Friday 26 September 2014

Serial Killers

As you probably all know, Diamonds&Dust, which was rejected out of hand by my ex-agent as ''not remotely publishable'' and subsequently went on not only to be published, but to be up for the CWA Historical Dagger, the Walter Scott Prize and the Folio Society Prize, is now developing offspring.

It wasn't meant to. Seriously. Grateful as I was to Crooked Cat Books, I didn't envisage trotting out the two Victorian detectives Stride and Cully again. But like lily pond paintings by Monet and Haydn String Quartets, once I'd started, it seemed logical to keep going.

Thus the sequel, Honour&Obey whose title alone will be a cause of much distress to the US market, will hit the literary stratosphere in November. You have probably seen the Tweets. You may even have been invited to the virtual Facebook launch - please note: Victorian dress is compulsory and to those who attended last year's launch, yes we have secured the services of Ralph the Marvellous Performing Dog once again.

There are those writers who regard a series as a bit of a ''cop-out'': after all, you've got all your characters already written for you. To them I would say: writing a series is MUCH harder than producing a one-off text. And I know what I'm talking about: this is my second series of books. (The Spy Girl series for Usborne was the first)

The main problem is that, unless you started with the idea of writing a series, and few authors do, they just tend to evolve, you are stuck with whatever you wrote in the first one. You cannot radically alter the appearance nor personality of the main character/s without readers going ''What the ...?'' After all, it was how they were in book 1 that will keep them reading books 2, 3, 4, 5 etc. You can and must develop the main characters, but in essence, they have to bear some resemblance to how they were in the beginning.

Then there is the problem of keeping the plot momentum going. I find book 2 is usually the easiest, as it seems to evolve naturally out of the first one. Book 3, however, is far more problematic. New areas have to be introduced to keep the reader interested. Some fundamental shifting of perspective must take place, or else book 3 becomes merely a watered down version of the previous two. Actually, book 3 is usually the pivotal one upon which the rest of the series rests. If you cannot pull it off successfully, it is best to admit defeat and pretend you only meant to write two in the first place.

By book 4, the pitfall is over-confidence. You have run the gauntlet of three books. You feel the surge of expertise as fingers hit keyboard. This, after the previous three, will be a doddle to write. You have your characters, you know how the story arc works. Sometimes this attitude pays off: I still think Dead Man Talking, the fourth Spy Girl book, is the best plotted. However, beware: book 4 can so easily wonder off into alien territory, or become a repetition of book 3, with added lacklustre.

I have never got further than book 5 (and Usborne turned it down) so I cannot speak from experience, but I can say from avidly reading crime series, that some writers manage to sustain plot, characters and reader interest beyond book 5, but many more don't. The trouble with series is that publishers LOVE them. They are easy to market, and each book sells on the back of the previous ones. Thus the temptation to go on churning them out year after year, when by rights the whole thing should have been allowed to quietly slink off and hide in a dark corner after the fifth one.

I have been told, though, that the ''real money'' comes from a 5 book series, which means most other writers will have been told this too. This is probably why some of them are keeping doggedly going 10 + books later. I can't see myself getting as far as a fifth book right now. Mind, I never thought I'd get as far as a third. In the meantime, I plot on with book 3, crossing my fingers, hoping that it will avoid the ubiquitous potholes and that I can pull it off successfully yet again.

If you would like to download a free sample of Diamonds&Dust A Victorian Murder Mystery, you can do so HERE. US readers can do so HERE

Saturday 20 September 2014

Flying Solo

Taxing times at Hedges Towers. As some of you know, BH is off on his Annual Italian Jaunt, visiting lovely places, eating lovely food and indulging in the twin cultural pursuits of opera and football. Oh, and a further visit to the Maserati factory in Modena, just in case this year, they might be giving away free samples.

I did seriously think about joining him for a week, despite my known travel phobia, but then I fell foul of the Passport Office, who wanted to charge me an inordinate amount of money to renew my passport and have now refused to send back my old one plus the photos I paid for. So I am confined to the Kingdom of Westfield (population: 2) - if you remember, we seceded from the rest of Harpenden in a defiant gesture against what we see as a ruthless and totalitarian regime.

I could, of course, issue my own passport, but the printer is playing up (see below). However, I may start opening diplomatic negotiations with Scotland, should the Yes vote win the day on Thursday. I am happy to offer the newly refurbished shed as a Caledonian Consulate and I'm sure, once we have our flag and anthem worked out, we we can all come to some mutually amicable trade arrangement.

Be that as it may, the usual Things That Go Wrong thing has kicked in. Keys have walked. My mobile phone vanished for 24 hours. The 2CV has had carburettor problems, which Big Dave assures me have been 95% sorted. The 5% is waking me up at night though. Along with everything else. This always happens whenever I fly solo: I am wide awake at 2 am, over-thinking and focusing obsessively on stuff. It's a form of Attention Surplus Hyperactivity Disorder, thought after a week of broken nights, it all feels more like one slice of a madness sandwich.

Were this not enough, I am also being re-awoken 4 hours later by the Astonishment of Kitten, whose arrival is heralded by crashes, squawks and the thunder of tiny paws. It is pretty well impossible to be cross with a kitten, but one jumping ecstatically on you at 6 am could prove the exception to the rule. If I could only train her to make and bring up a mug of coffee, she'd be slightly more welcome.

Meanwhile paperwork piles up, disasters rain down, the grass continues to grow and I get increasingly irate with Classic FM presenters: It's anTITHesis, for goodness sake - any alternative proNUNciation is totally abHORrent. Ah, the joys of flying solo.

Saturday 13 September 2014

A Letter To My Granddaughter, Aged 6 Months

A little stewed apple goes a long way

Dear Avalyn Grace

I wrote to you 6 months ago, when you were born (here it is). So much has changed since that day, so I thought I'd write to you again. The biggest change has been in you. Here you are, sitting up (a bit topply still but you're getting there) and beginning to enjoy some solid food - even if much of it gets spread all over your face.

You now recognise members of your family - your eyes light up and you smile with delight whenever you see your mum and dad and gratifyingly, when you see your granddad and me. Your smile is as wide as Africa, and brightens the dullest day. You have started to ''sing'' loudly and frequently delight bus passengers and people in restaurants with your vocal talents. At least, we hope they are delighted.

A smile as wide as Africa

You still don't go through the night - luckily your mum mastered the art of sleeping standing up while doing her Territorial Army Training - we wondered at the time whether it was a skill she'd ever need to use in the future. How wrong we were. It's certainly coming into its own now.

Along with your stunning ability to keep two grown adults awake during much of the hours of darkness, you are also managing NOT to conform to the many expert baby manuals they dutifully bought when you were born. You ''should'' be rolling, you ''should be'' cutting teeth, you ''should be'' doing this...or that....but alas, you haven't read the books, so you are developing at your own pace.

The 'bucket list' of achievements means nothing as far as you are concerned. You are doing your own thing, riding your own wave. As you will spend most of your young life being measured against a set of ridiculous and arbitrary developmental milestones, go ahead. Refuse to be straitjacketed and enjoy being yourself.

I cannot believe that a whole six months of your life has sped by and in another six months, you will be a year old. Soon after that, I shall be looking after you when your mum returns to work. Admittedly I'm not one of the ''experts' but I have my own 'bucket list' all ready. On it are: love, cuddles, fun and adventures. And I promise you, I will make sure you manage to achieve them all.

With my love


Saturday 6 September 2014

The Pen Is Mightier Than The Sward

Most of you know that I am a local ''activist' (or bloody nuisance, depending upon what side of the Council fence you sit). For the past seven years I have campaigned to save an ex-allotment space from being sold off for ''affordable housing'' (see: if you have enough time or a strong stomach.)

Much of the campaign has been conducted via letters in the local paper. The Editor is happy to publish what I see as wryly witty Swiftian missives, because they wind people up, and anything that provokes debate is good for sales. The letters have quite a following ... especially when I get piled into, and I have to say that very little of what I get on Twitter compares to the splenetic rantings of the ironectomied in response to something that was written with tongue firmly planted in cheek.

Which segues nicely into the new Strategic Local Plan - something all local authorities have to produce. Ours has now shuffled shamefacedly into the light of day. An independent consultant has looked at a Google Map, seen some green bits, and decided they'd be good to build on. One bit contains a local bluebell wood and a newly refurbished teenage playground, but let that pass. The main problem is that a rented farmer's field to the North of Harpenden (the posh Tory bit that NEVER has any major development. Ever.) has been highlighted as a potential housing estate.

Cue angry letter from 'No I Am Not A Nimby' resident, saying that it would be far better to sacrifice local allotments than build on his bit of ''Greenbelt''; allotments being a minority hobby, taking up a lot of urban green space that could be more usefully turned over to housing. It needed a reply, so I wrote to the paper proposing that instead of sacrificing valuable allotments that provided havens for wildlife, and food for hard-pressed families, the council might like to turn over some of the local golf courses to satisfy housing needs instead.

I suggested that there seemed little benefit in keeping all these rolling swathes of green grass merely to allow a small and exclusive elite to wander across hitting little balls into holes (sic). This would preserve the Greenbelt AND the allotments together. The response was immediate and totally predictable. However in an unexpected twist, last week when the furore appeared to have all died down, lo! another letter - not from One Of The Usual Suspects, but from someone actually supporting my 'suggestion', saying what a very good idea it was, and that they hoped the council would seriously take it on board.

I am gleefully awaiting the inevitable response, pen in hand, ink pot at the ready.

If you would like to read a free sample of my novel Diamonds& Dust, A Victorian Murder Mystery, you can do so HERE. US readers can do so HERE

Update: Another letter in this weeks' local paper supporting my idea of building on golf courses. This could run and run....or stroll and stroll.