I haven't got anything particularly useful to say, but got a sudden urge to blog this morning, as you do!
The window fitters are sawing and hammering away in the background and no doubt Radio 2 will be blaring out of their little battered radio before too long. It's quite nice to have company in a weird sort of way!
I've been ensconced in my office since Monday morning, printing off dozens of postage labels for Issue 3, most of which have now been posted. I get very nervous that some will go missing. I don't entirely trust Royal Mail!
I hope to get more feedback on this issue of the magazine, because the Readers Letters page is looking very scrawny (unlike me!). My thoughts are already turning to Issue 4 and which stories I'll publish. Again, I only have a few copies of Issue 3 left now and I think it's come to the point where I need to do a bigger print run. This is a good sign that the magazine is selling well and is starting to be quite popular. I'm not sure I'll ever reach the heady print runs of QWF days, but we'll see.
The Yellow Room Autumn Short Story Competition, which closed on 30th September, is giving me a huge headache. Drawing up the shortlist is a nightmare. I thought I'd cracked it the other day, but there are niggles. I optimistically announced that the winners would be notified by 1st December 09. Fat chance! Eight days past this date and I'm fretting. What if the top three stories have been sent elsewhere? I'm reading as fast as I can (trying not to get too distracted by Monica Seles' great book, Getting A Grip) and hope to announce the winners by early next week.
My car failed its MOT this week and the repairs are going to cost the best part of £300, so I have the hassle and expense of that to sort out very soon. Why do such mundane things get in the way? And don't even mention Christmas! I still haven't written all my Christmas cards and wonder why we bother sending any at all now we have great things like Facebook?
More next week......
Oh, and the photo was taken back in the summer, reminding me of sunny days and lovely walks.
Apologies everyone, as I'm still very behind with reading competition entries. I've almost drawn up the shortlisted entries now and hope to announce the top three next week.
I've just heard from Biddles, the printers, that Issue 3 won't be despatched until 7th December. This is a week later than they promised last week. I'm so sorry about this. It's agonising when I said that this issue would be out in October. I just hope subscribers can be patient enough to wait another week or so. It's really not ideal for me to be sending out magazines in December when I have Christmas shopping to do, presents to wrap, cards to write etc etc.
To add insult to injury Needhams are coming to fit new windows and doors next week.
Issue 3 of The Yellow Room Magazine is seriously behind schedule, and I apologise to those who have ordered a copy of the magazine and are still waiting. I received the cover proofs today and the magazine should be delivered from the printers at the end of November.
I've just about cleared the submissions pile and I'm about to start reading the ninety plus competition entries. I have a lot of admin to wade through as well.
It's a good job I feel so energised and invigorated after re-joining the gym where I spent seven happy years as a member until September 2008. Last week I realised that I couldn't stand another day feeling dreary, frumpy, lazy and menopausal. The first thing I did was get a new haircut. It works wonders, ladies, so do try it if you feel in the doldrums. The second thing was to phone the gym. I now have an excuse to get out of the house and see people. I think I was becoming a recluse.
My crime novel is progressing albeit very slowly. I'm enjoying writing it and spend a lot of time making notes and mulling it all over in my head, before committing anything useful to the page. It works for me. I write a scene or two in longhand in my notebook, then transfer it to the Mac, editing as I go.
Now I have to make myself update this blog more regularly!
I’d been stressing for days about the fact I hadn’t got a ticket for the Val McDermid talk at Warwick Words. The online booking service implied the tickets had sold out. Anyway, I needn’t have worried, as a few days later my friend pointed out that the booking service was up and running properly again and hadn’t sold out. When we arrived at the venue on a cold Saturday evening earlier this month, I expected a packed house. You can imagine how surprised I was when the auditorium was at least two thirds empty. Where was everyone? It was almost embarrassing. Poor Val, I thought. Was it because X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing were on TV? Anyway, whatever the reason people stayed away, they missed a treat.
Val took to the stage and, after a brief introduction by a member of the Warwick Words committee, sat down to tell us, first of all, why she became a writer.
Val said she grew up hearing that ‘people like us aren’t writers’. The sort of comment that makes the more rebellious amongst us determined to prove otherwise, I suspect. Val comes from a working class mining community in Fife. Her father worked in the shipyards, and books were a luxury the family simply couldn’t afford. However, Val’s parents deemed education important. Val’s mother took her to the library before Val could speak properly and Val said she used to call it ‘going to the labrador’. Val’s family moved shortly afterwards to a house, which just happened to be opposite the central library in Kirkcaldy. It wasn’t long before Val had read the entire contents of that library. She said she was only allowed to take out four books at a time and two of those had to be non-fiction. Apparently, poetry and drama counted as non-fiction, so it wasn’t all bad.
Val spent her weekends at her grandparents. They didn’t have a library in their village, only a library bus. However, Val wasn’t allowed on the bus, as she didn’t live in the village. It was made worse by the fact that Val’s grandparents only had two books in their house, The Bible and Agatha Christie’s Murder At The Vicarage. Val grew up thinking that grown-up books had to have dead bodies in them. She read Murder At The Vicarage so many times and was desperate to read more Agatha Christie. She believes this led her into a life of crime. She then began to steal her mother’s library tickets to get into the adult section of her local library. She told the librarian that her mother wasn’t well and she had to get the books for her. Val then proceeded to read her way through the whole of the adult crime section.
The notion that the past casts a long shadow is a recurrent theme in Val’s novels. Val said she went back to Kirkcaldy Library as an adult and took her mother. The same librarians were working there as when she was a child. ‘I thought you must be dead,’ remarked one of them to her mother, as they’d always thought of her as a bedridden invalid. You can imagine the look Val’s mother gave her. The past had well and truly caught up with Val.
Later Val enjoyed reading private eye novels from the US. She liked seeing the way the characters reacted under pressure, always staying one step ahead of the detective. She loved the whole shape and structure of the crime novel.
When Val left school she went to Oxford University where she studied English Literature. Of course at Oxford, English Literature ended in 1945! However, she noticed, amongst the weighty tomes in her tutors’ rooms, the green and white spines of the Penguin Classic Crime series, so didn’t feel guilty about reading them for pleasure.
The Chalet School books were Val’s introduction to ‘series’ in literature. She was inspired by the main character in Chalet School, Jo Maynard. She realised for the first time that being a writer was a job; that you could be paid for ‘telling lies’.
When Val left Oxford she thought she was going to write ‘the great English novel’, featuring love, hate, betrayal, guilt and punting. She finished it and still has it as proof of how badly she can write.
She then wrote a play from the novel, which she took to a local theatre company. The director wanted to produce it. She was delighted. A playwright at the age of twenty-three! However, she didn’t know what she’d done right, so was unable to replicate her success. By this time, Val had acquired an agent. She didn’t know about writing courses then, otherwise she’d have probably gone to one about how to write plays. It wasn’t long before she got the dreaded letter from her agent beginning, ‘Dear Val McDermid, We are rationialising our client list...’. In short, Val had got the sack. She said this was the lowest point in her writing career.
By this time Val was working as a journalist, but it didn’t give her satisfaction. She wanted to make it all up, instead of just some of it! She knew how a crime novel worked, having read so many. You could either have lots of suspects or no suspects at all. She decided to write a crime novel with a main character who was a journalist. She also knew she’d need at least one dead body and a detective. This was the early 1980s and Val pointed out that there wasn’t much variety in crime writing then, unlike now. You either had police procedurals or the village mystery.
The villages Val knew weren’t in any way like St Mary Mead, the fictional village where Agatha Christie set her novels. There weren’t any spinsters doing gardening; no vicars, only ministers, and no retired colonels. Instead Val drew her inspiration from the USA. A friend of hers had gone to live there and had sent Val a Sara Paretsky novel. The urban setting and city life represented a world Val understood. She could identify with Sara’s strong female protagonist who had brains and a sense of humour. The individual against the world. Sara Paretsky’s books also contained both personal and social politics. Val wanted to write something in the same ball park. She wrote Report For Murder.
As a journalist, Val said she had Mondays off. She had few distractions and wrote from 2pm until 7pm every Monday. She wouldn’t answer the door or the phone. The rest of the week she’d be working out in her head what to revise or where to go next with the novel. She sent this first attempt to The Women’s Press.
Val said she believes that to have a literary career you need to have three things: a modicom of talent; the ability to work as hard as you possibly can; and luck. You have be in the right place at the right time with the right book. Val was lucky in that she rode on the back of the success of Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky. Publishers were desperate for something with a similar flavour and a UK setting at the time she wrote her first book. Ian Rankin and Val used to laugh that it took them ten years to become an overnight sensation.
Val worked out that the advance for her first book would pay her mortgage for just six weeks. Report For Murder earns more money now than when she first sold it. When Val started writing the Lindsay Gordon books, she knew she wanted to write a trilogy. When she came to the end of the three books, she knew she’d have to do something different, so she started writing the Kate Brannigan books. In this series Val was aiming to give a different spin on the US private eye novel. She worked out that if she wrote and sold two books per year she could afford to give up her job as Northern Bureau Chief. She still had a pension at that time, as Rob Maxwell hadn’t jumped off his boat yet. Val was thirty-five when she gave up the day job. She said that not earning much for two years was a struggle and she didn’t buy any books or CDs. The Germans changed things, however, by giving her a big advance for her Kate Brannigan books.
All of a sudden it was time for questions from the audience. I was surprised when I looked at my watch. The time had flown. Val is such an entertaining speaker.
I was brave and asked the first question. I asked Val whether she was still supporting the Save The Short Story Campaign and she mentioned that there was now a National Short Story Competition and that things had improved considerably (can’t say I’ve noticed!). She said she enjoys both writing and reading short stories, especially Lawrence Block’s crime stories. Do take a look at his wonderful website, as he has some very interesting things to say about the short story: http://www.lawrenceblock.com/index_framesetfl.htm Val said, in her experience, as a writer short stories were like buses - three or four arrive at the same time, then nothing for ages.
Someone then asked if Val works out her plots beforehand. She said that which always worked for her was writing a detailed synopsis. She would write a paragraph on each chapter. Then she aimed to write 1,000-1,500 words per day. This worked for the first fifteen or sixteen books, then suddenly for her next book this formula stopped working for her. She managed to plot the beginning and end, but the middle slithered away from her. The more she tried to pin it down, the worse it got. She needed to meet her publisher’s deadline, as she’d taken the money and spent it, so she had no choice but to give them the book. She decided to go to Italy where there was no phone, no internet connection, and no TV. She sat and forced herself to write. She wrote 65,000 words in 9 days. (No, that isn’t a typo!) Her editor thought it was the strongest first draft Val had ever given her.
Val had a similar problem with the next book. She had thought the fact that she had the builders in had been the problem the first time round, but the problem was still there when they’d gone.
Now she works in a different way, Val told us. She knows the arc of the story, but doesn’t know any details. Then there’s a frenetic eight weeks when she forces herself to write and finish the novel. She said it was a very stressful way to write a book.
Val was asked where she got the idea for A Darker Domain, a recent novel set in the early eighties and set around the miners’ strike. She said that when a friend of hers was out running, she saw a dilapidated villa which had obviously been squatted and strange posters had been left there. Val said she couldn’t stop thinking about it.
Val compared her brain to a massive compost heap. She chucks a lot on there, then it takes time to rot down.
Someone then asked Val whether she’d ever had any desire to write something other than a crime novel. The answer was a resounding, ‘No!’. She said that crime was a very broad church, so there was plenty to write about, as well as many different styles and sub-genres.
Another interesting question was whether Val scared or shocked herself by what her characters do. She answered no, because she is in control and knows what happens. As a writer she is thinking different things from the reader. Not, ‘Oh, this is scary!’, but ‘Should that adjective be there?’. She said that, in other words, she has more technical concerns.
Finally Val was asked what she was currently reading. The answer was Strange Days Indeed by Francis Wheen and Peter Temple’s Truth. Val remarked that Peter Temple writes really well about women.
I could have sat there all night listening to Val McDermid. I’ve always been a big fan of her books, particularly the Tony Hill series. My absolute favourite of hers is A Place Of Execution. Why, oh why, did I embarrass myself at the signing table by inadvertently jumping the queue? It could have been worse. I could have knocked over Val’s glass of red wine.
My friend, Sarah, was over the moon when she realised it was Andrew Davies who would be interviewing Sarah Waters at The Bridgehouse Theatre as part of the Warwick Words literary event. Andrew Davies adapted Sarah Waters’ first novel, Tipping The Velvet, for BBC television in 2002. He has adapted more classic works of literature including the 1995 television adaptation of Pride and Prejudice starring Colin Firth, and more recently in 2008, Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit.
Andrew began by asking Sarah about her early life. Sarah’s father was an engineer and she explained that as a child she liked to make models with him. She also spent a lot of time reading, despite the fact that theirs wasn’t a ‘bookish’ family. She remembers being influenced by The Silver Sword and The Phantom Tollbooth. Sarah was a huge Dr Who fan and read a lot of Dr Who novelisations and serialisations. She also loved ghost stories and liked to read the Pan Book of Horror Stories series, to which more literary writers like Elizabeth Taylor, Ray Bradbury and Elizabeth Bowen contributed.
Sarah reminded the audience that the accessibility of writers is a recent phenomena and that as a child she didn’t realise that writing was a job. She wanted to be an archaeologist. She also fancied working in the make-up department of a television company, as she loved making masks with lurid scars out of papier mache!
Sarah admitted to being a bit of a swot at school. Her stories were often read out in class, for example. In 1977 she remembers the family installing a stereo music centre complete with microphone into which she recorded her own talking book about killing her mother with an ashtray.
Sarah went from grammar school to study English Literature at university, then went onto to do a PhD in Lesbian/Gay Historical Fiction. She was thus inspired to write her first novel, Tipping The Velvet, as she said she had a very clear vision of gay life in the nineteenth century. She had no ambition to be a writer, even when writing Tipping The Velvet and didn’t have any intention of writing another book, but she got hooked. Sarah feels that Jeanette Winterson paved the way for lesbian fiction becoming more mainstream.
Andrew Davies thought that Tipping The Velvet was such a success because Nan is such a powerful character and we want what she wants. He attributed the success of the TV adaptation to The Sun newspaper, as the drama clashed with the football, so The Sun gave their readers the exact time you could turn over to Tipping The Velvet to catch the rude bits.
Sarah went on to write Affinity, which came out in 1999, followed by Fingersmith. Then she decided to change the era her books were set in to the post-Second World War period of the late 1940s. She says she liked the Brief Encounter-type image of that time.
Sarah’s latest novel, The Little Stranger is set between the years 1947 and 1948 in the county of Warwickshire. She confessed to feeling rather impertinent writing about the county when she knew very little about it. The Little Stranger is based on a fictional large Georgian house, Hundreds House, in the Bishop’s Itchington area. The house is falling apart, as there is very little money and just one servant. Going into ‘Service’ became very unfashionable after the war, as many of the men had gone off to fight and the women had left to do war work.
The Little Stranger is a haunted house novel in a similar vein to Henry James’ novel, The Turn of the Screw, a ghost story, reminiscent of the Victorian gothic tradition, which was made into a psychological horror film, The Others, in 2001starring Nicole Kidman. Sarah said she thought M R James’ s stories were also inspiring, as they were clever, convincing and didn’t shock for the sake of it.
Both Affinity and Fingersmith are in the gothic tradition, of course, with psychological resonances. Sarah believes all the best gothic novels, like Dracula, were written in Victorian times. Dickens’ work was also an influence on Sarah (Great Expectations is one of her favourite books). There is a nod to Great Expectations in The Little Stranger, as the clock in story has stopped at twenty to nine, just like Miss Haversham’s (the exact time she was jilted).
Andrew Davies said The Little Stranger reminded him of Brideshead Revisited in that the peasant boy gets access to ‘the castle’. It was also reminiscent of Sleeping Beauty, he thought.
Sarah said when researching the post-war period she read the comedies of Angela Thirkle and told us they had a snobbish tone to them. Houses like Hundreds Hall in Sarah’s novel didn’t manage to recover after the war and belonged to a lost era. Sarah admitted she had very little sympathy for families like the Ayres in the book. They had inherited a social function that no longer had any meaning. Therefore, they felt useless and had lost their purpose. The Ayres are trying to cling onto the tattered remains of their status.
Roderick, who has inherited the Hundreds estate from his late father, was wounded badly in the war, but as well as his physical scars, he has deeper psychological wounds. Caroline, his sister, is plain and clever, but with few resources is put at a distinct disadvantage socially and far down the ranking in the marriage stakes. Faraday is an M R James-type narrator. He is a local doctor (a working class boy made good thanks to the grammar school education system) and becomes fascinated and drawn to Hundreds House. For him, Caroline is a way into the house. For Caroline, Faraday is her way out. Through Faraday we learn that before the NHS came into being, doctors like him with their working class roots found it much harder to gain the trust of the wealthier patients, who preferred to use doctors from their own class.
There is a lot of unease in The Little Stranger. All the characters are unhappy and trapped.
Sarah reminded us that this post-war period was a fascinating time in history. A Socialist government promised a better Britain. For some this was an exciting time, but for families like the Ayres, it was a very difficult time.
Housing was a hot issue then. There simply weren’t enough houses and there was a drive to build council houses. It was a time of rapid rebuilding and change. Sarah, herself, was a product of the rise of the working classes in that she was born in a 1950s council house. Grammar schools played an important part in this social change. The upper classes were in decline and some, like Hooper, thought Britain was being handed over to the mob, to philistines.
Sarah said she had always found Josephine Tey’s story, The Franchise Affair (also set in Warwickshire), fascinating. It was based on the infamous trial of Elizabeth Canning who became Betty Kane in the book. “She was the original ‘evil char’,” Andrew Davies joked.
Andrew Davies then invited the audience to ask Sarah questions. The first was about research. Sarah said that she does a few months solid research for her novels at the start, then as the story develops, the research narrows down. She does a lot of reading initially to the point where she’s itching to write. Once she feels she knows enough to make educated guesses, Sarah begins to write. There are gaps which she fills in later, although Sarah said she continues to research as she goes along. She reads novels and diaries of the period. Research, she said, is a fertile process for her.
Sarah was asked about her writing day. She said she was very disciplined about it and that moments of inspiration were rare. Every day she has to make herself write. She writes on week days only and usually stops work at 4pm, then sits and reads. However, in the last few months, when the novel is almost finished, she works at the weekends as well. I was surprised to hear that Sarah aims to write 1,000 words per day. Somehow I thought it would be more. She does several drafts of her novels. She said it was only quite late in the process that she realises what her characters are about. She then goes back and writes the opening - very late in the whole process.
Sarah admitted that she found The Nightwatch her hardest novel to write from the point of view of structure. In the end she decided to tell the story backwards. The novel begins in 1947 and goes back to 1941. What her characters had been through during the war was so dramatic that they hadn’t moved on. They couldn’t imagine a future, so Sarah decided not to give them one and moved backwards.
An audience member then asked which character in her books Sarah was most fond of. She thought for a moment and then said that it had to be Nancy in Tipping The Velvet. She realised that in her later books she’d become preoccupied with the idea of failure and disappointments. In contrast, Nancy has lots of energy. She persists and becomes successful. Sarah said she also liked Kay in The Nightwatch very much. She was also fond of Caroline in the current novel.
Someone then asked, “What’s next?”. She said she had a few ideas and that she was thinking about the period between the two world wars. She said she’d also considered writing a trilogy similar to Philippa Gregory’s Wideacre series.
A lady who worked in a local Waterstone’s then suggested that Sarah’s publisher put stickers on the front of The Little Stranger saying, ‘No Lesbian Love Action’.
The final question of the night was about theme, character and plot. Which came first for Sarah? She replied that theme was always the starting point and that usually she has the whole plot for her novels worked out beforehand. The exception to this was The Nightwatch.
It was good to see a packed house for this event and Sarah seemed to go down a storm.
Mark Billingham and Christopher Brookmyre gave a talk on Saturday evening. This was the one I'd been waiting for and Mark was one of the reasons I booked tickets for Reading in the first place. Mark's crime novels, featuring DI Thorne, have won several awards including the coveted Theakston's Old Peculiar Crime Novel of the Year Award. Mark has also been nominated for five CWA daggers.
There’s no doubt that Mark Billingham started out as an actor and stand-up comedian before he became a writer. He had the audience in the palm of his hand from the off. Maybe with the exception of the man in the front row, who Mark picked on, saying he was going to quiz him on FA Cup Winners in the last 20 years. The poor man walked out after ten minutes, obviously not a football fan. Mark opened by talking about the best heckles he’d ever received. Or heard. At first, I felt Chris Brookmyre was in Mark’s shadow, but I needn’t have worried. Chris is a tough Glaswegian with great comic timing and who leaves you in no doubt he can look after himself.
Once Mark had dispensed with the comedy routine, he informed us that there was going to be a TV adaptation of his first two DI Thorne novels, Sleepy Head and Scaredy Cat. The actor, David Morrissey, is to play DI Thorne.
I questioned Mark’s wisdom in reading out emails from readers who have complained about bad language in his books. I was nervous that at least one of them might have been in the audience and would give him the best heckle ever. It could have been embarrassing, but apart from a few titters, the audience was silent. Christopher, who, as well as Mark Billingham, has written for BBC TV, explained that a writer is only allowed fifteen 'fucks' ie. only able to use the word 'fuck' fifteen times in an entire script (not easy for a drama set in Glasgow!). So frustrated was Chris at this, he asked if he could borrow some 'fucks' from a someone who wrote costume dramas and didn't need as many.
Both Mark Billingham and Christopher Brookmyre read from their new novels. Chris was a journalist before becoming a full time novelist. He is the winner of the 2007 Glenfiddich Spirit of Scotland Award, and his novel, All Fun and Games Until Somebody Loses An Eye won the 2006 Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Award for Comic Fiction. I’m surprised it wasn’t an award for the novel with the longest title.
I enjoyed Chris Brookmyre’s Glaswegian accent. Most of the scene he read was in dialect and about a gang of teenage schoolboys on a bus talking about the girls they’d like to shag. It sounded so authentic, I could have been sitting on a bus to Glasgow Central. The scene evoked a laddish atmosphere with lots of swearing (Mark Billingham readers take note) and lots of mentions of Big Soapy Tits Magazine (made up title??).
I had the honour of sitting next to author, Patrick Lennon, during this talk. He was very charming and struck up a conversation before going on stage to introduce Mark and Chris. Damn, I might just have to buy Patrick’s books, too (scroll down to read more on Patrick - Murder in Mind Panel Event blog entry).
If you get chance, do go and see Mark Billingham and/or Christopher Brookmyre in action. They’re both very entertaining. I was in stitches. In fact, too busy laughing to make many notes.
In contrast, I saw Kate Ellis on Sunday morning and almost walked out. Kate is the author of 13 books in the Wesley Peterson series and two in the Joe Plantagenet series. Kate has been twice nominated for the CWA Short Story Dagger, and her novel The Plague Maiden, was nominated for the Theakston’s Old Peculiar Crime Novel of the Year in 2005.
Kate came across as being a little ‘too nice’. Her talk wasn’t injected with a great deal of humour or charisma, I have to say. She failed to make her books sound interesting or intriguing enough. I haven’t read any of her novels, and just because she isn’t great at public speaking doesn’t mean they aren’t a good read, but she was there to sell them to me, and she didn’t. Kate said she likes to mix history with the present and writes about archaeology and legends. The present echoes the past in a lot of her books, which she sets mainly in Dartmouth and York. She says she changes the names of places, however, to allow her more freedom. She works with the same cast of characters for each book and they have become like old friends to her. Kate says she writes every day, even when she doesn’t feel like it. I should take note!
In the afternoon I attended another free event, Female Villains in 19th and 20th Century English Crime Fiction. This was more interesting than it sounds. Greta Depledge, a buxom red-head with oodles of personality, is a lecturer at Birkbeck College. She told us how English fiction is littered with badly behaving women. She discussed Wilkie Collins’ work, as well as that of Gladys Mitchell and Kate Summerscale, whose book, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, reached bestseller status recently. Greta raised some interesting points about women’s murderous tendencies tying in with their monthly cycles (I can relate to that!) and about the menopause and the role hormones might play in driving women to the edge of madness (can definitely relate to that!). She also talked about hereditary madness and the old ‘born evil’ debate. She discussed how in the 19th century people believed in the power of physiognomy, the art of supposedly judging character from facial characteristics. A good example of this was when the famous photograph of Myra Hindley hit the headlines in the 1960s. She looked evil and because she was a women, her crimes were considered to be all the more heinous.
For me, the best talk of the Reading Festival of Crime Writing, had to be the final one I attended; Mo Hayder with Sergeant Randall from the South West Police Underwater Search Team. Mo’s first novel, Birdman, was an instant bestseller when published in 2000. Mo wanted to talk about how she researched her novels and Sergeant Randall is one of the experts she’s consulted for her more recent series of books, featuring DI Jack Caffrey, the first of which is Ritual.
Ritual opens with a description of Bushman’s Hole in the middle of the remote Kalahari desert in South Africa. This place exists and at approximately 270 metres deep is the third deepest submerged freshwater cave. Mo told us the true story of how two divers lost their lives there; the second diver, Dave Shaw, died trying to retrieve the body of the first, Deon Dryer, ten years after his death in the cave.
Mo explained the challenges of deep water diving in a very succinct and interesting way (I guess it helps that Mo is also very attractive to look at! Oh yes, and I coveted her luminous pink Dr Marten boots!). She told us that firstly there is the danger of getting trapped or lost. Secondly, divers are breathing deep-dive gas mixes - usually a combination of helium, nitrogen and oxygen known as trimix - at extreme underwater pressure, which can kill you in any number of ways. Then, at depth, oxygen can become toxic, and nitrogen acts like a narcotic - the deeper you go, the stupider you get. It can be compared to drinking on an empty stomach. Apparently, if you don’t breathe slowly and deeply, carbon dioxide can build up in your lungs and you’ll black out. Finally, decompression can cause all the nitrogen and helium that has been forced into your tissues under pressure to fizz into tiny bubbles, causing ‘the bends’, which can result in severe pain, paralysis and death. That is why extreme divers spend hours on ascent, sitting at targeted depths for carefully calculated periods of decompression to allow the gases to flush safely from their bodies. Once divers have reached the bottom of Bushman’s Hole, it can take 12 hours to come back up to the surface again. Imagine the boredom of waiting for hours at each decompression stage!
I found all this fascinating. Then Sergeant Randall told us the tragic story of a young couple who had lost their lives deep water diving in the West Country. It could have been the plot of a novel and certainly tugged at the heart-strings. He also told us that claustrophobia can be a big problem for divers. To test out potential police diver recruits they take them to an ordinary swimming pool in all the diving gear, but with a blacked out helmet, so they can't see a thing. This usually determines those who can cope with the feeling of claustrophobia and those who can't. Underwater search divers usually close their eyes on a search, as this also helps improve their sense of touch. I also learned that when a car goes into water at night, the headlights don't automatically go out. They stay on for as long as the car battery holds out, which can gives clues as to how long the car has been in the water.
I guess one of the things that came over during several of the talks and this one was no exception, was that the experts like Sergeant Randall and Ken Wells (see Riddle of Maggots blog entry) are only to keen to share their expertise with writers, no matter how novice a writer they may be. Novel writing is a steep learning curve in terms of writing technique, but it can be so educational, because you never know where your research is going to take you.
Patrick Lennon, whose debut novel, Corn Dolls, was shortlisted for the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award 2008, was drafted in at the last moment to replace Sophie Hannah as the panel chair. Four writers; Stephen Booth, RJ Ellory, Laurie R King and Jane Hill were to discuss the mysterious world of psychological crime fiction. I have to confess that I hadn’t heard of any of the writers before, but decided to attend this event, as psychological crime is my favourite type of crime novel.
Jane Hill, who is stand-up comedian as well as a successful crime novelist, has had four psychological thrillers published to date and stood out for me as being a Yellow Room sort of gal. She was amusing, bright, but, sadly, seemed to find it difficult to make herself heard amongst the more domineering males on the panel, yet I found her the most interesting. Jane worked in commercial radio for twenty years - firstly as a journalist and then as head of programming for a group of local stations, presenting music shows and attempting to train DJs to be witty. She started out trying to write ‘chick fic’, but her publisher suggested she go ‘darker’, which Jane’s hairdresser had also advised. Her first novel, Grievous Angel, is a darkly comedic portrait of a woman scorned and packs a captivating surprise. It has been described as ‘playful and poignant, sexy and sinister’. Another one to add to my ‘to read’ pile, then.
Roger Ellory is the perfect example of the tenacious writer, determined to get published. He wrote twenty-two novels, before his twenty-third was finally accepted. A Quiet Belief in Angels was picked up by Amanda Ross for The Richard and Judy Book Club in 2005 and instantly became a bestseller. He sets his novels in the US, although he was born and bred in Birmingham, simply because America fascinates and inspires him. He spoke about the connection between reader and writer being essential. He said the best books are the ones that speak our emotional language. I couldn’t agree more. Roger had a lot more to say than the rest of the panel or was it simply that they just couldn’t get a word in? He did let it slip that Amanda Ross is working with a major TV company on a similar sort of book programme to the Richard and Judy Bookclub but with different presenters and a different format. I can’t wait!
Stephen Booth seemed like a nice bloke. He was quietly spoken and mild-mannered. He has written nine novels featuring Derbyshire detectives Ben Cooper and Diane Fry. His books are set in the atmospheric Peak District, an area close to my heart, so I was eager to learn more. He made the audience smile when he said that the Derbyshire police love the fact that he’s writing about their force, are only too happy to help him with his research and even invited him to the launch ‘do’ when they took delivery of a new police helicopter. I’ve just purchased his latest novel, The Kill Call, in audiobook format for my Ipod. A great accompaniment to the ironing.
Laurie R King’s first book, A Grave Talent, came out in 1993. She is from the US, but loves England and has written over 20 books, some of them set in England and some in the San Francisco Bay area. She shares a publisher, Allison and Busby, with Rebecca Tope, aka Becky Smith who has been a long term supporter of QWF and The Yellow Room. Laurie also supports new talent. She said she made a point of reading first novels no matter how few copies they sold, as she is keen to nurture fledgling writers. Let’s hear it for Laurie!
I was either in a mid-afternoon torpor or the panel didn’t discuss psychological crime in much detail. As I remember it, the authors wandered off the point early on and didn’t return to the theme of ‘Murder in Mind’. On the other hand, it might have been my attention, which wandered off.
The main reason I wanted to attend this particular panel event was because I’d recently met Hazel Cushion of Accent Press for a drink and when I mentioned I was attending the Reading Festival of Crime Writing, she said I really must introduce myself to one of their writers, Simon Hall, who would also be there. I introduced myself to Simon just before the signing session and he was charming. He gave me his card and asked if there was anything he could do to help with The Yellow Room Magazine not to hesitate to contact him. I’m now more eager than ever to read one of his crime novels. Death Pictures is his first.
The purpose of The Professionals panel event was to discuss the different professions of the panel authors' protagonists. The panel consisted of:
Simon Beckett, a freelance journalist since 1992, whose visit to the Tennessee Body Farm inspired him to write crime novels featuring forensic anthropologist David Hunter; John Macken, a research scientist in genetics and forensics who writes forensic crime fiction novels in his spare time; Simon Hall, BBC Crime Correspondent for Devon and Cornwall, who likes to incorporate the media in his novels; Zoë Sharp, former journalist who now combines photo-journalism (especially involving fast cars) with crime novel writing and author of many books featuring a no-nonsense female bodyguard. Chairing the panel was N J Cooper, a former publisher, now the author of many crime novels and articles.
There was, in fact, comparatively little discussion about the protagonists’ professions, but many interesting debates ensued. There was a great variety of sometimes controversial opinion. I liked the fact that all the authors were down-to-earth and honest. They didn’t flinch from telling us how it is.
Following the recent case of the two Doncaster boys convicted of a vicious attack on other children, N J Cooper prompted a nature/nurture debate, asking the authors whether someone was born evil. Does one’s genes predispose someone to commit murder, for example? Beckett said he believed that some people are indeed born evil and noted that more people now think ‘it's neither one nor the other’ in the nature/nurture debate, adding that he believed upbringing could bring out 'evil', which, under other circumstances could remain dormant. Macken, backed by scientific study, had mutated fruit flies as part of his PhD. He asserted that behaviour is 50-60% determined before the environment ‘muddies the waters’. Hall, having spent many a day in court and seeing ‘too many broken families coming out of court in tears and victims treated as criminals’ and noting the dreadful treatment of women in the witness box by defence lawyers when it came to rape cases, stated that ‘society needs protection’. Simon Hall made it clear that he wasn’t in favour of rehabilitation of offenders.
Beckett came back saying he did not approve of the death penalty, but believed in keeping people who harm out of society. Then Macken spoke of life as a genetic lottery. Stating a hypothetical population of 150k and with an annual rate of 10 murders in a year, he asked how we would screen to find the future psychopaths, something he explores in one of his novels. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Sharp has a protagonist with a great propensity to violence, but controlled and applied in the best of circumstances, with her most recent novel, indicating that Charlie Fox - her protagonist - may have inherited that gene from her doctor father.
The panel then discussed science in modern crime. Simon Hall was of the opinion that science sometimes overwhelms crime fiction. He’d recently read a Jeffrey Deaver novel and thought one passage went too far, with too much science. Hall is an advocate of crimes that are conceived in the mind and solved in the mind. Sharp agreed strongly with this, saying that she felt procedure had taken over in the last few years, but that character was needed for entertainment. Sharp later added that she tries to avoid cartoon characters in her novels and that Charlie Fox is someone saved by her own humanity.
I guess some writers allow research to get in the way of the story. They get so carried away, reading about the latest developments in science (and science is moving on at such a great pace) and trying to incorporate these into their work to make it as authentic as possible, that these authors are in danger of forgetting their primary purpose of entertaining the reader and producing a cracking good story. I realised there certainly wasn’t any danger of allowing science to get in the way in my crime fiction. I tremble at the thought of pinpoint accuracy on the forensics stuff, and am very nervous about approaching the experts. That’s why the talks by various police personnel at events like Reading is invaluable to me.
One of the things I love about writing festivals is discovering new authors. It’s interesting how some writers appeal to you and others don’t, without having read a word of one of their books. I was intrigued by Zoe Sharp, for example. She was an author I’d heard of, but wasn’t sure that her type of crime novel would suit me. However, I agreed with her opinions on most of the topics discussed and I felt she was the sort of person I’d enjoy chatting to over a drink. I was also intrigued to learn that Zoe turned to crime writing after receiving death threats when she was a journalist. Apparently, Zoe likes nothing better than photographing fast cars for magazine shoots, riding motorbikes and firing Kalashnikoffs. I also liked the point she made about writing violent scenes. They should be ‘graphic but not gratuitous’ and she compared it to the scene in Psycho where we don’t actually see what’s happening, but we think we do. I guess it’s all about writing well enough to give the reader the ammunition to fire up the imagination into a frenzy.
Zoe Sharp’s heroine, Charlie Fox, seems feisty, ballsy and hard-nosed. A bit like a bloke, actually. Sharp told us, "Charlie has the ability to kill. Once discovered that you have it, how do you deal with it?" An interesting question and one she explores in her novels. What also appealed to me about Zoe’s novels is that she says her prose style is very spare and economical, which lends itself to a fast-paced narrative. I can’t wait to read my first Charlie Fox. I’m just hoping it’s not too blokish!