She’s such a character!

My stories tend to be character driven rather than plot driven. You might think that’s a bit odd for someone who writes cosy mysteries, and you’d be right. Very often in a cosy mystery, you meet a collection of characters who tend to be caricatures, almost, of ‘typical’ people you might meet in the situation where the crime occurs, and it is the story – the plot – that is of primary importance. I’m not saying that my minor characters are fully realised, well-rounded and recognisable individuals, but I try.

The problem for me is that my books usually have a vast range of characters in them (and FYI it’s a nightmare and a half trying to think of names for them all) so there’s not always the space in the story to give everyone their own life without totally confusing the reader.  It can be hard for me, let alone the reader, to keep track of everyone. With Night and Day: Dottie Manderson mysteries book 1 I put in a character list à la old-school mysteries, thinking that would be helpful to readers (having been castigated for not putting one in) but I got even more complaints about that. So in the end it was just easier to leave it out.

And I’ve tried to create complex, realistic people as my main characters. They have faults and flaws. It is not my intention to write a book where the main characters don’t grow or change, or are completely perfect. I want them to mess up – and my main characters do that big-time. I want them to be relatable.

In my Dottie Manderson mysteries set in the 1930s, I have two detectives who are the ‘main’ protagonists, Dottie herself and Inspector Hardy, with a supporting cast of around a dozen other ‘regulars’. Then each story has its own characters on top of that. My protagonists are not the isolated individuals of many books in my genre–no brooding detective all alone with their ghosts for me. No, mine both have a family who pop in and out, often the source of useful information or connections, or just serving as a distraction or to illustrate some aspect of the character of my main people. In addition, they also have careers and are involved with work colleagues who again cannot be overlooked all the time.

And then as I say, each mystery requires its own cast of players–the numbers are rising! Making people really stand out can be a challenge. There are reasons for this.

Obviously the first reason is me. I have only a limited experience of life. I think that’s the same for most of us. We always, consciously or unconsciously, bring our own life experiences, attitudes and beliefs, and our flaws and strengths with us when we create anything. It’s been said that authors put something–sometimes quite a lot-of themselves into what they create. How can they not? So I try to compensate for this by doing a lot of research, and by trying to create people who are not much like me. I’m not sure how well I succeed with that.

But I don’t like to read books where the detective is perfect. I’m bored by protagonists who are perfect, who always behave the right way, say the right thing, do the right thing, who think clearly at all times and never get confused, puzzled or befuddled, who don’t lash out, or say the wrong thing, or believe liars or cheats. My characters are all too flawed, and as readers will know, they sometimes make disastrous decisions. And then have to live with the consequences.

In addition to that, I’d like to think the characters grow. I’ve lost track of how many detective series I’ve stopped bothering with because I couldn’t deal with the fact that the protagonists never ever learn from their mistakes, or keep on acting in an implausible or unprofessional manner despite twenty years as a police inspector etc. Because in real life we do learn, most of the time, don’t we? Or we try to.

My character Cressida in the Friendship Can Be Murder trilogy grows a little. As the trilogy goes on, she travels from being a designer-label obsessed airhead to being a caring mother and family-oriented person who doesn’t mind seaside staycations as that brings a lot of fun to all the family. Okay, she does still love a nice outfit, but it’s not the be-all and end-all of her life. And yes, she is still a bit manipulative, but she genuinely cares about the people close to her. which is why she gets into the messes she gets into, trying to help people by getting rid of some of the–ahem–nuisances in their lives. Oh yes, she is still a mass-murdering monster – but a nice one.

In my stand-alone novel, Easy Living, the main character Jane goes from a rose-tinted truth-denying outlook to recognising and facing up to the truth about her relationship – and it hurts her a great deal to come to terms with that. It’s a good thing she has three close – though dead – friends who are determined to stick by her side every step of the way.

Someone recently sent me a personal message on Facebook to outline all the things she disliked about my work. We’re not friends. I hadn’t explicitly invited her to give me any career pointers or to advise me on my work. I say ‘explicitly’ because in a sense, by publishing my books, I have invited a certain level of criticism. And I do believe that we should have free speech and that people should be able to say what they think. I don’t believe in censorship that tells people what they are allowed or not allowed to say or think.

However, part of me wonders what this woman intended to achieve with her message. I admit I don’t really understand why she did it. Did she think I’d immediately promise to rewrite all my books her way? Or that I’d stop writing? Or that I’d learn some kind of valuable lesson from her and turn my life around? Or did she want her money back? An apology? If I have ever disliked a book, I’ve just not read any more by that author. No writer can be all things to all people, and a writing style I like may not appeal to someone else. I’ve never contacted someone directly to tell them I hate their work.

To that person, I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy the book. It’s perfectly fine that you have an opinion. I don’t plan to contact you to explain myself.

Does Dottie grow? I believe she does. When we meet her in book 1 of the Dottie Manderson mysteries, Night and Day, she is very young (19) and is mainly interested in having fun and going dancing. She’s a teenager, after all, and from a well-to-do, privileged background. She works from choice, not necessity, and can please herself entirely with what she does all day.

After two years of stumbling over corpses, she becomes more confident, more caring towards others. She becomes a business-woman and has to learn, almost from scratch, how to run her business. Added to that, as she grows up and goes out into the world around her, she is trying to understand life and human experience, is losing her childlike idealisation of people. Not only was the world of Britain in the 1930s light-years away from life in our era, it was also a time of massive sweeping changes. I like to think Dottie stays true to herself: she passionately believes in working hard, doing the right thing, helping people and giving support to those who need it. She is terminally nosy and always wants to understand what’s going on in people’s lives. In that respect, I believe she is relatable and ‘realistic’, hopefully sympathetic.

Obviously, I’ve only been writing for a few years. I published Criss Cross in 2013, and had only completed six full-length novels before that. So I consider myself still very much a learning writer. One day I hope to be an excellent writer. Until then I plan to grow and learn, and I hope my characters will do the same.

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Coming soon: The Thief of St Martins: Dottie Manderson mysteries book 5

As you may be aware, (I’ve talked about it a couple of times recently) there is a new Dottie Manderson book in the pipeline. I plan/hope to release it on 27th October, as an eBook and paperback on Amazon, and as an eBook and paperback through other online outlets such as Apple (not the print, though, soz), Kobo, eBook through Barnes and Noble’s Nook, paperback at Barnes and Noble’s online store, and a few other places. Still not at Waterstones, sorry, that would be a dream come true for me, but hey, maybe next year? I can’t give you the links at the moment for anything except the Kindle pre-order page.

The book is called The Thief of St Martins. It’s the fifth book in the series, and I’m really excited about it. If you want to read a sample chapter (that may or may not still be chapter one by the time the book is released, I’m not quite decided, but it will definitely be in there somewhere…) you can find the link to it below this brief description:

We last saw Dottie in the Summer of 1934, discovering that her mother was in fact really her aunt, and that she was the shameful daughter of her mother’s sister, her ‘aunt’ Cecilia Cowdrey. Some months later, to help herself to come to terms with this revelation, Dottie accepts an invitation to spend a few days with Cecilia and Lewis Cowdrey over New Year, although she’s not too sure what to expect.

Sample chapter that may or may not be chapter one on publication ;D

Meanwhile though, if you’ve missed out on books 1 to 4, here’s a little catch-up: (warning, contains a few spoilers!)

 

Book 1: Night and Day:

London, November 1933. Dottie Manderson stumbles upon the body of a dying man in a deserted night-time street. As she waits for help to arrive, she holds the man’s hand and tries to get him to tell her what happened. But with his last breaths he sings to her some lines from a popular stage show.
But why, Dottie wonders? Why would he sing to her instead of sending a final message to his loved ones? Why didn’t he name his attacker?
Dottie needs to know the answers to these questions and even though a particular, very annoying young policeman Sergeant William Hardy is investigating the case officially, she feels compelled to carry out her own investigation into the mysterious death.

 

 

Book 2: The Mantle of God:

Can a tiny piece of faded cloth really be worth killing for? Is the past ever truly forgotten? Dottie’s new friend William Hardy asks her to find out more about a scrap of fabric found in a dead man’s pocket. But as soon as she starts to ask questions, things begin to happen. It’s not long before someone dies, and Dottie wonders if she may be next. Can the insignificant scrap really be a clue to a bloody time of religious hatred and murder?
Join Dottie as she works to uncover the truth of a distant past, whilst uncovering secrets held by her own closest friends and family. Can Inspector Hardy put the murderer behind bars before it’s too late? Setting aside his own personal tragedy, Hardy has to get behind the polite façade of 1930s London society to find a killer.

 

 

Book 3: Scotch Mist: 

After the funeral of her friend and mentor Mrs Carmichael, Dottie Manderson is sent on a mission to find the dead woman’s missing son and to inform him of the death of a mother he never knew. Unbeknown to her, Dottie’s close friend Inspector William Hardy has also been sent on a mission, one that will force him to confront his past. His conversation with the Mrs Carmichael just before she was killed opened up questions about his father William would prefer not to ask. A sentimental lawyer has plans to bring Dottie and William together, acting on Mrs Carmichael’s bequest. But after a personal tragedy and some hectic months in his new role, is Inspector Hardy ready for romance? Perhaps if no one got murdered, he could think about other things?

 

Book 4: The Last Perfect Summer of Richard Dawlish: 

Dottie’s had a hectic and difficult time: she’s attended too many funerals, and has just had a massive row with the man she thought she loved. on the spur of the moment she makes a stop off on her way home, in search of a dear friend who needs her help. In any case, a few days rest in a hotel by the sea is just what Dottie needs. It’s not long before she makes the acquaintance of the newly-widowed Penny Parfitt, and her attractive brother-in-law Gervase. Dottie impulsively accepts their invitation to spend a few days at Penny’s home in the country.
Quickly Dottie realises that secrets and intrigues lurk beneath the pleasant surface of their lives. A suicide years earlier casts a shadow. Was it really suicide? Dottie begins to think something sinister has taken place.
But after all this time, can she find out what really happened?

 

So now that you know a little bit about these, I hope that you feel intrigued enough and inspired enough to give them a try. There are more in the pipeline, but as yet I’ve only planned the first ten books in this series. Will there be more? Yes, I think there will. By book 11 we will be into the war years: the war no one ever thought would happen. So I am looking ahead and seeing the potential for that. How will the war affect the lives of Dottie, Flora, Mr and Mrs Manderson, and of course, William Hardy? Who will fight for King and Country? Who will be left behind, and what will they do to cope with the strain of constant danger? I’m quite keen to get to that point. But there’s so much to do first.

 

I’m what writers call a ‘pantser’ ie I don’t plan my books in meticulous detail in advance, but I write by the seat of my pants, almost literally making it up as I go along. BUT I do plan loo

sely, sometimes years ahead. But if I told you any of those loose plans now, it would ruin everything, wouldn’t it?

I’d like to say a huge thank you to the wonderful people who’ve said such nice things, and given me so much encouragement with my writing, and with this series in particular. Honestly, you have no idea how amazing it is to know that someone somewhere has read and enjoyed one–sometimes more than one–of my books. Thank you so much.

And thank you too to my family and friends for all their love support and active assistance, ‘without whom’…

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