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When someone off the telly favourites your tweet.

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I haven’t always been a confident user of that most fast paced platform of social media, Twitter. It’s taken me a little while, but I’m gradually getting into the swing of it. I use it primarily to discuss the books and television programmes that I have enjoyed and to let my readers know about new releases and special offers. What I have discovered to be one of the great perks of this medium, is that really quite frequently, somebody off the telly will respond to one of your tweets.
I’m sure this has happened to many other people. Nevertheless, I reserve the right to feel a little flutter of pleasure when it happens to me. This week, for some reason, I’ve had a particular flurry of celebrity ‘favouriting’; from producers and actors to reality TV contestants. For a stay at home mum of two, who happens to write crime novels, this isn’t bad going.
I’ve tried to analyse the reason for my recent Twitter success. The conclusions I’ve reached are pretty straightforward.
My tweets are generally supportive and positive. I’m usually only sharing my opinions about the stuff I enjoy and am enthusiastic about – and people like to be given praise. This concept goes without saying, surely? But actually, there’s so much negativity on Twitter that it would be easy to forget.
I believe that if you enjoy a book, tv drama or documentary then you should give it a good review somewhere, whether it’s on Amazon, Facebook or Twitter. This means that others will be encouraged to watch or read it too and the author or production team can provide more of the same. It’s a win win for the consumer.
If you do this regularly enough, you might also find yourself taking part in a pleasant little exchange with some person off the telly and believe me, it’s a bit of a thrill.

What’s wrong with a bit of bullying between friends?

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As a writer, I make it my business to take an interest in how people interact. If I can’t get the relationships correct in my books then my characters just won’t be plausible to the reader. So I wait with anticipation to see how Richard and James respond to the departure of Jeremy Clarkson as the lead presenter of Top Gear.
I’m not a great fan of the show but have watched pretty much every episode as a result of my son’s borderline obsession with the programme.
This has allowed me, over the years, to reach some kind of judgement on the dynamic between the threesome. Clarkson is most definitely Top Dog (perhaps this could be the title of the show he goes on to make with another channel? – Just a suggestion). Just who is next in the pecking order has varied over time. At first, Richard Hammond was very much Jeremy’s side-kick and Captain Slow was the bottom of the heap, cheerfully shouldering the insults of his fellow presenters. But as May has found his feet on the show and gained certain accolades for his work outside of Top Gear, the power balance between the three has gradually shifted, with Hammond now being the but of the majority of his colleague’s jokes.
The three presenters claim to be great mates. Indeed, James said yesterday that they come as a ‘package’. But Hammond has remained remarkably quiet over the whole ‘fracas’ episode. I will be fascinated to observe if they really do stick together over this.
My personal feeling is that friendships based upon bullying never run that deep. People may claim that the insults are purely ‘banter’ and intended only in affection. But this argument hasn’t ever convinced me. I’ve seen these sorts of groups in action many times and I’m always left with the sense that someone has been demeaned and belittled by the process.
Nobody likes having their appearance, habits, intelligence, choice of girlfriend/boyfriend ridiculed. If they insist that they do, it’s a lie. Trust me on this. They just want the group to accept them and feel it is the only way to gain access.
But the dynamic ends up being fragile. Bitterness seethes away just beneath the surface and one insult too many can lead to meltdown.
Often, these unhealthy relationships occur primarily in childhood and early adolescence. As soon as we gain the confidence of adulthood, we drift away from those who think it’s funny to bring us down. Perhaps Jeremy’s sacking from the BBC will mark this transition into maturity for the three men.
But then, maybe not.
We shall have to wait and see.

Is the front man (or woman) more important than the show?

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Don’t worry. This isn’t a blog about Jeremy Clarkson. Well, not directly, anyway.

The many twists and turns of the ‘Clarkson fracas’ debate has opened up the question of how important a single individual is to the success of a show. As a writer, I find this concept fascinating. It is almost like asking whether the Sherlock Holmes mysteries would have been as successful without the leading character (the answer to this being a very definite ‘no’ as Conan-Doyle was required to bring him back from the dead after an outcry from his readership).
But occasionally, a popular show, which would appear to utterly rely upon a certain acting star or lead character actually fares perfectly well without them. In my opinion, the appeal of Clarkson for most adults is that he does things that many of us would like to but aren’t allowed, such as driving sports cars or making politically incorrect comments without a care in the world. I’m sure that we’ve all wanted to land a right hook on somebody we work with. However, social convention and the laws of the land prevent us from doing so. I can understand why it appeals to many folk to see Clarkson do it for us. This time, though, the man has gone too far and in reality, it happened at just the right time.
This series of Top Gear had become a little tired and repetitive. The format is getting stale. What they really need is a new presenter to spice things up and create a new dynamic. Very thoughtfully, Jeremy has volunteered to fall on his sword and stand aside.
Personally, I think they’ll be absolutely fine without him. The joke was wearing off anyway. Which leads me to consider some examples of formats that have survived the loss of a supposedly ‘key’ character.

1. Silent Witness.
One of my favourite crime shows which I believe got even better after the departure of Amanda Burton in 2004. Sam Ryan was great, but Emilia Fox hit the ground running as forensic anthropologist Nikki Alexander, injecting a fantastic spark to the show with the sexual frisson between her and Harry Cunningham. And now that Harry and Leo have left, the series has undergone another transformation. It is pulling in more viewers than ever.

2. CSI.
Since first airing in 2000, this forensic crime show has been a worldwide success. But when William Peterson, who played the incredibly popular, Gill Grissom, decided to hang up his latex gloves in 2008, there were fears the show may not maintain its ratings. In fact, CSI still remains the most popular international dramatic series, with producer Jerry Bruckheimer realising that the format was a winner despite who was in the starring role. This led to the creation of a number of equally successful spin-offs.

3. The Story of Tracy Beaker.
Who knew that this long-running CBBC drama based on the books by Jacqueline Wilson could actually carry on without Tracy (played by Dani Harmer)? With a healthy injection of new characters whilst at the same time maintaining the spirit of the original series ‘The Dumping Ground’ was born, now being one of the most successful shows currently airing on children’s television.

4. Lewis/Endeavour
I have mixed feelings about this one. Inspector Morse was the programme that really got me into crime dramas in the first place. The plot, direction and performances were brilliant. For me, Lewis never quite got close to the original. The writing didn’t contain the same edginess and subtlety. It was all too pedestrian. But this new format was certainly popular with viewers and defied those critics who thought that the show could not go on without the late John Thaw.
Endeavour, on the other hand, could actually give its predecessor a run for its money. Shaun Evans is perfect as the young Morse. The scripts are tight and full of subtle nods to the issues of the times. There are complex clues derived from crosswords and a poignant musical score. As a companion piece to Inspector Morse, this outing comes the closest to matching its melancholy brilliance.

Along with the winners, there have been those experiments which failed. According to my parents, New Tricks has been on a steady decline since the original cast began to leave. The nail in the coffin being the departure of the wonderful Amanda Redman. Early 2000’s Sunday night Scottish drama Monarch of the Glen tried to limp on for a series or two after the main characters had moved on to pastures new. And arguably, The Archers has never been the same since Nigel fell off the roof.

So the answer is that a great show can survive the absence of a central character, but the programme needs to forge a brand new direction in order to achieve this transition and the writers will have to work extremely hard to make it a success.

I’m a writer. I refuse to be judged by my appearance.

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Having read an article by a Chicago Tribune journalist who was vilified by dozens of readers for having slightly unruly, curly hair, it got me thinking.

To be a novelist or a reporter in the written press used to be a fairly anonymous profession. You were judged upon your choice of words and not on the way you looked. But in this modern age of social media and technology, the world has become a much more visual place. All the handbooks tell me that my picture should adorn all of my online platforms, so that readers can relate to me and feel as if they know who I am. This is absolutely fair enough, I can see the logic and thankfully, I am in no way well known enough for people to feel that they have to knock me down a peg or two by criticising my appearance.

I suppose it would be very easy to use a false image to represent yourself. To do a kind of online ‘Banksy’, or the equivalent of a visual ‘nom de plume’. I’m not certain if such an approach would benefit a writer in their trade or not. But what I am sure of, is that I’ve not invited comment upon my appearance simply by using a photo to identify myself. Writing books has traditionally been a profession in which the stories should really speak for themselves. Are we seriously more likely to buy a thriller novel because the author looks dishy on the dust cover, or on their Amazon page? Maybe we would, but its part in the decision making process is so entirely subconscious that we aren’t even aware it has a bearing on our choices.

The possibility worries me, because where does that leave people with disabilities or facial disfigurements? Should their writing be judged on the way they appear on their Facebook or Twitter page?
The internet has opened up many new opportunities for writers, but our transformation into a more visual age has its downsides. The world can be a cruel and judgemental place at times. I just hope that by tying our image so closely to our work, us writers aren’t playing a role in perpetuating it.

The new addition to the Strictly family was truly inspirational.

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I couldn’t allow the week to draw to a close without paying tribute to the wonderful finale of The People’s Strictly on Wednesday night. This offshoot of the Strictly Come Dancing franchise followed the fortunes of six real-life heroes and heroines, who spent several weeks receiving the Strictly treatment. This short series, raising money for Comic Relief, has been a tear-jerker from start to finish. The stories of the contestants would melt the hardest heart; from the brave medic who lost his leg in Afghanistan to the mum of two boys with autism and aspergers who set up the largest school for autistic children in Britain.
Most moving of all, was the way in which they threw themselves into the Strictly experience, knowing what a chance of a lifetime they had been given. The resulting performances were at least as good as any you’d see in the celebrity Strictly final. The standard of dancing was incredibly high. In the end, it was Royal Marine Cassidy Little and his professional partner Natalie Lowe who were voted champions. Their paso doble was a tour-de-force, in which Cassidy’s determination to do the dance justice resulted in an electric performance of both power and subtlety.
However, using that careworn reality show cliche, all the contestants were winners, clearly enjoying every single moment of the experience.
I’m sure that this new baby of Strictly’s will not be a one-off. The end result was so successful that I’m sure they’ll produce another series. Just like Masterchef, we could find ourselves with a celebrity and a ‘people’s’ version of the show broadcast at different times during the year. These people’s lives were far more fascinating than that of a typical reality tv star and certainly deserved more screen time than they got on this outing.
First and foremost I am a crime drama fan, as regular readers of my blog will know, yet I threw over the first two episodes of DCI Banks for the People’s Strictly.
That should really say it all…

Are positive people always more likely to succeed?

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The catchphrase of last night’s episode of Mission Survive on ITV was: ‘positivity in adversity’. Bear Grylls drilled this point home to the poor band of contestants before they descended hundreds of feet into a subterranean system of caverns, somewhere in the Costa Rican jungle. Many of the tunnels were flooded and for much of the time the celebrities weren’t entirely sure if they were heading towards daylight or a dead end.
Despite the terrifying nature of the task, the group coped incredibly well. Emilia Fox suffered what one of their support crew described as a ‘total meltdown’, when she first descended into the cavern, but to her credit, the actress successfully recovered and continued to complete the task. Dame Kelly Holmes displayed a similar flash of weakness as she psyched herself up to cross a deep, rushing river, the Olympic medallist having a nascent fear of drowning.
Yet during the discussion led by Grylls at the end of the day, to decide who went home, the adventurer’s decision seemed to be based entirely upon how positive the competitors had remained throughout the expedition. Bear Grylls decided that Emilia Fox’s quietness under pressure was a sign of negativity.
His interpretation of her behaviour got me thinking. If I were to categorize my own personality, I would say that on balance, I was an introvert. I am a writer and publisher. In many ways I feel more comfortable with books than people – certainly large groups of people with dominant, competitive personalities. To Bear Grylls, no doubt, this would be deemed a weakness. My quietness and reticence would be interpreted as a lack of team spirit, perhaps.
I couldn’t help but feel that he’d got his assessment of Emilia wrong. In my experience, it is those who project a relentlessly positive image who are in fact glossing over their self-doubt. Often it is the quiet, contemplative one who possesses the nerves of steel. It is one of the reasons why job interviews often throw up the wrong candidates. Short-term positivity can hide a multitude of character flaws.
To be fair to Bear Grylls, in a jungle context he is probably right. The conditions can be so awful that a negative force within the camp could lead to a general malaise which might result in death. But we would do well not to take his survival mantras too far.
When I hear politicians complaining about their rivals running a ‘negative campaign’, they are often referring to the fact that an opponent is pointing out both sides of the argument – weighing up what might go wrong as opposed to blindly hoping a plan will turn out okay. I know which type of person I would rather have running the country.
I don’t think there’s much wrong in being temporarily miserable in the face of adversity. As long as an effort is then made to turn things around. I’m afraid that too much perkiness smacks to me of dishonesty, a trait I would find much less desirable in a colleague or team member.
Perhaps that’s the reason why we eventually evolved our way out of the jungle. Some negative person stopped leaping around being cheerful, sat quietly on a rock and devised ways of living in more hospitable conditions…

Is it really necessary to read a series in order?

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I am currently writing the third book in my DCI Dani Bevan series of detective novels. Before penning this latest instalment I’d just completed the sixth novel of my Imogen and Hugh Croft Mystery books. As I was tapping away on my laptop this afternoon, I spent a little while considering how the tone of a book can vary greatly from one story to the next. Even if the characters remain the same, their circumstances change and hopefully, they learn some lessons from each new case they solve. But things change for the author too. I tend to find that if I’ve just completed a very action packed novel, my next will be more contemplative, perhaps focussing on the personal lives of the protagonists to a greater degree.
Does this mean it is essential to follow a series religiously from start to finish? Actually, I don’t think so. Each book I write is intended to be self-contained. There are back-stories which play out across the books – particularly in the Imogen and Hugh Croft series. However, the mysteries themselves, particularly in my more recent novels, are intended to stand completely alone. I believe that reading books out of sequence would simply give the reader a different, but certainly not an inferior, experience. Although if you examine the sales statistics, people are much more likely to buy the first book in a series and start out from there. It’s only logical, I suppose.
The first book is the one we tend to remember, like ‘The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe’ or ‘Alice in Wonderland’. Perhaps somewhere in our collective consciousness we consider the sequel to always be somehow inferior. And yet for most writers, myself included, we get better at it the more books we churn out!
In an ideal world, I would like readers to start at the very beginning and follow my characters through all of their many myriad twists and turns. But I wouldn’t like to feel that someone felt required to work their way dutifully through a metaphorical pile of tomes. If a particular title or plot line grabs a reader’s fancy, I really don’t think it would diminish the experience to start there. The important thing is to enjoy the book. On this point I think that all authors would agree.

#TheBigPaintingChallenge – a lesson in how to demotivate women

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On the whole, I’m enjoying the BBC1 series The Big Painting Challenge. There are some excellent tips in these programmes for beginners wanting to attempt the different styles and disciplines of painting. However, viewing this competition has become something of a pantomime in our house in recent weeks. My children find the unnecessary harshness of the two expert judges to be hilarious. Especially as they seem to thoroughly detest the pictures that we all like the best. Obviously, we don’t really understand ‘serious’ art as they do.
But yesterday’s programme, falling as it did on International Women’s Day, was a little jarring. The female contestants, all bar one particularly feisty, more mature lady, have positively wilted under the strict tutelage of the judges. The men, on the other hand, are thriving on the tough feedback, ignoring what they think is unhelpful and soaking up the useful stuff.
I don’t want to fall into the trap of making generalisations about the way in which men and women operate. I happen to believe that our similarities far outweigh our differences. However, having worked as a teacher for over a decade, I can confidently assert that girls thrive under more gentle, constructive guidance. If your criticism is too sharp or not focussed enough then a female student will lose confidence in what they can do well and you can easily find them dropping behind even further.
‘Man up’, I imagine some viewers might say. It’s a competition and if you can’t take the heat, it’s the right thing for you to be eliminated. Well, there is some validity in that. But the contestants are learning from one week to the next and undoubtedly it will be the one who learns the most who comes out victorious. So perhaps the judges should vary their teaching style a little in order to create a level playing field – it’s only some paintings, not open heart surgery!
Perhaps the approach is deliberate, to encourage more male winners of these competitions. Although somehow, I don’t think the tone of the criticism is that conscious. But I do believe it teaches us some interesting lessons about how women operate in the workplace and the classroom. If you want to get the best of us, then make your criticism constructive and be sure to praise those elements we are getting right. After all, if you do get the best out of women, believe it or not, they can be a really tremendous asset.

When family ties really matter

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As a writer, I am always on the look out for ideas. It doesn’t have to be plot lines I’m searching for necessarily, but I find observing the way that people behave under certain conditions is very useful when creating new characters. It’s not usually my type of programme, but I’ve found the ITV series ‘Mission Survive’, in which survival enthusiast Bear Grylls puts a group of celebrities through their paces in a South American jungle strangely compelling.
My husband has been shooting me some odd sideways glances as I sit enthralled by the way in which this group of mainly typical urbanites deal with the pressures of the jungle. But I’m picking up some valuable insights into how people cope with the unknown. What has particularly struck me, is the way in which acting cousins Lawrence and Emilia Fox have formed a tight bond during the expedition. The group are pitted against one other in the tasks they are asked to perform, with Grylls choosing one person to leave after each episode. You can see how the celebrities are having their nerves frayed by the pressures caused by lack of food and sleep. They are sniping at one another in their exhaustion and don’t quite know who to trust.
Yet the Fox cousins remain united. Despite the frustrations and the perils of the unknown, they obviously are aware that they can rely upon the other one. When Lawrence Fox experienced a night of delirium brought on by low blood sugar and a fever, his cousin kept watch over him. The next day she threw her arms around him and comforted Lawrence, assuring him that he wasn’t ‘going mad’.
Only people who have grown up together – as friend or family member – can offer such reassurance and love. I found it very touching to see. I think that Emilia would have really struggled through this whole experience if Lawrence wasn’t there with her – even a very gentle rebuke from Bear Grylls had left the actress deeply upset. Don’t get me wrong – I wouldn’t last five minutes out there. But perhaps if I was experiencing the ordeal alongside a member of my family, I might just last that little bit longer.
Watching this relationship played out on screen has made me think. We don’t often find ourselves in situations like the ones inflicted upon the celebrities in Mission Survive. So the importance of family ties aren’t often put to the test in such a stark way. When I was ill recently, I found it very difficult to tell people what was wrong – even if my behaviour may have seemed a little odd during that period. However, there were certain family members and old friends who I was able to tell straight away – without any hesitation. I believe that the reason for this is that they’ve know me for so long that I’ve become a part of their pack. I feel comfortable enough that I’d not be rejected simply for displaying a temporary weakness.

I’m already thinking of ways in which I might bring this concept into a future novel or short story. For this reason, reality television can be a useful tool for the writer, although it’s no substitute for your own life experiences. The difference with Mission Survive, is that because of the severity of the conditions, the responses of the individuals involved are usually quite genuine. There is very little ‘playing to the camera’. So for us voyeuristic writers, it’s a perfect watch.

A day devoted entirely to pampering Mum. But which one are we referring to?

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In the UK we will be celebrating Mother’s Day next weekend. The cards and gift suggestions are already on display in the shops. I have always believed Mother’s Day to be the only genuine article, viewing other related festivals such as Father’s Day and even Sibling’s Day to be simply constructs of the greetings card industry. So I was surprised to discover that Mother’s Day itself is actually a fairly recent construct.
I always assumed that in Britain we celebrated ‘Mothering Sunday’, which is a Christian festival dating back to the 1600s and involves saying prayers in church to honour the virgin Mary. But according to my research, this festival died out in the 19th Century. The custom of adhering to Mother’s Day was only taken up again when American servicemen re-introduced the concept during World War Two. So, although in the UK we tend to celebrate Mother’s Day on the fourth Sunday in Lent, it is to the American tradition that we owe the revival of this annual festival to honour mums.
In the US, the custom was introduced by Anna Jarvis, who ran a campaign to have a date set in the calendar to honour all mums. Her own mother, Ann Jarvis, had been a prominent peace campaigner during the American Civil War. In 1908, Jarvis got her way, and Mother’s Day had begun. Now, more than 46 countries follow suit and the day most commonly falls in May around the world. Within a few years, however, Jarvis herself was complaining that the true meaning of Mother’s Day had been lost and replaced by blatant commercialism. Sadly, there has been no real change in this state of affairs in the decades since.

What has always perplexed me about the custom is that in order to properly honour the tradition of Mother’s Day we need to clarify a few things. I am a mum and will expect to get a card from my children to recognise the role I play in their lives (bought by Dad or made at school, of course). Then there is also my mum, for whom I shall purchase an appropriate card and gift. Then, there is my mother-in-law and I imagine that many mums will be required to buy cards and pressies or send flowers on behalf of their spouse (which I don’t have to do, I swiftly add).
Okay. Simple enough, yes? Well, not exactly, because in the absence of a grandparents day, my children usually want to send a card to my mum too, who they see regularly and has helped to bring them up. So, we will have a Gran card and a Mum card to deliver. Now, it’s becoming more complicated, and we don’t have yet another layer to add to the conundrum – the Great-Gran – or even the Great-Great-Gran – which many families are also blessed to possess.
Then comes the greatest puzzle of them all. How and where to spend the day. If we are truly honouring the mum of young children and babes-in-arms, I can promise you that she will want a day spent entirely on her own – at a spa hotel ideally – or possibly just sleeping undisturbed in her own bed. But mum’s of grown-up children will want to see the whole family – their lovely daughters included. That’s not even getting into the thorny issue of whether it’s the husband or the wife’s mother that you spend the day with. To be frank, the entire concept is a bit of a mine field.
Is there a solution? Much as I’m loathe to add another ‘day’ to the mix – perhaps a Grandparents Day wouldn’t go amiss, especially in modern times when our parents often provide the burden of childcare. It seems a bit mean not to honour this contribution. It would then be a lot easier to source a card with the appropriate terminology! And we could cut some of the commercialisation. I don’t require a gift. I love those cards with collages of daffodils and tulips made from tissue paper that get brought back from school. It’s all I need.
Let’s simplify the whole process, so that Mother’s Day doesn’t turn into a headache for those people its meant to honour and respect.

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