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Posts from the ‘Arts’ Category

The conservative streak of the psychological thriller

imageI’m not having a pop at psychological thrillers. I’ve written one myself and it remains one of my favourite genres. But as such, I’ve noticed a certain moral streak that runs through many of their narratives.

Last night I re-watched the 1990 film based on Scott Turow’s legal thriller, Presumed Innocent. It’s years since I first watched it, or read the book, which can arguably be described as a classic of the genre. So revisiting the story, I was struck by its parallel with modern psychological and crime novels in it’s central theme.

All great fiction has a moral message, the better stuff is just more subtle about it’s preoccupations. It occurred to me last night, that the moral message of many psychological thrillers is essentially a conservative one. We live in a modern society, where divorce is no longer shunned by polite society. Many children now grow up in  extended family units, with parents and step parents playing equal roles.

But in the psychological thriller genre, deciding to leave your family, or worse, setting out on an extra-marital affaIr, will inevitably result in cataclysmic consequences for both the perpetrator and their family. Call to mind the eighties film, Fatal Attraction, and you will get the general idea.

I suppose the subject matter is inevitable, given that psychological thrillers are often grounded in the domestic setting. Yet, it surprises me that in the last thirty years, when our society has evolved in so many ways, the suspense novel remains resolutely unchanged in its message. The family unit must be preserved, and preferably the first marriage, or chaos and violence will ensue.

Despite the shifts in modern lifestyles, I believe this essentially conservative warning still appeals. It must do, because the genre is more popular than ever. I can understand the allure of the message, we feel a sense of schadenfreude if we ourselves are safe in our own family unit, and are warned of the terrible danger which would befall us in succumbing to temptation. The readership are often women, perhaps reassured by the tales of disaster which exist outside of the ‘safe’, domestic sphere. If their husband were to stray, punishment would be harsh and complete, to him and his lover.

In saying this, a new strand of the psychological thriller has taken the morality of the domestic novel in a different direction. Recent releases, such as BA Paris’s Behind Closed Doors, have taken the issue of domestic abuse as their central theme. In these circumstances, a family unit can be broken, without the usual dire consequences.

Yet, the moral message remains a stark one. You can leave your spouse – but only if physical or emotional abuse is involved. If you’ve simply grown apart, or become attracted to someone else,  if you leave, you must pay a terrible price.

I’m sure that not every book in the genre follows this pattern, mine does not. But I’ve read enough in the last couple of years to indicate this moral message is as strong as it was thirty, or even a hundred years ago. Modern detective novels, particularly those that focus on police procedure, tend to reflect social change more effectively.

The psychological thriller seems slower to change its central message. Whether, as readers, we still require these moral tales to help maintain the family unit is the subject of a whole other debate.

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In a culture that exalts achievements, we need to recognise the hidden power of not-doing.

imageReading an article by comedian Lee Mack this afternoon, about his writing methods, proved to be a revelation to me. It wasn’t his habit of retreating to his shed each day, in order to pen his BBC sitcom that surprised me, it was his attitude to alcohol.

The child of publican parents, Lee Mack gave up alcohol himself a couple of years ago. His reason was not directly health related, he simply claimed to be tired of how our culture ‘shoves alcohol down people’s throats’. He feels so strongly about the issue that he fought against the sale of his show, Not Going Out, to the freeview channel, Dave, because of their alleged links to funding from beer companies.

This deadly serious stand made by Mack seemed unusual for a comic. If anyone has ever been to a comedy club, they will know they are drink-fuelled environments. One must assumes it takes a confident stand-up to perform to a stone-cold sober audience.

This makes Mack’s stance all the more impressive. He is an established name these days, no doubt having amassed a significant wealth from his tv appearances. However, to propound a view that could result in him being labelled a kill-joy or a preachy, Puritan type, is risky for someone in his profession.

His words struck a chord with me. I’ve not drunk alcohol myself since Christmas, and often give up for long periods. Like Mack, I don’t do this because I believe I drink too much, but because I’m uncomfortable with the relationship we have with alcohol in this country.

Since turning forty three years ago, I’ve become more aware of my mortality, I suppose. I drank socially in my twenties (when I was extremely sociable!) and my philosophy is that one shouldn’t push their luck. It can’t be a lifestyle that can be carried on indefinitely. It has also become all too apparent that my metabolism is on a downward  trajectory as I approach middle-age. The truth is that I’d rather give up the empty calories of a glass of wine of a night than have to diet!

But there are other considerations too. My parents were never big drinkers when I was young and I’d rather my children didn’t see me with a drink in my hand every evening. Despite what we know to be the damaging effects of  heavy drinking, it is still glamorised as an activity by popular culture. In novels and tv dramas, our most popular heroes and heroines often enjoy a drink, especially the female cops.

i am a crime writer myself and I have tried to buck the trend slightly with my lead detective, DCI Dani Bevan. She is uncomfortable with alcohol-culture in the police because of what happened to her mother (you’ll have to read the series to find out what!) I know that my fellow writers will claim that they are simply reflecting reality with their character’s actions. This is understandable in many respects, but perhaps as writers of popular fiction, music and television, we should see ourselves as part of creating the prevailing culture, not just reflecting it.

The older I get, the less I feel I’m missing out on a ‘big’ drinking night. To be honest, I find a night out with drunk people boring. Twenty years ago, a London bar or pub with my friends would have been the place I most wanted to be, but times change. I can’t handle hangovers, for a start.

So I found Mack’s view refreshing. In our social-media centred-culture, much of what we gain kudos for is related to what we do – holidays, theatre-trips, sporting achievements, and also what we consume – the food and drink. Perhaps we’ve lost touch with the value of not-doing. Of how our UK based holidays reduce our carbon footprint, and our avoidance of alcohol or caffeine might be of benefit to the perceptions of our children, in addition to reducing our impact on NHS services.

Like Mack, I run the risk of being boring and preachy with this view. I’m not a fitness fanatic and I think people should eat what they like, but I don’t think tobacco, drugs or alcohol should be glorified in our culture. Mack remains a very witty man and his writing is excellent. I’m sure he doesn’t mind how he is viewed personally, as long as his work speaks for itself.

And I believe there is a role for taking an ethical position in the creative arts, as there is in any other profession.

 

Reasons to be positive about 2018!

imageAs we approach the end of another year, it is inevitably a time for reflection. 2017 has proved a challenge for many. Whatever your political views, we are undoubtedly going through a period of uncertainty.

But over the last few days, I have been reminded of the reasons why we should be positive. For many years, I have compiled a Christmas quiz for family and friends. I hadn’t managed to do it for several seasons as my young children were demanding of my time and my duties had expanded to include the pressie wrapping and the food!

But this year, an unexpected fall of snow postponed our visiting plans and I found myself compiling the quiz to keep a pair of disappointed children happy. What I noticed, when planning the game, were certain notable differences from how it used to be. It was much more tricky to find obscure questions and images than it would have been five or ten years ago.

It abruptly occurred to me that this was because of the growth of instant news and the ubiquitous nature of social media. Personalities have become immediately recognisable, as their images populate our timelines on a daily basis. This includes political figures like Emmanuel Macron or David Davis, as well as Meghan Markle and Ariana Grande.

My signature quiz, once considered rather challenging, didn’t seem so difficult any longer. The realisation of this fact, I found heartening. When I looked back through the year, I viewed events with a more positive slant. We are undoubtedly better informed as a nation than we used to be.

Whatever the political climate, this is a good thing. It isn’t as easy to make false statements and get away with it. Facts are instantly checked and corrections go viral. This development makes it far harder for those with vested interest to block progress with misinformation. We can also influence the course of foreign policy by petitioning parliament in individual cases, such as raising the plight of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe in Iran and forcing Boris Johnson to meet with her husband and actively negotiate for her release. This would not have happened without social media pressurising the foreign secretary to act.

The new digital age has been of great benefit to me as a writer too. It is now possible to become a bestselling author without being represented by one of the great monoliths of the publishing world. This is good news for everyone. There is greater competition in pricing as a result and a wider range of voices heard.

So, there is plenty to feel positive about as we embark upon a new year. I know that developments in digital technology have their limitations, but the up sides are really exciting. We are all more knowledgable and more literate as a result of social media. It is a leveller, not a development that benefits only the elite. This can only be a good thing, as we enter the uncertain future.

Happy New Year!

 

Five years on

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Why having a plausible plot really matters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TV needs a new classification.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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!

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