Category Archives: Zoë Sharp

“Hi! My Name Is …”

by Zoë Sharp

Hi My Name Is

Several things sparked off this week's post. The first was raised by one of Dusty's excellent questions of the course of his last two 'Rati posts. He asked (and I'm paraphrasing here) if you had ever bought an author's book after visiting their website, or if you'd only visited the site after reading the book.

That got me thinking about what is an author website for, exactly? So, I went looking at a number of different sites to try and answer that question, at least in my own mind. I put my reader's hat on and went surfing. In order to do this, I went mainly (but by no means always) to sites of authors I had certainly heard of, but ones whose work I was not particularly familiar with. What I was looking for was something to really hook me into the writing, the stories, the characters. I was looking for something that would turn me from a casual browser into a fan.

And, I have to say, there are many, many wonderful websites out there. Well-designed, easy to navigate, informative. Most have extracts of the author's work so you can try out their voice, some even have audio extracts, read by the author, so you can hear the words spoken exactly as the author intended, with all the emphasis in the right places.

But one oddity struck me.

Where an author writes a mystery or thriller series with a continuing character, the character often seems to become bigger than the books. Yet there's also some assumption made that, if you've got as far as the website, you must already know a certain amount about this character. Very rarely did I find any kind of detail on a website about the kind of person the series protagonist is, other than the couple-of-word description found in the dust jacket copy. Is that enough, or do you need to know what makes him or her different from the next character?

Because, as everybody seems to accept, the characterisation is one of the main qualities that keeps readers coming back to a series. Or to an author, for that matter. But how can a potential reader glean much from a brief book-jacket-type description of who and what the main character is and does?

You see, one of the things that nudged me in the direction of this week's blog was the fact that I am at the dreadful thumb-twiddling stage of being Between Books. One is delivered to my agent, and I am awaiting her verdict with some trepidation before I plunge into undoubted rewrites. Meanwhile, of course, I have been kicking around some ideas for a new book, with a completely new main protagonist and set of characters. This does not mean that I intend to abandon Charlie Fox, by any means, but on the theory that a change is as good as a rest, I feel the need to stretch my wings a bit and try out something fresh.

And when I see my agent next week, I'm faced with the prospect of explaining, in a pithy kind of way, not only what the initial story is all about, but why I feel this new main character – and the immediate supporting cast – is worthy of consideration.

So, I not only require my elevator pitch for the story itself, but I also need a brief but grabby description of my new protagonist.

I need a character pitch.

And that's been a very interesting proposition, because it's made me re-evaluate what I say about Charlie when I'm asked the question, "So, who's your main character, then?" The pat answer is that she's a no-nonsense ex-British Army Special Forces soldier turned bodyguard. OK, so that tells me what she is, but not who. It's too easy to say, "Oh, she's like (insert appropriate well-known fictional hero or heroine here)." Charlie has been likened to female versions of both Jack Reacher and James Bond, but neither are quite a comfortable fit for her, I think.

Working out exactly who your protagonist is, and summing it up in a few catchy sentences, is a daunting task. Other people often do it so much better than the author can manage. Paul Goat Allen came up with a wonderful one for Charlie in the Chicago Tribune: "Ill-tempered, aggressive and borderline psychotic, Fox is also compassionate, introspective, and highly principled." I have to say a big thank you to him, because I use that one a lot. It tells it relatively straight. I probably wouldn't have come up with that description, but I can't argue with it and it doesn't kid potential readers what the character is all about and what to expect from her, and from the books.

But what about this new one?

We had a quick 600-mile work trip last weekend, which gave me plenty of time in the car to jot down some notes. I wrote down anything and everything that occurred to me about this new character. I now have pages of scribblings and I'll let you know if they met with approval or not – but not until after I've tried them out!

But, I will say that a snatch of a Counting Crows song, 'Round Here' kept coming to me, so I wrote that down, too:

'She knows she's more than just a little misunderstood/She has trouble acting normal when she's nervous.'

It doesn't quite fit the character, but there's a sliver there, an inkling, an idea.

So, my question is, what's your character pitch? Not just what they do, but who they are as well?

Or, how would you pitch your favourite literary character, in a couple of sentences, to a new reader who'd never come across them before?

This week's Word of the Week is harbinger. I picked this because I used to know a chap who had a boat called Harbinger and everyone pulled a face when he told them the name, and said, "That's a bit gloomy, isn't it?" because hardly anybody can hear 'harbinger' without the words 'of doom' on the end of it, but this is not the case. In obsolete language, a harbinger was a host, or someone sent ahead to provide lodging. But now it's come to mean not just a forerunner or a thing which tells of the onset of something, but also a pioneer.

It's a bit like the phrase in flagrante delicto, which is simply to be 'in the very act of committing the crime, red-handed' and does not necessarily mean 'unclothed, with someone else's spouse, in a cheap hotel room …'

“Hang on a minute, lads, I’ve got a great idea!”

by Zoë Sharp

The-Italian-Job-Poster-C10281780 It has to be one of the best known classic cliff-hanger endings. The final scene from 'The Italian Job' with Michael Caine. The bus teetering balanced on the edge of the Alpine ravine, with Charlie Croker and his gang of gold thieves stuck watching their bullion booty sliding ever further towards the abyss as the bus rocks gently back and forth. Then Croker turns back to the gang and says, "Hang on a minute, lads, I’ve got a great idea!"

But what was it? And did it work?

This year is the fortieth anniversary of the original version of 'The Italian Job', and to mark the occasion The Telegraph in the UK held a competition to see if anyone could come up with that grand plan to rescue the gold. The rules were simple – no helicopters, and it must be a scientifically provable theory. Over 2000 people tried their hand, with solutions ranging from the surreal (Superman flies in and saves the day) to the comedic. One gentleman claimed to have "a foolproof way of recovering the gold. However, since the occupants of the truck are a bunch of criminals and the gold does not belong to them, I refuse to divulge the method."

So, how would you do it?

The eventual winner did indeed have a very cunning plan, as Baldrick might have said, which I promise to share with you later, but first I wanted to see if anyone here could come up with something equally ingenious?

News1_0 The reason for mentioning 'The Italian Job', and its ending, is that when we write a mystery or thriller novel, for me the ending is crucial. So often, it seems, a book can be front-loaded to the extreme. So much thought and energy – not to mention that low-down cunning – has gone into hooking the reader at the outset, that the eventual explanation can never hope to live up to it. I have even, on rare occasions, thrown a book down after the final page, feeling cheated.

There seem to be two main types of endings for the journey of your story. One is very circular, bringing with it some kind of closure or completion, and the other a lot more open-ended. According to Christopher Vogler in THE WRITER'S JOURNEY, which details mythic structure for storytellers and screenwriters, American culture tends to lean towards the circular, whereas Europe, Asia and Australia are happy not to have everything brought to such a neat conclusion. (And I do realise I’m speaking in generalisations here.)

Personally, I like some kind of conclusion, providing it doesn’t stray into the saccharine. I believe that is one of the reasons we are happy to read quite graphic and gory crime fiction. Because we know it’s all going to be all right in the end. Terrible things may happen in real life, inexplicable tragedies where nobody is ever brought to justice for what they’ve done, so we turn to fiction to provide that reassurance. We know that, although the ending might not be entirely happy, it will have some kind of a resolution that satisfies us.

Writing my Charlie Fox series, I have always tried to make the books free-standing, rather than standalones. Yes, there are continuing characters and there are returning characters, but I have always tried hard to make it so that if you pick a book up from later in the series, you won’t be baffled by in-jokes, nor will you encounter (too many) plot spoilers about what has gone before. Each plot is completely self-contained.

But that all changed with the last book, THIRD STRIKE. I ended with something that I knew would have to be addressed in the next book, and for the first time I realised I’d broken away from quite such a neat and tidy circular ending, and had left things a lot more open-ended.

I did a blog back in November last year, 'Tune in Next Week…' in which I talked about series books and whether it was possible to have cataclysmic change in a series, and the comments were very interesting indeed.

But this takes that question a step further. Do you need to have a neat and tidy conclusion to a crime novel? Does the hero have to catch the bad guy, or do you turn the bad guy into an ongoing nemesis of the Professor Moriarty ilk? To a certain extent, I feel this can lessen the threat posed by the villain. After all, if you know they’re not going to die, or get caught, then something of the thrill goes out of the chase. How long would greyhounds continue to chase the fake rabbit, if they were never allowed to catch it?

Article-1022722-016B5FC800000578-631_472x320 So, if you’d just written a thriller that just happened to be about a gold bullion heist in Turin, in which the intrepid heroes made their escape in three Mini Coopers, and ended with them pushing said cars out of the back of their bus as they drove over the Alps, celebrating their victory, would you, on the final page, be content to have the bus driver misjudge a corner and end up see-sawing precariously over the edge of a very long drop?

And, as a reader, would you throw the book against the wall if the final line was, "Hang on a minute, lads, I’ve got a great idea!" Would 'The Usual Suspects' have been quite as satisfying if you’d never found out the identity of Keyser Soze? Did it matter in 'Ronin' that you never find out what’s in the case?

As always seems to be the case at the moment, I’m away on photoshoots all day today, but will reply to all comments when I get back this evening, so please bear with me.

This week’s Word of the Week is dénouement, which means the unravelling of a plot or story, from the Old French desnoer, to untie, and nodus, a knot.

Matters Arising

Zoë Sharp

I had to laugh – albeit in a groaning, semi-hysterical kind of way – when I saw Dusty's Faster! Faster! post from yesterday about productivity. I'm behind with the new Charlie Fox book. Way behind. I mean, lying awake at night and sweating about it, behind.

But, finally, the end is in sight. In fact, with good luck, a following wind, and half a dozen policemen, as the saying has it, I should have something completed by next weekend. It kind of helps that we've been snowed in again this week, and I've already had to cancel one photoshoot, which has meant more writing time.

Reaching the end of a book is exciting and frightening, both at the same time. I know what is going to happen, but I don't quite know how it's going to happen, not until I actually get there. And it's frightening because then I have to show it to people, and they're going to pull it to pieces and point out all the bits that don't work. But, better constructive criticism than no comments at all.

Endings, though, are a post topic all of their own, and that's not what springs to mind today.

You may recall that I did a post last October called Tricks of the Trade about all those little bits of inside information, which people in certain trades know automatically, and which can really add that authentic flavour to any work of fiction. People came up with some fascinating snippets, and I just love all that kind of trivia.

Before I begin a book, I research my main subjects carefully, because so often you find out something at this stage that really shapes or alters where you thought the plot was going. In HARD KNOCKS, for example, I knew at the outset that, after the handgun ban in the UK, most close-protection training schools moved to Europe, with the most popular destinations being France, Holland, and Germany. As I knew Germany better than either France or Holland, that became the location of the majority of the action in the story. And, having made that decision, various other aspects of that country – particularly the lack of speed limits on the autobahns, for example – became an integral part of the plot. Trust me, you haven't lived until you've driven at over 170mph on the public road … ;-]

But, by the time I've finished – or nearly finished – a book, I have a file called Queries. Queries could best be described as Matters Arising. It contains all the little nitty-gritty questions that have cropped up during the writing process. Rather than break off and go looking for the answers at the time, and therefore interrupt the flow of the story, I jot a note to myself in Queries, and come back to it at the end.

And, when I come to look at my Queries file for this book, there are some very odd questions. Nothing at all to do, you might think, with a crime novel. Of course, there were specific crime-related questions, but the kind of contacts you make in this industry are invaluable for answering those.

I needed to know about US police interview procedure, for instance, so I called on former cop turned mystery author, Robin Burcell. I also needed to know, among other things, how long a person's heart can stop for, before they incur brain damage, and for that kind of thing, mystery author and cardiologist, Doug Lyle MD is your man. (And for anybody scribbling in this field, I can heartily recommend copies of Doug's excellent books, such as FORENSICS AND FICTION: Clever, Intriguing, And Downright Odd Questions From Crime Writers.)

A friend in the travel industry answered my query about how best to fly a coffin home to the UK from the States, while Stuart MacBride, bless him, filled me in on the best hotel in Aberdeen - the Caledonian Thistle, in case you're making travel plans – and the name by which the locals refer to it – "The Calley".

Of course, back when I first started writing, finding out these answers involved a trip to the reference library. But now, with the wonders of the Internet, you can find out just about anything about … just about anything.

If you know what questions to ask.

For example, a chance conversation with another mystery author, Linda L Richards, at Bouchercon, brought up the name Synanon, and pointed me in the right direction for researching about certain cults in California. Without that name to put into a search engine, I would have been overwhelmed with hundreds of thousands of pages on the subject.

Sometimes, there's just too much information out there. And trying to describe something you've forgotten the name for, and then search for it, can prove a frustrating business.

I had a total brain-dump about the correct term for carrying a rifle with the butt in your cupped hand, and the barrel slanted back over your shoulder. How do you ask that in Google? (OK, finally remembered it's called 'slope arms'.)

And now, as I look down my list of queries, it seems a bizarre selection:

  • How long does it take to go from LA to San Francisco by Greyhound (or similar) bus?
  • Are there free walk-in medical clinics in Manhattan?

  • Are California vehicles required to display a front licence plate?

  • What's the most common type of helicopter used by the oil exploration industry?

  • What wild animals – if any – do people commonly hunt with rifles in southern California?

  • Driving from Newark Airport into midtown Manhattan in the morning, what's the most logical route across the Hudson River?

  • What's the correct name for the air ambulance service in LA? (I needed similar info for New England and discovered it's called the LifeFlight helicopter, incidentally. People have a habit of being critically injured in my books and requiring emergency transport to the nearest trauma centre.)

  • Do late-90s' model Ford Econoline vans have one rear door, or two?

  • Does Interstate 405, which runs north-south through LA, have a High Occupancy Vehicle lane?

  • Do US schoolteachers specialise in a particular subject, ie, geography – and would that cover geology?

  • What is the likely temperature in LA in the early evening in February?

  • How would a US cop refer to someone he or she suspects is working for Homeland Security? (I would have thought this was "spooks" but I know the UK TV series about MI5 had its name changed from 'Spooks' to 'MI5', so I assume it has a different meaning over there.)

  • How does the door open and the steps unfold on a Gulfstream G550 executive jet?

  • Is Rohypnol, which is a brand name for flunitrazepam (a benzodiazepine sleeping and date-rape drug) a recognised trade name in the States?

  • Are there any oil refineries currently operating within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska?

Nothing exactly earth-shattering in that lot, is there? Nothing the entire story hinges upon, but all important little bits and pieces that help round out the story and settle it in its surroundings. Nothing a few Internet searches can't probably pinpoint without too much difficulty. At least, I'm hoping that's the case!

I should point out, by the way, that I have not put these up as an idle way of short-cutting my research – although if anybody does know the answers I will certainly not stuff my fingers in my ears and go, "La, la, la. Not listening!" There will be a nice mention in the Acknowledgements, of course ;-]

But, I just wanted to highlight what strange little bits of information go into writing a book. And, my question is, what's the oddest inconsequential bit of info you've required when you've been writing, and if you read a book where the answers to any of those questions – or ones like them – were incorrect, would it spoil it for you?

This week's Word of the Week is psychopomp (from the Greek, pompos, a guide) meaning a conductor of souls to the other world. And if I haven't finished this book by next weekend, I may need one … 

Snow willing, I should be out on a shoot today, but will answer all comments as soon as I get back.

Signposts and Other Diversions

by Zoë Sharp

Road_surprises One of the hardest parts about writing a novel, for me, is finding the things that aren't there.

OK, I know that statement seems to make very little sense, and maybe it doesn't. As I keep discovering, there are as many different ways to write a book as there are writers out there. Maybe it's just me.

Inevitably, in any story that has a strong element of mystery or suspense, there will be a lot of misdirection going on. Either towards the reader, or towards the main characters themselves. You have your initial set-up – the discovery of the body, the crime, the precipitating event – which raises the first questions for your protagonist. What's going on?

At the start of one of the earlier Charlie Fox books, FIRST DROP, Charlie has been given the unenviable task of guarding the fifteen-year-old son of a wealthy computer programmer in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. As the newbie on the team, she knows it's the rough end of the deal – a baby-sitting job. Nobody seriously expects that the boy, Trey, will be a target, and he's a major pain in the arse. But, someone does make a determined attempt to snatch Trey from the theme park where Charlie has reluctantly accompanied him and, from then on, nothing is straightforward. She recognises the guy who made a grab for the boy, realises she can't go to the cops, and when she ventures back to the house, she finds the place totally cleared out. Trey's father, Keith, and his entire close-protection team – including Charlie's lover, Sean – have disappeared. It's the start of the Spring Break weekend. She is alone and on the run with the kid, in a strange country.

Road%20Sign%20(6)_small That's the initial set-up for the book. I knew, at that point, what was really going on. I knew what had happened to Keith and Sean, and all the others. And when two men follow Charlie from the house, trying to get hold of Trey, I knew who they were, too.

Charlie, on the other hand, has no idea what's going on at this point. Trey, with the kind of overactive imagination of your average fifteen-year-old, is very little help. She doesn't know why he's so important and he appears not to know that, either. As the book progresses, more facts are revealed to Charlie, and she attempts to assemble them in a way that makes senses. Some of the facts are correct. Others are lies, told to her in an attempt to get her to give herself up and hand over the boy. The lies have as much effect as the truths in forming her opinions and the basis for her actions. Being human, and inexperienced in this line of work, she doesn't always interpret them correctly, and she makes mistakes. She is forced to take drastic action in order to preserve not only her own life, but that of her bratty principal.

My difficulty has always been that I know the truths from the lies. I know which pieces of information are vital, and which only seem important, but in reality are of little value and should be ignored. Sliding in the gold among the gravel is always a very tricky balance.

Because, as a reader, there's nothing worse than happening across giant leaps made by the characters with little or nothing to go on. Pouncing on a minor piece of information and giving it apparently unwarranted significance. As a writer, I think it's a very difficult thing to judge – avoiding that "Oh, come off it!" moment. At the other end of the scale, of course, are the protagonists who never seem to quite manage to put it together until the villain has his final monologue and is forced to spell it out for them. "You fools! Didn't you realise it was ME who …" Well, you get the idea. And bumbling heroes, although they have their place, have never quite appealed to me as a reader. I like my heroes … well, heroic, I suppose.

At the same time, there's little tension in reading about a character who never gets things wrong, who always follows the right clue, draws the right conclusion, wins every fist fight and shoots straight all the time. They have to misinterpret the signs at some point, don't they? Otherwise, where's the fun in that?

Unclear signage - LA The current Charlie work-in-progress is set partly in a cult in Southern California. It starts with Charlie and Sean keeping a watching brief on the man they've been tasked to retrieve from the cult's clutches, Thomas Witney. They have been told that Witney originally joined in an attempt to prove that the cult was responsible for the death of his son, leaving instructions that he was to be extracted inside a year, by force if necessary. But time has gone past and he's still on the inside. Nobody knows why, or what he discovered that made him want to stay. Charlie and Sean's initial observations make them fear for Witney's safety, but nothing is as it seems.

I thought I'd approach my false trails and misdirections in a slightly different way for this book. I had my backbone outline, as usual, but when oddities cropped up in the early stages, I decided to let them run and see where they led me. Thus in one of the early chapters, when Charlie and Sean see a hysterical girl make a break for it from the cult compound, only to be run to ground and brought back weeping, I had no clear idea who she was or what role she had to play in the story. I knew the obvious conclusion couldn't be the right one, but at that stage I wasn't sure what was the truth. Of course, although this made it much easier to have Charlie pondering over possible scenarios, eventually I knew I had to either work out a convincing back story for the girl, or edit her out.

Fortunately, in the writing, I have found her story. And yes, it did turn out to be important.

Images So, my question is, as a reader do you want such deliberate missteps in a story? And do those occasional giant leaps of reasoning and deductive power bother you, or do you accept them as part of the storytelling process?

As writers, do you weave in misconceptions as you go, or add them afterwards? When you have your characters heading off in the wrong direction, following the wrong clues, is it deliberate misdirection on your part, or did you genuinely not know, at the time, if they were going the right way or not?

This week's Word of the Week is actually two words – conflagrate and deflagrate. Conflagrate means to burn up, with its archaic form, conflagrant – burning. Deflagrate, on the other hand, means to burn suddenly, generally with flame and crackling noise. In chemistry, one would use a deflagrating-spoon, which is a cup with a long vertical shank for handling chemicals that exhibit such properties. Only a small distinction, but such things tickle me …

I'm out and about a lot today, but I will get back in time to answer any comments so please bear with me!

Having A Stab At It

by Zoë Sharp

We spent yesterday officially snowed-in out here in the wilds of Cumbria, with no mail delivery, no rubbish collection, and temperatures which have been dropping into minus double figures every night. For a country totally flummoxed by its weather, that’s perishin’ cold. And what with the world economy on its arse and the publishing industry sprouting doom and gloom in every direction, there’s not much to smile about at the moment.

If you’re currently sitting at home contemplating your unfinished first novel, you might be forgiven for wondering, "What’s the point?"

But don’t give up, there is a bit of light at the end of the tunnel in the form of the Debut Dagger competition from the UK Crime Writers' Association.

I’d never heard of the Debut Dagger when I was writing my first crime novel, or I would have been in there like a shot. Or a stabbing, or a strangulation, or a disembowelment – or whatever other method of murder I could devise at the time. It might even have saved me a good deal of heartache.

The name Debut Dagger is a bit of a misnomer, because that does make it sound as though it’s a prize for first novels, and that’s not quite the case. It’s for the beginning of a first novel. It doesn’t even have to actually be your first novel. You could have written dozens, providing none of them have been commercially published. Short stories and non-fiction doesn’t count. Even some on-line and self-publishing doesn’t count, although it would need to be OK’d by the organisers before you sent your entry.

The Debut Dagger is for the opening chapter(s) of a crime novel, up to a strict maximum of 3000 words, plus a short – 500-1000 words – synopsis of the rest of your proposed book. The organisers give some excellent tips, and helpfully describe the synopsis as a distilled idea of what the book is about, written in present tense, up to and including the denouement. Cliff-hangers and teaser endings are not allowed in the synopsis – you've got to tell it like it is! The organisers put it so much better than I could:

"The challenge of writing a good synopsis is out of all proportion to its length. Writing a synopsis requires you to simultaneously know everything that’s going to happen in your story, and be able to strip 99% of it away to leave only the most important details – and to then sum that up in a fluid and engaging way. If you haven’t written the book yet (as many Debut Dagger entrants haven’t), that can be tough, but if you don’t have a clear idea of your story then the difficult business of writing a synopsis becomes almost impossible. Clarity of expression always follows clarity of thought.

"You’ll probably find you need to take shortcuts and make simplifications that underplay the complexities of your novel. Don’t worry. The judges don’t know (and don’t care) how much you’ve oversimplified or even misled them with the synopsis, they just want it to sound like something they want to read. Equally, don’t worry that the story may change when you actually come to write it. All books change during their writing, characters begin to grow and take on lives of their own, to veer away from the planned path, unexpected events impose themselves. None of that matters if the completed book works. Look on the synopsis as a road map, but one which allows a few unexpected but interesting diversions along the way. And above all, remember this. With the synopsis, you’re not giving us a schematic plan of the novel; you’re not bound to give us the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. You’re doing what writers have always done: you’re telling a story. Just shorter."

The competition has been running since last November, and closes on February 7th 2009, so there is still time to polish and submit your opening 3000 words, and wrestle with your synopsis. You can enter as many times as you like, with as many different starts of novels as you have sitting in boxes under the bed, providing you pay the £25 entry fee with each one. (I think that’s about $37 at current exchange rates.)

All the entries are read by professional readers, with the best passed on to the judges, who put together a shortlist of about ten, and select the winner. This lucky soul collects £500 (about $730-ish), sponsored by Orion, and a couple of tickets to the Dagger Awards, which last year were held on Park Lane in London. The best thing about it, however, is that the judging panel is made up of top UK agents and editors. What better way to put your would-be novel in front of such people?

Of course, there is no guarantee that the winning entry will be published, but the Debut’s record to date is pretty impressive:

"Inaugural winner Joolz Denby was short-listed in 2005 for the Orange Prize for Fiction, while 2001 winner Edward Wright was awarded the 2005 Shamus award for best PI novel by the Private Eye Writers of America. Allan Guthrie won the 2007 Theakston's Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year for TWO WAY SPLIT, developed from his entry shortlisted in 2001. Barbara Cleverly, shortlisted in 1999, won the CWA Ellis Peters Historical Dagger award in 2004. Louise Penny, highly commended by the judges of the 2004 Debut Dagger, was awarded the 2006 CWA New Blood Dagger".

"Oh, but what chance does my novel stand against all those others?" you cry. Well, a pretty good one, actually, just purely from a numbers point of view. The Debut Dagger, for some unknown reason, receives entries in the low-mid hundreds, rather than thousands.

So, what’s stopping you? Is it fear of failing? Because, trust me, if you’re going to write and hope to be published, you’re going to get a LOT of knock-backs. Get used to the idea. And, who knows? You might just be one of the lucky ones.

My question this week is, did you enter competitions like this before getting published, and if not, why not? Is that how you got published in the first place? If you don’t go for this kind of thing, why not? What’s your opinion of them? Are you a supporter, or what puts you off? If you’re not yet published, would you consider it?

This week’s Word of the Week seems almost superfluous after Pari's wonderful post on Monday, but I’ll go for monophthong, a complicated word meaning a simple vowel sound.

And my apologies both for the slightly later-than-usual posting, and for the lack of illustrations. There's only so many times Typepad/Internet Explorer can fall over and lose everything before you either throw the entire computer out of the nearest window, or give up trying to be clever …

Better to Give … ?

by Zoë Sharp

First of all, what are you doing, sitting here looking at your computer today, of all days? Surely you should be eating and drinking and making merry? 

I'm writing this on Christmas Eve. As soon as I realised that I had the dubious honour of posting on Christmas Day this year, I've been trying to think of something suitable for the occasion. I don't do sentimentality well, and this time of year holds very mixed emotions for me.

So, I thought I'd focus on the ridiculous instead.

With this firmly in mind, I asked all my fellow 'Rati three questions: What's the Best, Worst, and downright Weirdest presents you've ever received. Or, what would be your Dream present.


Tropical island DREAM GIFT: "My fantasy present would be a writer's month or two on a gorgeous island where all my meals were taken care of, I'd have an endless supply of paper and reference books, wi-fi, a computer in every room but the bedroom, a comfortable bed and absolutely no responsibilities beyond writing for hours daily. Oh, and I'd like to be paid a reasonable amount of money for being creative, too.

"So, someone would have to take care of the kids at home, make sure the cleaning and the cooking were done and that my husband wasn't too lonely (notice the 'too' part of that last one. A little loneliness makes the heart grow, um …), pay the bills, etc. Then I could write without feeling guilty or like I should be doing something else."

WCrucifixORST: "A crucifix. I have nothing against other people's religious beliefs or symbols, but this gift felt inappropriate. Hey, I wouldn't give free circumcision to a guy for Hanukah, either. Y'know?"

And WEIRDEST: "The gifts I've gotten have been fairly conventional – money, books, clothing, food. Perhaps people are frightened to offend?

"So, I'll tell a story about a family Christmas from more than 30 years ago. The reason we celebrated the holiday was that my stepfather liked it.

Deli ceiling "Back in the early 70s, a certain deli display was all the rage in interior decorating magazines. Across America, women mounted pipes from their kitchen ceilings and hung balls of provolone and other cheeses, fancy looking dry salamis, etc, from them. My stepfather decided to give my mother all of the components for such a display … one piece at a time. She had no idea this was what I was doing. The look of astonished disappointment on her face when she opened that first package with the pipe was unforgettable."

Of course, if you're looking for the perfect (late) Christmas gift, or something to spend those book tokens on after the Holidays, you could always pick up a copy of Pari's latest, THE SOCORRO BLAST.

We have to be very careful in our house how Christmas presents are arranged under our tree, owing to the fact we have underfloor heating. Anything chocolate or edible has to be put down on top of an insulating non-meltable gift!


Rain in Malaga WORST CHRISTMAS: "I must have papered over all the memories of the Best and Worst Christmas gifts over the years, but I surely remember The Worst Christmas Ever. It was 1973 … Richard Nixon was in the White House, albeit temporarily … and I was living in France, getting my Masters Degree in French Literature. It had already been a strange year … freezing temperatures, general strikes that shut down everything from garbage collection to the electricity, calf's head and chestnuts for Thanksgiving dinner. So a girlfriend and I decided to go to sunnier climes, the Costa del Sol in Spain, for the holidays. It rained and sleeted in Málaga for seven days. I came down with strep throat. And there's nothing sadder than eating rubbery, overcooked octopus for Christmas dinner while watching a dubbed version of Julie Andrews singing 'There's No Place Like Home For The Holidays' on a little TV suspended in a corner of the dining room."

And, of course, Louise's latest – THE FAULT TREE - would also make an idea gift!

Louise, you have my sympathies. Andy and I once decided, many years ago, to go away for Christmas. We went to Tresco, a tiny island in the Scillies, just off the coast of Cornwall. The only way in was by helicopter from Penzance and the gales were so bad that a 14-minute flight took 11 on the way out and 22 minutes on the way back. Andy went down with something nasty and was so ill that the doctor was threatening to airlift him to hospital on Christmas Eve. I ate my Christmas dinner alone in the hotel dining room. Now we stay at home …


Nordic track treadmill "Okay, my WORST present?  The year my husband gave me an orange pantsuit.  And I mean BRIGHT orange.  He has since learned NEVER orange, never again.

"BEST present?  My Nordic Track treadmill.  (Of course, I helped pick it out!)  During the winter, when it's too cold to go outside, I use it  every single day.

Orange pantsuit WEIRDEST?  I would have to go back to the orange pantsuit."

One of the fun things about putting together this post was trying to find suitable pictures to go with the various things the 'Rati members came up with as their Best, Worst and Weirdest. So, I put 'orange pantsuit' into Google images, and this is what I found on the first page that came up. Is this something close, Tess? Sorry about the model …

And, of course, Tess's latest – THE KEEPSAKE - is another ideal gift!


Ornament BEST: "I don't kiss and tell!" (Er, is that Best or Dream, Rob?)

WORST: "A Christmas ornament. I mean, come on.

"WEIRDEST present? I'm stumped. Got nothing for you there."

And Rob's latest – KISS HER GOODBYE - could be just the gift you're looking for.

Sorry about the ornament pic. You wouldn't believe what people hang on their trees, though …


Electronic typewriter WORST: "Probably the 'electronic' typewriter my parents gave me in college. It was some weird model by Casio that was almost immediately discontinued, so ribbon cartridges became almost impossible to find and had to be mail ordered from the manufacturer. (I assume that's why it was so cheap). It functioned in a really bizarre way; as you typed, the words would appear on a tiny LCD screen above the keyboard, but only 15 characters at a time. When you got to the end of the line, then it would suddenly come alive and start putting the words on the paper. The worst thing was, you couldn't fit a business size envelope into the roller, so you either had to use labels, which always got stuck in the machine, or hand address envelopes. I still have the damn thing in a closet somewhere."

WEIRDEST: "The gift my mother in law gave to me a couple of year ago. I think it's supposed to be a device that holds messages on your desk, but I swear it's actually a roach clip."

BEST: "I'd have to say the 100 dollar gift card. I immediately ran to the computer and went nuts."

If anyone else receives the same gift, then copies of Dusty's latest, BREAKING COVER, would be just the thing!

I believe I learned to type on one of those self-same typewriters in college, Dusty, although anything was better than the elderly manual typewriters that had a keyboard as steep as the north face of the Eiger and had a nasty tendency to trap your little fingers if you slipped off a key.


George bush doll BEST: "Would have to be books. No question. It's like getting a present of the world, since books can take you anywhere. In fact, it's more than just the world, since when I was younger I was huge into sci-fi!"

WEIRDEST: "Got a singing and dancing George Bush doll a few years ago. It was hilarious and weird and I didn't know what to do with it."

Christmas_footie_pajamas WORST: "Most definitely clothes when I was a kid. What kid wants to open a present and find pajamas inside? Really, parent. Think twice."

Of course, if you're going to give books, Brett's THE DECEIVED would be a good choice.

I, too, am a huge fan of books at Christmas. It's usually one of the few times of the year when I have the opportunity to read. And I think this could possibly be the very doll you were given, Brett? Have you thought about re-gifting?


Three-stones-engagement-ring DREAM PRESENT: "An all day all expense paid shopping trip to every stationary store in Manhattan. My BEST present was the Hot Wheels Super Grand Prix electric racetrack. Damn, I loved that thing. And my engagement ring."

WORST: "I'm not terribly fond of Raggedy Ann dolls, and I know I got a few while I was growing up. Barbies, too."

Raggedy ann dolls JT's latest - JUDAS KISS - is just out and another great gift idea!

I was never a fan of Barbie dolls, and don't recall having one as a child. I had a Meccano set, though. And the equivlent of a GI Joe, which was great – until I hit my sister with him and he snapped off at the knees, which severely curtailed his macho adventures …


Snowy owl BEST: "The best presents I can remember getting as a child, hands down, were animals – our first puppy Poca was a Christmas present and somehow I always got my cats at Christmas. I also got numerous rabbits, hooded rats, mice, snakes, lizards, turtles –  and one Christmas, an injured Great Snowy Owl, at least until we were able to nurse it back to health.
"All other presents pale beside someone who loves you back for their entire life."

Ugly clothes WORST: "Hmm, worst – have always been clothes I don't want. It's just a pain to pretend to be happy about it when you've said repeatedly – 'PLEASE don't buy me clothes.'"

WEIRDEST: "I can't really remember any. As far as weird goes, you have to remember who you're talking to, here."
Alex's latest book, THE PRICE, would make yet another wonderful gift…
Some friends of ours were given some truly awful sweaters by the wife's parents for Christmas. They dutifully opened them up and put them on and made all the right noises, and then immediately went upstairs to remove the offending items, muttering about what awful taste her parents had. When they came back downstairs, it was to face thunderous silence. At this point they realised that they'd removed their presents in their infant daughter's room, where the baby monitor had broadcast their comments … an awkward Christmas was had by all!
Hot Wheels BEST: "My Hotwheels Loop-the-Loop Racetrack ™ in first grade. Orange tracks with two Hotwheels car included. Awesome."

WORST: "The necklace my husband comissioned for me from a jewelry-making relative, the first year we lived together, which looked rather like a large and very uncomfortable copper tumor."

Ugly necklace WEIRDEST: "Actually a gift to my mother, about thirty years ago … a can each of creamed elephant and creamed rattlesnake, which she made us eat over noodles several months later. Nasty."
Cornelia's THE CRAZY SCHOOL should be in everyone's Christmas stocking.
In searching for a picture of a strange necklace, I stumbled on a site that records the awards for the Ugliest Necklace of the year. This was the latest winner. Those charming baubles are actually made from … something that comes out of the rear end of a horse. I do hope they sealed them in some way, otherwise they'd be the perfect gift for the anosmic in your life …
BEST: "I think best will be this year, as my oldest son and his wife are able to travel and be here on the holiday. We just celebrated with my youngest, so even though they won't get to be here at the same time, I will have a week of listening to their funny stories and watching their faces as they open gifts. I'm not sure it gets any better than that."
Pink knickers WORST: "Worst present? Probably the year my step-grandfather was shopping hastily and picked up what he thought was a scarf. It was pink (not a fan of pink) and shiny (ditto), and I'm not entirely sure which one of us was more horrified when I opened it and held it up and we both realized at the same moment that he'd picked up a very ruffly large pair of women's underwear. I don't exactly know why any woman on the planet, no matter what size, would want to buy shiny pink ruffly panties, and I'm hoping whoever decided to manufacture such an atrocity has to stare at them for all eternity until they have a seizure, because to inflict that on the world? Just wrong, on so many levels.

"I'm pretty sure that one ties for 'weirdest' present, too."
Of course, nothing weird about giving a copy of Toni's latest - BOBBIE FAYE'S (KINDA, SORTA, NOT EXACTLY) FAMILY JEWELS - to your nearest and dearest.
Unfortunately, Allison was keeping very quiet about her Best, Worst and Weirdest, so we'll have to guess. Her latest, PLAYING DEAD, would make an ideal pressie, though.
Cat towel holder As for me, I think my best Christmas present was waking up on the first morning we slept over in our new house, the Christmas BEFORE we actually moved in, to find snow thick on the ground. Perfect.
Our weirdest present has to be from last year, when some friends gave us this charming tea-towel holder for the kitchen. I wonder where the designer got the idea for tha one?
Castrol GTX And my worst Christmas present? Possibly a tub of Castrol GTX motor oil for my car. Not that Castrol don't make a fine product, but it wasn't quite what I had in mind, wrapped in seasonal paper and sitting under the tree on Christmas morning. That relationship, incidentally, didn't last …
Of course, I ought to mention that, if you've a few pennies left over from buying the books of my excellent fellow 'Rati, then my own latest, THIRD STRIKE, is also available …
What about you? What's your Best, Worst and Weirdest? And if you received them today, so much the better!

Her Master’s Voice

by Zoë Sharp

His Master's Voice When I pick up a book by a new author – one that’s new to me, I mean, rather than a debut novel – somehow I know within the first page if the book’s going to hold my attention or not. I think most of us, whether we do it consciously or not, make that same snap decision.

And although I’ve talked before on these pages about the importance of opening lines and of finding the right jumping-off point for your story, there’s more to it than that.

It’s the voice.

Every writer has their own distinct voice. You might think of it as their style, but there’s more to it than that. It’s something to do not just with the choice of words, but with the way they’re put together on a fundamental level, the rhythm and the flow of them. It’s the way the writer breaks up sentences, paragraphs, chapters. And it’s something that’s very difficult to assess in your own work.

An old friend from my old writing group has a wonderful lyrical style of storytelling. She could read out of a phone book and you’d sit entranced and listen. But whenever we would go to meetings and she’d bring along printouts of her latest piece of work, my comments would be the same. "It sounds brilliant when you read it out, but what you’re reading is not what’s actually on the page."

As the author, you know where the emphasis should go, the pauses, the inflections. I’ve often said that I’m a visual writer. While I’m writing a scene it’s like I’m watching a movie being played inside my head, and all I do is write down what I see. Then, when the reader picks up that same scene, I hope that they feel they’re watching the same movie I was, when I wrote it.

But how do you know?

Whenever I’ve given talks to writer’s groups and would-be authors, the piece of advice I always include is to read your work out loud. There’s nothing to beat it, not just for checking that rhythm and flow I mentioned earlier, but to pinpoint those sections of dialogue that just don’t quite sound like real words coming out of real people’s mouths, and those chunks of descriptive narrative that just go on for a teensy bit too long. On the page, there’s always the danger they can lurk unnoticed in corners, but out loud they really scream at you.

This week, I finally managed to get hold of a copy of SECOND SHOT in its unabridged audiobook version, read by actress Clare Corbett. I must admit that I put it on the CD player in the car not without some considerable trepidation. It’s a very personal thing, hearing your first-person character brought to life by a stranger. And one whose interpretation of that character is restricted, in a way, by exactly what’s written on the page and no more than that. I remember reading an interview with an author who’d read his own work for audiobook, and was not allowed to make any alterations to the text, even though he was the one who’d written it in the first place.

And then there’s the horror stories, of course. My good friend and fellow  LadyKiller, Priscilla Masters, recalls how one of her novels went to audiobook with a Swedish character called Agnetha, which was pronounced as ‘Agg-neetha’ all the way through, when it should be pronounced ‘Ann-yetta’. Another, Chris Simms, was telling me he had described a character in one of his Nepoleonic War novels as a war veteran, because – although he was only in his thirties – he’d been a boy soldier. The narrator chose to do all this character’s dialogue in the voice of a crusty old man.

Clare Corbett But Ms Corbett, I have to say, brought Charlie Fox to life almost exactly as I’d heard her in my head. It was quite something. And I’ve still no idea how she managed to do the voice of a four-year-old girl, Ella, quite so convincingly.

The only oddity was Sean Meyer.

Sean has been a mainstay of the series almost since the beginning. He was one of Charlie’s army instructors during her abortive Special Forces training, a rough diamond from a council estate in a gritty northern English city, who eventually left the army to move into close-protection and was driven enough, successful enough, both to start his own agency and then to be taken on as a partner in a prestigious New York outfit, taking Charlie with him. He’s got that killer instinct right the way through, intelligent and cold-blooded, but he loves her to bits, even if – sometimes – he’s got a strange way of showing it.

Yes, he’s a Lancashire lad by birth, but I saw him as having acquired quite a bit of gloss along the way, sloughing off a lot of his roots and, with them, toning down his speech patterns. But I’d never quite got round to actually saying that, on the page. So, Ms Corbett’s interpretation, quite correctly, gives him a noticeably flat northern accent.

And, once I’d got over the surprise, I realised I really quite … like it. And now I’m sitting here, writing the new book, and whenever Sean speaks, all I can here is that voice for him. I’ve even found myself subtly altering his dialogue so it fits better.

What I also found myself doing was trimming more words out than I was putting in. Hearing the narrative made me realise that, although I think I’ve been progressively tightening the books up as the series has progressed, there’s still plenty of room for improvement …

So, my question is, have you listened to an audiobook that really didn’t fit your interpretation of the characters? Did it alter your subsequent reading pleasure? Have you had your own books translated to spoken word format and, if so, how did it match up to the way you heard the story as it unfurled inside your own head? And has it altered the way you write?

This week’s Word of the Week sincere, which means pure, unadulterated, genuine, free from pretence, the same in reality as in appearance. The derivation of this word comes from cere, which means to cover with wax. If a sculptor was working on a marble statue and they made a mistake, they would fill in the error with wax to obscure it – marble being a very expensive material to simply throw away and start again. However, if a work of sculpture was completed without the necessity for this, it was sincere – without wax.

Mayhem_2009 Also, I managed to have a complete brain dump when I put news of Mayhem in the Midlands on Twitter and got the dates muddled with that of another convention I’m attending next year, CrimeFest. Mayhem will, of course, run from May 21st to 24th, 2009, and I am delighted to have been invited to be the first Caroline Willner International Guest of Honor in this, their very special tenth anniversary year.


An introduction by Zoë Sharp.

By the time you read this, I shall be in Northern Ireland on a series of photoshoots and, as I'm going to be out of email contact until next week, Stuart MacBride has very kindly offered to come to my rescue and step in as guest blogger.

If I say that Stuart is huge, that's not a comment on anything other than his literary status. He's been topping the UK bestseller lists since his first book, COLD GRANITE, hit the shelves. He is the recipient of the CWA Dagger in the Library and the Barry Award, and has also just won the ITV Crime Thriller Award for Breakthrough Author of the Year for BROKEN SKIN (BLOODSHOT in the US). All in all, he is a gentleman, a scholar and an acrobat – not necessarily in that order. (See, he searches out the most embarrassing bit he could possibly find from one of my books, and proceeds to read it out loud in front of 450 people at Harrogate, and what do I do? Say nice things about him. Mutter, mutter ….)

Without further ado, please welcome the Bearded One, and all being well I shall return in a fortnight – Zoë

And now that Zoë's disclaimer for any responsibility is out of the way, let's talk dirty*


By Stuart MacBride

Something strange began to happen to me the moment I went full time as a writer: as Zoë says, I became a much bigger man. By which I don't mean that I became important, or special, or even taller… actually, I've been getting shorter for the last fifteen years. Shorter and rounder. For some God-forsaken reason I'm slowly turning into a pasty bouncy castle with a beard. A podge.

A sexy podge, but a podge nonetheless.

I never used to be — I used to be slim and fit and a bit of a hottie — it's the writing that's done it. Back when I worked full time for THE MAN I'd get back home from work and sit down to indulge in my dirty secretive hobby: writing. So that's all day sitting in an office, followed by all night sitting in the study making up lies about people who don't exist. Not the most active of lifestyles, but at least back then I was getting a bit of exercise walking to the shops for lunch. Now the only things that get exercised are eight fingers and the lump of gristle between my ears.

Worse yet, I came up with a new hobby: cooking. Well, I couldn't keep writing in my spare time, could I? That would just be silly. You don't take up professional dentistry, spend all day traumatising people by drilling holes in their teeth, and then go home and start hacking away at your neighbour's mouths with a hammer drill, do you? Well, not unless you want to feature on the evening news in a couple of years time. No, you find yourself a decent wholesome hobby, like drinking heavily, or line-dancing dressed up like Barney the Dinosaur.

And as my purple Tyrannosaurus Rex costume is still in the dry-cleaners after an unfortunate semolina-related mishap, I took up cooking. It started out small, just the occasional pot of mince and tatties… I thought I could handle it. I could stop any time I wanted. Then I started dabbling with more exotic things like stews, roasts, and, to my eternal shame, fondue. And then I tried the hard stuff: soup.

Mmm... soup!What could be more distracting than soup? It's like sex in a pot… Well, maybe not sex, not unless you're into scalded genitals and finding bits of diced carrots in your intimate crevasses. But there's something strangely hypnotic about the alchemical nature of combining random stuff you find in your fridge and transforming it into SOUP!

I suppose soup is a strange obsession for someone who writes police procedural thrillers that often get described as gorier than shoving a rabid weasel down a haemophiliac's trousers. But there you go, we all have our dark secrets. And the darkest of my dark secrets is the infamous MUSHROOM SOUP.

When my editors decided to take a punt on my first book, COLD GRANITE, they asked me to write a small bio to go with the photo of the thin tall bloke on the cover. So I did:

"Stuart MacBride has scrubbed toilets offshore, flunked out of university, set up his own graphic design company, worked for some really nasty marketing people, got dragged into the heady world of the Internet, developed massive applications for the oil industry, drunk heaps of wine and created the perfect recipe for mushroom soup…"

this is what goes in the soup That bit at the end has got me into more trouble than pretty much anything else. As soon as I realised I was getting more emails about the damn soup than the damn books I dropped the soup thing from the bio, but by then it was too late. Four years later and I'm still getting mushroom-soup-related queries. Seriously, these people aren't asking about recurring themes, metaphors, or the importance of cannibalism in modern crime fiction. No, they want to know about bloody soup.

Up till now I've always played the 'it's a secret I'll take with me to other people's graves…' card, but as I'm guesting here I thought, why not? Get it out in the open. Plus when Zoë asked me to fill in for her here at Murderati, she said it would be bad form to bang on about my books, and I can't think of anything further removed from tales of bloodshed and mayhem than publishing my until-now secret recipe for mushroom soup.

Ingredients — you'll need:

  • 400g (14oz) Mushrooms sliced really thinly
  • 150g (5oz) of dried porcini mushrooms
  • 85g (3oz) of finely chopped leek
  • 2 pints full-cream milk
  • 150 ml double cream
  • 2 cloves of garlic, mashed
  • Thumb-sized lump of butter
  • 2 slices of bread, or a stale roll
  • 1 palm full of finely chopped fresh parsley
  • Loads of finely chopped fresh thyme

What to do:

Start off by rehydrating the dried porcini in a small bowl of hot water, they'll take about 20 mins to plump up and soften. 3oz seems like an odd amount, but it's about half a little packet.

Next, melt the butter in soup pot, chuck in the sliced fresh mushrooms and season with salt and pepper (the thinner you slice them the more surface area they have to ooze out mushroomy goodness). Sweat down the mushrooms until they're soft and all the moisture has come out of them. Then add the chopped thyme, leeks, and garlic. Let them heat up in the mushrooms for a couple of minutes, then pour in the milk and bring it up to a very gentle simmer. Thyme and mushrooms go incredibly well together, trust me on this…

Stir and stir and stir some more...

Tear or slice up your bread and stick it in a heatproof jug. Chuck in the rehydrated porcini and a couple of ladles of the warm mushroomy milk, then liquidise it all up with hand blender. If you don't want to throw out the soaking liquid, make sure you strain it before you add it to the soup or it'll be full of grit and sand and bits of dead bugs.

Blending it all up should give you a jug of very tasty, intensely mushroomy moosh: tip it back into the pot. Add the double cream, chopped parsley, then check for seasoning — mushrooms and cream are both sponges for salt and pepper, so don't be shy about it — then serve.

If you're feeling all summery, leave out the bread and substitute a good quality, free-range chicken stock for the milk. It won't be quite as rich, but it'll be a lot lighter. You could add a slug of brandy or a couple of glugs of white wine to the mix, but for God's sake make sure you add them after the rest of the liquid or the mushrooms will soak up all the booze. This might seem like a good thing, but it'll just make them all bitter and nasty. Like an OAP with a septic leg and a colostomy bag full of second-hand chilli. You really want to be eating that?

See — I get the chance to plug my books to hundreds of new readers and instead I witter on about soup and finish with a sodding recipe. How noir am I?

* This is, of course a lie. There's no dirty talk at all in this post… Well, except for the gratuitous use of the word 'fuck' right here in the footnotes. But we're all grownups right? It's not like I'm advocating you all go out and have sex with badgers, is it?

‘Tune in Next Week …’

by Zoë Sharp

The_champions More years ago than I care to recall, I used to watch a regular TV drama call The Champions about three agents for a shadowy international law enforcement agency called Nemesis! In fairness, the exclamation mark may not have been part of the official title, but every time anyone said the name, it definitely seemed to have one attached. Nemesis! were based in Geneva. You knew this because of a badly back-projected shot of the cast against the giant Geneva fountain, the Jet d’Eau, in the opening credits.

The basic premise was that in the first episode, three agents of Nemesis (just take the ! as read, will you?) Richard Barrett, Sharron Macready and Craig Stirling, played by William Gaunt, Alexandra Bastedo, and Stuart Damon, are in a plane crash in the Tibetan mountains. They are rescued by an ancient sect of monks who not only nurse them back to health but, for reasons of their own, also bestow upon the trio various superhuman talents. ESP, precognition, superior strength, speed, etc.

So, every week this fearless trio undertook a different vitally important assignment in a different corner of the globe. The assignment always saw them utilising their unique powers, whilst hiding their abilities from their enemies and their incredibly dim-witted boss, Tremayne. "So, Craig, exactly how many minutes did you manage to hold your breath under water …?"

(Stick with me on this – I think I know where I’m going with it, honest…)

Recently, somebody lent us the complete series on DVD and it was much funnier than I ever remember. Sadly, it was not intended to be a comedy, but Tremayne’s wig appeared to be constructed from ginger Astroturf and could not have looked any more artificial if it had come equipped with a chin strap – maybe that was the purpose of the also-obviously-fake beard he wore. And despite the numerous exotic locations called for in the storylines, they only seemed to actually have three sets – submarine, country house and underground lair. These did duty for just about anywhere, from small South American dictatorships, to the Australian Outback, to the Arctic, inter-cut with what was patently stock footage.

In my defence for taking weekly enjoyment in what might sound like the shonkiest bit of TV fluff going, I should point out that when the original series came out, I was about four. Not exactly of an age and level of sophistication where slightly dubious production values – not to mention a good deal of overacting – were what caught my eye.

I loved it.

I can still remember sitting utterly glued to the TV set in my grandmother’s living room, twisting myself into absolute knots of desperation as I watched the characters attempt to extricate themselves from whatever apparently hopeless predicament they’d got themselves into, in time for the closing credits. And my grandmother would always reassure me with the same words.

"But nothing terrible can possibly happen to them," she’d say, adding with the perfect logic of grandmothers everywhere, "It can’t – they’re on again next week."

And, of course, although it never seemed to reassure me much at the time, she was quite right. They always beat the bad guys and lived to fight another day.

Just like a series character.

(See, I told you I knew where this was going.)

Holmes_moriarty_2 When you pick up an ongoing series, you do so in the knowledge that the characters you’re going to read about – those you’ve come to care about – will survive past the final page. Conan Doyle did his best to kill off Sherlock Holmes, but was forced by the resultant public outcry to come up with a way of him surviving his encounter with Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls, and go on to further adventures. Of course, Lee Child has famously promised that he’s going to kill off Jack Reacher in the final instalment of his series, but until we reach that book – and we hope it’s not for years yet – we know he’s still going to be around to walk off into the sunset.

In a standalone, on the other hand, you can reach the final page to find it’s not so much a case of Last Man Standing, as no man left standing at all. And anybody who’s read any of Duane Swierczynski‘s wonderful visceral novels will testify to that one.

Our next-door neighbour, who’s a big reader of mystery/thriller/adventure novels, comes round occasionally to have a browse through our book collection and borrow a few books, and he won’t read series. He claims this is because he likes a totally self-contained story with no loose ends, rather than because he prefers the uncertainty of not knowing if the main protagonist and the ongoing surrounding cast will make it to the end of the story.

But do they always?

We’ve talked before here about how much can you progress and grow and change your series protagonist from one book to the next, but I want to pose a question one step further. Can you have sudden cataclysmic change in an ongoing series and get away with it?

This week’s Word of the Week is borborygmus, which is the rumbling sounds made by the stomach, caused by the movement of food, gases and digestive juices as they migrate from the stomach into the upper part of the small intestine. The average body makes two gallons of digestive juices a day.

Just to apologise in advance, by the way – I’m out on a shoot all day Thurs, but will answer all comments when I get back in the evening!

Tricks of the Trade – Any Trade …

by Zoë Sharp

One of the things I love about reading any book is picking up those little snippets of inside information. Any information – it doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it’s something that isn’t obvious, that dispels a commonly held belief, or is just one of those nuggets you store away for future use.

Toni did a wonderful post recently about Writing What You Know, in which she detailed – quite beautifully, I might add – the sensations and feelings and knowledge that you collect in the filter of your daily life. You might not think it’s the stuff thrillers are made of, but it is. It’s the glue that holds the whole thing together. The aspect that gives a work heart as well as flash.

The bits that make the whole thing ring true.

In the course of my own writing career, I’ve picked up all sorts of obscure knowledge – how to dislocate someone’s shoulder; how to tell if a mirror is in fact one-way glass; how to steal a motorbike; how to tell immediately if a Glock semiautomatic has a round in the chamber, even in the dark; what to add to gasoline to make the perfect Molotov cocktail; what style of suit to wear on a close-protection detail.

All useful and highly entertaining stuff.

In fact, there was a book came out about ten years ago called THE WORST-CASE SCENARIO SURVIVAL HANDBOOK. I have a copy and it contains all kinds of similar information, like how to win a sword-fight, fend off a shark, or escape from killer bees. Just one thing though – ignore the advice to lie down if faced by stampeding horses. It’s not true that they will avoid trampling you. In my painful experience, horses will put their clumping great feet anywhere they damn well please!

But all this is pretty esoteric stuff. Most of the time, even in fiction, your characters will be going about their normal daily lives. Even if they’re not a professional alligator wrestler, or a bullfighter by trade, this can be just as interesting, if not more so. Although the Internet is a wonderful tool for research, there’s no substitute for chatting to real people who actually do the things you want to write about. It’s that vital bit of colour that gives a work authenticity. Just as silly mistakes of any kind – like a flower blooming at the wrong time of year – will throw a reader out of a story, so those little snippets I mentioned earlier will help to draw them in.

Those tricks of the trade.

And until you think about it, you don’t realise what you know. To this end, I phoned my sister, who’s been a professional gardener for years. "Give me some tricks of the trade," I said to her. "Things that people wouldn’t know unless they’re involved in your line of business."

There was a long pause, and then she came out with a couple of belters:

‘If you don’t want to use slug pellets to keep slugs away from your plants, tip used coffee grounds round the base of the plant instead. Got to be fresh coffee, though – instant doesn’t work.’

‘To stop squirrels digging up your crocus bulbs, plant the bulbs with dry holly leaves and chilli powder. Curry powder also works, but they really don’t like chilli.’

For myself, working as a photographer for years allowed me to come up with one or two interesting factoids of my own:

‘If you want to take a soft-focus shot, breath onto the lens just before you press the shutter. This gives an instant soft-focus effect and saves coating the lens with Vaseline, which will take forever to clean off.

‘Resting the camera on a bag filled with rice or split-peas will take up a surprising amount of vibration and will dramatically reduce camera-shake during action shots. I use a bag of pearl barley (well, it was handy at the time and I’ve never got round to changing it) for all my car-to-car tracking photography to keep it pin-sharp.’

‘If you’re taking a female portrait shot in black-and-white rather than colour, cosmetics will create shadow rather than provide highlights. Hence blusher should be applied into the hollows beneath the cheekbones, to add definition, not on top of them.

And that led me onto another make-up tip I read in an in-flight magazine:

‘Professional make-up artists heat up mascara before applying it, to give a much fuller effect and increase the even coverage.’

I’ve no idea where that will come in useful, but I’m sure it will somewhere. And, as a motorcyclist, here’s an invaluable one:

‘Always carry the lid of a jar with you on the bike. You never know when you’re going to have to park up on grass. The lid can be placed under the foot of the side-stand to stop it digging into the soft ground and causing the bike to fall over – which is not only extremely embarrassing, but can also be costly in repairs.’

And as for these others, they were picked up all over the place:

Graphic designers: ‘If you have a client who is unable to approve a proposed design without putting their stamp on it, just put an obvious error in the proposal – a logo that’s too large, a font that’s too small, or a few judiciously seeded typos. The client requests the change and feels they’ve done their part, and your design, which was perfect all along, sails through to approval.’

In a parking lot: ‘Improve the range of your car alarm remote control by putting the remote under your chin. It uses the whole of your body as an extension of the antenna.’ (Wouldn’t do that too often, though, if I were you …)

Horse owners: ‘Baby oil works wonders to de-tangle a horse’s knotted tail, without pulling out lumps of hair by the roots and getting yourself kicked in the process.’

In restaurants: ‘If you’re serious about your food, eat in big city restaurants between Tuesday and Thursday, when the chef’s not just interested in turning over weekend covers, and he’s had his day off, so both he and the produce are at their freshest.’

For those with a delicate stomach: ‘Don’t order anything in hollandaise sauce. The delicate emulsion of egg yolks and clarified butter can’t be refrigerated or it will break when spooned over poached eggs. Unfortunately, this lukewarm holding temperature is the perfect breeding ground for bacteria. It’s also very likely not only to have been made hours before serving, but also from the heated, clarified butter that’s been collected from the tables, with other people’s bread crumbs strained out.’ And you can thank Anthony Bourdain’s KITCHEN CONFIDENTIAL for that nugget … as well as for:

‘If you’re worried about the hygiene standards in a restaurant, check out the restrooms. If they’re dirty – and those are the bits the customer is allowed to see – imagine what the kitchen’s going to be like, away from public view.’

One for wine buffs: ‘It’s no longer necessary to allow wine to ‘breathe’ by pulling the cork and letting the open bottle sit for an hour or two before serving. This is a throwback to the days when wines were stuffed full of chemicals at bottling. It can still make sense for vintages earlier than approx 1980, when letting a wine stand dissipates the charmingly named phenomenon known as ‘bottle stink’. But, today’s wines are much cleaner and healthier than a generation ago, and exposing a surface area of wine the size of the bottleneck to air is unlikely to have any effect on the great bulk of the wine in the bottle.’

Wildlife documentary makers: ‘If you want to replicate the sound of polar bears rolling around in the snow on your latest documentary, but don’t fancy getting close enough to actually record the real sound, replicate it by scrunching custard powder inside a pair of nylons.’ (Seriously, it worked for Sir David Attenborough!)

Car drivers: ‘If you live somewhere with a very hot climate, always fill your tank on the way to work in the morning, not on the way home. This way, the ground storage tanks will be at a lower temperature so the fuel will be at its most dense, giving your more bang for your buck.’

Airline cabin crew: ‘A fractious infant can be quickly quietened by the addition of a helping of gin in the milk formula.’ (Hey, don’t blame me, I’m just reporting what I heard!)

If you’ve got an ant problem, but have pets or small children in the house: ‘Put down bicarbonate of soda instead. It makes them explode, apparently.’

Cigar smokers: ‘Don’t dunk the end directly into the flame when lighting the cigar. Rotate the cigar gently above the flame. Do not inhale the smoke, just taste it in your mouth and blow it out. And don’t smoke it too fast, or it will burn hot and ruin the flavour.’

I should point out at this stage that all the above are comments and snippets picked up from a variety of sources and, should I ever feel inclined to use them in a book, I’d certainly double-check the facts before I used them.

OK, your turn. What little snippets can you pass on from your day-job? What do you know?

This week’s Word of the Week is onomatomania, which is the vexation of being unable to find the right word.

PS I’m blogging all this week on the Minotaur site so please drop by if you can – it’s lonely over there and I miss you guys!