Category Archives: Zoë Sharp

Always Happens …

by Zoë Sharp

The irony does not escape me, as the only non-American member of the ‘Rati crew, that the Thanksgiving blog falls to me. So, Happy Thanksgiving, folks!

I must admit, sitting down and having a family celebration has not been high on the priority list over here this last week or so. Cumbria has been struck by torrential rain and dreadful flooding, and yesterday we had our first power-outs, no doubt as a result.

But, at least we haven’t had to be rescued by breaking holes in the roof of our house and being winched to safety, like others elsewhere in my home county. We’ve had flash-flooding at home in the past, though, including sudden mud slides, and all the victims have my absolute sympathy.

I could say a lot more about this, but I won’t. I realise that to many it’s a small disaster in a small corner of a small country. It would appear that my attempts at serious, heartfelt blogs are often not my most successful efforts. I’ve tried it a couple of times now and been met with something close to embarrassed silence, so I’ll change the subject and get back to the writing.

Not that that helps much. I’ve been researching the cheery subject of coma patients this week, with the assistance of the ever-knowledgeable DP Lyle MD. Doug is an award-winning mystery author as well as having practised as a cardiologist for the best part of thirty years, and he’s been brilliantly helpful when it comes to my medical queries, because it bugs me to get things wrong.

In trawling round the Internet looking for answers, though, I came across this article about how TV and movie portrayals of coma patients are not only inaccurate, but can influence relatives of genuine coma patients into incorrect decisions, based on their false perception of the condition. Coma patients on TV and in the movies always seem to look like sleeping beauties, with perfect muscle tone, healthy tans, and no apparent method of receiving long-term nutrition, never mind, erm … getting rid of anything. (See Steven Segal in ‘Hard To Kill’, one of his more incredibly cheesy efforts.)

And that led me, as is so often the case, to what other common misconceptions arise from the movie world, and onward, almost inevitably, to Movie Clichés. Here are some of my favourites.

All cars, when pushed off a cliff, or involved in an accident, will explode in a giant fireball. How the auto manufacturers have been getting round the stringent crash-testing regulations all these years is anybody’s guess.

 

All police vehicles involved in a car chase will end up crashing into either each other, or civilian vehicles, and at least one will end up on its roof.

All time bombs will have a handy digital countdown readout, prominently displayed for the hero to find in the nick of time. However, the hero will not be able to disarm the device until there is one second remaining on the clock. The exception to this is the nuclear bomb in the James Bond movie, ‘Goldfinger’, which was disarmed with the readout on 007, of course.

 

All movie heroes will creep around in dangerous situations carrying their guns up by their faces, so the camera can get a nice dramatic close-up of the actor’s face and the gun in the same shot.

Of all twins, at least one will be born evil.

Dogs instinctively know who the bad guys are and will bark at them. Unless the movie hero is trying to creep into the enemy stronghold in the dark and it’s time to make the audience jump. In which case the hero will either a) calm the dog with a hard stare or b) move away, when the dog will stop making noise immediately, and the villain’s guards will not come to see what the fuss was all about. Under NO circumstances will the hero kill the dog.

If a movie has a male character who is blind, at some point he WILL end up driving a car. (‘Sneakers’)  Or, if a female character, she will end up tapping around a bloodstained building while being stalked by the killer. (‘Blade: Trinity’)

All motorcycles ridden by the hero will morph from a race replica during the highway chase scene, to dirt bike, complete with knobbly tyres, for any off-road bit of the sequence. The engine note will remain the same throughout, however, and won’t belong to either bike in any case.

Anybody looking through binoculars will see a a binocular-shaped view, regardless of how the human eye/brain works.

Whenever anybody walks into a bar in a western, there will be a fist-fight, usually involving the piano player.

Aliens in movies will almost always have the anatomy of a man in the rubber suit.

(Erm, the alien is the one on the left – I think.)

The only exception to this is ‘Starship Troopers’, which played on our general phobias of creepy crawlies and was therefore genuinely scary IMHO.

And finally, any alcoholics portrayed in movies will be able to give up the drink when called upon to do something important to the plot, and not show any side-effects, withdrawal symptons, etc.

 

There are hundreds more, I’m sure. What’s your favourite movie cliché?

This week’s Phrase of the Week is to ride roughshod. It came from the practice of shoeing horses with the nails deliberately left protruding so as to provide better grip in icy or wet conditions. In the 1700s cavalry horses were often roughshod or had sharp objects attached to their hooves to damage the enemy during a charge. However, it was quickly discovered that the poor horses did as much damage to themselves, so this idea soon fell out of favour. It’s interesting, though, that if someone tries to ride roughshod over you, they could be doing themselves more harm than they realise in the process …

If I don’t respond to comments right away, it could be that we’ve lost power again, so please bear with me. It’s just started tipping it down again …

Oh, nearly forgot – if anyone’s going to Collectormania at Olympia in London this weekend, I’ll see you there on the Saturday. Drop by the Mystery Women booth and say “Hi!”

All Things Remembered

by Zoë Sharp

As I write this, today is Wednesday, November 11th – the eleventh day of the eleventh month. Armistice Day. Remembrance Day. This morning I was in my local supermarket, in a hurry, a thousand things on my mind, buying some flowers for my mother’s birthday. And just as I reached the head of the queue, there was an announcement.

“It’s coming up to eleven o’clock on November eleventh,” said the voice over the Tannoy. “We will now have two minutes’ silence.”

At the Cenotaph, one would expect that. The Menin Gate, definitely. But Sainsbury’s?

The checkout staff stopped scanning items. The customers stopped wandering the aisles. We stood in companionable quiet, without impatience, without agitation, for two minutes.

And then the checkouts lit up again. The murmur of conversations restarted, the rattle of the trolley with the squeaky wheel that I always seem to pick, the mewling of a small child who’d been, until then, strangely silent. (I understand that holding tight onto their nose often has that effect.)

I suddenly remembered a chain email I received from a friend last week. Confession time. I hate those chain emails. I mean, really hate them. They’re usually so full of saccharine sweetness that I go into a diabetic coma just reading the subject line, never mind the contents. Bah, humbug, yes indeed. I don’t respond well to emotional blackmail.

But this one was different.

These are not my words. I don’t claim them to be. I don’t even vouch for their accuracy, only their sentiment. And if anyone knows to whom they should be credited, I’ll gladly add their name into this post.

 

“The annual Poppy Appeal commenced on October 28th.

“The average British soldier is 19 years old … he is a short-haired, well built lad who, under normal circumstances is considered by society as half man, half boy. Not yet dry behind the ears and just old enough to buy a round of drinks but old enough to die for his country – and for you. He’s not particularly keen on hard work but he’d rather be grafting in Afghanistan than unemployed in the UK . He recently left comprehensive school where he was probably an average student, played some form of sport, drove a ten year old rust bucket, and knew a girl that either broke up with him when he left, or swore to be waiting when he returns home. He moves easily to rock and roll or hip-hop or to the rattle of a 7.62mm machine gun.

 

“He is about a stone lighter than when he left home because he is working or fighting from dawn to dusk and well beyond. He has trouble spelling, so letter writing is a pain for him, but he can strip a rifle in 25 seconds and reassemble it in the dark. He can recite every detail of a machine gun or grenade launcher and use either effectively if he has to. He digs trenches and latrines without the aid of machines and can apply first aid like a professional paramedic. He can march until he is told to stop, or stay dead still until he is told to move.

“He obeys orders instantly and without hesitation but he is not without a rebellious spirit or a sense of personal dignity. He is confidently self-sufficient. He has two sets of uniform with him: he washes one and wears the other. He keeps his water bottle full and his feet dry. He sometimes forgets to brush his teeth, but never forgets to clean his rifle. He can cook his own meals, mend his own clothes and fix his own hurts. If you are thirsty, he’ll share his water with you; if you are hungry, his food is your food. He’ll even share his lifesaving ammunition with you in the heat of a firefight if you run low.

“He has learned to use his hands like weapons and regards his weapon as an extension of his own hands. He can save your life or he can take it, because that is his job – it’s what a soldier does. He often works twice as long and hard as a civilian, draws half the pay and has nowhere to spend it, and can still find black ironic humour in it all. There’s an old saying in the British Army: ‘If you can’t take a joke, you shouldn’t have joined!’

“He has seen more suffering and death than he should have in his short lifetime. He has wept in public and in private, for friends who have fallen in combat and he is unashamed to show it or admit it. He feels every bugle note of the ‘Last Post’ or ‘Sunset’ vibrate through his body while standing rigidly to attention. He’s not afraid to ‘Curse and Create’ anyone who shows disrespect when the Regimental Colours are on display or the National Anthem is played; yet in an odd twist, he would defend anyone’s right to be an individual. Just as with generations of young people before him, he is paying the price for our freedom. Clean shaven and baby faced he may be, but be prepared to defend yourself if you treat him like a kid.

“He is the latest in a long thin line of British Fighting Men that have kept this country free for hundreds of years. He asks for nothing from us except our respect, friendship and understanding. We may not like what he does, but sometimes he doesn’t like it either – he just has it to do. Remember him always, for he has earned our respect and admiration with his blood.

“And now we have brave young women putting themselves in harm’s way, doing their part in this tradition of going to war when our nation’s politicians call on us to do so.

 

“We will remember them.”

And at the bottom of the email were these final words:

“I wouldn’t dream of breaking this chain. Would you?”

So, although I know my day to post this week is a day late for the eleventh day of the eleventh month, but how could I not put these words out there, in the best way I know how, when called upon to do so? Especially as my own main protagonist is ex-British Army, and military or former military characters litter the pages of our novels.

So, ’Rati – this day or any day – who do you want to remember?

Face-to-Facebook?

by Zoë Sharp

This week’s been a bit up and down, in a mild kind of a way. Firstly, I went back to the wonderful library at Poulton-le-Fylde on Tuesday evening to do a talk. One of the librarians there, Ken Harries, has just retired, but turned out for the evening anyway, and Linda Robinson and the rest of the staff made me very welcome. Always nice when the turnout’s good enough so they have to bring out extra chairs. I think we’ve all done events where the staff outnumbered the audience …

 

That was the ‘up’ part. They even put me under a sign that said ‘Young People’ – what’s not to like?

Then, Wednesday, I was due to go to my writing group, which meet in a friend’s house about forty miles away. Long way to go for a writing group, I know, but this is the remnants of the Lune Valley Writing Group, which is now sadly defunct. The little local library where we used to meet in Caton village has even been closed down. It was this group who followed me through the trials and tribulations of writing my first novel and getting it into print. There’s now only four of us who meet with any regularity. They’re all excellent writers, who – vitally – don’t pull their punches when it comes to criticism, and I find their input extremely useful as a book progresses.

As I’m just about to dive into the next Charlie Fox book, I was looking forward to our meeting, even though it means getting home about midnight and I knew I still had this week’s Murderati blog to write (and, if I’m honest, no clue as to a topic). But, I was due a contact lens check in the morning, otherwise they can’t keep supplying me daily disposable lenses by post. I used to wear the permanent tinted lenses, which were brilliant, but eye problems – including a warning that I might completely lose my sight – put an end to that. So, important to have the regular check-ups, just to make sure nothing’s amiss.

But, this still meant we had all afternoon to kill, as it wasn’t worth doing the eighty mile round trip home and back again for a 7:00pm start. And then, at 18:04, I get a call on my mobile to tell me that two people can’t make it, so the meeting’s cancelled.

Ah well, that’s life. No point in getting upset about it, but I admit to a regretful moment about an afternoon spent wandering when we have mountains of things to do at home. Time lost, after all, is the one thing you just can’t get back.

And, on the bright side, it has given me a topic for this week’s blog. Writing groups. Are you a member – or have you ever been a member – of one? What did you feel you got out of it? If you stopped going, why?

When I first moved up to this neck of the woods, I looked for a local writing group, and one was just forming, but it seemed to me that the organiser wanted to use it as a platform for her own ideas on teaching us to write, rather than simply letting us bring our own work for feedback from the rest of the group. I know a certain amount of structure is good – a topic for next time, if people are stuck for what to write about – but it wasn’t what I was looking for, and I regret that I didn’t last long there.

The trouble is, I don’t live in a big city, and there aren’t lots of writing groups to choose from. And I’ve never been a member of one where anyone else was writing crime. So, I’m starting to wonder about joining an on-line group.

But I don’t know how that works.

The big problem is the written word. If someone says, to your face, “That piece of dialogue really doesn’t work for me. It’s clunky. It sounds like the writer needing to get information across to the reader, rather than two people talking.” Then you pick up on far more than the words. Body language, tone, emphasis, facial expression, all help to soften down the criticism into something you can process and accept. Dashed off in an email, it sounds like a damning condemnation.

Somebody once said there are six ways people can read a letter. Some people write things that are supposed to be tongue-in-cheek, and find themselves being taken much too seriously and causing great upset or offence. I know adding smiley faces to emails is supposed to be a bit naff, but I do it all the time now to show I’m only making a jokey comment that is not supposed to be taken literally. Having had someone ring up and yell at me down the phone for a throwaway remark I once put in an email, I’m now very careful about these things. It doesn’t always work, of course, and I know I often put my foot in it. Where do you think the heading ‘Changing Feet’ came from?

 

So, that in itself makes me wary of joining an on-line writing group. The whole purpose of on-line is that you don’t meet, so how do I know if the general personality of the people whose opinions I’m soliciting will fit in with my own ideas? You make decisions about people within minutes of meeting them, but how long does it take for those same opinions to form when all you have are emails or comments? Do people reveal themselves more fully in their writing than face-to-face, or do they hide behind the words?

And quite often I used to take along to my writing group the bits I wasn’t sure about. If you write something that you instinctively know is good, you’re happy with it. It’s the bits you have sneaky doubts about where you want a second – or even third or fourth – opinion. Do I really want to release unfinished, possibly dodgy bits of work onto the Internet? Who knows where it might end up, and what damage it might do?

Paranoid? Me?

So, I’m looking for advice and information, people. Can you recommend a good on-line crime/thriller writing group? If you’ve had any bad experiences of on-line or face-to-face writing groups, care to share? And just how do the damn things work, exactly?

This week’s Word of the Week is postiche, an adjective meaning superfluously and inappropriately superadded to a finished work; counterfeit or false. Also a noun meaning an inappropriate hairpiece or wig.

What’s It All About?

by Zoë Sharp

 

As I write this, Bouchercon is here.

And I’m not.

I wish all the best to my fellow ‘Rati who are attending. Have a glass of something non-alcoholic (well, maybe at breakfast?) for me.

You see, I realised quite a while ago that attending conventions like Bouchercon – and the Morley Literature Festival, which is where I was on Monday evening – is all bound up in what I love about being a writer. How good or bad I am at public speaking is another matter but, like someone who sings loud and lusty in the shower, at least I have a good time while I’m doing it.

I was mentioning this to my Other Half, Andy, while moodily clutching a hot water bottle to my busted rib as I contemplated not being in Indianapolis this weekend, and he came out with a question that brought me up short.

“But what is it you enjoy about actually writing?”

Now, Andy has a perfect right to ask that question, because he has to live with me when I’m trying to wrestle a book into submission, and it’s a long drawn-out and often extremely painful exercise. And when we first met I was only just a writer, with a couple of very minor published articles under my belt. In fact, he was the one who encouraged me to throw in the job I was doing and try writing articles full time. Without his support, I couldn’t have done it at all.

And, for a number of years, I wrote non-fiction with enough success for him to give up his job in turn and join me in the business. I diversified into the photography and we ambled along like that, doing very nicely thank you.

But I’d always wanted to write fiction and that urge kept coming back to taunt me. The sensible plan, of course, would have been to introduce short stories, interspersed with the feature articles I was already doing, and would have been less of a commitment in time and effort.

Well, nobody ever said I was sensible. (Can I draw your attention to the broken rib again?)

And then there was the whole death-threat letters business, which I won’t bore you with at this point. Suffice to say, that episode reawakened my interest in storytelling in general, and crime fiction in particular.

So I wrote a novel, had it turned down, rewrote it a couple of times, and that became my first book, KILLER INSTINCT, which will finally be coming back into print next year from Busted Flush Press. (Woo hoo!) I can’t remember much now about the actual writing process of that book, but I know there were long periods when I didn’t work on it at all. Nothing to do with not knowing what happened next, more to do with being convinced that nobody else would care what happened next.

I don’t suffer from writer’s block. I suffer from writer’s ‘oh-my-god-this-is-the-biggest-pile-of-crap-and-nobody’s-ever-going-to-want-to-read-it’ instead.

And, I admit, I’ve probably had a lot more of those moments since I was published than I had before.

So, why do I do it?

It has to have something to do with wanting to be creative in some way. Creativity is a very difficult character trait to define, and is probably worthy of a blog topic all by itself. But being creative in itself isn’t enough. Photography is a creative art in its own way – finding locations, angles, lighting – and I get a huge amount of satisfaction from being reasonably good at my job, to the point where I’d really be very reluctant to give it up completely because it fulfils a need for physical activity that sitting in front of a computer screen simply doesn’t provide.

Writing is a very focused kind of creativity. It’s not just the putting of words on paper, or I would have been more than happy to carry on writing non-fiction articles. The field was of interest to me and I was making a nice living doing it.

So, what do I actually enjoy about writing a novel? Maybe it’s the business of making ideas live and breathe, feeling them step off the page and speak their thoughts to me, take control of their own actions instead of being puppets who collapse, wholly inanimate, as soon as I stop working their strings.

After all, what child hasn’t harboured a secret hope that their toys come to life when you’re not looking and live lives of their own when we’re not looking? (No? Ah, that was just me then …) But I can still remember as a small child, sneaking up to the toy cupboard and yanking open the door in the hopes that I’d catch them at it, or at least not quite where I remembered leaving them. Hardly surprising the Toy Story movies were such a success.

Writing has to be one of the most difficult and often frustrating things to do. Sometimes, working out the intricacies of the plots makes you want to grab a Black & Decker and drill holes in your own head, just to get the ideas out of there. (No? Ah, just me again, then …)

The days I’ve agonised. The nights I’ve sweated. And at the end of it, someone can dismiss months or even years of effort with a contemptuous flick of the red pen, a dashed-off Amazon review. There are no marks for trying in this game. No quarter given.

So, what DO I enjoy? The business of creating my story and my world, and peopling it with characters who become real and bring pleasure to those who read them? Originally, I thought I was in control of my characters, but I’ve come to realise I’m much more of an observer, putting them down and watching them do things I didn’t plan on and can’t seem to influence beyond a nudge here or there. You can’t shove them into a course of action they really don’t want to follow. Believe me, I’ve tried. That’s when things really do grind to a full-scale halt.

And then we’re back to the agonising days and sweating nights again.

So, at the end of all this, I’m not entirely sure why I write. I just know it’s a compulsion. Something I have to do, however much the process often has distinct similarities with banging your head repeatedly and bloodily against a very stout brick wall.

My question, obviously, is why do YOU do it? If you’re not yet published, what dreams do you harbour for when you are finally in print? What is it about creating a work of fiction that appeals to you so much?

And if you have a good answer, can you let me know?

This week’s Word of the Week is periscian, which is a person living inside the polar circle, whose shadow moves round in a complete circle on those days on which the sun does not set. From the Greek peri, around, and skia, a shadow.

Exercising The Mind

by Zoë Sharp

Monday, I broke a rib – again. Not the same rib as last time, I don’t think, but one a bit lower down. Probably it was the turn of the next one along. There I was, hanging out of a moving car to do some low-angle tracking shots, we hit a bit of an undulation, and I heard it go crack.

Oh … arse.

Last time, it took about three months to mend and, of course, we’re coming into winter, which makes the damn thing ache when I’m outside. I shall have to set out on particularly cold days with a hot water bottle stuffed down the front of my jacket. Not exactly what the fashion mags predicted all the best-dressed people would be wearing this season.

It was my own fault, of course. Not the hanging out of a car bit – that’s considered entirely normal behaviour for me – but the very morning I bust it, Andy and I had been discussing exercise. Tempting fate, you might say.

Well, I’d been promising that I really must build time into the daily schedule over the winter to do some regular exercise again. It’s difficult when you don’t have a routine. We could be at home for days at a time, and then flying all over the country.

And I’m just about to dive into another book, so I know that when the writing’s going well, I won’t want to stop because … the writing’s going well. And if it’s being difficult, I also won’t want to stop because then I’ll feel it’s beaten me, and I want to keep worrying at it until I get it right. So, proper Catch 22.

I used to exercise, of course. A lot. At one point I was going to the gym and working out with weights five days a week, I rode horses, did a lot of aerobics. I’ve also cycled, raced dinghies, and done pilates and yoga, not to mention self-defence and house building. Not a recognised form of exercise, but it would have been very effective had we not largely existed on junk food while we were doing it. The local kebab shop and pizzeria’s profits have fallen dramatically since we completed the build.

But, about eighteen months ago we discovered a – I hesitate to call it a diet – an eating plan that really suits us. It’s called The Abs Diet, but you have to ignore the name. It’s sensible, the recipes are great, and we’ve both lost the best part of a stone (that’s 14lbs or just over 6kg) without trying. And, unlike the Atkins diet, it doesn’t cost you a fortune at the supermarket, either.

So, the next step seemed to be to get back into exercise, and not just for the physical health benefits, but the mental health ones, too. According to a report written by the Mental Health Foundation back in 2005, exercise is extremely effective for treating mild depression, the symptoms of which are:

  • less energy than usual
  • tiredness
  • poor concentration
  • difficulty sleeping (problems getting to sleep, waking up unrefreshed from a long sleep, or waking up very early)
  • loss of sex drive
  • disturbed eating patterns – either loss of appetite or eating too much (comfort eating)

All the symptoms, in fact, of a writer who’s struggling with a book.

The report reckoned that physical activity lasting between 20 and 60 minutes can help to improve a person’s psychological well-being. But even shorter bouts of moderate intensity walking (10 to 15 minutes) can significantly improve their mood. Physical activity increases the amount of hormones (endorphins) in our bodies that help us feel happy.

So, people with depression are recommended to follow a structured and supervised exercise programme of up to three sessions per week (lasting 45 minutes to one hour), for between 10 and 12 weeks.

Not only that, of course, but in the Northern Hemisphere we’re also coming into winter, which means shorter days and less sunlight, and that brings with it the onset of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) or winter blues. The symptoms are similar to depression, growing worse over December, January and February, and lifting in the spring, often with a short four-week period of over-activity or hypomania.

One of the most effective ways of treating this is light therapy, or sitting in front of a high-intensity light box for several hours a day. According to the SADA (Seasonal Affective Disorder Association) website:

Light therapy has been shown to be effective in up to 85 per cent of diagnosed cases. That is, exposure, for up to four hours per day (average 1-2 hours) to very bright light, at least ten times the intensity of ordinary domestic lighting.

Ordinary light bulbs and fittings are not strong enough. Average domestic or office lighting emits an intensity of 200-500 lux but the minimum dose necessary to treat SAD is 2500 lux, The intensity of a bright summer day can be 100,000 lux.

Light treatment should be used daily in winter (and dull periods in summer) starting in early autumn when the first symptoms appear. It consists of sitting two to three feet away from a specially designed light box, usually on a table, allowing the light to shine directly through the eyes.

The user can carry out normal activity such as reading, working, eating and knitting while stationary in front of the box. It is not necessary to stare at the light although it has been proved safe.

Treatment is usually effective within three or four days and the effect continues provided it is used every day. Tinted lenses, or any device that blocks the light to the retina of the eye, should not be worn.

Some light boxes emit higher intensity of light, up to 10,000 lux, which can cut treatment time down to half an hour a day.”

So, ideal for suffering writers to have near their computer monitor then, thus helping them concentrate on work and combat the disorder at the same time.

Fortunately, I don’t think I suffer from SAD. In fact, I find that the dark winter months are by far the best time for me to write. Perhaps it’s just that I’m not tempted to be outside doing Other Things as much, and the photography tends to be much more intense during the summer anyway. There’s something rather intimate about sitting in a little pool of light from a desk lamp, just you and the world you’re creating, with the darkness forming a barrier between you and the rest of reality. Perhaps that’s why I often work on dramatic scenes late at night. Or maybe I just procrastinate too much to get them done during the normal working day.

But, nevertheless, I promised myself I’d get some exercise done over the winter, and now it’s going to have to be something pretty gentle. There are always long walks, although these are hardly likely to prove gentle in this neck of the woods, where all the sheep have to get two legs shortened so they can lean into the wind.

So, help, ’Rati! I’m open to suggestions. Do you find exercise helps your concentration? If so, what do you do, and would you recommend it to others? How long have you been doing it, how frequently, and what do you like or dislike about your chosen method? And would it be suitable for someone who’s slightly crocked-up at the moment?

This week’s Word of the Week is another from my friend, Kate Kinchen. It’s circumferaneous, meaning going about or abroad; walking or wandering from house to house, or from market to market, as in a vagrant. From the Latin circum, around, and forum, a a forum or marketplace.

Outside the Box

Zoë Sharp

I spent last weekend at the excellent Reading Festival of Crime Writing (that’s pronounced ‘Redding’, the town in Berkshire, not as in ‘reading a book’) and a comment there by a particular author sparked off a couple of different trains of thought. The first thing was that this author not only used a pseudonym, but several of them for writing in different genres.

The reasons for this seem quite sensible. For a start, the author was often called upon to publish scientific papers under his own name, so when he first embarked on a career as a novelist obviously he did not want to run the risk that the scientific community might take his academic work less seriously because of his fictional activities, as it were.

But, does an author really have to assume new identities if they want to write outside their given field? It would seem the answer is yes.

When people ask what I write, I usually categorise myself as an author of a series of contemporary crime/thriller novels. Not a straightforward thriller, but not quite a mystery either. But perhaps I should just say that I’m a writer and leave it at that. And, if pushed, narrow it down to fiction, or say I’m a novelist.

But that’s not strictly true. If you ignore the unpublished (and probably unpublishable) children’s novel I wrote when I was fifteen, I started off as a non-fiction writer, and was producing a constant stream of technical and feature articles for magazines and newspapers for thirteen years before my first crime novel was published. (Indeed, it was my only means of income, so it had to be a steady stream, or I didn’t eat.) But I’ve also written comedy, after-dinner murder mystery games, the script for an audience-participation murder mystery play, song lyrics and short stories. The only things I haven’t attempted are screenplays and a graphic novel, but I have ideas for both …

So, what’s stopping me? Perhaps it’s something to do with the other half of that statement. That I define myself as a crime/thriller writer and am reluctant to step outside that niche. After all, when I was a non-fiction author, I found that by far the easiest way to get a steady source of work was to specialise. In my case, it was all about cars. Fortunately, I was (and still am) deeply into my cars, having a series of Triumph Spitfires in various shades of repair and a mid-engined Lancia Montecarlo that shall be firmly consigned to the Mistakes I Have Tried category.

And although I’ve now retired from the non-fiction writing in order to pursue fiction, my continuing photographic work still dovetails in nicely. And yes, it’s still nearly all cars, although I’ve done a few oddities such as ferries, people’s accident scars, and even taken the occasional author pic. But when I photograph things outside my main speciality, I don’t even consider using a pseudonym.

Perhaps this is because people are buying the magazine because of it’s overall subject, rather than because it contains the work of one particular contributor. People usually remember the photoshoots I’ve done, but not the fact that I was the one who did them.

Writing has more clearly delineated barriers. The author’s name on the cover is a large part of the selling point of the book. You’re buying a brand that you know and trust to deliver what you expect. You wouldn’t be happy if you picked up a box of washing powder and found it had breakfast cereal inside instead, although it would make trips to the supermarket much more exciting.

But, if an author is not to break their contract with the reader, they must deliver what the reader expects. If a cosy author suddenly produces a book which turns into a swearfest bloodbath, their readers are going to feel understandably cheated without some prior warning. I read Charlie Huston’s ALREADY DEAD, knowing his hero, Joe Pitt, was a Vampyre and fully accepting of where that would lead the character and the story. And thoroughly enjoyable the book was, too!

It’s only when you get into a book that seems to promise one thing and then deliver another that you could begin to feel frustrated. Or – if it’s handled well – intrigued, but that’s a risk few publishers seem willing to take in these straitened times.

But does a different writing style, even the departure from a series character, mean an author has to strike out under a new name? I can think of a number of writers who do two very different series alongside each other, under the same name. With a few of them, I love one series, and am not so keen on the other, so would it make a difference if they were written under different names? Or is the gamble that, if you like one series, you’ll at least be predisposed to give the other a try when you might otherwise not, and then it’s up to personal preference if you continue reading it or not.

Dorothy L Sayers had both her Lord Peter Wimsey and travelling wine salesman Montague Egg characters. Both were amateur sleuths, the main difference being that one used the tradesman’s entrance. And although I was a fan of Wimsey, I was never quite so fond of Egg.

But that’s just within the same genre. What if you want to step outside your current genre completely? Well, that’s actually quite difficult to do, when you consider how much element of mystery is contained in other genres, the boundaries are becoming much more blurred. With paranormal and romantic suspense so popular, your detective could just as easily be a werewolf as a tall, dark and handsome stranger. Whenever you have relationships between your characters, there is the possibility of not just sex, but romance.

And when you look at suspense, it’s a short step into horror, and my writer’s general ‘what if’ mentality makes me lean naturally towards sci-fi. After all, if you’re constantly reinventing the present, why not take it one step further?

I was fortunate enough recently to read an advance copy of Stuart MacBride’s sci-fi standalone, HALFHEAD, a rattling good serial killer/police procedural set in a grim Glasgow of the not-too-distant future where convicted serious criminals are mutilated and lobotomised by the state and given menial jobs. It’s a darkly humorous and highly violent tale that I struggled to put down. And such is Stuart’s position that he’s been able to write this as Stuart B MacBride rather than going under a completely different name. I’m not sure what the ‘B’ stands for – Bearded, probably.

Certain types of sci-fi like this really appeal to me. They’re often crime novels but with a strong investigative element, which is complicated by the advances in technology brought about by the slightly futuristic setting. I’m not so enamoured of the interstellar travel angle, but books like Peter F Hamilton’s MINDSTAR RISING trilogy are largely crime thrillers, set in the UK after global warming, and featuring his gland-enhanced psychic private eye, Greg Mandel. In fact, A QUANTUM MURDER is a classic English country house murder mystery, in which a brilliant professor is brutally murdered during a violent thunderstorm which cuts off the house and its occupants from the outside world, and the only suspects are the professor’s apparently devoted students, none of whom seem to be lying. Add to that the semi-recognisable setting of Rutland Water, a nice mix of past and future technology, and a wonderful writing style, and you have a fairly addictive mix.

That same ‘what if’ question translates just as easily into sci-fantasy – a quest, a chase. It’s a thriller by another name. But, I’m pretty sure if I mentioned any of the ideas I have for sci-fi projects, or the supernatural/horror novel that’s been bugging me for years, I’d meet with stiff resistance. A new name would definitely be called for.

So, as a writer, are you tempted to step outside your chosen genre, and if you’ve tried it, what were the effects? How much do you feel you already mix genres in your current writing?

And as a reader, would you read outside your chosen genre if it was an author you already knew and enjoyed, even if the book they’d written was not the kind of thing you’d normally read?

This week’s Word of the Week is more of a phrase of the week, it’s force and fear, which is a Scottish term for the amount of constraint or compulsion which is enough to annul an engagement or obligation entered into under its influence.

And finally, here’s a link to a You Tube clip by Kseniya Simonova called Sand Animation. For those of you who haven’t seen it, it’s stunning, and a beautiful example of how the mind and the eye can be fooled. Apologies that I am too technically inept to insert a proper video clip ;-[ 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=518XP8prwZo

Getting The Flavour

by Zoë Sharp

Last weekend we were in London, which is a fair old hike from where we live in the north-west of the country, but the more time I spend there, the more I rather like the place. I’m formulating ideas for a book that would be largely set there, so I wanted to just get a real feel for certain areas. I seem to need to do that when I’m looking for a location. A first visit gives me the atmosphere, then I’ll start writing, and a second visit ties down the details and the nitty-gritty.

I particularly wanted to visit Greenwich on this trip, so we took a river cruise from Tower Bridge and gently ambled down the Thames to Greenwich Pier. Greenwich itself is delightful, with a much more villagy feel than I was expecting, packed with small shops and pubs, and all kinds of exotic food in the market hall, not to mention the magnificence of the Naval College, and the rise of Greenwich Park up to the Royal Observatory, which not only contains the official dividing line between east and west, but also gives one of the best views in London, out over the Millennium Dome and across the Isle of Dogs to Canary Wharf. It’s only then you realise what a very flat city London is for the most part.

And much as you can look at pictures on Google Maps, or search the Internet, there’s often no substitute for actually going and seeing it for yourself – if only to prove that what you’re looking for is actually there. We’ve thought we’ve had some things pinned down on Internet satellite images recently that have turned out to be not quite where we expected them when we got there. I still think there’s value in the old saying of ‘write what you know’ but there’s even more value in writing things about which you’d like to know. It makes the research a lot more fun.

When I was writing THIRD STRIKE, the notes I’d made on a previous visit to New York City came in very useful for adding atmosphere to the book. I always have to remember that Charlie has a Brit perspective on places, and we certainly don’t have anywhere like Manhattan in the UK. I might not have used the detailed statue I found on the door of a church, but I think I did mention the old men playing chess in Washington Square Park.

 

Although photographs come in useful for research, they’re not the be-all and end-all for me. I’m not a happy-snap kind of person. I rarely if ever take a camera away on holiday with me because I want to see the place in full widescreen, rather than tunnelled down through the viewfinder of a camera. You miss so much that way. Besides, unless you take some time to set a shot up, and think about lighting and angles, you don’t really seem to capture the full majesty of whatever it is you’re photographing anyway.

I’d much rather make notes of an impression, a smell, a colour or a texture. The fact that the Boston Harbor Hotel had padded wallpaper in the lobby, the fact that the open-plan café in the Boston Aquarium made the lobby smell of fried fish.

It’s very easy to forget that we have a whole host of other senses, and the temperature of a place can anchor it as firmly as the look of it, as can the smell. We tend to forget that, living in the UK, where we get a kind of indeterminate mid-weather, neither desert hot nor Scandinavian cold, where America has every extreme in the same continent. Dazzling cold and oppressive heat can play as big a role in a story as any character, affecting the mood and actions of your protagonists.

What you really get in London, though, is a sense of jumbled up history, the brand new nestling alongside buildings that are hundreds of years old, churches scarred with shrapnel from the Second World War, and tiny crooked buildings that survived the plague and the Great Fire in the 1600s. There’s a real sense of something else lurking just beneath the surface, and the prospect of getting under the skin of the place is rather appealing.

So, my question is, what do you use to get to know a place you intend to use in a book? How do you capture the flavour of a street, a city, a village, a barren stretch of desert? Do you take pictures, hunt the Internet, make copious notes, or just go there and steep yourself in its atmosphere? And is there a line or phrase you’ve read or written that really summed up a place for you?

This week’s Word of the Week is palliard, meaning a professional beggar, a vagabond; a rogue or libertine, from the French paillard from paille straw, from the vagabond’s habit of sleeping on straw in barns.

Well begun …

by Zoë Sharp

As I’ve mentioned here before, I’m a sucker for a good opening line. It’s a question I usually ask a writer about their latest book and their answers are revealing, I think, ranging from a word-for-word quote, to a blasé “oh, I really can’t remember” as if they hadn’t slaved and sweated over it for days – or even weeks – to get it right.

When I did a post last year about opening lines, there were a few people who dismissed their importance, and I admit I’ve read a few that seemed to have been written purely to be memorable or shocking, rather than serving their true purpose. An opening line should grab you, yes, but then it has to deliver you into the right place in the story and hold you there.

So, now we come to the importance of opening chapters.

A book rarely, if ever, starts at the beginning of the story itself, and choosing the exact point at which you slide your reader into the tale is a very tricky one to judge.

In the classic private eye tale, of course, the book so often starts with the mysterious client walking into the PI’s office. The story has already begun, of course, or the client would not require the services of an investigator. This opening gambit serves several purposes. It allows the client to make telling comments about the hero’s appearance and character. “You look like you’ve been a prize-fighter.” Or “Captain John Doe down at the precinct gave me your name. He told me you were fired for insubordination.” The office may well be shabby, at which point the PI can point out that there isn’t much money in the business if you’re an honest man. All useful devices for getting across the flavour of the story and the character without labouring the point.

This also has the advantage of cutting straight to the heart of it. There will, after all, be a certain amount of detail contained on the book jacket, which is another reason why I usually write this bit first. It gives me a good idea of where to pitch the opening of my story. No point in having a big reveal about the identity of the hero’s love interest three-quarters of the way through the book, if the jacket copy declares, “He falls for a beautiful Russian double-agent!” or something similar. And I’ve seen this done recently more than once on books by very well-known authors.

Getting across your main protagonist’s character is key in the opening chapter – IF that’s where you introduce them into the story. In Lee Child’s ONE SHOT, for instance, Reacher doesn’t make his entrance until forty-five pages in. Nine books into a highly successful series, this works brilliantly to build up a sense of anticipation before the hero takes centre stage. Other characters mention his name, but have no clue who he is, and the reader feels in on the joke. With another writer, in a debut novel, that would not have worked so well.

Robert B Parker, in the opening chapter of NIGHT PASSAGE, introduces his ex-LAPD Homicide detective turned small-town police chief, Jesse Stone, in two simple pages that tell you he was a cop and he has a drink problem, as well as innumerable regrets about leaving behind his life in LA, not least of which involves a woman.

In Raymond Chandler’s classic THE BIG SLEEP, the opening chapter tells you a lot about private detective Philip Marlowe, by the snappy dialogue and the observations, although I note that in the film the exchange between Marlowe and Carmen Sternwood is altered from, “Tall aren’t you,” she said. “I didn’t mean to be.” to “Not very tall, are you?” “Well, I, uh, try to be.” possibly to take into account for the fact that Humphrey Bogart was only 5ft 8ins.

But I digress. The important thing is that the reader is given a real reason to read on, whether it be because of the set-up of the action, or from being hooked by the characters, and wanting to know what happens to them and their lives as the story progresses. Even with a series character, the writer has to bear in mind that people often come to the books out of order, so every time I start a new Charlie Fox book, I have to devise some method in the opening chapter for the reader to be shown the character without boring those who know her well.

Of course, what is not included in these opening chapters is a great deal of back story. Trying to cram too much back story about your characters into the opening of the book just gets in the way of the story, bogs it down and slows the overall pace. Plus you’re giving the reader information about people they haven’t come to care for. One agent I know says he often skips past the first three or four chapters of a new typescript because of this very problem, diving back in after the writer has settled down to just telling the story, rather than the story of how every character got to be here.

At the same time, I’m not a big fan of the cryptic prologue. It may work very well for other people to entice them into reading further, but I just find them irritating.

Other people, I know are against flash-forward opening chapters in a crime novel, but I admit to using it in SECOND SHOT, and again for the new book, FOURTH DAY. The definition of a flash-forward is an interjected scene that takes the narrative forwards from its current point. Although they can be projected, expected, or imagined, I have always tried very carefully to make sure that the opening chapters for both these books could be lifted from the start and slotted in between two later chapters, without alteration, and without cheating the reader at all. And these flash-forward openers are not taken from near the end of the book, either, although you can always spot the reviewers who didn’t read it all by the fact that they still assume this to be the case …

A flash-forward opener is different from a foreshadowing opener, which only hints at what might be to come, and is a technique used by writers to provide clues for the reader to be able to predict what might occur later in the story. An example of this is to describe a scene which includes an item later vital to the outcome of the plot, or the identity of the culprit, and often seems to be hidden among the contents of the dead man’s pockets, or the items arrayed across a desk, and is much beloved of Golden Age detective novels.

So, in my opening chapter, regardless of the book, I know I need to introduce my protagonist in such a way as defines their character and their relationship with those around them, jump into the heart of the story, hook old and new readers alike, and set the pace and tone for the rest of the book.

Simple really, isn’t it?

Do you have a particular technique you use for opening chapters? Do you have any pet hates or favourites as a writer or a reader? Which opening chapters of the ones you’ve written or read do you like best, and why?

This week’s Word of the Week is prolepsis, from the Ancient Greek meaning to anticipate. It’s often a figure of speech in which a future event is referred to in anticipation (as in calling a character ‘the dead man’ before he’s actually dead) or in which objections are anticipated and answered (as in “‘Ah,’ you might say, ‘but that is impossible!’ Not so, because …” although correctly this is called procatalepsis.

Working It Out …

by Zoë Sharp

First of all, I’ll start with an apology. I’ve been kinda quiet these last couple of weeks. (Oh, so you hadn’t noticed I was missing …?) Put it down partly to rushing about the country, going to Harrogate, and Caerleon, and partly down to needing some time to reflect on a lot of things. One of which is how we deal with people, and therefore how our characters interact and deal with each other.

Every now and again, somebody explains a theory to me and it just clicks. A little light bulb comes on in the brain and some abstract concept finally takes shape and form. So it’s been this week with something called Transactional Analysis. Not something I’d come across before, but once I had, I realised I was seeing it everywhere.

Now, I know it doesn’t exactly sound enthralling, but stick with me on this. Transactional Analysis, known as TA for short (although that still means Territorial Army to me) is a theory of psychology developed in the 1950s to explain how people are put together and how they relate and function in a group. Don’t worry, I’m not going to get all psycho-babble on you. (I’m blonde, remember).

TA works on the basis that everyone has three ego-states – Child, Adult, and Parent. These are present regardless of age and actual status as a parent. They govern your reactions to others. Most of us, most of the time, function on an Adult to Adult basis, but it’s very easy to slide into another response, forcing the other person to also alter their stance. Wikipedia gives the following examples.

 

Straightforward Adult to Adult exchange:

A: “Have you been able to write that report?”

B: “Yes – I’m just about to email it to you.”

 

Child to Child would be:

A: “Would you like to skip this meeting and go watch a film with me instead?”

B: “I’d love to – I don’t want to work any more, what should we go and see?”

 

And finally:

A: “You should have your room tidy by now!” (Parent to Child)

B: “Will you stop hassling me? I’ll do it eventually!” (Child to Parent)

These fall into fairly set patterns of behaviour and can go backwards and forwards like a tennis match. The problems occur when people cross from one ego-state to another during an exchange.

 

So, what starts out as an Adult to Adult exchange is altered by the response.

A: “Have you been able to write that report?” (Adult to Adult)

B: “Will you stop hassling me? I’ll do it eventually!” (Child to Parent)

 

and will often force A into a suitable Parent to Child response:

A: “If you don’t change your attitude, you’ll get fired.”

 

Equally, you can break this cycle, so:

A: “Is your room tidy yet?” (Parent to Child)

B: “I’m just about to do it, actually.” (Adult to Adult)

 

Of course, it may not be comfortable for someone who is in a Parent ego-state, and expecting a Parent to Child/Child to Parent reaction.

A: “I can never trust you do to things!” (Parent to Child)

B: “Why don’t you believe anything I say?” (Adult to Adult)

 

The trick, of course, is to be measured in your response, otherwise what should be reasoned argument comes across as petulance, which is not quite the same thing.

Of course, within these ego-states are other sub-states. Parent has the controlling aspect, and the nurturing aspect, which can both be negative and positive. Everyone wants to be encouraged and praised when they do well, but sometimes this can turn to smothering. Everyone wants to be guided, but not to the point of oppression, or being lectured to.

Likewise, the Child ego-state is either adaptive or free. Everyone needs, at some time or another, to follow instructions and do as they’re told, but being too adaptive can lead to submission, and too much freedom goes beyond confident, outside-the-box thinking into just plain rebelliousness and displays of temperament.

The more I think about these automatic underlying responses to the behaviour of others, the more sense it makes. For example, have you ever been in the situation where you’ve watched the reactions of a colleague, boss or friend towards another person, and thought, ‘If I’d said that to my colleague/boss/friend, they would have bitten my head off …’? If this is the case, perhaps that other person is not allowing your colleague/boss/friend to force them into playing the Child to Parent role, and your colleague/boss/friend is reacting accordingly by going for the straight Adult to Adult response. It’s probably completely subconscious rather than directed at you personally, and you have to react very carefully to turn this around and not head instantly for rebellious Child mode.

TA reasons that everyone’s psyche has these three ego-states and we naturally slide between them in all our dealings with other people. The problem comes when the balance becomes upset, either because you feel you’re being bullied by another person – constantly falling into the Parent to Child mode – or even because you feel you have to bully someone to get them to respond as you believe they should.

The answer depends on your temperament and self-confidence, to a certain extent. If you feel lectured by someone close to you – as often happens in a relationship where one partner Always Knows Best – then making a gentle joke of it is often the best way forwards, so they recognise what they’re doing and it’s not being pointed out to them in such a way as to provoke an angry response.

In a business relationship, sitting down and calmly explaining to the person that you have a problem with them and asking how best to solve it is the only way forwards – forcing an Adult to Adult exchange and not letting it degenerate into a Child to Parent slanging match. (Cue cries of “It’s SO unfair!”)

Anyway I found all this stuff fascinating, because it gives me plenty of food for thought about the way my characters interact with each other. And as I’m just planning the next book where Charlie has to bodyguard an immature girl, there will be plenty of scope for Parent to Child interactions.

So, my questions are, does this make any sense whatsoever? Have you ever felt yourself reacting to others in the ways described and not been aware of it? Do you think this is a useful character-building tool from a creative writing point of view?

OK, lesson over, now to have some fun!

I came across these pix this week, wonderful examples of creative stupidity or ingenious bodges, all of them, and I thought you might enjoy them.

 

 

 

 

This week’s Word of the Week is suppedaneum, which is the support under the foot of a crucified person. I’m not sure what bothers me most about this – the fact that such a footrest was devised to prolong the agonies of crucifixion, or that it has a special name.

 

A Peculier Crime

by Zoë Sharp

By the time you read this, I’ll be in Harrogate for the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival. Harrogate is now in its seventh year, and is one of the largest of its kind in the world. It’s very different from the US conventions I’ve attended, as you have to be invited to take part on one of the range of panels, and only one panel track is run at any one time, ensuring large capacity audiences. Fortunately, as the whole thing is professionally miked and lit, you can’t see much beyond the spotlights anyway when you’re up on the stage, which tends to help authors who are a little shy or not used to performing in front of so many people.

Harrogate also differs from many conventions in that you can buy tickets for individual panels, as well as weekend rover passes, although many people never quite manage to make it out of the bar. However, I’m sure the prospect of listening to Lee Child, George Pelecanos, ‘The Wire’ creator David Simon, Mark Billingham, Christopher Brookmyre, Ken Bruen, Allan Guthrie, Stuart MacBride, Denise Mina, Andrew Taylor, Martyn Waites, Caro Ramsay, Chris Simms, Val McDermid, Laura Wilson, NJ Cooper, etc, will be more than enough to ensure packed houses for every event.

Among the silly things I’ll no doubt be doing over the weekend, I’m giving a workshop as part of the opening day, Creative Thursday, on self-defence and writing action scenes. Andy, brave soul that he is, has volunteered to be my Crash Test Dummy for this. Practise for that quickly degenerated into undignified grappling and fits of giggles, I can tell you – there was a water pistol involved – but we shall endeavour to be serious on the day.

Other workshops taking place will be the Award-winning writer Laura Wilson talking to CSI officer Andy Manns; lawyer and crime author Martin Edwards will be unravelling the legal side of crime writing; exploring the structures of a novel from ancient to modern with crime author and Head of Writing at Liverpool John Moores University, Adam Creed; a discussion between author Mark Billingham, abridger Kati Nicholl, and actor Adjoa Andoh about adapting for audiobook; and finally the Dragons’ Pen.

This latter event gives would-be authors two minutes to pitch their story to a panel comprising top agents Jane Gregory and Philip Patterson, and editors David Shelley of Little, Brown, and Selina Walker of Transworld. A scary prospect indeed, but worth the risk to get your idea in front of such a line-up, even if there is the danger of crashing and burning in spectacular fashion.

So, I hope you’ll excuse the short post this week, and I’ll leave you with the question have you ever attended a writing workshop – either a course or a single day event? If not, what puts you off? And if you have, what did you gain from it? Is there one specific piece of advice that stands out?

Last week, of course, were the CWA Dagger Awards, held at Tiger, Tiger in Haymarket, London. I was nominated for the CWA Short Story Dagger for ‘Served Cold’, which originally appeared in the Busted Flush anthology A HELL OF A WOMAN, edited by Megan Abbott, and was published in the UK in THE MAMMOTH BOOK OF BEST BRITISH CRIME, published by Constable & Robinson. The worthy winner was Sean Chercover, for ‘One Serving of Bad Luck’ from KILLER YEAR, published by MIRA. Many congrats to him, and also to Colin Cotterill, winner of the CWA Dagger in the Library; to Fred Vargas for THE CHALK CIRCLE MAN, winner of the CWA International Dagger; and finally to Catherine O’Keefe, winner of the CWA Debut Dagger for the opening section of her novel, THE PATHOLOGIST.

This week’s Word of the Week is deprehend, meaning to catch, to seize, to detect, whereas apprehend means to lay hold of, to arrest, to be conscious of by the senses, to lay hold of by the intellect, to recognise or catch the meaning of, to understand, to consider, conceive or look forward to, and to anticipate, especially with fear.