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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.

 

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.

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.

What should readers expect from a psychological thriller?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How important is an author’s name for the reader?

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This was a question that came up at the lunch table on Christmas Day of all times. I write mystery thrillers for adults. There are twelve books in two series altogether. For both of the series I use the same author name. I believe it’s important to do so, particularly when writers these days spend such a large amount of their time creating a positive ‘author brand’.

What raised the issue over Christmas lunch was that I am currently writing a story for my daughter, which may develop into a novel for the pre teens. My 10 year old is an avid reader and I’m constantly sourcing books and magazines for her. It suddenly struck me that I could write one for her myself, whilst she is so receptive to reading and actually wants me to do it.

So the story began its life. The genre is a departure for me, although a couple of my Imogen and Hugh Croft Mysteries would be catagorised as ‘cosy’ and could certainly be read by teenagers. I ripped through all the Agatha Christie books when I was 11 after all!

But then the question arose of what pen name I would use if I were to publish the children’s book. I’d certainly be reluctant to use the name I already do as the departure from the thriller genre would be too confusing, I think. We decided instead that I would probably use my maiden name. As a married woman, it is occasionally quite useful to possess two identities!

But the debate made us consider how important an author’s name is to their popularity as a writer. Obviously, the big name authors will build a loyal following and their name appearing on the cover will literally sell the book.

In addition to this, we all knew of certain people in our lives who would be reluctant to read a book written by a woman and vice versa. Look at the nineteenth century female writers who were forced to use a male pseudonym in order to be published; like the Brontes or Elizabeth Gaskell.

I initially chose to use my married name so that the people I already knew would easily be able to track down my work. The decision was no more complicated than that! But I know that these days a great deal of research goes into deciding what type of author name sells the best in different book categories. I suspect the decisions made by consumers are largely subconscious.

The majority of my favourite crime writers are female, but I couldn’t really tell you why. I also absolutely loved the books of the late Iain Banks so there is no prejudice involved!

I will be fascinated to discover how my children’s book fares with my new nom de plume. There will be no intention to deceive, simply to distinguish the piece from my adult work. But the experiment will be extremely interesting nonetheless.

Writing your Christmas cards is an art

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Whilst writing my Christmas cards this week, it suddenly struck me that there aren’t many opportunities these days for corresponding with another person by hand.

I rarely write letters any longer. As a teacher, I recall the days when our reports for students were penned by hand. I was quite disappointed when word processed programmes replaced pen and ink. I’ve always felt there was something infinitely more personal in the hand written comment.

Now, I write my books using Word and only rely upon notebooks for plotting and character profiles. So writing a card feels like something of a novelty.

Like most festive traditions, the Christmas card was first commercially produced in 1843, during the Victorian era. The custom has been flourishing ever since. In fact, I’m quite amazed it hasn’t been replaced by a digital alternative. The purchasing of the stamps, ensuring up to date addresses and depositing the envelopes in a local postbox seems reassuringly antiquated as a process.

My children spend a great deal of time perfecting their handwriting at school. I often wonder why so much attention is devoted to the art educationally. Within a few decades, there will surely be diminishing circumstances  in which writing by hand will be required.

Despite busy modern lives, I hope that the Christmas card tradition continues to live on. We may now be in contact with our friends and family on a daily bases through social media but to receive the card, hold it in your hands and run your finger along the indentations created by the script, the effect is far more profound. Long may it continue.

What future for formal photography?

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With the publishing of Kate Middleton’s photographs of baby Charlotte yesterday in the press, it raises some interesting questions about the future of formal photography.

Kate’s pictures are lovely, capturing moments that only a mum or dad could. So where does this leave the bank of official Royal photographers? A representative of the popular press was interviewed on the radio this morning. He stressed that the growth of amateur photography was a positive trend and should be accepted alongside the work of the professionals.

I found this discussion fascinating as I use both stock prints and my own shots in my publishing work. The growth of Facebook and Instagram has led to an explosion in informal, phone based images. Photography apps also mean that you can edit and professionalise your own shots cheaply and with ease.

I do this myself, partly because of the costs involved but mainly because I enjoy it. For my most recent DCI Dani Bevan novel I used a photograph of my daughter taken from behind, with her leaning against a balustrade overlooking an ornamental garden for the cover. When I had completed the edits and design it was almost unrecognisable from the original. I am a writer and editor by trade, so if I can manipulate a photograph so painlessly then anyone can do it.

So what on earth is the future for photographic studios? I think that in the world of fashion photography and within the glossy magazine culture there is a place for more formal spreads. And fashions change. The informal ‘selfie’ shot is in vogue right now, but it may not always be. There are certain times when I use stock photographs, happily shouldering the cost, because nothing else would do.

But perhaps the evolution of the school photograph is indicative of the future. Gone for our kids are the formal lines and forced smiles. In their place are relaxed groups of children, posed naturally and clearly enjoying themselves. Times have moved on. But do I always purchase these class photos? Actually, I don’t. The mantelpiece is already jammed full.

Also, I kind of think that I could take one just as good myself. And this probably sums up the problems which lie ahead for professional photography.

The next generation will be far more radical than us.

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The current popularity of Jeremy Corbyn amongst Labour party members raises some intriguing issues. I am observing the debates with a detached interest. For my generation of centre-left liberals, Corbyn strikes me as the blatantly unelectable candidate. However, I get a strange sense that times are changing. Don’t get me wrong, I think that Jeremy would seriously struggle to garner wide scale support in the country right now, but in ten or fifteen years time, we could be looking at an entirely new political landscape.
My sense is telling me, that the current government are radicalizing young Britons in a way that hasn’t happened since the 50s and 60s, the only other era in modern memory when opportunities were so cruelly limited for the upcoming generations.
Everyone is conservative (with a small ‘c’) when they are comfortable and have something to lose and opportunities to look forward to. Young people now have nothing but huge debt and a shrinking jobs market and soaring house prices to anticipate in the future.
As soon as this generation, punished the most by austerity, reaches the age at which they can vote, it will change everything. A ‘leftie’ leader like Corbyn may appear to reflect their needs far better than the smooth, soundbite delivering career politicians my age group are more comfortable with.
I don’t believe we can be complacent or dismissive of this type of shift. Look at what’s happened in my homeland of Scotland, not so very long ago the heartland of Labour, now entirely dominated by the SNP.
Cameron and Osborne are obviously not setting out to radicalize the youth of Britain. But this consequence will be the result of alienating young people and brutally curtailing their life chances and opportunities.
In the 80s and 90s, I received a first class state education and higher education without accruing any siginificant debt. If I hadn’t gone on to take my teacher training qualification as a mature student then I wouldn’t have needed a student loan at all. It’s hard to be angry and radical when you’ve been treated so well by society. I’m comfortable and privileged, despite not coming from a wealthy background. That is the experience that every citizen of a progressive society should have.
It provides benefits for the government too. We work hard and want to give something back. And we are, for the most part, agreeable and pliable.
I genuinely don’t know how the next generation will view their society. It will be different, for sure. They’re bound to be more angry and more politicized than I ever was. To them, a candidate like Corbyn may be the more natural choice. It will be fascinating to see how it pans out. For authors like myself, the challenge will be to understand and capture this shift in attitudes and reflect it accurately in our work.

Are we correct to set so much store by dressing ‘smartly’?

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So, despite being a world championship winner, Lewis Hamilton was refused entry to the royal box at Wimbledon for being too casually dressed. Gary Lineker described the action as ”England at its pompous worst”.
I’m inclined to agree, although the debacle did make me smile a little. My son and daughter will be required to wear ties as part of their primary school uniform come September. I’ll be buying them this week.
I suppose we’ve been lucky to avoid it for so long. But it’s going to be a wrench, especially after a lengthy summer break spent in nothing but t-shirts and swimsuits. My two children object even to the feel of the soft collar of a rugby top beneath their jumpers, let alone a stiff shirt with clip-on tie.
My offspring do not attend a private school, where such formality is more or less obligatory. But there is a new Headmaster at their state primary. He’s keen to place his mark on the institution and inculcate positive behaviour and habits amongst the pupils. Needless to say, the children already possess these characteristics. However, in these days of healthy competition and the need for strong social media profiles, the children’s good habits have to be more visible and obvious to the outside world.
I’m not a total liberal when it comes to this kind of thing. I like school uniforms because they remove the danger of children being viewed purely in terms of what clothing their parents can afford to buy for them. It creates a level playing field. My view, though, is that a less formal get-up is preferable. Sticking to burgundy tops and grey bottoms has worked very well for us up to now. If children are comfortable, warm and relaxed, they will learn better, is my humble view.
I wore no uniform in my own primary school. We weren’t required to wear uniform in the sixth form of my secondary school either. This practice would be unheard of in the modern day, but I loved it. When studying for ‘A’ Levels, when most of us had Saturday jobs and a bit of spare cash, we could express ourselves through our choice of clothing. This freedom of expression went hand-in-hand with choosing our own paths in life. We weren’t little school kids any more, forced to conform.
It surely couldn’t have done me any harm, could it? Clearly it has not, but I suspect that having been used to a relaxed dress code has perhaps made the concept of ‘power dressing’ one that I cannot seriously adhere to in adulthood. When I see the women on The Apprentice, tottering about in high heels and pencil skirts, in the assumption that this makes them perceived as better businesswomen it makes me inwardly sigh. In most modern industries, we are judged on our performance, not our dress code. I have been either a teacher or a writer for the majority of my career, neither jobs requiring super-smart outfits to be worn on a regular basis (although that doesn’t stop some people, I can assure you).
My husband has often complained that women have more flexibility in their choice of clothing than men. He always has to wear a suit and tie, even in the height of summer. But how long will this tradition survive? Richard Branson pours scorn on the concept and the IT and creative industries have always been notoriously ‘casual’ about staff attire.
Actually, I think the practice is getting more ingrained. It’s the fault of clever marketing, of course, jumbled up with old-fashioned traditions and an innate desire to belong to a particular institution or group. Uniforms are tribal, almost. Or am I making too much of it? My children will simply look smarter and more business-like in their ties and buttoned-up shirts, won’t they?
Hmm, I’m still not sold on the concept. When ties were brought into the uniform for girls when I was in the fifth year at school (they’d always been worn by the boys) we quickly adopted ways of making them more individual. The girls tried to make theirs as wide as possible and the boys as thin (a ‘peanut’). There will always be nonconformists.
The cynical side of me wonders why dress codes are still being enforced in the modern age. Why should we let anyone tell us what to wear – one of the most personal decisions a person can make? Does freedom of choice in clothing suggest some kind of breakdown of the social hierarchy? Would anarchy ensue? No, of course it wouldn’t, but there would be greater freedom to question. We would have more confidence in ourselves as individuals, less likely to act as part of the herd. This is what Richard Branson recognises. He wants his workforce to be unconstrained by such conventions. He wants them to be inventive and original, to be ‘better’ than the received wisdom.
I will still dress formally when the situation warrants it, but there is always that little part of me that wants to put on jeans and canvas shoes to attend a ‘black tie’ event. Mind you, I’d probably get turned away, just like Lewis Hamilton, then it might prove to be nothing but an empty gesture.

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