On Writing


I’m not talking about the long hiatus in blogging (been writing) but a fantastic and well-overdue prize for thrillers.

http://staunchbookprize.com/

This initiative by Bridget Lawless is something I’ve been championing for over ten years. Crime fiction in which the usual clichés of violence against women are absent. Hallelujah!

Photograph by Clare Park

The debate around this prize is interesting and reflective of our times:

“But where’s the tension?”

“Sadly, violence against women is the real world and writers should reflect it.”

“Crime shouldn’t be about issues but events.”

There’s a shift in our thinking, after the backlash against sexual harassers, abusers of power and an embedded acceptance of the structures that enable such behaviour.

Crime authors who use their creativity solely in inventing new ways to assault women are as boring as those who always attribute the antagonist’s psychosis to being ‘abused as a child’.

What I want to read – and write – are crime novels addressing both symptom and cause.

Today’s crimes against the vulnerable are borne of a society which encourages and enables precisely those shocking headlines: powerless people seeking someone weaker to bully, individuals such as President ‘Grab ‘em by the pussy’, mega corporations evading tax and eroding workers’ rights, disenfranchised trigger-happy teens with access to warfare weaponry, organisations such as The Presidents’ Club, and a media which stokes a divisive fire and shrieks when it explodes.

Women are far from the only victims but I applaud the Staunch Prize for introducing an initiative long overdue.

I’m not entering, as my ideal candidate book is already ten years old. But I wish this prize every success and await the winners with more enthusiasm than next year’s Booker/Costa/Baileys.

Debate with Frances di Plino on this exact same subject, in case you missed it.

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B007V512A4/ref=as_li_qf_sp_asin_il_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1634&creative=6738&creativeASIN=B007V512A4&linkCode=as2&tag=trisbook-21

 

 

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There’s a new competition out there. The theme is RAW and the deadline is December 1st.

I can’t enter as I’m part of the Creative Team behind The Woolf. But there’s still time for you!

http://thewoolf.org/competitions/

 

Nevertheless, I have a raw story. Not for the faint-hearted, yet some call it memorable.

This is The Reservation, which features in my short story collection Appearances Greeting a Point of View.

Bon appétit.

 

The Reservation

The waiter takes the napkin from the plate, unfolds it and places it across my lap. I stiffen. It’s an oddly intrusive gesture and he doesn’t smile. My companion pre-empts this courtesy by flipping out the linen and tucking it beneath the tablecloth with a flourish. The waiter bows and leaves us to face each other in the saffron glow of an art deco lamp.

My eyes are drawn across the room to a mural of slave girls bathing each other. The scene, less graphic than others which surround us, nonetheless holds a charge. Somehow you know those girls are preparing themselves for the next course.

“It’s quite something, don’t you think?” My companion turns his head to the doorway, where we came in. The entire wall depicts an orgy which, due to the trembling candlelight and shadows cast by passing waiters, convinces me the figures are actually moving; arching, rocking, shuddering.

“Yes, it is.”

I should be impressed, but I’m embarrassed and intimidated by the other diners, who reek of privilege, radiate confidence. Tables of young men in suits, couples gazing at each other, an elderly group of aristocratic ladies wearing so much jewellery their movements appear weighted. Everyone is dressed as if for an awards ceremony, with the same air of sophisticated anticipation.

“How did you get a table?” I ask, to demonstrate I am not ignorant of the prestige he has afforded me.

He smiles. “I thought you might enjoy it. I could hardly take such an elegant creature to a tea shop, now could I? Shall I order for both of us? I’ve been here several times and I think I know the perfect dishes for you.”

I watch over his shoulder as another waiter spreads a napkin across the lap of a black-clad woman, who wears long satin gloves. She looks up at him and parts her lips. I turn away.

“Please.” I hand back the unopened menu. The door opens to admit more guests. Heads turn, as they do for each new arrival, but on this occasion, they don’t turn back. All eyes follow the party to their table while mouths mutter into nearby ears.

An older man, with silver-grey hair to match his suit, leads the way. On his arm, a distinguished lady with an upswept coiffure. Her makeup is immaculate and her dress catches the light. She turns one way, it’s green. Another, it’s blue. On their heels come a younger pair. I barely notice him as I cannot stop staring at the siren on his arm. Her dress, silver lamé, spotlights her hips, her breasts, the curve of her shoulder. Very little flesh is on show, but her shapely figure is evident, crowned with a perfect blonde chignon. Her escort nods to acquaintances around the room. He is polished, with a pleasant, rather one-sided smile.

Their table is directly to our left, against the wall. The younger woman exudes delight. She gasps at the murals, laughs at herself, clutches her man’s arm, smiles at the waiter and giggles with anticipation as she sits opposite her mother. Mother-in-law?

I stop myself from staring and wonder if that is how I should comport myself. My companion is giving the waiter our order. I listen but it makes no sense. Carpaccio, blini, mille-feuille, Roederer … my attention wanders over his shoulder, back to the woman in satin gloves. A waiter stands beside her, taking the order from her gentleman friend, while she absently caresses the waiter’s buttock and thigh.

I look down at my place setting, using my hands as blinkers. If I look neither left nor right, perhaps I can pass this evening enjoyably.

“Is something wrong? Do you have a headache?” my companion enquires.

An intake of breath makes us both turn. The waiter attending to the glamorous party has summoned the maitre d’. The atmosphere changes, anticipation charges the air like that of a courtroom when the foreman of the jury rises to his feet. People stare openly as the maitre d’ tilts his head, first listening to the waiter and then bending to hear the younger man.

I notice the rest of the table. The older gentleman is beaming, hands on his thighs. Both women’s eyes shine, their excitement visible. The whole restaurant seems to hold its breath.

The maitre d’ straightens with a nod and gives a brief instruction to the attendant waiter. Conversations break out at every table, heads swivelling to either end of the room, checking the doors as if awaiting the star performer. The thrill pulsing around the room affects me too, although I have not the faintest idea why.

“What is it?” I ask my companion, noticing the fresh pink patches on his cheeks. His complexion reminds me of my mother’s best tea-set.

“I don’t know.” He shakes his head but his eyes drop from mine in less than a second. “I mean, I’ve heard rumours, but I can’t believe … ah! Here’s our first course.”

We eat something, thinly sliced, highly priced. It’s not unpleasant. We comment on the fineness of the flavour although I doubt he tastes any more than I. We make the smallest talk imaginable.

While we consume this nothing in particular, two waiters bring a pair of Japanese screens to our neighbouring table. Unfolding them, they place a wall around three sides of the party, the fourth provided by the blacked-out window.

I check my companion in enquiry, but can see his curiosity is equally aroused.  And it appears that is not all. His pupils, dark and intent, fix upon my lips.

The door to the kitchen opens and a man in a pale green overall enters, carrying a black box resembling something a magician might use. Two waiters in his wake hold trays covered with white cloths. They make their way behind the screens and the chatter from the rest of the room erupts, accompanied by the percussion of tines on china.

I want to stand up and call out. “Hush! How can I possibly hear what is going on with all this racket!” But my attention is caught once more by the gloved woman, who, with great ostentation, drops her knife. Their waiter kneels to retrieve it and she kicks him with a high-heeled foot. He crawls under the tablecloth and she slides down in her chair. Her escort stares at her, chewing on a toothpick.

I realise my mouth is open. Fine features and noble expressions on every table now seem flushed and lascivious. One couple are feeding each other with their fingers. Several parties are calling for champagne.

Seconds later, the hush descends once more as one of the waiters slips out from behind the screens. In his hand is a kidney-shaped stainless-steel bowl. He drapes a cloth over it and strides towards the kitchen. The green-clad man emerges with his peculiar black box along with the second waiter and follows. The maitre d’ gives a signal and busboys remove the screens.

The party revealed has changed. The older of the two women has lost her upright posture and her make-up is smudged. Some of the shimmering blonde’s hair has escaped and hangs loose across her face. The senior gentleman, florid and sweaty, pours red wine into their glasses and claps the young man on the back. It is this latter who is the most materially altered. His wholesome colour is entirely gone, leaving his skin grey and lips bloodless. His left hand, in a brilliant white bandage, is held to his chest by a sling.

They raise their glasses in a toast and I notice much of the clientele silently doing the same. I start as my companion’s leather brogue rubs my foot. He is breathing heavily.

“The staff here are remarkable. Personalised service.”

Behind him, the waiter emerges from beneath the table and rises to his feet. I cannot see the gloved woman’s face. Her companion beckons the waiter, who bends down to him. It looks for a second as if the two men will kiss, but instead the man palms him a tip, which is swiftly pocketed.

Voices rise, laughter bounces off the walls and the businessmen have discarded their ties. One bejewelled aristocrat lifts her dessert bowl and licks out the last chocolately traces. Heat rises from my knees as if I have been drinking gin. My companion’s gaze now moves to my chest. I pick up my beaded bag and inform him I need the ladies’ room.

My voice rings out as all others fall silent. The kitchen door opens and four waiters emerge, carrying covered platters. I cannot get to my feet while everyone is watching. The platters are placed in front of the beautiful foursome, but everyone is staring at the one in front of the young man. The maitre d’ gives a signal and the burnished silver cloches are lifted.

I see quite clearly what is on that plate. Carrots, calabrese, potatoes and green beans surround a small triangular white bowl, containing what appears to be a small chipolata, covered in breadcrumbs and herbs. No one speaks. No one moves. The young man, unable to use his left hand, reaches for his fork. He spears his chipolata, says, ‘Bon appétit,’ and places it in his mouth.

His eyes close as he chews and he releases a long moan of ecstasy as he rocks back and forth.

Applause thunders around the room. I join in, smiling at such vicarious satisfaction. The older man applauds wildly and stands to shake hands with the maitre d’. His left hand is missing two fingers. The distinguished woman has her hands clasped together, but I notice a gap between her first and third knuckle. The gloved woman is no longer gloved. And she has no more than three fingers on either hand.

I stare around the room, spotting more and more missing digits as the room retreats to the end of a telescope.

His voice comes from far away. “It’s quite all right, you know. It’s perfectly legal to eat your own.”

Conversations I Did Not Have This Weekend

Me: Hello Herr Scheiber, we’d like a firewood delivery before the winter sets in.

HS: Of course. Is Monday morning OK?

Me: Perfect. By the way, we won’t be paying this time. Have a nice day.

 

Me: Could I book a hair appointment on Friday?

Hairdresser: Cut and blow dry?

Me: Yeah and quid pro quo.

HD: Quid what?

Me: Look, you cut my hair for nada and I tell all my friends how fab you are.

 

Me: Two tickets for Blade Runner 2049, please.

Cinema Employee: Where would you like to sit?

Me: Up the back and for free.

CE: Sorry?

Me: Well, I’m not sure if I’ll like it. But if I do, I’ll give it a great review. Oh and while I’m here, I’ll have the medium nachos with cheese sauce.

Conversations I Did Have This Weekend

Potential reader: Is your series available on iBooks?

Me: Sure, they’re available everywhere. Here’s the link.

PR: But these books aren’t free.

 

Website query: We’d like to read your book for our bookclub.

Me: Fantastic! Would you like me to send some bookclub questions?

WQ: That would be great! Could you also gift us 10 copies (e-books, not paperbacks, obviously!)

 

Casual acquaintance: My wife wants to read your books.

Me: OK, here’s a postcard which tells you where to buy them.

CA: You can’t just give her a copy?

You’ve all heard the Picasso quote – but if not, it’s at the end of this post.

I get slack-jawed in disbelief when people expect creatives to work for free – or more often – for the “exposure”.

I’ve done my time. University degree, years of teaching and learning, self-study and quite a few failures along the way.

Then a group of people (more on that next week) showed me how to improve and find a voice, a character and a style. I spent four years honing my first book, distilling all those years of craft and education it took to get to that stage.

So the next step is to give it away?

No.

Before I published my first book, I promised myself two things: Never free, never exclusive. If I don’t value my work, why would anyone else?

Each of my e-books costs less than a cup of coffee. My paperbacks cost less than two birthday cards. Both will last a lot longer. I appreciate I’m also asking for your time and trust.

All of us readers approach a new book with anticipation and trepidation. You’re about to give me hours of your life – use them well

But if you value the hours of effort and skill that goes into keeping readers entertained, why would you expect all that for free?

Herewith the oft-quoted and possibly apocryphal Picasso anecdote:

Picasso is sketching at a park. A woman walks by, recognizes him, and begs for her portrait. A few minutes later, he hands her the sketch. She is elated, excited about how wonderfully it captures the very essence of her character, what beautiful work it is, and asks how much she owes him. “5000 francs, madam,” says Picasso. The woman is outraged as it only took him five minutes. Picasso says: “No, madam, it took me my whole life.”

 

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As a author, I’m fascinated by language.

Judicious choice of words lead to the right effect; to wound, amuse, provoke nightmares, yield an insight or offer comfort.

Creative Commons image by Roland Tanglao

The right words are magical. Yet sometimes the wrong words have a power all their own. When someone takes a cliché or well-worn phrase and substitutes an element of their own (whether out of mishearing, imagination or mischief), it creates a whole new concept. Perhaps it even improves on the original.

I’m talking about eggcorns.

“We’re all going to hell in a handbag”

“It’s the lesser of two equals”

“Ever since that remark, he’s been a bit of a social leopard”

“A group of scandally clad ladies”

“She tends to be a pre-Madonna”

I love eggcorns. They’re not strictly correct but somehow better. Symbiotic, natural linguistic phenomena which pulsate with life and creativity. A manifestation of language as alive and evolving and in the hands of its users. Plus they make me smile.

Beatrice Stubbs uses eggcorns. She twists her words, apparently unconsciously. The reader is left to guess how much is manipulation and faux-naiveté is behind these apparent gaffes. Lieutenant Columbo provided much of the inspiration. His apparent shambling incompetence is in fact astute psychological disarmament.

Much of this facet of Beatrice’s character comes from my grandmother. Some of her specials include:

‘Those cakes have sympathetic cream’

‘Can’t eat no more, I’m full as an egg’

‘I knew the dog had been naughty; she looked at me with squeaky eyes’

This week I heard from a reader in Florida. She said she loved Beatrice for many reasons, including, “she’s just like me, using quirky phrases all her own”. Another reader from Devon often sends me suggestions for future eggcorns, brazenly attempting to bribe me into writing another Beatrice book.

I keep a little book full of such discoveries, partly for research and partly for entertainment. If you have any little gems to share, I’d love to hear them.

Here are a few of my favourites:

“This leads me to believe the City of Toledo is a fan of cutting off its nose despite its face.” (University of Toledo Independent Collegian, February 2005)

“This coverage provides for protection from claims for libel, slander and deformation of character.” (Catering Magazine, January 2005)

“Our old Toyota just got us through and then gave up the goat.” (ABC Rural, SA Country Hour, January 2006)

“Most cases of vaginal thrush can be rapidly cured by the use of a peccary.” (Pharma co. report)

“As long as one invokes the hack-kneed platitudes of ‘national security’ or ‘the war on terror’, there is virtually no crime too extreme.” (Al-Jazeera op-ed piece)

“She’s described in reports as a bowl in a china shop.” (CNN, January 2002)

“My face is sore and I don’t like having big pus jewels on my face.” (internet forum)

Images courtesy of Creative Commons/Flickr.

 

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http://amzn.to/2stfJNS (Over the weekend, I had a few surprises from readers.

One was disappointing.

Somebody returned a Beatrice Stubbs Boxset for a refund.

“Nothing in the description said it was an R rating.”

An R rating? In Europe, we understand an X rating, but what does R mean?

I checked the definition and it’s pretty vague, especially when it comes to books. R means restricted. Some sex, violence, nudity and if anyone under 17 cracks the spine*, they should be under supervision. (*not a euphemism)

If my reader didn’t like the first chapter – which does indeed involve some medium to strong language, allusions to sex and a gently twisted murder – s/he has every right to ask for his/her money back. No offence taken.

http://amzn.to/2stgTJaHow to communicate to potential readers that Beatrice Stubbs is neither cozy/cosy nor excessively violent/graphic? Is there a scale one can use to reassure the nervous while enticing the curious?

Hmm.

The second surprise was a new review from an Amazon reader called Roxann.

I hope she’ll forgive me quoting her here:

I loved the entire Beatrice Stubbs series… Great plots, wonderful endearing characters and JJ Marsh’s sense of humor is delightful. READ THEM ALL. I am very sad that the series is only six books….. I miss the characters…..!!!!! Please write more.

Now stop that. I know what you’re thinking.

Eliminate the negative and accentuate the positive.

But I do want to mess with Mister In-Between. How do I please both ends of the crime reading spectrum?

http://amzn.to/2rviH5nWhat kind of warnings do I add to my books? Maybe we need a new system.

  • Small x: Bad cuss-words, almost-sex and a few bloodstains
  • Small r: Medium swearing and not all dead bodies are female
  • Small c: No creatures or children injured

I started writing crime not to shock or horrify, but to entertain. I don’t want to give you nightmares. My aim is essentially to reassure that good can prevail; that human beings want to look after each other. If you’re reading a Beatrice Stubbs book before you go to sleep, I hope you’re enthralled and excited and even unnerved, but never disgusted, repulsed or upset.

http://amzn.to/2swPPKftoYes, horrible people and situations exist but beware of gratuitous shocks.

The Nasties accentuate the negative, fan fear and distort perception.

This piece by Rene Denfeld sums up why I write crime from the female perspective.

Women can be so much more than victims.

Beatrice Stubbs knows all about the negative but strives, at least, for the in-between.

If you’ve read a Beatrice book – whether you’ve loved or hated – how would you describe it?

 

 

 

 

 

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A neat way to tip an author?

After spending a few enjoyable hours in a restaurant, we pay our bill and give a little thank-you via a tip. For the waiting staff, this can be as financially valuable and personally gratifying as the wage packet.

Authors love it when you buy their books. Of course they do! It pays the bills and feeds the dogs and gives them time to write more books. But a review lights a flame in an author’s heart.

You got it? We connected! We understand each other!

It makes an author’s day a little brighter.

For more than one reason.

Reason One: People often write to me via email or social media to let me know how much they like The Beatrice Stubbs Series. Here’s one from last week:

Binge reading! JJ Marsh/Beatrice Stubbs are FANTASTIC. They are almost impossible to put down. I started Book 1 on August 2 (thanks to Kindle) and am now half way through Book 6. They are the perfect antidote to the excessive heat – just lie on the sofa and read, read, read!!

It’s heartwarming to hear such a response. Authors love to receive such praise. Thank you so much!

Reason Two: Putting your thoughts in public – eg, Amazon, iBooks, etc – allows other people to discover the books and potentially enjoy them as much as you do. How many word-of-mouth recommendations have you enjoyed? I’ve discovered true gems thanks to tips from friends.

Spread the word. Pay it forward.

Reason Three: The more reviews a book or boxset gets, the more doors open. Take a look at this post by indiesunlimited to get a bit more background. Real live people with personal opinions make all the difference to writers. Your comments support the author with no cost other than a few moments of time.

Reason Four: If you’ve never written a review before, it’s not difficult. You can go the whole hog and do an in-depth analysis or just jot down a couple of lines about why you liked it. You might like this piece by Gillian Hamer, a seasoned reviewer, on how to avoid spoilers and focus on the potential reader.

http://amzn.to/1MxQcYy

Reviewers and recommenders are more valuable to authors than you can imagine.

So on behalf of all of us – Thank You!

 

A friend pointed me to a piece in The Guardian this week, alerting me to the fact my own creation, Beatrice Stubbs, was recommended in the comments. I was pleased to be mentioned and fascinated by the author’s choices.

Drawn like a magnet to lists, I started making one of my own. In doing so, it became clear that the kind of female crime fighter I prefer is a rounded, flawed human being whose greatest asset is her mind.

From The Guardian’s Top Ten, Smilla Jaspersen would have made my list too, as would Claire DeWitt, but here are ten more brilliant women battling injustice, roughly in order of when I discovered them.

Isabel Dalhousie by Alexander McCall Smith

His other heroine, Precious Ramotswe, is more popular, but I return to Isabel Dalhousie again and again.

The setting of Edinburgh, a eclectic collection of endearing characters, our heroine’s sharp self-awareness and the philosophical questioning of moral choices are exactly what I want to read.

Plus she’s an older woman, embracing the ageing process with good grace. No kick-boxing here.

 

Blanche White by Barbara Neely

An African-American maid/housekeeper who has a nose for mysteries, this character is also a social and political commentator on the unjust world in which she lives.

Her strength and intelligence reflect the author’s, a multi-talented mould-breaker who remains an inspiration. This little interview says it all. Wonderful precursor to The Help with layers of analysis couched in tales of mystery.

Harriet Vane by DL Sayers

I was introduced to Harriet by my Triskele colleague, Catriona Troth. ‘Your writing reminds me of Dorothy L. Sayers’, she said. On hearing I’d not read any Sayers, she recommended Gaudy Night, and I’ve never looked back. There is something about The Golden Age of Crime I cannot resist. Plus Sayers, Marsh and Tey characters inhabit a world of steam trains and bicycles without a smartphone to be seen.

Lisbeth Salander by Stieg Larsson

Not a fan of excessive violence or torture in crime fiction, I avoided Larsson’s work for a long time. But when I did finally read The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo, I found his depiction of this unconventional personality and mind truly appealing. This character-driven element of his work led me to read more, mostly because of this girl.

Temperance Brennan by Kathy Reichs

Someone gave me a huge box of crime hardbacks as she was leaving the country. Most of them were so clichéd and graphic I gave up on them, with the exception of Val McDermid and Kathy Reichs. The latter introduced me to Tempe. She’s a forensic anthropologist, bilingual and professionally smart if not so much in her personal life. The author wears her expertise lightly, enabling her creation to be expert, flawed and politically astute. She’s also now the subject of a TV series called Bones.

Clarice Starling, by Thomas Harris

Harris is most famous for his unforgettable villain, Hannibal Lecter. But Clarice is a brilliant psychological portrait of a hard-working, vulnerable woman whose determination and persistence enable her to hunt down her man from the smallest of clues. She has a brain and uses all of it.

Ellen Kelly by Sheila Bugler

Sheila is a friend and colleague, whose work I admire enormously.

Like McCall Smith, her setting (South London) is vital, but it’s the damaged, struggling, personable character of Kelly that draws you into the story.

She’s a real woman with a high-pressure job, two kids, and more than one tragedy in her past. After three books, I feel I know this woman and care what happens next.

Start with Hunting Shadows, the first in the series.

 

Stephanie Plum by Janet Evanovich

Crime is rarely funny, but there is a place for dark, wry humour and Evanovich has it in spades. Dry, sassy, feisty and fierce, Stephanie is forced by financial circumstances into the risky profession of apprehension, or bounty hunting. The wit is sharp, the observations acute, the character and her relationships develop over the series. Plum ages well, like a good tequila.

Cassandra Reilly by Barbara Wilson.

Humour is another feature of this clever translator who odd-jobs as a private investigator is her wise-cracking wit and roving eye. Cassandra sticks in my mind as a powerful creation and a rare lesbian heroine in the genre. Like several other authors on this list, Wilson makes the most of her locations, which range from Barcelona to Venice to Transylvania. She really should be better known.

 

This is a personal list but I’d be keen to hear about other female sleuths I’ve not yet met. Any other smart, unconventional, thought-provoking recommendations warmly welcomed. Holidays are all about discovery.

 

 

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