Category Archives: Zoë Sharp

Courage and Fear

Zoë Sharp

 I was intending to write my blog this week about going to the Bouchercon World Mystery Convention in St Louis, but in thinking about the whole trip the theme of it gradually developed into something else.

An exploration of courage and fear.

That might seem like quite a leap, from a convivial gathering of authors to questioning what scares the bejaysus out of you, and how you get past that feeling, but it kept coming up.

To begin with, we landed in Chicago and spent nearly two hours getting through Immigration. Why? Fear. Fear of letting someone into the country who might be undesirable, who might be unfriendly. Fear of letting the wrong one slip through unnoticed.

Our first morning in Chicago, Andy and I, and fellow Brit author Anne Zouroudi went up what used to be the Sears Tower but is now the Willis Tower, to the observation Skydeck on the 103rd floor. Since the last time we went up to the Skydeck, they’ve built four glass boxes that extend four feet out from the side of the building and allow you to step out onto nothing and look straight down to the tiny toy cars and people in the street below.

After the initial leap of faith, as it were, it didn’t bother me. And especially once you put a camera in my hands. Somehow, the act of taking pictures steps you outside what’s happening, makes it not hard to understand how war photographers and camera operators put themselves in danger. As soon as you look through the lens, you’re somehow disconnected from what’s happening through the viewfinder.

After this we rewarded ourselves with a Food Tasting & Cultural Walking Tour of Chicago’s Bucktown and Wicker Park districts, once fairly infamous neighbourhoods but now gentrifying rapidly, although there was still some very entertaining lawn art to be found.

 As well as gorgeous food, it was a wonderful way to see some of the architecture of the area. And because the culture was slipped in amid the culinary treats, we swallowed it all just as eagerly. Plenty of lessons on how to painlessly include backstory to be absorbed there . . .

Anyway, we started off at George’s Hot Dogs for authentic Chicago hot dogs – no ketchup, if you please:

Then to Hot Chocolate for the most superb hot chocolate drink I’ve ever tasted, plus homemade marshmallow:

Not to mention the cakes on offer at The Goddess & Grocer.

Plus the ice cream at iCream, where liquid nitrogen creates instant any-flavour frozen deserts.

That makes it sound as if there was no savoury element to the tour, but that wasn’t the case. We also took in the Piece Pizzeria and Brewery, and the Sultan’s Market Middle-Eastern Deli and Store, but I was much too busy eating to take pictures at this point.

But I digress. On the Wednesday evening, I took part in an event at Lisle Library in Chicago, hosted by the delightful Patti Ruocco. As well as the usual talk and Q&A, Patti also asked me to do a self-defence demonstration, for which she kindly provided some plastic training daggers. As we were flying out to the States the day after the tenth anniversary of 9/11, I decided that trying to bring my usual rubber knife through Customs might not go down too well.

Anne very kindly volunteered to be my Crash-Test Dummy for the evening, and we went through a few knife defences and escapes from strangleholds. And again we are back to fear, and how to avoid being paralysed by it so that you are unable to act, unable to defend yourself with any degree of success. Even against a cake with attitude:

Then it was on to Bouchercon, via a brief stop in the wonderfully named Normal, Illinois, for breakfast at a traditional Mom & Pop diner – Uncle Tom’s Pancake House & Restaurant:

Of course, some people find the prospect of appearing on panels at such an event absolutely terrifying. It makes them physically sick. The only thing that’s ever bothered me is the possibility of nobody turning up. And as soon as I know we have an audience, I’m fine. Having a signing line is even better, because somehow that means that whatever I said on the panel did not completely alienate my potential readers!

It’s been a couple of years since I was last at Bouchercon, and it’s only when you go back that you realise what you’ve missed. It was just so nice to bump into friends, old and new, to sit and chat about books and writing and the business itself. I never fail to come back from B’con raring to get on with the latest project, and this was no exception.

But there is always a certain amount of fear underlying the work. Is it good enough? Will people ‘get’ it? Will they either love it or hate it, or will it just be yet another ‘OK’ read. Fear of failure seems to be a motivator with every writers, published or unpublished. And the few that don’t appear to suffer from any kind of self-doubt? Well, maybe they should . . .

For us, though, a visit to the States is never complete without firearms. I’d put a ‘Have breakfast and go to the gun range with Zoë Sharp’ lot into the charity auction, so we went to check out Top Gun Shooting Sports in nearby Arnold, Missouri. We took Anne with us, as well as other Brit virgin shooters Russel D McLean and Chris Ewan, plus Bouchercon Albany (2013) organiser Al Abramson,  Blake Crouch, and his cover designer, Jeroen Ten Berge.

Without naming names, not everyone was as happy about getting up close and personal with genuine firearms as perhaps they thought they might be, while others grew horns and came out with big grins on their faces. It’s one case where a healthy fear and respect for what you’re doing is definitely a Good Thing.

 For those who were unable to get to the range, Beth Tindall from Cincinnati Media had contacted a friend, Arbon ‘Doc’ Hairston of Fair Warning Systems, who runs firearms training simulators for law enforcement. Doc brought along various semiautomatics, revolvers, and even a pump action shotgun, along with training simulations that he uses to teach people when to shoot and when not to shoot. The guns are real, but hooked up to CO2 to work the action and provide a certain amount of recoil. A lot of fun was had by all who had a go, but somehow the fear factor was missing. Not difficult to see how kids brought up on video games have lost any respect they might have had for the dangers of real weapons.

In the charity auction, Brit crime fan Lesley ‘Mitchy’ Keech was the winning bidder, and as she wanted to attend the Bouchercon Sunday brunch, we arranged to take her for breakfast and to the gun range on the Monday morning after it was all over.

We also took fellow Brit thriller writer Matt Hilton with us. He agreed that, after firing the simulator, firing the real thing was a whole different ball game.

I tried to instil the basics of gun safety into Mitchy, starting off with only one live round in the chamber so she could get used to the feel and the noise of it, and giving her a good solid stance to shoot from. We let her try various SIG, Glock and Smith & Wesson 9mm semiautomatics, and also a couple of .357 magnum S&W revolvers. And finally they brought out an MP5 submachine gun, and she put a full clip through that, beginning on single shot and moving up to full auto. Those targets were definitely not getting up again!

I hope we made the experience fun without causing too much fear beyond just the right amount. After all, without the rush of endorphins (endogenous morphine) released by the pituitary gland and hypothalamus during periods of excitement, stress, or danger, how do we know we’re really alive?

On the Monday afternoon, we went up the Gateway to the West – the St Louis arch. An amazing feat of engineering, with an ingenious elevator system to get you to the cramped viewing area right at the peak of the arch. And as we rode up there, I could only think of all the people we knew who would completely freak out at the experience, first of the confined space, and then being over 600 feet off the ground.

But if something doesn’t particularly scare you, then doing it involves no courage. Or does it?

So, ‘Rati, if you went to Bouchercon, did you have a great time? Did you go up the arch?

And what was the last thing you did that really scared you?

For me, the answer to the first question is, “Hell, yes!”

 And the answer to the second is going on the Bomb Bay water ride at Wet ‘n’ Wild in Orlando Florida a few years ago. (And I’m talking squeal-like-a-girl-scared here.) You climb about eight storeys up, stand in a cylinder shaped like a cartoon bomb, which they winch out over a narrow chute filled with running water. They leave you there for an agonising few seconds, then a floor drops away and you PLUMMET down the chute until it levels out at the bottom and the force of the water being squeezed into places you don’t even want to think about, brings you to a stop.

Once was enough.

This week’s Word of the Week is horripilation, which means a contraction of the cutaneous muscles causing erection of the hairs and gooseflesh. The correct word for when all your hair stands on end. From the Latin horrere to bristle, and pilus, a hair.

One last thing. While we were away, my Twitter account was hacked, so please be careful about following any dodgy links that don’t obviously come from me. We also had problems logging on to Gmail, as it didn’t like the fact we weren’t at our home computer. So, apologies for any delays or confusion.

Keeping The Plates Spinning

Zoë Sharp

There’s always talk among writers about the pros and cons of writing a series versus standalone novels and I can see both sides of the argument. There’s a lot of freedom to writing standalones. Any character traits that engage your interest can form the protagonist of your next work.

No baggage, no preconceptions. You can narrate in first person, third person, close third, multiple viewpoints – second person if you feel the urge. Present tense, past tense, a mix of both. Contemporary, historical, futuristic. There seems to be no limits beyond what your publisher will accept and your readers will enjoy. (And reader expectation is a whole different subject . . .)

Of course, there has always been a liking for ‘the same . . . but different’. I was a big fan of the early Dick Francis books, and not just for their horse-orientated content. Although they were mainly standalones with only a few repeated characters, there were definite similarities between the heroes of the Francis books, regardless of whether they were jockeys or bankers, airline pilots or movie stars.

As a reader, you knew what you were getting. And if you liked one, the chances were pretty good that you were going to like them all.

Few of the Francis protags were professionally involved with crime, but he successfully side-stepped the issue of Cabot Cove Syndrome, as it’s known. Anybody familiar with the long-running Jessica Fletcher ‘Murder She Wrote’ TV series will understand this. Every time that woman turned around, she tripped over a body. I mean, nobody in their right minds should ever have accepted an invitation to dine with Ms Fletcher, because you could be certain there’d be one less guest for dessert than for the appetiser. She was a jinx.

So, if you want an amateur sleuth to discover the bloodied corpse book after book, at least with a standalone character you aren’t forced to invent yet another reason why someone with an apparently harmless occupation should become such a magnet for murder.

Even professional law enforcement characters may stumble into the credibility issue, though. Just how many serial killers or fiendishly cunning murderers can a small-town police chief chase down in his career? Reminds me of the Bruce Willis line in ‘Die Hard 2’ as he’s battling the bad guys in a stricken airport in the snow: “How can the same sh*t happen to the same guy twice?”

Of course, the standalone writers might argue that the series writers have it easy. Once you’ve hit upon an intriguing main character, you’re halfway there. If people are hooked on your recurring protag, they’re likely to pre-order the next in the series without knowing more than the title.

And this is the reason that publishers, it seems, also rather like series. I wonder how many debut authors have stopped work on a non-related second novel because of hints that another book featuring the same characters as the first would be smiled on rather more favourably.

Then you have the additional question with a series – how inter-related do you make the books? If someone picks up book five, for example, how much are they missing – and how frustrating will they find it – if they haven’t already read books one through four?

Do you keep your main character stuck in a time warp, where they never age, never change, never carry lasting memories of old cases, old love affairs, old enemies? Or do you allow your protag to evolve and develop as the series goes on, taking them on a personal journey through each book that’s as important to returning readers as the individual story arc?

I set out to write Charlie Fox as a series character from the beginning, and I had a reasonable idea of where I was going to take her, from ex-army self-defence instructor, through training and into the world of close protection. Maybe I should have just chucked her straight in at the deep end, and made every client she had to protect a new job without reference to anything that went before.

But I couldn’t do that.

It seemed important to me that the character learn from her past experiences, that they affected her as much as she affected them. People tell me they like Charlie’s ongoing internal battles, her complicated relationship with her former army training instructor, lover, and now boss, Sean Meyer, and her constant struggle to come to terms with her own cold-blooded side.

And this is where I discovered another difficulty with writing a long-running series.

Keeping the plates spinning.

People who are coming to a series cold like to start at the very beginning. My first US publisher picked up the series at book four, FIRST DROP, and then leapfrogged the next one to go straight to book six. Books one, two, three and five were overlooked, causing endless confusion, not to mention frustration.

My original UK publisher was sold out to a larger house and one by one, the early UK books went out of print. All five of them. The only editions still obtainable – apart from Large Print and audiobooks – were snapped up by the collectors, and I have been amazed and even a little horrified (if, I admit, somewhat flattered) by some of the prices being achieved. But this has meant that getting hold of a half-decent reading copy became an exercise out of the reach of most people’s pocket. Mine included.

Not any more.

(And here you must picture me shuffling my feet awkwardly, being British and finding BSP a difficult exercise. Please forgive my excitement, though. Normal service will be resumed next time, I promise.)

For the first time in years, all the early Charlie Fox backlist books are available again – in e-format. It’s taken some blood, sweat and tears – not necessarily in that order – but they’re all out and damn if I’m not proud to have them back on sale. The later books, of course, are available from Allison & Busby in the UK and St Martin’s/Pegasus in the States, with e-versions either out currently or on the way, in the case of FIFTH VICTIM.

(And even those of you who don’t have a Kindle reader device itself, you can download Kindle Reader for PC or Mac absolutely free.)

Until now, it’s felt like one of those TV game shows where hapless volunteers from the audience have to try to keep a load of plates spinning on the end of poles. Just you thought you’d got them all going, the one at the beginning begins to topple.

At last, all my plates are spinning at once.

I know I mentioned the new Charlie Fox e-thology, FOX FIVE last time, and the new edition of the very first book, KILLER INSTINCT, but now these have been joined by RIOT ACT, HARD KNOCKS, FIRST DROP and ROAD KILL. (Although as I write this I’m still waiting for a couple of them to go live on Amazon US, UK, and DE. This brand newness explains part of my ‘kid with new toy’ feeling today – sorry!)

Here are the covers for the series, designed by Jane Hudson at NuDesign. I’m over the moon with the eye-catching look of the series, but see what you think:

 

As with KILLER INSTINCT, each book has some added extras, like Author’s notes, an introduction to Charlie Fox, an excerpt from the next book in the series, and a guest excerpt.

For these I’ve been lucky enough to hook up with some of my favourite writers. Former ‘Rati Brett Battles allowed me to put an excerpt from his Jonathan Quinn novella, BECOMING QUINN in the first book, and others are: in RIOT ACT, Timothy Hallinan’s second Junior Bender novel, LITTLE ELVISES; in HARD KNOCKS, Libby Fischer Hellmann’s PI Georgia Davis/Ellie Foreman novel, DOUBLEBACK; in FIRST DROP, Blake Crouch’s ‘what if’ thriller, RUN; and finally in ROAD KILL, Lee Goldberg’s new standalone, KING CITY.

I can’t tell you how thrilled I am to have been able to join forces with these very talented writers, who are also including excerpts from the Charlie Fox books in their latest work. Let’s hope this cross-pollination opens up our novels to a wider audience.

And finally, I was invited to join a new outfit called The Hardboiled Collective, by Jochem Vandersteen of the Sons of Spade blogsite. This is just a group of – well, the clue is in the name, and I hope you’ll check out some of the great writers who are members. We even have a terrific group logo, courtesy of Jane Hudson again:

OK, that’s it, I’m going to stop going ‘me, me, ME’ now. I promise to calm down and stop stuffing myself with Sunny Delight and blue Smarties and go lie down in a darkened room for a bit.

My questions this week, though, are do you feel that you HAVE to start reading a series right from the start, or are you happy to dive in wherever the fancy takes you? And if you used to read a series but have stopped, what made you do so?

Next weekend I shall be attending Bouchercon 2011 in St Louis MO, and am hugely looking forward to going – more so as I’ve missed out on the last couple. Please say “Hi” if you’re going. On the way, I’m doing an event at Lisle Library in Chicago IL. Can’t wait!

Finally, this week’s Word of the Week is paedometer, a device that can be strapped to the arm while out exercising to show you how many perverts are in the immediate vicinity . . .

 

 

 

The Stick and The Carrot

Zoë Sharp

The humble donkey is the beast of burden across the globe. It ambles along on impossibly dainty feet, while carrying outrageous loads apparently without complaint.

And always, it seems, there’s a man on the animal’s back with a stick.

I’m not suggesting that the man beats the donkey, although I’m sure that happens with depressing regularity. But the stick is still there and the implication is clear – go faster, work harder, or this is going to hurt.

I think I know how that feels.

The most depressing job I ever had was a brief stint selling display advertising for the local paper. Classifieds were a different section. People want to place classified adverts. They do so specifically because they want to sell something, or buy something. All the classified sales people had to do was sit by the phone and wait for calls.

Display advertising is different. Display advertising is the stuff that gets in the way of the stories people are trying to read at the front of the paper. Unless it’s by chance, their eye skims over the ad without ever taking any of it in. And, I admit, if you work for a New York ad agency you probably have some very scientific ways of making people look at those ads, but I didn’t have those skills.

Nobody wants to spend money on advertising. They know that half that money is wasted – they just don’t know which half. They practically hid under the desk when they saw you coming, or told their secretaries to fob off your phone calls. So, persuading small businesses, week after week, to lay out cash for adverts that ultimately ended up lining the cat litter tray or the bottom of the budgie’s cage, was not my best choice of career. (I did mention it was a very BRIEF stint, didn’t I?)

But what has this got to do with the donkey and the man with the stick? Well, in my case, the display ad sales people were the donkeys, and the stick was being wielded by the advertising manager.

We were given weekly targets of how much advertising we had to sell, and we never seemed to be able to quite make those targets. Looking back, I’m pretty sure that if we’d worked it out we would have discovered that he was trying to get us to sell more ads than it was actually possible to fit into the paper, and if we’d ever managed it we would have caused a major glitch in the space/time continuum.

After six months, the job started to stress me out so much that I even developed a heart murmur. (I’ve never been very good at the high-pressure sell. I can’t even do it with my own books.)

The whole experience was all stick and no carrot.

I’ve discovered over the years that I will go a long way and work my little wot-nots off for a bit of encouragement and a thank you. That is far more important to me than getting paid – I’d rather do a good job than a quick job.

Which possibly explains why I am not a lot more wealthy than I am ;-]

The world of being a published writer can involve a lot of stick, and only being shown the occasional distant slightly out-of-focus photographs of something that might be some kind of root vegetable, but it’s in black and white so you can’t be sure if it isn’t a parsnip.

Things are tough for authors at the moment. If you’re not topping the bestseller lists, you’re being cut loose. It’s a big stick world, and sometimes it feels like we’re the donkeys.

And I know it’s been slowing me down, weighting me down, miring me down. I could feel it. My enjoyment of the whole business of actually writing was ebbing away. It had little to do with success or failure – it was to do with job satisfaction. People can be at the top of their field and still not really enjoy what they’re doing.

When I came back from the States in March, having witnessed the explosion in e-readers, with the idea that I would put the backlist Charlie Fox books out in e-format, starting with a short story e-thology, some people told me I was mad to contemplate tackling the whole conversion process myself.

“Writers should write,” I was told. “Leave that to the experts.”

I’ve never been very good at taking advice, especially when it concerns things I can’t or shouldn’t do.

So Andy and I, with help from my web guru, set about learning how to code and convert. Sadly, a lot of conversion work seems to be carried out by people who don’t love books, and the reading experience is spoilt by silly mistakes and bad bits of coding that slip through.

Producing an eBook is not just about the conversion process, though. It’s about EVERYTHING connected to a book, from the front cover to the wording of the copyright page. If that all sounds like a lot of work, it is.

But I found it was a LOT of fun, too.

 FOX FIVE: a Charlie Fox short story collection went live on August 8th, and yesterday the first of the backlist went up, too – KILLER INSTINCT: Charlie Fox book one. So, for all those people who wanted to read the series right from the very beginning, now they can. As soon as all the backlist is up on Amazon, we’ll start coding for other reader formats, too.

I resisted the urge to rewrite the book – difficult tho’ that urge was to resist – but did take the opportunity to reinsert two backstory scenes that never made the final book. These explain a little more about Charlie’s military career and the start of her relationship with Sean Meyer. (I didn’t quite appreciate at that stage how important that relationship was going to be, or how integral to the character, hence the original cut.)

Getting KILLER INSTINCT ready for e-publication has been a fascinating experience. Not only was there a fabulous new cover by Jane Hudson at NuDesign I was very fortunate in that Lee Child generously allowed me to use the Foreword he wrote for the Busted Flush trade paperback edition last year. I added my own Afterword from the same edition, together with tasters from the other books in the series, including an excerpt from the next one, RIOT ACT, which is undergoing conversion as we speak. And finally, I joined forces with our former ‘Rati, Brett Battles.

Brett very kindly gave me an excerpt from his Jonathan Quinn novella, BECOMING QUINN, to include at the back of KILLER INSTINCT. In return, an excerpt from KILLER INSTINCT will be going in the back of Brett’s next Logan Harper novel. This is the kind of cross-pollination that not only gives people a nice added extra, but will hopefully also introduce the readers of both of us to something new they might enjoy.

So, I hope you’ll forgive me a small amount of proud-parent BSP at this point:

‘Susie Hollins may have been no great shakes as a karaoke singer, but I didn’t think that was enough reason for anyone to want to kill her.’

Charlie Fox makes a living teaching self-defence to women in a quiet northern English city. It makes best use of the deadly skills she picked up after being kicked out of army Special Forces training for reasons she prefers not to go into. So, when Susie Hollins is found dead hours after she foolishly takes on Charlie at the New Adelphi Club, Charlie knows it’s only a matter of time before the police come calling. What they don’t tell her is that Hollins is the latest victim of a homicidal rapist stalking the local area.

Charlie finds herself drawn closer to the crime when the New Adelphi’s enigmatic owner, Marc Quinn, offers her a job working security at the club. Viewed as an outsider by the existing all-male team, her suspicion that there’s a link between the club and a serial killer doesn’t exactly endear her to anyone. Charlie has always taught her students that it’s better to run than to stand and fight, But, when the killer starts taking a very personal interest, it’s clear he isn’t going to give her that option . . .

 ‘Charlie looks like a made-for-TV model, with her red hair and motorcycle leathers, but Sharp means business. The bloody bar fights are bloody brilliant, and Charlie’s skills are both formidable and for real.’ Marilyn Stasio, New York Times

OK, I’m done now.

This whole thing has proved a huge carrot for me. Getting reacquainted with Charlie at this early point in her history has reminded me why I started writing about her in the first place, and why I can’t wait to get back on with the next book.

Suddenly, writing is fun again, like starting to exercise and stretch muscles that had started to atrophy. I needed a boost, and this has provided it. Getting the short stories out there in FOX FIVE allowed people who’d vaguely heard about Charlie to try a selection of short pieces about her without investing time in a whole book. The 50 free review copies I offered in my last blog were all snapped up within hours. The reviews so far have been great. And if anyone would like a review copy of KILLER INSTINCT, they only have to email me . . . authorzoesharp [at] gmail [dot] com.

This whole experience has, one might say, re-kindled my enthusiasm.

So, ‘Rati, have you faced a time when you were absolutely fed up with what you were doing, and what did you do about it? Or, if you’re still in that situation, what are you going to do about it?

Finally, I thought I’d introduce a new section about what I’m reading on my sparkly new Kindle at the moment.

I’ve just finished LITTLE ELVISES by Timothy Hallinan. The book is the second to feature Junior Bender – and how can you not LOVE that name? – Tim’s Los Angeles burglar who moonlights as a private eye for crooks.

The ‘Little Elvises’ of the title were Philadelphia teenagers plucked off the city’s stoops in the 1960s by a mobbed-up record producer named Vinnie DiGaudio and turned into pallid imitations of the boy from Tupelo until their fourteen-year-old fans got tired of them and moved on to the next one. When Vinnie is in the cops’ sights for a murder, Junior is brought in, unwillingly, to prove Vinnie’s innocence. Unless, of course, Vinnie did it.

But one way or another, Vinnie – a gangster whose product was innocence – has made a central mistake. Some things never go away. And that’s what drives the plot of LITTLE ELVISES.

This book was enormous fun. Very wittily written, it’s refreshing in that Junior (sorry, Tim – I can’t bring myself to call him Bender) is far from a hapless comedy PI. He has smarts, both street and of mouth. I shall definitely be seeking out the first book in this series, CRASHED.

And I’ve just started reading Wayne D Dundee’s THE SKINTIGHT SHROUD, a Joe Hannibal mystery. When someone starts turning blue movies bright red with the blood of murdered porn stars, Joe Hannibal is called behind the scenes to prevent more killings. His investigation takes him places that are both shocking and dangerous and in no time at all he finds himself at odds with the mob, the police, a savage local pimp, and in the arms of another man’s woman.

As the case hurtles toward a startling, blood-spattered climax, Hannibal will experience pleasure -and pain-like he has never known before. His life will hang in the balance more than once before the last dirty secret is exposed and the final desperate killer is cut down. Intriguing so far . . .

This week’s Word of the Week is karmageddon, which is, like, when everybody is sending off all these really bad vibes, right? And then, like, the Earth explodes and it’s, like, a serious bummer, man.

To Finish First . . .

Zoë Sharp

August 2011 will go down in my diary as being the month of a lot of firsts. And I’m not talking about the first UK riots for years, either, although what’s happening over here is shameful and I feel I should be apologising on behalf of all the people who have not nipped out armed with a balaclava and a brick to get themselves a new free iPad. I tweeted last night that ‘Nothing quells a riot like rain. No rioting in Cumbria tonight then . . .’

Which brings me back to those firsts. Personal firsts. I’ve finally got myself on Twitter. Somebody – in fact, let’s face it everybody – told me it would be a huge time-suck. They weren’t kidding. I opened my email to find a chunk of notifications, and the faster I tried to go through and deal with them, the faster more of them kept popping into the Inbox. Eventually I had to give up and go and lie down in a darkened room.

And because the words ‘biting off’ and ‘more than I can chew’ are generally quite relevant to me, and because I never like doing things the easy way, I’ve also just opened up a couple of pages on Facebook, too. A personal page and an author page. Don’t ask me why I’ve got two. I think one might have been an error, and when I’ve got the hang of things, I might try and sort that out.

And in the middle of all this, I’ve launched my first eBook. Of course, I already have several of my Charlie Fox series out in e-format, but those were all taken care of by publisher, Allison & Busby. This is the first time I’ve had to think about everything that goes into a book from the title page to the meta-data. And the cover.

My brain is dribbling out of my ears and has been doing so for most of the week.

Looking into eBooks has been a huge subject, and I’m hugely grateful to all the people who allowed me to pick their brains while we’ve been wading our way through the sludge of disinformation out there. And oh boy, let me tell you, there’s a lake of confusion and opinion, much of it just plain wrong.

Eventually, though, we’ve managed to fight our way through, up to our necks in it and holding our noses, and develop a workable system for putting in a Word doc at one end and coming out with an eBook at the other. And when I say ‘we’ basically I mean my Other Half, Andy. Before I know it he’ll be drinking Jolt cola and snowboarding . . .

At the outset, we were told to farm out the conversion process, but never one to take the path of least resistance, Andy decided it was something he wanted to get into, and he has done so with such gusto that he’s now going to offer a conversion service for other authors who have out-of-print backlist that they want to get back out there in digital form. He’s putting together a website for this new venture and as soon as it goes live I’ll let you know – probably via twitter and facebook!

Of course, with hindsight, I realise now I should have started our eBook experimentation with the first book in the Charlie Fox series and gone from there.

Needless to say, I didn’t.

You see, I had this crazy idea that the easiest – for that read ‘smallest’ – thing to convert would be a digital anthology of short stories. I’m trying to introduce the word e-thology into common usage for this, which I hope everyone will pick up and run with. (Come on, it’s better than describing successful Olympic athletes as ‘medalling’ – which sounds vaguely pervy, doesn’t it?)

I already had four existing Charlie Fox short stories, with varying degrees of exposure. One, ‘Postcards From Another Country’ for example, had only ever been seen as an added extra in the back of the US mmpb edition of FIRST DROP.

So, I thought I’d just dash off another Charlie Fox short, put them all together with an excerpt from KILLER INSTINCT and some other Bonus Material, and join the digital revolution.

Yeah . . . righto.

For a start, ‘dashing off’ a short story proved more frustrating than I’d imagined. Maybe it’s because in the past I’ve always tended to wait for a prod from an outside stick before I get going, but I had what seemed like a good idea for a short with a highly chopped-up timeline. In theory, it was great. In practice, I banged my head against that particularly brick wall until the room spun, and couldn’t get into it. (Erm, couldn’t get into the short story, not the room – that would just be silly.)

Now, when I’m working on a book, I’ve found that if the thing won’t budge, it’s because I’m trying to write it in a direction the story really doesn’t want to go. But for some obscure reason I thought the short would get a move on if I just kept pushing hard enough.

It didn’t.

It was only when I eventually realised the futility of my efforts – and that wonderful old saying about there being no harm in turning back if you’re on the wrong road – that I made any progress at all.

When I say ‘progress’ what I mean is that I completely abandoned my first attempt and started again with a totally different idea. But before I knew it, this new ‘short’ story (ha!) had grown to close to 12,000 words. (Don’t ask me what that is in pages – us Brits use different size paper and everything. And what if there’s a lot of dialogue on a page, or you have a character who st-st-stutters?)

So, now I have a collection of five Charlie Fox short stories which spanned her career from civilian with ‘A Bridge Too Far’ right up to professional bodyguard with the new semi-epic ‘Truth And Lies’. The e-thology is called FOX FIVE: a Charlie Fox short story collection, and this is what it looks like:

The cover design was done by the very talented Jane Hudson at NuDesign, a graphic designer who has always astounded me with her creative chops and her ability to manipulate PhotoShop and Illustrator. I hope you’ll agree that she’s done a terrific job. Covers for the other early books in the series are on their way and I aim to have the whole backlist out before Bouchercon in St Louis September, together with the individual short stories from FOX FIVE. And then I shall collapse in a heap and sleep for several days.

So, ‘Rati, do you like the idea of an anthology – sorry, e-thology – of short stories featuring your favourite character? Or would you be tempted to give it a try to see if the character might become a favourite before plunging into any of the books?

And just in case you do, I’m offering free downloads of FOX FIVE to the first 50 people who email me on AuthorZoeSharp [at] gmail [dot] com. All I ask is that if you like what you read you post an online review, even just a few lines.

Right, I’m off to try and catch up with all this online stuff!

This week’s Word of the Week is e-thology, meaning a digital collection of short stories, as opposed to ethology, which is the science of character, or the scientific study of the function and evolution of animal behaviour patterns.

Sharing

Zoë Sharp

The Brits have many differing reputations – not all of them good. We binge-drink. We paint Union Jacks on our faces and run riot at sporting events abroad. We are obsessed with the cult of talentless celebrity (being ‘a celebrity’ is now a recognised ambition for school-leavers). We will sue for libel at the drop of a hat. And if that hat lands on our foot, we’ll sue you for personal injury as well. Our politicians promise the earth when they’re in opposition, then once they get into power they renege and cheat on their expenses … oh, hang on, maybe that last point isn’t so unique to this country.

The engineering brilliance of the Victorians has been transformed into a nation of fun-pubs and asylum seekers, shirkers, chinless wonders, boarded-up high streets and blame-culture ‘you-must-not-have-any-fun-in-case-you-hurt-yourself’ Health & Safety petty bureaucracy.

Sounds like a cue for Stone Sour:

But, the Brits do have their good side. Our military, while under-supported and under-equipped, are still regarded as a superb fighting force. The vast red brick factories of the Industrial Revolution have given way to small pockets of technical ingenuity.

A visit to the Coventry Motor Museum, where they have a display of Richard Noble’s two land-speed record-breaking cars, Thrust 2 and Thrust SSC, tells you as much as you need to know about our abilities to improvise in remarkable ways.

 

And while we don’t do Spectacle quite as well as the Americans …

 

… political plain speaking quite as well as the Australians …

… and can’t run a railway anywhere near as well as the Japanese …

… you have to admit that we do a pretty good line in Pomp and Ceremony:

But one thing the Brits do find it enormously difficult to do is open up and Share.

I don’t know why this should be. Maybe something of that stiff upper lip colonial mentality still remains, but I find it very hard to unload emotionally onto strangers, to talk about what I earn, or discuss what we paid for our house. If someone remarks on my dress, I’m far more likely to confess that I bought it in a mega-sale than smile sweetly and accept the praise. I once said about Charlie Fox that she took a punch easier than she took a compliment, and maybe there’s a lot of her in me, or vice versa. I may get a lot of things across in my writing that I should have unloaded onto my therapist – if I had a therapist. (That’s another thing Brits don’t do – therapy.)

So, while others are prepared to strip themselves bare in public, I prefer to keep things just a little more bottled up, to use it in another way. Just because I don’t talk about my emotions, doesn’t mean I don’t have any, or can’t access them. I’d rather think of them as the flames in an internal combustion engine rather than a bonfire. Maybe it’s little more than a writing technique, but everyone goes about this job in their own way.

I spent last weekend at the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival, where I ran into our Tess who was delightful enough to be singing the praises of my books. (And, being a Brit, I’m getting embarrassed even typing that …) as well as a whole host of other literati. I was struck once again by the generosity of the writing crowd. When I mentioned to Al Guthrie that I’m bringing out the early Charlie Fox books in e-format next month, he immediately offered to interview me for his Criminal-E blog. Lee Child readily agreed for me to use the introduction he wrote for the Busted Flush edition of KILLER INSTINCT in the e-version as well, and said he’d link to his own site. And I had four approaches from agents, who’d just learned that I had, with much regret, parted company from my own.

Next month I should have an e-anthology – which I’m convinced should be called an e-thology – of Charlie short stories, and the first five novels being launched in e-format for the first time. I may well be singing and dancing about that a LOT. So, being a Brit, I shall apologise in advance for such vulgar self-promotional activities, but I hope you’ll forgive my excitement.

So, ‘Rati, what are the best and worst characteristics of your fellow countrymen (and women, of course)? Alternatively, what characteristic is often exaggerated in books or movies, that really annoys you? (Only, if you’re a Brit, you’ll probably be too polite to say so …)

This week’s Word of the Week is giraffiti, which is vandalism spray-painted very, very high …

 

Caught Red-Handed?

Zoë Sharp

Everyone who knows me will be well aware by now that I’m very good at saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. Why do you think my Murderati blog tag line is ‘Changing Feet’? It’s because, often, the only time I open mouth is to do so.

But I’ve been doing some research recently about body language, which is a fascinating subject for anyone, but absolute gold for writers. In any scene with dialogue backwards and forwards between two characters, it’s invaluable to subtly get across an underlying message by how the characters stand, look, or what they do with their hands.

I’ve just been finishing off writing a short story at the moment. It’s set in a country where people tend to be more expressive than us stiff-upper-lip Brits – where they talk with their hands. In fact, at one point I’ve written the line:

‘Put handcuffs on half the guys in this part of the world and they’d be struck instantly mute.’

Our hands are often the most expressive part of us when we talk, and they give away more than we realise. Not only that, but they can get us into serious trouble of the kind Thing from The Addams’ Family could only dream about.

For instance, back in May this year, a prominent British surgeon was arrested in Dubai on a charge of ‘public indecency’ for what he describes as little more than a shrug at another driver who had been flashing his lights at him in traffic.

According the report in the Belfast Telegraph, the doctor said: “I raised both my hands to say, ‘What do you want?’ but he pulled back [to read the number plate] and then took off and turned right. He alleges I stuck a finger at him but I raised both hands. I am sure he must have seen them at an angle, and that was offensive to him.” The doctor could face a long wait for a trial, and then a prison sentence as a result.

Many gestures seen as perfectly innocuous in some countries, are highly offensive in others. When then-President George W Bush wanted to show his support for the Texas Longhorn football team, for example, he made this gesture:

Of course, Mr Bush was probably unaware that although in the States this gesture made with an open thumb means ‘I love you!’ With the thumb curled in over the middle fingers, as shown, it is not only the sign of the Longhorns, but when rotated, in South America, it signifies ‘protection against bad luck’, and when pointed, in Malta and Italy, ‘protection against the evil eye’.

But made straight up like that, in Mediterranean countries, it means ‘your wife is being unfaithful’. Not the kind of statement you want to make unwittingly in public.

Another common hand gesture is the OK circle formed between forefinger and thumb:

In Europe and the States, this does indeed mean ‘everything is A-OK’. In Japan, it means ‘money or coins’. But in the Med, Russia, Brazil and Turkey, however, it indicates, ahem, ‘an orifice’, ‘sexual insult’, or implies ‘you are a gay man’.

One of the most famous gestures is the V sign. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill used this extensively during the Second World War, both with palm facing his audience …

… and with the palm away from the audience:

With the palm facing, it is the classic ‘V for Victory’ meaning a battle won. It also means ‘two’ in Europe, and apparently ‘go to hell!’ in Greece.

Of course, Churchill also used the two-fingered salute the other way around, which was much more of an ‘up yours!’ gesture to the enemy. This also means ‘two’ in the States, as well as ‘peace’ in France.

Steve McQueen famously also used the ‘up yours’ version of the victory sign after his race at Le Mans in 1971:

Nobody’s quite sure why he did this, but the origin of the gesture comes from the battles of Crecy and Agincourt during the Hundred Years War between England and France. The English employed Welsh archers – longbow men – who routed the enemy so effectively that if any were captured the French often cut off the archer’s first two fingers to prevent them being able to draw back a bowstring. If the archers came across any French on the battlefield, therefore, they would waggle those two fingers to show they still had them firmly attached. Maybe Steve was sticking it to the French?

Even a simple thumbs up can be fraught with difficulty:

The widespread meaning is ‘good’, ‘OK’ or to indicate you’re hitchhiking. In Europe, it also means ‘one’, and in Japan ‘man’ or ‘five’. In Greece, however, if thrust forwards it means ‘up yours!’ and with an upward jerk in Australia, ‘sit on this!’

Whereas this gesture …

… simply means ‘the good news is the surgeon managed to sew both hands back on after my industrial accident’ but ‘the bad news is, he didn’t quite get things back where they should be’.

Anyone who remembers the Mike Myers character of Doctor Evil, will be familiar with this gesture:

With the thumb out (OK, so not necessarily with the finger to the mouth like this) the gesture means ‘hang loose’ in Hawaii, or ‘do you want a drink?’ in Holland. However, when the thumb is curled in, more like this …

… then the gesture becomes more complicated. In South America it simply means ‘thin’, in Bali it means ‘bad’, but the Mediterranean it indicates ‘small penis’. It can also show a deep-seated insecurity on the part of the gesturer.

The pointed forefinger, like this …

… means ‘two’ in Europe, but only ‘one’ in Britain, Australia and New Zealand. In the States, it tends to be used to summon a waiter, but don’t try that in Japan, where the gesture is considered an insult.

The Japanese can be easily offended by your hands, as this is another insulting gesture …

… but in Western countries it is merely the indicator for ‘four’.

Some gestures can have universal overtones. This one is recognised as meaning ‘stop!’ just about everywhere …

… but it also means ‘five’ in western countries, and ‘go to hell!’ in Greece and Turkey.

Double open palms is also a contradictory one …

It means ‘ten’ and ‘I surrender’ in the west, as well as attempting to convince the audience that the speaker speaks the truth. In Greece, however, it means ‘up yours – twice!’

People use hand gestures all the time when they speak in public to try and convey sincerity, authority, or benevolence.

The late Saddam Hussein, when he was still in power, would often make open-handed gestures which are usually used to imply an open, honest approach:

An experiment was tried using a group who had to list their responses to various speakers. It was found the people who pointed the finger while they spoke were considered ‘rude’, ‘aggressive’, and ‘belligerent’ …

… whereas those who squeezed a forefinger and thumb together were seen as ‘thoughtful’, ‘goal-orientated’, and ‘focused’:

And, as a generalisation, those who put a hand or finger over their mouth when they speak are reverting to the childhood habit of trying to prevent themselves being untruthful.

I make no judgements here, by the way. I simply trawled the internet looking for examples of the various hand gestures I wanted to illustrate. What – and who – came up was entirely the luck of the draw.

So, I leave you with a final gesture, one that is truly universal in every sense of the word:

Live long and prosper!

So, ‘Rati, do you have any other misinterpreted gestures for me? (I’ve left out the more obvious insults, as these don’t tend to have a secondary meaning!)

Next week, incidentally, I’ll be at the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, part of the Harrogate International Festival. Looking forward to seeing some of you there.

This week’s Word of the Week is antisyzygy, meaning a union of opposites. It’s also a really good score in Scrabble …

Playing It Safe

Charlie Fox

I hope you’ll forgive me this week if I hand over control to a kind of guest blogger*. I wanted to begin an occasional series about safety – personal safety, safety at home, in the car, on the street, in a dangerous situation. So, who better to talk about these topics than my protagonist, Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Fox? 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. (And I wouldn’t ask her about that if I were you.) 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 former army training instructor, 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.

Charlie Fox: I had to laugh when I saw the title of this post, because let me tell you, ‘playing it safe’ is not a phrase that ever made it anywhere near my school reports – nor my military appraisals, come to think of it.

That doesn’t mean I’m reckless, don’t get me wrong. If the situation demands it, I’ll get stuck in, but not without weighing up the risks and the odds first. And I’ll go a long way to avoid trouble if I can manage it. It was one of the problems I always found when I used to teach self-defence classes. People learn a few tricks and think they’re invincible. Never has that old saying ‘a little knowledge is a dangerous thing’ been more true than in personal safety.

Probably not a bad place to start.

I have to say, though, that these days my chances of being randomly mugged or attacked on the street are far lower than they used to be. No, that doesn’t mean I’ve suddenly grown fangs or another head. It’s just that I keep my mobile phone in my pocket and I’m not obsessed with texting, tweeting, or checking my damn email every thirty seconds.

If you’ve read Tony Walker’s excellent book HOW TO WIN A GUNFIGHT – and I’d recommend it – he describes the system developed by retired USMC lieutenant colonel John Dean ‘Jeff’ Cooper, which lists the four states of consciousness – White, Yellow, Orange and Red.

White is totally away with the fairies. These are the people who fall into fountains while answering texts:

Or walk off the edge of railway platforms while playing on their handheld gamer:

They are completely unaware of what’s going on around them, of potential dangers or threats. They may as well have VICTIM tattooed across their forehead in big letters.

Basically, the only time you should be in condition White is when you’re unconscious. Or dead. And even then, you’ll need to provide a note from your mum.

Yellow is the state you should aim for. Think domestic cat. I’ve always found it’s really, really hard to creep up on those furry little devils, however relaxed they appear to be. When you’re in condition Yellow, you’re aware of what’s going on, of who’s around you, and what their intentions might be – like stuffing you in a wire basket and carting you to the vet. This is not to say you have to be paranoid about things, but it might save you a lot of pain in the long run if you practice remaining alert while you’re out and about. Use shop windows to check out who’s following rather than checking if those pilates classes are paying off.

If you wear heels to work and know you have any walking to do later, take a pair of flats to change into. Running shoes of some description would be best, but even those fold-up ballet-pump type things are better than five-inch stilettos.

Keep those killer heels close to hand, though – you never know when they might come in useful.

If you carry a bag, put the strap across your chest rather than over your shoulder. There are some great bags out there with steel wire in the strap and woven into the material of the bag itself, which makes the old ‘slash and grab’ technique much more difficult for a would-be thief. They don’t have to look industrial. For example, this is a Metrosafe steel mesh shoulder bag:

If you’re wearing a rucksack, make sure the zips are closed. Tie something through the ends of the zips and loop them round to the front of you, so at least if someone tries to slide a zip open, you’ve half a chance of spotting it. Or get a steel mesh net which you can lock to an immovable object.

And just in case the guys are looking all smug at this point – because they’re not the rucksack type and wouldn’t be seen dead carrying a manbag – wallets in back pockets are even more vulnerable. There’s an old pickpocket technique called ‘pinch and push’ and I’ve seen it done successfully even with the tightest trousers. The thief falls into step behind the unsuspecting victim (who’s in condition White, obviously), nips a small fold of material of the back pocket containing the wallet between finger and thumb, and, having loosened the wallet’s snug fit, gently pushes it upwards with another finger. Takes no more than a couple of seconds. Of course, for the victim it means spending hours on the phone later trying to convince all the credit card companies that they really weren’t the one who maxed everything out on disposable electronic items.

Above all, when you’re in condition Yellow, look confident. Muggers are, by their nature, opportunity criminals. They’re predators who wait for likely looking prey and strike almost on impulse. If you look alert and confident, they’re going to pass. After all, it won’t be long before someone else wanders along with their ear-buds in place and their eyes firmly fixed on that tiny screen …

Having a dog is also a good deterrent, by the way. A few years ago, I dog-sat for a friend on a sink estate back home. (RIOT ACT) Pauline owned a Rhodesian Ridgeback called Friday who had once, in her absence, chased a delivery man up onto the roof of her garden shed and kept him up there all morning. That kind of reputation is pure gold when it comes to security.

Even those dogs that look like a little fluffy rat on a stick can usually be relied upon to make lots of noise. Of course, some people have to go one step further.

Orange is the next level up. Because you’re alert, you’ve spotted a potential problem before it’s become an actual problem, and you have time to make a considered decision what to do about it. Our primal instinct is for fight or flight.

Flight is the best option, every time. Trust me on this – I have the scars to prove it.

You leave a restaurant or a cinema, or a late-night shopping mall. You’re alone, and you notice there’s someone loitering near your car. Or they could simply be between you and your car. You could brazen it out, walk straight through with your best stern look and hope to intimidate them. Sharp did this once at a gas station in a run-down area, and got away with it thanks to the fact she was wearing a T-shirt from the Houston Top Gun Handgun Training Center. If you’ve just come from teaching your karate class and are still in your gi with your faded black belt tied casually around your waist, you’ll probably get away with it, too.

But why risk it?

Go back inside the restaurant, cinema, or shopping mall, and either wait until the threat has gone, or ask members of staff to walk you to your car. OK, if you’re a hunky six-footer who regularly wins Chuck Norris look-alike contests, you may feel a bit silly doing this, but if you regularly struggle to convince roller coaster attendants that you really are old enough and tall enough to ride, then it’s good advice.

Then we come to Red. It’s all kicked off. Someone’s in front of you and they’re armed and they’re directly threatening you. Having been previously in condition Yellow, however, their arrival won’t have come as a surprise, will it? You will already have had time to make a decision – fight or flight.

What you MUST NOT do is freeze. It’s an instinctive reaction to a predator, because as anybody who’s been in a sniper area knows, immobility makes you much harder to spot where any kind of movement will make you stand out every time.

Running is a good option. In fact, running is the best option. Sadly, I was never in the sprint league. Yelling is also a good option. Equally sadly, research has shown that you’ll get far more attention as a woman in trouble if you shout, “Fire!” rather than “Help!” or even “Rape!”

Personally, even if my would-be assailant has a knife or a gun, I’d still try to make a break rather than face the consequences of letting him do what he wants. If you allow yourself to be abducted and taken to a secondary location of your assailant’s choosing, the risk to you DOUBLES.

Besides, either he’s going to shoot me, in which case I’m stuffed anyway, or he’s just using the weapon in an attempt to subdue and control. Running means he has to run after me, or hit a moving target.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time on gun ranges over the years. I’ve seen people practising for their concealed carry licences, who didn’t worry the target at distances of less than ten feet. In fact, most of them couldn’t hit an elephant if they were sitting on its back.

To be a decent shot, you need to put in a lot of practice. Carrying an illegal trophy piece on the street does not constitute practice. Therefore, the chances are that if you can put some initial distance between you and an assailant armed with a handgun, they’re going to miss. Risky? Maybe, but it’s one you have to calculate for yourself in the time it takes for Orange to turn Red.

And what do you do if flight is not an option?

Well, if she lets me back, maybe I’ll go into that next time …

So, ‘Rati, have you ever found yourself in an unsafe situation? How did you get out of it? How would you do things differently if faced with the same situation again? How have you engineered your characters into situations that required some ingenious method of extraction? And would you like me to continue this series from Charlie?

This week’s Word of the Week is gargoyle, which as well as a grotesque figure, originally meant a carved spout projecting from a roof gutter. The word comes from the Latin gurgulio, or Old French gargouille – meaning the throat.

And here – as promised to Reine – are a couple of pictures of our resident gargoyle, Desmond.

*OK, so Charlie’s not exactly a guest blogger, but I always try to do what the voices in my head tell me to …

Death By … Euphonium?

Zoë Sharp

As you may have realised, I shouldn’t be here this week, but with the sad retirement of Brett Battles from these pages, it was suddenly realised there was a breach, and I’ve stepped into it!)

I am a very unimaginative serial killer, I’ve decided. Over the course of my writing career, I’ve managed to dispatch quite a number of people, with means from a hit-and-run that forced the victim off the edge of a cliff on his motorcycle, to throat cutting, disembowelment, having their neck broken in a bathtub, and being buried alive.

I’ve had my heroine, Charlie Fox, kill with her bare hands (or feet) on several occasions – one nasal bone smashed up into the frontal lobe of the brain, and one crushed larynx are the ones that spring to mind immediately.

Mostly, though, I tend to shoot people. Death is nasty and final enough without lovingly lingering over it like some kind of sado porn. And it’s usually the quiet deaths, the ones where people slip quietly away when you least expect it, that are the ones I remember.

The reason for this melancholy reflection is that this week is National Crime Writing Week in the UK. Organised by the Crime Writers’ Association, the event celebrates Bloodthirsty Britain in all its gory glory, and I quote:

A survey carried out to mark the start of National Crime Writing Week, which runs between June 13 and 19, has cast light on some of the original ways that crime writers murder their victims.

The Bloodthirsty Britain research was carried out by the CWA,which is organising the week. Members across the UK took part.

The CWA asked how many people they had killed off over the past year (2010). The average body count was 8.38 and the most people killed by one author was 150.

The most inventive means of killing included:

Taxidermied alive

Sliced to death in an olive machine

Poisoned with soluble aspirin and ribena

Rigged a euphonium to land on victim’s head

Super glue in mouth & nostrils to suffocate.

Bees in a wicket-keeper’s inner glove leading to anaphylactic shock

Decapitation by glider cable

Trapped inside Damien Hurst style art installation

Dragged behind horse

Tied up and drowned by rising tide

Stabbed through the heart with a spangly stiletto

Drinking blood

Gored on the horns of a goat

Answers to why people like crime so much included:

“People like to crack puzzles. They also love strong but deeply fallible or troubled main characters they can empathise with, and crime writers dish this up in spades.”

“Crime Writing is a fantastic genre to examine big moral questions about society, the State of Man as much as any so-called “literary” novel.”

“Crime stories can illuminate and celebrate the human condition, not just tell grim stories.”

“Creates suspense and allows you to explore the wicked/bad side of your own character that you don’t actually want to act upon in real life…allows you a window into that world without you having to participate.”

More than 30% of those surveyed read crime fiction or watched crime drama every day of the year, and more than 50% read it weekly or several times a week.

CWA Chair, the best-selling author Peter James, said: “This survey has thrown up some fascinating findings and underlines why readers so love crime writing.

“One of the big campaigns undertaken by the CWA at the moment is to support libraries and we know that crime forms the most popular genre when it comes to borrowings. This research emphasises the reason why it remains so popular.”

I took part in an event at Kendal Library in Cumbria last night (Wednesday, June 15th) together with fellow Cumbria crime writers Anna Dean, Diane Janes, and Matt Hilton. Strangely, nobody asked us what bizarre methods of murder we’d come up with in the past, but it got me thinking.

So, fellow ‘Rati, what’s the strangest method of murder you’ve ever either come across in a novel, or devised for your own victims – erm, all in print, of course …

This week’s hasty Word of the Week is outspan. Not just a brand of orange (in the UK at least) but a South African verb meaning to unyoke oxen or unharness a horse. Also a noun, meaning a stopping-place.

And on a final note, I had the honour to be interviewed by the delightful J Sydney Jones for his Scene of the Crime blog this week. Please stop by and say hello!

 

Thank you to Lil Gluckstern (below) for bringing up the topic of Brett’s contribution to SHAKEN, which I am delighted to mention here:

One hundred percent of the royalties from this new collection of original stories will go directly to the 2011 JAPAN RELIEF FUND administered by the Japan America Society of Southern California. The 2011 Japan Relief Fund was created on March 11, 2011 to aid victims of the Great East Japan Earthquake and resulting tsunami waves. With the funds that have been raised so far, $750,000 has been committed to nonprofit organizations that are on the front lines of relief and recovery work in northeastern Japan.

This collection was born out of the writers’ concern for the people in the disaster zone. SHAKEN: STORIES FOR JAPAN is an attempt by writers to pool their talents to help people in need, as musicians and actors so often do.

The book contains original stories by Brett Battles, Cara Black, Vicki Doudera, Dianne Emley, Dale Furutani, Timothy Hallinan, Stefan Hammond, Rosemary Harris, Naomi Hirahara, Wendy Hornsby, Ken Kuhlken, Debbi Mack, Adrian McKinty, I.J. Parker, Gary Phillips, Hank Phillippi Ryan, Jeffrey Siger, Kelli Stanley, C.J. West, and Jeri Westerson. As a group, these authors have won every mystery award there is and sold hundreds of thousand of copies. They’re all working at the top of their games in this volume. SHAKEN; STORIES FROM JAPAN is art for heart’s sake, and the purchase price will help those who are struggling to repair, or at least soothe, these terrible losses.

Not all the stories are mysteries; the consensus was simply that all writers should submit something that touches on Japan. Linking the stories are haiku by the 17th-century master Basho, translated by Jane Reichhold, and Issa, translated by David Lanoue. Both translators donated their work, as did the cover designer, writer Gar Anthony Haywood, and the e-book producer, Kimberly Hitchens.

Looking Forwards and Backwards

Zoë Sharp

This is a very special year for me. This is the year that marks the tipping point in my life. I have now been making a living as a writer for longer than I have not.

More than half my life.

It hasn’t always been a smooth ride, but nothing worthwhile is ever easy and there are no medals for effort in this game.

But sustained effort is what we put into it, with the aim of appearing effortless on the page, no matter if the words have been sweated and slaved over, or dashed off in a single stream of consciousness before lunch.

(Sadly, I have yet to experience the latter state.)

All I ever wanted to be was a writer, even before I reached double figures. And even after I completed my first novel at the age of fifteen and it received ‘rave rejections’ from all and sundry, I never lost sight of that ambition.

It was another three years before I wrote my first paying article. A paltry sum, but real payment in exchange for words. It was a revelation that here might – just might – be something I could do. All the while, there was a character forming in the back of my mind. Not someone else’s experiences and shaping them with logic into a piece worth reading – or, more to the point, a piece worth being paid for – but my own story.

Still, the lure of commercial non-fiction was difficult to resist. One piece became ten, then a hundred, then a thousand. A living made, brick by brick, a skill acquired, a craft honed. From those first shaky steps on uncertain ground until, by the time I was twenty-two, I’d given up my ‘proper’ job and taken the next oh-my-God-what-have-I-done? step of being able to say, at last, “I am a writer” with no other visible means of support.

So today I’m looking both forwards and back, remembering the dreams I had when I was first starting out. It was a big exciting world and I felt as if it was at my feet. I had confidence and imagination. I was bursting with stories and characters until fragments fell out of my head and lay scattered around me so that I had trouble collecting them all up again. I still keep finding little scribbled notes for a hundred different ideas, a hundred different directions.

All I wanted was to tell those stories, speak for those characters. Or – better yet – to let those characters tell their own stories and speak for themselves. Words were both my workplace and playground. They were my refuge and my delight.

But those early rejections, however encouraging, were still rejections. My first novel was turned down, where my first serious attempt at the non-fiction market found four takers out of six. I was wary of taking another spin down that road. But it just wouldn’t leave me alone.

It took a long time to write my first crime novel. Years of stop-start work with a great many faith-slips and slides along the way. One step forwards and a great long slither back again. But eventually it was done.

And now, in the blink of an eye, it’s ten years later and I now I can say “I am an author” (subtly different from being a writer, I think) with nine published novels and a bevy of short stories under my belt. Sure, there are those who write faster. There are those who write slower. I can only judge myself against me.

But, looking back, I realise how lucky I am to have become what I wanted to be all those years ago. It would have been very easy to have been sidetracked into other things. Things I probably would have been happy doing in a lot of ways, but not deep down what I really WANTED to do. It is up to me, now, to make the most of it.

I have never been able to decide which is sadder in life. Having an ambition and never quite achieving it, or never having an ambition at all.

So, my questions to you today, dear ‘Rati, are several-fold: where are you now, in your career, in your life? Is it where you hoped to be when you started out? If it isn’t, what was the chain of circumstance that led to this point?

Where do you want to be?

And how to you plan to get there from here?

This week’s Word of the Week is lexis, a noun meaning the way in which a piece of writing is expressed in words, diction; the total stock of words in a language.

CrimeFest 2011 – Bristol Fashion

Zoë Sharp

If it’s May, then for crime fans in the UK, it’s time for CrimeFest in Bristol.

CrimeFest began with Left Coast Crime, which was held at the same venue, the Bristol Marriott, in 2006. (Well, Bristol is sort of the left coast of the UK, if you squint a bit…) The organisers, Adrian Muller and Myles Allfrey, had a sudden rush of blood to the head and decided to keep going. CrimeFest in 2008 was the result, and next year will be the event’s fifth birthday. 

One of the highlights of CrimeFest is the gala dinner on the Saturday night. Not because I particularly enjoy such rubber chicken-type formal meals, but because Adrian and Myles always manage to rope in a highly entertaining Toastmaster for the evening. Last time it was Gyles Brandreth, who is a far funnier man live than any of his television performances ever led me to believe. (That’s not supposed to damn with faint praise, by the way – he was an absolute riot as Toastmaster.) 

For this year it was originally going to be Don Winslow – one of my favourite authors – but when he was unable to attend, Christopher Brookmyre ably stepped up to the mic. This should give you an idea of how seriously he took the role.

I’ve been a fan of Chris Brookmyre for a while now, and even if you’re unaware of his work, his titles should hook you right in:

A TALE ETCHED IN BLOOD AND HARD BLACK PENCIL

ATTACK OF THE UNSINKABLE RUBBER DUCKS

ALL FUN AND GAMES UNTIL SOMBODY LOSES AN EYE

BOILING A FROG

A BIG BOY DID IT AND RAN AWAY

I mean, come on! How can you not love those?

Featured guest authors Linsdey Davis, Peter James and Deon Meyer also kept us smiling – particularly Deon’s description of real-life crime and inept criminals in his native South Africa.

[left to right – Myles Allfrey, Peter James, Lindsey Davis, Deon Meyer, Adrian Muller, Christopher Brookmyre in front]

Lindsey Davis was the recipient of this year’s CWA Cartier Diamond Dagger which made an appearance on the night, with Myles doing his burly security man bit. Not surprising – the diamond-encrusted dagger must be worth more than half the attending authors earn in a lifetime. 

Of course, even if you didn’t fancy the gala dinner, there were plenty of very interesting panels running from Thursday to Sunday, put together by the incredibly hard-working Donna Moore

My first one was on Thurs afternoon, when I was tasked with keeping Paul Johnston, Last Laugh Award-winning LC Tyler, Christopher Wakling and Anne Zouroudi in line while we discussed ‘Bringing Up Baby: Creating Believable Sleuths’.

As moderator, I asked each of them to come up with a brief intro that included one blatant untruth. This was to see just how believable they could be when making stuff up. Excellent, as it turned out. So convincing were they as liars that nobody in the audience actually got all four answers correct. In fact, only three people managed three out of four, so we picked a winner from those entries. Honestly, would you buy a second-hand car from any of this lot? 

[left to right – Paul Johnston, Christopher Wakling, LC Tyler, Anne Zouroudi, me]

And just in case you were wondering how you might have done, here are their intros. I’ll tell you the answers later, and there’ll be a copy of the latest Charlie Fox paperback, FOURTH DAY, to the winner:

Paul Johnston: ‘I’m Paul Johnston. My twelfth novel, THE NAMELESS DEAD, has just been published. I’ve been fortunate enough to win a literary and literally lethal dagger and an engraved piece of plastic for my fiction. I spend most of my time in Greece, was at school with Gordon Brown, lived on a small island for six years, and have chaired over 300 authors at book festivals. Oh, and I’m frightened of Zoë Sharp.

LC Tyler: ‘LC Tyler is the author of four Ethelred and Elsie “Herring” mysteries, the latest of which is HERRING ON THE NILE. He is now a full-time writer but has done all sorts of other things in the past.  Growing up in Southend he had holiday jobs selling ice-cream, working at Southend Airport and clearing mines from the beach. More recently he has been employed as a systems analyst, a cultural attaché and as Chief Executive of a medical royal college. He is an honorary paediatrician.’  

Chris Wakling: ‘Christopher Wakling worked as a litigation lawyer before turning to writing full time ten years ago. He can fly a plane, surf small waves standing up, and walk on his hands. THE DEVIL’S MASK is his fifth novel.’

Anne Zouroudi: ‘Anne Zouroudi was led into writing her series of novels featuring Hermes Diaktoros, the Greek Detective, after abandoning a lucrative career – which included a spell working on Wall Street – to become a fisherman’s wife on a tiny island in southern Greece.

‘Like many authors, she’s held down some interesting jobs to fund the writing habit, including donning a butcher’s apron to sell pork pies and sausages, playing a begowned extra in a BBC production of Jane Eyre, and picking mutant jelly babies from a conveyor belt in a sweet factory.’

The Friday night CrimeFest quiz, which took place across the road from the convention hotel in the Green House bar, was a disappointment from our point of view. Our makeshift team were aiming firmly for last place, but were nudged off bottom spot by a team who remarkably knew even fewer of the answers than we did. Over the last few years we have telegraphed our complete lack of general crime-related knowledge by our choice of team names – Northern Rock (a UK bank that took a spectacular nosedive), MPs on Expenses, BP Complaints’ Department, and this year’s effort, The IMF Equality Commission. As you can imagine, we were gutted by this result, and are determined to train less in order to avoid a repetition next time. Or, better still, we may retire altogether and allow someone else to hog the inglory of the lower end of the order ;-]

I was particularly looking forward to my Saturday panel – ‘The Grass Is Greener: Thrillers – UK vs US’ – for various reasons, not least of which was that I was not moderating it, so basically all I had to do was turn up! I was sitting alongside fellow Best British Barry Award nominee Charlie Charters, as well as Steel Dagger-winning Simon Conway, and Matt Hilton. Nick Sayers, publisher from Hodder & Stoughton, had the dubious honour of moderating proceedings, although his opening gambit of announcing that three out of the four authors on the panel were published by Hodder, so he felt he could control them, was a temptation to misbehave that I almost couldn’t resist …

[left to right Nick Sayers, Charlie Charters, Matt Hilton, Simon Conway, me]

I admit that I’m never sure how serious to be on such occasions, and I tend to go for the entertainment as much as the enlightenment angle. Do you have any preferences, either when you’re watching a panel, or taking part?

Of course, one of the reasons I like going to events like CrimeFest is it’s an excuse to drag out a frock and a pair of legs, not to mention other bits of me, and get poshed up. Anybody who thinks writers lead a glamorous life has never seen us answering the door to the postman at lunchtime in our jim-jams. So, it was nice to have the opportunity for ‘stunt dressing’. Was it our Alex who coined that term – great one.

[me and Deon Meyer – I’m the one on the left – taken by Ali Karim]

As always, we came home having spent the weekend talking our heads off to friends both old and new. Apart from the odd bombast in the bar, it was a great chance to catch up and recharge the creative batteries, even if we did need a lie-in on Monday morning …

So, ‘Rati, a few questions for you this week. What’s the best panel discussion you’ve seen at a convention? What’s the worst and why? (You don’t have to name names if you don’t want to.) And can you spot the lies my Believable Sleuths told?

This week’s Word of the Week is jugulate, which actually means to cut the throat of, or to check a disease or similar by drastic means.

And just to leave you groaning, how do you kill a circus performer?

Go for the juggler …