The Blue Dress

This week I thought I’d dig out a short story I wrote a few years ago, inspired by a writing prompt from Morgen Bailey on her site. A very short story. I was really into Flash Fiction at the time, although this one was special for me and I have often been tempted to write more about this character. This story was included in a compilation of work that was briefly available (it wasn’t popular!) under the title (I think it was partly the title that killed it 🙂 ) of The Commuter’s Friend. So here it is, I hope you like it.

The Blue Dress

“They’ve found something, sir.” A young policeman addressed him through the car window. Inspector Smith heaved himself forward on the seat and got out of the car. Seemed like these days he was always tired. Time to quit, go fishing, get away from all this. He’d given them thirty-five years, they’d had enough.

“Is he still alive?” he asked the constable. He looked too young to be a copper. Looked like he should still be in the Scouts. They all did, with their degrees in Criminology or Psychology, and their fresh faces, still with acne, some of them. The constable shrugged.

“The paramedics are still working on him. It doesn’t look too good, sir.”

Inside the funeral parlour, the assistant who had raised the alarm watched as a couple of paramedics laboured over the undertaker. The scrawny white chest was bared for the use of the defibrillator. Smith turned away, the image frozen, a moment in time, imprinted on his mind—a few greying hairs in the middle of the chest, the prominent ribs supporting the pale skin.

“How did you know this wasn’t just a routine call?” The constable was at his side, and the question was a welcome distraction. As Smith responded, they turned about and headed for the rear door. “I mean, we were called out to a robbery gone wrong, and straightaway, you knew. It was like magic, sir.”

Smith halted in the doorway and looked at the youngster.

“There’s no magic in this game, son. As soon as we went into the flat upstairs, I saw the dress.”

“I saw it too, sir, but it didn’t ring any warning bells with me.”

Smith looked at him. “You didn’t find it a bit odd that an elderly bachelor should have a blue dress hanging on a mannequin in his bedroom? A blue dress that clearly dated from the 1950s, and was the size of a girl of about 12 to 14 years of age? It didn’t make you wonder if the undertaker had a secret? You didn’t find any of that at all unusual, constable?”

The constable flushed, and looked down at his feet. “Well, I suppose…”

They headed into the back garden. There was a concrete area set aside for client parking. Beyond that a tall hedge enclosed a private garden. Some men in plastic all-in-ones had dug up a small patio area surrounded by climbing roses. In any other time or place, it would have been simply a beautiful bower of contemplation. One of the men got to his feet and beckoned the police officers over. He pointed into the shallow pit.

Smith looked. A cold hand clutched momentarily at his heart. He nodded and turned away. The constable was at his elbow like an eager puppy. “Sir? Do you know who it is, sir?”

Smith nodded again. He sighed.

“Jessie Flynn. 13 years of age. Missing since 1958. The owner of that blue dress.”

***

Embrace the chaos

This is a shamelessly rewritten blog post from a couple of years ago, mainly because it seems very appropriate for how things are right now, and partly because I was stumped for ideas. 😉

A while ago, I blogged about routine and how I think it’s essential to productive creativity. But what do you do if your routine goes to pot and everything is unsettled and out of sync? (Like now!)

Answer: Just go with it.

I’m thinking of that song by Scott Walker about a million years ago, ‘Make It Easy On Yourself.’ That’s just what you should do.

If you allow the stress of being disorganised to get to you, you will become depressed, anxious, you will feel guilty, and become increasingly non-productive, you’ll be snappy and mean to your loved ones, then you’ll get even more deeply depressed and even less productive. So allow yourself the room to just do what you can manage, and don’t sweat it. Do what you can and don’t beat yourself up if you feel you’re not achieving as much as you think you should, or you planned to achieve.

My planner is a mess of crossed out items that I have not achieved, or not within my self-imposed deadline. That used to send me into a bit of a panic – I love to feel in control, that’s my security blanket.

But now I’m learning to accept and adapt. Or at least I’m trying to. To begin with, I found it quite difficult to have first my husband then my daughter at home all day every day. But now I really like it. We’ve spent so much more time together. (I know, not always a good thing, right?) And the house and garden are starting to look a lot neater now I’m not the only one doing it.

And I’ve seen how hard it is for them to get used to having no colleagues for the usual office banter, or just making work-related catch-ups easier. Thank God for Skype, Facetime, etc! (Seriously if you have colleagues who live alone, check in with them – they might be really lonely and finding it hard.)

At home, we have none of the fancy amenities of the corporate office. Our internet is sloooooooooow. We haven’t any of those comfy swizzle chairs that support your back. There’s ALWAYS someone else in the loo when you’re busting for a wee. No oggy van comes to our place. (Hot snacks and confectionery food van) (Non-Brits, Oggy is a slang term for a Cornish Pasty.) (Here’s a link to the Cornish Pasty association, you can find out how to make an authentic pasty, much better than typing up that report!)

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Meetings are more bearable when your bottom half is in your jammies and fuzzy socks, and only your top half has to look work-ready. We have three cats on hand at all times to help with difficult calculations or to open up a line of conversation with a prickly client. You can have your choice of music playing in the background, sit in the sunny garden for lunch, and your commuting time is down to 30 seconds. You NEVER get stuck in traffic! We are saving a small fortune in petrol.

I don’t advocate, as some have suggested, drinking shots every time you read some email that begins ‘In these troubled/challenging/difficult times’. That is not a good plan. I would be off my face by lunchtime.

Once adjustments are made, I can see that a lot of people will come to love this life.

Do what you can, go with the flow, and gradually normality will reassert itself.

If you only write a small amount, remind yourself it’s a step forward from yesterday, and any progress, no matter how small, is good. You may even find, as I am beginning to realise, that it can be a normal part of your creative process.

I usually start strong, like most writers. I have a good idea of where the story is going, I know what it’s about. But for me, again like many writers, the problems arise about halfway or so into the story when suddenly I realise a) I’m useless at writing, b) my story sucks, and c) it’s never going to be ready in time. This is all the more difficult when you can’t give 100% of your concentration to what you’re doing because you’ve suddenly got more people around you and a mad scramble for bandwidth and table space.

Over the years there have been a few times that my routine has been vandalised by circumstances. The first couple of times, I found it too hard, I struggled to keep my usual impetus and as a result, I gave up on the story. But gradually I’ve learned that I can work through the mess, embrace the chaos and finish a book.

This current crisis is a stressful one, and pressures can take their toll. Old anxieties may resurface, undermining your determination and your control of everything in your life. It becomes harder to push them away and carry on. But that’s what I’m going to do. And that’s what you are going to do. Because what choice do we have? Do we want to give up writing? NO! 

So now, we will embrace the mess, and work with it, secure in the knowledge that, regardless of our feelings and the muddle that is our so-called routine, we can do this. It might take a longer than expected, and it might be baby steps all the way, but we will get there, and finish our book.

***

 

Maid or Chef?

This is definitely what I look like in my kitchen!

If you were rich, if you suddenly acquired somehow a fortune, who would you hire first? A Maid? Or a chef?

Now I’m not judging here, I’m not worried about all the possibly spurious ways you might amass this fortune. I’m just saying, if you bumped off someone and got away with it, and you inherited their millions, it would mean a change in lifestyle wouldn’t it? I mean, when people win the lottery they say it won’t change them, but it always does, I’m sure. How couldn’t it?

Housework is so medieval, isn’t it?

What do you most hate doing? The cleaning? Yes I get that. The endless pointless dusting – only to have to do it again a few days (weeks/months) later. Why bother? Almost immediately the clutter and grime you so carefully removed begins to make a stealthy return. In my house, I empty the rubbish bin. And within mere hours, there is stuff in there again. Nothing makes me crosser than to spot something in my freshly-emptied bin. Yet I know (deep down) that is the purpose of the bin. So????

And don’t get me started on meal prep. Once upon a time, I used to enjoy cooking. Then I had a family and had to do it EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. I mean – meals, right??????? And no one ever wants the same thing. AND, one wants something healthy and someone else wants something naughty. The relentless cycle of chopping, dicing, cooking, washing dishes, putting dishes away, then chopping, dicing… Sometimes I want a chef more than chocolate, and that’s saying something.

Those of you with younger children, pre-teen or teen, would doubtless prefer a chauffeur to take them to all their after-school social commitments. But mine children are grown-and-flown, and more often than not are the ones doing the chauffeuring. So that’s not a problem I have.

And I only iron about twice a year, so again, that’s not an issue for me, though when the children were younger, and when my husband had to wear formal shirts to work, I had a lot more ironing to do and therefore would have killed for someone to come in and do that horrid chore for me. My mum used to iron everything, including underwear, table and bed linen, and even towels. She spent the whole of Sunday evening ironing. You won’t be surprised to hear that I iron only one or two smart shirts, that’s it. Everything else is dried, folded, and that’s it.

But would I really want a complete stranger, someone I don’t know, coming into my home several times a week to clean, or every day to cook meals for me and my family?

Hell yes! Then I could get back to doing what I’m good at. Sudoku and those Codewords puzzles. And reading. And drinking coffee and eating biscuits. Would I have a maid or a chef? It’s so hard to choose. Really I’d have to have both. Plus a gardener, and a chauffeur, and a resident handyman. And someone to answer the door and the phone. Ideally then, I need a full complement of household staff. Something like this, from a photo I took at Calke Abbey last Spring/Summer. I think I aspire to be a Duchess , or something.

***

 

Dreams and journals

Dreams.

Dreams often provide inspiration for creative projects. I don’t mean dreams in the sense of goals or aspirations but in the sense of the crazy movies that go through our heads as we sleep.

Remembering them long enough to write about them can be a challenge, but sometimes dreams are so vivid, you just can’t forget them, even if you wanted to. I have quite a lot of vivid dreams. I don’t usually have the appearing-in-public-naked kind of dreams. Mine are, more often than not, mysterious, complex and emotional. And I’ve used dreams to create two complete works: one is a novel that I haven’t (yet) published, though that might happen one day. The other is a short story that I plan to publish, possibly next year, and possibly in a collection of short stories, or as a freebie direct from this website.

A lot of my dreams are centred around my anxieties. So I’ve had a lot of dreams about a place I worked many years ago before our children were born. It was an incredibly stressful job, and the hours were quite long. I dreamt about that place for at least twenty years after I left it. Any time I got stressed, I would dream ‘the dream’. I would picture myself back in that office with a large number of people clamouring for my help, and there would be a rush to get everything done in time, and a lot of noise, confusion and abuse. Even now, 34 years after I left that place of work, I still very occasionally dream about it if I’m really stressed about something. That must be the very definition of a toxic working environment: if it makes you have bad dreams thirty years after you left!

Other dreams are centred around other anxieties, usually relating to my children. I imagine many parents, especially of not-yet-born or very young children, have dreams about them. When my children were very small, I often worried something awful would happen to them. In one particular dream, the dream-of-the-book, I was myself a child, and I was sitting on top of a perilously high and very narrowly tapered craggy rock. I was holding a doll wrapped in a shawl or a blanket. But I was also standing beside the rock, as an adult, looking at myself, the child with the doll. Of course, I dropped the doll and it fell and smashed on the ground, being one of those old-fashioned doles with the porcelain arms and head. I-the-adult and I-the-child simultaneously screamed and scrambled for the doll, knowing it was too late. When I picked the doll up, it was transformed into my baby, and I said in a plaintive wail, ‘I’ve broken my dolly!’ Then I woke up.

Dolls, like clowns, have become incredibly sinister in the modern view!

It takes a while, doesn’t it, to shake off the horror of a nightmare and to realise that it isn’t real. I know now that it was borne out of my own sense of inadequacy and immaturity as a mother. It was a long time before I could talk about it. However, I could write about it, and so I did, writing a novel about a severely mentally disturbed woman who is always looking for her lost dolly, that she fears might be broken. I called the story–inevitably–Dolly. Although these days I refer to it as Baby Girl, to avoid confusion with my Dottie Manderson series. Who knows, one day I may polish it and publish it. It’s quite far down on my to-do list.

It can be cathartic to write about dreams, hopes, fears and everything else. Writing is often used as therapy. In prisons and mental health institutions, writing is used to help people to express their thoughts and feelings in a safe and private environment. If you take any kind of anger management course, or any active therapy, even if you just go on a supervised diet or fitness regime, they tell you to write it all down in a journal: how you’re felling, what you want to get out of your current situation, what is wrong with it, what is grinding your gears, that kind of thing. You are taught how to analyse yourself by reading back over what you’ve written and attempting to view it objectively.

So it can be a huge help to write about your dreams, and to examine your fears through writing about them.

More recently, I had a dream that I based the other story on, that I mentioned above. It’s a short story, featuring Dottie Manderson and William Hardy, and Dottie’s sister Flora and her husband George. I’m still umming and ahhing about publishing yet because it contains spoilers for the main series. That’s why I say it might not be until next year that I bring it out of total obscurity into relatively light obscurity 🙂

This is the Artsy Bee image I’m thinking of using for my Dottie short story.

As a writer, I’m continually asked, ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ So a discussion about dreams in part explains that, too. I have often trawled through Pixabay and other stock photo/image sites, looking for images for book covers, for my blog posts etc. And I love the images one contributor Artsy Bee has on Pixabay. A series of those gave me one idea. And watching an old film gave me another. And I got yet another idea from reading something factual about the second world war, and this all led to the dream in which those elements came together. Sometimes even a horrid dream is just your subconscious or your imagination, whatever, fitting together all the elements to try to create something whole and well-rounded.

Dreams then are a very useful mechanism for exploring your own interior world, and for creativity. You can deal with your hang-ups and fears, and at the same time, if you can remember the dream, get a great idea for a story.

Goodnight. Sweet dreams!

***

Once Upon A Time…

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:

Leaving Shardlow.

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.’

‘I 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.

‘It’s the perfect night in,’ he said.

 

*

To Bludgeon or Not To Bludgeon

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.

Spoiler alert:

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.

My murderous main character Cressida in The Friendship Can Be Murder books talks about how hard it is to come up with a murder weapon these days.

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!

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10 tips for getting on with your writing

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.

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Writer’s Showcase: Caron Allan

This week I’m cheating yet again, as I’m reblogging a post about me from Christy Oslund’s website https://colliedogpress.wordpress.com
Take a look if you’ve got ten minutes to kill, it’s full of fascinating insights into authors’ lives and work.
And thank you, Christy, for taking the time, and for the great conversations. I appreciate it.

Collie Dog Press

Genre: Mystery (Friendship Can Be Murder series), Romantic Historical Mystery (Dottie Manderson series).

Background: I wrote my first novel Ghosts! Ghosts! Ghosts! in 1970 and unfortunately it is now lost because my mum kept it in a drawer with my drawings, a knitted bookmark and a tea-cozy I made. I started reading adventures at age seven or eight and was reading Agatha Christie by age nine. [Eventually] I remember sitting on my bed in Aldershot, Hampshire, UK, and thinking, I want to write a new story, but what shall I write about? Then I thought, what is it I am afraid of?

Writing Highlight: I had to overcome [close] people telling me that a) I was no good as a writer, b) it was wicked thing to want to write fiction, and c) who did I think I was anyway, thinking I could be a writer? So…

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Gold or silver?

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 

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Sirens

We all love sirens, don’t we? They usually travel in threes, like MacBeth’s witches. When I saw MacBeth at my local theatre a few years ago, the witches’ opening speeches came out of a swirling mist in the darkness, and sitting in the front row, I jumped half out of my skin, even though I knew what to expect. From the moment the play opens with the phrase, ‘When shall we three meet again?/In thunder, lightning, or in rain?’ we have a shivering sense of it already being too late to escape.

Sirens do not always hunt in threes. Sometimes they hunt alone, like the Lorelei siren, singing irresistibly to lure sailors to their death on the rocks of the great river Rhine. Her very aloneness is her weapon. The victim, walking into her lair in confidence, feels invincible, and almost pities the siren about to devour him. I say ‘him’, as sirens are usually depicted as female, and their victims are generally male. Time for a gender swap, maybe?

The siren’s typical characteristics are: physical beauty that is often a mirage or façade to hide something hideous and unnatural. The beauty is used to seduce; song or music soothes the senses or even calls an unnatural slumber to fall upon their prey, or again, to seduce, arousing their victims with promises of love and physical fulfilment. The sirens lie in wait, endlessly patient, ready to snare the unwary, the naive, the innocent adventurer who just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, or any guy who thinks he can take advantage of a lucky situation. As in the mesmerising scene with the sirens in the movie O Brother Where Art Thou? there is a pleasurable anticipation of what might happen. The three sirens wash their clothes in the river, the rhythmic slapping of cloth on stone and water providing the percussion for a seductive call to the watching man’s senses. He is trapped and cannot get away.

Sirens have mysterious powers, and they can bend a man to their will, no matter how good and chaste he may be, no matter how worldly-wise and ‘experienced’ in the ways of love. Maybe he’ll get ‘loved up and turned into a horny toad’, as the men in O Brother Where Art Thou fear will happen to them, but it’s a chance the unwitting victim is always, always prepared to take. Sirens are bringers of doom, of ruin. They are depicted as mercurial, evasive, changing and insubstantial, there one minute and gone the next. No victim will see their true self until his ruin is complete. No one can resist the lure of the siren when she has decided to call them.

But the siren is not the only one who owns this fatal attraction.

The innocent—pure or naive, chaste of body and mind, or merely without guile—this person is as alluring to the siren as she is to him. Evil craves purity. Wickedness pursues goodness to overtake and devour it. Monsters are always appeased—and always drawn in—by their need to consume maidens and the innocent. The dark always seeks the light, because in its own way the light has become the unknowable to those who live in darkness. The siren can never know or experience innocence, because that would mean a denial of her own essential nature—it would require purity and great sacrifice. To follow the way of the innocent is alien and impossible for the siren to achieve. She is forced by her very nature to live outside of society’s acceptance and rules, and must live by instinct alone. Thus, the innocent, completely oblivious of their power, draw the siren after them. The siren is doomed to flutter towards the candleflame of purity as a moth, and just as unable to save themselves.

Which one is the victim, which one is the hunter?

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