An apology. And (finally) The Killer Speaks

Since this whole covid thing hit, I’ve noticed I’ve become quite–erm–well, doolally is what my mother would have called it. I’ve gone a bit forgetful and dopey. And the most recent example of this is when, two weeks ago, I posted a blog entitled ‘More killer words’, and I actually said:

‘I mentioned a while ago (I’ve already forgotten when it was…) that one of the best parts of a murder mystery is when the killer is ‘on-stage’ and speaks.’

Well it’s taken me until last weekend to figure out where I said that, and it was in my subscriber newsletter – so no, I never did start that conversation here on my blog. On the blog we had the sequel but not the prequel, if you see what I mean. Sorry about that! So now, without further ado, I bring you the original (horribly long, feel free to completely ignore it) The Killer Speaks:

You know how, at the end of a murder mystery, they assemble all the suspects, and the police, and the investigator—whether an official officer of the law or an amateur sleuth, or even a paid private eye—tells everyone how the crime was done? I love that bit.

On the one hand, it bugs me that it’s done at all in fiction, because clearly, in real life the police don’t bring all the suspects to Great Aunt Madge’s house and, when everyone is sitting comfortably, begin to recount the case from the very beginning, filling in each step with a bit of evidence or some superhuman deductive reasoning. And usually I hate it when things in books aren’t done ‘right’.

But I love that big reveal, and the complacency of the investigator, having everyone there to listen to his/her theories. I love the ego of it, the pomp, the ‘you will all listen to me’ arrogance, and so even though I strive to make my own stories more or less believable, I sometimes just give in and go with that wonderful sense of occasion.

I’m not an expert on the Golden Age of murder mystery writing, but I am very familiar with some of the well-known authors of that time, notably Agatha Christie and Patricia Wentworth, and I have read quite a bit by some of their contemporaries: Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy L Sayers, Margery Allingham, Georgette Heyer. And I’m pretty sure it was this bunch who created the concept of this kind of finale. Or perhaps if we go a little further back, we will find Sherlock Holmes setting this up as the ultimate in wrap-ups, or Wilkie Collins’s Sergeant Cuff. I’m not clear where it began. I just know I love it.

We so often read of Poirot standing in front of a group of rather irritable, seated suspects whilst he expounds, his manner a cross between hectoring and lecturing. Miss Marple, by dint of her age, is usually seated, sometimes knitting, and has a far more hesitant, apologetic style, and is so self-deprecating. Both Poirot and Marple suffer from moral outrage: a murder is an affront and will not be tolerated mainly on the grounds of moral integrity rather than the unbiased basis of the law.

I enjoy ‘listening’ as they bring their case. But then comes the point I love the most.

The killer speaks.

Because this is the reason we hang onto Poirot’s thoughts for so long. We want to hear (read, I mean really) the killer say in her or his own words, WHY they did it. Yes, we do need to know how. And where, and with what weapon, we want to know about motives and alibis, but oh so often, the abiding desire in us is to know WHY. Why did they do such a terrible, irremediable thing?

We are often told that anyone could kill given the right circumstances and sufficient motive. Many of us doubtless would say, ‘No, I would never, could never kill. I can’t even bring myself to kill a woodlouse or a spider.’

I have asked myself if I could kill. I have killed bugs and beasties, generally by accident or out of sheer clumsiness. But I’ve never—as far as I’m aware—killed anything bigger than a bee. Unless you count calling the rat man. That I suppose is more like being an accessory, or conspiring to kill… From the rat’s point of view, they’d probably say I was a murderer. To me it’s different. I suppose murderers always say that.

But if it was a case of happening upon a person who was deliberately harming someone else, and I saw a way to stop it, what would I do? I’d like to think I’d never turn my back on someone in desperate need. But how far would I go?

So I think that’s why we—all of us avid crime fiction fans—enjoy getting to the pinnacle of a mystery, following the clues, deducing and pondering, and hanging onto every word to find out ‘the who’ and ‘the why’ behind the whole thing. As the killer shifts in his or her seat, the spotlight shifts to them, and this is their big moment. The chance to explain their WHY. We hold our breath, not daring to make a sound in case we miss a word. They lean forward, look us in the eye, they clear their throat, and they speak…

Which book finale have you read which gave you the biggest buzz? Do you prefer your killer to go down denying and fighting, or do you prefer your books to end with a kind of proud and well-bred admission of the truth?

Get in touch! Let me know what you think!

In the meantime, in case you haven’t read it–you won’t need to now you know who the killer is–you can click here to go to one of my own ‘big moments’ when the killer speaks. This is taken from my novel The Last Perfect Summer of Richard Dawlish: Dottie Manderson mysteries book 4. And it absolutely does contain a ton of SPOILERS.

***

More Killer words

I mentioned a while ago (I’ve already forgotten when it was…) that one of the best parts of a murder mystery is when the killer is ‘on-stage’ and speaks. It’s the highlight of the story for me–their moment of crowing glory or abject defeat. This is the moment when we the audience have already heard the detective’s wild accusations or seen their insurmountable proof. Then, turning to the perpetrator, the audience holds their collective breath. And then the killer speaks…

After The Funeral by Agatha Christie is one of my top ten of her books. I just love the way, right from the start, the reader is deceived. (I’ve tried to do this without spoilers, but there’s only so much I can do and still make my point!)

Here is an extract of the denouement. Poirot has been outlining his case. Then the killer remarks:

‘No, one doesn’t bother to look at a mere companion-help… A drudge, a domestic drudge! Almost a servant. but go on, M Poirot. Go on with this fantastic piece of nonsense!’

So Poirot does go on.. and it’s too late now for the killer to save him/herself. I love it when the killer challenges the detective in a rather snarky way–we know they are about to get their comeuppance. Of course Poirot has more up his sleeve. When it comes, it is, of course, irrefutable. The murderer realises they’ve given themselves away irretrievably, but if they can’t have their way, then nothing else much matters:

‘You don’t know how boring it is to listening to somebody going on about the same things, hour after hour, day after day… Pretending to be interested… And nothing to look forward to…’

All too often, the murderer has a side-kick who is apt to be thrown under the bus at the final moment, for their ineptitude. Side-kicks are notorious for saying the wrong thing to the detective in the final showdown:

‘…darling, it’s not true. You could never kill anyone, I know you couldn’t…it’s that horrible girl you married. She’s been telling lies about you….’ said the side-kick in Christie’s A Caribbean Mystery, only for the villain to turn on them and snarl:

‘For God’s sake, you damned bitch… shut up, can’t you? D’you want to get me hanged? Shut up, I tell you. Shut that big, ugly mouth of yours.’

Life’s tough for a side-kick. The murderer will always be centre-stage, their vanity demands it.

What about the ending of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd – a controversial book in its day, one of my favourites, and still hugely popular. Here, after revealing the murderer, Poirot says to him/her:

‘It would be most unwise on your part to attempt to silence me as you silenced M. Ackroyd. That kind of business does not succeed against Hercule Poirot, you understand.’

To which the murderer responds, with a characteristic touch of vanity:

‘My dear Poirot,’ I said, smiling a little, ‘whatever else I may be, I am not a fool.’

It is important for him/her to be appreciated and treated with respect, even though they are a cold-blooded killer. At least for the reader, justice is served–or about to be–whilst for the killer, their dignity is more important than their life.

The best ‘killer speaks’ moment is when the murderer is unable to maintain their aplomb and with terrifying and self-condemning rage, they launch themselves at the detective–for whom this is usually all in a day’s work–and the game is most definitely, and fatally, up. This is that moment in Evil Under The Sun – my number one Agatha Christie novel:

‘Poirot said: ‘You will be interested to hear that both you and (……) were easily recognised and picked out by the Surrey police… They identified you both…’

(…..) had risen. His handsome face was transformed, suffused with blood, blind with rage. It was the face of a killer–of a tiger. He yelled:

‘You damned interfering murdering lousy little worm!’

He hurled himself forward, his fingers stretching and curling, his voice raving curses, as he fastened his fingers around Hercule Poirot’s throat…’

That, ladies and gentlemen, is a satisfying conclusion! The murderer must have his or her moment in the spotlight, to explain their motivation. It’s all very well to know how they did something, and of course, vital to know who committed the crime, but if you don’t know why – it’s one of those puzzles that can never be put to rest.

***

Happy New Year! Let’s party like it’s… (insert decade of choice here)

There’s one thing we can say for sure about the changing taste of different decades. We might do it differently but we still do it. Party, I’m talking about, you smutty people. We humans have always loved a celebration. And no matter what we’re celebrating, that will definitely include music, and if at all possible we can all ‘get down and get with it’.

Here are a few playlist recommendations, depending on your era of choice.

If you fancy partying like it’s the 1740s, check out these bad boys, guaranteed to get you in the party mood as New Year comes around:

CPE Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto in A Major (There are not enough harpsichord concertos if you ask me.)

Thomas Arne’s Rule Britannia. I’ll admit this is not for everyone, especially if you’ve suffered under our oppressive yoke. Sorry about that. Blokes with a superiority complex, boats, flags and guns, what can you do? But it is a banging tune.

GF Handel’s Hercules Oratorio (no, I don’t know it either…)

CPE Bach’s Harpsichord Concertos in E and D minor, and in E major. I feel like CPE has got himself stuck in a rut here, but again, if you’re good at something, maybe it’s a good idea to stick with it.

And finally, Vitali’s Chaconne in G minor – a great end to a fabulous evening.

Or say you’re in the mood for something a little more modern, you could boogie down with my amateur sleuth Dottie Manderson and the best of them to these fabulous tunes from the 1930s:

My absolute favourite from the 1930s:

Midnight, The Stars and You. Such a romantic title, and romantic concept. What more does anyone need than those three things? This was brought to us by the Ray Nobel orchestra, featuring Al Bowlly (of course) on vocals. It was famously used in The Shining, and is the title of my next-but-one Dottie Manderson mystery, book 8 which should hopefully appear either at the end of 2022 or the middle of 2023.

Let’s not forget also, other 1930s crowd-pleasers such as Stormy Weather (another wonderful and evergreen song) by Leo Reissman and his orchestra and with Ethel Waters singing .

Then you could move on to Night and Day, a Cole Porter song from 1933, I love the Ella Fitzgerald version.

Or you might like another one by Al Bowlly – how about The Very Thought of You. another romantic one for close-up smooching in dim lighting. Ah!!

And you could round the evening off with a rousing chorus of one of the follwoing:

Judy Garland – Somewhere Over The Rainbow

Cab Calloway – Minnie the Moocher (not as good as his late-life version as per The Blues Brothers, in my opinion.)

Artie Shaw – Begin the Beguine – another perennial favourite, I absolutely love this one. Or if you want a different approach to this classic, you could try the really wonderful Louis Armstrong version…

And finally…

These Foolish Things – the Benny Goodman/Teddy Wilson version with Billie Holiday.

Not quite right for your bash? How about something from the 1960s? Get your beehive hair-dos and drainpipes ready…

Now you can really have some variety – try putting together a list featuring some of these great 60s tunes:

Daydream Believer – The Monkees

Concrete and Clay – Unit 4 + 2

Always Something There To Remind Me – Sandie Shore

Natural Born Bugie – Humble Pie

Nights in White Satin – Moody Blues

I Only Want To Be With You – Dusty Springfield

Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow – The Shirelles

Yeh Yeh – Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames

Do You Love Me – the Tremeloes

Maybe that’s a bit too up-to-the-minute for you and you want something a bit classier? How about some great dance music from the Regency era? This is the era that invented line-dancing, albeit somewhat more stately than we have now:

Let’s open with the amazing Beethoven piece for piano, Für Elise. That’ll really get ’em all out on the dancefloor.

Then next, maybe we’ll shake things up a bit with a singalong, the opera Adelina by Generali and Rossi

Or maybe an excerpt from an opera by Beethoven – he was The Man in the early 1810s, with Schubert close behind. This might be the perfect moment to play a bit from Symphony number 8 in F major. Let’s all hum along with the chorus…

For a bit of slow dancing with your beloved, you can’t beat Schubert’s String Quartet in C major.

Due to the rather lengthy nature of this kind of music, we’ll leave it there, closing the evening’s entertainment with Ferdinand Ries’s bestselling top-twenty hit, Concerto for Two Horns. (Admit it, you were missing the concertos, weren’t you?)

One thing is for sure, since time immemorial, humans have loved to come together to celebrate something–anything–and that has included music, dancing, big frocks, bigger hair and quite possibly alcohol.

Happy New Year! May 2022 be everything you long for. Just go easy on the resolutions.

***

Hold very tight please, it’s all change once more

The latest version – surely this can’t upset anyone? (Answers on a post card…)

I don’t like to change my book covers too often. As a reader and book collector, I understand how frustrating and disappointing it can be to have a nice little row of matching books and then, just before you get a full set, ‘someone’ decides to change the covers.

I changed my Dottie Manderson covers about a year ago.

The original Night and Day cover was this one, six years ago when the book was first published:

Remember this one? My first love.

I still love it, but people complained it looked too much like a romance and nothing like a mystery. So eventually, I changed it.

I tried this one:

And this one:

This one:

And finally settled on this one, which has to be my favourite so far.

But when you’re a self-published or Indie author, you have to make business decisions based on cold hard facts and not (as I tend to) on gut instinct or warm fuzzy feelings. So when Amazon announced that following their new policy implementation, they would not now allow me to advertise my book with this cover (the one above) due to the depiction of ‘excessive gore’, I swallowed my pride and my emotional attachment to ‘my baby’ and went off to sulk cry create a new cover. Because you’ve got to advertise, right? How else will readers discover my books?

So sorry, sorry, sorry, but I’ve had to change my covers yet again.

But it’s quite hard to think of a cover image that suits the genre but doesn’t depict blood splatters, weapons, women in the middle of a scream, cadavers, all that kind of thing. I’ve seen loads of covers lately which show a building. that seems to be a new trend, and certainly it’s a safe way to go. In addition, you need an image that looks good as in black and white as it does in colour, is clear and easy for the eye to interpret in a tiny thumbnail size. It’s hard to find the perfect image.

I brooded over images of old-fashioned street lamps dimly lighting a patch of pavement.

I browsed silhouette after silhouette of ‘vintage women’ images. Most of them were either Edwardian era or 1920s flappers. So I freely confess I ran out of ideas.

Then, I thought, ooh what about the chap Dottie finds at the beginning? He was wearing evening dress…

So the new cover idea was born as soon as I set my eyes on this:

Hopefully it’s simple, easy to understand, eye-catching and also makes readers think, if not of the 1930s, then at least ‘not now’. And if not exactly exuding mystery, then hopefully their first thought won’t be, ‘ooh I can’t wait to read this sci-fi or this romance’. In any case, I can’t possibly offend anyone with this, can I? There’s no gore whatsoever, and I’m hoping this cover will live for a while before needing to be updated.

Now I’ve just got to change all my advertising material and social media stuff. This could take a while!

Image by Tani T at Shutterstock: https://www.shutterstock.com/g/tanitk

***

Creating Winter’s Child by Jenny S Burke

Jenny S Burke and I have been talking about books and writing for several years, and I wanted to share with you this very creative lady’s latest blog post in which she talks about what went into the making of her children’s book Winter’s Child.

Over to Jenny:

‘Once upon a time, there was a fierce winter. Snow drifts towered above me like white storm waves . . . cold, soft mountains I could tunnel into or slide down.

I was a young child when my family drove from the east coast to northern North Dakota. We gathered with relatives at my grandfather’s farm for Christmas.

There were no kids near my age, so I explored this new world on my own. “Winter’s Child”, my new book, has roots in this experience. 


          “She played in deep snowdrifts as tall as her head,
            And flew down the hills on her small wooden sled.
           She built snow castles with icicle towers.
        She played all alone for hours and hours.”

We built an enormous igloo from blocks of packed snow. A cold snow bench wrapped around the inner wall; snow sconces held candles. I “helped”.

​A dozen relatives crowded close on the circular bench while a blanket covered the entrance. Candlelight added flickering shadows.

​Within this primitive cave, I felt connected to generations of family and to our world. 

The sea called to me. I grew up and moved to the south to become a marine biologist. But I missed the snow.

One day, I folded a piece of paper and cut out a fanciful snowflake with leaping dolphins. A story grew in my mind.  

I wrote the fairy tale but needed more fantasy flakes to complete the book.  

Years later, I had designed and drawn many pen-and-ink flakes.

Now I realized that this story needed to be in rhyme,
like an ancient tale shared by firelight.

I soon learned that if one line
​can’t properly rhyme with the next line,
you need to start over with a whole new stanza. Yay.

Finally, the long story-poem was finished! I field-tested “Winter’s Child” with children and adults and adjusted a few pages.

What size should the book be?

7.5 inch wide X 9.25 inch high allows for generous margins, with room for illustration and text on each page.
​The 14 point font is easy on the eyes.

Next, the illustrations! A chance to experiment and gnash my teeth in frustration.

The fanciful flakes looked lost on a page;
they needed frames to hold them.
I drew boxes, printed the book,
and studied the empty frame above each poem.

What would capture the essence?
I wanted stylized pix with a feel of
stained glass windows.

I pencil-sketched a picture in each framed box
​and began to draw, but . . .
How do you draw the Wind?

​How do you draw a T. rex cloud ​that’s shifting apart?

I removed cloud limbs, made marshmallow teeth, and made the cloud more fluffy in humorous contrast to the dangerous, sharp-edged predator.   

I drew simple flakes for background snow.
Now the poem and pix were finished.
Even better: the very last word of the poem-story is . . . “end”! 🙂

​At last, the cover! Mariah and Wind are playing amongst the bare trees.
One ancient tree wraps around the spine, connecting the covers.

“Winter’s Child” is an upbeat, original fairytale
​in rhyming verse with fanciful illustrations.

It’s a story of the power of friendships,
which truly do change the world.
I hope you enjoy this book as much as it challenged me
​to properly complete my “once upon a time.”    

Thanks to all who helped. Thanks for stopping by!

About Jenny S Burke:

J. S. Burke is an author, artist, and scientist. She’s worked as a marine biologist,
 studying creatures of the dark abyss and diving on coral reefs.
 Her stories blend imagination with real science and author experiences.
 She lives with her family, rescue companions, and dragons! 

 The award-winning Dragon Dreamer series grew from her years at sea,
 a fascination with the alien, intelligent octopuses, and a love of dragons.

Burke has worked as manager of a marine research program and has five published marine research papers. She has degrees in Math, Science,
Marine Science, and Education. Burke has been certified to teach High School Math, H.S. Science, Middle Grades (all subjects), and Gifted students. 

You can contact Jenny at: http://www.jennysburke.com/blog/creating-winters-child

And to read previous interviews with Jenny, click here and here.

Find WINTER’S CHILD here:
PAPERBACK: http://www.authl.it/B09K21BLLX?d
KINDLE: http://www.authl.it/B09KZZX9TQ?d

A writer’s guide to naming characters

“That which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet”

William Shakespeare – Romeo and Juliet.

Shakespeare’s suggestion that names are not important is hopelessly wrong for writers. Who hasn’t sat, staring at a blank sheet of paper, agonising over what to call a character? And if it’s your protagonist, that only makes it harder. Without a character, you have no story.

Occasionally a name for a character just comes to me: Meredith Hardew from a book I plan to release next year, A Meeting With Murder: Miss Gascoigne mysteries book 1, and Cressida Barker-Powell from Criss Cross: Friendship can be Murder: Book1 published 2013 (whose name was a deliberate mutation of Parker-Bowles). These are names that sprang fully-formed into my consciousness as I began to write the story. I couldn’t even think of calling any of those people anything else. In fact this whole opening piece came to me in a flash, and I had to run to a stationer’s to buy a notebook to write it down before I forgot it. (Now I just put it into a note app on my phone! Ah technology, I love you so much.)

At forty-six, Meredith Hardew, with her handsome features, trim figure and excellent dress sense, was frequently taken for at least ten years younger than her true age. Not that she was in the habit of seeking out flattery, for she was one of those women who never thinks about herself, what she’s wearing or how she looks. She was far too busy running errands for someone or other.

Coming 2022

But it doesn’t always work out like that. I can spend hours, days even, agonising over the right name for a character. There are times when I have delayed starting a new story because I can’t seem to find the right name for my protagonist.  Though equally, when I am writing a first draft, I sometimes can’t remember the names I’ve already given my characters. I have even written several thousand words with varying numbers of capital XXXXs to denote each character, just to avoid abandoning the story and messing up the ‘flow’. But it can get confusing. In these circumstances I often have to write long explanatory notes to myself of who the person is, as well as the XXXXXXs. There’s usually a Mr XX, a Miss XXX and a Jeffrey X, or a Gladys XXXX, so it gets a bit muddled. But it does help me keep writing.

However, I can’t always trust myself when a name does just spring into my head. Like the time I wanted to call my main character Ben, then I needed to give him a surname. Sherman. Hmm, I thought, Ben Sherman sounds really good. It’s as if those two names were meant to go together somehow. What a great, natural-sounding name for a character, I thought. It sounds just like a real person. Which should have been my clue. So I told my daughter about my new hero Ben Sherman. She rolled her eyes heavenward in what can only be described as her ‘For God’s sake, Mother!’ expression. Turns out there is a real person, a famous designer, with that name. I was right, it did sound just like a real person. Oh well. Back to the book of baby names again.

That lightbulb moment when you realise your character has a famous person’s name.

Names can be absorbed by osmosis from society or culture, and we don’t always know where they’ve come from. I usually check my friends’ names on Facebook or for authors on Amazon to be ‘on the safe side’. I don’t want to use a well-known person’s name especially if my character is not a very nice person! I had also written five chapters of the Miss Gascoigne story before I realised that two of the main characters were named Meredith and Edith. Edith had to become Sheila. You need to keep the names quite dissimilar to avoid confusion, unless that is germane to your plot. Never feature, for example, Jack Peters and a Peter Jackson in the same book. I’ve known it happen, and the confusion accidentally created by the author seriously impacts on the enjoyment of the story! You can’t suspend belief if you spend all your time trying to remember who is who. At least, don’t do that if there is no deliberate intention to confuse the reader.

Names go through trends. So if you’re writing historical fiction, don’t give your character a modern name. If in doubt, turn to a census of the time for ‘in’ names or look to the royalty of the day. Equally if you’re writing modern stuff, don’t give young characters the names of your parents’ generation, few little ones these days or for the past 20 or 30 years have been called Barbara, Sandra, Hazel, Nigel, Richard, etc. They have a slightly ‘previous generation’ sound to them. However, go back a bit further to the grandparents’ generation and you’ll hit all the names that are now so ‘on-trend’: Jack, Alice, Freddy, George, Emily, Henry and so on. I hope in the next generation after this one, my name will be back in again!

When it came to creating character names, Dickens was a master. He used names to ridicule his characters, to reveal societal trends and attitudes, and to denote characteristics or personalities. Think of Gradgrind and M’Choakumchild in Hard Times, you can’t imagine them being good people, or warm and caring. These are hard names for hard people. Or think of Uriah Heep, Mr Cheeryble, Squeers. He also used another technique that is still useful for writers today. He used to take names that were ordinary and just slightly change them, creating something different and yet somehow familiar. Thus Philip became Chilip.

it can take a while to work things out…

That always makes me think of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games heroine, Katniss Everdeen, or of Margaret Attwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale – the woman Offred was the ‘property’ of Fred. Also for fabulous names it is impossible to beat Alistair Reynolds’ Pushing Ice character, Chromis Pasqueflower Bowerbird. So writers, don’t be afraid to play around with names and have fun. Changing one letter or the order of the letters can make a world of difference, and this works especially well with Sci-fi or Fantasy character names. Maybe Isaac can become Istac or Casai, Sophie can be Phosie, Mary can become Maare, John could become Hjon, Dohn, Joon.

In writing fiction, the names of your main characters are essential to the reader’s enjoyment and for creating a convincing world. Just make sure they are not the names of a successful designer.

See, easy!

***

So real to me

dottie 6 the spy withinMy stories tend to be character driven rather than plot driven. You might think that’s a bit odd for someone who writes what are essentially 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 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. I have tried putting in a character list at the beginning of a story, 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.

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. Or they can act as a sounding board for ideas and theories. crowd-g216161661_640

In addition, many of my characters also have friends, who must necessarily be commented about, especially if they are involved in a mystery, or the characters can have careers–William Hardy is a career police officer, and Dottie Manderson has become the owner and manager of a fashion warehouse–and they are both involved with work colleagues who cannot be completely overlooked.

And then as I say, each mystery requires its own cast of players–so again numbers are rising! But each story needs a perpetrator–sometimes more than one, and of course a victim–almost always more than one–and they have their own social and familial connections.

Making people really stand out can be a challenge. There are reasons for this.

New criss cross ebook coversObviously 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. But 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 sure I’m not alone in saying 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 or just plain upset. My characters are all too flawed, and as readers will know, they sometimes make disastrous decisions. And then have to live with the consequences.panic-g517b5b30c_640

I’d like to think they 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, and 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. And if we don’t, sooner or later we get called into the office and the boss tells us we are going to be unemployed.

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. It can’t be denied that she can be a bit unforgiving if someone hurts a person she cares about.fashion-g02a75addc_640

Does Dottie grow? I think 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 with attractive young men. After two years of stumbling over corpses, she has become more confident, more caring towards others, she is more mature, and she is growing a career and trying to understand the world around her, losing her childish idealisation of people. But I like to think she stays true to herself: she passionately believes in working hard, doing the right thing, and in 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.

Which of course will bring her into conflict with people: people who manipulate and hurt others, people who do terrible things and try to get away with it, and in the course of her ‘helping’ she will definitely get in the way of a certain police officer trying to solve a case.

As the relationship between herself and William progresses, (spoiler alert) I’m not sure quite how Dottie will manage to solve murders and juggle her business and her family commitments. Will we see her pushing a perambulator with a couple of kids along to interview suspects? Only time will tell. I have planned several more books, that cover the next couple of years in Dottie’s life but after that… I just don’t know. Maybe I will leave her to raise her family in peace? Maybe we can come back to Dottie in the 1950s when she is a mature woman with more or less independent children? Who knows. Maybe she will be a kind of Miss Marple detective as she gets older. I never felt like I could leave her ageless and frozen in time as some authors do with their creations. Yet as I immerse myself in this pretend world I have created for Dottie, I am all too aware of the even greater threat looming on her horizon: World War II. How can I leave out something so important and far-reaching in its consequences?

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100 years old and still bringing murderers to justice!

This could well be one of the reasons why about four years ago I began to think about a new series with a new character, who would take over the reins. I’m thinking of Diana Gascoigne, stepping out confidently into the 1960s, wearing high heels and a brightly-coloured dress, long hair swinging, ready to take on the modern world.

Keeping it in the family: this has led me to think about the successive generations. Will there be a Dottie-spin-off set in the 1990s? the 2020s? They seem so real to me, I find it hard to believe that they won’t go on and on, one generation giving way to the next, just as we do in the real world.

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Coming 2022

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A first time for everything

Presentation1I love firsts.

I do engage with the rest of a series: if a story idea or a bunch of characters ‘grab’ me, I will read all of the books available. Or if I love the author’s style, I will avidly consume all of their output, like all their other fans, eagerly waiting for each new release.

But when it comes to any series, I’m in love with first glances. I think I just love the potential – the range of possibilities that are present right from the outset, the sheer number of choices the author can choose. I love that first time we meet each character, especially recurring characters. I love ‘seeing’ the setting for the first time, getting it fixed in my imagination. I get that buzz of anticipation as the characters assemble and the action begins – it’s really like watching a stage play and seeing the curtain go up and the action begin.

That’s why I go back to the first book time and time again.  I will reread the first book many times, and where very often I will only read subsequent books once before I move on to the next, I will read book one many many times. 

The problem is, if I find I don’t like the way an author develops her or his series, I will very likely stop reading. Sometimes I might give them a second chance, and reread the offending volume that turned my interest off, but the problem is there are sooooo many books and sooooo little time!

I’m the same with TV shows. I have watched episode one of many series repeatedly, whilst only watching the rest two or three times. I sit there full of anticipation, even though I know what is going to happen. It’s a bit like when your child wants the same bedtime story over and over again. They know every word by heart and every picture. Heaven forbid you try to sneakily miss a page out or you summarise some of the paragraphs. They KNOW!child-4573129_1920

I love first albums, I love first songs, poems, films, TV series. I just love setting out on the journey and walking towards the unknown.

Here are some firsts I love:

The first Bourne film – The Bourne Identity. The others are good, but this one grabs me from the outset.

The first Timothy Dalton-as-James-Bond film – The Living Daylights (‘whoa oh oh oh the living daylights…) The chemistry between James B and his lovely cellist is perfectly achieved, and the humour and action are second to none.

The first episode of Vera – Hidden Depths – where we meet Ann Cleeves’ wonderful (but curmudgeonly, and terminally disinterested in her appearance) detective Vera Stanhope. And lest we forget, the scrumptious David Leon in the role of sidekick Joe Ashworth.

The first episode of Death in Paradise: We meet DI Richard Poole – another curmudgeonly yet (I think) lovable and definitely smart character as he arrives on the scene already complaining the weather and his lost luggage. (Note: I think it’s a missed opportunity that they killed off this character instead of merely sending him back to London where he could have presided over a new spin-off series. Guys, what were you thinking? And here’s my top tip for the next incarnation of the show: stop sending out white senior officers (we’re over that now) and bring out a black guy or girl from London, who resents the insinuation he/she should embrace getting ‘back to his/her roots’, and allow the island to slowly work it’s charm on him/her. Also, have a white sergeant as support, who will always be assumed to be the senior officer…but you’ll have to do it in a light cheeky way – we don’t want to ruin the ambience of the series. And whatever you do don’t let Selwyn retire, we love Don Warrington. Just sayin’.)

The first series of Shetland.

The first series of Endeavour.

The first episode of Lewis. The way we meet Sergeant – now Inspector Lewis as he returns (again from the Caribbean!) and we are so anxious to find out what has happened in the intervening years since the end of Morse, and we yearn for him to find happiness once more. Plus, you know, great mystery at the sleep institute. Also, incidental music that is Muse’s Hysteria.

New stuff:

We’ve been enjoying Whistable Pearl (with the amazing Kerry Godliman in the lead role! Yes she acts!) based on Julie Wassmer’s books, and also featuring huge sexy hunk Howard Charles as the detective we hope/assume she will fall for. Which she pretty much already has.

And of course Madame Blanc starring Sally Lindsay who is also the brains behind the whole series and my husband’s secret (but I know all about it) crush. Also with Steve Edge (my secret crush – not sure if hubby knows…). You just hope they are going to get together. which they pretty much already are…

Oh yes, I read too…more on that another time!

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Job vacancy: armchair sleuth required

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

About this role:

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

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

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

Essential qualifications:

Eagle-eyed attention to detail.

Nerves of steel.

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

Suspicious of everyone and everything.

Able to sniff out spurious motives and supply educated guesswork.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Additional desirable qualifications:

Knowledge of Shakespeare, Milton and the Bible useful.

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

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

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

Salary:

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

Perks:

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

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

How to Apply:

Seriously?

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Notebooks as far as the eye can see…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Great ideas for band names:

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

Jamzz – boy band from Nottingham

BizR – boy band from Matlock

Density’s Angels – girl band from Belper

Angel’s Dancities – girl band from Stoke on Trent

Great book titles:

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

A Gripping Madness

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

Great pen names to try:

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

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

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

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

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

There have been some advantages to all this decluttering:

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

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

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

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