Category Archives: Zoë Sharp

The Constant Journey

by Zoë Sharp

I was beating seven bells out of a large rock with a pickaxe when the courier arrived. He was Polish – the courier, not the rock – although that fact has no bearing and I mention it purely for colour. The rock was pure Cumbrian. Solid, taciturn, and not for shifting without the judicious application of a little brute force in tandem with a lot of dead ignorance. Gardening would be so much easier round here if we were allowed to use just a small amount of explosives.

The Polish courier had tracked down our almost impossible address to deliver a box bearing the label of the distributor for my UK publisher. Even with the seals intact, I knew what it contained. And, for the first time, I found myself strangely reluctant to open it.

The new book.

It’s often the case that, by the time a novel finally comes out, you’re a bit fed up with it, but this latest one just won’t stay down. As I think I might have mentioned, the copyedits were a nightmare, and just when I thought it was done and dusted, I’m currently wading my way through yet another set of page proofs that contain strange additional bits of text, the origins of some of which are a mystery to me.

Then I opened the box.

And, what can I tell you? I think it looks gorgeous. They look gorgeous. The box contained not only the hardcover of the new Charlie Fox book, Third Strike, but also the mass market paperback edition of Second Shot, with its completely redesigned cover. And here they are. See what you think:

2s3s_uk_05 All this is somewhat apt at the moment because I’m supposed to be leaping headlong into the next book in the series. In fact, I’m supposed already to have leapt. Instead, I’m suffering from what I seem to remember a fellow ’Rati member describing as the yips.

How the hell do you write a book? I’ve written quite a few of the damn things now, and yet, every time I’m faced with that file called ‘Chapter One’ I get this terrible attack of nerves.

The stupid thing is, I know this one is a pretty strong idea. I went through the same processes I’ve been through before. I always start out by writing the flap copy – the bit that would go on the inside flap of the hardcover jacket. The bit you read just to see if the basic premise works, after the cover design or the title or the author’s name has grabbed you enough to actually pick the book off the shelf and open it. This half or two-thirds of a page is what I initially write and send to my agent, my editor. If the idea at its most simple doesn’t fly for them, there’s no point in spending any more time on it. Alex talked about loglines for movies, or the elevator pitch for the book. This, for me, is the next stage.

And once I’ve had some tentative feedback, I work up the outline into something more detailed. At this stage I throw in everything I’ve got. Not just the dramatic high points and the scenes and situations that hit me hardest, but even the odd line of dialogue. And I keep going over it, layering stuff in, building up the connections, trying to cut down my cast but bind them more firmly to each other with each interwoven strand.

With a first-person narrative, so much happens off camera. I put that in, too. I work out what happened to all the other players before my main character so much as sets foot on the first page. But, while I need to know who my cast is, I don’t spend huge amounts of time giving them complete biographies. This is the first time Charlie is being introduced to most of these people. She comes to them largely without preconceptions, so I do, too. And when she meets them for the first time, their quirks and foibles and strengths and weaknesses will make themselves apparent by what they say and do in any given situation, not by what I’ve decided in advance will be their given path. Mostly, I know what’s going to happen, but after that I’m as interested as anyone else – I hope – in how these people react to the events in which they find themselves.

In the case of Third Strike, I knew it was going to be about Charlie’s search for respect. Partly from her peers as she’s coming back into a new working environment after serious injury. (What did you say about not the perils of making your main protag sick, JT? Damn! Charlie spent half of Second Shot on crutches.) And partly from her parents. Her father, an eminent consultant orthopaedic surgeon, has never approved of what she does and worries that sooner or later Charlie’s ability to kill will be the end of her. Her mother, a highly strung former magistrate, just worries.

All through the books they’ve been lurking in background – peripheral characters, a hint to Charlie’s origins. Not just what shaped her early views, but what she was trying to escape from, to rebel against, when she first joined the army. Her father, in particular, has always been coldly disapproving of her choice of career and lover, but he’s played little more than a cameo role before – even if he did steal every scene he was ever in.

So this time I wanted to bring them both to the forefront and what better way than to have them suddenly require the services of a bodyguard. I thrust the pair of them into a pretty ugly situation and sat back to watch how they coped with experiencing the kind of danger, the kind of life-and-death choices that their daughter has to make on a daily basis in her professional life. The one they’ve never seen. The one they’ve never wanted to see. And as for Charlie, when she’s already on the back foot, feeling unsure of her capabilities in a strange job, in a strange town, what could be worse than having her own parents watching her every move?

Nobody remains unchanged by the events of Third Strike. In fact, for Charlie things may never be quite the same again. And her parents both go on their own emotional journey from which they emerge different people. Perhaps even people they would rather not have become.

So, with the new book, I want to move on. To move Charlie on. Yes, she gained the respect she was after in Third Strike, but in the next instalment she realises she’s looking for more than that. She’s looking for redemption. And I have the idea that how she goes about finding it will run the risk of alienating her from the people who mean most to her. The people she means most to.

So I have several questions from all this. Would your worst nightmare be a Bring Your Parents To Work day at the office, or would you love it? Do you feel series characters have to remain constant, or do you want them to change and grow as the series goes on? And how do you get stuck in to a new piece of work? What tricks do you employ to get past that terrifying first blank page.

This week’s Word of the Week – an accidental find caused by a surfeit of vowels during a game of Scrabble – is anomie, meaning a condition of hopelessness caused or characterised by breakdown of rules of conduct and loss of belief and sense of purpose. Also, anomic – lawlessness.

What’s My Name Again?

by Zoë Sharp

I’ve just written that title down and realised that actually it would be a good one to do about pseudonyms, which wasn’t actually my intention. After all, a writer’s name is vital. It is who we are. And speaking as one who often gets both parts of my name misspelt – an extraneous ‘e’ tacked onto the end of Sharp and pick where you like for people to put the dieresis. I’ve even had those who hover one dot over the ‘o’ and the other over the ‘e’, just to hedge their bets.

Anyway, I digress. Where was I going with this again? Ah, yes, I know – memory! That was it! I remember now …

I’m the first to admit that I have a dreadful memory. Faces? No problem. I even recognised an old colleague from a local paper we briefly worked for in northern England twenty years ago, who I spotted sitting on a bench at a theme park in Florida, so not quite in context then. But names? Hopeless. I regularly go upstairs and forget what it is I went for. And shopping without a list is a nightmare.

So, I was intrigued to be recently reading Tricks of the Mind by Derren Brown and come across the section on dramatically improving your memory. Derren Brown, for those of you who are not aware of him, is part illusionist, part psychologist, and all showman. The Guardian newspaper described him as, "Clearly the best dinner-party guest in history – he’s either a balls-out con artist or the scariest man in Britain." His various TV series over here have dumbfounded and entertained in equal measure, and while the knowing style of his book has taken a bit of getting used to, the information contained in it is just fascinating.

And why is this relevant here? Because, if I understand him correctly and extrapolate accordingly, fiction writers should have the best memories ever. Elephants should be as fickle goldfish compared to us lot.

Why? Because we exercise our imaginations on a regular basis.

Ye-es, it foxed me to begin with, but stick with me on this one, OK? And do give this a whirl. I tried the example in the book and was amazed that it worked flawlessly.

You see, Brown claims that most people, given a list of twenty disparate, unconnected words, can recall about seven with any degree of accuracy. He gave such a list and suggested that you read it through, and then try and jot down as many as you can recall, in the same order. I took the liberty of substituting my own words. Or, rather, so I wasn’t subconsciously picking words that I might find easy to remember, I asked someone else to do provide the list for me. And here they are:

bicycle

cabriolet

fridge

rollercoaster

muckspreader

pincushion

blotter

hemlock

Shakespeare

thingamabob

nonagenarian

Rolex

Skyline

filter

cauliflower

grandfather

cuckoo

tortoise

carpet

blitzkrieg

So, having read through them, look away from the screen and try and write them down, in the same order they’re listed here. How did you do? If you got past seven, you’re Marvo the Memory Man and you don’t need to read any further. Put it aside for a bit, and then try again, without re-reading the list, but in reverse order this time. Ah, now that’s a stumper, isn’t it?

How it’s done, according to Brown’s method, is create a link from one word to the next by producing an image that connects the words. A vivid image, with smells and emotions attached to it. If the image is of something that stinks, sniff it. If it’s funny, find it so.

The elements need to interact in some way, and each little scene needs to be odd enough to be memorable. Some people, apparently, don’t like visualisation and claim not to be very good at it, but we’re writers, for heaven’s sake. We spend our days making stuff up – that’s what we do.

So, here’s my own list of connections between the above words:

bicycle/cabriolet

A group of Edwardians in striped blazers and straw boater hats, riding along on their bicycles, very slow and stately, but in case of rain they all have cabriolet tops they can raise over their heads, with big curved hinges on the sides like an old-fashioned pram, and tassels along the front.

cabriolet/fridge

A nice little VW Cabriolet, gleaming in white, all colour-coded, and when you climb inside it’s still white like you’re sitting in your fridge, with wire racks and dairy products on the shelves and a light that comes on when you open the door. There’s a big bottle of milk strapped to the passenger seat. The air con keeps it frosty cold.

fridge/rollercoaster

You open the door of your fridge and a rollercoaster track unfurls out of the salad drawer, complete with screaming passengers, and goes careering round the kitchen, making it impossible to sneak down for a midnight snack without waking the entire street.

rollercoaster/muckspreader

The farmer next to the amusement park hates the people who ride the rollercoaster making all that racket, so he always drives his muckspreader along the hedge next to the bottom of the first drop, and sprays them all with cow manure as they hurtle past. Particularly nasty if you’ve got your mouth open as you go.

muckspreader/pincushion

Someone’s come up with a new way of recycling cow manure, which instead of being scattered is reformed inside the muckspreader into neat round pincushions, the size of pillows, which it deposits in a neat orderly row as the farmer drives his tractor through the local ladies’ sewing circle.

pincushion/blotter

The only trouble with the cowpat pincushions is when you stick a pin in them they let out a great cloud of stinking vapour and leak a nasty greeny fluid all over the place, which you have to soak up by putting a blotter under the pincushion wherever you go.

blotter/hemlock

An ingenious murderess decides to soak the blotter on her husband’s desk in hemlock, so he will be gradually poisoned as the hemlock leaches out and into his hands whenever he works late into the night.

hemlock/Shakespeare

The entire cast of a Shakespeare play toast each other with hemlock-laced glasses of wine, thus dying tragically at the end of the first act, not realising that the leading man is a method actor who has genuinely dosed them all with real poison.

Shakespeare/thingamabob

Will Shakespeare finds himself momentarily lost for words and invents a new one – thingamabob – which instantly becomes all the rage in Elizabethan England. Queen Elizabeth I instantly demands he produce one, by royal command, and he has to cobble something together or lose his head.

thingamabob/nonagenarian

Nonagenarian little old ladies can be easily identified by the fact that they’re each followed about by a thingamabob, which is a little bouncy squeaky thing, like a cross between a space hopper and a tribble, which won’t leave them alone. There they all are in the park, swatting at these troublesome thingamabobs with their umbrellas.

nonagenarian/Rolex

When anybody reaches the ripe old age of 90, their nonagenarian status is celebrated by awarding them a Rolex watch. The only trouble is, it’s a big garish one, plastered with diamonds, and the streets are filled with old folk dressed up in flashy watches and gold chains like gangster rappers.

Rolex/Skyline

All Nissan Skyline sports cars comes with a Rolex attached to the front of the bonnet so the driver can time themselves as they lap the Nürburgring in Germany. It’s also used as a means of handicapping the faster ones. The quicker you drive, the bigger watch you have to have, thus not only increasing drag, but also preventing the driver from seeing where they’re going, and slowing them down. At least they know exactly what time they crashed.

Skyline/filter

As a party trick, someone drives their Skyline around the inside of their filter coffee machine, like a fairground wall of death. Round and round they go, until they’re almost vertical up the sides, kicking up great rooster tails of coffee grounds and leaving tyre tracks in the paper filter.

filter/cauliflower

After heavy rain sluices cauliflowers into the drains, you have to insert big filters to stop them clogging everything up, otherwise they create the most awful stench of rotting vegetation.

cauliflower/grandfather

When your grandfather gets on a bit and loses his teeth, the only thing he can eat is mulched up very well-pureed cauliflower, which you have to cook for him in giant vats until it goes grey, and then put through a blender, at which point he packs it into his cheeks like a hamster. Grandfathers only have to be fed once a week using this method.

grandfather/cuckoo

Grandfathers are not acquired in the usual way, but introduced into the family nest like cuckoos, in the hopes that they’ll be cared for like the other family members. Of course, grandfathers can be bigger and more aggressive than other relatives, and often push them out of the nest using their Zimmer frames.

cuckoo/tortoise

Swiss cuckoo clocks are using tortoises instead of the more traditional birds to call the time. At the top of the hour the doors open and a tortoise emerges, very, very slowly, on the end of a spring. It can take these clocks several days to strike noon and midnight.

tortoise/carpet

To keep your tortoise warm in winter, you cover his shell in carpet, preferably shag pile, so there’s all these tortoises ambling about with multicoloured carpet stuck to their backs.

carpet/blitzkrieg

Brings a whole new meaning to carpet bombing. There’s the archetypal RAF squadron leader with handlebar moustache and flying helmet, piloting his plane through flak-ridden skies over war-torn Europe, waiting for his bombardier to give the word that he can release his load of Axminster and Wilton. Once away, these rolls of carpet plummet through the clouds in a lightning attack on the terrified populace.

I have to say that Derren Brown’s own list – and the explanation of the links between the words – was probably much better and far more amusing than my own. But you get the idea. If anyone can come up with sillier or more vivid connections, please feel free. But let me know how you get on. Because, it’s rather nice to know that this fertile imagination we have can be put to other uses, isn’t it?

Oh, and before I forget, this week’s Word of the Week is eidolon, which is an image, a phantom or apparition, a confusing reflection.

The Peripatetic Scribe

by Zoë Sharp

It’s that time of year again. The time of year when I start to think about The Tour. Last September, with SECOND SHOT fresh out in hardcover and FIRST DROP gleaming in a brand new coat of mass market paperback, we undertook what felt like the Mother of all Tours. Andy and I covered just over 17,000 miles by land and air in 23 days, taking in twelve states, and visiting thirty libraries and bookstores for events and drop-ins, hooking up with nine other authors along the way. Including, of course, our very own JD Rhoades.

And in October, with THIRD STRIKE due out in the States, we’re contemplating doing the whole thing again. Oy vay

Whether it’s worth doing something on quite this scale is always going to be a debatable point. Yes, FIRST DROP hit the top spot on the IMBA paperback best-seller list for September, and SECOND SHOT, from memory, placed in the top five jointly with Stephen Hunter and Kathy Reichs. But it meant 23 days away from home – and therefore work – and an enormous logistical exercise, planning hotels, flights and journey times.

Yes, there were some cock-ups along the way. Avis – who, it seems, don’t always try harder – let us down badly almost on the first day, and we ended up missing one event in Vermont. (We wrote Avis a heartfelt letter of complaint on our return, and have since had a refund on our car rental for that trip and a very nice hamper, thank you very much. But still …)

We didn’t realise we’d lose an extra hour crossing Indiana, and therefore turned up for an event at Jim Huang’s The Mystery Company with two minutes to spare, instead of the hour and two minutes we thought we had in hand. Then, climbing back into our rental car at the end of that night, the door swung back on me in the dark and I managed to dislocate a finger, though I didn’t find out that’s what I’d done to it until some weeks later. And the traffic in Chicago just sucks.

Of course, however extensive you think you’ve made such a trip, the first comment anybody makes when you post the itinerary is, "Oh, but why aren’t you coming to X?" The thing is, it would be wonderful to do the thing in fits and starts, a week on the road at a time, perhaps, followed by a few days back at home to catch up and do laundry, if nothing else. But, coming from the UK we have to travel 3000 miles just to reach the east coast, never mind any further, so we have to take an all-or-nothing, one-hit approach.

So, this time around we’re looking at possibly trying to get to thirteen states, and maybe – just maybe – a quick hop over the border into Canada. Starting after Bouchercon in October, covering the east coast from New England down to Florida, and making our way slowly westwards in a kind of broad zigzag according to the routes flown by good old cheap-but-definitely-cheerful Southwest Airlines.

I have to say that I enjoy meeting and talking to people. I like doing events and conventions, and speaking in public doesn’t faze me. I was the after-dinner speaker for the local Magistrates’ Association last week, standing up in front of a hundred dignitaries, including the local Member of Parliament and the Lady Mayoress. No problem. I even managed to find a suitable rude joke to finish off …

But sometimes it’s hard work. I mean, I know that bookstores have huge calls on their time and resources, but there were times when we travelled hundreds of miles to be met with no clues that anyone knew we were coming, and maybe half a dozen books to sign. We arrived a little early at one bookstore on the first tour a couple of years ago and were asked if we’d like a coffee while we waited. When we said yes please, they pointedly directed us to the coffee shop further down the block. We couldn’t have felt less welcome if they’d added, "And close the door on your way out …"

On the other hand, last year I seemed to be following one particularly well-known author round the country, and bookstore after bookstore told me how arrogantly rude and objectionable this author was, both to customers and staff. There is, as always, a happy medium.

Predominantly, however, last year’s tour was filled with delightful memories. That barbecue at Jim and Donna Born’s place in Florida, out by the pool in the lanai, and ‘helping’ with a bit of DIY. (Did you ever get that kitchen back in, Jim?) Having dinner with Meg Chittenden and her husband, also Jim, at the top of the Space Needle in Seattle. (So sorry to hear you’ve been so ill, Meg, and all best wishes for a speedy recovery!) Being given a whistle-stop tour of Industrial Light and Magic by John Billheimer’s son, Wayne, who just happens to be a producer there. The view from Janet Rudolph’s hilltop home in Berkeley. The lady who bought a full set of Charlie Fox hardcovers from Mystery Mike’s, including the incredibly difficult to get (and expensive) KILLER INSTINCT, spending a small fortune in the process. Bless you!

I could go on, and on.

But I won’t.

Instead, I’ll pose several questions. How do you feel about authors touring? As an author, a reader, or as a bookseller? Do you like to meet the people behind the words, or do you wish that’s exactly where they’d stay? Do you have any horror stories from your own tours, or been present at an event where it all went horribly wrong? And do you have any advice or tips to make it as painless a process as possible? I have one or two of my own.

Bags_for_trip_lores 1. If you’re taking a number of internal flights, pack so as to take carryon bags only if at all possible. We managed this and it saved us an enormous amount of time and frustration every time we landed. Of course, on an extended tour this means having to do frequent laundry, which leads me to my second tip:

2. Pack clothes that are similar colours, or that can be washed together without causing a disaster. Also, pack clothes than either dry real quick, or can be tumble-dried without something dire happening to them.

3. Take sat-nav. I have all the North American maps on my cell phone, with a cigarette-lighter charger and a stick-on bracket for the front screen. Tap in the zip code and it takes you to the door, almost without fail, regardless. The only glitch was that if you asked the system to take you to an airport, it tended to try and direct you to the freight terminal, so eventually we either keyed in the street address of the rental car return, or just let it get us close enough and then Followed The Signs. How quaint.

4. Take eye drops. Horribly early starts, airplane air-conditioning, and equally horribly late nights, do not make you bright-eyed nor bushy-tailed. The latter I can’t help you with, but the Visine certainly cured the pink eyes for me.

5. Don’t try and persuade a bookstore to have an event if that’s not their thing, or they don’t think they’ll get enough of a turnout to make it worth their while. Just dropping in, signing stock, having a cuppa and being amenable, puts far less strain on everybody concerned, and can often be just as good for you as an author.

6. If you’re planning this yourself, rather than your publisher, make sure you have it absolutely straight with your PR person – preferably in writing – who is doing what as far as publicity is concerned. It’s no good having a post mortem after the event that’s filled with, "But I thought you were going to …" It’s too late then, the opportunities have already gone by.

7. If you’re very kindly invited to stay with friends along the way, take them up on it! Not only does this save you another night in a soulless chain hotel, but it makes you feel even more welcome – particularly as strangers in another country. But, if someone says they’re remodelling their kitchen, don’t help them tear it out. You never know when Home Depot will actually turn up to refit the new one, and then you’ll feel bad for weeks afterwards. We’re still feeling guilty about that, Jim …

And finally, this week’s Word of the Week is peripatetic, meaning an itinerant; walking about; a teacher who is employed to teach at more than one establishment, travelling from one to another; an Aristotelian. Hence peripateticism, the philosophy of Aristotle, as he was said to have taught in the walks of the Lyceum at Athens.

Light and Shade

by Zoë Sharp

A hero is only as good as the villain he or she faces.

Sounds obvious when you put it like that, doesn’t it? But when you think of the most fun movies, who can forget baddies like Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber in Die Hard, Hannibal Lector in The Silence of the Lambs, Tommy Lee Jones’ William Stranix in Under Siege, or even the mysterious – and largely absent – Keyser Soze in The Usual Suspects? And it’s not just the actors themselves. Jonathan Pryce came across as a genuinely nasty piece of work in Ronin but was almost laughable as the chief bad guy in the Bond flick, Tomorrow Never Dies.

I like the duality of villains. I like light and shade. I like quiet menace. I like the good-looking guy who smiles while he’s threatening unspeakable acts, and I like the notion that it might not always be the enemy who tries to stab you in the back.

But do I plan out every character trait and flaw of my villains before I begin a new book?

Erm … no, not really.

When I first started to write, I tried to come up with huge biographies of all my main characters, but it’s like trying to describe someone you’ve never met. Until you see them in action, how can you really have a handle on who they are, or how they behave? Those little quirks of mannerism or speech that just jump out at you as soon as they open their mouths, but which were strangely unapparent beforehand.

I’m sure we’ve all met people who seemed quite reasonable on first acquaintance, but gradually became more tiresome as you got to know them better. Not to mention the ones who seemed initially quite dour, but eventually relaxed enough to reveal an arid sense of humour, a quiet wit. Our heroes and supporting cast do this, so why not our villains?

And in villains, of course, you have the opportunity to include all kinds of little tweaks that come from real life. I’ve long since exhausted my list of people who really annoyed me, so I now ask for suggestions from friends and family. Somebody wound you up? Just give me a part of their name, a little trait, et voila! They’ll be a corpse or a villain in the next book – maiming a speciality. Just think of me as the equivalent of a literary contract killer.

I knew one author who had somebody she particularly didn’t like, but rather than include the person in her book, she included that person’s house instead. Oh, not by location or even description of the architecture, but more the contents. She had a group of thieves break in while the owner was away and wreck the place, selling off whatever valuables they found inside, bit by bit. And enormous satisfaction it gave her, too.

It doesn’t always work, of course. I desperately wanted a particular character in HARD KNOCKS to come to an unpleasant end, as he represented one of the two little toerags who were caught red-handed having stolen a motorbike that belonged to me. Sadly, when push came to shove, no amount of twisting on my part could frame him in the book for the crime I had in mind. So I had to content myself by having him roughed up a little in print instead.

So far, at least, I don’t believe my villains have been outright caricatures – not for me the deformed dwarf or the sadistic deviant. Perhaps it’s time that changed, but I’ve always found a certain degree of normality and ordinariness more sinister in the end. How about you? What most scares you in a villain, and why? Have any of your villains not played ball when it came to guilt?

There are a couple of reasons why this topic has come up, and one of them is because it’s that time again. The corrected page proofs of THIRD STRIKE are winging their way back to the publisher and I’m up to my neck in planning the next in the Charlie Fox series. A 1000+mile trip to Scotland at the end of last week ensured plenty of time in the car to kick around ideas, and certain themes and aspects have been rising to the fore.

THIRD STRIKE is a book about Charlie’s search for respect, from the people she works with and, perhaps more importantly, from the stiffly disapproving parents who’ve never really understood who she’s become and how she does what she does. Everyone goes on a journey – psychologically as well as physically – and by the time we reach the end of the story there are some for whom life will never be quite the same again.

But I have it in mind that the new book will also be about redemption. It’s about Charlie coming to terms with herself, amid the rage of loss. She’s going to come up against her most terrifying foe, because he will be someone utterly reasonable, someone with whose views she might privately agree, however she is forced to act.

And, of course, it’s about this time I start sorting out names for the key characters. Always a difficult choice, as a William is a very different animal from a Bill, or a Billy, or a Will. I generally use a random name generator site, and plump for something that catches my eye. After a recent suggestion here, I did start looking through my spam folder more carefully, but decided some of the names in the email addresses there would only be any good if I was writing erotica.

But, on this recent trip to Scotland, we had dinner with someone I met at Harrogate a couple of years ago, a real crime aficionado. During the course of the meal, he happened to mention that he really fancied being a villain in a book, and had no objections to dying horribly, providing he’d done something to truly deserve such a fate. As the meal went on, he quite warmed to the theme of his own fictional nastiness and ultimate demise.

Bit of a turn-up for the books, that one. I’ve included real people – at their request – before, of course. Frances L Neagley and Terry O’Loughlin both bid in Bouchercon charity auctions to be characters in the books, and I’ve been delighted to write them in. Andrew Till, who became an FBI agent in FIRST DROP, is a supportive librarian in real life. They’ve always been good guys in the end, although working out how much reality to include in the character is always an interesting one.

But I’ve never had anyone ask to be a villain before, with such a wicked twinkle in his eye. And I’m not even going to mention his name at this stage, just in case I want to mask that character’s intentions when I come to write the book. Should be fun, though …

Confessions of a Serial (Comma) Killer

by Zoë Sharp

Sorry if I’ve been a bit quiet this last week or so, but I’ve been somewhat out of circulation, if you know what I mean. Been doing a bit of time – hard time, as it turned out, for crimes against the English language.

I’ve spent the last ten days in the custody of the Punctuation Police.

They didn’t so much ask me to help with their enquiries as kick my door down at 2:00am, yank me out of my placid complacency and bundle me, hands tied, into the back of an unmarked car. Then it was a short rough ride to the station, where I believe they may have thrown me down the stairs on the way to the cells, but I can’t be sure about that. Sleep deprivation does strange things to your short-term memory.

All I know is, I’ve acquired some strange psychological bruises that I can’t seem to account for, and a general feeling of having been thoroughly battered.

They read me my rights, of course. Told me that whatever verbs of utterance I dared to omit would be reinserted with a sharp red pen, and undoubtedly used against me in a court of law. They told me they suspected I was a serial comma killer and would be sentenced accordingly. They told me I was wildly inconsistent in every statement I’d made, that I had been caught for the heinous crime of wielding grammar in a manner likely to cause offence to gentlefolk, everywhere.

In mitigation, I asked for numerous flagrant misuses of restrictive which and non-restrictive that to be taken into account.

But after ten days of relentless interrogation, of having to recount my every move, justify why I took every shortcut, why I broke every rule, I came pretty close to breaking myself. I came within a hairsbreadth of saying, "OK! Enough! I give in. Put whatever you like in front of me and I’ll sign off on it." And when they sensed the weakness, I heard them sniggering at me from beyond the circle of the bright lights, in that superior way they have when they know that might is right, and right is on their side.

That’s the thing about the SemiColon Constabulary – they know all the tricks so much better than you do, and they’ll use them to rip the guts out of you. (Or should that be to rip out half your guts?) Then they fashion a noose, stand back and let you hang yourself.

And the worst thing is, by the time they’ve finished, you daren’t even leave a note.

All joking aside, as you can probably gather from the bitter, bitter tone, I’ve just been going through copyedits. And what fun it’s been. Not.

Don’t get me wrong – I like being edited. Factual goofs are factual goofs, whichever way you look at them, and I’m incredibly grateful to anyone who points them out before the book gets into print. It stops us all looking stupid. But what is proper punctuation? Why is it there at all? And when do the rules of the game become more important than the game itself? (Although, as these are largely rhetorical questions, I do realise that strictly speaking they shouldn’t be accompanied by a question mark.)

I know full well that I flout the rules on this score. No, that’s not true. It’s just that I use punctuation for what seems to me to be its oldest, truest purpose. To tell the reader when to pause, when to draw breath. If it’s a fast action scene with no pauses then don’t expect any commas either.

Writing my series in first person, I hear the rhythm of the words and phrases going through my main character’s head, and that’s how I write them down, unencumbered by the tight little corset of formal language and the equally stifling conventions of literary construction.

Charlie Fox might once have been a well brought up young lady, born with the proverbial silver spoon in her mouth, but that selfsame spoon disappeared very promptly when she joined the British Army. Somebody probably pinched it. And if a spell among the rough and ready lads in Special Forces taught her to swear with the best of them, getting thrown out in disgrace taught her a whole new language altogether.

So her view of the world is cynical and weary, tinged with sorrow, fringed by her own humanity and the knowledge of how paper-thin is the veneer between civility and savagery, especially inside her own heart. She knows and accepts what she is, but that doesn’t mean she has to be ecstatic about it. Step over the line she’s drawn in the sand and she will kill you in a heartbeat, even if she’ll hate herself for it in the morning.

All these things are reflected not just in the way she talks, but the way she thinks, and thus in the entire narrative style of the books. Pared down, economical, a hint of the melancholy at times, but with a wry bleak humour that’s probably her saving grace. Attempt to formalise her patterns of speech or thought, and you deny not only who she is, but what experience has made her.

Now she’s living and working in New York – where the new book THIRD STRIKE opens – and this presents all kinds of new narrative challenges. I make the point in this one that she still finds it funny every time she walks into an elevator and sees that the name on the maker’s plate at the back is Schindler, but she recognises that her amusement is not shared by anybody who doesn’t think of an elevator as a lift …

So she’d no sooner say, "with whom" unless she was trying deliberately to annoy the person she was talking to (or even the person with whom she was speaking), than she would say or think "gotten" in any other context than with "ill-" in front of it and "gains" behind. Try to force too many Americanisms into her head and you change the fundamental identity of the character still further. Small wonder that I find myself ever so slightly miffed. And as for Charlie – well, she’d be fighting mad and heading for timber.

My question is, where do you all stand? Have you, also, been roughed up in the cells by the Punctuation Police, or do you silently applaud every time they put on the black cap and pass sentence on one of the guilty? What’s the silliest correction someone has tried to make to a piece of your writing? Is there anything up with which you will not put, to be punctilious about it. Please, tell me, if only to make me feel less thoroughly bracketed around the ears …

And as they lead me to the grammar gallows and offer me a final cigarette, I can only hope that someone will take pity on me and provide a last-minute reprieve. That I will be stetted, at the end.

Copyedits_01_2So this week’s Word of the Week, therefore, is stet, meaning to restore after marking for deletion. From the Latin, third person singular present subjunctive of stare to stand; written on copyedits or proof sheets with dots under the words to be retained.

I’ve got to know this little word very well over the last ten days, having written it no less than one thousand two hundred and fifty-one times …

The pic shows the remains of several pencil erasers and the shavings from much sharpening of my official red pencil, which was considerably longer at the start of the copyedits than it was by the end.

I think I may have to get a rubber stamp made up …

The Book is Dead …

by Zoë Sharp

On Tuesday afternoon, at 5:37pm, I finally finished the book I’ve been working on for what seems like an age. Not so long, I suppose, when you look at it in terms of continental drift, say, or the evolution of a species, but I’ve broken off to write other books in the meantime, so the time scale seems unduly stretched.

And it’s been an utter pig to write.

There have been times when I’ve hated this book, I don’t mind admitting it. I mean proper ‘take it down a dark alley on an equally dark night and beat its brains out with a baseball bat’ kind of hated it. Times when I would have watched it die bleeding in the gutter with a song in my heart.

Let me tell you, that’s been pretty scary.

I’ve always wanted to write. Andy and I have spent the last twenty years earning a living by the written word in one form or another. In the past there have always been times when I’ve disliked what I’ve been working on. If not during the actual writing, or copy editing, then certainly by the proof stage, when I’ve been back and forth over the wretched thing so many times that every word and phrase seems stale as the end crusts of a week-old loaf. But this one’s made me doubt my ability to do the job at all, and it’s only now that I think I understand why.

My agent’s former editor almost put her finger on it just before Christmas, when I was probably at my lowest point ebb. "It’s just because you’re writing outside your comfort zone," she said. Which was probably true.

Almost …

But the truth was worse than that. The truth was, in my heart of hearts, I knew it was dreadful.

Not necessarily the actual writing, which I hope is a craft I’m managing to hone as I go on. Not necessarily the characters, either, which became more real, more textured, more independent with every word that came out of their mouths. Not even the basic idea of the plot, which I knew was strong, grabby at a basic level, but also layered with themes I wanted very much to explore.

But still I couldn’t escape this horrible feeling that there was something terminally wrong with the book. And I had no idea what it was.

I’ve now written seven Charlie Fox novels in fairly quick succession. And, while there are no doubt people who would disagree, I thought I’d got a reasonable handle on how to construct and write a novel in the crime thriller genre. I’ve taken a fairly unconventional main character and taken her forwards through seven different stories, pushing the corner of her envelope a little more each time.

So, what was proving so difficult about stepping away from my series character to write a standalone? And don’t anyone dare come out with the phrase "one-trick pony" – I brought that one up more than enough by myself, thank you very much.

Viewpoint.

Ahh …

All the Charlie Fox books are written in first person throughout, looking out at the world through Charlie’s eyes, with her suspicions, hopes, and fears. Every little clue and piece of information has to arrive at the outer edge of her circle of knowledge in one form or another and progress towards the centre, where its importance can finally be revealed or realised. Limiting in some ways, but I prefer to think of it as a challenge. It’s a way of thinking I’ve got into.

So, when I approached the new book I realised it was time to spread my wings into third person, multiple viewpoints.

And, oh boy do I mean MULTIPLE viewpoints.

Filled with this new sense of liberation, I just went crazy. Every scene was from the POV of somebody different. My main characters never had to discover anything new, because the reader had already watched it happen in real time, to somebody else. With gritted teeth, I kept pushing the whole thing forwards, the way a particularly stupid marathon runner might try to limp on even though they know full well they’ve just blown out both their Achilles’ tendons and they’re still fifteen uphill miles from the finish.

The deeper into the book I got, the more of a muddled morass it became, and the more thoroughly depressed I became with it. But still I pigheadedly kept on running, although nearing the end of December I was down to more of a stumbling jog, feeling ever worse, not least because I’d promised my agent she’d have the first draft by the New Year. "Don’t worry about it," she said. "Take all the time you need to get it right."

Get it right …

Oh Gawd …

It was making me so miserable that in an effort not to ruin Christmas totally for my poor long-suffering Better Half, I decided despite this looming self-imposed deadline to put the whole thing aside for a while. The relief was enormous. Not having this ominous black cloud hanging over me every morning. Apart from looking at the occasional e-mail, I didn’t switch my computer on for two whole weeks.

Then, as soon as the last of the turkey was finally seen off, I rolled up my sleeves, picked up that metaphorical baseball bat, and took the whole damn thing apart.

Very therapeutic.

I must have scrapped more than half of what I’d written so far. I pulled it apart, stripped it of the good stuff with the ruthlessness of a Cornish wrecker, and let the rest go under, waving maniacally to it as it sank into the depths. Perhaps I should point out at this stage that this is not the normal way I write. Sorry, not the normal way I have written in the past. I usually plan, I mess with the opening chapters, then I just get on with it, self-editing as I go, so by the time the first draft’s done, it’s … well, done. No drastic rewrites. No whole-scale culling.

My agent was understandably somewhat alarmed by this unexpected turn of events. "Are you quite sure you haven’t thrown the baby out with the bath water?" she asked. No, I wasn’t sure. I wasn’t sure at all. But by that time it was too late to turn back.

I replotted into the pared-down viewpoints of my four main characters. Two on the side of the angels and two who … well, let’s just say they have their own agenda, but all the while they firmly believe they are the heroes of their own story. And suddenly – finally – things began to fall into place, to line up, to actually work. I realised that elements I’d added for almost subliminal reasons actually carried weight and meaning. If I listened carefully, I could hear it humming. The damn thing had actually come alive.

And, at 5:37pm on Tuesday, I typed the final word.

Now, I know this one will need work. It’s gone to a massive 140,000 words, for a start. The front half still feels too heavy, the back half probably too light. Next week I spend a day with Ian Pepper, who is Senior Lecturer in Crime Scene and Forensic Science at the University of Teesside, filling in a few important blanks on the technical side.

But, all bar the shouting, it’s done.

Although now, of course, I have to hand it over to my agent, and her new editor, and wait in a state of nail-biting anxiety for their verdict. I’ll admit to being cautiously optimistic that it could well turn out to be the best thing I’ve ever written.

Or not, as the case may be.

There’s no time for loafing, though. I have to start work almost immediately on the next Charlie Fox book, which really ought to be in by September. But maybe I can have a quiet moment or two, to reflect …

The book is dead! Long live the book!

Spring_in_eden_2And, just in case you thought I’d forgotten, Happy Equinox everyone! It comes late here in the wilds of Cumbria, as you can see:

This week’s Word of the Week, incidentally, is exsanguination, which means to bleed out. From the Latin ex "out of" and sanguis "blood", so literally, "out of blood". Exsanguination, as every vegetarian will tell you, is the means most commonly used to slaughter animals for the meat industry. The captive bolt to the head first merely renders them incapacitated and unable to struggle while their throats are cut, except in countries where the mercy of the captive bolt is forbidden. In humans, exsanguination is a mode rather than a cause of death, and can be dramatically external, or entirely internal, depending on what brought about the bleeding in the first place. So, educational and icky!

Must Try Harder …

by Zoë Sharp

Coincidences happen every day. They’re a fact of life. And while there are a few of us who still firmly believe that instances of déjà vu are nothing more than a glitch in the matrix, they happen, too, often in a way that’s really quite corny. I’m rapidly coming to the conclusion that real life is a lot more badly written than an average novel.

Can you imagine sitting down with your agent or editor, and explaining to them the idea for your next book. A courtroom drama that unfolds after a beautiful eighteen-year-old model is found murdered just yards from her front door after a night out with friends. She’s been stabbed seven times and brutally raped. The police question her boyfriend, but his DNA doesn’t match that found on the body and the case goes cold. Then, nine months later, a man is arrested after a scuffle in a pub. His DNA is taken as a matter of routine and fed into the system. Twelve days later the police arrest him for the young model’s death and he goes to trial. In court, his defence is that he found the teenager lying on the ground and assumed she was passed out drunk so he, "took advantage of the situation", not realising she was dead until afterwards. Yes, you tell your agent, this is going to be his defence, under oath, in a court of law.

Or, what about a serial killer? There are a lot of them in fiction, it seems – far more than in real life. So, you decide to write a serial killer book. Your killer is going to murder five prostitutes in a single mid-sized English town over a forty day period. One other woman is going to have a lucky escape when the killer is interrupted. But rather than have him totally baffling police with the total lack of clues, forensic scientists are going to lift a full DNA profile from three of the bodies, which he carelessly dumps on dry land rather than in water. Not only that, but they’re also going to match 177 clothing or textile fibres from the killer’s home to his victims.

The killer’s car is going to be seen kerb crawling the local red light districts, and blood is found in the back of it. Oh, and by the way, the police will already have his DNA on file after a minor robbery he committed five years previously. His defence in court? Our old friend coincidence. Yes, he did indeed frequent the red light districts, and by amazing chance did indeed have sex with all the girls in question, on the very day they disappeared, but everything else was one big fat coincidence. Or fifty of them, I believe it was, during one period of cross-examination by the prosecution.

So, no criminal masterminds at work here, then.

Tragically, both these cases are real life. Mark Dixie has just been sentenced to life for the rape and murder of Sally Anne Bowman in Croydon, South London. Steve Wright has just had a similar sentence passed for the murders of Tania Nicol, Gemma Adams, Anneli Alderton, Annette Nicholls, and Paula Clennell, all working in Ipswich, Suffolk. Both these men may well be very sad, twisted – even downright evil – individuals, but what makes them all the more pathetic is that it almost seems like they couldn’t be bothered to put any effort into planning their crimes.

In books, serial killers connect with their victim in some way – even if it’s only inside their sick little minds. They stalk their victims, photograph them, create little shrines to them for the detective to uncover – usually illuminated by a single swinging lightbulb. As writers we simply can’t rely on the same level of random chance, coincidence and happenstance that seems to occur time and again in real life. We have to make our villains more – I hate to say it – larger than life.

More human, even.

Some writers complain that occasionally they’ve taken an aspect of real life and inserted it into a novel, only for that to be the part that readers pick out as being the most unbelievable bit. I know if I presented either of those two scenarios to my agent, she’d point out the plot-holes and bat them right back at me. Must try harder.

So, my question is this. Are there times when you experience something, or see it on the news and say to yourself, "If I’d written that in a book, nobody would believe it …", and how much coincidence and happenstance will or won’t you accept – both as a reader and a writer – in fiction?

This week’s Word of the Week really ought to be mesmoronic, as mentioned in my comment to Louise’s blog, but we made that one up so it doesn’t really count. Instead, it’s actually outfangthief, which is the right of judging and fining thieves pursued and brought back from outside one’s own jurisdiction.

For those of you who live in the US and can pick up XM 155 satellite radio, you might be interested to know that I’m on over the course of this weekend. I was interviewed by Kim Alexander, host of Fiction Nation. The times you can listen in on Take Five XM 155 are:

Friday 3/7 11:30pm

Saturday 3/8 6pm

Sunday 3/9 10am

Sunday 3/10 8pm

Monday 3/11 midnight

And on Sonic Theater XM 163

Thursday 3/13 3:30 pm

All times are EAST

It Was a Dark and Stormy Night …

by Zoë Sharp

I’m fascinated by opening lines. It’s a question I always ask other writers: "What’s the opening line of your last/latest book?" and it’s amazing how often they can’t quite seem to remember, or maybe they’re just a little embarrassed to be able to quote it verbatim off the top of their head.

For me, nothing is harder to write than that first sentence. I’m reminded of the famous quote – can’t remember who originally said it – that goes: ‘After three months of continuous hard labour, he thought he might just have a first draft of the opening line.’ Always gets a laugh, but the terrible thing is that it’s not far off the truth.

I just can’t go forwards until I have a start I’m happy with. Maybe it’s because when I pick up a book by a new or new-to-me author, the first thing I read is the opening paragraph. It says everything about the pace, the style, the voice. It basically tells me if I want to go on with the rest of the book, almost regardless of anything else.

So far, I’ve been lucky and nobody’s asked me to change the start of a book – it’ll happen, I’m sure – but generally speaking, I’m pretty easygoing about edits. If my agent or my editor says something needs altering or cutting, and I don’t have a really good reason for that scene to stay, it goes. Comes from years of non-fiction writing for magazines, where you couldn’t get away with lying full length on the floor and beating your fists into the carpet, wailing, just because somebody wanted you to cut half your deathless prose to fit around the pretty pictures.

But I hate it when people mess with the rhythm of what I’ve written for no good reason. I put commas in for their original purpose – to tell the reader when to pause, where to place the emphasis within a sentence so it reads with the same cadence as it had in my head when I wrote it.

I did a short story for a particular magazine last year. It had to be to a specific length and I delivered it precisely 32 words over, which I thought was pretty close to target. The story was entitled ‘The Getaway’ and my original opening went:

‘Lenny Bright sat opposite the Holland and Seagrave Building Society in a gunmetal Honda Accord with the engine running. He hadn’t taken his eyes off the front door for twenty minutes, and right at that moment he would have sold his soul for a cigarette.’

But when the magazine arrived, to my surprise the editor had changed the opening to:

‘Sitting opposite the Holland and Seagrave Building Society Lenny Bright kept the engine of his gunmetal Honda Accord running. He hadn’t taken his eyes off the front door for twenty minutes, and he would have sold his soul for a cigarette.’

Not a great deal of difference, I grant you, but enough to change the whole character of the opening, the pace, the style, everything. Lenny’s a getaway driver, as the title suggests, so it’s not his Honda, for a start. And somehow the ‘right at that moment’ seemed an important point to make about Lenny’s sudden craving for nicotine. Quite apart from anything else, it just reads WRONG to me, and I wish they’d asked me before they messed with it – or even told me beforehand that they intended to – but there you go. Argh!

When I was kicking around the idea for this post, I went and looked up the opening lines for my fellow ’Rati, and when you look at them all, one after another, you really get a feel for the eclectic styles of this highly talented group of writers.

Pari Noskin Taichert – THE SOCORRO BLAST

‘If hell exists, it’s filled with old boyfriends … and a cat.’

Louise Ure – THE FAULT TREE

‘At the end, there was so much blame to spread around that we could all have taken a few shovelfuls home and rolled around in it like pigs in stink.’

Robert Gregory Browne – KISS HER GOODBYE

‘It all started when the pregnant girl went crazy.’

JD Rhoades – GOOD DAY IN HELL

‘The first blow split Stan’s lip and knocked him into a stack of re-capped tyres at the back of the repair bay.’

and THE DEVIL’S RIGHT HAND

"She ain’t no damn lesbian," the stocky man said.

Ken Bruen – CROSS

‘It took them a time to crucify the kid. Not that he was giving them any trouble; in fact, he’d been almost co-operative.’

Brett Battles – THE CLEANER

‘Denver was not Hawaii. There were no beaches, no palm trees, no bikinis, no mai tais sipped slowly on the deck of the Lava Shack on Maui.’

JT Ellison – ALL THE PRETTY GIRLS

"No, please don’t."

and 14

‘Would the bastard ever call?’

Alexandra Sokoloff – THE PRICE

‘Dead of winter, and snow falls like stars from a black dome of sky.’

Toni McGee Causey – BOBBY FAYE’S VERY (VERY, VERY, VERY) BAD DAY

‘Something wet and spongy plunked against Bobbie Faye’s face and she sprang awake, arms pinwheeling. "Damn it, Roy, you hit me with a catfish again and I’m gonna–"’

All very different, all fascinating. They make me want to know more about all these stories, just from the opening lines. Not only that, but I’m intrigued to know if these were the original opening lines for each book? Were there lots of ideas kicked around? Did an editor disagree with your preference and you had to make a major change?

But what makes a good opening line? What’s your personal favourite as a reader? How do you decide on one as a writer? The openings of some of the most famous novels vary wildly, from the famous "Call me Ishmael" of MOBY DICK to the incredible opening sentence from Montgomery’s ANNE OF GREEN GABLES, which weighs in at a hefty 149 words, beating Dickens’ positively lightweight opener to A TALE OF TWO CITIES by a solid thirty. Wow, people must have had the breath control of a whale in those days.

But it’s not just the opening lines that intrigue me, it’s what they represent. They are the jumping-off point for the whole tale. Books never start at the beginning of the story, and deciding exactly where to invite your reader to join you on that journey is an enormously difficult choice, because it’s vital they arrive at the right point to engage their interest, intrigue them, make them unable to leave that bookstore without your book clutched under their arm. But you can’t cheat, either. You can’t open the book with a situation so outrageous that, when the explanation’s finally revealed, it can never live up to the set-up.

When I wrote the opening line for SECOND SHOT, it was one that came to me immediately and it never changed:

‘Take it from me, getting yourself shot hurts like hell.’

The whole of that opening scene, where Charlie Fox, shot twice, lies bleeding in a freezing forest in New England, watching her principal die in front of her, arrived in one big lump, like something out of a movie. I watched it unfold in front of me and I wrote down what I saw, as fast as my little fingers could thump the keys.

But, as you can imagine, the opener for that book is very definitely not the start of the story itself. And, contrary to many expectations, it’s not the end of it either. Not by a long shot. Or, in this case, a couple of medium-range ones. One of the whole ideas behind the book was to strip away Charlie’s physical self-assurance, her capability when it comes to defending herself and those she’s been tasked to protect. So, I put her on crutches for the latter half of the book, just to see how she coped. So, I suppose you could say the real start for the story is Chapter Two, when she first meets Simone, the woman whose life she will fail to save, and Simone’s young daughter, Ella. And that was a pig to write.

Closing lines are just as bad, although when JT told me the closing line for ALL THE PRETTY GIRLS, it links just beautifully with that opener: "No. Please don’t. Yes."

The closing line for SECOND SHOT arrived in the shower while we were staying at a friend’s house in Chicago, and I literally had to jump out from under the spray and write it down. It came to me long before I finished the rest of the book and when I got there, it just seemed to fit perfectly. Maybe I was subconsciously writing towards it the whole time:

‘So, still I ask myself the question: Did I kill him because I had no choice, or because I made one?’

And boy, I hope I never enter one of those bizarre alternate realities where fictional characters spring to life, because if that ever happens I swear Charlie Fox is going to seek me out and beat the crap out of me for what I put her through in that book.

Erm, and the next one, actually …

This week’s Word of the Week, appropriately enough is persue. Not only is this an obsolete spelling of pursue, but it derives from the French percée, the act of piercing. It was used by Spenser – and I mean Edmund the English poet, rather than Robert B Parker’s detective – to mean a track of blood.

Conventional Behaviour

by Zoë Sharp

I enjoy going to conventions. Sounds pretty obvious, but I know not everybody does.

I went to my first one in the US almost by accident. We had some car photoshoots lined up in Daytona Beach, Florida around Spring Break, and discovered that Sleuthfest was the weekend after. It seemed rude not to go. I sought advice from Brit author Stephen Booth, who’d been to a lot of these things. He was encouraging, and got in touch with ex-pat author Meg Chittenden – once a Geordie (from the Northeast of England) but now living in Seattle.

I arrived at Sleuthfest not quite knowing what to expect, only to be pounced on by Meg who said Stephen had asked her to look after me. What a welcome. I can’t think of a nicer person to have holding your hand at such a time. And later, as a sign of this mutual affection, Meg and I would attempt to stab and strangle each other at other conventions all around the country. (Long story.)

Apart from Meg, and Rhys Bowen, I was the only Brit author at Sleuthfest that year. (And both those delightful ladies are now US residents, so I’m not entirely sure they qualify.) It was pretty clear that I was a bit of a novelty item as far as the organisers were concerned. I can’t think of any other reason why they put me on probably the best panel of the event, alongside guest of honour, Robert B Parker, and SJ Rozan, Jonathan King, and the PJ Parrishes – top quality award-winning, best-selling authors every last one of them.

And me.

I didn’t even have a US publisher at that point, and I realised part way through the introductions that nobody with any sense was going to be remotely interested in anything I had to say. So I did the only thing I could short of setting fire to the curtains. I kept it brief and made people laugh. And afterwards, I met the person who was to become my US editor.

So, since then I’ve been to quite a few such events, and the subject of which conventions the other ’Rati were going to this year cropped up just before Christmas. A few people commented about the ThrillerFest event in NYC – that they were keen to go because of its location, on the grounds that they could always slip out and explore the city while not actually taking part in a panel or a signing.

Now, part of me can understand this completely. I love New York. But if you’re going to bother registering for a convention and staying in the expensive Midtown hotel in the middle of the high season, what’s the point in not being there half the time? And it’s not just NYC that exerts this pull. I remember asking one very well-known author at Bouchercon in Chicago what he’d been doing all day, only to discover he’d spent most of it off in a bowling alley, away from the convention hotel. At Left Coast Crime in Bristol, one author I spoke to had spent the afternoon on his own at the cinema.

Am I missing something here?

It’s not like the best of the big players don’t hang out in the bar and chat. Lee Child is always approachable at these events, so is Jeffrey Deaver, Harlan Coben and, of course, our own Ken Bruen. And surely, if you’re just starting out, then spending some time around the lobby, the book room, the bar, is a golden opportunity to mix and mingle not just with other authors, editors and reviewers, but readers and potential readers as well. The people who go to conventions are, almost by definition, the most enthusiastic. If they like your books they will buy lots of them and recommend them vociferously to all who cross their path. Why would you not want to meet and talk to them?

I remember meeting a best-selling Brit author at one of my first conventions who looked down his nose at me and asked if I was "just a reader?" At the time, of course, I smarted just a little bit that he didn’t recognise my name, but afterwards I thought, how can you phrase it like that? All those ‘just’ readers are the ones who’ve given you your success. And disappearing for half the convention when people may well have paid to attend solely because they saw your name on the program is cheating yourself as well as them.

So, opening my mouth to change feet for the last time, here’s my two-penny-worth of advice for convention-goers this year:

1. DO spend as much time as you can in the public areas – you never know who you might bump into. If you want to play the Greta Garbo card, stay at home. Or if you really want to see the city, add a day or two onto the end. At least that way you don’t have to bother checking out on Sunday morning.

2. DO have a cover-all greeting just in case you’re introduced to someone whose name you don’t recognise and you don’t want to cause offence. My personal favourite is to ask, "So, what are you working on at the moment?" This is equally appropriate whether the answer is, "Oh, Spielberg’s asked me to put together the screenplay of my latest gazillion best-seller." Or, "Oh, no, no, I’m just a reader …"

3. DON’T, if someone asks the above question, give them a blow-by-blow account of your entire plot. The elevator pitch should be enough. If you’ve come up with something genuinely interesting, they’ll ask you to expand. If not, then simply telling them more about it will probably not help.

4. DON’T get totally rat-arsed in the bar every night. Yes, I know you’re there to enjoy yourself, but there are limits. This is a small industry. If you say or do something unforgivable, then being drunk is a very poor excuse.

5. DO make an effort to turn out for the early morning panels. Often the authors on them feel they’ve been handed the graveyard shift and it’s nice to give them a boost. And we don’t mind if you bring coffee and donuts!

6. DON’T, if you’ve been given one of the above panels, go out and do point #4, and then publicly complain that you’re not at your best. Those of us who’ve made the effort to come and hear you speak will feel insulted that you didn’t think we were worth staying sober for. And we’ll take our donuts away …

7. DO keep it short and sweet when you’re on a panel. Hogging the microphone, however witty you are, will not win you friends in the long run. Neither will starting every sentence with, "Well, my character does this …"

8. DON’T ask for a panel assignment if you don’t enjoy public speaking. If you’re better one-to-one, then just follow point #1 instead. You’ll probably make a better impression that way.

9. DON’T, if you’re asked to moderate a panel, have any contact at all with your fellow panellists before the event. Don’t learn how to pronounce their names if there’s any doubt about it. Don’t forewarn them of any questions you intend to ask. Don’t meet up more than five minutes before the panel start time to discuss tactics, that would make it far too easy for them. Don’t run the biogs you intend to read out to the audience past the panellists beforehand – after all, all the info on their websites will be bang up to date, won’t it? Don’t forget it’s essential to ask at least one highly embarrassing question, one totally irrelevant question – such as a piece of mental arithmetic – read out the most inappropriate out-of-context segment of a sex scene, pretend to take a phone call, or bring members of the audience out for a bit of a chat on an unrelated subject.

Oh, hang on, have I got that wrong … ? Not sure, because I’ve either been on, or been watching, panels were everything in point #9 has happened.

And those of you who disagree strongly with any of the above comments will no doubt be delighted to hear that a fellow Brit author has asked if I might like to take on one very unusual public speaking event this year.

In Baghdad.

Finally, my latest Word of the Week is plethora. A wonderful word that means an excessive fullness of blood. Can’t you tell I’ve just been writing about the victim of a long-range sniper?

Am I Missing Something?

by Zoë Sharp

We don’t have TV. Not connected to an outside means of receiving broadcast programmes, at any rate. This state of affairs is not entirely from choice, but more down to the topography of the valley in which we live, which means terrestrial TV is a non-starter. We also have a clump of very large sycamore and ash trees at the southern end of the garden, complete with preservation orders attached. I don’t mention this on the off-chance you happen to be a keen arboriculturist, by the way, but because they stand precisely where a satellite dish would need to point. According to the engineer who called not long after we moved in, we might just about get a signal in the winter, but as the dish relies on line of sight, by the time the summer foliage was in full bud, all we’d see on our TV screen would be snow.

On the one hand, it’s quite nice not to have the distraction of an evening that drifts past in front of the haunted fish tank. We have a tendency to go back into the study and work. On the other, it’s amazing just how many people’s conversational opening gambit is: "Did you see that episode last night of …" and we have to shake our heads sadly. We’ve also been able to throw away the initially suspicious and increasingly accusational letters from the TV licensing authority, demanding to know why we don’t have one, because they’re pretty sure we must be hooked up to an aerial somehow.

Instead, when enough people recommend a TV series, we buy the boxed set on DVD and watch that, and it works out well. No adverts, no missed episodes because you forgot to set the recorder, and no inopportune phone calls that always seem to coincide with the most exciting bits.

So, recently we’ve been enjoying two popular US crime series, which we’ve watched pretty much one after another. There are certain similarities between the two, never more so than in the two seasons we’ve just seen. Both shows are loosely concerned with the detection of crime through forensic means, and in both of them one of the characters has been writing crime novels on the side. And, wouldn’t you know it, both characters have achieved instant best-seller status, to the point where one was given a Mercedes by her publisher, and the other was able to go out and buy himself a Porsche Boxster before the first royalty cheque arrived.

And in both series a copycat killer took the grisly methods of murder described in each book and started using them in ‘real’ life. There are usually three such killings, each more bizarre than the last, and the characters are caught up in the usual race against time to catch the copycat before he/she strikes again. Oh, and, naturally, in both shows the debut writers almost instantly acquire a deranged fan as a stalker.

This is all well and good, and I can accept – not readily, perhaps, but I can accept – that people are routinely able to go out and buy $50,000+ motor cars with the advance from their first novels. And, yes, there are certainly some strange people out there who latch on to anyone they deem to be a celebrity. That isn’t what annoys me most about these scenarios.

It’s the fact that, in both cases, the authors use thinly disguised versions of their friends and work colleagues as characters in their books, often changing their names only very slightly, never mind their physical descriptions and characteristics. All done, of course, totally without their prior knowledge and consent.

The thing that gets me the most about all this is that these TV shows are written by writers. They know the rules as well as any of us, don’t they?

Now, maybe the laws of libel are less stringent in the US than they are in the UK (yeah, right!) but in this country you can’t go around basing your characters on recognisable people, and you have to be pretty careful not to accidentally use the name of a real person, regardless of intent. In other words, if you pluck a name apparently out of thin air for the child molester in your next novel, and give a rough approximation of his description and address, you’d better hope that no-one of the same name or appearance has been seen innocently hanging around outside their local nursery school, or you stand a very good chance of ending up in court.

When I wanted to include a fictitious major drugs company in the next Charlie Fox book, I ran the name Storax Pharmaceutical through Google to see what came up. (No matches, fortunately.) I use a random name generator website for most of my character names – particularly the villains – although I once suggested we should become literary assassins and offer to kill off someone else’s nemesis, somewhat in the style of Strangers on a Train. But only in print, obviously.

I’ve only ever included three real people in my books, and they all asked for it. No, they really did. The first was librarian Andrew Till, who always wanted to be included, so became an FBI agent in First Drop. Then Frances L Neagley bid to be a character in the charity auction at Bouchercon in Chicago, and Terry O’Loughlin bid for the same purpose at B’con in Madison. I’ve tried to include little snippets about each person that are personal to them, but the rest is pure invention. Fortunately, Frances liked what I’d done with her in Second Shot, And I’ll no doubt lie awake at night worrying about Terry’s reaction to Third Strike until the book comes out this summer.

But I’m intrigued to know what precautions everyone else takes. Do you do Internet searches on your proposed baddies to see what comes up? Has anyone ever approached you and said, "Hey, that’s me!" Even if it wasn’t remotely like them?

On a final note, I’d like to mention Patry Francis, whose debut thriller, The Liar’s Diary, comes out on January 29th. Patry is undergoing treatment for an aggressive form of cancer, and so won’t be able to tour the book’s release in person. Let’s hope the wonders of ’Tinterweb do the job of promoting it for her. Best of luck!

And on a final, final note, I love the idea of JT’s Wine of the Week, but I’m not a big drinker, so I thought I’d have a Word of the Week instead. This week’s word that caught my fancy is arcanist. From arcane, meaning secret or mysterious, an arcanist is someone who has knowledge of a secret manufacturing process, especially in ceramics.