Gary Cooper in a gloomy mood ever since reading his first novel again after ten years.
I read a blog post elsewhere this week, in which a writer talked about rereading a book he had written and published years earlier, and his reaction to it. That set me thinking.
How do I react to reading my own work after a break?
I think it’s a bit like looking at baby photos of yourself, or making a special cake or a meal for a particular occasion. Or indeed whenever any of us do anything creative or out of the norm. Maybe you’re not like me, but I know a lot of people are just like me: a bit inclined to only see their faults, to see the wonky bits, the bits that had to be patched up at the last minute, the crooked hem of the new dress or the edge where the cake got stuck in the tin and you had to put a bit extra icing on there to disguise it. We tend to be overly self-critical, which is sometimes a good thing: we strive that little bit harder to improve and to do well, but on the other hand, it makes it hard to feel proud of our achievements or to accept praise from others.
When I read things I wrote years ago, I feel quite uncomfortable. I am sometimes pleasantly surprised and think, ‘ah, this isn’t as bad as I expected’, but there are definitely times when I groan to myself and wonder what on earth I was thinking. I cringe at some of the laboured metaphors, the overly descriptive passages and my almost fanatical use of The Three: I tend to group my descriptions in threes. In fact if you browse, read or peruse any of my works, writings or output, you will definitely, absolutely, surely notice, observe and see that a lot of what I write is grouped into threes! Who knew?
I’ll just quickly fix this bit. Oh, and this bit. Oh now that bit doesn’t work, oh well, I’ll just…
Well, I did for one, although not until someone pointed it out to me. I try to weed some of them out, unless I am deliberately emphasising a point, and keep them to a minimum. But years ago… No, they are there in all their triplicated glory.
As is my terrible grammar – I just never really know, what, to do with those, commas,.
I used adverbs liberally too (haha, like that!) but I’m not quite so obsessive about those. I don’t mind the odd one, whereas many authors absolutely scour their pages and destroy them without mercy. I like the odd adverb. Sometimes an active verb can be a bit too much, especially if the writer uses loads of them. I’d rather read ‘she said hastily’ than ‘she gabbled’ or ‘rattled’.
Stop authorsplaining and let me read your damn book!
What I don’t like is a ton of adjectives. You know when you read something like, ‘The old sprawling ramshackle creeper-covered house had a battered and pitted, badly-fitting oak door and four tiny grimy windows that peeped out from beneath an elderly ragged thatched roof in much need of repair.’ Just tell me it’s an old house in poor repair, I can furnish the rest from my own imagination. I just haven’t got the energy to read through tons of adjectives. the same with character descriptions or the characters’ clothes. I don’t really care if their shoes are hand-made in Italy from the finest, most supple leather and stitched by angels from their own hair. Just tell me they cost a fortune, I’ll get it.
It needs a bit of work…
The other problem with old work is that it can have you itching to reach for a pen and begin ‘improving’ or ‘correcting’ it. But is that a good idea?
One of the advantages of self-publishing is that you can tweak your books if you need to, with little disruption to the reading public, to stock availability and relatively negligible damage to your finances. Not so the trad-pubbed, of course. There a revision might cost a packet both in cash terms and in terms of reprinting, delays, supply hiccups etc, and will only be undertaken if absolutely necessary. But an Indie book is not too difficult to fix if there are issues with it that are likely to lead to poor reviews, which might have a knock-on effect on sales.
You can’t go through history deleting all the anoraks and t-bar sandals. Sadly.
So I don’t think it’s a problem if you correct an annoying typo or an inconsistency that is mentioned a few times in reviews. That’s just courtesy. But if you give into the urge to revise, it can be quite hard to stop tinkering, and then before you know it you’ve changed the book so much it could be a whole new project, or you can actually break it, leaving gaping plot holes and chapters that no longer hang together.
I think when it comes down to it, with earlier work, you just have to accept it for what and how it is, like your wonky teeth in that old photo. Acceptance is not always easy, and to leave your old book alone is sometimes the hardest decision to make.
This week I have the honour of interviewing an author who is new to me but who recently made my acquaintance, and so I am pleased to be able to share some insights into this lady’s work, and hopefully readers will spread the word and rush to buy her books. Vonnie Winslow Crist, a warm welcome, and let’s dive straight in.
Q1. What kind of books do you write?
I write story collections, novels, children’s books, and poetry collections. What my books have in common, is almost everything I write is based on folklore, fairy tales, myths, or legends. Plus, everything I write, even when it’s written with adults in mind, is Young Adult friendly.
Q2. What were your earliest influences? What did you read as a child?
I taught myself to read at age 3 using old, 12-page fairy tale booklets published in the 1930s by Platt & Munk Co. The illustrations were lovely and the stories were simplified, though not simple. On the back page, there was a short poem which summarized the tale. I think those booklets influenced me to become first an illustrator, next a poet, and finally a fiction writer. I quickly graduated to all sorts of other books. Early favourites were the My Father’s Dragon middle grade series by Ruth Stiles Gannett and The Borrowers by Mary Norton.
I loved the Borrowers books when I was a child, and I think I still have a copy or two somewhere… Moving on,
Q3. What are you working on at the moment?
I’m promoting my latest story collection, Beneath Raven’s Wing. Here’s a link to a free story, “Lady Raven,” which is included in the book: FS January (flipbuilder.com) I’m scrambling to finish a novel before I need to work through the editing process of my next story collection, Dragon Rain. Plus, I’m scribbling a few stories for anthologies I’d like to be a part of.
“Raven holds the secrets of night
beneath her wings,
guards that knowledge
with claw and blood.”
—Vonnie Winslow Crist, River of Stars
Q4. What can we look forward to in the future from you?
Lots of short stories appearing in various speculative anthologies, a collection of dragon stories, a collection of horse stories, several non-fiction books, and another novel or two. I try to keep busy!
Q5. What writing groups do you belong to and why?
I’m a member of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, Horror Writers Association, Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators, National League of American Pen Women, and a couple of other groups. Each of these groups requires professional sales for membership, and they have resources for their members which save time when looking for markets, writing advice, and problem solving. But the most important thing they offer is an opportunity to network with other writers at a similar stage in their writing careers. Writing is a lonely business. It’s nice to be able to interact with others going through the same ups and downs.
Absolutely. I think writers need input and support from others in the same field, as you say, it can be a lonely business.
Q6. Who are your favourite authors?
JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, George RR Martin, Andre Norton, Deborah Harkness, Suzanne Collins, Kristin Cashore, Marissa Meyer, Sharyn McCrumb… (this list could go on).
Q7. What do you do when you’re not reading or writing?
I enjoy sewing (I cut, stitched, then donated over 600 masks to eldercare & school facilities this past year), gardening, knitting, crocheting, embroidering, baking, sketching & painting, and travelling.
Wow you really are creative! I’m so in awe of your productivity. I mainly plan to do creative projects then forget about it.
Q8. What is your writing process?
Something inspires me. Then, I come up with a story idea and think about it. Often in the beginning stages, I’ll do some research on the science, geography, folklore, etc. that inspired me. By the time I sit down to write, the story has come together in my mind. The writing part is easy, because I’m just putting to paper a tale I’ve already written in my imagination.
Q9. How hard is it to keep writing in these strange times?
Life presents obstacles for writers all of the time. I decided the covid-19 pandemic was one of 2020’s obstacles, and I wouldn’t let it stop me from writing. I used anthology submission calls as inspiration. If a long story seemed too big a hill to climb, I wrote poems or drabbles. (A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words, not counting title and byline). When writing something new seemed overwhelming, I revised older work. When writing anything seemed difficult, I organized my stories (both published and unpublished) into several thematic collections and sent those off to publishers. That is how my story collection, Beneath Raven’s Wing, came to be published January 30, 2021 by Fae Corps Publishing. It’s also why a different publisher has offered to publish Dragon Rain.
Q10. What single piece of advice do you wish someone had given you 30 years ago?
Stay focused and persist!
I completely agree. If I could talk to my 30-years younger self I would say, don’t procrastinate, don’t doubt yourself, just get on with it!
Q11. I have many old favourites that I read over and over again. What books do you regularly reread?
See Q6 for my list of favourite authors. Most of what I re-read was written by them.
Q10. lastly, before we say goodbye, where can readers find you and your work?
Thank you, Caron, for hosting me. It was fun to answer your questions. I hope your readers enjoyed the interview and will take a look at the free story.
You’re so welcome, and thanks so much for sharing your thoughts with us, and I’m sure you’re going to find many new readers for your wonderful work.
Vonnie Winslow Crist is author of Beneath Raven’s Wing, The Enchanted Dagger, Owl Light, The Greener Forest, Murder on Marawa Prime, and other award-winning books. A member of SFWA and HWA, her writing appears in publications in Australia, Japan, India, Pakistan, Italy, Spain, Germany, Finland, Canada, the UK, and USA. Believing the world is still filled with mystery, magic, and miracles, Vonnie strives to celebrate the power of myth in her writing.
As a champion-level over-thinker, I’ve been thinking lately about settings for murder. In fact I spend most of my time thinking of places that might be the perfect setting for a dastardly deed. In recent months I’ve looked at village life generally, and of course, that evergreen setting, the country house. And I’ve pondered the usefulness of cities for carrying out or concealing a crime, and even thought about alternative settings to the country house as a destination that might prove a bit too final for some people.
This week I’ve come up with a slight variation on that theme. I’ve been thinking about events in a village or small town and decided that nothing affords more opportunities for almost any kind of shenanigans than a Fair.
A fair afforded everyone opportunities to escape the humdrum everyday world and experience a bit of well-earned fun. There were new goods to browse, your own goods to sell, the pleasurable clinking of coins into a leather purse. Women meeting up to gossip and exchange recipes, family history and perhaps even husbands. Men getting together to drink, to laugh, to commiserate on a bad harvest or celebrate a good one, to buy and sell livestock. Kids running around and getting into mischief with other kids – for once able to forget about the hardships of life and enjoy the noise, the spectacle, and the edible treats.
The fair had so much to offer, and it was a place and a time when normal rules no longer seemed to apply. You were away from your everyday responsibilities, and had a bit of money in your pocket, and lots of novel things to look at. There was the opportunity for freedom for youngsters looking for love – and not just the young. Everything was new and everything was different. It was the most exciting thing to happen in your village for at least six months, and maybe the whole year, so you’d put on your finest clothes and get there as early as you could.
I was thinking of a medieval fair (which might last for several days) ratherthan a modern village fete type of event. This is what I came up with:
Hurrying to the fair. Exciting, new. It’s been a long time since the fair came to town. The usual marketplace is heaving with crowds. They watch the jugglers, the tumblers, maybe dancers. There could be a performing animal of some kind, or a fire-eater, the children’s favourite.
The air is heavy with smoke from the torches and the fires. Whole hogs are roasting over the coals, and chickens too. Apples are dipped in hot sugary toffee and scorch greedy lips; potatoes are hot from the ashes and wrapped in wool, warming the fingers nipped by a light early frost. All this heat creates wavering streams in the air all around.
The sun sets, but the revelry continues, occasionally disturbed by an ale-fuelled brawl that is quickly interrupted by friends keen to prevent blood-shed and ill-temper that will linger long after the fair has moved on.
Lovers quake at the chance glimpse of the objects of their affection, and placid matrons leave go the hands of the dragging children, who run, leaving the mothers in peace to gossip with the neighbours. A dog may bark, or geese squabble.
A lost child might weep as he wanders a little too far, until some kind, burly farmer hoists him to his shoulder to scan the crowds for the wearer of that familiar apron.
It is the village in festival. The men lean on fences or trestles and talk of crops or hunting. Children run in and out of the groups. Everywhere there is noise, chatter and laughter.
The lost little boy is reunited with his mother who hugs and scolds in equal measure, relieved beyond words. She turns to thank the farmer; sees in his face signs of a boy she once knew. When he raises his hat and is gone, she tells her neighbours that once he had been tall and skinny and had blushed when she smiled at him.
She wonders what he saw. She looks down at her ample, matronly form, no longer the slender darting little thing she had once been.
‘Time changes us all,’ she thinks and turning, sees him glancing back at her, still smiling.
It’s made me want to write something bitter-sweet and set amidst the smoking fires of the dark ages. If this has made you want to read a mystery set at a fair or fete, can I suggest one of the following:
St Peter’s Fair by Ellis Peters (set in 1139, the only ‘old’ one here)
The Burry Man’s Day by Catriona McPherson
Dead Man’s Folly by Agatha Christie
A Fete Worse Than Death by Dolores Gordon-Smith (I love a pun) (in fact a couple of authors have books with this title)
Murder At The Village Fete by Catherine Coles
(slightly interesting note: Sean Pertwee starred as Sir George Stubbs in the TV series Agatha Christie’s Poirot episode called Dead Man’s Folly and also played the role of Hugh Beringar in the Cadfael TV series including the episode of St Peter’s Fair.)
A few weeks ago I posted a blog about how deceptively innocent country houses and small villages appear, and I offered tips on how to avoid the obvious traps for victims of a murder mystery of the genre we laughingly call ‘cosy’ (or cozy, depending where you hail from).
Because If we think about it, there’s nothing cosy/cozy about murder in the real world. Hercule Poirot, arguably one of the most murder-dependent salary earners in the world, famously said ‘I do not approve of murder’. And yet we humans are fascinated by fictional death. Perhaps because it is so awful, so wicked in real life, we have to discuss it, read it, and plot and plan, as a way of dealing with the unthinkable. Anyway…
If I left you with the idea that a hapless character in a murder mystery might be safer in the city, let me quickly put you right there.
The city is vast and highly-populated. You might think there’s safety in numbers. But for all that, it’s not a safe haven for the timid person trying to avoid falling foul of a really determined villain. Here are a few of the pitfalls yo will find when trying to lose yourself in the city:
Firstly, even cities sleep. Kind of. You might be safe amongst the crowds during daylight hours (or are you?) but as soon as it gets dark, beware!
Have you noticed that most cities are situated on water? In fact I can’t think of a single British city (someone help me here, please) that isn’t either: on the coast, on a river, or a canal (which I know is kind of the same thing really).
Now we can see how this came about, historically. Access to fishing and shipping meant a high density of the population was established around watering holes where there was a) water to transport goods in and out of the country, or b) water for industrial purposes (ie power for mills etc), or c) fish (vom–sorry, not a fish eater) or d) that’s where the Vikings/Normans/Saxons/Whoever-they-weres all landed and thought, ‘You know what, this is quite nice’, and so that’s where they stayed. I suppose this isn’t a surprise, I mean, we’re an island, so we’re going to be surrounded by oceans (literally) of water. In fact, if you think about it, we’re all islands, aren’t we? Some are just very very very big. But these many coasts and riverbanks provided harbour, dwelling places and easy access back to the aunties and uncles across the water.
Have you ever noticed how often innocent people minding their own business get lured to deserted docks, riverbanks, canalsides, and the like? Okay I admit we usually discover they are not so innocent after all. No one goes ‘innocently’ to a deserted dock at midnight to pay blackmailers. But my point still stands – these are dangerous areas and offer life-threatening situations to people who really should have stayed at home.
To begin with, there’s the water – deep, cold and swiftly moving.
And then there’s the innumerable hiding places that can conceal your villain.
Andthen, there’s all the weird heavy duty iron and steel items left randomly about the place to furnish your attacker with a handy weapon.
If that’s not enough, these daytime-busy places are just totally deserted at night. There is NO ONE to hear your scream. NO ONE.
TOP TIP: Let’s avoid the docks etc, and try to find somewhere nice and safe to live that is in the middle of the land, miles from any water.
The next danger the urban environment contains is this:
Now these are essentially just the docks all over again but without the water. Miles of crumbling dark buildings, harbouring criminals, twisty-turny corridors, and hundreds of decaying staircases. Why don’t the local governments rip them down and – I don’t know – put up nice little houses with roses in the gardens? I know they get a massive income from renting the space out to Scandi-noir film-makers, or those TV shows where people try to hide from German Shepherds. But come on, let’s think about the safety of your murder victims here.
Loft-style living may be the trendiest aspirational lifestyle, but with few neighbours, eerie parking in the depths of the earth, capacious but very slow-moving lifts that even a sloth could enter when in motion, and huge echoey rooms, this is not self-preservation at its best.
Speaking of German Shepherds, don’t become a recluse and as Bridget Jones said, get murdered but lay undiscovered, and half-eaten by German Shepherds. (okay she didn’t quite say that). (anyway, in my experience, German Shepherds tend to hide behind their owners, or even their owners children at the slightest unusual sound or threatening situation. We had to carry one of ours home once from a long walk, it was too tired. Another one used to be terrified of those bins attached to lamp-posts and also those shopping bags on wheels old ladies like me have.)
It occurs to me now that most modern victims are likely to be eaten by their house-cat, house-rabbit, or even designer miniature house-pig. If you’ve been dead for weeks and half-eaten when you’re discovered, it doesn’t matter how cute the pet that ate you is, you’re still definitely not a pretty sight. Come on, people, don’t become recluses.
Oh yes. Er…
New housing developments can also be strangely appealing to would-be murderers, and undesirably quiet at night. What was that French murder series a few years ago about the dead bodies all sitting around the table in a newly-built house? Anyway, it was a remarkably dramatic setting, but if you’re the victim, no consolation! Keep away from new-builds – by definition there are few neighbours to turn to in times of crisis.
In fact there are only a small number of places you should go if you are required to meet a blackmailer (or any villain) late at night:
These are perfect for a rendezvous that could turn nasty.
TOP TIP: Obviously if we’ve learned anything from fictional victims of crime, it’s to make sure and always tell someone where you’re going and who you’re meeting, there’s no need to be coy about being blackmailed, it can happen to the best of us.
If you can’t do that, take a seat at the bar, and say to the landlord/barman or landlady/barmaid that you are meeting a dodgy blackmailer shortly, and would they mind just popping over every couple of minutes just to make sure you’re still alive. I’m sure that won’t be a problem.
Maybe just don’t go anywhere or do anything. Just sit in front of your TV or curl up with a book, and hope that your German Shepherd/miniature designer pig is one of the aggressive brave sort who will see off intruders, not the scared kind who try to sit on your lap and whine pitifully whilst surreptitiously checking your sofa for tasty snacks.
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.”
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.
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 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 imagesone 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.
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!