Don’t use that language with me – revisited!

Warning: contains coarse offensive language!

‘She said whaaat???’

This is a cheap and nasty slight rewrite of a post from two years ago. Sorry. My brain just isn’t working today. Readers of a nervous, highly moral or religious disposition, please look away now.

These days we aren’t as shocked as we once were when someone drops the F-bomb. In fact pretty much everyone seems to say it now. Even I do – my mother would have been horrified, if she had still been with us.  I think we’ve just got used to what we usually refer to as bad language. so used to it, it’s practically become everyone’s favourite adjective or adverb.

I’m in danger of lapsing into one of those scenes so typical of the older generation: You know them. The sort of thing that starts with an old bat saying, ‘When I was young…’ But there’s no denying it was a different world. Do you remember how the newspaper used to headline such things as ‘The Filth and The Fury’? That was when the Daily Mirror blasted the Sex Pistols for their language in 1977? Or what about the infamous December 1976 Bill Grundy interview where the interviewer goaded Johnny Rotten into using the F-word on TV ‘for only the third time in the history of British Television!

‘Well I’ll go to the foot of our stairs!’ exclaimed Marcus in surprise. ‘Oi, Marcus, what you on about?’ Burt and Harry wanted to know.

You could hear pearls being clutched for miles around. There was public outrage. Or so we were told by the media. Middle-aged people all over the country shook their heads over the decline of social morals and called for national service to come back. Elderly gentlemen said that was not why they went to war.

I privately thought, so what? But I was a teenager back then, and I think most teens probably thought the same, even then, when away from our parents or teachers, we routinely used the worst possible of language.

Does anyone remember Mary Whitehouse and her campaign to clean up Britain? She wanted to rid the country of ‘filth’. She said references to sex were ‘dirty’, and bad language was disgusting. Not just any actual sex scenes, but even just talking about it. (She was perfectly lampooned in an episode of the detective TV series, Endeavour.)

‘Well hush my mouth.’

But bad words are practically as old as the Ark. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them sprang from that time. Can you imagine trying to herd a bunch of animals into a boat and getting poo on your foot or a slobbery tongue in your face and NOT swearing? We all know cats are notoriously slow to come inside, you stand there for ages with the door open, trying to coax them. I know I would have had a few choice words to say.  Probably, ‘Stop mucking about you idiots, and get on the f-ing boat, I’m getting f-ing wet here.’

Chaucer and Shakespeare used their own versions of our modern insults and foul words, and paved the way for colourful terms to enter everyday English. (which were removed from ‘school’ texts…much to our teenage frustration!) These bad words greatly enriched our approach to incidents, frustrations, injuries, and annoyances that require relief through a vigorous use of very expressive language. Because apparently, studies have shown that swearing relieves stress and enables us to cope in stressful situations. I know it helps me!

‘I say Barbara, your mother’s language is a bit rough, what?’

I should just add, in Britain we call it swearing. That is to say, using bad language. Not making an oath in a court. That’s a whole different kind of swearing. No, I’m talking here about what in America is often called cursing. But you could call it all kinds of things: blaspheming (possibly), using expletives, foul language, or as we say in Britain ‘Effing and Blinding’, (a euphemism for saying Fuck and Bloody).

The term for this is  using a ‘minced oath’ or ‘minced words’ – to take a profanity and adapt it to render it less offensive. We use this in everyday speech when we say of someone ‘They don’t mince their words’, which basically means, they are extremely forthright in what they say, usually offensively so. Some examples of minced oaths: Feck, Blooming/Flipping Heck, Oh Shoot, Darn it, etc.

While we’re discussing the differences between the US and the UK, let me just say this: Bloody was not traditionally a mild swear-word. I’ve seen blog posts and social media stuff where they ‘define’ certain English words and they always say ‘Bloody’ in England is the same as ‘Damn’ in America. That’s just not true.

‘He made me do it; I just couldn’t cope anymore with his Effing and Jeffing!’

It used to be the third worst word you could say when I was a kid, and its use would certainly bring a very stiff penalty in terms of punishment both at home and at school. It’s not mild. Or rather, it’s only mild in comparison with the F-bomb and C-word. It used to be fairly normal to have one’s mouth washed out with soap if using these words. It would make you vomit – obviously – and was definitely a very unpleasant experience designed to make you think twice about using bad language again. Usually the threat of it was enough to make you reconsider your choice of words. Damn was a much milder word, but still forbidden.

Tibbles had hoped his new owner would have a little more class. But no, the same old F-words morning, noon, and night.

Now in my contemporary trilogy, the Friendship Can Be Murder books, there’s a fair bit of this kind of bad language. We see it in society, it’s used all around us. And it’s used as much by the well-to-do, like my ‘heroine’, Cressida Barker-Powell, as by people from other walks of life. Although when she is about to become a mother, she makes a determined effort to guard her language, keeping the ‘eff’ part of the word but discarding the rest of the letters. I wanted my contemporary books had to reflect the world they are set in, for me at least, to make the characters seem more real, more natural and believable. I do not believe in censoring ‘bad’ language.

But when it came to writing my 1930s murder mysteries, the Dottie Manderson mysteries, that required a whole different approach. Because the Dottie Manderson books are far more polite, more traditional, almost (but by accident rather than design) qualifying for the ‘clean’ subgenre of the mystery or romance categories.

‘Pardon my French.’

Now I know—I guess we all know—that the kind of language we hear today all around us, was not all that different back then in the 1930s. But there were several provisos: it was not ‘ladylike’ to use bad language. There was a strong paternalistic, protective culture of ‘Ladies’ present’, which meant, ‘Guys, there are women about, mind your language’; and then there was a much stronger emphasis on politeness, being conventional, being acceptable and so on. If a person used bad language, it called into question their respectability and good breeding. Bad language in public in particular was far less common and just not socially acceptable. But it did exist. Even in the 60s and 70s, we used to be told that if a policeman heard us swearing, we would be arrested and locked up and given only bread and water for the rest of our lives.

So in my Dottie books, I stick with tried and trusted old favourites such as ‘blast’, ‘bother’, (my mother’s favourite was ‘Botheration!’), ‘Good Lord’: you couldn’t say Good God except in cases of sincere anxiety or shock as it was believed to be, ‘taking the name of the Lord in vain’, or people would think you were drunk, immoral or even worse, poor.

But there was always ‘My Goodness’, ‘My Word’, and ‘What on Earth…’ to fall back on. I love some of the very mild exclamations of that era, such as ‘Well I’ll eat my hat’ or ‘Well I’ll go to the foot of our stairs’ – completely meaningless and bizarre words!

When I hear ‘goodness gracious’ or ‘goodness gracious me’ I always think of ladies who spill tea on their frock when pouring it from a Spode teapot. Obviously these ladies are sitting at a picnic table in a sunny patch of the garden, and are wearing a straw hat. They have on a print dress and pearls. It’s a meaningless phrase and completely pointless. But covers the embarrassment of clumsiness and gives relief to the urge to scream when the hot tea soaks through the frock onto their leg.

‘Lots of people are going to the foot of their stairs’ Daily Telegraph March 17th 1973

Only very occasionally do I permit a gentleman to say Bloody or Damn in a moment of anger. Even then, he’ll be expected to apologise afterwards. Obviously. Or he wouldn’t be a gentleman.

There was then virtually no use of the now almost universal OMG, or the long form Oh My God, which I have even heard from 5-year-olds, which seems wrong. These days we also have the popular phrase, ‘Shut the front door’, which is a minced version of the surprised, often disbelieving retort, ‘Shut the fuck up’! and basically means, ‘I can’t possibly believe this tall tale you are telling me.’

With the recent translations of the first four Dottie Manderson books into German, there had to be some discussion about the ‘levels’ or severity of naughty words. It was quite difficult to explain some of the euphemisms we use now, or back then, and hard to find an acceptable and era-appropriate equivalent. I also had to apologise for our use of ‘Pardon my French’ which is a term we Brits still use to apologise for using bad language. Sorry, sorry, sorry, to French-speaking people everywhere. I recently heard a new one on TV (The Goes Wrong Show!) where the show’s ‘director’ apologised for the show’s swearing ‘Or as my mother calls it, Scottish language.’ Again, so so sorry to all my friends from Scotland – but this one made me spit coffee all over myself.

‘Goodness gracious me!’ said Lady Maud as the hot liquid splashed onto her afternoon gown. ‘Now I’ve got to change my sodding frock.’ ‘You mean your sodden frock, Maud,’ said Sir Reginald severely.

 

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More Life Writing: When I Was Four

Of course, I don’t wear the anorak all the time. It’s for special occasions.

My piece a couple of weeks ago about my auntie, Zonya, has inspired me to share more of my life writing. Life writing is a form of non-fiction we often call memoir or diary writing.  I did a module of life writing when I was studying, and although I’m a fiction writer at heart, I do love to reminisce, so here’s another life writing piece. It’s called When I Was Four. (Sorry, it’s a bit long!)

When I Was Four

More than anything, all those years ago, I remember the buttercups. I was—what?—four years old? And standing in the gently sloping field, I remember the delight I felt, the astonishment of being surrounded by all these tall flowers—almost shoulder high, and I looked about me in wonder at the bright golden flower heads, interwoven with ox-eye daisies and other, unknown meadow flowers. All were almost as tall as I was, and I felt I had strayed into a magic kingdom. I’ve been trying to recapture that feeling all my life.

There were bees, and butterflies. I don’t remember much else about that time really, except for two things: the river and the caravan.

All the mothers who worked on the farm brought their kids with them during the holidays. Some of us, the littler ones, were there all the time, too young to go to school. The group of children ranged in age from toddler to pre-teen, or possibly teenage. I remember the big boys seemed very big, but they may have been just 10 or 12. The school-age kids weren’t there all the time, just during the school holidays, and when they weren’t there, life was a bit boring, to be honest.

While our mothers worked in the fields, planting or earthing up or digging up potatoes, or cutting cabbages, or training beans or hops or picking them, or laying straw beneath the strawberry plants or—joyous task!—picking the strawberries, we kids roamed the countryside freely, day in, day out, while the long days of the school holidays lasted, and then the big kids went back to school and there was just me and a couple of babies.

We may have been bored much of the time, but I don’t remember it. We may have squabbled and fought, but again, I can’t remember it now. And very likely it rained, but I only recall days of sunshine and warm soft breezes, of laughter and happiness and freedom, the way you do many, many years later. I remember how we kids roamed around in a big bunch, chasing one another, and hiding and climbing and running. I don’t remember any fights or bullying, I remember laughing a lot. I remember one of the big kids pulling me out of the river when I fell in. (I fell in a lot actually, water and I always seem to want to come together.) I remember standing on the little bridge and staring down at the water, and that my Dalek, from Woolworths, fell in and it was borne away a short distance before disappearing from my sight. I was inconsolable. My mum was furious.

Yes, the river. Bodies of water have always seemed to draw me—perhaps a link to my Cornish seafaring ancestors?—and between the ages of 4 and around 17, I fell in pretty much every body of water I ever went near. I spent many hours sitting in the sunshine, and even in the cold of a January day, waiting for my clothes to dry so I wouldn’t get into trouble when I got home.

I don’t remember the clothes I first wore when we used to go ‘to the fields’, but after a short while, or maybe after payday, my mum bought me something new, exciting and truly wonderful—my first jeans. I remember the waist was elasticated and that the broad stretchy band was soft and fuzzy on the inside and I loved the feel of it. I doubt the new jeans stayed stiff and dark blue for long, what with scrambling up trees and over stiles and gates, crawling through dirt and up and rolling down hills, plus falling into rivers of course, but I never stopped loving my jeans. I still wear them almost every day.

Of course, for the hottest part of the year, there were shorts. And I did love my shorts, even to the point of insisting on wearing them at Christmas, with long socks and a jumper and my knees turning blue with cold. I hated skirts and dresses and girly stuff. A few years later, to get my head around the misery of wearing skirts, I used to pretend I was Jamie from Dr Who – he was Scottish and wore a kilt. Thank you, Frazer Hines.

Footwear was again a choice of two simple pleasures: red T-bar sandals for the summer and black wellies for the winter. I loved both of these. I’m fairly sure I tried to wear my new wellies to bed once, though that may have been one of my cousins.

So, it was stripy t-shirt, shorts and sandals by day during the summer, my dark hair done up in one long fat plait down my back. And for the winter it was a hand-knitted jumper, jeans and wellies, with an anorak, if needed. What was not to love?

As I’ve said, the river used to draw us kids, and we enjoyed the countryside, chasing, climbing, hiding, but the best, most amazing thing about this part of the farm was what lay at the top of a sloping field. Something I had never seen before, something that seemed at once magical, yet homely.

A caravan.

An old gypsy caravan, it had been parked there, I suppose, as a refuge from the weather for workers or whomever. We kids found endless hours of amusement in it. The girls particularly, were keen to play house and furnish the bare walls and floor from their imaginations.

The caravan had been completely stripped of all the colourful and ingenious fittings that normally make a caravan a home. And I don’t remember if it was brightly painted outside or not.

I can remember how much I loved the echoey noise my feet made as I clomped up and down the bare boards, and how we used to put dusty soil into the abandoned grate and as we stirred it up with sticks, we’d pretend the dust that rose was smoke from the embers of our stories. And I enjoyed sitting on the top step looking out across the fields.

I wasn’t brave or adventurous like some of the other, bigger kids, and they could never persuade me to jump from the top step as they did, it was scary-high. But I managed to jump from the bottom step and the middle step.

There was a handsome young man called Roy. He wasn’t one of the kids. At sixteen, to me, he was one of the grown-ups and he worked on the farm, driving the tractor. He always waved to me, and would often stop and talk to me. I—of course—followed him around with the worshipful devotion of a small puppy. He used to stop the big kids picking on me, so there must have been squabbles and rivalries after all, and I still remember his kindness to a little kid with gratitude.

But looking back to that time, the overwhelmingly pervasive memory of those days for me is that of standing shoulder-deep amongst a crowd of buttercups and feeling as though I were part of something magical and beautiful. I’m still trying to recapture that moment when I was four.

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Holiday reading

This week, I’m being spoiled rotten by another kind author’s contribution of a blog post. So I shall immediately, and with gratitude, hand over the reins to Gordon Lawrie:

Gordon Lawrie was a secondary teacher in his native Edinburgh for 36 years until he could no longer resist the challenge of writing a novel. His first awful attempt remains buried undiscovered in a safe place, but a couple of romantic comedies followed before his first crime novel, The Midnight Visitor, appeared in March 2022. In addition, he is the Founding Director of Dean Park Press, which provides services for self-publishing authors, and the editor of the online publication Friday Flash Fiction.

 He has his own website, www.lawrie.info  where you can find lots more embarrassing information about him, as well as a great deal of free stuff to read. He also has a Twitter account: @thesaucers where he sometimes says more than he should about the government of the day, golf, birdwatching and his beloved Hearts football club.

 I’m pretty addicted to crime fiction. I think it might my need for escapism, but I also enjoy being challenged in a non-confrontational sort of way. I’m addicted to Wordle, too.

I’ve written a handful of novels now, some of which have been better than others. What seemed to work best for me was romantic comedy, but there’s little money in romcoms unless Danny Boyle or someone equally famous decides to turn your novel into a smash hit starring Hugh Grant. No, crime fiction is the way to go if you’re trying to make a living from your writing. Crime – whether it’s a detective thriller or a courtroom drama – not only holds out the prospect of a modest income; there’s half a chance someone will try to use the characters to turn your stories into a TV series. That’s why I started to write my DI John Knox/Sister Mary Maxwell-Hume mysteries. Shameless, I admit it.

But be under no illusion, crime writing is hard. There are so many strands to keep track of: the plot, of course; the characters; the pace; maintaining the general suspense; and of course the reader has to feel satisfied by the eventual solution. Ideally, the reader should end up feeling like the detective’s sidekick, wondering how they managed to be so stupid as to miss the giveaway clues that were the key to solving the mystery. Keep your Booker or Nobel Prizes. Writing a crime novel is the true Everest of literature.

Crime writing, though, is far from homogeneous. Readers of Caron’s blog will be familiar with her cosy country-house whodunnits (that’s an official term, not an insult, by the way). Or perhaps you prefer Raymond Chandler-style hard-boiled thrillers, usually told in the first person to allow the writer to make acerbic observations on the social circles in which he – it’s almost invariably a ‘he’ – moves. There’s a whole genre of historical crime fiction, whether it’s Brother Cadfael in a monastery, or the exceptional Bernie Gunther series mostly set during and in the aftermath of Nazi Germany. There are any number of “noir” crime thrillers: Nordic noir, tartan noir, Icelandic noir and so on. Recently, Richard Osman and others have written successful crime novels with comedy overtones. My fellow Edinburgh author Olga Wojtas is currently having lots of success with a bonkers time-travel comedy crime series. Her librarian protagonist is sent back in time to solve assorted mysteries (the latest being to exonerate MacBeth and discover who really killed King Duncan). Janice Hallett’s The Appeal is written entirely in emails and texts. There’s plenty of choice.

But although I’ll read virtually anything, my all-time favourite crime genre is what I’d term “holiday crime”. Set in some lovely location that I’m either familiar with, or would like to go to, I’m transported there as I turn the pages. I particularly like the ones set in Italy – Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano series set in Sicily; Michael Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen set in various cities; but above all Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti series set in Venice.

Venice is a city I think I know fairly well, and each of Leon’s novels takes me there on another holiday. An American, she was a Professor of English Literature at Venice University, and she clearly casts herself as Paola, Guido’s wife. What we end up with is a series of novels where the plot is almost secondary, sometimes even thin, but the reader doesn’t mind because there are so many other things to enjoy – the interplay between familiar characters; the politics and society of Venice; Guido and Paola’s own literary preferences; Venetian cuisine; but above all the city itself. There’s even a book of walks called Brunetti’s Venice where you can trace the steps of the great man for yourself. (I’ve done a couple. How sad is that?)

Living in a tourist hot-spot like Edinburgh, you’d think I’d find it easy to weave the city into my books. But there are so many outstanding crime writers who also live here – Kate Atkinson, Ian Rankin and Alexander McColl-Smith to name just three – that I feel rather in awe of their skills. And because writers still have to concentrate on plot, characters, pacing and all the other aspects of a novel, they also have to be careful that describing ‘scene’ isn’t perceived by the reader to be mere padding. That’s especially dangerous if your reader is from your own home city; they probably don’t need to be given a guided tour.

You might not even have heard of Donna Leon, because the only TV series that’s ever been made of Commissario Brunetti’s mysteries was in German. More surprising still, Leon has expressly forbidden her novels ever to be translated into Italian – she’s completely unknown in Venice itself. That might be the secret. The reader needs to feel they’re off on holiday, and it’s not much fun trying to escape in your own town. I think we all learned that during the pandemic.

Thank you so much, Gordon, for this fascinating tour of Italian crime!

Also by Gordon Lawrie:

Self-Publishing: The Total Beginner’s Guide

The Midnight Visitor

The Discreet Charm Of Mary Maxwell-Hume

Four Old Geezers And A Valkyrie

100 Not Out

and more! All available from Amazon and good book shops.

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Zonya and her Big Knickers

T-bar sandals, stretchy hairband and an anorak – my outfit screams the Swinging Sixties!

This is an old post that I am re-sharing today. In fact it’s a life writing piece, based on my memories of my ‘auntie’ Zonya. So it’s not a fictional piece, though I might not be remembering it exactly! When we look back on a memory we add layers of our accumulated experience onto the memory, and of course the passage of time means that all too often we look back and remember the colours far brighter, the events far happier than they perhaps really were.

But Auntie Zonya was a unique and wonderful lady. Her real name was Doris, but she had been, many years earlier, a dancer and had changed her name to sound more in keeping with her exotic stage life. I only knew that later. At the time–we’re talking about 1964 or so until around 1974, I knew her only as Auntie Zonya. She was tiny, she was plump, she had the reddest of red hair–again only later did I realise this was not a natural red, but out of a bottle.

A Georgian house, similar to ours in the street where we used to live.

She turned up living in a room across the corridor from my mum and me where we lived in a lovely old Georgian villa that had been converted into cheap bedsits. She was older than my mum by about thirty years, so she kind of became a big sister/surrogate mum to my mum, and a very loving aunt to me.

Anyway, one day she was ‘babysitting’ me and we went shopping. For knickers. Here’s what happened:

Thinking back to when I was a child, I remember once being in a department store, in Tunbridge Wells, England, in the mid-1960s. I can picture the scene as if I were an onlooker.

I’m buying big knickers with Auntie Zonya. It’s a lesson in economy versus quality. I am wearing a skirt my mother made me and a jumper. My hair is in a long dark-brown plait down my back as always, and I’m probably wearing either a frock my mother made me or stretchy leggings and a home-knitted jumper.

I mean, they’re huge, right? And making a comeback!

They look the same—same size, shape, style and colour, yet these knickers are less than half the price of those others. I’m learning the difference between branded goods and their cheaper, store’s own label counterparts. Zonya, in other ways so stylish and chic for an older woman, favoured the larger undie. Knickers built like modern cycle shorts—up to the waist, down to the knees—and incredibly, sometimes even with a pocket in the waistband. Crimson, stretchy cotton with a little line of black lace trim at the waist and knee.

I can’t imagine wearing anything so huge. By comparison, my underwear at age six or seven or whatever I am is really quite skimpy and small.

We are in BHS or somewhere like that, comparing their own brand of cheap-and-cheerfuls with a far more expensive generic brand-name knicker. Seeing my doubtful looks, she assures me these are warm, comfortable and very, very durable. I’m not convinced. Maybe they will swallow me whole. And the colour! Red like holly berries or Zonya’s lipstick or red like a London bus or a pillar box. Really, really red.

We snap the elastic a few times experimentally. It seems sufficiently sturdy and reliable and so economy wins out and the cheapy knickers are purchased.

I remember it as a fun, ordinary outing, one of the few memories I have of shopping when I was small. I realise now never did ask her how she got on with them.

Sorry it’s a bit grainy. This is Zonya and I at London Zoo, 1965.

If you want to read more about Auntie Zonya, here’s another short piece:

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Writing Genre Fiction – part two

Famously NOT adhering to generic conventions…

Three weeks ago, I wrote in part one of Writing Genre Fiction that all genres, including my favourite genre of cosy mysteries, have conventions. And what is a convention? The Oxford English Dictionary defines convention as: ‘a) general agreement, esp agreement on social behaviour etc by implicit consent of the majority; or b) a custom or customary practice, esp an artificial or formal one.’

Here is a quick recap of the main conventions of books in the cosy mystery genre:

  • No excessive gore or violence, no realistic trauma, bad language is mild, no sex scenes.
  • Usually feature a small cast of characters in an idealised setting, often a country house or a village.
  • There must be clues and red herrings.
  • The emphasis is on the puzzle of the crime and readers solving that alongside the sleuth.
  • The sleuth is usually an amateur, not a police professional, and is often female. Though of course, not always.
  • The ending is (generally) cut-and-dried and is often resolved with a gathering of all the main suspects and other players of the story so that the sleuth can reveal the truth behind the crime(s). There may be ongoing storylines that are not resolved, but the crime itself should be resolved at the end of the book.

(I’d be the first to say, my own books don’t always adhere to these guidelines. Sorry.)

Very often authors will strive to write something ‘new’ and may feel that it has all been done before, or that the conventions are ‘old hat’. But for readers who enjoy reading mysteries, doing something different just for the sake of it is not always a good way to win their approval – they love the conventions and expect the author to stick by them at least to a greater extent.

Readers have certain expectations

No reader will be happy if you kill off someone’s pet. And it goes without saying that if you bump off your main character’s love interest or a close relation or friend, you will be vilified forever. Likewise if you allow your character to – well – act out of character, readers will notice and be unhappy. Reader expectations are high once you have set out to create a series, and you absolutely have to do what you can to respect the reader’s investment of emotion as well as time and money into your work.

But in actual fact, the range of options available to the author is limited, because as we know, ‘There is nothing new under the sun’ (the Bible: Ecclesiastes 1:9! See, I can do research!) and also, ‘Is there a case where one can say, “Look, this is new”? It has already existed in the ages before us.’ (the Bible: Ecclesiastes 1:10)

And if it had already all been done in Biblical times…

But just because you are constrained by generic convention does not mean you can’t be creative or original. This is where the twists and turns of the plot become the essential ingredient to muddy the waters and cover your tracks . Sorry about the mixed metaphors.

Writing unique or ‘different’ genre fiction can seem difficult – you only have 26 letters to play with, and everyone uses them, right? And if all these conventions and tropes have been used before, if there’s nothing new under the sun, how can we find our unique voice? How can we say something new or fresh? Again this is where plot twists and devices and your own unique way of using those 26 letters comes into play.

He’s about to sing, the Lament of the Trope

Like writing, music is another creative art that has genres and stylistic conventions. And whilst I am not a musician, I am passionate about music. And guess what? Composers of music can be every bit in need of all their ingenuity as writers when it comes to creating something fresh and ‘original’. Just to give you an extremely simple illustration: all these songs are in the key of C Major.

Ain’t No Sunshine by Bill Withers

Stairway To Heaven by Led Zeppelin

Hallelujah by Jeff Buckley

Bad Romance by Lady Gaga

But they are not the same, are they? I was actually a teeny bit surprised to realise they are all in the same key. And of course, there are other keys than just C Major – and all the keys are made up of notes, which when combined in conventional ways, create chords. Chords are grouped together one after the other (called progression, ie moving forward) to create a tune. (Or for the writer, these would compare to scenes or chapters). Here’s another set of examples:

These four songs all heavily feature the same chord progressions. It is the I-V-vi-VI Progression/C-G-Am-F known as the Optimistic chord progression for its uplifting sound. (I think these chords are for guitar – sorry, now I am really revealing my technical ignorance.)

No Woman No Cry by Bob Marley

Right Here Waiting by Richard Marx

Run by Snow Patrol

Let It Be by The Beatles

But again, they are so different, aren’t they? I could go on: these are G Major works:

Another One Bites The Dust by Queen

Wake Me Up When September Ends by Green Day

Brown-Eyed Girl by Van Morrison

You Shook Me All Night Long by AC/DC

Or other chord progressions. If the previous ones are termed the ‘optimistic’ progression, these are the ‘pessimistic’ chord progressions: these are the same chords, just reshuffled to give a different effect. The I-V-vi-VI Progression/C-G-Am-F becomes vi-VI-I-V or Am-F-C-G, and these can create a sense of sadness that ranges from the merely plaintive to downright Throwing Myself Off A Cliff:

The Sun Always Shines On TV by A-Ha (a bit plaintive here and there)

Hurt by Johnny Cash (definitely a cliff moment… but sad songs can be beautiful, and uplifting too – giving catharsis.)

Angels by Robbie Williams

or one of my favourites, Wake Me Up by Avicii

Can you see how different these are though they are using, at least in part, the same conventions?

Coming back to writing, with a small cast of characters, it can be really hard to conceal the guilty party from the avid reader who will often have read hundreds of mystery books and have an excellent working knowledge of the generic style. Enter the trope – a recognisable kind of set plot idea that is often in use in certain genres. In romance, you have tropes such as ‘fake romance’, where the main couple pretend to be in love, often to appease persistent match-making relatives and end up falling in love for real; or you can have ‘enemies to lovers’ (think Elizabeth and Mr Darcy) where the couple begin by hating the very sight of one another but end up by loving the person once they get to know one another better.

In cosy mystery writing, a common trope might be the country house mystery – a closed community, a small number of suspects, a specific set of relationships, and the stage is set for murder in a kind of extremely popular notion but very idealised version of a pre-WWII English country house. The country house could be something other than a country house. For example your story could be set, not in a house but on a train, in a submarine, on a space station, on an island, in a bomb shelter. almost anywhere, in fact, so long as the setting is enclosed in some way. Or you might use any one of the countless other tropes,  the locked room trope, or you might use the disappearing corpse trope, or the gaslighting/I think I’m going insane trope…

Just because you are bound by conventions, doesn’t mean you can’t find your own voice, and your own style, and using the generic conventions means you can increase the readers pleasure as they can anticipate and understand what you are doing. If anything, sticking to the rules of your genre can give you greater freedom with a good, solid framework to build upon.

‘The Author, in the music room, with the typewriter…’

***

 

Some small happy things – people watching again!

These days it’s quite hard to find something positive in the world. Life is tough. Even 2020 and the onset of covid is enough to fill me with a gentle nostalgia, those seem like fun times compared to right now. But kindness and goodness is not dead and gone, no matter what we read in the media or see on TV. If your mental health is at an all-time low, as many of us are finding, just look around you and you will find small things to make you smile.

Today I saw:

An elderly man ask a young mum struggling with a screaming toddler if she was okay. He wasn’t complaining about the noise. He wasn’t telling her how she should raise her kid. He just asked if she was okay. She said she was, thank you, and told him that her child had just been vaccinated and was crying because of that. But the man’s simple kindness made me happy. Because sometimes we just need someone to ask, right?

And as I was waiting for my other half, a woman–a total stranger–asked me about something I was holding – bird food (as usual!). ‘Is that stuff any good?’ she asked me. ‘Because my sister-in-law bought some and it’s like sawdust. The birds won’t touch it.’

I told her the birds that come to my garden wolf it down like crazy. ‘I’ll get some,’ she said, so I told her where I got mine.

‘It’s a bit pricey, ‘ I warned her.

‘That doesn’t matter,’ she said. ‘My dad’s 96, and watching the birds gives him so much pleasure, it’s worth it just to make him happy.’

Aww. Obviously that small encounter warmed my heart too.

As my mum used to say, good things come in threes–when we got back to our car, the rain had started, and everyone was in a rush to leave. A young dad and very small girl cute in her school uniform, arrived to get into the car next to ours, and the dad said to the little one, ‘We’ve got to get home quick, I’ve put the washing out!’

I smiled. he wasn’t too worried, the child wasn’t being hurried or pushed along, they were just taking life in their stride, calm, relaxed, happy. As I said, small things, nothing earth-shattering, but the mundane minutiae of everyday life. That’s what makes me smile.

Actually there were more than three–the cafe owner where we went stayed back a few more minutes after closing to make a cup of tea for a late customer, an elderly woman. The staff in the shops I visited were cheerful and friendly.

So that was a good day. I had a lovely chatty  lunch with my family, the sun shone (briefly) and I saw at first hand some simple things that showed me that there are good people in the world, and not everything is horrible. And I thought I would tell you.

Next week, I promise, it will be more about writing genre fiction.

***

 

Writing Genre Fiction – part one

Please don’t let your detective cat smoke. Or Vape. It’s not good for them and ruins their fur.

I enjoy writing in a number of different styles and genres, but I’m a cosy mystery gal through and through. Even when I try writing a different genre, at some point my murderous instincts take over and drown out any other attempt to jump generic ship.  Maybe I’ve written myself into a plot-corner and I’m not sure what to do; or I’m bored with the sweet romance I’m writing; or things are going all too easily for one character or another in my family saga; or my hologram’s new spacecraft is too fast, too shiny, everything is just soooooo perfect out there in the nebula, and there’s nothing for it: someone has to die.

I think it was Raymond Chandler who said (my paraphrase) ‘If in doubt, bring in someone with a gun’.

But there are so many sub-categories within all the main genres these days, and the Crime/Thriller genre is no exception.

For cosy mystery novels, some of the many subgenres include: international mystery, private investigators, women detectives, medical, legal, police procedural, technothrillers, and hard-boiled. The hard-boiled mystery, for example, is what is often referred to as Noir, or gum-shoe crime. They have evolved from the classics of the 40s and 50s and tend to be more graphic, violent, and unconventional. The detective is usually an anti-hero, with all kinds of issues, anything goes, and the grittier and grislier the book is, the better. The dialogue is bitty and abbreviated. There is a lot of swearing, shouting and people get ‘whacked’ or ‘rubbed out’. Often the end of the hard-boiled mystery is less cut-and-dried, leaving loose ends and a sense of a hollow victory, or a kind of ‘I’ll get you next time! On the upside, the men often wear nice hats. Like a Fedora or maybe a Trilby.

The cosy mystery genre is a world apart from the hard-boiled mystery. The cosy is a type of traditional murder mystery with it roots in the Golden Age of mystery writing as penned by Agatha Christie, Gladys Mitchell, Dorothy L Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Patricia Wentworth and many, many more. (If you fancy reading a bit more about that, please take a look at this article, or this one, both from guest author Elizabeth Roy recently.)

The plot of a cosy often revolves around social situations, perhaps a house party or dinner, as cosies commonly feature the wealthier classes at play, with undercurrents of malice lurking discreetly behind curtains or across the bridge-table. The relationships represented tend to be of a conventional, traditional type, and the novels are usually set in the present or the recent past. The hard-boiled or noir can be more experimental, and is well-suited to futuristic, non-traditional and even non-earth settings.

Cosy means exactly that, these books are pure entertainment, with nothing too terrifying, nothing too realistic or traumatising. It’s more of an intellectual puzzle than a brawl. In the cosy, the story is all about unravelling the central mystery, to find out whodunit by solving clues and working alongside the story’s detective to find out the truth behind a crime, nearly always a murder*. Cosies will feature good believable characters without a great deal of introspection and issues. Usually there are only one or two main characters, and a host of minor characters, individualised to a greater or lesser extent. There will be a twisty, ingenious plot, and a keep-‘em-guessing array of clues and red herrings. Readers are expected to read between the lines in every conversations and to observe character behaviour minutely and with suspicion.

The cosy does not feature gory murder scenes or long descriptions of stomach-clenching forensic information. The cosy does not include explicit sex or stronger bad language. There may be some saucy shenanigans but nothing too graphic happens ‘on-stage’, any ‘filth’ is conducted behind carefully closed doors, even if someone is listening at the keyhole or watching from the tree outside the window. Life lessons are not usually part of the cosy mystery, nor should you expect comments on social issues or deeply moving emotional scenes. Life is pretty good in the cosy mystery–for everyone except the perpetrator and the victim of course. Here again, in the cosy, the victim is not likely to suffer agonies or torture; death is usually contrived in a quick and often ingenious manner.

You must always be on the alert for clues and red herrings

Usually, though not always, the main protagonist is the sleuth who is going to solve the mystery for us, or should I say, with us. They will likely–though not always–be an amateur detective, often someone involved on the periphery of the murder and they will feel compelled to find out the ‘truth’, either from standpoint of moral outrage, or more likely, out of sheer nosiness. Of late, it has become the trend to write themed cosies centred around a hobby or service. For example, a lot of stories are set in book shops, craft groups or cookery schools, and hotels, or they might involve pet-sitters, mediums, hairdressers, gardeners, wedding planners, or interior decorators. Sometimes the detective has a dog or cat who ‘helps’ them solve the mystery. Sometimes the detective IS a dog or cat. This allows the author to introduce a range of situations and characters, which is a great way to produce a detective and a series that will turn readers into avid fans and keep them coming back time and again.

The cosy is all about solving a puzzle, and reestablishing the status quo. The book should leave readers feeling ‘Ahh,’ at the end, not ‘OMG OMG!’ The reader should definitely be able to pat themselves on the back for an armchair- detective job well done. The cosy is intended purely for escapist fun, which is another reason why the author needs to write plenty of them–readers will close one book and immediately reach for the next.

*please note: other crimes are available! But a lot less entertaining.

Cosy mysteries should be more feel-good and with a sense of all is well at the end.

***

 

Dear whom (insert name of muse here)

The Muse is ‘In’.

This week, during a conversation with a nice marketing expert,  I was asked what or who was my target demographic. In other words, who do I imagine is reading my books, who am I aiming to reach? My initial reaction was probably the same as most writers: Everyone!

After all, we writers want to reach as many people as possible, don’t we?

It puts me in mind of board games where it says on the side of the box “fun for the whole family: aged 8 to 80”. (Sorry all you 81-year-olds, this game is not for you!) And that’s kind of how I feel about my books: I hope they will be enjoyed by people older than me and younger, and those who are my (approximate) age.

We want to reach as many as we can with our work, and are reluctant to rule anyone out. After all, we know that not all fantasy is read by young people, that not all family saga is read by older people. There are always plenty of people who don’t fit into marketing stereotypes. Lots of readers read a wide variety of genres and styles, from westerns to techno-thrillers, or from romance to locked room mysteries. We are reluctant to disregard them just because they are a bit different to what it says on the box.

But it would be naive of me to pretend that my books–much as I’d like them to–appeal to everyone. As I’ve thought about this carefully I’ve realised that probably 80% of my readers are over 45 years of age, female and prefer not to read anything too gory, full of explicit sexy shenanigans,  or are depressingly similar to real life. In fact, they are rather like me. (I’m sadly over 45. Way over. Way, way, WAY over. In fact, it would be nice to be 55 again. Heck, I’d kill to be 60 again…)

Find that perfect reader and tell them your story!

I’ve read several times this week about the importance of having in your mind an image of your perfect, or some might say, average reader, and of writing your book as if you are writing for that one person alone. The idea is that it makes it easier to keep your book focused, and to maintain consistency of POV (point of view) and tense.

I’d go a step further. Use a real person. Most of us have are lucky enough to have that one person we talk to about our writing, or one or two people. Most of us run ideas past them for feedback, let them read the messy first drafts, and sob on their shoulders when we get a stinking review. These are–hopefully–the people who can look us in the eye and say “Sweetie-pie, I love you but in all honesty, this book sucks. Write something else.” Let’s face it, you already know this person so well, you know what they like, what they don’t like, their favourite colour, and their beverage of choice. It’s simply good sense to use them as a sounding board during the writing process, not just after it.

Picture your muse when writing your story

Stephen King famously writes for his wife as she always reads his work before anyone else. In fact, quite a few writers give their work to a relative or close friend as ‘first contact’ or as writers usually call them, alpha readers.

BUT… If you don’t have someone in your life like that, you can create a mental image of a perfect reader in the same way as you create the rest of your book and people its pages with characters. Okay, so they won’t buy you a G & T or a giant, airport-duty-free-sized Toblerone (all donations gratefully received) when you’re feeling down, but they can still be useful. Give your person a name and an identity, with the quirks and foibles of real people. See them in your mind and address them as if they were real and present in the room with you. Speak to them directly as you write–tell them your story. If it helps you could even put at the top of the first page of your rough draft, “Dear (insert name here!), I am writing to tell you the story of…”

Just don’t forget to remove this bit later! 😀 

It doesn’t matter if your perfect reader is real or pretend, so long as they act as your creative muse, encouraging you to find your voice and get writing. You will be surprised at how much easier it is to focus on getting the framework of your story together with your new ‘audience’.

Not long now!

***

Job vacancy: armchair sleuth required

 

We at LaughingAtLife.org (not a real company!) have a new part-time vacancy for the role of armchair sleuth.

About this role:

You must be ready, willing and able to deliver timely advice to all suspects and potential victims. (But not too timely. Whilst we agree that forewarned is forearmed, if you’re too good at your job, you may find the number of victims drops alarmingly and you are left with no one to investigate/suspect which will lead to everyone at LaughingAtLife.org moving into the genre of romance. Or maybe Fantasy. No one at LaughingAtLife.org wants that to happen.)

 

You should be highly experienced in delivering comments such as ‘I knew that was going to happen’ or ‘You could write this (insert offensive vocabulary here) stuff yourself!’

If you have fancied taking part in shows such as Gogglebox, this job could be for you!

Essential qualifications:

Eagle-eyed attention to detail.

Nerves of steel.

Ability to pick locks with a hair pin or safety pin. Or a lock-pick.

Suspicious of everyone and everything.

Able to sniff out spurious motives and supply educated guesswork.

Possess own monocle or pince-nez or (misplaced) reading glasses.

Should be able to demonstrate a long-established habit of putting your fingertips together in a thoughtful manner before speaking.

You must have a luxurious moustache which you continually fondle or trim or dye a suspiciously dark colour. This role is open to all genders.

Or, failing the moustache, you may have a knitting fetish, and take knitting everywhere with you so that you are ready at a moment’s notice to disarm suspects with your apparent inoffensiveness and the sense of calmness that you radiate.

Must be able to recall a long series of villagey anecdotes you can crowbar into any conversation.

Must know the difference between a colonel and a major. Must equally be conversant with the differences between life-peers and the other sort, whatever they are.

Must be able to shake your head sorrowfully from time to time and say ‘The world is a very wicked place’ or make some quote about the fallibility of mankind.

Additional desirable qualifications:

Knowledge of Shakespeare, Milton and the Bible useful.

Must not be liable to scream or faint when confronted with a gory scene.

Encyclopaedic knowledge of deadly fungi and herbs could come in handy.

Must be able to dip fingertip in any powdery drug and taste it without dying and also must be able to identify said drug.

Salary:

No salary, just the reward of knowing you did your best, and served your country. Or, failing that, completed at least one matinee jacket for the new baby of a friend of a friend.

Perks:

No perks. There is no holiday allowance, as every time you go on holiday, someone will do something stupid and you will find yourself ‘embroiled’ in a new murder case. Even if you have a staycation, the grumpy colonel in the Old Manor House will upset someone who will then disguise themselves as a vicar and whack the colonel over the head 47 times with a fire-iron. You will of course realise that this was almost inevitable given the colonel’s manner, and also it will be just what happened with Mrs Castle’s little boy in Northampton when he skived off school that day.

There is no sick pay, apart from the satisfaction that your last days will be repackaged and sold as ‘Mr X’s, Ms Y’s or Mrs Z’s Final Cases’ with a picture of the actor who plays your role on the front cover.

How to Apply:

Seriously?

***

Notebooks as far as the eye can see…

Well, maybe not quite that many, but I certainly have a large number of them!

Like many people I have something of a notebook fetish. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve never (yet) met anyone in a dark alley who has glanced all around, and on me delivering the correct password (‘Narrow feint!’) then proceeded to open their raincoat to reveal notebooks in rows and rows of pockets, but let’s just say we can’t rule it out.

Not that I buy the super expensive ones with the magnetic closure or the little extra pockets at the front and back for – what? I can only imagine it’s more notes??? No, my notebooks are of the strictly practical and affordable type, that way I don’t feel bad for writing line after line of ‘What on earth am I going to write?’ or ‘Day 27: still haven’t written anything’. I am easily intimidated by superior quality notebooks, so I am content with Pukka Pads and Notemakers: good solid notebooks that won’t let you down.

We’ve had a massive clear-out at home recently – in fact we’ve had one large and two small skips outside to take away all our old junk that we’ve hoarded in the loft, the

shed, the various rooms of the house, and bizarrely, in the storage unit under the bed.

You know, ‘decluttering’ can be so addictive, you can end up by throwing out all sorts of stuff you had no intention of getting rid of. But the therapeutic effect of space clearing is so good you just can’t help yourself. I did however, hold on to a small box of old notebooks, because these are full of ‘amazing’ ideas and notes about forensic crime scenes, or how bodies decompose or how to clean up lots of blood that I felt I had to hold on to these ‘just in case’.

Yes, before you ask, I do still have my husband. He did not go in the skip. Neither did any of his toys tools/hobby equipment.

I used to have over 1,000 books in my office–which is really the little boxroom bedroom of our house. They lived on four bookcases. And the floor. And on all the little gaps between the shelves. And on the window sill. And the desk… Now, I only have two bookcases, and after one week, there are still no books on the floor. See, I can be organised! I’m not Marie-Kondo-organised, but let’s just say if you wanted to borrow a copy of A A Milne’s Chloe Marr, it would only take me half an hour of searching the shelves of my two bookcases before I remembered it had gone in the skip because the mould on it triggered my asthma, and all the middle pages were brown and falling out. Yep, it was a really old, falling-to-pieces copy. (Maybe a good excuse to by a new copy?)

(note to self: remember I still haven’t put books in alphabetical order by author’s surname – which is why it takes me half an hour to figure out I haven’t got something particular.)

Small, adorable and not at all annoying quirks of mine: I hate it when I have to divide books by the same author onto separate shelves. Sigh. If only all my Agatha Christie’s could budge up a bit to make room for the four books that won’t fit. It’s like splitting up a family.

Useful and interesting things I recently found in my old notebooks:

Great ideas for band names:

Rumble Bucket or maybe Rumble Pumpkin. I feel their repertoire would be mainly folk songs and the odd medley of Lonnie Donegan songs.

Jamzz – boy band from Nottingham

BizR – boy band from Matlock

Density’s Angels – girl band from Belper

Angel’s Dancities – girl band from Stoke on Trent

Great book titles:

Octavia Splendid and the… (insert name of weird item here) (sounds like a 1950s school story!) ( Or Harry Potter fan fic) (Would also make a great pen name if I was bold enough to go for it!)

A Gripping Madness

Strictly something: Strictly Confidential; Strictly Between Us, Strictly Business, Strictly Prohibited. (But these sound more like erotica titles than mysteries…)

Great pen names to try:

Marjorie Maynard ( I have a feeling she’d write about her time as a nurse during WWII)

Kym Spiers (gender neutral term, I bet she/he/they write fantasy)

Michael P Maynard (Marjorie’s brother, writes westerns but he’s a well-to-do Brit who’s never even been on a horse)

Edvard Spein – def writes Scandi-noir with cringe-inducing sex scenes.

Haralddottirs Dottirsdottir – writes Scandi-noir with no sex scenes, but lots of waves crashing onto beaches and tons of geysers erupting.

There have been some advantages to all this decluttering:

  1. WeBuyBooks sent me some money for the books they agreed to buy from me. Thanks guys!
  2. I now have actual space on my desk, there is room for me to sit there and do work!!!!
  3. I now have an excuse to reclutter.
  4. I feel so much happier now I can see the floor again and remind myself that the carpet is still that yucky beige colour.
  5. There are now only 27 spiders in my office instead of the 346 there originally. Less competition = more flies for everyone.
  6. I can reach the window. This will probably lead to the arrival of more spiders.

Marie Kondo might not be proud of me, but at least she’d have to admit I gave it my best!

But I still prefer to sit in a caff and stuff my face whilst pretending to write

***