Category Archives: Zoë Sharp

What Lies Ahead

by Zoë Sharp

This week, besides getting some much needed construction work done on the garage – smashing out old window frames out with a brick bolster and a lump hammer is so therapeutic – I’ve been Outlining.

Producing an outline for a book not yet written is a contentious point with writers. Some people sneer at the very idea that you can plan a book in any kind of detail before you start. It ruins the spontaneity, they reckon, makes it dull and staid. After all, what’s the point of writing the book if you already know everything that happens?

Well, I’m one of these people for whom knowing the end of the story doesn’t spoil it for me. In fact, I often enjoy a book or a movie more the second time around, when I’m not worrying about what comes next and I can simply enjoy the ride.

And agents and publishers these days like to have an idea of what they’re getting, in advance. Beyond anything else, the basic synopsis gives them – and therefore me – a good idea of whether the underlying idea appeals to them or not. If it doesn’t, then I’m fighting a losing battle before I put the first word on screen.

With the latest Charlie Fox novel delivered, I’m in the thumb-twiddling and nail-biting period, so the best way to distract myself is to plan the next one. Obviously, in a series there are a lot of factors that are carried over from the last book. Particularly in a series where the main character develops from book to book, rather than remaining static. Up to now, I’ve tried very hard to keep each story independent – so the books can be read out of sequence without problem.

But, inevitably, this has had to change. This time, there is a lot of carry-over from the events of the last book. And by that I don’t mean I left the main plot hanging. There was a satisfactory resolution on that front, but it was the personal story line that’s ongoing. And in the next one, Charlie’s life has been turned even further upside down. She will question all her beliefs in order to follow a course of action that could be her downfall on every level.

Producing a coherent outline is a headache. As is always the case about now, I drag out the outline from the last book to try and work out how on earth I put this thing together before. Trust me, it gets no easier.

The old outline is usually looking a bit grubby and sorry for itself by now, having been dragged everywhere with me like a child’s tatty comfort blanket. It has been much pawed over and scribbled on by the time it was put away, and it is now covered in pencil corrections and amendments and … probably bears very little resemblance to the finished book. The main plot points usually stay the same, though, and while the details may change, it at least gives me the basic story arc, and tells me at any given point how far through the story I ought to be, as certain key elements fall into place. It helps me keep track of the pace.

Once my basic idea has formed out of the ether, the first thing I always write is the imaginary jacket copy. I pick up the book in my mind, turn it over and read the back of the jacket. Does the idea grab me? I mean, really grab me? It better had, because I’m going to have to spend months immersed in it. When I go back through my files, this is exactly what I put together for THIRD STRIKE, before I began to write the book:

‘I was running when I saw my father kill himself. Not that he jumped off a tall building or stepped in front of a truck but – professionally, personally – what I watched him do was suicide.’

The last person that ex-Special Forces soldier turned bodyguard, Charlie Fox, ever expected to self-destruct was her own father, an eminent consultant surgeon. But when Charlie unexpectedly sees him admitting to gross professional misconduct on a New York news programme, she can’t just stand by and watch his downfall.

That’s not easy when Richard Foxcroft, always cold towards his daughter, rejects her help at every turn. The good doctor has never made any secret of his disapproval of Charlie’s choice of career or her relationship with her boss, Sean Meyer. And now, just as Charlie and Sean are settling in to their new life in the States, Foxcroft seems determined to go down in a blazing lack of glory, taking his daughter and everyone she cares about down with him.

But those behind Foxcroft’s fall from grace have not bargained on Charlie’s own ruthless streak. A deadly professional who’s always struggled to keep her killer instinct under control, this time she has very personal reasons for wanting to neutralise the threat to her reluctant principal.

And when the threads of the conspiracy reach deep into a global corporation with almost unlimited resources, the battle is going to be bitter and bloody …

Now, in that case, I already had my opening lines as well. The whole thing is less than 250 words. And, as a bonus, it more or less follows the finished book!

After that initial half-page, I start to put together my back story. Very few books start at the absolute beginning of the story, and because Charlie Fox is working in close protection, there has to be a threat of some kind to the client before she’s brought in. I need to know what it is, and more or less everything that’s happened up to the point at which she – and the reader – join the tale.

This is where a first-person narrative is both a blessing and a curse. A lot of the back story will take place off camera. If Charlie wasn’t actually there, she has to find out this information somehow, in such a way that it doesn’t put the reader – or the writer, for that matter – to sleep in the process. But at the moment all I want to know is what happened before, in broad strokes. Trying to work out exactly how Charlie fits into all this would clog me up and slow me down. Detail comes later.

Having got my back story and decided my jumping-off point for the book, I write down the main structure points. An attack on the principal. An ambush on the road. A meeting. A double-cross. A confrontation between the characters. I start off with the whole thing as bare-bones as I can get away with, and then I go over it, again and again, adding a little more detail with each layer, as the twists and turns make themselves apparent.

This is where having my back story to hand is so useful, as I can put the two side-by-side and see where Charlie’s story intersects with the back story, to make sense of the course of events. Ever watched an old James Bond film and wondered how the villain’s identically dressed henchmen always seemed to turn up in the right place at the right time to pursue 007? If anyone asks me the same question, I should be able to answer it from the back story. (And, if I can’t, I need to find that answer, pdq.)

And, with apologies to all the techie crowd out there, I do this on paper in pencil. Usually on a fold-over clipboard so I can use it in the car or wherever, and always have a flat surface to write on. The clipboard also doubles as a handy laptop tray, to stop me cooking my legs if I’m working on screen for any length of time.

The hardest part of plotting, as always for me, is the misdirection, where Charlie has to believe something other than the truth is going on, and someone other than the culprit is responsible. This usually occurs to me as I’m layering it in. Anything happening behind the scenes, I put in brackets in my outline, as an aside to myself, just so I know what’s really going on.

Having got my basic outline, I then do my cast list. Some will be continuing characters, but a lot will be new people, and at this stage I only need a brief idea of who they are. They will introduce themselves to me more fully as I go along. I’ve tried doing full biographies for characters before I start, and it just doesn’t work for me. I need to ‘meet’ them, in person, in context, before I really know who they are.

For the last few books I have had the privilege of adding in the character of someone who has bid at a charity auction for the right to be included. In SECOND SHOT this was Frances L Neagley, who became a Boston Private Investigator. In THIRD STRIKE, it was Terry O’Loughlin – a Texas lawyer for a pharmaceutical giant. In the latest book, FOURTH DAY, the winner particularly wanted her name used in such a way that possibly only she would recognise it. And in the new book I have not one, but two characters to incorporate – a mother and daughter. Fortunately, before I started outlining I had vague plans for a father and daughter as central characters, but a mother and daughter works even better.

Unless they’re auction bidders, finding names for new characters can be a bit of a chore. Fortunately, I can always call on various random name generator sites, including this one, which will allow you to be more specific, asking for names suitable for a hillbilly, a rapper, or a goth, as well as specifying country of origin.

At this stage, this is just a rough idea of who I need to people my world, trying to make sure all of them don’t have names beginning with the same letter, or ending with a similar sound, which can lead to confusion. I went to a writing group meeting last week and someone read out a story in which all the main characters had names beginning with ‘B’, a fact which she hadn’t noticed before bringing the story to the group.

What I try not to plan in detail is the reactions of the characters to the events of the book. That I like to leave as a more organic process, arising naturally out of the circumstances in which they find themselves. Dusty’s excellent blog from yesterday (see below) explained all the main archetypes and the cliché pitfalls that dot our path. Although there may only be a limited number of plots and – it would seem – a certain number of character types, it’s the way you as a writer choose to combine these, in your voice, that makes your story unique.

Of course, a lot will change by the time the book is finished, but for me it’s like going on a car journey at night. I know roughly the direction I’m travelling in. I know where to turn and which signs to follow. And I know where I ultimately want to end up. But as I drive fast into the darkness, a lot of the detail of the landscape and the road ahead is hidden, and I can only see with any clarity the area directly in front of the headlights.

With an outline, I have my road map and I do a little rolling detail outline as I go along, so I know the immediate future, the immediate path ahead, but occasionally obstacles and obstructions and detours crop up that you don’t expect, and then you – and your characters – have to react as best they can and hope you don’t crash.

So, where do you stand on the whole outline or not-outline issue. If you’re an outliner, how does your method of putting the whole thing together vary from mine? And, if you’re not an outliner, how do you set about getting into a new book?

This week’s Word of the Week is Juggernaut. With an initial capital, this means a very large lorry, but it also means any relentless destroying force or object of devotion or sacrifice; an incarnation of Vishna, whose idol at Puri is traditionally drawn on a processional chariot, beneath which devotees were once believed to throw and crush themselves. Also Jugannath, from Jagannatha, lord of the world.

And finally, as the only Brit member of the ‘Rati crew, I feel I ought to mention the fourth anniversary on Tuesday of the London bus and Underground bombings, which took place on July 7th 2005. They have just erected a memorial to the dead in Hyde Park in London – a collection of columns to represent the fallen, standing tall.

 

 

 

What’s in Your Bag?

by Zoë Sharp

There have been some brilliant posts here lately, and I’ve missed them, dammit.

I’ve been head down, full tilt in the latest rewrites which are finally, out of the way. (Hurrah!) Yup, I’m finally in that nice little cosy cocoon between sending off and hearing back, when all things are possible and all hopes are, as yet, undashed.

I have my fingers, eyes, and toes crossed. Which makes it pretty difficult to type, I can tell you.

But, this means I can get round to all the email that’s built up over the last couple of weeks. Most of it is very straightforward, but in among the usual correspondence is the odd little gem, like this request from a local librarian:

“I am giving a talk to the Mothers Union in September and the theme is ‘Handbags’. I am hoping to get some photos and details from famous people like yourself to send me a photo of their favourite handbag and what is the most unusual thing they carry around in it.

“I know this sounds like a strange request and perhaps like your famous character, Charlie Fox, you don’t have a ‘handbag’. Unless she carries her gun around in it!

“I look forward to your reply.”

How could I resist something like that? Of course, having the kind of twisted mind that I do, my first thought was, could this information be used for some sinister purpose? Not that I think for a MOMENT that a nice Lancashire librarian has any designs on my handbag, don’t get me wrong. But from such things as this, whole plots sometimes spring. I had a run-in with a car insurance salesman last week, and THAT is just crying out to become the nucleus for a serial-killer book, let me tell you. Oh, boy …

But anyway, back to the handbags.

I’ve never been a big handbag kind of a girl. Mainly because, if I carry one, it tends to become less of a dainty purse and more of a heavy duty rucksack. It’s simply one of the laws of physics that junk expands to fill the square of the space available. So it is with handbags. What starts out containing keys and a cellphone ends up filled with just-in-case essentials that require either weekly visits to the chiropractor to realign your spine, or employment of a pack mule.

So, if I’m just nipping out to run a quick errand, my wallet and change go in my pocket, my cellphone goes on my belt, and my keys are in my hand. This latter also doubles as a handy self-defence tactic, but that’s another story.

But, for longer trips, there’s other Stuff that a writer just can’t get away without. So, yes, I have an all-purpose handbag, and here it is.

Damn fine splendid, isn’t it? The G&Co refers to my literary agent, Jane Gregory & Company, and the bag was a Christmas gift several years ago. Not exactly ideal as a slinky dinky evening carry, I admit, but incredibly useful all the same.

And it certainly gets a lot of use.

In fact, this bag went all over the States with me, when I was touring FIRST DROP. It’s large enough to take a lap top, a rolled-up evening dress and a pair of heels, and small enough not to rick my back trying to lug it around. It has an outside flap covering the main pockets for additional security, and a strap long enough to go over my shoulder. Of course, for perfection I’d like steel wire in the strap, too, so passing bag-snatchers can’t knife through the strap and make off with it, but I try to a) be aware of who’s coming up behind me, and b) not put myself in those kind of locations to begin with.

So, what’s inside? Well, oddments, I suppose. Some of which I’d no idea were still there. In fact, when I emptied the contents out to make an inventory, it was a pretty good excuse to have a clear-out.

1. Swiss Army Knife memory stick

Since I acquired this at the Reacher Creature party at Bouchercon in Baltimore, I’ve carried it everywhere. Not just because I’m a big Lee Child fan – although, of course, I am. It’s a much smaller version of the Swiss Army knife I’ve carried for years, but it has all the essentials: back-up copy of the latest book (along with the memory stick’s original contents – the first chapter of GONE TOMORROW), pen, knife, nail file, scissors, red light. OK, not so sure about that last one, but everything else is great.

2.  Headache pills, eye drops, antiseptic wipes 

I get rotten headaches that I have to stamp on as soon as they start to rear their ugly … well, head, I suppose. Otherwise they’re the kind where even the weight of your own hair is too much to bear. So paracetamol and ibuprofen, which I occasionally take together for their anti-inflammatory benefits, in case of bad neck/back. The Visine is a lifesaver when I’m travelling, because air-con makes my eyes resemble two fried tomatoes, as does several days of continuous contact lens wear, if I’m away doing shoots. And the antiseptic wipes are so I can clean my hands before shoving one finger into my own eye to either insert or remove said lenses.

3. Elastic bands 

Great for not only holding things together, but also for taking them apart. An elastic band will get the lid off a stubborn jar or, in my case, the stuck skylight filter off the end of a lens.

4.  Mints 

Always handy to have around, especially after that inadvised lunchtime garlic dip.

5.  Flashlights 

Yes, plural. I carry two. One is a little Maglite, which is wonderful for map reading in strange cities at night, when putting the interior light on would a) distract the driver and b) tell every drive-by gang-banger that Here Be fresh meat. Now I also have one of these little LED things that attaches to my keys, which is handy because I have it with me all the time, but you do have to squeeze it all the time you want it on. Very useful during power cuts in ladies’ lavatories. (Don’t ask.)

6.  Giant tie-wrap 

Officially, I carry this because of its versatile repair qualities. We were once doing a photoshoot on an extremely quick race car, when the down-force ripped away part of the front ground effects kit. A giant tie-wrap is just the thing to fasten the bits together long enough to get you home. And I absolutely DO NOT carry it because it would, entirely hypothetically speaking, make an ideal pair of instant PlastiCuffs for any would-be burglar or mugger. Uh-uh, no way …

7.  Sweeteners 

I happen to like Splenda in my coffee, and can’t stand certain other brands, which are sometimes all that’s on offer. The only disadvantage with carrying this is that it rattles when I walk. Either that, or I’ve started to rattle when I walk. Hm, maybe I better check that out.

8.  Ziplock bag of almonds and raisins

Emergency rations. When I’m in the middle of a photoshoot, I usually don’t have time to stop and eat, but if the shoot’s a big one, eventually my hands start to shake, which is not the best situation for a photographer. I stopped snacking on motorway services junk last year, and started carrying a bag of almonds and raisins instead. Marcona almonds are the best – lightly toasted. And, when you’ve finished eating, the Ziplock bag can come in useful, too.

9.  Ear defenders in old film pot 

You never know when you’re going to need a set of these. Not that I’m expecting gunfire, but the guy in the next hotel room could snore for Britain, in which case they ensure a good night’s sleep. And your hearing is so important – and so easily damaged – that it’s a good standby that takes up very little room. I keep mine in an old film canister, which is airtight and waterproof, and great for other things, too.

10.  Notebook, propelling pencil, ruler 

Ah, finally we come to the writer-y bits. I think best in pencil, and the last time I flew I was told you’re not allowed to carry a pencil sharpener onto a plane any more (?!) so I invested in a nice propelling pencil instead. And a ruler because I like to doodle house and room designs in anticipation of our next build.

And then we come to the slightly stranger stuff:

11.  Out-of-date map of the London Underground 

Hm, November 2007. Have they changed it much since then? Not sure. Still, very useful thing to carry, although since I stopped going to committee meetings for the Crime Writers’ Association, I don’t need to have it in there.

12.  Neck pillow 

This is still lurking in the bottom from the last long flight, I think. Occasionally useful to have in the car, but that’s where it ought to live – in the car.

13.  two £1 book tokens for a bookstore that no longer exists 

Damn, why didn’t I spend these before Ottakar’s was taken over by Hammick’s? Come to think of it, I think Hammick’s has now been taken over by Waterstone’s. Just how old are these things?

14.  piece of extremely rude Dutch toilet paper 

OK, not actually going to show much of this, just in case of offending any Dutch speakers out there. I happened across this in the loo of a little back street garage in Burnley, Lancashire. We asked the garage owner if he’d recently been to Holland, and he said no, it came from the Everything Less Than A Pound shop in the town centre. Out of prurient curiosity, we took some along to CrimeFest for Adrian Muller to translate for us. He did a bit of it, went very pink, and promised to do the rest later. Still, I now know at least one very rude word in Dutch …

And finally:

15.  Improvised knuckle-duster 

Hellfire, what’s that still doing in there! This was something I made for my Creative Thursday workshop at last year’s Harrogate Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, which was entitled ‘How To Kill Someone With Loose Change’ and was all about improvised weapons. This was a little piece I made out of a cheap table fork, and caused constant fascination at the event. But, I could probably be arrested on the spot for carrying it, so by the time you read this I will have already removed it from my person!

 

   So, while I realise that all you manly men out there will, naturally, disdain at the idea of carrying a handbag, with or without such contents, what’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever found in a pocket, bag, or the glove compartment of your car?

If you could only keep one item, what would it be?

In an ideal world, what would you LIKE to have in there. And no bottomless pints of beer or X-ray specs, please. Well, OK then, if you insist …

I’m away on shoots all day today – with my G&Co bag, of course – but I will be back to answer your comments later this evening.

And this week’s Word of the Week is salto, meaning a daring leap, or (in gymnastics) a somersault. Also, salto mortale, meaning a mortal or fatal leap.

 

Don’t Miss It

by Zoë Sharp

In India, it falls on March 14th. In the United States, on April 13th. In Australia, April 22nd. Us poor saps in the UK have to wait until June 2nd, a little ahead of Canada at June 6th. But for the put-upon folk of Sweden and Norway, that celebrated day doesn’t fall until July 29th.

What am I talking about?

Tax Freedom Day. Officially, Tax Freedom Day is, according to Wikipedia, the first day of the year on which a nation as a whole has theoretically earned enough income to fund its annual tax burden. The precise date is recalculated every year by the Tax Foundation. April 13th was this year’s average date for you happy Americans, although it varies from state to state. In Alaska it was actually March 23rd, whereas the people of Connecticut had to slog on to April 30th before their federal duty was done.

And no, this isn’t a rant about the level of overall taxation, although according to the Tax Foundation, back in 1900 you would have been all settled up by January 22nd. Think yourself lucky. Over here, income tax was introduced by William Pitt the Younger in 1798 as a ‘temporary measure’ to pay for weapons and equipment for the forthcoming Napoleonic wars. Oh, that old story …

But this is not a history lesson, either.

This is a very roundabout way of me asking, “Do you enjoy what you do?”

You better had, because – if you’re living in the States – you’re working the first four months of the year for the benefit of others. We’re working the first half. And perhaps the reason for the Scandinavians famed black-and-white Bergman-bleak demeanour is the constant reminder of their fiscal responsibilities.

But for the majority of us, we’re so busy putting one foot in front of another on this rocky road we’re travelling, eyes down, trying not to stumble, that we don’t have time to admire the view. I know people who work nine-to-five, five days out of seven, who can’t begin to wind down from the stresses of the working week until halfway through Saturday. By Sunday lunchtime, the spectre of Monday morning is starting to loom large and wind them back up again.

A few years ago, we took on handling PR work for a client who was … difficult, shall we say. Not deliberately so, I have to admit, but a combination of being both somewhat indecisive and extremely busy does not make an easy combination for any business relationship. But we were offered a decent retainer and we leapt into the job with some enthusiasm that gradually dwindled as the months wore on.

Going to see the client involved getting off the motorway and dropping down a long hill into the town. Eventually, it got to the stage where our spirits would sink with the descent. There was a petrol station about halfway down. We’d stop to fill up even if we didn’t need to, just to delay our arrival by a few minutes more.

Eventually, we realised that the money was simply not worth it, and we parted amicably. They were – and still are – very nice people. But we’ve met a lot of very nice people that we would not like to work for. People who do not suffer from stress personally, but are definitely carriers.

And if dealing with such people causes you unhappiness, you have two choices. One, rearrange your life so you no longer have to deal with them. Or Two, rearrange something within yourself that means you can cope with them more easily, because they sure as hell are not going to change to suit you. Most of the time, there is no malice in them. They probably have no idea they’re making you miserable.

And if there is, and they do, then you owe it to yourself to take Door Number One.

Easy to say, hard to do, I know. The grass is always greener and cleaner on the other side of someone else’s fence. Press your face up to the rosy-tinted glass and the view inside is always more tempting than the garbage-strewn street in which you stand.

As a species, we need a certain amount of stress in our lives. Stress gets the heart pumping, leads to the endorphin rush of relief. No pain, no gain. But too much pain is bad for anybody.

So, are you happy?

And if the answer is anything other than a resounding, unequivocal, unhesitating, “Yes!” what will it take to make it so?

The glib answer is always a lottery win, a publishing deal, the number one spot on the New York Times best-seller list, but those are material things. If you believe you are dependent on outside factors for your own contentment, you always will be. Living in poverty is miserable, sure, but there are plenty of miserable millionaires, too. Financial wealth won’t cure all your problems, it will just give you a whole new different set to worry about, to cloud your day and clog your mind.

So, what do you want? And how are you going to get there? There’s the old story of the traveller stopping for directions in rural Ireland, only to be told, “Well, if I were you, I wouldn’t be startin‘ out from here.”

Are you where you want to be? And, if not, what have you done today to bring you one step closer to it? After all, your tax commitment for the year is complete. From here on in, you’re working for yourself.

Some people never have a clear ambition in life, while others have a goal that they never quite attain. I’m not entirely sure which is sadder. Ask an average teenager what they want to do when they’re finally paroled from the education institution, and what you get mostly is a laid-back, dunno shrug. OK when you’re mid-teens. Not so cool when you’re hitting bad-back middle-age and you realise you’re probably closer to the finish line than you are to the start.

Unless you’re into reincarnation, life is a one-shot deal, a one-lap race, a never-to-be-repeated opportunity, a last-chance to see.

Don’t miss it.

This week’s Word of the Week is guarish, meaning to heal.

PS. I finally got around to sorting out some of the pictures from CrimeFest and Mayhem in the Midlands, which you can view from the picture gallery page on my website.

And now, a bit of BSP. I’m thrilled to have been nominated for the CWA Short Story Dagger for ‘Served Cold’, which was first published in the States the Busted Flush anthology, A HELL OF A WOMAN, and first published in the UK in THE MAMMOTH BOOK OF BEST BRITISH CRIME. As the other nominees are Lawrence Block, Sean Chercover, Laura Lippman, Peter Robinson and Chris Simms, I hold out absolutely no hopes of winning, but shall bask content in their company until the results are announced on July 15th.

 

Also, many congratulations to our Louise for her Nero Award nomination for THE FAULT TREE.

A Tale of Two Countries …

by Zoë Sharp

On the face of it, it seemed like the world’s worst bit of planning. Two conventions, one weekend after the next. One in Bristol UK, and the other in Omaha Nebraska. One set of rewrites entering their final throes. The day-job. Not enough hours in the day.

 

And I know, I know – Einstein managed with just the standard twenty-four, but the relative pace of life, as it were, has speeded up a little since his time.

 

First up was CrimeFest in Bristol, only in its second year but great fun once again. Organisers Adrian Muller and Myles Allfrey also ran the Left Coast Crime event in Bristol in 2006, which gave them the taste for the job. One of the nicest things is the audio books given away in the book bags. An unusual feature, but a cool one. I wouldn’t go out and buy audio books over their paper cousins, but I’m acquiring a taste for them.

 

As always, a great deal of time was spent in the bar at Bristol. For someone who doesn’t drink, I do seem to hang out there rather a lot for some reason. It’s great who you can end up spending time talking to, and who you can quietly observe Up To No Good at the same time …

 

The event kicked off with the Pub Quiz on the Thursday evening, which was held across the road from the convention Marriott at the Greenhouse pub. Quizmasters Peter Guttridge and Mike Stotter promised it would be less esoteric than last year, but we failed to appreciate that they make stuff up for a living. Either that, or I fell out of a stupid tree and hit more or less every branch on the way down. If it hadn’t been for the formidable knowledge of Simon Brett and Ayo Onatade on our team – which went by the name MPs On Expenses – we would have been royally stuffed.

 

On Friday, I had the privilege of interviewing the Toastmistress of the event, Meg Gardiner. Meg was not a difficult interviewee, it has to be said, having such gems in her background as being taken along to an armed robbery during a High School ridealong with the police, and once having been a mime, as well, of course, as being a best-selling author.

Friday afternoon was my panel, which was supposed to be all about the main protagonists of the panellists being ex-Special Forces, and included Matt Hilton, Adrian Magson, EV Seymour and Ruth Dudley Edwards, as well as myself. I’m not quite sure how it happened, but we seemed to become fixated on torture, even though out of seven books so far for me, torture only plays a small, relatively non-graphic role in one chapter of one book. Eventually, a lady on the front row piped up with the comment that she didn’t read the kind of books we wrote and she wanted to know a) how could we do it, and b) did anybody actually enjoy them?

 

I’m sure you can fill in your own response here, as appropriate. Has anybody ever got hold of totally the wrong end of the stick about your books and refused to let go?

 

Friday evening was the launch for the CRIMINAL TENDENCIES anthology, in which I have a Charlie Fox short story. Part of the proceeds from this anthology goes to benefit breast cancer charities, so I was delighted to see the party so well attended. We spent some time talking to one of the featured guests, Swedish author Håkan Nesser. Very tall and possessing of a very dry wit, I discovered that he was also one of those irritating people of whom it is impossible to take a bad photograph. The camera just loves him.

 

Saturday evening was the Gala Dinner, which we had not planned to attend, but were asked to take some photographs, so we snuck in at the last minute. Nice to see people in their finery, particularly Linda Regan and her husband, Brian Murphy, looking very dapper. And David Headley from Goldsboro Books, one of the sponsors, who had come in his best James Bond tux.

 

Other highlights, in no particular order, were listening to International Guest of Honour, Michael Connelly; hearing the inimitable Gyles Brandreth interview Simon Brett; watching Maxim Jakubowski ask the questions in a Criminal Mastermind, in which David Stuart Davies argued with him over the correct answer to a Sherlock Holmes question; spending time in the bar with Vince and Kate, two yet-to-be-published authors; hearing Steven Hague’s wonderful opening line to his new novel; taking Donna Moore and her SO, Ewan, out for Japanese food and watching Ewan’s face after taking a generous chopstick-ful of wasabi.

 

I’m sure there’s a lot more that I’ve forgotten, but I’ve slept since then.

 

The only bad thing about CrimeFest was what I took away from it. I’ve been laid low, on and off, with some mystery virus that wiped out quite a chunk of March and April for me. It started to resurface after we returned home from Bristol on the Sunday evening. We then had just two days before leaving at the crack of dawn to catch our flight for Omaha Nebraska and Mayhem in the Midlands.

 

By this time, my nose and throat had settled down but left me with a chesty cough that emerged, fully fledged, during my interview with William Kent Krueger. Kent coped brilliantly with me attempting to cough up a lung halfway through his questions, and distracted me very successfully by pulling a stocking over his head and attacking me with a rubber baseball bat. Don’t you hate it when these award-winning authors get all serious about their art?

 

Dana Stabenow also demonstrated how game for a laugh she is when she volunteered to help me out in the self-defence demonstration on Friday afternoon, and Dina Willner moderated Dana, Kent, Jan Burke and I on a panel on Saturday where we had to make up stories behind snippets of news that Dina read out. As you can imagine, the tone dropped quickly and stayed entertainingly low throughout …

 

Highlights included being able to offer Dina – who made the winning bid at the charity auction to be a character in the next Charlie Fox book – the chance to have both herself and her late mother Caroline in on the act. Strangely enough, I had a parent and daughter role all lined up that would fit them both to a tee; Donna Andrews’s splendid compering job at the auction itself; spending time with Al Abramson whose sense of humour runs along such similar lines to our own; finally getting time to talk to Dana Stabenow at length and hearing about the house she’s built in Alaska; and talking to Jan Burke and her husband, Tim. In fact, I thoroughly enjoyed talking to everyone at Mayhem, including Dina and Sally Fellows, and Manya Shorr, and Carl Brookins, David ‘Snookums’ Housewright, Jen Blake/Nichole R Bennett, all the Guppy crew, Lori and Tim Hayes. Especially to Tim, who chauffeured some of us to the nearest multiplex to see the new Star Trek movie on an IMAX screen. (If you haven’t seen it, do so immediately!)

 

The Mayhem people were incredibly generous and welcoming to us, to the point where we will definitely be back, not only to go to Lee Booksellers in Lincoln on the next tour, but also to the libraries in the city of Omaha itself.

 

The locals admit that Nebraska is the kind of place people tend to fly over rather than land in, but the landscape was amazing on the way in, from the winding Missouri to the geometric shapes in the fields from the terracing. I’m not quite sure what we expected of the city, but what we was a cultural gem, filled with art and history, nestling alongside modern facilities and structures like the amazing swaying footbridge that enables you to walk from Nebraska to Iowa and back again. In fact, I was so taken with the place that not only will Dina and Caroline Willner have major roles to play in the next book, but I have a feeling that Omaha will sneak in there, too!

 

The only dark spot in the whole experience was something that happened a couple of times in the hotel and – I hasten to add – had nothing to do with the convention or anybody attending it. Wending through all the public areas of the Embassy Suites, including the spacious lobby, the bar and the restaurant, were miniature waterfalls and pools. The pools contained some of the most beautiful Koi carp fish I’ve ever seen, from tiny little goldfish up to ones at least a foot long. Having spoken to people who own such fish, I know they are intelligent and friendly, so I was pretty disgusted to see children – and adults- intentionally dropping coins on them as they basked close to the edges of the pool.

 

“Hey, mommy, I hit one!”

 

“Well done, sweetie.”

 

Unbelievable …

 

Of course, the biggest highlight was getting to see my Other Half, Andy, take part on his first panel, along with Tim Burke, Jessica Doolittle, Hap Meredith, and John Nehring, moderated by Sally Fellows. Some people – no names, no pack drill – were being very diplomatic and coy in their answers. Afterwards, several people said he and Tim should take their show on the road.

 

So, my question this week is, if you’re a writer, what do you think your spouse has to put up with, and if you’re a spouse of a writer, what’s it really like?

 

This week’s Word of the Week is decollate, meaning to behead, and also decollation, meaning the action of beheading, and – in surgical terms – the severance of the head from the body of a fetus. Also, the Feast of the Decollation of St John the Baptist, a festival in commemoration of the beheading of St John the Baptist, observed on August 29th.

 

I’ve literally just landed back from the States, so I’ll try and get to any comments as soon as I can …

Four Meals Away From Anarchy

by Zoë Sharp

Monday morning. Just back from a photo shoot over the weekend with numerous images to sort and burn and get in the post on a magazine deadline. I got up with every good intention of getting that out of the way, having my usual blended smoothie for breakfast, doing a few miles on the stationary bike, then cracking on with the rewrites with the iPod on full shuffle in the background.

And then the power went out.

Fortunately, my desktop machine is connected to an Uninterruptable Power Supply, dating back to the time of Windows 95 when, if you suddenly pulled the plug, it tended to get a little … sulky, shall we say.

So, much squeaking and bleeping from the UPS, warning me I had enough time to do a controlled save and exit, but probably not enough to start transferring large images to a back-up drive so I could work on them on my laptop.

Seeing various men in hard hats and United Utilities fluoro jackets wandering about down the lane, I ambled out and asked roughly how long it would be before they had the problem sorted. Slightly Baffled Looks were exchanged.

“Erm, didn’t you get the card?” one asked nervously. “They were supposed to send them out last week. This is an organised shutdown for maintenance work. It’ll be off all morning.”

No, I didn’t get the card, obviously. And using the term ‘organised’ in this context seemed to be overstating the case somewhat, since none of my neighbours had received notification of this impending power-cut, either.

So, back to the strangely silent study and there my creative side really got to work on me.

No power for the blender, so no usual breakfast.

No power for the stationary bike, so no exercise routine.

No music. No Internet. No email. No walkabout telephones. No TV.

OK, so this wasn’t the end of the world. I have a laptop I could have used, but even though the batteries are pretty good on such machines these days, I find it enormously difficult to concentrate when that little battery-life meter is ticking away in the background. But, if desperate, I could have gone and sat in the car and used the cigarette-lighter charger.

As for the Internet, I’m not so addicted that I was prepared to hop into said car and drive to the nearest town where there’s a very nice arts-and-crafts gallery I occasionally frequent, which has self-service cappuccino, free wireless Internet, and half a chance of the kind of cellphone signal we can only dream about at home.

Instead, I resorted to making notes on the rewrites in good old-fashioned pencil, and when I’d gone about as far as I could without typing up the alterations, I sat down and read a book. All this in the knowledge that, if this ‘routine maintenance’ turned into a ‘oops, we’ll be back to fix it in the morning’ we’d be dining by candlelight that evening. (Fortunately, we have a gas hob, so we can still cook.)

And, having been hit by 130mph winds when we first moved into the new house a few years ago – an occasion which resulted in us losing about a third of the roof and having the power off for a week – we discovered that the levels of insulation we’d installed during the build were worth their salt. It was still warm inside after a week with no heat circulating, even in January.

But, I was suddenly aware that, at the flick of a switch, I’d left the technological age of computers and email and instant communication and information behind. Instead, I’d time-travelled back to using a graphite stick on a sheet of paper and the prospect of burning string inserted in wax for light.

It was a sobering thought.

This came at a very apt time, following JT’s recent post, How Technology Is Changing The Face of Literature, in which she particularly mentioned the mobile phone and how its widespread use has to be accounted for. As I mentioned in my own comment to JT’s piece – new technology can be accounted for very easily, because the more we come to rely on gadgets, the further removed we become from the business of day-to-day survival.

Like the cheetah, the fastest land animal. For short bursts, the cheetah can run at up to 60mph (96kph), but in evolving into this sleek speed machine, it has become too lightweight to defend its kills, often expending life-threatening amounts of energy to bring down prey, only to have other scavengers horn in and elbow it away from the table before it’s had a chance to eat.

Not that I’m likening the average human to a cheetah, but it seems that, as a species, we’re in danger of evolving ourselves right out of existence.

Of simply being too clever for our own good.

And that information, of course, came from a quick Google search on cheetahs. When I first started writing, research meant hours spent in the local reference library, not simply surfing the Web from the comfort of your own home. Increasing numbers of libraries have been taking out bookshelves and putting in computer terminals, so has some of that knowledge been lost?

Back in 1975 there was a brilliant TV series on the BBC called ‘Survivors’. Devised by Terry Nation, the concept was that a genetically engineered virus is accidentally let loose, wiping out 95 percent of the world’s population, and leaving the survivors to face both nature and human nature, in their attempts to rebuild a way of life.

Last year, the BBC remade the series, with a new cast and story arcs interwoven with the original ideas.

And it struck me that people thrust into that same situation today would have a much harder time than their 1975 counterparts. Back in ‘75, there were no personal computers, no mobile phones, no satellite TV broadcasting 24-hour-a-day news from around the world, no Internet and no sat nav systems. Domestic microwave ovens were still a relatively new invention, and the majority of people did not rely on them as their sole means of preparing a mind-boggling array of pre-packaged convenience food. People still knew how to meet up at a prearranged rendezvous point without being in constant “Where are you?” cellphone communication. They knew how to read a map, mend their own clothes instead of throwing them away, and could prepare a meal from raw fresh ingredients.

In 2004, there was an article published in The Times, which explained the opinion held by the British security service, MI5, that western societies are ‘four meals away from anarchy’. If there was a terrorist attack, a hacker-instigated computer meltdown, or some other natural disaster that disrupted the electricity, food and water networks, it would be approximately 48 hours before things began to descend into chaos. The panic-buying and hoarding would start, and – when stocks ran out – violent defence of those limited assets would quickly come into play. As soon as people start to go hungry, in other words, civilisation goes out the window.

So, what if Monday’s power-cut had not been a brief interruption, but the start of a global catastrophe? Then what would I have done then?

What would YOU do?

You need transport, but cars need fuel. With no power, you need to hand-crank the fuel out of its underground tanks and hoard it, because the refineries have shut down and there won’t be fresh supplies being delivered any time soon. And no doubt a lot of other people will have the same idea …

And cars have become a disposable item. Could you mend yours if it went wrong? No mechanics to take it to, no computer diagnostics at the local dealership to pinpoint the problem. So, maybe you need to resort to more primitive means. Can you ride a horse? Do you know how to feed and care for one? And, even if you do, can you also act as your own veterinary surgeon and farrier?

What happens if you get sick? No Googling the best form of treatment, no paramedics or surgeons, no modern anaesthetic or drugs.

Could you make a fire, build a shelter, identify what’s safe to eat in the wild or what will kill you stone dead? Can you fend off predators – human and animal?

Processed food in the supermarkets – always supposing they haven’t been picked clean by looters by now – has a sell-by date. What happens when it’s all gone, or gone bad? Could you grow enough food to sustain you and your family? Could you catch, kill, and butcher an animal to eat?

Could you kill another human being to defend what’s yours?

OK, I’ll stop now. This is what happens when I let that writer’s ‘what if’ side of my brain loose to run with an idea.

A few last questions. If society as we know it ended tomorrow, what would you miss most?

What about modern life would you be rather glad to see the back of?

I’m on the road today, travelling down to the CrimeFest convention in Bristol, which looks like being an enormous amount of fun, but I’ll try to respond to comments as soon as we get to the convention hotel this evening.

And next weekend, of course, I’m off to Mayhem in the Midlands where I am delighted to be the International Guest of Honour, but that, as they say, is another story.

 

Meanwhile, this week’s Word of the Week is facinorous, which means atrociously wicked, from facinus, a crime.

 

Being Human

by Zoë Sharp

This isn’t the blog I was intending to write this week. (And no, I wasn’t even going to mention Susan Boyle … Oh, drat …) But, something popped up during the current rewrites. Which are, incidentally, proceeding at the kind of pace that can usually be measured in terms of continental drift.

I have just reached a point in the story where my main protagonist, Charlie Fox, has arrived to see the wife of a client, and discovers the woman was badly injured in a helicopter accident some years previously. At this point, I don’t think there’s any particular reason for this woman to be partially incapacitated, apart from an unwillingness to travel, which has necessitated Charlie going to her. I could have explained this in some other way – that she’s simply too busy running her oil exploration business, for example, or that she has a fear of flying. But when the character came into my head, this back story arrived ready attached.

And now it bothers me slightly. I’m the kind of writer who likes things to have a purpose. In my head, I think of the main strands of a story as different coloured threads, all plaited together, twisting and turning in on one another into a tight mass, so the end result seems stronger than the sum of its parts. The more I can weave those strands back in on themselves, the tighter and stronger the story feels to become.

Of course, you can take this too far, and TV crime shows often do. Whenever you see an extraneous character – the relative of a victim, for instance – who has screen time beyond simply sobbing into the hero’s shoulder as the mortuary sheet’s turned back, you just know they must have had some hand in the crime.

So, this is why I have this niggling doubt about changing this particular character’s back story. Part of me feels it should have some vital significance, while another part of me thinks that, sometimes, you can get away with introducing an accidental injury that really is just accidental, otherwise, every twitch telegraphs to the reader that Something Important is about to happen. I remember years ago reading a book where the main character comes down with a horrible head cold about halfway through – and it plays a vital role in the plot. Every time that character sneezed in subsequent books, I was waiting for the other shoe to drop.

In real life, people do sleep through their alarms, misread directions, or get stuck in traffic. In a crime thriller, such a mundane occurrence usually results in the discovery of a still-warm corpse your hero wasn’t quite in time to save.

In real life, people are sloppy, incompetent or simply mistaken. In a crime thriller, that would often signal a large-scale conspiracy or part of a sinister cover-up.

In real life, accidents do happen – often more than once to the same person. My brother-in-law, for instance, used to work on the North Sea oil rigs. He’s been in two helicopter crashes, ditching within sight of the beach. (And very annoyed he was, too, at having to wade ashore.) In a crime thriller, we’re back to cover-ups and conspiracies again, or attempted murder at the very least.

OK, more examples:

A friend of mine who is a retired Scene Of Crime Officer (SOCO was what CSIs used to be called over here, before they trendied up their image) told me that, although the book says you meticulously bag and label every piece of evidence removed from a crime scene, human nature often takes over. He recalled being sent to a scene where there was an abundance of evidence – I think it was may have been from a drug factory. When it got near the end of shift, the evidence was simply loaded into carrier bags and slung into the boot of a car to be taken back to the station and bagged and labelled correctly at leisure.

He gave me to understand that this kind of thing happened regularly and did not compromise the subsequent case when it went to court. I don’t know if that’s true or not. But if you put something like that in a plot, it would have to signify some vital twist. The drug baron would no doubt get off and swear revenge on the officers involved. Or the SOCO would be fired from his job to sink into an alcoholic haze, from which he would be rescued by the prospect of working One Last Case as a means of redemption.

Another example. When my Other Half’s appendix went bang, we duly trotted him into hospital and, after they’d found him a bed, began the usual taking of bloods. For this, a German medical student arrived and announced that he was going to ‘attempt’ to get a line into Andy. This did not inspire confidence, but then, neither did his ineffectual multiple stabbing technique.

Now, we know Andy has good veins, because they strike oil immediately whenever we go to blood doning sessions, but maybe that has something to do with the fact they use a needle about the same size as the insert of a biro and it’s kinda hard to miss.

So, then a junior doctor appeared (think Doogie Howser’s younger brother) and managed at the first try what the medical student had failed to achieve. I would have been impressed … had he bothered to put on a pair of gloves before he did it. Or if, having successfully punctured my Beloved’s vein, he realised he hadn’t uncapped the syringe he was trying to attach to the needle. Cue blood everywhere, into which the young doctor’s tie seemed to be wafting about precariously …

I was very restrained. After all, it’s never a good idea to annoy people who are sticking sharp objects into a member of your family. I managed, through gritted teeth, to politely inquire if it was standard practice not to wear gloves in the NHS any more. “I can’t really feel what I’m doing if I wear gloves,” the doctor replied.

Well, you’re a doctor, dammit. Acquire the skill!

Again, if I put this into a book, it might strike the wrong note in what would otherwise be a tense sitting-mournfully-by-the-bedside hospital scene.

The final example is another crime scene story. A particular rural UK force was quite excited to discover small particles at a crime scene that matched those found at another, apparently completely unrelated scene. Because, as we all know, serial murders are a lot more of a rare occurrence in real life than they are in the pages of fiction.

A major enquiry was in the offing … right up until a slightly embarrassed CSI owned up to the fact that, having analysed the mystery particles, they turned out to be flakes of paint from the tripod he’d used to position his camera over the body …

If my writing was of a more comic tone, then this is exactly the sort of thing that would fit right in. But can you get away with such moments of real-life light relief in a more serious novel?

So, have you come across any real-life stories like these, and would you put them in a novel or would you fear that nobody would believe them?

Alternatively, have you put real stories into a book, and been accused of going too far in your sense of invention?

This week’s Word of the Week is shambles, a noun meaning to be in a state of complete disarray. It comes from the Old English word ‘sceamul’ (pronounced ‘shamell’) which means ‘stool’ or ‘table’ as in a butcher’s workbench. During the medieval period, most English towns had certain streets occupied by a single trade, and the butchers’ street was known as the ‘shambles’, a street name still found in some old towns like York. Street butchers were supplied by the slaughterhouses and such was the mess of blood and animal parts by the butchers’ workbenches that the word ‘shambles’ became a metaphor for general mess and chaos.

 

Late news

This will teach me to read my email more thoroughly.

Just read an email from Rhian over at It’s A Crime! (Or a Mystery…) She writes:

“Do you blog about books? If yes, then please participate in a survey of book bloggers. Some of the questions have come from publishers. I intend to review the results and write an article that will hopefully lead to abetter understanding of the book blogging world and promote more dialogue between publishers and bloggers.

“I’d also be grateful if you could promote the survey on your blog. Many thanks, in advance, to those who complete it. It’s open for a few days, (closes on 19 April), but please reply soon.”

Hope you can take part!

Whose Voice is it Anyway?

by Zoë Sharp

Something Louise said in her blog this week made me stop and pause for thought:

‘I … have actually opened up the Work-in-Progress document on my desktop. (My God, it’s written in third person. What was I thinking? I’ve never been able to write in third person!)’

Like Louise, all my published novels to date have been written in first person, but this was not how I originally tried to go about it. For some reason I had it in mind that a mystery novel, by its nature, was a complex interweaving of different layers that would be far easier told from multiple viewpoints if necessary, and therefore in third person.

When the idea of my main protagonist, Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Fox came along, I distinctly remember making several false starts in third person. I can even remember one of those scenes. A woman, alone, walking quickly at night, high heels tapping out a nervous tattoo as she hurries through the muted cone of a streetlamp. Suddenly, a guy looms out of the darkness, snakes an arm around her throat, pins her arms to her body, and starts to drag her backwards into the shadows. But just when you think you’re observing the first victim, the woman begins to fight back, disabling her attacker. And after she puts him on the ground, the lights come back up to reveal a gymnasium, and there’s applause from the evening class of students who’ve come to learn the gentle art of self-defence from our heroine.

And, I have to admit, as an opening section I quite liked it. It did what it was supposed to do – kicked off with a little misdirection, and introduced my main character as someone very capable of looking after herself. But she just didn’t speak to me, and I was equally convinced that she sure as hell didn’t speak to the reader, either.

The only way I could get around that was to get deeper inside her head, and find out what made her tick. To speak with her voice. So I gave it a whirl, not with an opening, but with a disconnected scene. It had Charlie at a bodyguard training school, forced by her ever-so-slightly misogynist instructors to go into a darkened room and deal with what lay inside. That turned out to be an apparently mortally wounded body, and an ambush, to which she instinctively, viscerally, overreacts, laying out her attacker with an old-fashioned desk telephone, then covers up her fear with dark humour.

Ah, now I was getting somewhere.

In fact, I liked that scene so much that it eventually found its way into the third book, HARD KNOCKS, which happened to be set in a close protection training school in Germany, and so perfectly fitted the bill.

Having written my first series book in first person, I felt compelled to continue that way. And there are certain advantages in only being able to reveal information to the reader as it arrives with the main character. The knowledge could be held by other people, but if they don’t or won’t tell her what’s going on, she has to find things out for herself. I can’t show the villain scheming in his lair, nor the good guys working out that she’s in danger and rushing to the rescue. (Not that Charlie needs much rescuing, thank you very much. Her philosophy has always been to break legs now and ask questions later.)

There’s nothing written in stone that says I had to continue in first person for the entire series. Lee Child started off with Reacher in first person for KILLING FLOOR, then swapped to third person until a return to first for one of my favourites in the series, PERSUADER. And now Reacher’s back in first person again in GONE TOMORROW. And it’s a belter.

Of course, some other authors quite happily write in first person, and add in third person scenes where they feel it’s appropriate, or required by the plot. In fact, that device was suggested to me for the latest book. Some people manage it very successfully. Stuart Pawson is one, with his Detective Inspector Charlie Priest police procedurals. In one, he even manages to have his detective go undercover in passages in third person, with his identity hidden from the reader entirely, while the rest of the book is in first person. And it works, but I’m not sure I could pull that one off.

I’ve even read something – although so long ago I can’t remember the details – where the book was told by two first-person narrators in alternating chapters. Now, that’s a tricky one to pull off. SJ Rozan, in her Bill Smith and Lydia Chin series, uses first person but with one book told from Bill’s perspective, and the next from Lydia’s. What a great way to keep a series fresh for the author, as well as the reader.

One of my favourite narration styles was always Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, told in first person, but not from the main character’s viewpoint, thus allowing Holmes to baffle the reader on the way to the conclusion as much as his sidekick, the stalwart Dr Watson. Will Thomas has taken up this literary device with his tales of Victorian enquiry agent, Cyrus Barker and his assistant, Thomas Llewelyn, writing from Llewelyn’s POV.

And that’s quite before we get into second person, which I heard Elizabeth Rigbey talk about for the prologue of one of her books. I’m writing from memory here, because I’ve been unable to track down the actual passage concerned, but it went something like this:

You are driving through a deserted forest and you knock down a cyclist and kill him. There is no damage to your car and no witnesses. What do you do?’

Not only is that second person, of course, but present tense as well. And that brings us onto a whole different ball game. Writing successfully in present tense is another skill altogether. Patricia Cornwell has written some of her Dr Kay Scarpetta series not only in first person, past tense with THE BODY FARM, but in third person, present tense with BLOW FLY. A fascinating mixture of styles. Theresa Schwegel’s debut, OFFICER DOWN, was first person, present tense and duly won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel.

But there’s no doubt that present tense is difficult to pull off. One of the best exponents for me is Don Winslow, with books like CALIFORNIA FIRE AND LIFE, and THE WINTER OF FRANKIE MACHINE, particularly as both these books involve quite a lot of flashbacks. Tackling flashbacks and sticking to present tense is enough to make a poor writer’s head implode, but he manages it with style.

Of course, the reason Louise’s comment resonated is because I’m looking beyond the end of the current rewrites – and I keep telling myself there will BE an end to them – to what comes next. Another Charlie Fox book, yes, in first person, past tense, almost certainly. But what then? I’ve always had a fancy to try third person, present tense, just to see if I can …

So, my question is, what’s your preference, both as a reader and a writer?

What is your current preferred style, and what made you settle on it?

Have you ever hankered to try and different narrative device and, if so, what?

This week’s Phrase of the Week is to win hands down, meaning a comfortable victory. It comes from horse racing, where a jockey who has no need to urge his horse forwards down the finish straight because he has a clear lead, and so can canter over the line with no need for the whip, and with both hands on more or less on the horse’s neck, to win with his hands down.

Everybody Lies

by Zoë Sharp

Last week, we went out and finally managed to buy a new car. Well, not a new new car, but new to us. And that has means braving the world of the Used Car Salesman.

Used car salesman

 

This has been a frustrating experience, because, what with the economy being in the state it’s in, we decided to tighten our budget for a new motor, and that has meant we’re not exactly dealing with the cream of the crop. So, off we went to the Autotrader website and entered our particular requirements. From the thousands of cars for sale across the whole of the UK, this narrowed things down to a final choice of just six. Which means it’s very much a sellers’ market.

You might have thought, in that case, that there was no need for embroidery in sales’ technique. You might have thought that a simple, “It is what it is, but there’s not many of them about, so take it or leave it,” kind of attitude would work best. Oh no. That would be too easy.

Instead, they have to lie to you.

Now, I expect to be lied to. Not just by used car salesman, but generally. It’s a fact of life. Sad but true.

Everybody lies.

Let’s be honest about this, if you’ll forgive the irony. Little lies make the world go round. Nobody likes being told they look older, unless it’s a sixteen-year-old girl, dressing to try and buy alcohol on a Friday night. Nobody likes to be greeted with the words, “Gosh, you’ve put so much weight on, I hardly recognised you!” at their school reunion, unless they spent their entire academic career suffering from anorexia.

So, everybody lies. Sometimes with the best of intentions. Sometimes by omission. But everybody does it. From little white ones to huge whoppers. With clear intent to deceive or entirely by accident. In adoration or with malice aforethought.

But what I object to are people who lie badly. The ones who say, for instance, “This car’s immaculate. You won’t be disappointed,” and trick you into a 260-mile round trip to view something that’s been owned by somebody who patently believes parking is a full-contact sport, and who appears to have thrown up all over the passenger seat, which is as good an argument as I can think of against perforated leather trim.

Just about every panel on this particular vehicle was a different colour, and some of them no longer fitted quite the way they should. And when I asked the salesman just how bad an accident it had been in, his Teflon-shouldered answer was that the car had passed its HPI check. “Yes,” I said, “but that just proves it wasn’t a write-off, not that it hasn’t had a major thump and been repaired.” Quick as a flash he came back with, “But everything this age has had some paint.” Yeah, and some of it even matches the original …

The business of lying is fascinating. Some people can do it without a flicker, a constant stream of invention without repetition or hesitation. The art of the great lie, of course, is one where the person being lied to never realises that fact. The art of the great liar, on the other hand, is someone who can spout blatant untruths with such conviction that the person being lied to knows it full well, but begins to doubt their own understanding of the truth.

As writers of crime fiction, we have to understand the art of the lie. Some characters, inevitably, will lie during the course of the story. I remember being pulled up by one editor for making a character lie too well. She wanted some better indication that this person was not telling my protagonist the truth. And that’s a tricky one. I’ve come across some brilliant liars, and some lousy ones. Making someone an OK liar is much more difficult.

At ThrillerFest in NYC in 2007, Christine Kling moderated the Liars’ Panel, where she got her panellists to tell the audience something about themselves that was not well known. Some surprising facts emerged, including that one author could not read or write until they were seven, and another had once been arrested on suspicion of murder. And then Chris told us that most of these authors were lying and we had to separate fact from fiction. It was surprisingly difficult, so does that mean the average trusting human being is very bad at detecting barefaced lies, or that that fiction writers are simply good liars? Do we, by definition, spend our lives constructing intricate webs of what are, essentially, lies?

How aware are you of the lies contained within the story when you write? When you read? And what’s the best – or the worst – lie you’ve either ever told, or had told to you?

Criminal Tendencies On a slightly different note, I am very pleased to have been included in to a new short story anthology that’s out next week from Crème de la Crime and edited by the delightful Lynne Patrick. CRIMINAL TENDENCIES has tales from an array of British crime writers, all of which have been contributed for the benefit of The National Hereditary Breast Cancer Helpline, The Genesis Appeal (the only UK charity entirely dedicated to the prevention of breast cancer) and The National Breast Cancer Coalition in the States. My story, ‘Off Duty’ is a Charlie Fox tale that slots into the time frame between the last two series books and tells what happens should you be foolish enough to try and get between a girl and her motorcyle.

This week’s Word of the Week is zyxt, which is a Kentish dialect word meaning to see. And not a bad score in Scrabble, either …

Apologies in advance, also. By the time this posts I shall be on a ferry to Northern Ireland but will try to respond to comments as soon as I can.

The Long and The Short of It

by Zoë Sharp

Some people are natural short story writers – I’m not one of them. That’s not to say I don’t write them, but I’m not in the habit of dashing off a quick tale every time I’ve a spare moment. My brain just doesn’t work that way. If I want to concentrate on something, I have to make a conscious effort to open a particular mental door and see what’s inside.

In some ways, I recognise that I went about this writing game slightly backwards. I didn’t have my first short story published until two years after my first novel. And it wasn’t something I’d had lying around in the bottom of a box in the attic, waiting for the occasion. I happened to be at a Northern Chapter meeting of the Crime Writers' Association – which is not nearly as Hell’s Angel-ified as it sounds – when I bumped into Martin Edwards. Martin was editing the CWA anthologies, and he casually suggested, as we funnelled into the dining room for lunch, that I might like to submit a story for the latest collection.

Sherlock Holmes - Copper Beeches That year’s anthology was called GREEN FOR DANGER. It followed a previous anthology called CRIME IN THE CITY, so the countryside theme was a natural progression. In his introduction, Martin quoted Sherlock Holmes: "It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside…" How could I resist a brief like that? The result was ‘A Bridge Too Far’ about the bridge-swinging activities of a local Dangerous Sports’ Club, some of the details of which were drawn from life – including the fact that the local strict Methodist farmer had banned the club from using an ancient viaduct on his land every Sunday morning because he couldn’t stand the inevitable blasphemy as they launched themselves into the abyss.

I didn’t tell Martin until after he’d accepted the story that it was my first attempt, but he didn’t seem to mind. And no-one was more surprised than me when it was subsequently reprinted in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.

Since then, when asked and given a brief, I’ve written maybe another half-a-dozen shorts, including one for another CWA anthology, ID: CRIMES OF IDENTITY, called ‘Tell Me’, which has been used in a Danish school textbook, and turned into a short film. Is this a good time to admit that I wrote the whole thing during a long car journey?

When Megan Abbott was putting together her A HELL OF A WOMAN anthology, she particularly wanted stories about the forgotten female characters of classic detective fiction – the secretaries and waitresses and girlfriends. Those who lurked in the shadows rather than took centre stage. And when we missed a ferry to Ireland and ended up killing time in a little café in Stranraer on the west coast of Scotland, I watched the diners singularly ignoring the hardworking wait staff, and the story of Layla, a wronged waitress with a forgettable face, was born. ‘Served Cold’ was the result.

Inept getaway driver Writing a short crime story for the in-house magazine of a private bank was a tricky brief – no sex, no violence, no bad language. Lenny Bright arrived out of the blue, as an inept getaway driver who does and doesn’t quite get away with his crime. I was careful in ‘The Getaway’ to make the robbers target a building society, though, rather than a bank.

But give me no brief, no deadline and a very loose word count, and I tend to flounder. I think this goes back to my original route into writing, which was non-fiction. I started off as a freelance feature writer for the motoring magazines – the photography came along a little later – and I quickly became interested in car stereo, for which there were, at the time, several specialist publications. I was asked if I would take over a regular back page column for one of them, which was called ‘Random Play’. The brief was fairly loose – a round a thousand words of anything vaguely connected with car stereo or security. And I mean anything.

Car-stereo-boom-box My first effort was a conversation between three men in a pub of the more and more extreme lengths they’d gone to in trying to prevent their cars being nicked. Nobody complained, so after that I filled the back page with weirdness – reports of strange military experiments with sound-based weapons; spoof letters from Members of the European Parliament outlining the latest pieces of bureaucracy gone mad, designed to stop anyone having a good time; tales of bass addicts and the lengths they’d go to satisfy their cravings.

For several years, I churned out this as a regular thing. Looking back, some of them were actually reasonably amusing, and the publisher kept sending the cheques, which is the only real indication of approval of your work that you seem to get in this business.

But then I decided that the time had come to move on, although I promised to do a guest spot if a really entertaining idea occurred to me. Needless to say, without the pressure of a regular deadline, it didn’t, and I never wrote another ‘Random Play’ page.

So it is with short stories. If someone says "write anything", it’s too much choice. The more guidelines or restrictions, the more my mind gets to work on integrating or circumventing them. Last year, I was asked to judge a local short story competition, with the theme of ‘Wild’, which was open to any interpretation the entrants cared to place upon it. And in the end, the final decider – in addition to the usual qualities – was how well the winning story incorporated some aspect of that theme.

 So, when I was asked to do the second chapter of a round robin story this year, I was thoroughly intrigued, but not a little apprehensive. It’s another first for me. Stuart MacBride was kicking the whole thing off and I received his opening chapter a couple of weeks ago. Not an easy act to follow, isn’t Stuart. Mainly because his stuff is effortlessly very funny, dammit.

So, I tapped into the humour vein I haven’t opened up since those ‘Random Play’ days and went for a similar tone and style. Only time will tell if I’ve managed to carry it off or not. But if the person writing the chapter in front of you makes it dark and tragic, or light and comedic, do you follow suit, or go your own way? I think I’ve picked up the threads he left, continued the characters he introduced, plus one of my own, and doubled the body count. What else could I do?

So, my questions are, how do you feel about short stories? Do you enjoy reading them? Do you enjoy writing them?

If you have a series character, do you write short stories that include your series character, or do you enjoy the break from them?

If you’re writing for an anthology with a specific theme, how closely do you try and follow that theme?

Have you ever tried out a new character in a short story, and then gone on to write a book involving them?

Have you come across characters in short stories that you wish the author would carry forwards into a full-length book of their own?

This week’s Word of the Week is paramnesia, which is a memory disorder in which words are remembered but not their proper meaning; the condition of believing that one remembers events and circumstances which have not previously occurred. Its roots are from the Greek para beside, beyond, and mimneskein to remind.