So real to me

dottie 6 the spy withinMy stories tend to be character driven rather than plot driven. You might think that’s a bit odd for someone who writes what are essentially cosy mysteries, and you’d be right. Very often in a cosy mystery, you meet a collection of characters who tend to be caricatures, almost, of ‘typical’ people you might meet in the situation where the crime occurs. And I’m not saying that my minor characters are fully realised, well-rounded and recognisable individuals, but I try.

The problem for me is that my books usually have a vast range of characters in them (and FYI it’s a nightmare and a half trying to think of names for them all) so there’s not always the space in the story to give everyone their own life without totally confusing the reader. I have tried putting in a character list at the beginning of a story, thinking that would be helpful to readers (having been castigated for not putting one in) but I got even more complaints about that. So in the end it was just easier to leave it out.

In my Dottie Manderson mysteries set in the 1930s, I have two detectives who are the ‘main’ protagonists, Dottie herself and Inspector Hardy, with a supporting cast of around a dozen other ‘regulars’. Then each story has its own characters on top of that. My protagonists are not the isolated individuals of many books in my genre–no brooding detective all alone with their ghosts for me. No, mine both have a family who pop in and out, often the source of useful information or connections, or just serving as a distraction or to illustrate some aspect of the character of my main people. Or they can act as a sounding board for ideas and theories. crowd-g216161661_640

In addition, many of my characters also have friends, who must necessarily be commented about, especially if they are involved in a mystery, or the characters can have careers–William Hardy is a career police officer, and Dottie Manderson has become the owner and manager of a fashion warehouse–and they are both involved with work colleagues who cannot be completely overlooked.

And then as I say, each mystery requires its own cast of players–so again numbers are rising! But each story needs a perpetrator–sometimes more than one, and of course a victim–almost always more than one–and they have their own social and familial connections.

Making people really stand out can be a challenge. There are reasons for this.

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

But I don’t like to read books where the detective is perfect. I’m sure I’m not alone in saying I’m bored by protagonists who are perfect, who always behave the right way, say the right thing, do the right thing, who think clearly at all times and never get confused, puzzled or befuddled or just plain upset. My characters are all too flawed, and as readers will know, they sometimes make disastrous decisions. And then have to live with the consequences.panic-g517b5b30c_640

I’d like to think they grow. I’ve lost track of how many detective series I’ve stopped bothering with because I couldn’t deal with the fact that the protagonists never ever learn from their mistakes, and keep on acting in an implausible or unprofessional manner despite twenty years as a police inspector etc. Because in real life we do learn, most of the time, don’t we? Or we try to. And if we don’t, sooner or later we get called into the office and the boss tells us we are going to be unemployed.

My character Cressida in the Friendship Can Be Murder trilogy grows a little. As the trilogy goes on, she travels from being a designer-label obsessed airhead to being a caring mother and family-oriented person who doesn’t mind seaside staycations as that brings a lot of fun to all the family. Okay, she does still love a nice outfit, but it’s not the be-all and end-all of her life. And yes, she is still a bit manipulative, but she genuinely cares about the people close to her. which is why she gets into the messes she gets into, trying to help people by getting rid of some of the–ahem–nuisances in their lives. It can’t be denied that she can be a bit unforgiving if someone hurts a person she cares about.fashion-g02a75addc_640

Does Dottie grow? I think she does. When we meet her in book 1 of the Dottie Manderson mysteries, Night and Day, she is very young (19) and is mainly interested in having fun and going dancing with attractive young men. After two years of stumbling over corpses, she has become more confident, more caring towards others, she is more mature, and she is growing a career and trying to understand the world around her, losing her childish idealisation of people. But I like to think she stays true to herself: she passionately believes in working hard, doing the right thing, and in helping people and giving support to those who need it. She is terminally nosy and always wants to understand what’s going on in people’s lives.

Which of course will bring her into conflict with people: people who manipulate and hurt others, people who do terrible things and try to get away with it, and in the course of her ‘helping’ she will definitely get in the way of a certain police officer trying to solve a case.

As the relationship between herself and William progresses, (spoiler alert) I’m not sure quite how Dottie will manage to solve murders and juggle her business and her family commitments. Will we see her pushing a perambulator with a couple of kids along to interview suspects? Only time will tell. I have planned several more books, that cover the next couple of years in Dottie’s life but after that… I just don’t know. Maybe I will leave her to raise her family in peace? Maybe we can come back to Dottie in the 1950s when she is a mature woman with more or less independent children? Who knows. Maybe she will be a kind of Miss Marple detective as she gets older. I never felt like I could leave her ageless and frozen in time as some authors do with their creations. Yet as I immerse myself in this pretend world I have created for Dottie, I am all too aware of the even greater threat looming on her horizon: World War II. How can I leave out something so important and far-reaching in its consequences?

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100 years old and still bringing murderers to justice!

This could well be one of the reasons why about four years ago I began to think about a new series with a new character, who would take over the reins. I’m thinking of Diana Gascoigne, stepping out confidently into the 1960s, wearing high heels and a brightly-coloured dress, long hair swinging, ready to take on the modern world.

Keeping it in the family: this has led me to think about the successive generations. Will there be a Dottie-spin-off set in the 1990s? the 2020s? They seem so real to me, I find it hard to believe that they won’t go on and on, one generation giving way to the next, just as we do in the real world.

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Coming 2022

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Persistence is futile – I mean – essential

 

I think I may have written about this topic before, but I feel it’s one of the most under-estimated skills any writer can have. (Persistence, I mean, not repeating yourself, I do that all the time. Actually that is useful too, for helping me to remember things through repetition…)What is persistence?

To me persistence means a dogged determination to the point of stubbornness to keep going, overcome resistance in yourself and the world around you, to press on towards a goal you have no tangible proof you will ever reach. It means turning your back on discouragement, detractors, self-doubt (which most writers have in abundance?, laziness, weariness, even pain and illness to MAKE yourself achieve something specific or reach a certain goal.

The scariest moment is always just before you start. After that, things can only get better.”
― Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

Why is persistence a useful tool to have in your arsenal? What does it contribute to your life or work?

Persistence:

  • is character-building – you come to realise you are capable of more than you may have believed initially.
  • is prioritising – you realise that the most important things in life don’t come without you working hard for them.
  • you learn to persevere, and build resilience and inner strength.
  • you learn to trust yourself and believe in yourself.
  • you come to value the results of your hard work.
  • when times are tough, you have previous experience to draw on to get you through.

How to be persistent:
  • Eat well, sleep well, take care of yourself, allow yourself down-time.
  • Develop a routine. Routines can enhance creativity, rather than block it or stifle it. A routine means you are mentally prepared at a certain time to undertake a specific task. that means half the work is done already!!
  • Keep a journal to record your feelings, even the negative ones. Allow yourself to rant or wail if need be. Don’t forget to record your successes, though, as these will keep you going during tough times when you feel like nothing is working.
  • Talk to people who understand and support you. You don’t need to be alone in the middle of your struggle.
  • Set manageable goals, even if it means doing a larger number of smaller tasks rather than a few big tasks. Breaking a large task or goal into small pieces is the key approach. By chipping away at a large task bit by bit you will make progress – it may not be easy to see the results right away but it is easier to work this way in the long haul, and achieving many small goals is excellent for your confidence. This is also a great way to talk yourself into tackling what feels like an impossible or overwhelming job.
  • Don’t listen to your negative thoughts. Learn to recognise then ignore your inner critic who tells you things like: ‘this is a waste of time’, ‘you’ll never be good enough’, or ‘it’s too hard for you’, and that old favourite, ‘not everyone is destined to succeed’. This is probably the hardest thing to overcome, and really requires you to laugh at the inner voice or negative thought and say ‘so what, I’m going to do it anyway.’
  • Roll up your sleeves, grit your teeth, and get on with it. Don’t wait until you are ‘in the mood’ or feel inspiration strike. Nine times out of ten, inspiration waits for you to make the first move. Show the universe – and yourself – that you are going to do this.
  • Reward yourself and feel proud of your achievements. And don’t whatever you do, punish yourself if you feel you have fallen short of your goal. Remember too that pride in a job well done is not a sensation that you necessarily get right away. If you have been engaged for a long time on a demanding project, it can take quite a while to recover, then feel a sense of satisfaction. Be patient, be kind to yourself.

Basically persistence is being super stubborn, and refusing to give in or back down. Find what you want to do and do everything in your power to do it.

Just remember, you can do anything you set your mind to, but it takes action, perseverance, and facing your fears.

Gillian Anderson

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March: an odd time of the year

Malcolm aka Malkie Moonpie, in happier times, chilling with his blue mousie

I’ve been busy with a number of writer-things, but life gets in the way sometimes, as I’m sure many people have discovered. This pandemic isn’t helping of course, as we all struggle to stay in command of our mental health or to establish and keep to new routines that work around different circumstances.

I usually set aside March and April to write the first draft of my latest Dottie Manderson mystery, which I will then revise, rewrite, edit, revise, rewrite etc until it is published in the autumn, usually October or November, occasionally not until December. This year I plan to release book 7 – Rose Petals and White Lace – towards the end of November.

But my writing in the first half of March hasn’t gone too well, and I feel that I’m a little behind schedule, though I’m fairly confident I can pull that back – this week is already going quite well.

I love this image though I’m starting to see similar ones everywhere. Should be released in Summer 2021.

But I’ve had some issues. I have a subscriber email list through Mailchimp, and I had loads of problems with that, which took over a week to resolve, (though the bods at Mailchimp were very helpful) meaning that my newsletter went out over a week late – no big deal really, but things have a knock-on effect.

And then I had issues with this blog – I have another blog too (ooh big secret) and that one was overwriting everything I did on here, and seeing that this one is my priority, that was not good. Again it took several days to sort out, and at one point I was on help/support chat for almost two hours as they and I tried to figure out what to do. Again, the lovely ‘happiness engineers’ (yes that’s what they’re genuinely called) at WordPress were absolutely wonderful, but it all takes time out of the working day.

This was me and technology this week and last. Not a happy pairing.

I write in one of three places at the moment. I might write at my desk, with or without my computer, or I might write longhand sitting at the dining room table, or maybe I will huddle up on the sofa with my feet on a pouffe, my notebook on my lap and a cup of coffee precariously balanced on the arm of the sofa. Possibly with half of a sneaky early Easter egg on the side. (We always buy Easter eggs early before supermarket stocks dwindle, then can’t resist their siren call and end up buying a second lot.)

You’ve seen this pic hundreds of times. I didn’t used to be one of those people who snaps everything they eat but then I began to see it as useful blog material! Looks like I was writing The Thief of St Martins when I took this one.

Once upon a time I used to write in cafes. Yes, I’m one of those. You see them, don’t you, or used to. Cafe writers. Huddled in a good spot in a quiet corner where they can see the counter, and the door, and are close to the loo but not too close. A notebook, maybe two, several pens in case the first three run out, a large frothy muggacino and a tempting crumbly pastry nearby, a paper serviette careful deployed to protect both notebook and jeans. Perfect. I love to sit in a cafe and write. There’s something quite relaxing about being silent in the midst of bustle, where you can observe but not participate. Plus it’s given me plenty of blogging material in the past as I watch those around me living their lives. I can’t wait to get back to that. This month has been tough.

As some readers may know, our beloved tabby cat Malcolm was poorly and died last week, which was an emotional shock for us as a family. If you’re not a dog/cat/mini hedgehog/micro pig lover, then you may be rolling your eyes now and saying ‘What the bleep, this woman is so wet!’ But it’s horrid to lose a companion you’ve had in your life for 13 years just when they appear to be making a good recovery. On the upside, we still have 23-year-old tortie, Mabel, who we never thought would outlive both the bigger, stronger boys.

Subject to tweaking at a later date – can’t decide whether to keep the white background bit or lose it.

Consequently, I’ve got a bit behind in my writing. By rights, I should have half of a first draft for Rose Petals written, and be eagerly anticipating moving onto another book which at the revision stage of production, namely Miss Gascoigne Book 1: A Meeting With Murder, which I had hoped to publish in the summer. I’m hoping that will still be done on time, I know my schedule and what I am able to take on, and let’s face it, working as a writer, I don’t need to stick to office hours only.

March is an odd time of year. It’s a wait-and-see time of year, neither winter and the time of rest and recharging, nor summer and the time for growth and expansion. I feel impatient to be moving on quickly, yet I can’t go any faster. I feel a bit frustrated at what I see as a failure to meet my targets, but I know that any progress is better than none, and I have always been too impatient.

Stay strong, everyone. Soon you will be able to go outside, and even – hooray – hug your loved ones. Or write in a cafe.

Mabel. 23 years old (that’s 98 in cat years) frail, wobbly on her legs, half the time doesn’t know where she is or what she’s doing, hardly any teeth, yowls ridiculously loudly between 2am and 5 am, and still more resilient than Malcolm or Maurice.

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Sneak peek and a short extract… upcoming book The Spy Within: Dottie Manderson mysteries book 6.

It’s that time again. I’m working on a new book, the next in the Dottie Manderson mysteries series set in the 1930s and featuring an amateur detective Dottie Manderson. The new book is to be called The Spy Within and I plan and fervently hope to release it in July(ish) of this year.

In case you haven’t heard of these books, I published the first in the series, Night and Day in 2015, and it’s been followed by The Mantle of God, Scotch Mist (a novella), The Last Perfect Summer of Richard Dawlish (sorry about the long and unwieldly title of that one, at home we call it Dickie Dawlish for short, even though Richard hated his name shortened) and last year, The Thief of St Martins came out.

The main character is Dottie Manderson, obviously, she is the one the books mainly are about, and although she isn’t always the one who solves the mystery, she is nevertheless habitually embroiled in the action. Dottie is only 19 in the first book and ages gradually through the series. In the one I’m writing now, The Spy Within, she is almost 21. She is from a well-to-do family and after leaving her ladies’ college at 18, she worked more or less full time as a mannequin (model) for a Mrs Carmichael at her independent fashion warehouse, Carmichael and Jennings, Exclusive Modes, in London. Dottie lives with her parents, and has a married sister, Flora. Dottie and Flora are very close. George, Flora’s husband, adores Dottie almost as much as his wife does, she is very much his sister too.

Unfortunately the books aren’t quite stand-alone. That is to say, there are ongoing story-lines that progress through the novels. I wish I’d though about that a bit more carefully when writing them because with book 3, Scotch Mist being a novella, and therefore cheaper to buy, people often buy it and then haven’t got a clue what’s going on. I really must revise it with a bit more explanation to help those who dive into the series at book 3. Still, we live and learn, I guess! Hopefully I won’t do that next time around.

So what’s new for The Spy Within?

Well, those who have read the books up to this point will be aware that Dottie has been seeing a ‘gentleman’ by the name of Gervase Parfitt for a couple of books. Sadly in the last book, he let her down rather badly by not supporting her when she needed him most. Oh, Dottie had such hopes for Gervase to begin with. But he seems to be not quite as nice as she’d thought, and there’s a rumour going round that he’s likely to be substituted.

If you’re Team William, this could be music to your ears.

William Hardy, police inspector and all-round good guy (most of the time) has been in the background for a while now, and if you’ve loved all the flirty looks and romantic thoughts, then prepare to enjoy some more. It’s Valentine’s day in 1935, and love is in the air. I think. Or is it? You’ll just have to wait and see.

In other news, the Manderson’s maid, Janet is at last tying the knot with police sergeant Frank Maple in this book. They’ve been walking out together since the first in the series. Don’t expect any tears, it’ll be a happy day for all. And it’s about time they made things all above board, because as Dottie said in The Mantle of God, ‘I wouldn’t mind if they did any actual walking out. And how Mother hasn’t caught them, I’ll never know. From what I can make out, they spend all their time indoors.’

So that’s about all I can say at the moment. If I’ve piqued your curiosity, please take a look at a draft version of Chapter One here. Just bear in mind, I might change it a bit by publication day, and hopefully I’ll remember to tidy it up and make it a bit more succinct. I hope you enjoy it.

All that I need to do now is to say a huge thank you to my family and friends and some wonderful, loyal, encouraging and amazing readers who say nice things that cheer me up when I’m down and keep me keeping on. Thank you all. XXX

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