I'm delighted to announce that my short play, 'Soul Portrait', will be performed at the INK 2020 Festival in Halesworth.
The festival runs from 17th to 19th April and features plays from both new and established writers including Miranda Hart, Will Gompertz, Elliot Cowan and Luke Wright.
'Soul Portrait' is set in Victorian London, where John photographs the dead for a living. When he's called in to photograph Mary, he realises he knows her, and the two reminisce over a relationship they once enjoyed.
Tickets for INK 2020 can be purchased here.
When I brew a new book, I always spend lots of time with the characters, getting to know them and working out what makes them tick. However, sometimes characters simply appear of their own accord, marching onto the pages and demanding a role that I didn’t plan for them. This happened when I was writing Paternoster, and I ended up not only with a character who had a significant role in that story, but who has insisted on being a part of every other Eden Grey novel. When people read Paternoster, they’re often amazed to find I didn’t plan Lisa Greene from the beginning. She seems to be such an integral part of the story that people say, “But you must have planned her.” I didn’t. This is what happened.
I write out a record card for every scene in a new book and a record card for every character. On the scene cards, I write whose point of view it’s to be in, the hook, the pace and tone, and any snatches of dialogue or description that I want to include. This method helps me to keep (sort-of) on track without it being planned so meticulously there’s no adventure in writing it. It leaves enough space for surprises and new directions, and Lisa took advantage of that space. For a start, there’s no character card for her. Not even simply her name on a blank card. Secondly, the scene in which she first appears doesn’t have a card, either.
My plan was to have a short scene in which an unnamed forensic anthropologist takes a look at the skeletons that have been found, gives a short report on the state of the bones and what killed the victims. She was unnamed because she was never going to appear again and there’s a rule in writing that if you name a character, you have to do something with them. Give a character a name and readers latch on to them and wait for them to reappear or be relevant in some way to the plot. I planned a scene that was short and factual, just there to drop a couple of clues.
Lisa had other ideas. Sometimes when I’m writing, I’m simply recording what I can see and hear; it doesn’t feel as though I’m consciously making anything up. One moment I was writing about the skeletons laid out on gurneys and Lisa was giving her professional opinion, next thing she was flirting like mad and it was obvious there was history between her and Aidan. I carried on writing, mentally crying out, “What’s going on? Do you two know each other?” It became apparent that they did know each other. Very well indeed.
By this stage I felt as though I was scampering to keep up. Lisa had hijacked the scene and was demanding her own subplot. Now I had two noisy characters on my hands: Aidan, who frankly never shuts up and routinely has to be threatened with heights, enclosed spaces or being turned ginger in order to get some peace; and Lisa, a person who always gets her own way. She’s rude, opinionated, and sharp; an absolute delight to write. Whenever I put the two of them onstage together, I don’t have to think; they just start sparring.
This was all a huge amount of fun, but each character has to have a purpose. For Lisa, throughout the three Eden Grey books (Paternoster, Holy Blood and the forthcoming Devil’s Chimney), her role is to cast doubt on Aidan’s relationship with Eden. It’s Lisa who asks where Eden grew up, where she went to university, if she has siblings, why she became a private investigator: all questions that Aidan can’t answer and that cause him to wonder why he knows so little about Eden. His jealousy primed, ultimately he goes in search of answers. For the protagonist Eden, it serves to underline her isolation and how vulnerable she is that she cannot reveal her true identity, even to those closest to her.
Sometimes I wonder what’s next for Lisa. It’s great to write a character who is single minded and ruthless, and I toy with the idea of creating a story where she’s the protagonist. Being centre stage, all eyes on her, the heroine of her own story. She’d like that.
Paternoster has been re-issued and is available for pre-order here. The new edition will be published on 16th December 2019.
In an earlier post , I wrote about the difficulties of coming up with a character’s name and how I struggled to find the right name for Eden. What I didn’t discuss in that post is why Eden’s surname is ‘Grey’ and not ‘Gray’, especially as ‘Gray’ is the more common form of the surname. The answer is way back in the past.
When I was a teenager, I attended an all girls’ high school in Lincolnshire. Looking back, I realise it was a very old-fashioned school. We had a strict uniform, our skirts had to be a precise length and our coats a specific shade of blue, the girls were referred to as ‘our gels’ in a faux-gentile accent, and there were very strict rules on how we had to behave, not only at school, but outside school, too. Many of these rules related to not fraternising with the boys from the grammar school next door to ours. Rather tricky, considering many of the pupils lived in surrounding villages and shared buses with the boys every single day to get to and from school.
One of the teachers at the school was a Miss Jean Brodie type. Highly charismatic but a dreadful snob. She spoke in an affected way and acted as though she was a teacher at the most prestigious boarding school you could imagine, rather than at a small state school. I think occasionally she came to her senses and realised what an ordinary bunch we were, and desperately she berated us for holding our knives and forks incorrectly or using phrases such as ‘And that,’ and ‘Y’know.’
In one lesson on Tudor history, she was teaching us about Henry VIII and his umpteen wives. When we got to Jane Grey, she fixed us with a beady stare and said, “That’s Grey with an EY not Gray with an AY.” Her gaze swept the classroom and in a tone of immense superiority, she informed us, “You’ll never know any EY Greys. You’ll only ever know AY Grays.” In other words, you 'orrible lot will never mix with the aristocracy, and the implication that she hung out with EY Greys all the time.
The dreadful snobbery of this comment stuck with me, and when I was hunting around for Eden’s name and hit on Eden Grey, I knew instantly that she had to be an EY Grey, not an AY Gray. For starters, there’s a lovely symmetry to that run of Es. Secondly, and more importantly, I like to think of that snobby teacher and her pronouncement that us girls would never be good enough to know any EY Greys. And I think to myself, “If I want an EY Grey, I’ll have one. So stick that up your jumper!”
Paternoster has been re-issued and is available for pre-order here. The new edition will be published on 16th December 2019.
Here’s a ghost story that happened to me. Or is it? The thing with ‘real’ ghost stories is that they rarely match the narrative of fictional ghosts; they’re more likely to be along the lines of, ‘I don’t know whether this is anything, but there was this one time …’ True ghost stories have explanations yet defy explanation; they don’t end neatly; most times you’re not sure whether it is a ghost story or not. Anyway, here’s mine.
I grew up in a small Lincolnshire town. Our house was a late Victorian townhouse, long and narrow. From outside it looked very small, but when you went in you realised it went up and up and back and back. It had high ceilings and heavy plaster mouldings, the ceiling roses blurry with layer after layer of paint. I should point out that the house didn’t have a creepy atmosphere at all. It was light and warm and welcoming, but odd things happened. A cat would rub round the backs of your legs, and when you bent to stroke it, there was no cat there. Cats jumped on the beds, and again weren’t there. All of us in my family experienced these things, and all of us discounted them as tricks of the mind. We had two cats in the house and assumed that we’d imagined them jumping up or rubbing round. It was only much, much later that we found out we were all experiencing exactly the same tricks of the mind.
One day, as I walked across the landing, I happened to glance down into the hall. At the bottom of the stairs was an elderly woman wearing a brown coat and hat. When I glanced again, she was gone. I was not at all frightened when I saw her; I assumed she was someone who’d come to visit my parents. When she disappeared, I put it down to my eyes playing tricks.
I forgot about the old lady in brown until one Christmas Eve when my family was invited round to drink sherry with our next door neighbours. It was quite boring as a child to sit there sipping orange squash and listening to the grown-ups talking about whatever tedious things grown-ups talk about. Then our neighbour suddenly said, “I was sorting through some old photos the other day and found something I think you’ll like.”
He fetched a packet of old black and white photographs, explaining that about thirty years before, long before my family had moved into our house, a lorry had got stuck under a railway bridge in the town, and he had gone out to photograph it. He had a few snaps left, and just to finish off the film, he’d photographed the outside of our house. There in an upstairs window was a cat - our cat, Timmy, photographed twenty-five years before we’d moved there.
This strange coincidence sparked discussion of other strange things and one by one we related how we’d all felt cats rubbing round our legs and jumping on the beds, when no cat was there.
My dad added, “Talking of strange things, the other day I saw a woman come through our front gate and up the path to the front door. I got up to open the door before she rang the bell, and there was no one there, but I was convinced I’d seen her.”
“What did she look like?” I asked.
“She was an old lady, in a brown coat and hat.”
Was this a ghost, or had both of us experienced the same trick of the light? And how to explain the photograph of our cat, taken years and years before we lived in that house?
To me, the mystery isn’t in the invisible cats, the time travelling cat, or the woman in brown; it’s in the house itself. You see, I told you a lie at the beginning of this piece, when I said the house was warm and light and welcoming, and not at all creepy. At the time, it was warm and welcoming, but for the past thirty years I’ve had dreams about that house, and every time I do, I wake up screaming.
How many times do you find yourself reading a book and wishing that you could step into the story? Now you can! I’m delighted to announce that for the past couple of months I’ve been working with Escape Rooms Cheltenham to create an escape room based on my crime novel, Paternoster.
Escape rooms throw a group of friends, family or colleagues into a scenario where they’re locked in a room, and have to solve a series of puzzles in order to escape. They’re popular for birthday parties, hen parties, and team-building activities for work colleagues.
The Paternoster escape room explores a dark and dangerous past lurking beneath the genteel exterior of Cheltenham - a past with tentacles that reach into the present. Sleuths taking part in the escape room are presented with the cases of a kidnapped schoolgirl, a murdered secretary, and a businessman who utters 'paternoster' with his dying breath. They have an hour to uncover what links them all or they too will fall foul of Cheltenham's murky secrets.
Participants have to solve a series of ingenious puzzles in order to escape. The challenges are all different and test participants’ powers of observation, problem solving, team working and concentration.
The Paternoster Escape Room will be open until 21st December, 2019 and bookings are available at: https://escaperoomscheltenham.co.uk/blog/room/21st-september-21st-december/
Very excitingly I’m also able to announce that Paternoster will shortly be re-issued by Sapere Books. I’m so pleased to be working with Sapere – they’re a great team and wonderful to work with.
Here’s a sneak preview of the new cover. I love how brooding it is – getting the reader in the mood for the story to come. I showed it to a friend of mine, who said it hinted at ‘dark goings on’. I’m happy with that!
A question I’m often asked when I give talks about my writing, is ‘Don’t you feel guilty about teaching people how to commit murder?’ My short answer is, ‘No.’ Here’s my long answer.
I’m not in the business of teaching people how to commit crimes, but to explore what drives people to commit the ultimate act and how that affects both the culprit and the people around them. I’m much more interested in why dunnit than who dunnit; more interested in the psychology around crime than in the specifics of the crime itself.
The joy of a crime novel is breaking society and putting it back together again. There has to be something at stake for the reader to care about, so that they get a big emotional payoff when the wrong is righted. Murder is a big stake. We might not care so much about someone parking on a double yellow line, but we really care about a life being taken. We crave retribution and through it, restoration of the proper order in society. For me, it’s important to show the horror of murder, not to glamorise it but to show exactly what’s at stake. Murder isn’t cosy, it isn’t a jolly jape: it’s the deliberate taking of someone’s life. I show enough of the crime scene to let the impact of it sink in, but no more, and if I can, I reflect the horror through a character’s reaction to it.
When it comes to describing the act of murder itself, most of the time I don’t do so: I give an idea of what’s about to happen, and pull away. I don’t like to read the details of torture and murder and so I don’t write them. Many of the murders in my novels are bloodless, and if you’re looking for details about poisoning, I don’t go into the specifics of dosages. Any would-be murderer reading my books to get step-by-step instructions would feel like someone putting together flat-pack furniture only to find a side panel and three screws missing.
For that matter, who reads crime novels to find out how to commit murder? The vast majority of people who read crime do so because they want to solve the puzzle. They care about restoring society to normal rather than tearing it apart. Dare I say it (because I haven’t actually met any) most murderers either act on impulse, or if they’re planning a murder, they use the internet to research what they want to know.
So where do I get my information? I use books on forensics, true crime and toxicology when I’m researching a new book. Once I wanted to poison a character with mistletoe, but my Big Book of Poisons for Writers informed me that you’d have to eat a huge quantity of mistletoe for it to be fatal. I researched further and found a poison that was fatal, and used that in my novel instead. Getting details right is important, because if I’d used mistletoe anyway, someone would have written to tell me I'd got it wrong. I try to navigate that fine line between giving enough details to lend authenticity, but steering away from specifics that would revolt. Interestingly, I spend much more time researching the historical details in my novels than I do researching poisons, post mortems, forensics or toxicology.
Having said all this about murder, one thing I'm very cautious about is discussing suicide. If a character dies by suicide, I very carefully avoid giving details. This is because I’m concerned that details could be remembered, and if someone was feeling desperate, these details could help them to take an irrevocable step. I read a book a few years ago (title and author sadly lost in the mists of my memory) where a character looks upon a suicide victim and simply remarks, “I had heard that it was possible to die that way.” No other details were given. I liked both the compassion and the way a veil was drawn over specifics, and I’ve tried to do similarly in my own writing.
Despite my assertions that I don't teach people how to commit murder, at the end of each talk there’s always someone who sidles up to me to ask a question. Typically it goes like this, “Hypothetically, if you had a man aged around 50, weight around 13 stone, and you wanted to kill him using arsenic, how much would you need to put in his morning porridge and would two spoons of sugar cover up the taste?”
The weather forecast is talking about the warmest Easter on record, the news is full of people sunning themselves on British beaches, and the smell of charred meat hangs in the air as barbecues are dusted off and lit for the first time in months. And me? I’m playing Christmas jingles and thinking about tinsel, icy pavements and turkey leftovers. Yes, I’m writing a seasonal story.
The time-lag involved in publishing means that a story with a seasonal flavour has to be submitted six months before. My story has a May deadline, hence my writing about Christmas whilst nibbling on an Easter egg.
The story is for a collection of Christmas stories featuring fictional detectives, and I’m writing a story featuring my PI sleuth, Eden Grey. The story must be set at Christmas and have a Christmas theme. For a long time I simply dragged my mind back to Christmas and compiled a list of things that are typically Christmassy: office parties, buying presents, houses smothered with lights, food, drink, family. Eventually I came up with a theme I could work into a detective story, and that allowed Eden to do all the things she’s good at: surveillance, breaking and entering, and getting into a fight.
Once I’d got the plot, I needed to feel more Christmassy, in the hopes that those sensations would translate onto the page. Here’s how I did it:
1. Playing Christmas music
The neighbours thought I was bonkers, but playing Christmas tunes helped me to think about Christmas and to remember how that time of year feels. Sound, like smell, is wired into memory. Certain songs evoke specific places, people, and events. Even decades later, a certain song will remind me of a school trip to Norway. Writing to a background of ‘Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer’ helped me get into the Christmassy swing.
2. Remembrance of Christmas past
Confession time. I don’t like Christmas much. For me it means other people’s stress, overspending, overeating and general tetchiness. Call me Scrooge if you like, but my Christmas is quiet and simple, and that’s how I like it. The good thing about Christmas for storytellers is it’s usually a time of great tension, and as we all know, stories are powered by tension. At Christmas, everyone is expected to have a wonderful time. If you’re ill, lonely or generally fed-up, that feeling of alienation from everyone else intensifies.
3. What’s the weather like?
Although we often think of a white Christmas, it rarely happens in the UK. Christmas is usually dank, misty, dark and rainy. It’s difficult to remember exactly what the weather is like in certain seasons, so I turned to my journal to remember. Notes about gardening in the rain, slipping on frosty pavements, or unexpected warmth reminded me that winter isn’t cold and rainy every single day. These details gave my prose authenticity.
4. Eat, drink, and be Christmassy
Mince pies have long ago disappeared from the supermarket shelves, but there are Brussels sprouts, turkey, and fruit cake. Plus hot chocolate, hot toddies, and Baileys. Certain seasons have distinctive tastes particular to them, and by experiencing that taste I evoked the season associated with it. While everyone else was sipping Pimms and eating barbecue chicken, I was drinking hot chocolate and eating pigs in blankets.
Writing a seasonal story means being out of synch with everyone else. You have to create a bubble in which it's Christmas, and block out everything Easter around you. The benefit of writing this way is that when winter rolls around, and everyone huddles inside counting down the days to summer, I’m already there, writing six months in the future, glorying in the long June days and toasting myself in the sun.
During the Second World War, posters were put up warning people 'Loose Lips Sink Ships' and to 'Be like Dad - Keep Mum'. The posters were to remind people that they didn't know who was listening - that a casual conversation on a bus could give away where troops were based or ships were heading.
So what's this got to do with writing? Well, loose lips sink ships, and plots, and characters, dialogue, twists, metaphors and settings.
Let me ask you this. When an idea for a story or a novel or a poem comes into your mind, do you jot it down, play with it, write it, rewrite it until it's the best you can make it and then send it off? Or do you jot it down, tell your husband about it over dinner, act out the brilliant bits of dialogue to your friends, describe the plot twists in minute detail to your mum, and try out the comedy on your kids? Chances are if you do, that the story/ novel/ poem never gets written at all, never mind rewritten and sent off.
Bursting Your Bubble
Why? Because when writing is new it's very fragile. That initial idea isn't really an idea, it's a seed. A starting point. It needs nurturing and feeding. How do you nurture and feed? You jot it down, you play with it, you write some bits, you think about it, you leave it alone for a while, you idly turn it over in your mind while cooking dinner.
Talking about it makes it lose the magic. Imagine that idea is a bubble - exciting and colourful and different from every angle, but pass it around a bit and it'll pop. To go back to the seed metaphor, talking about your idea is like digging up the seed every few hours and seeing if it's sprouted yet.
How To Kill Your Idea
Your brain will get bored with the idea if you talk about it. While it's new and fresh, it's exciting. It's yours to discover. The more you keep it secret, the more energy that idea has, the more it will grow, and the more you'll want to write it. You'll write it because you need to know what happens next.
Tell other people about it and they'll soon take the magic away, often unintentionally, sometimes not. Comments like, "Hm. Interesting" don't help you to keep the excitement alive. Nor do, "Is that character based on me?", "What will the kids think?" or "What you need to do is ..." Talking about a partly formed idea is the swiftest way to kill it.
People rarely laugh at the hilarious bits until you've written them and worked them. Scraps of dialogue are flat if taken out of context. All of this makes you despondent. When you go back to your notebook it's just a heap of words scribbled down. The gloss, the intrigue, the possibility have all gone.
So when it comes to writing, when that brilliant germ of an idea strikes, remember the advice on the War posters, and 'Be Like Dad - Keep Mum'. Keep it a secret until you've worked and polished that piece and it's as good as you can make it - then you can tell people about it.
I've been writing for a long time now, and inevitably have made many mistakes along the way. I don't mean stuff like using too many adverbs, or characters changing eye colour half-way through a story, (though I've made plenty of those mistakes, too), I mean mistakes in how I approached my writing and built on success.
So here are the things I've done that I wish I hadn't:
1. Writing a whole novel longhand
I'm an old fashioned type of writer in that I find my thinking flows better when I write longhand. All my notes are written longhand, and every short story starts life as a first draft in handwriting (sometimes fountain pen, sometimes pencil, sometimes purple felt tip, depending on my mood). And every novel is planned out longhand, then I write straight onto my laptop with my notes beside me.
It's a system that works for me, so what was I thinking when I decided to write a complete novel in longhand? Sheer madness. I have huge lined notebooks filled with writing, 100,000 words in total, some of which is illegible because when I write I write; the words fall over each other and come out as a scrawl.
I tried to type out this novel and gave up. It was too dispiriting. I also tried to dictate it using voice recognition software, but I didn't have the patience to train the software and it wasn't expecting the er...gritty nature of my writing. And so the book languishes in an unfinished, unloved, and incomprehensible state.
2. Not following up on success
When I was new to sending work out for publication, I was very bad at following up on success. I'd send a story to a magazine, get an acceptance, and then wait several months before I sent another one. I felt as though I didn't want to bother them again too soon.
I know now that what I should have done is immediately write another story and send it in, reminding the editor they'd just accepted a piece from me. In waiting, I let the relationship go cold, so each time I sent in a story, I was starting from scratch. Having a relationship with an editor doesn't mean that they'll accept everything you send, but it often means they give you some feedback if they reject a story, or let you know what kind of material they're short of. Invaluable industry insider information, in other words.
3. Giving up too soon
I recently counted up how many full-length novels I've written in total. It came to 15. Four have been published, and another is with a publisher, but that still leaves 10 full length novels (including the monster in long-hand) that are hanging around doing nothing. Some of them are definitely apprentice pieces - novels I wrote to learn how to write novels - and should never see the light of day because they're not meant to. You don't show the world the scribbles you do when you're learning to draw.
But some of them are not apprentice pieces and have been sent to agents, publishers or competitions at some point. Where I went wrong was I didn't send them out enough. One novel got great feedback from agents and publishers, though was never published: what I should have done was take heart from this and keep on sending it out until it had been to every single potential publisher or agent. Apparently the book 'The Zen Art of Motorcycle Maintenance' went to 99 agents and publishers, and only went to the final one, which published it, because the author wanted to make it a round 100.
Sometimes writing really is a numbers game.
4. Telling other people what I was writing
I put my head in my hands when I think of the times I've shared my precious, fragile ideas with someone who then reacted in a sarcastic/ non-committal/ hurtful way and the blasted idea popped and was gone. These people don't have to be your worst enemies, either, they're often the very people who you think would support, encourage and nurture your writing ambitions.
Ideas are fresh and full of energy when they're in your head. They're also pretty good once they're on paper and you've rewritten them a few times. But when they come out of your mouth for an audience that doesn't understand, and frankly, has their own issues with your writing, then they fall stone dead.
If people ask me about my writing now, I do a little mysterious smile and say, 'It's fine, thanks', then change the subject. They can read it when it's ready (i.e. published).
5. Not resubmitting
Similarly to the first point, when I started submitting writing I tended to think if a story or article wasn't taken up by the first magazine I sent it to, then it was rubbish so I abandoned it and wrote something new. When I started entering writing competitions, I found to my astonishment that a story that has gone absolutely nowhere in several small competitions is perfectly capable of winning a big competition, and that if a story is rejected several times it doesn't mean it won't find a place somewhere, some time.
I make out an index card for each story I write, including the title, word count, and where I've sent it. This helps me to keep track of where I've sent it. I often also pencil in a number of alternative places to submit it if it gets rejected. This isn't looking on the black side and expecting it to be rejected, but a way of saying to myself that there are plenty of opportunities for each story, and a knock-back doesn't mean the end.
Over to you - what's the most important thing you've learned about your writing? Let me know in the comments below.
I’m planning a new writing project at the moment, and it’s at that delicious stage of quivering on the edge of my consciousness, a blur of colours and half-formed characters; some scenes that are sharp and clear, some that shimmer with possibility, a whole lot more that are just a scrap of intention. While I’m brewing the ideas, I use lots of different stimuli to help the ideas to form – visiting possible locations and taking lots of photographs; acquiring objects that will keep me literally in touch with characters and places; eating and drinking the things my characters eat and drink; and putting together a playlist.
I use my playlist to conjure up a particular period of time or to evoke a place, to create the emotion I'm writing about, or simply to get me in the mood for writing. I asked some writer friends if they also use music, and they all said, yes, they use music to enhance or create mood while they're writing. If you've ever cried listening to Tavener, or found yourself jigging in your seat when Shania Twain comes on the radio, then music could help your writing, too.
Imagine your story or novel is being made into a film. What sort of music will be playing in the background at different points? What will be the theme tune for each of your characters? Choose music that moves you, that makes you dance, sing, cry, reflect. Play this while you're writing, or in preparation for a writing session. Music that spooks you, cheers you, or that simply has memories for you is good, as you have an emotional connection with it that will come out in your writing.
I like to compile a playlist for each book I write. I have a theme tune for each character, and several pieces that reflect the emotions in different parts of the novel. I also have themes that reflect the way other characters feel about each other. For example, my private eye heroine Eden Grey has the theme tune of Billy Joel's 'She's Always a Woman'.
I put all the tracks onto my MP3 player, go out for a long walk with my headphones on, and when I come back my brain is thrumming with the atmosphere of my novel. I find I get into the writing much more easily and the words flow better when I've primed myself with music first.
I also like to ask myself what sort of music each of the characters in my books listens to. Do they chill out with some smoky jazz, or get churned up by Beethoven? Finding your characters' musical tastes can get you into their heads, and then their thoughts, desires and fears are only a semiquaver away.
What’s on your writing playlist?
Kim Fleet lives and works in Cheltenham. Her two cats help the creative process by standing on the delete key.