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.
…..and finally, just because I can, here’s a random picture of Duke.
Towards the end of 2020 I was delighted to be included in an anthology collated by one of my favourite Facebook groups and sold in aid of a very special charity.
UK Crime Book Club is a thriving, well run book club on Facebook with a great mix of authors and readers. (As I write this there are 18.7k members, of which over 500 are authors, including big names and some not-so-big names – like mine.)
The anthology, Criminal Shorts, is available in ebook and paperback format on Amazon (link here) and was the brainchild of authors Kath Middleton and Will Templeton. Several times a year UKCBC produces seasonal short stories (eg Christmas, Halloween etc) written by UKCBC members and shared on the UKCBC Facebook page.
“The idea of compiling an anthology first occurred to me a while ago, when the ‘Seasonal Shorts‘ events became so popular,” Will Templeton explains. “I discussed the notion with Kath Middleton, but between us we dismissed it as being too much hard work!
“When the idea was raised again in the UKCBC admin group chat it became apparent there was a strong interest in it and we wouldn’t be able to duck out of it so easily. (Just kidding!).
“The charity was chosen by the admins as one of our author members has a child at the Red Kite Academy, (www.redkitespecialacademy.co.uk) so we felt they would be an ideal recipient of the proceeds.
“The call for submissions brought us a staggering number of stories of a very high quality. This made whittling down the entries to a manageable amount very daunting, assessing originality and ingenuity to finish with a selection to impress the most discerning reader. We hope we have succeeded in creating a unique and exciting book.”
And they certainly succeeded. The anthology is a superb collection of finely crafted stories and I enjoyed every one.
So I asked the 22 authors involved if any of them would be kind enough to share with the readers of my Ideas Store column (in the UK magazine Writers’ Forum ) where they got the ideas for their stories from and was delighted when thirteen of them responded. So much so I had way too much material for one issue of my single page column and I had to spread them over three issues!
Also, because of issues of space, I was unable to supply the authors’ links or buy links and am happy to rectify this here.
I don’t want to make this post too long so I am splitting up the 13 authors who contributed quotes in my column into two posts, with the second being published within the next few days.
Kath Middleton. Short story: Dark Fires
“I began with the idea of a girl being set up to take the blame for her twin brother’s fire-raising,” Kath explains. “As she was the subservient twin, it would be easy for him to fool her, and make her incriminate herself. As the story evolved, I started to consider the concept of gaslight, so the whole focus changed. Sometimes you don’t write the story you thought you would.”
From Kath’s Amazon author page
Kath Middleton began her writing with drabbles (100 words stories) and contributed a number to Jonathan Hill’s second drabble collection. It wasn’t long before she moved up a size to contribute short stories to anthologies. Shortly afterwards, she progressed to writing longer pieces and her first solo work, Ravenfold, was published to much acclaim. This was followed by the novella, Message in a Bottle. There are now several more publications from short stories to novels.
Kath likes to put her characters in difficult situations and watch them work their way out. She believes in the indomitable nature of the human spirit (and chickens).
Kath is retired. She graduated in geology and has a certificate in archaeology. When she’s in a hole, she doesn’t stop digging.
“The idea behind this was to try an do something different…and I remembered the Francis Ford Coppola film with Gene Hackman as a surveillance operative. It was called The Conversation – superb film,” he says.
“And that’s what started the idea of Brooks, a gun for hire, a cleaner; someone who sorts out someone else’s mess. I thought why not two men in a room having a conversation about sleazy goings on with a Government minister? Brooks would question the minister about his unpalatable habits and actions, each of which is revealed as the conversation progresses. Ultimately, the minister accepts that he has to resign.”
Brian has published two full length novels, short stories and novellas. He is currently working on follow ups to A Long Way from Home and The Tin Man, a new full length novel set in the US called Close To The Edge and a book of horror shorts.
The link to his Amazon page is
Tony Forder. Short story: Mission Accomplished
“My story, Mission Accomplished, emerged out of pure panic,” he admits. “I had no story, so turned to my most read characters in an act of desperation. My first thought was: what if I send Jimmy Bliss to Ireland to see his mum and [something] happens? My second thought was: what if I send Penny Chandler with him? That was it. I started writing their journey from the airport and finished the entire story in a single sitting.”
It’s a cracking story and a testament to the strength of his characters when an author can just sit down and write an entire story straight off!
From Tony’s Amazon author page
Tony J Forder is the author of the bestselling DI Bliss crime thriller series. The first seven books, Bad to the Bone, The Scent of Guilt, If Fear Wins, The Reach of Shadows, The Death of Justice, Endless Silent Scream, and Slow Slicing, were joined in December 2020 by a prequel novella, Bliss Uncovered. The next book, The Autumn Tree, is scheduled for release on 24 May 2021.
Tony’s other series – two action-adventure novels featuring Mike Lynch – comprises both Scream Blue Murder, and Cold Winter Sun. These are currently unavailable, but will be back in 2021.
In addition, Tony has written two standalone novels: a dark, psychological crime thriller, Degrees of Darkness, and a suspense thriller set in California, called Fifteen Coffins, released in November 2020.
“DCI William Wright is a character from my Bunch Courtney crime series,” she says. “Wright was following a lead in my current work in progress that went nowhere useful. It is referenced in a very minor way in the book’s narrative, but I knew it was never going to fit, no matter how hard I tried. Trouble was that tentacle of thought simply refused to lay down and be quiet and so ‘Down the Sea’ came into being.”
From Jan’s Amazon author page
Jan Edwards is a UK author with several novels and many short stories in horror, fantasy, mainstream and crime fiction, including Mammoth Book of Folk Horror as well as various volumes of the MX Books of New Sherlock Holmes Stories. Jan is an editor with the award-winning Alchemy Press (includes The Alchemy Press Books of Horror series. Jan was awarded the Arnold Bennett Book Prize for Winter Downs, the first in her ww2 crime series The Bunch Courtney Investigations.
Winner of the Arnold Bennett Book Prize; Karl Edward Wagner award; Winchester Slim Volume award (for Sussex Tales). Short listed for both the British Fantasy Award for Best Short Fiction and Best Collection.
“My story, Robbed, came from thinking about how someone who has served a prison sentence might feel when they are released,” she explains.
“So many things will seem familiar, yet so many things will have changed. The story starts with Robbie, on his release day, coming out of prison, determined to reclaim his dues and settle a few old scores.”
From Susan’s Amazon page
Susan Handley grew up in England, in the Midlands and despite a love of literature, and crime fiction in particular, she never dreamt of being able to carve out a career as a published writer. But the desire to write never left her and after years of writing by night she has at last been able to share the results of her efforts.
Susan now lives in a small village in rural Kent with her husband and two cats. When she’s not indulging in her love of writing crime fiction she loves walking (the hillier the better), bike riding (the flatter the better) and tending her veggie patch.
Susan has published three novels. A Confusion of Crows is the first to feature DC Cat McKenzie, a one-time marine biologist turned detective. In the second in the series, Feather and Claw, Cat is holidaying on the sunny isle of Cyprus when the death of a fellow guest sees her put her holiday on hold and turn detective. In the third Cat McKenzie mystery, The Body Politic, Cat finds herself investigating the violent death of local councillor. As she uncovers the truth, Cat learns as much about herself as she does the dead man.
Susan has also produced two short story collections: Crime Bites Volume 1 and Volume 2. Full of bite-size crime stories there’s bound to be something to suit all tastes.
Cecilia found her inspiration from a series of walks she did with her sister-in-law on the Fife Coast Path.
“In the story I wanted to weave together the walk itself, the uncovering of a secret, and the main character developing as a result of her experiences,” she explains. “At first the walk was the most important thing, but in the end I feel the character development came to be the core of it.”
From Cecilia’s Amazon page
Cecilia Peartree is the pen name of a writer who lives in Edinburgh and has worked as a computer programmer and a database manager.
She has been a compulsive writer since she first learned to write, and by the age of sixteen she had a whole cupboard full of unfinished stories.
Cecilia writes the Pitkirtly series of quirky mystery novels set in an imaginary town on the coast of Fife, and the Quest mystery/adventure novels set in the early 1950s. Recently, almost without meaning to, she has also written a short series of Regency novels.
As befits a mystery writer, she is often surrounded by cats while working on her novels.
“I was intrigued by the idea of starting a book with someone walking into a situation he didn’t understand. It seemed a good place to start for a short story, too,” she says. “Apart from that the story was one of those ones that just seems to happen – though I can say that the room in the story that contains only a cistern handle and nothing else was something we found when viewing a house, once!”
From Lexie’s Amazon author page
Lexie Conyngham is a historian living in the shadow of the Highlands. Her Murray of Letho novels are born of a life amidst Scotland’s old cities, ancient universities and hidden-away aristocratic estates, but she has written since the day she found out that people were allowed to do such a thing. Beyond teaching and research, her days are spent with wool, wild allotments and a wee bit of whisky.
Bill Todd has written seven successful crime thrillers featuring wounded ex-soldier turned private investigator Danny Lancaster. “For the UKCBC anthology I thought I’d have a shot at a Danny short story which presents different writing challenges.”
A challenge to which the author rose magnificently as his short story, Lucky Break, made me want to read more about Danny Lancaster and I’m now really looking forward to reading the first in the series, The Wreck of the Margarita. The ebook is currently free on Amazon. (link here)
Bill’s author bio
I’ve spent my working life as a journalist. You meet a lot of people, see things, learn stuff. For a crimewriter, it’s a plot factory.
I’ve also done a lot of travelwriting. It’s not all cocktails under the palm trees but it is a fantastic job that’s taken me to more than 40 countries, from the white wastes of Arctic Finland to the deserts of Namibia.
People often ask my favourite place. In a world of globalisation, many destinations look the same but Iceland and Namibia are like stepping onto another planet. Go if you can.
I’ve also enjoyed a long love affair with Western Crete, the mountains, coastline, food and people. And I was delighted and surprised to receive the Ed Lacy Gibraltar travel award in 2007.
Another interest is my family tree. I’ve traced the ancestors back to William of Byfield, a farmer in 1600s Northamptonshire, just down the road from Shakespeare.
I love maps. They might seem old fashioned in the age of GPS but they tell stories, make promises. I have a ragbag collection of more than 3,000.
I’m also a fan of interesting cheeses, good beer and wilderness. They’re like Marmite, you’re an empty places person or you’re not.
I have written six crime thrillers and a book of short stories featuring Danny Lancaster, a wounded Afghanistan veteran turned private investigator.
I hope you’ll forgive me for indulging in a bit of nostalgia this week. (Correction: a lot of nostalgia) But in my column, Ideas Store, in the current issue of Writers’ Forum, I am writing about the house I grew up in and how it inspired my sister and I to make up stories (usually involving ghosts). There wasn’t room on my page for the story itself so I’m setting it out below and including some more detail about the story behind the story and the farm where I spent most of my childhood.
The house was an old Manor House, parts of which dated back to the 16th century (picture below) and before you run away with the idea that I am one of the landed gentry, let me explain some of the house’s more recent history.
It was on a 350 acre farm in South Somerset, set in a stunning location which I’m afraid I didn’t appreciate at the time, mostly because it was in the middle of nowhere and at the top of a very steep hill. I had to push my bike up with an overflowing school satchel cutting in to my shoulders after a long school day which started with a 2 mile bike ride, a 10 mile bus ride and a 15 minute walk – and ended the other way around in the evening. (At least in the mornings the bike ride was downhill) But the bus journey gave me chance to catch up on my homework – and check out the boys from the Grammar School. (I went to an all girls school)
The farm and manor house was bought by Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) back in the 1950s. The farm had the most up to date machinery money could buy (my dad was the farm mechanic and looked after it all) and the idea was to run a model farm to show the farmers how brilliant ICI fertiliser was and how they could improve their own farms by using it. It would probably have been cheaper to have taken out a few adverts in the Farmer and Stockbreeder, I would have thought – but what do I know?
So, the house, which I now see is a grade 2 listed building, was split up into four parts, one being the farm offices and the other three into dwellings for the farm workers. It was a beautiful house, with high ceilings, tall mullioned windows and acres of space. I am one of six children and we had moved from a very cramped cottage. I can still remember the joy of moving into that house and have vivid memories of my younger brothers riding a sit-on wooden train that Dad had made for them that first Christmas round and round the huge kitchen/living room.
I loved Henley (in spite of it being in the middle of nowhere) and was desperately sad when my parents finally moved out, even though by then I’d long since left home. My parents were still living there when I got married and we had our wedding reception in the farm’s Conference Room. And, as you can see below, one of our wedding pictures was photo-bombed by the ICI roundel!
There were six other families on the farm, many with young children so although we were several miles from the nearest town there was always someone to play with. I was a very bossy little girl and soon had all the other children on the farm press ganged into appearing in my various plays and pageants. One of these, a pageant written for St George’s Day involved a lot of galloping around singing “For all the saints who from their labours rest” and precious little story. This event turned into a complete fiasco when one of my younger brothers refused to be an angel any more and quit his post on top of an oil drum in the middle of the performance. It was the inspiration behind one of the first short stories I ever sold. It was to Woman’s Weekly and called Angels on Oil Drums.
But the short story I want to feature this week is The Blue Lady, which, like many of my stories had its origin at this time of my life. My sister and I would make up ghost stories, based on the house and its long history, and frighten each other to death. The Blue Lady was our favourite and the only one we can still remember. What is interesting about that story is that it has now found its way into the local folklore.
So when many years later I wanted to write a ghost story I remembered our Blue Lady and incorporated her into the story which ended with what I thought was quite a neat twist.
THE BLUE LADY
‘For goodness sake, come in and shut the door.’ Jane Armstrong scowled at the woman who hovered behind her in the doorway. ‘I don’t pay you to stand around gawping like a goldfish.’
Elizabeth Parry, a timid grey woman in her mid-fifties, flinched but didn’t move. ‘I’m s-sorry. – ‘ she stammered as she backed away. ‘I can’t stay here.’
‘What?’ Jane was astonished. She wasn’t used to people standing up to her, least of all mouse-like Elizabeth.
‘I said I can’t stay here. Oh, Mrs Armstrong, something terrible’s happened here. Can’t you feel it?’
‘The only thing I feel is the urge to slap some sense into you.’
Elizabeth wrapped her arms around her thin body and shivered. ‘It’s like – listen! Can you hear it?’
‘All I hear is your idiotic babbling.’
‘Up there.’ Elizabeth pointed towards the upper landing. ‘Oh, please, let’s get out while we can.’
This time even Jane heard the low, rasping noise, like something heavy being dragged across the floor. She strode to the bottom of the stairs and called up: ‘Who’s there? Show yourself at once.’
A door opened and a plump, red-faced woman with hair like steel wool leaned over the banisters.
‘My life, you startled me,’ she said. ‘It’s Mrs Armstrong, the new owner, isn’t it? The agent said you wouldn’t be arriving until this evening. But not to worry. I’m done here.’
She bustled down the stairs, her blue plastic bucket overflowing with polishes and dusters
‘There’s your precious ghost, ‘ Jane sneered. ‘A cleaner, moving a bit of furniture. Am I right?’
The cleaner nodded then peered anxiously at Elizabeth’s pale face. ‘Didn’t mean to startle you, my dear,’ she said.
‘So now we’ve solved the mystery of your so-called ghost, Elizabeth, do you think you could do some work? It is after all what I pay you for.’
But Elizabeth shook her head.
Jane snorted. ‘Did you ever hear such nonsense, Mrs –er?’
‘Minty. Sarah Minty.’
‘Well, Sarah Minty, this madwoman here refuses to stay in this house, Says it’s haunted, even though I’ve proved to her the ghost doesn’t exist. She’s losing her mind.’
‘If she is then so’s half the folk in this village.’ Sarah said. ‘She’s not the first to be afraid of Waytown Hall. Several around here swear they’ve seen a ghost in this house I’m one of the few who’ll set foot inside.’
‘You’re obviously far too sensible to believe in all that nonsense.’ Jane said.
‘I believe in the spirits,’ Sarah said quietly. ‘But I know this one means me no harm, though some think she was responsible for Major Harvey’s death. He was the old gentleman who lived here before you.’
‘How did he die?’ Elizabeth whispered, wide-eyed .
‘Fell down these very stairs. Broke his neck, poor chap. Although I wonder if it wasn’t the spirits from a bottle that did for him rather than the Blue Lady.’
‘What did you call her?’ Jane asked sharply.
‘The Blue Lady. Nobody’s really sure who she is or why she walks but –’
‘No one .. except … me.’ Jane said between wild gusts of laughter that left her gasping for breath.
‘Mrs Armstrong, remember the doctor said over-excitement was bad for your heart,’ Elizabeth warned, then turned to Sarah. ‘You’re wrong, Mrs Minty, about the ghost being a friendly one. I feel intense hatred in this room.’
Sarah frowned. ‘Now you mention it there is something. It wasn’t like it when I arrived but now… there’s a disturbance in the air, as if – .’
‘When you two have finished scaring each other witless with your ghost stories, I’d like to tell you mine .’ Jane’s acid voice cut in. ‘It’s not scary – just very funny. When I was a child, I lived in this house. My mother died when I was a baby and so there was just me and my father, Charles Maidment. I dare say you know the name? There were generations of Maidments at Waytown Hall until my fool of a father sold it.’
Elizabeth gasped. ‘You never said –’
‘It was none of your business,’ Jane snapped. ‘I’m only telling you now to end this nonsense. I used to play with a girl called Margaret who was so gullible, she believed everything I told her. I’d frighten the life out of her with stories of headless monks and weeping children. But the one that terrified her most was about the ghost who was supposed to haunt this house and how, if she touched you, you’d drop down dead. Now do you see why I’m so sure your precious Blue Lady doesn’t exist? I invented her!’
But still Elizabeth refused to stay. When Sarah Minty left Waytown Hall, Elizabeth, with one last anguished plea for Jane to come with them, went too.
‘Don’t come whining back to me when you find no one wants to employ someone of your age with no qualifications or reference,’ Jane yelled, slamming the door behind them.
‘Your temper’s as nasty as ever I see, Jane.’
Jane whirled round to stare up at a slender young woman who stood at the top of the stairs. Her long, blue dress shimmered as she moved.
‘I knew you’d be back,’ The Blue Lady said.
‘Who are you?’
‘You know perfectly well who I am. I’ve been waiting for you. I had to frighten poor Major Harvey into falling down the stairs because I wanted the place unoccupied, ready for you. Pity, though. He was a nice old chap.’
Jane shivered in spite of the central heating. ‘What do you want?’
‘To ask you why.’ The ghost closed her eyes as if, even after all these years, the memory still upset her. ‘Why did you push me down the stairs? I loved you and thought we were a normal happy family.’
‘A normal happy family?’ Jane forgot her fear as the years slipped away. ‘I hated you. Daddy and I were happy until you came along. He used to call me his Little Lady. He didn’t need a wife and I certainly didn’t need a step-mother.’
‘Yet my death didn’t bring you what you wanted, did it?’ The Blue Lady began walking down the stairs towards Jane. ‘You and your father were never easy in each other’s company again.’
‘Of course we were,’ Jane said defiantly. ‘Without you around to spoil things, we had a wonderful time.’
‘I know you’re lying because I’ve been watching you all these years. Watching and waiting.’
As the Blue Lady got closer, Jane felt a chill wrap around her like November fog.
‘You’ve been alone all your life, haven’t you? Nobody could stand being near you for long. Your husband, even Elizabeth left in the end. I made sure of that. And as for your father -‘
‘I’m not listening -‘ Jane said but the quiet voice went on pitilessly.
‘After my death, Charles sold this house. He couldn’t bear to be reminded of what had happened here because there was this tiny seed of doubt in his mind. He saw you – did you know that? He saw you at the top of the stairs.’
‘I don’t believe you.’
‘He thought your strange, too calm expression as you looked down on my body was the result of shock. But over the years, every time you went into one of your uncontrollable rages, the doubts grew until he was finally forced to admit the truth. That my death was no accident – and you were responsible.’
‘He couldn’t have –’
‘He died of a broken heart, you know, Jane.’
‘No!’ Jane screamed. ‘That’s a lie. You were always lying to him.’
‘I never lie. Unlike you. You even made up the ghost story to frighten poor little Margaret.’
‘That was only a bit of harmless fun.’
‘Your Blue Lady served my purpose well. I even added my own little touch. Can you smell violets? I was always very fond of them. Don’t you think I’m a convincing Blue Lady?’ The gossamer material whispered against her legs as she gave a small twirl. ‘Your harmless fun appears to have backfired on you.’
She laid a hand on Jane’s wrist. ‘Come along now.’
The ghost’s touch had been icy but Jane’s wrist stung as if a red hot iron had been laid on it. She remembered how she used to frighten Margaret by saying how if the ghost touched you … but it was only a story. Wasn’t it?
As if she had no will of her own, Jane stumbled up the stairs, her heart beating erratically, frantically as she did so. She remembered the heart pills in her handbag on the hall table, but instead of turning back to get them she kept climbing the stairs, her breath coming in short, painful gasps, her eyes focussed on the Blue Lady.
Two days later, Elizabeth, worried about her employer, called the Police who found Jane’s body on the stairs. It wasn’t until later that Elizabeth realised the sense of evil that had so frightened her earlier was no longer there.
Now, there was nothing in the air but a faint lingering scent of violets.
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.
“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”.
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).
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!
It is my great pleasure to welcome historical novelist Sally Zigmond to my blog this week. I featured Sally in my Ideas Store column in the December 2020 Issue of Writers’ Forum magazine in which I asked her where she got the idea for her novel, The Lark Ascending, which I had recently read and enjoyed.
She explained how a shopping trip on a snowy January day was the inspiration behind the book which is set in Leeds just after WW1.
“When we lived in Harrogate I often shopped in the city centre and loved its celebrated Victorian shopping arcades.
“One day in a freezing-cold January day I took shelter under the beautiful glass roof of the Queen’s Arcade and shopped until I dropped (well almost). When I emerged into busy Briggate, I realised it had been snowing for a long time but I hadn’t noticed!
“So there and then, I had the first scene of my next novel, The Lark Ascending, about a shop assistant who worked in the arcade and a strange day on a cold January morning. Only I wanted a change from the Victorian age and settled on the period just after World War One.”
The Lark Ascending is a beautifully told story and deals with some quite difficult subjects that faced people in that post-war era with great sensitivity and empathy. I can really recommend it.
So I invited Sally to come along to my blog and answer yet more questions from me. And, happily, she said yes!
Welcome, Sally. And thank you for agreeing to appear on my blog. Thank you, too, for giving me several hours of reading pleasure from The Lark Ascending. I don’t often read historical novels but I loved it so much that I’m really looking forward to reading more of your work.
Do you write series of standalones?
I write historical novels and my published short stories are mainly historical. So far all my novels are stand-alones but the novel I am currently writing could well be the first novel in a three or four-book series. I shall wait and see!
I’ll look forward to that. I love getting into a series. So, what inspires you most (apart from snowy shopping arcades, that is!)? Is it characters? Or settings? Maybe even books you have read?
For everything I write, whether it be a novel or short story, I have to first choose a setting and a historical period. Then the main character(s). Plot comes much later. I think of my character at the beginning and where I hope to finish. Then I start fleshing out how that character (or characters) gets from on to the other. That’s the novel.
And how did your writing journey start? Have you always written?
I’ve always loved reading and writing. English was my favourite subject at school and I studied English Literature at Uni. When my children were settled in school, I took various adult education classes. I then spotted one called “Writing For Pleasure and Profit.” So began a long learning curve.
Ah, I remember taking a course with a similar title! Now tell me a little of your future writing plans.
As I mentioned earlier I am currently writing a novel which may be the first part of a three or even four part serial beginning in the 14th century and concluding in the 16th.
That sounds exciting. And finally, tell us three things that we may not know about you.
1 I used to work at New Scotland in Interpol.
2 When I was on a train from Paris to Lyon full of French soldiers we were halted for 3 hours by a bomb scare.
3 Diana Dors once bumped into me on Euston Street in London and almost knocked me flying!
Wow! Plenty of material for a writer there then! There’s your challenge for 2021 then – to try and work all three of those things into one story!
Thank you so much Sally for answering my questions so patiently.
The Blurbs and buy links for Sally’s books
HOPE AGAINST HOPE
Stoical and industrious Carrie and carefree and vivacious May lose both home and livelihood when their Leeds pub is sold out from under them to make way for the coming of the railway. They head for Harrogate to find work and lodging in the spa town’s hotel trade. But the sisters fall prey to fraudsters and predators and are also driven apart by misunderstanding, pride and a mutual sense of betrayal and resentment.
Alex Sinclair, a bold and warm-spirited Scot, has eschewed the wishes of his father to become a railway engineer. His companion, Charles Hammond is the dissolute heir to a vast fortune, withheld from him by an overbearing mother and grasping stepfather. Charles bides his time as a physician, a profession for which he lacks both aptitude and enthusiasm.
The futures of both men will become bound up with those of the two sisters.As time passes the sisters overcome their adversities: May becomes the most sought after dressmaker in Paris; Carrie, the proprietor of the most successful hotel in Harrogate. Alex pours himself into new railway projects. Meanwhile, having been almost destroyed through gambling, drunkenness and self-loathing, Charles starts on the long and difficult road to redemption and fulfilment.Carrie and May have now been estranged for several years. But in 1848, the Year of Revolutions the streets of Paris erupt in bloody insurrection while Alex Sinclair is commissioned to bring the railway to Harrogate.
CHASING ANGELS ( novella)
In 1794, Henriette d’Angeville was born into a French aristocratic family in crisis.Her grandfather was guillotined and her father imprisoned but later released causing the family to live on their memories in an impoverished château. In 836, she was the first woman to reach the summit of Mont Blanc – in a bonnet and petticoats!This novella is a fictional account of her life in which her love of the outdoors and her determination to excel in her climbing endeavours, which made her an object of derision and pity, is examined in a witty and sympathetic portrayal. We see her father, her mother and her younger brother. We see her at school and the circumstances in which she ‘rescued’ her companion, Jeannette, from destitution. We meet the Protestant ladies of Genevan society and the men of Chamonix who accompany her on her expedition.Starting close to her death, Henriette looks back on her life and her great achievement. Full of humour and love, Chasing Angelstell the story of a truly remarkable woman
THE LARK ASCENDING
Leeds 1919. The war is over but young Alice Fields, who hates her job in an old-fashioned shop, isn’t celebrating. However, her life is about to change when a rich customer leaves behind an expensive fur stole and Alice makes great efforts to return it. Dark secrets bring not only money but misery, too. During the contrasting worlds of the roaring twenties and the General Strike, love and deep friendships bloom like poppies on the devastated battlefields over which the lark rises again.
Social Media Links, blog, website etc.
My blog needs attention and more time! Sallyzigmond.blogspot.com
The Lark Ascending
Hope Against Hope
I was born in Leicester, moved to Lincoln then back to Market Harborough. Leics where In attended senior school. I studied at what is now Queen Mary |University, London where I met my husband. We moved to Yorkshire where my two sons were born. Now retired, we live in Middlesbrough with stunning views over the Cleveland Hills.
I am delighted to welcome to my blog psychological thriller writer, Charlie Tyler whose debut novel, The Cry of the Lake, was published earlier this year. Here’s the book’s blurb
A gruesome discovery unravels a dark trail of murder and madness
A six-year-old girl sneaks out of bed to capture a mermaid but instead discovers a dead body. Terrified and unable to make sense of what she sees, she locks the vision deep inside her mind.
Ten years later, Lily is introduced to the charismatic Flo and they become best friends. But Lily is guilt-ridden – she is hiding a terrible secret which has the power to destroy both their lives.
When Flo’s father is accused of killing a schoolgirl, the horrors of Lily’s past come bubbling to the surface. Lily knows that, whatever the consequences, she has to make things right. She must go back to the events of her childhood and face what happened at the boat house all those years ago.
Can Lily and Flo discover what is hiding in the murky waters of the lake before the killer strikes again?
Hi Charlie and welcome to my blog. I really enjoyed your book. It was a fascinating read and very cleverly constructed. You certainly know how to crank up the tension! Congratulations on a very accomplished debut novel.
So, the question I ask everyone. Where did you get the idea from? (I’m sure that should really read ‘From where did you get the idea?’ but it just doesn’t sound right. Or is it just me?)
Lakes, ponds and fishes are all things which spark my imagination. My inspiration came from seeing a photo of a rickety boathouse, complete with a long, wooden jetty, leading out onto a lake.
I remembered being a child and fishing by the edge of a pond, collecting tiny creatures in jam jars and lining them up along the bank. I imagined a small girl lying on the jetty, catching minnows, and being told by her older sister that a mermaid lives beneath the surface of the lake; a mermaid called Myrtle who can only be seen at night when there is a full moon.
If that had been me, I would have been out the very same night, searching for the mermaid and that’s what led to me creating the main incident for the book. I envisaged the girl arriving at the water’s edge, but rather than seeing a mermaid, she witnesses a terrible crime.
Unable to process what she has seen she buries it within her mind. I built up the rest of the story around the fallout from what happens years later, when this memory is forced to rise to the surface again.
Great answer! My older sister used to tell me stories like that. They used to frighten the life out of me. In fact, come to think of it, they still do.
So, what inspires you most?
I am completely obsessed and inspired by water – lakes, rivers, ponds, though, curiously, not the sea. I daydream about lakes – maybe it’s because I’m often driving through Rutland Water. I also spend a lot of time out walking my dog. My house borders onto fields and quite quickly I can get to the canal, so I’m frequently out, marching along the towpath, passing through various small, chocolate-box villages which feed my description for an idyllic village life.
Sometimes, on my walks I see things and store them away for later use, for example, a couple of years ago I was walking through fields with my husband and daughter and we came across a fenced-off, rectangle of slime which we later found out was King Charles’s Well where he supposedly watered his horses when he came back from defeat at the battle of Naseby. Fast forward a couple of years and the well makes an appearance in The Cry of the Lake; I remembered it and thought it would make the perfect place to hold a village fete.
For bookish inspiration I look to anything written by the amazing Agatha Christie. How I wish I’d come up with the plots for ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ and ‘Then there were none’ – pure genius. I also adore Robert Galbraith’s Cormoran Strike series which I think has a perfect blend of description and mystery all cleverly tied up with two characters I’ve grown to care about.
Great to meet another Agatha Christie fan. She’s the reason I love reading and writing crime novels. How did your writing journey start?
I have been writing now for over a decade. I’ve written various different things, including a contemporary romance, a children’s book and a YA. For a couple of years, I was signed to a big literary agency, but sadly the book submitted was never sold. Not put off by this, I did a six month online Creative Writing Course which kept me going, but it was only this year that I signed with Darkstroke and they published The Cry of the Lake in July 2020.
And what are your future plans?
Whilst The Cry of the Lake was doing the rounds, I was already three-quarters of the way through another novel which is set in a girls’ convent school. Two bodies are discovered, hidden in the crypt of an Abbey, but the police cannot make any headway into how or why they got there. They have to send in an undercover policewoman to try and engage with the girls and figure out what secrets they are hiding.
Sounds great! I am really looking forward to reading it. Thank you for some great answers and now, to round it off, please tell us three things we may not know about you.
I am terribly squeamish and find writing murder scenes absolutely horrendous. Sometimes just the thought of what I’m writing about makes me cry – I’m such a big baby.
I adore spicy food, but if it’s too hot I get a nosebleed which isn’t great for my dinner companions.
My absolute favourite type of fiction to read is historical. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy is the perfect match for me.
Thank you so much for answering my questions so patiently, Charlie. There’s just one thing I wish I’d asked you but didn’t. What’s the name of your gorgeous dog?
Charlie signed with Darkstroke in May 2020 and The Cry of the Lake is her debut novel.
Charlie is very much a morning person and likes nothing more than committing a fictional murder before her first coffee of the day. She studied Theology at Worcester College, Oxford and now lives in a Leicestershire village with her husband, three teenagers and golden retriever.
Have you ever read a review for a book that’s not your usual choice of genre, but tried it on the strength of a review? I did that recently when I read a review of Audrey Davis’s book, The Haunting of Hattie Hastings.
I don’t usually read books with anything remotely ‘supernatural’ in the title, but I’m so glad I made an exception for this one. It’s a lovely story, told with wit and charm with an array of interesting characters and some real laugh out loud moments.
So I contacted Audrey and asked if she’d be interested in appearing in my monthly column, Ideas Store, in Writers’ Forum. And also, of course, on this blog.
Thankfully, she said yes!
Welcome, Audrey and thank you for agreeing to be featured and for answering my questions.
First, the question all authors are said to dread.
Where didyou get the idea for The Haunting of Hattie Hastings?
I can only say ‘spooky’ forces were at work, because it literally came out of thin air. Looking back, the name – Hattie Hastings – materialised first. I started writing a chapter about Hattie and her husband with only the vaguest notion of where it might go. I imagined them as an everyday couple, ordinary people leading ordinary lives. In Chapter One I wanted to paint a picture of this normality, with Gary lapping up his moment singing in the spotlight, and Hattie wishing she could get to bed. From there, I added their twenty-year-old son, Johnny, and his reluctance (or inability) to make something of his life. But, where was it all heading? Only as I neared the end of that first chapter did inspiration strike. What if Gary died, then came back to haunt Hattie?
Always a sucker for a spot of alliteration, the title provided the bare bones of the story. As a confirmed ‘pantster’, I did little in the way of plotting, preferring to let the story and characters develop with each page. Hattie needed a best friend. What if that friend had her own set of problems? Who else could Hattie turn to when Gary reappeared? Gradually, other family members and friends crept in, whispering in my ear (a definite case of ‘voices in my head’.)
Although I don’t necessarily believe in an afterlife, I was drawn to the idea of a place where lost souls are assigned guardians and tasks to fulfil. Here was potential to mix things up with humour and pathos, because I enjoy the balance between comedy and sadness. Making people laugh is a gift, as is bringing a tear to someone’s eye.
The Haunting of Hattie Hastings was originally published as a novella trilogy. Partly because I wanted to experiment with releasing books this way, but mainly because I was still ‘winging’ it! In the lead up to publication day, I was working on the next instalment with still no fixed idea of how the story should progress. Surrounded by white cards and random scribblings, possibilities presented themselves, many of which were discarded.
Taking on board pleas for the trilogy to be released as a standalone novel, I went ahead and combined the three parts. Many people have asked how the book came about. I usually mumble, ‘not sure, really’. Probably best not to mention my ‘imaginary friends’ …
So you have ‘imaginary friends’ as well? So glad it isn’t just me! That’s fascinating. And I love how Hattie started as a novella trilogy and sort of evolved
You’ve written other books, I see. Including one called “A Clean Sweep”. How did that one come about?
The inspiration for my debut romcom novel, A Clean Sweep, came from an unexpected visitor a few years after we’d moved to Switzerland,” she says. “I answered the door one morning to discover an extremely attractive young man with a van. He gestured to my beloved yellow Mini Cooper, and said, ‘Madame, il y a un lapin sous votre voiture.‘ My French was basic at the time (and hasn’t improved greatly), but I understood enough. Yes, there was a fluffy bunny hiding under my car, my neighbours’ pet with a fondness for hopping into our garden.
It turned out that my good-looking gentleman caller was the local chimney sweep, calling to organise the cleaning of our chimney and to check the central heating boiler. I later learned that all households are required by Swiss law to have this carried out annually.
Fast-forward many years – and visits by this charming man – and I embarked on an online course in Writing Fiction. Scrambling around for ideas for a short piece, I thought of my chimney sweep and imagined a relationship between him and an older woman. No, I wasn’t fantasising, honestly! Once I’d completed the course, I couldn’t get the story out of my head.
From there, a couple of chapters about Joe and Emily took wings and – several months later – I had over 80K words. Along the way, other characters knocked at the door (metaphorically speaking), and I submitted the MS to an editor in the UK. She came back with (gulp) a 14-page report, and the suggestion that I expand on the book club element which I’d only touched on briefly. As a member of a book club at the time, I was able to draw on my experiences but I hasten to add that everyone in A Clean Sweep is entirely fictional!
That’s great, thank you so much. So tell us about your writing in general.
I write romantic comedy, but like to incorporate real-life challenges and issues (such as illness/divorce/loneliness) to balance humour with pathos. My two (soon-to-be-three) books are all standalones, but I did write a short, dark prequel to A Clean Sweep entitled A Clean Break. I also offer a short book entitled When Hattie Met Gary on my author website as a freebie leader magnet. Which makes me sound much more promo-savvy than I actually am!
Do you have a particular writing method? (I think I might know the answer to that, from what you have already said about writing Hattie!)
I only learned the terms ‘plotter’ and ‘pantster’ well into my fiction writing journey. It’s safe to say I’m much more of a pantster. I envy authors who can plot and plan every detail, proudly displaying a wall in their office plastered in Post-It notes, their book drafted out meticulously on Scrivener with character notes, detailed chapter synopses and a clear beginning, middle and end. My only concession to being organised is scribbling random thoughts on white postcards and printing out a calendar for my most recent book. Chiefly because the timeline was a total disaster!
I’ve always written, but as a journalist from the age of 18. A very different discipline, and my career went off track after I moved from a video magazine in London to Singapore, then Australia and – in the late 1990s – to Buckinghamshire. Two boys, relocation stress and house renovations meant I had little time or energy to write more than shopping lists. I am so grateful to FutureLearn (an offshoot of the Open University) for rekindling my passion for writing and for the many people I’ve subsequently connected with on social media for believing in me. Twitter, Facebook etc often get a bad press, but the writing community is a rock-solid source of encouragement when all you want to do is bang your head repeatedly on the keyboard.
You’re so right about the positive side of social media. There are some wonderfully supportive groups out there.
So, tell us three things we might not know about you.
1. I interviewed Rowan Atkinson back in my London days, after Blackadder, one of my all-time favourite shows. He was more nervous than me, but revealed his next project was ‘about a man who doesn’t say very much, and gets into all kinds of comic capers.’ The rest, as they say, is history …
2. I’ve bungee jumped in Cairns, scuba-dived on the Great Barrier Reef, Fiji and Vanuatu and screamed my head off on some of the scariest theme park rides in the world. Nowadays, I get scared driving on the Swiss autoroute!
3. Speaking of scary, I adore movies/shows that give me the heebie-jeebies. Ever since I cowered on the sofa watching Dr Who do battle with the Cybermen (and my Mum realised I was coming down with measles), I’ve been a huge fan of all things terrifying. Top two off a very long list – Sean of the Dead (love the comedy/zombie combo) and Train to Busan, a Korean corker I’ve watched three times. It makes the journey between Edinburgh and Dumbarton East seem like a stroll in the park …
Thank you so much, Audrey, for such a fascinating interview. And now for those all important links.
I am delighted to welcome the multi-talented (and multi-published) Olga Swan to my blog this week.
Olga was featured in the November issue of Writers’ Forum, where, for the last twelve years I’ve had a column called Idea Store. In it, I ask writers the question they’re all said to dread: Where do you get your ideas from?
I love writing my column each month but nothing ever stays the same, least of all in the ever changing world of publishing, and my one page column has now been slimmed down to half a page, which means half the word count. I’m not complaining, as it means I still get to write my column, even if it is a new slimmed down version. Ever since I started writing for Writers’ Forum I have expected the editor to say “Time for a change. You’ve had a good run – and thanks, but no thanks” and every year, when the production schedule pings into my inbox I heave a sigh of relief as I hope it means I’m ‘safe’ for another year. (It doesn’t, of course, but that’s the way I think).
The first writer to feature on my new slimmed down page (I wish I could say that I have slimmed down to match!) is Olga Swan, who prepared her piece back when I still had a whole page for my column. So, her appearance in the November issue was little more than a name check, I’m afraid. (And no, I did not do the editing and yes, I have apologised to her.)
So this is now your chance to read her interview with me in all its fullness. It’s a fascinating and touching one and I hope you enjoy it.
Welcome to my blog, Olga. So, let’s get the big question out of the way first
Where do you get your ideas from?
To date I have written 10 books and my third non-fiction book, An Englishwoman in America, was released in both ebook and paperback on 11 June 2019. My writing career as a whole stems from the fact that I lost my parents and both siblings fifty years ago and, since then, I’ve been desperate to continue our (unusual) family name by writing under the nom de plume of Olga Swan (an anagram of my late brother’s name.)
An Englishwoman in America is a humorous look at how the British and the Americans view each other. The cover image gives a snapshot of what lies within. My inspiration for writing it dates back to when I was growing up in the 50s. I couldn’t understand why four of us (my mother, 2 brothers and myself) were all shy and introverted, yet my father was loud, extrovert and so large as life in everything he did. Eventually I understood. He’d lived a considerable time in America. Should I then follow his lead and move to America? Would that make me more outgoing? The book required lots of research:from immigration tomes to other works in the genre to personal holiday diaries and precious travel memoirs from my father to internet sources.
When people ask me about my typical writing day, I reply that I don’t really have one. I tend to do everything on the hoof. As soon as inspiration hits, I head out to our tiny conservatory, which has plenty of light- particularly from above which helps my SAD- wait an interminably long time for my laptop to get going and then start typing. My problem has always been that I write too quickly and too much, meaning there are lots of deletions to be made later! When deciding on the names for characters, it’s different for non-fiction, where so many names and places have to be correct to be a true account. When I finished writing An Englishwoman in America, I just changed the names of family members so they wouldn’t be cross with me!
As far as plotting is concerned, for An Englishwoman in America, I found it helped enormously to include a Contents page, with chapter headings and chronological years listed. In this way, I was forced to keep to the itemised structure. However, as far as the main ‘factional’ narrative was concerned, I just let it develop as I wrote. I do find, though, that having written both fiction and non-fiction, that I use different parts of my brain: the back of my head for the former, but the front for the more observational needs of non-fiction writing.
In general, the best part of the writing process is being accepted by a publisher and seeing the first sales graph rise like a phoenix from the ashes. The worst? Not being accepted by leading literary agents not because of the quality or otherwise of your submitted work, but because you don’t already fit today’s need for ‘celebrity’ status.
Now that An Englishwoman in America is out there and published, my feelings are immense. I hope that, at last, I have made my late family proud of me.
I’m sure they are! Your body of work is a great achievement and a wonderful tribute to them.So, tell us a little about your books, please.
First, many thanks Paula for welcoming me onto your esteemed blog.
An Englishwoman in America is non-fiction, but as with my two previous non-fiction books (Pensioners In Paradis and From Paradis to Perdition), it’s written in a readable, factional style. It comprises a combination of information about America, its people, origins and how their culture evolved and morphed from the mainly English styles that crossed the Atlantic in the time of the Pilgrim Fathers. It contains much humour as I contrast just how differently the British and Americans do and say things.
Hopefully it will be the forerunner of a series of An Englishwoman in…..
The Book’s blurb
From 1950s Britain to Donald Trump’s America, no-one is left unscathed. How are Britain and America divided over subjects such as language, culture, humour, health, sport, government, gun laws, religion, patriotism, and even sex? Find out in Olga Swan’s scintillating – but essentially humorous – account of why her love for America was first kindled, followed by her views on the way of life in diverse places such as New York, Florida, New England, Arizona or California. Lastly, Olga has added a hilarious guide, where her pin-point wit nails just how the Americans and the British do things very differently. Hold onto your hats!
What inspires you most? Characters? Settings? Books you have read?
When writing non-fiction I’m inspired by such writers as Simon Sebag Montefiore, with his wealth of knowledge and factual research. For non- fiction I always enjoyed books by such writers as Leon Uris with his ability to transport the reader to different times and exotic places.
How did you writing journey start?
The first novel I wrote was Lamplight (authl.it/4q0), an historical piece set in 1912 Birmingham, spanning 1920s New York through to 1938 Nazi Germany. My late brother Alan typed my first hand-written draft onto his portable typewriter.
That sounds fascinating – and a lovely link with your brother. What are your future plans?
It’s difficult to pinpoint how my career will progress exactly as I write in so many different genres, including a series for 9 – 15s, but I expect my next book will be the successor to An Englishwoman in America.
And finally, how about telling us something we might not know about you?
My writing career started far too late! I was born in the baby-boomer period which followed WWII, enduring rationing and a life without TV, telephone, car or even the NHS when I was born. But better late than never!
Thanks for a lovely interview, Olga. That was really great. And now for those all important links
Social Media Links, website etc.
I write a political and cultural affairs blog every Sunday, which attracts readers from all over the world: olgaswan.blogspot.com
Before I was married I used to work in Bristol city centre and would catch the bus (it was, if I remember, the #18 for Clifton) to and from work.And the buses were, at times, erratic.No electronic thingy in the bus shelter showing when the next one was due.You just waited and waited – and then three would come along all at once.
All that is a very long winded way of saying that I haven’t posted to my blog for several weeks and now I’m posting twice in one week.I could tell you it’s because I’ve been poorly, but you don’t want to know that and I’ve waffled on quite enough.
So the reason for this, the second post of the week is the fact that issue 216 of Writers’ Forum is out this week and in my Ideas Store column, I said (among other things)….”and you can read the whole story on my blog.”But, of course, it wasn’t there.
So apologies if you went to my blog hoping to find it.But it’s here now.(Although chances are, you have voted with your feet and decided not to bother, in which case I am talking to myself again.)
In my column I was writing about notebooks and how I’ve kept one, on and off, for the last 15 years.My first notebook was an old A4 hardback that I’d liberated from the day job but once I’d filled that, (it took my four years) I started using Moleskine notebooks because I was earning some money from my writing by then and could afford the luxury.
When I was writing short stories, I needed a steady influx of ideas to keep the stories coming.(Wendy Clarke, who also started her writing career as a short story writer, touches on this in my interview with her).
Very often, I would use a prompt, many of which came from Judy Reeves’ A Writers Book of Days.I hope you can see from the illustration how well used my copy is.One of these days I am going to add up all the stories that I’ve sold as a result of this book!
But the story I feature in this month’s Ideas Store, The Kindness of Strangers, does not come from a prompt but from my Fiction Square.In Judy’s book, there is a prompt for every day of the year and I’d already used that day’s prompt in a previous year and had sold a story as a result of it.So I didn’t want to use that again as I couldn’t get the original story out of my mind.Instead, I used the Fiction Square from my column.
If you’re not familiar with the magazine, there is a 5 x 6 grid printed each month, showing 6 characters, traits, conflicts, locations and objects.The idea is you roll a dice to find all the ingredients of your next story. On this particular day my dice rolls came up with:
Character 1. a sullen child
Character 2. an heroic climber
Location: charity shop
Object: a book.
I began writing in my notebook: Ok, I see a boy. Sullen, defensive.He’s shoplifting.Been dared to do so by so-called mates.But, like everything else he tries, he’s not very good at it. He’s Billie-No-Mates.
Caught in the act by the climber, Rob.(Something more valuable than a book) Rob is broken.On crutches? Certainly doesn’t climb any more.Why?An accident.What’s he doing in a charity shop?Helping someone – his mother? No, he’s a customer. He’s a hero because he got a party of children to safety.Doesn’t feel like it because one of them died.
Since the accident, he’s been numb.Blames himself even though the enquiry exonerated him. Praised him for his courage. He’s walked away from everyone who cares about him. Drifting from one dead end job to another. One dead end town to the next.Sleeping rough. Shopping in charity shops for warm clothes.
My notes went on for another two pages and at the end of it I had almost outlineda complete story. I’d like to tell you it always worked like that but, sadly, that is not the case.In fact, at one time I thought it had the makings of a serial.Which it may well do one day.Who knows?
So, as promised, here is the final version of that story, which was published in the UK magazine, My Weekly and has had subsequent overseas sales as well.
THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS
As shoplifters went, the kid wasn’t even very good. Drawing attention to himself with each furtive glance. The idiot might as well be wearing a striped jumper, black mask and carrying a bag marked ‘swag’ over his shoulder.
Mac took a jumper off the hanger. It was a horrible mustard yellow, hand knitted thing, which was probably why it ended up in a charity shop. Not that he gave a toss what it looked like. The people he mixed with didn’t set too much store on sartorial elegance any more than he did. It was warm. It was cheap. Job done.
He turned to take it to the till. The kid was still by the CDs. Probably just browsing after all. Whatever. None of his business.
The kid’s head suddenly shot up as three lads of about the same age as him came up to the window. One signalled him to hurry up. Mac watched as the boy slipped the CD into his pocket and hurried out to his giggling mates. He saw him show them what he’d got, heard the shrieks of derisive laughter. He saw, too, the kid’s head go down, shoulders hunched, as he shoved the CD back in his pocket.
Mac shrugged. No need to get involved. He’d be moving on tomorrow. To another dead end job in another dead end town. But at least this time accommodation of a sort went with the job. That would be good. The nights were getting too cold to spend many more on the streets and the pain in his leg was getting worse, the colder it got. Sleeping rough was not one of his better ideas.
The girl at the till looked ridiculously young to be alone in charge of a shop. No wonder the kids were stealing off her. Mind you, if she kept the more valuable items, like that little egg cup he was pretty sure was silver,nearer the till, that would be a start.
“I’m so glad someone’s bought this,” she smiled as she folded the jumper. “My gran knitted it for my brother and he refuses to wear it.”
“Lucky for him he can afford to be choosy,” Mac growled – and instantly regretted it. It came across as whingey, and self pitying and he was neither.
“Oh Lord, I’m so sorry.” A flush stained the girl’s pale cheeks. “I didn’t mean to offend you.”
“You didn’t,” he said tersely. Why didn’t she just bag the thing and let him go? He didn’t come in here to get her life history. Didn’t want to know about knitting grannies. Certainly didn’t want to think about his own, who didn’t knit. But worried. Even though he was thirty two next birthday, she still worried about him. Probably a little less now he’d given up climbing.
“I don’t usually work in the shop,” the girl was saying. “I’m happier looking after the animals. But the rescue centre needs the money desperately and when we had the chance of this empty shop for a few months, we jumped at it. But I’m not very good at it, as you can probably tell. Take these biscuits, for example. There were eight of them but now there are only six and I know I haven’t sold any. Look, I’m going to have a cup of tea and a biscuit while they’re still here. Would you like one? I made them, so it’s ok.”
“No thanks.” Mac grabbed the bag and headed for the door. What? Did she think he was a bloody charity case? Or, maybe she thought he was the one who’d been nicking her precious biscuits? He might look a down and out. He might shop in charity shops. But that didn’t mean –
He stopped. He was angry. Hell, yes, he was angry. It was the first time he’d felt anything, except an icy numbness, since The Accident. Correction. Since the day after, when Mrs Pearce had screamed at him, called him a murderer. Said she hoped the knowledge that he’d killed her daughter would haunt him for the rest of his life. Well, she wasn’t wrong there.
He’d coped by training himself to feel nothing. No pleasure. No joy at the sight of a sunrise, no warmth in the company of friends, nor even the comfort of a soft bed. It was, he reckoned, a price worth paying. To be where no one knew him. Or tried to make him feel better by saying the accident wasn’t his fault. That he’d done all he could.
When he knew, just as Mrs Pearce did, that he hadn’t.
Why then, had he got so angry, because a young woman with a big soft eyes and a sweet smile had offered him kindness? Was it because she’d seen him as an object of pity? Someone who couldn’t even afford the price of a cup of tea and a biscuit? Who relied on the kindness of strangers?
Much better save her pity for the downtrodden donkeys and abandoned dogs.
As he reached the door, he was surprised to see the young shoplifter approaching and stood back to let him in. Then, on an impulse, he turned and followed him back into the shop. Outside, the others were urging the kid on. Obviously, the CD was not to their taste and they’d sent him back for bigger fry.
The kid reached into his pocket, took out the CD and put it back on the shelf. Mac watched as he edged up to the shelf where the silver egg cup was. Saw the furtive look as he picked it up, the relief when he saw the girl was busy on the other side of the shop.
Without realising he was going to do it, Mac walked across, put his hand over the boy’s stick thin wrist. Waited until the hand opened and the boy let the egg cup go. He looked up at Mac, his eyes wide with fear.
“Look, I’m sorry, mate,” Mac said loudly. “It’s no good asking me about volunteering. You should ask the lady over there. It’s her shop. I’m sure she can do with some extra help. Isn’t that right?” he said as the smiley girl came across to them. “Who knows? She may even offer you a cup of tea and a biscuit while she tells you all about the rescue centre.”
She looked surprised. Saw, too, the egg cup, upside down on the shelf. He could see she understood what had happened here. Would she call the Police? Up to her. It was stupid of him to have got involved anyway. It was just there was something about the kid. He’d seen it many times before.
Back in the day, before The Accident, he’d worked with kids just like him. Not bad kids, most of them. They came to the Outdoor Pursuits Centre where he’d worked, full of bluster and bravado when they first got there. Scared witless at their first sight of a mountain close up. Trying desperately not to show it. Hell, but he used to get such a kick out of the ones who ‘got it’, the ones who scraped their knuckles, cramped their legs muscles, forced themselves so far out of their comfort zones they’d never be the same again. The ones who stood with him on the top of the mountain, their eyes full of awe, their faces full of wonder.
This boy wasn’t a bad kid. Just had some bad mates. Not that Mac gave a toss what happened to him, of course.
“Here,” the girl gave the boy a beaming smile and handed him a leaflet. “It’s really good of you to enquire about volunteering. We run the rescue centre on a shoestring, you know, and need all the help we can get. Why don’t you read that and, if you’re still interested, come up to the centre, meet the animals and we’ll talk about it?”
The boy mumbled something barely audible and scuttled out of the shop.
“Thank you, Mac” the girl said quietly. “You handled that really well.”
He spun round, his mouth dry. “You know me?” he whispered, rubbing his hand through his straggling beard, his long lank hair.
“I do now. You are Rob McKinley, aren’t you? I wasn’t sure when you first came in. But my brother – the one who hasn’t the wit to recognise a good jumper when he sees one – he has a poster of you on his wall. Climbing’s his passion. You’re one of his heroes.”
Hero? He was no bloody hero. He was the guy who hadn’t been able to stop a young girl fooling around on a mountain. Hadn’t insisted she stayed with the group and not forge on ahead. Hadn’t been able to get down to her quick enough. Hadn’t been able to stop his own out of control tumble down the treacherous scree covered slope as he tried to reach her, his leg snapping like a twig during the fall. Hadn’t been able to move her, nor force her to hang on to life as they’d waited for the rescue party.
Had cradled her lifeless body, long after she’d gone.
“I was so sorry to hear about your accident,” the girl said softly. “Sorry, too, about the girl. It wasn’t −”
Mac’s hands were shaking as he wrenched open the shop door. Time to move on. Fast. Before she had chance to tell him that the accident wasn’t his fault, that he was – what had they said at the enquiry that had exonerated him? – a hero.
So he did what all ‘heroes’ do when they come up against something they can’t handle. He ran – as fast as his wreck of a leg would carry him.
“Thank you,” Mac said as the man dropped money into the bowl. He felt a cold nose touch the back of his hand and reached to fondle the dog’s head. Archie was never far from his side.
“Well, how are we doing?” Beth asked.
“The money’s rolling in,” Mac said. “It’s typical of Tom to turn his leaving do into a fund raising bash, isn’t it?”
“He’s a great kid, isn’t he? And he’s going to be a great vet, too.”
“He’s got a long, hard slog ahead, though. Getting into vet school’s one thing. Staying there’s another.”
“He’ll be fine, Mac. Don’t be such a pessimist.”
He pulled her towards him and kissed the top of her head. “You always see the best in everyone. And I love you for it.”
He loved her for a whole load of other things as well and there wasn’t a day went by that he wasn’t thankful for the way she’d run after him that day. Taken him back to the shop, made him sit and listen and eat those damn awful biscuits she’d made.
“Of course I see the best in people,” she said. “And you don’t, I suppose? That day in the shop, you could have had Tom arrested for shoplifting.”
“And so could you. You knew as well as I did he wasn’t in the shop to volunteer.”
“Yet look where volunteering’s taken him,” she said. “I knew, from the first moment he turned up at the rescue centre that he was as nuts about animals as I am.”
“Nuts being the right word.” Mac ducked quickly. Beth could pack a hefty punch, a result, she claimed, of standing up for herself against her bully of a brother.The same guy who was now Mac’s best friend, climbing partner and soon to be best man at their wedding.
“Well, get on with it,” Beth said. “There’s a load of people heading this way who haven’t bought raffle tickets yet. You’re slipping.”
Mac smiled as he watched her hurry away to talk yet more people into sponsoring donkeys or adopting ducks.
Beth could never resist a stray. She treated the frightened, the abused and abandoned with the same quiet patience she’d dealt with him. Gently, but firmly, she’d chased away his demons and dragged him back to life.
A life which, amazingly, she wanted to share. Along with four donkeys, a foul mouthed parrot and goodness knows how many dogs, cats, chickens and ducks.
Today I am delighted to welcome Katharine Johnson to my blog.Katharine is a very talented writer and I recently read and enjoyed her novel, The Silence.Although I have asked Katharine on my blog to talk about her latest novel, The Suspects.
Hi, Katharine.And welcome to my blog.Let’s kick off with that question all writers are said to dread (and which appeared in my Ideas Store column in Issue 214 (August 2019) of Writers’ Forum magazine.
Where did you get the idea for your psychological thriller, The Suspects from?
The idea was probably born many years ago during my own house shares as a student and graduate in the 1980s and 1990s – although my experiences were much less exciting and terrible than those of my characters.
But I suppose one of the reasons I chose a house share situation was because I’ve been thinking about them again recently as one of my daughters is about to graduate and the other one’s about to start university in Bristol so they’ll be looking at shared accommodation. (Although with hindsight it might not have been the best time for me to be thinking too much about this!)
I wanted to capture that optimism and anticipation you feel when you move in with a group of people, but also play on that frisson of doubt about how well you’ll get on together and how well you really know each other. It’s one thing to worry about the people next door but when you’re under the same roof there’s no escape.
I liked the idea of a house share because it provides a claustrophobic environment in which the characters find themselves dependent on each other for their survival but are increasingly fearful of the enemy within.
As the saying goes, you don’t truly know someone until you live with them.
My five characters have very different tastes, habits and political beliefs. Throw into the mix a shared mortgage, falling house prices and rocketing repayments at the height of Thatcher’s Britain and you have a potentially explosive situation.
But things get so much worse when they discover a body after one of their parties – and it’s clear they’ll be the first suspects. Because they each have reasons from their past not to trust the police they make a decision which will force them into a series of secrets and lies – but can they trust each other?
There are light-hearted moments as the tensions build between the characters and I had fun researching this bit – I’m grateful to everyone who shared their housemate-from-hell story with me! But there is also a gathering angst and paranoia as they question each other’s ability to keep a secret, and discover some shocking truths.
As with my other novels (The Silence, The Secret and Lies, Mistakes and Misunderstandings), my main characters aren’t bad people but they make a bad choice. I like to put ordinary people in extraordinary situations and see how they cope.
I chose to tell the story in the confessional first person narrative from a single viewpoint as I hoped it would make it feel more immediate. My worry was that I’d never be able to convince the reader but I’ve been thrilled with reviews such as “It’s actually worryingly easy to forgive them their mistakes”,“I could completely understand how they talked themselves into doing something so reprehensible”, “I felt like I was not only reading the story but living it as well” and “My heart was racing at times as I shared their guilt.”
Would you have made the same decisions my characters did? Hopefully not, but if you read the book I hope you can understand why they made the decision they did, and most of all I hope you enjoy reading it.
That’s fascinating, Katharine.Thank you so much.So now, let’s moveon to your writing in general.What inspires you most? Is it characters? Settings? Or maybe even books you’ve read?
All of those. I think initially I get excited about a situation. Then I think about the characters as they will determine how the story unfolds.
And how did your writing journey start? Have you always written?
I’ve always enjoyed making up stories and wrote my first book aged nine on my plastic typewriter. It was a collection of stories about a naughty chimp (still unpublished!). My grandmother encouraged me to write when she was babysitting – probably as a way to keep me quiet.
What was your first published piece?
My first published piece would be a story for my local paper in Bristol. I think it was about a couple that lived on a traffic island because they refused to move out of their home when a road was built.
My first fiction piece was many years later for Take A Break Fiction Feast about a very badly behaved bridegroom’s mother at a wedding and her daughter-in-law’s revenge.
You had a very wise grandmother!And your Take a Break story sounds fun.So tell us about your future plans, please.
I’m working on another, more conventional and very contemporary psychological thriller. I’m also very excited about a co-writing project with another author about a well-known artist.
And I have several bits of novels and a whodunnit series I’d love to make progress with if I can find the time.
That sounds fascinating.I’m looking forward to your next thriller and intrigued by your co-writing project.It sounds as if you, like me, are desperately waiting for someone to invent the thirty hour day!
In the meantime, how about sharing three things about you that we might not know?
As a teenager I (very briefly) joined a religious sect.
The first time I tried an avocado I was so horrified by the taste I fainted but it’s now one of my favourite foods (something I tell my children to encourage them to try new foods!)
I’m ambidextrous (but my handwriting’s terrible in either hand)
I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone fainting at the taste of an avocado before!That was a great interview.Thank you for a great interview and the best of luck with your latest book.I have just moved it nearer to the top of my tottering To Be Read pile and am really looking forward to reading it..
Please read on for the blurbs from Katharine’s books, the all important buy links and her social media links.
Two girls growing up in Mussolini’s Italy share a secret that has devastating consequences.
Against a backdrop of fear, poverty and confusion during the Second World War, friendship is tested, and loyalties are divided until a chance encounter changes everything.
Their lives diverge when beautiful, daring Martina marries and moves into Villa Leonida, the most prestigious house in their Tuscan mountain village, while plain, studious Irena trains to be a teacher.
But neither marriage nor life at Villa Leonida are as Martina imagined. And as other people’s lives take on a new purpose, Irena finds herself left behind.
Decades later, a tragedy at the villa coincides with the discovery of an abandoned baby, whose identity threatens to re-open old wounds among the next generation.
Bristol, 1988. Five young graduates on the threshold of their careers buy a house together in order to get a foot on the property ladder before prices rocket out of their reach. But it soon becomes the house share from hell.
After their New Year’s Eve party, they discover a body – and it’s clear they’ll be the first suspects. As each of them has a good reason from their past not to trust the police, they come up with a solution – one which forces them into a life of secrets and lies. But can they trust each other?
Doctor Abby Fenton has a rewarding career, a loving family, an enviable lifestyle – and a secret that could destroy everything.
When human remains are discovered in the grounds of an idyllic Tuscan holiday home she is forced to confront the memories she has suppressed until now and relive the summer she spent at the villa in 1992. A summer that ended in tragedy. The nearer she gets to the truth the closer she comes to losing her sanity.
In order to hold onto the people she loves most, she must make sure they never discover what she did. But the reappearance of someone else from that summer threatens to blow her secret wide open.
Nothing much has gone right for Jack since he graduated last year. His career has failed to take off, his fiancée has ditched him for someone with better prospects and now he’s received an invitation to their wedding. He dreads going to the wedding alone, surrounded by his high-achieving friends, so when he meets a beautiful girl who offers to accompany him he jumps at the chance.
But by accepting her invitation he finds himself drawn into a world of intrigue and murder.
Katharine Johnson is the author of four novels. She grew up in Bristol and currently lives in Berkshire. She’s been a magazine editor and has written for lots of magazines, mostly in the home and lifestyle sector, as well as short stories and a history book. When not writing you’ll usually find her reading, drinking coffee, exploring cities, playing netball, guiding people around a stately home (not her own!) or out walking with her writing buddy, Monty the spaniel.