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The bat squeak of fame – and Vincent Price

A rather wonderful thing happened to me last week.
I was walking along the street just enjoying the sunshine when Sheila, who runs our lovely Deli “Real Meals”, ran across the road holding a copy of “The Drowners”. Somewhat breathlessly she insisted I follow her into the shop where a young couple were sitting at the window table. Would I, Sheila asked, sign their book?
Of course – I was happy to sign it and have a chat. They had read “Death of the Elver Man”, borrowing the copy from the library, and decided to buy “The Drowners”, which is now available in town thanks to Jenna and her fabulous little book shop in the square. Now, that is how small communities should work!
We had a talk, the young couple and I, and I found myself musing on this tiny, bat squeak of fame. It is a very positive experience when people stop me in town and comment on the books. Sometimes they ask about the characters, recently there have been some queries about the next book. Soon, I promise. Even sooner if I stop writing this and finish the edits and proofing…
I think it was Alan Bennett who told a story about Vincent Price that has been my guiding light over the last few years. A supermarket in Los Angeles phoned to ask if he would open their new branch. They were very apologetic – he was such a big star and they were a small chain – surely it would be beneath him. Price’s wife, the divine Coral Browne, took the call and drawled, “Of course he will. You know Vinny, darling. He’ll go half-way across the States to open a manhole cover”.
Well, if a group does me the honour of asking me to do a reading or signing or to talk about writing, I’m happy to do it if I possibly can. Vincent Price was a real star and I’m a crime writer from a small town, just starting my journey, but I hear that faint squeak of recognition and I thank everyone who reads the books and takes the time to review them, comes to a reading – or asks me to sign a copy.
It’s okay – I don’t bite. I haven’t even cut up any bodies in real life.
Now, back to the final edits….

Starting over – the joy of a series

There is a strange calm that descends on a writer when the latest book is on its way to the publisher. For a few weeks the voices that have echoed around your head are silent – or at least somewhat muted. Plot twists are resolved, surprises no longer lurk around the corner and all is at peace. Of course, it rarely lasts long. There follows a time of conflicting demands. If, like me, you find yourself writing a series of linked novels, the characters can become very strong and some (Ada springs to mind) rather demanding. There is always the next story to tell and the urge to get on with it, to start over and launch into a whole new adventure, grows with every passing day but the finished book – isn’t.
Once it arrives at the publishers it goes in front of The Editor. Yes, the capitals are intentional. The Editor then casts their professional eye over your last year’s work and begins work. Out comes the red pencil (or, in these days of hi-tech miracles, the red font) and every error, any awkward sentence or missed plot point is laid bare. Of course, part of the author’s initial writing process is revising, editing and correcting. Even before it gets to The Editor the manuscript should have been re-read and polished over and over but there’s always something and The Editor will find it – that’s their job.
Then it comes back and suddenly you are thrust into a book you probably feel is behind you. This is much harder if you’re already planning out and researching the next episode in the series. The story moves on and it is difficult to revisit the last book once you’ve begun another so there is a question mark hanging over those weeks or months – wait and be ready to do your best for the current book or start over and begin the next?
After wrestling with this for a few years I decided to tackle two problems at the same time. Books in a series tend to get bigger and more complex as the number of books grows. There are all sorts of reasons for this and I’ll look at this in another post but in some genres, and I feel crime is one, the plot needs an immediacy that can be lost in too many conflicting issues and stories. I decided to take out these “back stories” and write them as shorter character tales. They are still crime stories, just short crime stories, the events and people underpinning the whole series. So now whilst I am waiting for the verdict on a book I can turn to a familiar friend and write their tale. It’s less distracting, it satisfies the need to keep writing and it stops me chewing the telephone in frustration as I wait for that call.

In praise of bookshops

This weekend I was lucky enough to be invited to read at the official opening of our new independent book shop, “Book Corner”, in Saltburn. Nestling between the former NatWest bank and Whistlestop Wines, it is a small but perfectly formed gem run by Jenna, an aspiring writer . She has managed to create a space that is light, colourful and welcoming and there is always something to attract the eye.
I was particularly struck by the number of mothers (and occasional fathers) who arrived with their young children in tow, every one of whom found something to buy. The sight of all these happy little faces, hands clutching their new book, gave me hope for the future of reading.
It is a brave person who opens a book shop in this age. The press is full of stories about the demise of the printed word. We are all doomed, our stories about to be digitized and handed out free of charge by pirate sites, if you believe what they say. Well, whilst I was in the shop there were customers, happy children and one woman who looked in and said, “I’m running to catch a train but I just wanted to say I’m so glad you are here.”
Of course, the Indies are great for relatively new writers. It can be hard for small presses to get their books into the bigger chain outlets but often the Indies will take a chance on us – even make a feature of us. For the first time you can buy my books in my town. Thank you Jenna.

Even writers need friends

It has been quite a month.
First, the new book, “The Moth Man”, is finished and now I’m waiting to see the proofs before it goes to press – but more of that later.
Then there was the London Book Fair and I’ve given a few thoughts on that experience in my previous post.
This week I’ve been working on producing the perfect pitch for yesterday’s “Meet the Agent” event, organized by the splendid “Writers’ Block” in Middlesbrough.
I had forgotten just how nice, supportive and welcoming writers can be. When I took the MA at Teesside University I met some wonderful people, a number of whom have become good friends but writing is a solitary affair and writers often seem -well, a bit odd. We do a lot of pacing around and muttering to ourselves. Sometimes we seem to be utterly lost in our own imaginary worlds until something captures our attention, at which point be become frighteningly attentive, homing in on the object of interest with the ferocity of a starving vulture.
It is a hard world out there with hundreds of writers chasing an ever-decreasing number of opportunities and you would think we would guard our ideas and knowledge jealously but actually in the hot-house of a ten-minute pitch my new companions were funny, open and so pleased for one another’s success.
I hadn’t realized how much I have missed that and I hope there will be another round of workshops and sessions soon. Like everything else, this depends on funding and the money to support groups in this region is extremely limited. The fact “Writers’ Block” can run a series of workshops culminating in an opportunity to pitch to two of the biggest agencies in the country is testament to their professionalism and the pool of talent with which they work and I really hope they are successful in their next bid.
For myself, I feel I have made some new friends and even someone as anti-social as I am needs friends.
Thank you to everyone who made the day so memorable and enjoyable and a special thank you to Steve, Mike, Luke, Beatrice and Jenna. And the very best of luck with your work.

London Book Fair 2014

This was my second visit to the London Book Fair and I was a bit more focused this time but the whole show is so darn BIG and COLOURFUL and NOISY it is hard to avoid getting swept away by it all. It is a great opportunity to meet people face to face and to explore some of the new ideas and (especially) new technologies that might transform our industry. This is more than just the seemingly inexorable rise of the e-book in all its forms. There are interactive texts, multi-media options, games that are more like stories and stories reading and presented as games.

One particularly interesting area for a writer is the use of electronic communication to meet readers, promote books and share ideas. This is a very exciting time with a lot of new opportunities but it also demands a bit more work on the part of the writer. It’s not enough to simply tweet the equivalent of “buy my book!” twice a day. Actually, that was never enough but leaving that aside, this has great potential but takes a lot of time and effort. Am I writing at the moment? Well, you’re reading this so you tell me…

And the Book Fair? One of the most exciting roller-coaster trips I’ve had in a while. It was great to meet up with the lovely people who run Impress Books and publish the “Alex Hastings” series. Some really interesting talks and ingenious presentations and there was a real buzz of excitement about the place. But nowhere to sit down! Oh, I was so tired half-way down Wednesday. Perhaps the theory is if people are sitting down then they are not visiting the stalls but hey, this is a book fair. People meet and talk, exchange ideas and look at books, covers, handouts – this is part of the delight of a book fair. Maybe next year, in Olympia, there will be a bit more seating and perhaps a quiet area.
Books are exciting but sometimes they are best savoured in a little harbour of calm.

Somerset Levels : A Lost Landscape

When I began writing the Alex Hastings books I started with the setting. My tutor, the excellent Carol Clewlow, asked us to write a place as if it were a character, advising us that the landscape should be central to crime fiction. Reflecting on my experiences in different parts of the UK, it was the beauty and strangeness of the Somerset Levels that came to me as I sat in the class. In fact the opening paragraphs of “Death of the Elver Man” are almost as I first wrote them that evening.

As I continued to write the books I became aware of the changes, physical, economic and political, that had worked to alter the area for ever. I was writing about a world fast disappearing. Many of the changes were possibly for the better – the moratorium on peat cutting, for example, and the tremendous work done to create nature reserves and visitors’ facilities on and around the Levels. All that has been washed away in the dreadful flooding of the past weeks. The Levels have always flooded, to a certain extent. They are a man-made landscape. But they have always endured, supporting life both human and animal, despite the worst the weather can throw at them.

With over sixty square miles of land under a sea of water, sludge and sewage, with the infrastructure, always a little fragile, swept away, it will be many years before this unique landscape recovers, if it ever does. Certainly it will not be the same – too much has been lost or damaged. The Levels are so much more than “just farmland”. They are home for people, birds and animals. They hold an extraordinary and diverse ecosystem and comprise a magical and beautiful part of our country. They need to be saved.

Radio Gaga

I’ve always been a fan of radio. I remember buying my first transistor (cast your minds back – or ask your older relatives) and glorying in the freedom to listen to what I wanted, when I wanted. This was at the time of the pirate radio stations and, living as I did on the east coast, I would sneak the radio into my room at night, listening through a tiny earpiece as the signal crackled and faded under the attempts by the authorities to jam transmissions.

It has also had its disappointments. My excitement when the first Open University course I took announced seven special “radiovision” programmes was only matched by my disappointment when a cassette tape and two dozen colour postcards arrived in the post. To be fair, the programmes were excellent and I still have the cards, small colour prints of new and unusual works of art. Still, it didn’t quite live up to the science fiction fantasy in my head.

Of course, it is all different now and the role of radio seems to be ready for another change. Whilst for many it is just background noise at work, for some it is fast becoming a way to communicate ideas and knowledge to a wider audience. Many of us get our morning news from the radio – so much more informative than the television, more detailed and with a wider range of topics. Whilst music radio is increasingly redundant – why listen to someone else’s choice of music when you can live stream your own from a service such as Spotify? – talk radio opens up the world with new voices and different lives. I firmly believe this is the future for radio. Yes, some music interspersed is great and radio can offer a chance to hear new and different music too. Whether national, local or community station, it is through the voices of other people that radio offers something unique. Something the world really needs right now. All we have to do is stop and really listen for a moment.

Writers as Readers

There has been some discussion lately about the link between reading and becoming a writer. As a prolific reader from an early age (see “In praise of libraries”), I would say from personal experience there may be a link. I was extraordinarily indiscriminate when young, consuming whole series of books by one author (Willard Price, anyone? Henry Treece?) before moving on to the next. A sort of book shark, always looking for the next meal. I read huge amounts of science fiction, historical novels, science books and assembled a shelf of favourites ranging from “The Gadfly” to “The Forsyte Saga”. The one thing they all did was to show me how powerful a good story could be. They filled my head with ideas, questions and new and wonderful places – it was only a matter of time before I started trying to create my own.

On the way I ran across John Buchan – oh what fun his stories were! Now I have the chance to revisit that early delight as part of the Middlesbrough Literary Festival when Southside Broadcasting present “The 39 Steps” as their book of the month. I’ll be meeting members of local reading groups at Thorntree Community Hub on the 24th of June, from 10am and we will be reviewing and discussing John Buchan’s most famous work as part of the broadcast. If you are around, please come along – it would be lovely to meet you.

In praise of libraries

I am a fan of libraries. Big ones, little ones, those wonderful book buses – show me a library and I find myself smiling. I owe my professional life to libraries – really. Without access to books I would not be writing this today. I would never have worked as a lecturer, survived the education system or become a writer. Libraries have been a lifeline for me.

I began to read very early, partly as I was bored, I think. I have dyspraxia – a form of spatial dyslexia – so I did not walk until after my third birthday According to my mother, I sat in a corner and shouted until someone brought me what I wanted – often a book of some kind, which at least kept me quiet. Then I went to school and the fact I could already read caused some consternation but I had a very smart teacher who pointed me to the Book Corner (remember those?) and, once I’d read everything there, let me sneak into the hall and take books from the Junior library. I was in heaven.

Then it all went wrong. Moving up to the second year Infant class, my new teacher (who’s name, fortunately, escapes me), decided I was not really reading at all, just showing off. She gave me the prescribed “reading book” for the term (!!) and asked me to read aloud. I couldn’t. I still find it hard and when I do readings and signings I practise for days beforehand. Aged six, I had a terrible stammer and half-way down the first page I burst into tears. Suddenly I was stuck with just one book for the term and until I read the whole horrible text aloud to this woman, I was barred from even the Infant library, let alone the now-forbidden Junior shelves.

On returning home that afternoon I told my mother I was never going back to school again. A remarkable and intelligent woman, she put me on the back of her bicycle and we made our way into the nearby town centre. Here I was signed up for the children’s library and given two pink tickets. Surrounded by more books than I had ever seen in one place, I agreed to go back to school – and keep my under-aged reading habit a secret.

That library kept me sane, in the midst of the crushing boredom of the second year Infants. By the time I was ten I’d consumed the Junior library too – dyspraxic, remember? So I never played out unless forced. I couldn’t skip, or catch a ball or even run without tripping over my own feet so I read – and read -and read. For my tenth birthday the local library staff gave me a quick test (to see if I really had read everything) and presented me with one illicit, precious grey ticket for the Adult section.

I wish I could go back now and thank them, show them all what a difference they made to my life.
I hope we will somehow salvage our library system and keep it safe, to pass on to the next generation of young readers. Yes, I’m a writer and I have a vested interest in getting them hooked on books but somewhere out there is a child just like me. I want them to have the same chances I had.

A lovely morning in Guisborough

Well, I spent a really nice couple of hours at Guisborough Bookshop yesterday (Saturday). They’d put up a display of the two books and a disturbingly large copy of the “gazing moodily out to sea” picture and I set up my stall, more books, pen and a heap of bookmarks.

People were very friendly – only one man refused a bookmark – and I had some interesting talks, met new readers and generally enjoyed the whole experience. It is so heartening to see an Independent bookshop flourishing. There was a constant stream of people, all ages from pensioners to babies in chairs. A good number of children who were as happy and excited as if they were in a toy shop. I remember my parents taking us to the “big” bookshop in Chelmsford when I was a child. Every birthday and Christmas we had book tokens and the Saturday after was book day. I thought that had passed away along with 80s hair styles and space hoppers but it is alive and well in Cleveland. So, so encouraging!

A special thanks to all the staff who were helpful, welcoming and willing to have me back. yes please. Hello and thank you to some of the people who took the time to stop, chat and even buy a book – John, Suzan, Ron, Charlie, Jill, Jenny, Jasmine (and her sister who would rather be a vet than a writer), Gareth, Janet, Wendy, Pamela and Lynda. Lovely to meet you all and I hope you enjoy the books – please let me know.