Endings, Beginnings – and waiting for my homework to be marked.

I have recently typed two of my favourite words.  The End.  I have finally finished the fourth book in my Much Winchmoor Mysteries.

Of course, it isn’t the end of the process but merely the end of the beginning as it is now with my publisher.  And ahead of me (always assuming they decide they want to publish it, of course!) are the edits, the blurb writing, acknowledgements and   all the social media and marketing involved in the run up to a book launch.

It is exciting and terrifying in equal measure.

It seems like this book has been hanging around on my laptop for ever.  And, indeed, it has certainly taken longer to write than the previous three.  I started it just as Covid hit and I had a long period when I couldn’t write a shopping list, least of all a murder mystery.  And even when the brain fog began to fade, it took ages to pick up the pieces and join all the bits of the jigsaw together.  (And, as I write this, I am still not one hundred per cent certain that there aren’t any missing pieces)..

But I think I managed to tie in all the loose ends (apologies for the switching of metaphors) even though there was one scene that I don’t remember writing at all.

Usually, I leave the final scene until I’ve written the second, sometimes even the third draft.  And I thought I’d done so in this case and as I was getting closer to the end, I was still dithering about how to end it.

But there, to my astonishment, was the final scene.  And I honestly don’t remember writing it or making the decision to finish it the way I did.  But when I read it through, I really liked it and didn’t change a single word. Having said that, of course, my editor might hate it!

This stage of the book’s journey is very much like being back at school and that anxious wait to get your homework back.

Until then, I thought I would put myself in the hot seat this time and ask myself the dreaded question:

Where did the idea for Murder on High come from?

In fact it came from two very different sources.  The first was a local fundraising event, the other a non-fiction book that I’ve had for ages.

For many years we had a time share in the Lake District and would make the great trek north (from Somerset) every November,  I love the area and have set many short stories, three serials and two of my large print novels there.

I’ve always been in awe of the amazing work done by the Mountain Rescue teams and wanted to write about it so I bought several books as research material.  One of them was Rescue: True Stories from Lake District Mountain Rescue written by John White who for many years was a member of a Mountain Rescue Team.

The book was published way back in 1997 and I probably bought it around that time. One particular phrase stuck in my mind all that time.  He is describing a rescue involving an abseil which almost went wrong and he makes the comment that abseiling is only the second fastest way down a mountain.  

And the other source of inspiration?  That was a fundraising event in my village which involved abseiling teddy bears down from the top of the church tower.  This involved lowering the precious bears extremely carefully down from the top of the tower to their anxious owners waiting below.

And I thought, as I stood there watching all the activity, that it would make a great location for a murder because, as we all know by now, abseiling is only the second fastest way down a church tower.

So my thanks to John White and to the members of my village hall committee for the inspiration behind Murder on High.

So what’s next?  Is there a fifth Much Winchmoor in the pipeline?

There certainly is.   I have a title (Death of a Dame) and a victim but I have yet to settle on a murderer or, even, a motive.  Although I have a few red herrings lurking in the shallows.

I also have a shiny new Scrivener file, just waiting to be filled.  And a pile of real (as opposed to digital) index cards. And, once again, this takes me back to my schooldays.

I used to love the start of a new school year when we’d be given brand new exercise books and a new ‘rough book’.  This was a notebook that was only to be written in in pencil as once the book was filled up, we were supposed to go back to the beginning, rub it out and use it again. By the time the end of term came around, my ‘rough’ book had certainly earned its name and was decidedly rough around the edges. I would like to say that this was all about saving the rain forests, but it was far more likely to be about saving money.

The exercise books, though, were written in ink, as were the teachers’ marks and comments.  So each new school year was a new beginning.  All those C minuses from the previous year wiped away.  A clean slate.  And every year I promised myself that I would work harder and that this year my books would not be marred by C minuses and comments about ‘could do better’.

(My English teacher once wrote “shrunk to this little measure?” on some spelling corrections I was supposed to have done but hadn’t.  She said she’d let me off doing them if I correctly identified the quotation!  I could – and she did!  Please let me know if the comments if you did and I promise not to make you write a page of spelling corrections.)

So now, here I am back at school waiting for my homework to be marked.  And when it does come back, I know it’s going to be littered with red marks, just like my schoolwork was.

But no C minuses, I hope.

Certainly the process of being a published author is very much like being back at school. But I’m not complaining.  I absolutely loved school, apart from the C minuses, of course. So I am in my happy place when I’m writing.

But the marketing?  Ah no.  That’s a bit like me and the dreaded physics lessons.  I never could quite work out what was going wrong and why everyone else just seemed to ‘get it’ and I didn’t.  

And it was physics that earned me all those C minuses.

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…..and finally, just because I can, here’s a random picture of Duke.

What’s in a title? A Much Winchmoor update – and the Covid ‘culture shock’

2020 has been what I’ve seen described as a ‘train wreck’ of a year and one in which, for the first time ever  in my writing career, my writing mojo completely deserted me and the fourth book in my Much Winchmoor series which had been galloping along at a cracking pace slithered to an ungainly halt.

I know I was not alone in this and there’s a brilliant explanation of why I, like so many suffered from what I think of as ‘pandemic brain fog’ on an excellent blog called The Killzone which I’ve enjoyed following for several years now.

The Killzone is described as ‘insider perspectives from top thriller and mystery writers’  and the article, published in September 2020 and entitled ‘why you don’t feel like writing’ is written by James Scott-Bell, author of some of my favourite how-to writing books, as well as an impressive number of first rate thrillers.

James explains that there is a understandable, biological reason for this brain fog. Your brain, according to  the article he quotes by Peter Olson, (the link is here. https://www.alifeoverseas.com/covid-and-culture-shock-feel-the-same-to-your-brain-and-heres-why/) is suffering ‘culture shock’ and goes on to explain:

“When someone moves to a completely new culture, many of the ‘autopilots’ your brain uses for thousands of small decisions every day become ineffective. In a similar way, your current environment has likely changed sufficiently enough that many of your own ‘autopilots’ are no longer working. When this happens, the next remaining option for your brain is to use a second decision-making process that requires far more effort and energy (glucose) to operate. Your body can only supply glucose to your brain at a certain rate – a rate far below what would be required to use this kind of thinking continually. Thus, additional thinking about routine matters has likely left you with a chronically depleted level of glucose in your brain. All to say: You are experiencing “culture shock”.

The link is https://killzoneblog.com/2020/09/why-you-dont-feel-like-writing.html

Anyway, I’m very happy to say that my brain fog has lifted and my book is now once more racing towards the finish line, thanks in part to a dog called Harvey and a cat called Max.

Some time during the middle of this brain fog I thought it might clarify things in my mind if I could come up with a title for my book which until then had been stuck with the unimaginative working title of Much Winchmoor 4 – which I didn’t think my lovely publisher, Darkstroke, would think a good look on the front cover. 

I don’t usually have a problem with titles – I already have one in mind for the fifth Much Winchmoor which I’m pretty sure is going to be Death of a Dame. (There’s a bit of a pantomime thing going on here)  But I was getting nowhere in my search for a title for MW4. (I blame my culture shocked brain!) 

So I turned to my lovely readers and put out a plea on Facebook, Twitter and this blog (link here) and turned the problem over to them.

I had a brilliant response and was spoilt for choice.  In the end I settled for Murder on High and my thanks go to Jane Odriozola and Robert Crouch who both came up with the same title.  I felt it fitted the theme of my story perfectly which starts off in the village church.  What do you think?  Here are the opening lines of Murder on High plus a picture of the church in my village to set the scene.

Murder on High

The top of the tower of the church of St Oswald in the small Somerset village of  Much Winchmoor was the perfect spot from which to get a bird’s eye view of the place, spread out like a relief map some hundred feet below, where it nestled between the  curve of the Mendip Hills to one side and low lying willow-fringed pastureland and  Glastonbury Tor on the other.

According to the poster on the church noticeboard, it was the perfect spot, too,  from which to launch 35 teddy bears in a week’s time. The proud owners (or, as was more likely, their parents) had each paid £3 to watch their precious bears abseil down off the tower, thereby boosting the fund for the restoration of the children’s play area by £105. According to the poster, it promised to be a fun day out for all the family with refreshments and bric a brac stalls in the church grounds and village hall.

Realisation came in a flash.  Because it was also, without doubt, the perfect spot to commit a murder. 

After all, abseiling is only the second fastest way down a church tower.

The ‘prize’ for coming up with this title was to have a pet of their choice featured in this or an upcoming Much Winchmoor title and I was very relieved when I saw that Jane and Robert had a cat and dog respectively.  If it had been Bearded Dragons or exotic fish, that would have called for a bit of hasty research.

But, after a week of working on these two newest recruits to my Much Winchmoor character list, I feel I’m definitely the winner here because they have both fitted in perfectly and given me some great ideas for moving the story along.  Let me introduce you to them.

This is Max and he belongs to Jane Odriozola.  I asked Jane for a few details of Max’s character – although I think you can see what sort of a character he is, don’t you? This is a cat with attitude.

As soon as I saw his picture and read what Jane had to say about him, I knew immediately where Max was going to fit in the story.  Gran Kingham is a reasonably new character introduced in Murder on High (although she does get a mention in previous books.). She is Cheryl’s mother (Kat’s grandmother) and is, to quote Kat, a ‘total pain’.

A couple of weeks before the start of Murder on High she arrives in a taxi, unannounced, at Cheryl’s house, with her arm in plaster, a towering pile of Louis Vuitton suitcases and an extremely cross cat in a basket.  Gran K has broken her wrist and announces that she will be staying with Cheryl while her arm heals.

I’d been worried that Gran K was in danger of becoming a stereotype.  She is a thoroughly unpleasant, self centred person with no redeeming features and I felt she needed something to soften those hard edges.  After all, no one is all good… or even all bad, come to that, are they?

And then, along comes Max!  A gorgeous, sleek black cat who turned up on her doorstep one morning five years ago and refused to go away.  And while Gran K may not be very fond of her daughter (or if she is, she’s unable to show it), has no time for her son in law, Terry and is constantly disappointed by her granddaughter, (who she insists on calling Kathryn, as she feels Katie – Kat’s real name- is not ‘posh’ enough for her only grandchild), she absolutely adores Max. And the feeling is reciprocated.  She shows Max the sort of affection she is unable to show any of her family, which is quite sad, don’t you think?

The next new character to arrive in Much Winchmoor is Harvey, a little West Highland  white terrier who belongs in real life to fellow crime writer Robert Crouch.  Harvey is no stranger to the crime fiction scene though as he appears regularly in Robert’s excellent Kent Fisher Murder Mysteries (his fictional name is Columbo). 

. Where does crime writer Robert Crouch get his ideas?

http://www.robertcrouch.co.uk

To start with I had a little trouble placing Harvey.  Robert says he’s feisty,  independent and will ‘rebel against the pack leader when he choses’. So how, I wondered, was he going to get on with Prescott, the feisty and independent Jack Russell terrier who definitely sees himself as leader of the pack!  I couldn’t see him fitting in with Kat’s dog walking group.

Trying to find a suitable owner for Harvey actually helped me out of a bit of a plot hole.  As I was working my way through a long list of characters who’d be a good fit for him I came across Fiona Crabshaw, who’s also  appeared in previous Much Winchmoor books.  

Kat’s keen to talk to Fiona about something but Fiona doesn’t trust Kat (they have a bit of previous history!) and is not going to sit down for a girly chat with her anytime soon.  However, Kat knows where and when Fiona walks Harvey every morning and I was thus able to engineer a meeting between Kat and Fiona and finally move the story along.  And I gained a whole new scene and a slight change of direction in the process.

So a big thank you to Max and Harvey and to Jane and Robert for allowing me to ‘borrow’ them.  And rest assured, they will be well looked after.  No animal ever comes to harm in my books.  Humans, yes.  Animals (and children), never!

The Trouble with Titles (or ‘I’ll Know It When I See It’)

I am now well in to Book 4 of my Much Winchmoor Mysteries.  It’s going pretty well and I’m having so much fun catching up with all the old characters and mixing them up with a few new ones.

I have the murder method, the murderer, the victim and, of course, an entire shoal of red herrings to, hopefully, mislead my readers.  I have the ongoing romance between my main character, Kat, and her long suffering boyfriend, Will plus an added complication in the shape of a tall, good looking Irishman with a voice that could melt the polar ice caps.

Archie

I’ve also got some new animals to add to the ones that have already appeared in the previous three books.  These are Prescott, the feisty little Jack Russell whose bark is worse than his bite, Rosie the laid back labrador and Prescott’s best friend a gorgeous Irish wolfhound called Finbar.  Then, there is the pub cat called Pitbull and, new to the gang, the vicar’s cockerpoo called Archie.

But what I haven’t got is a title.  And it’s driving me mad. At the moment, the book is called MW4, which I don’t think my publisher will go for as it won’t look very good on the cover.

I’ve never had trouble with titles before.  In fact, sometimes the title has been the inspiration for the book or story.  (Wouldn’t you just love to have come up with “For Whom The Bell Tolls”, one of my favourite titles ever.  I’m not sure why, maybe because it takes me to the original quotation, from John Donne’s poem which includes the lines “never send to know for whom the bell tolls.  It tolls for thee.”  Chilling!)

Much of my writing career has been spent writing for magazines where it doesn’t pay to be precious about titles because they will inevitably be changed… and not always for the better.  I once wrote a story about a little boy who was embarrassed by his mother’s big swirly cape that caused havoc wherever she went  (based on a real life  event that my son claims to have been traumatised by).  I called it “Here Comes Batman” but the magazine changed to “Oi! Boy Wonder.”  Hmm.

My latest serial that has recently finished in My Weekly was inspired, as are many of my stories, by a dog.  This one was called Monk who’s a Search and Rescue Dog and the story opens with Monk, alone on a mountain, searching for his owner who’s gone missing.

I loved that opening.  So I’ve set it out below, just because I can!

Monk. Opening scene.

The dog stood at the point where the rough stone track forked into two.  He sniffed the chill November air.  He smelt sheep further up the left hand track.  He smelt a sandwich wrapper to the right and his empty stomach grumbled at the thought of food.  He smelt rain, thick and heavy,  as it swept down the valley and up the fell sides towards him.

But he did not smell what he was searching for.  He did not smell the familiar scent of the man.  The man who’d trained him, all those years ago, to search the mountains for people who’d got lost.  And now, he, the man, was lost.  And the dog was searching for him. 

And even though he was now an old dog, his legs not as strong as they used to be back when he could run up and down these mountains all day without tiring, yet his nose and his brain were as sharp as ever.

So he’d keep looking, like he’d been trained to do,  until he found the man.  

He knew no other way.

Does that make you want to read on?  I hope so.

I wanted the title of the story to be ‘Monk’.  It’s an unusual name for a dog and I felt it set the tone of the story.  Needless to say, it was changed and became Castlewick Crag which was ok.  It’s an editor’s privilege and they probably know what appeals to their readers better than I do.  But I still preferred Monk and if I ever expand the story to a full length novel which I may well do as I loved the characters, particularly Monk, so much I shall revert to my original title of Monk. Something to look out for.

The first short story I ever had published had a brilliant title, even though I say it myself and this one wasn’t changed.  Wouldn’t you want to read a story called “Angels on Oil Drums”?  That story always retains a very special place in my heart.

But, back to my current work in progress. MW4 and its lack of a suitable title.  I’ve spent far too long fiddling around with various ideas, none of which appeal.  When it comes to choosing a title, it’s very much a question of “I’ll know it when I see it.” 

My problem is I haven’t seen it yet.

And this is where I am reaching out for help.  On my Facebook author page, I have set up a post asking for suggestions for a title based on the opening (very short) chapter.

This is it. (Or at least, the present version of it.  It will probably change but the gist of it will remain)

MW4. Opening scene

The top of the tower of the church of St Oswald in the small Somerset village of  Much Winchmoor was the perfect spot for a bird’s eye view of the village, spread out like a relief map some one hundred feet below.  To one side, the village nestles in the  curve of the Mendip Hills while the other side is a view across low lying willow-fringed pastureland towards  Glastonbury Tor and beyond.

According to the poster on the church noticeboard, it was the perfect spot, too,  from which to launch 35 teddy bears in a week’s time. The proud owners (or, as was more likely, their parents) had each paid £3 to watch their precious bears abseil down off the tower, thereby boosting the fund for the restoration of the children’s play area by £105. 

It would be, the poster promised, a fun day out for all the family with refreshments and bric a brac stalls in the church grounds.

Realisation came in a flash.  Because it was also, without doubt, the perfect spot to commit a murder. 

After all, abseiling is only the second fastest way down a church tower.

Ok, so that’s the gist of it.  No prize for guessing what the murder method is going to be. But there may well be a prize for coming up with a title that gives me that ‘I’ll know it when I see it’ moment.  My publisher likes my titles to contain three words, if possible. (He’s thinking cover design here).

So, if you’d hop over to my author page and add a suggestion or two that would be wonderful.