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Want to encourage the creative urge in your kids? Embrace your own.

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When I was about three years old and my sister five, our dad, a bank manager who commuted to his London office each day, decided to re-decorate our suburban, three bedroomed semi-detached house in Essex.
In the process of this fairly mundane and entirely unremarkable task, he decided, almost inexplicably, to create a colourful painted mural up the stairs.

At the time, I thought this creation was wonderful, and something that everyone’s dad did. It perhaps took me until I had my own children to realise that it really wasn’t.
I’ve been decorating the upstairs bathroom myself this past week and although I have created murals in my children’s bedrooms at various points, I’m just not brave enough to do it elsewhere in the house. But I wholeheartedly wish I was.

Nothing appeals to children more than the feeling that their world of imagination and fun can spill over into the serious, sterile universe of the grown-ups. I can still remember that picture snaking up the twisting staircase, with perfect clarity. There were green hills, blue skies and white fluffy clouds. I’ve no idea if it was any good in an artistic sense (sorry Dad) but to my younger self this really didn’t matter. It was magical.

My sister is now a rather wonderful artist herself and I write novels. We have both embraced the idea that it’s perfectly acceptable to explore your imagination and follow it to wherever it wants to go.

Does this tendency have anything to do with that mural my father painted for us over 35 years ago? Well, I can’t prove it, but I definitely think it might have. In which case, maybe I should really consider making a similar gesture to my own children.
Because how can we expect our offspring to show their creative side if we are never prepared to reveal ours?

Five years on

imageFive years ago, during a holiday to the Isle of Arran in Scotland, a series of events changed the course of my professional life.

We have holidayed in Arran since I was a child. My Dad was born in the main village of Brodick and his family have lived on Arran since the 16th Century. He eventually moved to the south east of England for work, but ensured that we never forgot about our roots in the Western Isles.

I don’t know what was different about the summer of 2012. The buzz of the London Olympic Games hadn’t really reached the remote farmhouse on the western coast of the island where I was staying with my husband, children and parents that August. The weather was good, I recall, which may have had a part to play, as it’s by no means a given in this part of the world.

But it was evident not long after we disembarked from the ferry, that this trip would be special. I began to feel the irrepressible  urge to run through stories and dialogue in my head. Unfortunately, I didn’t have my notebooks with me, as I would have these days. So the words went unrecorded.

Then, on a fresh, sunny day, my Dad and I set off on one of our favourite walks; up the hill from the tiny settlement of Thunderguy, to the beautiful, crystal clear waters of Coire Fhionn Lochan. A loch nestled idyllically amongst the peaks with its own white gravel beach. A magical place, where my sister and I used to swim as children and a popular walk on the island.

This particular ascent was an unusual one. About halfway to the Lochan, we spotted a lady’s handbag amongst the rocks and scree. We assumed that a fellow walker must have put it down when resting and forgotten to pick it up again. I placed it in a more obvious position on a tall boulder, but left it on the hillside. Not knowing whether the owner had been heading up or down.

As we approached the ridge which marked the end of our walk, it became apparent who the owner of the bag was. A woman was descending the narrow path fast ahead of us.  She asked shakily if we’d seen her handbag. We replied that we had and tried to explain its general location before she continued down the hill in something of a panic.

Dad and I continued to the Lochan, where we sat on a rock on the beach and ate our packed lunch. The view was so glorious, we forgot about the lady and her lost bag. Until we stood up to begin our trek back down the hill, when we became aware of a kerfuffle at the brow of the ridge. A pair of walkers were becoming concerned about their friend, exchanging worried words. The lady we passed still hadn’t returned since going back to search for her bag. We told them we would keep an eye out for her on the way down.

We did see the lady again. She had struggled to find the bag, it not being as easy to retrace your steps on the rocky hillside as we had imagined, despite the well trodden path. In the event, the lady was fine and ultimately re-united with her property, but a fledgling seed had been sown in my mind.

A story was beginning to crystallise. I didn’t know what form it would take, but several ideas had interested me; the issue of the lost bag – what if there was something very valuable or perhaps incriminating inside? And then the idea that even a supposedly familiar landscape can become quite alien in certain circumstances. I was sure that I wished to explore these concepts further.

Upon our return to Essex, I geared up the laptop and began to write. Within a few weeks I had penned the prologue to my first novel, Aoife’s Chariot. By the following July, the book was finished.

In the five years that have followed that summer, I have written  a further sixteen books and given up my teaching job to pursue my writing career full-time. Why that particular holiday was special; triggering a compulsion to write and tell stories, I really cannot say. Perhaps it was simply the right time.

Arran has always been an important place for me. It is an island where you can feel quite free from the concerns of everyday life. The location probably allowed my creative tendencies to flourish. I can’t be certain. But that particular fortnight in the summer of 2012 undoubtedly changed the course of my life for good.

 

Why having a plausible plot really matters

imageHaving just released the ninth instalment of my DCI Dani Bevan detective series, the issue of plotting is currently at the forefront of my mind.

As part of the editing process, the first read through of any new manuscript focusses on making sure that the plot hangs tightly together. The characters need to be acting in a way that’s in keeping with their personalities and the storyline mustn’t have any inconsistencies or ‘holes’ that will ruin the reader’s experience.

By coincidence, in the last few days, I read an article criticising modern crime dramas on tv for not possessing the same attention to plot detailing as their novel counterparts do.

I found myself agreeing with the sentiment wholeheartedly. The recent BBC1 series of Line of Duty has been a case in point. Although action packed and full of twists and turns, critics have pointed out the many inconsistencies and unlikely scenarios thrown up by the plot.  I enjoyed the series at first, but became increasingly frustrated with the implausibility of the action.

As writers of crime, we have to carefully balance dramatic action with plausibility. If nothing exciting happens in your book/script it will be dull and slow moving. Conversely, too much twisting and turning can make your readers suspect an author is resorting to shocks and gimmicks to gain their attention, rather than relying upon more fully developed storytelling.

Many viewers enjoyed Line if Duty, despite the plot holes. So does the plausibility really matter? It depends. The article I read suggested that tv dramas could use visual tricks to distract viewers from these inconsistencies. Something that books could not replicate. But I think this underestimates crime viewers. Largely, we overlook the errors because very good crime dramas are few and far between. Whereas excellent thriller novels are more commonplace.

The reason it is so crucial to keep the plotting and characterisation plausible is because this is where you most successfully hook a reader or viewer into your world. If characters act in a way someone in real life wouldn’t, or their motivations don’t make sense, the viewer stops believing in the imaginary world you’ve created. It makes them less involved with the characters and (literally) causes them to switch off.

Writers must always treat their readers with respect. Plot consistency is fundamental to the crime genre. A truly great piece of work will have both action and plausibility. It is certainly possible, so we must strive to deliver it.

TV needs a new classification.

imageI got involved in a lively discussion on Facebook last evening. It was about TV shows and was between some of the UK’s most successful contemporary crime writers. I’m not surprised that crime writers enjoy their TV. Writing novels can be a very intense process and visual media can be a great way to unwind, whilst also stimulating the brain.

As viewers, we are a fussy bunch. The writing and acting must be razor sharp and believable. The characters perfectly drawn. But we are also in luck, because there are some fantastic shows available right now. From British offerings like Line of Duty, Broadchurch and The Night Manager to House of Cards, Homeland and The Good Wife.

Upon considered reflection, I decided that I need a new classification for these great shows. It’s all very well being given tips for binge-worthy box sets. But with my family growing up fast, and staying up later, I have diminishing opportunities to watch ‘adult’ dramas. However, I’m not the sort of person who needs blood, gore or bad language to make my viewing grown-up and challenging. This is where my alternative classification comes in.

Nothing appeals to me more than a clever, well written and compelling drama that my daughter can watch too. When I discover a show like this, I’m jumping for joy. The Good Wife is a classic example of such a production. Sassy, smart and sophisticated, there are only a handful of episodes I would deem inappropriate for a twelve year old. The West Wing was another of these and Designated Survivor, a show currently airing on Netflix, is one more to add to my list.

So, my new classification is for grown-up shows which are also child-friendly. This isn’t the contradiction in terms that it sounds. We are longing for the next series of The Crown, and will be catching up with The Good Wife spin off, The Good Fight, on More4 as soon as we can,  because they fulfill this requirement. I don’t want to have to send my daughter into another room in order to enjoy decent TV. We still watch the box together, however retro that may seem. And I would like to continue to do so.

It used to be that 10.30pm was the home of ultra gritty cop dramas. The 9pm slot was filled with more mainstream classics like The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Inspector Morse. Nowadays, the grittier fare is ubiquitous and makes life difficult for discerning parents trying to limit our children’s exposure to life’s horrors.

Perhaps we could have a specific channel for these less ‘hard-hitting’ shows. They don’t have to be slow moving or the writing feeble. That’s not my point at all. I think there’s a real future for this kind of programme. There are far greater parallels between the generations than many of our contemporary television producers seem to think.

 

Is it really worth attending the London Book Fair?

The RetroReview

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This is a question that many professional writers will be asking themselves this week. The annual London Book Fair kicks off at Olympia tomorrow and today is the last opportunity to buy discounted entrance tickets online. I’ve been to the fair in the long distant past, when I worked in the book trade at the end of the nineties. Then, I was on the other side of the fence from where I am now. In fact, back when I worked at the Good Book Guide, I attended a few different trade fairs, particularly when I was selecting products for the gift supplement. Even then, I had doubts about their worth. Most of the decisions I made were based on the product catalogues I brought back to the office with me, which presumably I could have received through the post (or from the company website these days).
Of course, it’s not…

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Run along and play, darling. Mummy’s finishing her book.

The RetroReview

Run along and play, darling. Mummy's finishing her book.

Finishing a novel is a wonderful feeling. It is the final accomplishment of a creative urge that has driven you along for several months, or even years.
But after the initial sense of elation that flows through your entire being at the blissful realisation the thing is finally done and dusted, some uncomfortable thoughts begin to edge their way into your consciousness. Did the kids do their homework this week? Or the week before, for that matter? When was I last in touch with my wonderful and witty girlfriend who I like to meet at least once a fortnight for a coffee and a catch-up?
Or, worse than this. You may find yourself trying to recall your last walk in the park. Or suddenly observing the untidiness and grubbiness of your surroundings and wondering why the scene you are currently surveying seems so oddly unfamiliar to you.
I am beginning…

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Is it still bad manners to read at the table?

The RetroReview

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My daughter is at that age when she reads constantly. Her books are scattered around the house and she will peruse them anywhere, from halfway up the stairs to sitting on the toilet. And we would not dream of stopping her. It’s what we’ve been encouraging her to do since she first learnt her letters.

But a new dilemma has reared its head. The books now come with us when we go out. If the conversation veers into boring grown up territory, at a restaurant or at somebody’s house, the paperback pops up and the nose gets promptly buried within its pages. So, is this okay? I distinctly recall being told, in no uncertain terms, when I was a child, that reading at the table was bad manners. But these were the days before smartphones and ipads. Now, a book seems like the least offensive article that your offspring could…

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Are they playing?

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As we reach the end of another school holiday, I think I’ve had a revelation about my kids.

They’ve had a great week. A couple of play dates and a mini break by the seaside with Gran and Grandad. Neither had much homework to blight their enjoyment and there was still time to play with the puppy. But my perennial niggling concerns about their play habits still lingered on.

I suppose I’m not the only parent to feel their children spend too long on their devices. It’s become pretty much a cliche to yell at them every half hour to turn off the phone/Kindle Fire/X-box. I even spent some time surreptitiously observing what my daughter and her friend got up to during a recent play date at our house.

I found myself inwardly lamenting,’do they actually play??’. I saw them watch a film, show each other stuff on their phones and chat about school/pets. I didn’t expect them to get the soft toys out and re-create a teddy bear’s picnic, or even dip into the bag of barbies. But I couldn’t help recalling the imagination games I used to play at their age. Our dolls and teddies were puritans or royalists during the civil war. When the weather was good, the garden became a stage-set, where we could enjoy a world of endless imaginary possibilities.

Then the realisation struck me. They are playing. It’s just the platform upon which these imaginative endeavours are constructed has changed. I knew then that I had judged these young people too harshly. They had spent an hour on Minecraft, comparing the complex worlds and characters they’d both created.

I’m overjoyed when my son and daughter play Lego games together, because that’s what I did as a child. Therefore, I consider it proper ‘play’. There’s something very tunnel-visioned about this attitude. When my son is building his Sim City or winning his Forza races in order to buy new cars for his virtual garage, that is play for him. Much as previous generations’ idea of play was to be kicking a ball around outside, rather than building Lego or dressing Barbie dolls in a centrally heated bedroom. The concept of ‘normal’ child play is clearly partly a social construct and based upon the resources available to us.

Times change. Where I was forced to create an imaginary world from fairly limited props and materials, modern technologies mean those worlds can be formulated in a far more visual and stimulating way. No wonder our children want to play there. It’s pretty fantastic to be honest.

So I’ve decided to be less judgemental. My childhood experience wasn’t necessarily the perfect one. My daughter created a treasure hunt on Minecraft this morning for her brother. This concept amazes me. I couldn’t do it. And who is to say that because the game is virtual, it is inferior to a treasure hunt around the house and garden? Apart from the opportunity to get some fresh air, I not sure that it is. And as a parent, it’s our job to make sure the kids get out and about on trips anyway. That isn’t really their responsibility.

During the Easter break I’m going to chill. The kids have their own way of playing, occasionally it overlaps with my memories of what it means, but a lot of the time it doesn’t. As long as we keep an eye on the potential dangers and are ensuring balance, I think that’s absolutely fine.

 

Do we need to like the lead character to enjoy the book?

The RetroReview

Do we need to like the lead character to enjoy the book?

A review that I recently received for my first novel has got me thinking.
How important is the reader’s engagement with the key characters of a novel to their overall appreciation of the story? I suspect that the answer to this question is essentially a very personal one. Some of us place great emphasis upon plot, whilst others absorb ourselves and revel in the writing style of our favourite authors. For others, their enjoyment is based almost solely upon the exploits of the main protagonists.

Of course, for the majority of intelligent readers, it is a combination of these factors that we are looking for in a good book. However, it is difficult to feel fully engaged with a narrative, however gripping, if we dislike the hero or heroine.
My favourite literary characters are a fairly disparate bunch; from Nancy Drew and Anne of Green Gables to John Rebus and…

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Is it okay for modern writers to give their own twist to a classic?

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I’ve noticed a few cases of this recently. Perhaps because I did a similar trick with my latest Dani Bevan novel, Dark Remedies, I’m more attuned to spotting the phenomenon, or maybe since Sophie Hannah began revisiting Hercule Poirot as a character it has become a literary ‘thing’, I’m not sure.

I read Ruth Ware’s excellent book, The Woman in Cabin Ten on holiday last year and was amused to discover it was a modern day re-working of Agatha Christie’s The 4.50 from Paddington, except transferred to a cruise ship. Ware’s style is a self-confessed homage to the golden age of crime, so this nod to Christie’s classic must have been entirely intentional. And very successful it was too.

Whilst following BBC1’s 20th anniversary series of pathology drama, Silent Witness last month, I was interested to note how one of the two-parters was a latter-day tribute to Patricia Highsmith’s classic, Strangers on a Train. Two men, with no connection to one another, meet by chance and each agree to commit the other’s murder for them. The police are baffled, as they cannot link victim and perpetrator. It is one of the best plot lines in crime fiction and one would never argue it belonged to anyone but Highsmith, despite the fact most people probably know the story from Hitchcock’s film rather than the book upon which it was based. The Silent Witness writers have done this before. I’ve noticed episodes which have resounded noticeably of Ruth Rendell’s psychological novels at their height, playing on their London setting perfectly.

I admit freely that I’ve done it myself. When plotting Dark Remedies, I wanted to create a kind of ‘locked room mystery’ to unfold. I immediately thought of Agatha Christie’s The Body in the Library. It had always fascinated me how Christie had deftly catalogued the impact of the discovery of an unidentified body of a woman in a house where no one knew who she was on the apparently innocent residents. I switched the concept to modern day Glasgow and transplanted the body of the girl into the swimming pool at the luxurious home of a TV celebrity.

My intention to use The Body in the Library was an affectionate one. I love the original. The concept is all I pilfered, the rest of the story and characters are entirely different. In this sense, I used the original work as an inspiration only, it was a springboard to a new mystery, with perhaps just the odd knowing reference to the old.

I like the idea of this. I enjoy it when I identify where my favourite modern writers have been influenced by those greats who came before. I’m sure none of us writers who’ve done it would claim to be equaling the work of masters like Christie and Highsmith. We are dothing our literary cap to them and celebrating how their greatest ideas can still live on in new ways.

Although, I prefer it when the act is performed openly. If a plot or concept is lifted but not attributed to their originator, I would feel very uncomfortable, despite the fact there is no legal requirement to do so. There is no intellectual property attached to ideas and concepts, only to passages taken verbatem.

I believe it’s perfectly okay for modern writers to give their own twist to a classic, but credit needs also to be given to the original.  Then it is the very best form of flattery a writer can give.

A Writer’s Little Pleasures

The RetroReview

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Having been inspired by one of those ‘mind, body and spirit’ miniature books about life’s little pleasures, it made me consider those tiny boosts that keep us writers going.

1. Quiet Time.
The kids are at school/your mum and dads/on a play date. You’ve cleared the inbox and are ready to devote several uninterrupted hours to the word processor. Bliss.

2. A great idea.
It can come at any time of the day, when at the shops or making dinner. You’ve been vaguely chewing over a tricky element in a plot line when suddenly a great idea strikes you. It seems to tie together perfectly with what you were trying to achieve. You can’t imagine where the inspiration came from but it has resolved your problem perfectly.

3. Getting a good review.
This may not happen everyday of the week and doesn’t necessarily have to be a written review on…

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