Secondhand. Preloved. Used. Old. Whatever you call books that are not new, it amounts to the same thing: neglected; unloved; abandoned; discarded. Even the ‘amusing’ epithet of ‘preloved’ simply indicates love that has been given then withdrawn. No longer loved.
Yes, I know that many people see these places as Aladdin’s caves filled with wonder and possibility. Not so for me. For me, a secondhand (let’s call it what it is) bookshop is a bit like going to an animal shelter. My first response in both cases is always one of dismay – there are so many here! Secondly, I think, ‘how can I possibly save them all?’
I went into two such shops today.
In shop one, I was frustrated by the lack of genre categories or alphabetical ordering. I felt I had to scan the entirety of the store to be sure I didn’t miss anything vital. As it was, when I paid for my ‘finds’, or as I prefer to call them, my ‘adoptions’, I couldn’t shake the certainty that I’d missed something. But the ‘usual guy’ was on holiday and the woman standing in for Usual Guy was not versed on what was where. She laughingly told me that if Usual Guy had been there, he could have immediately told me where any of my chosen authors might be stationed. Ha ha! Oh my aching sides. Not. They also had an overflow into an empty shop front next door – and even though I could see literally dozens of boxes heaped up, she wouldn’t let me go in there and poke about, and neither could she tell me what was there. I took my five rescue-books and left, slightly disgruntled.
The second shop was somewhat different, and yet, underneath all the glamour, exactly the same. It was squeaky clean and neat as a new pin. I see books neatly stacked on actual shelves or laid out in boxes, spines uppermost, and the boxes have labels such as ‘Romance’ and ‘Family Saga’, and also ‘Romance and Family Saga’. I stand in the doorway to get my bearings and the proprietor bustles up in a housecoat, carrying a duster.
She asks if I’m looking for anything in particular. Really all I want to do is browse. How can you tell someone that you won’t know what you want until you see it? But I fear she is not really, in spite of the location, a bookish person. I have a sense that browsing is not to be encouraged, and I drag my ‘little book of books’ out of my bag. I tell her I have quite a long list. She’s not bothered by that. She’s waiting. So, under pressure, I panic and begin to blurt out a few names.
‘Patricia Wentworth!’ I feel a bit like Harry Potter frantically trying to come up with the right spell. She gives me a sad smile, and shakes her head.
‘Not done much for a while, has she?’
‘That’s because she died in 1961.’ I explain. I could tell her the day and month, but I’m not convinced she’d be interested, so probably for the first time in my life, I just shut up.
She nods. ‘Ah.’ It appears that being dead is a major hindrance to having your book in stock at a secondhand bookshop. I’d have thought it was the perfect spot, but no. I’m a bit worried about continuing with my list, as I feel most of my favourites are a bit on the no-longer-with-us side. But she is looking at me with an air of expectation. I’m not sure she’s really helpful, I think she just wants to get back to the dusting.
‘Victoria Holt? Mary Stewart?’
That smile again. The same shake of the head. Sorry. I look at my list again and wonder if there’s any point in carrying on with this charade. I feel already know the answer, but perhaps due to some previously-unnoticed masochistic tendency, I ask anyway.
‘Nope, not him either.’
‘Her,’ I say and turn away, intensely irritated. I scan the shelves. They are packed with books by people who are dead – how come my authors aren’t here?
‘Try the clearance boxes out front.’ She suggests. I nod. Somehow even as I rummage through these boxes I know I’m wasting my time. Eventually I give up.
And as I walk away, I’m pretty sure two whole shelves of Jean Plaidys and Catherine Cooksons shouted after me, ‘Take us with you!’ and ‘come back!’ and possibly even, ‘Help!’
I know I say this every year, but for me, it is not Spring, but Autumn and Winter that form my season of creativity. I have no idea why this is. I don’t know why, but for me, autumn is not the season for rest and consolidation, but of flights of imagination taking wings. I get quite excited about the approach of autumn and winter. Maybe it’s the cuddly jumpers, I don’t know.
It seems as though the rest of the world is full of new life in the Spring. Is it because I’m an October baby, my lifecycle naturally goes from Autumn onwards? Or because when we lived in Brisbane, October was in the Spring? But how can five years there undo the habits of the other fifty-six years I’ve lived in the Northern Hemisphere? Or maybe it’s because for parents everywhere in the UK, Autumn is when the children go back to school and you at last get two minutes to sit in silence and just enjoy hearing – nothing. Ah, bliss!
New ideas are taking shape, even before the old ideas have been put to bed. I’m thinking about what I want to say in a new story. I’m having a wonderful time creating book covers, and though I’m struggling to come up with new titles, I have some ideas to mull over.
I’m always drawn to old stuff, I’m drawn backwards into the past. I’m thinking of long print frocks, ladies in beads, feathers in their hair, tea-dances, afternoon picnics on wide sweeping lawns, croquet. I’m thinking of couples dancing on a veranda under the stars, the doors open to let out the soft lamplight and the music from the gramophone. The music is softened by distance and the soft evening breeze ruffles hair.
I’m thinking rural, villagey, fields, water, trees. I’m thinking of sorrow and haunting, of deeds never talked of, of the guilty secrets of the past. I’m thinking of shame and sacrifice, I’m humming old pastoral songs and rhymes, Scarborough Fair, children’s songs and folk songs, ‘Bobby Shafto(e) Went To Sea, He’ll Come Back And Marry me… Bonny Bobby Shafto(e).’ Or the old folk song and pop hit from the 70s, Whiskey in the Jar – ‘When I was going over/the Cork and Kerry mountains…I saw Captain Farrell and his money he was counting…’’
I’m remembering the duplicitous nature of the minstrel, wandering, legitimately able to plant one foot in each camp, never on any side but his own. A useful means for conveying information, often ill-gotten. And he can sing out in public everyone’s secrets, and how can you stop a man doing that?
I’m thinking of myths and legends, hillsides cloaked in mist, an unseen bird calling in the gloom, of the soft insinuating sound of the wind, like a sigh, like a breath, or like a dragon’s terrible approach. I’m thinking about the returning home of the prodigal, how we carry the past with us, inside, even when we are looking forward and moving on, something draws us ever back.
I am thinking, staring at the falling leaves, driven across the grass by a pushing wind, I’m lost in my thoughts. I am thinking of long ago, of people who may not have existed, but who could come into being in my imagination. I see images in my mind, people, objects, places, and weave stories about these imaginary characters.
I am thinking of a man at a window staring out, his mind working on things he cannot put into words. What should he do? Has the time for action finally arrived?
I’m thinking of a woman, always waiting, wringing her hands in front of the window, her own shadow cast out across the lamplit stones of the yard. When will he return? Will he ever return? The waiting woman. The unspeaking man.
I’m thinking of a boy coming over the hill. Of grass, green, long, dewy. Of the sun, soft, golden, gentle as a mother’s hand, just touching his hair, his shoulder of his white cotton shirt. How long has he been away? How much has changed? Will anything ever change?
If I never have another new idea, I’ve already got enough to keep me writing for the next twenty years. I only hope that’s possible.
‘Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight,/And all the air a solemn stillness holds.’ Thomas Gray’s Elegy.
Believe it or not, behind that silk-covered chair is a silk-covered door which houses a stunning ‘secret’ bathroom built specially for King George V in 1925, and never used by him, because his visit was cancelled.
When is a door not a door?
Ok I know we all know that old joke. But when I was walking around a beautiful country house recently, I was struck (not literally) by all the different styles of door, and I thought about what they could mean.
(I should just quickly add that I was completely convinced I’d written a previous blog post about doors/portals, but after wasting half an hour trying to find it, I’m now convinced it must have been a dream…???)
A rather scary back door at Calke Abbey. For the use of staff, obvs, no posh people here.
Doors. The thing is, a door is an everyday piece of equipment, if I can put it like that, and yet it contains the power to take us from one place, from the present, to a different place, the future. We know that when we open a door, we can move from one space to another. Sometimes it’s as if we were moving into another world. In fantasy literature, doors are seen as portals or magical spaces of transition.
But even in a country house, the door takes us from one sphere of life to a completely different one, say, from the sumptuous drawing room into a back hallway used purely for the convenience of staff, or from a dusty, intriguing library out into a beautiful garden.
Sometimes a door won’t open because it’s not a real door. This one is just to make the room appear symmetrical, and doesn’t open, as it’s just a bit of wood stuck onto a solid wall.
Doors are ordinary, and yet special. In books, or TV shows, or films etc, doors have the power to transform our lives purely because they exist. All the time you and I are on this side of the door, and the door is closed, we can’t be absolutely certain what we will find if we open the door. It might be that we will find dinner is ready and on the table, or we might find a fairytale castle perched on a precarious mountain-top. A bit like Schrodinger’s Cat, we can’t be sure until we open the door which of the alternatives are actually before us.
A beautiful curved door to fit a curved wall. This is at Kedleston Hall.
What if we can’t even open the door?
What if we find something unexpected, even unwelcome, on the other side of the door?
We won’t know until we open it. And by then, it could be too late.
In real life, we will open the door and find the washing machine has finished our towels, but in literature, in the country of our imagination, we could be anywhere.
Sometimes doors show you not just the next room, but the one after that and the one after that. You are looking through them all at once as if they are a series of views, of points of interest on a tour.
So literature has a lot to tell us about doors, it seems. I’ve only shared a small number of door-related quotes here, if you are desperate, I’m sure you will find more. Or maybe you’ll catch yourself watching a little more closely as the characters in your current reading material or viewing material each have their entrances and their exits, and move on the stage of your imagination. Like me you might be struck by just how often a character moves through a door and ‘something’ happens.
And lastly, I hope you won’t mind me adding my own work into this illustrious company:
I know I’d promised to talk about toilets this week – (!) but I’m doing last minute proofreading and panic-tidying/tweaking of The Thief of St Martins: Dottie Manderson mysteries book 5 at the moment, ahead of its release on the 30th November. I needed to think of something quick so I didn’t ignore my blog altogether, but without it throwing my schedule off the rails.
So I thought I’d tell you a story: it’s not a very new one, some regular readers might have seen it before, but hopefully it’s interesting enough to get your attention. It’s a short story loosely based on a real news report (!) from a local paper a few years back. In fact it made the nationals. When the old hospital in the village of Shardlow was demolished, workmen reported strange goings-on and a paranormal specialist was called in to investigate. Yes really! It’s just occurred to me I should have put this on at Hallowe’en. Epic fail.
The story is called:
Henry was puking into a sink. The world around him rocked and dipped. He gripped the edge of the sink, closing his eyes, afraid to let go. Bile rose in his throat and he bent to puke again, strings of mucus dragging from his chin to the backs of his white-knuckled hands. He retched again then again.
‘I’m not well, you know.’
‘I’m so sorry,’ said a voice behind him. ‘This is obviously a terrible shock. I can’t imagine how you must be feeling. But if you don’t take my advice and Cross Over, then I’m afraid I just don’t know what else to suggest.’
‘I love Shardlow. I’ve lived here all my life. I’ve been in this hospital for years, it’s like a home to me. I know every nook and cranny.’ Henry took a few deep breaths to steady himself, trying to breathe through his mouth so he wouldn’t catch too much of his own stench. He wiped his face on his sleeve and turned stiffly to face the man.
‘You’re the bloody psychic. If you can’t help me, who can?’
The man had been about to speak but was pre-empted by a third person, a workman in faded overalls.
‘What’s he saying now? Tell me what’s going on!’
The psychic fought the urge to roll his eyes heavenward and kept his voice polite.
‘Well, Henry’s still being ill, and he wants to know what we can do to help him.’ He resisted the urge to add, duh! The workman kept touching his cigarette as if to check it was still there behind his ear. Clearly he felt it was time for a short break.
There was a knock on the door and another workman, twenty years slimmer, put his head around the door.
‘Here, Guv, that bird from the paper’s here with a photographer.’
‘All right, Kendall, show them in.’
The journalist marched into the room. She wore a dark power suit and smart blouse, and her high-heels tapped loudly as she took a turn about the room looking around carefully for several minutes before she finally looked at the two men she could see.
‘Hmm. Are any of Them in here right now?’
‘Yes, over there, in the corner. He’s by a sink, keeps being sick, poor chap. I can see him, though you probably… He’s wearing pyjamas, obviously, as he’s a patient in the hospital, and a dressing gown and slippers.’
‘Can’t see anything myself.’ She gestured the cameraman forward. ‘Just do a general pan across the room, and then close in on that corner—apparently there’s supposed to be something going on there.’ She turned a brittle smile on the older workman. ‘So you think there is actually something to these rumours, then?’
The workman bristled a little, shuffled his feet and reassured himself that his cigarette was lit.
‘Well, we’re just ordinary blokes, been on lots of jobs like this, demolitions, rebuilds, the like, and never had anything like this. Noises and cold mists and whatnot. Tools flying through the air. We’re just ordinary chaps, not a fanciful bunch, not much call for imagination in the demolition business…’
‘In my experience there’s nothing so suggestible as a bunch of hairy-arsed workmen with barely one GCSE between them. A couple of pints at lunchtime, and you’re all seeing fairies at the bottom of the garden. Please tell me there’s more to this than someone feeling a bit queasy and a couple of strange noises. No? God! Why would they want to stay in this hole anyway? I mean it’s cold, dirty and—forgive me for stating the obvious but they are dead aren’t they—why does it matter where they—er—live?’
The workman grew a little red in the face, and the psychic stepped forward, just in case. But just as the workman was about to express his views in a forthright manner, Claire slid through the wall and came over to Henry and his precious sink.
‘What’s happening?’ she asked him.
Henry gestured towards the journalist.
‘She’s from The Daily Sceptic and she’s just upset Banksey by suggesting he imagined us, and that’s the photographer—he’s hoping to capture us on film, which will be a miracle because he sure as hell can’t see us with his eyes.’
‘Right! Normal Monday morning then! I see old Smelly Feet is still here.’
‘Yes, I am,’ said the psychic, ‘and in case you’ve forgotten, I’m the one who is trying to help you as well as being the only one that can see—and hear—you!’
‘Ah!’ she fell silent, then changed the subject. ‘Henry, Mrs Jarvis wanted me to let you know that the vicar’s here with his holy water and stuff. Mr Jarvis is keeping an eye on everything from the Castle North Ward staircase. Apparently we’re expecting a medium, a rabbi and a man from the environmental health. Must get back, I do so love a party.’
She vanished through the wall once again whilst Henry, feeling unwell, abruptly turned back to his sink. The psychic turned to tell everyone what was happening. The journalist and the photographer rushed off to welcome the new arrivals, and Banksey came to lean on the same piece of wall as the psychic. He took down his cigarette and turned it over between his fingers.
‘So what effect will that lot have then? A vicar, a rabbi and a bloke from the environmental? Sounds like the start of a joke like we used to tell before everyone got all PC.’
The psychic smiled then sighed as he thought it over. He shook his head.
‘I don’t know to be honest. I mean usually the only ones who take this kind of thing seriously are blokes like you and me. What do you think, Henry? Will they be wasting their breath, or does it spell disaster? Henry?’
But Henry wasn’t there. He was halfway down the main stairs, and when he reached the ninth step, he passed right through the man from the environmental health. The man halted on the tread, looked about him and pulled up the collar of his jacket, remarking to the chap in the dog-collar that it was a bit parky in these old, empty buildings. The man in the dog-collar frowned at him thoughtfully but said nothing.
By the time Henry had found the Jarvises, Claire, old Mr Wainwright and Miss Siddals, the man in the dog-collar was unscrewing the lid of a small bottle and smiling complacently at the psychic.
‘Really, Malcolm, I don’t know why you look so perturbed. I thought you didn’t believe in this sort of thing, or so you said on Richard and Judy. I thought you put your faith in psychic energy and channelling.’
‘I do,’ the psychic snapped. ‘But that doesn’t mean I don’t have any feelings about your inquisitorial methods.’ He would have said more, but at that moment the door was opened and a tall thin young man in a smart dark suit came in, followed by the journalist and the photographer. It opened again and they were joined by Banksey and Kendall. The tall young man turned out to be the rabbi, and he apologised for being a little late.
‘Two poltergeists in Matlock and a tree spirit out at Chesterfield already this morning. Don’t you just hate Mondays!’ The man from the environmental health made the introductions then they all looked at each other to see whose turn it was to go first. The vicar stepped forward and spread a pale pink fluffy bathmat on the floor.
‘What does that do?’ the journalist queried. The vicar looked at her as if she was daft.
‘It stops my trousers getting dusty,’ he said and hitching them at the thighs, knelt down carefully, and closed his eyes and put his hands neatly together.
The psychic found another convenient wall to lean against, and with an inward sigh, settled back arms folded, to see what would happen. Banksey was still fondling his yearned-for cigarette, whilst Kendall was trying to position himself so that if the journalist moved he could see either up her skirt or down her blouse. The photographer was searching his pockets and holdall for a spare camera battery, and swearing a good deal under his breath, unaware of the vicar glaring at him with Anglican tolerance. The journalist was trying to straighten her hair, smooth down her skirt, lick a smidge of lipstick from her teeth and find a notebook, and the rabbi, looking a little battle-weary, stationed himself by the window facing into the room. The environmental man, caught uncertainly between the roles of Master of Ceremonies and chief coat-holder at a duel, hovered by the door.
Henry appeared with his entourage just as the vicar began to whisper confidentially to his fingers, his eyes screwed shut in earnest concentration.
‘It’s started,’ Mr Jarvis pointed out, somewhat unnecessarily. They stood by the wall, watching and waiting. Henry, ignoring a growling in his stomach that indicated it would be better to find himself a nice sink, whisked across the room to the psychic’s side.
‘Shardlow is such a nice little village. Even the gravel pit’s quite pretty now. Fifty-nine houses they’re going to build here, you know.’
‘It’s not a very big plot.’
‘No, not especially.’
‘So they won’t be very big houses.’
‘No I don’t suppose they will.’
‘I hate all these pokey little modern places, tiny little rooms, no garden to speak of. And the developers make a fortune. We got here first, we should have some rights, at least. You know, like squatters.’
‘You did say you didn’t want to cross over. So there wasn’t much else I could do. I told you they wouldn’t let matters rest.’
‘I didn’t have time to think it over. If you could just buy us some time—I mean, this is all a bit drastic.’
‘I agree, but it’s out of my hands now. Sorry, Henry.’
‘Do you Mind!’ thundered the voice of the Reverend Milward. The psychic muttered an apology, his face reddening.
‘What’s he going to do then?’
The psychic didn’t reply, afraid of further censure.
‘Ooh, I feel all queer!’ Mrs Jarvis wailed, and her husband took her arm and lowered her into a chair that was no longer there.
‘Don’t you take any notice, Hetty, my girl, just pretend it’s a Sunday service. Just remember not to say Amen as that’s effectively agreeing to whatever demands he makes.’
‘You ought to do something to stop him.’ Henry said, ‘I mean it’s just not fair! That’s what you’re here for isn’t it?’
‘Actually I’m here to advise the company how to get rid of you, not to stick up for you. After all this place has been condemned, you know.’
Before Henry could reply, the rabbi prostrated himself on the floor careless of his beautiful suit, and began to worship loudly. The man from the environmental unrolled a large wodge of paper and began to read out statutes and by-laws, and the photographer, out of battery packs, swore viciously and threw his camera on the floor as the journalist turned on her little tape recorder and bent to hold it close to the rabbi, causing Kendall to see quite a lot of naked thigh and in all this commotion Banksey accidentally squashed his last cigarette.
‘Bugger this for a game of soldiers,’ said Henry, ‘come on you lot, there’s no point in going on with this—we can’t win this one. Let’s call it a day and move on.’
‘But where will we go?’ Claire was wringing her hands in distress. ‘I’ve been here so long, Shardlow’s all I know!’
‘I know, Duck, but face it—this lot’ll have us turfed out in no time, so we might as well jump as be pushed.’
The ghosts stood in the centre of the room, frightened and upset. Henry was paler than usual and shaking, but his resolve held and so did the contents of his stomach. He patted Claire’s arm awkwardly.
‘Come on, Old Girl, brace up. We’ll think of something.’
The psychic came to a decision, and took a step forward.
‘You can all come back to my place. It might be a bit of a squash in the van though.’
They left before the rabbi could dust off his knees.
Six months later.
‘Hurry up, Henry, the Ghost Whisperer is on!’
‘Ooh goody, I like her, she’s so sweet!’
There was the sound of a toilet flushing and moments later, they heard gargling. Claire and Mr and Mrs Jarvis were wedged in comfortably on one sofa, and on an adjacent sofa, Henry rushed in to flop down between Miss Siddals and Malcolm the psychic. Mr Wainwright had an armchair all to himself.
‘Turn it up, Malcolm, we can’t hear!’ Mrs Jarvis complained.
‘Pass the biscuits,’ Henry said.
‘Shh! Shh, it’s starting!’
Henry fidgeted a bit more to get comfortable. He sighed.
Writing murder mysteries means that I constantly have to try to find a different, even grisly way to ‘eliminate’ my victims. Like a lot of writers of murder mysteries, my search history leaves a lot to be desired. Those who know me have sometimes remarked (thinking they were safely out of earshot) that I’m a bit weird. I’m not really. (okay, maybe I am a teeny bit odd, but in a nice way, right?)
I just overthink things and take them a bit too seriously.
Like weapons for example, and the various means of disposing of someone.
I know some writers go over the top to try out a new method of dispatching a victim for their books. They might talk to experts, spend time at chemistry labs researching poisons, do a short course on blood spatter analysis, or go to firing ranges or interrogate forensic specialists. They might purchase a raft of books on forensic stuff, or even, like character Gil Grissom in an early episode of classic CSI, get a pig’s carcass delivered to his place of work and proceed to inflict various atrocities on it. I don’t think I could do that. I’d be unable to forget it was (once) a living creature. I’m not a vegetarian, just a bit squeamish.
It’s quite easy, though to absorb this kind of thing via osmosis. TV shows, factual and fictional, go into the aspect of how a person died to a very useful extent. And as I said just now, there is plenty of literature on the subject, as my book shelves will attest. Then there’s the internet… And news media…
It used to be said that the female weapon of choice was murder. Is that still true in these days of equality?
I’ve poisoned a few people in my time. Fictionally, of course. But the blunt instrument is still my favourite. You can whack someone with almost anything.
If you follow my Dottie Manderson series, you can look forward to a death by blunt object in the upcoming book, The Thief of St Martins. You can read a short taster HERE.
Does anyone remember that brilliant episode of Tales Of The Unexpected from years ago where the woman killed her husband with a frozen leg of lamb, then cooked it and served it to the investigating police officers. They ate the evidence! Fantastic. That’s definitely my favourite episode.
To date, in my books, I’ve had people stabbed, poisoned, die in various forms of road ‘accident’; they’ve been suffocated, executed, shot, strangled and bashed over the head. I like to vary it a bit, but it’s hard to get away from the old-but-good methods.
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.
She’s got a point, bless her, and ‘fortunately’ she manages to find a way round these problems. I’d love to try flypapers! Maybe I’ll save that for my next book.
I’ve also been experimenting with a mad professor and an ‘infernal machine’. I might use that at some point. In another series–still not published yet–I’ve used a fetishist and a special piece of rope that he loves to moon over. Elsewhere I’ve had social leaders employ minions as an execution squad, and of course there’s another old favourite, the fall from a high place.
Most of my perpetrators are people who don’t usually make a habit of ‘this kind of thing’, they just find themselves pushed little by little into a situation where they feel they have no choice but to lash out at the person or persons who is putting them or their comfortable life in jeopardy somehow.
If there’s nothing new under the sun, it is at least pleasing to come up with a bit of variety, though bludgeon has, as Michael Douglas’s character says in A Perfect Murder, (based on Dial M For Murder, one of my all-time favourite films) ‘a spur-of-the-moment ring about it’. I like the idea of a spur-of-the-moment crime, where the perpetrator loses control and spends a considerable amount of time trying to figure out how to get away with it. It’s not all about the victim, you know!
I think most of us have days when we stare into space and can’t think of a single thing to write. Here are my top tips for getting on with it. There’s not anything really earth-shatteringly new here, just practical ideas to keep you—and me—writing. Some are obvious, some are simple, some are just coping mechanisms that have worked for me.
Keep social media out of your work area. It’s so easy to ‘lose’ an hour or two just checking your emails or catching up with social media—and this is a really good one for disguising as work. But if you are a media junkie and know you spend too much time oohing and ahhing over other people’s cat pictures or searching for memes, do everything you can to keep internet availability to areas away from where you work. Keep your breaks short—just enough time to eat, drink, pee and then get back to work. (btw Eat, Drink, Pee is the little-known follow-up to Eat, Pray, Love. Less successful because it lacks the strong spiritual appeal of the original.)
Plan. Yes, even if like me, you are more of a pantser, when you struggle to move forward with your work, then leave yourself a couple of lines of notes that will give you a kick-start to begin your next writing session. I heard it suggested that a writer even breaks off in the middle of a crucial scene to create an easy pick-up point. However, if like me, you’re a bit forgetful, you might not find this idea too effective. Instead I prefer to scratch down a few lines in pencil, just to give myself a little push in the morning. (Not a morning person!) while it’s still fresh in my mind. I often have an idea in my head of where the story is going to go, but can forget some of this by the next day. This idea is a good one to avoid losing the plot—literally.
Take a notebook everywhere. Yes, I know this is an obvious one for writers, but trust me, I can’t count the number of times I’ve had to either abandon a brilliant idea or rush to buy a notebook when out and about. And trust me, notes written on a napkin in ketchup or eyebrow pencil aren’t so easy to read when you get home. You don’t have to take along a huge, heavy notebook, just a teeny one that fits into a pocket will be fine, so long as you always have something with you in case inspiration strikes. For me, any time I’m left alone to stare into space can be a good time to write—on the bus, train, waiting for the bus or train, waiting for loved ones to finish work or try on a dress… or you could get a note-making app on your tablet or phone, I like Evernote. I do a lot of my best writing in a caff with a cappuccino at my elbow. So before you leave the house, make sure you have a notebook and about six pens. Wallet? Check. Keys? Check. Notebook…?
Count your words. This is really a coping mechanism for if you are going through a sticky patch. It’s really aimed at people who, like me, write longhand before they transfer work onto a device. Each morning, before you start work staring at the crack on the ceiling, count the previous day’s word total manually. Doing this will mean a) you get a quick overview of what you wrote yesterday and that will help you to get into writing mode, and b) you will feel encouraged to build on what you already have. This works for me when nothing else does, even if I end up discarding half or more of the previous day’s work.
Break up the blank. This continues from the one above. If you sit and stare at the white page or screen in dismay and your brain refuses to create, try this:
Do Step 4 as above.
Then start each new page with the date and running word total in the top left corner.
Number the pages bottom right.
If you are using chapter headings or titles, write that too, or simply write chapter and the number.
You could also do Step 2 for this point, again to give yourself a little push.
Change your routine. This is another one that works well for me. Try sitting somewhere different to your usual spot, give yourself a new viewpoint. Listen to different music—even music you hate can be useful. I used to sometimes sit in one of my children’s bedrooms when they were at school and listen to some of their music. Just changing your daily routine or habits can trick your brain into creating fresh words. Try getting up in the middle of the night, if you’re a morning person, or go out and write in the pub or the library or the park. Anything different is good and will help to lift you out of your slough of despond and help get rid of that wading-through-mud feeling.
Revise. If you’re really stick, go back and look at your original premise for your WIP and see if there’s any aspect of your story you’ve missed, ignored or just plain not considered. Did you go down a blind alley? If you don’t have old notes to go back to, write down a couple of paragraphs of what you remember about getting the original idea for your story. How did it work out in your mind? How does that compare to what you have actually written so far? Try to see your story as a whole unit, like a ladder with rungs moving the story forward. What needs to happen to your characters to get the story to the next rung?
Read. This is the easy one. I’m not advocating spending weeks and months reading hundreds of books, but just take some time out to read for half an hour or an hour. Refresh your mind, read some poetry, or a familiar favourite book. Again too, you could try something new and different that will get your creative juices flowing. If I’m writing fiction, I read a non-fiction, usually history.
Write something else. So often I find the minute I start work on one story, I get ideas coming through for another. Usually it’s another story where I’ve already completed the first draft and am just subconsciously mulling it over. Try your hand at a short story or a haiku.
Doodle. Make yourself some brain-storming cluster diagram. Put your key word—or your character name, or anything to do with your WIP, and then bring lots of lines out from the central idea and at the end of each line, write a word or phrase or idea that somehow relates to the key word. You can do this for every character, or every location or plot point etc. You can put down anything that is linked with your main character, or maybe just ideas that are only tentatively linked. You could sit and create a list of words from your title, or your character’s name. You could try Googling your character’s name and see what comes up—but don’t get side-tracked, it isn’t supposed to replace writing but to stimulate it. Try brain-storming something completely different, a colour or a sound that is relevant to your story, eg blue—then write all the things you can think of to do with ‘blue’: the colour of royalty; meaning sad or depressed; lapis lazuli used to be used to make the pigment blue for artists, and was more expensive than gold, so hence very little of it used in paintings, only for the special few key characters, which brings us back to royalty again; the Greeks had no colour for blue, and used the word for brass; the Bible says sometimes when you pray the ‘Heavens are as brass’; does that mean they are blue, or they are hard and impenetrable? Blue is a cold colour, blue is the colour for baby boys—but used to be the traditional colour for baby girls up until the early 1900s, then mysteriously it swapped, so did this result in confusion? Hopefully you see how this technique can generate ideas.
So those are my top tips. Hopefully if you do get stuck with your writing, or you feel like you’re not getting anywhere, one of these might help you to get back on track and find fresh and exciting ideas. Above all if you’re struggling with a particular idea or a specific part of your WIP, don’t panic. Do something else for a little while or try one of these ideas. You’ll soon get your mojo back.
I found these notes in an old journal. I had been pondering the attributes, from a writer’s point of view, of gold and silver, and how whether as metal or colour, they are portrayed in literary works.
Gold is the colour of royalty, of quality, of the authorised, and acknowledged, of states and state, religions and churches and faiths, of the accepted and acceptable, of righteousness.
Gold is pure, incorruptible, reliable, ‘pure gold’, good, honest and forthright.
Gold is given in blessing and to enrich, it is security, savings and wealth. Gold is warm and appealing. It is masculine, and constant; the colour of the noonday sun, giving life to all and sight to all. The ‘gold standard’ indicates a status achieved, a level of existence and compliance, of regularity and trust, and a line by which all else is measured. Gold is laid up for the righteous, we are told.
But silver? No. Silver is ‘other’. Silver is secretive and fleeting, it is mercurial and unremarkable in nature, and always not quite good enough: doomed to be second best. It changes hands easily, each time serving or claiming a new master.
Silver works its arts by night, it is hard, feminine and bright and although it’s the colour of small change, ready money, the easily-obtained (for some people, anyway), it really is a confidence trickster: appearing cheap and easy to get, but actually constantly demanding more from us, just that little bit beyond our grasp.
It is the colour of the stars and the light of the moon, alluring, beautiful, cold. Silvery and secret, sinister and elusive, it dances through the sky, always out of reach, now hidden, now displayed. The thirty pieces of silver, the betrayer’s coin, the turner of hearts and souls, the illicit, the unauthorised, the denied, or the denier.
These gorgeous images from Steve Bidmead, Arek Socha, Kevin Schneider and Patricia Alexandre, all at Pixabay.com
We sometimes hear or read this term, ‘so-and-so was a Golden Age author’ or ‘in the Golden Age style’. But what was the Golden Age? When was it, what did it mean, who were the exponents of the Golden Age, and is it still relevant today? Here is a (necessarily VERY brief) overview of the term and its legacy.
When was it? Well, according to some sources I’ve studied, (Encyclopedia Mysteriosa by William DeAndrea, Google and Wikipedia, obviously 🙂 Twentieth Century Crime Fiction by Lee Horsley and The Oxford Companion to English Literature edited by Margaret Drabble) there is a general consensus that The Golden Age of mystery/detective fiction began in 1920 and ended in 1939 at the outbreak of World War ll.
What was it, and why was it new or different? Although there had been notable forays into detective fiction in the nineteenth century eg Arthur Conan Doyle and Wilkie Collins to name just a couple, a lot of fiction had been in the form of short stories, usually with an ‘improving’ moral or message, or as novella-length, often rather highbrow, works. Essays and poetry, philosophy and criticism had been popular for decades. But the growth of a literate public, the rise of libraries and more disposable income, led to a desire for lighter, more accessible works of a purely entertaining nature. Mysteries became socially acceptable too, and were enjoyed by the well-to-do and well-educated, as well as by working class men and women.
Mass market fiction or pulp fiction was no longer a thing to be scorned, but became more generously regarded. The detective element of the story transformed it into an intellectual exercise. I would perhaps suggest that, following the trauma of World War l, detective stories provided a means of sanitising violence and putting danger at arm’s length, and keeping it under control. The genre required that good would triumph and order be restored at the end of the story.
Detective fiction of this time became all about the puzzle. Readers were very sophisticated and demanding, requiring more and more complex riddles to entertain them. This cerebral pastime acquired a kind of moral kudos, described by Phillip Guedalla, a well-known British writer and barrister of the time, as ‘the natural recreation of the noble mind’. Others said that it had become ‘feminised’, doing away with the macho, aggressive ‘male’ approach of might and power, with both readers and writers exhibiting the traditionally female qualities of intuition, insight, and I might add, craftiness. Perhaps that is why so many of the most successful authors of the era were women.
So in these works, the emphasis was on cerebral/intellectual puzzle rather than physical action and strength. Gore and violence was contained, and mainly ‘off-stage’; there was a defined resolution; and the reader expected to read a story peppered with clues and red herrings that she or he could solve alongside the detective. The emphasis was on the pursuit of Justice and Truth, and doing what was Right. There was a moral high-ground to be held. As Dorothy L Sayers detective, Lord Peter Wimsey says, ‘…in detective stories, virtue is always triumphant, they’re the purest form of literature we have.’ (quoted, 20th century crime, p52)
Who were these Golden Age authors? Many of them came, flourished briefly and went again, but some of the biggest sellers in crime fiction today are authors from that era. Here are just a few:
Agatha Christie – often considered the foremost leader of the genre, she both established and contravened the definition of the classic mystery. She was often accused of ‘not playing fair’ with the reader, never more so than in the (grudgingly admiring) outcry following the release of her book The Murder of Roger Ackroyd in 1926. She famously began writing detective fiction as a bet with her sister. The Mysterious Affair At Styles was her first published novel in 1920, and featured Hercule Poirot who became arguably the most recognisable sleuth in detective fiction, on paper, and on the TV and film screen.
Ngaio Marsh – New Zealand born, she famously wrote her first murder mystery out of boredom. In 1934 the release of A Man Lay Dead led to 30+ other novels, all featuring Inspector Roderick Alleyn. The books were turned into a popular TV series. Marsh was also renowned for her work in the theatre. She was a grand master of the Mystery Writers of America, and new books continued to be published until the 1980s.
Nicholas Blake – pen name of Cecil Day Lewis; wrote poetry, criticism and essays, as well as twenty detective mysteries towards the end of the Golden Age era, 16 of which feature Nigel Strangeways, a consulting detective who helps both police and government as required. First of these A Question of Proof 1935.
Anthony Berkley – a writer and the founder of the Detection Club in 1928 whose aim was to preserve and promote the classic detective story. Wrote as A B Cox, Anthony Berkley and Francis Iles. As Francis Iles he wrote some of his best known works, Malice Aforethought in 1931, and in 1932 Before The Fact which was filmed as Suspicion with Alfred Hitchcock as the director.
Freeman Willis Crofts – born and raised in Ireland, author of The Cask 1920 which was a huge success, selling 100,000 copies. He was one of the first authors to focus on police procedure and not merely the enthusiastic amateur detective. This was the same year as AC’s Mysterious Affair Styles and is taken as the landmark year to commence the era. He wrote other books, collaborating with the authors of the detection club and also a book of short stories.
Other well-known authors of the era included: G K Chesterton, Gladys Mitchell, Dorothy L Sayers, Josephine Tey, Margery Allingham, Michael Innes, and many more. In the United States, there were also authors writing in the genre, although here the ‘hard-boiled’ mystery quickly became popular. Here are just a few of those authors:
S S Van Dine – he is mainly remembered for his detective Philo Vance, but there were other works. Van Dine was embarrassed by his authorship of popular fiction as he had higher aspirations, and he used his pen name to conceal his identity for a number of years. The first mystery novel to feature Philo Vance was The Benson Murder Case in 1926, followed by more works within a year or two, making him one of the USA’s top selling authors at that time, and his works were turned into films.
John Dickson Carr famously termed detective fiction as “the grandest game in the world”.
In 1935 his novel The Hollow Man (The Three Coffins in the US) was published and it is still considered his finest work. He was a master of the locked room puzzle. he often used English settings and even characters, for example his best known detectives were Brits named Dr Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale, but there are others, and books set in other nations. He also wrote stand-alone novels: such as The Burning Court which appeared in 1937, in all he produced over sixty mystery and historic novels, in addition to short stories and plays under the name John Dickson Carr and as Carter Dickson.
Ellery Queen – Was actually two men, writing under the pseudonyms of Frederic Dannay and Manfred Bennington Lee. Their first book was The Roman Hat Mystery published in 1929; subsequent books shared the title style, being all ‘The something something mystery’, which in many ways is still the standard form of title today. There were over thirty books in all, plus other series eg Drury Lane series etc, and other pen names. And notably, the hugely successful TV series, and the magazine.
What is the legacy of the Golden Age of detective fiction? Currently Crime, Thrillers and Mystery makes up one of the largest categories in fiction, apart from possibly romance. You can see endless variations on the detective theme from crime noir to cosy, with subgenres in legal, hard-boiled, gay and lesbian, spy, medical, political, police procedural, and even paranormal mystery. If the parameters have changed in regard to content and character types, if attitudes have changed, and settings have become exotic, or even practically a character in itself, we are still as in love with the puzzles presented by murder mysteries as those readers of the 1920s and 30s. We love to curl up in an armchair and lose ourselves in a mystery where the Reader is in fact the main detective.
I’m unashamedly cheating this week–in two ways, as this should have been posted three or four days ago, so it’s really last week’s, and I’m also recycling material… Quite a lot of my friends on Facebook are doing the Book Cover challenge, where you post a picture of the cover of a favourite book, every day for seven days. I rose to the challenge because I love to bang on about the books I love, and I am often stuck for something to say to connect with my loved ones. So I quickly selected my top seven.
That left soooooo many books neglected on my shelves. And if the house was on fire, and computer, family and cats were safe (not in that order, obviously), surely I would have time to save more than seven??? After chatting with a few mad book lovers like myself, we decided to create our top twenty books, as seven just doesn’t seem enough.
And so I decided I would share these with you, the world. It’s just a list of the twenty books I would buy first if the worst happened and I had to replace my library, or the twenty books I would shove into a sizeable shoulder bag if things got serious.
But in no particular order….because you can’t choose between your babies, right?
Danger Point by Patricia Wentworth. Why? a) I love old-school murder mysteries especially romantic ones such as Wentworth used to write. b) This one cost me a fair bit as it’s quite old and gorgeous now, and I love it. c) Unusually, it’s about a heroine in an unhappy marriage. (Spoiler – soz!)
Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde. Nothing to do with sexy goings-on and shenanigans, it’s a clever and hilarious novel about a society that is halting the relentless progress of technology, and has a new take on social divisions. My particular favourite moment is where some of the characters help out at an accident in the street, then give each other feedback on their performance.
Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco. I really like Umberto Eco’s works, and have quite a few of his books, but this is the one I come back to again and again, even more so than The Name of The Rose. With more historical facts and conspiracies than all of Dan Brown\’s books put together, this is the book for challenging your brain.
Death Comes As The End by Agatha Christie. Again, as a mystery aficionado, it’s no surprise that I would include a book by Agatha Christie, but this one is a mystery with a difference. I was a teenager when I first read this, and there is a little mild romance as well as the mystery in this, but the shining star of this book has to be the historical period. It was the first time I realised that people from ancient history were real people like us, with goals, ambitions, loves and hates. This books made me want to study history.
The Flanders Panel by Arturo Perez-Reverte. This was the first book I read by this author and it remains my favourite. If you enjoy an intellectual challenge, or if you just like mysteries,this is a great read.
If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller… by Italo Calvino. I love books that are a bit quirky and unusual, and this one is certainly that. I really enjoyed the premise about a reader whose new book turned out to have the wrong book inside, but also the actual story is a strange, pleasurable little secret just waiting to be discovered. I’ll say no more about that. Just buy it and see.
Red Bones by Ann Cleeves. Ann Cleeves is a great crime writer with an incredible eye for a setting, and a creator of a wide range of characters. This is another story where the events of the past reach forward to wreak havoc in the present. And boy, does this woman put her characters through some stuff.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. A perennial evergreen. For those who dismiss it as early chick-lit, think again. It is subtle, witty and intelligent, and takes the closest look you will ever find at family life. Yes, true it is well-to-do family life. And any woman who could support herself with her writing gets my admiration. This is my favourite book of all time.
One Corpse Too Many by Ellis Peters. Another historical whodunit, beautifully crafted, intelligent, elegant, and entertaining. I love the very human characters in these books, and although this is the second of the series, I always think of it as the first establishing novel.
Lone Pine Five by Malcolm Saville. This is a children’s detective series written in the middle part of the twentieth century. It was the natural successor to the less absorbing (for me anyway) and less intelligent Famous Five series, and featured a variety of children and young people who were friends, relatives and who stumbled into mysteries and solved them without too much help or intervention from adults. I wrote to Malcolm Saville when I was about 10 or 11 to tell him how much I enjoyed his books, and he kindly wrote back to me. An integral part of my childhood.
Madam Will You Talk by Mary Stewart. Now mainly remembered for her Arthurian series, Mary Stewart wrote a number of ‘romantic suspense’, mysteries with a strong romantic flavour, and this is my favourite of those. Oh for the days when we could all get away with chapter titles that were taken from quotations from literature! I usually just all mine, ‘chapter one’, ‘chapter two’, etc.
Death In Kashmir by M M Kaye. I do so wish M M had written more than six romantic suspense novels before going on to write what I consider to be ‘literary’ fiction. I don’t much like anything too literary, but as you’ve probably guessed, I LOVE romantic suspense!!! (It’s coming back into vogue, you know.) (At least, it had better be.) I love the settings of Stewart’s books, though sadly often portrayed only through the eyes of the colonial population.
A Double Sorrow by Lavinia Greenlaw. I don’t read a massive amount of poetry, I can’t concentrate long enough for that, but I adored this book which I read in two sittings, each time from cover to cover. The language is beautiful and finally I read the story of Troilus and Cressida!!!
The Lewis Man by Peter May. Superlative novel, I loved this. A story with it feet rooted firmly in the past: history and crime, two of my favourite combinations.
Free To Trade by Michael Ridpath. This book was so, so new and sophisticated when it first came out, and seriously took the publishing world by storm, not least because of the massive advance paid to Ridpath. It was followed by a number of other books set in the financial or business world, and I have really enjoyed them all, but this first one was exceptional.
The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. This is a slow moving, beautiful, wistful monument of a work. It unfolds like a flower, capturing your heart. The movie was great, but the book is better. Exquisite. Tissues required.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt. Another intellectual challenge, but it really doesn’t matter if you’ve forgotten all the ancient Greek you learned at school (!!!), this murder mystery will keep you guessing. After reading it for the first time, I felt that Tartt had created a whole new ballgame for crime writers. A modern classic, and should be required reading for all aspiring authors.
Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen by P G Wodehouse. This book should be available on the NHS. So funny, so clever. I really struggled to choose just one Wodehouse book. If you’ve read any of the Jeeves books (of which this is one) maybe try a Blandings one next? I feel Wodehouse makes the writing of humorous fiction look very very easy, when in fact it is extremely clever. Plus, I loved the title.
The Evil Genius by Wilkie Collins. I only started to read Collins about ten years ago or so, I’m rather ashamed to say, and then only because it was a set text on some course or another. But I quickly came to regard his works as great page-turners, and The Evil Genius is my favourite, with it’s Gothic overtones. Who wouldn’t want to be considered an evil genius???
The Listening Eye by Patricia Wentworth. You didn’t really think I’d only choose one Wentworth book, did you? The title of this one is very clever. Wentworth is really in her prime here with this book, which I first read when in my early teens, or maybe a bit younger. I remember raiding my mother’s books for something to read when I ran out of my usual stuff, and she started me on Patricia Wentworth and then, of course, Agatha Christie, both of which became lifelong favourites both in terms of the individual author, and the genre.
Jenny S Burke (writing as J S Burke) has very kindly agreed to come back and give us a quick update on how things are going in her writing life.
Hi Jenny! It’s so great to ‘see’ you again, thank you for giving up your time to chat with me again. Last time you were here, you were talking about your first book, The Dragon Dreamer, which is a fantasy/science-based story of an unlikely friendship between a dragon and an octopus, and is aimed at middle school and young adult readers.
Q1. What has kept you busy since we last spoke?
Thank you so much for having me back here! I’ve written stand-alone Book II of the Dragon Dreamer series. As you mentioned, Carrie, like Book I, Dragon Lightning is a young adult science fantasy with dragons, an undersea world, and unexpected friendship. This is layered for readers age 9 to 99, so it’s a good family read.
The Dragon Dreamer and Dragon Lightning are immersive reads; great ‘vacation books’ to dive into. There are more than 100 positive ratings and reviews for them on Goodreads and on Amazon US. I’m also drawing more fantasy snowflakes for my book illustrations and for the colouring book. These mandala flakes are drawn from animals and plants.
Q2. How different is it writing a subsequent book compared to your first?
In some respects this book was easier, because I understand how to write a science fantasy novel. I developed more characters in Dragon Lightning, which was fun. The Dragon Dreamer has two minor characters who became major players in Book II.
Q3. Is there anything you wish you could go back and tell yourself?
Start writing sooner!!!
LOL. Jenny, I can completely understand where you’re coming from with that one, I’d like to go back in time and tell myself that! When I look back and see all the time I wasted agonising over whether or not to just go for it…
Q4. Has anything in your writing style or process changed as you’ve gained experience?
I’m more comfortable writing in my own style, blending science and author experiences with fantasy. Once when I was aboard a research vessel at sea, three waterspouts headed for our boat. This harrowing experience is now in Dragon Lightning and provides a turning point. The characters come alive for me and tell me what they need to do, which is very helpful.
It’s very exciting when characters do that, as a writer you have greater confidence that your characters are fully rounded and not just cardboard cut-outs. And I also understand what you mean about using real life experiences to enrich your writing.
Q5. What can we look forward to in the future from you?
I’m working on a colouring book with the fantasy snowflakes my dragons grow in the winter clouds and writing Book III of the Dragon Dreamer series.
I love the idea of the colouring books – and as a Brit, I really appreciate you taking the time to put in all those extra letter U’s too! 🙂
Q6. Where can readers find you?
Please do visit me at my sites! And thank you Carrie for having me on your blog!
My pleasure, Jenny and may the new book make you proud! It’s worth mentioning by the way that Jenny writes under the name J S Burke. Links below for books and social media!