Monday, 18 June 2018

Does every crime author need to think like a criminal?

There’s a great rift dividing writers’ circles. No, not Brexit, but whether you’re a plotter or a pantser – do you outline the plot in advance, or let it unfurl as you type (writing by the seat of your pants)?

The latter certainly sounds more glamorous and it’s probably what most non-writers have in mind when (if) they ever imagine the writing process: perhaps a eureka! moment at some picturesquely ink-spattered desk, or even while the author's musing in a bubble bath.

In fact, no less than Stephen King announces: “I won't try to convince you that I've never plotted any more than I'd try to convince you that I've never told a lie, but I do both as infrequently as possible... I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren't compatible. (Then again, he also recommends: “The first draft of a book — even a long one — should take no more than three months, the length of a season.” Tell that to some writers and watch them slowly turn white with horror...)

Still, when you’ve been writing as much – and as well – as Stephen King has, the mechanics of story and plot will surely have become second nature. Perhaps he doesn’t need to outline, because it has all become so ingrained in the workings of his mind.

The reality is, I suspect, that many of writers are meticulous plotters, outlining their novels in detail, particularly in the crime and thriller genre. For instance, John Grisham’s as passionate in his defence of outlining as King is against it. “Most writers will tell you... they create a great character and that character takes over the action and they follow that character wherever he or she wants to go,” says Grisham, adding bluntly: “That's total BS.”

And yet, at the same time, I wonder if it’s a false dichotomy - if all writers sit on some sort of continuum between plotting and pantsing, at least.

Take Agatha Christie, the queen of crime, famed for her intricate plots. She scatted fledgling ideas for her meticulously constructed novels across dozens of notebooks (73 of which are deciphered by a self-confessed arch fan John Curran, who taught himself to unlock what he calls her "bloody awful handwriting” for his book Agatha Christie's Secret Notebooks).

One note to herself reads: “West Indian book – Miss M? Poirot ... B&E apparently devoted - actually B and G had affair for years ... old 'frog' Major knows,” pointing to the way that stories can start as fragments then coalesce into a whole that ticks along like clockwork. (That became A Caribbean Mystery, published in 1964.)

But, crucially, as Christie said, “Nothing turns out quite in the way that you thought it would when you are sketching out notes for the first chapter, or walking about muttering to yourself and seeing a story unroll.”

Which is just what I found out, after I outlined my psychological thriller, about a mother’s desperate search for her missing daughter. On a practical level, if I didn’t know whodunit when I started, how could I seed my clues and misdirections with any precision?

More specifically, I had beats I wanted to hit: I knew I wanted to give the reader short, sharp electric shocks throughout the book, to keep her or him intrigued. I even re-watched Hollywood movies that had left me hanging white-knuckled off my seat and puzzled over screenplays to work out how to create a fast-paced narrative, with that same urgent sense of building to a climax.

And so, I busily planned and I plotted, setting out the basic shape of my story as an outline, before I ever started to type a word. And yet, as I wrote, I found that this synopsis – which I was using like a map to find my way through my story – was still growing by the page (not to mention the index cards which supplemented it, which seemed to be breeding in my living room).

The story was taking on its own life, I realised. What’s more, having an outline still left room for inspiration – a final twist that struck me as I wrote really did come to me in a flash, just as I’d been promised. 

So perhaps it’s time to end the debate and admit that writers are all plotters and pantsers to some extent, sliding about somewhere in between those two poles.

After all, much like the characters we write about, crime and thriller authors can scheme and plot as much as we like, but we all know what they say about the best-laid plans. And in the same way, those innocent-seeming souls who don’t seem to have a calculating thought in their brains? Something tells me they might be worth keeping an eye on...
Emma Rowley’s Where The Missing Go is out in paperback from Orion on June 14.

Sunday, 17 June 2018

Writing What You Know by Ali Carter

Write what you know, that’s what they say. For me, a first-time novelist once described in a school English report as “an undisciplined thinker with a tendency to surprise with sentences and phrases of arresting inappropriateness”, it was highly unlikely I’d ever move off first base (… and I’d give anything to know what sentences of ‘arresting inappropriateness’ I was writing in my early teens).

Years on from those unhappy school days I find myself having a crack at writing crime fiction. Or rather ‘cosy-crime’, definitely more appropriate in my case. My novels (yes there are a couple more in the pipeline) won’t make you wince with fear but hopefully the mystery and the characters will keep you reading. My protagonist, Susie Mahl, is an artist in her thirties who paints in oils and draws pet portraits to commission. Now spot the difference: I, Ali Carter, am an artist in my thirties, I paint in oils and draws pet portraits to commission.  It’s not that I have a massive ego and couldn’t wait to put myself in the forefront of my books – rather it’s all to do with the realisation that an artist and an amateur sleuth really do have crossover skills. Building a character who doubles as both has enabled me to breathe life into Susie Mahl by writing about what I know.

Being an artist involves immense concentration, hours of work, painstaking patience and determination to continue in the belief that you will get there in the end. Time lies outside of one’s control; the picture will be finished when it’s finished and the process always involves trial and error. Susie Mahl is an artist and the lessons she’s learnt have translated nicely to being an amateur sleuth: identifying a murderer takes time, patience, observation and tenacity. And applying an artist’s keen eye for detail to detective work means Susie enjoys a very individual interpretation of conventional circumstances – if there’s a whiff of foul play around she’s well equipped to sniff it out early on.

Art and sleuthing go through similar stages. There comes a point in every painting when you just can’t believe you’ll ever achieve a finished picture ... and the same goes for solving a mystery. It has its ups and downs. Just when you think you’re on to something, steaming off in a certain direction, it turns out to be a red herring. However, a detective must pursue all leads in order to get closer to the truth, just like the artist who must persist at getting down on paper or canvas what it is they’re trying to reveal.

No matter what you paint or draw – an onion, a dog, a shoe horn or a flower – you have to see them not for what they are but how light bounces off them. Accurately capturing this light through the medium of paint or graphite will in turn produce an image of the object you’ve been studying. In a similar way, detective work is about observing the bare bones of situations, drawing conclusions and piecing these bits together to make a whole.

I have had a lot of fun in my novel, A Brush With Death, developing Susie’s character. I live vicariously through her. She gets her paintings into galleries I dream of, the Tate Modern being one. She has a penchant for expensive underwear, something I’d definitely have if I had the cash. And she enjoys flirting with handsome men in the hopes she will bag them in the end. A tiny wee bit of me likes to dream that if I write these things down, and develop Susie’s character as my alter ego, they might just come true for me in the end!

Those of us who do it know only too well that writing is hard work. From time to time, when I’m struggling to get into that fifth gear where the story flows and words tumble effortlessly into my keyboard, I turn to the experts and read advice they’ve offered up. Stephen King’s On Writing instructs: “Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.”

As my little cottage has no internal doors other than one on the bathroom, I’m faced with a conundrum. One can think on the loo but no way is my laptop coming in there too. I sing in the shower of course, who doesn’t, and lounge in the bath developing my plot, but I’ve had to come up with my own strategy for hard graft. It’s important to me to make my bed as soon as I rise, get properly dressed before going downstairs, ensure the house was cleaned the night before and all washing up done in advance. This way I start each day with no possible excuses for procrastination. The earlier I get going the more productive I am. I sit at my desk, metaphorically glue my feet to the floor and discipline myself not to leave. Sometimes it takes hours to get in the zone, sometimes less, but I know if I’m patient and apply myself it will come.

If I am really struggling I take myself off to a busy place, a train station, a café, Oxford Circus. Suddenly ideas flow, people step on to the stage and I’ve bagged a wealth of character traits that will help the writing when I’m back at my desk.

My favourite part of the process is handing in a draft, blocking anything to do with Susie Mahl from my mind and throwing myself back into painting, with the relief that I’ve flown from first base. Here’s hoping that in sharing these strategies there might be a nugget to help you too.

Ali Carter’s debut novel A BRUSH WITH DEATH is published by Point Blank, paperback £8.99.

Saturday, 16 June 2018

An intimate evening with Robyn Young, Anthony Riches and E C Fremantle celebrating Historical Fiction

Goldsboro Books invites you to an intimate evening to celebrate historical fiction during Independent Booksellers Week with Robyn Young, Anthony Riches and E C Fremantle.

We are thrilled to be hosting an evening in the shop dedicated to historical fiction with some of our favourite authors writing in the genre on Tuesday 19th June from 18:30pm.

The evening will consist of a panel, to start at 18:30, followed by an informal meet and greet and signing in the shop afterwards. Come along and hear these wonderful authors discuss their books and the historical fiction field, and then meet them afterwards with a glass of wine.

Tickets cost £5 to include a glass of wine, and this £5 is redeemable on the evening against the purchase of books. 

Goldsboro Books+44 (0) 207 497 9230 

Goldsboro Books23-27, Cecil Court

Friday, 15 June 2018

The Macavity Award Nominees 2018

The Macavity Awards are nominated by members of Mystery Readers International, subscribers to Mystery Readers Journal and friends of MRI. The winners will be announced at opening ceremonies at Bouchercon in St Petersburg, FL, in September. Congratulations to all.

Best Mystery Novel
The Marsh King's Daughter by Karen Dionne (G.P. Putnam's Sons)
Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz (Harper)
Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke (Mulholland)
Glass Houses by Louise Penny (Minotaur)
The Old Man by Thomas Perry (Mysterious)
The Force by Don Winslow (Wm. Morrow)

Best First Mystery Novel
Hollywood Homicide by Kellye Garrett (Midnight Ink)
The Dry by Jane Harper (Flatiron)
She Rides Shotgun by Jordan Harper (Ecco)
The Lost Ones by Sheena Kamal (Wm. Morrow)
The Last Place You Look by Kristen Lepionka (Minotaur)
Lost Luggage by Wendall Thomas (Poisoned Pen)

Best Mystery-Related Nonfiction
From Holmes to Sherlock: The Story of the Men and Women Who Created an Icon by Mattias Bostrom (Mysterious Press)
The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books by Martin Edwards (Poisoned Pen/British Library)
Chester B. Himes: A Biography by Lawrence P. Jackson (W.W. Norton)
The Man From the Train: The Solving of a Century-Old Serial Killer Mystery by Bill James and Rachel McCarthy James (Scribner)
Arthur and Sherlock: Conan Doyle and the Creation of Holmes by Michael Sims (Bloomsbury)
Lady Killers: Deadly Women Throughout History by Tori Telfer (Harper Perennial)

Best Mystery Short Story
As Ye Sow,” by Craig Faustus Buck, in Passport to Murder: Bouchercon Anthology 2017 (Down and Out Books)
The #2 Pencil,” by Matt Coyle, in Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea (Down & Out Books)
Infinite Uticas,” by Terence Faherty (Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, May/June 2017)
Whose Wine is it Anyway?” Barb Goffman, in 50 Shades of Cabernet (Koehler Books)
Windward,” by Paul D. Marks, in Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea (Down & Out Books)
A Necessary Ingredient,” by Art Taylor, in Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea (Down & Out Books)

Sue Feder Memorial Award: Best Historical Mystery
Dangerous to Know by Renee Patrick (Forge)
The Devouring by James R. Benn (Soho Crime)
In Farleigh Field by Rhys Bowen (Lake Union Publishing)
Cast the First Stone by James W. Ziskin (Seventh Street Books)
Racing the Devil by Charles Todd (Wm. Morrow)
A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee (Pegasus)

Thursday, 14 June 2018

Jacqui Rose on The Fun of Recurring Characters


When I was a little girl whenever I saw a movie or read a book, I always wanted to know what happens next to my favourite character, to the point where I’d spend hours writing the sequels of famous novels, everything from Wuthering Heights to Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile. So, I wasn’t surprised to find myself having recurring characters in my own books, though it certainly wasn’t a deliberate plan, I just think that there are certain characters that still have so much more to say. They’re like a friend to me; I continue to be interested to see how they evolve, how they react in certain situations and hopefully my readers feel that too. 

I don’t plan my books, nor do I make notes, it’s all in my head and the story seems to evolve right in front of my eyes. I don’t know what’s going to happen nor do I know what characters will appear, so it was a great surprise to meet Alfie Jennings in my first book Taken. I remember beginning to write him and I also remember not thinking much about him, assuming that he would be a side player but the more I wrote the more Alfie began to take on shape, and before I knew it he was the lead male protagonist. Rather than him being just a Soho gangster, he had a story as well as a back story, he had complicated emotions and relationships which needed to be explored. Now I didn’t know all this when I was writing Taken, that started to evolve as I sat down to write each book. Alfie just wouldn’t go away. He had more to say, and so did the people around him so before I knew it I had an ensemble cast who all became firm favourites of my readers, though on a side note I do I think it’s vital for the recurring character to grow and move on emotionally, for them to react to scenarios and people differently otherwise I think it becomes very stale, they become template characters, ones that you can second guess what he or she does. And there certainly has to be continual surprises in their behaviour and they still have to create that enjoyment with the reader as if they were discovering them for the first time.

That’s the great thing about recurring characters because you have the space and the time to explore them. So yes, as you can see, I do love the recurring character but there also is a flip side to them…. As much as I love following my characters journey like a faithful friend, they can make a novel trickier to write. For example, your book needs to feel like a standalone but still have the recurring characters which come complete with a back story. And that’s sometimes difficult; to explain to the reader who hasn’t read the books in order the back story of the characters without making the regular reader have to go over things they already know. For me this might not be such a problem if I hadn’t made my life even harder by introducing a cliff-hanger in my latest book, Toxic! When I came to write Fatal which will be out early next year, I had to think hard about the balance; still driving the story forward, still holding the readers but still merging the backstory and cliff-hanger by showing not telling. It wasn’t easy, but I loved the challenge as I like to push myself as an author, exploring the whole art of storytelling. I’m certainly a big fan of the recurring character but one day the question, the big dilemma will be, when should I kill them off? 

Happily, I’m not ready to see the last of my characters just yet and I hope that neither are my readers but watch this space. But maybe if I kill them off too soon, like they did in Dallas I can always bring them back in the shower and pretend it was just one big dream! 
Toxic by Jacqui Rose published in ebook by Harper Collins on 14 June 2018

Sometimes love is toxic…  Bree Dwyer is desperate to escape her husband, take the children and run. But he’s always watching. And she always gets caught. Until her first love, Alfie Jennings, returns to Essex.  Gangsters Alfie and Vaughn have been out of the game for a while, but a life of crime is one you never forget.  To get back on top they need serious money, because loyalty and power don’t come for free. One dangerous job and they’ll have the payoff they need. And Alfie isn’t going to let anyone get in the way, least of all a pretty face like Bree.  It’s time to show Essex what they’re made of. And this time, Alfie and Vaughn aren’t backing down.