Category Archives: Zoë Sharp

As it comes.

Zoë Sharp

Life has a habit of throwing you curve balls. Just when you think you’ve got it all mapped out, suddenly it takes a sharp left turn and you find yourself running for your life — usually pursued by a bear.

I’ve always liked to think I’m reasonably adaptable, but actually I’ve realised that I’ve been increasingly clinging to things as a security blanket and I wonder if I’ve become too rigid, too set in my ways. When I write, I like to have certainty and structure. There’s a kind of freedom in it — knowing I can expand on an idea and let it run, but with the knowledge of the overall shape of the book still firm in my mind

The latest work-in-progress stems from an idea I had years ago. Something quite different from my current series, but that should nevertheless appeal to readers who like the qualities embodied by Charlie Fox.

The story is a supernatural thriller devoid of vampires or werewolves. It involves grief, rage, love, a breakaway sect of Buddhist ascetic monks, and a shape-shifting demonic entity. Other than that, you’ll have to wait until it’s done 🙂

The idea for this story has been hanging around in the back of my head for so long that I had a detailed outline, almost a scene-by-scene storyboard of how it was going to go. In fact, it probably had the most detailed outline of any book I’ve written to date, because it spent so long in the gestation period.

But when I actually came to sit down and put the first words on the page, it began to change. The roles of the main characters shifted, some were written out altogether, some changed gender and even sexual orientation. I tried to pare it back to the important elements of the story and write from the heart.

Of course, how well it all works when I’ve finished it is anyone’s guess.

But the more research I do, the more story elements seem to fit the facts as I uncover them, and the more the story seems ideally suited for its location, partly in London and partly in a remote region of Okayama Prefecture in the south of Japan.

And I’ve been asking myself, if I’m so caught up in this story, why haven’t I written it before?

We’re back to curve balls. In the past I’ve always been seen purely as a writer of crime thrillers. I’ve always thought of myself that way. It was my niche — my pigeonhole — and I was reluctant to venture outside it, as well as being advised not to do so.

OK, so there’s crime in this story. There’s murder, loyalty, betrayal, ties by blood, ties by tradition, ties by friendship, and a centuries-old killer with no memory or conscience.

For me, I feel that now I finally have the freedom, if I’m willing to take the risk, to swim outside the lanes. To free-dive and see how long I can hold my breath without drowning. To experience the fear and the rush of embarking on new territory. Scary, yes, but exciting too. And if I can get past that fear, the possibilities are suddenly endless.

So, ‘Rati, would you ever read outside your chosen genre if the premise sounded intriguing enough, or you liked the author’s voice enough to give it a whirl?

Or if you write in a particular genre, do you have ideas tucked away in a totally different genre?

This week’s Word of the Week is condign, an adjective meaning well-deserved or fitting, and usually used when referring to punishment. Also condignly (adv) and condignness (n). From the Latin condignus from con- intens, and dignus worthy.

And finally, for anyone interested there are still places available on the crime writing workshop I’m hosting at Derby Central Library on Saturday, May 19th — 10am–3:45pm — entitled ‘A Man Comes Into The Room With a Gun …’

Plus, of course, CrimeFest is rapidly approaching. So, I’ll be at the Bristol Marriott from May 24th–27th along with such luminaries as Lee Child, Jeffery Deaver, Frederick Forsyth, Sue Grafton, PD James and Roslund & Hellström. See you in the bar!

Bringing them back alive…

Matt Hilton

I’m pleased to welcome Matt Hilton to today’s WildCard Tuesday here on Murderati. Matt is the highly successful author of the Joe Hunter action thriller series. He’s also one of the most prolific authors I know, and as well as producing numerous books and short stories, he’s also found time to edit a few anthologies, plus co-editing the fiction webzine Thrillers, Killers ‘n’ Chillers. His latest project is an e-thology that harks back to a previous era, when men were men and sheep were nervous. (Well, he is from Cumbria … ZS)

Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s I was reading books ‘borrowed’ from my father’s stack of dog-eared paperbacks, that he acquired through a read and share scheme with his friends. It seemed that my father and his pals all shared a love of action tales the likes of Don Pendleton’s ‘Mack Bolan’, Richard Sapir and Warren Murphy’s ‘Remo Williams’, or George G Gilman’s homegrown western books, ‘Edge’ or ‘Adam Steele’, or a Nick Carter: Killmaster book.

Those books were high-entertainment to me and I couldn’t get enough of them, or indeed Robert E Howard’s Conan series, or Lin Carter’s Thongor of Lemuria, or Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane. I loved my stories full of action and adventure, and it didn’t much matter to me where, when, or how the story unfolded. It was through reading those kinds of books that got me into writing. I wanted to emulate the kind of books that I loved to read.

Those were the days when heroes were heroes and the action was furious and full-blooded. Often as not, the hero was quite the opposite: an anti-hero. But he needed to be, to bring the kind of violent justice to villains worse than him. Political correctness took a back seat, even as the bullets and karate chops were flying. Basically it was good old harmless fun. It was a case of disengaging your moral compass and getting down with the hero as they took on all comers, and they did it with balletic grace and uncompromising violence. Gratuitous? Yes. Realistic? No. Great fun? You betcha!!!

Over the years I’ve written many a take on the action-style book, and it was always my plan to hark back to those Golden Days when penning my own crime thriller series. Although influenced by the pulp masters, I wanted to reinvent the style somewhat, albeit grounding my tales a little more in the real world, making the tales more contemporary. My character ― Joe Hunter ― could have stood shoulder to shoulder with any of those action heroes but also sits nicely in modern times.

Funnily enough, some of my detractors bemoan the fact that my novels ‘verge on pulp fiction’, and they mean it as an insult directed at my lean, pared down style. Little do they know that they are giving me a compliment. I’m a fan of the pulps, always have been, and am not ashamed of the fact. The books pretty much are what they are supposed to be: action-packed fun reads where you can disengage your moral compass, suspend your disbelief and join Joe Hunter on a wild ride for a few hours.

It was partly due to these detractors that I thought about putting together an eBook collection of stories that paid homage to characters such as Mack Bolan, Remo Williams, and Edge et al. At first I considered writing a collection of stories myself, but then decided that it would be much better if I sought like-minded writers to pitch in with their take on the action genre. So the call went out and the submissions rolled in for the project I named ACTION: Pulse Pounding Tales Vol 1.

I expected new authors, aspiring authors and the like to submit, but more than that I hoped that some ‘names’ would come on board. And I’m thrilled to say that I wasn’t disappointed. Stephen Leather ― whose ‘Spider’ Shepherd ranks as one of the best thriller figures in action fiction ― heard the call and his story “Strangers on a Train” kicks off the collection in style. There are stories from other greats such as Zoë Sharp, author of the terrific Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Fox series, Adrian Magson, author of the excellent Harry Tate spy thrillers, as well as some up and coming names like Paul D Brazill, Col Bury, Gavin Bell, I S Paton and many others. Being greedy for readership I pitched in a couple of stories too, including a homage to the 1970s action men and the bonus Gilman-esque Western story that rounds off the collection. The authors had fun with the briefing and tales from the wide spectrum of action stories are included. I imagined that I was putting together an anthology or compendium from the best of the action genre magazines, and within its pages you will find secret agents, vigilantes (both just and insane), cops, villains, soldiers, veterans, gangsters, swordsmen, Ninja and even a crypto-zoological beast you might recognise. Some of the tales are delivered with shocking realism, some as lighter entertainment, some on the grittier side, but each and every tale included in ACTION: Pulse Pounding Tales is guaranteed to get your heart racing.

Write what you know …

Zoë Sharp

… is advice given to every wannabe writer at one time or another.

My advice?

Ignore it.

Let’s face it, everybody else’s knowledge is a hell of a lot more interesting from the outside than from the inside. Sometimes knowing too much about a subject will actively hold you back from letting your imagination take hold and run with it.

David Corbett, for example, worked as a private investigator for many years. While this experience undoubtedly informs and colours his writing, he does not write a series about a PI.

JT Ellison’s bio says: “She was a presidential appointee and worked in The White House and the Department of Commerce before moving into the private sector. As a financial analyst and marketing director, she worked for several defense and aerospace contractors.”

JT writes a series about a Nashville Homicide detective, Lt Taylor Jackson, and medical examiner Dr Samantha Owens, rather than global thrillers with a financial meltdown theme.

Of course, others use their life experiences more directly. PD Martin has a degree in psychology, and studied criminal law and criminology (among other things!). She has written five crime thrillers featuring Aussie FBI profiler, Sophie Anderson.

And Pari Noskin Taichert has worked in PR for many years, as does Sasha Solomon, the heroine of her series.

Alexandra Sokoloff was a dancer, choreographer and singer. But she writes crime suspense novels quite frequently featuring a paranormal theme.

Louise Ure also had a career in advertising and marketing before turning to crime writing. But her standalone novels feature a jury consultant, a blind mechanic, and a roadside assistance operator. How diverse can one be?

Gar Anthony Haywood is also a graphic designer, but writes about retired crime fighting duo Joe and Dottie Loudermilk, PI Aaron Gunner, and standalone thrillers under his own name and as Ray Shannon.

Stephen Jay Schwartz was Director of Development for Wolfgang Petersen developing screenplays for production. A fascinating world of intrigue and glamour, you might think. But he chose to write about LAPD Robbery-Homicide detective Hayden Glass. Although it would seem from Stephen’s blog on research that a lot of what he knows has indeed gone into his character.

For myself, I’ve done a variety of things—including some I’m not allowed to talk about—but for the majority of my life I have been a freelance photojournalist, which has had its share of excitement over the years. And yet the heroine of my crime thriller series, Charlie Fox, is a failed Special Forces trainee turned bodyguard, not an investigative reporter.

Maybe the reason for that is because I know from the inside that my old day-job is not anywhere near as glamorous as people think. Just as I’m sure David would be the first to tell you that PIs do not rush around investigating murders and swapping wisecracks with beautiful mysterious women.

Well, not every day, anyway.

So what makes some writers keep such close ties between their factual and fictional lives, and others keep the two so far apart? And do they rejoice or regret that decision?

And as a reader, are you attracted to a book that happens to revolve around something you’re particularly interested in, or do you steer clear of it, suspecting that the demands of the story may stretch what you know of reality just that bit too far?

This week’s Word of the Week is supercilious, meaning haughty, scornful, arrogant, from the Latin supercilium, eyebrow. Hence a haughty look expressed by a raised eyebrow.

And finally, if anybody is near South Shields next Monday, I will be appearing with fellow crime authors Matt Hilton and Graham Pears at the Central Library Theatre as part of World Book Night — Crime Time. Hope to see you there!

Full Circle

Zoë Sharp

Back when I was fifteen I wrote my very first novel, all by hand. It took me a month, start to finish—a fact I only know because I put the start and finish dates on the manuscript at the time. By the end of it I had the worst writer’s cramp I’ve ever experienced. My right hand was useless and my arm hurt more or less all the way up to the shoulder.

I knew there must be a better way.

The only computers around at the time were inanimate lumps that took hours to load the simplest of database programs on tape cassette, and then threw up error messages in Klingon. It wasn’t until the Amstrad PCW came along in the mid-1980s that I finally found a work tool I could really use.

I loved my PCW—the odd three-inch diskettes and the green-on-black screen, the lack of a mouse so everything was keyboard controlled, the fact you had to manually install new printers and give them a name. I didn’t realise this meant you were supposed to use the code number of the printer itself. Mine was called Lenny.

Looking back now, it’s remarkable how much but at the same time how little that machine actually did. You could word-process on it, using LocoScript—a program I clung to for years after abandoning my Amstrads. You could merge address lists into template letters for sending out the antique equivalent of an e-newsletter. You could create invoices. And …

… that was about it, really.

No graphics, no photos, no video-clips, no web-surfing—no web, for that matter—no email.

It was just a means of putting words efficiently into a document, fiddling around with the order, spell-checking it, printing it out, and having a back-up copy on disk.

What more do we need?

No, we SO do not need these two little constant time-sucks.

For surviving in today’s business world, we do need computers, laptops and smartphones. Writers have to promote, and network, and stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter and all those other online sites. It’s no longer practical—or sensible—to shut ourselves away in an attic and simply write.

But at the same time, the writing is getting constantly squeezed out of the schedule.

Since I started the new book last month, I’ve been trying out a new method of working—new to me, anyway. Well, actually that’s not true. It’s a very OLD method.

I’ve gone back to where I started.

I’ve always made notes about the book I’m working on at the time, but now I’m writing whole scenes or chapters in note form before I lay a finger on my keyboard.

For one thing, there are fewer distractions available on a myPad. It has no wireless modem, no graphics card, and NO solitaire. Got that on my phone, though …

I found what I was doing was writing notes only for part of a scene, then moving to the computer before I’d fully worked out where I was going. Now I write the whole section, doing all my scribbling out and backtracking in pencil first. You might think that I’m making more work for myself—in effect doing everything twice—but I’ve found that getting the kinks out in advance makes the writing flow easier and faster on screen. I’ve gone from 1000-1250 words a day to 2000-3000 and I find I’m back to really enjoying what I’m doing. It all feels like less of a slog.

Besides, the weather was glorious here last week and I could sit out in the garden in shorts and a T-shirt to scribble my notes, then come inside to write them up. Can’t do that this week, unfortunately, as the snow’s back, but it means I’m looking forward to the summer.


As Alexandra Sokoloff mentioned in her Wild Card blog on Tuesday, I’ve been participating in the eBookSwag giveaway this week, together with Alex, Scott Nicholson, Brett Battles, Aiden James and Mel Comley. Three of my Charlie Fox books have been up for grabs—KILLER INSTINCT: Charlie Fox book one on Monday and Tuesday, FOX FIVE: a Charlie Fox short story collection yesterday, and FIRST DROP: Charlie Fox book four today and Friday in the US, UK, Germany, France, Spain and Italy. Please download and Like the books if you can, and enter the eBookSwag raffle for a chance to win one of three Kindle Fires, plus gift vouchers. There’s a new chance to enter every day, plus lots of great free books!

The latest MWA anthology, VENGEANCE is out this week in the US and UK, too. I was absolutely delighted to be asked by editor Lee Child to contribute to this fabulous anthology. Read Lee’s introduction to the collection, and an excerpt from my story, Lost And Found.

And calling all flash fiction writers. The Flashbang Flash Fiction competition still has another ten days to run—closing date April 15th. Write 150-word crime story to be entered to win two tickets for this year’s CrimeFest 2012, plus books and other cool stuff.

I’m looking forward to CrimeFest in Bristol next month (May 24th-27th) even more than usual this time. I have two great panels:

Finally, hugely talented US singer/songwriter, Beth Rudetsky has written this amazing original song ‘The Victim Won’t Be Me’ inspired by FIFTH VICTIM: Charlie Fox book nine. I’m stunned by the song, which I think is beautiful, and by the interpretation brought to it by the students of the Vision West Notts Media (Film and TV) course. They’ve done a brilliant job.

So, my question this week, getting back to my original subject, is what distracts you most when you’re supposed to be working, and what methods have you found work best to get you back on track?

This week’s Word of the Week is scrivener’s palsy. Basically, writer’s cramp!

Man’s—and Woman’s—Best Friend

Zoë Sharp

I’m side-stepping my usual post, yeilding the floor to two others whose voices need to be heard today, both former Murderatos. The first is Ken Bruen, who surely needs no introduction here, and the second is Alafair Burke.

Their words speak for themselves:


Ken Bruen

In Ireland today, doctors are being paid for treating 513 dead patients.

Due to serious flaws in the HSE’s notification system.

In 2010, 5 million was written off by The Health Authority, when they discovered that 20,000 dead Medical card holders had been paid.

How seriously fucked is that?

And we wonder why, after Greece, we are in such serious financial shite?

But lest I begin to grim, we can get back to that later, here is my own grave story.

Last November, the sole remaining member of my family, my brother Declan, was found dead in his flat. His body was lying there for 8 months!

I kid thee not.

Always a very private person, disappearing for months on end was his gig. But he lived in a gated community, surrounded by pubs, his mates and right in the centre of the city.

After I had identified the remains, we had the funeral on a wet bitterly cold late November morning. Just before I was due to hold the rope that would lower the casket, the manager of the cemetery said

‘I need to speak to you urgently.’


I snapped

‘Could it like wait, five minutes?’


He whispered

‘There’s no room for you.’

‘Room, where?’

He indicated the open grave, where five of my family rested, said

‘When Declan goes in, it’s full, there’s no room for you.’

Jesus, how unhealthy did I look?

And I asked

‘Did you have to.. I mean absolutely have to tell me now?’

He was affronted at my tone.

Stalked off.

A metaphor if you will. As there’s been no room for me in my family in life, I was now banned from the grave.

Perfect for a writer.

The ultimate outsider.


I got a new pup.

Cross me bedraggled heart.

Named Polo as the vet said, I swear

‘He’s bi-polar.’

Well, he’s certainly the quietest dog I’ve ever had. Zen in his stillness. Maybe he’s read my recent reviews and feels silence is best. I, after all, dish out the grub.

So you know!

I remain convinced that one of the best treatments for depression is a dog. Very hard to be wallowing in the deep when a little pup is gazing at you in love and wonder.

And he’s funny.


Steals the case of my glasses, hides it, then looks like

‘Who me?’


To write for Murderati was one of the great joys



Of my career.




Pari and JT

Alexandra and Zoe

and now new Murderati friends

Gar and Stephen and David


The crew of Murderati are just the very best I know. To be allowed to check in at odd moments is just bliss. To writer belong. Since I gave up cigs, I’ve become a gobshite.

Truth to sadly tell.

I started cycling, 20 miles every day, and worse, cut out brews since my trip to New York in December.

(Note to cemetery manager.)

I said to Reed, next

‘I’ll be writing cat mysteries.’

(Maybe a Zen bi-polar canine sidekick?, you think?)

Reed in his inimitable fashion, emailed back


Flash fiction par excellence.

Read Craig’s El Gavilian

And the new Jason Starr.


David Corbett continues to hugely entertain on the poetic nuances. I’m re-reading The Book Thief for the sheer joy and it reminds me of David in the best way.

I’m readying me own self for The German tour.

Sounds …posh………….The German tour

As opposed


Poor tour I guess.

The Germans have discovered my role as a dead Viking in the worst movie ever made

‘Alfred The Great.’

Which dovetails nicely


(always wanted to seem literary and dovetail)

My most recent news.

A role as an English professor in a new Irish –German TV series.

And my preparation?

Grow a beard.

And I suppose, act literary.

I’ve been doing serious and intense me whole befuddled life so that’s a give.


The pup seems bemused by this new me, and barks when I rough house in the garden with him and won’t

No way

Bring back the old ball he used to love a month ago.

Not a grave matter you might think but in the world of pups



The second voice is Alafair Burke, whose French Bulldog, The Duffer, has been such a significant part of her life—and her posts during her time on Murderati.


Saying Goodbye to the Duffer

Wed, Mar 21, 2012

Alafair Burke

On Halloween in 2005, I walked into a pet store in the West Village, saw a black and white French bulldog puppy, and fell in love. I knew it was an irresponsible move. Bad lineage. Puppy mills. Imported.  All of that.

But I’d already looked into the piercing eyes beneath that furrowed brow and knew he and I were connected. My husband wasn’t my husband yet. We lived together. We knew we’d get married, but hadn’t bothered to set a date. Then we had this puppy, and somehow we were a family. We got married two months later on New Year’s Eve.

I wanted to name the boy Stacy Keach. There was an obvious resemblance, and the idea of a dog named Stacy Keach (not Stacy, not Keach. Stacy Keach.) made me laugh. The soon to be husband didn’t get it. Fine, I said. Come up with something better.

Duffer. Like a bad golfer. Like Duff Man from the Simpsons. And it kind of sounded like Puppy, which is what we’d been calling Puppy for nearly a week.

But not Duffer. THE Duffer. He was special, after all.

The hardest part of loving The Duffer was knowing that, despite my crazy, unprecendented connection to him, he wasn’t really human. Absent some tragedy on my end, he’d have to go first.

This week, the day I’ve feared at some level since Halloween of 2005 came. Sooner than I expected, but as late as we could hope under the circumstances. Th- I’e Duffer had a brain tumor. He got radiation last fall. He lived five extra, happy (extra-happy) months. We found out this week there were no more good days to be had.

As a good friend just wrote to me, “They live on in our hearts. He was a lovely little guy and he had a great life, and he was loved and cared for at the end. We should be so lucky.”

I will miss the Duffer, but find comfort in knowing that he never missed a thing. Thank you for letting me share him with you.


Our hearts go out to both Ken and Alafair. ZS




New Light Through Old Windows

Zoë Sharp

It’s my great pleasure to welcome Timothy Hallinan to Murderati for today’s Wildcard. Tim is an Edgar and Macavity nominee and writes some of the most elegant prose I’ve come across. I was honoured when he swapped e-book excerpts with me last year.

The advent of e-publishing has allowed Tim to relaunch his original Los Angeles PI Simeon Grist series, including this, the sixth and final title, THE BONE POLISHER. Booklist urged readers to “Do yourself a favor and read it!” while Mostly Murder called it “Creepy and screamingly funny.”

The book takes place in the West Hollywood of 1995, where the community is shaken by the brutal killing of an older man who was widely loved for his generosity and kindness. In a time when the police were largely indifferent to crimes against gay people, Simeon is hired to catch the murderer—and finds himself up against the most dangerous adversary of his career.

As always with Tim’s writing, I savoured his descriptions, dialogue, characterisation and turns of phrase in this book. If you haven’t discovered Timothy Hallinan yet, you’re missing a real treat.

Zoë Sharp: You wrote the Simeon Grist series in the early 1990s, and I know the order of publication was not the order in which you actually wrote the books, so tell us what happened there? And what complications arose from this, in terms of ongoing character development?

Timothy Hallinan:  Dutton bought the first book to be written, SKIN DEEP, and offered me a three-book contract about a week after I finished writing it.  The sale sort of lit me on fire and I knocked out the second, THE FOUR LAST THINGS, in about three months [Erm, he means ‘carefully and agonisingly handcrafted it’, ZS] and sent it in, having no idea how slowly publishers worked.  They preferred THE FOUR LAST THINGS and changed the order.  Then, before  FOUR LAST came out, I sent them EVERTHING BUT THE SQUEAL, and they decided they liked that better than SKIN DEEP, too, so SQUEAL came out second and SKIN DEEP third.   Funny thing is, when I read these books all this time later, SKIN DEEP is one of the best. 

Zoë Sharp: And what complications arose from that, in terms of ongoing character development?

Timothy Hallinan: I intentionally entangled Simeon in a somewhat static relationship, a long-term estrangement, because I didn’t want too much development in that area, and I didn’t know enough to make my other characters change from book to book.  (These books were written through imitation and sheer chutzpah.)  The only real oddity in sequence is that, in the order in which the books were published, Simeon meets in the third book a woman he’s sleeping with in the first.

Zoë Sharp: Your series characters go by the highly memorable names of Simeon Grist, Junior Bender and Poke Rafferty. Where did you find such wonderful names for them?

Timothy Hallinan:  I always think they’re just regular names and later ask myself what I’d been smoking.  Actually, that’s only partially true; I was reading a ton of stuff on early Christianity when I started the Simeon books and named him after a favourite saint, Simeon Stylites, who spent the last 37 years of his life standing on an ancient pillar in the Syrian desert.  As if that weren’t enough, he wouldn’t allow any woman anywhere near his pillar.  When he got sores on his legs and the sores developed maggots, he would encourage the maggots, saying “Eat, little ones, what God has provided you,” or words to that effect.  I thought that was a little stiff, and he came to embody for me Santayana’s famous definition of a fanatic as someone who redoubles his efforts when he’s forgotten his aims. 

So I was being pretentious when I named Simeon and later found that most readers pronounced it “Simon” anyway.

Zoë Sharp: I particularly loved the title for this book, THE BONE POLISHER. How did that come about?

Timothy Hallinan:  When members of the Chinese diaspora, in the early days, had the misfortune to die in whatever country they had emigrated to, they were buried where they died.  A generation or two later, the now-prosperous family would pay to have the bones disinterred, cleaned, polished, and sent to China for permanent burial in The Middle Kingdom.  The specialist who did this was called a bone polisher.  In the book, the killer puts a malign twist on this,  He kills men who came to West Hollywood from small towns where they lived closeted lives, and each time he murders one, he sends evidence of his victim’s “deviancy” back to the town from which he came.  (This was in 1995, when, arguably, a much higher percentage of gay people were in the closet.)  So in this case, it’s the dead person’s reputation that’s returned—with the goal of destroying it.

Zoë Sharp: I’m always interested in the underlying theme of a book. What theme was in your mind when you wrote THE BONE POLISHER?


[Tim with Brett Battles, working hard …]

Timothy Hallinan: I’d been writing about a character—Simeon—for five years at that point, and he was a sort of idealized version of me: braver, more resourceful, wittier, better-looking, and much more interesting.  And I decided to see what would happen if he were actually like me, which was to say weary of the way his life was going, uncertain about his skills and abilities, and suddenly very sensibly afraid of the people he was going after.   How would those things affect his picture of who he was?  How would they affect his chosen career?  And I decided, if I was going to write about that, to put him up against someone who was really, genuinely, bone-marrow evil.  The kid—the Farm Boy—who’s going after the gay men in this book is one of the worst people my imagination has ever offered up to me.  And I thought the idea of killing a victim twice—first the body and then the reputation—was worthy of someone so dreadful. 

Zoë Sharp: You mention in your preface to THE BONE POLISHER that it was written at a different time – a time when AIDS was usually a death sentence. If you were writing this book from scratch today, what differences would that make to the way you tell the story?

Timothy Hallinan:  The AIDS aspect of the book was inescapable then; it would have been impossible to write with any accuracy about that community without AIDS being a major concern.  It’s still a concern, obviously, but one that millions of people are quite literally living with.  Christopher Nordine, who hires Simeon at the beginning of the book, knows he has only a short time to live, and this consciousness informs some of what he does.  These days, it’s unlikely the disease would have been allowed to progress so far unchecked.

Zoë Sharp: I thoroughly enjoyed THE BONE POLISHER—the descriptions are just wonderful, like this:

‘Drive-time disk jockeys, preternaturally alert guys who couldn’t have passed for wits in a gathering of battery-powered appliances, made smutty jokes and played twenty-year-old music to ease the world into the gray disappointment of another day.’

But how hard was it to republish a novel you’d written in 1995? Inevitably you must feel that you and your writing have come a long way since then, so how much fiddling and rewriting did you do to it?

Timothy Hallinan:  I actually hated the book in retrospect.  It had failed to win me an extension on my contract, and I remembered it with no fondness at all.  In fact, I hesitated to put it up, primarily because I didn’t want to have to read it.  I finally did it because I kept getting emails from Simeon’s few but fanatic followers, asking where the hell it was.  And when I read it, it sort of knocked my socks off—it was much better than I’d feared it would be. 

I pretty much left it alone.  I had a couple of mistakes of fact in it, and I fixed those, but otherwise, with the exception of clarifying a few pronouns, I did virtually nothing to it.  One of my favourite descriptive passages in the book is right after the one you quoted, something about dawn coming up hard and wet, two fingers of vodka in the eastern sky.  (I haven’t looked, so if that’s from a different book, I’m sorry.) 

I hope my writing has come a long way.  There are few things more complicated than the smile on the face of a writer who’s just heard, “But you know what?  I really like your first book best.”

Zoë Sharp: I was fascinated by the Finish Your Novel page on your website. What inspired you to produce such a comprehensive guide for would-be writers?

Timothy Hallinan:   As I said, I wrote the first ones with no idea what I was doing, and as I figured out what worked for me I began to make notes.  I knew I wanted my website to be more than “Here’s me.  Buy my books,” so the first thing I wrote was the Finish Your Novel section.  It’s been used by literally hundreds of writers and some of them have gone on to be published and have thanked me in their books—I get a nice thank-you in Helen Simonson’s MAJOR PETTIGREW’S LAST STAND, for example.

Zoë Sharp: I’m always interested in the form a writer uses to tell their story. You classify the Simeon Grist and Junior Bender novels as mysteries. Both are written in first-person, past tense. But the Poke Raffety books you describe as thrillers. These are in third-person, present tense. The choice for third-person in a thriller is entirely understandable, because you so often need to show that race against time by letting the reader know what else is going on, but why the change to present tense? And which do you enjoy more?

Timothy Hallinan:  I think of both the Simeon and Poke books as private-eye novels, and the great thing about first-person is that you encounter the mystery exactly as the detective does, whereas I think third-person works better for thrillers so you can hop on over and see what the bad guys are up to or check out how the screws are being tightened.

I went to present-tense in my first draft of the first Poke, A NAIL THROUGH THE HEART, as an experiment and found that I really liked it.  Past-tense implies that someone –the narrator, if no one else—lived to tell the story, whereas present tense sort of rolls by in real time.  I also think that action scenes can be written with great immediacy in present tense.

I like them both, but switching back and forth from book to book is a major pain in the ass.  Whole pages slip by in the wrong tense.

Zoë Sharp: You’re working on another Simeon Grist novel at the moment. What’s made you decide to return to that character after a break – will you age him or start where you left off? And what’s it about?

Timothy Hallinan: People have written to me for years to ask whether I was ever going to bring him back.  I decided, now that he’s out of print and remaindered, that it might be fun to ask myself where fictional detectives go when the last copy of the last printing of their last book gets pulped—when they are, effectively, out of print.  So I figured it out, and Simeon now resides in a sort of limbo, along with a lot of other out-of-print detectives.  It’s a relatively shabby, genre limbo; the Literary Fiction Limbo is much more upscale and has better weather.  Simeon is paralytic with boredom; his only connection to the “real” world is when someone opens one of the old, used copies of one of his books.  When that happens, Simeon can see them through the window of his Topanga house.  And one day, he’s watching someone read him—looking up at the person, as it were, from the page—when his reader is murdered.  He doesn’t have enough readers to spare any, and he resolves to solve the crime.  Problem is, it happened down here.  So, anyway, it’s called PULPED, and I think a lot of hard-core mystery writers will just hate it, although I laughed myself stupid writing it.

Thanks for all these great questions, Zoë.  Hope I didn’t rattle on too long.

Zoë Sharp: Tim, it’s always a pleasure talking to you. As well as Tim’s series books, it’s also worth mentioning that he’s also been involved in two special project. One is his contribution to BANGKOK NOIR, edted by Christopher G Moore, a collection of stories with part of the proceeds going to a charity for Bangkok’s poorest children.

The other is SHAKEN, a collection by twenty mystery writers, edited by and including Tim, who donated their work to benefit the 2011 Japan Relief Fund. Every penny of the purchase price goes to the fund.

So, ‘Rati, let’s hear your questions for Timothy Hallinan …

Plucked From the Ether

Zoë Sharp

“Where do you get your ideas?”

It’s a question that crops up at almost every reader event I do as an author, in one form or another.

Interestingly enough, I don’t hear it quite so much at events where there are a lot of would-be writers. Maybe that’s because all writers feel they should know where to get their ideas, and admitting that sometimes the store cupboard runs a little bare is akin to an admission of failure.

I’ve heard all kinds of answers from authors, too, varying from “” to “Walmart”, and although these may sound unduly flippant, probably the truth is that most writers don’t actually know, and they’re worried that if they try to analyse it too much, the magic will somehow disappear. Ideas just … arrive. It’s like trying to remember an obscure fact that you know is tucked away somewhere in a recess of your memory. You try and avoid thinking about it, and suddenly up it pops, but you’ve no clue how it got there.

For me, ideas really are a state of mind.

At the library event I did last week I used my New Car analogy when it came to where ideas come from, and received a few puzzled looks until I expanded on this theory.

So you decide you’re going to buy a new car – doesn’t have to be new new, just new to you. And as soon as you’re behind the wheel suddenly it seems that everyone on the road is driving the same kind of car, possibly even in the very same colour. You see them everywhere. This doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s been a rush on that particular model. In fact, I’d hazard a guess that they were probably always out there. It was simply that you didn’t notice them before.

Your eyes may have been open, but your mind wasn’t.

It’s exactly the same with being a writer and having ideas for stories. They’re out there. All the time. They’re floating in the ether, whispering at you from magazines, newspapers, the radio, TV, and the internet. It’s a babble of voices that sometimes makes it hard to hear when people speak, and explains the distracted frown that writers tend to wear a lot of the time. It’s the reason we wake in the night and scrabble for pen and paper from the bedside table, or seriously consider hanging a Chinagraph pencil in the shower so you can scribble vital notes on the glass screen without having to get out first.

Our brains are being constantly bombarded with sensory information and most people learn to filter out the background chatter to avoid being completely overwhelmed. Writers lack part of that filtering system, I think. We get everything, good and bad, the nuggets and the spoil.

The difficult part is working out which is which and turning it into something coherent.

Mind you, right from the moment Charlie Fox arrived in my mind, I knew I’d be a fool to ignore her. Besides anything else, she probably would have broken my arms and legs if I’d tried. 

When I look back at the books I’ve written so far in the series, the strongest are always the ones that sprang from the simplest ideas. I also like to turn things around on people, so that what they expect is not always what they get. Hence writing about Northern Ireland without paramilitary action, and taking a very different slant on a California cult.

For her latest outing, FIFTH VICTIM, the story kicked off with the idea of loss, and what that means to different people. How you don’t appreciate what you have until you’re faced with losing everything, and the effect that has on Charlie and on the people she’s tasked to protect. Who has the most to lose, I wondered? The people who apparently have it all.

If I’m honest I have to say I don’t know where the initial idea came from. It floated past me one day and I was lucky enough to grab it and hold on tight.

But once I’d got my grubby little mitts on it, I nailed it down and started to play with it – although not in a nasty serial-killer kind of way … I simply wrote down each development as it occurred to me, and then played the ‘what if’ game, jotting down all kinds of possible outcomes and scenarios until eventually the whole thing more or less came together.

So, ‘Rati, where do YOU get your ideas? And what’s the best basic idea for a book or movie you’ve come across? Note I said  ‘idea’ – the execution didn’t have to live up to the premise. Although, if it didn’t why not?

I’ve been lucky enough to have been invited to contribute to some great blogs over the past week. Hope you’ll take the time to check them out, if you feel so inclined:

Elizabeth A White’s blog

FIFTH VICTIM pg 69 test

Writers Read

And My Book, The Movie

This week’s Word of the Week is chorizont, or chorizonist, meaning a person who disputes the identity of authorship, especially one who ascribes the Iliad and Odyssey to different authors. From the Greek chorizon, separating.

Next Tuesday is my Wildcard day. I was lucky enough to catch up with the highly acclaimed Timothy Hallinan to talk about the e-book publication of the latest in his Simeon Grist mystery series. Don’t miss it!

They think it’s all over …

Zoë Sharp

When I first started to write, I always knew the end before the beginning. Each book was a journey towards a clear destination. It was the route there that was the challenge – one that usually took some unexpected turns along the way.

But more recently I’ve realised that I’m setting out with less of a definite destination in mind. In fact, even when I was quite close to the end of the current Charlie Fox novel, I didn’t really know exactly how it was going to end. And when I say ‘quite close’ I actually mean as I was entering the final few chapters.

Of course, while this might horrify the plotter and planner authors (of which I’ve always been one), those who write by the seat of their pants will consider this a normal state of affairs.

I’m not sure I do.

Far too often when I’m reading, the ending to a book is the most disappointing part. The story has gripped and engaged me right up to the point where it became clear that the author hadn’t really thought about how to finish things off. Then the ending becomes too pat, too hurried, too … unsatisfying, somehow, for the effort and commitment I’ve put into it as a reader.

But finding the right ending is hard.

When I wrote THIRD STRIKE I was faced with a choice of endings. Not for the main story itself – I had a good idea about that, but for Charlie’s personal journey. And it’s interesting to note here that the main story involved one of the major characters discovering, under extreme pressure, the very worst about themselves. It’s about people moving into the light while others move into the dark.

But Charlie’s own story could have had three possible outcomes – if you include the ‘don’t know’ option. My original intention was to write all three as separate epilogues and throw it open to my agent and editor to decide on the outcome they thought worked best.

The closer I got to the end, however, the less this idea appealed to me. By the time I was actually writing the epilogue, I knew there was only one way it was going to go.

As the author, I don’t regret the decision I made. I think it was right for the character at that point in her life. And – so far, touch wood – I haven’t had objections from readers to tell me different. I know I have had emails from readers who have become so wrapped up in Charlie’s character and her ongoing story that they occasionally berate me for choices she’s made. I think it’s a huge compliment that they see her as a real person in this way.

But I’m left wondering how much control readers actually want over their favourite characters. In some ways it’s a little like the difference between watching a movie and taking part in a video game, but in other ways I can appreciate it’s not the same at all. After all, in a movie the camera is usually an observer, an omnipotent narrator. In a video game, you are one of the participants. (And I freely admit I’m guessing here, because I don’t play them!)

So, do you want to watch a movie where you can alter the outcome at the press of a few buttons, or do you want to let the action unfold as the screenwriters and the director intended – to surprise you and carry you along to their choice of ending?

Equally, the multiple-choice books I remember from years ago all relied on YOU being the main character, either in order to find the warlock’s treasure or solve the crime. I don’t recall any of them where you were given the option to step in and alter the other characters’ lives without playing some active part in the story yourself.

Would you want that or would it completely spoil or alter the experience for you?

I only read a few of those multiple-choice books and my impression has been that they were an experiment that didn’t last long. (Another admission – I could easily be WAY wrong about that.) Besides anything else, they always seemed very clunky getting from one section to the next. Part of the joy of reading, for me, is to immerse myself in another world where the only thing that matters is turning the page. I want to be transported there wholeheartedly, not necessarily take part and help move the scenery. If I go to watch a stage show, I don’t want to be yanked out of the audience to participate – I want to sit back and be entertained.

With the advent of e-books, however, the ability to jump from one storyline to another has become a much smoother process. You no longer have to leaf through from one section to the next, but simply click on a link and you’re there. The possibilities are endless, not just for allowing the reader to control the story, but to include alternative endings.

But is this providing the reader with more choice, or taking it away from the author?

This week’s Word of the Week is krewe, which is any of several groups whose members are involved in the annual Mardi Gras carnival in New Orleans and take part in events leading up to the event itself, such as electing Rex, the king of the carnival. Many NOLA families have belonged to krewes for generations, and although the word is just a different slant on crew it now has particular significance in relation to Mardi Gras.

As an aside, can I mention a couple of upcoming events? I will be appearing with the Brewhouse Writers in Kendal on Wednesday, February 29th, for an evening of readings at Burgundy’s Wine Bar on Lowther Street, starting at 7pm.

I’m also appearing at East Boldon Library on Boker Lane in East Boldon, Tyne & Wear, as part of World Book Day, March 1st at 7:30pm. Would love to see you at either if you can make it.

The End

Zoë Sharp

One day I’m going to be able to type ‘THE END’ on a work-in-progress and think, ‘Wow, what a masterpiece – and such a breeze to write. Next?’

The reality is that I finish each book feeling like I’ve come through a battle, battered, bloodied, exhausted, and filled with a dreadful wake-in-the-night-sweating kind of fear that what I’ve written is absolute nonsensical rubbish that will be laughed at by anybody who picks it up.

For writers, however, this is normal.

OK, for most writers, this is almost normal.

I’m beginning to think I definitely fall into the category of writers who enjoy having written rather than the process of actually writing. Having said that, the first two thirds of the book were less troublesome than the last third. I tend to self-edit as I go along, so stopping to unravel and re-ravel bits of the story always slows me down, but I just can’t move forwards knowing something isn’t quite right with the bit I’ve already done.

I keep thinking there must be an easier way.

There never is. <sigh>

I’ve been over the typescript so many times I can’t tell if it’s good bad or indifferent. I’ve tried to make sure the emotional tension is as high as the other dangers. I’ve checked my action scenes are physically possible and make sense, and looked at the positioning of chapter breaks.

Of course, my long-suffering Other Half, Andy, has read every bit of the book at the just-written stage, but that means he’s as close to the story as I am. Now I need people who haven’t lived through every twist and turn and aren’t bored silly by it quite yet.

So, now DIE EASY is out with test-readers and having celebrated by doing the ironing (gosh, I know how to live) I have already started to look at my outline notes for the next project.

Basically, this is a coping mechanism so I’m not thinking about their verdict. It didn’t help that one of my test-readers rang up the day after receiving the typescript with that awful question: “Erm, has this gone out to everybody else yet …?”

“ARGH! NOOOOOOO! What terrible mistake have I missed that you’ve spotted it already?”

“Oh, just a few literals and typos …”

We do have a designated First Responder in the valley who has charge of the defibrillator, and I very nearly had to call them out at this point.

I have a small group of test-readers, mainly avid readers but a couple of writer/readers as well. I try not to bother my writer friends too much, as I know how time-consuming it is to go through a t/s thoroughly, and how distracting it can be when you have your own stuff to work on.

My test-readers are not necessarily fans of the character, but chosen both for their insight and their gentle brutality. If there’s something not right I need to know, but in my fragile post-book state I don’t want to be beaten round the head with it.

I suppose first of all I need to know does it keep you turning the pages. I want to have written something that you find hard to put down, that keeps you reading – just one more chapter – late into the night.

I need to know if the pace feels right, with enough light and shade between action and introspection to create the natural rhythms of the story. Is it too slow in the first half and then too compressed towards the end?

Does the behaviour of the characters feel logical and cohesive? Do they feel like real people or puppets to the plot? Do you care what happens to them?

It’s only really in the last instance that I want to know about minor plot-holes. Yes, it’s useful to know if a character stands up twice in a scene without sitting down again in between, or if I’ve managed to include a nine-day week, but that’s the kind of thing that the wonderful copy-editors usually catch, bless ‘em. And besides, I’ll be making yet another pass through the t/s once I have my test-reader comments in. Hopefully there will be a week or so’s distance by then, and I might even spot such stoopid mistakes myself …

And then my editor gets hold of it and I go through the whole painful process again.

We’re just gluttons for punishment, aren’t we?

So, how analytical are you when you’re reading a book? Do you try to work out what made you enjoy it and instantly look for the next by the same author? And to the writers among you, who do you use for test-reading your work? Do you use anyone other than your editor? And finally, any suggestions from people as to mindless (but repeatable in polite company) activities I might be able to engage in to take my mind off the waiting?

This week’s Word of the Week is epyllion, which is a poem with some resemblance to an epic, but shorter, from the Greek epos, meaning word.

Alex has just reminded me that in the interview she so kindly did with me on Jan 19th, we promised a giveaway of one of the first five books to a randomly chosen commenter. Alex told me to pick a number and she informs me that it lines up with Reine. So, drop me an email, Reine, and I’ll send you an e-book!

Personal security on the move

Charlie Fox

Last year I ran the first in what I promised would be an occasional series of ‘guest’ blogs by my protagonist, Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Fox on the subject of personal safety. Charlie had a short-lived career in the Women’s Royal Army Corps, passing selection for Special Forces training, but being dishonourably discharged following a court martial. (Don’t ask.) She then taught self-defence for women in a small northern UK city, and eventually moved into a career as a bodyguard – initially for a London-based outfit run by her partner, Sean Meyer. When Sean was offered a partnership in Parker Armstrong’s prestigious close-protection agency in New York City, Charlie moved with Sean to Manhattan. She has been based there ever since.

Let me tell you, car drivers have it easy – sometimes too easy. There you are sitting in a cushioned little tin box on wheels, largely oblivious to what’s going on around you, but cocooned in your own little bubble of false security.

You think you’re safe in there, but you’re not.

Can’t you tell I’ve spent most of my motoring life on two wheels instead? Especially since moving to New York City. Like any city, getting around by car can be slower than walking and daily parking fees would just about feed a family of four for a month. Riding a motorcycle is the best way to cut through traffic, although since my Buell got trashed (another ‘don’t ask’ moment – ZS) I’m seriously thinking about sticking to travelling either by the subway or by up-armoured Lincoln Navigator.

Personal security on the move begins before you ever leave home. Well before. Never does any harm to walk around your car on a regular basis and check none of your tyres have gone soft, or are wearing unevenly. Tyre failure is the biggest cause of motorway accidents in the UK. And looking at the way some people abuse their wheels every time they park, I’m not surprised.

If I’m taking out a principal in their own car, I do a walk-round check every time. I also look for anything underneath or attached to it, often disguised as litter. Doesn’t need to be explosives – on one local sink estate the kiddies thought it was a great laugh to wedge nails against the tyres of cars parked outside the local late-night convenience store, just to watch the tyres go pop as they were driven away. Changing one flat tyre is a nuisance. Changing two involves calling your breakdown recovery service.

Speaking of which, it might just be worth checking that the spare wheel is inflated and has enough tread on it to get you home, and that the jack and wheelbrace are where they should be. Oh, and if your car has locking wheelnuts, make sure you have the key – better to find it now than have to search in the dark, in the rain, at three a.m. on a scary piece of lonely road.

Carry a map. Sounds obvious, but in these days of handheld GPS units a lot of people don’t bother any more. Bad weather like snow will block the GPS antenna from picking up a signal from the satellite and you’ll be doubly lost unless you can still do it the old-fashioned way.

Knowing where you’re going is a fundamental piece of safety advice. GPS is good, but not that good, and not all the time. If you’re going somewhere new for the first time, double-check the address and if necessary instruct the GPS to take you to a precise point on a map rather than the postcode or zip code, which could be anywhere within several miles of your actual destination.

If you’re travelling outside your home country, you have to decide if you’re going to rent a car and drive yourself or rely on local drivers or taxis. If you decide to rent, make sure there’s nothing about the vehicle that obviously marks you out as a foreigner. And learn which local rules of the road you can break to blend in.

In a hot climate air conditioning is not a luxury, it’s a necessity because it enables you to drive without all the windows open. Same goes for central locking. If it isn’t automatic, activate it before you set off rather than waiting until you’re in a dangerous situation – the sound of the locks operating may act as provocation.

In some countries, using taxis can be safer, unless they’re scoping out tourists as potential kidnap victims. Ask your hotel to recommend drivers they’ve used before without incident. Get an idea of the fare before you set out, and don’t flash too much cash when you’re settling up. And always make sure people know where you’re going and when you’re likely to return.

Of course, I’m generally happier in something with armour – it goes with the job. And if the vehicle is fitted with a direction-of-fire indicator so you don’t debus into incoming sniper fire, so much the better. But I’ve been known to stuff Kevlar body armour inside door panels or lay them on seats for instant protection.

OK, I realise that for most people this advice seems like overkill. But certain habits when you’re in your car are good practice, no matter who or where you are.

If you live in a city where you’re often caught in slow-moving traffic and car-jacking is a possibility, get anti-smash window film fitted to the side glass. Put your bag or laptop on the floor rather than on the passenger seat.

Women drivers should avoid having a private registration with an obviously female first name on it. And never mind valuables, don’t leave any personal items on show when you park. Particularly anything that makes your gender obvious. If you drive a girlie car, though, there’s not much you can do to disguise that.

When you leave the car, bear in mind what time it will be when you come back to it. It may not seem important to park under a light during the day, but after dark you’ll be glad you did. In a multi-storey parking garage, reverse park so you can drive out forwards quickly and easily.

Make sure you have your keys in your hand long before you reach your car, so you’re not standing there fumbling in your bag or pockets. If your alarm has the feature, keep your thumb on the panic button as you approach, just in case. Most alarms or remote central locking systems automatically put the interior lights on when the locks disengage. And I know it’s an urban myth, but check the back seat anyway before you get in.

I always do.

So, ‘Rati, any tips to add to these from Charlie? Any near misses you’ve experienced or heard about while you’ve been on the road?

This week’s Words of the Week are flotsam and jetsam. Jetsam are goods jettisoned from a ship in time of danger, but also goods from a wreck that remain under water. The word is a contraction of jettison, from the Latin jacere, to throw. Flotsam, on the other hand, are goods lost overboard as the ship sinks and found floating on the sea.