Category Archives: Zoë Sharp

Location, location, location

by Zoë Sharp


Well, I was intending to do another of those blogs about What I Did At Bouchercon, because there were a few stories there that deserve telling – getting mugged by a paramilitary evangelist in Baltimore Airport, for a start. And the museum exhibit designer we met on the plane on the way out, who turned out to be one of those people you instantly take to.

But then I read Dusty’s comments from yesterday about Not Another What I Did At Bouchercon Report, and realised I was going to have to come up with something new. And fast.


Aw, rats.


So, hello to everyone we met. It was a convention of delights for me. There are people I’ll never forget – mostly for the right reasons! And instead I’ll move to Monday night, New York City. We had dinner with Lee Child, SJ Rozan, and new Brit crime thriller author, Andrew Grant – who also happens to be Lee’s little brother. And the subject of location came up over goat biryani (don’t ask). “There have been very few series that have been truly successful in the States,” Lee said, “that haven’t been set here.”


Now, your first instinct is to deny this. But the more you think about it, the more it seems to hold true. There are the occasional exceptions, of course. Sherlock Holmes, for one. And Golden Age crime seems to demand an English country house setting, some time between the wars. But more recently …?


The only ones that immediately hit me are Jacqueline Winspear Maisie Dobbs books, although the time period puts it into a different, historical category. And Cara Black’s Aimée Leduc, not to mention our own Ken Bruen who has his Galway-set Jack Taylor series and the London-based Brant and Roberts books. But even Ken has experimented with US-set novels, like ONCE WERE COPS. There are one or two of the translated authors who are also making waves, such as Stig Larsson. But, others? It starts to get difficult to think of any. Although, I must admit that I’ve literally just got off an overnight redeye flight home, so it is possible that my brain is totally fried.

But, of all the really top authors in the US bestseller charts, I’m not sure I can think of any whose books are set elsewhere. And often, a writer will move his characters to the States partway through a series – I admit to doing this myself, at the behest of my US publisher. The first time it happened, for FIRST DROP, was coincidence. Charlie was working as a bodyguard and the idea for the plot hinged on the book being set during the Spring Break weekend at Daytona Beach. My current US editor read that book, liked it, and put in the request that Charlie might soon be working in America again soon. And when a publisher makes such a suggestion, an author generally takes it on board.

Fortunately, this conversation happened at a stage when I was changing publisher in the UK and my new house, Allison & Busby, were more than happy with the idea. Having Charlie living and working in America not only gives her the chance to carry – and often use – firearms that she would not otherwise get the opportunity to, but it also emphasises her status as an outsider, looking in.


So, the first part of this question is, do you think this is this is the case? Do you think a book has to be set in America to sell well in America. And, if not, why not? I need examples, people!

I have a trio of nice Words of the Week this week. The first is apricity, which is the warmth of the sun in winter. The second is balter, which is to dance clumsily. And the last – and I’m horrified to think this happens often enough to have its own word – is lant, which means to add urine to ale to make it stronger.

Balimore Beckons

by Zoë Sharp

Next week it’s the Bouchercon World Mystery Convention in Baltimore, with the catchy title of Charmed To Death. Co-chaired by crime aficionado Judy Bobalik, and Jon and Ruth Jordan, the force behind Crimespree magazine, it looks like being one of the biggest and best yet.Bconlogo

It will certainly be one of the busiest. As I look at all the scrawled notes in my pocket diary – cell phone numbers of all the people I’ve promised to meet up with, appointments and get-togethers – I realise that there’s very little blank space left for actually going to panels. Even my own!

This year, I’m lucky enough to have been invited to participate in two-and-a-half. The first is 4:40pm on Thursday afternoon, entitled ‘Janie’s Got a Gun’ (Aerosmith) – do you need to kick ass to be kick ass? – with own JT Ellison in the moderating chair, plus Tasha Alexander, Robert Fate, Cornelia Read, and Greg Rucka. This should be a very interesting topic because of the amount of perception involved in whether people pick up a writer’s book or not. Does it help if the reader believes the author actually capable of the things they’ve written about? Does it matter?

The second is 8:30am Friday morning. This one’s called ‘Six Days on The Road’ (Dave Dudley) with me taking the hot seat this time, and Glynn Marsh Alam, Barry Eisler, NM Kelby, Jonathan Sandlofer, and Marcia Talley all bravely agreeing to rise at that hour of the morning. After some discussion we seem to have split this topic into two distinct subjects – using location in the writers’ work, and tales of touring. I’m sure everybody has horror stories of the Tour from Hell and I can’t wait to hear them.

I also asked all my panellists for a quirky fact about themselves just to add to the mix, and they’ve come up with some belters. I shall definitely be asking Jonathan about his experiences with egg yolks and gladioli in Spanish Harlem, and Barry about the book he owns on CONTINGENCY CANNIBALISM. So, if you want to know more, you’ll just have to be there …

But, moderating a panel at B’con is a big responsibility, and one I take seriously. I know people are happy just to wing it, but I know others are very uncomfortable to play it completely off the cuff, and I’ve tried to make sure I’ve done as much prep as I’m able to, reading as many of the panellists’ books as I can, and spending some time on their websites. What’s your preference? As either a panellist or audience member?

Selfdefence0032 And last – but not least – we come to the half a panel I mentioned, which is one of the half-hour slots – at 10am on Saturday morning. This is where Meg Chittenden and I will be reviving our semi-lighthearted talk and demonstration on the gentle art of self-defence. We haven’t given this one for a few years, but the last time we did, we called it ‘You Can’t Run in High Heels’. In deference to Baltimore B’con’s song-title-themed panels, we’ve changed this slightly to ‘In These Shoes? I Doubt You’d Survive!’ (Kirsty MacColl).

As Meg lives in the Northwest rain forest, and I live in the UK, we can’t exactly get together to rehearse much for this. On previous occasions, we’ve found a quiet spot somewhere at the convention and gone through some of the moves we’ll be demonstrating then. And you know the weirdest thing? As any of you who know Meg will testify, a wicked wit and serious mystery-writing skills are hidden behind a butter-wouldn’t-melt white-haired exterior. So, there’s this genteel-looking lady, apparently being strangled by some English ruffian, and does anybody gallantly offer to come to her aid? Do they even ask what it is we’re doing, exactly? Er, no, they don’t.

And if that’s as good a reason as any for learning to take care of yourself, I don’t know what is …

As is always the case when we cross the pond, our first instinct is to try and find a gun range to brush up on our skills. In fact, at ThrillerFest in July 2006, my other half, Andy arranged a big outing to the Scottsdale Gun Club as part of a belated birthday present. After all, what else do you buy a girl except three belts of ammunition to put through a Squad Assault Weapon?

Gun_range0001 And, if we find a range nearby in Baltimore that’s amenable – like we did with the excellent Deerfield Archery and Pistol Center in Deerfield, WI when we were at B’con Madison in 2006, I’ll be delighted to put another ‘Have Breakfast and Go To The Gun Range’ lot into the charity auction. Last time, the winning bidder was Judy Watford, who was determined to take the opportunity to go shoot holes in a target, as she’d never been allowed to do so in her home state of Texas. Now, I’d always thought things like that were fairly compulsory in Texas, but Judy has been blind from birth and could not find a range who would allow her to have a go. The guys at DP&AC were far more laid-back about the whole thing and we had a great time.

But nevertheless, going to a convention is a big outlay in time as well as money. We’ll be away the best part of ten days, including calling in to NYC on the way back to do my one post-Bouchercon event – at Partners & Crime in Greenwich Village, 7pm on October 14th, with Sean Chercover, who’s launching the already acclaimed TRIGGER CITY on the same day my THIRD STRIKE comes out. It was great of Sean to invite me to join his party, as it were, and I’m thrilled and honoured to be able to do so.

So, my question is, why do you go? Is it to meet fellow authors, to get out of that secluded little world we tend to sit in and write? Is it to revitalise your enthusiasm for the craft? Is it to make contacts and meet new readers? Do you have that vital ‘elevator pitch’ prepared for your latest WIP?

What do you hope to get out of attending a convention – and do you succeed?

This week’s Phrase of the Week is knuckle under, which means to submit. It comes from the drinking taverns of 17th century London, where arguments raged. A person admitting defeat would knock on the underside of the table with his knuckle. There’s also some suggestion that it comes from bare-knuckle boxing, where the fighters would keep their fists up in front of them if they still wanted to fight, and down, with their knuckles behind their hands, if they’d had enough. Also corrupted into buckle under.

This should not be confused with knuckle down, which means to concentrate or apply yourself to a task, and comes from the game of marbles. The rules state that a player’s knuckle must be placed in the exact spot where the player’s previous marble came to rest. Those not paying attention, and allowing their hand to come off the ground are told to put their ‘knuckle down’.

Remembering New York

by Zoë Sharp

I make no apologies for this post. It’s something I wrote back in June 2005 after our first visit to New York since 9/11. It was just some jumbled-up impressions, made because the place hit me hard, and I wanted to remember it afterwards. It’s never been published anywhere before. It wasn’t my turn to post last Thursday, on September 11th, but I wanted to mark the date anyway. And when I rediscovered this file on my computer and read what I wrote, three years ago, I thought this seemed fitting.

It’s June 2005 and we’re going to New York. Sounds good, doesn’t it? Sounds better than good. Use up all those useless Air Miles on seven hours crated like a veal calf in a BA 767 with the romantic name of the Chatham Naval Dockyard. Over-fly Central Park and Manhattan on the way in with my nose pressed against the glass, abandoning all attempts at playing it cool.

Rice paper-thin upholstery on worn-out seats on the bus from the airport. When the hell did they put in sleeping policemen on the freeways? Oh … are the roads always this bad? The bus drops us in front of Grand Central Terminal – not Station, if you don’t mind. What happened to door-to-door service to our hotel? "It’s only three blocks down and one over. You walk." Here we go. Big city rip-off starting early. The last time we came here was ’89 and we got stung hard enough to put us off coming back. Same again?

No. The hotel is, indeed, only three blocks in the soggy heat. Judy Bobalik’s there waiting for us on the corner. Big smiles. Big hugs. Maybe this trip’s not going to be a repeat performance, after all. The temperature has a mass all of its own. Why did I bring so many black clothes?

Hotel’s Italian-owned and run. Even I, a professional photographer for seventeen years at this point, can’t work out what kind of lens they used to make the rooms look so much bigger on the website. Damn Photoshop. Still, most of the lights work and, more importantly, so does the air con, even if you can’t hear the TV over the top of it. And who needs that promised view? We’re only going to be sleeping in there, after all.

And it’s central, got to give it that. Midtown Manhattan, squeezed between Lexington and Fifth. Every street sign cues a song. Sometimes literally. We mostly talk Judy out of bursting into chorus. What do we have that’s equal to this? ‘A Foggy Day in London Town’ and ‘A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square’? Give me a break.

Sunday morning out in the heat to the Empire State Building just a little way south on Fifth. Even first thing the lines are so long they hand out fans to stop us keeling over. Have your photo taken before you go up? "Next!" snarls the grim-faced woman behind the camera. Er, no thanks, I think we’ll pass.

01_looking_south_from_the_empire__4 Express elevator to the 86th floor, funnelled through the gift shop and out onto the viewing balcony. So why do they sell golf balls up here? The fence is big enough to get your head through, big enough for unobstructed pictures. Top of the world, ma. We look south towards the financial district and the hole in the skyscrapers where the Twin Towers used to be.

Greenwich Village. Woody Allen films. A walk through a street market, drenched in heat, past food that you just know smells so much better than it’s going to taste. Call in at Partners & Crime and find they have a first edition of my first book, KILLER INSTINCT, that I can sign for them. Still feels like I’m defacing the title page, not enhancing the value. Watch a street magician entertain the crowd, including us, in Washington Park, all sleight of hand and slick patter. Put a twenty in the hat and don’t feel cheated. Leave before the breakdancers start. Eat in a Tex-Mex and take a yellow cab back to Midtown. The driver’s name is such I can’t tell from the ID card which way round it’s supposed to be. The traffic all seems to communicate by Morse horn.

02_imagine_in_central_park_4 Monday we get out early to beat the heat. Judy’s organising so we’re in the best hands. Grab a vanilla cappuccino and have breakfast at Tiffany’s. Walk north through the spray of the sidewalks outside the big stores being hosed down for another day.

The Guggenheim Museum, Frank Lloyd-Wright architecture, faded like it’s taken to drink. Central Park’s immense tranquillity, listening to the trees breathe for the city. We stop to study a map and a guy on a bicycle offers instant assistance, demanding only that we take one of his poems in payment. Dog walkers and power walkers and people on powered scooters. Past the Dakota Building by horse-drawn carriage ride, remembering where I was the day John Lennon was shot. ‘Imagine’ in mosaic in Strawberry Fields with a lone candle. Gone but not forgotten.

03_paper_crane_at_ground_zero South to Ground Zero. Don’t know what I was expecting but a raw naked construction site wasn’t it. For a while I’m nonplussed, then a single paper crane tied to the fence sets me off and I can’t even read the heartbreaking graffiti without filling up. Cross the street to Century 21. We’re told it’s the best place to shop for cut-price designer names. Maybe if you like shopping in a scrum, fighting over crumpled clothes that still seem way too expensive. Normally I love to shop in the States, but this time my heart isn’t in it.

Back out on the baking street again. A woman sees us looking at the map and stops to offer advice. Statue of Liberty? Ride the Staten Island ferry. It passes close enough and it’s free. She’s right and we get a stunning view of the skyline from New Jersey, across Manhattan to Brooklyn while we’re at it. "I went to Staten Island, Sharon," sings Joni Mitchell inside my head, "to buy myself a mandolin." All we see of the place is the inside of the ferry terminal building. Maybe next time.


A lift with Reed Farrel Coleman to an Irish bar somewhere on the Upper East Side as the light starts to fade and the neon turns stunning. That twenty-minute window when the light’s perfect. I should have brought a tripod. Another maybe next time. There will be one, I know that now. Sit and drink and talk, watching baseball on the screens until midnight. Even then the streets are crowded. "I want to wake up, in a city that never sleeps …" Way to go, Frank.

05_times_square Z-shaped fire escapes on brownstones, steaming vents from the street, an eccentric guy in a fur coat and – we initially fear – not much else. The tackiness of Times Square where my father sat eating dinner a lifetime ago when the billboards flashed the news of Martin Luther King’s assassination.

Macy’s. The biggest department store in the world. For the first time I get attitude, a sneer. Maybe that’s just department store staff the world over. Maybe I just look too poor to shop here. We hurry south, unable to find a cab that isn’t taken, for our appointment with SJ Rozan’s ‘If We Don’t Know We Make It Up’ tour of Chinatown. Damn, I hate being late – even if it is only a few minutes.

06_street_market_in_chinatown Cooler now. Winding through fascinating streets looking at the paper goods you can take with you to the other side and unidentifiable food stacked up on sidewalk stalls. Get your shoes mended as you go. Eat dim sum and learn to salute an emperor pouring tea, walk the streets of Lydia Chin and Bill Smith, looking at the spaces where their buildings ought to be. A melting pot of religion and culture, a part-restored synagogue and a Buddhist temple. Eat green tea and wasabi ice cream in Columbus Park.

Every area seems exotic. TriBeCa, Little Italy, East Village, the Lower East Side, Broadway and 42nd Street. Don’t call Sixth the Avenue of the Americas or everyone will know you’re a tourist. Yeah, like the accent doesn’t give it away.

The next day Reed picks us up for his promised tour of Brooklyn and now we’re driving the haunts of Moe Prager. We cross the Brooklyn Bridge and into a beautifully artistic run-down area filled with writers’ bars and Mafiosi pizzerias. Even shabby looks chic.

07_coney_island_parachute_drop Who would have thought egg cream would taste so good? And why aren’t there eggs in it? One slice of New York cheesecake shared between four of us and still more than we can handle. Sheepshead Bay and Coney Island. Hot dogs at Nathan’s. "You ever hit a baseball, Andy?" No, he hasn’t. But he does, nine times out of ten. He and Reed ride the elderly Cyclone, gleeful like kids, laughing in the back seat. The Boardwalk in the drizzle, the ghost of the parachute drop in the mist, memories of someone else’s childhood, a dead teddy bear in the street. Cops changing a wheel in the street outside Moe’s old precinct. Stuff of legends. We were there.

Back to Manhattan through one of the tunnels, cruise through the trendy areas. "De Niro has a restaurant here." Eat in the Second Avenue Kosher Deli, served by black-haired Diane, who must be eighty if she’s a day, food I’ve never heard of before and couldn’t have ordered without an expert guide. A whole new experience. Rain, then that light again. I could spend a lifetime photographing this place and never repeat a shot. Better people have already tried.

A last breakfast, trying not to be sad about it, sitting drinking coffee on the steps to the Public Library, watching people trying to snapshoot themselves in front of the lions, then it’s all tight goodbyes on the sidewalk, the bus, the airport, charmless service from the BA staff, a cramped flight with too little water. Home. "Hey, we just got back from New York …"

And yes, it really is as good as it sounds.

I’m travelling this week, so may not be able to reply to comments as quickly as I’d like, but I hope you’ll bear with me.

Perfect Timing

by Zoë Sharp

Yesterday, I went out and planned the best way to kill a man.

Nothing new in that, of course. I can’t remember how many people have died by my hand over the years. They’ve been shot, stabbed, overdosed, strangled, torched, blown up with a variety of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), been run over by moving vehicles, pushed down staircases, ridden off the edge of cliffs, had their throats cut, and their skulls shattered with blunt instruments. Or, on more than one occasion, finished with a single empty-handed blow.

And, let me tell you, it’s been fun.

But yesterday I went and walked the actual killing ground, which is something I haven’t done in a while. So, what was different this time?


Originally, I intended to take the target down at his office, where he has a habit of standing by the window when he’s on the phone. Getting his number is easy, and I know exactly what to say to keep him on the line. But the more I went over his place of work, the more problems became apparent. Access, for one. Not that I need to get close to him, not by any means, but a clear line of sight is vital or the whole thing falls apart.

And then there’s the fact that my target is military. A career soldier – hard-bitten, experienced. He’s seen active service in every nasty corner of the world for nearly forty years. Sneaking up on such a man is not easy. Especially when he has a pretty good idea that someone’s gunning for him.

There’s no opportunity to set up a booby-trip, no time to rig his car, even though I’m sure I could cook up something that would do the job, in less time than it takes me to do the ironing. Taking him at home isn’t a much better option than work, which is probably why he chose to live there. Too hemmed-in for a long kill, too overlooked to get in closer. Because getting in close dramatically increases the chances of being seen, being caught. And, trust me, I want to get away with this, so egress is almost more important than access.

It’s got to be seamless, it’s got to work.

So, I’ve no option but to take him on the move, doing something routine, something he thinks is ordinary, even dull. Which is why we went out in the rain yesterday and drove the most logical route I knew my target would take from one confirmed location to another, and I looked for my opportunities.

Trouble is, I’m not dealing with open rolling countryside here. It’s chopped up, twisty, bordered by high hedges and dry stone walls a foot thick. It offers only short bursts of rapid-motion exposure, with little forewarning of his exact time of approach. Habitation is sparse, but people here are wary of strangers, and prolonged stay will attract their attention. It has to be done fast, in and out.

My target’s entire journey is less than five miles. I drive it, increasingly anxious, finding nothing for the first three. Then, there it is. A blind, ninety-degree corner onto a narrow bridge. Heading in the same direction as my target, car drivers are forced to brake almost to nothing before turning in. We park up and pace it. The bridge is thirty-three metres long, almost flat, crossing a disused railway line. My target drives an old Land Rover with all the acceleration and aerodynamics of a Post Office. I estimate it will take him between four and five seconds to cross.

And ahead of him, as he drives onto the bridge, the ground rises maybe eighteen metres to the tree line, a fifth of a mile away from that initial turn-in point. Three hundred and twenty-two metres. Back when I was actually shooting in competition, I could reliably take out the centre of a target at a little under that distance, even with an indifferent, rough-zeroed rifle and open sights. For this I have somewhat more specialised equipment in mind.

There’s a farm close by, but the trees provide a degree of separation. Not ideal, but a manageable risk, and there will only be a single shot. By the time the farmer gets his boots on, I’ll be gone. The elevation gives me uninterrupted visibility – a head-on target, travelling at relatively low speed for a calculable time period, at a quantifiable range. Not perfect, but as near as makes no difference.

It still confounds me, having stood and looked down from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository, that the killing shots were not taken as the presidential motorcade progressed, slow and stately, almost directly towards the building along Elm. But instead the gunman – plural or singular, I’m open on this – waited until that awkwardly sighted, tight turn into Dealey Plaza, partially obscured by trees, to open fire.

But I digress. So, now, armed with no more than my notes from yesterday’s excursion in the rain, I can sit down, cosy at my desk, and write the fictional scene that makes use of all this fascinating research. What? You didn’t think I was actually going to …?

Sometimes, imagination alone is more than enough to write the kind of books we do, but if I can blur the lines between fact and fiction, slide some invention between the cracks of reality, so much the better. I’m not suggesting becoming a method writer, who has to see, hear, touch, taste and smell every experience before they can be portrayed. I didn’t go crawling round brothels in Brooklyn in order to describe the inside of one in THIRD STRIKE, although, I did seek advice from multi-award-winning Long Islander, Reed Farrel Coleman as to most probable locations. He sent me the kind of amazingly detailed answers that only a fellow crime writer can provide.

But I did spend a day going over a cross-channel ferry before I wrote ROAD KILL, and – even if I didn’t fill in all the blanks – the method of disabling it I used in that book is absolutely real. Not only that, it’s better than anything I could have come up with. Because I wouldn’t have made it so worryingly easy.

Working blind, I doubt I would have invented that bridge, that corner, that hill. If nothing suitable had turned up during that five-mile drive, I would have pinpointed a ficticious location entirely out of my head for my unknown, equally ficticious, assassin to carry out that hit. Somewhere that would undoubtedly have done the job, but it wouldn’t have had that extra little tinge of realism to it. I know part of our job description is that we Make Stuff Up, but to be honest, I couldn’t have imagined a better spot for an ambush if I’d tried.

So, what do you all favour – pure invention or partial reality? Do you need to go and walk the ground, take photographs, notes, clippings. And if you can’t get there in person, what do you rely on to feed your imagination?

This week’s Word of the Week is deadline, which was used for years in the newspaper business, where writers had to have their copy filed by a certain time in order to make the following day’s paper, or the story was considered dead. It’s a word that strikes terror into the hearts of authors everywhere, which is rather appropriate to its original meaning – it was supposed to. During the American Civil War, the prisoner of war camp at Andersonville used a white painted line instead of external walls or wire. Marksmen placed around the perimeter had orders to shoot any prisoner who attempted to cross that white line, no questions asked. Hence, you were allowed to go right up to the deadline, but woe betide you if you went over it.

I know the feeling …

“I’m Mad About My Flat!”

Zoë Sharp

If you’re a Brit, the title of this piece will have a completely different meaning than it does for an American. To an American, "I’m mad about my flat," means, "I’m very annoyed about the puncture to my car tyre." (Or should that be ‘car tire’?) To a Brit, on the other hand, it translates as, "I’m very excited about my apartment."

And then there are all the other phrases that are ripe for misunderstanding. If a Brit says somebody’s pissed’, he or she means they’re very drunk. To be annoyed is to be ‘pissed off’.

On this side of the Atlantic, a ‘sorry ass’ is a donkey that’s feeling under the weather, a ‘fag’ is a cigarette, and I’d be extremely careful before you remark on the pertness of a young lady’s ‘fanny’, as you’re liable to get a proper smack in the mouth.

If someone ‘jacks’ your car over here, they’ve lifted it off its wheels rather than stolen it, although if you’ve had your wallet ‘lifted’ that does mean stolen. If a person is ‘lifting’, however, you might want to stay firmly upwind of them.

Confused? You will be.

Whoever said we are two people separated by a common language got that dead right – and I’m not just talking about the way words are spelt – or should that be spelled?

UK English is a real hotchpotch, a melting pot of words misheard and garbled over centuries, or just plain mugged from other languages. The English slang for a lavatory is ‘loo’, which apparently dates back to Elizabethan times. With no indoor plumbing, people kept a chamber pot under their bed for use during the night. To empty it, they’d simply open an upstairs window and fling the contents out into the street below, with a warning cry of severely mangled French "Gardez l’eau!" (Mind the water) to anyone unfortunate enough to be passing at the time. I blame the Norman Conquest meself.

US words and phrases have slipped under the radar into common usage. I’m more likely to say ‘guy’ than ‘chap’ or ‘bloke’, which might be considered altogether more English. But I think it was Oscar Wilde who said that an Englishman cannot open his mouth without another Englishman despising him. Thus, the subtle indicators of class signalled by the use of ‘what?’ or ‘pardon?’, ‘may I? instead of ‘can I?’, and ‘who’ rather than ‘whom’ can be real giveaways to social position and background.

Of course, today’s influence of US TV and film has caused a certain hybridisation of the language on this side of the Atlantic. It seems to me that if a US series is successful, we get it verbatim over here. But if a UK series is a big hit here, the idea is exported and the show tends to be remade for an American audience. Hence US versions of ‘Men Behaving Badly’ and ‘The Office’. Steve Carell may be very talented, but what was wrong with Ricky Gervais?

Not having watched these shows side by side, I’m not entirely sure why this was done. I get the impression that some people either think the whole of the UK is something out of ‘Jeeves and Wooster’, or alternatively it’s just like ‘Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels’, and there seems to be very little in between. We’re an uneasy mix of twee thatched cottages and inner city lager-lout mayhem. Jason Statham and Vinnie Jones might have done their bit to bring something of a genuine Cockney accent to a wider audience, but then you hear Don Cheadle’s frankly bizarre attempts in ‘Ocean’s 11/12/13’, and we’re straight back to Dick van Dyke’s cheerful Cock-er-ney chappie in ‘Mary Poppins’.

I’ve travelled a good deal in the US, and not just the usual tourist destinations. And more than the difference in language, I’ve found it’s speed and delivery that seems to cause the most problem. I had to learn to ask a question with a rising inflection in my voice, otherwise it would not be recognised as a question. And to speak a LOT slower. A friend once said that when she was tired we sounded just like the Peanuts parents from the Snoopy cartoons. And last time we were in the US we saw an interview on CNN with the baggage handler from Glasgow Airport who’d helped foil a terrorist attack. His Scottish accent was deemed so thick that they actually subtitled him.

Regional UK accents can cause problems all by themselves, and it’s not hard to see why utter confusion can arise. Take something simple like an endearment, for instance. In the East End of London, I’d be ‘dar-lin’ or ‘awright mate?’ In the West Country, ‘moy luvur’. In Liverpool, ‘laa’. In the Northeast, ‘pet’. In Scotland, ‘hen’. In the East Midlands, ‘me duck’. Whereas in parts of Lancashire it’s not unusual to hear two blokes call each other, ‘love’. And I haven’t even scratched the surface there, although I did discover a long time ago that the best way to disarm a Regimental Sergeant Major was to call him ‘petal’.

Setting a book outside your home territory is one of the biggest challenges for a writer, I feel. Not just in terms of geography, but of character and mind set. Writing convincing characters outside your home culture is a skill all by itself, and certainly not for the faint-hearted. The decision to move my main character to work mainly in the US was not taken lightly. But I wasn’t trying to write an entire book from inside the mind of a foreigner. Charlie’s a Brit and she remains resolutely so in her sense of humour, thought patterns, outlook and speech. The tricky part is always trying to get the US characters’ dialogue to ring true.

There are so many little subtleties in the use of language between us. In the US, someone would be ‘in the hospital’, would ask you to ‘write me’ or ‘call me’, might invite you to ‘go see a movie’, would learn about something ‘in school’. In the UK, you’d be ‘in hospital’, asked to ‘write to me’, or ‘give me a ring’, be invited to ‘go and see a film’, and would learn a subject ‘at school’. Dates are usually recorded day, month, year in the UK, not month, day, year (although I do mine like that, just to be awkward) and the first floor of a building is at ground level.

OK, now are you confused?

I was asked recently if I wrote differently for the US or UK markets, and as I’m doing my series for both at the same time, it has to be something I bear in mind. Mainly, though, I just use the words that spring to (Charlie’s) mind, and wait to have them queried. ‘Liquorice’ was one of the more surprising ones in THIRD STRIKE that I was asked to find an alternative for, I seem to remember. And ‘nip and tuck’ was suggested to mean a close result, which is a phrase that’s only familiar in the UK because of the US-import cosmetic surgery series of the same name. I’m fascinated to know if you’ve come across words that aren’t familiar, or been asked to find substitutes for ones that you thought would be self-explanatory.

One last thing, though. If you’re a Brit invited to someone’s home for a meal in the States, don’t ever offer to ‘lay the table’. It really doesn’t mean the same thing at all over there …

This week’s Word of the Week is hijack. Although it’s come to be associated mainly with airliners, the origins come from old English highwaymen, who would rob horse-drawn coaches at gun point, and of whom Dick Turpin was the most famous example. The traditional opening gambit to the occupants was a shout to "Hold ‘em high, Jack!" meaning everyone on board should stick their hands in the air while the robber took control.

PS This whole train of thought arrived when fellow ‘Rati, JT Ellison asked me if I wouldn’t mind reading through some of the dialogue for a UK character in her next book, EDGE OF BLACK. Having done so, I have one piece of advice – pre-order it NOW! It’s a terrific read and I can’t wait to get my hands on the finished version.

The Mass of Expectation

by Zoë Sharp

It’s five A.M., winter, and a bitter rain is beating against the glass. Outside the covers, the room is as cold as the inside of a meat locker. Your husband/wife/lover is a soft embrace with a comforting heartbeat only a thought away across the pillow, and you want nothing more than to tuck in, hold on, go under.

But your alarm has just gone off, an hour and a half before you know you HAVE to get up for work. There seems to be no reason good enough, right now, to deny yourself another ninety minutes lying here. It’s safe, it’s easy. And nobody expects you to want or do anything different.

But you get up anyway.

You struggle into unwelcome clothes and stumble down a darkened staircase, trying not to put on the lights, trying not to wake the house. You totter out into the wet and the cold, and you force yourself onward against a fierce wind that seems determined to tangle itself around your legs and weight your feet like clay, against great flung coins of rain that pelt into your face at every stride, denting your skin and stinging your eyes until you have no idea who you are or where you’re going.

And you run.

At times like these you not only wonder why you got started on this madness, but how. Maybe it started out as little more than a half-formed whim expressed out loud. “One day,” you said, “I want to enter a marathon.” And maybe someone else, someone close to you, said, “Well, what’s stopping you?”

If you were lucky.

So often, though, when that kind of ambition is announced, it’s met with blank looks. “What on earth do you want to do something like that for?” Or, worse, with ridicule. “Yeah, right!” they snort. “You? You’re too old/stupid/lazy! You’ll never keep it up!”

But still you set your alarm that very first morning, and you crawled out from beneath the covers. For a long time, you stood on your front porch staring out into a misted curtain of rain, trying to find the courage to take that first uncertain step.

Most probably, you didn’t take it.

Instead, you turned back, let the door latch quietly behind you, and crept back into bed. The sheets hadn’t even had time to fully cool. Your husband/wife/lover rolled over as you slid under the covers, and muttered in their sleep. They hardly even knew you’d been gone. “It was a stupid idea,” you told yourself. “Of course someone like me can’t do something like that.”

But the next morning, you set the alarm again. And this time you got to the end of the driveway before you turned back, still dissatisfied with how little you seem to have achieved, but without that same hollow ring of cowardice that haunted you before.

And so it goes on.

Progress isn’t linear. Some days you’ll breeze through the entire route you’ve set yourself. Others you’ll sweat and stagger to the end of the driveway again, returning utterly exhausted out of all proportion to such a paltry effort. And some days, when that alarm goes off, you’ll pull the bedclothes up over your head and totally ignore it.

You might be wondering by now just where this story is going, and it’s all about determination. The kind of determination you’ve got to have in order to write a novel. It doesn’t matter if it’s a novel that’s snapped up by a publisher to become an instant bestseller, or something that never makes it past faded typescript form in a box under your bed. You’ve still got to sit down and get on with it, word by word, from the empty first page to the final full stop.

And I use the description of ‘novel’ carefully. I started out writing non-fiction and, from my experience, that’s easier. Instead of the sweepings-up out of your own head, you’re tasked purely with telling someone else’s story. If nobody else thinks it’s worthy of reading, then the blame is jointly shared between the writer (for not telling the story in an interesting enough way) and the subject (for not having an interesting enough story in the first place). Each, of course, will privately push more of the blame onto the other.

But fiction is different. Fiction is make-believe, and there’s always the fear in the back of your mind that your imagination simply isn’t up to the job. Because, unlike training for a marathon – my clumsy analogy at the start of this post – you don’t necessarily see any improvement as you go along. You don’t get ‘fitter’, more capable of achieving that perfect bit of description, that snappy piece of dialogue. In fact, in some ways it gets much harder to keep going, the closer you get to the end. After all, the thing takes on a mass all of its own.

The mass of expectation.

Imagine the feeling, when you stood on the front porch that very first morning, that you have it within your grasp to be the next Olympic gold medallist in your chosen sport. All you have to do is take that first step, and you’ll be on your way to the podium, with the national anthem blasting across the stadium and the president hanging that coveted ribbon around your neck.

Equally, before you’ve put a single word on the page, your novel has the potential to be the next Pulitzer/Nobel/Booker/Duncan Lawrie-winning entry. After all, first novels are fought over by major houses, and they do go on to win rakes of major awards. We are constantly handed news clippings by well-meaning relatives telling how some teenage first-timer submitted the first three chapters and an outline, only for their agent to be bombarded with six-figure offers and phone calls from Hollywood over the film rights.

But the truth of it is, that the more words you put on the page, the more the potential of your book diminishes. By the time you’ve written the final word, it no longer has all that potential. Rewrites aside, the bulk of the story, the voice and the shape and the tone, is there.

Good or bad, it is what it is.

You may have spent several years ‘training’ by this point. It could even be decades. Forcing yourself to carve out little niches of time to write, perhaps enduring the scepticism of friends and family, all with dogged determination. But until you submit your first typescript – until you enter your first marathon – the truth is that you have no real idea whether you can do this or not.

And regardless of whether your book is ever destined for the shelves in the bookstores or not, just getting it done is an enormous achievement, a huge continuous leap of faith.

For me, it’s a compulsion. Someone called me a self-starter recently, but I look at all the To Dos left undone at the end of the day and feel that I write at the expense of other things, rather than as well as them. And while part of me would love to have the kind of determination to actually get out of bed early every day and train for that marathon for real, I know in my heart of hearts that I don’t have it. For me writing is my one overriding obsession.

So, what drives you to write? Do you carry that determination to other aspects of your life, or is it your obsession, too?

This week’s Word of the Week is more of a phrase – cold feet. A common expression for loss of nerve, the expression comes from the German author, Fritz Reuter. In 1862 he wrote a scene in a novel involving a game of poker. One of the players realises he’s going to lose but doesn’t want to throw in his hand and thus lose face, so he complains that his feet are so cold that he cannot concentrate on the game. This gives him the opportunity to leave the table with his honour intact.

You may also recall in my last ‘Rati post that I offered a copy of TELL AN OUTRAGEOUS LIE to the most inventive improvised weapon suggestion. I have to say that although there were some brilliant – and scary – suggestions, it came to a toss-up between Jake Nantz and K. Prescott. So I literally tossed a coin, and Jake won. Email me your snail-mail address, Jake, and I’ll either put a copy in the mail to you or, if you’re going to be at Bouchercon in October, I’ll bring it with me. You may receive it quicker that way!

How To Kill Someone With Small Change

by Zoë Sharp

I suppose, first of all, I need to start with an apology. I’ve been singularly absent from the comments section to posts on this blog since … well, since my last post, to be honest.

Summer is the silly season as far as the day-job goes. Not that it seems to rain less, exactly, in the British summer for location photoshoots, but the rain’s certainly warmer. And the last month or so, what with the run-up to the CWA Dagger Awards and trying to plunge into the new Charlie Fox book, well. Let’s just say things have been a little hectic. Spending six days out of seven on the road does not make for a good ‘Rati member, I freely admit. So, apologies again, and I’ll try harder. In fact, when JT originally asked me for a title for my blog, I so very nearly used Must Try Harder instead of Changing Feet. Sometimes it would have been very appropriate. Whenever I do get the chance to catch up, I find you’ve all been having superb posts that I really would have liked to take part in.

Anyway, my last bout of rushing around the country took in the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate . Not quite the glamorous location of NYC for the recent ThrillerFest, but Harrogate still has a fine traditional connection with crime writing. When Agatha Christie did her famous eleven-day disappearing act in 1926, it was in the Harrogate Hydro Hotel she was eventually found.

The crime writing part of the Festival has been going since 2003, rapidly establishing itself as one of the biggest and best. I don’t say that lightly, or to belittle any other events. Everything that promotes crime and thriller fiction is welcome, I feel, but Harrogate is pretty unique for several reasons. The line-up is the first thing. Robert Crais, Jeffery Deaver, Andy McNab, Peter Robinson, Laura Wilson, Simon Kernick and, of course, our own Tess Gerritsen, to name but a few. You have to be invited to take part, are paid a small fee for the privilege, and only one panel track runs throughout the four-day event. Hence the fact that there can often be more than 400 people in the audience for each panel. Which would be quite a scary prospect were it not like being on a theatre stage, where the lighting means you can’t see past the first few rows.

My own bit was part of Creative Thursday, which is aimed at budding crime writers rather than those already established. I seem to be acquiring quite a reputation of sorts, because I was asked to deliver a workshop on How To Kill Someone With Small Change. For this I went trawling through my lists of ordinary objects that could be used to great damage and effect, and came up with things like hairspray, a flashlight and a table fork, which we bent into a knuckle-duster of sorts. So many people subsequently asked to see this that I ended up carrying it around in my handbag for most of the weekend, hoping I wouldn’t undergo a stop and search by the police while walking back to my hotel in the early hours. Indeed, Meg Gardiner saw a police chase and arrest from her hotel bedroom window.

Mind you, one particular writer got picked up by the police himself trying to return to his hotel in a somewhat ‘tired and emotional’ state. He thought they were being friendly and helpful when he blundered into the wrong building, but apparently they thought he was a burglar.

As is always the way, when you get a bunch of writers together the drink flows. Last year, the hotel turned over one of the bars to a wedding party, but I’m told their entire evening’s spend did not equal an hour of author drinking, so both bars were firmly available to the crime writers this year.

Sadly, there was no repeat of the chimpanzee impersonations by literary agent, Phil Patterson, regardless of encouragement by the rest of us. People kept greeting him as Agent Phil, which made him sound like some shady fed. I expected him to flash a government ID at any moment – "Agent Phil: Hominoid Division."

The hotel management could have run a book on how late the authors stayed in the bar. This Kevin Wignall would undoubtedly have won. On Saturday night he didn’t leave until 5:50 AM, only resurfacing just before lunchtime on Sunday, wearing dark glasses and a slightly delicate smile.

Of course, there was some serious business done, too, and the additional number of European publishers present was noticeable this time around, all a sign of how the festival is growing in stature.

Many happy returns to Lizzie Hayes of Mystery Women, whom we helped celebrate her birthday, along with her friend Sue, and Adrian and Ann Magson, in the Drum and Monkey. And no, Agent Phil wasn’t there …

I think one of the highlights must have been Stuart MacBride channelling the spirit of Edgar Allan Poe in the Balloon Game on Friday night, where a bunch of modern crime writers defended their predecessors in a hypothetical sinking hot-air balloon. The audience got to choose who stayed and who was thrown over the side in defence of the others. Despite a downright creepy performance by Stuart as Poe – complete with a raven glove puppet made from a sock – clean, we hope – in the end it came down to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle versus Dame Agatha Christie, as represented by Mark Billingham and Val McDermid with, somewhat bizarrely, a bag perched on her head.

The usual mass quiz on Saturday night was fun, although treated with deadly seriousness by some of those taking part. This year I was stunned to discover that one of the questions was about my books – trying to put the early ones in the right order. I knew writing FIRST DROP as book four would come in confusingly useful one day! Congratulations to my fellow team members, Martin Edwards, Meg Gardiner, Rhian Davies from It’s A Mystery and Karen Meek and Maxine Clarke from Eurocrime, all of whom knew far more than I did.

I was even asked to join a discussion on the BBC Radio 4 arts programme, Front Row, along with Chelsea Cain, Simon Kernick, and Mr MacBride. The programme, all about the highlights of Harrogate, was broadcast in the UK on Wednesday evening, but you can Listen Again Again on the ‘Tinterweb for the next week, if you feel so inclined. I also recorded an interview with the delightful Sarah Walters of the Yorkshire Post for their OutLoud online series.

One of the most interesting surprises was the new book-related board came – Bookchase – designed by Tony Davis. I’d love to tell you how it all works, but I haven’t got hold of a copy yet. Still, it was launched at the Hay Festival last year and it looks fascinating. Tony promises that a crime and thriller edition might well be on its way!

I’m sure there’s lots I’ve forgotten, but it will come back to me. Meanwhile, I offered a small prize to the best suggestion from my workshop class of use of an improvised weapon, or (very) short scene containing one. The deadline for that has already passed, but if anyone wants to suggest something, I happen to have another prize. A copy of the ingenious TELL AN OUTRAGEOUS LIE – 188 Legal Stimulants Designed to Get Your Creative Juices Flowing – by Mandy Wheeler and James de Ville.

Oh, and if anyone’s interested, I will be delivering an evening lecture at Lancaster University as part of their summer programme of events – 8:30 PM on Tuesday, August 5th.

This week’s Word of the Week has to be hominoid, an animal of the family Hominoidea, comprising man and the modern apes and their extinct ancestors.

Life, and Other Addictions

by Zoë Sharp

Today sees the announcement of the Crime Writers’ Association Duncan Lawrie Dagger Awards. The top prize, for the Duncan Lawrie Dagger itself, is £20,000 – a sliver under $40,000. Tonight I shall be putting on a posh frock – Alex’s wonderful description of ‘stunt dressing’ springs to mind – and mixing with the great and the good at the swanky Four Seasons Hotel on Park Lane in the Aston Martin area of London. Sadly, I shall not be doing this because I’ve been nominated for anything, but because for the last four years I have been the Press Officer for the CWA.

And this is my last time.

They’re a nice bunch, the CWA, and I look back on previous Chairs with great affection, but a couple of recent minor nudges made me suddenly realise that the time has come to stand down. It’s not just the putting together of the 50+page press packs to be handed out on the night, the numerous press releases, and the mammoth task that is the gathering together of comments, synopsis and biog information on up to ten shortlisted authors for each of eight different awards. On top of fielding every day press enquiries, there’s also the shortlists and results for the Ellis Peters Historical Award, made towards the end of the year, and the announcements for the Cartier Diamond Dagger, awarded each May. Of course, the only time anyone contacts you about any of this is when you’ve made a mistake, but that’s just human nature and I expect and accept that as part of the job.

No, the realisation finally dawned that I’m trying to do Too Much and I need to shed some load. To coin a nautical phrase – better jetsam than flotsam.

That’s the trouble with having a pretty strong work ethic, you see. When people ask for volunteers I find it very difficult to sit on my hands and look the other way. So, I keep taking more on, and I’ve always found that the more you do, the more you’re capable of doing. Thus, I work full time doing a self-employed, self-motivated job that isn’t just a 9-5, five days a week, for someone else. We constantly have to go out and find fresh work or it dries up. We work weekends and evenings, regardless of public holidays. We don’t have TV, so we only tend actually to stop work for meals, or when we literally fall asleep over our computer keyboards.

And, somewhere in the midst of all this, I write the books, too. In the cracks of the day job, on my knee on a lap top in the car, in the early mornings and late into the night, in pencil in a notebook in snatched moments. A compulsion, rather than anything else.

Several years ago we took on the task of self-building a house, doing most of the construction work ourselves. While still working full time, and still writing those books. And then along came the CWA and fixed me with a hopeful eye and said would I mind taking on the Press Officer’s job? And, of course, I said yes.

And now I have to say no.

I feel selfish, cowardly even, but I can’t ignore the signs any longer. The temper, the frustration, the mood swings, the despair. The danger signs. They started off as background irritations, but now they’ve got too big and too loud to ignore.

Stress, they say, is not caused by workload. It’s caused by not coping with the workload. Well, I’ve loaded myself up with work about as far as I can be loaded, and now I need to ease off before something breaks. Tolerance to stress is an elastic property. We all need a little stress to keep the blood circulating, but too much of it can kill you.

And you can only stretch it so far. Like alcohol intake. A lot of people like a drink, but once you’ve tipped and fallen, the knack of moderation is lost and you can never take another sip. I’ve seen people broken in pieces by the stress of their high-powered jobs, only able to go back to the mildest of labours, if at all. I cannot envisage a time when I am unable to write, but we visited a friend last weekend who is in that position. I ached at his frustration, at the stories he writes from beginning to end in his head, that he just can’t get down on the page.

It’s a place I don’t want to go, not even for a temporary visit, and I don’t want anyone else to go there, either, if it can be avoided. We live life today at a frenetic pace, where any slackening or pause is taken as a sign of weakness, where doing less is a vice rather than a virtue. I’m not advocating stopping dead in the water. Far from it. But you have to identify what’s important – time with your family, your loved ones, your creative spirit – and prioritise it so that it’s allowed to thrive.

I’ve never wanted to do anything but write. I do not want to go to my grave with the song still in me.

This week’s Word(s) of the Week are jetsam and flotsam. Only a slight difference between the two, but an important one, I feel. A piece of jetsam is an object jettisoned from a ship in an attempt to prevent it from sinking, whereas flotsam is an object that has floated off a ship as it goes to the bottom.

Due to being present in London at the Dagger Awards, my replies to any comments may well be delayed and erratic. Apologies in advance!

Second Henchman From The Left

by Zoë Sharp

The main protagonist of a crime thriller – in fact, of any novel – may be the one who gets the star billing, but for me it’s so often the supporting players who make or break a book.

And I’m not just talking about the sidekicks, either. They deserve a whole separate section to themselves. What I mean is the real minor characters – the walk-on extras of the literary world. The ones who may only have a few lines of dialogue, but who completely steal whatever scene they happen to be in.

Sometimes, in a few broad brushstrokes, those are ones who jump off the page to become real people, quite out of proportion to the role they were supposed to play in the story. The ones who most stick in my mind after the final page is done. The characters who really should have had a chapter all of their own, or maybe even an entire novel.

Certain bit-part players are sneaky, I’ve found. They just cry out to have their role extended and expanded, and they rewrite their part when I’m not looking. Occasionally I give in to the urge and write them to the grander scale they feel they deserve. Almost inevitably, those scenes end up on the cutting room floor. They’re great, yes. I love them, but if they don’t move the story forwards, back out they come.

Even so, I’m always left with a lingering sense of regret, that they had a greater story to tell, and by not allowing them to speak freely, I’m missing something worthwhile.

I envisaged just such a minor player in FIRST DROP. His name was Walt and he was purely supposed to be a friendly face for Charlie, someone to offer her temporary sanctuary when she was on the run in a strange country with her teenage principal, Trey. A typical walk-on part. But Walt was made of sterner stuff, I quickly discovered. He’d spent time in the navy and was a retired FBI agent, living right on the beach in Daytona with his wife, Harriet. They fostered problem kids, and while Walt now spent his time just bumming around, beach combing and drinking coffee, he still had the power to disperse a gang of teenage tearaways with a few quiet, well-chosen words.

By the time I’d finished the book, I couldn’t get Walt out of my head. He became such a complete person that for a while afterwards I seriously considered making him the central character of his own novel. Possibly even the mainstay of a new series. And I really wanted to bring him back in THIRD STRIKE. Once again, I thought, he could be there for Charlie in a way she’s always felt – rightly or wrongly – her own father never was. A good counterpoint figure.

But the more I tried to follow that path, the more I realised that Walt just didn’t have a role to play in the book. The more I pushed, the more the story just wouldn’t come. Eventually, with much kicking and mewling, I had to face up to the fact that he simply didn’t fit, and out he came.

But I did manage to sneak in another minor character from a previous book. Gleet was a builder of custom motorcycles, an artist in steel and paint, who worked out of a farmyard barn in rural Lancashire. He and his shotgun-toting sister, May, both make a fleeting visit in THIRD STRIKE. May, in particular, has only one piece of dialogue, but it just feels right. I felt their inclusion worked on several levels, not just in the current story, but as an important link to Charlie’s past, a reminder of who she was before she moved to New York to take up very different life.

And there were others who acted their socks off for the brief time they took centre page. There’s one character who’s identified only as Buzz-cut, for the style of his hair. A former soldier by his bearing. A dedicated, fiercely loyal man by his actions. Misguided, maybe. Misinformed, almost certainly, but not a cut-and-dried bad guy by any means. As minor villains go – the second henchman from the left of the title – he’s another who won’t quite let go.

There was a character like that in SECOND SHOT. Someone I only ever knew as Man with the Glasses. He didn’t stay long, didn’t say much while he was there, but something about him has remained with me, some time after he departed.

So, my question is this. Have you ever written a minor character who just seemed to have that star quality, who refused to be contained by the itsy role you were initially determined they should play? Do you ever have to rein them in, ruthlessly prune their ad libs, or even strip them from the narrative altogether, to service the greater good of the story? Even though, in your heart, you really want to hear their song?

Or, has a minor character in an early, perhaps unpublished, draft, ever stepped into the spotlight, and looked you firmly in the eye, and said, "Hey, this book should be about ME!" and, if so, what did you do about it?

This week’s Word of the Week is camaïeu, originally a cameo; a painting in monochrome or in simple colours not imitating nature; a style of printing pictures producing the effect of pencil-drawing; a literary work or play that is monotonous or lacks interest. And thus, cameo, which among its meanings includes that of a short literary piece; a small role in a play or film that often gives scope for character acting. Adj miniature, small and perfect of its kind.

Music and Lyrics

by Zoë Sharp

Last weekend I attended the CrimeFest convention in Bristol, which was great fun, with some highly entertaining panels, not least of which were given by the guest of honour, Jeff Lindsay – he of Darkly Dreaming Dexter. I was particularly interested to hear of the initial reaction from publishing professionals to Jeff’s serial killer anti-hero protagonist.

It also made me realise there’s another point I should add to my DO/DON’T list for conventions: ‘If you spot someone you want to talk to, and they’re in the midst of a conversation with somebody else, DON’T just barge in and start speaking. It happened several times over the course of the weekend, and I can’t tell you how annoying it is.

The final panel of the event, – Laurie R King moderating Simon Brett, Natasha Cooper, Jeff Lindsay and Ian Rankin – included in the title ‘Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll’. Laurie dispensed with the first two items on that list fairly smartly, but the third has stuck in my mind, mainly because two of the panellists said that music played no part in their writing at all.

Now, I can’t help thinking that’s a great shame, because it plays a huge part in mine, even if it never appears on the page. I’m not just talking about having the characters sitting around listening to blues, or jazz, or country and western, come to that. My characters very rarely get the opportunity to relax enough to do so. I’m talking about the actual business of writing.

For me, nothing creates mood or atmosphere faster than music and I exploit this phenomenon to its fullest extent whenever I sit down to write. We have a huge collection of CDs – everything from Gregorian chants to Zydeco, via Philip Glass, Linkin Park and Goldfrapp. I finally dragged myself into the twentieth century recently when Andy bought me an iPod. All I have to do now is work out how to download all those CDs onto it. Instinctive? Hah! Mind you, this comes from a person who can re-plumb a bathroom or dismantle an engine more easily than she can add a new programme to her computer …

But the prospect of being able to take most of my music with me when we’re on the road, which is when a fair amount of my writing is done, and simply plug the iPod into the car so as to have the right music for any given scene, is a very tempting one. To me, it’s like poetry that plugs straight into your nervous system, with added visceral effect. The hairs are up on the back of your neck, the lump is in your throat, before the poet opens their mouth and delivers that first line.

In my youth I played guitar – classical mainly, and none too well. But I was always trying to write songs. Now, these were usually the kind of angst-filled dirges, the equivalent of teenage poetry, and I cringe to think of them now. But I find the music that lingers, the artists I keep coming back to, are the ones where the lyrics are as evocative as the melody. Examples? Here are just a few, and I apologise if I’ve only listed the singer, rather than the lyricist in all cases.

"I am breathless from the mercy of a smile" Jann Arden, ‘Saved’

"Oh, I really should have known … by the vagueness in your eyes … by the chill in your embrace" Jann Arden, ‘Insensitive’ words by Anne Loree

"Do you keep the receipts / for the friends that you buy?" Oasis, ‘Where Did It All Go Wrong?’

"If you were to kill me now … I would burn myself / into your memory … I would live inside you / I’d make you wear me / like a scar" Suzanne Vega, ‘In The Eye’

"Just three miles from the rest stop / And she slams on the brakes … She said – while you were sleeping / I was listening to the radio / and wondering what you’re dreaming when / it came to mind that I didn’t care" Matchbox Twenty, ‘Rest Stop’, words by Rob Thomas

"The night is my companion / solitude my guide / would I spend forever here and not be satisfied" Sarah McLachlan, ‘Obsession’

"You know if I leave you now / it doesn’t mean I love you any less" Sarah McLachlan, ‘Wait’

In fact, just about any song by Sarah McLachlan has the most fabulous lyrics.

"It’s rising at the back of your mind" Vertical Horizon, ‘Everything You Want’, words by Matthew Scannell

"Step out the front door like a ghost / into the fog where no one notices / the contrast of white on white" Counting Crows, ‘Round Here’, words by Adam Duritz

"In the middle of the night, there’s an old man threading his toes through a bucket of rain" Counting Crows, ‘Omaha’, words by Adam Duritz

"A struck match faded like a nervous laugh / beyond the halo of a naked bulb … eventually your world will shrink within four walls / of neglected debts and stolen stereos" Del Amitri, ‘Move Away Jimmy Blue’

"I turned on a TV station and / lip-read with the sound turned down / it was pro-celeb mouth-to-mouth resuscitation / with Esther Rantzen / playing the one who’s drowned" Del Amitri, ‘You’re Gone’

Country singers are a whole different ball game when it comes to clever lyrics, and Brad Paisley is among the best, IMHO, showing quiet wit and a sharp insight:

"I work down at The Pizza Pit / And I drive an old Hyundai / I still live with my mom and dad / I’m five foot three and overweight / I’m a sci-fi fanatic mild asthmatic / never been to second base / but there’s a whole ‘nother me / that you need to see / go check out MySpace" Brad Paisley, ‘Online’

I’m sure everyone has their own examples of lyrics that get inside their head and won’t let go. I happened to catch a snippet of a Take That reunion concert on the TV in a hotel over the weekend, and even their popcorn fare contained the words, "In the twist of separation / you excelled in being free" and I thought, what a great line! That’s a lesson to me never to dismiss anything, isn’t it?

The Brad Paisley is a great example, though, of telling a story in a very sparse number of words. You know everything about that guy from those few lines. Pages of description seem very unnecessary in the face of that honed little character sketch.

So, what are your favourites? Do you listen to music while you write, or do you have to have silence? Do you have your characters listen? Does it work for you when other writers mention what their characters are listening to?

After all, someone’s choice of music can be made to say a lot about them, both good and bad. A documentary I saw a few years ago about SS General Reinhard Heydrich, who was one of the masterminds of Hitler’s Final Solution, showed the man calmly discussing the practicalities of genocide, but becoming strangely sentimental about the Adagio of Schubert’s Quintet in C major.

Sometimes it seems to be those little touches of humanity, as evinced by their taste in music, that can really give a character depth and texture. Villains don’t have to lack culture in order to be truly nasty pieces of work, and it can be that refined edge, that appreciation of the arts perhaps, that brings the depravity of their actions into sharper focus. It makes them jump off the page, all the more shocking, and turns them from men into murderers.

This week’s Word of the Week, is seric, meaning silken, or with a silky sheen.