You might have noticed I sometimes get stuck for ideas for a blog post. When that happens, I usually sneakily use an old one and hope you won’t notice, or I put in an interview, or a short piece about my books etc.
BUT… (and you’ll be proud of me for this) I actually decided to research ‘what to write about on your blog’ and hey presto: Write about ‘If I could spend a month writing anywhere in the world, where would it be?’
I love to write in cafes. But with lockdown the way it is, I’ve become a stranger to that. And I do have an office where I do most of my writing (picture the smallest bedroom in the house, no longer needed after the children grow up) and I sometimes write at the dining room table, or in the sitting room, snug on the sofa complete with snoring cat.
Many years ago, we lived in Australia, in Brisbane. It’s hot and sticky there, but I enjoyed it. And our first house there was an absolute hovel (sorry Aussies, but it was, honest), but when the kids had gone to school, I used to sit on the front steps with my morning coffee, a few dozen tiny lizards around half the size of a pencil, a couple of plants in pots, and my notebook and pen.
These little guys just need the water from your flower pots!
I could sit there for around two hours until the sun was so hot, I had to go inside. I used to water the plants in the pots, and the lizards would come and drink the water that ran out of the bottom of the pots onto the wooden steps. The lizards were so shy, I had to keep really still so they thought I was a tree or something. Occasionally a kookaburra would sit on the fence and stare at me, but usually it was just a pigeon or a magpie. I’ve searched my photos but can’t find the one I can picture in my mind that shows the steps and the plant pots. You’ll just have to conjure up your own image of front-step perfection, and write there.
Whereas these guys want to lie on your compost heap in the sun and stuff themselves with leftover fruit and veg
The road was called Farm Street, but I’m guessing that was to commemorate where the farm used to be before it was bulldozed to make way for the street. Neighbours would go by and wave or stop to chat. Gradually they got to know the new Brits at number 12. One guy was very sweet and kind when we were afraid to go past something that looked like quite a large snake in the storm drain by the pavement, but the neighbour explained it was a blue-tongued skink, and nothing to be afraid of. We were still pretty nervous to begin with, I can tell you.
Anyway, so I had two hours of writing most weekdays, sitting on the front steps. I can picture myself there, writing three novels in the time we were in that house, only one of which has been published (Easy Living) and the other two are very much still in the ‘I don’t know what to do’ stage of development. One was called Baby Girl and is about a well-known actress whose adoptive mother passes away and so the actress embarks on a search for her birth mother and finds a killer instead. The other one, referencing the new millennium we were about to go into (so a while ago now) was about a pensioner who goes on the run to avoid being legally euthanised because of the growth of population. Both these books were set in Australia and contain long, slightly wistful passages about my favourite cafes – Jimmy’s Uptown, Jimmy’s Downtown, and Jimmy’s On The Mall, all on the same long street in the city centre.
Life changes, and we weren’t really happy with where we were living, and we moved away. But the times of sitting on the steps and writing were as close to perfect as we could get. It was ‘very heaven’.
Jimmy’s On The Mall: It’s a lot more glamorous now than it was when we were in Brisbane over 20 years ago, they’ve added a whole top floor! If we go back, this is the first place I’ll want to go.
Exactly what we look for in an Art Deco building. Clean lines and plenty of light were important aspects of the design. Very reminiscent of a ship, I always think. I would love to live somewhere like this.
Is there any more evocative style than the one we know as Art Deco? It is immediately recognisable for its elegant lines, swirls, geometric shapes and high contrasts in both colour and texture.
A Tiffany lampshade
After appearing in the first decade of the 1900s, Art Deco actually only reigned supreme until the early 30s, but in the popular imagination it conjures up everything from the Titanic to Agatha Christie’s famous Belgian detective and his obsession with symmetry.
The Seven Stars pub in Earls Court, London. Unfortunately it looks as though it needs a little TLC.
We can still see Art Deco architecture and design all around us. From the smallest ornament for the front of a car to a massive block of flats, they share these characteristic lines of simplicity and brightness.
The iconic Chrysler building, once (and briefly) the tallest building in the world, built towards the end of the era.
It wasn’t just buildings or home decor that got the Art Deco treatment. This is a BMW R7 motorbike from 1934. Even I’d be interested in this! I can almost picture Dottie riding pillion with William.
Another Art Deco house, this time in Florida
Even railway marketing adopted some of the principles of Art Deco, leaving plenty of clear space and using statement images.
The stunning Spirit of the Wind by Rene Lalique. I can’t imagine this on the front of my husband’s Ford Mondeo!
The term Art Deco came from the name of the Paris exhibition in 1925, the Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes (International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts), and has come to mean pretty much all things to all people – anything which is white/cream/gold contrasting with black, anything where the design is uncluttered, or symmetrical, or consists of very straight lines.
The style was associated with glamour, new technology, modernity, and heralded a new era, moving away from the dark, fussy and cluttered styles of the Victorian era and moving forward to embrace the concept of progress. As a style it is still incredibly popular today, and for me, typifies the era of my Dottie Manderson books, a time poised delicately just before the second world war came along to change everything.
No more fussy old Victorian spinach and rust for us! We want something modern and bright!
As a champion-level over-thinker, I’ve been thinking lately about settings for murder. In fact I spend most of my time thinking of places that might be the perfect setting for a dastardly deed. In recent months I’ve looked at village life generally, and of course, that evergreen setting, the country house. And I’ve pondered the usefulness of cities for carrying out or concealing a crime, and even thought about alternative settings to the country house as a destination that might prove a bit too final for some people.
This week I’ve come up with a slight variation on that theme. I’ve been thinking about events in a village or small town and decided that nothing affords more opportunities for almost any kind of shenanigans than a Fair.
A fair afforded everyone opportunities to escape the humdrum everyday world and experience a bit of well-earned fun. There were new goods to browse, your own goods to sell, the pleasurable clinking of coins into a leather purse. Women meeting up to gossip and exchange recipes, family history and perhaps even husbands. Men getting together to drink, to laugh, to commiserate on a bad harvest or celebrate a good one, to buy and sell livestock. Kids running around and getting into mischief with other kids – for once able to forget about the hardships of life and enjoy the noise, the spectacle, and the edible treats.
The fair had so much to offer, and it was a place and a time when normal rules no longer seemed to apply. You were away from your everyday responsibilities, and had a bit of money in your pocket, and lots of novel things to look at. There was the opportunity for freedom for youngsters looking for love – and not just the young. Everything was new and everything was different. It was the most exciting thing to happen in your village for at least six months, and maybe the whole year, so you’d put on your finest clothes and get there as early as you could.
I was thinking of a medieval fair (which might last for several days) ratherthan a modern village fete type of event. This is what I came up with:
Hurrying to the fair. Exciting, new. It’s been a long time since the fair came to town. The usual marketplace is heaving with crowds. They watch the jugglers, the tumblers, maybe dancers. There could be a performing animal of some kind, or a fire-eater, the children’s favourite.
The air is heavy with smoke from the torches and the fires. Whole hogs are roasting over the coals, and chickens too. Apples are dipped in hot sugary toffee and scorch greedy lips; potatoes are hot from the ashes and wrapped in wool, warming the fingers nipped by a light early frost. All this heat creates wavering streams in the air all around.
The sun sets, but the revelry continues, occasionally disturbed by an ale-fuelled brawl that is quickly interrupted by friends keen to prevent blood-shed and ill-temper that will linger long after the fair has moved on.
Lovers quake at the chance glimpse of the objects of their affection, and placid matrons leave go the hands of the dragging children, who run, leaving the mothers in peace to gossip with the neighbours. A dog may bark, or geese squabble.
A lost child might weep as he wanders a little too far, until some kind, burly farmer hoists him to his shoulder to scan the crowds for the wearer of that familiar apron.
It is the village in festival. The men lean on fences or trestles and talk of crops or hunting. Children run in and out of the groups. Everywhere there is noise, chatter and laughter.
The lost little boy is reunited with his mother who hugs and scolds in equal measure, relieved beyond words. She turns to thank the farmer; sees in his face signs of a boy she once knew. When he raises his hat and is gone, she tells her neighbours that once he had been tall and skinny and had blushed when she smiled at him.
She wonders what he saw. She looks down at her ample, matronly form, no longer the slender darting little thing she had once been.
‘Time changes us all,’ she thinks and turning, sees him glancing back at her, still smiling.
It’s made me want to write something bitter-sweet and set amidst the smoking fires of the dark ages. If this has made you want to read a mystery set at a fair or fete, can I suggest one of the following:
St Peter’s Fair by Ellis Peters (set in 1139, the only ‘old’ one here)
The Burry Man’s Day by Catriona McPherson
Dead Man’s Folly by Agatha Christie
A Fete Worse Than Death by Dolores Gordon-Smith (I love a pun) (in fact a couple of authors have books with this title)
Murder At The Village Fete by Catherine Coles
(slightly interesting note: Sean Pertwee starred as Sir George Stubbs in the TV series Agatha Christie’s Poirot episode called Dead Man’s Folly and also played the role of Hugh Beringar in the Cadfael TV series including the episode of St Peter’s Fair.)
I’ve always loved the glamour of Golden Age mysteries, and so I wanted to try my hand at something like that. But I wanted to have a young protagonist as most of the books I’d read had older, spinster ladies as detectives. But I didn’t want to write anything too sweet, or too separate from the real world. So in my books, yes, there is glamour and romance, and the bad guy or gal always gets caught (though sometimes not immediately) but there is also heartbreak and the harsh reality of life not being easy, especially as my chosen era of the 1930s is so close to the war.
What is the hardest part of your writing career?
I suppose it’s juggling all the different aspects of being a writer in today’s world – the social media, obviously, I know everyone says they struggle with that, but also all the technical things – covers and document formatting, creating promotional materials, then remembering to share them, setting up a blog and remembering to create something new most weeks. And then remembering to do actual writing too, and stick to my deadlines. So much to do!
Would you ever use a pseudonym?
I always use a pseudonym. In fact have have several, but the only one that I’m using at the moment is Caron Allan. I wanted to use a pen name because to begin with, it gave me the space and privacy to completely mess up without feeling ‘exposed’. And also, I felt my real name was dreary and unromantic!
When writing a series how do you determine where a book should end and it’s sequel should start?
It’s not always easy, and I’m not very good at it, but fortunately because I write mysteries, that kind of gives a natural end, when the perpetrator of whatever dastardly deed is unmasked and taken away in handcuffs, or however they exit the story, it seems right to just have a short wrap-up and end the book. Though I do have ongoing story-lines – mainly the romantic side of things – that continue through the books and aren’t resolved immediately. In book 1 Dottie, my protagonist, is only 19. I think 19 in the 1930s was a lot younger than 19 today in many ways, and so we see her growing and maturing through the books, coming to understand the world, and relationships, but she is very idealistic and so she can be led by her emotions, and is sometimes bruised by life. She’s not perfect, she’s on a journey, and I like that about her. I don’t want to read about or write about a heroine who doesn’t change, and especially one who doesn’t have depth and dimensions to her character.
Who were your biggest critics and cheerleaders in writing this series?
My family are a huge support, my daughter especially is a massive practical help as well as my cheerleader, as writer herself she knows where I’m coming from. I have a couple of very special friends who are also writers and who are so helpful and encouraging.
If you could go back in time which historical figure would you like to meet?
Oh dear, that’s quite hard. I know we’re always supposed to say Marie Curie or someone incredible like that, but maybe just meet my great great grandmother? How did she cope in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century with all the domestic responsibilities and none of the labour-saving devices we have today? Plus she had six kids, and i only had two, so I am in awe of the women of that era. I’d like to meet Agatha Christie, and Patricia Wentworth when they were in their story-writing heyday, and get as many tips as I could, and also express my admiration for their work.
What should we expect from your upcoming series?
Well I will continue my Dottie Manderson mysteries: Book 7, Rose Petals and White Lace will be out around November 2021. In this book, we will see Dottie trying to find out who wants to get a local tea-shop closed down, and why. It’ll be a gentler mystery for Dottie after the previous couple, but nevertheless there will be at least one fatality, and if you’re not a fan of creepy-crawlies, this might not be for you! I also will be launching a new series, set in the 1960s this time, and featuring the daughter of Dottie’s sister as the detective-protagonist – these will be the Miss Gascoigne mysteries, and begins with A Meeting With Murder. Diana Gascoigne has been ill and goes to the coast for some good sea air to recover, but obviously there are dire doings afoot and she will want to find out who killed an elderly disabled woman. the Diana books will be a little different to the Dottie books, as we know, the 60s were a time of growing freedoms especially for women, and Diana is not an ingenue like Dottie, but a little older, a little wiser and more aware of the difficulties that a woman can face, and she wants independence and more autonomy in her life. But she has the same determination to seek justice and truth.
Would you ever consider writing a biography of your life?
LOL, that would be so boring! I’m not adventurous or glamorous and I’ve done very little with my life other than sit with cats reading or writing. I really don’t think it would sell!
Do you ever experience writer’s block? Sometimes. I don’t agree that it’s not a real thing. I usually find it stems from discouragement, fear or being overtired. I tend to push myself, and I’m always thinking of plots and story ideas, so I get quite mentally tired, and don’t always remember it’s okay to just do nothing and relax. Maybe I need to watch my cats even more than I do! I find rest, music and mundane chores help.
How can your fans reach you and connect with you?
I can be found on twitter: @caron_allan or instagram: @caronsbooks or through my blog, caronallanfiction.com and I’m also on Facebook, but I have to confess I don’t go on there very much, I’m more of a Twitter person.
I’m in love with the idea of the closed or walled community.
Whether it is the hallowed halls of the much-loved country house of so many murder mysteries, or Brother Cadfael’s cloistered world, or a virtual closed community such as Miss Marple’s village with its familiar cottages, vicarage, post office, farms and manor houses, or Poirot’s Art Deco mansionette, with neighbours above and below, people you rarely glimpse and often only hear, or to take things a step further, your suspect or your victim could join a coach tour as in Judith Cranswick’s murder mysteries, or cruise on an ocean liner as in Dawn Brookes’ mysteries, or perhaps holiday on an island cut off from mainland, or a flee to a secret commune hidden away in the mountains, living a simple life a century behind the rest of the world. A mystery could be set in a submarine, or a plane, a train, in a hospital ward, on a space station, almost anywhere where there is a limit to how people get in and out of the place.
All these can be viewed as closed communities, separate from the wider world, with no one to turn to but themselves. As such they are excellent settings for a crime novel. This way you can limit and isolate a small group of suspects. ‘It must have been one of us.’
You’d think that with a small number of suspects, say a maximum of ten or twelve, you’d be stuck for ideas, but a number of that size, compared to, say, a group of four, actually gives quite a lot of alternatives, yet it’s not such a huge number as to be too big for readers to get to grips with. Is there anything worse as a reader than muddling the characters and forgetting who is married to who or who did or said that crucial thing which led to that big scene? So it’s got to be easy to keep track of the suspects.
All too often characters are not even remotely who or what they claim to be. In fact we as a reader more or less depend on that being the case. That’s the fun of it, after all. Secrets can be recently acquired or buried (sometimes literally) in the dim and distant past. A young couple who get on well, who seem devoted in every way. How do we really know that they are a couple? Maybe they are cousins? Or even brother and sister—oooh! What if one of them is already married to someone else?
But for me, without doubt, the best type of closed community to have is one where your story is set in the past.
If you situate a story back in the past, to before identity documents and proof-of-life searches, to a time before healthcare records, driving licenses, the internet, mobile phones, credit checks and credit cards, ATMs, CCTV and ANPR, it immediately becomes a hundred times more difficult to keep track of a person’s comings and goings. There’s a reason why there were so many bigamous marriages two hundred, or even just one hundred years ago. You wouldn’t have to travel very far to find a place where no one knew you at all. Even just the next county would be today’s equivalent of moving to the other side of the world.
You could be whoever you said you were. Who was to know any different?
In some ways it could be quite freeing: no more mistakes to hover over your shoulder like Banquo’s ghost. A goodbye to unhealthy relationships, or domineering friendship groups, toxic working environment or sad memories. Hello to bigamy, escaping justice and living the high life. If things happen to get too hot, simply up sticks and move on. A quick change in appearance, and you’re a whole different person, and no one any the wiser.
But this made it very difficult to bring someone to justice: only a parish register would contain the bare essentials of a person’s life: their date of birth/Christening, their marriage, or that of their parents. School or work records, but these wouldn’t usually have a photo or a detailed physical description. There might be the odd police record for those who had crossed paths with the authorities, but those minor obstacles aside, all you really had left was anecdotal evidence.
Of course, some people who commit crimes are not very good at keeping their head down and getting on with their new life, and making the most of the chance of a new start. Old habits resurface, and the crime is committed again, making detection a real possibility. By contrast, though, a person of reasonable intelligence, often incredibly devious or someone who was simply content to lay low and not draw attention to themselves, could reasonably expect to get away with most of the guilty secrets of their past.
But no doubt, they always looked over their shoulder, to make sure no one was watching them.
Hats for fun/frolics – we need to bring these back!
A few weeks ago I posted a blog about how deceptively innocent country houses and small villages appear, and I offered tips on how to avoid the obvious traps for victims of a murder mystery of the genre we laughingly call ‘cosy’ (or cozy, depending where you hail from).
Because If we think about it, there’s nothing cosy/cozy about murder in the real world. Hercule Poirot, arguably one of the most murder-dependent salary earners in the world, famously said ‘I do not approve of murder’. And yet we humans are fascinated by fictional death. Perhaps because it is so awful, so wicked in real life, we have to discuss it, read it, and plot and plan, as a way of dealing with the unthinkable. Anyway…
If I left you with the idea that a hapless character in a murder mystery might be safer in the city, let me quickly put you right there.
The city is vast and highly-populated. You might think there’s safety in numbers. But for all that, it’s not a safe haven for the timid person trying to avoid falling foul of a really determined villain. Here are a few of the pitfalls yo will find when trying to lose yourself in the city:
Firstly, even cities sleep. Kind of. You might be safe amongst the crowds during daylight hours (or are you?) but as soon as it gets dark, beware!
Have you noticed that most cities are situated on water? In fact I can’t think of a single British city (someone help me here, please) that isn’t either: on the coast, on a river, or a canal (which I know is kind of the same thing really).
Now we can see how this came about, historically. Access to fishing and shipping meant a high density of the population was established around watering holes where there was a) water to transport goods in and out of the country, or b) water for industrial purposes (ie power for mills etc), or c) fish (vom–sorry, not a fish eater) or d) that’s where the Vikings/Normans/Saxons/Whoever-they-weres all landed and thought, ‘You know what, this is quite nice’, and so that’s where they stayed. I suppose this isn’t a surprise, I mean, we’re an island, so we’re going to be surrounded by oceans (literally) of water. In fact, if you think about it, we’re all islands, aren’t we? Some are just very very very big. But these many coasts and riverbanks provided harbour, dwelling places and easy access back to the aunties and uncles across the water.
Have you ever noticed how often innocent people minding their own business get lured to deserted docks, riverbanks, canalsides, and the like? Okay I admit we usually discover they are not so innocent after all. No one goes ‘innocently’ to a deserted dock at midnight to pay blackmailers. But my point still stands – these are dangerous areas and offer life-threatening situations to people who really should have stayed at home.
To begin with, there’s the water – deep, cold and swiftly moving.
And then there’s the innumerable hiding places that can conceal your villain.
Andthen, there’s all the weird heavy duty iron and steel items left randomly about the place to furnish your attacker with a handy weapon.
If that’s not enough, these daytime-busy places are just totally deserted at night. There is NO ONE to hear your scream. NO ONE.
TOP TIP: Let’s avoid the docks etc, and try to find somewhere nice and safe to live that is in the middle of the land, miles from any water.
The next danger the urban environment contains is this:
Now these are essentially just the docks all over again but without the water. Miles of crumbling dark buildings, harbouring criminals, twisty-turny corridors, and hundreds of decaying staircases. Why don’t the local governments rip them down and – I don’t know – put up nice little houses with roses in the gardens? I know they get a massive income from renting the space out to Scandi-noir film-makers, or those TV shows where people try to hide from German Shepherds. But come on, let’s think about the safety of your murder victims here.
Loft-style living may be the trendiest aspirational lifestyle, but with few neighbours, eerie parking in the depths of the earth, capacious but very slow-moving lifts that even a sloth could enter when in motion, and huge echoey rooms, this is not self-preservation at its best.
Speaking of German Shepherds, don’t become a recluse and as Bridget Jones said, get murdered but lay undiscovered, and half-eaten by German Shepherds. (okay she didn’t quite say that). (anyway, in my experience, German Shepherds tend to hide behind their owners, or even their owners children at the slightest unusual sound or threatening situation. We had to carry one of ours home once from a long walk, it was too tired. Another one used to be terrified of those bins attached to lamp-posts and also those shopping bags on wheels old ladies like me have.)
It occurs to me now that most modern victims are likely to be eaten by their house-cat, house-rabbit, or even designer miniature house-pig. If you’ve been dead for weeks and half-eaten when you’re discovered, it doesn’t matter how cute the pet that ate you is, you’re still definitely not a pretty sight. Come on, people, don’t become recluses.
Oh yes. Er…
New housing developments can also be strangely appealing to would-be murderers, and undesirably quiet at night. What was that French murder series a few years ago about the dead bodies all sitting around the table in a newly-built house? Anyway, it was a remarkably dramatic setting, but if you’re the victim, no consolation! Keep away from new-builds – by definition there are few neighbours to turn to in times of crisis.
In fact there are only a small number of places you should go if you are required to meet a blackmailer (or any villain) late at night:
These are perfect for a rendezvous that could turn nasty.
TOP TIP: Obviously if we’ve learned anything from fictional victims of crime, it’s to make sure and always tell someone where you’re going and who you’re meeting, there’s no need to be coy about being blackmailed, it can happen to the best of us.
If you can’t do that, take a seat at the bar, and say to the landlord/barman or landlady/barmaid that you are meeting a dodgy blackmailer shortly, and would they mind just popping over every couple of minutes just to make sure you’re still alive. I’m sure that won’t be a problem.
Maybe just don’t go anywhere or do anything. Just sit in front of your TV or curl up with a book, and hope that your German Shepherd/miniature designer pig is one of the aggressive brave sort who will see off intruders, not the scared kind who try to sit on your lap and whine pitifully whilst surreptitiously checking your sofa for tasty snacks.
This week I’m cheating! In fact I’m not just cheating, I’m showing off, too, as last week I was honoured to be interviewed by Paula Readman in her Clubhouse. You can find Paula’s blog here, and learn more about Paula’s own books, The Funeral Birds, Days Pass Like A Shadow, and Stone Angels, as well as reading all the great conversations that take place with writers who are mysteriously smuggled into the Clubhouse. Here’s how it went:
Welcome to Clubhouse Chat page. Those of you who are not aware the location of the Clubhouse is shrouded in mystery. The only way to visit it is via membership or an invite to the tearoom. Every few days, I’ll be sharing a conversation with all sort of writers and authors at different levels of their writing careers. Over tea and cakes, or maybe a glass of something stronger, I shall be chatting with my guest about their work in progress, or latest book release.
Today I’m welcoming Caron to the clubhouse tearoom. Welcome.
Thank you for the invite, Paula. Gosh, the clubhouse and tearoom is amazing and so many familiar faces too. Though getting here is very peculiar. I’m sorry about all the cloak and dagger stuff, but keep the location secret allow our members complete privacy. Also we have some noisy parties too. 😂 To start with let’s order our drinks and then we can start. My first question is When you first begun your writing journey what drew you to your chosen genre?
I’ve tried writing all sorts of stories of the years, romance, family saga, and so on, but there is always a point when I think, ‘The only way out of this is to kill someone.’ Or else I get so fed up with someone I devise a grisly death for them. I’m not a very nice person!
Also, which I probably should have led with, mystery and crime are my favourites books to read, which was due to my mother’s taste in books. I started reading her Agatha Christies and Patricia Wentworths around the age of 11 or 12, after growing up on Famous Five and Secret Seven books. Mum used to screen them to ensure there wasn’t anything ‘unsuitable’ in terms of sex and bad language. I wasn’t allowed to read her more ‘hard-boiled’ detective books.
What writing elements do you think is your strongest points, and what would you like to do better?
That’s a hard one. It’s quite difficult to step back and analyse your work impartially. But I think I’m quite good with the crime scene stuff. Or at least I try to be accurate. I don’t write a lot of descriptive scenes, these are the bits I find boring in other books and always skip. I want to allow the reader to imagine the scene, the characters, so I keep description to a minimum. I like to think I write good characters, though readers don’t always like what I put them through or make them do. I try to keep things believable and logical to a certain extent.
But I would like to cut the waffle a bit. My dialogue can be woolly if I’m not careful, with a lot of umms and ahhs. I’m also terrible at writing sex scenes (I always laugh inappropriately) but fortunately most of my books don’t require sex scenes, as they are ‘cozy/cosy’, and also (more or less) ‘clean’.
And I’m terrible for getting side-tracked then not wanting to cut out the side-track.
Tell us a little about latest writing project. Is it a new idea, or one you have been mulling over for some time?
I’ve got a few projects on the go at the moment. I’m about to start a bit of light outline-type planning for book 7 of my 1930s mystery series, Dottie Manderson mysteries. Book 6 (The Spy Within) came out last week, so I’m still in recovery! But I already have an outline for book 7, which will be called Rose Petals and White Lace. I’m also in the latter stages of writing a new series, The Miss Gascoigne mysteries, and I’m keeping everything crossed that book 1 will come out sometime next year. That is called A Meeting With Murder.
How many unfinished projects do you have on your computer?
Once I actually begin writing, I don’t usually leave a project unfinished. Although I have drawerfuls of books from my early years of writing that aren’t finished, I used to often abandon a story at around the 35,000-45,000 words mark, but it took me many years to learn how to push through the tough stages of a book, and also, how to fix problems such as not knowing where the story was going or how to rekindle the love for an idea. Someday I’d love to dig them out, dust them off and get them finished, but I just never seem to have the time. Life is so hectic, isn’t it, and there are so many new ideas to try.
Do you write a synopsis first or write the first chapter, or let the characters lead you?
I mainly write long fiction. I have written quite a few short stories, but they’re not my main ‘thing’, and my poetry is awful. Apart haikus, I love a good haiku! I mull an idea over for a while, and maybe make a few notes, as I’m prone to forgetting things! I keep doc files of my ideas, things that randomly occur to me that I think could be a good plot point or an entire plot for a story in the future. Then I usually try to find a way to bring ideas together to create a plan. I am stimulated by images and music, so when I really want to nail an idea, I start with creating a cover for my book, and the title, which helps the plot to settle in my mind. I don’t write detailed or elaborate plot outlines, I keep them in my head. There is a danger that I’ll forget something, of course, but if I write down too much, I lose interest and feel like the story is now finished.
Choosing only five of your favourite authors. Can you list them in order 1 begin the top of your list and say how have they influenced your writing?
Agatha Christie – it’s hard to know who should come first, Agatha or Patricia. First of all I admire anyone who can make themselves sit down and write every day in a professional, diligent manner, and do it come rain or shine. Because it’s quite a hard thing to do. Secondly, I learned so much from how they did it. I analyse their books and make notes. I find it so interesting to read about the nuts and bolts of creating a mystery novel. They both brought together groups of people to be anything from killer to victim, to red herring, to information gatherer and detective. I also love the social commentary.
Patricia Wentworth – As well as the above, I like the romantic elements of Wentworth’s books, and the moralistic tone. I think you get a great sense of characters from her books. And also style of the era too.
Dorothea Brande – I read this author’s most famous book Becoming A Writer when on a visit to my mum, it was the one that answered the questions I had as a young writer and made me see how to grow and develop my skills. First published in the 1930s, I think it’s the most influential book on the topic of ‘how to be a writer’ I’ve ever come across. Her book was the one that convinced me I could actually do this, I could write books and publish them.
Mary Stewart – I love her romantic suspense books, and so many of her chapters start with a literary quote that is relevant to the story, sometimes hilariously so. There is (usually) a strong element of romance in her mysteries too, and that is what I’ve always loved and to try to bring into my writing. Also, the exotic locations – I’m not widely travelled and so envy the heroines who dash off to all these wonderful places.
It’s very hard to confine myself to just five main authors. I’ve got hundreds and hundreds of books, and they are a bit like a family to me. (though I have a real, wonderful and very tolerant family) But if you held a gun to my head and told me I could only pick one more author, I’d probably go with M C Beaton, simply because she is very prolific, has a range of different series, and her books always seem fresh, funny and very human. And quirky. And she creates the most ingenious and cunning characters. I have never been drawn to the aloof characters such as Sherlock Holmes, though I’ve read most of Conan Doyle’s works. I like things cosy, and very female-centric as that is my life experience, and my happy place. But I read loads of authors, modern, and older, mystery and romance and fantasy, and non-fiction, I love social history and art/cultural history. I also love to play around with learning languages, but I get them all muddled.
When reading your work through do you ever find that your daily mood swings are reflected in your writing?
Not really. If I’m very ill, or very depressed, I can’t write fiction, though I do keep a journal for therapy. I had cancer a few years ago, that was a difficult time and as I adjusted to the news, I found I could write my thoughts and feelings into my journal, which was cathartic, but it took me a while to get back to my fiction and WIP writing.
Were any of your characters inspired by real people?
Not directly, or consciously, but there are always little things you notice or absorb unnoticed, and these get put in. As a child I knew lots of older ladies, aunties and ‘courtesy aunties’, and the way they talked and behaved has given me an affection for those kinds of characters in my books.
What did you learn when writing your book? In writing it, how much research did you do?
For my 1930s series, I have researched things such as fashion, social history, manners. I had to learn all about cars and driving in the 1930s. My main character starts off as a mannequin for a fashion house but ends up owning and running the business, so I had to learn a bit about that. I had to learn about policing procedures and advances in detection to present my murders – and the solving of them – in a believable manner. Most recently I had to find out what films were released in the early part of 1935. For an earlier book I had to learn a great deal about medieval embroidery and Opus Anglicanum, and also about the religious intolerance of the 1600s and well, always really). so there is always quite a bit of research to do. The trick is remembering it doesn’t ALL need to go into your book!
Is there anything about you your readers might be surprised to find out?
Erm… Oh dear… That’s hard to say. I’m not a very exciting person! We lived in Australia for five years, due to my husband’s job, returning to Britain in 2002. I’m a cliché really, a cat loving introvert with tons of books. I once had a letter published in Gardeners’ World and got a £5 voucher for it! That’s kind of it.
Did you uncover things about yourself while writing your books, whether that be a long forgotten memory, a positive experience etc.
Not really, although understanding that what I enjoy writing stems by and large from my first 10 or 12 years of life was a bit of a revelation to me that came to me out of the blue more or less a year or two ago. I find it hard to write male characters. When I thought about it, I realised I don’t actually know very many males. Having grown up without a father, then having a step-father I didn’t (for various reasons) feel close to, and as an only child, I didn’t have a close bond with a man or any boys. Even now, my only main male references are my son and my husband (who are lovely!), but that’s an unusually small number of men really, I just hadn’t really been aware of that until recently. I have drawn on anxieties or dreams and memories to develop story ideas for several novels and short stories.
What is your work schedule like when you’re writing?
I thrive on routine, so my schedule tends to be the same, more or less, all the time, weekdays and weekends. Though I do tend to write virtually all time in one form or another. I write mainly in the evening and late at night. I am most definitely not a morning person. During the day hubby and I tend to potter around the house doing chores, or go to a caff for lunch or a coffee (corona-plague-dependent, obvs). I’m lucky that I no longer have to do a day job as such. When I was working full time, I used to write on the bus to work or home again, and in my lunch hour, and then grab an hour or two most evenings and some of the weekend.
Do you set yourself a daily word count?
No. I write by scenes. So I try to do one entire scene, or if they’re very short, two or three scenes a day. Sometimes, I just feel full of energy and ideas flowing and I have to write until it’s all there on the page, other days it’s more of a disciplined slog.
How many hours in a day do you write?
Two or three. Maybe more in terms of planning, mulling, researching, pondering and faffing about. Most of my writing is done by staring out of the window and thinking ‘what if…?’ And I have post-its everywhere.
Did you ever consider writing under a pseudonym?
I only write under a pseudonym. My real first name is dowdy and my husband’s surname is ridiculous, so I didn’t want to use those, and I couldn’t write under my maiden name as that is already the name of an author (with the same first name). Also, as a new writer when I started out, I needed to be free to write whatever I wanted and find my voice without anyone knowing it was me.
How do you select the names of your characters? Do you know everything about them before you start writing their story?
I know a few things – the vital stuff, how tall, how old, eye colour, hair colour. I learn the rest as I go along, with the reader. I have had a few problems with names. To begin with, in my first drafts, male characters were always called John. It’s a name I like, plain, down-to-earth, reliable. But it can be quite hard to find a name that ’fits’ sometimes, and I am terrible for forgetting what I’ve called previous characters, and often in the early stages find I’ve got two people with the same name. I once came up with the perfect name for a character: Ben Sherman. My daughter laughed and told me that was the name of a designer, so I had to bin that idea. But at least it made me realise why those names seemed to work so well together!
What was your hardest scene to write?
I struggle with the emotional scenes where my main characters lose someone or something important to them. But I am able to sit in the privacy of my office sobbing into a notebook or onto the screen, so that’s helpful. I always empathise, so I feel the pain they feel, and I want to show my characters as they go through hard times like we all do.
In terms of technically difficult, as I said before, I’m rubbish at sex scenes. There’s always ‘his hand was here, and his hand was there, then his other hand was…’ and I think, how many hands has this guy got? Or the euphemisms people use, that always makes me laugh. So I tend to leave my couples at the full-on snog stage and come back with the lasting longing farewell.
How long on average does it take you to write a book?
It can vary tremendously, and I don’t always get down to it when I should, but usually a full-length novel takes me around eight or nine months to draft, polish, rewrite etc, get edited, proofed, revised and generally ready for publication. Most of them tend to be around 80,000-110,000 words, which is fairly long for a cosy mystery, but as I said, I am something of a waffler. I always write my first draft longhand in notebooks, then transcribe onto the computer for revisions. A first draft will generally take around one to two months, although I have written 120,000 words in 23 days once. Still haven’t revised that one though! I think it’s mostly umms and ahhs.
Thank you so much, Caron for joining us today. When you’re ready to leave please let our driver Brutus know and he’ll run your destination.
If you would like to find out more about Caron’s writing and books please click on these links: Her blog Her Author’s Amazon Page Latest book: (The Spy Within: Dottie Manderson mysteries book 6)
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Since my latest book was published last week, I have had a lot more time to concentrate on reading and relaxing. I mainly read mysteries and crime novels or true crime, but I do like the occasional foray into other genres. I love history, not the kings-and-wars type of history, but the stuff about how ordinary people lived their lives. I also love books about art and culture, I enjoy the occasional romance (I’m still talking about books here!) and I love poetry, I read classical books, and also fantasy-ish books by people such as Jodi Taylor, Tom Holt and Jasper fforde. But the mystery/crime genre remains my one true love. I’ve already blogged about which books I would grab if the house was on fire…
Thinking about that, I decided to quickly put together a list of my top five Agatha Christie books. So here they are. Have you read all these? Let me know what you thought. Are there other books in your top five?
Death On The Nile
There are a number of things I love about Death On The Nile. I suppose the ‘surprise’ ending has to be number one, doesn’t it/ I remember the first time I read it, I was as they say, blown away. I had to think about it for a while, and full of admiration for Christie’s ingenuity, had to say, ‘Wow.’ I don’t want to spoil it by saying more or going into detail if you haven’t read this one, so please buy this and read it immediately if you haven’t read it before. There is romance, passion, mystery and history, and above all else, Hercule Poirot with his magnificent moustaches, his sage predictions, and his mal de mer.
The second thing I love about this is the glamour of the setting – the exotic destination, the old-fashioned elegance of the characters and the scenes they live and move in. Dressing for dinner – I’d love to do that. Dancing to a little group of musicians, yes! Leaning on the rail and gazing at the river, maybe whilst sipping a cocktail, definitely my idea of a nice way to spend the evening. Then in the daytime, the exciting trips ashore, the ancient monuments we would visit, the history, the majesty of it all. My more prosaic everyday self would tell you that reality is probably a million miles from the romance of a book published in 1937, but my inner writer-romantic would just retort that it doesn’t matter, or snap back, as Dottie’s mother would say, ‘Nonsense.’
Death Comes As The End
I’m always a bit surprised that not many people have heard of this one. As you can see, it’s one of my favourites. I read it first when I was a teenager, and what struck me first of all was how Christie made the past come alive. I had never seen history in that ‘relatable’ way before, and it kindled a love for history in me that has stayed with me ever since. I didn’t know, then, that Christie was mad about history or that she was married to an archaeologist.
This book is set in a fictionalised version of the ancient past, no familiar moustache twirling detective or knitting old lady here! It’s set in the time of the Pharoahs (ish), and the era is beautifully brought to life by the author, described fully without being a mere information dump, and it really is absorbing.
It’s a romance, and a traditional murder mystery. There is a sense of menacing unease, and along with Renisenb, the young female protagonist, you have to ask, ‘Is it you? Or you? Or you?’ Give it a try and like me, you’ll be biting your nails, with everything crossed that things will turn out all right for Renisenb and that she will get her happy ever after.
Lord Edgware Dies
As you can see from the pic above, when I last read this I made tons of notes – I felt I really learned a lot from rereading the book and seeing just how Christie achieved the creation of her mystery. I even devoted a whole post to this one book!
This book was first published in 1933. Eighty-seven years ago!!!!! Somehow I always think of Christie as a relatively modern crime writer, but of course, she wasn’t, she was very much of her time, two generations before mine. In fact, my character Dottie could definitely be a Christie fan!
Coming back to Lord Edgware…
This book has a host of characters. Too many, I’d say, and I should know, I crowbar in dozens to every book. Although I love this book, I do get muddled with the characters, especially in the beginning. It’s also a long book, and quite complex as a so-called ‘cosy/cozy’ mystery goes.
The plot hinges as always on some clever sleight of hand–my favourite kind of plot! I loved the way the murder was achieved, though obviously I can’t say anything as I don’t want to spoil it for you, if you haven’t read this one yet. So therefore, you must read it!
After The Funeral
The main thing I like about this is the opening scene or two, where the ‘unthinkable’ happens as loosely-attached relatives and associates gather for a funeral, and one of the guests commits a social gaffe by saying, (after a funeral as per the title) ‘Still, it’s all been hushed up very nicely, hasn’t it?’ When everyone blusters and demands to know what she means, Cora says, ‘But he was murdered, wasn’t he?’
Isn’t that a brilliant way to get things going in a story? I love the apparent simplicity of this. I say apparent because we all know so much planning and effort goes into a story – it’s never as simple as it appears. I suspect that the simpler it looks, the harder it is for the author.
The story is a good one, not great, but it is a solid good story, and if you haven’t read it, I recommend it. But for me, everything else was secondary to that one astonishing scene. It’s worth it just for that.
The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd
Oh dear, the infamous Murder of Roger Ackroyd. This book caused something of a furore for Agatha Christie when it was first published in 1926, and may have been one of the factors related to her famous disappearance in that year. Almost a hundred years ago. !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
What was the problem with Roger Ackroyd? Well the critics said she didn’t play by the (unofficial) rules of murder mystery writing. But again, I can’t tell you precisely why because it will ruin everything if you haven’t read the book. Read it, then come back and then we can have a natter about it. Tell me what you thought.
Suffice to say, it’s the original twist at the end. And I honestly didn’t see surprise coming when I read it the first time, though admittedly I was a teenager and had no understanding of ‘the rules’ of writing. But it seemed perfectly acceptable and logical to me, and I was captivated, as I always am, when I read this book.
It conjures up the traditional ‘English village’ setting so beloved of writers and readers of murder mysteries, with a range of recognisable stock characters, the spinster, the mysterious, possibly/probably immoral, attractive single woman, the local doctor, the people who live in the ‘big house’, and all the hangers-on.
Go on, get a copy and get reading! It’s not like we can go out at the moment…
It always surprises me when people say to me, ‘Why do you write?’
For me there’s only one true answer–which I can’t give because it sounds rude–‘Why don’t you?’
Because… I just don’t get it. Oh I know these days many people don’t read actual hold-in-the-hand books anymore, and that meetings, conferences, education, leisure, everything has become virtual. Attendees are more likely to add digital notes or better yet, simply record the bits they need so they can listen to them again and again. I accept that tablets and phones see more of the written word than a paper notebook. To me that qualifies as writing, I’m not one of those people who think it’s only writing if you scribe onto vellum with a goose-feather quill.
But when people say ‘Oh I could never write,’ I don’t understand. Do they mean, ‘My English language grammar is a bit shonky and so my writing would not be erudite enough’? Because if so, that’s what editing is for.
Or do they mean, ‘I’d run out of ideas.’? To that I’d say, ‘Welcome to the club.’ Social media is full of people searching for inspiration.
Or do they mean ‘Writing is only for an elite group, and is only endorsed by publication from a traditional publishing house’? To that I’d say, ‘Nonsense, anyone can write if they want to, and publishing is no longer that straightforward. Or that restrictive.’
Or do they mean, ‘It sounds so complicated, juggling all those ideas’? Yes, it is, but you learn how to do that. (Kind of, I mean sometimes you just learn to juggle better and sometimes you learn that it’s okay to drop the odd whatever-it-is you’re juggling.)
At the other end of the spectrum, are those who say ‘Oh you’re a writer? I’ve been thinking of trying that,’ or ‘I’ve always thought I could write a book some day when I’ve got nothing else to do.’ To them I say, ‘Go on then, I’m watching you. Do it, I dare you. In fact, I double-dare you.’
So why do I write? I need to tell myself stories, it’s that simple. I could write a whole thesis on all the wider implications of that, spiritually, physically, emotionally and whatever else. But what it comes done to is that we ALL love stories, even people who tell me, ‘Oh no, I never read books.’ They watch TV probably. Or binge on streamed series. Or maybe paint–that’s telling a story in a visual way. Or perhaps you might write or play or listen to music. That’s a story in aural form. Or you might daub paint on the walls of your cave, draw in the sand with a stick, or whittle a piece of wood into a specific form. It’s all storytelling.
None of us don’t have stories in our lives, it’s there in all of us, a need to create, to experience, to understand and explore. It’s part of our humanity.
Round the rugged rock the ragged rascal ran. (rock not included)
Round the rugged rock the ragged rascal ran.
We all know that one, don’t we? Though I usually get rugged and ragged back to front. I have to remind myself that whilst a rascal can be rugged or ragged, a rock can pretty much only be rugged.
As we learned in junior school, alliteration is putting together words with the same initial letter. In the case of the above phrase, R, the pirate’s favourite letter. This repetition is the foundation of our childhood tongue-twisters. English is not the only language to have these:
Schnecken erschrecken, wenn sie an Schnecken schlecken, weil zum Schrecken vieler Schnecken Schnecken nicht schmecken.(translation: Snails are shocked when they lick snails because to the surprise of many snails, snails don’t taste good).
Der Grabengräber gräbt die Gräben. Der Grubengräber gräbt die Gruben. Graben Grabengräber Gruben? Graben Grubengräber Gräben? Nein! Grabengräber graben Gräben. Grubengräber graben Gruben.(translation: The gravedigger digs graves. The ditchdigger digs ditches. Do ditchdiggers dig graves? Do gravediggers dig ditches? No! Gravediggers dig graves. Ditchdiggers dig ditches.)
So now you know! Feel free to use these at virtual-parties, to amaze and impress your friends.
Amuse your cat with a large repertoire of tongue-twisters in various languages…
Alliteration can be a useful literary device when writing, and like most literary devices, it is used to make the reader feel, view or interpret your writing in a particular way by creating a mood or appearance. But use it sparingly. The problem with any literary device, is that all too easily it can draw attention away from what you’re writing and turn the focus to how you’re writing. This will distract your reader from your story in the same way you can sometimes fail to see the puppet-show because you’re focusing on the strings. Having spent all that time gently leading the reader to suspend disbelief, you don’t want to ruin things by breaking the spell now.
Here are a few more literary devices:
Sibilance is the repeated use of an S sound, or a hissing sound. You put together words with lots of S, SH and soft C sounds: Sid’s silly scented snake slithered smoothly across the shiny façade. Unlike with Alliteration, the repeated sounds don’t have to be confined to the beginning of the word.
Assonance is the repeated use of vowel sounds: cut jug, heed beat, or the same or similar consonants with different vowels: jiggle juggle, dilly-dally.
Consonance is the repetition of matching consonant sounds: ruthless cutthroats, repeated reports. It can quickly descend into Alliteration if only the initial letter(s) are repeated!
”A soldier’s life is terrible hard,’ said Alice.’
These are used to create a certain mood, or an attitude, or making the reader see a character or setting in a particular way. These can also imbue your writing with a poetic or lyrical quality. You might want your readers mesmerised by a particular scene if you are going to follow it with something spectacular: the calm before the storm effect. Think of movies where there is a soft love scene before the hero goes into battle.
In fact most poetry contains one or more of these devices. Think ofWordworth’s poem I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud, with all the repeated Ls, the Hs, the Ds, the long vowels of wandered, lonely and cloud. Or Buckingham Palace by A A Milne, with its repeated lines and rhyming words.
Or in this, one of my favourite short poems, there is a clever mixture of all these devices – see if you can spot them!
Song by Christina Rosetti
When I am dead, my dearest
Sing no sad songs for me;
Plant thou no roses at my head,
Nor shady cypress tree:
Be the green grass above me
With showers and dewdrops wet;
And if thou wilt, remember,
And if thou wilt, forget.
I shall not see the shadows,
I shall not feel the rain;
I shall not hear the nightingale
Sing on, as if in pain:
And dreaming through the twilight
That doth not rise nor set,
Haply I may remember,
And haply may forget.
These literary devices can have a unifying effect, making all parts fit together with a repetition of shared letters and sounds, or by ensuring the reader remembers certain sounds or words. But like all good things, in prose it needs to be used in moderation. Don’t make your writing just a collection of tongue-twisters!