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Posts from the ‘Writing’ Category

News about books and that boot in the wood

I began this week thinking there would be no news for the blog but it seems I was wrong.  First I would like to share some writing news with you all.  The fifth book in the “Alex Hastings” series is due out next year though the actual publication date depends on a lot of things beyond my control.  I’m waiting for an editor and for my publisher to do the cover design and say whether he or I will supply the “blurb”.  Then the e-book version needs setting up and final proofs have to be checked.  This is the tedious but so important part of publication – and it takes months sometimes!

I had finished the book itself several times in a number of different forms over the last few years.  This is because I became embroiled with an agent (who will be nameless) who promised a lot but seemed to constantly change her mind about what she wanted.  After rewriting, editing and adding sections she finally decided she wanted the whole thing moved to the year 2020.  Eager as I was, this was a step too far – and impossible.  The Levels have changed beyond recognition since the 1980s, the Probation Service scarcely exists and Alex and her friends would be retiring.  Now restored to its former, more coherent form I hope “A Long Shadow” will be with you soon.

Even more exciting in some ways is the news I have signed a TV option for “Death of the Elver Man”.  Jon Moore, the manager of a new media company, Blue Trotter Media Ltd is hoping to turn it into a four or six part drama and has also taken future options on the other books so if it is a success there may be more.  Now is the time to start “fantasy casting”!  Jon is very skilled and experienced with TV and film work to his name, particularly in the field of special effects and prosthetics.  Moving into production will be a new step for him and I am looking forward to working with him and the team.

Now, I promised an update on the boot.  Well, that is all turning rather strange.  When I went into the wood to dig it up earlier this week it was gone.  There was no sign of digging, nothing seemed disturbed but I couldn’t find it anywhere.  After a lot of hunting I spotted the sole propped up against one of the oak trees.  The disappointing news is it is just the sole of an old canvas trainer or something like that but – how did it get there?  I also found a discarded medical mask pushed into a pile of sticks and grass off to one side.  That was definitely not ours.,

Of course, as a crime writer I am constantly making up stories and constructing narratives so here are some possible explanations.  Most prosaically it was moved by a fox or badger – but then why was there no sign of digging?  It had probably been there for years, certainly as long as we’ve been in the house so why now?  And would an animal have propped it up neatly on a tree?  If it was human intervention maybe something was buried under it and retrieved.  Or perhaps it pointed towards something buried or hidden and it was moved to hide the trail from prying eyes.  Or maybe someone is just messing with our heads. 

So, for all those of you who wonder, “Where do you get your ideas?” there’s always something you can toy with.  Everything is copy, they say and the world is full of details and events that can become a story.

Finally, there’s still no movement of the car – or movement of the car.  Fingers crossed for next week.  I’m checking my bike over as I may need to do the cycle ride into the nearest town soon.  And this week I wrote more of Alex Hastings 6, including two “crane” days.  Feels like a successful week after all.

The start of a new garland

Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible…

Another week has flown by – another week without transport here in the depths of rural Ireland.  The insurance saga grinds on though I feel we are making some progress.  The garage collected the car at stupid o’clock on Tuesday and checked it over.  Not surprisingly it passed the NCT (the Irish MOT) and we had the precious certificate for the insurance company.  Just one problem though – they demanded “physical proof” of the NCT, either a copy in the post or a fax.  No, they said, they had no mailbox so a pdf was not possible.  The nearest post box is about five kilometres away and who the hell still has a fax at home?  So thank you to our lovely builder who drove into town especially to put it in the post.  Now we wait – and hope.  This is one aspect of normal service we really do need to resume.

We rely heavily on deliveries at present, for obvious reasons and Jacqui has been very pro-active in dealing with our current wave of unwanted and uninvited residents.  It’s been much cooler these past weeks – just as well as the local farmers appear to be emptying their slurry tanks over the county in preparation for winter.  We often do not open the windows which keeps out the smell and a lot of the flies.  There are fewer insects now but it is still a relentless infestation.  It will be better next year as we are rooting them out inside.  We are also removing the main attractions in the garden including three Leylandii trees they love.  We are less enthusiastic and intend to dig them out and replace them with something smaller and native.  In the meantime we have a stunning range of products to combat the flies, horseflies, wasps and mosquitoes.

Supplies for the “Flyminator”

The biggest step forward this week was finally getting the gas boiler in and running.  The gas tank was installed back in May and filled in June but we were still relying on the old oil boiler for hot water – which it refused to supply unless we were running the heating.  Now we can turn on the tap and – presto, hot water!  You really don’t know how happy that makes you unless you’ve had to rely on immersion heaters or slow warming tanks.  We are just adapting to many different things here but this was one thing we could change.  As far as we are concerned it comes under the heading “Quality of Life”. It also frees up a big area at the back of the Majestic for storage. Hopefully we will have a reliable water supply and heating for the winter.  Almost normal service !

So on to developments on the writing front.  This whole project has meant I’ve scarcely written anything for several years.  I had packed away all the sources and reference books, notes and pictures along with my trusty computer.  There is an old Jewish saying (with thanks to Rabbi Blue).  If you want to make God laugh then tell him your plans. In the absence of contact with readers, bookshops and libraries the plans I had drifted away.  They became inconsequential next to the real-life drama we were living.  When we moved into the house I discovered my lovely big writing desk was missing and we had no way to replace it.  It seems a small thing in the whole big adventure but it was almost the last straw.  Then I began this blog, just a few words every week but the discipline has been very good for me. 

My writing corner is still small and crowded but we hope to locate another table soon – when we can drive again of course.  I found some of the maps I’d marked up in a box and the original manuscripts for the first five novels too.  Yes, there is a fifth book with the publishers and there are plans for the next year.  Those of you who have followed this page since the beginning may remember I used to make a paper crane every day I wrote 1,000 words.  My garlands were left behind in the studio but finally, this week, I made a start on Book Six of the Alex Hastings series.  And so I have made my first Irish paper crane.

Hopefully the first of many

It has been a long and occasionally painful journey but gradually normal service is being resumed.

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.

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.

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.