I am rapidly reaching the point where the plot of my third novel is lurching into its final phase.
This is the stage at which all the separate strands the writer has been weaving into the storyline, must be brought to their natural conclusion. My latest book begins with an unusual and uniquely earth-shattering event for the protagonists.
So, imagine my surprise when listening to the radio news on Saturday morning and hearing of an unnervingly similar misfortune befalling one of the interviewees. At first, I felt relieved. The event was by no means identical to the one described in my book and I felt immediately happy that it proved my plotline wasn’t overly far-fetched!
Then, later in the day, I began to feel a tad unsettled. All writers draw their inspiration from real life, it would odd if they didn’t. But we like to think that we add a little something special to the usual, run-of-the-mill breakfast news item.
When these off-the-wall events start to occur regularly out in the real world, we begin to worry that something more sinister might be at play – that by writing about it, we have introduced the idea into the universe and this has somehow made it enter into the realms of the possible.
This is superstitious nonsense, of course. Whatever weird and wonderful happenings us writers can come up with in our fevered brains, you can bet your life it has already occurred with bells on at some point in the history of the human race. There is no such thing as a truly original idea.
But it still made me shift about in my swivel chair a little uncomfortably on the following Monday morning, as I wrote a passage about my lead character discovering to her great horror that her daughter had been run over. I almost had to stop myself from writing it.
‘Don’t do it, you’re tempting fate,’ An inner voice was crying out at me.
I’m a rational person. An atheist and a pragmatist. Yet, I can still be lured into thinking that, just occasionally, life can imitate art. I know in my heart of hearts that tragic things happen all the time out there in the world and they don’t have anything to do with me. But those tiny coincidences in life do make you stop and question yourself every so often, and they can even make you believe, for a brief moment, that your power as a writer is far greater than it really is.
When trying to decide upon my favourite of all fictional detectives I was struck by the realisation that, after the most obvious candidates, there are actually fewer female ‘lead’ detectives in mystery fiction than I had at first imagined. Of course, we all think of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and perhaps Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym- who are both classic creations that withstand the test of time. However, my other favourite women sleuths tend to have originated on the small screen; such as Sarah Lund and Jane Tennison- although they remain masterfully penned personalities nonetheless. I also then considered some of my favourite detective writers and their characters. For example, P.D James and Ruth Rendell, who have both certainly created strong female sleuths in their many books are yet best known for their male leads- Adam Dalgleish and Chief Inspector Wexford. I must admit myself that I prefer the Dalgleish novels to those that feature Cordelia Gray, for instance. So this article was more of a challenge to write than I had at first thought, particularly when one considers that the traits we would traditionally apply to female characters seem to fit very well with the role of investigator. For example, we expect our fictional women to be intuitive and interested in people and what makes them tick. Yet male detectives still dominate the genre and even the great female mystery solvers- as you will note in my list below- operate as a ‘side-kick’ to a man. I have tried in my novels to make my female lead (Imogen Croft) the chief character in the book, although her husband does work alongside her and they solve cases as a team. But perhaps I have been influenced by my favourite lady detectives a little too much and have not been bold enough to allow Imogen to sleuth on her own- without a male counterpart. However, I do like the interplay between a husband and wife team of investigators and I enjoy the relationship that this creates (see numbers 3 and 5 of my list). In the end, your all time favourite lady detective is a very personal decision, but here is my top five- feel free to heartily disagree!
1. Jane Marple. (created by Dame Agatha Christie)
An amateur sleuth who needs little introduction. A completely unassuming old lady who possesses razer sharp intelligence. These mysteries are set predominantly in post-war Britain and Marple draws on her experience of the microcosm of human behaviour that she observes in the village of St Mary Mead to solve murder cases that have the police baffled. A creation of pure genius.
2. Nancy Drew. (first created in 1930 by Edward Stratermayer but more recently recognisable in the novels of Carolyn Keene)
The first ‘girl detective’, these novels and stories are a personal favourite of mine. Nancy is feisty and intelligent and has a wonderful group of girlfriends who all have something different to add to the investigation. I read these books from a very young age and spent a great deal of time searching for the next title in the series at my local library. Pure gold.
3. Harriet Vane. (Dorothy L. Sayers)
Harriet Vane appears in the Lord Peter Wimsey novels and in later books she becomes his wife. Although she is not the lead character in Sayers’ mystery stories she plays a pivotal role in the investigations. It takes an extremely strong and intelligent woman to ensnare the highly intellectual, confirmed bachelor Lord Peter and only Vane could do it.
4. Kay Scarpetta (Patricia Cornwell).
Dr Scarpetta is a Chief Medical Examiner who also solves crimes. She is an Italian American who makes great pasta as well as being a tough career woman and unmistakably the main character in this superlative series of books. Kay’s character changes and evolves over time but she never plays second fiddle to a man- something that perhaps American writers achieve better than us British do?
5. Tuppence Beresford (Agatha Christie)
Another Christie character, Tuppence solves mysteries alongside her husband, Tommy. This husband and wife team are very much equals and are touchingly supportive of eachother. This equality is interesting when you consider that these novels first appeared in the 1920s. I had to add Tuppence to my list as these novels were an inspiration for my fictional husband and wife sleuthers- Imogen and Hugh Croft.
That is my list- obviously there are plenty of great women sleuths that I have not mentioned here- so feel free to add some of your own.
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 to believe that writing is a kind of compulsion. For me anyway. I complete my books relatively quickly but they are not particularly short and they take up huge numbers of man-hours in their careful construction. But once I have started I find I really really need to finish. It isn’t as if I haven’t got anything else to do, oh no.
I have two young children and up until a couple of months ago a teaching career too. But that is just the way I write. The story feels as if it is forcing its way out of my brain and the characters are like petulant actors continually nagging me until they are given yet another scene to play out. I’m even starting to wonder if this whole book writing business is actually any good for me at all.
But then time will pass and I will lay my eyes upon that beautiful glossy paperback and marvel at people’s admiration and (hopefully) their praise. And, like a new mother with that gorgeous little bundle placed into their waiting arms, I will immediately decide that of course another must follow. The pain was all worth it in the end.
Perhaps next time I could give myself a little longer, though. I’m already telling myself the next one doesn’t have to come out for at least six months. But how I will feel when I actually get started is quite another matter and the compulsion might inevitably kick in.
There have been a number of great writers who could turn out books in super quick time. Agatha Christie and Josephine Tey, for example. For others it is a monumental task requiring immense preparation and years of writing and re-writing before the novel finally sees the light of day. The latter, I am starting to think, may be a healthier approach.
I left my career and took up book writing full-time; firstly because it was what I always dreamed of doing and secondly so that I would have greater flexibility to combine work and home-life. On the whole, the second objective I have achieved. However, once every few months my little darlings are going to have to accept that Mummy is not quite as switched on to the daily routine as she might normally be, and hey, after a while they’ll probably just get used to it, won’t they? Because my little ones also love to lay their hands on the pristine final product and to see their names set out in print within the first few pages. So, for as long as we all think it’s worthwhile, long may the compulsion continue.
I watched a wonderful drama on telly this week. The 7.39 by David Nichols. Although I very nearly didn’t. Why? Because I had read a review over the weekend, which said the ending was totally predictable and unimaginative. Luckily, I ignored it. Largely because I know how good a writer Nichols is and the actors in it were pretty impressive too.
As I watched the second half I began to suspect that the critic hadn’t actually seen the programme at all. To me, the story followed quite an unexpected path and I found the themes that were explored really quite original and thought provoking. The idea that when the protagonist’s wife found out about his affair and threatened to destroy his family life, he actually began to finally appreciate what he had and fundamentally changed the way he interacted with them, was an interesting one.
In fact, I thought all of the characters acted in ways that I hadn’t completely expected and the dialogue was excellent. Particularly when the mistress says, ‘I don’t think I’m a bad person.’ And the wife replies, ‘Well, bad people never do.’
There was a moral ambiguity to the tale which meant you could find some sympathy with all the characters involved. There wasn’t a two dimentional ‘baddie’ in the piece. Perhaps it was a little sentimental at times, but it was also honest and written in good humour. Nichols is also a great writer of comedy. This made me think, rightly as it turned out, that he was setting out to entertain and stimulate me as a viewer and not to upset and depress me.
I don’t think it would have mattered too much how the story had concluded. It was the journey that the characters took which was the driving force of the narrative (quite literally, as most of the affair took place on the train) We shouldn’t get overly hung up about a ‘shock’ or ‘unexpected’ ending, as all too often it comes at the expence of a well-rounded, believable and compelling story.