On Writing


This week, The Guardian newspaper published this: Stop it, Sherlock! Five TV Tropes that need to die.

I wholeheartedly agree. Here’s one I wrote earlier.

(Tune in next time for chick-lit.)

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Only Dead Fish Have Open Mouths by Jed Blood

It’s Friday night in Greensville, Colorado. Apple-cheeked Melanie Mills is pretty tired after school and a volunteer shift at Kitty Corner, the homeless cat charity. But tonight is special. She has a secret. She tells her folks she’s studying with the girls and heads out for her romantic blind date.

I’m neither romantic nor blind, but I’m waiting for you, Melanie. Inside my head is a lonely place. Inside my pocket is a garlic crusher. Tonight is for Daddy.

Lauren Laphroaig (don’t try to pronounce it, honey, you’ll choke) is woken at 3am by the phone. On the other end is Detective O’Malley, wearing a shower cap on each shoe, shouting at civilians to stand back and chain-smoking cheroots. The mutilated body of an apple-cheeked teenage girl just washed up in the creek. Lauren sighs, swears and drags on a leather jacket. En route to the river, she listens to Miles Davis, snacks on a chili dog and regrets her inability to commit to relationships.

Chief Inspector Elmet Bird is at the scene when she arrives; besuited, livid and in urgent need of soundbites for the city council. Lauren rolls her eyes (because she’s feisty) and mimes ‘Bird Brain’ to O’Malley. Bird spots their sniggering and assigns one of his own to assist in the investigation. Travis C. Weed is a law-enforcement-consultant with an apricot tie and a handshake limper than wilted chard.

Pathologist Rita Ferrongut won’t hazard a wild guess as to cause of death, insisting on a full PM first. Lauren and Weed talk to Melanie’s parents (traumatic), her friends (dramatic) and the weird owner of the cat sanctuary (erratic). Weed takes everything in his stride and asks intelligent questions. Lauren notices his long eyelashes and warm smile but still hates his tie.

The morgue. Ferrongut is having lunch (sashimi, sushi and edamame beans) over Melanie’s eviscerated corpse. She offers everyone chopsticks, while demonstrating how the victim’s injuries were caused by kitchen implements, including an oyster shucker. Weed rushes out to puke. Ferrongut belches. Lauren sighs, swears and goes home for a hot shower.

Time to wash off all that death, grief and wasabi. Wraps herself in bathrobe, fills whisky glass, puts on Chet Baker, has bitter phone call with ex-husband. “Married to the job? Maybe. But I’d rather be married to something I care about.” She sighs, swears and sleeps on the sofa.

Detective O’Malley uncovers police records for Barry King, owner of Kitty Corner. The man is dangerous. So Lauren decides to investigate, at night, alone, with no phone. Oh, and it’s raining.

Stumbling blindly through the midnight-black catty-combs beneath the feline refuge, Lauren is whacked on the back of the head. When she comes around, she’s in a cage, gagged and tied with fish scales smeared on her face. Barry (call me Bar) King, with fetid tuna breath, unveils his master plan – the only restaurant in the world to serve human flesh.

Weed, worried, turns up at Lauren’s house. He finds her mobile and listens to the last message. Kitty Corner? That weird guy who smelt of Whiskas? Of course! He tracks them down and calls for back up. But waiting is not an option when Bar King  selects the Hiromoto Hacker from his knife block. Today’s Dish of the Day, with truffle oil and rocket, will be Carpaccio of Inner Thigh.

Weed mans up and bursts in, wrests the cleaver from the madman’s grasp and stabs King with a chopstick. With his last gurgling breaths, King explains he was abused as a child and only allowed to eat tofu.

Beside the corpse, Weed unties Lauren and wipes the scales from her cheek. Relieved, she holds him tight. Confused, he confesses his love.

Lauren sighs, swears and with one regretful lingering kiss, moves on to the sequel.

My fabulous colleagues at Triskele make me sound rather nice.

Thanks, gang!

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This is the third in our series – what each brings to Triskele Books.

http://triskelebooks.blogspot.ch/2017/01/triskele-author-feature-jj-marsh.html

Guest piece for Words with JAM magazine by yours truly, on magic book descriptions that work.
http://www.wordswithjam.co.uk/2017/01/how-to-write-killer-blurb.html

Ten steps.

Five of which happen before you even begin to write.

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Start with bare branches…

This week, I’ve been obsessing over characters’ names and why it’s so important to get them right. Just like plot, setting, research and characters, each requires a depth of understanding from the author which never makes it to the page.

What makes a name work? Here are ten things I’ve learned.

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Actors often quote a snippet of advice. Memorable names follow a syllable pattern. Three in the first name, one in the second. Jeremy Irons. Emily Blunt. Harrison Ford. Virginia Woolf. Cormoran Strike. Rosamund Pike. Atticus Finch. Orlando Bloom. Vivien Leigh. Beatrice Stubbs.

Names carry all kinds of coded messages and subconscious associations which can make a name become an essential part of the character. They must feel right, for the writer and the reader. Colours, animals, professions all trigger feelings of trust, affection or suspicion we may not even realise. Sirius Black. Scarlett O’Hara. Cat Baloo. Mike Butcher. Dickens was a master of character encapsulation within a name.

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Class, age and type can be encapsulated in the right nomenclature. Florence Flannel, aged retainer in a Cornish murder mystery, conjures the gnarly-knuckled old maid with no need to resort to comic West Country accents. Whereas Elizabeth Abernethy, lady of the house, carries a whiff of crinoline, corsetry and conspiracy.

Similarly, choose names to fit era and genre. Fantasy identities require as much creativity as historical fiction requires research. Slatibartfast meets Hrothgar. Chick lit heroes tend to be one-syllabled: Dan, Tom, Sam, Rhett, Mark and Will whereas heroines generally need two: Bridget, Sophie, Katy, Lucy, Vianne or Sally will do nicely.

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Two characters or more who begin with the same initial make the reader’s life harder. Marianne asked Madeleine why Mary Jane was at Michelle’s funeral because Michael had promised Martin he’d keep her away. *flicks back to dramatis personae*

Technicalities matter. When you have a character whose name ends in S, what happens with the possessive? James’s gun, Nicholas’ trousers, the urinal of Degas. If a first name ends in a vowel and the surname with a consonant, how does it sound? Mara Bellena, Mar Abelena, Marabelle Ena?

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Sounds matter. Read the names aloud. If the name is tricky, but you need it to be so, offer the reader an insight as to how it sounds. When my detective encounters an Angolan DNA expert called Conceição, she notes the pronunciation with a mental bridge – ‘cats say miaow’.

Characters rarely need to remind themselves of their own relationships. Hence using terms such as ‘sis’, ‘boss’, ‘cuz’ are an irritating authorial effort to remind the reader what s/he already knows.

Cultural resonance must be accommodated. I got on marvellously with my local doctor until we crossed the first name bridge. ‘You can call me Adolf’.

Collect names. Curious name crop up everywhere: signposts, streets, shops, election posters, newspaper stories and even in junk mail. Watch and write down those that trigger your own imagination. You may not use them for years, but when you do, they’ll have the same effect on the reader.

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And how they make a difference to art and life.
(I hereby win most portentous subtitle of 2016)

Today I finished the manuscript and immediately started over.
As we’re amongst friends, I can call the manuscript by its real name.

Lone Wolf

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That is not a wolf

The big things are in place. Now to add all those itty-bitty small things. The mention, the letter, the look, the number, the detail, the time, the tiny pieces of the whole which keep the reader puzzled.
Crime and thriller writers have many ways of keeping track of all the consistent clues and references within a novel.

This is my sixth in a series and I’ve tried pretty much every system there is. Yet I still go back to my pencil grid. Before you make assumptions, it has highlights, Post-Its, maps, characters, research detail and an entire coded asterisk system. Colour and class. And I need that grid. For a mind better suited to character, dialogue and even scenic description, lining up endless details is like herding a thousand kittens.

Small things are important. Pebbles, jewels or jigsaw pieces, the reader collects and pockets every one. Each texture, colour and shape must be pleasing in itself and fit perfectly into the whole.

Small things make a big difference in stories.
Small things make a difference in lives.

It’s been a tough year – in both the personal and political arena.
Small gestures such as cards, letters, messages, posts, hugs, calls, visits and opinions have eased the sense of loss. A package of mince pies made me cry.

If you read this blog, I’m assuming you’re not a git and therefore it’s been a tough year for you too. Here’s a hug and a virtual mince pie.

I’m going back to the book and adding all the elements it needs to make it work. It will take a lot of effort, daily diligence and self-criticism. My own harshest critic will be me. Because lazy creates nothing.

I’m going to engage with this strange new world and do small things. It will take a lot of effort, every day, which may involve swearing, giving, supporting, calling-out, protesting, refusing or applauding. Because lazy achieves nothing.

A recent rash of reviews delighted, surprised and puzzled me.

People from Germany, the USA, Australia and Brazil not only recommend the Beatrice Stubbs series as crime novels but also appreciate the sense of humour.

Despite the horrors of the case involved, there is always a dash of humor throughout the story, with credible characters and dialogue. Whilst Beatrice is the central character, there is a great ensemble cast of personalities that I felt brought this novel vividly to life. More than once I found myself giggling along at the team members’ interactions as they worked and socialized together.

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For me, a sense of humour is fundamental to every aspect of life, love and creativity. Whether writing an epitaph or falling in love or creating a crime series, there must be room for laughter.

it is the characters that made this a truly enjoyable, original read. Their banter and interactions, their quirks and the inimitable sense of humor had me laughing out loud. I particularly loved Beatrice’s odd turns of phrase and her love-hate relationship with Herr Kälin, who ended up growing on me.

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Is there room for comedy in crime in today’s environment of darker and grimmer noir, or does one instantly get labelled as ‘cosy’?

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Human Rites by J.J. Marsh when I first started the book.  For some reason, I was afraid it was going to be a cozy mystery.

Advice on book marketing says ‘know your shelf’. What are you like? Dan Brown stalks Lara Croft? Agatha Christie snuggles Alexander McCall Smith? Karin Slaughter splatters Tess Gerritsen?

Beatrice Stubbs isn’t cosy. But neither will she make you gag on your macaroni cheese (apart from one scene in Raw Material – apparently it turned one reader vegetarian).

The books address politics, culture, society and morality, but keep plot and character on centre stage.

Certain bits might raise a laugh, especially if you are of the black-humoured sort.

One reviewer put it best.

The easiest comparisons to make with Marsh’s writing are Golden Age detective writers like Dorothy L Sayers and Margery Allingham. Don’t run away with the idea that this means cosy crimes solved by some old dear in between knitting a bed jacket and planting out her spring bulbs… if you like your crime fiction propelled by wit and intelligence rather than by violence, you will love this book.

So where to find Beatrice Stubbs? Turn left after cosy.Beatrice Stubbs Box Set One_KINDLE KOBO

Colin Bateman on wit and balls. It’s No Crime to Be Funny.

A rant-ette.

On patronising readers.

This summer, I read a lot of crime and ‘psychological drama’. Some good, some not so much. But something bugged me. Like summer flip-flops, one minor irritation rubbed a soft spot and grew into a big fat blister.

Here is where it bursts.

Surely…

Author: Surely she wouldn’t have walked out on him without even leaving a note?

Reader: Well, that’s what it looks like.

Author: Surely he’s just being friendly and has no designs on my nubile body?

Reader: Are you really that naïve?

Author: Surely these teethmarks can’t possibly mean he bit the victims?

Reader: Yawn. What’s on telly?

DO NOT TELL THE READER WHAT QUESTIONS TO ASK!!!

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Look! Can it really be? Not a mini snail? Surely?

Readers actually like trying to work things out for themselves. Those who enjoy crime (and this year’s irritating umbrella term ‘psychological’ drama) read such things to analyse the information given and come to their own conclusions.

‘Surely’ has the same effect of someone behind you in the cinema saying, ‘Did you see that bangle/photograph/cricket box? That will be significant later’ or ‘I hope you noticed Simon’s unhealthy interest in hedgehogs’. All in an annoyingly smug voice.

Variants on Surely…

Had he really emptied their joint account and fled the country?

How could she lie to her sister, our mother and her own children?

If they really had killed before, what was to stop it happening again?

Did three brutal and spookily similar murders indicate a serial killer?

Deduction allows your reader to take all the clues and knot them into an explanation, theory or wild goose chase. Then after the author’s cunning denouement, compare their map-reading, character-comprehension and familiarity with the genre to see how your theories (mis)matched.

Induction beats them around the head and face with blunt signposts until they accept the fact your naïve protagonist would accompany the psychopath to a deserted castle to be sacrificed to the God of Unlikely Coincidence, who happens to be called Shirley.

When we (and here I speak for readers) put the book down and do something which allows cogitative thought, such as dog-walking, lawn-mowing or glass-blowing, we are perfectly capable of conjuring questions of our own.

Why did s/he do that? I reckon it’s because…

Just as you leave a party and reflect on your new acquaintances, you add all the signifiers together and form a subjective opinion. That person is funny/needy/weird/sexy/dodgy/sociopathic. This game becomes far less fun if each party guest has a Post-It on their forehead saying, ‘Slimy Womaniser’, ‘Gold-digging Divorcee’, or ‘I Hurt Gerbils’.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably a reader, writer, or someone like my mum, who does both. So here’s some knuckle-bloodied advice for free.

Write your first draft as a writer, then change in a phonebox and read it as a reader.

If Reader You wants to punch Writer You in the face and shout ‘Don’t patronise me. Who do you think you are?’ something may need to change.

Surely.

 

 

 

I know. Two weeks I said.

Well, I’m back now, so let’s catch up.

Holidays, books, adventures, experiences, interviews, reviews and wild howling savages.

Here are a few snapshots:

 

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Dubrovnik

Chapter One – The Med

Summer is for holidays.

Snorkelling, swimming, diving, dolphins and learning to hold onto a donut.

Turns out I’m a natural, especially at the squealing bit.

Plus memories, tears and a silver celebration.

 

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Two excited people and wine

 

Chapter Two – Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Summer is for special occasions.

Opening night, red carpet and one of the best theatrical events I’ve known.

Grab a ticket and watch it all in one day. (Or you won’t be able to sleep.)

Not to mention a great party where I met three of my heroes.

Read my review here.

 

 

Chapter Three – Writing and Learning

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Image by Julie Lewis

Summer is also for writing.

After ditching 20k of Beatrice 6 after Brexit, I have rewritten Lone Wolf and we’re back on track.

But I am also taking time to improve my skills. Every single exercise of our Creative Spark programme has provoked ideas.

Ten writers with ten different perspectives over ten weeks – all of it for free. Have you dived in?

 

Chapter Four

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Summer is for making plans.

Of the inclusive sort.

On Sat 17 September, Triskele LitFest hits Islington for an inclusive festival of books, authors and genre discussion.

We’re the hosts and we’d love to say hello in person.

 

Chapter Five

Summer is for making plans #2

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Swiss-dwellers!

You might want to earmark Saturday 5 November. Tickets on sale now!

http://writecon.ch/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An article in The Spectator investigated a death. The death of murder. Crime rates are dropping, not just in Britain, but all over the world. A good thing, surely? As Andrew Taylor says, pity the poor crime writers.

But the article got me thinking about the difficulties of crime writing in a world of forensics and DNA, cameras and mobile phones, political correctness and terrorism. Has writing crime got harder? I rounded up some of the usual suspects for interrogation.

Today, I’m so chuffed to welcome Lorraine Mace, who writes crime as Frances di Plino.

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Modern technology undoubtedly makes it easier to catch criminals. But does it help or hinder the crime writer?

The technology we use on a daily is changing so rapidly, it’s hard to keep up with it. Looking at it from a crime writing perspective, it makes our lives harder because criminals now use the dark web, but it seems you need to be a criminal to be able to access it. However, from the point of view of using technology within a storyline, I find it adds additional layers. For example, the antagonist in Looking for a Reason (book four of the D.I. Paolo Storey crime series) created a blog which was entirely private. I used this as a method of informing the reader about the crimes, while at the same time preventing the police from garnering that same information.

Which areas of police procedure or criminal use of technology have you needed to research? And how did that influence the plot?

For Someday Never Comes I had to research the way in which two forces would need to work together when criminals work across borders. Who would take precedence in such a case? How much information would be shared ahead of arrests? What would happen if both forces had grounds for arrest?

Today’s world of school shootings and suicide bombers seems a long way from country house killers and dastardly butlers. All of you write contemporary crime – would you ever consider writing historical crime, ie, before fingerprinting and DNA?

I would love to write crime set before the recent forensic advances but I think it might be even more difficult than writing contemporary crime. Not only would the detective not have all the modern forensic tools, but there would be no mobile phones or any social media to trace people’s movements. I sometimes watch a programme set in 1920s Australia, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, which is fascinating because the detective (usually a step or three behind Miss Fisher) has to rely entirely on observation, witness statements and gut instinct. It makes for great viewing, but I would imagine writing it took even more research than trying to keep up with today’s advances.

In the majority of crime novels, the culprit must be brought to justice. It’s rare to see one get away, which is the opposite of reality. Are we tied to the formula of a ‘happy’ ending?

For me, the criminals must never get away with their crimes. Ultimately, I have an innate sense of justice and cannot stray from it, even if I wanted to. I read a book recently where the criminal walked away because the murders were revenge for earlier wrongs. Even though I could sympathise with the emotional need to strike back, I still wanted the perpetrator to be locked up.

Murder She Wrote Lo books

Ian Rankin observed how Scandinavian noir is politically engaged and makes a comment on society at large. Do you think British crime is more focused on the individual?

I think most crime novels in Britain deal with small communities, even if those communities are located within our large cities. Our writers tend to look at how the crimes impact on the victims. So, yes, I do think British crime is more focused on the individual.

In our lifetimes, there’s been a major shift on what we can and cannot say. Certain terms are taboo and using stereotypical clichés of race, gender and sexuality can result in a critical backlash. How far do you ‘police’ what you write so as not of offend?

I don’t. I want my characters to be real people and most people step over those boundaries at some point in their lives, even if unintentionally. I never try to prevent my criminals from speaking or acting exactly as they would in real life. However, when one of the ‘good’ guys says or does something that isn’t acceptable, I make sure that Paolo raps the guy’s knuckles. For example, in Bad Moon Rising, the first in my series, one of the policemen is misogynistic and refers to a colleague as a dyke. For that (and a few other choice comments) Paolo steps in to deal with the situation.

Finally, for those of you writing a series featuring the same main character(s), would you ever do a Reichenbach Falls and kill off your hero? Or are you afraid of the Annie Wilkes effect?

I did kill off one of my ‘regular’ characters and was sent an email by a fan in which she said she felt like doing a Misery on me when she read that part of the book. Thankfully, she doesn’t live close enough to carry out her threat. I think if a character has gone as far as you can take him or her, and there is a danger of losing the magic ingredient that brought the character to life in the first place, then it’s time for them to go.

 

Find out more about Frances (and Lorraine) here:

http://www.francesdiplino.com/

http://www.lorrainemace.com/

 

 

 

 

 

A while back, I wondered where ideas come from.

Today, I’m thinking about stories. Real stories.

On Friday morning, I crossed the concourse of London Paddington station and encountered a tribute to the young soldiers of WWI who died in the Battle of the Somme. Young men, in 1914 uniforms, stood idly waiting for trains, squatting on the floor, leaning against walls, occasionally breaking into song. Each one gave out a card. On it was a name, a regiment and a date of death.

Those putting-on-a-brave-face representatives of young men and boys made me appreciate all over again what that war meant for a generation and why we must never undervalue peace.

On I went to Cardiff, where I used to live. Wandering the streets, noting the changes, rabbitting with the family, I realised how objects, places and experiences become talismans and legends in our own histories. Experiences retold carve them deeper. “Do you remember that time when…”

Of course we remember, but like little kids, we want to hear it again. Exactly the same way.

Then Wales beat Belgium three-nil in the European Cup and once again, history was made (and beer spilt). Suddenly it was memories in the making.

Thanks to Dipanshu for the clip.

London, 3 July, 2016. The March for Europe.

Stories depend on the storyteller. I marched through London on Saturday not as a bad loser but in attempt to change the narrative. Enough simplistic scary stories. Because there are so many wonderful realities and complexities to be explored.

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Joan (95) from London, in a wheelchair, assisted by her carer: “I will not tolerate government by propaganda. I will not be treated like an idiot.

Natalia (22) from Bratislava, who works in catering: “The media want romantic successes. The reality is boring jobs and slow acceptance by the community. This [result] is a back step.

Adebayo (35ish) from Lewisham, who works in Left Luggage: “Britain can’t make up its mind. Unless you’re good at football. Then you’re one of us.

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The main thing I retain from the march on Saturday is a sense of unity. Everyone included, with a broad variety of opinion. Vocal protest, eloquent argument and a willingness to listen to each other’s views – including slogans – were all present.

British politics has become a pantomime. Yeah, yeah, we know who’s behind you.

Our heritage is a blend of myth, legend and history, represented by individual flags, and deserving of the respect and honour shown this week.

But our future is fluid – we can choose the stories we tell, the marks we leave on the wall.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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