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Occupational Hazards of a Crime Writer

 

You may think that being a writer means I have few, if any, occupational hazards.  Certainly I can avoid many of the difficulties and occasional dangers that surround “ordinary” working life.  For example,  I have a strong measure of control over where I work, when I work and I provide all my own equipment so if I get electrocuted by my computer it’s my own damn fault.  There are however a number of potential hazards that are unique to a writer, especially a crime writer.  Take an everyday situation – standing in a queue at the shop or sitting in a cafe.  Whilst others might look around, enjoy their coffee or gaze out of the window I find myself unexpectedly hacked on the ankle whilst my partner hisses, “Stop staring like that!”  Looking around I realize several other customers are watching me warily whilst a family seated at the next table are packing up, leaving their tea and juice half-finished on the table.   Absorbed in observing and trying to capture the pattern of their conversation I have gone very still and rather too intense for comfort.

Gathering information is fraught with problems and potential hazards.   Whilst shopping in town recently I was watching the butcher sharpen a particularly impressive knife.  He knows me well and was quite happy to chat about the size and thickness of Kitchen knivesblade best suited to separate a human head from the torso (he recommended using a cleaver to sever the spine) but a couple of customers left the shop rather rapidly.  A hardened hunter went a strange colour and retreated to the back of our local sports shop whilst I talked to a very knowledgeable young man about the composition of shot-gun shells.  He showed me the types of pellets commercially available and we discussed their likely impact.  It was when we wandered into self-made shot territory, looking at the effects of, for example, small hexagonal nuts, that we found the place deserted.  Hexagonal nuts, by the way, are likely to produce a result best described as “horribly mangled”, which was just what I wanted to know at the time.

It is on my trusty computer however that lurks my greatest occupational hazard.  God forbid anything happen to my partner but should they suddenly fall down dead and the police decide to investigate me as a possible suspect I am in rather a sticky situation.  My recent searches include photographs of an autopsy suite, stages of human decomposition, adders – including locations, habitats and the strength of their venom, a table of temperatures for spontaneous combustion of various materials, head trauma and the thickness of the human skull and identification of poisonous mushrooms.  My browsing history alone would probably be enough to earn me a week or so locked up as the prime suspect.

So never mind the more mundane problems of repetitive strain injury from using the computer mouse, eye strain and headaches, jitters from too much coffee and sleepless nights as deadlines loom.  The true occupational hazards for a writer come before the writing actually begins.  And linger long afterwards.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I really must clean out my browsing history…

 

 

Smoke and Adders (but mainly adders…)

adder-1058196-1279x1808September sees the publication of “Smoke and Adders”, the fourth book in the Alex Hastings series. Like most of the titles, this is the result of some heavy thinking from the team at Impress and I would like to thank Davi for coming up with it.
Adders, I have to say, loomed large in my childhood which is strange considering I grew up on a new housing estate in Essex. Every day I would walk to school through the estate and along a path skirting a large field. The more interesting and shorter route was through a patch of woodland but I was forbidden to take this path as my mother, who was deadly afraid of snakes, was convinced it was swarming with adders just waiting to attack her first born. It is interesting to think no-one thought it odd a seven year old should walk to school and back alone then.
You know before I say it, don’t you? I loved the little wood and took that way home whenever I could. One warm June day I was scuffing through the twigs, hopping in and out of the shadows and I trod on an adder. Understandably it was upset by this and it promptly bit me on the ankle.
I was wearing Clark’s open-toed sandals, the sort with a strap around the heel, and the luckless reptile got one fang hooked in the leather. Terrified, I began to run dragging the adder with me. As I raced through the woods I could feel its body whipping from side to side, hitting the backs of my legs. Almost hysterical with fear I finally kicked out with my foot and the adder flew through the air and disappeared into a bush leaving me sobbing in the undergrowth.
On returning home my mother knew something had happened but I was more afraid of admitting I’d disobeyed her than I was of the snake bite. It was only when a neighbour, a wonderful nurse called Bronwyn Hellack, spotted the red marks running up my legs, I finally admitted to what had happened.
I was lucky – even though there were no cars on the estate at the time a party of dads got together and carried me into town where we caught a bus to the nearest hospital. The four hour wait for some anti-venom to arrive was extremely painful and I have always viewed snakes with extreme caution ever since.
So, adders – not mad marauding killers but still very dangerous and perfect for Alex’s last outing.
I hope you all enjoy it.

New Year, New book, New covers.

 

drowners25032frontThe_Mothman6elver25033

With the New Year come new plans and new ideas and the team at Impress Books have been working on the Alex Hastings series on my behalf.  I’m trying to do my bit, writing the new book (which is as yet untitled).  I’ve found myself juggling things a bit as “The Moth Man was, in fact,  an “extra” to the series. Originally I planned four Alex books in total, three in Somerset and a fourth in the North East. The idea was to have each book cover one year but when I embarked on “The Drowners”, I found the meat of the book, the crime story, actually fitted a shorter time scale. Rather than try to drag it out to a year I decided I would keep it the length it seemed to fit best and started looking at how to rearrange the whole story (what my tutors called the “story arc”) so it flowed nicely from one year to the next. The result fills the gap between the winter of 1986 and the general election in June 1987. It also gave me a chance to explore more of the lives of my characters and to look at a whole new type of crime so I guess that’s all for the best.

After finishing “Moth Man” I took a bit of a break, planning and tapping away but not really working very hard at it.  I was jerked out of my indolence at a friend’s wedding when the photographer, who was my friend’s father stopped at my table and asked, “Are you the writing lady?”  Rather surprised I admitted I probably was – though there are a lot of other writing ladies he might have been mistaking me for.  “Why don’t you hurry up and write the new book?” he asked before heading off to photograph the cake (which was a festival of Dr Who figures including a Dalek.  I have some very interesting friends.)  I had no idea he’d even read the books but over the next few weeks people rang me up and asked where they could get the next one, “for Christmas”.  I had to admit they couldn’t.  So here I am, doing my best to fulfill the advance orders for next Christmas.  Hopefully book four will be out in September or thereabouts this year.  And it is still set in Somerset.
As well as continuing to publish the series, the lovely folk at Impress Books have done a terrific job on the covers of the three novels. Keeping the original pictures, they have played with the colour balance (most noticeably for “The Drowners”) and now my name is above the title. Believe me, when you are an author this feels like a really big thing. Thank you Julie, Rachel and all involved for such a good job.  And finally some exciting news.  I will be recording “Death of the Elver Man” as an audio book, to be released free on YouTube as a serial in the summer.  We are still working on the details but I will post dates and the web link closer to the time.  So for all those of you who have stared in bewilderment as your Kindle reads “Death of the Elver Man” to you and wondered who on earth “Adder” is, I hope you will enjoy the audio version.
A happy new year to you all and I hope we will meet up sometime at a signing or reading.

 

NaNoWriMo almost over? Keep going!

Writing is a lot about persistence – the ability to keep going even without external encouragement. “NaNoWriMo” (or National Novel Writing Month as it is properly called) is a call to arms for all you writing hopefuls out there. Write 50,000 words in November and finish a book! Have a set target, keep count, get encouragement along the way and the feeling when you do it is wonderful. NaNoWriMo can be the start of something great – it introduces novice writers to the process of writing, day after day, and can help those stuck at the half-way point in a book get going again. But what happens if you get to November 30th and you’re not finished? Keep going!
Let’s be honest, it is unlikely you will be finished even if you’ve done your 50,000 (and to be honest with you, I’ve never managed 50,000 words in a month. I just don’t write like that. So all power to you if you have. You have my respect.) The average length for a commercially published novel is 100,000 -110,000 words though a lot first novels are a bit shorter. My first book, “Death of the Elver Man”, was 91,000 words. Still, it helps if your debut is around the 100k mark.
Then there’s the rest of it. Even if you finish the story, in however many words, what you have is a first draft. Now the real work begins – edits! Some people hate them, some enjoy the process but even undiscovered geniuses need to review and re-write, check, polish, cut and change to make your story into a book. This can be when it is hard to keep going, especially if you are working in isolation. You need another pair of eyes, preferably someone outside the family, to look at your work and point out where it can be improved, and then you need to swallow your ego, listen to them and get going again, improving all the way.

If you are aiming for self-publication you have a lot more say in the format and length of your work but a few months editing and polishing will help make your book something of which you can be proud. So, when you hit November 30th if you’re still enthused by your story – keep going. Find a way to reward or motivate yourself and you never know where it can lead. For myself, I learned to make an origami crane and now when I hit a day’s target I make one and add it to a garland in my writing room. I only started doing this a few weeks ago but each day now I push just a bit more because I really want to end the day with another crane. Each morning I smile when I see this visible record of my NaNoWriMO. So – whatever works for you – just keep at it. And good luck.

Cranes3

 

Look, what I really mean is…(reading the subtext)

The biggest problem with writing is it depends on words.
“Well Duh,” I hear you say, but what I mean is everything I write is mashed up into an approximation of meaning and delivered to you, the reader. You then put your understanding on the words and it is a miracle we ever communicate at all. Not only are there as many meanings for each word as there are people, there’s context, experience, bloody awful computer dictionaries and – THE SUBTEXT.

We might say one thing – “Go and make a cup of tea”, for example, but we actually mean something very different. What we really mean is “Go and make enough tea for us both/(insert as many people as are in the room at the time here). Get milk in a jug or some suitable container, bring sugar for the unreconstructed over 40s, remember teaspoons, put all on a tray preferably with saucers if you are actually using cups and bring it back here as fast as you can. And don’t forget the biscuits”.

Now most of us understand this type of verbal shorthand or pick it up as we go along. Some poor souls never get the hang of it and spend their lives in a fog of misery, probably in fairly menial jobs because exam papers are stuffed full of this sort of subtext.

And then there are things you see that tell a whole, horribly and often hilarious story in a single word. I understand there are signs under the gel dispensers in many southern hospitals warning people not to drink it (I know – disgusting).  Well, up here in the North-East we have neat little notices saying :

DO NOT SMOKE OR USE NAKED FLAMES FOR TEN MINUTES AFTER APPLICATION.

Nothing more needs to be said. Twelve words telling a vivid and rather horrible story.

I was visiting a minor stately home in Essex recently and picked up a leaflet outlining their summer attractions. Falconry displays! Oh, my favourite! Then I read down the page to see the following note.

PLEASE DO NOT BRING SMALL PETS TO THE FLYING DISPLAYS EVEN IF THEY ARE ON LEADS.

A vision flashed through my head – “Fluffy!!! Noooo….”

Fishing sign

Overhead power lines

On a recent trip to the Levels I came across a sign beside a lovely, calm bit of the canal. I am so stealing this one for a cameo in the fourth Somerset book.

Just two short sentences can mean so much and we all have our own pictures, conjured up by our own experiences and lives. Maybe this is what “Death of the Author” entails. I can be as descriptive and eloquent as I want but in the end what you, the reader, experience is not what I really mean but what it means to you. A symbiotic partnership, when it works. So thank you for all the work you put into my books. They wouldn’t be at all successful without you.

Paranoia (or Trouble in Dystopia)

It is easy, even commonplace, to live with a twinge of paranoia nowadays. We live surrounded by cameras with computers in our cars, trackers in our phones and even smart chips in our passports. We are counted out of the country and counted back in again, our phones are besieged by people wanting us to share information with us and any electrical item could betray us in a second if we do not constantly change our passwords, protect our pins and produce two forms of identification if we want to use a bank account.
So the sense of being watched, checked and monitored is not really paranoid at all is it. After all, it’s happening to everyone so we’re not being picked on as individuals – are we?

Well, I find the whole thing both depressing and fascinating. That’s why I’m a writer – take really bad stuff and think about it for months. That’s what I call job satisfaction. A while ago I had a long muse on the current state of the world and ended up playing “What if..?” As in, “What if the jet stream gets stuck round about Oxford?” or “What if the housing crisis became so bad it became illegal to occupy more than one room per person?” or – well, you get the picture. One of the things I began to muse on was the immense amount of processing power every Western person has at their disposal. I remember when a Commodore 64 was a high-end fancy games machine. You need more memory than its pathetic 64k just to boot up your old beat-up phone.

This was an interesting line of thought and I found myself blocking out a new story, a dystopian mystery book set in a slightly futuristic but recognizable Britain. It was going really well. I began to mine my ridiculously diverse education, mixing technology and psychology with a big dollop of discourse analysis and was just at the end of the fifth chapter when – disaster. Although I saved the latest draft when I looked for it the next day it was gone. Nothing remained, even from the auto-recovery. I had emailed and printed the first four chapters but number five was where it all began to happen. It had a ghost virus, a virus that assembles itself from random bits of code to sneak through firewalls and steal data from anyone who might suspect the truth.

The odd thing is, every other file was intact, but when I tried to download a previously saved copy from my memory stick that vanished too. I’m sure it is just co-incidence and I am now being paranoid but still, it seems strange. So if you’re reading this please pass it on just in case it begins to fade away…..

Return to the Levels

I have wanted to return to the Levels in Somerset for some time. When I began writing the “Alex Hastings” books in 2010 my tutor, Carol Clewlow, told me I needed to find a setting strong enough to be another character in the story and the Levels soon became just that. I left Somerset twenty five years ago and apart from a quick trip by car one day whilst staying near Bath have not been back. Instead I hunted through second-hand shops for maps and picture books dated around 1980 and used the internet to look at locations and older photographs. Mixing this together with my memories and a pinch of imagination, I have written about the Levels for the last four years but I got a bit concerned I might be using too much imagination as the memories began to fade.

The chance to revisit this beautiful area came in the form of the annual rail excursion arranged by our local train enthusiasts. Not only could I get down to Somerset for a weekend, I could do it in style as the train uses first class Pullman carriages. The chance was too good to miss and I set off to see if I had somehow dreamed this mystical landscape. I hadn’t.
Levels 2015
We spent a long, gloriously sunny day driving across the Levels, stopping for me to photograph at intervals. Some pictures were obvious and attractive – the encircling hills, Glastonbury Tor in the distance. Others probably have less universal appeal – the rusty sluice gate, for example. And the drowned cygnet. As we bounced along one road (it did have grass growing down the middle so probably should have been avoided) I spotted some peat workings, a fascinating mix of rich dark earth, rushes and water oozing from the torn land. Leaping out I began to photograph, much to the interest of a lady who had set up a picnic table and chairs by the road. As I looked around I realized I was standing opposite the exact building I had used in “The Drowners” as Derek Johns’ hiding place, only then it had been closed according to the pictures on the net. The lady beckoned me over and asked what I was doing. I tried to explain and she laughed. “That’s my father’s business,” she said. I told her it was in a crime novel and gave her a bookmark. Strange how things can happen like that.
Levels 2015 2
And the image of the Levels I brought back? Despite the terrible floods, scars from which can still be seen in a number of areas, they are still quite lovely. The breeze blows almost constantly but on a fine day this sets up just a whisper in the warm air. It is hard to believe there are so many greens in the world, so varied is the foliage. There are vivid patches of golden hay, red and black cows and delightful, playful cream and tan goats. Swans drift in the canals and streams that catch the sunlight and send it, broken and glittering across the eyes. I saw so many tiny paths and little bridges and wanted to follow and cross them all. I will be going back soon, to explore some more but for now I have the Levels in my heart and my mind. it’s time to get serious about the next book.

Be Here Now – musing on a writer’s eyes.

“Be Here Now” – the slogan a friend wore on his t-shirt way back in the 1980s. It was all a bit mystical and Zen at the time, a call to live in the present and appreciate the world around us but it is just as valid today. Perhaps it is even more so. Then there were no mobile phones, let alone smart phones. The Internet was a plaything for genuine technologists and our idea of a computer was a ZX Spectrum with 16K of RAM (yes – that is kilobytes) and the wonder of 8- colour graphics on a portable TV set. The great distraction was the Sony Walkman, a portable cassette player with ear-muff style headphones and a deeply irritating metallic jangle that affected all around. We became accustomed to seeing people nodding their heads and humming tunelessly as they ambled along and there is something wonderful about having music playing in your head but it does set up a barrier between the user and the rest of the world.

What has this to do with writing, you may wonder. Well, I’m quite happy to use my I-pod to build my own world in my mind, especially on those long, cold winter mornings when I’m outside wondering why I have dogs. Very comforting and distracting, but not good for seeing, hearing, smelling, feeling what is around. Most of the time I walk and look, listening to the wind or the birds, seeing the trees move and watching people as they pass by, each with their own world and their own story. When I get to my desk I have pictures and fragments of sound in my head, scraps I can weave together to try and create a living world within my novels.

I was walking through our lovely Valley Gardens a few months ago with my niece and we stopped in a secluded area just to listen to the birds singing. She commented on how peaceful it was compared to Tokyo where she lives and I agreed. In fact I waxed a bit lyrical about the breeze, the rustle of the trees, the colours and ripples in the water by the bridge, the scent of the newly cut grass… She gave me that hard stare nieces can give their aunts and said, “How do you notice all that? It must be really confusing seeing everything all the time”. I was surprised. I thought everyone noticed this stuff but apparently not. Maybe that is one of the things that makes a writer, this awareness of the world. I am “Here, Now”, and I could not do my job unless I were. The singing railings and murmuration of starlings from “The Drowners”? I experience them every week. My dogs become Mouse and Mickey and around me I hear fragments of conversations I can give to Ada or Lauren or Tom. So my advice to any would-be writer is to train your eyes, and ears – every sense in fact – because once you are open to what is around, you can take your readers with you into a world or a time of your own creating and it will be real to them.

“Be Here Now” and so will they.

(Why) Does Genre Matter?

The subject of genre is one that continues to concern writers and publishers, though perhaps not readers so much. Genre, we learn in creative writing classes, is very important. It allows our work to be categorized, placed alongside similar works and so, we hope, will find an audience more readily. Agents are great fans of genre too. Some – a lot of them actually – specialize in specific types of books. They have built up a network of contacts in the publishing world and have a keen sense for the way the market is going. This, by the way, is why it is so important to find out about an agency or agent before submitting your manuscript.
Writing in a defined genre also bestows a sense of identity on the writer. There are organizations run for the benefit of certain groups – I belong to the Crime Writers’ Association, and very proud of that too. There is a sense of community, of shared ideas and interests as well as interesting opportunities to learn about important aspects of our work. Good research, as I’ve said in a previous post, is vital if the reader is to enter your fictional world and believe in it. The late, great Terry Pratchett said there was nothing wrong with creating a universe that had flying pigs. Just don’t forget to add umbrella merchants.
It gets a bit more interesting – and more complicated – when a genre splits into sub-genres. There is crime fiction, for example, and the crime thriller. When I began writing the Alex Hastings series I read as much as I could find about the genre and was surprised to discover there seemed to be fixed rules governing the crime thriller. There had to be at least three deaths, I was informed. And a very strong sense of personal danger for the protagonist. Right. So that was part of the planning for the first book, “Death of the Elver Man”.
Then I got on to the next book and it began to change. In a recent article for “The Guardian”, Val McDermid argued that crime thrillers are right-wing whilst crime fiction tends to lean more to the left. I would like to add a further distinction between the two types. Having studied screenwriting in the past I became more aware of the difference between plot and story. The plot covers the main events – the crime, the hunt, the sense of peril – all the stuff that makes it thrilling. Plot is dominant in much crime writing, both in novels and for television. American crime dramas especially focus almost exclusively on the plot. The story, on the other hand, is more subtle and runs below and around the plot. It is the background, the life and journey of the people in the book or drama. British crime writing tends to use story as part of the narrative and thus becomes crime fiction.
In the Alex Hastings books I found the stories were becoming more important as the serial characters developed and so I am planning a series of novellas to ensure their tales can be told without overwhelming the plots of the longer novels. After all, however you cut it, where would crime fiction be without crime at its heart?

Writing is…

I was watching Matt Haig on the television this morning and was impressed by his openness and how much good sense he spoke. I also wondered how on earth he’s managed to write so much and so well, considering his struggles with depression. The popular stereotypes of the writer seem to be either a rich dilettante declaiming aloud whilst a nervous and wispy secretary follows them around taking down every precious word or, more commonly, a tortured genius wrestling with self doubt, drinking heavily and somehow wresting great works from the edge of the abyss. Of course, it’s much more mundane than that. Writing is long hours sitting alone, sometimes with ideas bubbling away excitedly but more often inching towards a daily, then weekly target. It is flirting with repetitive strain injury and running up and down the stairs to see exactly what the damn dogs are barking at. And then losing the perfect phrase you had in your head – for ever.
Writing is a lot of hope, even more waiting and an ocean of disappointment. It is knowing you’ve written something good but no-one will so much as glance at it. It’s a lot of standing around with a fixed smile hoping someone will come to the table and look at your book. There are radio talks that seem to pass unheeded and readings fraught with terror in case no-one comes. Writing, my friend, is not for the faint-hearted.
So why do we do it? Well, there is the thrill of seeing your name on a book – a real, honest-to-goodness commercially published book. There are the people who email or (occasionally) stop you in the street and comment favourably on what you’ve written. And there are the moments where after hours of work suddenly the whole thing comes together in a single seamless whole – plot, story, character and setting combined to tell a tale.
But there are a lot of setbacks in writing. A whole lot of nos. I’ve had a rough few months. A whole heap of confusion, the problems everyone gets whether they’re a writer or not. Things I was hoping for didn’t turn out as I expected. One or two were big disappointments. Sometimes it feels very hard, getting up only to be knocked down again but – well, if I didn’t do this I don’t know what I’d do. Perhaps it’s the same with Matt Haig. Perhaps that’s what keeps all writers scribbling away against the odds.
We’ve got nowhere else to go.