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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?

Bookish frustrations: The Book Snob

image As an author of crime thrillers and psychological mysteries I am no stranger to the book snob. Certainly in the traditional publishing world, there is a great deal of snobbery directed at the relative  value of the crime genre. It is undoubtedly popular, but is it proper literature?

Of course, I would say yes. Some of our most talented writers have produced work in this genre, from Stephen King to Susan Hill. And I really think that snobbery around crime is beginning to diminish, although I believe it still lingers in the genre of romance. In fact, if you are looking for modern takes on human relationships and the human psyche, they can be found in abundance in the very best of these books.

After a debate I had on Twitter last evening, when a Mumsnet thread had unleashed a stream of vitriol against Orchard Books’ Rainbow  Magic series, I was reminded of the dangers that book snobs can pose to the promotion of literacy. The Rainbow Magic series are fairy stories, fairly generic, very girly but highly popular first independent reads for 6-8 year olds. For a couple of years, my daughter devoured them. So imagine my surprise to find perfectly reputable educational sites calling for this series to become ‘land fill’.

Firstly, I’m uncomfortable with any rallying call for the destruction of books. To me, books are a symbol of freedom of expression and speech. Civilised, open nations, do not censor or destroy books, let alone perfectly harmless and inoffensive ones. The whole notion has unpalatable historical implications. Secondly, I cannot see anything wrong with the Daisy Meadows series. Yes, it’s repetitive, no they won’t be winning any literary prizes, but strangely enough, thousands of children adore the stories and the books have introduced them to a love of reading. Should we really impose our adult constructs of what is proper, worthwhile reading onto our children? Certainly not.

If my son wants to read the instructions to the washing machine I’ll be happy. If he tore his way through the Rainbow Magic series I’d be turning somersaults in the street. When a child develops a love of independent reading, they’ll whip through anything you give them. I know plenty of highly educated, intelligent friends who read all of their Mum/Gran’s Mills and Boon novels as an early reader. I read my Gran’s Georgette Heyers and Jean Plaidy’s. Then we move onto other stuff, it is part and parcel of the great process of becoming a literate adult, every stage has its own joys.

These days, book snobs tend to reside only in the editorial departments of ‘literary’ magazines and on the sofas of the more ‘selective’ book clubs; those who chose their titles by what they think they should be reading rather than what they actually want to.

Let’s not impose this snobbery on our children, because they don’t possess it until we foist it upon them. Kids read what they like, what they enjoy. To take away that freedom is a terrible act. Of course books need to be appropriate for the age range, that goes without saying, but children should be encouraged to read a broad range of books – fiction and non fiction. Just like us adults. Because I read crime and mystery, it doesn’t mean I can’t also read history books or the latest Booker Prize winner. Variety is the spice of life and the key to creating lifelong readers.

Please don’t encourage children to look down their noses at certain types of book, or make them feel inadequate for choosing to read something they enjoy rather than something we feel is more substantial or worthy. You’ll just put them off. Popular doesn’t always mean inferior. The classics are great and have their place, but the language can often be very antiquated and inaccessible to early readers. They’ll get there in their own time. Until then, let’s simply enjoy the wonderful variety of books and quality of authors we’ve got out there, because it’s truly tremendous. And we can only hope that the Book Snob will eventually become a dying breed.

 

Does your book need to fit into a defined genre to succeed?

The RetroReview

imageI’m throwing this out as a question, as I’m not sure of the answer yet myself. As all those who’ve published on Amazon or Smashwords or Apple ibooks will tell you, the category in which your book is placed is central to whether or not your target readership will be able to discover it. So, it’s very important to get it right. Having said that, it is possible to switch genres at any time, so it’s worth keeping a close eye on your sales to see if your book is shelved in the correct place.
My novels are mystery thrillers, but like all decent pieces of fiction, there is plenty other stuff going on in them too, like History, psychology, family drama and the odd dash of romance. My first novel, Aoife’s Chariot, does very well in the Scottish fiction section and is regularly in the top 100 kindle bestsellers…

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Is it really possible to own a concept?

imageThe news this week that Love Productions have accepted a lucrative offer from Channel 4 and will move The Great British Bake Off away from its home at the BBC has raised a number of questions for us creatives.

Clearly, the production company owns the intellectual property to the format of the show. Yet the announcement that presenters Mel and Sue will not be making the move along with it introduces some thorny issues. How much do the established presenting team bring to the table (pardon the pun) when considering the value of the concept?

We have already been required to make a judgment on this very question in relation to the massively popular car show Top Gear. The format belonged to the BBC, but when Clarkson, May and Hammond left en masse, what worth did the format still have? The latest series without them indicated that viewers remain undecided. I find this an interesting comparison, as there is far more to the concept of Top Gear (in my opinion) than there is to that of the Bake Off.

Can you really own the rights to the concept of a baking competition? Surely not. They’ve been taking place in tents on village greens up and down the country for hundreds of years. There would be nothing stopping the BBC from launching another baking programme along similar lines with the same presenters. As Jeremy Clarkson said after his dismissal from Top Gear last year, he would simply make another car show, there were plenty about.

But is it really as simple as that? The Bake Off is a huge and recognisable brand. From the music to the showstopper finale, the format will be tough to replicate well, even with Mel and Sue on board. If reports are correct, the concept of the technical challenge and the signature dish are worth up to £25m a year for a prospective broadcaster. Their pulling power for audiences and users of social media are perceived as so strong.

But I am fascinated by the idea that a concept can be owned in such a decisive way. As a novelist and indie publisher, I have always understood that ideas cannot be copyrighted. To prove plagiarism in the fiction genre, to steal a plot line or scenario wouldn’t be enough. Another writer would have to have lifted chunks of text word-for-word in order for you to claim a breach of your copyright. Fair or not, this is the way it works in books.

Perhaps in tv terms it is easier to protect your ideas. I don’t know enough about the intellectual property law to be able to say. All I know is that a book without its best characters loses a significant part of its appeal, even if the setting and storyline remain the same. I suspect that the Bake Off that so many of us have adored since its launch in 2010 will suffer a similar fate.

Do we dare to disappoint?

Exactly two years ago I was debating this question. Thank goodness I decided to write the Dani Bevan’s!!

The RetroReview

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I’ve just finished writing my fourth novel. It is currently in the editing phase and we are about to begin designing the dust jacket. It’s a satisfying and exciting time for a writer. To see the final product take shape and to hear people’s feedback is daunting, but at the same time exhilarating.
My books are part of a series. The same characters appear in all of the stories, although each novel will introduce a few more. I enjoy developing the personalities of my key protagonists and showing how their relationships have changed over time. However, as I was finishing this latest instalment, I decided that for my next project it might be the right moment to depart from the pattern. I felt that a stand alone novel would be challenging for me as a writer and provide an interesting diversion, so I set about plotting this new book and…

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What should readers expect from a psychological thriller?

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I’ve always been a fan of the psychological thriller genre. These are the titles I am drawn to when scanning through the shelves of bookshops or searching for books on Amazon. My favourite authors include Nicci French and Minette Walters, with current writers like Alex Marwood and Paula Hawkins providing my more recent reads.

So what makes a thriller ‘psychological’ in nature? I write mystery novels and police procedurals, but earlier this year, I added a psychological standalone thriller to my back catalogue. My sense of what placed ‘I Trust You’ apart from my other books was firstly, that the book had a predominantly domestic setting. Like Linwood Barclay’s early novels, the psychological thriller should explore events and scenarios that are immediately recognisable to the reader.

Many psychological thrillers begin with a missing person or a disintegrating relationship. The interplay between the characters is often slowly revealed, the body count and blood and guts left to a minimum. The tension is built instead through gradually unfolded secrets from the past – clues deeply woven into the development of character and situation.

Families are often the focal point of the psychological thriller. This is certainly the case in my latest novel. Dark secrets that span generations or suppressed domestic abuse are the archetypal fodder of the genre. But these seasoned topics are never hackneyed when explored by an author who can observe them from fresh angles and weave their domestic themes into original plot lines. Paradoxically for the crime/thriller genre, children tend to play a disproportionate role in the psychological thriller. Perhaps more than any other topic, as readers, we appear to have a fascination with the psychology of the child.

Psychological thrillers need to be character driven. The action may be sparing, so the lead players must be realistically drawn and their fate something we deeply care about. For me, the very best psychological mysteries reveal incisive observations of human nature. In many ways, Agatha Christie was one of the very best authors in this genre, particularly in her Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot series. What the amateur sleuth lacks in specialist knowledge, they more than make up for through their razor sharp psychological insight into what makes people tick.

Ruth Rendell, writing as Barbara Vine, was another master of the genre. Her characters seemed eerily like real people, leaping off the page and taking form in the imagination. I know that some readers avoid the genre of the psychological thriller because they feel these books are full of doom and gloom; the darker side of human nature always seems to prevail. I have some sympathy for this view. However, the best novels in this genre will certainly introduce the reader to the depths of the human condition, but will ultimately offer hope and resolution.

I believe that readers – and writers – of the mystery genre are first and foremost, interested in people. Psychological thrillers fulfill this remit perhaps most comprehensively, which I suspect is why they remain so popular.

Don’t keep them too busy, let their imagination flourish.

The RetroReview

imageThe long summer holidays are already upon us. It can be a magical time for kids, especially now that our hot and dry summers seem to have returned. But often it can be expensive too. I’ve been getting leaflets through the door about holiday clubs, activities and crash swimming courses for months. If I signed up to them all I could easily end up bankrupt. But I suspect my children would end up bankrupt too. For them, all this organised activity would lead to a sort of intellectual bankruptcy.

When talking to people about my books, one of the most common questions I am asked is ‘where do you get all your ideas from?’ Considering this enquiry carefully, I have put it down to two things. Firstly, I believe that storytelling is simply in my genes. My ancestors were the bards to the local lairds on the Isle of Arran…

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Middle class sport as an exalted gift to the masses is a sentimental myth.

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Watching ex-governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King on the Daily Politics today made me sigh. I respect King highly as a financial expert and believe he steered the country very competently through the storm of the recession. However, this is where his expertise should have remained.

King’s latest project is to introduce the sport of cricket to all state schools. Of course, many state schools already offer cricket as part of their sport curriculum, but in the case of this particular project, the focus seemed to be on inner city schools; institutions without perhaps the grounds and space available to offer a full range of sporting activities to pupils.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for sport in schools. It is great for  pupils’ physical and mental health, team-building etc. But what I object to is the eulogising rhetoric surrounding certain public school favourites, like rugby and cricket. It was obvious that Mervyn King had lovely memories of playing cricket at his own private school and has gone on to be a lifelong fan of the professional game. However, the skills and qualities he claims the sport nurtures in its players could be happily attributed to just about every other team sport you’d care to mention. His love of the game is clearly deeply personal and heartfelt but hardly more than sentimental conjecture.

I did not play cricket at school. My large Essex comprehensive specialised in football and rugby, both of which the pupils still play fixtures in alongside local private and state institutions. I played hockey and netball. Both perfectly enjoyable, if you like that sort of thing, but I would never claim the experience furnished me with characteristics which aided me in my future relationships or career, and I consider myself reasonably successful in both. Quite the contrary, my skills set was learnt in the classroom and at home. The suggestion that those who spent their youth on the cricket pitch or rugby field have somehow greater resilience, care for others or leadership skills than I myself possess makes me cross and in my personal experience is also quite wrong.

The misunderstanding inherent in the view of Mervyn King and his ilk, is that the state model nowadays robs the majority of children of the undisputed benefits of these more traditional sports. In reality, the state system has already moved ahead. My first experience of cricket was seeing a young classmate in primary school being carried away on a stretcher after being hit full in the face by a hard cricket ball. I’ll always remember the profusion of blood that spurted out of his shattered nose.

My daughter plays soft ball cricket with my husband, who is a fanatical fan of the game. She has a great deal of aptitude for bowling. But it would never cross either of our minds for her to join a club that uses a hard cricket ball. In this day and age, as parents, we simply don’t expose our children to unnecessary risks. We haven’t really done so as a wider society since the early eighties.

What King appeared to have failed to realise, is that state schools have introduced a raft of new sports over the last decade; such as dodgeball, tag rugby and kick rounders in primary schools particularly, which children highly enjoy and minimises the scientifically documented risks from repeated head injury, which doctors are only just beginning to fully understand.

In short, we shouldn’t have any part of our schools’ curriculum dictated by the sentimental reminiscences of retired men, who are harking back to the imagined golden days of their privileged childhoods. This approach would be deeply unscientific, based on anecdote and poorly recalled nostalgia which would have the result of stifling the development of new, exciting and more risk free sports that achieve the same results without endangering our children unnecessarily.

State schools are there to promote the greater good. They need to put the needs of the many ahead of the needs of the few whilst embracing their individualities and catering for all. They are quick to change with the times when medical and scientific evidence is overwhelming. This ethos is the legacy that my schooldays gave to me. In a few years from now, schools within the remit of the local authority will have universally adopted a sporting curriculum that has evolved away from the use of practices which routinely expose a child to injury. Because children don’t really have a choice about the clubs they attend as pre-teens or the prep schools their parents send them to. It is a culture introduced to them from birth. It’s all about what their siblings and peers are doing. How can an eight or nine year old defer? And what mummy and daddy did as a child isn’t always what’s best for our future generations, let alone gran or grandad.

Maybe I should try and instil the progressive spirit my comprehensive school gave to me into some of our more elite institutions, like Mervyn King has set out to do? Well, of course I wouldn’t, because that would be deeply patronising and superior of me. So why do our inner city comprehensives have to put up with it?

My advice would be to return to the area that is your expertise, Mervyn, and leave education to those who properly understand it and have a less sentimental perspective.

 

From page to performance: the creation of an audiobook

For a writer/publisher, used to working largely alone except for during the editing process, which compared to the novel writing itself, is a relatively small part of the job, handing over my book, Against a Dark Sky, to another producer who had the task of turning it into an audiobook, was daunting.

I had attempted to undertake the project myself, even going as far as to set up my own home studio. Because I produce my own promotional videos, I had assumed that audiobook production might be similarly achievable for a novice like myself. I was wrong. The technical aspect of the job was beyond me and the narration itself  requiring a real skill and talent.

I have been fortunate enough to have worked with the superb actor and voiceover artist, David Monteath. His voice was instantly recognisable to me and he had the expertise to bring the words of the first DCI Dani Bevan novel alive in a way I could never have done. David said himself that his job is purely to bring my story to a new genre, but I think it’s more than that. It is a strange thing to listen to your own words and characters given emotions and humour that the words alone cannot always convey.

This is the difference between a book and a performance. Both methods of storytelling are equally rich and enjoyable but have their own unique characteristics. My first audiobook will be available to download from Audible in due course, time will tell if we decide to repeat the process with the other six books in the series.

It has been an odd experience to hand the work over to someone else for a change. And it is an enormous amount of work to record a book onto audio. But in the meantime, I was able to complete my new book – a standalone psychological thriller called I Trust You. Collaboration has allowed me to get on with the stuff I’m good at and leave the technical tasks to the professionals. It seems like a perfect set up to me.

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It’s the school sports day season, but have #parents really got the stamina for it?

It’s that season again!

The RetroReview

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I feel compelled to write this blog after attending my children’s sports day today. It was a great event; well organised and thoroughly good-natured fun. This being said, I’m still utterly exhausted.
Why? Because firstly, there is the constant and ever changing conundrum of the British weather. We were drenched in a heavy downpour at 9am and remained slightly damp for the rest of the day (the children were sheltered under marquees I hasten to add). There was a brisk, chilly breeze that one wouldn’t usually choose to sit outside in for six continuous hours. For most of the time we were bloody freezing.
Yes, it was wonderful to see our little ones in their races, but I would estimate that this accounted for about 5% of the time taken for the total event.
We have a family picnic at lunchtime, which is undoubtedly the best bit of the whole…

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How many great thrillers are set during summer?

Getting prepared for the holiday season with this article from last year 🌞🍹🍍

The RetroReview

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The heatwave that we are enjoying in the UK right now has got me thinking. The weather is perfect for plonking yourself down in a sun lounger with a great book. As it happens, my latest DCI Dani Bevan novel, Dark As Night, is set during a rare Glasgow heatwave. But just how many other crime books take the summer months as their backdrop?
I must admit that the majority of my ten novels are set during autumn and winter. These ‘darker’ months just seem to lend themselves better to the creation of atmospheric tension and foreboding which goes hand-in-hand with the mystery genre.
In Dark As Night, the dramatic tension is built instead, by the close humidity and the climax of the story is precipitated by a sudden, violent storm. To make the atmosphere right, there have to be some dark clouds lurking on the horizon, ready to ruin…

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