Category Archives: Zoë Sharp

The Bucket List

Zoë Sharp

When I read Dusty’s post from yesterday, about getting out of your own way and allowing your creativity to do what it really wanted to do, it struck a bit of a chord. I’d just been reading the latest issue of Bike magazine, which had a piece from world record-breaking professional traveller and adventurer, Nick Sanders, about ‘How To Jack It All In’. Nick listed the six most important factors as:

     Know what you want to do

     Life is about timing

     Embrace the unknown

     Simplify your life

     Recite five times a day…

          I don’t know anything

          I must listen to clever people

          I am confident this can be done

          I will never give up

          Tape on your handlebars (well, this is a motorcycle magazine) a quote from Albert Einstein: “I know quite certainly that I myself have no special talent; curiosity, obsession and dogged endurance, combined with self-criticism; have brought me to my ideas.”

     Change the way you think

And if you want to know the specifics, you’ll just have to read the mag, but it sounds simple, doesn’t it? Who among us hasn’t wanted to jack it all in and disappear?

My usual get-away-from-it-all dream involves boats. I was brought up on boats. I love the sea. I get all misty-eyed whenever I’m near it, and the sight of anyone setting out on a yacht makes me yearn to go with them. I was an astro-navigator back in the days before every man and his dog had a handheld GPS. My father recently gave me his sextant, which is something I shall treasure.

So, first on my bucket list (things to do before you kick the bucket, just in case anybody’s wondering) would be:

Sail in the British Virgin Islands

Arriving in strange places from the water is such a different experience to arriving by any other means, that the idea of exploring this fascinating group of islands by yacht has a very special appeal.

Ride a motorcycle around Iceland

Iceland is an amazing country, sparsely populated, and still wild and beautiful. Many of what are official roads are little more than unsurfaced flattened tracks across barren arctic desert. Sounds wonderful to me.

 

Visit Angkor Wat in Cambodia

Really, this should have come top of my list, because I’ve been fascinated by Angkor Wat ever since I first heard about it. An entire civilisation that disappeared back into the jungle. At its height in the 13th century, Angkor was the most extensive urban complex in the world.  Now, it’s the most stunning ruin.

Ride across the Rockies by train

This is something I’ve had a fancy to do since we were in Toronto for Bouchercon a few years ago, and saw the trains pulling out on their way to Vancouver. Of course, it’s the sort of trip you’d have to do in the best possible style…

Listen to real flamenco in Spain

As an indifferent classical guitarist in my youth, I loved the sound and colour and drama of flamenco. I’d love to go and experience the whole thing in its proper environment.

See the Northern Lights

There isn’t much else to say about this spectacular natural phenomenon, apart from the fact that it’s probably the closest we can get to seeing the kind of images that are being sent back by the Hubble space telescope, but from earth.

Then, of course, I also have a writing bucket list. That sounds strange, I know. After all, I am already a writer, but I write within the specific genre of crime thrillers, and although I thoroughly enjoy it, that doesn’t mean I don’t have hankerings to write other things as well.

Sci-fi

Not spaceships and aliens kind of sci-fi, particularly, but near-future stuff. The kind of stuff that takes the ‘what if’ of our everyday world, and goes with it just one step further into the unknown. I can see the way rules and regulations are going, with risk assessements and everybody afraid of liability and accepting responsibility, and I SO want to take a swipe at that.

Supernatural

No, I’m not talking vampires, or werewolves, but something that delves deeper into the human psyche. And I’ve no excuses for not getting on with this, really. I have an idea that I think would really fly, either as a novel or even a screenplay, but I just need the right shove to get on with it.

Historical

I love history. The turn of the last century, with the advent of the motor car, the aeroplane, and a world both opened up and torn apart by conflict and technological change. Or the Elizabethan period, with its intrigue and complex politics and betrayals. Or the lawless London docklands. It just cries out to be the backdrop to a novel, another larger-than-life character in its own right. So, what’s stopping me? Research, in a word. Now, I really enjoy research, but the prospect of having to check everything simply in order to get your protagonist out of bed in the morning and walk them down the street is a daunting one.

Graphic

Graphic novels have always been there, but recently they seem to have exploded in popularity, and the crossover of crime writers who are producing graphic novels has increased dramatically. I’d love to do it, but the truth is, I have no idea how to go about the process…

That’s it for my twin bucket lists, I think. Of course, as soon as I’ve posted this, loads more things will undoubtedly occur to me. So, what’s on your bucket list? And what’s on your writing bucket list, too?

This week’s Word of the Week is louche, meaning shady, sinister, shifty or disreputable.

Harbinger

Zoë Sharp

We British as a whole are very bad at the practice of blowing our own trumpet.

As a general rule, we’d rather apologise for being bad at something – take your pick of any sporting activity, from cricket to football (soccer) – than we would boast of our successes. Maybe we’ve had so few successes as a nation recently that we’re out of the habit. (See, there I go again…)

So, I’ve found this post very difficult to write.

You see, while I was at the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival a couple of weeks ago, I found out that the news is official.

The Charlie Fox series has been optioned by Twentieth Century Fox TV.

I heard the news in the bar (of course – this was a crime writing convention, where else would I be?) I was just introducing fellow author Russel D McLean to his American publisher, who I happened to know and he’d never met, when the publisher paused, looked at me and said, “Didn’t I just get an email about you – something about a movie deal?”

(Oh, and isn’t this a great picture of Russel, by the way? It was taken by the incredibly talented Mary Reagan, and really should be his official author photo.)

Of all the ways to find out the proverbial cat was out of the bag, that has to be one of the most unexpected. When fellow crime writerist and famous beardy person, Stuart MacBride, heard the news, he was dancing about with a huge grin on his face, while I admit I was just looking a bit nonplused.

Of course, since then I’ve had a bit of time to think about it, for the implications to settle in and, frankly, I’m still thinking… Wow.

Of course, apart from wandering round with an occasional big stupid cheesy grin on my face, I don’t quite know what to make of it. I’ve had emails from people – including all the ‘Rati crew, of course – wishing me congrats, but the Brit in me feels compelled to point out that it’s only half an inch up towards the first rung on the ladder. There’s a hell of a long way to go from page to screen, as I’m sure many a previously optioned author will testify. (You see? I just can’t help myself.)

But for the moment, I can allow myself the odd little daydream, the most immediate of which (apart from wondering what it was they saw in my series that made them option it in the first place, and what elements might make it through to the final phase) is who would play the characters. I know, I know, it’s sad, but what author hasn’t done it?

The dream, of course, is to have a relative unknown, like Noomi Rapace who played Lisabeth Salander in Stieg Larsson’s original Millennium trilogy. But who will take the role in next year’s remake, considering Daniel Craig has already been cast as Mikael Blomkvist? If it’s a big name, they’ll bring a big slice of their own personality to the part. Does the character gain or lose from that?

The problem for me is, that because Charlie Fox is a first-person character, I never get a good look at her. She’s not the kind of girl who spends a long time staring into mirrors, and the only time she’s looking at reflections in shop windows is doing counter-surveillance routines.

Now, Sean I have a much clearer picture of. Probably something like the Sam Worthington character in ‘Terminator Salvation’.

Charlie’s fallen-from-grace slightly cold orthopedic surgeon father? Well, how about somebody like Michael Kitchen, although minus the hat.

And Charlie’s boss, Parker Armstrong? In my world, Mark Harmon would be a distinct possibility.

And yes, I know there isn’t a cat in hell’s chance of any of this fantasy cast becoming a reality, but I can dream, can’t I?

My problem is that Charlie is very close to me, which is a problem when it comes to me picturing her as somebody else – or somebody else as her. Fellow crime author Meg Gardiner once described one of her lead protagonists as “me with the brakes off” and that probably about sums it up. Only, to that I’d add “me with the brakes off, fighting mad and heading for timber” as well.

So, I’m open to suggestions. Help! How do you see her? Or any of the characters? Or any characters in your own or your favourite books, that have or haven’t made it to screen yet? Did the actor playing the part fit your idea, or ruin it for you?

This week’s Phrase of the Week is letting the cat out of the bag, meaning to reveal a secret. It stems from medieval markets where an unsuspecting buyer was often shown a suckling piglet, but while negotiations were taking place on the price, and the piglet was being bagged up for the journey home, an accomplice would often substitute it for a cat instead. The duped buyer would only discover this when he got home and, quite literally, let the cat out of the bag.

Time and Space

Zoë Sharp

I have always viewed myself not as an artist, but a craftsman.

I take an enormous amount of care over my work, and yes, pride in it. I’m constantly striving to improve and hone what I do, but the word ‘artist’ always conjures up images of ego and eccentricity. I just can’t take myself that seriously.

I can never forget that I am asking people to buy into a myth, a dream, a jumble of thoughts and ideas that have been tumbling around inside my head, and have finally made it out in some semblance of order onto the page.

The fact that anyone wants to read them often frankly astounds me.

And yet, I had an email from someone recently who told me that she cried while reading the ending of FOURTH DAY. Having that happen at all is pretty humbling for a writer, to be honest. But the fact she cried while reading the book in the airport is even more so.

The power of words on a page, in a public place with all the distraction that entails, actually reduced someone to tears.

Other people’s books make me cry, I admit. And soppy movies, and heroic rescues, and onions. But writing doesn’t.

Having said that, to write dark emotional scenes, I need a dark and emotional atmosphere. I find it much easier, for some reason, to write in the winter, with just a desk lamp providing a pool of light around my keyboard and screen, and moody broody music playing in the background. The volume has to be right, though. If it’s too loud I just listen to the music. What I want is for it to manipulate my feelings on an almost subconscious level.

I’ve written on planes, ferries and automobiles. Not so much on trains, but that’s only because I do find it off-putting having the stranger sitting next to me reading over my shoulder. Same goes for planes. I’m fine if Andy’s next to me, but I struggle if I’m in the centre of a row. Of course, I don’t have that problem at all if I’m in the comfy seats up front, which sounds like a damn good reason to upgrade right there!

I write in the car – a LOT. Maybe this is because we spend a lot of time on the road, but making notes on sheets of scrap paper on a clipboard while we’re motoring along is often my most productive time. I once wrote an entire short story on a car journey to a bookstore event. And while I can hear some lip-curling comments being muttered about the quality of something dashed off in such a fashion, can I just say that story was long listed for a prestigious award and turned into a short film?

I write in doctor’s waiting rooms, even in hospital, in hotel rooms, in friends’ kitchens while everyone else is sleeping during a weekend visit. If I have a pencil, and paper, and enough light to see one joining the other, and I’m awake, I write.

I write at my desk both early in the morning and late at night, often on the same day, which can be a bit of a problem, even though I’ve known for years that sleep is very overrated. Sometimes I write until I start producing utter gibberish because I’m nodding off at my computer. Often when I open the file up the following day, the final paragraph from the day before needs a lot of tweaking because of this. In fact, on Tuesday I found I’d managed to insert half a dozen completely extraneous words into a sentence – correctly typed but utterly meaningless. Thank goodness for the delete key…

But, the long and the short of it is, I don’t care where I write. The writing is the thing. If I had to wait for the perfect moment, I’d still be working on my first novel.

The perfect moment, like tomorrow, never comes.

I was at the Bodies in the Bookshop event at Heffers bookstore in Cambridge last week – with fellow ‘Rati, JT Ellison, as it happened – and found myself buttonholed by a successful writer for whom the perfect moment was something of a necessity.

He could only write, he told me, in a cabin in the wilds, miles from anywhere, with no phones or anything else to take away from the prose.

And I know there are going to be those who would wholeheartedly agree with him. To create, they require a level of tranquillity and isolation not available in their normal surroundings. So, they borrow friend’s beach houses, or go on writers’ retreats.

Equally, there are others who regularly go and sit in noisy, crowded cafés and quite happily lose themselves among the places and people they’re creating. And, in some ways, I can’t help thinking that if the story is strong enough to suck you in to the exclusion of all else while you’re writing it, then surely it will suck you in while you’re reading it, too?

I know it’s a constant refrain of mine that there are as many different methods of writing as there are writers. There is no wrong way to do it, providing you get the words on the page. You can do it one word at a time while bungee jumping from the landing if it gets the job done. But which method do you favour?

And are you one of these readers who gets emotionally invested in the book you’re reading? Have you ever cried in an airport at the ending of a book?

This week’s Phrase of the Week is having your leg pulled meaning to be on the receiving end of a deception or joke. It’s thought to originate from a Scottish rhyme of the 1860s, in which old Aunt Meg was hanged and the preacher pulled on her legs to ensure she died quickly and without too much pain. Aunt Meg was probably innocent of the crime for which she was hanged, but was known to have been the victim of much deception and trickery, for which having her leg pulled was the result.

I’m off to the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival at Harrogate today, so please excuse erratic response to comments, but I’ll get there eventually!

All The Right Noises

Zoë Sharp

I’m feeling a bit glum at the moment. Daft, really, because I’ve no right to be.

Last week we came back from a mini-tour in the States for the US publication of KILLER INSTINCT from Busted Flush Press. It was a fun trip. We got to see some old friends, and spend a little time with fellow ‘Rati blogger JT Ellison – who came to the airport in Nashville just for coffee and a chat while we waited for our connection. How cool is that?

And we got to spend a lot more time with Toni McGee Causey and her highly entertaining husband, Carl, being given the tour of New Orleans that the tourists really don’t get to see, including the most amazing vehicle graveyard I’ve ever come across…

…And a bunch of black locusts that were huge and somewhat scary.

Carl also gave Andy his first taste of firing long guns during an afternoon at the local gun range – where, it must be said, a not inconsiderable amount of ammunition was expended.

In New York, it was great to have the chance to hang out with Lee Child and his web guru, Maggie Griffin. It was Maggie who very kindly told me about the terrific review for KILLER INSTINCT in last weekend’s New York Times. Hurrah!

Although I signed a lot of stock for Busted Flush while we were over there, I didn’t do a huge tour of bookstores. The ones I did visit gave us a very warm welcome, though, and it was lovely to make a return to the Velma Teague Branch Library in Glendale AZ, where I kicked off their Authors at The Teague program three years ago. I even managed to get my commemorative mug home in one piece! (And I’m drinking tea from it as I write this.)

Andy and I spent a day driving round Long Island, chancing upon a little diner, Joni’s, which we later discovered was recommended as one of the best casual places to eat in Montauk. I explored the beach area around the lighthouse at Montauk Point and found that one of the vital scenes for the next Charlie Fox book will indeed work if I set it there. In fact, the lack of large areas of open sandy beach make it work out better than I’d actually planned. I even got all arty with stones.

Yeah, all-in-all, it was a fun trip.

And now we’re back, the work’s coming in, I’ve managed to dive straight into the new book and seem to be making reasonable progress, the UK weather’s behaving almost like summer (meaning they’ve announced the first hosepipe bans) and, stunningly enough, while we were away the local rabbit population did not treat our newly planted flowerbed as an all-you-can-eat buffet.

So, why am I feeling a bit flat? Maybe it’s got something to do with the chest infection I picked up somewhere on the journey. Don’t you just love a double dose of nine-and-a-half hours of recycled aeroplane air? I’m wheezing and coughing and haven’t had an uninterrupted night’s sleep since we got back. (And, by the same token, neither has poor Andy!)

My own brilliantly plainspoken doctor is on holiday, but his stand-in told me on Monday “it’s a virus” which I suspect is medicine-man-speak for “we don’t know – go away” or something very similar.

So, I’m willing to accept any and all suggestions for pick-me-up remedies that you might have. In fact, I’m in need of them! Even just feel-good suggestions with no basis in medical fact. Just please bear in mind that I can’t have alcohol, or things will go downhill rapidly. (I know, I know, my inability to drink ought, by that fact alone, to preclude me from being a crime writer…)

This week’s Phrase of the Week is tarred with the same brush, which means to be part of a group sometimes unfairly regarded as all having the same faults and weaknesses. It comes from the farming practice of treating the sores of a flock of sheep. The sores were coated by a brush dipped in tar. The same brush would be used on all the infected animals, but never on a healthy one for fear of passing the infection on. Hence all infected sheep were tarred with the same brush. The mother of a friend of mine used to get this one somewhat muddled, and would often come out with this much-improved variation: “They’re all daubed with the same stick.”

On The Road Again (not as Brett Battles)

Zoë Sharp

The more observant among you will have noticed, of course, that I am not Brett Battles. I realise that this may come as a huge disappointment to some of you. (After all, he’s a one-of-a-kind type of guy.)

And, being such, Brett has very kindly allowed me to trade places with him for this week’s ‘Rati blog. I leave for a mini-tour of the States on Monday morning, and will be all over the place for the next 11 days. Although posting a blog here wouldn’t be too difficult, getting to comments might prove more tricky. So, I’ll leave you in Brett’s more-than-capable hands while I’m away.

 

And this pic has nothing to do with Brett, just in case you were wondering. It’s just a lovely one of one of the more unusual fixtures in the Murder on The Beach bookstore in Delray Beach, which I took last time I was there.

Andy and I have always enjoyed travelling. Good job, too, because one way or another we do a lot of it. Packing and repacking for work trips is a common thing, to the point where we usually only start throwing stuff into bags the night before we go.

We see a lot of cool sights – mainly from aeroplanes, with a wing in the foreground. Like this shot of Mount Rainier, for instance.

We’ve packed for some weird trips, including one taken in March a few years ago that incorporated both the snowy heights of New Hampshire and the heat of Daytona Beach. It’s the only time I’ve ever taken a (fake) fur hat to Florida.

Travelling has definitely got harder these days, and one of the most important things we’ve had to do because we’re flying from the UK, is fill in our Electronic System for Travel Authorisation (ESTA), as well as the usual Customs and Immigration forms. The difference with the ESTA is that we have to do it on-line, well in advance of when we travel, just to make sure we’re going to be allowed in. I have no idea what would happen if we turned up at Arrivals in Houston without having completed it, but I foresee a long wait at the airport and then a somewhat miserable flight home.

This trip started out as a quick visit to Houston to see Busted Flush Press, who are bringing out all the early Charlie Fox books which have never been published in the States before. The very first of these, KILLER INSTINCT, is already out, and the others are planned at short intervals thereafter.

If you’ll forgive a quick itinerary:

I’ll also be calling in to sign stock at Partners & Crime in NYC, as well as flying south to New Orleans to meet up with fellow ‘Rati, Toni McGee Causey, and spend a couple of days mooching round that fascinating city. She’s also promised that she and Carl will take us out to shoot some cool stuff.

(When someone sends me an email that says, ‘Come stay,’ and then goes on immediately afterwards to list a selection of the firearms they have available, I know we’re going to get along brilliantly…)

I’m thrilled to little pieces about doing a signing with Lee in NYC, as he’s done a wonderful foreword for the Busted Flush edition of KILLER INSTINCT, for which I am HUGELY grateful. He also generously did an intro for me when I last signed in NYC, for the publication of SECOND SHOT, and here we are at Partners & Crime back then. (Damn, I’m probably going to wear the same jacket again this time – it’s my favourite.)

Besides the ESTA, the other thing we’ve had to do before we go is go out and buy shampoo, toothpaste, etc, in teeny-weeny containers. Our existing (UK) travel toothpaste is too big to pass current regulations, as is our shampoo, conditioner, mouthwash, etc.

We’re intending to do all the internal legs of this trip entirely with carryon bags, which speeds up getting through airports and saves stuff getting lost or mis-routed. There are one or two drawbacks to this, however, of which the whole size-of-liquid-containers is one of them.

The other is that I will be unable to take my beloved Swiss Army knife with me. It’s not just that I happen to find it extremely useful to carry a knife at all times, but also that it has scissors, tweezers, a nail file, and tiny screwdriver that’s just right for repairing glasses. Still, it has to stay at home. <sigh>

Another must for this trip will be our Avon Skin So Soft. Not because we particularly want delicate, fragrant skin, but because it’s the most effective insect repellent we’ve ever tried – and particularly that it doesn’t say in small print somewhere on the container “avoid contact with exposed skin at all costs” I guess we’ll be decanting that into a smaller bottle for this trip…

Ear defenders are another travel essential for us, as they really cut down the drone on planes, and help make the dreadful sound systems bearable if you do want to watch the in-flight movie, by cutting out some of the more raucous higher frequencies.

As with previous trips, I’ll be typing out a detailed itinerary, with all the names, phone numbers, email contacts, times and addresses. I’ll also make a careful note of time zone changes, as I nearly got caught out last time around by unexpectedly losing an additional hour driving across Indiana, which meant I turned up for an event at Jim Huang’s The Mystery Company in Carmel with about three minutes to spare, instead of comfortably early!

Then I’ll be printing out two copies, which will be kept in different bags, just in case!

I like the irony of this pic, by the way, which shows a rainbow dropping down neatly onto the Golden Arches…

As soon as we land in the States, we’ll be stopping off at the nearest shopping mall to buy a  Pay-As-You-Go cellphone. Calling to or from a UK cellphone in the States is wildly expensive, so we’ve found previously that it’s much easier to just get a cheapie PAYG and dump it when we’re done. I’ll still be taking my phone, though, because it’s got navigation built in, and that saves lugging road maps for half a dozen different states with us.

 

On the luggage front, packing clever is our aim. We always take those roll-up vacuum bags, so we can squash all our laundry into them as we go, which not only keeps it separate from the clean stuff, but takes up much less room.

We usually stop off and do laundry halfway through a trip anyway, which means we can take much less clothing, but also means we have to take colourfast stuff that can quite happily be thrown into a washing machine all together. I seem to remember Andy once left a bottle of sun cream in his pocket before one trip to the laundrette, but fortunately the top stayed firmly attached, and it came out sparkling.

Oh, and pens. I’ll be taking LOTS of pens.

 

That’s about it, but if you have any travel tips for me, I’d LOVE to hear them. (In fact, I probably NEED to hear them.) And, of course, if you can make it to any of the events, please come along and say hi.

This week’s Word of the Week is gad, which not only is a minced form of God, as in gadzooks, but also means a miner’s wedge or chisel, a metal spike or pointed bar, a spear, an engraver’s stylus, a goad (which is a dialect word for the bar across a Scottish condemned cell, on which the iron ring ran to fasten the shackles, and also to wander about, often restlessly, idly, or in the pursuit of pleasure, to straggle or to rush here and there in a wayward uncontrolled manner. So, that last bit probably sums up nicely what we’ll be doing.

Where Will It End?

Zoë Sharp

I’ve been sitting here for a couple of hours now, staring at a blank open document, wondering how to begin. My problem is not that I don’t know what to write (see Rob’s ‘Rati blog from yesterday) but more that I’m not sure how best to tackle the subject.

Anyone who’s seen the news over the past week will be aware of the events in my home county of Cumbria. For those who aren’t familiar with the details, last Wednesday morning a fifty-two-year-old cab driver called Derrick Bird walked out of his cottage, armed with a .22 rifle and a shotgun, climbed into his car and went on what’s best described as a rampage, shooting dead twelve people and injuring a further eleven before finally crashing his car and taking his own life.

It’s shocking, yes. Answers are being sought, but I fear that none will be found. People are asking what could have been done to prevent such a thing occurring, and it’s not very reassuring for anyone to think that events of this nature – awful though they are – are impossible to predict and prevent. There will always be the quiet man who suddenly snaps, without warning.

The day after the killings last week, I received an email out of the blue from BBC radio, asking me to write a short essay on Derrick Bird’s actions from a crime writer’s perspective, which I duly did. I mentioned the piece in the blog on my own website last week, and I understand the recording also went out on the World Service.

In it, I made that point that although it may be difficult for people personally touched by this tragedy to understand why anyone would want to read about fictional crimes in the name of entertainment, they do. Crime novels are a constant feature of the best-seller lists, and the category most-borrowed from UK libraries. They provide order and closure and answers where in reality none exists. A form of escapist comfort that there is a world people can retreat into where justice will prevail.

If you’re robbed or mugged in real life, for example, the reality of the situation is that the police are probably not going to catch the people who did it. Even if they do, the perps are most likely going to get off with community service, and you’re never going to see your belongings again. You’re going to become a victim twice over, because the fear of crime is often so much greater than the risk.

But we are a crime-writing community. We don’t just write about crime, but we talk about crime, think, eat, sleep and frequently dream about crime. That does not mean that any of us are going to go out and actually commit a crime. There are limits to how far even a method writer will go in search of authenticity in their work.

And we certainly do not expect any of our readers to be suddenly turned into monsters, just from reading something in a book. As writers of books that touch on sometimes horrific subjects, we offer vicarious thrills, like a rollercoaster ride. Readers know they’re going to be scared, but also that nothing bad will happen to them, and they can get off at the end.

But that hasn’t always been the case. In the early days of rollercoasters, fatal accidents frequently occurred. And, when they did, people flocked to try their luck, just as they flock now to the scene of such dreadful events, with an almost mawkish desire to be seen at the scene. One radio journalist I spoke to said he interviewed several teenage witnesses to Derrick Bird’s crimes whose testimony he could not use. “They sounded too excited,” he said sadly, shaking his head. “That won’t last, of course.”

And it has now emerged that the night before the massacre, Derrick Bird apparently watched a Steven Seagal movie, ‘On Deadly Ground’, and parallels are being drawn that this somehow inspired him to act. Yes, there have been studies done on the link between violent movies and computer games and violent crimes, but I feel the underlying tendencies must surely have been there already. I have to own up to a guilty pleasure – I happen to like several of Steven Seagal’s movies, but I’ve never had any desire to run amok on a battleship.

The day after the news broke, I received an email cancelling several library events I had in the area. They were due to be part of Cumbria Libraries’ ‘Midsummer Murders’ series. I can understand the reasoning perfectly, because now you look at it, the name does make you wince. But although one of the events was scheduled for the little library in Seascale, which is one of the directly affected towns, others were spread out across the far side of the county – the third largest in the UK, incidentally, at 2613 sq miles. Cancelling rather than postponing all crime-writing events throughout Cumbria seems a little harsh.

Fellow Cumbrian crime writer, award-nominated Diane Janes, was due to have her new book, THE PULL OF THE MOON, discussed on Lakeland Radio today, as it had been selected as the June choice of the Big Read Book Club. Two days ago, the book was pulled as the book of the month, citing the tragic events as cause, and particularly as the funeral of the first of the victims was this morning. Diane is understandably upset by this, as her book has nothing to do with guns, massacres, or even Cumbria, and Lakeland Radio covers the south rather than the west of the county.

Of course, nobody wants to cause unnecessary grief or trauma to the victims or their families. That goes without saying. And if relatives of the victims live in the catchment area of the radio station, it would be dreadful if they heard talk of crime as entertainment and were upset by it. But I worry how far this will go, from proper sensitivity into political correctness, and then on into censorship.

What are your thoughts on this, ‘Rati?

This week’s Word of the Week is meretricious, meaning of the nature of or relating to prostitution; characteristic or worthy of a prostitute; flashy or gaudy. From the Latin meretrix, a prostitute, from merere, to earn.

Cross Enough To Spit

Zoë Sharp

This is not the blog I was intending to write this week. In fact, it’s not the blog I’d already written.

But I’m so angry I could spit.

It’s not the kind of anger where steam comes out of your ears and the blood vessels in your eyes burst and the cords in your neck stand out, and you can stride about and break china while raging at the world.

It’s a small, pointless, useless kind of anger. The kind that burns you up inside so cold and fierce it makes your hands ache.

You see, I’m angry over something stupid. Something that is done and out there and I can do nothing about.

A simple mistake on somebody else’s part, that probably seems little more than a minor slip-up to them. The kind of everyday error that will be forgotten in the time it takes to drink half a cup of coffee, take a phone call, have a smoke break.

But I’m a crime writer. I deal in the what if. And, in this case, I deal in the what did as well.

Yesterday, I arrived home to find waiting for me a copy of one of the magazines I photograph for – and you’ll excuse me if I don’t tell you which one. At first, I was delighted. I’ve clocked up another front cover. All kudos. Lovely.

Then I had a leaf through and found an advert for a company involved in one of the photoshoots. The advertising department had previously phoned to ask if they could use one of the photos I’d taken in the advert. As always, I said yes, but asked if it would be possible to have a photo credit. ‘Photo by…’ or maybe ‘Photo courtesy of…’ and my name.

Nothing else. I don’t have a website for the photography. When I first started doing it, such things did not exist, and since then I’ve never needed one. Editors in the field know my work. If new ones want examples, they can take a walk through a newsagents and they’ll find plenty.

This advert had my name on it, in small print below the picture. So far, so good.

In much larger print across the bottom, it also had my work email address. Still no problem, although I didn’t ask for it. I only tend to do magazine shoots, or favours for friends, so I don’t really need for people who don’t know me to get in touch.

It also had my mobile number, which started me getting a bit twitchy, but the final straw was my home telephone number. And, just in case anyone didn’t fully appreciate that fact, it had a helpful (h) after it.

Now, there will be many of you who are sitting there at this moment, going, “So what?” And, to be honest, that’s what the person in the advertising department was clearly thinking when I called to point out their mistake. Particularly as the biggest cock-up – as far as they were concerned – was the fact that they’d managed to include all my details, but no contact information at all for the company whose services they were actually supposed to be advertising, who will rightly feel slightly miffed about the whole thing.

I’ve probably bored you all before with the story of the incident that kick-started my interest in self-defence as well as my career in crime writing. But for those of you who don’t know, many years ago, when I was working freelance for a motoring magazine, I went out to do an interview with a guy who was supposed to own an interesting collection of cars. When I arrived at his house, he seemed very surprised that my Other Half, Andy was with me.

And the collection of cars did not actually exist.

That was not long after a real estate agent called Suzy Lamplugh had gone to show a mystery client around an unoccupied house. She was never seen again.

And I began to wonder what would have happened if I’d turned up alone to do that interview, alone. What was this guy planning to do then?

Shortly afterwards, the death-threat letters began. Whenever my photograph appeared alongside my regular monthly column in the magazine, the letters arrived. Cut out of newspaper like a ransom note, calling me female filth, scum, telling me my days were numbered.

Telling me they knew where I lived.

The police never pinned down who was sending them, and eventually they petered out without my poisoned-pen pal ever making good on his – or her – threats.

But it made me careful, wary. I had a mobile phone long before it was the norm, so I couldn’t be tracked via my land-line number to the village where I was living at the time. I opened up a PO Box address in the nearest large town, so I could receive mail without it coming to my home address, and printed only that and the mobile on my business cards.

And, of course, I learned a LOT of self-defence.

I was reminded of this when I was at the CrimeFest convention in Bristol last weekend, because I did a short self-defence demonstration for one of the In The Spotlight slots on Saturday morning. Aussie author Helen Fitzgerald ably volunteered to be my crash-test dummy, and together we showed the standing-room only audience how to avoid being stabbed or strangled.

But the best form of self-defence, I told the crowd, was not to be there in the first place. Not to put yourself in a position where you needed it.

Not to have your home telephone number published in a magazine.

But how do you explain all this to someone for whom it’s no more than a little slip-up that will be forgotten by lunchtime, and not carried home with them at the end of the day?

So, am I overreacting? Have you ever had a minor incident that shook you up even though, technically, nothing happened? Or do you see people taking risks with their personal safety, oblivious?

What makes you angry in a small way?

This week’s Word of the Week is chapfallen (or chopfallen), which means ‘dropped jaw’ from chap or chop (jaw or jowls), hence depressed, crestfallen, dispirited. It dates back to the 16th century; today we associate jaw-dropping with surprise rather than sadness.

Tracking The Changes

by Zoë Sharp

Do you remember those Larson Far Side cartoons you could get – and probably still can, for that matter? The ones with the kid at the back of the classroom, holding up his hand and saying to the teacher, “Please sir, may I be excused? My brain is full.”

That’s me at the moment.

Or, more likely, that my brain is completely empty. It has all leached out of my ears like something from a Tarantino-directed episode of C.S.I.

 

I’ve been tackling rewrites.

I have a kind of love/hate relationship with rewrites. In some ways I love them because I know that what comes out of the other end of this process will be much better than the raw material that went in. Everything benefits from editing. I’m sure you will agree that there are currently a lot of books out there on the shelves that would have benefited from quite a bit more of it than they eventually received.

And in other ways, I hate rewrites because I’d much rather get something right the first time than have to go back and fiddle with it later. I rewrite while I’m still writing. I go back and sweat and worry and adjust and realign as I’m working on my first draft, with the aim that by the time I’ve finished, it shouldn’t need totally rewriting in order to make a reasonable book.

(Please note I said “shouldn’t,” rather than “doesn’t”, though.)

But, inevitably, when someone reads the book with a detailed and critical eye, they’re going to bring up points you missed, discover plot-holes you could lose a family car into, and ask questions you either forgot to answer, or have no clue what the answer should be even if you’d remembered.

I know there is no set method for writing a novel, no ultimate textbook. The best you can hope for is anecdotal evidence of things that might have worked for somebody else, somewhere else, at some other time.

 So, here’s some more, for what they might be worth!

When I received my rewrites for the next Charlie Fox novel, they arrived in the from of a two-page report of general points about the story. This, I’m told by my editor, is surprisingly short – some of the ones she does can run for page after page. She tells me the book is in remarkably good shape, with no structural problems – it’s just a case of expanding on certain elements and improving others.

I come away from the meeting feeling a teensy bit smug.

The rest of the comments, typos or other alterations arrive as a Track Changes document in Word. Confession time – I don’t write in Microsoft Word. I have it on my computer, and I know roughly how it works, but I’m still using Lotus Word Pro, and have been ever since I dragged myself into the latter half of the twentieth century and finally junked my old DOS-based word processing package.

And despite her encouraging remarks, when I open up the document I find she’s made 141 actual comments in the text, as well as numerous small corrections or alterations.

Gulp.

The smug feeling evaporates rapidly.

My first move is dictated by my workload in other directions. Shortly after getting the rewrites back, we leave for a week-long 1250-mile work trip that takes us from the East Midlands way up into the north of Scotland. Although I can manage to work on the laptop in the car, I’m finding that I suffer from car-sickness much more easily than I used to, and I’m now restricted to motorways only. (And when I’m in the passenger seat only!) Unfortunately, there are not many motorways in the far north of Scotland. (Did see a beautiful eagle, though, which if I’d had my eyes on a computer screen I would have missed, so every cloud…)

I take my summary of the book with me, which runs to 34 pages, broken down into chapters, with the time-break between each chapter clearly marked. I read through the comments whenever I have a spare moment on the trip, writing down the changes I need to make as notes alongside each chapter in the summary.

One of these changes involves inserting a definite timeline for events of the plot. I work this out carefully using the time-breaks I’ve recorded on the summary, and get Andy – whose mathematical abilities far outstrip my own – to check it. I have not forgotten that, left to my own devices, I managed to have a nine-day week in THIRD STRIKE. Fortunately, that error was caught in time by an eagle-eyed copyeditor.

By the time we get home, the summary is three-quarters covered in pencilled scrawl, and I think I’ve addressed all the points my editor has raised, even if it’s only to double-check my facts when it comes to kidnap negotiation techniques and assure her that they’re correct!

Now things get probably more awkward than they need to be. I sit at home with a flatscreen hooked up to my laptop, with the Track Changes document open in Word on one screen, and My Original open in Word Pro on the other. I toggle between the two, making alterations on the MO doc, and deleting the comments on the TC doc as I’ve dealt with them. I know, I know, there are probably hundreds of easier ways of doing this, but I need a certain amount of separation or my head implodes.

As a first pass, I correct minor errors and typos. That gets rid of all the red bits of underlining and about twenty comments. Then I start on the more serious changes, ticking them off the summary and deleting them from the TC doc as I go.

Where I’m thinking about making a change, but I’m not completely convinced about it, I leave myself a mark in the text I can search on later. For ease this is usually just an asterisk or a dollar sign. For instance, my editor suggested that a couple of the peripheral characters might be too unsympathetic and I should think about softening them up a little. As I came across areas of the narrative where there was the opportunity to do this, I left myself marks I could come back to. In the end, I decided to modify one character, but leave the other as moody as I’d originally envisaged him. I only put the rewrites in today, so time will tell if she feels this works or not!

As with any method (I assume) there’s still a fair amount of to-ing and fro-ing up and down the typescript, but I’ve found this more or less works for me.

Of course, if anyone has any better suggestions, I’m all ears…

This week’s Word of the Week is scrivener’s palsy, which, quite simply, is the olde worlde name for writer’s cramp.

I’m all over the place today (another long work trip – but lots of writing time in the car!) so please excuse me if I’m a little erratic at answering comments, but I’ll get there…

New Light Through Old Windows

by Zoë Sharp

I find myself in a weird situation this week. I hope you’ll forgive a touch of BSP, but I have two Charlie Fox books coming out within a few days of each other – one old and one new – and it’s made me view the whole series in a new light. I look at where I started, and where I am now, and think about the journey that has taken Charlie from there to here.

In KILLER INSTINCT, which comes out in a spanking new trade paperback edition from Busted Flush Press around May 1st, my heroine is a very different person from the one she later becomes. By that, I don’t mean that she’s undergone any kind of radical personality changes in the subsequent books. The underlying traits and abilities were always there, but softer, more hesitant. Charlie still gets into physical altercations with people, but she probably agonises more before beating the crap out of them. In one scene of KILLER INSTINCT, for example, she is forced to dislocate someone’s shoulder in order to avoid being glassed in the face during a fight in a nightclub. She really doesn’t like the idea, but recognises she has little choice.

During that period of her life, she was certainly younger and more naive, still on her way back from being a victim and with her new-found resolve never to be put in the same position again untested. This is the book that joins Charlie at the start of her road back. It marks a turning point in her life, where she discovers the best and the worst of herself.

I don’t remember making a conscious decision to make Charlie into a killer, albeit one who stayed within the law. Violence comes easy to her, but that very fact unsettles her. It’s something of an unwanted talent. Only later does she realise that she needs an outlet for it that isn’t going to land her in prison for the rest of her life.

In KILLER INSTINCT, Charlie is making best use of those talents by teaching self-defence to local women in the northern English city where she went to ground after her disastrous ejection from the army. She stresses that the skills she’s imparting are to avoid or deal with trouble, not to go out and start a fight. But, almost inevitably, her abilities come to the attention of a man who is stalking, raping and killing women, and soon she finds herself the target rather than the teacher.

Even as I was writing the book, I had a feeling that this career was never going to fulfil someone like Charlie, and I knew almost from the start that I was going to take her towards a career in close protection. In some ways, the first few books in the series are the back story to her professional and personal life. It’s interesting to me that the American publisher picked up the series with FIRST DROP, which not only charted Charlie’s first visit to the States, but also her first proper professional job as a bodyguard.

Since then, of course, Charlie’s been through the grinder numerous times. She’s been shot, run down, beaten, TASERed and tortured, but that shouldn’t give you the impression she’s some kind of superwoman who leaps tall buildings with one mighty bound. She suffers just like anybody else, often carrying injuries – both physical and emotional – from one story to the next.

In FOURTH DAY, which comes out in the UK from Allison & Busby on May 6th, (but, sadly, not until next year in the States) Charlie is facing her most testing challenge. Infiltrating a possibly deadly cult in California, she has reached a crisis point in her life. By exposing herself to such danger, she is looking not only for answers about who and what she is, but also for redemption. As well as trying to halt the countdown to a massacre of innocents, which sees Charlie and her lover, Sean, fighting on opposite sides.

FOURTH DAY still finds Charlie living and working in the States, but still viewing the place as a slight outsider, a foreigner in a strange land. And, for the first time, she feels very isolated there, still reeling from the events of THIRD STRIKE, and unable to find a connection with the people who should be closest to her, she turns to a stranger instead. One who could have sinister reasons for wanting to harness her lethal abilities.

FOURTH DAY was an intense but satisfying book to write, and looking back at KILLER INSTINCT at the same time seems to highlight the changes in the character that have taken place in the intervening years. But I do hope that anyone going back to Charlie’s earlier life for the first time will still find her just as appealing.

So, ‘Rati. If you’re a writer with a few books under your belt, how do you feel when you look back at your first work with the benefit of hindsight? Does it still stand up to scrutiny? And do you think a series character should change and grow as the series goes on, or stay the same? How important is it to read series books in order?

NB. On Tuesday, May 4th, I will be hosting an evening discussion in the Brewery Books series at the Brewery Arts Centre in Kendal, Cumbria. The book in question is Lee Child’s latest Reacher thriller, 61 HOURS. I am thrilled to be doing this (if you’ll forgive the pun) as Lee was gracious enough to do a terrific Foreword for KILLER INSTINCT.

This week’s Word of the Week is mascaron, which is a grotesque face on a keystone or door-knocker, used as an architectural ornament. The origin is unclear, but it’s thought to be connected in some way with the Low Latin mascus, masca, a ghost, and with Arabic maskharah, a jester or man in masquerade.

In and Out of Shadow

by Zoë Sharp

As a photographer, shadows interest me, but as a writer, they fascinate me. Darkness has a tendency to be absolute, but shadows are open to such interpretation according to mood. Take this picture, for instance, which I took a couple of years ago. It’s of a giant (well 66ft high with a 178ft wingspan) contemporary sculpture by Anthony Gormley called The Angel of the North, just on the outskirts of Tyneside in the north-east of England. Ever since the first time I saw it, this has seemed sinister to me, and I deliberately took this photograph to highlight that feeling. But to the people clustered happily round the statue’s base, it clearly had no such overtones.

 

 

And here’s the same statue, taken by Echostains on a totally different day, which gives a totally different view to my own. Blue skies, bright sun. What sinister air?

 

 

Everything we do and say is open to interpretation according to the mood of those witnessing our words and actions. Confidence to one person is arrogance to another. One person’s joke is another’s insult. I’ve been guilty for making an offhand remark that was probably somewhat thoughtless on my part rather than purposely cruel, just as I know I’ve made the occasional pointed comment that went straight over the intended person’s head. Many years ago I once wrote an entire comic column gently mocking someone, and they apparently read and enjoyed it without the slightest inkling that they were the target of my dubious humour. (Perhaps this simply demonstrates I’m not very good at that kind of thing…)

Written words are open to far more interpretation than spoken ones. Somebody once told me that there are six ways to read a letter, depending on tone and inflection. I don’t know if that’s true, but I’ve certainly gone into pits of despair reading more (or less) into a brief email than was ever intended by the sender. The immediacy of email and text is causing a real problem, I think. How many people who now email and/or text on a daily basis were ever prolific letter writers before such media came along?

Emails are dashed off, sometimes in anger and haste, only to be regretted later. I have, on numerous occasions, written a vitriolic email and put it in Drafts for a suitable cooling-off period. Quite often, the email never gets sent, but the act of writing it at all has enough of a therapeutic effect.

Because, sadly, the Internet has made it a lot easier to be nasty to people without consequence.

In the past, I’ve been on the receiving end of both death-threat letters – carefully cut out of newspaper like a ransom note – and abusive phone calls left on my answering machine. Both instances involving calling in the police, although there was no satisfactory follow-up prosecution. Now, if I get an email I don’t like, I have a tendency to simply delete it, so the consequences for those who send such poisonous missives are so much less.

Authors, these days, have moved far more into the spotlight. A few short years ago, the only way to contact an author was a letter via their publisher, which was often opened in the office beforehand, just to make sure it contained nothing too outlandish. Or you could approach them at an event, which takes a lot more bottle. Authors could hide in the shadows if they so desired, because there wasn’t the opportunity for self-promotion. Authors were expected to write a good story and that was the beginning and end of it. The only thing the public knew about them was the brief paragraph in the front of the book itself.

Now, of course, an author has to have a website, and most likely a Facebook page and Twitter account, and take part in blogs and online discussions, most of which we are happy to do. Writing is a solitary business and sometimes it’s nice to emerge, blinking, into the light.

We are encouraged to reveal more and more of ourselves, our personal lives and our thought processes, because our readers like to know what makes us tick. Not only that, but we are also encouraged to be performers. We are moving further and further out of those comfortable shadows, while some of our audience is retreating further and further into them. People can open up a dialogue with an author and receive replies, without ever revealing their real name or location.

Pay-As-You-Go mobile phones, and instant email addresses make it hard to trace the senders in any case. I’ve had weird emails from people posing as fans (mainly blokes, I have to say), who lull me into a false sense of security with relatively normal questions to start with, and then start asking coyly if I’m married and what I’m wearing. The awareness of being somehow a ‘public figure’ prevents you from telling them where to get off in no uncertain terms, because you know that would cause more problems than it would solve.

I wonder if the written word is to blame for this. People ask inappropriate or invasive questions without being able to directly gauge the reaction of the person they’re asking. But, having said that, writer friends have reported amazing behaviour from people at conventions. Following an author into the restroom and pushing a book to be signed under the wall of the stall while they’re otherwise engaged is not unheard of.

So, what are your views on this, ‘Rati? Should people be a little more open about themselves before they ask for more information about their favourite author? Do you like the anonymity of the Internet, or does it freak you out just a little? Have you any scary stories to relate?

This week’s Word of the Week is mishguggle, which is a lovely Scottish word meaning to bungle.