I think I stole this phrase from someone, it just came to me in a flash the other night as I was drifting off to sleep and I felt it encapsulated everything I’m feeling right now. Usually when that happens it’s my subconscious nabbing something I’ve heard or seen before and bringing it to the fore. (It’s my character Ben Sherman all over again) So I apologise wholeheartedly if this is your phrase and I’ve nicked it. It just seems the perfect expression of my mood.
2014, as I’ve said a number of times, was a difficult year to love. Yes, there were highs but for me and probably everyone else as well, there were also some lows. As I look ahead to 2015 I feel that sense of excitement at the prospect of a clean, fresh New Year, and so I’ve made a few promises to myself; resolutions, if you will, as most of us do. As usual I’ve promised to lose weight and get fitter. I ended the year lighter/healthier than I began it so I’m starting from a position of strength! There are other things too, important to me but not to others.
Mostly, in the New Year, I plan to write my socks off. I’ve got a nice little collection of memes now. They say encouraging things such as ‘write like no one is watching’ and ‘only you can write your book’. So true.
But this year I want to write something else, I want to write something different. Mainly though, I just want to write. To achieve that, I can’t afford to waste time sitting around waiting for some fickle muse of creativity to smile on me, I’ve got to grab her by her coat front and force that smile from her. This year I’m going to be dangerous. You can too.
It’s that time of year. TV is full of programmes that round up the highlights of their Best Of lists, counting down from 100, or 50 or 30 or 20, to the mythical eminence of the number one spot – ta-da – the winner, the best…
You probably know by now that like a lot of writers, I’m a bit of an introvert, and rather self-absorbed. I constantly reassess myself throughout the year, not just here, at the year’s-end. In fact I’m notorious, at home anyway, for overthinking everything.
This year I’ve benefitted hugely by the amount of information, how-tos and research that is available on the Internet, and it has helped me to do a number of things I couldn’t before, so thank you to everyone who shares and publishes their knowledge ‘out there’ in the ether. I’ve learned how to link social media bits together to avoid having to put the same content out there numerous times, I’ve learned how to develop my contacts and connections and build my platform (ongoing project though!). I’ve learned that when people say ‘Do what ever you want’ they really mean ‘Do whatever I tell you to do’. I’ve improved my cover-designing skills, found new resources, built my freelancing profile, (earned some actual money!) I’ve become more organised. I’ve achieved some goals. I’ve missed some by a mile. And one thing I’ve learned, especially in this last two months is that it’s okay to have fun, to stop striving and enjoy life. I’ve ‘met’ some wonderful people and had some great conversations.
I didn’t finish the first draft of the third book of my Posh Hits trilogy. I’m maybe halfway through – not really, I’m actually only about a third of the way through. It should have been written, revised, revised and revised by now. It should be ready for publication. But no. Am I stressed about it? Not any more. I was, a while back, when the harsh reality of stuffing up my schedule began to dawn on me, then I decided that publication dates are arbitrary and if it’s not ready, it’s just not ready. I never usually miss a deadline, so this one time I have given myself permission to do so, and I think, I fervently hope, it will be worth the wait. So that’s still on my to-do list and will be making an appearance a little later than scheduled, some time next year.
And because of that not being finished, other projects have got pushed back too. But again, I feel it’s all going to be okay. Better to put out a good product late than a shonky product on time, I feel. So Miss Burkett will probably miss her May-promised (but only to myself) deadline. But I know she will arrive at some point.
But I’ve kept my blog going, more or less adding new material at least once a week, which has been a major leap forward for me, and one I hope to continue in the New Year. And on Facebook, my Monday Haiku has been going out weekly pretty well for a couple of months now, again, a new more disciplined approach for me.
Next year, Check Mate will, God willing, finally be out, as will the first of my Miss Burkett cosy mysteries. I also hope to publish a novel, Easy Living, which is something of a paranormal-type-kind-of mystery. There may also be another novel, as yet undecided. 2014 has been a year of drafting and consolidation. I believe 2015 will be a year of fruitfulness and fulfillment. I hope to continue the blog, the Haiku, to go on and on and on about books and cats and chocolate and deadlines.
So as this year closes, I want to remember the good days, and say goodbye to the bad, heaving a sigh of relief at the advent of a New Year, with new hopes, a new plan of action, fresh ideas and projects, and to say a huge Thank You to all those wonderful people who have followed this blog, tolerated my rants and self-absorption, encouraged and fed my desire to write, and shared their wonderful gifts of writing, painting and friendship with me. Thanks, folks. Have a good one. See you on the other side.
I’m always going on about nature and how it makes me reflect on life in general and my writing in particular. Outside my window is a foggy scene. We’ve had a very mild autumn here in Derby, England, and unusually for us here on our little hill, a lot of rain. Only a few months ago I was exchanging emails with an acquaintance in Jamaica and we were both lamenting the dry weather – cracked ground, plants dying. Of course everything is much more acute there than here, but I was concerned by how little water we had. In fact ever since we came back from Australia I’ve been kind of obsessed with rainfall.
But now we have had so much rain – it has rained almost every day for the last three weeks, or that’s how it seems to me. But the warm earth has been met every night by the cool air, and we have had thick fog from the onset of darkness until dawn, when it magically disperses. But not today. As I write this at midday, it is finally beginning to lift, but still through the houses I can see the silvery pockets that surround bare-limbed trees. The countryside resembles a book cover for a paranormal or horror story!
It’s just like my writing at the moment. I have times when my way is clear and I rush ahead, writing and writing, with a sense of purpose, knowing where I am going, then the mental fog descends and I am lost, baffled and everything seems unfamiliar and cold. I have my sparkly new story board, so I know where the story is supposed to be going, but how do I get there? I used to think writer’s block was when you sit at your desk and weep as the ideas fail to present themselves. But now I know it’s more like sitting at your desk and thinking, this must have been written by someone else, it means nothing to me.
Before I really sat down and thought about this question, I would have said, without hesitation, NO! I did not believe stories always had to have a message. In fact, to go a little further, I would have said I detested stories that have a message.
That is a hangover from my childhood, when it wasn’t enough for stories to be fun or interesting, they also had to be ‘improving’ – and how I hated improvement being forced upon me! Even now I shy away from anything that overtly seeks to make me a better person.
Having said all that, I have been thinking about this topic and trying to set aside my own prejudices, and I have come to a startling conclusion. I have decided the answer to this question is actually – YES! A story should always have a message. Wow! I’ve done a complete u-turn on this!
Because you see, I know (I have been told by others and have also read it and believe it to be true) it is easier to write a book based on a premise. It gives you something to aim for, a goal to reach. That also means your plot events, and your characters have to either approve/support/aid your premise, or they have to disapprove/hinder/fight against your premise. So your premise underpins and informs every aspect of the story.
And if that happens – well, it seems to me you’ve got a message.
But for me it will still be a question of subtlety. I don’t want to read – or write – a book that lectures me upon morality – I have my moral standards, thank you very much. So I think a message doesn’t have to be large in scale and scope, it can be simple, humble or small. It doesn’t have to be intellectual or highbrow or literary. It can be as straightforward as ‘the harder we try the worse we make things’. (Maybe suited to a comedy?)
If by ‘having a message’ we can also mean making someone think, or poking a little fun at the basically ludicrous reality of everyday life on this strange planet we call home, then yes, I’m all for a message. In fact I’d go a step further and say I’ve done it myself. When I set out to write my Posh Hits Trilogy, I wanted to create a character who thinks she’s a good person, who everyone else thinks is a good person – but deep down inside she is, of course, a monster.
So I guess what I’m saying is, yes by all means have a message, but the success in getting it across depends on how you do it.
Malcolm showing how it's done!
We often feel we have to accomplish as much as possible within the span of each day. Sometimes it is our self-esteem that demands that we are ‘achievers’. However, life is not just about work, not merely concerned with achievements. Life should be enjoyable, should even be – dare I say it – fun! Don’t rush headlong towards a nervous breakdown, stop and sit for a while. I often have to remind myself it’s okay to do nothing now and again. Partly it’s my upbringing that says every moment of the day should be productive and useful, and partly it’s the fact that I work from home for a relatively low income and feel a need to demonstrate that I am working as hard as I can, and partly it’s my own character – I’m not naturally one of those people who can just chillax whenever and wherever. And I know some of you out there are the same, admit it!
But our busy lifestyles mean we so often find ourselves lurching from one task to the next, checking them off on our mental to-do list, and feeling that we must keep accomplishing tasks or we have failed. Not so.
It’s okay to take time out, to veg, to just be. Quite often, even when we think we are relaxing, we are still trying to make ‘good use’ of our time by working on some task – completing sudoku or crosswords, reading a book, or even playing a game on our computer. So rarely do we actually do nothing. But in fact, time spent day-dreaming, listening to the sounds of nature from outside – or the sounds of traffic if nature is far away – and just letting our thoughts drift, this is all time well-spent. We need to rest, not just our bodies but also our minds. and if we allow ourselves that period of rest, we often find that our minds are sharper, our thoughts clearer, and little niggling things we have been working on suddenly seem easy or we can now see the action we need to take. Our brains have time to catch up with the mental filing from all the information we have been absorbing as we go about the routine of our lives.
So – give yourself permission to bunk off and do absolutely nothing for ten minutes twice a day, and see your stress levels plummet, your self-esteem and positive energy sky-rocket, and your creativity will be fresh and maybe take you off in a whole new and exciting direction. It could turn out that the twenty minutes a day you spend doing nothing become the twenty most productive minutes of your day.
The Marriage of Leonard Brown and Hannah Young, 1920, Liverpool.
I’m starting a new series – don’t know how many parts yet – on how personal history, family history research and genealogy can be used to boost your creativity and give additional depth as well as a unique ‘flavour’ to fiction writing of any kind, and my own genre of mystery/crime/paranormal in particular. First I’m going to discuss how and why I think people – or at least I – get into family history research.
As some of you may know, I’ve been a keen researcher of my family tree for over twenty years. In that time things have changed as dramatically in genealogy as in other fields in terms of the amount of information available to researchers and the way researchers access this information. This is the ‘How’:
When I first started, I used to travel up to London on the train to visit St Catherine’s House and spend the entire day heaving their big index books out onto crowded desks and trawling through handwritten entries in search of that one person I was trying to locate. The sound in the halls was like the buzzing or humming of bees in a hive – constant, low-level busy-ness, occasionally tinged with irritation. After heaving indices in and out of the shelving and cabinets for hours, often all I had to show for it was one reference to a birth of someone that ‘might’ be my ancestor – and I wouldn’t know if it was the right one until I had paid for my certificate and waited a week or two weeks for it to arrive in the post. I have a whole batch of ‘strays’ – people who turned out not to be the object of my research – same name, same age, but from totally different family a mile down the road. (But their stories, too, intrigue me.) It was slow and painstaking work. Sometimes you had to wait, tapping your fingers on the desk, until someone else stopped daydreaming their way through ‘your’ book and put it back on the shelf – because there was only one for each quarter of each year for each part of the alphabet – and if you were searching for a Mr Brown – especially a J or S or W – you might as well go and get some lunch and try again later.
But – finding the person you had been looking for for a long time – tracking them carefully through parents, grandparents, siblings, marriages, burials and christenings – in the moment you KNEW you had found that person – resulted in a euphoric flood of excitement. On more than one occasion I heard someone shout ‘yes!’ or ‘finally!’ and we all smiled and just went on with our searching – we knew how they felt. There was a kinship in the searching.
Now it’s all so different. You spend ten minutes online and you’ve got three or four generations all off pat. Of course for many that is all they do – nothing is verified, checked or proved – they just appropriate whatever seems to fit in with their ideas of their family. If you can pay the subscription to the various online resource sites, you can have endless materials at your disposal within minutes. For me that’s not really ‘family history research’ but for many, it’s enough.
Now here’s the ‘Why’:
Why do people want to know about people who they may have never met, who may have no influence on their life, be nothing but a shadowy figure in an old family album?
And true, for some people – many – knowing about their ‘roots’ is not important at all. For others, it provides them with a sense of self, of who they are, of the evolution of their kind and the world around them, the development of their own identity over the course of generations.
For some people, myself included, they may feel more confident about who they are, they may feel they can relate to a world filled with other people all with a history, a lineage, similar to theirs. They may feel a sense of shared experience, even kinship. Family history can be seen as a kind of skeleton to hang on life experiences and events, to create a balanced outlook and, hopefully, an accepting, caring attitude to others. Also, some people (like me) are just plain nosy. Others are looking for explanations for why things are the way they are or for the truth behind events or feelings, or for resolution or closure.
NEXT WEEK: I will be looking at some of the different types of resources available to the family historian – and therefore – available to the writer. I’ll give you a clue. Look at the top of this blog.
Yes folks I’m really on tour – okay, I’m virtually on tour! And from the comfort of my very own computer!
The lovely Judith Cranswick, crime writer extraordinaire, generously invited me to take part in my first ever blog hop – thank you Judith! I urge you all to check out Judith’s books, too, I can tell you from personal experience they are a fab read, especially if you love mystery or crime. Here is her blog so you can find out more: http://www.judithcranswick.co.uk/
This blog hop/tour/extravaganza thingy focuses on The Writing Process, and each week two writers share their insights and experiences about their own writing process. So welcome to mine! Further down this page, I will be introducing the two brilliant people I have invited (bullied and cajoled) into taking part next week! And as if that isn’t enough, you can hop over to:
http://jaynemariebarker.blogspot.co.uk/ and see what a fellow sufferer has to say about how it all works for her!
And so on with the show.
Q: What are you working on?
A: I’m working on two main projects at the moment. The first is the third book in my Posh Hits trilogy, working title is “Check Mate”, due for release in 2015. The trilogy is about a well-to-do young woman, Cressida Barker Powell, who decides to kill her mother-in-law, basically just because she hates her and her interference. Unfortunately, things don’t go according to plan and pretty soon the body count begins to rack up. The other book I’m working on is a different series, and hopefully this will also be a trilogy, although I must admit at the moment it’s giving me quite a bit of trouble so about twenty times a day I’m tempted to just throw it away. The working title for this one is Miss Burkett Changes Her Mind. It’s a cozy mystery, set in the 1960s, and Miss Burkett is the detective in question. She is very young, only 20, and following the death of her beloved great aunt, Miss Burkett decides to emulate the old lady and become a ‘private inquiry agent’. This book features her first case, and will hopefully be out next year. I also write short stories and life pieces.
Q: How does your work differ from others in its genre?
A: That’s a tricky one as I’ve found it quite tough to categorize the Posh Hits trilogy. I’ve gone for murder mystery, but because they are told in an epistolary style, sometimes there’s not too much ‘mystery’ about whodunit in the traditional sense. They are a bit like a chick-lit novel too, in that they are chatty and we are given all Cressida’s thoughts and feelings. I hope that they are darkly humorous, and that although she is a monster, Cressida is also very likeable and caring. But she really is a monster! Miss Burkett is a traditionally styled murder mystery, but she is much younger than most detectives, and is very much learning as she goes. Unlike many old-school mysteries, she’s very open to people from a different background – I have tried to draw on my own experiences as a child growing in up in a rapidly-changing Britain in the 1960s for this.
Q: Why do you write what you do?
A: I love to read. I suppose we all do. So a lot of what I write is inspired by or because of the things I have read that have influenced me. Miss Burkett came out of my enjoyment of the books by the now largely forgotten mystery writer, Patricia Wentworth, whose books I absolutely love. In fact Josephine Burkett is the great-niece of Miss Silver, Wentworth’s detective, and the story largely grew from me wondering about how the little girl mentioned in the books would grow up and what she would do with her life. The Posh Hits stories were simply a bit of fun with turning on its head the idea of the protagonist as a hero. I wanted to write about someone who wasn’t very nice. And I wanted her to literally get away with murder. No one ever seems to figure out what’s going on in the Posh Hits stories!
Q: How does your writing process work?
A: I write well in a café, away from the temptations of home. I also write well under pressure, because if I’ve got oodles of time and no deadline, I waste a lot of time day dreaming and procrastinating. I find it hard to organize myself. But basically I mull over an idea for weeks, sometimes months or even years before I begin to write. And then I usually just plunge straight in. After ten or twenty thousand words I realize I’m writing ‘Mr XXX said’ because I’ve forgotten all the names of the minor characters, so that’s when I stop and do a bit of mild planning and a list of characters. I write long hand and then type up, doing a little editing as I go, then I go back and edit and rewrite another two or three times. It takes ages! Unlike many writers, I hate writing the first draft and love the subsequent drafts.
Phew – that was a bit nerve-wracking! I’m a little bit glad it’s over, and a little bit excited to do another one – like a kid at the funfair! Once again, my thanks to Judith Cranswick: http://www.judithcranswick.co.uk/
Now next Monday – 7th of July, these two lovely people will be continuing the fun and mayhem on their own blogs: Maria Constantine and Kev Heritage.
First up, Maria Constantine: