Being a writer is an experience that goes in cycles, for me at least. As soon as the final draft of a book is complete, and all the other checks are done, the book is published and the cycle ends. But then, it’s not very long before the cycle begins all over again, with the first few tiny wisps of ideas and before you know it, I’m into the first draft creative part of the process again.
Once upon a time, this used to begin around September for me. I don’t know if that’s because when my children were young, that was when they went back to school after the long summer holidays and I had two minutes to sit in peace with a notebook and a cup of coffee.
But these days, it’s the beginning of the year that is this creative time for me now, and the second part of the year is always spent in revisions, rewriting, chipping away at the block that is my rough draft.
When I’m creating, dashing out those mad, unfocussed, often-discarded new chapters of a new book, I love to do this is a cafe. There’s something about being surrounded by anonymous, happy bustle that helps me immediately find my ‘zone’, roll my sleeves up and get on with my next scene.
I know I often talk about sitting in cafes, notebook and pen in front of me (my first drafts are always longhand), with a cappuccino and – ooh, naughty – maybe a bit of cake. It’s my favourite thing.
Yes, I know we have coffee at home. And even – occasionally, cake, or I could buy a supermarket cake and eat a slice at home for a fraction of the cost of a cafe. Or, I could bake a cake of my very own – it could be any size, shape or colour. I could have any flavour I like, and it could be a tray-bake, a torte, a good solid fruit cake with cherries on top, a long sugary loaf oozing with bananas or dates. It could be a sponge with ganache or cream or even just jam in the middle. It could have nuts on the top, or frosting, or strawberries in a creamy heap.
There are just two problems with that: 1. I’m a terrible cook. And 2, that wouldn’t inspire me to write. Which is, after all, the whole point of this exercise.
I love to go to cafes with my family. But those are occasions for talking and laughing, not times for me to be alone with my thoughts. And as Winifred Watson said, ‘You can’t write if you’re never alone.’ (She was a very successful author in the 1930s who gave up writing once she married and had children. Her book Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day was made into a film starring Ciaran Hinds and Frances McDormand and I highly recommend it.)
So there I sit. Usually ideas have been bubbling for a while at this point, or I may have made a few cryptic notes – not always helpful as I don’t always remember what I was on about. Soon I’m scribbling away, and if I don’t fill 10 or 12 pages in my notebook, I feel rather cheated. If I write more than that, you can bet I will float out of that cafe on cloud nine, feeling pretty smug and pleased with myself. That would be a good day’s work.
So that’s the current situation at Chez Allan. I’m currently working on a new Dottie book – the first draft of Midnight, the Stars and You: Dottie Manderson mysteries book 8 is already a whopping 1500 words long. To put that in perspective, the finished draft should be at least 80,000 – so it’s not even a chapter. But it’s started, that’s the main thing. And another book is at around the 20,000 word mark, which I’m really happy about.
Later on, I will be getting on with Miss Gascoigne book 2. Not sure yet what the title will be, I had an idea but now I have another, conflicting idea, and my poor writer brain can’t decide which one is best, so that’s on the back-burner for a few weeks. But I’ve got so many notes and ideas!!!
It’s a time of great excitement, and giddy childlike anticipation. It’s a bit like being a toddler sitting on the floor surrounded by all my toys and trying to decide what to play with first.
I’m delighted to announce that Rose Petals and White Lace: Dottie Manderson mysteries book 7 is being released on 9th December on Amazon (eBook, paperback and large print paperback), and 11th/12th December on other platforms (regular print paperback only).
Here’s a little bit to tell you about the book:
Dottie Manderson’s relationship with Inspector William Hardy has recently taken on a whole new dimension, and that means getting to know his family. Whilst William is away clearing up the paperwork and red-tape following his recent case against the Assistant Chief Constable of Derbyshire, Dottie attempts to help William’s younger sister and her fiancé put a stop to the malicious occurrences that threaten both their livelihood and their relationship.
Meanwhile, Inspector Hardy has two problems to tackle:
Firstly, the unexpected, rather hostile official enquiry into the recent events in Ripley and, secondly – though from William’s point of view, far more importantly – will he ever find the perfect romantic moment to take the next big step in his love life?
Yes, it’s that time again – we’re off to the seaside for a week’s lounging about and eating whatever we fancy so long as it’s chips or ice cream. My hubby loves fish, I detest it–I hate the smell, I hate the taste, I hate the feel, I just hate it…the thought of eating fish makes me feel really poorly.
Which is odd, because my stepfather had a fish and chip shop. Or maybe that’s the reason. On the other hand, before my mum met my stepdad, we lived near Hastings on the East Sussex coast of Britain. (Yes, the same Hastings as the Battle. Though the Battle of Hastings took place not at Hastings itself, but just inland from there. Now there is an abbey to commemorate the battle and the town has grown up around it, famed for–what else–gunpowder production… and the town is called, not very surprisingly, Battle… Ahem, what was I saying?)
Oh yes, and at Hastings I spent time on the beach and often saw the fishermen bringing in their catch, huge fish in massive buckets, flipping up and down as they gasped for air–this made a huge impression on me and I so much wanted to grab them all and release them back into the sea. So maybe that’s why a) I love the sea, and b) I hate eating fish.
But we are not going South, we are travelling East, and going to Cromer for the first time. I have been told it’s great, so I’m very excited. As an asthma sufferer, I also enjoy going to the coast for my health, so I’m hoping to be able to breathe freely in the good sea air.
I’m taking books to read. I’m hoping to have a lazy time, just sitting about and reading. I have Agatha Christie’s Destination Unknown, for some reason she didn’t write a mystery novel called Destination Cromer. I’m also taking Jeanne M Dams’ Smile And Be A Villain (love a Shakespeare quote…), and Merryn Allingham’s The Bookshop Murder. I really don’t think I’ll have time to read all three–there is a country house to visit, and a preserved railway, (sadly not in steam at the moment) and of course I am taking work with me.
What, you cry!!! Yes, it’s true, I am taking with me the manuscript of A Meeting With Murder: Miss Gascoigne mysteries book 1 to do last minute checks and faffing. It’s due out in a little over four weeks, (taking slow, calming breaths…) and I just want to have one last look through to make sure all the characters have the right names, and that there aren’t any missing chapters, or you know, stuff like that, the sort of thing that can get easily overlooked in the excitement of the moment.
And while I’m away, the wonderful Stef is making a start on the translation into German of book 5 of the Dottie books. The English title is The Thief of St Martins, and in German it will likely be called Der Diebstahl von St Martins. We are hoping/planning for a December release of that book.
He halted the car at the side of the road. Ahead of them were two huge wrought iron gates, the only opening in the high stone wall that ran parallel to the road.
‘Where are we?’ Dottie looked at William, but he just smiled and got out of the car. As always, he came around the front of the car to open her door for her, putting out his hand to help her.
‘Watch your step as you get out, the bank is a little muddy here.’
He slammed the car door shut. She took his arm and he led her towards the gates. She was consumed with curiosity but determined to make him speak first. At the gates, there was no plaque or other sign, no family name carved in the stone, nothing to say where they were. Beyond the gates was a long, winding drive through overgrown fields of grass. At one side of the gates, part of the wall had crumbled away and it was possible to clamber over it and into the grounds.
Stopping to brush the dust from her skirt conferred by the stones, Dottie grumbled, ‘Just remember you’re a policeman, and can get into trouble just as easily as anyone else by breaking and entering.’
His only response was another enigmatic – and irritating – smile. He took her hand again and tucked it into the crook of his arm. They set off along the drive. After a couple of minutes’ walking, Dottie noticed the drive was sloping downwards, and around the next bend, there was suddenly The View: it was as if the whole valley lay spread out at their feet. Trees, farms, fields dotted with cows, sheep and horses. And to their left, halfway down to the valley, a large old house of greyish stone was sprawled beneath trees, as if taking an afternoon rest.
And now she knew where they were. It had to be…
‘Oh, William, it’s so beautiful!’ she told him in a hushed voice. ‘Great Meads. Your old family home.’
He smiled at her now, and she could see he was feeling emotional. His eyes glistened suddenly and he had to clear his throat a couple of times, in that way that men have. He indicated about them with his hand.
‘Of course, we would never have let the grass get so overgrown as this, and the wall would have been mended immediately.’
She squeezed his arm. ‘Of course.’ She spared a thought to wonder if it had been him who broke the wall down to gain access. She could absolutely picture him doing exactly that late one evening when no one was around.
‘Is anyone living here at the moment?’
He shook his head. ‘It’s been closed up for almost a year.’ He looked about him as if feeling rather lost. ‘Look, darling, I hope you don’t mind coming here like this. I—I just wanted you to see it, just once, don’t know why. It just seemed—important. I like to come and take a look at the place anytime I’m up here. I think there’s a part of me that doesn’t want to forget it.’
‘Of course,’ she said again. ‘Your father was born here, your grandfather, probably several generations before that were all born here. You were born here. You love this place. It’s part of you. And it always will be. Next time we come, we shall bring a camera and take some photos. They would look wonderful on the walls of your new house.’
He nodded vaguely, only half-listening. They walked on. After a moment he said softly, ‘Our new house.’
Okay so I know I’ve kept promising and promising, but really soon, I promise, cross my heart and so on, there will be an actual newDottie book this year and of course, the Miss Gascoigne mysteries new series will also be starting, which is a spin-off from the Dottie Manderson series.
(Sorry if I’m repeating myself, I know you know this stuff really, this is just for the occasional accidental tourist to this site!)
So without further ado here it is:
A Meeting With Murder: Miss Gascoigne mysteries book 1 :
A 1960s-era traditional mystery series set in Britain and featuring Dee Gascoigne, a newly separated woman who has just lost her job and is wondering what to do with her life. Dee has a family who love her, and a rather massive crush on her not-quite cousin, Inspector Bill Hardy, who struggles to keep the women of his family out of police investigations.
The eBook will be out on 7th October 2022, with the paperback and large print paperback coming out probably a day or two earlier.
And here’s a teeny snippet from the book just to whet your appetite: It’s May 1965, and something bad has happened to Dee’s neighbour…
The stairs were right ahead of her as she entered the house. The interior was dim; only the first three or four stairs were illuminated by light coming in at the open front door. With a pause to allow her eyes to adjust, as well as to try to get her nerves under control, Dee placed her hand on the panelled wood of the enclosed staircase and began to ascend. The steps were steep and shallow, and with no rail on either side, it was a precarious climb in the near darkness. How on earth did Mrs Hunter manage, she wondered. Perhaps the old lady had a bedroom downstairs? At the top, she paused and took a calming breath. She turned to the left and as instructed walked along the gloomy corridor to the end, where a door stood open, spilling a little pool of yellowish light into the hallway.
She felt a deep reluctance to enter the room. Already she knew this was no ordinary moment. There was a musty stale smell, and something else besides. The metallic scent of blood on the air. She was still puzzling over the idea of there being blood as she went into the room. After all, no one had said anything about…
She stopped dead. Staring at the scene, her brain scrambled to make sense of the picture in front of her. A person—Sheila, yet not Sheila anymore—was seated in an armchair beside a small circular table. On the table was a wine bottle and a single glass with a small amount of wine left in it.
Unwillingly, yet knowing it could not be avoided, Dee turned to look at Sheila Fenniston. She had fallen slightly to the side, leaning against the edge of the table, and her head lolled back, her eyes half-open, her gaze fixed upon something Dee couldn’t see. Sheila was wearing a nightdress of a surprisingly demure variety, and all over the front of the white cotton was a dark reddish-brown stain. Sheila held her hands in her lap, and all down the forearms and on the lap of her nightdress was the brown sticky mess of blood. It had run down on either side of her and formed two puddles on the thin aged carpet. And there by her right foot, glistening softly in the half-light was the razor, dirty with blood.
Dee put her fingers to Sheila’s neck, knowing it was pointless. The skin was cold. There was no pulse. Dee backed out of the room, groping her way down the stairs. She closed the front door behind her and said, her voice faint, ‘No one can go in. Sheila’s dead. We must get the police immediately.’
Meanwhile, back in 1935, Dottie is ready for another outing as Rose Petals and White Lace: Dottie Manderson mysteries book 7 is now available to pre-order prior to release on 9th December 2022.
Once again, the eBook version of Rose Petals and White Lace will be out on 9th December 2022, with the paperback and large print paperback coming out probably a day or two earlier.
Here’s a sneak preview from Rose Petals and White Lace to get you in the mood:
It’s 1935, and Dottie Manderson is helping out Inspector William Hardy’s sister, Ellie, who has a problem in her tearoom:
Lunch was, if anything, busier. Every table was occupied both inside and out, and the spare chairs at Dottie’s table had been borrowed to be set around the other tables where there were more than four people in the party.
Everything was going beautifully when two tables away, suddenly a man exclaimed loudly and in a disgusted tone, ‘Good God! What on earth is this doing here?’
There was no time to see what ‘this’ was, for he immediately dropped it onto the floor and stepped on it. Very rudely, he shouted, ‘Girl!’ to Ellie or Ruth who were already both making their way over. Ellie looked as though she felt ill, whilst Ruth looking angry. Dottie got up for a better look at what was going on, thinking Ellie might need her help.
Looking down at his plate, now the man said, ‘What? I can’t believe it! There’s another one!’ His annoyance rose and he looked about him angrily. ‘Where’s the manager?’
Ellie reached his side, clasping her hands and saying, ‘Excuse me, sir, may I help?’
He rounded on her in his fury, and she took a nervous step back. Red-faced, and with his voice reaching everyone in the building, he shouted, ‘Get the manager, you stupid girl. This is an utter disgrace! In all good faith I came in here with my family and ordered some food, only to find not one but two maggots on my plate!’ He was on his feet, towering over her, and Ellie was patently alarmed. Dottie glanced back towards the bakery counter and noticed that Andrew was ignoring the situation, calming greasing loaf tins, his back to the tearoom. For a brief moment Dottie wondered if he was actually deaf.
‘Darling, I’ve found another one!’ the woman with the angry man declared, leaping to her feet in revulsion and taking two steps back. She had a napkin to her mouth as if for protection, or to prevent herself from being sick. Around the tearoom, there was a deathly hush; everyone had turned to watch and listen.
‘Don’t gawk, you idiot, get me the manager! Now!’ the man yelled in Ellie’s face, a tiny spray of spittle flying from his mouth to her cheek.
Ellie began to stammer an apology, adding, ‘I am the m-manager.’
The man directed a scornful look up and down her frame. ‘I’ve never heard anything so ridiculous in all my life.’
I hope that has got you in the mood. This book will be chock full of creepy-crawlies and bugs of all kinds, so if they make you itchy and uncomfortable, make sure you have some nice soothing tea and biscuits on hand when you start reading. I always do!
As you may know, I’m working on the first book of a new series. It’s another cosy mystery series featuring a female amateur detective. The series is to be known as the Miss Gascoigne mysteries, and Diana ‘Dee’ Gascoigne is the detective. It will be released on the 30th September, and the Kindle version is available to pre-order. The paperback and large print paperback will be published shortly after the eBook.
If you have read any of the Dottie Manderson mysteries set in the 1930s, some of these names may sound familiar. Dee Gascoigne is the baby Diana who is born at the beginning of The Last Perfect Summer of Richard Dawlish. Now it’s 1965, and Diana is almost 30, recently separated from an abusive husband and still carrying a not-very-secret crush for her not-quite-cousin Bill Hardy, detective inspector, and eldest son of Dottie and–you’ve guessed it, William Hardy from the Dottie Manderson mysteries. (SPOILER!!! They do get together, don’t despair!)
In A Meeting With Murder, Dee has just lost her job due to the scandalous fact that she plans to divorce her husband–divorce was still a very big issue in the 1960s. Next, following a bout of bronchitis, Dee goes off to the seaside to recover. Of course, even in a small village, or perhaps because it’s a small village, there are malign forces at work. Dee, like her Aunt Dottie, feels compelled to investigate, and perhaps start a whole new career for herself.
Here’s a short extract from A Meeting With Murder: Miss Gascoigne mysteries book 1.
I hope you like it!
Dee had a leisurely afternoon. She took another walk around the village, marvelling that she didn’t happen to meet anyone, considering the place was so small but well-populated. She had afternoon tea with Cissie in what was rapidly becoming a ritual, one that she would miss a great deal when she finally returned to London.
That evening, Dee looked at the two letters yet again, mulling over them long and hard. She knew them by heart now. Not that there had been much to learn, both were short and direct.
The first one, in the usual style of cut out words or single letters from magazines or newspapers, said simply, ‘Your seCREt shame will NOT be a secret much lONger.’
The second, more recent one, said, ‘Your bAstard cHILd will pay for YOUr sin.’
The word bastard had been made up from several sections of type: the b was a separate letter, then the Ast were together, presumably formerly part of a longer word. The next a was a single letter again, then the final two letters, rd, were once more part of the same word, and likewise, the YOU of your was formed of a word in capital letters with an extra r added to the end.
On the one hand, it was laughable that anyone would think this was still a scandalous secret in the modern era. But on the other, Dee remembered what Cissie had said to her when she first explained about the poison pen letters. It must have been a shock, Dee decided, for Lily to open the envelopes and find these letters inside. To think that someone who knew her, someone familiar to whom she no doubt spoke on a regular basis, had composed these spiteful notes.
Dee sat for a long while pondering the letters. At last, she put them away, neatly folding them and slipping them into the zipped mirror pocket of her handbag for safe keeping.
The next morning she was up bright and early, had her breakfast, and humming along to a song on the radio, she tidied the cottage and got ready to go out to meet her brother’s train, eager to see him, eager to tell him everything she’d learned. She came out of the dim house into bright sunshine, and walked directly into a man going past the cottage.
Then as he gripped her arms to steady her, and helped her to stay on her feet, she saw who it was.
‘Oh!’ she said, covering her sense of shock by becoming angry instead of flinging herself into his arms. ‘So Scotland Yard finally turned up, did they? A bit late in the day.’
The tall man in the smart suit—surely a little too smart for ordinary daywear, especially in the country, Dee commented to herself—took a couple of steps back, clearly as shocked as she was at having literally walked right into her as she came out of the front door of the cottage as he and the other man with him were walking by on their way from the railway station to the pub.
Just looking at him was enough to set her heart singing, much to her annoyance. Meanwhile he was frowning down at her with what was known in the family as the Hardy Frown, his dark brows drawn together over long-lashed hazel eyes that were just like his mother’s.
‘What the hell are you doing here anyway? You’d better not be interfering in my investigation. I’m not like my father. I don’t allow private citizens to meddle in official police business.’ He was holding his forefinger up in a lecturing manner.
‘Oh shut up, Bill, you’re so bloody pompous,’ Dee said and stormed off.
‘I take it you know that lady, sir?’ the sergeant asked, eyes wide with curiosity, following the lady as she went.
‘You could say so, sergeant. Listen to me. On no account are you to tell that woman anything about this case. Don’t give her documents to read. Don’t accidentally leave your notebook lying around for her to ‘just happen to find’ and snoop through. Don’t answer any of her questions, or tell her our line of questioning, or anything about our suspects, or just—anything. She comes from a long line of nosy women. Do you understand me, sergeant?’
‘Ye…’ the sergeant began.
‘Because if you do any of those things, believe me, I shall make your life a living hell.’ Hardy caught himself and stopped. Then added, with just a hint of a smile, ‘Not that I don’t already, I expect you’re thinking.’
‘Oh sir, as a mere sergeant, I’m not paid to think.’ Sergeant Nahum Porter risked a grin at the inspector.
Stifling a laugh, Hardy said, ‘I’m very glad to hear it. Now come on, we’ve got things to do.’
My 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.
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.
Obviously the first reason is me. I have only a limited experience of life. I think that’s the same for most of us. We always, consciously or unconsciously, bring our own life experiences, attitudes and beliefs, and our flaws and strengths with us when we create anything. It’s been said that authors put something–sometimes quite a lot–of themselves into what they create. How can they not? So I try to compensate for this by doing a lot of research, and by trying to create people who are not much like me. 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.
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.
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?
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.
Gary Cooper in a gloomy mood ever since reading his first novel again after ten years.
I read a blog post elsewhere this week, in which a writer talked about rereading a book he had written and published years earlier, and his reaction to it. That set me thinking.
How do I react to reading my own work after a break?
I think it’s a bit like looking at baby photos of yourself, or making a special cake or a meal for a particular occasion. Or indeed whenever any of us do anything creative or out of the norm. Maybe you’re not like me, but I know a lot of people are just like me: a bit inclined to only see their faults, to see the wonky bits, the bits that had to be patched up at the last minute, the crooked hem of the new dress or the edge where the cake got stuck in the tin and you had to put a bit extra icing on there to disguise it. We tend to be overly self-critical, which is sometimes a good thing: we strive that little bit harder to improve and to do well, but on the other hand, it makes it hard to feel proud of our achievements or to accept praise from others.
When I read things I wrote years ago, I feel quite uncomfortable. I am sometimes pleasantly surprised and think, ‘ah, this isn’t as bad as I expected’, but there are definitely times when I groan to myself and wonder what on earth I was thinking. I cringe at some of the laboured metaphors, the overly descriptive passages and my almost fanatical use of The Three: I tend to group my descriptions in threes. In fact if you browse, read or peruse any of my works, writings or output, you will definitely, absolutely, surely notice, observe and see that a lot of what I write is grouped into threes! Who knew?
I’ll just quickly fix this bit. Oh, and this bit. Oh now that bit doesn’t work, oh well, I’ll just…
Well, I did for one, although not until someone pointed it out to me. I try to weed some of them out, unless I am deliberately emphasising a point, and keep them to a minimum. But years ago… No, they are there in all their triplicated glory.
As is my terrible grammar – I just never really know, what, to do with those, commas,.
I used adverbs liberally too (haha, like that!) but I’m not quite so obsessive about those. I don’t mind the odd one, whereas many authors absolutely scour their pages and destroy them without mercy. I like the odd adverb. Sometimes an active verb can be a bit too much, especially if the writer uses loads of them. I’d rather read ‘she said hastily’ than ‘she gabbled’ or ‘rattled’.
Stop authorsplaining and let me read your damn book!
What I don’t like is a ton of adjectives. You know when you read something like, ‘The old sprawling ramshackle creeper-covered house had a battered and pitted, badly-fitting oak door and four tiny grimy windows that peeped out from beneath an elderly ragged thatched roof in much need of repair.’ Just tell me it’s an old house in poor repair, I can furnish the rest from my own imagination. I just haven’t got the energy to read through tons of adjectives. the same with character descriptions or the characters’ clothes. I don’t really care if their shoes are hand-made in Italy from the finest, most supple leather and stitched by angels from their own hair. Just tell me they cost a fortune, I’ll get it.
It needs a bit of work…
The other problem with old work is that it can have you itching to reach for a pen and begin ‘improving’ or ‘correcting’ it. But is that a good idea?
One of the advantages of self-publishing is that you can tweak your books if you need to, with little disruption to the reading public, to stock availability and relatively negligible damage to your finances. Not so the trad-pubbed, of course. There a revision might cost a packet both in cash terms and in terms of reprinting, delays, supply hiccups etc, and will only be undertaken if absolutely necessary. But an Indie book is not too difficult to fix if there are issues with it that are likely to lead to poor reviews, which might have a knock-on effect on sales.
You can’t go through history deleting all the anoraks and t-bar sandals. Sadly.
So I don’t think it’s a problem if you correct an annoying typo or an inconsistency that is mentioned a few times in reviews. That’s just courtesy. But if you give into the urge to revise, it can be quite hard to stop tinkering, and then before you know it you’ve changed the book so much it could be a whole new project, or you can actually break it, leaving gaping plot holes and chapters that no longer hang together.
I think when it comes down to it, with earlier work, you just have to accept it for what and how it is, like your wonky teeth in that old photo. Acceptance is not always easy, and to leave your old book alone is sometimes the hardest decision to make.
It’s been thirteen years since we lived there, but the house looks the same. Even the vertical blinds at the windows don’t look any different. The place has that half-familiar look, as remembered places do. A brick semi, with a small tarmac front yard surrounded by a perimeter of unruly shrubs liberally sprinkled with empty whisky and methadone bottles and syringes.
I know the streets were this busy when we lived here, but I seem to see all the traffic as if for the first time. Why did we choose to live somewhere so congested? But I know why, of course. It was the garden.
The street-front gives the passer-by no clue as to the possibility of a garden. But it was the garden of our dreams. It was because of the garden that for two years we put up with the ridiculously high crime-rate, the constant sense of insecurity, the dark gloomy house, and the heavy traffic.
In case you think I’m exaggerating the crime: the day we moved in, a guy down the street shot his wife in the street, then himself, right in front of their teenage daughters. I know that’s more of a family tragedy than a crime, but it didn’t bode well. Within two weeks we’d been burgled and had our car vandalised twice. Eggs and bottles were thrown at the house. My husband was on first-name terms with the local police officer by the end of the first month. We saw a woman thrown out of a moving car. Truly. We saw another woman repeatedly kicked and punched before she limped away, screaming profanities from a bleeding mouth. We found syringes, empty bottles and condoms scattered in our front yard regularly. We had a man stabbed literally on our doorstep as he leaned on the doorbell at eleven o’clock at night. We had the police come to the door and tell us to stay inside as they were after someone sheltering in our back yard (my precious garden!). Someone tried to snatch my money as I stood at the ATM putting my card away. Drunks were heaved almost senseless out of the pub to sleep the drink off on the pavement outside. My teenage daughter was followed home by two men who tried to grab her. Good thing we lived literally fifty yards from the bus stop where she’d got off. And that she had a good pair of lungs.
But the garden…Oh it was a slice of heaven. One hundred and thirty feet long, and thirty-odd feet wide. That’s huge by inner-city standards. The top twenty-five per cent, nearest the house, was a patio, unevenly paved, and populated with plants in pots. Tiny solar lamps indicated the edge of the patio and the start of the lawn. The lawn took up about fifty per cent of the garden, and was uneven and veined with ancient tree roots and edged by borders containing ugly plants behind even uglier mini-fencing. I know it’s not sounding great at the moment…
Dotted across the lawn and in the bottom twenty-five per cent of the garden were several old apple and pear trees, and a cheery tree. There were two small sheds, all but falling down, and an oval flower bed intruding into the top part of the lawn. The final section at the end of the garden was fenced off and badly overgrown. Paving slabs had been loosely laid, perhaps n an attempt to curb the growth of the weeds, but they presented a grave danger to ankles and toes as the slabs tipped up as soon as you stepped on them.
We gathered these slabs up into two stacks. Then we cut back the trees and shrubs to a tidy and manageable size. We dug up the weeds and created veggie patches and a herb garden. We filled tubs and pots with sunflowers and cosmos and anything that bees or butterflies might like. It was a secret, sunny spot, seemingly miles from the house and the noise of the road beyond, hidden away from prying eyes.
We often used to see a fox snoozing in the sunshine on top of the slab-stacks. Or at night, I’d hear a sound and look out to see three or four fox cubs chasing each other around the lawn or hopping back and forth over the plant pots and yapping at one another. I’m not one of those who believes wild animals are there to be shot or poisoned. I’m definitely a bleeding-heart liberal and proud to be so. My family and I derived great pleasure from watching the birds, the foxes, a squirrel, and some hedgehogs enjoying the amenities of our garden, drinking out of a plant saucer full of rainwater or foraging amongst the bushes.
Our neighbours on either side were very elderly and their gardens had been left untouched for years. The neighbour on the right-hand side had a World War II Anderson shelter at the bottom of her garden, and this was where the foxes lived. The neighbours’ gardens and ours created a little oasis of wildlife-friendly space in the city, and the wildlife seemed to be thriving there. I hope they never bulldoze that block.
The area had once been an orchard. The trees in our garden were donkeys’ years old, and our neighbours had a number of equally well-established fruit trees. The trees were huge, too, due to their great age. I’ve never seen fruit trees the size of woodland oak or beech trees. I suppose normally when orchard trees reach a certain age, they are replaced, to ensure maximum yield.
It was the kind of garden that made us strive to overcome all the other obstacles to living happily in that location in our attempt to create a home. It was the kind of garden you long to pick up and take with you.
That house was never a home, and we were so glad to leave it. But the garden belonged to another age, and another plane altogether. We still drive past the house regularly, the house itself so dimly remembered, and yet we continue to rave about the perfect little world hidden away behind it.
Yes, that is my cat, in a deep blissful sleep in the middle of the rather long grass – never seen her so carefree as she was here.
I think I’ve mentioned a couple of times that Dottie Manderson’s latest outing, The Spy Within, book 6 in the Dottie Manderson mystery series, was quite a lot longer than I’d anticipated. Because of that, I had to cut out a large number of words, two or three major scenes in fact that I felt muddied the waters and delayed the action a little bit too much.
But as scenes, I felt they worked really nicely. Authors are often told to ‘kill their darlings’ – for me this isn’t so much about killing off a beloved character but chopping a scene that works really well, earns its wages and yet in spite of everything, just doesn’t belong. It is often with great reluctance that I cut out a scene then have to find another way to bring in the information the reader needs to figure out what’s going on.
This next scene is a case in point. If you haven’t read The Spy Within, or the previous books come to that, maybe you should browse elsewhere for the next ten minutes or so – spoilers abound!
So in The Spy Within we see William Hardy – police inspector – and Dottie Manderson – amateur sleuth – discussing Dottie’s beau Gervase Parfitt (boo, hiss!). William has been asked to investigate allegations of corruption and other possible crimes lodged against Gervase Parfitt who is an ambitious assistant chief constable. William has also been told to enlist Dottie’s help in finding evidence, as his superior officers know she is a friend of William’s, and is on the point of becoming engaged to Parfitt.
But what the higher-ups don’t know is that the relationship between William and Dottie is far more complicated than that and there is quite a lot of baggage that needs to be resolved. William tries to get out of asking her, but is told he must. Reluctantly he tries to find a way to tell her that Parfitt is under investigation – which he believes will devastate her – and yet still be able to gain her trust and get her to help him.
In the final version of this book, William has a couple of attempts at doing this. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that he has passively allowed his old fiancee back into his life, and both women are jealous of one another from the outset. The conversation becomes an emotional minefield for both Dottie and William.
You will also see some of my notes to myself in the midst of the scene – I often leave myself reminders or notes when writing my first draft; these serve as signposts when I come to revise the manuscript later.
Here it is:
William arrived at a quarter to three. He had invited her to meet him at three o’clock.
He had felt that the conversation might go better if they met at the Lyons’ corner house nearest her fashion warehouse. For one thing, after their last meeting, he didn’t really expect her to turn up at all, or if she did, he thought she’d likely be very late. He was fully prepared for her to still be furious with him. So long as she didn’t look at him with that bleak, defeated look, it should be all right. Rage he could deal with, but he doubted he could cope with that cold misery. Or tears.
At least if he was in a Lyons’, he could just order more tea and cake whilst he waited, if she came very late. Or, if she was furious, he thought—or hoped, might be more accurate—she might keep her temper in check in a public place, whereas in her home, or his, she could very well pick up the teapot and throw it at him. Not that, given the current situation, she was at all likely to offer him tea, he realised now. In any case, he hoped she wouldn’t do that in Lyons’, though he was by no means certain.
She arrived five minutes early. Punctuality was important to her, he remembered belatedly, and besides, she was a busy woman these days with a business to run, which by all accounts, she did very well.
She had pulled out the chair and sat down before he had a chance to leap to his feet and pull it out for her. She glared at him.
Clearly she was, as expected, furious. He forgot every word of his carefully planned, meticulously crafted speech, and stared at her, dumb. She raised an elegantly curved eyebrow.
He said, ‘Er…’ and executed a kind of half-rise together with a sort of bow and bumped his knee on the leg of the table, making the vase of flowers jump. He swore loudly at the sharp pain that went through his knee. Several other patrons tutted and shook their heads. Dottie frowned and looked away.
He removed the end of his tie from his saucer, wiped the dribble of tea from his shirt and bent to pick up his wallet that had fallen on the floor, only narrowly missing hitting his head on the edge of the table. Dottie had to conceal a smile.
‘Damn thing,’ he said as he replaced the wallet in his pocket. More tutting and head-shaking from an elderly lady at the table behind them.
Dottie noticed that the leather was rather shiny and new looking. His initials, W F H, for William Faulkener Hardy, were embossed in gold on the front of the wallet. Dottie preferred the old, battered wallet he had had for years.
‘Did she buy that for you?’ she couldn’t help asking.
He paused in the middle of dabbing at his shirt. ‘What, the wallet? Oh, er, yes.’ He blushed. Everything was going wrong. ‘She said the old one was too shabby.’
‘It was,’ she said. ‘Although I preferred it.’
She was looking at him now less as though he was a bug that wanted squashing and more as a smelly dog that needed to be put outside in a kennel. He felt it was progress.
‘I can’t get used to this one. And it’s bigger, so I can’t keep it in the inside pocket I kept the old one in, which is why I keep dropping it all the time.’
It seemed the subject had run its course, as she made no reply.
‘Tea?’ he asked. She shook her head. The hovering waitress frowned and stalked away.
‘What do you want, William?’
At least she’d used his first name rather than his rank and surname. Another point for progress, he decided.
‘I thought we should talk about Parfitt, and how I would like you to help me.’
She made a little grunting sound, more or less an affirmative. Then she turned and flagged down the waitress. ‘Just a pot of tea, please.’
‘Certainly madam, and for the gentleman?’
William was about to order tea, but Dottie said, with a fierce look at him, ‘He’s not having anything. He’s about to leave.’
‘Very good, madam.’ The waitress bobbed and returned to her area to make the tea.
William said nothing, deciding not to push his luck. He quickly outlined what he wanted her to do. Before she could comment, the waitress appeared with the pot of tea, milk jug, and cup and saucer.
There was a long pause as Dottie dissolved a sugar lump on her spoon then stirred it in. He thought it odd, and wondered when she had started taking sugar in her tea. As she set the spoon in the saucer, her hand trembled slightly. Only now did he realise how upsetting this all was for her.
In a very low voice, one that only she could hear, he said, ‘Dottie.’ He tried to take her hand but she snatched it away.
‘What would Moira think?’ she snapped. ‘You can’t go around holding girls’ hands now you’re engaged.’
Heads turned once more. Dottie’s temper subsided. She sat back in her chair, her attention fixed on her hands folded in her lap.
He felt he should apologise, but didn’t, couldn’t. The silence stretched between them until it had gone on far too long for him to apologise. In the end, he simply spoke from the heart, but quietly.
‘What a bloody mess.’
He watched a tear roll down and splash onto her skirt.
‘Yes.’ She didn’t dare look at him.
He reached for her cup and took a drink of her tea. Waited another minute, then said, ‘Well, we’re stuck with it, and it’s all our own blasted fault.’
‘Yes,’ she said again. But this time she reached for a handkerchief and discreetly blotted her eyes. Only as she put it away did he see, first that the white cotton handkerchief was a man’s, and next, that the monogram in the corner was WFH. It was one of his own handkerchiefs—one of several he’d given her over the year and a half of their acquaintance—that she was using.
He reached across and took her hand. She didn’t try to stop him. ‘I want you to know I’m so, so sorry. For everything. Dottie, I so deeply regret…’
She pulled her hand away now. Her voice wobbled as she said, ‘What use is that now?’ She sighed, then added, ‘It’s all right, William. It’s my fault, I know that. I should be the one…’
The waitress went past, and Dottie broke off. She sipped her tea. It steadied her. An elderly couple pushed past to find a seat. William looked about him, surprised to see how quickly the place had filled up in the last few minutes.
But the short interval was enough to allow her to compose herself. When she spoke, it was in a more measured, firmer tone.
‘Are you absolutely certain about Gervase?’
Parfitt’s name was like a splash of cold water in William’s face. But it was as well to get back to marginally safer ground.
Remembering that she had once—briefly—thought she was in love with the man, William said gently, ‘Oh yes, quite certain. There’s no doubt, I’m afraid.’
She nodded. Leaning forward, she gripped her teacup in both hands. ‘Tell me what you want me to do.’
This is what happens: you get your notebooks ready, and your pens. You dig out all the scraps of paper you jotted down notes on over the last six months or so. You read them carefully and get yourself back into the 1930s, maybe put on a little Al Bowlly to create the mood. Then you carefully read all your other little bits and pieces – the entry in your journal that you wrote two months ago talking about how excited you were to start your new book. You’ve been playing around on Canva creating a book cover, then you killed half an hour here and there creating mock-ups promos on Book Brush.
And then it happens. There’s a slight breeze in your office, the curtain stirs, the pages of your notebook riffle at the corners. You hear a sound. You hold your breath listening hard. Yes, you hear it, softly at first but growing louder, more insistent.
It’s the siren song of the Other WIP – like the other woman/man in a romantic relationship – it’s sole purpose is to try to seduce you away from your current WIP with the promise that you will be happier with them, and trying to lure you away from your ‘one-true-love-WIP’, who, it says, doesn’t understand you and isn’t fulfilling your needs.
It’s hard to resist the call when it comes. Every little argument you raise up in rebuttal it knocks down flat with tempting scenes you could write, or snappy names for the characters you are refusing to bring to life. You hear snippets on the TV or the radio and the siren says, ‘Oh that would work very nicely in chapter 7, where…’ Or potential cover images throw themselves in your path every time you have to quickly pop over to Pixabay or Shutterstock. Everywhere you look the universe seems to scream out in favour of the Other WIP, and no matter how often you say the magic formula: ‘It’s not your time. You’re not until June and July!’ the words grow weaker and less convincing every time you utter them. You refuse to look at the little pile of notebooks lying ready for your attention later in the year. Oh dear, there’s a fine film of dust on them. You feel a twinge of guilt.
Oh how pretty, how fresh, how alluring the promise of the new story is. How bright the ideas are. The promise of ‘happy ever after’ is there, and the story vows it will be everything you’ve ever wanted to write.
As you glance back metaphorically over your shoulder at the sulking form of your Current WIP, you can only see the problems: the plot holes, the saggy bits where it won’t quite gel, where the characters do whatever they like, or they won’t do anything at all. You see all those repeated actions, once so sweet and appealing, now just irritating. It feels as though you’ve been writing this book for years instead of just a few months. You tell yourself you’re just tired, and that if you work through this bit, things will be easier, more fulfilling.
But then it calls you again…
How do you choose? Stay on the straight and narrow road, sticking to discipline and your (slightly vague and woolly) plan? Or go for a joyous run ‘off-piste’ – pantsing it from morning to night? Yes, you know you’ll regret it come revision time, and you’ve got no first draft to revise, but there’s a tiny suspicion lurking in the back of your mind that maybe it could actually be worth it.