I’m not saying that my minor characters are fully realised, well-rounded and recognisable individuals, but I try.

The problem for me is that my books usually have a vast range of characters in them (and FYI it’s a nightmare and a half trying to think of names for them all) so there’s not always the space in the story to give everyone their own life without totally confusing the reader.  It can be hard for me, let alone the reader, to keep track of everyone. With Night and Day: Dottie Manderson mysteries book 1 I put in a character list à la old-school mysteries, thinking that would be helpful to readers (having been castigated for not putting one in) but I got even more complaints about that. So in the end it was just easier to leave it out.

And I’ve tried to create complex, realistic people as my main characters. They have faults and flaws. It is not my intention to write a book where the main characters don’t grow or change, or are completely perfect. I want them to mess up – and my main characters do that big-time. I want them to be relatable.

In my Dottie Manderson mysteries set in the 1930s, I have two detectives who are the ‘main’ protagonists, Dottie herself and Inspector Hardy, with a supporting cast of around a dozen other ‘regulars’. Then each story has its own characters on top of that. My protagonists are not the isolated individuals of many books in my genre–no brooding detective all alone with their ghosts for me. No, mine both have a family who pop in and out, often the source of useful information or connections, or just serving as a distraction or to illustrate some aspect of the character of my main people. In addition, they also have careers and are involved with work colleagues who again cannot be overlooked all the time.

And then as I say, each mystery requires its own cast of players–the numbers are rising! Making people really stand out can be a challenge. There are reasons for this.

Obviously the first reason is me. I have only a limited experience of life. I think that’s the same for most of us. We always, consciously or unconsciously, bring our own life experiences, attitudes and beliefs, and our flaws and strengths with us when we create anything. It’s been said that authors put something–sometimes quite a lot-of themselves into what they create. How can they not? So I try to compensate for this by doing a lot of research, and by trying to create people who are not much like me. I’m not sure how well I succeed with that.

But I don’t like to read books where the detective is perfect. I’m bored by protagonists who are perfect, who always behave the right way, say the right thing, do the right thing, who think clearly at all times and never get confused, puzzled or befuddled, who don’t lash out, or say the wrong thing, or believe liars or cheats. My characters are all too flawed, and as readers will know, they sometimes make disastrous decisions. And then have to live with the consequences.

In addition to that, I’d like to think the characters grow. I’ve lost track of how many detective series I’ve stopped bothering with because I couldn’t deal with the fact that the protagonists never ever learn from their mistakes, or keep on acting in an implausible or unprofessional manner despite twenty years as a police inspector etc. Because in real life we do learn, most of the time, don’t we? Or we try to.

My character Cressida in the Friendship Can Be Murder trilogy grows a little. As the trilogy goes on, she travels from being a designer-label obsessed airhead to being a caring mother and family-oriented person who doesn’t mind seaside staycations as that brings a lot of fun to all the family. Okay, she does still love a nice outfit, but it’s not the be-all and end-all of her life. And yes, she is still a bit manipulative, but she genuinely cares about the people close to her. which is why she gets into the messes she gets into, trying to help people by getting rid of some of the–ahem–nuisances in their lives. Oh yes, she is still a mass-murdering monster – but a nice one.

In my stand-alone novel, Easy Living, the main character Jane goes from a rose-tinted truth-denying outlook to recognising and facing up to the truth about her relationship – and it hurts her a great deal to come to terms with that. It’s a good thing she has three close – though dead – friends who are determined to stick by her side every step of the way.

Someone recently sent me a personal message on Facebook to outline all the things she disliked about my work. We’re not friends. I hadn’t explicitly invited her to give me any career pointers or to advise me on my work. I say ‘explicitly’ because in a sense, by publishing my books, I have invited a certain level of criticism. And I do believe that we should have free speech and that people should be able to say what they think. I don’t believe in censorship that tells people what they are allowed or not allowed to say or think.

However, part of me wonders what this woman intended to achieve with her message. I admit I don’t really understand why she did it. Did she think I’d immediately promise to rewrite all my books her way? Or that I’d stop writing? Or that I’d learn some kind of valuable lesson from her and turn my life around? Or did she want her money back? An apology? If I have ever disliked a book, I’ve just not read any more by that author. No writer can be all things to all people, and a writing style I like may not appeal to someone else. I’ve never contacted someone directly to tell them I hate their work.

To that person, I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy the book. It’s perfectly fine that you have an opinion. I don’t plan to contact you to explain myself.

Does Dottie grow? I believe she does. When we meet her in book 1 of the Dottie Manderson mysteries, Night and Day, she is very young (19) and is mainly interested in having fun and going dancing. She’s a teenager, after all, and from a well-to-do, privileged background. She works from choice, not necessity, and can please herself entirely with what she does all day.

After two years of stumbling over corpses, she becomes more confident, more caring towards others. She becomes a business-woman and has to learn, almost from scratch, how to run her business. Added to that, as she grows up and goes out into the world around her, she is trying to understand life and human experience, is losing her childlike idealisation of people. Not only was the world of Britain in the 1930s light-years away from life in our era, it was also a time of massive sweeping changes. I like to think Dottie stays true to herself: she passionately believes in working hard, doing the right thing, helping people and giving support to those who need it. She is terminally nosy and always wants to understand what’s going on in people’s lives. In that respect, I believe she is relatable and ‘realistic’, hopefully sympathetic.

Obviously, I’ve only been writing for a few years. I published Criss Cross in 2013, and had only completed six full-length novels before that. So I consider myself still very much a learning writer. One day I hope to be an excellent writer. Until then I plan to grow and learn, and I hope my characters will do the same.

***

Sinister settings: the Country House

What could be nicer than a
weekend in the country? Read on…

I love a mystery set in a country house. I think the country house is a venue that offers glamour, comfort and a large range of accommodation whilst also affording a good number of murder possibilities.

Leaving aside the staff, who glide in, deposit tea-trays, then glide out again, there are notable dangers from the residents of the house and their guests, but I want to consider the rooms the country house offers – and the murderous opportunities a writer can seize with both hands.

Actually this feels very like a game of Cluedo/Clue. Feel free to fish your old game-board out of the attic to count the rooms off with me.

I can feel the hatred coming down on me
from those pics

There is of course the drawing room. Spacious, elegantly furnished, this room is designed for the receiving of victims guests, for polite conversation, and for characters to exchange dangerous remarks or hint at secret knowledge before dinner.

The dining room: renowned for its garishly-coloured walls—usually a deep red or bilious green for some reason—and the gloomy paintings of ancient relatives glaring down, the traditional country house dining room is guaranteed to be a place where strategies are played out and suspicion is likely to cause indigestion. There’s a reason that long dining table reminds us of one of those boards where they pushed models of planes about on a map in black and white films set in ‘Somewhere in England. 1940’.

Hot running water? Lol you’re kidding, right?

If you need to go to the loo, there will be an old-school WC tucked away somewhere off the back passage (pun fully intended). The potential for danger here is very much fifty-fifty: either you’ll get knocked on the head going in or coming out, or you’ll get pneumonia from the intense cold in there due to the stone-flagged floor and the lack of a decent supply of hot water.

When the hostess rises, to lead the ladies from the dining room back to the drawing room, (that’s how the room got its name, a short form of ‘withdrawing room’) the men will remain behind to share alcohol, smokes and dirty jokes, racing tips, or discuss topics unfit for the ears of ladies: sex, politics and business. If a chap decides to step outside onto the ubiquitous terrace to smoke a cigar in the fresh air, or to pace up and down in a rage, or in a state trying to come to a decision, this is the perfect spot for him to get whacked over the head with our old favourite, the blunt object.

Some of the men may grow tired of pacing the terrace or sitting at the dining table blowing smoke and laughing uproariously, and take themselves off for a game of billiards. Apparently all country houses still insist on a billiard room in spite of the fact that 90% of billiard players die from being stabbed by a billiard cue.

Meanwhile in the drawing room, the ladies are tucking into coffee—in spite of the fact that it’s ten o’clock at night—and gossip. Away from the constraining influence of the men, they can discuss things not suitable for the ears of gentlemen: sex, politics and business. Oh and anything that might be termed ‘ladies’ collywobbles’, ie something to do with body parts and times of the month. They will quickly discover who is carrying on with who, and whether their spouse knows. Here too, the theft of the £5 note from the offering plate in church will be unearthed. We will surmise who took Lady Anne’s ruby earrings. It is 3-1 that someone will drink coffee containing some lethal dose of a poison. There will be a few gentle coughs or gasps and the unfortunate lady will clutch her pearls, her face will turn puce, and she will breathe her last, to the dismay of all. The lady of the house—if still alive at this point—will ring for the butler and tell him to phone for a doctor. Or get the doctor from the drawing room, if he is a guest to dinner. Which he usually is.

Plenty of room on top for an agile ninja

If any lady is fed up with gossiping and drinking strong coffee right before bedtime, she can always get away on her own by using one of only two time-honoured plot devices: she can suddenly develop a headache, or remember she has an urgent letter to write. These are the only excuses—apart from death—to get away to your room before half past ten. But beware. Making your escape may be good for your nerves, but you are twice as likely to die from being pushed down the stairs as if you’d waited until everyone else was going to bed before you left the confines of the drawing room. Safety in numbers, people!

And even if you do reach the sanctuary of your bedroom, there are always intruders to beware of. They may try the ‘frontal attack’ method: simply turning your door handle fifty times very slowly before entering and smothering you with your own pillow. Or, if they are martial arts experts, they will be in position long before you enter the room, hidden on the top of the four poster bed, to slither down once you are asleep and—you’ve guessed it—smother you with your own pillow. Or, you might be wakened by the sound of an odd creaking or sinister scraping. On investigating with the help of your trusty torch, you will catch a perpetrator gaining access to your room by means of a secret passage, a sliding wooden panel, or a trap door accessed by moving a book on the third shelf. Obviously, they will then immediately overpower you and smother you with your own pillow.

‘I say, Marjorie, do you think anyone will hear me if I scream from the gazebo?’

The conservatory. What a delightful setting. Here you can sit, warm and dry, and enjoy some tranquility, surrounded by beautiful plants, graceful statues, and perhaps the gentle sound of water trickling from a water feature. Here, too, you will be smashed over the head with a sturdy plant pot, garrotted with gardener’s twine, hacked to death with secateurs, or misted with some rare kind of poison, and in this tranquil–and remote–setting, die because no one else is within hearing to rescue you. Soz.

Country houses are famous for possessing at least one of the following: a gazebo/summerhouse, a tower, an attic, a dungeon, a castellated roof, a veranda, romantic (but haunted, obv) ruins of a priory or abbey, and of course a lake. This might be for boating, or for fishing, but in either case is to be avoided if you do not wish to go to a watery grave.

‘Come and look at the lovely dungeons,’
said no one ever.

NEVER, ever go to visit any of these unless everyone in the house goes with you. The reason being: they can’t all be killers (unless you’re on an old steam train stuck in the snow…) As has already been stated, there’s safety in numbers.

NEVER go to view any of these objects of interest with one or more of the following: a vicar, a young starlet about to make her Hollywood debut, an old family retainer, an elderly peer of the realm, a governess, a chauffeur, a wild young racing driver, a retired colonel, a breeder of rare horses and/or sheep, a botanist, a Viennese tenor, a fencing instructor, a vicar (yes I know I’ve already said that, they need to be mentioned twice, they are super dodgy), a kindly elderly widow lady ‘who has lived in the village all her life, and plays the church organ on Sundays’ – of course she does, the evil old bat, a cousin of the family no one has seen for twenty years (hint: not who they claim to be!), a local doctor rumoured to have a guilty secret, an orchid collector (they are a ruthless bunch and will do anything for a Fairrie’s Paphiopedilum) or a music/drawing/dancing instructor. Why? Do you need to ask? All of the above are either the most likely to be killed, or the most likely to be a killer. Whichever they are, you are advised to keep well away!

In fact, just don’t go. Curl up safely at home with a nice book instead.

***

At The WIP Crossroads

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

And what I’m talking about here is not wandering off and doing something totally different.  I’m not talking about displacement activity or your basic everyday procrastination.  I’m talking about Legitimate stuff that still somehow gets in the way.  Research.  Plotting.  Even proofreading and editing.

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

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

I do plan – a bit – I know roughly who is going to get snuffed out, and I know roughly who will make that happen.  But some writers I know – quite a few actually – have a chart or a big page or something, all spread out and every chapter laid out, who does what, who says what, what happened when they were all having breakfast, that kind of thing.  I don’t have that.  I have a few snatches of conversation in my head, as if overheard from another room, and possibly a couple of facial expressions, and this is all often scrawled on the back of an old envelope then stapled into a notebook.  During the course of the first draft I scribble a list of characters, their names, ages, occupations, and I only do that because I get confused by the ‘Mrs X said to Mr X “I wonder if Mr X has seen Ms X?” ‘

So I’m not really a planner.

The second thing is, I sometimes have so much fun thinking about the possibilities, I don’t actually write the story.  I think, if Mr X hit Ms X with the blunt instrument, this would happen.  Ah, but what if it was Mrs X who hit her, but Mr X confessed to it …ooh that might work …  and so it goes on.  So many permutations, so many exciting, unplumbed depths.  Once I even gave up on a story because I couldn’t decide what to do when I reached a crossroads in the story and I allowed myself to become overwhelmed by the possibilities.

And that’s where I am at the moment with the WIP and that’s why it’s taken me a fortnight to write five short chapters.  I can’t make up my mind who is going to be the baddie.  I think I need a map …  or – maybe I DO need to plan, after all?