A few weeks ago I posted a blog about how deceptively innocent country houses and small villages appear, and I offered tips on how to avoid the obvious traps for victims of a murder mystery of the genre we laughingly call ‘cosy’ (or cozy, depending where you hail from).
Because If we think about it, there’s nothing cosy/cozy about murder in the real world. Hercule Poirot, arguably one of the most murder-dependent salary earners in the world, famously said ‘I do not approve of murder’. And yet we humans are fascinated by fictional death. Perhaps because it is so awful, so wicked in real life, we have to discuss it, read it, and plot and plan, as a way of dealing with the unthinkable. Anyway…
If I left you with the idea that a hapless character in a murder mystery might be safer in the city, let me quickly put you right there.
The city is vast and highly-populated. You might think there’s safety in numbers. But for all that, it’s not a safe haven for the timid person trying to avoid falling foul of a really determined villain. Here are a few of the pitfalls yo will find when trying to lose yourself in the city:
Firstly, even cities sleep. Kind of. You might be safe amongst the crowds during daylight hours (or are you?) but as soon as it gets dark, beware!
Have you noticed that most cities are situated on water? In fact I can’t think of a single British city (someone help me here, please) that isn’t either: on the coast, on a river, or a canal (which I know is kind of the same thing really).
Now we can see how this came about, historically. Access to fishing and shipping meant a high density of the population was established around watering holes where there was a) water to transport goods in and out of the country, or b) water for industrial purposes (ie power for mills etc), or c) fish (vom–sorry, not a fish eater) or d) that’s where the Vikings/Normans/Saxons/Whoever-they-weres all landed and thought, ‘You know what, this is quite nice’, and so that’s where they stayed. I suppose this isn’t a surprise, I mean, we’re an island, so we’re going to be surrounded by oceans (literally) of water. In fact, if you think about it, we’re all islands, aren’t we? Some are just very very very big. But these many coasts and riverbanks provided harbour, dwelling places and easy access back to the aunties and uncles across the water.
Have you ever noticed how often innocent people minding their own business get lured to deserted docks, riverbanks, canalsides, and the like? Okay I admit we usually discover they are not so innocent after all. No one goes ‘innocently’ to a deserted dock at midnight to pay blackmailers. But my point still stands – these are dangerous areas and offer life-threatening situations to people who really should have stayed at home.
To begin with, there’s the water – deep, cold and swiftly moving.
And then there’s the innumerable hiding places that can conceal your villain.
Andthen, there’s all the weird heavy duty iron and steel items left randomly about the place to furnish your attacker with a handy weapon.
If that’s not enough, these daytime-busy places are just totally deserted at night. There is NO ONE to hear your scream. NO ONE.
TOP TIP: Let’s avoid the docks etc, and try to find somewhere nice and safe to live that is in the middle of the land, miles from any water.
The next danger the urban environment contains is this:
Now these are essentially just the docks all over again but without the water. Miles of crumbling dark buildings, harbouring criminals, twisty-turny corridors, and hundreds of decaying staircases. Why don’t the local governments rip them down and – I don’t know – put up nice little houses with roses in the gardens? I know they get a massive income from renting the space out to Scandi-noir film-makers, or those TV shows where people try to hide from German Shepherds. But come on, let’s think about the safety of your murder victims here.
Loft-style living may be the trendiest aspirational lifestyle, but with few neighbours, eerie parking in the depths of the earth, capacious but very slow-moving lifts that even a sloth could enter when in motion, and huge echoey rooms, this is not self-preservation at its best.
Speaking of German Shepherds, don’t become a recluse and as Bridget Jones said, get murdered but lay undiscovered, and half-eaten by German Shepherds. (okay she didn’t quite say that). (anyway, in my experience, German Shepherds tend to hide behind their owners, or even their owners children at the slightest unusual sound or threatening situation. We had to carry one of ours home once from a long walk, it was too tired. Another one used to be terrified of those bins attached to lamp-posts and also those shopping bags on wheels old ladies like me have.)
It occurs to me now that most modern victims are likely to be eaten by their house-cat, house-rabbit, or even designer miniature house-pig. If you’ve been dead for weeks and half-eaten when you’re discovered, it doesn’t matter how cute the pet that ate you is, you’re still definitely not a pretty sight. Come on, people, don’t become recluses.
Oh yes. Er…
New housing developments can also be strangely appealing to would-be murderers, and undesirably quiet at night. What was that French murder series a few years ago about the dead bodies all sitting around the table in a newly-built house? Anyway, it was a remarkably dramatic setting, but if you’re the victim, no consolation! Keep away from new-builds – by definition there are few neighbours to turn to in times of crisis.
In fact there are only a small number of places you should go if you are required to meet a blackmailer (or any villain) late at night:
These are perfect for a rendezvous that could turn nasty.
TOP TIP: Obviously if we’ve learned anything from fictional victims of crime, it’s to make sure and always tell someone where you’re going and who you’re meeting, there’s no need to be coy about being blackmailed, it can happen to the best of us.
If you can’t do that, take a seat at the bar, and say to the landlord/barman or landlady/barmaid that you are meeting a dodgy blackmailer shortly, and would they mind just popping over every couple of minutes just to make sure you’re still alive. I’m sure that won’t be a problem.
Maybe just don’t go anywhere or do anything. Just sit in front of your TV or curl up with a book, and hope that your German Shepherd/miniature designer pig is one of the aggressive brave sort who will see off intruders, not the scared kind who try to sit on your lap and whine pitifully whilst surreptitiously checking your sofa for tasty snacks.
This week I’m cheating! In fact I’m not just cheating, I’m showing off, too, as last week I was honoured to be interviewed by Paula Readman in her Clubhouse. You can find Paula’s blog here, and learn more about Paula’s own books, The Funeral Birds, Days Pass Like A Shadow, and Stone Angels, as well as reading all the great conversations that take place with writers who are mysteriously smuggled into the Clubhouse. Here’s how it went:
Welcome to Clubhouse Chat page. Those of you who are not aware the location of the Clubhouse is shrouded in mystery. The only way to visit it is via membership or an invite to the tearoom. Every few days, I’ll be sharing a conversation with all sort of writers and authors at different levels of their writing careers. Over tea and cakes, or maybe a glass of something stronger, I shall be chatting with my guest about their work in progress, or latest book release.
Today I’m welcoming Caron to the clubhouse tearoom. Welcome.
Thank you for the invite, Paula. Gosh, the clubhouse and tearoom is amazing and so many familiar faces too. Though getting here is very peculiar. I’m sorry about all the cloak and dagger stuff, but keep the location secret allow our members complete privacy. Also we have some noisy parties too. 😂 To start with let’s order our drinks and then we can start. My first question is When you first begun your writing journey what drew you to your chosen genre?
I’ve tried writing all sorts of stories of the years, romance, family saga, and so on, but there is always a point when I think, ‘The only way out of this is to kill someone.’ Or else I get so fed up with someone I devise a grisly death for them. I’m not a very nice person!
Also, which I probably should have led with, mystery and crime are my favourites books to read, which was due to my mother’s taste in books. I started reading her Agatha Christies and Patricia Wentworths around the age of 11 or 12, after growing up on Famous Five and Secret Seven books. Mum used to screen them to ensure there wasn’t anything ‘unsuitable’ in terms of sex and bad language. I wasn’t allowed to read her more ‘hard-boiled’ detective books.
What writing elements do you think is your strongest points, and what would you like to do better?
That’s a hard one. It’s quite difficult to step back and analyse your work impartially. But I think I’m quite good with the crime scene stuff. Or at least I try to be accurate. I don’t write a lot of descriptive scenes, these are the bits I find boring in other books and always skip. I want to allow the reader to imagine the scene, the characters, so I keep description to a minimum. I like to think I write good characters, though readers don’t always like what I put them through or make them do. I try to keep things believable and logical to a certain extent.
But I would like to cut the waffle a bit. My dialogue can be woolly if I’m not careful, with a lot of umms and ahhs. I’m also terrible at writing sex scenes (I always laugh inappropriately) but fortunately most of my books don’t require sex scenes, as they are ‘cozy/cosy’, and also (more or less) ‘clean’.
And I’m terrible for getting side-tracked then not wanting to cut out the side-track.
Tell us a little about latest writing project. Is it a new idea, or one you have been mulling over for some time?
I’ve got a few projects on the go at the moment. I’m about to start a bit of light outline-type planning for book 7 of my 1930s mystery series, Dottie Manderson mysteries. Book 6 (The Spy Within) came out last week, so I’m still in recovery! But I already have an outline for book 7, which will be called Rose Petals and White Lace. I’m also in the latter stages of writing a new series, The Miss Gascoigne mysteries, and I’m keeping everything crossed that book 1 will come out sometime next year. That is called A Meeting With Murder.
How many unfinished projects do you have on your computer?
Once I actually begin writing, I don’t usually leave a project unfinished. Although I have drawerfuls of books from my early years of writing that aren’t finished, I used to often abandon a story at around the 35,000-45,000 words mark, but it took me many years to learn how to push through the tough stages of a book, and also, how to fix problems such as not knowing where the story was going or how to rekindle the love for an idea. Someday I’d love to dig them out, dust them off and get them finished, but I just never seem to have the time. Life is so hectic, isn’t it, and there are so many new ideas to try.
Do you write a synopsis first or write the first chapter, or let the characters lead you?
I mainly write long fiction. I have written quite a few short stories, but they’re not my main ‘thing’, and my poetry is awful. Apart haikus, I love a good haiku! I mull an idea over for a while, and maybe make a few notes, as I’m prone to forgetting things! I keep doc files of my ideas, things that randomly occur to me that I think could be a good plot point or an entire plot for a story in the future. Then I usually try to find a way to bring ideas together to create a plan. I am stimulated by images and music, so when I really want to nail an idea, I start with creating a cover for my book, and the title, which helps the plot to settle in my mind. I don’t write detailed or elaborate plot outlines, I keep them in my head. There is a danger that I’ll forget something, of course, but if I write down too much, I lose interest and feel like the story is now finished.
Choosing only five of your favourite authors. Can you list them in order 1 begin the top of your list and say how have they influenced your writing?
Agatha Christie – it’s hard to know who should come first, Agatha or Patricia. First of all I admire anyone who can make themselves sit down and write every day in a professional, diligent manner, and do it come rain or shine. Because it’s quite a hard thing to do. Secondly, I learned so much from how they did it. I analyse their books and make notes. I find it so interesting to read about the nuts and bolts of creating a mystery novel. They both brought together groups of people to be anything from killer to victim, to red herring, to information gatherer and detective. I also love the social commentary.
Patricia Wentworth – As well as the above, I like the romantic elements of Wentworth’s books, and the moralistic tone. I think you get a great sense of characters from her books. And also style of the era too.
Dorothea Brande – I read this author’s most famous book Becoming A Writer when on a visit to my mum, it was the one that answered the questions I had as a young writer and made me see how to grow and develop my skills. First published in the 1930s, I think it’s the most influential book on the topic of ‘how to be a writer’ I’ve ever come across. Her book was the one that convinced me I could actually do this, I could write books and publish them.
Mary Stewart – I love her romantic suspense books, and so many of her chapters start with a literary quote that is relevant to the story, sometimes hilariously so. There is (usually) a strong element of romance in her mysteries too, and that is what I’ve always loved and to try to bring into my writing. Also, the exotic locations – I’m not widely travelled and so envy the heroines who dash off to all these wonderful places.
It’s very hard to confine myself to just five main authors. I’ve got hundreds and hundreds of books, and they are a bit like a family to me. (though I have a real, wonderful and very tolerant family) But if you held a gun to my head and told me I could only pick one more author, I’d probably go with M C Beaton, simply because she is very prolific, has a range of different series, and her books always seem fresh, funny and very human. And quirky. And she creates the most ingenious and cunning characters. I have never been drawn to the aloof characters such as Sherlock Holmes, though I’ve read most of Conan Doyle’s works. I like things cosy, and very female-centric as that is my life experience, and my happy place. But I read loads of authors, modern, and older, mystery and romance and fantasy, and non-fiction, I love social history and art/cultural history. I also love to play around with learning languages, but I get them all muddled.
When reading your work through do you ever find that your daily mood swings are reflected in your writing?
Not really. If I’m very ill, or very depressed, I can’t write fiction, though I do keep a journal for therapy. I had cancer a few years ago, that was a difficult time and as I adjusted to the news, I found I could write my thoughts and feelings into my journal, which was cathartic, but it took me a while to get back to my fiction and WIP writing.
Were any of your characters inspired by real people?
Not directly, or consciously, but there are always little things you notice or absorb unnoticed, and these get put in. As a child I knew lots of older ladies, aunties and ‘courtesy aunties’, and the way they talked and behaved has given me an affection for those kinds of characters in my books.
What did you learn when writing your book? In writing it, how much research did you do?
For my 1930s series, I have researched things such as fashion, social history, manners. I had to learn all about cars and driving in the 1930s. My main character starts off as a mannequin for a fashion house but ends up owning and running the business, so I had to learn a bit about that. I had to learn about policing procedures and advances in detection to present my murders – and the solving of them – in a believable manner. Most recently I had to find out what films were released in the early part of 1935. For an earlier book I had to learn a great deal about medieval embroidery and Opus Anglicanum, and also about the religious intolerance of the 1600s and well, always really). so there is always quite a bit of research to do. The trick is remembering it doesn’t ALL need to go into your book!
Is there anything about you your readers might be surprised to find out?
Erm… Oh dear… That’s hard to say. I’m not a very exciting person! We lived in Australia for five years, due to my husband’s job, returning to Britain in 2002. I’m a cliché really, a cat loving introvert with tons of books. I once had a letter published in Gardeners’ World and got a £5 voucher for it! That’s kind of it.
Did you uncover things about yourself while writing your books, whether that be a long forgotten memory, a positive experience etc.
Not really, although understanding that what I enjoy writing stems by and large from my first 10 or 12 years of life was a bit of a revelation to me that came to me out of the blue more or less a year or two ago. I find it hard to write male characters. When I thought about it, I realised I don’t actually know very many males. Having grown up without a father, then having a step-father I didn’t (for various reasons) feel close to, and as an only child, I didn’t have a close bond with a man or any boys. Even now, my only main male references are my son and my husband (who are lovely!), but that’s an unusually small number of men really, I just hadn’t really been aware of that until recently. I have drawn on anxieties or dreams and memories to develop story ideas for several novels and short stories.
What is your work schedule like when you’re writing?
I thrive on routine, so my schedule tends to be the same, more or less, all the time, weekdays and weekends. Though I do tend to write virtually all time in one form or another. I write mainly in the evening and late at night. I am most definitely not a morning person. During the day hubby and I tend to potter around the house doing chores, or go to a caff for lunch or a coffee (corona-plague-dependent, obvs). I’m lucky that I no longer have to do a day job as such. When I was working full time, I used to write on the bus to work or home again, and in my lunch hour, and then grab an hour or two most evenings and some of the weekend.
Do you set yourself a daily word count?
No. I write by scenes. So I try to do one entire scene, or if they’re very short, two or three scenes a day. Sometimes, I just feel full of energy and ideas flowing and I have to write until it’s all there on the page, other days it’s more of a disciplined slog.
How many hours in a day do you write?
Two or three. Maybe more in terms of planning, mulling, researching, pondering and faffing about. Most of my writing is done by staring out of the window and thinking ‘what if…?’ And I have post-its everywhere.
Did you ever consider writing under a pseudonym?
I only write under a pseudonym. My real first name is dowdy and my husband’s surname is ridiculous, so I didn’t want to use those, and I couldn’t write under my maiden name as that is already the name of an author (with the same first name). Also, as a new writer when I started out, I needed to be free to write whatever I wanted and find my voice without anyone knowing it was me.
How do you select the names of your characters? Do you know everything about them before you start writing their story?
I know a few things – the vital stuff, how tall, how old, eye colour, hair colour. I learn the rest as I go along, with the reader. I have had a few problems with names. To begin with, in my first drafts, male characters were always called John. It’s a name I like, plain, down-to-earth, reliable. But it can be quite hard to find a name that ’fits’ sometimes, and I am terrible for forgetting what I’ve called previous characters, and often in the early stages find I’ve got two people with the same name. I once came up with the perfect name for a character: Ben Sherman. My daughter laughed and told me that was the name of a designer, so I had to bin that idea. But at least it made me realise why those names seemed to work so well together!
What was your hardest scene to write?
I struggle with the emotional scenes where my main characters lose someone or something important to them. But I am able to sit in the privacy of my office sobbing into a notebook or onto the screen, so that’s helpful. I always empathise, so I feel the pain they feel, and I want to show my characters as they go through hard times like we all do.
In terms of technically difficult, as I said before, I’m rubbish at sex scenes. There’s always ‘his hand was here, and his hand was there, then his other hand was…’ and I think, how many hands has this guy got? Or the euphemisms people use, that always makes me laugh. So I tend to leave my couples at the full-on snog stage and come back with the lasting longing farewell.
How long on average does it take you to write a book?
It can vary tremendously, and I don’t always get down to it when I should, but usually a full-length novel takes me around eight or nine months to draft, polish, rewrite etc, get edited, proofed, revised and generally ready for publication. Most of them tend to be around 80,000-110,000 words, which is fairly long for a cosy mystery, but as I said, I am something of a waffler. I always write my first draft longhand in notebooks, then transcribe onto the computer for revisions. A first draft will generally take around one to two months, although I have written 120,000 words in 23 days once. Still haven’t revised that one though! I think it’s mostly umms and ahhs.
Thank you so much, Caron for joining us today. When you’re ready to leave please let our driver Brutus know and he’ll run your destination.
If you would like to find out more about Caron’s writing and books please click on these links: Her blog Her Author’s Amazon Page Latest book: (The Spy Within: Dottie Manderson mysteries book 6)
If you want to find out more about Clubhouse Member’s Books don’t forget to check out the Clubhouse Bookshops
This week I’m doing something a little bit different. I’ve posted interviews before with authors, mainly Indie authors like myself who have chosen to go it alone and self-publish their books. This week I’m taking part in a mini book blog tour to promote Pamela St Abbs mystery Shifting Sands: Inspector Campbell mysteries book 4.
Firstly, a bit of background:
Pamela St Abbs grew up in Norfolk but has always loved Scotland and has now lived there for over ten years. She loves to write detective fiction with tense, interesting plots.
She also writes Anglo-Norman crime novels under the name of Mary Bale, the first of which is called Threads of Treason and was published by Pen and Sword Books. As Pammy Bale, she writes books for children.
Shifting Sands is the fourth book in the Inspector Campbell series and the wonderful North Norfolk coastline was the background for this tale of duplicity and tenacity.
The pictures on the covers of Pamela’s books are original paintings by Pamela herself.
DC Garden couldn’t get through to Inspector Campbell on the phone. She also tried Sergeants Jenner and Parnold without success. She wasn’t sure if she was wasting time by following up the information about the burnt huts, but she would at least be at the scene of the murder of William Cecil Broadgate if she was at Banksea Beach.
Jess Barratt was bent double cleaning out the Banksea Beach kiosk following the scene of crime officers’ checks. She was wearing a flowered print sundress and a red tabard. Her two-tone hair was scraped back into a tight pony-tail. She turned around on Garden’s cheerful hello. She had a bulldog-about-to-fight expression on her sharp featured face.
‘I know Sergeant Jenner has already spoken to you about what happened here on Friday,’ said Garden in her best friendly voice. ‘Your boss, Sarah Radley told me about the arson attacks on the beach huts here,’ she explained after introducing herself.
‘They’ve already been reported to the police,’ Jess Barratt replied in a harsh tone. ‘I could really do without this,’ she added as she continued to scrub a shelf. Garden noticed her accent was local but mildly so.
‘I wonder if you could confirm when the huts on this beach were burnt?’ asked Garden in a pleasant but firm manner.
‘The fire was last Tuesday,’ Jess Barratt explained softening her tone slightly. ‘It started in the one furthest away. It’s the one on the end. The fire seemed to have spread to the next one.’
‘That would be just three days before the murder,’ observed Garden making a note.
‘Why didn’t it take more of the huts out?’ asked Garden evenly.
‘There’s a gap between them and the next one in. Water runs through there. Surface water runs down from the caravan site; makes a little stream.’
‘Could you show me?’ asked Garden.
‘You can see them for yourself. They’re down to the left. There’s just the two.’
‘Can you think of any reason why they might have been burnt down?’ ‘You’re the police.’
‘Just one other thing. I understand that you know Harriet Epsy?’ ‘Yes, I do. Why do you want to know?’ Garden thought Jess Barratt
sounded defensive. The woman continued, ‘Oh, I suppose you can’t say. I used to work with her at the Gull Inn.’
‘Did she go to Strath-Kind school?’ asked Garden.
‘Yes, but it didn’t do her a lot of good.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘She got a taste for the high life. Her family weren’t that well off.’
Garden noticed her local tendency to say “were” instead of “was”. ‘Why they wasted what little they had on that sort of education I’ll never know,’ continued Jess Barratt. She paused and started rubbing the counter with a cloth. ‘Harriet used to live in the flats behind the Gull Inn. I don’t know if she’s still there.’
Garden jotted that down and asked casually, ‘Do you know Bradley Yorkman?’
‘He hangs round the beach at Daneton Howe. I sometimes help Sarah down there when Kara’s off. Sometimes he comes up here too.’
‘Thank you,’ said Sally Garden folding her notebook ready to put it away.
‘I know where he lives,’ offered Jess Barratt. ‘He’s down at Cricklestaithe. That’s half way between Daneton and Banksea. I don’t know the exact house, but I expect you could find that out.’
‘It would be as easy to get to Banksea as to Daneton from Cricklestaithe if he has a means of transport,’ suggested Garden reopening her notebook.
‘He’s got a trail motorbike he rides round the lanes,’ said Jess Barratt.
‘Thanks.’ Garden stepped away from the kiosk and made a brief note of the information she’d just received.
She walked the way she’d been directed and noticed the scene of crime officers were still at work in William Cecil Broadgate and Georgia Lomond’s rented beach hut. A little further on she found the burnt-out beach huts. She had to speak to someone who could make a decision. She tried Campbell again. This time she got through. Once she explained to him what she’d been told he agreed that the burnt-out huts ought to be brought in to the scene of crime investigations.
She thought she could see something lying among the dust and charcoaled timbers. She went to fetch it but somehow it was no longer there. She would have to leave it and let someone from Scene of Crime know.
Catch up with Pamela St Abbs on these other stops on her book tour:
Since my latest book was published last week, I have had a lot more time to concentrate on reading and relaxing. I mainly read mysteries and crime novels or true crime, but I do like the occasional foray into other genres. I love history, not the kings-and-wars type of history, but the stuff about how ordinary people lived their lives. I also love books about art and culture, I enjoy the occasional romance (I’m still talking about books here!) and I love poetry, I read classical books, and also fantasy-ish books by people such as Jodi Taylor, Tom Holt and Jasper fforde. But the mystery/crime genre remains my one true love. I’ve already blogged about which books I would grab if the house was on fire…
Thinking about that, I decided to quickly put together a list of my top five Agatha Christie books. So here they are. Have you read all these? Let me know what you thought. Are there other books in your top five?
Death On The Nile
There are a number of things I love about Death On The Nile. I suppose the ‘surprise’ ending has to be number one, doesn’t it/ I remember the first time I read it, I was as they say, blown away. I had to think about it for a while, and full of admiration for Christie’s ingenuity, had to say, ‘Wow.’ I don’t want to spoil it by saying more or going into detail if you haven’t read this one, so please buy this and read it immediately if you haven’t read it before. There is romance, passion, mystery and history, and above all else, Hercule Poirot with his magnificent moustaches, his sage predictions, and his mal de mer.
The second thing I love about this is the glamour of the setting – the exotic destination, the old-fashioned elegance of the characters and the scenes they live and move in. Dressing for dinner – I’d love to do that. Dancing to a little group of musicians, yes! Leaning on the rail and gazing at the river, maybe whilst sipping a cocktail, definitely my idea of a nice way to spend the evening. Then in the daytime, the exciting trips ashore, the ancient monuments we would visit, the history, the majesty of it all. My more prosaic everyday self would tell you that reality is probably a million miles from the romance of a book published in 1937, but my inner writer-romantic would just retort that it doesn’t matter, or snap back, as Dottie’s mother would say, ‘Nonsense.’
Death Comes As The End
I’m always a bit surprised that not many people have heard of this one. As you can see, it’s one of my favourites. I read it first when I was a teenager, and what struck me first of all was how Christie made the past come alive. I had never seen history in that ‘relatable’ way before, and it kindled a love for history in me that has stayed with me ever since. I didn’t know, then, that Christie was mad about history or that she was married to an archaeologist.
This book is set in a fictionalised version of the ancient past, no familiar moustache twirling detective or knitting old lady here! It’s set in the time of the Pharoahs (ish), and the era is beautifully brought to life by the author, described fully without being a mere information dump, and it really is absorbing.
It’s a romance, and a traditional murder mystery. There is a sense of menacing unease, and along with Renisenb, the young female protagonist, you have to ask, ‘Is it you? Or you? Or you?’ Give it a try and like me, you’ll be biting your nails, with everything crossed that things will turn out all right for Renisenb and that she will get her happy ever after.
Lord Edgware Dies
As you can see from the pic above, when I last read this I made tons of notes – I felt I really learned a lot from rereading the book and seeing just how Christie achieved the creation of her mystery. I even devoted a whole post to this one book!
This book was first published in 1933. Eighty-seven years ago!!!!! Somehow I always think of Christie as a relatively modern crime writer, but of course, she wasn’t, she was very much of her time, two generations before mine. In fact, my character Dottie could definitely be a Christie fan!
Coming back to Lord Edgware…
This book has a host of characters. Too many, I’d say, and I should know, I crowbar in dozens to every book. Although I love this book, I do get muddled with the characters, especially in the beginning. It’s also a long book, and quite complex as a so-called ‘cosy/cozy’ mystery goes.
The plot hinges as always on some clever sleight of hand–my favourite kind of plot! I loved the way the murder was achieved, though obviously I can’t say anything as I don’t want to spoil it for you, if you haven’t read this one yet. So therefore, you must read it!
After The Funeral
The main thing I like about this is the opening scene or two, where the ‘unthinkable’ happens as loosely-attached relatives and associates gather for a funeral, and one of the guests commits a social gaffe by saying, (after a funeral as per the title) ‘Still, it’s all been hushed up very nicely, hasn’t it?’ When everyone blusters and demands to know what she means, Cora says, ‘But he was murdered, wasn’t he?’
Isn’t that a brilliant way to get things going in a story? I love the apparent simplicity of this. I say apparent because we all know so much planning and effort goes into a story – it’s never as simple as it appears. I suspect that the simpler it looks, the harder it is for the author.
The story is a good one, not great, but it is a solid good story, and if you haven’t read it, I recommend it. But for me, everything else was secondary to that one astonishing scene. It’s worth it just for that.
The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd
Oh dear, the infamous Murder of Roger Ackroyd. This book caused something of a furore for Agatha Christie when it was first published in 1926, and may have been one of the factors related to her famous disappearance in that year. Almost a hundred years ago. !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
What was the problem with Roger Ackroyd? Well the critics said she didn’t play by the (unofficial) rules of murder mystery writing. But again, I can’t tell you precisely why because it will ruin everything if you haven’t read the book. Read it, then come back and then we can have a natter about it. Tell me what you thought.
Suffice to say, it’s the original twist at the end. And I honestly didn’t see surprise coming when I read it the first time, though admittedly I was a teenager and had no understanding of ‘the rules’ of writing. But it seemed perfectly acceptable and logical to me, and I was captivated, as I always am, when I read this book.
It conjures up the traditional ‘English village’ setting so beloved of writers and readers of murder mysteries, with a range of recognisable stock characters, the spinster, the mysterious, possibly/probably immoral, attractive single woman, the local doctor, the people who live in the ‘big house’, and all the hangers-on.
Go on, get a copy and get reading! It’s not like we can go out at the moment…
It always surprises me when people say to me, ‘Why do you write?’
For me there’s only one true answer–which I can’t give because it sounds rude–‘Why don’t you?’
Because… I just don’t get it. Oh I know these days many people don’t read actual hold-in-the-hand books anymore, and that meetings, conferences, education, leisure, everything has become virtual. Attendees are more likely to add digital notes or better yet, simply record the bits they need so they can listen to them again and again. I accept that tablets and phones see more of the written word than a paper notebook. To me that qualifies as writing, I’m not one of those people who think it’s only writing if you scribe onto vellum with a goose-feather quill.
But when people say ‘Oh I could never write,’ I don’t understand. Do they mean, ‘My English language grammar is a bit shonky and so my writing would not be erudite enough’? Because if so, that’s what editing is for.
Or do they mean, ‘I’d run out of ideas.’? To that I’d say, ‘Welcome to the club.’ Social media is full of people searching for inspiration.
Or do they mean ‘Writing is only for an elite group, and is only endorsed by publication from a traditional publishing house’? To that I’d say, ‘Nonsense, anyone can write if they want to, and publishing is no longer that straightforward. Or that restrictive.’
Or do they mean, ‘It sounds so complicated, juggling all those ideas’? Yes, it is, but you learn how to do that. (Kind of, I mean sometimes you just learn to juggle better and sometimes you learn that it’s okay to drop the odd whatever-it-is you’re juggling.)
At the other end of the spectrum, are those who say ‘Oh you’re a writer? I’ve been thinking of trying that,’ or ‘I’ve always thought I could write a book some day when I’ve got nothing else to do.’ To them I say, ‘Go on then, I’m watching you. Do it, I dare you. In fact, I double-dare you.’
So why do I write? I need to tell myself stories, it’s that simple. I could write a whole thesis on all the wider implications of that, spiritually, physically, emotionally and whatever else. But what it comes done to is that we ALL love stories, even people who tell me, ‘Oh no, I never read books.’ They watch TV probably. Or binge on streamed series. Or maybe paint–that’s telling a story in a visual way. Or perhaps you might write or play or listen to music. That’s a story in aural form. Or you might daub paint on the walls of your cave, draw in the sand with a stick, or whittle a piece of wood into a specific form. It’s all storytelling.
None of us don’t have stories in our lives, it’s there in all of us, a need to create, to experience, to understand and explore. It’s part of our humanity.
Round the rugged rock the ragged rascal ran. (rock not included)
Round the rugged rock the ragged rascal ran.
We all know that one, don’t we? Though I usually get rugged and ragged back to front. I have to remind myself that whilst a rascal can be rugged or ragged, a rock can pretty much only be rugged.
As we learned in junior school, alliteration is putting together words with the same initial letter. In the case of the above phrase, R, the pirate’s favourite letter. This repetition is the foundation of our childhood tongue-twisters. English is not the only language to have these:
Schnecken erschrecken, wenn sie an Schnecken schlecken, weil zum Schrecken vieler Schnecken Schnecken nicht schmecken.(translation: Snails are shocked when they lick snails because to the surprise of many snails, snails don’t taste good).
Der Grabengräber gräbt die Gräben. Der Grubengräber gräbt die Gruben. Graben Grabengräber Gruben? Graben Grubengräber Gräben? Nein! Grabengräber graben Gräben. Grubengräber graben Gruben.(translation: The gravedigger digs graves. The ditchdigger digs ditches. Do ditchdiggers dig graves? Do gravediggers dig ditches? No! Gravediggers dig graves. Ditchdiggers dig ditches.)
So now you know! Feel free to use these at virtual-parties, to amaze and impress your friends.
Amuse your cat with a large repertoire of tongue-twisters in various languages…
Alliteration can be a useful literary device when writing, and like most literary devices, it is used to make the reader feel, view or interpret your writing in a particular way by creating a mood or appearance. But use it sparingly. The problem with any literary device, is that all too easily it can draw attention away from what you’re writing and turn the focus to how you’re writing. This will distract your reader from your story in the same way you can sometimes fail to see the puppet-show because you’re focusing on the strings. Having spent all that time gently leading the reader to suspend disbelief, you don’t want to ruin things by breaking the spell now.
Here are a few more literary devices:
Sibilance is the repeated use of an S sound, or a hissing sound. You put together words with lots of S, SH and soft C sounds: Sid’s silly scented snake slithered smoothly across the shiny façade. Unlike with Alliteration, the repeated sounds don’t have to be confined to the beginning of the word.
Assonance is the repeated use of vowel sounds: cut jug, heed beat, or the same or similar consonants with different vowels: jiggle juggle, dilly-dally.
Consonance is the repetition of matching consonant sounds: ruthless cutthroats, repeated reports. It can quickly descend into Alliteration if only the initial letter(s) are repeated!
”A soldier’s life is terrible hard,’ said Alice.’
These are used to create a certain mood, or an attitude, or making the reader see a character or setting in a particular way. These can also imbue your writing with a poetic or lyrical quality. You might want your readers mesmerised by a particular scene if you are going to follow it with something spectacular: the calm before the storm effect. Think of movies where there is a soft love scene before the hero goes into battle.
In fact most poetry contains one or more of these devices. Think ofWordworth’s poem I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud, with all the repeated Ls, the Hs, the Ds, the long vowels of wandered, lonely and cloud. Or Buckingham Palace by A A Milne, with its repeated lines and rhyming words.
Or in this, one of my favourite short poems, there is a clever mixture of all these devices – see if you can spot them!
Song by Christina Rosetti
When I am dead, my dearest
Sing no sad songs for me;
Plant thou no roses at my head,
Nor shady cypress tree:
Be the green grass above me
With showers and dewdrops wet;
And if thou wilt, remember,
And if thou wilt, forget.
I shall not see the shadows,
I shall not feel the rain;
I shall not hear the nightingale
Sing on, as if in pain:
And dreaming through the twilight
That doth not rise nor set,
Haply I may remember,
And haply may forget.
These literary devices can have a unifying effect, making all parts fit together with a repetition of shared letters and sounds, or by ensuring the reader remembers certain sounds or words. But like all good things, in prose it needs to be used in moderation. Don’t make your writing just a collection of tongue-twisters!
We are surrounded by words. They are there on the side of your breakfast cereal packet, full of persuasive ideas or nutritional information. They are on the wall of the lift as you make your way from car park to shopping mall. ‘In case of emergency DO this or DON’T do that…’ They are on our clothes – a logo, a designer’s name; they are on the label – how to wash the garment, the size, the fabric constituents.
As I say, we are surrounded by words. We as humans have come a long way from the days when we communicated through pictures. The concept of communication fascinates me. Why do we communicate? Is it to know our allies from our enemies, or to form friendships, assist pair-bonding, or create a safe environment for our children? We developed words because if a buffalo or something similarly huge is rushing towards you, no one’s got time to whip out a slate and chalks to create a nice little scene to indicate the usefulness of running away. So words are more efficient, maybe.
But words change us. From our earliest days on the planet, gazing fondly at our mothers, we learn words. We learn how to physically say them by watching and listening, and we learn what they mean by observing consequences and effects.
We connect not just words together to form a sentence, but ideas together to create a narrative or story. We might hear the words, ‘Let’s go to the mall’, but what we really hear are ideas based on prior knowledge of that as a situation. ‘Let’s go to the mall’ becomes a narrative: ‘Let’s go to the mall – where we will walk about the shops, talking as we go, laughing and enjoying being together, and discussing life issues or relationships, or personal goals and dreams, where will we notice and comment on the latest trends, where we will exchange currency (or more likely swipe a small piece of plastic) for new goods, that we can then take home and discuss at length, creating a new shared experience. Whilst at the mall we will likely go and get some food somewhere, so it will become a social event, we will sit and eat, and talk some more, possibly on a deeper emotional level, and this day will become part of our shared memories and we will often revisit the occasion in our thoughts, and enjoy the time over and over again, and the whole experience from beginning to end will enhance our relationship and sense of closeness.’
It doesn’t always work like this. Sometimes we have a row as soon as we get there, sulk all the way round the shops and come home later frustrated and disappointed, still in a frosty silence. The great tapestry of human experience!
Where am I going with this? It’s just this: simply, words are key to the storytelling of human life, whether an ordinary trip out to buy new jeans, or whether we are sitting curled up in our favourite armchair reading words on a pages, pages bound together in one book, a book enclosed by a hard or soft cover, possibly enhanced with a relevant image on the front.
If you’ve read any of my blog before, you’ll know that I love the autumn. My birthday is in October, so that’s why I think that for me autumn is the time for rebirth and growth. In the summertime, it’s too hot to work my brain, (apart from this year where in my area, we only had two hot days – but wow, they were soooo hot) so the cooler temperatures of autumn bring a welcome respite from the summer, and a new influx of energy.
Or maybe it’s just that thing that all parents have, where, come September the kids go back to school and finally you have the time to sit and think quietly for more than thirty seconds. My kids are adults with their own lives, but the old routine of the school year still lingers on.
I found this short passage on autumn in an old journal:
The leaves of the plum tree are turning yellow. Although most of them are still green, within a week or two the tree will be bare—how quickly the season marches on, and there is nothing any of us can do about that. In the garden at the bottom of ours, their silver birches are also covered in yellowing leaves.
In the last half hour, almost without me noticing, the world has lost its sunny autumnal afternoon look and is now overcome by the gloomy dullness that heralds the imminent arrival of evening.
The leaves are changing, turning yellow and orange, but mainly yellow. A sickly speckled unhealthy yellow. Soon the branches will be bare and we will be in the grip of winter.
One or two birds dash to the bird table and snatch some seeds. Their movements seem urgent, as if time is running out and they must hide before it’s too late.
The day is fading, night is almost here.
But I’m not the only one who mulls over what autumn means. Here are some thoughts from authors to inspire us all to take up our writing projects and search for the poet inside.
F. Scott Fitzgerald: “Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall.”
Albert Camus: “Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.”
John Donne: “No spring nor summer beauty hath such grace as I have seen in one autumnal face.”
But not all authors have the came rosy outlook when it comes to the winding-down of the year. Many portray it as a doom-laden promise of misery and gloom.
Dodie Smith: “Why is summer mist romantic and autumn mist just sad?”
Stephen King: “The wind makes you ache is some place that is deeper than your bones. It may be that it touches something old in the human soul, a chord of race memory that says Migrate or die – migrate or die.”
Francis Brett Young: “An autumn garden has a sadness when the sun is not shining…”
David Mitchell: “Autumn is leaving its mellowness behind for its spiky, rotted stage. Don’t remember summer even saying goodbye.”
So which of the autumn types are you? Are you a happy golden-hue embracing energy-filled person, or are you more of a Mr/Mrs autumn-is-the-end-of-everything? Let me know!
But you know, guys, look at what the rest of 2020 has been like. I’ve got a good excuse, haven’t I? Probably the best I’ve had so far. Therefore I’m pleased – though slightly worried – to announce that I plan to release The Spy Within ‘some time’ in October this year. That’s not long! (Note to me: Oh heck, that’s really not long! Argh!) I’m sorry it’s late, but it’s been a tough one. I know I say that about all of them.
To begin with, for some reason it was really, really long. I waffled far more than usual. So I’ve had a lot of tightening up to do. And I had too many strands of plot to juggle. (Sorry about the mixed metaphor). I’ve therefore had to cut loads out, constantly asking myself, ‘Yes that’s fine, but does it really tell us anything new?’ ‘How does it get us further forward?’ It’s quite hard to cut out a scene you love but which deep in your heart, you know serves no purpose at all. I have a document which is all outtakes. Not as funny as the ones you see on TV, that’s for sure, and getting longer every day.
The Spy Within is another crossroads story. Dottie is faced with some new and demanding situations, and of course uses her genuine love of people to find out the truth behind certain rumours and to ferret out answers to help William. We are going to find out a bit more about William’s background, meet a couple more of his family, enjoy quite a few afternoon teas (always high on my list of priorities), and finally the Mantle will come together, a year after the case in which it first featured. (The Mantle of God: Dottie Manderson mysteries: book 2.)
If you are Team Gervase, get ready for some hard truths to be revealed. And – hint, hint – to see your fave wiped off the slate. Sorry about that. Sorry not sorry. Haha.
If you are Team William, get ready for things to finally start going your way. (Less of a hint, more of a massive nudge.) You might need chocolate, wine or your preferred indulgence/support for emotional scenes.
Chapter One is the only part of the book fully revised and currently not surrounded by warning signs, men in hard hats, and scaffolding, and if you’re bored enough tempted, you can read it here. Hope you like it.
As I’ve mentioned before, not only do I keep a journal, but I sometimes find useful or interesting stuff in there and it gets rehashed as a blog post! I’m an avid people-watcher. People fascinate and astonish me in equal measure. This is a journal entry I wrote in July 2011. Remember those heady days when we used to go out of the house, unmasked, and sit perilously close to complete strangers? That’s what my daughter and I did that evening. I swear this is all absolutely true.
Wed 20 July 2011:
My daughter and I had the most bizarre experience at the theatre this evening. The play was a ‘murder mystery farce’ called Death By Fatal Murder.
Actually the bizarre experiences began well before we got to the theatre, when we went for dinner at Pizza Express. When we were seated at a table for two in the pretty busy restaurant, a couple were soon seated next to us. They were a bit odd. Or maybe they had just never eaten out before. Anyway there they were, seated at the table next to ours. We soon became aware that there was a discussion between them about money. He had a £20 note and a huge handful of change which he counted out on the table twice.
The waitress brought them a large-print menu, and after leaving them for a while to choose, another waitress came to take their order. The chap told her he only had £20 and so had to be careful not to overspend. Also, he said he didn’t like mozzarella. For at least twenty minutes–we had ordered drinks, waited, ordered food, waited, received and eaten our food–he asked the waitress questions about the menu items.
She tried to persuade him to have a pizza without cheese but with ham and peppers. She suggested chicken on his pizza. He asked for chicken wings. She explained they didn’t serve chicken wings. She suggested a chicken salad, but he thought that was too expensive. He asked what goat’s cheese was like, but was afraid he might not like it. He asked what parmesan was like. Again, he thought he might try it, but what if he found he didn’t like it after all?
The waitress was helpful in the extreme. If he’d been the mystery shopper from hell, she must have passed the test with flying colours. But instead the chap and his girl decided they would go and eat somewhere else. As they left they told her they were going to try Nandos.
That was the warm-up, now for the main entertainment.
At the theatre, we got to our seats at 7.10pm for a 7.30pm show. I’d thought we were cutting it a bit fine. Others cut it finer. To begin with we were virtually the only ones there, but the place filled fast. A massive lady sat on the other side of my daughter, so she was pretty squashed as the seats were narrow and she had me (also massive) on the other side.
A tall well-dressed man with a HAT (it’s Derby Playhouse, not the National Theatre) entered and sat three or four seats along from us with a tiny little old lady we presumed was his mum, wearing her best outfit, and with handbag and theatre programme too. She looked very excited. Along from them, a middle-aged chap and his wife and their 20-something daughter, both wearing lovely frocks, took their seats.
The curtain went up. The set was lovely, the music was 20s/30s, but pretty good, the story set during WW2, so not quite right, but never mind.
It was the most farcical farce to end all farces. It was awful. The main stars were Leslie Grantham, Dirty Den from Eastenders, no doubt he’d done loads of other stuff, but that’s all I knew him from, I don’t watch a lot of TV. And there was also Richard Gibson, Herr Flick from ‘Allo ‘Allo.
But… the audience was definitely the main attraction.
Behind us and slightly to one side, sitting next to two utterly mortified late teen-early 20s women, was a chap. As soon as the play began, he opened and began to eat from a HUGE bag of Quavers. He made the most incredible amount of noise grabbing them out of the bag and eating them. It took him ages, and it wasn’t just me who turned to glare at him.
Also behind us was another guy who kept saying very loudly ‘What the f**k?’ and doing huge nausea-inducing snorting sniffs through his nose. Whether he was referring to Quaverman or the play or the Little Old Lady, I don’t know.
The Little Old Lady. Well. Every single word, action, expression or movement brought gales of laughter and guffaws from her. And her laugh was a cross between the Granny in the Tweety-Pie cartoons and Barbara Windsor in the Carry On movies. She laughed longer, louder and more frequently than anyone else in the place. She clearly had a wonderful time, and I have to admit, some of the time, it was her everyone was laughing at, not the play.
Then came the intermission.
Some people had bags of sweets. Some, including Little Old Lady, came back from the reception area with an ice cream tub with a little plastic spoon sticking out of it. Quaverman had another big bag of quavers.
But Dad, Mum and Daughter in the posh frocks had…
During the intermission I glanced along the row to see Dad with a huge bag of something long, thin and green. I thought at first maybe it was a kind of jelly sweet, like those little sugar covered very tangy bootlaces or sticks. He opened the bag and pulled out a massive handful and passed them down the row to his family members, holding out their eager hands. Whereupon they popped the pods and scooped out the peas and devoured them.
Honestly, they were peas. See, even now, it seems too mundane yet bizarre to be true. You know when in a daydream you think, what if I stumbled into a parallel world, how would I know? This is how. Real life is the most peculiar experience imaginable, and fiction cannot possibly live up to it.
Then I thought, maybe they are just trying to find a useful way to pass the tediously long intermission? Shell the peas, save time later when you arrive home from the theatre starving and ready for your slow-cooker chicken casserole or whatever, whack the peas into the microwave, and hey presto, a lovely quick vegetable side dish.
But no, it was their intermission snack.
Don’t get me wrong. I love peas. And straight from the pod–yummy. But ever so slightly odd for the theatre, wouldn’t you say?
And it’s not like they were organic hippies, rejecting the modern commercial and industrialised production of food. They drank Coke.
The people sitting next to me frowned at my almost convulsive laughter as I took in the whole strange scene, and for a minute, as I tried not to pass out, I couldn’t remember if the play was what was happening on the stage or in the rows of seats.
The girls were commiserating with one another on getting stuck next to Quaverman, apparently he wasn’t just loud, he sprawled, too.
Then the intermission was over.
Quaverman was clearly high as a kite. He screamed with laughter and called out comments such as, ‘Yeah, you tell him!’ to the bumbling detective. He was practically standing on his seat and completely oblivious to anyone else. Even the cast were sending him sidelong glances.
One of the actors–the bumbling detective–had to ‘accidentally’ spit tea on his junior colleague. Then he couldn’t keep a straight face, and for several minutes both of them kept corpsing to the delight of the audience who laughed and applauded.
Eventually the ordeal was over–the play was awful–sorry Leslie and Richard, not your fault, guys–the ending nonsensical even for a send-up of the detective-farce genre. The audience was definitely the winner. I felt a bit as though I had taken part in one of those live-action, unrehearsed, ‘theatre of the absurd’ type things.
Little Old Lady trotted out happily with her programme in her hand to mark the occasion forever. Someone said, as we left, ‘What great writing’.
Only if the dramatist wrote the lines for the audience as well.