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Bring me Sunshine!

I’ve never been invited to a crime writing festival as a panellist before – or any writing festival – and so when I received an invitation to this year’s “Morecambe and Vice” I was pleased, flattered and – let’s be honest here – a little apprehensive. I’ve been to conferences before in a professional capacity and found them hard work – very clannish with little cliques gathering in the corners dying to demonstrate their superior knowledge and experience. My overall experience has been one of loneliness and being rather out of my depth. But I need not have worried. “Bring me Sunshine!” was the overarching theme of this year’s M&V and it did just that.

The organisers pride themselves on being open, welcoming, inclusive and quirky and they certainly delivered this year. Morecambe has had a bit of a bleak time recently with a lot of bad press and they wanted to show the town in a more positive light. Holding the event at the stunning Midland Hotel was a good start. Built in the 1930s in a style known as “Streamline Moderne”, it may be familiar to you from several episodes of the TV drama “Poirot”. The inside, I can assure you, is as palatial as the beautiful exterior and for a past student of modern architecture it was a delight.

Somehow Tom and Ben, the organisers, had tracked down three dyslexic crime writers – myself, Fleur Hitchcock and Jane Elson and we appeared on stage together to talk about how the hell you can be a successful writer if you are dyslexic. We all had different strategies and strengths and it was a wonderful experience to talk about this and share our stories to such a welcoming and receptive crowd. I know I picked up some tips and I hope others did too. We were aided by the skillful guiding hand of Ashley Dyer who kept us moving and the discussion open with her questions and comments. The hour flew past, so much so Ben had to come in and stop us so the next panel could get ready!

From the fascinating Polari Salon on Friday evening to the amazing Professor Dame Sue Black’s closing keynote talk there was something for everyone. The whole atmosphere was relaxed and friendly with performers, writers and audiences mingling throughout the weekend. Sunshine? Not much outside apart from a few hours on Saturday when we dashed out to look around and take the obligatory “selfie” with Eric Morecambe’s statue but inside it was bright, warm and welcoming. Yes – well done and thank you Morecambe and Vice. You did “Bring me Sunshine” in abundance.

I can’t wait to see what they have planned for next year!

This year’s brochure with pictures, quizzes and plenty of space for drawing and making notes!

Living in the Past II – and my Superpower

There is a lot of nostalgia for the past floating around at the moment. Things were so much simpler, there was a stronger sense of community, we knew our place in the world… Well, I lived in this “past” and I struggle to recognise it from the discussions around me. This is the past I remember and it bears little resemblance to the comfortable, secure world described by some.

I grew up in the 50s and 60s on the fringes of Greater London. My overwhelming impression of this time was being cold. There was the “Big Freeze” of 1963 of course but every winter – and many springs and autumns – were extremely chilly too. Hardly anyone had central heating or double glazing. We woke in the morning and drew pictures on the ice inside the windows. Beds at night were often damp as well as cold and adding more heavy wool blankets didn’t help for hours. I was lucky for we had a new-build home whilst a lot of my friends lived in “pre-fabs” – prefabricated houses thrown up to alleviate the desperate housing shortage. Designed for ten years wear, some are still in use today. And they really are cold.

Most of us wore home-made clothes (even school uniform sometimes) and our mothers sewed and knitted an astonishing range of garments from anything they could get their hands on. I had a duffle coat made from old army blankets and all my hats, gloves and scarves were made by my mother. But the worst clothes ever were socks. Hand knitted wool socks. How we hated them! They itched and scratched and never stayed up so we had to use rubber bands that dug in and stopped the circulation to our feet. They just sucked up the moisture so they were always damp. But this was nothing until combined with the curse of my generation – chilblains.

For those of you unfamiliar with this ailment, chilblains are painful little lumps that erupt over toes, fingers, ears and noses when the small blood vessels get too cold and then warm up again. They are also horribly itchy and if scratched feel as if they are burning. Combine chilblains with damp wool socks and you have total misery for months on end.

Sometimes I get cranky when people eulogise the past. It had its moments but nothing was perfect. A lot of it wasn’t very nice. We were insular, tired and poor and no-one who experienced it would want to go back. So to prove my point I choose my superpower. I would like to inflict chilblains for a week. They sum up the era somehow. Try it for a few days and see how nostalgic you might be then.

Living in the Past

Whoever said “Don’t live in the past but look to the future” was only half right – and they probably were not a writer. For us the past is our own personal goldmine, the source of characters, events, adventures and the occasional quirky phrase we slip in to get a smile from the reader. The past is our foundation, whether we choose to recount it or do the opposite in an effort to banish it forever. Every writer’s journey begins in the past for it has made us what we are today.

Some writers use the past by recounting events from their life, an autobiographical approach that, if well done and featuring something original or touching, can be very effective. Many fiction writers (myself included) use it as source material for stories. In my case many of the stories from the “Alex Hastings” series use a little of the “real” past, though often mixed in with several other events. An equal number are made up but use all that experience from years ago to make them as realistic as possible – after all, as Bernard Cornwall of the “Sharpe” series of historical novels points out – there is always a helpful reader out there ready to set you straight if you get your facts wrong.

Sometimes however there is an episode in life that seems to come from fiction rather than real life. Take the last few years, for example. I have to confess, I have been afraid of dogs for much of my life. I still have the scars on my arm to show why this is and my family never had dogs, or allowed them in the house. Then I met my partner and my first dog entered my life. Jump forward to last year and I found myself at Crufts with my partner and several friends, showing a dog we had bred and raised as a puppy. He wasn’t supposed to stay with us but at the time no-one who could take him wanted him. He was not considered anything like good enough to be a “show dog” but he has the sweetest personality and extraordinary charm. He is also “hyper-vigilant” which is a posh way of saying he barks at everything. And I mean everything – people, cars, rain on the window, the post box, the postman and, of course, other dogs. Especially other dogs.

We took him a training class to socialize him and after a false start at one where we were asked to leave he gradually settled a little but even so, a show with 6,000 other dogs does not seem the best environment for a restful day. Yet despite this he did show, he did us proud and he sat on his bench and greeted visitors, had his picture taken with children and even refrained from peeing in the hotel. It was an extraordinary journey. Not one I’m eager to repeat but one I look back on with wonder and delight.

So when I decided to take a break from the “Alex Hastings” books I looked to the past and there was Charlie, the dog who got to Crufts, looking back at me. Writing that story means I have to relive some very hard moments but I have enjoyed it all and one day, in the not too distant future, I hope to share that journey with you.

First Steps in Writing – My earliest story

Every writer, published or not, takes their first steps into the unknown sometime.  Often that moment is lost in the past, a distant memory from school or left to moulder between the covers of an embarrassing teenage diary.  As we practise, our prose becomes more polished and those of us using a word processor have our spelling corrected but the journey begins with one tiny venture.

I have been sorting through a box of papers and photographs from my parents’ house and amongst the old birthday cards and monochrome snaps was – my very first story.  Written a few days after my eighth birthday, it has all the flaws of a juvenile (and handwritten) piece but reading it yesterday I could recognize my hand.  I don’t know why my mother chose to keep this fragment of my childhood ambitions.  Perhaps she always knew I would become a writer in the end.  I hope so.

So, for your amusement here is my very first oeuvre, spelling mistakes and all.


The Three dwafs

Once apon a time there were three dwafs.  The eldest one said

lets go into the wood to pick berries.  Now the yongest said

can I eat some?  Then they went out.  But the yongest aet to

many.  So the others left him wich was a very foolish thing to do

for very soon who should come along but grey wolf himself. Ho ho

ho laughed gray wolf.  I have found my dinner.

 

 

When I showed this to a couple of friends they read it and turned over, looking for the happy ending.  But there isn’t one.  Even at the tender age of eight I had already developed a callous streak, it seems.  I don’t think my mother would have been surprised to see I have become a crime writer.  The signs were there, from the very first baby steps.  Thankfully my spelling and punctuation have improved since then and there is always the spell-check on my word processor to spare my blushes but it was rather touching, finding this – and to see just how far I have come over the years.

The Hazards of Travelling – Adventures on the Autoroute

I’ve just returned from a short trip away and very enjoyable it was too. A hop across the Channel (or under it in this case), a few nights in a favourite little town and “le shopping”. But somehow it is not possible to escape everyday life especially if, like me, you are a bit of a dork.  Let me explain – I’ve always been clumsy,  especially when tired and I find myself doing things that seem quite logical to me but apparently are rather odd.  Sometimes incomprehensible to others who live outside my dyspraxic brain.

Now, I have spent a long time learning French, partly as I travel there a lot but also to prove to myself my French teacher was wrong when she wrote on my school report I would never be able to speak the language, let alone write it.  I have the Open University to thank for my eventual success by the way.  Their beginners courses are terrific and I am ridiculously proud of my Certificate in French, especially as I failed my “O” level seven times.  I can get around just fine, read the local paper (the equivalent of The Sun but hey – it’s a start) and chat to people I meet without causing them to roll on the floor hooting with laughter.  But all language is a code and every code is subtly different.

So, on the second evening we took the fast way back to the hotel, down the Autoroute.  Arriving at the barrier I inserted the card, only to have it spat back at me.  I tried again, with the same result.  We pulled off into a convenient layby and I went over to look at the machine and there was a large illuminated picture of a button with an arrow pointing towards it.  “Assistance”, it promised.  I tapped it but nothing happened.  I pressed harder, then held by thumb on it – still nothing.  After a break of several minutes when I hopped around avoiding other motorists who kept hooting and muttering some rather hurtful things I tried again, only to realize the picture was just that – a picture of a real button that was located right over the other side of the machine.

I pressed it and after several tries an irritated female voice squawked at me.  By now I was sweating and it was a struggle to understand the terse French issuing from the speaker.  My mastery of the language began to desert me as I tried to explain my predicament.  Following instructions I put the card in again, still with no success.  Suddenly a small opaque window lit up on the machine.  More squarks, increasingly impatient, told me to put the ticket into the window – and here the difference in languages becomes painfully obvious.  “Into” or “up to”.  There was a slot at the top and I dutifully posted my ticket through.

There was a hideous grinding sound and then one of those pauses.  “Where is the ticket?” the voice demanded.  Babbling and almost incoherent, I tried to explain I had posted it into the window…  Of course, there was a camera on the other side and she would need to see the ticket, verify my journey and then let me through.  Only I’d skipped that stage and consigned my evidence of payment to the shredder too soon.  With my last few words of  French I pleaded with her.  “Madame, please – it is 2 euros 60.  From Boulogne – 2,60.  I’m so sorry – please – I have the money ready…”  There was another pause and then the barrier lifted.  I swear it gave a sigh of exasperation but that may just have been Madame.  “Merci!  Merci Madame!”

We drove off into the sunset but as we left the booths I noticed the CCTV camera tracked us past the barrier and realized this had all been caught on film.  Well, I have a nasty feeling I am going to feature on the “Most incompetent drivers” reel at the next Toll Booth operators Christmas party.  I guess it is rather funny looking back but I’m not keen to repeat the experience any time soon.  I have a shiny new Atlas of France and intend to navigate away from the dreaded toll booths in future.  Hey, I’m dyspraxic so I have no sense of direction and no visual memory.  What could possibly go wrong?

 

 

 

 

A New Writing Project (after a long silence)

Apologies to everyone who tried to access this blog in the past week.  I ran into a technical problem and my Web Master was a little bit busy during the run up to the election!

Those of you who have followed this page will know this is the first time I have posted since last year – a long silence indeed. The reason for this is that I took on an extremely intense writing schedule – 1,000 a day. Not as many as NaNoRiMo you may be thinking but it went on for longer. Five months longer to be exact, following on from six weeks of intense and detailed planning. I have to say there was huge satisfaction in achieving it – but I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone and I certainly wouldn’t do it again! Now I’ve finished that stage of my new project I can take time to bring you up to date and share the bits of last winter that were not involved in the writing.

A birth in the family

Some of you may know I had puppies last year. Well, not me personally but one of my dogs. After some weeks we kept one of them, a happy and lively little boy called Charlie. Well, Charlie was one last month and here is his birthday picture with his grannie Chloe on the left and his mother Cynthia on the right. Hurrah for puppies – without them I would probably not have left my keyboard for days on end and a pale, flacid figure resembling Jabba the Hut would be typing this now.

 

My guilty pleasure

One thing that did stir me from my trance-like state was a cycle race. We were lucky enough to be on the route for the East Cleveland Klondike, a professional race with a peleton of over a hundred riders. Watching them fly down the hill in the distance, fight their way up the Bank, a 25% gradient, and then whip off though the town was a breathtaking experience and worth losing half a day’s writing for. Yes – that is how you end up thinking if you are serious about meeting a deadline!

 

Four book give away

And finally, although I’ve been absorbed in other stuff the fine folk at Impress have not. They helped me put together an interview with the wonderful Love Books Group who have a giveaway of all the Alex Hastings books on Twitter at https://twitter.com/LoveBooksGroup. So thank you to Love Books and Impress and good luck if you enter the draw.

 

I hope I have learnt my lesson and won’t set such a tight shedule next time and I promise my long silence will be much, much shorter in future.

Telling Stories – it’s a real job.

There are hundreds of books and web sites out there to help you become a writer – or a better writer – but for me the core of it was always telling a story. I’ve always been a story-teller, first orally and then through stories and novels.  Even when I had a “real” job, I used stories every day.  For a number of years I taught historical studies at a college of art and design and if there is any subject more suited to telling stories I’ve not come across it.

Let us be honest, if a student goes to college to study art or design they are going to be really enthusiastic about doing stuff. Painting, drawing, building models and designing stage sets – these are what inspire them. They are not going to want to sit in a classroom and listen to a lecture about someone else’s work. In fact, I could judge how well a course was going by the attendance at some of my classes. A full house of eager faces generally meant there was not a lot else going on. The exception to this was the year I spent on a theatre design course.

Designing for the stage is different from other types of design – it is interpretive. And if you’re going to interpret someone’s work you need to be familiar with it, which means you really need to read it. Sadly this is not the favoured occupation of the average art student so this was where the stories came in. I began by retelling the plots but as any writer will tell you, real interest comes when the reader (or listener) begins to identify with a character, something that comes with understanding. Good old “who-what-where-why-when”, the basis of any decent story.

I embarked on a series of talks to set the dramas in context, introducing the writers, pictures of performers, social and religious aspects and a good sprinkling of stories, the more scurrilous the better. The first afternoon I was on the stage in our small theatre and my audience was just the fifteen students from the course. We met satyrs and flying machines, incest and murder and poor old Aeschylus who supposedly died when an eagle dropped a turtle on his head. It seemed to go quite well. No-one got up to leave at least and there was no audible snoring so I decided the story format might be the way to go.

Imagine my surprise when I walked on stage the next week ready to lay bare the gory past of the Roman theatre. The auditorium was full. Not just with students either – there was a fair sprinkling of staff who had decided to pop in and see what the students were on about. At the time I still suffered from stage fright and almost turned tail. Then there was a smattering of applause – a new experience under these circumstances – and I launched into my talk. From the growth of stock characters to the awful origin of the Roman Candle, we galloped through the most brutal era in theatre history, all powered by stories of the great, the good and the bad. The students enjoyed it, some of the staff left looking stunned and had a template for the rest of the year.

So stories have done me well. They are fine things on their own account but they can carry many meanings on many levels. Any book is like an onion, layered with ideas and messages. Some come direct from the writer and some emerge later in the mind of the reader. Stories make our world and help us to make sense of it and the ability to tell stories and to listen to them is one of the finest gifts we have.

What’s in a Name? – Names and Pseudonyms.

What's in a Name“What’s in a name?” Shakespeare asked in Romeo and Juliet and this is something writers must ask themselves before they push a button to publish their first story online or – should they be so lucky – sign off on the proofs for their publisher. The name on the front cover will become their writing persona and the fact that people fiddle around with it, changing the format or using something totally different from their private name illustrates just how important this is.
History is full of people who altered their name for publication. Some, like George Eliot, chose a male pen name in order to be considered a “serious” writer at a time when anything written by a woman was likely to be dismissed as “just” a romance. Others such as George Orwell chose a pen name in order to avoid embarrassing their families with the content or subject of their work. There are cases of writers who use two names to differentiate between works in different genres – Ian Banks for example – and several writers who achieved critical success went back to the beginning, submitting new books under another name. Stephen King published a number of books under the pen name Richard Bachmann (including “The Running Man”) and more recently J.K.Rowling chose to publish her adult crime novels as Robert Galbraith.
There are many reasons for writers to publish under a pseudonym and so it is not surprising I am often asked if I write under my own name. What does surprise me is how many people think it very strange that I do. And the reason I do is because I promised my father. Suffering from Alzheimer’s, he began to fade as I was completing my MA in Creative Writing. He could barely speak but would watch my face as I talked, occasionally giving my hand a squeeze or uttering a little laugh.
I spent some time looking into our family history and one day I took in a family tree and told him about some of his ancestors. He became very agitated at one point, repeatedly tapping on the names of his grandchildren and I suddenly realized that, through various circumstances, none of them had his family name. I had a small keyboard with me and I took it out and held up the work I was doing for my final project. I was going to be a writer, I told him. I would publish a book and my name – his family name – would be on the cover. It would go into the British Library and be there forever and every time someone took a copy down from a shelf in the library or a bookshop they would see our name.
He looked at me with very bright, dark eyes, then squeezed my hand and gave what my nephew calls his “serial killer laugh”. After he was gone I thought of that afternoon and I know he understood. So that’s why I use my own name. Because I promised.

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.