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Posts from the ‘Arts’ Category

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.

 

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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.

 

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.

 

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.

News for the New Year

Aoife's_Chariot_Cover_for_Kindle  Ocasionally, moving forward can involve a nod to the past. As regular followers of my blog will know, with each new year I like to take on a new project. Last January, it was the completion of my first children’s book.

For 2017, I will be revisiting my first ever novel, Aoife’s Chariot, which started the Imogen and Hugh Croft Mysteries series, but was a standalone novel in itself. For a while now, I have been considering how Aoife’s Chariot could be transferred to the screen.

The very first of my books seems to lend itself perfectly to visual media as the landscape plays such a crucial role in the story. I can picture the scenes and the characters as if they were already made flesh.

Screenwriting is a complex skill. I don’t imagine that it will be the same as writing novels. I’ve already been looking into the techniques involved and noting the process. It will be a project of trial and error. Certainly a challenge, but one I’m looking forward to. We need to keep learning new skills and I’m relishing the thought of revisiting an old favourite; written when I had no idea if there would be an audience for it, but being committed to the strength of the story nonetheless.

I shall keep you updated with how the process is going. It may be that I need to bring in outside expertise, as I did with the audiobooks of Against a Dark Sky and On a Dark Sea. But finding out is all part of the fun, isn’t it?

The books I wrote in 2016

As a review of the year, this seemed the most obvious place to start. It’s nearly Christmas Day and time for reflection upon the year passed. It was a significant one for the world in general and in that context, not a great one.

But our own personal experiences tend to take precedence in our memories. For me, 2016 was a decent year. It was a challenge –  with our daughter sitting SATs exams and going up to secondary school, but these events bookended a gloriously hot summer; where our visits to the nearby east coast were reminiscent of the sweltering heat of the Mediterranean.

In terms of writing, it has also been a good one. I’ve not replicated the prolific production of 2014/15, but I feel that the four books I published this year have been amongst my best. I wrote a standalone psychological thriller in the Spring which I have wanted to do since the start of my writing career. I suppose to prove I could produce a novel outside of the serial format.

Yet, my DCI Dani Bevan series continued, with Hold Hands in the Dark and Dark Remedies being released at the start and end of the year respectively, which saw Dani dealt a series of tough blows in her personal life.

Imogen and Hugh Croft were not left out this year either. I produced an anthology of short stories in March which was inspired by the short stories of Agatha Christie. I wanted each tale to be an intricate puzzle in itself, where the reader could pit their wits against Imogen to solve the clues. As always, the Imogen and Hugh instalments have a hint of the golden age of crime to them, although solidly set in the modern age.

A completely new departure for me this year was the conversion of the first two Dani Bevan novels into Audiobook format. It was the first time I had worked with a third party and the experience was a revelation to me. David Monteath provided the voice over to the text of these books and captured the atmosphere perfectly, bringing the stories and characters to life. I hope this will be the start of a long new chapter for the Dani Bevan series.

I have the next book plotted and part of the research done. This will be the project that starts 2017, which I hope will be a creative and prosperous one for us all!!

Wishing you a very Merry Christmas!

When a character just won’t let you go.

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I’ve been considering this a lot recently. I’ve just completed book 8 in my DCI Dani Bevan series and with each new instalment I have to decide if it will be her last.

So I’m always fascinated when I hear other writers discussing the right time to end a long-running series, particularly a popular one with readers. I was impressed to read recently that despite its incredible success, Sally Wainwright will only pen one further series of Happy Valley. And even then, she won’t be releasing the script for some time, as she wants one of the characters to be older, as it fits with the way she feels the story is going.

Wainwright did much the same with popular ITV drama series Scott and Bailey, which was wound up in its fourth instalment earlier this year. With television production being so risk averse, this is a bold move for a scriptwriter. But Wainwright appears to remain true to the story and to the integrity of her writing.

Watching BBC2’s excellent documentary about the life of novelist Sue Townsend last night on catch-up, highlighted for me a situation that was quite the reverse. It seems that Townsend’s most popular character, Adrian Mole, whose Diary of 1980, gave the writer her first real break, proved reluctant to let his creator go.

After The Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3/4 came its follow-up, The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole. What I hadn’t realised was that Townsend had written a number of later books exploring Adrian’s life. She commented in interviews that every few years Mole’s voice would begin to speak to her again and she knew he had more to say to the world. This would trigger a new book.

I found this concept intriguing and also recognisable. Sometimes your characters do feel as if they have more to share. A few months after completing a book, you will hear that inner voice nagging at you once again. A new story will inevitably follow.

I wondered how many other authors experienced a similar phenomenon. I make no secret of believing that literary characters take on a life of their own and almost appear to ‘write themselves’ at certain stages of the novel production process.

Sue Townsend’s extraordinary life had many fascinating aspects to interest both writers and readers alike. It turned out that Townsend had witnessed a notorious murder when she was only 8 years old. She claimed this had forced her to ‘turn in on herself’ and escape into a world of fiction. Townsend suggested that many authors had been driven to pursue an active inner life because of a similar trauma in their lives. I wonder if that’s true.

I think the undisputed success of serialised novels indicates that very often for a reader and a writer, a character or set of characters refuses to let us go.

When should we finally say goodbye? There are no easy answers. In Sue Townsend’s case, she clearly never did.

Does second born always mean second place?

imageWe enjoy a bit of quizzing in our house. Monday evenings are a favourite, with University Challenge on BBC2 followed by Only Connect. It remains unspoken, but my husband and I enjoy some friendly rivalry during these shows, privately noting which one of us has faired the best after each episode.

My husband tends to dominate when it comes to straightforward general knowledge test, University Challenge, whereas I inch ahead with my contributions during lateral thinking and wordy puzzler, Only Connect. Recognising this little battle we take part in each week made me consider the way we approach competition in our household. I don’t believe we are hugely competitive as a family, largely because we aren’t particularly interested in competitive sport. But when it comes to brain games, it’s a different matter.

Which made me consider my own childhood. I am a younger child, the second of two daughters. My older sister was very gifted at Maths and Science from a young age. I was more of a dreamer, happy to be out on my bike than indoors reading a book. So when it came to family board games and quizzing, I simply got used to losing. I would lose at Monopoly, Whist and Scrabble on a regular basis.

I don’t recall it bothering me much. I learnt to enjoy the process of the game rather than the outcome. I suppose as we got older and the age gap becomes less of an issue, I must have started to win more, but I don’t recall it. By then, I wouldn’t much have cared. I’d lost my urge to be competitive.

I can see the same scenario emerging with my own children. My son is nearly three years younger than my daughter and I have witnessed his frustration on many occasions when he struggles to compete at Upwords or Pictionary. There are times when it’s quite heartbreaking to witness your second or third born struggle to achieve the same standard as their sibling – consigned to catch-up simply because of their position on the development scale. But does this natural pecking order have to continue into later life?

Of course not. I would tentatively say now that my sister and I are pretty evenly matched in the general knowledge stakes. Even my son is starting to creep up on his big sister in terms of drawing and word skills. But a certain legacy remains. My husband expects to win. He is an older sibling with a three and a half year gap between him and his younger brother. According to my mother-in-law, he was a terrible loser as a child.

By contrast, I’m still quite happy to lose. If we are playing a family game (usually bowling, at which I’m patchy at best), I’m comfortable to let the kids win, giving them extra goes if necessary. But my husband won’t drop his standard to let the kids get ahead. I think this is good. Children have to learn to lose and not have everything rigged in their favour, otherwise life will come as a terrible shock to them.

But I’m fascinated by the legacy created by a childhood of coming last and whether it is simply inevitable for a younger sibling during a large part of their youth. I think this inevitable inequality is a very good reason for siblings to adopt different interests and specialisms. For my sister it was Maths and tech and for me it has been History and English. This helps reduce comparison. But when it comes down to pure competitive spirit, I believe mine is muted and that this may very well be a younger child syndrome.

Whether this holds us back in life, I’m really not sure. Sometimes slow and steady wins the race. Those sitting back and waiting to catch up with their siblings/peers may well develop other crucial skills in the meantime, such as greater patience and humility. Although, no one likes to keep losing so it’s worth finding an area you can excel at, given time and practice. For now, we will keep on quizzing and soon enough our children will be beating us hands down. So let’s just hope we can take it with good grace.

 

 

 

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.

 

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