Reblogged: I am interviewed at Maureen’s Lifestyle

Many thanks to Maureen Wahu at Maureen’s Lifestyle for this interview following her review of The Spy Within: Dottie Manderson mysteries book 6 last week.

(you can check out the review here)

Caron Allan Interview

What inspired the Dottie Manderson series?

I’ve always loved the glamour of Golden Age mysteries, and so I wanted to try my hand at something like that. But I wanted to have a young protagonist as most of the books I’d read had older, spinster ladies as detectives. But I didn’t want to write anything too sweet, or too separate from the real world. So in my books, yes, there is glamour and romance, and the bad guy or gal always gets caught (though sometimes not immediately) but there is also heartbreak and the harsh reality of life not being easy, especially as my chosen era of the 1930s is so close to the war.

What is the hardest part of your writing career?

I suppose it’s juggling all the different aspects of being a writer in today’s world – the social media, obviously, I know everyone says they struggle with that, but also all the technical things – covers and document formatting, creating promotional materials, then remembering to share them, setting up a blog and remembering to create something new most weeks. And then remembering to do actual writing too, and stick to my deadlines. So much to do!

Would you ever use a pseudonym?

I always use a pseudonym. In fact have have several, but the only one that I’m using at the moment is Caron Allan. I wanted to use a pen name because to begin with, it gave me the space and privacy to completely mess up without feeling ‘exposed’. And also, I felt my real name was dreary and unromantic!

When writing a series how do you determine where a book should end and it’s sequel should start?

It’s not always easy, and I’m not very good at it, but fortunately because I write mysteries, that kind of gives a natural end, when the perpetrator of whatever dastardly deed is unmasked and taken away in handcuffs, or however they exit the story, it seems right to just have a short wrap-up and end the book. Though I do have ongoing story-lines – mainly the romantic side of things – that continue through the books and aren’t resolved immediately. In book 1 Dottie, my protagonist, is only 19. I think 19 in the 1930s was a lot younger than 19 today in many ways, and so we see her growing and maturing through the books, coming to understand the world, and relationships, but she is very idealistic and so she can be led by her emotions, and is sometimes bruised by life. She’s not perfect, she’s on a journey, and I like that about her. I don’t want to read about or write about a heroine who doesn’t change, and especially one who doesn’t have depth and dimensions to her character.

Who were your biggest critics and cheerleaders in writing this series?

My family are a huge support, my daughter especially is a massive practical help as well as my cheerleader, as writer herself she knows where I’m coming from. I have a couple of very special friends who are also writers and who are so helpful and encouraging.

If you could go back in time which historical figure would you like to meet?

Oh dear, that’s quite hard. I know we’re always supposed to say Marie Curie or someone incredible like that, but maybe just meet my great great grandmother? How did she cope in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century with all the domestic responsibilities and none of the labour-saving devices we have today? Plus she had six kids, and i only had two, so I am in awe of the women of that era. I’d like to meet Agatha Christie, and Patricia Wentworth when they were in their story-writing heyday, and get as many tips as I could, and also express my admiration for their work.

What should we expect from your upcoming series?

Well I will continue my Dottie Manderson mysteries: Book 7, Rose Petals and White Lace will be out around November 2021. In this book, we will see Dottie trying to find out who wants to get a local tea-shop closed down, and why. It’ll be a gentler mystery for Dottie after the previous couple, but nevertheless there will be at least one fatality, and if you’re not a fan of creepy-crawlies, this might not be for you!
I also will be launching a new series, set in the 1960s this time, and featuring the daughter of Dottie’s sister as the detective-protagonist – these will be the Miss Gascoigne mysteries, and begins with A Meeting With Murder. Diana Gascoigne has been ill and goes to the coast for some good sea air to recover, but obviously there are dire doings afoot and she will want to find out who killed an elderly disabled woman. the Diana books will be a little different to the Dottie books, as we know, the 60s were a time of growing freedoms especially for women, and Diana is not an ingenue like Dottie, but a little older, a little wiser and more aware of the difficulties that a woman can face, and she wants independence and more autonomy in her life. But she has the same determination to seek justice and truth.

Would you ever consider writing a biography of your life?

LOL, that would be so boring! I’m not adventurous or glamorous and I’ve done very little with my life other than sit with cats reading or writing. I really don’t think it would sell!

Do you ever experience writer’s block? Sometimes. I don’t agree that it’s not a real thing. I usually find it stems from discouragement, fear or being overtired. I tend to push myself, and I’m always thinking of plots and story ideas, so I get quite mentally tired, and don’t always remember it’s okay to just do nothing and relax. Maybe I need to watch my cats even more than I do! I find rest, music and mundane chores help.

How can your fans reach you and connect with you?

I can be found on twitter: @caron_allan or instagram: @caronsbooks or through my blog, caronallanfiction.com and I’m also on Facebook, but I have to confess I don’t go on there very much, I’m more of a Twitter person.

Find all of Caron Allan’s books on Amazon.

Thanks for stopping by!

Thank you, Maureen, it was fun!

***

 

Living in the Past: the manageable cast

I’m in love with the idea of the closed or walled community.

Whether it is the hallowed halls of the much-loved country house of so many murder mysteries, or Brother Cadfael’s cloistered world, or a virtual closed community such as Miss Marple’s village with its familiar cottages, vicarage, post office, farms and manor houses, or Poirot’s Art Deco mansionette, with neighbours above and below, people you rarely glimpse and often only hear, or to take things a step further, your suspect or your victim could join a coach tour as in Judith Cranswick’s murder mysteries, or cruise on an ocean liner as in Dawn Brookes’ mysteries, or perhaps holiday on an island cut off from mainland, or a flee to a secret commune hidden away in the mountains, living a simple life a century behind the rest of the world. A mystery could be set in a submarine, or a plane, a train, in a hospital ward, on a space station, almost anywhere where there is a limit to how people get in and out of the place.

All these can be viewed as closed communities, separate from the wider world, with no one to turn to but themselves. As such they are excellent settings for a crime novel. This way you can limit and isolate a small group of suspects. ‘It must have been one of us.’

You’d think that with a small number of suspects, say a maximum of ten or twelve, you’d be stuck for ideas, but a number of that size, compared to, say, a group of four, actually gives quite a lot of alternatives, yet it’s not such a huge number as to be too big for readers to get to grips with. Is there anything worse as a reader than muddling the characters and forgetting who is married to who or who did or said that crucial thing which led to that big scene? So it’s got to be easy to keep track of the suspects.

All too often characters are not even remotely who or what they claim to be. In fact we as a reader more or less depend on that being the case. That’s the fun of it, after all. Secrets can be recently acquired or buried (sometimes literally) in the dim and distant past. A young couple who get on well, who seem devoted in every way. How do we really know that they are a couple? Maybe they are cousins? Or even brother and sister—oooh! What if one of them is already married to someone else?

But for me, without doubt, the best type of closed community to have is one where your story is set in the past.

If you situate a story back in the past, to before identity documents and proof-of-life searches, to a time before healthcare records, driving licenses, the internet, mobile phones, credit checks and credit cards, ATMs, CCTV and ANPR, it immediately becomes a hundred times more difficult to keep track of a person’s comings and goings. There’s a reason why there were so many bigamous marriages two hundred, or even just one hundred years ago. You wouldn’t have to travel very far to find a place where no one knew you at all. Even just the next county would be today’s equivalent of moving to the other side of the world.

You could be whoever you said you were. Who was to know any different?

In some ways it could be quite freeing: no more mistakes to hover over your shoulder like Banquo’s ghost. A goodbye to unhealthy relationships, or domineering friendship groups, toxic working environment or sad memories. Hello to bigamy, escaping justice and living the high life. If things happen to get too hot, simply up sticks and move on. A quick change in appearance, and you’re a whole different person, and no one any the wiser.

But this made it very difficult to bring someone to justice: only a parish register would contain the bare essentials of a person’s life: their date of birth/Christening, their marriage, or that of their parents. School or work records, but these wouldn’t usually have a photo or a detailed physical description. There might be the odd police record for those who had crossed paths with the authorities, but those minor obstacles aside, all you really had left was anecdotal evidence.

Of course, some people who commit crimes are not very good at keeping their head down and getting on with their new life, and making the most of the chance of a new start. Old habits resurface, and the crime is committed again, making detection a real possibility. By contrast, though, a person of reasonable intelligence, often incredibly devious or someone who was simply content to lay low and not draw attention to themselves, could reasonably expect to get away with most of the guilty secrets of their past.

But no doubt, they always looked over their shoulder, to make sure no one was watching them.

Hats for fun/frolics – we need to bring these back!

***

The Sinister City…

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.

BUT

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.

And then, 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:

Disused warehouses.

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.

Shopping malls, business premises such as offices and storerooms, laboratories, libraries, museums (I’m looking at you, Morse, Endeavour and Lewis), run-down theatres, and schools are all places you absolutely should go into without armed back-up, or at the very least, a warm blanket and packet of chocolate digestives if you get locked in. (Btw I once wrote a short story about how eerie and dangerous an office building could be once everyone else has gone home. you can read it here, if you’re very bored indeed.)

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:

  1. Pubs
  2. Cafes
  3. Restaurants

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.

Or…

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.

Happy reading!

***

My interview as Clubhouse Chat Guest: Caron Allan

This week I’m cheating! In fact I’m not just cheating, I’m showing off, too, as last week I was honoured to be interviewed by Paula Readman in her Clubhouse. You can find Paula’s blog here, and learn more about Paula’s own books, The Funeral Birds, Days Pass Like A Shadow, and Stone Angels, as well as reading all the great conversations that take place with writers who are mysteriously smuggled into the Clubhouse. Here’s how it went:

Welcome to Clubhouse Chat page. Those of you who are not aware the location of the Clubhouse is shrouded in mystery. The only way to visit it is via membership or an invite to the tearoom. Every few days, I’ll be sharing a conversation with all sort of writers and authors at different levels of their writing careers. Over tea and cakes, or maybe a glass of something stronger, I shall be chatting with my guest about their work in progress, or latest book release.

Today I’m welcoming Caron to the clubhouse tearoom. Welcome.
Thank you for the invite, Paula. Gosh, the clubhouse and tearoom is amazing and so many familiar faces too. Though getting here is very peculiar.
I’m sorry about all the cloak and dagger stuff, but keep the location secret allow our members complete privacy. Also we have some noisy parties too. 😂 To start with let’s order our drinks and then we can start. My first question is When you first begun your writing journey what drew you to your chosen genre?

I’ve tried writing all sorts of stories of the years, romance, family saga, and so on, but there is always a point when I think, ‘The only way out of this is to kill someone.’ Or else I get so fed up with someone I devise a grisly death for them. I’m not a very nice person!

Also, which I probably should have led with, mystery and crime are my favourites books to read, which was due to my mother’s taste in books. I started reading her Agatha Christies and Patricia Wentworths around the age of 11 or 12, after growing up on Famous Five and Secret Seven books. Mum used to screen them to ensure there wasn’t anything ‘unsuitable’ in terms of sex and bad language. I wasn’t allowed to read her more ‘hard-boiled’ detective books.

What writing elements do you think is your strongest points, and what would you like to do better?

That’s a hard one. It’s quite difficult to step back and analyse your work impartially. But I think I’m quite good with the crime scene stuff. Or at least I try to be accurate. I don’t write a lot of descriptive scenes, these are the bits I find boring in other books and always skip. I want to allow the reader to imagine the scene, the characters, so I keep description to a minimum. I like to think I write good characters, though readers don’t always like what I put them through or make them do. I try to keep things believable and logical to a certain extent.

But I would like to cut the waffle a bit. My dialogue can be woolly if I’m not careful, with a lot of umms and ahhs. I’m also terrible at writing sex scenes (I always laugh inappropriately) but fortunately most of my books don’t require sex scenes, as they are ‘cozy/cosy’, and also (more or less) ‘clean’.

And I’m terrible for getting side-tracked then not wanting to cut out the side-track.

Tell us a little about latest writing project. Is it a new idea, or one you have been mulling over for some time?

I’ve got a few projects on the go at the moment. I’m about to start a bit of light outline-type planning for book 7 of my 1930s mystery series, Dottie Manderson mysteries. Book 6 (The Spy Within) came out last week, so I’m still in recovery! But I already have an outline for book 7, which will be called Rose Petals and White Lace. I’m also in the latter stages of writing a new series, The Miss Gascoigne mysteries, and I’m keeping everything crossed that book 1 will come out sometime next year. That is called A Meeting With Murder.

Caron Allan

How many unfinished projects do you have on your computer?

Once I actually begin writing, I don’t usually leave a project unfinished. Although I have drawerfuls of books from my early years of writing that aren’t finished, I used to often abandon a story at around the 35,000-45,000 words mark, but it took me many years to learn how to push through the tough stages of a book, and also, how to fix problems such as not knowing where the story was going or how to rekindle the love for an idea. Someday I’d love to dig them out, dust them off and get them finished, but I just never seem to have the time. Life is so hectic, isn’t it, and there are so many new ideas to try.

Do you write a synopsis first or write the first chapter, or let the characters lead you?

I mainly write long fiction. I have written quite a few short stories, but they’re not my main ‘thing’, and my poetry is awful. Apart haikus, I love a good haiku! I mull an idea over for a while, and maybe make a few notes, as I’m prone to forgetting things! I keep doc files of my ideas, things that randomly occur to me that I think could be a good plot point or an entire plot for a story in the future. Then I usually try to find a way to bring ideas together to create a plan. I am stimulated by images and music, so when I really want to nail an idea, I start with creating a cover for my book, and the title, which helps the plot to settle in my mind. I don’t write detailed or elaborate plot outlines, I keep them in my head. There is a danger that I’ll forget something, of course, but if I write down too much, I lose interest and feel like the story is now finished.

Choosing only five of your favourite authors. Can you list them in order 1 begin the top of your list and say how have they influenced your writing?

Agatha Christie – it’s hard to know who should come first, Agatha or Patricia. First of all I admire anyone who can make themselves sit down and write every day in a professional, diligent manner, and do it come rain or shine. Because it’s quite a hard thing to do. Secondly, I learned so much from how they did it. I analyse their books and make notes. I find it so interesting to read about the nuts and bolts of creating a mystery novel. They both brought together groups of people to be anything from killer to victim, to red herring, to information gatherer and detective. I also love the social commentary.

Patricia Wentworth – As well as the above, I like the romantic elements of Wentworth’s books, and the moralistic tone. I think you get a great sense of characters from her books. And also style of the era too.

Dorothea Brande – I read this author’s most famous book Becoming A Writer when on a visit to my mum, it was the one that answered the questions I had as a young writer and made me see how to grow and develop my skills. First published in the 1930s, I think it’s the most influential book on the topic of ‘how to be a writer’ I’ve ever come across. Her book was the one that convinced me I could actually do this, I could write books and publish them.

Mary Stewart – I love her romantic suspense books, and so many of her chapters start with a literary quote that is relevant to the story, sometimes hilariously so. There is (usually) a strong element of romance in her mysteries too, and that is what I’ve always loved and to try to bring into my writing. Also, the exotic locations – I’m not widely travelled and so envy the heroines who dash off to all these wonderful places.

It’s very hard to confine myself to just five main authors. I’ve got hundreds and hundreds of books, and they are a bit like a family to me. (though I have a real, wonderful and very tolerant family) But if you held a gun to my head and told me I could only pick one more author, I’d probably go with M C Beaton, simply because she is very prolific, has a range of different series, and her books always seem fresh, funny and very human. And quirky. And she creates the most ingenious and cunning characters. I have never been drawn to the aloof characters such as Sherlock Holmes, though I’ve read most of Conan Doyle’s works. I like things cosy, and very female-centric as that is my life experience, and my happy place. But I read loads of authors, modern, and older, mystery and romance and fantasy, and non-fiction, I love social history and art/cultural history. I also love to play around with learning languages, but I get them all muddled.

When reading your work through do you ever find that your daily mood swings are reflected in your writing?

Not really. If I’m very ill, or very depressed, I can’t write fiction, though I do keep a journal for therapy. I had cancer a few years ago, that was a difficult time and as I adjusted to the news, I found I could write my thoughts and feelings into my journal, which was cathartic, but it took me a while to get back to my fiction and WIP writing.

Were any of your characters inspired by real people?

Not directly, or consciously, but there are always little things you notice or absorb unnoticed, and these get put in. As a child I knew lots of older ladies, aunties and ‘courtesy aunties’, and the way they talked and behaved has given me an affection for those kinds of characters in my books.

What did you learn when writing your book? In writing it, how much research did you do?

For my 1930s series, I have researched things such as fashion, social history, manners. I had to learn all about cars and driving in the 1930s. My main character starts off as a mannequin for a fashion house but ends up owning and running the business, so I had to learn a bit about that. I had to learn about policing procedures and advances in detection to present my murders – and the solving of them – in a believable manner. Most recently I had to find out what films were released in the early part of 1935. For an earlier book I had to learn a great deal about medieval embroidery and Opus Anglicanum, and also about the religious intolerance of the 1600s and well, always really). so there is always quite a bit of research to do. The trick is remembering it doesn’t ALL need to go into your book!

Is there anything about you your readers might be surprised to find out?

Erm… Oh dear… That’s hard to say. I’m not a very exciting person! We lived in Australia for five years, due to my husband’s job, returning to Britain in 2002. I’m a cliché really, a cat loving introvert with tons of books. I once had a letter published in Gardeners’ World and got a £5 voucher for it! That’s kind of it.

Did you uncover things about yourself while writing your books, whether that be a long forgotten memory, a positive experience etc.

Not really, although understanding that what I enjoy writing stems by and large from my first 10 or 12 years of life was a bit of a revelation to me that came to me out of the blue more or less a year or two ago. I find it hard to write male characters. When I thought about it, I realised I don’t actually know very many males. Having grown up without a father, then having a step-father I didn’t (for various reasons) feel close to, and as an only child, I didn’t have a close bond with a man or any boys. Even now, my only main male references are my son and my husband (who are lovely!), but that’s an unusually small number of men really, I just hadn’t really been aware of that until recently. I have drawn on anxieties or dreams and memories to develop story ideas for several novels and short stories.

What is your work schedule like when you’re writing?

I thrive on routine, so my schedule tends to be the same, more or less, all the time, weekdays and weekends. Though I do tend to write virtually all time in one form or another. I write mainly in the evening and late at night. I am most definitely not a morning person. During the day hubby and I tend to potter around the house doing chores, or go to a caff for lunch or a coffee (corona-plague-dependent, obvs). I’m lucky that I no longer have to do a day job as such. When I was working full time, I used to write on the bus to work or home again, and in my lunch hour, and then grab an hour or two most evenings and some of the weekend.

Do you set yourself a daily word count?

No. I write by scenes. So I try to do one entire scene, or if they’re very short, two or three scenes a day. Sometimes, I just feel full of energy and ideas flowing and I have to write until it’s all there on the page, other days it’s more of a disciplined slog.

How many hours in a day do you write?

Two or three. Maybe more in terms of planning, mulling, researching, pondering and faffing about. Most of my writing is done by staring out of the window and thinking ‘what if…?’ And I have post-its everywhere.

Did you ever consider writing under a pseudonym?

I only write under a pseudonym. My real first name is dowdy and my husband’s surname is ridiculous, so I didn’t want to use those, and I couldn’t write under my maiden name as that is already the name of an author (with the same first name). Also, as a new writer when I started out, I needed to be free to write whatever I wanted and find my voice without anyone knowing it was me.

How do you select the names of your characters? Do you know everything about them before you start writing their story?

I know a few things – the vital stuff, how tall, how old, eye colour, hair colour. I learn the rest as I go along, with the reader. I have had a few problems with names. To begin with, in my first drafts, male characters were always called John. It’s a name I like, plain, down-to-earth, reliable. But it can be quite hard to find a name that ’fits’ sometimes, and I am terrible for forgetting what I’ve called previous characters, and often in the early stages find I’ve got two people with the same name. I once came up with the perfect name for a character: Ben Sherman. My daughter laughed and told me that was the name of a designer, so I had to bin that idea. But at least it made me realise why those names seemed to work so well together!

What was your hardest scene to write?

I struggle with the emotional scenes where my main characters lose someone or something important to them. But I am able to sit in the privacy of my office sobbing into a notebook or onto the screen, so that’s helpful. I always empathise, so I feel the pain they feel, and I want to show my characters as they go through hard times like we all do.

In terms of technically difficult, as I said before, I’m rubbish at sex scenes. There’s always ‘his hand was here, and his hand was there, then his other hand was…’ and I think, how many hands has this guy got? Or the euphemisms people use, that always makes me laugh. So I tend to leave my couples at the full-on snog stage and come back with the lasting longing farewell.

How long on average does it take you to write a book?

It can vary tremendously, and I don’t always get down to it when I should, but usually a full-length novel takes me around eight or nine months to draft, polish, rewrite etc, get edited, proofed, revised and generally ready for publication. Most of them tend to be around 80,000-110,000 words, which is fairly long for a cosy mystery, but as I said, I am something of a waffler. I always write my first draft longhand in notebooks, then transcribe onto the computer for revisions. A first draft will generally take around one to two months, although I have written 120,000 words in 23 days once. Still haven’t revised that one though! I think it’s mostly umms and ahhs.

Thank you so much, Caron for joining us today. When you’re ready to leave please let our driver Brutus know and he’ll run your destination.

If you would like to find out more about Caron’s writing and books please click on these links: Her blog Her Author’s Amazon Page Latest book: (The Spy Within: Dottie Manderson mysteries book 6)

If you want to find out more about Clubhouse Member’s Books don’t forget to check out the Clubhouse Bookshops

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My Top 5 Agatha Christie choices

Since my latest book was published last week, I have had a lot more time to concentrate on reading and relaxing. I mainly read mysteries and crime novels or true crime, but I do like the occasional foray into other genres. I love history, not the kings-and-wars type of history, but the stuff about how ordinary people lived their lives. I also love books about art and culture, I enjoy the occasional romance (I’m still talking about books here!) and I love poetry, I read classical books, and also fantasy-ish books by people such as Jodi Taylor, Tom Holt and Jasper fforde. But the mystery/crime genre remains my one true love. I’ve already blogged about which books I would grab if the house was on fire…

Thinking about that, I decided to quickly put together a list of my top five Agatha Christie books. So here they are. Have you read all these? Let me know what you thought. Are there other books in your top five? 

Death On The Nile

 

There are a number of things I love about Death On The Nile. I suppose the ‘surprise’ ending has to be number one, doesn’t it/ I remember the first time I read it, I was as they say, blown away. I had to think about it for a while, and full of admiration for Christie’s ingenuity, had to say, ‘Wow.’ I don’t want to spoil it by saying more or going into detail if you haven’t read this one, so please buy this and read it immediately if you haven’t read it before. There is romance, passion, mystery and history, and above all else, Hercule Poirot with his magnificent moustaches, his sage predictions,  and his mal de mer.

The second thing I love about this is the glamour of the setting – the exotic destination, the old-fashioned elegance of the characters and the scenes they live and  move in. Dressing for dinner – I’d love to do that. Dancing to a little group of musicians, yes! Leaning on the rail and gazing at the river, maybe whilst sipping a cocktail, definitely my idea of a nice way to spend the evening. Then in the daytime, the exciting trips ashore, the ancient monuments we would visit, the history, the majesty of it all. My more prosaic everyday self would tell you that reality is probably a million miles from the romance of a book published in 1937, but my inner writer-romantic would just retort that it doesn’t matter, or snap back, as Dottie’s mother would say, ‘Nonsense.’

Death Comes As The End

 

I’m always a bit surprised that not many people have heard of this one. As you can see, it’s one of my favourites. I read it first when I was a teenager, and what struck me first of all was how Christie made the past come alive. I had never seen history in that ‘relatable’ way before, and it kindled a love for history in me that has stayed with me ever since. I didn’t know, then, that Christie was mad about history or that she was married to an archaeologist. 

This book is set in a fictionalised version of the ancient past, no familiar moustache twirling detective or knitting old lady here! It’s set in the time of the Pharoahs (ish), and the era is beautifully brought to life by the author, described fully without being a mere information dump, and it really is absorbing.

It’s a romance, and a traditional murder mystery. There is a sense of menacing unease, and along with Renisenb,  the young female protagonist, you have to ask, ‘Is it you? Or you? Or you?’ Give it a try and like me, you’ll be biting your nails, with everything crossed that things will turn out all right for Renisenb and that she will get her happy ever after.

Lord Edgware Dies

 

As you can see from the pic above, when I last read this I made tons of notes – I felt I really learned a lot from rereading the book and seeing just how Christie achieved the creation of her mystery.  I even devoted a whole post to this one book!

This book was first published in 1933. Eighty-seven years ago!!!!! Somehow I always think of Christie as a relatively modern crime writer, but of course, she wasn’t, she was very much of her time, two generations before mine. In fact, my character Dottie could definitely be a Christie fan!

Coming back to Lord Edgware…

This book has a host of characters. Too many, I’d say, and I should know, I crowbar in dozens to every book. Although I love this book, I do get muddled with the characters, especially in the beginning. It’s also a long book, and quite complex as a so-called ‘cosy/cozy’ mystery goes.

The plot hinges as always on some clever sleight of hand–my favourite kind of plot! I loved the way the murder was achieved, though obviously I can’t say anything as I don’t want to spoil it for you, if you haven’t read this one yet. So therefore, you must read it!

After The Funeral

 

The main thing I like about this is the opening scene or two, where the ‘unthinkable’ happens as loosely-attached relatives and associates gather for a funeral, and one of the guests commits a social gaffe by saying, (after a funeral as per the title) ‘Still, it’s all been hushed up very nicely, hasn’t it?’  When everyone blusters and demands to know what she means, Cora says, ‘But he was murdered, wasn’t he?’

Mic drop.

Isn’t that a brilliant way to get things going in a story? I  love the apparent simplicity of this. I say apparent because we all know so much planning and effort goes into a story – it’s never as simple as it appears. I suspect that the simpler it looks, the harder it is for the author.

The story is a good one, not great, but it is a solid good story, and if you haven’t read it, I recommend it. But for me, everything else was secondary to that one astonishing scene. It’s worth it just for that.

The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd

 

Oh dear, the infamous Murder of  Roger Ackroyd. This book caused something of a furore for Agatha Christie when it was first published in 1926, and may have been one of the factors related to her famous disappearance in that year. Almost a hundred years ago. !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

What was the problem with Roger Ackroyd? Well the critics said she didn’t play by the (unofficial) rules of murder mystery writing. But again, I can’t tell you precisely why because it will ruin everything if you haven’t read the book. Read it, then come back and then we can have a natter about it. Tell me what you thought. 

Suffice to say, it’s the original twist at the end. And I honestly didn’t see surprise coming when I read it the first time, though admittedly I was a teenager and had no understanding of ‘the rules’ of writing. But it seemed perfectly acceptable and logical to me, and I was captivated, as I always am, when I read this book.

It conjures up the traditional ‘English village’ setting so beloved of writers and readers of murder mysteries, with a range of recognisable stock characters, the spinster, the mysterious, possibly/probably immoral, attractive single woman, the local doctor, the people who live in the ‘big house’, and all the hangers-on.

Go on, get a copy and get reading! It’s not like we can go out at the moment…

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The reading writer or the writing reader

We are surrounded by words. They are there on the side of your breakfast cereal packet, full of persuasive ideas or nutritional information. They are on the wall of the lift as you make your way from car park to shopping mall. ‘In case of emergency DO this or DON’T do that…’ They are on our clothes – a logo, a designer’s name; they are on the label – how to wash the garment, the size, the fabric constituents.

As I say, we are surrounded by words. We as humans have come a long way from the days when we communicated through pictures. The concept of communication fascinates me. Why do we communicate? Is it to know our allies from our enemies, or to form friendships, assist pair-bonding, or create a safe environment for our children? We developed words because if a buffalo or something similarly huge is rushing towards you, no one’s got time to whip out a slate and chalks to create a nice little scene to indicate the usefulness of running away. So words are more efficient, maybe.

But words change us. From our earliest days on the planet, gazing fondly at our mothers, we learn words. We learn how to physically say them by watching and listening, and we learn what they mean by observing consequences and effects.

We connect not just words together to form a sentence, but ideas together to create a narrative or story. We might hear the words, ‘Let’s go to the mall’, but what we really hear are ideas based on prior knowledge of that as a situation. ‘Let’s go to the mall’ becomes a narrative: ‘Let’s go to the mall – where we will walk about the shops, talking as we go, laughing and enjoying being together, and discussing life issues or relationships, or personal goals and dreams, where will we notice and comment on the latest trends, where we will exchange currency (or more likely swipe a small piece of plastic) for new goods, that we can then take home and discuss at length, creating a new shared experience. Whilst at the mall we will likely go and get some food somewhere, so it will become a social event, we will sit and eat, and talk some more, possibly on a deeper emotional level, and this day will become part of our shared memories and we will often revisit the occasion in our thoughts, and enjoy the time over and over again, and the whole experience from beginning to end will enhance our relationship and sense of closeness.’

It doesn’t always work like this. Sometimes we have a row as soon as we get there, sulk all the way round the shops and come home later frustrated and disappointed, still in a frosty silence. The great tapestry of human experience!

Where am I going with this? It’s just this: simply, words are key to the storytelling of human life, whether an ordinary trip out to buy new jeans, or whether we are sitting curled up in our favourite armchair reading words on a pages, pages bound together in one book, a book enclosed by a hard or soft cover, possibly enhanced with a relevant image on the front.

This is not the first time I’ve pondered on the weird and truly wonderful impact of words on my life. At the moment I’m wrestling with the final edit of my novel The Spy Within, (coming soon to an internet store near you), but I’m making time to read. In the last few weeks I’ve read my dear friend Emma Baird’s romance, Highland Chances, and another good friend’s Paul Nelson’s Cats of The Pyramids, yet another writer friend’s book Undercover Geisha, by Judith Cranswick. I’m now reading Mary Stewart’s The Wind Off The Small Isles, as well as P G Wodehouse’s A Damsel In Distress, and dipping in and out of non-fiction books: The Great British Bobby by Clive Emsley, and The 1960s fashion sourcebook by John Peacock. 

Each of these books will leave a lasting imprint on my life. I’ve blogged before about how what we read–especially when it’s something we love–leaves its mark on our soul, a fragment of its written beauty that will see us through the hard times. And this year has been one of hard times, hasn’t it? I think in the coming months we will all need as many beautiful phrases, sweet or witty situations, dastardly intrigues and happy-ever-afters as we can get our hands on.

Happy reading!

***

 

2020 Autumn Thoughts

If you’ve read any of my blog before, you’ll know that I love the autumn. My birthday is in October, so that’s why I think that for me autumn is the time for rebirth and growth. In the summertime, it’s too hot to work my brain, (apart from this year where in my area, we only had two hot days – but wow, they were soooo hot) so the cooler temperatures of autumn bring a welcome respite from the summer, and a new influx of energy.

Or maybe it’s just that thing that all parents have, where, come September the kids go back to school and finally you have the time to sit and think quietly for more than thirty seconds. My kids are adults with their own lives, but the old routine of the school year still lingers on.

I found this short passage on autumn in an old journal:

The leaves of the plum tree are turning yellow. Although most of them are still green, within a week or two the tree will be bare—how quickly the season marches on, and there is nothing any of us can do about that. In the garden at the bottom of ours, their silver birches are also covered in yellowing leaves.

In the last half hour, almost without me noticing, the world has lost its sunny autumnal afternoon look and is now overcome by the gloomy dullness that heralds the imminent arrival of evening.

The leaves are changing, turning yellow and orange, but mainly yellow. A sickly speckled unhealthy yellow. Soon the branches will be bare and we will be in the grip of winter.

One or two birds dash to the bird table and snatch some seeds. Their movements seem urgent, as if time is running out and they must hide before it’s too late.

The day is fading, night is almost here.

But I’m not the only one who mulls over what autumn means. Here are some thoughts from authors to inspire us all to take up our writing projects and search for the poet inside.

F. Scott Fitzgerald: “Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall.”

Albert Camus: “Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.”

John Donne: “No spring nor summer beauty hath such grace as I have seen in one autumnal face.”

Basho: “Early autumn–/rice field, ocean,/one green.”

But not all authors have the came rosy outlook when it comes to the winding-down of the year. Many portray it as a doom-laden promise of misery and gloom.

Dodie Smith: “Why is summer mist romantic and autumn mist just sad?”

Stephen King: “The wind makes you ache is some place that is deeper than your bones. It may be that it touches something old in the human soul, a chord of race memory that says Migrate or die – migrate or die.”

Francis Brett Young: “An autumn garden has a sadness when the sun is not shining…”

David Mitchell: “Autumn is leaving its mellowness behind for its spiky, rotted stage. Don’t remember summer even saying goodbye.”

So which of the autumn types are you? Are you a happy golden-hue embracing energy-filled person, or are you more of a Mr/Mrs autumn-is-the-end-of-everything? Let me know!

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The perils of information dumping.

Writers are known for doing a lot of research, aren’t they? Or perhaps it depends on the kind of thing they write. It’s probably possible to write a book and not need to do much research at all.

Some writers seem to do tons of research, and they make sure that you, the reader, get to read all of it. ALL. OF. IT. They present it to you like a magician pulling a bunny out of a hat. This is called an information dump. Throwing all your research in this way can be tedious, and will slow down the pace of the story drastically. I mean, yes, it’s nice to offer these insights or explanations to your reader, but I don’t think it’s a good plan to completely exhaust your reader, overwhelming them with information so they feel like they’re cramming for an exam.

Do I really need to know the source of the leather used to make the hero’s shoes, or the style of the traditional hand-stitching that finished them off? I mean, unless that pushes the plot forward, I seriously doubt it’s something I need to know to enable me to enjoy the book. I skip all this type of stuff in books—there’s not enough time in my day or patience in my soul to read about the handstitchedness of a chap’s shoes. I doubt I even need to be told the hero is wearing shoes—I think it’s pretty much taken as read that he or she is wearing shoes, don’t you? Unless you’re the author or Kinky Boots or some other shoe-related plot, I don’t think it’s useful or helpful.

I don’t do a lot of research for my novels. Well, that’s not strictly true. If it’s something that interests me, I can waste hours on it, but if I’m purely trying to find out about something ‘ordinary’ then I can take it or leave it. I nip in, check the fact, and nip out again. Then I try to drip-feed it into the story if relevant–a little here, a little there.

As a writer mainly of murder mysteries, I know more than I really need to about methods of killing, about the human body after death, about the psychology of a killer—those are the things that intrigue me. My search history on my computer is enough to make a grown man blanch. But I try not to crowbar it all into my story except where it’s relevant.

As my main character in the Dottie books is ‘involved’ in the fashion industry, and because of personal interest, I spend quite a lot of time researching styles, technology relating to fabric production, and the mechanics of getting a frock to a customer from drawing board to shop assistant. And I’ll admit, quite a bit of this does get put into the book: readers have told me they enjoy the clothing details.

A lot of my research is conducted online, of course, as so much of everything is done these days. But any time I go out, I look for architectural features or cultural ideas that could come in useful in a book. I take photos of everything when I go out. (Or used to, back in the day when going out was a thing we all could do).

I’ve got tons of books too, on fashion history, cultural history, domestic and social history, and even on forensics.

For my research into designer brands—I’m not a designer brand kind of girl—for my Friendship Can Be Murder trilogy, I basically scanned Harrods website and selected the most expensive (insert item of choice here) I could find on their pages and awarded it to my protagonist. But those books have been around for the best part of ten years now, so may well be a bit out of date.

So if you plan to write a book and need to do some research, or if like me you are simply really nosy, here are my top favourites for online research:

Google maps – you can look around any town, not just in the UK but many other countries. Fancy a stroll around the streets of southern France? No problem. Want to drive through Warsaw? Easy peasy. Get a feel for the places you write about and see the real life layout (even if from two years ago) of your location. You can also get an approximate journey time and route all laid out for you. I love the internet!

Timeanddate.com – create yourself a printable or downloadable calendar from 1926. Or any other year from history. Want to know when there was a full moon in the Victorian era? No problem. Was Easter Sunday in 1958 in March or April? When was sunset or sunrise on a particular day? It’s all here. Super useful.

Wikipedia – yes everything seems to be on Wiki – but use with caution and try to verify the information here on other sites too, to ensure accuracy.

Want old street maps of London? Try maps-of-london.com

You can also get loads of useful information from police websites, every police service has them.

Newspapers online – so much useful material there.

The Victoria and Albert museum has a wonderful website. And no doubt other museums have, too. We’re all online nowadays, aren’t we?

Britainexplorer.com has information on interesting places. I used it to find out about a particular country house with priestholes or secret passages.

https://britainexplorer.com/listing/harvington-hall-priest-holes-and-hides/

Another time, I needed to know about everyday life in Britain in the 1930s, and researched telephones. Now we take a phone for granted, but in the 30s they were still pretty new and very much the preserve of the well-to-do. This blog post from italktelecom.com was very helpful

https://www.italktelecom.co.uk/blog/a-brief-history-of-the-home-telephone

And when Dottie got her first car in The Thief of St Martins, I needed to know all about motoring in Britain in 1935. Check out this:

https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/what-is-designation/heritage-highlights/englands-first-filling-station/

But if you take away anything from this, I hope it is, it’s easy to find out information you need, but use it carefully, don’t overwhelm your reader with information that is perhaps interesting to you but not actually needed.

***

 

To catch a killer…

This post kind of continues from my recent post about how the killer in a traditional murder mystery such as the ones I write–or try to–is always ‘one of us’. It’s important that the killer IS one of us. I have to say, if I read a mystery and the perpetrator is revealed as someone barely mentioned, or the author uses that old chestnut, the guilty butler, or any other member of staff, I am SO bitterly disappointed–with both the story, and in fact the author. Because it just feels like a letdown, like the author ‘phoned it in’, as they say, ie couldn’t be bothered to do a proper job. Even some of my favourite authors indulged in this heinous practise!

In his essay, The Decline of the English Mystery, George Orwell wrote, ‘The perfect murderer is a humdrum little man (or woman, I say!) of the professional classes.’

I think most people could agree that when they read a murder mystery, the most satisfying part of the book is trying to beat the sleuth to the finish line. Or at least, to be able to nod sagely at the end and say, ‘I knew it!’ as the killer is revealed.

We’ve come a long way from this scenario: ‘God must search out the solution to this crime because only He knows the secrets of the heart.’ (Revelations of a Lady Detective, William Stephens Hayward 1864) Now, as the reader ‘we’ want to take God’s place and work it out for ourselves. Is it because we want to impose a rigid order on our lives, have complete control over something? Who knows. We could write a philosophical paper on why we enjoy crime books when we (most of us, anyway) are vehemently opposed to violence.

I have to say, I do get a thrill when the murderer turns out to be someone I had completely ruled out or overlooked. I like to be surprised but I also, more than anything, like to be convinced. So if the evidence is flimsy or entirely circumstantial, I don’t buy into it at all. I need to know the why of it far more than how or all the other questions. After all, in a traditional type of murder mystery the guilty party must have a compelling and urgent necessity to take such a drastic act. Otherwise, they could simply move to another town and live under a new name. Or something normal like that…

So here are a few must-haves for the killer of a traditional murder mystery:

  1. They have to appear innocuous or be excluded from being ‘the one who did it’.
  2. If possible they should be genial, amiable and pleasant to most people, and get on with everyone (apart from the victim 😉 )
  3. They will be very aware of every move the victim makes, and take a lot of trouble to keep themselves informed.
  4. They need to be pretty intelligent to outsmart–for a while at least–the sleuth who will be coming after them.
  5. In spite of being pleasant, genial etc they also should reveal–gradually–an arrogant side with a large dollop of superiority complex: they believe they are able to outwit everyone, and are better than anyone, and that their motive completely justifies or exonerates their action.
  6. Lastly, they will crave attention and status; this means they love to get involved in the investigation into the death of the victim. They want to keep themselves informed in order to plan their next move, and to make sure they are safe.

In mysteries, many killers merely carry out the act to cover their butts: the victim knows something, or has the power to do something that threatens the killer’s safety in some way, whether it is their actual liberty at risk, their financial position, their social status, or the safety or fidelity of a loved one. It must be an utterly compelling reason for them.

If they are truly psychopathic, they will feed off the admiration of others and continually find ways–subtle and not-so-subtle–to make sure everyone knows how clever they are. Sometimes this will lead them to offer to help the detective, or sometimes this will lead to another death, as they either have to cover up the first crime, or feel a need to display their ingenuity.

In the case of serial killers, another death can be the result of their urge to experience that sense of fulfilment and power they got from the act of killing itself. They crave that thrill as an addict craves their addictive substance. The pressure is then on for the sleuth to find the killer to prevent yet another death. And often, the author will ensure that tension ratchets up a notch or three by having the next potential victim someone the sleuth really cares about.

Wow, that turned dark and non-cozy very quickly, didn’t it?

In fact the powerful killer is no such thing: as the story reaches its denouement, they are revealed not as powerful but weak, because they do not have the ability to be satisfied with being ordinary.

But that’s why we love these books–it’s so easy to sit back in our comfy chair and close the book, thinking, “Well, I would never do such a terrible thing.”

Isn’t it?

***

 

 

One of us?

In the old Golden Age of detective fiction, there is always some Countess clutching her pearls, casting disapproving looks at the corpse leaking blood onto her Aubusson carpet, and declaring that surely the perpetrator is some stranger, some tramp or wandering vagabond. ‘It can’t possibly be one of us.’

For me, the thrill of these books is the certain knowledge that, yes, it is most definitely one of ‘us’. One of these characters, so genteel, so polite, offering around the drinks decanter, or standing when a lady comes into the room, or smiling pleasantly and asking after the vicar’s marrows, it’s one of them. Most of them have known each other for years and see each other almost every day out walking the dog or playing tennis, or at drinks parties or dinner parties, at bridge evenings and coffee mornings.

We always want to assume that those around us are just like us, and thereby comes the assumption that no one ‘like us’ could possibly do something so sordid as kill another person. This implies loss of control, unacceptable levels of emotion, and of course, a denial of the never-say-die attitude that instils us with hope for a better tomorrow. Or if not better, at least no worse.

So when Major Blaine is found underneath the billiard table with his head bashed in or a hat pin piercing his eye to skewer his brain (sorry about that graphic image, the situation got really bad, really fast, didn’t it?) no one I know could possibly have been the one to commit such an act. Therefore – it could only have been done by someone ‘not from here’.

But when we look at those around us, how well do we really know them? The Countess, so used to having her own way in everything, and with a reputation to maintain. Or the major’s wife. She’s known for her knitting circles and good works, but is she ever at home? How often did the major actually get his wife’s attention? What about the vicar’s wife, busily visiting the elderly and infirm, taking care of the vulnerable, dispensing wisdom, and charity. Does she really deep down love her neighbours? The Vicar, does he really need to spend so much time shut away in his office? What’s he really doing in there? What about Miss Simpson, the village busybody, who knows everyone and everyone’s history. They say she has a heart of gold, but is she really over that old romance? After all, she’s never married, does she still carry a torch for that certain someone? What about the village doctor—I bet he knows a secret or two. Then there is the visiting artist along with his famous ‘temperament’. The aunt from another village, always poking her nose in and gossiping with the neighbours. The daughter just returned from university full of frustration with our old stagnant way of life and plans for the future, and of course, the elderly father who once threatened the organist with his walking stick for driving too fast through the village.

Surely no one I know would commit such a vicious crime?

But now I think of it, how well do I really know them? As I watch them gathered around the corpse, the various emotions—triumph, relief, satisfaction, fear, horror, dismay, anger, sorrow—fleetingly appearing on each face in turn, I feel as though I am in a room filled with strangers.

Any one of them could be the killer… that’s the beauty of it.

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