This has been a strange weekend for everyone, despite – or even because of – the blue skies and sunshine, now replaced by a cold, grey front from the North Pole. On Friday, it was seventy-five years since ‘VE [Victory in Europe] Day’. In the UK, all kinds of celebrations had been planned for this, most of which haven’t happened because of the Covid-19 lockdown. There is some hope that they can be held on 15th August, on ‘VJ [Victory in Japan] Day’ instead. I wonder. When the lockdown started, no-one imagined it would still be in place towards the end of the summer, but it may well be.
My daughter-in-law, who is German, told us about a conversation she had with our five-year-old granddaughter about this European anniversary, providing her with the relevant history that she really did want to know about, for, though the family lives in Cambridgeshire, she has relatives in the Münsterland and elsewhere whom she visits regularly; she also speaks German very well indeed. She knows that her great-grandparents chucked bombs at each other. Her mum’s words speak for themselves:
“VE Day. I’ve been thinking about the right words all day. It is one of the very few days when I find British life… awkward.
For me, the 8th of May has always been a day of commemoration and, primarily, of remembering the liberation from fascism and the Holocaust. I have absolutely no problem with celebrating this and the end of the war, but I suppose what makes me feel uncomfortable is the choice of the name for this day. Victory in Europe.”
Between them, she and her daughter decided to rename the day ‘Peace in Europe Day’ and – in and with, socially distanced 😉, their local community – to celebrate peace, not victory, as something perhaps more relevant now than it has ever been since 1945.
Here, at home in the Pennines, we have reflected a lot on how far we have come as a nation since the Second World War and I don’t mind saying that we are both committed Europhiles, who are happily English but also proud of being European. We love the country we were born in and all that makes it unique, but we love Europe too; we identify, quite rightly, with our nation, but not to the detriment of other nations; we are not jingoistic and we are weary indeed of the ultra-nationalistic nonsense we’ve heard all our lives and, especially, over the past three years or so. When our son and daughter-in-law were married in 2011, we hung German and British flags in our hall, where they have remained ever since, accompanied now by a banner of the twelve Chinese horoscope characters in silk and an Indian textile designed to celebrate Diwali, both acquired on my forays abroad. They hang there together in solidarity, companions in peace and shared interests from four very different countries, a testament to new global friendships with likeminded people. Our granddaughter takes it for granted that they are a permanent part of our household.
In the village where I live, several families hung out Union Jacks. Flags are evocative props – they stand at once for national pride, military prowess and a strong sense of identity. When my husband was a child and his family were living in the south of England they made a pilgrimage back to the north once a year to visit his grandmother, who always hung out Union Jacks on the hedge to welcome them after their long journey.
In retrospect, these same flags were probably the ones she purchased to celebrate the original VE Day. When I was a child growing up in Lincolnshire, we all waved flags on Flower Parade Day (though I never understood why) and, when we visited the seaside, our parents would buy us little packets of paper flags to stick in sandcastles. There was always a Union Jack among these, though my brother and I both liked the red and green Welsh dragon best. Children enjoy the simple realities, rather than the symbolism, which they only later come to understand. We are delighted that our granddaughter has shrugged off naïveté about this very early.
The celebrations were meant to mark the return to peace rather than victory and those creative people who managed to put their mark on yesterday expressed this. My favourites were the staff of my local convenience shop, who dressed as – very glamorous – land girls to cheer and amuse their customers.
They all work very hard to support everyone in their neighbourhood, with no discrimination, even though they have their fair share of – how best to put it? – awkward individuals! I’m led to consider that EVERY nation has its own fair share of, frankly, unpleasant people.
Because of my day job, I’m in daily touch with people across the world, all coping with lockdown. Some have very challenging situations to cope with: they live in densely populated conurbations, are looking after newborn babies or have underlying health issues that have confined them to their homes for months. As the effects of the lockdown here make life seem ever more like living in a science fiction novel, I’m conscious of how fortunate I am that my home is in a beautiful place, from which I can walk out for my daily exercise in woods bursting with bluebells and with the air a tumult of birdsong.
The spring has seemed particularly lovely this year, perhaps because the enforced stay at home has helped us to notice it more. Listing the positives associated with the lockdown, both the warmth of the season and having access to technology that allows me to keep in touch with far-flung friends and family are jointly top. I’ve learnt some new skills, too: several culinary ones, including a Nigella chocolate cake that guarantees domestic bliss (at least in this household!); I’ve helped my husband make John Innes-style compost for the tomato plants because the garden centres were closed; and I’ve plucked up the courage to tackle my grey roots and for the first time to experiment myself with hair dye (I’m pleased to report I’ve emerged neither orange nor bald!). I’m working on a new venture with an old friend. I’ve had more time to get in touch with other authors to discuss writing; I’ve managed to read even more books than usual. The British Library, which I joined last year, has sent me links to virtual tours of its collections which have enthralled and delighted me.
Of course, there are negatives. Social networking can’t replace face-to-face contact in the long term; the future of my day job is uncertain; and a significant reaction to bee stings has been harder to deal with than if the chemist and the doctor’s surgery had been working as normal. But these things are trivial compared to the most profound truth: that in villages such as mine we know we are cocooned from reality: it’s hard for us to imagine the distress and suffering that is being experienced by patients and NHS workers across the country, or by those in care homes, those who are grappling with Covid-19 at home or those who are afraid because they need ‘shielding’.
Flags and silk figures can’t help here: they symbolise important values, but they are inert. What can and does help tremendously are the small acts of joy that people like Paula, who works in the convenience store and took the trouble both to research and glam herself up in style, bring to the people they meet, by spending time and thought on how to celebrate sensitively.
Saturday November 5th was a cold, squally day, a fitting atmosphere for Bonfire Night. I was probably feeling the cold more than most, having just returned from some time away on business, first in Quito and then in Charleston, South Carolina (more about both on these pages very soon). The temperature in each of these places was around twenty-five degrees.
I was in Pontefract, a historic Yorkshire town, scene of gruesome murders during the Wars of the Roses and, almost two centuries later, in the English Civil War. Pontefract library is a light and airy building with lots of glass and invitingly-arranged bookshelves that fan out from the centre as well as lining the walls. I’d been very kindly invited by Alison Cassels, the Officer for Reading at Wakefield Library Services, with whom I have several times participated in crime fiction events in West Yorkshire; she had asked me to speak about Rooted in Dishonour, which will be published on 15th November, read one of the chapters and then host a more general literary event, which included asking the audience to name their favourite novels and take part in a short ‘whodunnit’ play written by Ann Cleeves.
It was a long time since I’d last visited Pontefract Library and I enjoyed going back. A small flock of helmeted sheep occupied the ‘Fleece Station’ and busied itself with a murder scene just outside. The corpse had been already removed, having first been outlined by Eweno Hugh, the soco. I noted the chalked heels and deduced that the victim had been female. I heard that DI Tup, who had been protecting some productive grass from persecution by local thieves, would soon be on the case. I felt quite at home. Furthermore, as the Ann Cleeves playlet was set in Shetland, refreshments included shortbread and Tunnock’s teacakes, a treat that I’ve rarely seen since I worked in Scotland some twenty years ago.
The audience consisted of about twenty-five people, a few of whom I’d already met at events in Wakefield in previous years. They were truly one of the liveliest, most receptive audiences I’ve ever encountered. They gave Rooted in Dishonour a wonderful debut and asked so many questions that the event lasted two hours, instead of the hour that had been scheduled. If anyone who came on Saturday is reading this, I’d like to thank you very much indeed.
Huge thanks also to Alison, Lynne, Liz and Lynne and their colleagues, who made me feel as welcome and special as they always do.
Rooted in Dishonour’s launch event will take place at Bookmark in Spalding on Tuesday 15th November, the publication date; I’ll be signing books in the afternoon and talking about the novel and giving readings in the evening. More details may be found at http://bookmarkspalding.co.uk/. On Saturday 19th November, I’m signing copies of the novel from 11 am – 2 pm at Walker’s Bookshop in Stamford (http://www.walkersbookshops.co.uk/) and on Saturday 26th November, starting at 12.30 pm, I have a signing session at Heffer’s Bookshop in Cambridge (http://bookshop.blackwell.co.uk/stores/heffers), as part of the Cambridge Literary Festival.
I’m also hoping to be able to spend rather more time blogging and catching up with many good friends on the social networks; they have been very, very kind to me on Twitter and Facebook whilst I have been caught up in work. Many sincere thanks to them all.
I made the cardigan in the photograph for a small friend of mine and I have to admit I am quite proud of it. The small friend is a she who likes owls (the multi-shaded wool is called ‘Owl’ by its suppliers) and I found the owl buttons online. I was even more delighted when they arrived and I discovered that they’d come from an online retailer based at Gedney, a small village close to my native Spalding.
This particular little girl owns very few clothes in pink. Her mother, whilst objective enough to include some pink in her daughter’s wardrobe, is determined not to turn her into a ‘princess’ and, in any case, I had other ideas for this project (pink not having been a very popular colour for girls during my own childhood, I should never have considered this colour as a must for any daughter of mine, had I had one); I like owls myself and have noticed that they tend not to shine brightly pink as they silently flit between the trees at dusk. And, if you follow me on Twitter, you’ll know that my chosen header picture there hasn’t a trace of pink in it. When looking for other garments with which to indulge the small friend, my worst expectations were quickly confirmed by what I found, that many are not only pink, but pink in a very sexist way. I’ve discovered (but not been tempted to buy) pink tops printed with patterns of cupcakes and hearts, pale pink coats adorned with dark pink bows and little pink socks with lacy ruffled tops. Most retailers of children’s clothing stock their racks with boy-girl equivalents and I’ve found that the boy equivalents are almost always much more interesting and, generally, much less narrowly stereotyped by colour. For example, at Monsoon, I found some beautiful long-sleeved T-shirts in green and gold, decorated respectively with wild animals on a prairie and a train packed with animal passengers. Some of the motifs were appliquéd or embroidered, making the fabric fascinating for a small girl already interested in all things tactile. I bought them for her: there was nothing overtly masculine about them and they were much more fun than the horizon-narrowing pink-iced buns on a darker pink ground topped with scarlet glacé cherries. Her mum has also bought beautiful boys’ clothes for her which look as good on her as on any boy. Based on my limited recent experience as a shopper for infants, I’m astonished that the racks of sickly pink fairy-frocks sell: I had fondly assumed that at least some of the clear message thinking women (and men!) have been sending for so many years now to the producers and buyers of children’s goods would have got through; I’d have expected to see the ‘pretty-in-pink’ clothes bunched in limp, unconsidered crowds during the sales. But in all the shops where I browsed, the pink princess outfits seemed to be disappearing like hot cakes – or cupcakes!
What I especially don’t understand is the logic behind dressing little girls in clothes like these. In the past, girls wore skirts and boys wore trousers or shorts (I belong to the first generation of girls to have made a big push first to be allowed to wear trousers and later to have them accepted as smart workwear), but there were few other concessions to gender except whether buttons were placed on the left or the right of the garment (a confusing convention that thankfully seems largely to have died out). Girls and boys wore the same styles and colours in coats, jumpers, cardigans, shirts, vests and socks. Only swimwear and footwear were different, and then not always: small girls often wore the same (hideously uncomfortable when wet) knitted swimming trunks as boys and stout lace-up shoes in the winter or bar-sandals in the summer were fairly universal. Granted, colours were often drab (browns, greens and greys didn’t show the dirt, swatches of cloth and hanks of wool were often left over from the making of adult garments) and choosing ‘unisex’ clothes may partly have been inspired by the domestic economics of hand-me-downs. I acknowledge there was also quite a lot to put up with before the advent of man-made materials and truly waterproof clothes. Most children had only one school coat and often had to wear it damp on the day following a downpour. All but the wealthiest grew heartily sick of their clothes before they grew out of them: two school skirts, two jumpers and two or three shirts, plus a dress ‘for best’, was the norm and, although I didn’t think of it then, this must have meant mothers, and sometimes fathers (not all fathers ensconced themselves behind their newspapers when they returned home) were engaged in a constant round of washing and ironing. I’m not trying to hark back to some kind of golden age.
But still, as far as our clothing went, girls and boys were pretty much equal. I certainly never wore anything that suggested that my future would be focused on baking cup-cakes and wearing lipstick (though I happen to enjoy both), nor did my brother’s clothes indicate that he was destined to be a footballer, astronaut or mechanic. I make these points tongue-in-cheek, but underlying them is a very serious principle indeed: that of achieving true equality between the sexes and removing the glass ceiling once and for all. How are the women and men of the future going to be inspired to exercise a completely free choice, electing to become engineers or hairdressers, electricians or fashion designers, bus drivers or nurses – or indeed, bakers or make-up artists – because they’ve thought about it and this is what they want to be, if at the age of a few months they have already been placed in a gender pigeon-hole created by parents in cahoots with clothing manufacturers?
I began by saying that I’m proud of the owl cardigan. It’s been a long time since I knitted a garment and, though the pattern was simple, I enjoyed making it and felt a sense of achievement when it was finished – especially as its owner seems to like it. It’s a unisex cardigan, suitable equally for a girl or a boy, and could equally have been made by a man or a woman. One of the people who taught me to knit was my stepfather, a burly fifteen-stone builder with hands as big as soup tureens. Boys – and girls – and parents – take note.
This summer, events and commitments have seemed to conspire to restrict the time I had become used to spending on blog posts and engaging with others on the social media, by which I really mean Twitter, because, try as I might to be active with it, I can’t feel very comfortable with the lumbering mode of global communication that Facebook always proves to be to me. Even Twitter has found me out as a tweeting dilettante, never spending long at all up there amongst the flocks in the branches, but flitting in and out in sharp bursts like a swallow. So, first, may I apologise to loyal friends who must think me at best unreliable and, at worst, not a friend to them at all. Some of you (you know who you are) have put up with my scant regard for relationship consistency with huge patience and unstinting support in my absences, for which, please do accept huge thanks for keeping this bird in flight.
In the context of all this, I should like to make as public a declaration of thanks as this blog permits to a wonderful pair of Jennies, who, separately and at different times, could almost be assumed to have been acting in collusion to make me feel good about myself and about my novels. They have joined a wonderful group of reviewers of the first two DI Yates books who have taken much trouble both to read them and then to provide splendidly constructive and insightful commentary upon them. The DI Yates page on this site quotes them verbatim, which is my best way of saying ‘thank you’. However, Jenny Lloyd, who has reviewed both books, and Jenny Burnley, who has just reviewed Almost Love, have yet to find their comments transferred here (I’ve been remiss about this and I’ll be rectifying it shortly!) and I’m thus giving them a post to themselves by way of appreciation.
Both Jennies have been absolutely consistent in their celebration of other writers’ and bloggers’ work, mine included, and I’d like them to know just how much I value such selfless enthusiasm for writing about and spreading what they read, which helps so many people on the networks. I’d also like to say how much I enjoy their work, too. Thankfully, their qualities are shared by many of my virtual friends and acquaintances; they do epitomise the best of good social media practice, which means that they are always a pleasure to talk to.
I imagine that readers of this post will readily understand how I feel upon reading such reviews as these two, not just because they are so positive, but because their insights are so very thoughtful. Here they are:
Jenny Lloyd, on In the Family:
While laid up with an injury, the days can seem interminably long. What I needed was a book that would take my mind off the pain in my knee and the stultifying boredom that comes from sitting in one place for too long. I’d just finished reading The Luminaries (an 800 plus page book I would never have got round to tackling if I hadn’t been laid up). Then my daughter found the lost charger for my Kindle while looking for something else (as always happens). Browsing through some of the titles, I came across In the Family by Christina James, a book I’d bought some time ago, immediately following my reading of the author’s other book, Almost Love.
There is always a risk, after reading a really good book by an author, that one’s expectations will be disappointed by the next one. So it was with fingers crossed that I began In the Family, hoping I would enjoy it as much as Almost Love. I needn’t have worried, though. If anything, I enjoyed this one more.
In the Family has all the ingredients which one expects from a crime-thriller but it is the author’s skill which takes these ingredients and turns them into a crime-story bristling with mystery and suspense, written with intelligence and deep psychological insights. And the characters! Some of this family’s characters you would not want to meet, let alone be related to, but the author portrays them so well I now feel I have met them all and they linger in my memory still. Essentially, I felt the central theme of this story explored how damaged people can result in damaged families with devastating consequences for any children involved.
The gist of the story; a skeleton is found buried alongside a road and Inspector Tim Yates is called in to investigate. The remains are that of a young woman, Kathryn Sheppard, who disappeared thirty years before. As Tim and his team unravel what happened to Kathryn, the Atkins family’s past comes back to haunt them.
I devoured this book in two days; not because I had little else to do but because I honestly couldn’t stop reading it. My measure of a good read is: how much I don’t want to stop reading to go and do something else; how much I relish picking it up again; and how much I don’t want it to end. In the Family scored top marks on all counts.
I feel I must thank Mrs James for the thoroughly enjoyable two days I spent captivated by her story. The Luminaries may have won the Booker Prize last year, but for me In the Family was the better read. Mrs James has a third novel coming soon; I will be first in the queue to buy!
Jenny Burnley, on Almost Love:
This excellent crime thriller weaves a complex story around the main characters of Detective Inspector Tim Yates and Alex Tarrant, following the inexplicable disappearance of Dame Claudia, a celebrated archaeologist with a mysterious past. In a weak, alcohol-fuelled moment, Alex, married to the boring, but dependable Tom, allows herself to be seduced by the dastardly Edmund, a dangerous, unlikeable character. This adulterous liaison is central to the story, which moves along at a cracking pace. The reader is drawn along deeper into the story, demanding to know the all-important answer to ‘whodunit’ and how. This quest required reading late into the night to unravel the mystery and see what happened next. Suspects abound in Almost Love and there is plenty of action, tension and suspense, with many clever twists and turns. The characters are exceptionally well-drawn, with close attention paid to human foibles and weaknesses. As the story unfolds, a dramatic late twist leaves the reader breathlessly awaiting the next D.I. Yates novel.
Thank you, Jenny and Jenny. You have jointly ‘made my summer’ and I know that your good offices as discriminating reviewers benefit many authors and make them feel very good about what they do. Thank you, too, to all those other wonderful reviewers and readers who have supported my books so far.
Yesterday I was privileged to attend the Writing on the Wall (WoW) literary festival in Liverpool. It was held in Liverpool’s wonderful new (it opened to the public just over a year ago) central library, which has been expertly refurbished so that it combines the best of the old, classically-built library exterior with a stunning, light-filled new building, the atrium of which is awe-inspiring in its use of space and light.
Yesterday’s event was superlatively well organised by Abi Inglis, a recent graduate of Liverpool John Moores University, who runs her own online magazine (Heroine) for women and has been helping with or running literary events in the city for several years. Madeline Heneghan was the overall festival director and Mike Morris the operations director.
I was doubly grateful to Abi, because, as well as inviting me to talk at the festival about how to get published, she also gave me a short slot to read the opening chapter of my next DI Yates novel, Sausage Hall, which will be published on 17th November. This was Sausage Hall’s first public outing, and marks the start of a series of events that Salt and I are planning both in the lead-up to the publication date and immediately afterwards.
Even better, Abi devoted a large part of yesterday afternoon to Salt and Salt authors. Mike Morris, himself a published playwright, interviewed Jon Gale, a young Liverpudlian author whom he obviously admires greatly and whose novella Albion was recently published by Salt as part of the Modern Dreams series.
Mike then chaired a panel session of four Modern Dreams authors: Jon Gale, Denny Brown, Michelle Flatley and Jones Jones. This was one of the best panel sessions I’ve ever seen conducted at a literary festival. Mike elicited comments from each of the authors with great skill, giving them each an equal opportunity to talk, and they were all courteous, articulate and extremely interested in each other’s work. It was a proud day for Salt!
Knowing that I was going to meet them, I read each of these authors’ novellas before the event, and was hugely impressed by them (Denny Brown’s is called Devil on your Back,
Michelle Flatley’s Precious Metal,
and Jones Jones’ Marg).
They all had an interesting story to tell about their journeys towards being published by Salt: Denny Brown, a mother of five, was the victim of an abusive marriage; Michelle Flatley is an artist who teaches refugees; Jones Jones is a journalist who has recently felt the compelling need to write fiction; Jon Gale has struggled for several years to find a publisher since leaving university. I recommend all their novellas: they’re ideal for commutes or train journeys, or simply for rainy evenings at home – I’m certain you’ll find that the time spent reading them will be more entertaining than watching TV. All are available as e-books from a variety of channel providers, including Amazon, which has just launched a promotion for the whole Modern Dreams series.
I was sponsored to talk about ‘How to get Published’ by PrintonDemandWorldWide, whose new venture, The Great British Bookshop, provides authors with an alternative to Amazon if they want to self-publish but need help with sales channels.
PODWW gave me some notebooks, pens and guidelines for authors to distribute at the festival, which proved to be extremely popular.
I can’t conclude this post without mentioning what a wonderful public audience the city of Liverpool produced for this event.
It was one of the most diverse audiences I’ve met at a literary festival: families brought their children; there were many teenagers and young adults; quite a few senior citizens and some people with disabilities took advantage of the easy access to the library to join in the festival fun. All listened keenly, welcomed the authors enthusiastically and asked great questions. The main festival arena was packed at all times and the ante-rooms, where authors’ surgeries and DVD presentations about apps took place, were also always full. An inflatable ‘pod’, another of Abi’s brainwaves, which offered a range of activities for children, was also very popular – and frequented by children of all ages!
Well done, the festival team and the city of Liverpool, for an absolutely stunning event.
Footnote: If you’re organising a literary event this autumn and would like me to give a reading from Sausage Hall and explain how I came to write it, please let me know. Salt is also offering a limited number of reading copies and there will be a competition later in the autumn to help to promote it. More details will appear here and on the Salt website.
I have Jenny Lloyd to thank for nominating me for The Writing Process ‘blog hop’. (Why do I dislike this term? I’ve never liked the ugly sound of ‘blog’ and ‘hop’ has unfortunate ‘bunny’ associations – as if I’ve been given fluffy ears and a scut to bounce around in – hah!) Jenny is renowned as the author of Leap the Wild Water, a widely-acclaimed historical novel focusing upon the sufferings of women and the harsh conflicts and unbearable tensions between self and society in rural Wales two hundred years ago; she’s getting close to releasing a sequel to it, The Calling of the Raven, and is already working on the third book. Thanks, Jenny, for this opportunity to join The Writing Process and best wishes for The Raven! (Do visit her blog at http://jennylloydwriter.wordpress.com/, which for me has wonderfully sensitive insights into her homeland, its people and its history… wiv pitchers!)
So, here I go, with a bounce:
What am I working on?
I’m just writing the concluding chapters to Sausage Hall, the third DI Yates novel. Like the first two novels in the Yates series, it is set mostly in Lincolnshire, though some of the action also takes place in Norfolk. Sausage Hall is the name that the locals give the house that is called Laurieston in the novel. It is situated in the village of Sutterton and based on an actual house, which really was nicknamed Sausage Hall, because it had been built by a butcher who’d gone bankrupt in the 1850s. My grandmother, having worked in domestic service all of her life, moved when she was sixty to Sutterton, which is about ten miles from Spalding and seven miles from Boston, to become companion to a very old lady who lived there. The old lady had been the wife of a gentleman farmer who was twenty years her senior, so he must have been born in the mid-nineteenth century. The house was frozen in a time warp. It was packed with quaint furnishings, but the most astounding thing about it (though as a child I just accepted it as normal) was that the walls were decorated with many sepia photographs of the old lady’s husband when he’d been on safari in Africa as a young man. These photographs must have been taken in the 1870s or 1880s and in many of them he was accompanied by several black women wearing very little except strings of beads. It has long been my intention to write about what I think might have happened in this house. When I began researching the period and the district, my plot was given a considerable boost when I discovered that someone very famous had lived nearby in the late nineteenth century. That person appears in the novel, too. The book is set in the present, but the characters and their actions are considerably influenced by what went on at Sausage Hall more than a century ago.
How does my work differ from others in this genre?
As is well-known (especially by those who organise creative writing courses!), the genre of crime fiction is usually divided into several sub-genres. I’m only interested in a few of these: primarily the psychological crime novel, with a slighter nod to the ‘woman at risk’ variant. Except tangentially – for I do try to get the facts right about policing, the law and the justice system – I’m not what is known as a ‘procedural’ crime writer. I don’t plod through all of the police action step by step, leaving no ‘i’ undotted or ‘t’ uncrossed. Nor do I seek to hold my readers’ attention or shock them with descriptions of excessive violence or bloody massacres. I don’t write action thrillers or spy novels. Conversely, I’m not a creator of what has been called ‘cosy’ crime: the type of novel that those of a nervous disposition can happily read in bed at night when in the house on their own. I like to think that, through careful characterisation and as much psychological insight as I can command, my novels explore some pretty gritty truths and moral dilemmas. I also try to flip the crime-writing conventions on their head in various ways: for example, I tend not to tie up all the loose ends (life’s just not like that) and, flying in the face of the notion of catharsis, I don’t always make it absolutely clear who the perpetrator is. I’ve been told by several reviewers that I’ve broken new ground in the crime genre, but I try not to stretch this too far. For example, I don’t think it works to try to mix genres and combine crime with Science Fiction or Fantasy – a few authors might be able to pull it off, but they’d have to be very skilful indeed. More prosaically, although my novels are set in the present, the town of Spalding in which most of the action in the Yates series occurs is the Spalding of my childhood, not the town as it is today. This gives me the advantage of being able to write about a finite, unchanging place that only I have access to, because it is locked in my memory (with all that that implies).
Why do I write what I do?
I’m not wedded always to being exclusively a crime writer. I’ve written novels and short stories which would certainly be pigeon-holed in the ‘literary fiction’ bracket by most publishers. However, although the quality of my writing was praised when I tried to publish some of these (others have not been and never will be shown to anyone!), I repeatedly received feedback that I needed to tighten up on the plot and make my work more accessible generally. I therefore decided to try writing crime fiction, because it requires a tight and carefully-constructed plot and the action itself keeps the novel moving on nicely. The constraints of the genre provide an excellent way of creating and maintaining self-discipline in the writing. I have to weed out the ‘purple passages’ when revising if I realise that they don’t contribute to the plot. Once I have a sound plot, I’m also less likely to get stuck or suffer from ‘writer’s block’ than when writing literary fiction. However, although I’m very happy writing crime fiction and shall continue to do so, I do have other plans in the pipeline as well.
How does my writing process work?
Following on from what I’ve said in the paragraph above, plot is very important in crime fiction. Once I have an idea for a novel, I work painstakingly on the plot, often during my long annual holiday in France, until I am satisfied that I can make it work. I will usually also draft a half-page outline for each chapter. I don’t always stick exactly to my original plot afterwards, but, if I change it, I make sure that the changes don’t create inconsistencies elsewhere in the novel. I don’t start out by conducting the research. Although I do research the background to my books thoroughly, I tend to do this as I go along. This works better for me than conducting the research at the outset, because, like most writers, I am easily seduced by reading. It’s very easy to spend several days on what you might like virtuously to term ‘research’ when what you’re actually doing is enjoying yourself by feeding a curiosity that far exceeds the requirements of the novel! I’m a firm believer in writing every day if possible, though I don’t set myself huge word targets. I’m satisfied with 1,000 words a day or a little more. I revise constantly – the first revision usually takes place on the same day as the original writing, and I’ll often revise it the next day before I start writing again. Thereafter, I revise in groups of chapters – every time I’ve completed, say, the next eight or ten chapters, I’ll revise this group as a single ‘chunk’ of writing. Often I do this on long train journeys. Finally, I revise the whole book all the way through, sometimes more than once, keeping a sharp look-out for inconsistencies and other solecisms and sharpening up the text. Then I hand the MS over to my husband for checking. He is an even fiercer critic of my work than I am and, as well as weeding out inconsistencies, will scrutinise the grammar, punctuation and syntax. Although I don’t always agree with his suggested revisions, his contribution is invaluable.
‘Ere, Valerie, your turn! Have some fluffy ears and a white fluffy tail and go hopping! I nominate Val Poore @vallypee for this excitement. She’s both a teacher of English for business and academic purposes and a historic bargee… sorry, she owns a historic live-aboard barge in Rotterdam and has turned her rich experiences in England, South Africa and The Netherlands into both funny and serious stories, both autobiographical and fictional. One, The Skipper’s Child, recently won the Wishing Shelf Silver Award. Respek! You’ll find her faring along the European canal system or simply soaking up the atmosphere of Oude Haven, here: http://wateryways.blogspot.co.uk/
Oh, as for blog-hopping, I don’t know quite how it happened, but Jenny’s nomination for today coincided with Bodicia’s very kind guest blog opportunity here. I had to use a bit of the same material for this post on my site, so I hope you will forgive me for that.
I’ve been in Brighton for most of this week, attending the academic bookselling and publishing conference for which I’ve been organising the speaker programme for the past fourteen years. I shall eventually write about the whole of this conference, but in a different forum and for a different audience: I don’t think that a detailed account of the present hot topics in academic publishing would greatly appeal to most of the readers of this blog! However, I do think – and hope – that you’ll be interested in the following account of the comments made by Dr Lucy Robinson, lecturer in Modern History at the University of Sussex and published historian, during a fascinating panel session for authors that took place on the first day of the conference.
Lucy said that there was sometimes a tension between writing her blog and writing her book (she has already published a book with Manchester University Press and is currently working on another). Sometimes, she almost feels that there is a competition going on between them and wonders which is the right way to go: should she focus more on the book or concentrate on the blog? But she also said that a smart author could create a ‘virtuous circle’ in which the blog could feed creatively into the book.
She said that she disseminates her research via a number of social networks, but at the same time wants to publish her history of the 1980s in a conventional publishing format. She explained that the challenges facing a contemporary historian are different from those that a historian of, say, the early modern period has to address. For the latter, the main difficulty lies in getting his or her hands on the small amount of material that now survives. Lucy’s challenge is that her material is ‘everywhere’ and that it is important to tell a version of everyone’s story, down to, for example, the cakes that people in the ’80s made or ate. The format that she uses is therefore to a large extent the product of the particular time that she writes about. To organise the material in a conventional book with the same effectiveness that the digital format allows is difficult. Nevertheless, she wants to see her work in both formats.
One of her reasons for this is that, although she values the internet as a medium, she also loves books. Another is that, for an academic, getting a book published by a recognised publisher is an ‘esteem marker’. Academic careers depend upon producing ‘globally significant research in academic form.’ The object is to influence others – fellow academics, researchers, students – to do or think something differently as a result of the research. This goal of impact cannot be achieved unless the research has been published in a traditional, authenticated format. This does not mean that she does not value the blog, however. She said that “the blog helps you to keep up-to-date. It allows you to change your mind. It is little. It is safe. I can best describe it as a way of being ecological with your work: then you can write it up in your book afterwards to give the work authority.”
She added that writers are now on a journey and it is a tricky one. Social networking enables a sort of autobiographical build-up of identity. Parallel to this is the other persona of the academic writing the book, ‘saying clever stuff and selling it to people.’ She repeated that there is a tension there. One of the audience asked her why the print output of her work was so important to her. She replied that she simply wanted to write a book called ‘The History of the 1980s’.
I found this really interesting, because I think that fiction writers often experience the same kind of dichotomy. We, too, value both formats; most of us also seek validation via the printed word. We understand the value of reaching our readers online, via social networking and blogs, and we don’t begrudge the time and effort spent producing work for them to consume free of charge, work that we hope that they will enjoy. There can be few greater rewards for a writer than to gain a following of loyal online readers who are under no compulsion to read our work but nevertheless return to it time and again because they appreciate it. At the same time, most of us also want to write more formally and there can be few writers who don’t mind whether or not they are paid for their formal creative output. Payment is itself a kind of validation. I said this to Lucy over a cup of tea after her presentation and also mentioned that, for me, there was the further dilemma of not having the energy – or, sometimes, merely the ‘bandwidth’ – to write both blog and book and do the day job as well. She agreed, and said that, although for the conference she had distilled her experiences as an academic writer, many of the things of which she spoke had come from the world of fiction writing originally. Academic writers had picked up on some of the digital initiatives that fiction writers had developed and adapted them to their own writing.
Food for thought, and fascinating, I hope you’ll agree. Lucy’s blog may be found here. I hope that perhaps she will become an occasional visitor to this blog now. I’d also welcome comments from other writers who would like to join this debate.
I was struck by the appearance in Monday’s The Times of the Jan Van Eyck ‘Arnolfini Portrait’, a painting I have always found fascinating for its depiction of a wealthy merchant and his wife. The detail to be explored in this marvellous creation of character and setting has not only human but also symbolic value, suggestive of the real existence, aspirations and lifestyle of this couple in their Bruges home. It cries out: ‘Here we are! We are rich and wonderful people! Look at us!’ The most intriguing aspect for me is the reflection in the convex mirror on the wall behind the couple, depicting two figures, one of whom is commonly assumed to be Van Eyck himself. Velázquez later did much the same thing in ‘Las Meninas’, showing himself as painter of the scene. It’s a clever way of putting your personal stamp on your work. As well as that, Van Eyck painted boldly on the wall (in the style, popular at the time, of a maxim or moral text): ‘Johannes de eyck fuit hic 1434’ or ‘Jan Van Eyck was here 1434’. I’ve always found it pleasantly ironic that the painter should have muscled in on the proud self-declaration of the Arnolfini couple, in a kind of portrait-bombing that elbows aside the intended subject.
My mind jumped quickly to the concept of self, as presented by ‘Kilroy was here’ and graffiti tags: ‘Notice me – I’m everywhere – I can get into the most unlikely and bizarre places… because I’m wonderful!’ That too seems pretty ironic to me, as I feel that shouting out about myself or my achievements is de trop and immodest; creating a ‘Christina James’ brand and promoting my writing here on the social media, I confess, does make me feel uncomfortable, even though I accept the need for it in the current bookselling market and therefore join in. However, I know how I feel about those who simply churn out plugs for their books without any engagement with others – it’s so much spam. Van Eyck’s skill sold itself and I suppose all writers and artists and craftspeople hope that the quality of their handiwork will do the same and that people will notice; in the meantime, they give it what they consider a helpful push. Shakespeare definitely, with his choice of the word ‘powerful’ in Sonnet 55, knew the value of his own words in outlasting even the hardest stone (‘Not marble, nor the gilded monuments of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme.’) and was clearly right to say so: his sonnet certainly seems to be standing the test of time. So… we turn the words and polish them, with ‘perhaps’ floating in our heads… and promote them.
Which in turn leads me to the ‘selfie’, a bizarre bi-product of the technological society in which we live. We have a ‘smart’ phone (there’s a misnomer) which we can turn upon ourselves with no skill or effort whatsoever and take our own picture. Why? Narcissus fell in love with his reflected image, because Nemesis, having noticed his overweening pride in himself, led him to the pool in which he saw himself and he couldn’t drag himself away from the image in its surface; he therefore died, his hubris preventing him from seeing reality. Messrs Obama and Cameron, perhaps flattered by the photographic attentions of the personable Danish PM, fell into much the same trap, losing their sense of reality in the process. Not only did they use no art in the creation of the resulting silly picture, but also failed to use even the most basic commonsense, and Mrs Obama and the rest of the world clearly eyed them with the sharp vision of objectivity. Oh dear. The ‘selfie’ doesn’t work very well as a self-promotional tool.
I didn’t set out to be moralistic, but this is beginning to feel that way. We care about what we create and care about how others view it; there is ‘self’ in that! I have been privileged to receive positive reviews about Almost Love from writers whose own work I value and enjoy and I’m therefore sharply aware of how important it is to celebrate what I find successful and admirable in what others do; there is joy to be had in reviewing books that stand scrutiny. I’m also very much aware of how selflessly many of the people with whom I interact on the social networks behave; they deserve to feel proud of themselves for making someone else’s day. I’m glad, too, that the social media allow all of us to find our way to what we like; we’d miss out on some gems if their creators were utterly selfless!
I am going to start this review with a confession: although I have been given several books written by Michael Connelly and even lent them to my friends, Chasing the Dime is the first one that I have read – and, ironically enough, I bought it at a book sale in a Co-op supermarket near Oxford, because I’d run out of things to read. Normally, I wouldn’t buy books from a supermarket because I believe in supporting local bookshops. So, two firsts in one go!
The reason I’ve not read a Connelly novel until now is that, and my ignorance is pretty unpardonable, I’d been led to believe him to be the kind of blockbuster author in whom I’m least interested: big-picture, change-the-world sort of stuff (x saved the world single-handed from the next atom bomb, Hermann Göring, Nuremberg and suicide notwithstanding, has been alive and well in South America for the last sixty years and running drug rings, that sort of thing). Chasing the Dime is not like that at all. Instead, it is one of the most perfectly-crafted murder stories that I’ve ever read.
There’s the background, for a start. The hero, Henry Pierce, runs his own R & D company. It is conducting research into molecular computing, in a highly competitive sector where several other companies are also in the race to crack the conundrum. Their mission: to create a computer the size of a dime. Hence the title – but the title also reflects the company’s need to find sponsors and also, sadly, refers to why beautiful young women are forced to prostitute themselves. (The title is one of many aspects of the book that works on several levels.) I’m sure that when Connelly wrote this novel (it’s now well over ten years old), there was a race to bring such a molecular computer to the market in just the way that he describes, but it says a lot about his talent as a writer that, although during the course of the novel he reveals many facts about the complex technology involved (and has clearly mastered what these are), he never obtrudes knowledge on the reader in such a way that this information seems to be anything other than an integral part of the story. Few writers can pull this off.
Then there’s the plot. Henry’s obsessive research has just caused his girlfriend to break with him. Henry moves into a new flat, for which his PA acquires a new telephone number. The problems start straight away: the number had obviously previously been allocated to a call-girl. Because of certain facts in his past – which Connelly allows to emerge at enigmatic intervals throughout the story – Henry decides to find out the identity of the call-girl and what has happened to her. Owing to several rash but perfectly understandable (from the reader’s point of view) decisions, he quickly becomes a murder suspect.
I won’t say any more, for obvious reasons. However, I’d add one further thing: nothing in the plot is incredible; there are no fantastic twists or turns and not much transpires in a way that the reader can’t guess; yet, because of Connelly’s psychological insights and his fast-paced but not too whacky writing, the reader is held, spellbound, until the last page.
I owe Michael Connelly an apology for doubting him for so long. As it is, I shall do ‘penance’ in the most pleasurable of ways: by reading the rest of his novels in short order. You will, I’m sure, be lining up to tell me that his Harry Bosch series is a must-read and roundly ticking me off for my shocking prejudice.
It is Christmas Eve, so I’d like to take the opportunity to thank everyone who has read this blog and supported it with so many kind, helpful and insightful comments over the past year. It has been my very great pleasure to have ‘met’ you in this way and I feel extraordinarily humbled that you have spared the time to take so much interest in me and my writing. For those of you who celebrate Christmas and for those of you who don’t, I’d like to wish you a very happy and relaxing time and a spectacularly successful New Year – wherever you are and whatever you are doing. If you are a writer, I wish you some of that elusive luck that all writers need.
P.S. The blog-posts have been a little erratic in recent weeks, as I’ve been away a lot. I shall try to do better as my main New Year’s resolution! However, I’d like to share with you that the day-job is taking me to China in the first full week of the new year, so they may be a bit thin on the ground then – though you can be sure that I shall recount my experiences in as much detail as you can take afterwards!
In the land of the Rotternauts dwelled a man
Whose hair was wondrous white;
Bewhiskered and bespectacled,
He glimmered pale at night.
And around the port he would pace with the gait
Of one who’d sailed the waves
And told his tale to anyone
He transfixed with his gaze.
Just so it happened when I peered at the shape
That rose in front of me,
He motioned me to silence
And began beguilingly:
‘There is, in a necklace of paradise isles
Beyond the eastern sea,
A jewelled piece of heaven
Where grows a magic tree.
And when the keel of the ship grinds the sands there
And rests from ocean gales
The trav’ller may find solace
And hear the songs of whales.
For the things of the sea fly in air out there
And birds swim in the deep –
Pluck flowers from the seabed
For the magic tree to keep.
And the pebbles of the land are wont to hatch
Into mammals, birds and fish –
The magic tree takes care of all
And fulfils every wish.’
And with that, the mariner vanished away!
Spell-bound, I saw them all:
Fish and birds and flowers…
And a magic tree, grown tall.
When I saw it on Facebook, I was captivated by the above Flower Bird artwork by the Dutch photographer and artist Koos (pronounced as in ‘rose’) Fernhout; it had a narrative quality and immediately conjured up for me a combination of mental images: Far Eastern art, mystical tales, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, The Flying Dutchman, the world as it was before humans minimised it, the fantastical stories of sailors returning from voyages of exploration, paradise, the next world. As you will see from the FB conversation, others were also smitten. Koos so much enjoyed the poem I felt compelled to write that he put it alongside his image, which is, believe me, quite an accolade. If you are unfamiliar with his work, you may enjoy a visit to his gallery, where you will find that he has an unerringly gifted photographic vision. To whet your appetite, I have also included an example below. Incidentally to all this, Koos happens to be a resident of the barge community I have described here. Many thanks to him for the pleasure of posting his pictures today.