I often talk about sitting in cafes, notebook and pen in front of me, along with a cappuccino and – ooh, naughty – a bit of cake. It’s my favourite thing.
Yes, I know we have coffee at home. And even – occasionally, cake, or I could buy a supermarket cake and eat a slice at home for a fraction of the cost of a cafe. Or, I could bake a cake of my very own – it could be any size, shape or colour. I could have any flavour I like, and it could be a tray-bake, a torte, a good solid fruit cake with cherries on top, a long sugary loaf oozing with bananas or dates. It could be a sponge with ganache or cream or even just jam in the middle. It could have nuts on the top, or frosting, or strawberries in a creamy heap.
There are just two problems with that: 1. I’m a terrible cook. And 2, that wouldn’t inspire me to write. Which is, after all, the whole point of this exercise.
I love to go to cafes with my family, singly or en masse. But those are occasions for talking and laughing, not times for me to be alone with my thoughts. And as we know, ‘You can’t write if you’re never alone.’ (It was Winifred Watson who said that. She was a very successful author in the 1930s who gave up writing once she married and had children. her book Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day was made into a film starring Ciaran Hinds and Frances McDormand and I highly recommend it.)
Also, I love people-watching. Sitting in a cafe is a bit like sitting in a theatre, with the play going on around you. For around £6 or £8 you can get a lovely piece of cake, a gorgeous big cup of frothy coffee (and not have to wash up the dishes afterwards) and a stage-side seat to LIFE. Just make sure you’ve got plenty of paper and a couple of spare pens.
TIP: Never, ever tap people on the arm, ask them to repeat what they’ve just said so you have more time to write it down, don’t ask them how to spell their auntie’s dog’s name, and never, ever say out loud, ‘Wow, he’s a moron, you should dump him’ or ‘How dare she say that to you!’ or that kind of thing. People don’t mind you watching them discreetly, just don’t make it too obvious.
I’m often asked where I get my ideas. But inspiration comes not from one, but from many different places. It’s more that ideas come looking for me than I go looking for them. I’m incredibly nosy about other people, and I am an incurable people-watcher. This fuels my imagination and leads me to ask myself questions, develop scenarios until… ooh, look, a chapter from a story!
I don’t advocate, as a writing tutor in Brisbane once told a group of creative writing students, that you should actually follow people to get ideas for your story or to experience what it’s like to ‘shadow’ someone a la detective fiction. BUT I must admit I do covertly eavesdrop and watch people, especially in a coffee-shop situation. I don’t actually record conversations or film people, though it is SOOOO tempting.
Tip: If you sit in a cafe or restaurant with your notebook open in front of you and your pen tapping on your chin as you ponder, I guarantee staff will panic-tidy the whole area near you, smile and ask if you’re well, and possibly ask if there’s anything else they can get you – even in self-service cafes. At first I didn’t know why that was, now I’ve realised it’s because they think I am a food critic! Once I made the mistake of saying that I was a writer, and got a look that was half eye-roll and half disgusted sneer. They left me alone immediately.
And so that’s why I go to cafes and eat cake. What’s your excuse?
There’s a surprisingly large amount of theory about colour. Colours have meanings, they create feelings and emotions in us. So much so, you can have colour therapy, where you sit in a room (white I assume, or maybe completely dark) and they bombard you with light in the colour you require to produce the effect needed. I quite like that idea. Maybe I’ll try it sometime.
Picasso had his Blue Period, then his Rose Period, where these colours dominated his work in a range of hues.
I don’t know if other artists, or writers, have times of colour. I see it in my life from time to time, a particular colour seems to draw me, or mean more, or stand out or in some way influence me. This year my colour is green.
When I was a teenager, wanting to wear teenager-black all the time, my mother nagged me out of it. She associated the colour black with depression, grief and mourning, with oppression and poverty. So I can understand why she hated to see me swathed neck to ankle in black. But it’s a colour people–especially teenagers–wear when they are still trying to find their identity, or when they are part of a crowd of others who all wear black, it ‘goes’ with that mind-set of searching earnestness.
And of course we always say black is a slimming colour, and if you are a larger lady like me, you’ll find huge chunks of a retailer’s range of clothes are only available in black. It’s also the colour of formality so you find loads of people wearing black in offices, you see everywhere the ladies in their black trousers with a shirt or jumper or a jacket and slinky top. I used ot have a ton of black ‘work’ trousers. I think it’s also a practical colour, again in clothes, seeming to show the passage of time less noticeably than other colours and going with pretty much everything, and suiting pretty much every complexion.
Red is the colour of guts and courage, of anger, of ‘Stop!’ and ‘Attention’. Red used to be associated with masculinity, no doubt due to its use in military uniforms, of blood, of bravery. For this reason (I’m talking about 120 years ago) pinkwas the accepted normal colour for baby boys as a kind of watered down red suitable for little men. Yep. Pink was for boys, blue was for girls.
Why? Well as we all know females are at constant risk of madness and hysteria due to their female body parts, and therefore have to be swathed in blue from earliest babyhood to calm them down. Blue is a calming colour!
I think it was a member of the royal household around the 1910s who first defied convention and clothes her daughters in pink – and thus a new convention was born. Now, as soon as we see a baby in pink, we know it’s a little girl.
I can remember when my daughter was very small, and clothed (partially at least) in pink, an elderly lady said to me ‘what a beautiful baby, what’s his name?’ And I smiled and replied, all the while thinking silently to myself, ‘mad old bat, clearly she’s a girl, look at all the pink!’
Yellow is another colour I love, but depending on the shade, doesn’t always suit me. Yellow is believed to promote higher thinking, creativity, reasoning and logic. It’s also a happy uplifting colour, as we know when we get a lift every time we catch sight of a patch of daffodils after the dreariness of winter.
For a long time, I’ve been wearing black, grey and blue (jeans mainly), with white or occasionally burgundy accents.
but for the last few weeks, I’ve been craving green. I’ve dusted off my existing green tee-shirt, and bought another one. And I’m enjoying looking at greenery in pictures. I’m not looking at beach scenes (blue & sort of sandy brown), it’s the green of leaves and grass etc that appeals ot me. I get a kind of little ‘bong’ in my chest when I see them (Remember Lovejoy and the sensation he used to get in his chest when he ‘divvied’ a true antique?)
So I’m giving in to my green period – a time of rebirth, perhaps, or of tranquil moments, rest and recovery. or a time of peace and a return to nature? Who knows? I just know that this is what is feeding my soul at the moment.
Of course green is also the colour of jealousy – the ‘green-ey’d monster’ of Shakespeare’s Othello. Or of inexperience and innocence – also Shakespeare, (Anthony and Cleopatra) ‘My salad days. When I was green in Judgement.’
But I’m ignoring that side, I don’t think I’m particularly a jealous person. And I’m too old to be inexperienced, although I love to learn new things. So I’ll just embrace the restorative and peaceful nature of Green. Have you found the colour that fills you with joy?
Here are a few quotations about ‘green’:
‘Green is the prime color of the world, and that from which its loveliness arises.‘
Pedro Calderon de la Barca (17th century Spanish dramatist)
‘The garden of love is green without limit and yields many fruits other than sorrow or joy. Love is beyond either condition: without spring, without autumn, it is always fresh.’
Rumi (Persian poet from 13th century)
‘When the green woods laugh with the voice of joy, And the dimpling stream runs laughing by; When the air does laugh with our merry wit, And the green hill laughs with the noise of it.’
William Blake (UK Poet/Artist 1700s-1800s)
‘All theory, dear friend, is gray, but the golden tree of life springs ever green.’
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (German author/poet 1700s-1800s)
Believe it or not, behind that silk-covered chair is a silk-covered door which houses a stunning ‘secret’ bathroom built specially for King George V in 1925, and never used by him, because his visit was cancelled.
When is a door not a door?
Ok I know we all know that old joke. But when I was walking around a beautiful country house recently, I was struck (not literally) by all the different styles of door, and I thought about what they could mean.
(I should just quickly add that I was completely convinced I’d written a previous blog post about doors/portals, but after wasting half an hour trying to find it, I’m now convinced it must have been a dream…???)
A rather scary back door at Calke Abbey. For the use of staff, obvs, no posh people here.
Doors. The thing is, a door is an everyday piece of equipment, if I can put it like that, and yet it contains the power to take us from one place, from the present, to a different place, the future. We know that when we open a door, we can move from one space to another. Sometimes it’s as if we were moving into another world. In fantasy literature, doors are seen as portals or magical spaces of transition.
But even in a country house, the door takes us from one sphere of life to a completely different one, say, from the sumptuous drawing room into a back hallway used purely for the convenience of staff, or from a dusty, intriguing library out into a beautiful garden.
Sometimes a door won’t open because it’s not a real door. This one is just to make the room appear symmetrical, and doesn’t open, as it’s just a bit of wood stuck onto a solid wall.
Doors are ordinary, and yet special. In books, or TV shows, or films etc, doors have the power to transform our lives purely because they exist. All the time you and I are on this side of the door, and the door is closed, we can’t be absolutely certain what we will find if we open the door. It might be that we will find dinner is ready and on the table, or we might find a fairytale castle perched on a precarious mountain-top. A bit like Schrodinger’s Cat, we can’t be sure until we open the door which of the alternatives are actually before us.
A beautiful curved door to fit a curved wall. This is at Kedleston Hall.
What if we can’t even open the door?
What if we find something unexpected, even unwelcome, on the other side of the door?
We won’t know until we open it. And by then, it could be too late.
In real life, we will open the door and find the washing machine has finished our towels, but in literature, in the country of our imagination, we could be anywhere.
Sometimes doors show you not just the next room, but the one after that and the one after that. You are looking through them all at once as if they are a series of views, of points of interest on a tour.
So literature has a lot to tell us about doors, it seems. I’ve only shared a small number of door-related quotes here, if you are desperate, I’m sure you will find more. Or maybe you’ll catch yourself watching a little more closely as the characters in your current reading material or viewing material each have their entrances and their exits, and move on the stage of your imagination. Like me you might be struck by just how often a character moves through a door and ‘something’ happens.
And lastly, I hope you won’t mind me adding my own work into this illustrious company:
This week, I want to share with you the third in a series of three mystery/crime-genre blog tours to celebrate new books. This week I was honoured to be asked to take part in the blog tour for Marsali Taylor’s new novel The Shetland Sea Murders.This worked very well for me as I’d been planning to read some of Marsali’s work for quite some time.
Here’s a little bit of what her book is about:
Marsali Taylor returns with the ninth gripping mystery in her Shetland Sailing Mystery series.
While onboard her last chartered sailing trip of the season, Cass Lynch is awoken in the middle of the night by a Mayday call to the Shetland coastguard. A fishing vessel has become trapped on the rocks off the coast of one of the islands.
In the days that follow, there’s both a shocking murder and a baffling death. On the surface there’s no link, but when Cass becomes involved it is soon clear that her life is also in danger.
Convinced that someone sinister is at work in these Shetland waters, Cass is determined to find and stop them. But uncovering the truth could prove to be deadly…
Other reviewers said:
‘Definitely the best of the Cass Lynch series yet!’ 5* Reader Review
‘The beautiful descriptions of Shetland life, traditions, it’s landscape and even language bring everything to life.’ 5* Reader Review
‘This series gets better and better’ 5* Reader Review
‘A beautifully written story, with descriptions so vivid you can smell the sea and beautiful countryside.’ 5* Reader Review
‘The perfect lockdown read for anyone who longs to be back on the sea.’ 5* Reader Review
As I said, I’ve been aware of Marsali’s books and planning to read them for some time now. So this was my first experience of this series, and I wasn’t too sure what to expect.
I was a bit worried to begin with because of the boating stuff. A lot of the story takes place or a boat, or has information to do with boats or things like weather and tides etc. I’m a confirmed landlubber. I like to be on a boat, on a nice sunny day, when all I have to do is stand on the deck and daydream, I’m not a ‘storm’s a-coming, haul in the mainsheet’ kind of boater… So I was concerned I would either find the references to boating or shipping or whatever it is (please excuse my ignorance) too complicated or well, boring, actually. But I’m happy to report that when the boating bits became ‘hardcore’ – towards the end of the book – I was gripping my lines and staring into the mist like a true-born shipping type person. It was tense, let me tell you. And I was right there in the midst of it with the spray on my face, hanging on to every word.
This is an absorbing mystery, and chock full of a sense of place. The story is set, as the series title and this book’s title suggest, in and around the Shetland Isles. Everything is described with affection and an attention to detail that just brings it to life. It also helps that there is a glossary of Shetland linguistic phrases at the back of the book. There is also history, and Girl Power.
The story is also an immersive experience. As the events of the story unfold, you as the reader are drawn into not just the minds of the characters but their lives and relationships too. When you’ve finished, there is that time lapse sense of unreality when you look up and realise you’re not out on the ocean or on a Shetland isle, but in your sitting room snug at home.
I give this book an unhesitating five stars. Highly recommended.
You can find out more about Marsali Taylor and her work on her website:
Gary Cooper in a gloomy mood ever since reading his first novel again after ten years.
I read a blog post elsewhere this week, in which a writer talked about rereading a book he had written and published years earlier, and his reaction to it. That set me thinking.
How do I react to reading my own work after a break?
I think it’s a bit like looking at baby photos of yourself, or making a special cake or a meal for a particular occasion. Or indeed whenever any of us do anything creative or out of the norm. Maybe you’re not like me, but I know a lot of people are just like me: a bit inclined to only see their faults, to see the wonky bits, the bits that had to be patched up at the last minute, the crooked hem of the new dress or the edge where the cake got stuck in the tin and you had to put a bit extra icing on there to disguise it. We tend to be overly self-critical, which is sometimes a good thing: we strive that little bit harder to improve and to do well, but on the other hand, it makes it hard to feel proud of our achievements or to accept praise from others.
When I read things I wrote years ago, I feel quite uncomfortable. I am sometimes pleasantly surprised and think, ‘ah, this isn’t as bad as I expected’, but there are definitely times when I groan to myself and wonder what on earth I was thinking. I cringe at some of the laboured metaphors, the overly descriptive passages and my almost fanatical use of The Three: I tend to group my descriptions in threes. In fact if you browse, read or peruse any of my works, writings or output, you will definitely, absolutely, surely notice, observe and see that a lot of what I write is grouped into threes! Who knew?
I’ll just quickly fix this bit. Oh, and this bit. Oh now that bit doesn’t work, oh well, I’ll just…
Well, I did for one, although not until someone pointed it out to me. I try to weed some of them out, unless I am deliberately emphasising a point, and keep them to a minimum. But years ago… No, they are there in all their triplicated glory.
As is my terrible grammar – I just never really know, what, to do with those, commas,.
I used adverbs liberally too (haha, like that!) but I’m not quite so obsessive about those. I don’t mind the odd one, whereas many authors absolutely scour their pages and destroy them without mercy. I like the odd adverb. Sometimes an active verb can be a bit too much, especially if the writer uses loads of them. I’d rather read ‘she said hastily’ than ‘she gabbled’ or ‘rattled’.
Stop authorsplaining and let me read your damn book!
What I don’t like is a ton of adjectives. You know when you read something like, ‘The old sprawling ramshackle creeper-covered house had a battered and pitted, badly-fitting oak door and four tiny grimy windows that peeped out from beneath an elderly ragged thatched roof in much need of repair.’ Just tell me it’s an old house in poor repair, I can furnish the rest from my own imagination. I just haven’t got the energy to read through tons of adjectives. the same with character descriptions or the characters’ clothes. I don’t really care if their shoes are hand-made in Italy from the finest, most supple leather and stitched by angels from their own hair. Just tell me they cost a fortune, I’ll get it.
It needs a bit of work…
The other problem with old work is that it can have you itching to reach for a pen and begin ‘improving’ or ‘correcting’ it. But is that a good idea?
One of the advantages of self-publishing is that you can tweak your books if you need to, with little disruption to the reading public, to stock availability and relatively negligible damage to your finances. Not so the trad-pubbed, of course. There a revision might cost a packet both in cash terms and in terms of reprinting, delays, supply hiccups etc, and will only be undertaken if absolutely necessary. But an Indie book is not too difficult to fix if there are issues with it that are likely to lead to poor reviews, which might have a knock-on effect on sales.
You can’t go through history deleting all the anoraks and t-bar sandals. Sadly.
So I don’t think it’s a problem if you correct an annoying typo or an inconsistency that is mentioned a few times in reviews. That’s just courtesy. But if you give into the urge to revise, it can be quite hard to stop tinkering, and then before you know it you’ve changed the book so much it could be a whole new project, or you can actually break it, leaving gaping plot holes and chapters that no longer hang together.
I think when it comes down to it, with earlier work, you just have to accept it for what and how it is, like your wonky teeth in that old photo. Acceptance is not always easy, and to leave your old book alone is sometimes the hardest decision to make.
If you read romance as a book category, you are probably aware of the concept of a trope.
A trope is, in a way, a kind of cliché or a stereotype. Although those words have a negative connotation. It’s more a set idea or plot outline that is used many times over, hopefully with variations on the theme. There is the Cinderella trope, or we might call it a rags-to-riches story. There is the second-chance trope, or another is the Romeo-and-Juliet ‘doomed love’ trope.
And so it is with mysteries. We all know about country house or closed community mystery.
There are quite a few often-repeated ideas. Each time the story is told, we hope the author will bring their own new slant on a familiar trope. Agatha Christie was of course the Queen of the trope: want a closed community? How about a familiar one: the country house mystery? For example, The Mysterious Affair At Styles, or The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. that’s all very well, but there are a variations on the country house. think of Murder On The Orient Express. The country house is exchanged for a snowbound train. Or you might prefer Death On The Nile – a boat instead of a train instead of a manor house. Or what about Death In The Air – a plane instead of a boat instead of a train instead of a manor house. Or a hotel: At Bertram’s Hotel.
They all work brilliantly: a closed, finite circle of suspects the detective can investigate one by one, and eliminate until the only one left is the killer. Though of course, knowing Christie, the killer is usually someone we’ve investigated then eliminated, just to put the reader off the scent.
Or the romance genre’s trope, doomed love: this works well in mystery too. (Spoiler alert) I’m thinking of Death In The Clouds again, and this is also a second trope for Death On The Nile, and another book I love, Evil Under The Sun. These all have doomed lovers, doomed because they must suffer the consequences of their actions, or doomed because one of them is manipulated by the object of their affection, who is not what he or she seems.
I love the combination of two or more tropes in the same book. These can work well together to muddy the waters a bit for the armchair detective, making us focus on the wrong thing and miss finding the killer before Poirot or Miss Marple.
Other great tropes for the mystery genre include:
The Evil Victim: seemingly bringing their dreadful fate upon themselves and supplying us with a large cast of suspects and a large variety of motives. I love this one! These can be a spiteful domineering mother – Appointment With Death – or a tyrannical retired colonel living in a village – The Murder At The Vicarage.
Or you may prefer what I call the Not Quite Eden trope: A number of people nip off for a well-deserved holiday, sometimes in an exotic location (Death In Paradise, I’m looking at you) but – who knew – they take their problems or issues with them, and in the summer heat, things come quickly to a head. with disastrous consequences. Here we have our old friend Evil Under The Sun again, and Christie’s great Miss Marple book, A Caribbean Mystery.
There’s the Locked Room trope. This crops up in Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, in the short story, Dead Man’s Mirror and another of my favourites, the novella, Murder In The Mews. The novel And Then There Were None has also been likened to a locked room mystery but in my view this falls under the closed community trope rather than locked room as such.
There’s the Disappearing Weapon trope. I like this one too! (Look away now to avoid another spoiler!) Think of the removed trip-wire in Dumb Witness, for example, which led lesser mortals than Hercule Poirot to believe a ‘mere’ accident was the cause of death.
There is also the Missing Victim trope, one which is another favourite of mine, and is used a couple of times in Robert Thorogood’s Death In Paradise.
There are many more.
Here are a few other trope ideas that you might find interesting:
Revenge trope: Where the perpetrator is exacting revenge on parents, on siblings, on children, or any love or business rival who thwarts their ambition. This is probably as much a motive as it is a trope. This may include the Fake Reunion/Reconciliation. And often too, the Disguised Persona/Hidden Agenda. (Think Christie’s Pocket Full Of Rye)
Spiritual Assassin: This trope includes someone who feels they have a mission from God to punish wrong-doers. (Dan Brown uses this one a few times…)
The Unreliable Narrator: notoriously employed by Christie in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Also used more recently in Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. This is not always a popular trope with the reader who can feel a bit cheated – or maybe it’s more like embarrassment at being duped? When I read Roger Ackroyd for the first time, I was amazed and thrilled by being so brilliantly deceived.
I also enjoy the Double Trouble trope- where there are two different, often unrelated, independent killers. This makes it very much easier to misdirect the reader, fill the story with convincing alibis and make red herrings a doddle.
My absolute favourite mystery trope – and one that I use in my Friendship Can Be Murder trilogy – is the Whydunit. This is the style made famous in the TV series Columbo. You know who did it, you see it right from the start, but the joyous thing about the story is watching the often-ridiculed, apparently shambling detective put together their case with meticulous attention to detail and finally confront the murderer with overwhelming evidence that they are unable to refute. It’s all about the discovery of motive and opportunity, and of course, the search for clues. I love, love love this trope. And it has the merit of being easier to write for the author!!! There is no concealment, only great attention to detail.
Last year I posted a couple of articles about women’s magazines from the 1930s. (If you missed them, you can find them here.)
Over the last two weeks I’ve been fortunate enough to acquire two more vintage magazines aimed directly at women. what impressed me about these was first of all, that this magazine – Woman’s Own – is still in circulation and massively popular today. The second thing I noticed is that there really isn’t a lot of difference between the WO of 1934 and those of 2021.
Have women’s concerns changed very much in 90+ years? I’m not sure they have. for many women, the home and family is still one of the most important things in life, and I’m not saying that in a patronising way, nor ignoring the fact that women today have many more opportunities to have a career, and that the concept of ‘the family’ is miles different – and rightly so – to that of the 1930s.
But at rock bottom, many women are interested in and still worry about how to care for, manage or improve their relationships, their attractiveness, their budget, and their partners and children.
My Woman’s Own mags are from Feb 1934 and this week’s copy – by chance I nabbed a ‘diet special’. Here are a few snippets that struck me as interesting:
Hubby Management: It’s the wife’s job to make her home as welcoming as possible to induce the man (and man ONLY!) to stay at home instead of going out gallivanting. tips are given on how to do this, though the mags expert – whoever that was, possibly (we don’t know!) a bloke – comments that some men will always stay out and shouldn’t get married in the first place. Too late if you’ve got one of those, girls!
We have the readers’ letters, essentially a problem page. My faves are ‘should cousins marry?’ (Surely they know the answer to that?) and the ‘worried wife’ letters. I feel for the worried wife. She knows exactly what the answer will be but doesn’t want to admit it. Poor woman. Did she sling him out? Or – as I feel is more likely – did she just suffer in silence?
There’s a load of fashion tips and ideas, mostly, I was interested to note, clothes you could make at home. This magazine is aimed at the upper working class and lower middle class, women who have a little money but not enough to buy off-the-peg items and certainly not bespoke. ‘Home economy’ was one of the watchwords of the day, and it included apparel.
I personally think this looks absolutely horrid, and a cross between a Christmas panto costume and something out of Red Riding Hood. This one below is slightly nicer, but again, still all your own work.
Although the models in the designs look about 35 to 40, in fact some of these are aimed for teenagers from 14 years of age. not much difference in those days between what mums and their daughters were wearing.
And of course, the eternal battle with the scales. I was interested to see things haven’t changed much here either, although some of our modern ingredients – chorizo and the whole gluten-free plan would have been completely alien to women of the 1930s.
A 2021 diet with the useful and inspiring ‘before and after’ stats.
Looks like this lady – a nurse, not a nun as I first thought – was following the crap-yourself-thin diet. 18lbs was a good result! Was she just a bit constipated after Christmas? All those mince pies…
Looking good appears to be a perennial issue for many women. We want to keep our looks as long as possible, after all, and keep ourselves in good condition. So I suppose it’s not surprising magazines for women contain so many hints, tips and advice. With the growth of city populations, the expansion of the suburbs, many women would have been cut off from their usual channels of information: mothers, grandmothers, aunties. Equally, magazines adopt a sisterly or motherly tone to offer the advice so desperately needed in those times. Today, magazines are more likely to have a friendly, conversational tone, inviting you to confide and share like a friend coming alongside to offer a sympathetic ear.
I’m in awe of the fact that this magazine has been around so long. It’s fascinating to read that the same ideas preoccupied women before my mother was born, as they do now. We may have Smartphones, the Internet, Netflix and Just Eat, but at the end of the day, we still want to look good, feel good, and keep our man where we can see him.
These days, celebs are the friends who come alongside to help us with our issues, and our mags have happy realistic images not creepy devil-children on the cover!
Okay so yes, it does look better without the light background to the flowers!
I’ve spent quite a lot of the first half of 2021 writing the first draft of my next Dottie Manderson mystery. It’s book 7 in the series and will be called Rose Petals and White Lace. The main mystery centres around weddings and wedding preparations.
No, don’t get excited, it’s not the marriage of Dottie and William. You’ve got to wait a little longer for that, sorry. (But yes, it’s coming, I promise.)
The book is not due out until November, but you know, these things take time, so I needed to crack on with it pretty quickly. I try to bring out a Dottie book every year, usually it winds up being released anywhere between my birthday on 18th October, and Christmas.
What tends to happen is, as soon as a new Dottie book is released, I am so excited I rush ahead to begin writing the next one, then Christmas comes along, and you know, life happens, and everything gets put on hold for a couple of months, then before you know it I’m panicking to fit everything in to the remaining time.
I always plan to have January off as holiday, then intend to begin working hard on 1st February but it doesn’t usually work like that. In practice I’m a terrible deadline evader, and will push them back to the last possible moment. It’s a bit like doing your homework as you eat your breakfast on submission day. So here we are at the beginning of June, and I should have written maybe 70,000 words or so for my first draft. Have I? No!!! Of course I haven’t. I’ve written maybe 30,000 words. That’s pants, obvs. And this means that I will have to work a lot harder in June and July to be ready for my self-imposed deadline of November 1st.
To make matters worse, I’m also doing a final polish/proofread of A Meeting With Murder: Miss Gascoigne mysteries book 1. I had planned to release that one at the end of June, but I seriously doubt it will happen. I’m smart enough now not to be too precise when I let readers know books are due to make their appearance. I suspect Miss Gascoigne will make her first appearance in September.
But this untidy system works for me. Dorothea Brande in her author handbook classic, Becoming A Writer (1934!) stated that writers (like other people only more so) are made up of two very different selves. Therefore during the drafting stage, the prosaic, planning/editing/organised/business-suit-wearing (my business suit is jog bottoms and an old shirt with fluffy socks to keep my feet toasty) side of me allows flaky/creative/disorganised/messy/kaftan-wearing Caron the freedom to do her thing, with fingers crossed firmly behind my back and praying that as it’s worked before it will work again. It’s not really so much a process but more a succession of futile attempts to organise my life like realwriters do. But no, I still don’t enjoy using professional writing software. So I’ve given up on all those things, stopped trying to force myself to work like others do, and gone back to what works for me: a pen and paper. I love the nuts-and-bolts process of writing long-hand in a bunch of notebooks then typing it all up as I go, amending and refining along the way.
But hopefully both books will be finished at some point before Christmas, and both book will be worth reading.
Meanwhile here’s a little bit of a taster for each book: (please note, these may change completely by publication day!)
Kim, welcome. Thank you so much for allowing yourself to be bullied persuaded into answering a few questions for all the readers of fantasy books out there. I would say fantasy is one of the top three if not the top genre in terms of popularity these days, so I know there will be a lot of people eager to find out what makes you tick.
Let’s crack on, shall we?
Q1. What kind of books do you write?
I mainly write fantasy, essentially the kind known as ‘epic fantasy’ set in imaginary worlds where magic is possible and my characters are forced to go on perilous journeys in search of some goal (or themselves). There may be some romantic interest, or some humour, but this is generally secondary to the main story. The later books have an increasingly political content with neither of the warring factions being totally good or totally bad. The Plain Girl’s Earrings is about a young nobleman who naively gets involved in trying to defend the weak, and is soon over his head in trouble.
The Witch’s Box is the story of Maihara, Imperial Princess (with magical powers) in a troubled empire that is collapsing around her. She has high ambitions, but might not the rebels make a better job of running things?
Q2. What were your earliest influences? What did you read as a child?
I remember reading all of the CS Lewis ‘Narnia’ novels, and a lot of Gollancz SF which at the time came in books with yellow jackets. Also various juvenile adventure novels. All of which came from the local library, a resource which unfortunately seems to becoming harder for kids to access these days. Later I continued to read a lot of SF but in later years grew weary of SF and turned to reading general fiction, and fantasy, because the characters were more interesting.
I’m with you on the C S Lewis stuff, and I remember those Gollancz jackets too. I also completely agree with you about libraries – they are a wonderful, and lest we forget, free resource (in the UK at least) which are seemingly used less and less.
Q3. What are you working on at the moment?
I am finishing the final revisions of the third volume of my The Witch’s Box trilogy.
Q4. What can we look forward to in the future from you?
A story about a young woman who, when searching for her missing sister, finds herself in a parallel world where customs and technology differ radically from those of our own world. In other words, this is a ‘portal fantasy’. After that, possibly a high fantasy with lots of magic, with people turning into birds or animals, a battle with an evil magician, an Arctic quest, and stuff. Interest has been expressed in a fourth volume of The Witch’s Boxbut that may be some way off.
Sounds like you are extremely busy, and prolific. Q5. Who are your favourite authors?
GRR Martin, Kate Elliott, Brandon Sanderson, Michael Moorcock, Louis de Bernieres, Robin Hobb, Joe Abercrombie, Alison Spedding, Patrick Rothfuss.
Q6. What do you do when you’re not reading?
I also spend some time on amateur astronomy, gardening, and before the pandemic used to visit National Trust and English Heritage properties, and various museums and galleries, and the cinema. When too tired to do anything else, I watch TV.
Q7. What is your writing process?
Generally I start with an idea and an outline, and work it up to a first draft, which may be revised, lengthened and shown to a select group of critiquers. The process may be repeated several times before I arrive at a final version which could differ substantially from the first draft. I have used the Storyweaversoftware to plan out several of my novels, and it prompts me to think about the plot and overall structure, the characters, the theme and any genre elements. It’s not a magic bullet but it does prompt one to jot down some necessary details. I have tried writing one or two things in ‘pantster’ mode without a detailed plan, and it has generally been a disaster.
I know what you mean about the perils of pantser mode! I am a reformed pantser msyelf, working with only a very skeletal ‘plan’ in my head. Otherwise I usually find that if I make too many or too detailed a plan, I lose all interest in writing my book. I haven’t tried Storyweaver, though I’ve heard good things about it.
Thank you so much, Kim, for coming along to chat about your work. I’m sure your work will continue to make you proud, and good luck with the next book. I hope you will come back and give us an update in a few months.
In the meanwhile, where can readers find out more about you and your books, and where can they buy them?
Kim Cowie has worked as a technician and as a technical author, and has sold articles to non-fiction magazines, as well as two short stories. Kim has always enjoyed reading and writing SF and fantasy stories. Currently he is working on a series of fantasy novels.
I think I’ve mentioned a couple of times that Dottie Manderson’s latest outing, The Spy Within, book 6 in the Dottie Manderson mystery series, was quite a lot longer than I’d anticipated. Because of that, I had to cut out a large number of words, two or three major scenes in fact that I felt muddied the waters and delayed the action a little bit too much.
But as scenes, I felt they worked really nicely. Authors are often told to ‘kill their darlings’ – for me this isn’t so much about killing off a beloved character but chopping a scene that works really well, earns its wages and yet in spite of everything, just doesn’t belong. It is often with great reluctance that I cut out a scene then have to find another way to bring in the information the reader needs to figure out what’s going on.
This next scene is a case in point. If you haven’t read The Spy Within, or the previous books come to that, maybe you should browse elsewhere for the next ten minutes or so – spoilers abound!
So in The Spy Within we see William Hardy – police inspector – and Dottie Manderson – amateur sleuth – discussing Dottie’s beau Gervase Parfitt (boo, hiss!). William has been asked to investigate allegations of corruption and other possible crimes lodged against Gervase Parfitt who is an ambitious assistant chief constable. William has also been told to enlist Dottie’s help in finding evidence, as his superior officers know she is a friend of William’s, and is on the point of becoming engaged to Parfitt.
But what the higher-ups don’t know is that the relationship between William and Dottie is far more complicated than that and there is quite a lot of baggage that needs to be resolved. William tries to get out of asking her, but is told he must. Reluctantly he tries to find a way to tell her that Parfitt is under investigation – which he believes will devastate her – and yet still be able to gain her trust and get her to help him.
In the final version of this book, William has a couple of attempts at doing this. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that he has passively allowed his old fiancee back into his life, and both women are jealous of one another from the outset. The conversation becomes an emotional minefield for both Dottie and William.
You will also see some of my notes to myself in the midst of the scene – I often leave myself reminders or notes when writing my first draft; these serve as signposts when I come to revise the manuscript later.
Here it is:
William arrived at a quarter to three. He had invited her to meet him at three o’clock.
He had felt that the conversation might go better if they met at the Lyons’ corner house nearest her fashion warehouse. For one thing, after their last meeting, he didn’t really expect her to turn up at all, or if she did, he thought she’d likely be very late. He was fully prepared for her to still be furious with him. So long as she didn’t look at him with that bleak, defeated look, it should be all right. Rage he could deal with, but he doubted he could cope with that cold misery. Or tears.
At least if he was in a Lyons’, he could just order more tea and cake whilst he waited, if she came very late. Or, if she was furious, he thought—or hoped, might be more accurate—she might keep her temper in check in a public place, whereas in her home, or his, she could very well pick up the teapot and throw it at him. Not that, given the current situation, she was at all likely to offer him tea, he realised now. In any case, he hoped she wouldn’t do that in Lyons’, though he was by no means certain.
She arrived five minutes early. Punctuality was important to her, he remembered belatedly, and besides, she was a busy woman these days with a business to run, which by all accounts, she did very well.
She had pulled out the chair and sat down before he had a chance to leap to his feet and pull it out for her. She glared at him.
Clearly she was, as expected, furious. He forgot every word of his carefully planned, meticulously crafted speech, and stared at her, dumb. She raised an elegantly curved eyebrow.
He said, ‘Er…’ and executed a kind of half-rise together with a sort of bow and bumped his knee on the leg of the table, making the vase of flowers jump. He swore loudly at the sharp pain that went through his knee. Several other patrons tutted and shook their heads. Dottie frowned and looked away.
He removed the end of his tie from his saucer, wiped the dribble of tea from his shirt and bent to pick up his wallet that had fallen on the floor, only narrowly missing hitting his head on the edge of the table. Dottie had to conceal a smile.
‘Damn thing,’ he said as he replaced the wallet in his pocket. More tutting and head-shaking from an elderly lady at the table behind them.
Dottie noticed that the leather was rather shiny and new looking. His initials, W F H, for William Faulkener Hardy, were embossed in gold on the front of the wallet. Dottie preferred the old, battered wallet he had had for years.
‘Did she buy that for you?’ she couldn’t help asking.
He paused in the middle of dabbing at his shirt. ‘What, the wallet? Oh, er, yes.’ He blushed. Everything was going wrong. ‘She said the old one was too shabby.’
‘It was,’ she said. ‘Although I preferred it.’
She was looking at him now less as though he was a bug that wanted squashing and more as a smelly dog that needed to be put outside in a kennel. He felt it was progress.
‘I can’t get used to this one. And it’s bigger, so I can’t keep it in the inside pocket I kept the old one in, which is why I keep dropping it all the time.’
It seemed the subject had run its course, as she made no reply.
‘Tea?’ he asked. She shook her head. The hovering waitress frowned and stalked away.
‘What do you want, William?’
At least she’d used his first name rather than his rank and surname. Another point for progress, he decided.
(note to me: when has he told her about his doubts about Gervase and the fact that he is tasked with investigating him???) ‘I thought we should talk about Parfitt, and how I would like you to help me.’
She made a little grunting sound, more or less an affirmative. Then she turned and flagged down the waitress. ‘Just a pot of tea, please.’
‘Certainly madam, and for the gentleman?’
William was about to order tea, but Dottie said, with a fierce look at him, ‘He’s not having anything. He’s about to leave.’
‘Very good, madam.’ The waitress bobbed and returned to her area to make the tea.
William said nothing, deciding not to push his luck. He quickly outlined what he wanted her to do. Before she could comment, the waitress appeared with the pot of tea, milk jug, and cup and saucer.
There was a long pause as Dottie dissolved a sugar lump on her spoon then stirred it in. He thought it odd, and wondered when she had started taking sugar in her tea. As she set the spoon in the saucer, her hand trembled slightly. Only now did he realise how upsetting this all was for her.
In a very low voice, one that only she could hear, he said, ‘Dottie.’ He tried to take her hand but she snatched it away.
‘What would Moira think?’ she snapped. ‘You can’t go around holding girls’ hands now you’re engaged.’
Heads turned once more. Dottie’s temper subsided. She sat back in her chair, her attention fixed on her hands folded in her lap.
He felt he should apologise, but didn’t, couldn’t. The silence stretched between them until it had gone on far too long for him to apologise. In the end, he simply spoke from the heart, but quietly.
‘What a bloody mess.’
He watched a tear roll down and splash onto her skirt.
‘Yes.’ She didn’t dare look at him.
He reached for her cup and took a drink of her tea. Waited another minute, then said, ‘Well, we’re stuck with it, and it’s all our own blasted fault.’
‘Yes,’ she said again. But this time she reached for a handkerchief and discreetly blotted her eyes. Only as she put it away did he see, first that the white cotton handkerchief was a man’s, and next, that the monogram in the corner was WFH. (in my rough notes for this scene I’ve got William Edward Hardy – so I need to check whether I’ve given any of these middle names out in my books so far – obv need to keep to that.) It was one of his own handkerchiefs—one of several he’d given her over the year and a half of their acquaintance—that she was using.
He reached across and took her hand. She didn’t try to stop him. ‘I want you to know I’m so, so sorry. For everything. Dottie, I so deeply regret…’
She pulled her hand away now. Her voice wobbled as she said, ‘What use is that now?’ She sighed, then added, ‘It’s all right, William. It’s my fault, I know that. I should be the one…’
The waitress went past, and Dottie broke off. She sipped her tea. It steadied her. An elderly couple pushed past to find a seat. William looked about him, surprised to see how quickly the place had filled up in the last few minutes.
But the short interval was enough to allow her to compose herself. When she spoke, it was in a more measured, firmer tone.
‘Are you absolutely certain about Gervase?’
Parfitt’s name was like a splash of cold water in William’s face. But it was as well to get back to marginally safer ground.
Remembering that she had once—briefly—thought she was in love with the man, William said gently, ‘Oh yes, quite certain. There’s no doubt, I’m afraid.’
She nodded. Leaning forward, she gripped her teacup in both hands. ‘Tell me what you want me to do.’