Criss Cross and a sneaky little announcement.

This week I thought I’d share a flashback-kind-of-thing.

It’s been ten years since I published my first book.

(I was about to write something about that, but then I reread what I’d just written – ten years since… Isn’t that what addicts say? I wonder if I am actually an addict? This writing thing – it’s impossible to stop. Maybe I need professional help?)

Anyway… I was going to say, it’s been ten years since Criss Cross: Friendship Can Be Murder: book 1 hit the Kindles and bookshelves, and firstly, where has the time gone, and secondly, I bang on about my other books but this series gets overlooked. So I thought I’d share with you chapter one of Criss Cross, and also just mention quickly in passing that next year, I plan to bring out book 4 in this series. The series started life as a trilogy but I just love these characters so much. So Dirty Work, book 4 will be out in the mid to end of 2023.

If you feel like reading on, I should just add, there are BAD words in this chapter, and it is VERY long. Oh and it’s written in the first person in diary entry-form. Sorry, I know (now!) that everyone hates that:

Sun 24 June

To my darling Cressida

Happy Birthday, Sweetheart! Have fun writing down all your thoughts and plans and dreams, then when we’re old and grey we can sit together on that terrace in Capri and watch the sun go down, drink a glass of wine and you can read me the spicy bits from this journal and we will have a good laugh and talk about the old days!

With all my love forever and ever

Thomas xx

Same day: 10.35pm (Cressida writes:)

She must die!! I hate her!! I refuse to put up with her a moment longer, she is an evil, conniving old bitch without a grain of family feeling and it’s time she was dead!!

Mon 25 June—2.35pm

Have you noticed how some people just never seem to realise they’ve gone too far?

I was going to start off my new journal with something terribly erudite and wise. Like a new school notebook, I particularly wanted the first page to look lovely. But I suppose it really doesn’t matter if the first page isn’t perfectly neat and everything: the whole purpose of a journal is to pour out one’s innermost thoughts and give vent to all the frustrations that, as a nicely brought-up person, one can’t give full reign to in ‘real’ life, and so obviously even the first page can get a bit messy. And now just look at it!

But I digress. I must explain from the beginning…

It was my birthday yesterday. 32 already. God, I’m old! I looked at myself in the bathroom mirror this morning and even in the flattering south-facing light and all steamy and fresh from the shower, I’m absolutely certain I could see the tiniest line down the left side of my face from my nose to the corner of my mouth—I’m convinced it wasn’t there yesterday. Wonder if I’ve left it too late for Botox?

Among a number of very extravagant birthday gifts, my Darling Thomas gave me this sweet little journal. I’d mentioned weeks ago that I used to keep a journal when I was a melodramatic teenager, and how nice it was just to write down everything that happened and to really get it out of my system and add in lots of ‘grrr’ faces and heavy underlining, and lo and behold, the dear man, he surprised me with this journal for my birthday. So here I am.

It’s an absolutely beautiful book. It has a hard cover with a weird kind of gothicky design in the most gorgeous shades of black and purple and gold, with a magneticky bit in the front flap to keep it closed, and the pages, somewhere between A5 and American letter-size, are edged in gold too, so it feels very glamorous to write in—In fact I was a bit afraid to begin the first page, hence all the fuss about it looking nice and neat, I almost got a kind of writer’s block!

But all my good intentions and deep thoughts and years of accumulated adult wisdom and the desire to create something really special went out the window when my cow of a mother-in-law turned up on a ‘surprise’ visit and now my first page—well second really, under that really sweet little message from Thomas—Is absolutely ruined! I only hope to God Thomas doesn’t read it!

Not that she’d remembered it was my birthday any more than my own mother had—oh no! One can’t expect her (or either of them in fact!) to keep track of trivial little details like that. No, she needed Thomas’s advice about some financial matters, and thought she’d pop over. After all what’s an hour and a half’s chauffeured drive here or there? Of course she didn’t bother to ring first, see if we were in or free or anything. Clarice is used to everyone falling in with her plans.

‘I knew you wouldn’t be doing anything important,’ she says as she breezes in, dropping her coat in the middle of the hall, frowning around at the décor before settling herself in the drawing room, demanding tea. Not just the drink! By ‘tea’ she means that Victorian/Edwardian meal between luncheon, as she calls it, and dinner. She expected crustless sandwiches, crumpets, cakes (large and small), scones, jam and cream, the works. And copious amounts, of course, of tea-the-drink. China, not Indian. With lemon slices in a dainty little crystal dish, not 2 litres of semi-skimmed in a huge plastic container.

Thomas reminded her that it was my birthday and that consequently we had plans for the evening. She waved a negligent hand. Her hair, a shade too brave, was salon-perfectly waved if somewhat stiff-looking, and her clothes were at least one generation too young for her, but hideously expensive as well as just—well, hideous. Did I mention I hate her?

‘Oh that can be set aside. You can easily go out some other evening. My financial affairs are of the first import.’

Thomas looked at me. He didn’t want to fight with his mother and I knew there would be no point in trying to push him to resist the onslaught, so for poor Thomas’s sake, I sighed and shrugged and he sat down next to the old dragon and asked what she wanted to know. Meanwhile I dashed off to ring Monica Pearson-Jones and a few others, to let them know that we would either be horribly late for the theatre party, or quite possibly not turn up at all. I have to admit I was feeling quite cross and rather sorry for myself. However, Huw and Monica’s machine had to take the terrible news, as they were out. I hoped to God they weren’t already on their way.

When I got back to the drawing room, Clarice was banging on about her bloody cats, and Thomas was all glazed over and away-with-the-fairies-looking. Clarice just looked up and taking in my flat tummy and slender waist (which take me hours to maintain, btw) glared at me and said ‘so, still not knocked up yet then?’ And before I could respond with a frosty, well-constructed rebuttal, she turned to Thomas and said, ‘I told you she wouldn’t be any good. Why you couldn’t marry that Filipino girl the Honourable Addison-Marksburys brought back with them, I’ll never understand. Very good child-bearing, the Filipinos. And it’s not as though she would have expected you to take her anywhere.’

Thomas said nothing helpful, of course, just sat there like a rabbit in the headlights. And then, before I could recover my breath enough to pick my jaw up off the floor, at that moment, Huw and Monica arrived. I raced out into the hall, thinking I might be able to head them off, but just as I was discreetly mumbling to them just inside the front door, Thomas dashed out looking frazzled and dragged them in for a cuppa. Huw, only too glad to wade into a fight, immediately went in with Thomas, whilst Monica exchanged a ‘families, what can you do!’ eye-roll with me and we followed on at a more sedate pace, I with the awful sense that things were about to go even more horribly wrongerer!

How right I was. I could see Clarice eyeing them up and down. I knew she wouldn’t like Huw, because he can seem a tad brash on first meeting. He might have the breeding she prefers, but he doesn’t always act like a gentleman. Plus he takes great delight in saying exactly the wrong thing. Loves to shake things up a bit, does our Huw. But Monica, well, she’s lovely! Clarice couldn’t possibly find anything objectionable in Monica, surely?

She found something.

After eyeing them very obtrusively for several full minutes and barely murmuring even the merest of pleasantries when Thomas made the introductions, Clarice said to me, quite loudly enough for them to hear, though it was supposed to be a whisper,

‘Married his secretary, did he? She looks that type. Coarse. Rather Cheap. Eye to the main chance, one would imagine.’

Monica turned to glare, but before she could say anything, and as Huw was about to stroll to her defence, Thomas got their attention by forcing cake on them, but to no avail as, inspired once more, Clarice leaned towards me with another little gem.

He’s obviously a drinker. And looks like a bit of a lech, too. Just like Millicent Huntingdon’s first husband. Thoroughgoing bastard, that one. No back-bone, morally speaking.’

Our friends left just seconds later, Huw saying something over his shoulder about a ‘vile old bag.’ In fact the duration between Clarice’s comment and their car careering off down the drive was less than thirty seconds. I think that’s probably a record. I say ‘our friends’ but after the insults from Clarice, we’ll probably never see them again. Then of course, on being reprimanded for her poor manners, Clarice sulked and kept going on about how she didn’t know what the younger generation were coming to and blaming Thomas for not executing better judgment.

‘In more ways than one,’ she said, and eyed me with malice once more.

So as I was saying to begin with, some people just never seem to realise they’ve gone too far!

I mean, the vast majority of normal people, people like you and I, we just instinctively know the correct way to behave. We apologise when someone else bumps into us, we begin every complaint with ‘terribly sorry to be a nuisance, but…’ We’re nice. Pleasant. We have a kind of in-built mechanism, straight as a line in damp sand, an invisible barrier which prevents us stepping beyond the realm of reasonable and acceptable behaviour.

Some people do not.

Some people never read the signs, they ignore all warnings and plough doggedly on, intent only on saying what they want to say and doing what they want to do. They don’t care about your feelings. They turn up unannounced and uninvited, they change your plans without considering your wishes. They don’t notice the look on your face, the halting of your phrase, they are oblivious to the cooling of the atmosphere around them. They never notice that infinitesimal pause before you continue to hand around the petit-fours, a fixed smile plastered on your face, inane pleasantries tripping off your tongue. Some people remain completely and utterly ignorant of all the signs.

Everyone else, metaphorically speaking, has grabbed their handbags and jackets, collected their madeleine-tins from your kitchen, tossed the keys to the Range Rover to their husbands, dashed out of the door leaving kisses still hanging in the air, and are already on the slip road to the motorway whilst That Person is still looking vaguely around as a few motes of dust drift gently down to the Axminster. They are wearing that idiotic expression that says, ‘who me? What could I have possibly said?’ or even worse, ‘well I only said what everyone else was thinking’.

And they are always, always, always completely unaware when they have outstayed their welcome.

There’s only one way to deal with people like that.

One way and only one way.

You have to kill them.

They never take the hint, you see. They fail to detect the slight frost in your demeanour as they witter on, insulting your loved ones, criticising your friends, your home, your life. Such people cannot be taught, changed or reasoned with. In the end, it’s just easier for all concerned if you get rid of them before they truly become a Nuisance and make everyone with whom they come into contact completely and utterly miserable.

And if that seems a little harsh, just think for a moment about what these people do to your self-esteem, to your inner calm, to your peace of mind. When the phone rings, these are the people whose voice one dreads to hear. One begins to dread all family occasions and holidays because of That Person. Frankly, it’s just not worth the emotional and psychological trauma of putting up with them. Life is quite challenging enough. And that is the stage I’ve now reached with Clarice.

So.

That said, it’s one thing to say to oneself, Monday, water plants, collect dry-cleaning, go to library, bake fairy cakes for the One-to-One drop-in day-centre fundraiser, and quite another thing to just sort of slip onto the bottom of your to-do list, ‘oh and kill mother-in-law and get everything tidied up because dinner will be on the table at seven o’clock sharp due to drinks at eight-thirty at the Pearson-Jones’.

Things—unfortunately—just aren’t quite that simple.

The Grandes Dames of the murder mystery genre, practising their art in the early and middle parts of the twentieth century—what one might term the ‘Golden Age’ of detective fiction—espoused the pleasures of poisoning. Fly-papers were meticulously soaked to extract their lethal properties, berries and toadstools were carefully gathered and sliced and diced and surreptitiously introduced into steaming casseroles and tempting omelettes. On every domestic shelf such things as sleeping draughts and rat poison and eye drops sat unnoticed and unremarked, and a home was not a home without at least a few jars of cyanide or arsenic sulking forgotten in garden sheds and garages.

But, sadly, these items are notoriously tricky to come by nowadays in our ‘Nanny state’.

Of course, one watches these TV programmes that explain all about the forensic process, so that one is pre-armed with useful information. Knives wielded by the left-handed protagonist cut quite differently to those employed by a right-handed person. Equally so the short protagonist and the weak slash feeble protagonist.

In addition the actual wound inflicted by a classic blunt weapon can yield so much information about not just the weapon itself but also the attacker—the approximate height, stance, and even weight and probable gender, for example, and the ferocity of attack is sometimes a gauge as to motive and psychology. Firing a gun leaves residue on one’s clothes, gloves, and skin, and, contrary to popular belief, it can be quite a job laying one’s hands on a firearm.

According to the Daily Tabloid, a gun may readily be obtained at certain pubs in our larger cities for as little as £30, usually from a gentleman going by the name of Baz or Tel, but the problem is, these tend to be the kind of establishments one would hesitate to enter in broad daylight, let alone late in the evening.

Remember, it’s very difficult to get a decent glass of Merlot in this kind of hostelry, and one can’t just go in and hang about without making a purchase of some kind. If you do just go into the bar and stand or sit in a corner, the other patrons are likely to stare and nudge one another. They may even whisper to one another, ‘wot jer fink er game is then?’ or possibly, ‘Oi Tel, woss up wiv er, she too good fer us or summink?’

This is especially the case when one gentleman approaches and states that he and his friend, Gaz or Stevo or even ‘Arrison would like to buy you a beverage of some description, usually a Mojito or similar, and you are forced to politely but firmly decline. They are apt to be offended.

And if you do order a nice glass of Merlot, there’s always a momentary look of confusion on the face of the Landlord as he tries to recollect whether he has a corkscrew within easy reach, or how long ago he opened the half-empty bottle on the back counter—was it recently enough to avoid the expense of opening a brand new bottle?

Then he’ll ask if you’d like ice and lemon. Might as well add a cherry-on-a-stick and a little umbrella! And there’s no point in trying to charge it to your Diamond Visa or Titanium Amex—they much prefer to deal with cash. It’s altogether a rather unpleasant experience.

In any case, Baz or Tel are always surprisingly suspicious when one asks them if it would be possible to purchase a small Eastern-European revolver, something with a fairly hefty slug but small enough to slip into a small Louis Vuitton clutch-purse, or at a pinch into a Mulberry shoulder bag, or even, and here I may be straying into the realms of fantasy or James Bond (same thing, I suppose), even into the top of one’s stocking.

The gentleman invariably looks a bit puzzled and says something along the lines of, ‘‘ere that sounds a bit dodgy Darlin’. I don’t do nuffin like that.’ Well, of course it’s a bit dodgy, one points out, one is illegally attempting to buy a gun in a corner of the car park of a fleabag pub at eleven o’clock at night, and paying cash into the bargain. How could one possibly see it in any other light than dodgy? It doesn’t matter if you offer them £100, £200 or even £500 at this point, they just walk away shaking their heads and saying, ‘screw that, I don’t wanna get cort up in nuffin dodgy.’

I ask you.

The criminal classes aren’t what they once were. But what other choices does one have?

A pillow over the face in the dead of night is liable to leave a filament of goose-down in the lungs of your chosen recipient. This will immediately be detected by any half-decent forensic examiner and blabbed all over the Car-Crash Telly channel in a late-night special called Toffs Who Kill or something of the kind.

A bit of a bump with the car in a quiet part of town on a wet Wednesday afternoon may lead to eyewitnesses or CCTV footage recording your number plate for posterity. For goodness sake, tiny fragments of paint from the wing of your vehicle may embed themselves in the depths of the wound you inflict, and these same may be delicately reclaimed by a steady-handed science-nerd in a lab coat wielding a pair of sterile tweezers.

Murder is a difficult road to travel. But one must bear in mind the old maxim that nothing worthwhile is ever attained without a struggle. Therefore it is imperative to be utterly committed, to be dedicated in one’s approach, to persevere in the face of adversity and to make copious notes so that one may learn from one’s mistakes. And of course, it goes almost without saying, each stage must be planned in intricate, even tedious, detail.

Today I went to my local stationer’s—It’s so vital, I feel, that one supports local businesses wherever possible—and bought two notebooks, a small index card box, a set of ruled index cards, and a rather nice fountain pen. My husband seems to be under the impression that I require these items to catalogue my shoe collection. Sweet! And not a bad idea…but first things first.

Now, I’ve worked out I have approximately six weeks in which to plan and carry out my little project, and still have time for a decent mourning period before we have to be in Scotland for the ‘glorious twelfth’, my Thomas’s cousin Jessica (lovely woman!) always has a house party. Actually this year it’s the glorious thirteenth as the twelfth falls on the Sabbath, and one never shoots in Scotland on the Sabbath. Der! Thomas loves his shooting, so although I’m not a lover of messy pastimes, I always like to encourage him to relax and have a bit of fun, stockbrokers work so hard don’t they, and such high stress levels, one obviously doesn’t want them to crack up under the pressure!

Not, of course, that we would need a mourning period as such, as Thomas hates his mother almost as much as I do, but one must maintain appearances, and I’d need a good week, I’m absolutely certain, to sort out the contents of Highgates—she has accumulated so much old tat, although most of it is stored in boxes in the disused bedrooms, and has been sitting there untouched for simply decades. But it will take me a full day just to sort through the Spode and other china and porcelain in case there are any little gems lurking amongst the dross.

There are also two rather elderly and smelly cats that will have to be put to sleep, and of course the whole legal side of things to sort out. Thomas will have to see to that.

Then there’ll be the funeral to arrange.

Now one thing I do think is really important, and that is to ensure a really beautiful casket is purchased. And of course, it’s no good skimping when it comes to fittings, not if you want to do the job properly. Brass, highly polished, is the only thing that will do. Not that horrid plated stuff that rubs off as soon as you touch it. That’s what happened to Thomas’s colleague Miranda Kettle (she’s got the biggest nose I have ever seen, and the smallest chin! Nothing grows in the shade, does it?). She skimped on her mother’s coffin. We all noticed the green stain on the pall-bearers’ gloves, of course. No one said anything obviously, and in any case, Miranda herself didn’t notice. She had her nose buried in an extra-large gentlemen’s handkerchief most of the time, she was so inconsolably upset. Poor woman. Absolutely distraught throughout the entire funeral. Thought the mortgage had been paid off years ago! Such a beastly shock.

Same day: 5.45pm

I’ve just had a bit of a break to think about this a little longer. So I went to sit out on the terrace with a cup of tea. Then it came to me, and I had to dash indoors and fetch this journal.

Of course, the very thing!

The scourge of society nowadays: the house-breaker. Or, more precisely, the drug addict, who, as the tabloids will no doubt report, desperate to gain some funds for another few grammes of white powder to snort, breaks into a nice house in an attractive part of Ely in the hope of some opportunistic gain. Then is surprised by a feisty, elderly lady with a bit of oomph about her, and during the course of a desperate struggle, the evil perp bludgeons the poor old dear and makes off with some loot.

Meanwhile, I could be enjoying a well-deserved break at a health spa in—ooh, let me think—Cambridgeshire, perhaps?

This might actually work!

Things to do:

Purchase rubber gloves, not those cheap ones, they make me itch.

Ditto black woollen ski mask or balaclava

Goggles

Also some black shoe polish (for face, obviously, so must make sure I purchase a ‘gentle’ formula) as I believe we’re actually out of black shoe polish at the moment.

I think I already have a black (or navy would suffice at a push) pac-a-mac somewhere in the rear cloakroom from that ill-fated walking holiday of 2010—Thomas had wanted to try something different—suffice to say, we went straight back to Antigua after that.

Oh, and black slacks.

Next, book visit to health spa. Tell Thomas am going away for a couple of days to a nice, reputable place in Cambridgeshire. Must buy a copy of The Lady in case none of my pals can think of anything in that area.

Will need to purchase a cheap, disposable holdall for disguise. (Could use a plastic grocery bag, I suppose, but it’s not really me. Also, this might scream homicidal housewife slash amateur-hour and want to look like I know what I’m doing, right tools for the right job etc etc but can’t actually use one of my own in case it’s traced back to me).

No need to buy a bludgeoning implement, as plenty of scope at Thomas’ mother’s house. Lots of beastly vases and figurines—some really quite large and heavy and ghastly but without any actual value—and, as will obviously have gloves on, can leave figurine in situ once used, no need concern oneself about disposal of same. Actually leaving the weapon behind looks better from a not-going-equipped point of view. More impromptu.

You know, I’m so excited. I really think this might actually work. Must just go and fish my little filofax out of my bag to work out a timetable. Then I can start writing in the headings on my index cards. Ooh Goody!

***

My protagonist and me

BookBrushImage577

There is a convention, some say a misconception, that writers base their main character–their protagonist–on themselves. Not me, of course.

I’m nothing like, for example, the main character in my Friendship Can Be Murder trilogy, Cressida Barker-Powell.

Nothing like her.

She lives in a massive house–we could justifiably call it a mansion, it cost millions,  with a husband worth at least another couple of million. Cressida also has a lady who comes in and ‘does’, whilst I have to wash my own dishes, and heat up my own baked beans.

Cressida wears designer clothes, has accessories to match; she goes to dinner and cocktail-parties in smart restaurants; weekends in posh houses; pops off to London for a few days’ shopping, or nips to an exclusive spa for some ‘me time’. Whereas the highlight of my social calendar is going to the supermarket for the week’s groceries.

And–lest we forget–she kills people. Not just one. And not by accident. She deliberately plots and plans and obsesses over multiple murders in a vicious and calculating manner. I never so much as step on a woodlouse if I can avoid it. And if I do–well there are tears, self-blame, and a very charming funeral for all its friends.

And yet …

It was me who researched those murders. I put the ideas into her fictional head. I wrote the words that come from her perfectly-lipsticked mouth. I chose her designer outfits, her bags, her shoes. When she complains about people who annoy her in some way, her impatience is mine, her anger, even her acerbic wit is mine. I even placed her victims in their lives, specially to annoy her.

So when, in those rare and tender moments, she does something nice for a change, that’s me too, isn’t it? (It doesn’t happen often.)

I tried. I had hoped to succeed–at least in part–in making her so, so different to me. Some of her views and attitudes and certainly her experiences and lifestyle are different to mine. But differences can be positive as well as negative. I would never–I hope–kill anything or anyone, but part of me can’t help but admire her decisive (if somewhat ‘final’) method of dealing with things and people she is unhappy about, or her willingness to exact her cold revenge for the sake of people she cares about (those few, few people!) whereas I am very passive, and I agonise and fret and usually fail to act.

It’s quite cathartic sometimes to allow her to do those things I choose not to do. To be able to do the unthinkable, the immoral, to do exactly as she pleases. It’s the kind of vicarious pleasure we get from watching box-sets of evil people doing terrible things and willing them to get away with it.

But she’s nothing like me. Let’s be clear, she is a monster, but she is bold and decisive, and she takes action in ways I never could. She’s nothing like me. She’s not me.

She’s more like my big sister.

If you’d like more information about this trilogy or a sneak preview, please click here!

(warning: these books contain terribly naughty words and graphic scenes.)

***

Routine – the nemesis of creativity

I recently read somewhere that routine hinders the creative process. To really be creative, we need to let go of organisation, routine and any kind of rigid preconceptions or framework, to allow ourselves freedom to explore in any direction and form that appeals to us.

I couldn’t disagree more strongly. If you think that routine is a hindrance and obstacle to being truly creative, I’d like to invite you to reconsider.

I suggest that it is routine that brings freedom and that freedom is often to be found within boundaries, not outside of them. Because parameters do one great thing for us, yes, even us creative types. They give security. And if you feel secure, you have the freedom to be creative.

All art is created within boundaries. Or a framework of conventions, if you prefer to call it that. Mozart created wonderful music. Yes, undeniably, he was incredibly creative and had a flair for genius. But. Musical composition is, in many ways, one of the most rigidly ‘controlled’ art forms in that very deeply-held conventions dictate the agreed (not necessarily explicitly agreed) common elements that must be adhered to, in order to create any form of music. Sonatas have a specific set of rules, if you like. All sonatas have common elements that make them what they are. Similarly, concertos, arias, opuses and symphonies all have elements which dictate how they are created and underpin the very stylistic identity of a given piece of music.

Now I am tempted to take a long detour at this point and show that this is exactly the same as the genre conventions in writing, but I won’t, as I’ve already waffled quite a bit, and I want to keep this blog fairly to-the-point (wow, who’d have thought it?).

Sometimes, I just go with the flow, letting words pour onto the page. There’s nothing actually wrong with that, but it doesn’t make for good reading, it rarely fits neatly into a novel, and I am a novelist, so that is what I need to write. Unfocussed, meandering writing is great fun, very cathartic and can help you to improve your writing overall. But for ‘everyday’ working writing, you need focus, not indulgence.

Within a framework, we have the freedom to be creative. Routine can be just such a framework. I’m actually not a very organised person with regard to my writing. But I have discovered that an established routine is my friend when it comes to cracking on with my WIP and meeting deadlines.

Why?

If you are organised, you can relax and focus on the job in hand. You make the most of your time, and have something concrete to show for it, so productivity is improved and you feel good about what you’ve achieved. Which makes it more likely you’ll do it again tomorrow. In addition, good output leads to increased confidence and positivity, and as many writers know, these are commodities that can be hard to come by.

Planned routine is anticipated, your subconscious inner writer is actually hard at work long before you sit down at your desk. You know what is expected, and what your intentions are. This means you ‘hit the ground running’ and are ready to go straight away with no need for warming up or getting yourself in the mood.

As I’ve said already, routine planned writing leads to increased output and measurable results, you see the word count piling up and you see that you are moving towards your deadline or goal. This gives you the impetus you need to write through the tough sections of your book, those tricky little scenes and the mid-book blues.

For me, one of the main advantages to this type of organised approach to work is that I remain ‘current’ with my WIP. I literally don’t lose the plot. By that I mean I don’t lose track of characters and plot strands the way I do when I’m here and there and all over the place writing whatever takes my fancy. The resulting draft is more seamless, the scenes transition more smoothly, and small details are less likely to be overlooked.

They say it takes six weeks to develop a new routine: three weeks to break old habits, and another three to establish new ones. Give yourself six weeks, starting today. Who knows, by the time we reach mid-April, you may be firmly in the Routine is my Friend camp.

***

Journals: and where to find them

DSCF0369Writing tutors always advocate keeping a journal or writing diary. I keep one sporadically, writing an entry a couple of times a week, then maybe not for a month, then four times in one day. It depends entirely on what is going on in my life.

Why is it useful?

Well, to begin with it’s therapeutic. You can use it to de-stress your life, like a best friend, it won’t tattle on you. You can pour out your heart and soul and love and bile into a journal, and no one will slap your face or lecture you. If you keep it private, you can say and do whatever you please, and know that your dodgy experiments and weak efforts, your anxieties and temper tantrums will never see the light of day, and your loved ones will be unscathed by the trauma that exists inside the average writer. So it’s a safe place to try new stuff or give a voice to things that are bothering you, or to learn how to do new stuff by practising and honing your skills.

It is a great way to keep track of what happens when in your life – all too often, especially once you reach ‘a certain age’, you can forget what happens in your life and how it affects you. Later you can look back and think, Oh I was writing such-and-such when Great Aunt Jemima had her hip replacement. It’s useful more often than you’d think.

I also use mine as a way of noting down odd things I see. I often write a blog post based on a journal entry about people watching. Title or character ideas can also be quickly noted down, or I might write something along the lines of ‘a funny thing happened on the way to the supermarket’. I also make notes of ideas – either for a story that is already part of my life, or a new idea that has just come to me or that I’m playing around with to see if it has enough oomph in it to create a whole novel from.

I write to-do lists along the lines of ‘Tues: finish chapter three, do blog post, tweet, Facebook, and emails to X, Y and Z. Wed: chapter four and think about a flash fiction or poem. Thurs: more social media; create graphic for marketing.’

I make notes about the technical side of writing and self-publishing – keywords to try, niches and genres, blurbs, other books to read, ‘how-to’ tips and ideas.

DSCF0222

AND the main thing I use it for – to write rough drafts of chapters for ongoing work. On top of all these, if I have an epiphany on the bus into town, I can haul out my notebook and scribble away. I often add sticky notes to the page edges so I can find something important later.

I don’t use fancy-schmancy notebooks, I just use an ordinary lines A5 notebook. Okay so big confession: I am a bit of a sucker for a pretty cover. And I like thickish paper, otherwise ink just blobs through flimsy pages and ruins the next page or two. But I still don’t spend a fortune on them. Not individually at least, though I do buy them often and in quantity, but that’s our little secret. I’ve got stacks of them in drawers and on shelves and in boxes. I love to go through them sometimes, perhaps even many years later, and often get a fresh insight into an old problem, or find a forgotten piece that I can use in my writing or on my blog. Sometimes it’s just nice to look back and see a mention of a hope or cherished dream and think, ‘well I’ve done that now’.

Journals can be a gold mine, as a writer you really can’t be without one.

***

The needs of the one outweighs the system of the many.

spock-1541528_1280

Establishing a writing routine has taken me years. And years. And it’s still a bit shaky. But I’m going to keep at it and work on it because it is a great booster to my productivity and I feel good about it.

Years ago, I read in several different books about ‘morning pages’ and I tried to implement that kind of writing. The idea is, you wake in the morning and immediately begin to write before the rude outside world has a chance to impinge on your subconscious and stifle creative impulses.

This didn’t work for me on a number of levels, not least being, I’m not a morning person and would usually just fall asleep again. Once I woke to find myself still holding my alarm clock, and found that all the wonderfully creative, insightful things I’d written were just a dream I had – the page was still blank! A few times I achieved some writing, but mainly it consisted of ‘I want to go to sleep’, or a completely illegible scrawl, or was a meandering, unfocused stream-of-consciousness waffle that would have had Virginia Woolf throwing up her hands in horror.

So that didn’t work for me.

It’s taken a long time but now I’ve realised I don’t have to do things the way other people say I should. I don’t work well with instructions. I never follow recipes, can’t stick to knitting or sewing patterns, and don’t understand formulas. I have to find my own way to achieve what others do by following guidance.

If you’re like that, you can do this too. If a system fails to help you, it’s not a sign that you are no good, it’s a sign that you need a new system.

I started slowly, from what I wanted to achieve right then and there. I’m a night person and I do my best thinking when the house is quiet and everyone else has gone to bed. So that’s when I write.

Instead of morning pages written when still in the borderlands between sleeping and waking, I have learned to achieve a deep relaxation, a kind of meditation, and I write random stuff then. I have found that this is quite easy to achieve with practice.

But I also do brainstorming activities with spider-web-like diagrams to work out problems or new approaches to a piece of writing.

Writing a journal helps me to ask myself questions, get things off my chest and examine, often over a long period of years, how I feel about my work in general or a specific piece of writing. I’ve just had a new idea about a book I wrote three years ago, and also thought of something to help with the plot of a book I wrote in 1996.

And my normal routine of weekly grocery shopping gives me half an hour or so in a café away from the house with a nice cup of coffee and my notebook, to write the blog post of that week – something I used to really struggle to get done.

So if you’re not in favour of the cookie-cutter writing system, start with what works for you and don’t apologise to yourself or anyone else, if that ‘failsafe’ system everyone espouses doesn’t work for you.

You’re unique, not like everyone else, and you need a writing method that works for you, for your individual needs. If it gets you writing, it must be working.

***

Create your reader

girls-462072_1920Recently someone asked me what age group of reader I was targeting with my WIP. My initial reaction was probably the same as most people: “all of them!”

After all, as writers, we want to reach as many people as possible, don’t we? It puts me in mind of board games where it says on the side of the box “fun for the whole family: aged 8 to 80”. (Sorry you 81-year-olds!) And that’s kind of how I feel about my books: Ihope they will be enjoyed by people older than me and younger, and those who are my (approximate) age. We want to reach as many as we can with our work, and are reluctant to rule anyone out. After all, we know that not all fantasy is read by young people, that not all family saga is read by older people. There are always plenty of people who don’t fit into marketing stereotypes, and we don’t want to disregard them just because they are a bit different to what it says on the box.

I’ve read several times this week about the importance of having in your mind an image of your perfect, or some might say, average reader, and of writing your book as if you are writing for that one person. The idea is that it makes it easier to keep your book focused, and to maintain consistency of POV and tense.

I’d go a step further. Use a real person. Most of us have that one person we talk to about our writing, or one or two people. Most of us run ideas past them for feedback, let them read the messy first drafts, and sob on their shoulders when we get a stinking review. These are–hopefully–the people who can look us in the eye and say “Sweetie-pie, in all honesty, it sucks. Write something else.” Let’s face it, you already know this person so well, you know what they like, what they don’t like, their favourite colour, and their alcoholic drink of choice. So it seems to me it is simply good sense to use them as a sounding board during the writing process, not just after it.friendship-1199863_1920

BUT…If you don’t have someone in your life like that, you can just as easily create a mental image of a perfect reader in the same way as you create the rest of your book and people its pages with characters. Okay, so they won’t buy you a G & T when you’re down, but they can still be useful. Give your person a name and an identity, with the quirks and foibles of real people. See them in your mind and address them as if they were real and present in the room with you. Speak to them directly as you write–tell them the story. If it helps you could even put at the top of your first page, “Dear (insert name here!), I am writing to tell you the story of…” –after all, you can always remove this later.

It doesn’t matter if your perfect reader is real or pretend, so long as they act as your creative muse and encourage you to find your voice and get writing.

‘And then he opened the door in his pyjamas.’

_DSC5463

This is a much-quoted joke about ambiguity. But when you’re writing a novel you don’t want your reader laughing at the wrong moment. Without a bit of care, it’s all too easy for accidental double entendres to sneak in and dissipate all that tension you’ve spent 200 pages building.

My favourite one recently was “…an old woman with white wavy hair that waited at a bus-stop”. My reaction was to laugh and wonder where the rest of her was. Certainly not the reaction intended by the author. I also particularly like the perennial ‘small businessmen’s conference’ – is it a small conference for businessmen or a normal-sized conference for small businessmen? We just don’t know.

The only way to avoid this kind of error in your writing is to make use of editors, proofreaders and beta-readers. All too often these days we see books published way before they are ready.  Unfortunately, as I keep saying, writing a book is a lengthy process, and short-cuts in  the hope of making more money by securing sales sooner, will ultimately mean that mistakes slip through and annoy your readers or spoil their enjoyment of your work. And it’s not only the independently published books I am referring to – I have read a number of books from traditional publishers lately and I have been astonished by the number  of typos and inconsistencies that have slipped through the net. It’s such a disappointment.

Remember, there is no worse failing for a writer of fiction than to create a world which their reader escapes into, only to be jerked out of it by something that bursts the bubble of the illusion. The reader must suspend disbelief in order to get caught up in your story. And if they happen upon an ambiguous statement or an inconsistency or typo, this will make them do a double-take, trip them up in their reading, and they will be out of the story and back into the real world, possibly too annoyed by the intrusion to work their way back in.

So please, do take the time to get other people to go through your manuscript, and I don’t just mean your mum. Ideally you should ask three or four, or if you can manage it, even more people to read your book before you release it to the public, or to your agent or publisher. I know persistence and perseverance are not fashionable virtues these days, but you have spent so much time and energy writing your book, surely that deserves the final process of proofreading to be done thoroughly?

The Writing Process Blog Tour – woo hoo!

file0001618501744

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:

Maria’s debut novel, ‘My Big Greek Family’, was published in October 2013. She writes commercial women’s fiction and draws much inspiration from her dual cultural background. Maria lives in London and is working on the next book in the series. She can be found on Facebook, Goodreads and Twitter.
Maria will be posting her writing process blog at:  http://mariaconstantine.wordpress.com   on Monday 7th July
ZpbPCUaZ-bk-IU1XI6K8TIO4Hu8KUyZsVeL6F-n6fHE,Y7SGOfOzoJzujjoCBV3RIykIdlGP8y2p-Kw155fQrs4 - Version 4
Next up the almost-as-lovely Kev Heritage:
Kev Heritage is a writer of Sci-Fi, Epic Fantasy & Paranormal Mysteries, including the brilliant The Cowl (Ironscythe Sagas) and Blue Into the Rip. Don’t forget to take a look at his website, Kev will be posting his writing process blog on Monday 7th July and you can see it here:
New-KevBLUEsmall

Blue Sky Thinking?

file5061340819905

“October extinguished itself in a rush of howling winds and driving rain and November arrived, cold as frozen iron, with hard frosts every morning and icy drafts that bit at exposed hands and faces.”
― J.K. RowlingHarry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

We often are told in writing to draw on our senses to bring reality and immediacy into our writing, to create texture and believability, creating a world for our reader to step into in their mind. The same is true of the weather. Painting the weather into your story works every bit as well as using sensory information: capture a background, a stage, a canvas, on which your characters can live out their lives.  Weather often overlaps with sensory description – you make your reader feel the warmth of the sun on their skin, or the raindrops on their face, let them hear the thunder or feel the rising humidity or the biting of a north wind every time the cabin door opens and someone struggles to push it shut again.

“The sun did not shine. It was too wet to play. So we sat in the house. All that cold, cold, wet day.”
― Dr. SeussThe Cat in the Hat

Where you are writing about a specific time of year, remember that extremes of weather can be used to move a plot forward – an unseasonably warm spring day, a summer downpour leading to flooding.  In Judith Allnatt’s book “A Mile Of River” the events of the story unfold in Britain’s long drought of 1976, to devastating effect.  I can remember snow falling in July once in the 1980s when we lived in Aldershot, and five years of living in Queensland – even with its reputation for being damp – has made me love grey skies and rain. One of the first people we met was a cab driver from Hull who had been in Aussie for 35 years.  He told us he hated the sun and longed for drizzle. so weather can also be part and parcel of who we are and affect our outlook on life.

“It was one of those perfect English autumnal days which occur more frequently in memory than in life.”
― P.D. JamesA Taste for Death

I’ve always wanted to use that phrase so often featured in the Peanuts cartoons: ‘It was a dark and stormy night…’ Originally used by a British writer, Edward Bulwer-Lytton in 1830, it was ridiculed from the off for its melodrama.  So I haven’t used it.  But it’s tempting! I love storms and it always feels as if anything could happen during a storm.  Likewise we think of spring as bright, happy, a time or hope and rebirth…

“April is the cruelest month, breeding
lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
memory and desire, stirring
dull roots with spring rain.”
― T.S. EliotThe Waste Land

I have adorned a funeral with pouring rain in my WIP, Miss Burkett Changes Her Mind (no, I still haven’t finished it .) I always think a large black umbrella is full of possibilities for crime or romance. But sometimes, regardless of your misery and grief, the heavens refuse to open, and the sun shines, the birds sing, almost in mockery of your emotions. And this too, can produce a mood that works nicely on paper, inducing your character to take some form of action.

But don’t overdo it.  You don’t need to update your readers on every other page unless it’s a book about climate change, or you’re engaged in rewriting Wuthering Heights. (I’m sure they would all have lived happily ever after if they hadn’t lived in such a bleak and lowering spot.)

“But who wants to be foretold the weather? It is bad enough when it comes, without our having the misery of knowing about it beforehand.”
― Jerome K. JeromeThree Men in a Boat

The Errant Queen Cornered

mf754

Sometimes little snatches of narrative come to me and I have to write them down “just in case”.  Evernote on my Kindle and on my PC is great for this as you can be out and about with your Kindle (or any tablet or phone …) then sync the ideas or notes when you get home.  I have set up a number of ‘notebooks’ – ‘various ideas’ then also WIP-specific notebooks in case of a sudden flash of inspiration – or desperation – when I’m away from home, or just can’t be bothered to go to the PC, so I can make notes and save them all in one folder, so linked ideas are together.  I’m still very new to Evernote, so you no doubt have better ways of working, but at the moment, I’m feeling pretty smug about this!

Below is one of my flashes, it’s a bit florid, I don’t know if it’s going anywhere but I enjoyed the moment of high drama, seeing in my mind a noblewoman on the deck of a ‘Tudorbethan’ wooden ship.

The Errant Queen Cornered

  I would sooner risk ending my days in the cold grey waters of our English channel than turn to safe shore and meet His Majesty’s hot rage and spited vengeance in the Tower.  or so thought I when I fled.

  But now the moment has arrived, and I find I must pause.  My courage hides itself behind these woman’s skirts and I cling the rail with white hands, hesitating.  I do not wish to hasten death.  And yet – what other choice have I?  Tell me, is there some other way I have o’erlook’d?  No, no, so thought I.   His Majesty’s clipper approaches from the South, the Royal Pennant can be seen even from this reach, and they will be upon us all too soon.
  How good of you to come so far at my blighted side, faithful friends.  So I leap.  And yet – yet – truly say me, is’t other course still to be found?  No, no, I reckoned it stood thus.  Well then, adieu or as God allow, fare thee well.  I leap.  Sure the sea appears full deep and chill.  God grant my skirts shall weigh me down and end it quickly. Take my arm then, good knight, help me over, and I pray thee, I may yet see thee anon.  The lack of me shall free thee all, His Majesty shall not vent his wrath upon any of my friends, it will suffice that I am gone.  Farewell.