Guess what? I’ve been doing stuff on social media!
I know as an Indie author, I’m supposed to do stuff on social media, but I’m not one to do what I’m supposed to do, so this will come as a surprise to many of you. Besides which, there’s my age to factor in – two weeks to go to my 63rd birthday – and as we all know, us oldies are still getting used to The Face Book.
But I’ve been trying to improve and so here’s a few things I’ve done this week, mainly on mastodon social(I’m there as @caronallan – pop in and say Hi!)
I’ve discovered the pleasure of online writing groups. On mastodon, there are two I enjoy – writerscoffeeclub and wordweavers. In addition to those, a lovely author lady (@elizabethguilt ) suggested a daily 100 word flash fiction, she calls it a drabble – this is new to me, though I used to regularly write 500 word flash fictions and also haiku – 17 syllable poems in a 5-7-5 format.
These groups plan a daily task or question for those who want to play along, and there are some interesting things on the list that came out at the start of the month. For example, Oct 3 for the Word Weavers was ‘How do you convey a character’s emotion in your work’.
This was my reply (there’s a word limit, much bigger than Twitter’s but still, it confines you.)
Because I write 1930s cozy mysteries, I sometimes like to keep things a little understated. I think less is more in terms of emotional impact sometimes.
Though this is true of my ‘contemporary’ murder Friendship Can Be Murder series, which are written as 1st POV diary entries (yes, I now know no one likes that, but 11-12 years ago, I didn’t realise) So Criss Cross, when her hubs is murdered, MC simply records: ‘Thomas is dead. And I am alone.’
And because I wanted to share more about my Dottie books, as part of my reply, I added this image, which is an extract taken from The Mantle of God: Dottie Manderson mysteries book 2.
Coming back to the Drabble – the task was to share a 100-word limit story. I found this quite tricky, because I tend to think in terms of long fiction, so I’m not sure I’ve really followed the spirit of the idea. On Oct 1st, I uploaded this:
And then on Oct 2nd, I couldn’t stop myself from continuing on from there instead of writing a whole new 100 word story…
But I have to say, it was highly enjoyable and I feel really proud of myself to have written two new (teeny) pieces of work this week, made some new friends and talked about my books a little.
Agatha Christie is arguably one of the most well-loved authors of all time. And her books are still being published in new formats, turned into plays and TV series and mini-series, and of course films on the big screen, a hundred years after she first began her writing career. Her books regularly top the online bestseller lists and there have been spin-offs, recreations and fan fiction. You can even buy her ‘secret notebooks’, biographies and merchandise.
Between 1920 and 1973-ish she wrote 66 detective novels under her (first) married name, Agatha Christie, 6 non-detective novels as Mary Westmacott, and 14 short story collections. In addition a number of her works have been adapted for the stage, or were written as plays that have now been novelised.
But far from setting out to be a great author, she only started writing at all due to a bet with her sister, and a certain amount of boredom. Yet she has created some of the best and worst (sorry, but Parker Pyne and Mr Quin????) detectives in the genre, and some of the most devious and controversial plots to ever trick, misdirect and enthrall the reading public. If we sometimes today find her plots predictable or jaded, that is because we can easily forget that she and a handful of other trailblazers have, through their work, made us as readers more sophisticated and at the same time, have aroused expectations to fit the genre. If we can place the books in their original era, then they become even more fresh, more unusual and very, very clever.
So if you’ve been living on the moon, and haven’t read anything by Christie before, or if you’ve only lately come to detective fiction via some other nefarious genre, what are the five booksyou should read by Agatha Christie?
Well obviously you’ve got to read the first Poirot book, not that sequence is an issue with Christie as it is with many authors. But it’s always interesting to a) read an author’s first book, and b) read the first book to feature a well-known detective. So you absolutely must begin with The Mysterious Affair At Styles, published in 1920 and featuring Hercule Poirot. I would say he is the world’s foremost fictional detective (though fans of Sherlock Holmes would no doubt disagree). This is a phenomenal debut, and an intriguing mystery.
Christie famously disliked Poirot, and her dislike is clear in the rather comical, uncharitable description of him as he makes his first appearance in chapter two, meeting by accident the narrator of the story, his famous side-kick Hastings. Right from the outset, we note that Hastings always treats Poirot with a mixture of pity and affection. We are told: Poirot was an extraordinary-looking little man. He was hardly more than five feet four inches, but carried himself with great dignity. His head was exactly the shape of an egg, and he always perched it a little on one side. His moustache was very stiff and military. We are also told of his love of neatness bordering on obsession and, again as always, Hastings is at pains to point out that Poirot’s glories are behind him and he is past his prime. In fact, he’s past his prime for the next, what, thirty, forty years?
So Poirot is not in any shape or form the figure of a hero – he’s short, stout, he limps, he’s fussy and overly particular, and he’s older in years than a classic swash-buckling, overcoming-all-obstacles big-screen hero of that era or even our own. And he has personality flaws in the form of vanity and self-importance, and often, a deep lack of self-belief that I think most of us could identify with today.
But his strengths – oh they are good – he is an acute observer of humanity, he notices EVERYTHING, he understands human psychology, and his success lies in his deep thought processes and his use of logic to work out the details of a crime, that and a reliance on the everyday bigotry that overlooks the intelligence or usefulness of a foreigner on the part of many he comes into contact with.
So that’s Styles.
You also HAVE to read two other classic Poirot’s: Death on the Nile and Murder on the Orient Express. These have become such genre classics almost independent of their creator, and the TV series and various film versions have definitely assisted with that. These books have masterful plots featuring an ensemble cast, and represent neat variations on the country house theme by being a ship and a train. The exotic locations just add to the pleasure.
Miss Marple is one of Christie’s other detectives, and is almost as well known and beloved as Poirot. She is a single old lady who knits and gossips. She solves mysteries by the simple expedient of listening, asking questions and again, like Poirot, knowing a great deal about human behaviour. This is largely the result of her life experience, and the fact that she lives in a small community where everyone knows everyone. Like Poirot, she is often overlooked as a threat to the plans of baddies and evildoers. The best Marple book to start with, in my opinion, is again the book that introduces us to the character, a volume of short stories first published in 1933, The Thirteen Problems (or in the US this is called The Tuesday Club Murders). In this book, each of a group of friends tells of an unsolved murder they know about, and various solutions are put forward by the rest of the group, until in the end, Miss Marple, between counting stitches or casting on a new ball of wool, puts forward the truth, which is then acted upon and checked by someone who is a high-up legal chap. By the end of the book, the others now turn immediately to Miss Marple, knowing she will tell them the only true solution.
Two more famous Marple books, which are in a way companion pieces, areA Caribbean Mysteryand Nemesisand are also excellent, showing her personality in her strength of purpose and determination to see justice done.
Okay, I know I said five books, and there they are (not really five but it’s not easy to choose between some of them…). And I can’t resist adding a bonus one: the extraordinary Death Comes As The End. It was published in 1945, and is a traditional-style murder mystery, but it is set in ancient Egypt, and the background was gleaned by Christie from her archaeological exploits with husband number two, Sir Max Mallowan. It’s a great story, full of fascinating detail, and it inspired me as a teenager to learn more about history of all eras.
And of course, you’ve got to read The Murder at the Vicarage, Lord Edgware Dies, my personal favourite, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and my ‘other’ personal favourite, Evil Under the Sun.
I hope that, having read all the above books, you might feel an impulse to go back and read the rest of her works. They are well worth the effort, and I am sure you will agree, not only are they entertaining and enjoyable, you will also feel that you have come to know the woman behind not just these works but the modern cosy mystery genre as a whole. Without Agatha Christie, I believe there would be no Midsomer Murders, no Vera, Shetland, no Line of Duty, or Inspector Morse.
I’ve been really stumped for ideas to come up with for a blog post or a newsletter lately. Mainly because I’m using all my creative energy and inspiration for the final edit/polish I’m currently doing on A Wreath of Lilies (out 10th November, lest we forget – all too soon for my comfort right now).
And these are the things I’ve realised about my story so far:
There are too many people with a surname beginning with P
There are too many people with a first name beginning with S
As always with my books there are just – too many people. Soooo many people…
Things happen in the story that have already happened.
Things happen before they happened?????? How does that even????????????????? Yes I don’t know either.
One chap’s wife changed name halfway through the book. My sympathies go out to the family in question.
One dead body was dead so often in so many places, she/he must have been a triplet… Maybe even a quintuplet. (Note to self, a story about quintuplets would be awesome, if rather complicated.)
I’ve got more criminals than crimes.
I’ve got more police officers than criminals.
Did I mention I have too many characters?
My main protagonists have accidentally reversed their ages by a year. I wish I could do that IRL.
I found my characters using jargon and slang that wasn’t around in that era.
The police are using technology that wasn’t around in that era.
If they all stopped drinking tea and gazing at one another, the crime(s) would get solved three days earlier.
Pretty sure it will end up being okay though. Keeping everything crossed.
Quick sneaky peek:
Closer to hand, Dee was startled out of her thoughts by a man suddenly saying, ‘Ah, we meet again!’
Turning, she saw Clive Barton’s smiling face and she responded with a friendly, ‘Mr Barton, how nice to see you again. I’m here with Miss Marriott,’ gesturing as she spoke.
He nodded, looked disappointed, and murmured, ‘Excuse me, ladies.’ He went off and she saw him settle himself in a seat near the back of the room.
‘He’s too old for you,’ Miss Marriott said in a stage-whisper, taking Dee by surprise. Why was everyone so interested in her love-life? Although in Mrs Padham’s case, perhaps she had become so bitterly opposed to anyone having a love-life after she herself had been abandoned. Dee wondered vaguely why Mrs Padham’s husband Henry had left her. Perhaps she had nagged him the way she nagged her guests.
‘My goodness, I should think so,’ she said vehemently to Miss Marriott’s remark. ‘Not that I’m looking anyway.’
‘Taken, are you?’ Miss Marriott’s eyes bore into her, on the alert for any kind of response. Dee thought she may as well admit it.
‘I see.’ Miss Marriott’s smile was triumphant.
It seemed likely, certain even, that there would be further questions later. But now, with the room packed and a number of people standing at the sides and at the back, the woman at the front stood neatly to attention at the table and rapped on the wooden surface with a teaspoon from the cup and saucer in front of her.
‘They get tea, I notice,’ Miss Marriott whispered resentfully. Dee simply nodded.
‘Good evening ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to this open meeting to discuss the proposal to move the graves from the existing burial site to a new position at the north end of the village. I am Cynthia Miles-Hudson, head of planning at Northeast Essex council. On my right, is the Honourable…’
‘There’s nothing honourable about Fast Eddie Windward!’ someone yelled from the back. ‘He’s as crooked as they come!’
I’m giving in to the long-suppressed urge to share a scene from the new murder mystery I’m currently working on. It will be called A Wreath Of Lilies – you may well have seen me banging on about it already. This will be the second book of my new-ish 1960s series featuring Dee Gascoigne as a private detective. If you haven’t already seen it, you can find out more about book 1 – A Meeting With Murder – here.
Here’s the blurb-type thing (which may change…)
On her first ‘official’ investigator case, Dee Gascoigne is off to the village of Hartwell Priory, where locals are up in arms over the proposal to dig up the deceased ancestors buried in the local cemetery in order to make way for three hundred new houses.
As if things aren’t tense enough, a group of hippie-like ghost hunters arrive and hold a seance. A message from beyond the grave seems to indicate that a grave has been forgotten.
Or was it just an illegal burial?
This book will be out in October, and like all my books, will be available in eBook form, paperback and large print paperback, from Amazon, and regular-print paperback only from ‘other’ online retailers and libraries. Here’s a sneak peek, in case you’re interested, hope you enjoy it.
Dee Gascoigne was the only person in the train carriage. She had a newspaper in case she got bored, as it was a long, slow journey to Hartwell Priory, a village close to the North Essex coast. And if the newspaper was not enough, she had a novel in her handbag – the Agatha Christie book that she had wanted to read for some time and that she’d been given by her cousin Jenny as a birthday present. Next to the brand new copy of A Caribbean Mystery was the envelope Monty had given her. She had better not lose it. It contained some cash to pay for her expenses, and a couple of sheets of paper that outlined her new ‘case’. She used the word in her mind, and it thrilled her to the core – she was actually on a case. In addition to these she had a letter of introduction and a handful of business cards so that she could be confident in the face of any challenge to her – call it what it was – nosy questioning.
If there was something that could be called a ‘gift’ in Dee’s character it was her ability to ask far too many questions, and it was pleasing to know that these could now be asked officially on behalf of Montague Montague of London, legal services.
Only yesterday, Thursday September 2nd 1965, Dee had been sitting in Monty’s office, hoping almost against hope it had seemed, that he could help her.
It had been practically six months since she had left – or been asked to leave – her job as a modern languages teacher at a very nice school for very nice young ladies. Since then she had found herself at a loss over what to do with her life.
Then, in the Spring, she had been sent off to the seaside to convalesce after an illness and had stumbled into a murder mystery exactly like those she so dearly loved to read. (Here she glanced with fond anticipation at the little bit of the cover of A Caribbean Mystery that she could see nestling in the top of her open bag). She had helped her dratted sort-of cousin, Inspector Bill Hardy, to clear up the mystery, risking her own life and limb to do so, but was the man grateful? Not at all. ‘Keep out of police business in future,’ he had growled at her at her mother’s birthday party, grabbing her arm in a vice-like grip and steering her away from the celebrations where she had been enjoying a lively discussion with her aunt, his mother, who also loved to ‘dabble’ in mysteries. He had a bloody cheek, Dee fumed to herself.
Anyway… Where was she? She had lost herself in the midst of feeling angry with Bill. She certainly wasn’t going to think about how handsome he had looked in his formal dinner suit, nor about how much she liked the way his dark hair crinkled behind his ears and at his neck now that he was wearing it a little longer as many young men did these days.
She had been out of work for some months now. Oh, she had been invited to several interviews for positions at other schools, but it always came down to the same thing: she just didn’t want to go back to teaching.
Yet what else could a recently separated woman do? People were so sniffy about the idea of a woman leaving her husband. It was this scandalous action on her part that had cost her the job in the first place.
And then, seemingly from nowhere, when all hope was lost and the money she had borrowed from her parents was dwindling to a pitifully tiny amount, dear, dear Monty had asked her brother Rob to get her to come and see him.
‘I’ve got something in the way of a job idea that might interest you,’ M’dear Monty had wheezed at her across his vast oak desk. Eighty if he was a day, and about to start his fifth retirement, Monty’s legal expertise had saved Dee’s family on more than one occasion.
She had been all ears. Could he really be serious? She held her breath waiting to see what he said. Even if it was a typing job, she’d have to take it. Not that she could type, not really. But she could no longer pretend that she wasn’t desperate. Her pride – that thing that goeth before a fall – was now in tatters.
‘Most law practices engage investigators to find out things for them. To carry out research, or to go to speak to people, that sort of thing. Montague’s is no different. But the fellow I have been using for the last two or three years has – er – shall we say – found it advantageous to his health to quickly move to South America. Therefore I now have a vacancy.
‘Dear Rob has kindly given me full account of your exploits down in Porthlea – delightful place – in the spring, and I think you could be just what I’m looking for. I know your inquiring mind, (nosiness, Dee told herself) and that you are an intelligent woman. Resourceful too, (crafty, Dee amended) and I know that I need have no doubts whatsoever about your moral integrity.’
She was on the point of speaking, but he held up a hand to halt her. He added, ‘Oh I know this is rather new to you, M’dear, but I feel you have a certain bent for investigating. In any case, I need someone right now, and if I may be blunt for a moment, you need the money. Can I persuade you to give it a try? If it doesn’t suit you, M’dear, no harm done on either side. What do you say?’
Well, what could she say?
‘My goodness, Monty dearest, I’d love to!’
And so here she was, on a painfully slow train that seemingly stopped at every rabbit hutch and milepost, heading to a place she’d never even heard of: Hartwell Priory.
She knew it was a tiny place, barely more than a halfway point between the busy port of Harwich and the city of Colchester in the county of Essex. She was to find her way to a guesthouse and rent herself a room for the week. Monty seemed to think it could take her several days, perhaps a whole week, to find out the things he needed to know.
She had money for her expenses, and the promise of ten pounds in wages, whether she was successful or not. Oh, she prayed she would be. The last thing she wanted was to let Monty down after his kindness.
The guard peered at her through the window of the connecting door to the next carriage. He’d already clipped her ticket and was checking to see if any new passengers had boarded into her carriage. They hadn’t of course, it had been almost an hour since she’d seen anyone other than the guard.
The business cards Monty had so clearly had printed before he even knew what she would say, stated simply: Miss Diana Gascoigne, Associate, Montague Montague of London, legal services. And the letter of introduction, was exactly that, short, to the point, impossible to quibble with or gainsay:
‘To whom it may concern,
I confirm that Miss Diana Gascoigne is an associate of this company, Montague Montague of London, legal services, and that she is employed by myself and under my instructions.
The Honourable Montague Montague QC, Bart.,’
The connecting door opened. Dee glanced up. The guard, a young man in his twenties, said,
‘We’ll be there in two minutes, miss. Watch your step getting down, it’s quite a drop to the platform.’
‘Do you need help with your suitcase?’
‘Oh no, that’s quite all right, thanks.’ She beamed at him.
He blushed and left, and Dee closed her handbag with a snap, got up, grabbed her raincoat and hat, and hefted her case down off the luggage net and began to make her way to the corridor. The train slowed and the long narrow platform appeared beneath the window.
She had arrived.
So are you hooked? You can pre-order the eBook here, or just leave yourself reminders everywhere to order the paperback, hardback or large print paperback when they come out, around the same time as the eBook – sorry ‘actual’ books are not available yet for pre-order, only the eBook.
Grateful thanks for the image go to Shutterstock and more especially, Agalaya:
Because more than half of my books are set in the 1930s, I constantly find myself – even eight books in – looking stuff up. It might be easy to find stuff like ‘good poisons to kill someone with’ (My search history would def land me in a lot of trouble if anything ever happened to my nearest and dearest), but sometimes it’s deeper, more complicated stuff (ie questions such as ‘when did the UK first get direct dialling telephone systems?’ or ‘how much did a postcard and a stamp cost in 1934?’) I need answers to.
Quite often what I need to know are small obscure things that Mr Google or Mr Wikipedia can help with but if it’s a recurring issue, I need to have the answer closer to hand. And it’s important to me that the settings I create for my books are fairly accurate, because I want my readers to become immersed in the story, so I have acquired a number of books over the last few years to help me develop an authentic 1930s-feeling world for Dottie Manderson.
Plus, I just love all the pictures… (not the gory ones in the forensic books, but the pretty dresses etc)
Here are a few of the books I use regularly which have now become indispensable. I did take a few interior pics then realise – duh, idiot, copyright issues! So sadly I’m just showing you the covers. I’m taking it as read that you’d know I have a dictionary and a thesaurus by my side at all times so I didn’t bother to take photos of them.
As I write crime fiction, albeit a gentle, 1930s or 1960s brand, I need to know a bit about the icky side of a crime. so the two books below are my go-to for that sort of stuff. Though I have to bear in mind that for the 1930s – and even the 1960s – some of this stuff wouldn’t be relevant as it’s very much only ‘coming soon’ (1980s/90s and later).
I love the image of the fly on the pages in this book, btw!
This is one of my favourite books – it even tells you symptoms, reaction times, all sorts! Please note the sticky page markers!
I also need to know a bit about houses, social conventions, mod cons and everyday life in the past, so I have loved these books too:
I also find it helpful sometimes to read true crime and related non-fiction:
This was a brilliant birthday present from one of my children. A fascinating read.
Slightly more modern, a bit more gritty and just as fascinating
But if you know me, or have visited this blog before, you’ll know my real love is costume, and also social history. Here are a few of my absolute favourite books:
This book is a wonderful overview of general phases of costume change and development. John Peacock’s books are wonderful!
These books in John Peacocks other series have so much more detail and information – I highly recommend them for authors. and for a wonderful half hour’s reading over a cuppa any time you want to relax.
This is another wonderful series of book with mainly images relating to a specific era, to give an insight into British popular culture of the time. I love them.
And lastly – but most fabulous of all, and not really my era, but such beautiful photos, I wish I could put them on here to wow you:
So now you know what I do when I’m gathering ideas, checking facts and maundering over a first draft idea. Or just – you know – reading for fun.
As you know, I write genre fiction – that is to say it fits neatlyish into a specific genre type of book – I write mysteries. My books are not, by any stretch of the imagination, literary, nor are they ‘general’ what ever that is. Some writers are quite apologetic and embarrassed that they don’t write something high-brow. Not me. I believe that genre fiction has huge benefits and there’s no need to feel that I ‘only’ write mysteries: ‘Oh it’s only a mystery’ or ‘I really only like romances, I’m afraid.’
You see, I believe that books are lifesavers. Books are companionship for the lonely, entertainment for those who are bored. It doesn’t matter if you can’t hear, or if you can’t walk, if you’re old or young, you can enjoy a book. And if you can’t see, you can listen to audiobooks. Books can be a comfort and a much-needed means of escape from what is sometimes an anxious, or difficult world. We all need a break – and a book is perfect for that.
I had cancer a few years back, and whilst I had tests, surgery, appointments, sat in busy, soulless waiting rooms, and anxiously waited for a prognosis, I read books. It was a relief to get out of myself and my thoughts and into a world where the only bad things that happened would be solved by a detective and the villain locked up. Bliss! A few hours free of my own troubles was just what the doctor ordered. I realised as never before just how wonderful it was to get lost in a good book. I was so grateful to the authors who offered me that respite.
I was lucky, and I am now free of cancer and healthy, but my love and respect for books and their authors will never die.
So a little while ago, I asked my mailing list subscribers some questions about what they love. Here are a few of the most popular responses I had:
Q1. I asked,What is the best thing about finding a new book you love?
Finding a new book can be tough, and it’s important to find relatable characters, an engrossing plot and a style that appeals.
Many people said they were drawn by the cover – which is exactly what they are designed to do – to lure you in!
For some, finding a new book or series is like meeting a new friend.
When readers find a new book or series, they love to tell their friends and family about it!
Readers like the idea that the book will be theirs to read again and again, and to refer to, a book that adds to their knowledge or understanding (mainly reference books)
People love the sense of starting out on a journey, of ‘meeting’ new people and having adventures along the way. A kind of vicarious holiday.
Q2. Do you always read the same genre, or do you like a lot of different types of book?
You were largely split over this, with many people saying they read anything and everything, and others stating that they only ever read the same kind of books. I’m largely that way myself. I do enjoy the odd history book and classics, and poetry, but almost always I turn to crime, figuratively, of course!
Q3. When do you read?
Again, responses were quite split between those who read during the day, usually with lunch or a coffee or cup of tea, and those who read almost entirely at night before going to sleep. Some people read during commuter journeys on trains and buses. Now that I’m at home during the day, I tend to read with coffee or lunch. When I was working in the big wide world, I used to read on the bus or when I had a lunch break. It’s so nice not to have to sit on a bus for hours on end anymore.
Q4. Actual book or eReader?
The odds were almost overwhelmingly stacked in favour of ‘actual’ paper, hold-in-your-hand-and-sniff-the-pages books. Most people who read on eReaders said they did so mainly for the convenience. I must admit I’m the same. My trusty eReader goes with me when I travel or am away from home, but when I’m at home and reading in comfort, it’s always a ‘real’ book. The great thing about eReaders of course, is your nearest and dearest have no idea just how many eBooks you’ve bought – that little secret is between you and your gadget. One person pointed out that the advantage of reading at night on an eReader is that you don’t need to have a light on in the room, so you don’t disturb your partner. A great point!
Q5. What are your other favourite past-times?
Wow we have a lot of pastimes! Here are just a few:
Writing! Reading, obviously. Walking the dog, taking pics of your cats, gardening, flower-arranging, cooking, various arts and crafts including model-making, embroidery, card-making, painting in oils, painting in acrylics, crochet, knitting, drawing, sewing, photography. Then we had the DIYers, the mad exercise buffs, the tennis-players, the golfers, the swimmers, the dancers, the joggers, the cyclists. You like playing board games and card games, going to the pub, spending time with family and friends, eating out, sport, sport and more sport. You love travel. You love learning new things at evening classes. Some of you like to help others in the community, or volunteer in charity shops or care homes. You play musical instruments, you babysit your grandkids, and all kinds of other amazing stuff. You guys are seriously impressive! No wonder you sometimes need to sit down with a book and just chill.
Q6. What are your favourite TV shows, if you watch TV?
Again, a huge range of results here: people gave general responses such as drama, crime, reality shows, documentaries, comedy etc. but we also got some very specific shows mentioned: Peaky Blinders, Line of Duty, Gogglebox, Brooklyn 99, Poirot, Family Guy, Outlander, Once Upon A Time, Bridgerton (I know why you like that!), The Bay, QI, Mock The Week (RIP – and yes I did sign the petition…), Would I Lie To You, I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here, The Great British Bake Off, Strictly Come Dancing, Made In Chelsea, Any Star Trek, Star Wars, or Marvel thing, Famalam (not for those who don’t like very, VERY naughty words… but truly hilarious), Unforgotten, any football, all cricket and rugby, True Crime documentaries, and so many more…
I hope you find this as fascinating as I did. Some of the responses were so similar to my own, I feel we could easily be best buds.
And I think we all know why Jane Austen adaptations are so popular these days…
Book 8 of the Dottie Manderson mysteries: hitting virtual shelves near you in December 2023
This week, I thought I’d share another sneaky scene from the new Dottie book that I am currently working on. I’ve already posted one scene on here a couple of months back, and so to prove that I am actually working, I thought I’d share another. ;D
So here it is…
Sir Nigel always ensured that Lady Matilda Cosgrove – one of his oldest and dearest friends – had the Ormulu Room whenever she came to stay. In fact, he rather counted on it, because otherwise he’d have to invite fewer guests or get them to share their rooms. Very few of the other guests would feel comfortable surrounded by so much ornate, gilded wood coupled with a rather dark marble. Lady Matilda liked the room. As far as Sir Nigel could tell, she was the only person in existence who did like the room.
It was a quarter to seven on a Saturday evening in June when Lady Matilda sat at the vast gold and dark brown dressing-table and allowed her maid to dress her hair in what they both deemed to be the most becoming fashion for a lady in her late sixties. They were deep in conversation about which gown Lady Matilda had worn to a certain affair in the Spring of 1881, when there came a tap on the door.
Salt, Lady Matilda’s maid, set down her comb and perfume bottle and turned to the door to state, ‘Come,’ with as much dignity as her ladyship herself.
The door opened. A timid little red-headed maid stood on the threshold looking extremely nervous.
‘Well?’ demanded Salt. She was a fierce protector of her ladyship’s privacy.
‘Begging your pardon, my lady,’ the young woman began, ‘but Sir Nigel’s compliments and would it suit your ladyship to place your jewellery into Sir Nigel’s safe for the evening? There’s been two break-ins on this square in the last week, and Sir Nigel doesn’t want to run any risks with your ladyship’s valuables. In fact, I’m to go to all the ladies – and the gentlemen – and take their valuables down to his lordship’s safe.’
She accompanied this information with a kind of bobbing curtsey, all the while nervously wringing her hands. Lady Matilda thought she was rather a sweet little thing.
‘And what is your name, my dear?’ demanded her ladyship.
‘Eliza, ma’am. Eliza Smallwood. I’m new in this establishment.’
‘Well, Eliza Smallwood, I should be most obliged if you would take my jewellery case to Sir Nigel at once and thank him for his good sense and kind thoughts. Salt, give the child the case. But make sure ot keep out what I need for this evening, obviously, won’t you.’
‘Yes, my lady.’
Salt extracted several glittering items of great value. Once Lady Matilda had nodded her approval, the case was locked up again, the tiny black key slipped into Salt’s pocket, and the case was handed to the young maid.
She gave another little bob and clutching the jewellery case to her as if her life depended on keeping it safe, she said, ‘Thank you, your ladyship. I’ll take these to Sir Nigel directly. Good evening.’
The door closed behind her, and Salt and Lady Matilda resumed their discussion relating to the precise colour and fabric of the gown worn on the evening of the Royal Gala over forty years earlier.
It was not long before the bell rang for dinner, and Lady Matilda descended the grand staircase to meet the other guests for a pre-dinner aperitif.
Sir Nigel greeted her with a beaming smile, taking both her hands in his and kissing first her left cheek then her right in his usual warm manner that Lady Matilda found delightfully Continental.
She lost no time in thanking him again for his invitation to stay for the weekend whilst George was overseas on his usual ambassadorial duties. As always, she offered her compliments on the charming Ormulu Bedroom, which had, she said, a rich glamour that one didn’t see everywhere. She asked after his health, heard with patience of his sciatica and stiff knees – she was herself a martyr to her knees, and promised to let him have Salt’s remedy for the relief of the discomfort – then she remarked,
‘It was so thoughtful of you to send up that sweet little girl to fetch my jewellery. I shall feel so much happier knowing my grandmother’s diamonds are safely locked away. These robberies are such a worry.’
He stared at her for a second or two too long, and she immediately divined that something was amiss. But before she could quiz him about it, the door was flung open and Salt ran in, tears streaming down her face, causing everyone to turn and stare, drinks halted halfway to their mouths.
She wailed, ‘Oh my dear lady, I’ve just found out. There isn’t any such maid as that Eliza girl in the house. And she’s gone off with all your valuables!’
And indeed she had. She had practically run down the back stairs with the jewellery case in her arms, knowing she had only a minute or two to make her escape. The side door was still ajar, and unseen by anyone, she slipped outside, pulling off her cap and apron and throwing them onto the grass, then she hopped into the waiting car at the end of the drive.
It sped off before anyone in the house had even realised there had been a robbery.
My characters mean so much to me, they definitely feel real.
Very often in a cosy mystery, you meet a large collection of characters (and FYI it’s a nightmare and a half trying to think of names for them all, I have a spreadsheet and everything…) so there’s not always space in the story to give everyone their own life without totally confusing the reader. I always seem to have a ton of characters, and I tried putting in a character list at the start, I thought it would be helpful but I got complaints about that. So in the end it was just easier to leave it out. Sorry about that. Maybe you could create your own spreadsheet?
In my Dottie Manderson mysteries, I have two detectives who are the ‘main’ protagonists, Dottie herself of course, and Inspector William 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 isolated individuals brooding alone with their ghosts or their issues. No, mine both have families who pop in and out, often the source of useful information or connections, or they can act as a sounding board for ideas and theories, or just provide encouragement in low moments.
About to press ‘upload’ on The Spy Within a couple of years ago
But making characters really stand out can be a challenge. There are reasons for this. Obviously the first reason is me. I have only a limited experience of life, and limited skill as a writer.
I think that’s the same for most of us. We always bring our own life experiences, attitudes, beliefs, our flaws and strengths with us when we create anything. It’s been said that authors put something of themselves into what they create. How can they not? So I try to compensate for this by doing research, and by trying to create people who are not much like me. I’m not sure how well I succeed with that. However, I’m not young, I’m not elegant or fashion-conscious and so I like to think Dottie is not too much like me. Though I am incredibly nosy.
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 make mistakes or get confused, puzzled or just plain upset. My characters are all too flawed, and as readers will know, they sometimes make disastrous decisions. And, like us, then have to live with the consequences.
I’d like to think they grow. I sometimes stop reading a series if I feel the protagonist continually makes the same mistakes, or acts 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.
The gorgeous Gary Cooper – in my head this is a bit what William looks like.
Does William grow? I think he grows a little. He becomes more accepting of himself and his situation as a working copper, and doesn’t spend too much time agonising over the past. He makes some stupid mistakes, but Dottie does too, so we have to forgive him, don’t we?
Does Dottie grow? I think she does. When we meet her in book 1, Night and Day, she is very young (19) and is mainly interested in having fun and 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 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 trying to help people. She is terminally nosy and always wants to understand what’s going on in people’s lives. And of course, to help if she can. But she still loves to dance. (With a certain someone…)
Which of course will bring her into conflict with 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.
A Meeting with Murder: Miss Gascoigne mysteries book 1 of my spin-off series set in the 1960s came out last October.
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 commitments. Will we see her pushing a perambulator with a couple of kids along to interview suspects? I just don’t know. Maybe I will leave her to raise her family and 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 didn’t want her to be one of those detectives who remains the same age throughout all the books. Yet as I immerse myself in this pretend world I have created for Dottie, as time passes 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 and still keep this series ‘cosy’? I’m not sure I can.
American actress Loretta Young – my inspiration for Dottie.
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. So I came up with Diana ‘Dee’ Gascoigne, adopted daughter of Dottie’s sister Flora and her husband George, confidently stepping out into the 1960s, wearing high heels and a brightly-coloured mini-dress, long hair back-combed and flicking up at the ends, ready to take on the modern world. The detective is the son (spoiler again!) of Dottie and William, known as Bill. (I’ve given away quite a bit now…) He has followed his father into the police. Having seen at close quarters his mother ‘meddling’ in police affairs, he tries to warn Dee off, but of course, she doesn’t listen. As he says, ‘She comes from a long line of nosy women.’
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. Maybe there will be a Dottie and a William in the 22nd century, nailing criminals with technology we can only dream of. I hope so.
As you know, I mainly write cozy mysteries, some set in the 1930s or 1960s, some in the ‘now’, and one even set in both the present and the past. Cozy mysteries or cozy crime is the genre where I feel most at home, and those are the kind of books I love to read. I have been reading this genre since I was about 9 or 10 years old, when I began first with the Famous Five, then the Secret Seven, then on to Patricia Wentworth and Agatha Christie. I have always loved the idea of detecting along with the ‘official’ sleuth, trying to get to the clues and figure out ‘whodunit’ before the book’s detective.
If you ever get stuck for books to read, maybe cast your eye over this list and see if there are any names that are new to you. These are the mystery authors whose books I enjoy the most, some are old and some are modern. When you find an author you really like, do you read their books over and over again, or do you remember the too well to do that?
I love to revisit old favourites, but I have a pretty good memory for characters and plots, so I often remember a book too well to enjoy it unless a lot of years have gone by. There are some books where I just reread the beginning – I love a good beginning that sets up the story perfectly and for the reader, there is that delicious sense of anticipation. But I do reread books that I know really well, sometimes I enjoy watching something unfold on the page even though I know exactly what to expect and when.
So then, my favourite mystery authors, here we go, and in no particular order:
Agatha Christie: obvs you’ve all read her books! But have you tried Death Comes As The End – set in ancient Egypt, it’s an interesting variation on the classic murder mystery genre. My personal favourites are Evil Under the Sun, Death Comes As the End, and Death on The Nile.
Patricia Wentworth: if you like ‘em traditional with plenty of romance, these are for you! Often overlooked these days though her books have been enjoying a new lease of life through reprinting. My favourites are: The Girl In The Cellar, The Listening Eye and The Chinese Shawl.
Mary Stewart: not a cozy as such, her books fall into the category of romantic suspense along with authors like Phyllis Whitney. Of Mary’s books, I really enjoy: The Gabriel Hounds, Madam, Will You Talk? and Nine Coaches Waiting. She does that thing where she uses a quote from scripture or Shakespeare as a chapter subtitle. I love that!
Phyllis Whitney: this lady wrote zillions of books before she passed away just a few years ago. My favourites are The Red Carnelian, Columbella and The Turquoise Mask.
Another romantic suspense author is M M Kaye. Look for her ‘Death in…’ short series of 6 books. For me, the best ones are Death in Zanzibar, Death in the Andamans, and Death in Berlin. Try them and let me know if you have a different favourite!
Coming back to modern cozies, how about trying Helena Dixon? I am a big fan of her Miss Underhay series, which like my own books, are set in Britain in the 1930s. Book 1 is called Murder at The Dolphin Hotel, and although you can read them in any order, reading from the beginning will enhance your pleasure as there are continuing storylines that carry on from one book to the next.
Don’t forget to give Sara Rosett a go – she has a couple of series of mysteries, and of course you mustn’t forget Frances Brody, Vaseem Khan and Julia Chapman. Or Julie Wassmer’sWhitstable Pearl series, now wonderfully adapted for TV and starring Kerry Godliman as Pearl.
Or you might try something a little less cozy – perhaps try Ann Cleeves, Abir Mukherjee,Robert Galbraith or Val McDermid to name some of my personal favourite authors.
Let me know how you get on! Who are your favourite mystery authors? Happy reading!
Welcome to my part of the blog tour to celebrate the publication of Val Penny’s Hunter’s Blood: A DI Hunter Wilson Crime Thriller.
About Hunter’s Blood:
DI Hunter Wilson never has just one problem to solve.
Three elderly women he knows have died in mysterious circumstances. Hunter appears to be the only link.
A little girl goes missing on a cold winter’s night. When his team discovers cocaine hidden at the farm where she was living, the search becomes even more urgent.
Why did the women die? And what did the child witness?
Hunter must find the answers to these questions to ensure his family and his city are safe.
About Val Penny
Val Penny has an Llb degree from the University of Edinburgh and her MSc from Napier University. She has had many jobs including hairdresser, waitress, banker, azalea farmer and lecturer but has not yet achieved either of her childhood dreams of being a ballerina or owning a candy store.
Until those dreams come true, she has turned her hand to writing poetry, short stories, nonfiction books, and novels. Her novels are published by SpellBound Books Ltd.
Val is an American author living in SW Scotland. She has two adult daughters of whom she is justly proud and lives with her husband and their cat.
My thoughts on Hunter’s Blood:
DI ‘Hunter’ Wilson has his hands full with family matters. His elderly aunt wanders out of a hospital, she is found suffering from shock and raving, full of odd stories of evil people hurting her on the hospital ward.
Meanwhile a group of friends get together for a weekend house party and amid tensions between the different guests, end up searching for a missing five-year-old. More than one person has a secret, and there is a claustrophobic sense of each of them watching one another.
Then we have Linda’s story as she lays waiting for help to reach her inside her boss’s van which has come off the road and turned over. why is the new owner of the company so particular about his vans?
Hunter’s Blood is full of twists and turns as these three apparently unrelated incidents gradually converge. We begin to see the strands of the stories intertwining and overlapping one another until gradually a new picture forms and it’s up to Hunter and his team to put the pieces together and find a ruthless killer.
But who would want to kill three frail elderly women? And more importantly why?
This book had me studying each character in turn, thinking, ‘Was it you?’ ‘Or you?’
At times grim and shocking, nevertheless this is a satisfying read.
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