Criss Cross and a sneaky little announcement.

This week I thought I’d share a flashback-kind-of-thing.

It’s been ten years since I published my first book.

(I was about to write something about that, but then I reread what I’d just written – ten years since… Isn’t that what addicts say? I wonder if I am actually an addict? This writing thing – it’s impossible to stop. Maybe I need professional help?)

Anyway… I was going to say, it’s been ten years since Criss Cross: Friendship Can Be Murder: book 1 hit the Kindles and bookshelves, and firstly, where has the time gone, and secondly, I bang on about my other books but this series gets overlooked. So I thought I’d share with you chapter one of Criss Cross, and also just mention quickly in passing that next year, I plan to bring out book 4 in this series. The series started life as a trilogy but I just love these characters so much. So Dirty Work, book 4 will be out in the mid to end of 2023.

If you feel like reading on, I should just add, there are BAD words in this chapter, and it is VERY long. Oh and it’s written in the first person in diary entry-form. Sorry, I know (now!) that everyone hates that:

Sun 24 June

To my darling Cressida

Happy Birthday, Sweetheart! Have fun writing down all your thoughts and plans and dreams, then when we’re old and grey we can sit together on that terrace in Capri and watch the sun go down, drink a glass of wine and you can read me the spicy bits from this journal and we will have a good laugh and talk about the old days!

With all my love forever and ever

Thomas xx

Same day: 10.35pm (Cressida writes:)

She must die!! I hate her!! I refuse to put up with her a moment longer, she is an evil, conniving old bitch without a grain of family feeling and it’s time she was dead!!

Mon 25 June—2.35pm

Have you noticed how some people just never seem to realise they’ve gone too far?

I was going to start off my new journal with something terribly erudite and wise. Like a new school notebook, I particularly wanted the first page to look lovely. But I suppose it really doesn’t matter if the first page isn’t perfectly neat and everything: the whole purpose of a journal is to pour out one’s innermost thoughts and give vent to all the frustrations that, as a nicely brought-up person, one can’t give full reign to in ‘real’ life, and so obviously even the first page can get a bit messy. And now just look at it!

But I digress. I must explain from the beginning…

It was my birthday yesterday. 32 already. God, I’m old! I looked at myself in the bathroom mirror this morning and even in the flattering south-facing light and all steamy and fresh from the shower, I’m absolutely certain I could see the tiniest line down the left side of my face from my nose to the corner of my mouth—I’m convinced it wasn’t there yesterday. Wonder if I’ve left it too late for Botox?

Among a number of very extravagant birthday gifts, my Darling Thomas gave me this sweet little journal. I’d mentioned weeks ago that I used to keep a journal when I was a melodramatic teenager, and how nice it was just to write down everything that happened and to really get it out of my system and add in lots of ‘grrr’ faces and heavy underlining, and lo and behold, the dear man, he surprised me with this journal for my birthday. So here I am.

It’s an absolutely beautiful book. It has a hard cover with a weird kind of gothicky design in the most gorgeous shades of black and purple and gold, with a magneticky bit in the front flap to keep it closed, and the pages, somewhere between A5 and American letter-size, are edged in gold too, so it feels very glamorous to write in—In fact I was a bit afraid to begin the first page, hence all the fuss about it looking nice and neat, I almost got a kind of writer’s block!

But all my good intentions and deep thoughts and years of accumulated adult wisdom and the desire to create something really special went out the window when my cow of a mother-in-law turned up on a ‘surprise’ visit and now my first page—well second really, under that really sweet little message from Thomas—Is absolutely ruined! I only hope to God Thomas doesn’t read it!

Not that she’d remembered it was my birthday any more than my own mother had—oh no! One can’t expect her (or either of them in fact!) to keep track of trivial little details like that. No, she needed Thomas’s advice about some financial matters, and thought she’d pop over. After all what’s an hour and a half’s chauffeured drive here or there? Of course she didn’t bother to ring first, see if we were in or free or anything. Clarice is used to everyone falling in with her plans.

‘I knew you wouldn’t be doing anything important,’ she says as she breezes in, dropping her coat in the middle of the hall, frowning around at the décor before settling herself in the drawing room, demanding tea. Not just the drink! By ‘tea’ she means that Victorian/Edwardian meal between luncheon, as she calls it, and dinner. She expected crustless sandwiches, crumpets, cakes (large and small), scones, jam and cream, the works. And copious amounts, of course, of tea-the-drink. China, not Indian. With lemon slices in a dainty little crystal dish, not 2 litres of semi-skimmed in a huge plastic container.

Thomas reminded her that it was my birthday and that consequently we had plans for the evening. She waved a negligent hand. Her hair, a shade too brave, was salon-perfectly waved if somewhat stiff-looking, and her clothes were at least one generation too young for her, but hideously expensive as well as just—well, hideous. Did I mention I hate her?

‘Oh that can be set aside. You can easily go out some other evening. My financial affairs are of the first import.’

Thomas looked at me. He didn’t want to fight with his mother and I knew there would be no point in trying to push him to resist the onslaught, so for poor Thomas’s sake, I sighed and shrugged and he sat down next to the old dragon and asked what she wanted to know. Meanwhile I dashed off to ring Monica Pearson-Jones and a few others, to let them know that we would either be horribly late for the theatre party, or quite possibly not turn up at all. I have to admit I was feeling quite cross and rather sorry for myself. However, Huw and Monica’s machine had to take the terrible news, as they were out. I hoped to God they weren’t already on their way.

When I got back to the drawing room, Clarice was banging on about her bloody cats, and Thomas was all glazed over and away-with-the-fairies-looking. Clarice just looked up and taking in my flat tummy and slender waist (which take me hours to maintain, btw) glared at me and said ‘so, still not knocked up yet then?’ And before I could respond with a frosty, well-constructed rebuttal, she turned to Thomas and said, ‘I told you she wouldn’t be any good. Why you couldn’t marry that Filipino girl the Honourable Addison-Marksburys brought back with them, I’ll never understand. Very good child-bearing, the Filipinos. And it’s not as though she would have expected you to take her anywhere.’

Thomas said nothing helpful, of course, just sat there like a rabbit in the headlights. And then, before I could recover my breath enough to pick my jaw up off the floor, at that moment, Huw and Monica arrived. I raced out into the hall, thinking I might be able to head them off, but just as I was discreetly mumbling to them just inside the front door, Thomas dashed out looking frazzled and dragged them in for a cuppa. Huw, only too glad to wade into a fight, immediately went in with Thomas, whilst Monica exchanged a ‘families, what can you do!’ eye-roll with me and we followed on at a more sedate pace, I with the awful sense that things were about to go even more horribly wrongerer!

How right I was. I could see Clarice eyeing them up and down. I knew she wouldn’t like Huw, because he can seem a tad brash on first meeting. He might have the breeding she prefers, but he doesn’t always act like a gentleman. Plus he takes great delight in saying exactly the wrong thing. Loves to shake things up a bit, does our Huw. But Monica, well, she’s lovely! Clarice couldn’t possibly find anything objectionable in Monica, surely?

She found something.

After eyeing them very obtrusively for several full minutes and barely murmuring even the merest of pleasantries when Thomas made the introductions, Clarice said to me, quite loudly enough for them to hear, though it was supposed to be a whisper,

‘Married his secretary, did he? She looks that type. Coarse. Rather Cheap. Eye to the main chance, one would imagine.’

Monica turned to glare, but before she could say anything, and as Huw was about to stroll to her defence, Thomas got their attention by forcing cake on them, but to no avail as, inspired once more, Clarice leaned towards me with another little gem.

He’s obviously a drinker. And looks like a bit of a lech, too. Just like Millicent Huntingdon’s first husband. Thoroughgoing bastard, that one. No back-bone, morally speaking.’

Our friends left just seconds later, Huw saying something over his shoulder about a ‘vile old bag.’ In fact the duration between Clarice’s comment and their car careering off down the drive was less than thirty seconds. I think that’s probably a record. I say ‘our friends’ but after the insults from Clarice, we’ll probably never see them again. Then of course, on being reprimanded for her poor manners, Clarice sulked and kept going on about how she didn’t know what the younger generation were coming to and blaming Thomas for not executing better judgment.

‘In more ways than one,’ she said, and eyed me with malice once more.

So as I was saying to begin with, some people just never seem to realise they’ve gone too far!

I mean, the vast majority of normal people, people like you and I, we just instinctively know the correct way to behave. We apologise when someone else bumps into us, we begin every complaint with ‘terribly sorry to be a nuisance, but…’ We’re nice. Pleasant. We have a kind of in-built mechanism, straight as a line in damp sand, an invisible barrier which prevents us stepping beyond the realm of reasonable and acceptable behaviour.

Some people do not.

Some people never read the signs, they ignore all warnings and plough doggedly on, intent only on saying what they want to say and doing what they want to do. They don’t care about your feelings. They turn up unannounced and uninvited, they change your plans without considering your wishes. They don’t notice the look on your face, the halting of your phrase, they are oblivious to the cooling of the atmosphere around them. They never notice that infinitesimal pause before you continue to hand around the petit-fours, a fixed smile plastered on your face, inane pleasantries tripping off your tongue. Some people remain completely and utterly ignorant of all the signs.

Everyone else, metaphorically speaking, has grabbed their handbags and jackets, collected their madeleine-tins from your kitchen, tossed the keys to the Range Rover to their husbands, dashed out of the door leaving kisses still hanging in the air, and are already on the slip road to the motorway whilst That Person is still looking vaguely around as a few motes of dust drift gently down to the Axminster. They are wearing that idiotic expression that says, ‘who me? What could I have possibly said?’ or even worse, ‘well I only said what everyone else was thinking’.

And they are always, always, always completely unaware when they have outstayed their welcome.

There’s only one way to deal with people like that.

One way and only one way.

You have to kill them.

They never take the hint, you see. They fail to detect the slight frost in your demeanour as they witter on, insulting your loved ones, criticising your friends, your home, your life. Such people cannot be taught, changed or reasoned with. In the end, it’s just easier for all concerned if you get rid of them before they truly become a Nuisance and make everyone with whom they come into contact completely and utterly miserable.

And if that seems a little harsh, just think for a moment about what these people do to your self-esteem, to your inner calm, to your peace of mind. When the phone rings, these are the people whose voice one dreads to hear. One begins to dread all family occasions and holidays because of That Person. Frankly, it’s just not worth the emotional and psychological trauma of putting up with them. Life is quite challenging enough. And that is the stage I’ve now reached with Clarice.

So.

That said, it’s one thing to say to oneself, Monday, water plants, collect dry-cleaning, go to library, bake fairy cakes for the One-to-One drop-in day-centre fundraiser, and quite another thing to just sort of slip onto the bottom of your to-do list, ‘oh and kill mother-in-law and get everything tidied up because dinner will be on the table at seven o’clock sharp due to drinks at eight-thirty at the Pearson-Jones’.

Things—unfortunately—just aren’t quite that simple.

The Grandes Dames of the murder mystery genre, practising their art in the early and middle parts of the twentieth century—what one might term the ‘Golden Age’ of detective fiction—espoused the pleasures of poisoning. Fly-papers were meticulously soaked to extract their lethal properties, berries and toadstools were carefully gathered and sliced and diced and surreptitiously introduced into steaming casseroles and tempting omelettes. On every domestic shelf such things as sleeping draughts and rat poison and eye drops sat unnoticed and unremarked, and a home was not a home without at least a few jars of cyanide or arsenic sulking forgotten in garden sheds and garages.

But, sadly, these items are notoriously tricky to come by nowadays in our ‘Nanny state’.

Of course, one watches these TV programmes that explain all about the forensic process, so that one is pre-armed with useful information. Knives wielded by the left-handed protagonist cut quite differently to those employed by a right-handed person. Equally so the short protagonist and the weak slash feeble protagonist.

In addition the actual wound inflicted by a classic blunt weapon can yield so much information about not just the weapon itself but also the attacker—the approximate height, stance, and even weight and probable gender, for example, and the ferocity of attack is sometimes a gauge as to motive and psychology. Firing a gun leaves residue on one’s clothes, gloves, and skin, and, contrary to popular belief, it can be quite a job laying one’s hands on a firearm.

According to the Daily Tabloid, a gun may readily be obtained at certain pubs in our larger cities for as little as £30, usually from a gentleman going by the name of Baz or Tel, but the problem is, these tend to be the kind of establishments one would hesitate to enter in broad daylight, let alone late in the evening.

Remember, it’s very difficult to get a decent glass of Merlot in this kind of hostelry, and one can’t just go in and hang about without making a purchase of some kind. If you do just go into the bar and stand or sit in a corner, the other patrons are likely to stare and nudge one another. They may even whisper to one another, ‘wot jer fink er game is then?’ or possibly, ‘Oi Tel, woss up wiv er, she too good fer us or summink?’

This is especially the case when one gentleman approaches and states that he and his friend, Gaz or Stevo or even ‘Arrison would like to buy you a beverage of some description, usually a Mojito or similar, and you are forced to politely but firmly decline. They are apt to be offended.

And if you do order a nice glass of Merlot, there’s always a momentary look of confusion on the face of the Landlord as he tries to recollect whether he has a corkscrew within easy reach, or how long ago he opened the half-empty bottle on the back counter—was it recently enough to avoid the expense of opening a brand new bottle?

Then he’ll ask if you’d like ice and lemon. Might as well add a cherry-on-a-stick and a little umbrella! And there’s no point in trying to charge it to your Diamond Visa or Titanium Amex—they much prefer to deal with cash. It’s altogether a rather unpleasant experience.

In any case, Baz or Tel are always surprisingly suspicious when one asks them if it would be possible to purchase a small Eastern-European revolver, something with a fairly hefty slug but small enough to slip into a small Louis Vuitton clutch-purse, or at a pinch into a Mulberry shoulder bag, or even, and here I may be straying into the realms of fantasy or James Bond (same thing, I suppose), even into the top of one’s stocking.

The gentleman invariably looks a bit puzzled and says something along the lines of, ‘‘ere that sounds a bit dodgy Darlin’. I don’t do nuffin like that.’ Well, of course it’s a bit dodgy, one points out, one is illegally attempting to buy a gun in a corner of the car park of a fleabag pub at eleven o’clock at night, and paying cash into the bargain. How could one possibly see it in any other light than dodgy? It doesn’t matter if you offer them £100, £200 or even £500 at this point, they just walk away shaking their heads and saying, ‘screw that, I don’t wanna get cort up in nuffin dodgy.’

I ask you.

The criminal classes aren’t what they once were. But what other choices does one have?

A pillow over the face in the dead of night is liable to leave a filament of goose-down in the lungs of your chosen recipient. This will immediately be detected by any half-decent forensic examiner and blabbed all over the Car-Crash Telly channel in a late-night special called Toffs Who Kill or something of the kind.

A bit of a bump with the car in a quiet part of town on a wet Wednesday afternoon may lead to eyewitnesses or CCTV footage recording your number plate for posterity. For goodness sake, tiny fragments of paint from the wing of your vehicle may embed themselves in the depths of the wound you inflict, and these same may be delicately reclaimed by a steady-handed science-nerd in a lab coat wielding a pair of sterile tweezers.

Murder is a difficult road to travel. But one must bear in mind the old maxim that nothing worthwhile is ever attained without a struggle. Therefore it is imperative to be utterly committed, to be dedicated in one’s approach, to persevere in the face of adversity and to make copious notes so that one may learn from one’s mistakes. And of course, it goes almost without saying, each stage must be planned in intricate, even tedious, detail.

Today I went to my local stationer’s—It’s so vital, I feel, that one supports local businesses wherever possible—and bought two notebooks, a small index card box, a set of ruled index cards, and a rather nice fountain pen. My husband seems to be under the impression that I require these items to catalogue my shoe collection. Sweet! And not a bad idea…but first things first.

Now, I’ve worked out I have approximately six weeks in which to plan and carry out my little project, and still have time for a decent mourning period before we have to be in Scotland for the ‘glorious twelfth’, my Thomas’s cousin Jessica (lovely woman!) always has a house party. Actually this year it’s the glorious thirteenth as the twelfth falls on the Sabbath, and one never shoots in Scotland on the Sabbath. Der! Thomas loves his shooting, so although I’m not a lover of messy pastimes, I always like to encourage him to relax and have a bit of fun, stockbrokers work so hard don’t they, and such high stress levels, one obviously doesn’t want them to crack up under the pressure!

Not, of course, that we would need a mourning period as such, as Thomas hates his mother almost as much as I do, but one must maintain appearances, and I’d need a good week, I’m absolutely certain, to sort out the contents of Highgates—she has accumulated so much old tat, although most of it is stored in boxes in the disused bedrooms, and has been sitting there untouched for simply decades. But it will take me a full day just to sort through the Spode and other china and porcelain in case there are any little gems lurking amongst the dross.

There are also two rather elderly and smelly cats that will have to be put to sleep, and of course the whole legal side of things to sort out. Thomas will have to see to that.

Then there’ll be the funeral to arrange.

Now one thing I do think is really important, and that is to ensure a really beautiful casket is purchased. And of course, it’s no good skimping when it comes to fittings, not if you want to do the job properly. Brass, highly polished, is the only thing that will do. Not that horrid plated stuff that rubs off as soon as you touch it. That’s what happened to Thomas’s colleague Miranda Kettle (she’s got the biggest nose I have ever seen, and the smallest chin! Nothing grows in the shade, does it?). She skimped on her mother’s coffin. We all noticed the green stain on the pall-bearers’ gloves, of course. No one said anything obviously, and in any case, Miranda herself didn’t notice. She had her nose buried in an extra-large gentlemen’s handkerchief most of the time, she was so inconsolably upset. Poor woman. Absolutely distraught throughout the entire funeral. Thought the mortgage had been paid off years ago! Such a beastly shock.

Same day: 5.45pm

I’ve just had a bit of a break to think about this a little longer. So I went to sit out on the terrace with a cup of tea. Then it came to me, and I had to dash indoors and fetch this journal.

Of course, the very thing!

The scourge of society nowadays: the house-breaker. Or, more precisely, the drug addict, who, as the tabloids will no doubt report, desperate to gain some funds for another few grammes of white powder to snort, breaks into a nice house in an attractive part of Ely in the hope of some opportunistic gain. Then is surprised by a feisty, elderly lady with a bit of oomph about her, and during the course of a desperate struggle, the evil perp bludgeons the poor old dear and makes off with some loot.

Meanwhile, I could be enjoying a well-deserved break at a health spa in—ooh, let me think—Cambridgeshire, perhaps?

This might actually work!

Things to do:

Purchase rubber gloves, not those cheap ones, they make me itch.

Ditto black woollen ski mask or balaclava

Goggles

Also some black shoe polish (for face, obviously, so must make sure I purchase a ‘gentle’ formula) as I believe we’re actually out of black shoe polish at the moment.

I think I already have a black (or navy would suffice at a push) pac-a-mac somewhere in the rear cloakroom from that ill-fated walking holiday of 2010—Thomas had wanted to try something different—suffice to say, we went straight back to Antigua after that.

Oh, and black slacks.

Next, book visit to health spa. Tell Thomas am going away for a couple of days to a nice, reputable place in Cambridgeshire. Must buy a copy of The Lady in case none of my pals can think of anything in that area.

Will need to purchase a cheap, disposable holdall for disguise. (Could use a plastic grocery bag, I suppose, but it’s not really me. Also, this might scream homicidal housewife slash amateur-hour and want to look like I know what I’m doing, right tools for the right job etc etc but can’t actually use one of my own in case it’s traced back to me).

No need to buy a bludgeoning implement, as plenty of scope at Thomas’ mother’s house. Lots of beastly vases and figurines—some really quite large and heavy and ghastly but without any actual value—and, as will obviously have gloves on, can leave figurine in situ once used, no need concern oneself about disposal of same. Actually leaving the weapon behind looks better from a not-going-equipped point of view. More impromptu.

You know, I’m so excited. I really think this might actually work. Must just go and fish my little filofax out of my bag to work out a timetable. Then I can start writing in the headings on my index cards. Ooh Goody!

***

If one is good, two is better, right? #WritingaMystery

Writing a new book: it’s like being in love

Oh I am loving this writing something new lark.

For a few reasons, I have been working on the same two books for about three years. As you may know if you’ve followed my ramblings on this blog before, I recently published my new murder mystery A Meeting With Murder: Miss Gascoigne mysteries book 1.

And at the moment I am still putting the finishing touches to Rose Petals and White Lace: Dottie Manderson mysteries book 7, which is due out on 9th December this year – only just over a month to go.

(Eek!!!!! What am I doing writing this?)

But… and you’ll think I’m mad. Okay, if you know me you probably already think that.

…I’ve started writing another book this week.

I won’t tell you what it is yet, I think that’s best kept quiet for now. It’s all far too early to start penciling in publication deadlines. It’s so new I haven’t even got a cover for it yet.

Not long now!

What I wanted to share with you is the sheer joy of working on a new NEW project after having a dodgy couple of years working with the same books and feeling like they were never going to happen.

It’s so invigorating, refreshing, inspiring. I feel like singing. Or dancing. Or just telling the world. It’s weird, I feel an urge to go up to actual strangers and–okay not hug them, I’m not a monster–but at least smile pleasantly. It’s just sooooo good to be creating not editing, feeling my way forward, laughing at my own jokes, mulling over all the myriad possibilities of a brand new story.

It feels as though anything is possible, anything can happen, and most probably will. I feel in control, I feel fulfilled. I even got up early to write!!!! New fresh ideas are buzzing, and I am writing feverishly, it’s like being in love.

My natural pessimism/caution requires me to just briefly add that by next week it could all be over, and I might be drowning my sorrows in a vat of hot chocolate, or I’ll be deeply mired in the slush that forms the slough of despond known as the soggy middle.

But right now, I’m just so ecstatically happy to be writing something new that I just had to tell someone!

Me, about a hundred years ago, but already books had the power to take over my life.

***

A quick catch-up with Criss Cross

I self-published my first book in January 2013, so  nine and a half years ago.

(note to self, you should have waited until January 2023 so you could do a 10-year anniversary post.)

(note back to self from self: I might still do that, no one will remember that it was only six months earlier that I did this post, will they?)

The book was Criss Cross, and it was the first book of a trilogy called initially the Posh Hits Murders then I changed that rather clunky title a few years ago to the Friendship Can Be Murder mysteries.

Why did I self-publish?

I finished the book in 2012, (congrats, self, it’s been ten years…) and finding that people were still rather scornful of self-pubbed books – and still are today, btw – I tried to persuade around thirty publishers and agents to take it. The responses varied from dusty silence for months on end with tumbleweed rolling by, to responses two or three weeks later of ‘Sorry it’s just not for us, so sorry, but no,’ to responses by return of mail, saying, in effect, ‘Hell no!’

Some people said, ‘We enjoyed it but it won’t sell, it’s not commercial enough. It doesn’t fit into a genre.’ (True)

Lots of them said, ‘Good luck with that.’

And so that was why I thought I would ‘give it a go’ as a self-published author. Whilst waiting for replies from the latest victim, I had read quite a lot about self-publishing and thought it sounded like something even I, technologically challenged as I was, could do. So I did.

It was a long and difficult process as I had never done anything like that before. I knew very little about editing, or formatting of manuscripts. I was still working full time, so I had very little time to do anything ‘extra’, and I had no spare cash to pay anyone to do anything for me. In those days I didn’t know any other writers either so I had no one to ask. I learned it all from a book. and from research on the Interweb.

And then apart from the technology, I had another issue: I was really really scared!

What if people didn’t like it?

What if I discovered that I was genuinely a terrible writer?

What if the publishers and agents had been right and it was a huge failure? Well that one at least wasn’t too much of a problem – if it flopped, who would know or be worried apart from me?

It took a while to overcome my fears and just go for it. But eventually I got tired of wondering ‘what if’ and just – did it.

And yeah, it’s not made me a millionaire. I sell something like 100 of my Dottie Manderson mysteries to every one of the Criss Cross books I sell. But every month I sell a few, a nice little handful of eBooks and paperbacks and even large print paperbacks.

And yeah, not everyone likes it. One of my earliest reviews – which could have stopped my writing career right there if it wasn’t that I am super stubborn and contrary, was a one star review that said ‘This is the worst book I have ever read.’

Quite honestly they did me a favour. Because that was exactly what I had been dreading all that time, so once it came, everything else seemed okay. And by that time book 2 was out, followed by book 3 and book 1 of the Dottie Manderson mysteries.

I think most writers dream of getting an offer from a publisher to publish their works. That’s never happened to me and I don’t know how I would feel or what I would say if it did. I kind of just kept on with the self-publishing as it seemed pointless to waste time trying to place my books when they could be ‘out there’ within a day or two. I make a nice living now from my books. Currently I have ten books published and two more about to come out later this year. I’m not a millionaire. To be honest I’m okay with that. I love the creative control of my books and I enjoy working with other authors to edit or proofread their works or to offer ideas or support.

And I have received so much help from many lovely authors. Now, I quite often get emails or message from readers telling me they like my books. I usually apologise first. then thank them.

Readers, you have no idea how amazing it is when someone tells you that something you came up with out of thin air has given them pleasure. Thank you, wonderful readers, for your kindness and support too.

What’s the book about?

So what’s Criss Cross about?

Loosely speaking, it’s a murder mystery. But it’s written in the form of diary entries by the protagonist, Cressida, and is from a limited-ish first person point of view.

(And those are some of the aspects of it that were not commercially viable for a publishing house.)

She’s terribly posh and entitled, and has a plan to kill off her mother-in-law who is making her life a misery.

I can’t really say it’s a mystery as quite a lot of what happens is told to the reader directly by Cressida. But of course, she herself doesn’t always know what’s going on, so there is that element of mystery. But there is a strong chick-lit vibe, and there’s romance.

(More reasons why it’s not a good choice for a publishing house.)

As the story moves on, the body count piles up, because stuff just happens, as Cressida quickly discovers. Outwardly self-sufficient and uncaring, she is really a fairly lonely person who builds herself a family, and it is these relationships that she wants to protect at all costs.

It’s humorous, a bit snarky, but warm and occasionally poignant. Each story leads on from the previous one, these don’t quite work as stand-alones, I’m afraid.

If you fancy reading a bit more, you can find a sneak peek here.

NB – just to let you know, I’ve been toying with the idea of continuing this series, so who knows – watch this space, it might end up a series.

***

Blue Sky Thinking?

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“October extinguished itself in a rush of howling winds and driving rain and November arrived, cold as frozen iron, with hard frosts every morning and icy drafts that bit at exposed hands and faces.”
― J.K. RowlingHarry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

We often are told in writing to draw on our senses to bring reality and immediacy into our writing, to create texture and believability, creating a world for our reader to step into in their mind. The same is true of the weather. Painting the weather into your story works every bit as well as using sensory information: capture a background, a stage, a canvas, on which your characters can live out their lives.  Weather often overlaps with sensory description – you make your reader feel the warmth of the sun on their skin, or the raindrops on their face, let them hear the thunder or feel the rising humidity or the biting of a north wind every time the cabin door opens and someone struggles to push it shut again.

“The sun did not shine. It was too wet to play. So we sat in the house. All that cold, cold, wet day.”
― Dr. SeussThe Cat in the Hat

Where you are writing about a specific time of year, remember that extremes of weather can be used to move a plot forward – an unseasonably warm spring day, a summer downpour leading to flooding.  In Judith Allnatt’s book “A Mile Of River” the events of the story unfold in Britain’s long drought of 1976, to devastating effect.  I can remember snow falling in July once in the 1980s when we lived in Aldershot, and five years of living in Queensland – even with its reputation for being damp – has made me love grey skies and rain. One of the first people we met was a cab driver from Hull who had been in Aussie for 35 years.  He told us he hated the sun and longed for drizzle. so weather can also be part and parcel of who we are and affect our outlook on life.

“It was one of those perfect English autumnal days which occur more frequently in memory than in life.”
― P.D. JamesA Taste for Death

I’ve always wanted to use that phrase so often featured in the Peanuts cartoons: ‘It was a dark and stormy night…’ Originally used by a British writer, Edward Bulwer-Lytton in 1830, it was ridiculed from the off for its melodrama.  So I haven’t used it.  But it’s tempting! I love storms and it always feels as if anything could happen during a storm.  Likewise we think of spring as bright, happy, a time or hope and rebirth…

“April is the cruelest month, breeding
lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
memory and desire, stirring
dull roots with spring rain.”
― T.S. EliotThe Waste Land

I have adorned a funeral with pouring rain in my WIP, Miss Burkett Changes Her Mind (no, I still haven’t finished it .) I always think a large black umbrella is full of possibilities for crime or romance. But sometimes, regardless of your misery and grief, the heavens refuse to open, and the sun shines, the birds sing, almost in mockery of your emotions. And this too, can produce a mood that works nicely on paper, inducing your character to take some form of action.

But don’t overdo it.  You don’t need to update your readers on every other page unless it’s a book about climate change, or you’re engaged in rewriting Wuthering Heights. (I’m sure they would all have lived happily ever after if they hadn’t lived in such a bleak and lowering spot.)

“But who wants to be foretold the weather? It is bad enough when it comes, without our having the misery of knowing about it beforehand.”
― Jerome K. JeromeThree Men in a Boat

Woo hoo – exciting news!

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I am delighted to announce that Cross Check, the sequel to my novel Criss Cross, is now available from Amazon and Smashwords, in a variety of formats to suit tablets and eReaders and even laptops and PCs.

Not got a Kindle? You can still buy eBooks from Smashwords and read them on your tablet, laptop or PC using a variety of different formats:

epub; mobi (kindle for tablet); pdf, rtf; pdb; txt; and even – readonline !!!!
Also, if you just want a taster to get you in the mood, you can download a free sample which equates to about 4,300 words, or up to page 21

Please note: the language is foul and there is a fair amount of violence. Not much sex though. Sorry about that.

Many, many thanks to my lovely friends and family for all the support and encouragement you have given me over the last year as I laboured with these two books, and many others!

Now I’m going to put my feet up!  (Not really!)

New short story – Spiraea

download

Spiraea

Prologue

The spiraea shoot had taken, Henry knew it from the little green buds, emerging here and there up the length of the cut cane and now just beginning to unfurl.  This would change his life.

Five years later

Henry Jenkins stood in the dock of the court.  He answered the clerk’s questions as to his name and date of birth and his abode.  His voice quavered a little and he cleared his throat to continue.  He had never been in a court before.  He’d never been accused of anything before.

The clerk of the court told him to remain standing as everyone else took their seats.  He felt overtall, naked as all eyes turned on him.  His cheeks burned with shame as the judge read out the charge.

“The plaintiff, his lordship the Lord Branchley, states that you have built an independent and thriving concern upon the theft of plants from his lordship’s grounds, where you worked as an under-gardener until five years ago when you began working on your own account.  How do you plead?”

Henry licked his lips.  He pleated and unpleated the hem of his old tweed jacket as he stammered his response.  The grandeur of the setting was overwhelming and he was finding it difficult to think straight, to take in what was being said to him.  Then he had to repeat himself in order that everyone could hear him.

“Not – not guilty, your worship – um – your  – um, sir.”

“Hmm.”  Responded the judge somewhat doubtfully.  He peered over his glasses at Henry and fixed him with a hard look.  “So noted.”  And he made a mark on the paper in front of him with his fountain-pen.

And so it began.  Henry was permitted to take his seat and he was glad to do so, his head was swimming with nerves.  At erudite length the prosecution set forth their case, that the accused had stolen plants from the eminent philanthropist Lord Branchley, and had thus set himself as a market-gardener.  That he had traded on knowledge he had gained during his employment by his lordship and turned it to his advantage.  There was more but these were the key points upon which their case hinged.  His lordship himself was in court and stood with his attorney before the judge to outline his hurts once again and demand such full redress as the law permitted.

Henry felt as though it was all washing over him, covering his head, leaching away his confidence, his pride, everything he knew.  When at last the judge declared a break for lunch, Henry was already wondering if it was too late to change his plea.

Relief filled him as he reached the cool solitude of his cell.  Lunch was a pot of small beer and some bread and cheese.  But Henry didn’t feel much like eating.  He took a little of the cheese, and perhaps half of the beer.  He thought about his case.

If he changed his plea to guilty, he would lose everything – his business, his new-found livelihood, his little home and in all probability, his family.  Hetty had married him, very much against her parents’ advice, on the understanding that he was finally in a position to support a family.

But what would happen if that was no longer the case?  What if he lost everything and had to return to his old room at Mrs Clark’s?  Hetty would not go with him, he was certain of that, and why should she bring the two babes to live in such a crowd?  No, she would go home to her mother, and if that happened he would never see her again.  And with his lordship like to win the action, henry thought it was not likely he’d get a good job again even if he, by some marvel, escaped a gaol sentence.

Henry dashed away a tear with an angry hand.

At that moment, his defence attorney arrived.  The man was beaming.  Henry repressed an urge to punch him on the nose.

“Well, Jenkins, I feel it’s going very well, very well indeed, young sir.  We’ll soon have you out of here, don’t you worry about that.”  He paused, clearly waiting for Henry to thank him.  On receiving nothing from him, the attorney continued with a slight frown.  “Now, now, young fellow, chin up.  No cause to be down in the dumps, you know.“

“They seem to have all the right with them.”  Henry said.  The attorney inclined his head.  “I thought there would be a jury?”

“No indeed, it isn’t that kind of trial.  It will be his honour who will make the judgment based on the evidence.”

“Just that one judge?  We may as well give up now.  I have no chance of success.”

“Well it may seem so now, but we will not give in!  No, we must cling to our beliefs and hope for the best.  Now once we resume after luncheon, I will have the opportunity to put your side of the story, and then we shall see, eh?  What do you think to that?”

Henry said, “I think I shall go to prison.  I shall never see my children again.”

The attorney frowned at him again.  He chucked him on the shoulder.

“Come, come, man, there’s no need for such talk.  We’ll have you back with your family in no time.  Right!  Now, I’m just off for a bit of lunch and I will see you in court!”

The cell seemed emptier after the attorney left, but all the same Henry was glad he was gone.

After lunch the prosecution called two witnesses, the head-gardener and another under-gardener.   It was established by each that they had each seen the defendant remove plant material from the compost heap for unknown purposes and without the authorisation of the head-gardener or his lordship himself.  That seemed to satisfy the prosecutor, and he resumed his seat with a grave look and pursed lips.

Henry’s defence attorney stood to pose a couple of questions.  “Have you ever seen the defendant removing plants or any other items from anywhere other than the compost heap?”

The head-gardener, an aged gentleman with weak eyes, sat turning his hat round and round in his hand and avoiding Henry’s eye, and finally he said he had not.

“And can you elucidate for the officers of this court, the function of this compost heap?”

“Er, beg pardon?”  The head-gardener leaned forward, looking puzzled.

“Yes, of course.”  Said the defence attorney with a broad smile for the court.  He turned back to the witness with a matey grin.  “Er – what’s it for?”

“The compost heap?  Well, it’s a kind of rubbish tip for all unwanted bits and bobs and it mulches it all down to make compost you can put back on the garden.  Very good stuff it makes.  Very good for roses and …”

“That is sufficient information, thank you, Mr Duffy.”  Said the judge.

“Sir, sorry sir.”  Said Duffy and he seemed surprised by the laughter that filled the court.  The judge rapped his gavel and the amusement was silenced.

“And was it his lordship who asked you to create this compost heap?”

“Well no, not as such.  His lordship leaves the day to day running of the grounds to me, and I always has a compost heap, it makes very good …”

“Quite so.”  Said the defence attorney hastily.  “So really the creation of a compost heap is part of your normal gardening practice, which experience has taught you is beneficial?”

“Er, yes, it has, it is, I mean.  Yes.”

Again a ripple of laughter was heard but quickly died away under the judge’s frowning looks.  The defence attorney gathered his papers.  He directed a nod to the judge.

“No more questions, your honour.”

The prosecution attorney immediately leap to his feet and asked to put a further question.

“Is it true to say the accused has learned all his skills from the employment his lordship has granted?”

The head-gardener was struggling to fathom the sentence, his old forehead even more crinkled than usual with the effort.  The prosecution attorney obligingly clarified his meaning.

“The job of under-gardener gives many opportunities to learn new skills and to gain experience?”

The head-gardener wavered.  “Well it does and it doesn’t.”

The prosecution attorney hid his annoyance at the man’s density.  His chance to prove the case based on this witnesses testimony would dwindle if he couldn’t get him to say the right things.

“I see.  But I imagine that when Mr Jenkins left his lordship’s employ, he knew a lot more than he did when he first started?”

“It’s possible,” conceded the old man.  “He had such an enquiring nature.  He was always bringing in books and such and telling me all his high-falutin’ ideas about this and that.  Never one to be content with doing things the way them’d always been done.  Always wanting to try summat new.  He fair drove me wild at times.”

Seeing that continuing with the witness was likely to actually harm his case, the prosecutor decided to take his seat with a crisp, “no further questions, your honour.”

The defence called Matthew Styles, under-gardener.

Matthew Styles took the stand, saying his oath loudly with relish and looking around smiling.  He was going to enjoy this unique experience to the utmost.  After a few background questions as to his age and experience and his employment, the defence attorney asked, “have you ever seen anyone else removing items from the compost heap or anywhere else?”

“Including me?”  Styles asked, eagerly.

The defence attorney, a little surprised, nodded.  “Yes, Mr Styles, including yourself.”

“We all ‘ave.”

“All?”

“Yes, indeed.  And even his lordship’s butler, he’s very fond of sweet peas, you know, so even he, when they’re there, he comes down and cops ‘em off Mr Duffy.  Then there’s …”

“Excuse me, Mr Styles.  I’m sorry to interrupt you.  Am I correct in thinking that other servants than those who work in the gardens also avail themselves …?”

“Oh yes, Mr Stephens, now as I says, he likes his sweet peas, so at the end of the season, when they is dug out and on the heap, he comes down for the pods to get the seeds, so then he has his own sweet peas in his own garden.  Won a prize, he did, last year at the village show.  Very good he is with sweet peas, Mr Stephens.  And then there’s Clarice.  She works in the kitchen.  She takes the flowers from the summer pruning for her mother’s grave.  They’re not actually dead.  The flowers I mean,” Styles explained to the tittering audience, provoking a further outburst with, “her mother’s dead right enough, God rest her, but the flowers is just a bit past their best, still quite nice looking.”

The judge banged his gavel six times and stunned everyone to silence.  “I think we’ve heard quite enough to consider the question answered.”

The defence attorney inclined himself in a stiff bow.  “Of course your honour.”  He turned back to the witness.  “And so, it seems acceptable and indeed common for employees to remove items from the compost heap, as it is clear that anything placed thereupon is unwanted, is that the case?”

“It is.”  Styles agreed.  The defence attorney resumed his seat.  The prosecution attorney stood and said,

“It appears as though there is wholesale theft going on within his lordship’s premises.  It almost sounds as though every servant is cheating his lordship.  No questions for this witness, your honour.”

Styles was dismissed.  The prosecution rested, but with an acute sense of his hands having been tied by his client and of having failed to produce sufficient evidence to enable a favourable outcome.  With a lowering sense in his stomach, the prosecution heard the defence attorney call the accused to the stand.

“How long had you been employed by his lordship as an undergardener before you left to pursue your own business?”

“A little over six months, sir.  I think it was about eight months.”

“Really?”  The defence attorney infused his voice with surprise.  “From the testimony we have heard today, I had thought it had been a much longer period than that.”

“No sir.  I worked for my father from the age of fourteen until he passed away when I was twenty three.”

“And then you went to work for Lord Branchley?”

“Yes sir.”

“What line of work was your father in?”

“He was a market-gardener, sir.”

“Indeed.  How interesting.  But one imagines that you had far greater opportunity to learn your trade in your employment at Lord Branchley’s?”

“I learned a great deal about digging, sir.  And about cutting grass.  That was about all Mr Duffy would allow me to do.”

“I see.  And I make no doubt these skills were useful to you when you set up your own market garden?”

The judge silenced the few sniggers around the courtroom with a single look.  Henry Jenkins hesitated then said, “well sir, I don’t cut grass in my market garden, you see I don’t have a lot of room for grass.  But I do occasionally dig.”

“Thank you, Mr Jenkins.  And what was the reason you did not continue in your father’s market garden but instead came to take a position with Lord Branchley?”

Henry bowed his head.  Those in the court could see him biting his lip.  The judge spoke.

“Mr Jenkins, I must urge you to answer the question.”

Henry’s head came up.  “Yes sir, your – um.  It was just – I hadn’t wanted to say, but it was because of his business being sold to pay for my brother’s debts. There was no money left and so I was forced to find myself a position with the family livelihood gone.”

“Thank you, Mr Jenkins, I do appreciate that this is not easy for you.  And is your brother still in debt?”

“No sir.”  Henry said.  He looked down at the floor.  Only the few people at the front of the court heard his voice as he said, “my brother was hung last year on account of killing a man in a brawl.”

The judge tsked and shook his head.  He made another note on his paper.  Henry felt a sense of despair but on glancing up, met sympathy in the judge’s eyes.

The defence attorney continued.  “I am very sorry to hear of your troubles.  We will turn away from all that.  Perhaps I could ask you to explain just how you came to provide yourself with the means to set yourself up in your business?”

This was easier ground for Henry after the previous question.  He relaxed a little and his voice was clear.

“Well sir, I took a few things form the compost heap, as you know.  There was a few canes from his lordship’s spiraea in the shrubbery.  Now, my father used to grow spiraea and the cuttings, like long canes they are, they root really easy.  So I took a couple of them and I rooted them.  When his lordship was in the grounds, sir, taking a bit of a look around with the head-gardener, I approached him and said to him, would he like to have more of the spiraea in the shrubbery as it was dead easy to root and it would make a nice display of pinky red flowers when it came out.”

“And what did he say?”

“He said, ‘who is the ridiculous oik, Duffy?’  And Mr Duffy, he looked daggers at me and said to his lordship as I was one of the under-gardeners.  ‘Not any more’, said his lordship, ‘give him a week’s notice and get rid of the young upstart, I’ll not be so addressed in my own demesnes’. ”

“He sacked you?”

“He sacked me, sir, yes.”

“Then what happened?”

“Then his lordship, he turned to Mr Duffy, and asked him what I was on about.  So Mr Duffy showed him the spiraea and said as I was suggesting having more of them.”

“And did his lordship comment at all on this?”

“He said, ‘I hate the bloody things,’ begging your pardon but that is the very words his lordship used.  ‘Rip them all out.  Can’t stand them.  Get rid of them all.’   That’s what he said.”

“So now, you found yourself out of work and you had the spiraea canes.  What happened next?”

“Well sir, I had me week’s notice to work.  And there were a lot of nice bits on the compost heap.  Strawberry creepers and whatnot.  I came away with no reference but with a tidy sum of little plants and cuttings and things.  And I was walking out with Hetty Miller, maid from the Dower House.  But I couldn’t marry as I didn’t have no job.  But Hetty she says, you can sell them when they’re rooted up.  She said I could earn enough to rent a nice little cottage, that way I could start my market garden up gradual.  So that’s what I done.  And then me and Hetty got married, and now there’s the two babes too.”  At this point Henry turned to the judge, “Sir, begging your pardon, but if I goes to prison I will never see Hetty nor my children again as her mother took against me.  My Hetty means everything to me.  If I’d have known how his lordship felt, I’d have willingly paid for the stuff I took, but I thought it would be all right because all of us was doing it and in any case his lordship said to get rid of them.”

There was a half-formed protest from the prosecution, but the judge waved it away with a weary hand.

“Mr Jenkins, what would you say the original items you took were worth?  If one had to purchase them from a market garden, for example.”

“You don’t buy things like that, sir, your worship, they are just …”

“Just thrown away on a compost heap?  Quite so.  Very well, you may stand down.”

The judge made some more notes. He sat back and addressed the court.

“I have made my decision.  The defendant will rise.”

Henry stood, trembling, to hear the words that would decide his future.

“I find in favour of the plaintiff.  I order that the defendant shall pay damages in the amount of one penny for the – er – spiraea – and the same amount for the strawberry creepers.”

For a moment Henry couldn’t understand what was happening.  The prosecution attorney and his client Lord Branchley were outraged and already demanding that his honour should review the evidence.  The defence attorney was pumping Henry’s arm up and down and slapping him on the shoulder.

“A triumph, my boy, a triumph!”

The judge, ignoring the commotion, said to Henry, “you are to be commended for your ingenuity and your skilful grasp of your own trade.  The court commiserates with you over the difficulties that have beset you in the past, and hopes that your market garden will continue to thrive.  And if you will leave your particulars with my clerk, I believe my good lady will be interested in what you have in the line of roses, as she is contemplating some improvements to our grounds at home.  Court is adjourned.”

The judge stood and left the court, his gown billowing.

Henry turned to look across the courtroom.  There was Hetty, making her way towards him, dashing away tears and smiling.

“We won!”  He said.  He still couldn’t believe it.  She laughed.

“Silly!  Of course we did!”

*

Quote re Poetry

Philip Larkin once said “I think we got much better poetry when it was all regarded as sinful and subversive, and you had to hide it under a cushion when someone came in.”

Is it easier to read or write poetry in secret?  Is it just that with no one looking over your shoulder or asking if you’ve written the next stanza yet, or pointing out that your poem doesn’t rhyme, it’s easier to be free and expressive?  if so, then following on from my remarks a few days ago, it’s easier for all writers to write ‘in secret’, behind closed doors or in my case, in the middle of the night when everyone else has been in bed for hours.

I have not ventured far into the forest of poetry.  I once stood under the first tree and ‘had a go’.  It was not a good outcome for either me or the world of poetry.  I don’t mind admitting this is not my genre.  but occasionally, very occasionally prose will not cut it, usually when I am in a terrible rage (“she’s in one of her black moods again”) and IN SECRET I write a poem.  The first line of one went like this:

B*gger B*gger Sh@t F?ck.

I was pleased with it – it said what I was feeling, did what I wanted it to do, which was to make me feel better.  Sorry to all the real poets out there.  It’s a bit of a mysterious world, this poetry-writing thing.

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Why?

Why do Writers Write?

I’ve often asked myself why.  Why do I do this?  Why do you do this?  Why do we spend hours every day – or most days – engaging with the blank screen or blank page and labouring to produce words – words with meaning, emotion, information?  Words.

And why words?  Why not knit, draw, bake, garden, make model planes, breed dogs, or even just do a nine to five Monday to Friday job with a salary you KNOW is going into the bank on a set date, then go home each day and barbecue some steaks or sit in front of the TV or go to a nice restaurant with your family?

I used to think it was just because I was screwed up.  Or because I was an only child and not used to company or because I had to make my own entertainment, or because putting my thought-words into actual vocalised words was hard.  Part of me still thinks this might be true.  Even though I have a family, I’m still a very solitary person.  I don’t mean to be, I don’t even like to be alone that much, but it’s a kind of a habit, I’m used to it.

But that isn’t the whole reason.  And I suspect (haven’t actually checked!) that there are a number of sociable writers out there from large, boisterous families, writers who enjoy engaging with others.  So why do they write?

When asked why as a mother of a growing family, she had stopped writing, Winifred Watson, author of the wonderful ‘Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day’, said “you can’t write if you’re never alone.”  Watson was a hugely popular author in the 1930s and very successful, but now she is almost unknown.  If she wrote purely for personal fulfilment, then once she was married and raising a family, I can understand that the need to write may have gone, or been satisfied in domesticity.  But for myself and for many writers, I still don’t think this is the whole story.

There is something about creating another world, something about purging myself of all those words that need to be put onto paper.  But it’s not just about escaping reality, not just about unburdening oneself.  Yes, it is often – but not always – a compulsion.  There is an urge to create in an abstract way sometimes, a need to make something with your mind, your hands and then be able to step back and think, ‘yes, I did that’.

There is also a desire to communicate with others.  Often as writers we wonder if other people – our readers – will see and understand the message we are seeking to bring to them, and if they will see it in the same way that we see it.  Often they do not, and they find something new in our words.  Literary Criticism shows that reading is an active process as is perception, and that there are many ‘truths’ hidden in a text.

One well-known writer whose name escapes me at the moment said, when asked why she wrote, said that the question should really be, “why doesn’t everyone?”

The jury is still out on this question.  I think it may be one of those how-long-is-a-piece-of-string type questions.  So I will close with a quote from a book that has been the most influential on my writing career:  Dorothea Brande, whose book ‘Becoming A Writer’ was published in 1924, said this: “A Writer writes”.

End of.

Have it your way – new formats available!

I’m thrilled to announce that Criss Cross is now available in a variety of formats, including ebook for Nook, Kobo, PDF for PCs, ePub for mobiles etc and now also as a PAPERBACK book from Amazon!  Yes an ACTUAL book!

Excited!

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Criss-Cross-Posh-Hits-ebook/dp/B00BM9AJ3Q/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1371805898&sr=8-1&keywords=caron+allan

https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/322982