Thursday 31 March 2022

Charlotte Duckworth on - Why I’m drawn to writing dark books

Like most writers, when I started out I didn’t have a clear understanding of what genres were or how they worked. I didn’t have a clue what genre my first novel might be, or that it might matter where it would sit on a bookshop shelf one day. 

That novel (mercifully rejected by editors - who are gatekeepers, yes, but for a reason!) was a passionate love story, but it ended with a very grisly suicide on a remote beach. So definitely not one that could be filed on the ‘romance’ shelf…

Some of the feedback I got for that novel said that they couldn’t work out whether it was meant to be a horror. A horror?! It had never occurred to me. I’d just sat down to write the story that was inside my head. I thought I was writing ‘fiction’. But without any conscious planning on my part, I’d been drawn to the dark side.

I hope if you asked anyone who knew me in real life, they’d say that I’m not a particularly dark person. I love a moan (I’m British after all) but I’m generally pretty cheerful and laid-back and I try to see the positives in life where possible.

But I’m also a terrible wimp. I’ve written eight novels now – 6 of which have been published (or are going to be). I’ve covered subjects such as postpartum psychosis, sexual assault, baby-loss, stalking, murder, toxic masculinity and accidental death. My latest novel, The Sanctuary, explores the dark side of wellness culture, and how dangerous it can be to put your life in the hands of self-declared ‘gurus’. 

And finally, eight books in, I think I’ve worked out why all my novels, in their own ways, are pretty dark. 

I believe it’s one of my brain’s ways of dealing with anxiety. I have an extremely low scare threshold – I can’t watch any kind of violence on screen and I find the news endlessly upsetting and terrifying (although who doesn’t these days, to be fair).

I have anxiety about so many things and yet I am drawn to the things I am most anxious about. I find myself researching things that terrify me. I think by writing about the things that scare me the most, I’m able to get my fears out into the light, to examine them from every angle. And somehow, this makes them less frightening. Knowledge is power, after all.

Over the course of my writing career, I’ve also realised that writing is my therapy. I know that without it, my mental health wouldn’t be as robust as it is. Writing is my way of processing the world, my fears and thoughts, and a way of emptying my noisy, cruel brain of all the things that it likes to haunt me with.

When I write a dark character or dark situation, I know that I am in complete control. I have the ultimate say, and I can determine the outcome of their stories. I think this gives me a safety net to explore my fears.

(I secretly think many writers are control freaks. I certainly am.)

However, as you’d imagine, I’ve often wished my brain worked differently. I would love to write happy, uplifting books and have great admiration for those who do so. It’s true what they say – it’s far harder to write convincingly about happiness than it is about misery.

Most of all, I’m in awe of people who manage to write in multiple genres, and especially those who write thrillers as well as romance – how do they do it? I can start off with the happiest of happy couples and yet within a few thousand words one of them will be plotting the sinister downfall of the other.

I’m determined one day to write a genuine love story, with no horror or cruel fate lying in wait for my protagonists. As writers, we’re always learning, and there’s always room to improve. And perhaps this is why I love this job so much – there’s always something to aspire to, a new challenge to overcome. A new way of looking at the world, and processing what you see.

The Sanctuary by Charlotte Duckworth (Quercus Books) Out Now.

Four pregnant women. Three nights of pampering at an exclusive yoga retreat. One too many deadly secrets . . .On a remote farm in the deepest Devonshire countryside, four pregnant women arrive at an exclusive yoga retreat for a five-star weekend of prenatal pampering. The location is idyllic. Their host, Selina, is eager to teach them all she knows about pregnancy and motherhood. But, like Selina, each of the women has a secret. And secrets can be deadly . . .

You can find out more information about Charlotte and her books on her website. You can also follow her on Twitter @charduck and on Instagram @charduck. 

Picture © Charlotte Duckworth

Top 5 thrillers that explore female friendships By Bryony Pearce

Female friendships can be closer and more intense than romances. Women can be the most loyal and the most vicious in defence of one another and enduring female friendships get us through the hardest of times. We develop these close relationships through sharing mutual life experiences, from our first days at school, university or work, to the antenatal groups that get us through early motherhood. Female friends can be therapists, staunch defenders, cheerleaders and partners in crime. 

But when things go wrong, oh boy! The ending of a close female friendship can be more crippling and more brutal than the ending of a romantic one, yet this is not generally acknowledged. 

When friendship turns to enmity, women can be enormously underhand and creative in their cruelty. Even the ancient Greeks knew that when a woman turns to vengeance it can be shockingly scorched earth (see Euripedes’ Medea).

Consequently, female friendships are rich material for novelists writing thrillers. How could they not be?

My own novel, Little Rumours, deals with three women living in a small Devon village, their relationships to one another and to others. When one of their children goes missing, rumours swirl that one of them, at least, knows why.

But mine is only the latest in a run of thrillers focused on female friendships. Here are some of my favourites:

From Ruth Ware, who writes brilliant thrillers, The Lying Game, is a novel about four women who haven’t seen one another in years, but who literally drop everything to reunite when one of them sends a text: I need you. Secrets and lies surrounding their youth in a boarding school in the marshes come to light when a dead body is discovered. Has one of them broken the rules of the lying game (lie to everyone else but not to one another)?

Claire McGowan’s The Other Wife, is, like Little Rumours, told from the points of view of three very different women whose lives have been or are being controlled by terrible men. But their own secrets mean these women are stronger than anyone realised. 

Cass Green is another of my favourite writers. The Woman Next Door was her debut adult thriller and is told from the point of view of neighbours Hester, a lonely and obsessive older woman, and Melissa, a young mother with a teenaged daughter. When something terrible happens, Melissa is forced to turn to Hester for help. But Hester is not the kind of person you want on your side.

Sarah Naughton is a wonderful writer, who creates characters that completely draw you in (did you read Tattletale?). In The Festival she writes about four friends, who were close in school but have since drifted apart. When one of them turns 40, they go to a festival in their old hometown to celebrate and recapture their youth. But as always, things are not as they seem and not all the women will leave the festival alive.

My final choice is Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty, which tells the story of a group of women, who like those in Little Rumours are forced together by the school gates. But these friends come together to face the world head on, and deal with an issue of school bullying that has its roots in something so much worse. For a change, a thriller about women united, rather than divided. A murder, secrets coming to light and twists and turns make it a tense and unputdownable thriller.

Little Rumours by Bryony Pearce (Harper Collins) Out Now

It started with a rumour. But rumours can be deadly... In a small town, three mothers wave goodbye to their children at the school gates. Naomi has lived in Exton Cross since she was born, and she knows everything there is to know about everyone. Aleema hates it here. It's been three years and she's yet to make a single friend. And she's sure the other mums whisper about her behind her back. Kelly is an outsider. New to the town, she arrives with nothing but her son - and a dark secret. By the end of the school day, one of their children will be missing. And rumours will swirl that one of them knows why...

You can find Bryony Pearce on Twitter @BryonyPearce and on Instagram @BryonyPearce. She can also be found on Facebook.

Sunday 27 March 2022

Dick Francis Statue to be unveiled at Aintree by HRH The Princess Royal

Dick Francis life-size statue to be unveiled at Aintree

by HRH The Princess Royal on Thursday 7th April

Aintree Racecourse, home of the Grand National, is honouring Dick Francis, former Wartime RAF Pilot, Champion Jump Jockey, Bestselling Author, and Trustee of Aintree Racecourse for 20 years, with the installation of a life-size bronze statue, sculpted by renowned sculptor, William Newton. The instigator of the statue is Peter Johnson, lifelong fine art dealer, former point-to-point rider, Dick Francis fan, and founder of the British Sporting Art Trust.

The statue will stand at the top of the steps outside the Aintree weighing room with Dick looking out across the parade ring and the winner’s enclosure. It will be unveiled by Her Royal Highness The Princess Royal at 2pm on Thursday 7th April, during the first day of the 2022 Grand National meeting.

The statue depicts Dick in his time as a jockey. It was inspired by the photograph taken of Dick in the parade ring with Her Majesty The Queen and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother before he rode the ill-fated Devon Loch in the 1956 Grand National. Even though, as we all know, that particular race ended in a disaster when Devon Loch collapsed just 40 yards from certain victory, it was still the defining moment in Dick’s life and, as such, that day is immortalised in the statue. 

In all Dick rode thirty-five times at Aintree during his riding career, including in eight Grand Nationals, and won three times over the Grand National fences — in the Topham Trophy Handicap, the Molyneux Chase and in the final running of the Champion Chase at Aintree in 1950 before the race was transferred to Cheltenham. Dick missed attending only one Grand National in the sixty years from 1947 to 2007, and acted as ‘expert summariser’ to Peter Bromley’s BBC radio commentary of the race for almost forty years until Peter’s retirement in 2001.

However, it is mostly because of his instrumental role in the 1982 Grand National Appeal to purchase the racecourse, and hence save it from becoming a housing estate, and his subsequent twenty years as a Trustee, that Dick Francis is being honoured by Aintree. And also because, as was said when he was inaugurated into the Cheltenham Racecourse Hall of Fame, “Through his many racing mystery novels, he introduced more people worldwide to British steeplechasing than any other single individual.

For more information, and/or interviews, contact Felix Francis –

Saturday 26 March 2022

An unexpected consequence by Brian Price

I never thought I would write a thriller. I had read crime novels for decades, my childhood reading featuring Leslie Charteris’s Saint and John Creasey’s Inspector West among others. As an adult, I had written three books on chemicals and the environment, but had never considered writing fiction.

I turned to crime when I attended Crimefest in Bristol and found the writers who attended approachable and friendly, whether they were self-published or million-sellers. I wanted to contribute in some way, as a kind of payback for the pleasure crime writers had given me, so I set up a website where I used my scientific knowledge to offer tips to authors on how to avoid simple mistakes with things like knockouts (don’t use chloroform), firearms (silencers don’t work) and poisons (they take time to kill). At my wife’s suggestion, I pitched this concept to publishers and the result was Crime writing: How to write the science, a well-received guide, for writers, readers and students, to many aspects of science and crime.

I have advised a number of writers on a range of scientific topics, from lopping off limbs to poisoning celebrities and disposing of bodies, and I think something must have rubbed off. After writing a few short crime stories, I took the plunge and decided to write a novel. I was kick-started by a competition, run by Crime Fiction Coach, for the best first sentence of a novel. My entry ‘The small, grey-haired woman grimaced as she entered the police station, dragging a tartan shopping trolley containing her husband’s head’ won and, because someone said they couldn’t wait to read the rest, I had no alternative but to write the book.

This was a very new type of writing for me. Science writing is relatively straightforward. You decide on the subject you want to write about, and the facts you wish to convey. You do the research and then present the information in a way that suits your intended readership. You don’t have to make stuff up (unless you’re part of QAnon or wear a tinfoil hat). But, apart from factual things I needed to hang the plot on, like police procedures, everything in my novel had to come from my imagination. I had to write about people I had never met, doing jobs I had never done, in places I invented. 

At the time, I didn’t know any police officers, and I certainly didn’t know any gangsters or drug dealers, so creating realistic characters was difficult. The plot was easier, although I had to keep checking that it was credible but still entertaining, and I was OK with forensics. But I needed something a bit different from other thrillers, and I found this in the form of a novel type of profitable contraband.

So, after many months of toil, I had something I thought others might want to read. I had it critiqued and then submitted synopses to thirty or so agents and publishers. After repeated refusals, some friendly and some even offering suggestions for improvements, I considered self-publishing, although that would have required me to develop a whole new set of particular skills. But, late in 2020, Hobeck Books asked for the full manuscript and, shortly after, offered to publish it. I was thrilled! The result was Fatal Trade, which came out in September last year.

I was delighted with the reception Fatal Trade received. People seemed to like the characters, the pace and the plot, giving the book an average of 4.5 stars on amazon. Hobeck were keen to publish a sequel and Fatal Hate comes out on the 12th of April.

Most of the same characters are involved, and it is set in the same imaginary town. Like Fatal Trade, it is fast-paced, twisty and has some truly odious villains. A third novel, Fatal Dose, is in preparation.

I came to realise, quite early on, that there were two pitfalls I had to avoid when writing fiction. One was information-dumping. I might be fascinated by the biochemistry of a particular poison, but is the average reader? What it is, and how quickly it kills, is probably enough, with a few symptoms thrown in. I didn’t want to make the mistake of, for instance, spending a page and a half describing a particular type of rifle ammunition. 

The other danger zone was my personal attitudes. There are issues in both books about which I feel strongly, but I was careful to avoid preaching or writing an essay on politics. Readers want to be entertained, first and foremost, and I let my characters’ views and behaviours paint the picture. It is up to the reader whether they share or reject these views but, as long as they notice them, and enjoy the books, I’m a happy crime writer.

Fatal Hate by Brian Price (Hobeck Books) Published 12 April 2022

A boring office administrator is found dead outside the chocolate warehouse where he worked. But who would want to kill him and why? Did he see something he shouldn’t have or did one of his right-wing associates turn on him? DC Mel Cotton and her colleagues’ investigation takes them into the murky world of terrorism, smuggling and murder. What is in the mysterious packages moved from the warehouse in the dead of night and why did someone try to burn watching police officers to death? Meanwhile, a determined young woman vows vengeance on the two men responsible for her sister’s death. She will do anything for justice and she soon becomes involved with a member of a group of local notables with depraved tastes and extreme political views. Someone is going to die. As the two worlds converge, Mel Cotton’s courage is tested to the limit. And the presence of a hitman in town means no-one is safe. Is time running out for her?

M.W. Craven has described Fatal Hate as ‘High quality crime writing’, and Graham Bartlett called it ‘A turbocharged, complex and intelligent thriller with a stunning cast, told with the authority and authenticity we have come to expect from Brian Price. I dare you to put it down.’

Readers of Fatal Hate are invited to take part in a competition to spot the “Easter Eggs” – cultural references – in the book. The winner will receive a very special box of chocolates featuring such favourites as Strychnine Surprise, Cyanide Swirl and Belladonna Cream, plus a signed copy of Brian’s next book, Fatal Dose.

Fatal Hate is published as a paperback and ebook by Hobeck Books and is available on Amazon and Waterstones.

You can find more information about Brian Price and his books on his website. You can also find him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter @crimewritersci. 


Friday 25 March 2022

CrimeFest 2022 Programme


Thursday 12 May 2022

13:30 - 14:20


Thomas Enger

Stuart Field

Michael Kurland

Russ Thomas

Participating Moderator: Sam Holland

14:40 - 15:30

Panel 1


Kate Ellis

Mark Ellis

Carolyn Kirby

Leigh Russell

Participating Moderator: Linda Stratmann

Panel 2


Brian Price

Leslie Scase

Laura Shepherd-Robinson

Cath Staincliffe

Participating Moderator: Samantha Lee Howe

15:50 - 16:40

Panel 1


Steve Cavanagh

Jørn Lier Horst

Tina Orr Munro

Trevor Wood

Participating Moderator: L.F. Robertson

Panel 2


M.J. Lee

Douglas Lindsay

Michael Stanley (Stan Trollip)

Robert Wilson

Participating Moderator: Michael Ridpath

17:00 - 17:50

Panel 1


Maxim Jakubowski (on Cornell Woolrich)

John Lawton (on Jerzy Kosinsky)

Nick Triplow (on Ted Lewis)


Participating moderator: Mike Ripley

Panel 2


Helen Fitzgerald

Dolores Gordon-Smith

Amita Murray

Antti Tuomainen 

Participating Moderator: Nev Fountain

20:00 – 21:30: CRIMEFEST Pub Quiz, with crime writer and critic Peter Guttridge as your quiz inquisitor. Prizes to be won!


Friday 13 May 2022

09:00 - 09:50

Panel 1


Tim Glister

Michael Kurland

John Lawton

Niki Mackay

Participating Moderator: Luke McCallin

Panel 2


Rachael Blok

Stuart Field

Leigh Russell

G.D. Sanders

Participating Moderator: Paul Gitsham

10:10 - 11:00

Panel 1


Tina Baker

L.F. Robertson

Amanda Robson

Catriona Ward

Participating Moderator: Caroline England

Panel 2


Rachael Blok

James Delargy

Victoria Dowd

David Hewson

Participating Moderator: Martin Edwards

Panel 3


Elizabeth Mundy

Nell Pattison

Fiona Veitch Smith

Trevor Wood

Participating Moderator: Carolyn Kirby

11:20 – 12:10

Panel 1


Simon Conway

Fiona Erskine

Antony Johnston

Eve Smith

Participating Moderator: Christine Poulson

Panel 2


Simon Brett

Sam Carrington

Michael Ridpath

Simon Toyne

Participating Moderator: Katerina Diamond

Panel 3


Mick Finlay

Felix Francis

Cath Staincliffe

Lesley Thomson

Participating Moderator: Cathy Ace

12:30 - 13:20

Panel 1


Kia Abdullah

Antony Dunford

Sarah Sultoon

Holly Watt

Participating Moderator: Michael Stanley (Stanley Trollip)

Panel 2


Mason Cross

Stephen Edger

Gilly MacMillan

Russ Thomas

Participating Moderator: Emily Koch

Panel 3


Steve Cavanagh (Defence)

Imran Mahmood (Prosecution)

Ayo Onatade (The Judge)

13:40 - 14:30

Panel 1


Elle Croft

Biba Pearce

Jeff Dowson

Victoria Selman

Participating Moderator: Linda Mather

Panel 2


Andrew Child

Katerina Diamond

Robert Goddard

Yrsa Sigurdardottir

Participating Moderator: Alex North

Panel 3


Antony Johnston

Samantha Lee Howe

Neil Lancaster

Robert Wilson

Participating Moderator: Alex Shaw

14:50 - 15:40

Panel 1


Peter Hanington

David Hewson

Vaseem Khan

Louise Mangos

Participating Moderator: Barry Forshaw

Panel 2


Sue Lawrence

Imran Mahmood

Linda Stratmann

Catriona Ward

Participating Moderator: Janet Laurence

Panel 3


Claire Douglas

Nina Manning

Robin Morgan-Bentley

Rebecca Thornton

Participating Moderator: Amanda Robson

16:00 - 16:50

Panel 1

Ghost of Honour: DICK FRANCIS

Felix Francis

Andrew Hewson

Participating Interviewer: Simon Brett

Panel 2


Alison Bruce

Dugald Bruce-Lockhart

Alex Shaw

Michael Stanley

Participating Moderator: Zoë Sharp

Panel 3


Vicki Bradley

Thomas Enger

Nadine Matheson

Alan McDermott

Participating Moderator: Victoria Selman

17:10 – 18:00

Panel 1


Neil Daws

Chris Ewan

Janice Hallett

Scott Kershaw

Participating Moderator: Jane Shemilt

Panel 2


Barry Forshaw

Maxim Jakubowski

Mike Ripley

Karen Robinson

Participating Moderator: Peter Guttridge

18:30 – 19:30

CrimeFest hosts the CWA’s Dagger Announcement Reception

The rest of the weekend's programme can be found here.

Tuesday 22 March 2022

“Snowdonia, the perfect backdrop for Welsh Noir” by Simon McCleave


It was winter and the rugged hills, valleys and lakes of Snowdonia were snowbound and bleak. This was a landscape that beat to the drum of Arthurian legend. The pounding heart of ancient Wales – a land of folklore and of myth … Llyn Llydaw was dark, deep, and utterly still. Carved into the flanks of Snowdon, the lake was long and thin and had formed in a cwm, a glaciated valley, about one third of the way up the mountain. The valley was believed to be the final resting place of Arthur, King of Britons. The site where a weary, dying King Arthur instructed Sir Bedevere to throw Excalibur to the porcelain hand of the Lady of the Lake. An area of immeasurable power and myth.”

(Excerpt From: Simon McCleave’s The Snowdonia Killings, the first book in the DI Ruth Hunter Crime Thriller Book series)

As a native South Londoner, I’m often asked, ‘Why do you write about Snowdonia?’ It’s a fair enough question. As environments go, South London and Snowdonia couldn’t be more contrasting. But in my Detective Ruth Hunter crime series, that’s the point. 

Before I go any further, I should point out that I do have some credentials here. Twenty years ago, I married a beautiful Welsh girl, and after a few years of London life, we moved to North Wales to raise our family. That was over a decade ago. Snowdonia is now quite literally on my doorstep and, as I planned a series of crime novels, it was a landscape that cried out to be the backdrop to these stories. In fact, it was so apt that I had to check several times to make sure it hadn’t already been used. Luckily, I found it to be a blank canvas.

Like all great settings for storytelling, Snowdonia has become a character in its own right. As a landscape it has it all. The ominous ridges of snow-dusted mountains that touch the sky. Vast lakes formed at the last ice age, and rocky, stormy beaches that border the Irish sea. Added to this, it boasts a mystical atmosphere where folk-tales and history merge to provide a dark and powerful narrative for the 900 square miles of Britain’s largest national park. The Mabinogion, a collection of Snowdonian legends, mythology and the supernatural, are over a 1,000 years old. And so, as a backdrop that is dramatic in mood and loaded with meaning, Snowdonia perfectly fits the distinguishing traits and traditions of noir fiction. 

Entering this landscape is Detective Inspector Ruth Hunter, a native South Londoner (ah, yes there is a biographical element!), who is suffering from burn-out after decades of dealing with the murder and mayhem in the high-rise, concrete jungles of Peckham. Snowdonia had been the destination of many blissful childhood holidays. Ruth transfers from the London Met to the North Wales Police force confident that her days will be filled with nothing more taxing than sheep rustling or tractor theft. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Crimes in rural North Wales are as brutal, harrowing and complex as anywhere else. And it wouldn’t be much of crime series with nothing more dramatic than an expired shotgun licence. 

Just as I had preconceptions of what life in North Wales would be like, so does DI Ruth Hunter. She soon realises that the CID team she now leads are a far cry from the parochial hicks that she had first imagined. The detectives are as sharp, intuitive, and caring as any she had encountered in the London Met. More so, in many ways. And much as I did, Ruth soon relishes the warm, friendly people most of whom value honesty, family and community over pretention, status and the need for skinny, de-caff lattes and smashed avocado on sourdough!

Released in 2020, The Snowdonia Killings has sold over 250,000 copies and reached No. 1 in the Amazon Chart. A television series based on the book is in development and set to start shooting in 2023. 

The latest novel in the Snowdonia series is ‘The Lake Vyrnwy Killings,’ and the first in Simon’s new series, set in Anglesey, The Dark Tide is published by Avon in May.

The Lake Vyrnwy Killings by Simon McCleave (Out Now)

Detective Inspector Ruth Hunter lives with the pain of her partner’s mysterious disappearance, but despite trading in the crime-ridden streets of London for rural Snowdonia, her life has been anything but peaceful… A missing husband. A gruesome discovery. Are the two events linked? When DI Ruth Hunter and DS Nick Evans are called to a gruesome discovery at beautiful Lake Vyrnwy, they have little to go on to identify the grisly remains. When a local man is reported missing, it seems that his links to a Merseyside gang might explain his disappearance. But when the missing man is spotted at various locations, Ruth and Nick must discover if he is on the run and hiding, or if a darker manipulation could explain the sightings.

More information about Simon McCleave can be found on his website. You can also find him on Facebook and on Instagram.

Sunday 20 March 2022

April Books From Bookouture

America 1883: Cassie Gwynne feels like she’s finally found where she belongs, settling into her new life in Florida with her aunt and her mischievous kitten Esy. When a traveling theater group arrives in town Cassie can’t resist signing up for the chorus. But the production goes awry from the start and soon death takes center stage... With costumes going missing and strange voices heard coming from the dressing room, the cast are convinced they are cursed. And when the lead actor, William Gage, has a fatal accident, Cassie is certain someone is deliberately targeting the play. Off-stage Mr. Gage was known as a notorious flirt, so could a jilted lover be out for revenge? Determined that the show must go on, Cassie launches her own investigation into the peculiar events. She quickly discovers an expensive, embroidered handkerchief stashed away on the lighting platform. This part of the theater is supposed to be out of bounds, so could the cagey chorus girl or the uppity understudy have something to hide? When she returns at night to look around, Cassie is almost flattened as the wooden scenery crashes to the stage. Is this just the latest in a long line of catastrophes or is somebody out to stop Cassie learning the truth? Can Cassie solve the mystery and make it to opening night or will it be curtains for her too? Plot Most Peril is by Genevieve Essig.

214 Palmer Street is by Karen McQuestion. A house with a secret. A woman with nothing to lose.When Maggie sees the beautiful Venetian blinds moving in the Caldwells’ front window, she freezes. Her favorite neighbours Cady and Josh are away, so who is in their house? The pretty young woman who answers the door tells a convincing story. She’s Sarah. The house-sitter. Just here for a month. An old friend of Cady’s who needed a place to stay. She’s pleasant and warm, and Maggie wanders back to her house thinking she might have made a new friend. Yet she can’t help but wonder why Cady never mentioned Sarah. What Maggie doesn’t know is that on the other side of the door, Sarah is starting to panic. No one was meant to see her at 214 Palmer Street…

“Help!” she screams, kicking as hard as she can against the closet door. But it’s nailed shut, and nobody can hear her. She drops to her knees and curls into a ball like she did as a little girl, praying someone will find her before it is too late… When the body of single mother Melissa Rollins is found trapped inside a bedroom closet in her immaculate suburban home, Detective Jo Fournier races to the scene. The small town of Greenfern is sweltering in a heatwave, and Jo is horrified to find that Melissa’s heating was turned up to the max whilst she died of thirst. Who would kill a devoted mother in such a cruel way? Searching the house for clues, Jo’s team discovers that the front door was locked from the inside. And with no sign of a break-in, they realise the killer must be someone Melissa knew. But everyone in the frame has an alibi… As she delves deeper into the case, Jo uncovers a link between Melissa and a recent cold case: another single mother who was tied up and brutally murdered. Someone is on a mission to kill local mothers, and Jo knows they will claim their next victim soon. But as temperatures continue to rise and the team works around the clock to stop a twisted killer, someone from Jo’s past catches up with her. They’re watching her family’s every move, and they will stop at nothing to get revenge… Can Jo save the people she loves and catch the killer before it’s too late? Her Silent Prayer is by M M Chouinard.

Lake View House is by Helen Phifer. Icy water laps against the wooden jetty. But the girl doesn’t notice the cold as she slips slowly under the freezing surface… Running from a devastating relationship that almost cost her everything, Maddy Hart impulsively accepts a job as a live-in caretaker at imposing Lakeview House. She has no memories of having visited the crumbling mansion on the banks of Lake Thirlmere before, but when she arrives, something about the house feels familiar… The more time Maddy spends in the house, the more unsettled she feels. Why does the local story about the last woman who lived here, who drowned on her wedding day, chill Maddy to the bone? By day, she clears out the dusty rooms, but in the dead of night it’s hard to explain away the eerie noises or crackly radio she hears hours after she turned it off. Slowly, Maddy begins to fear that her worst nightmare is coming true, has her past caught up with her…? When a soaking wet wedding dress is left on Maddy’s doorstep she feels completely trapped. It is her exact measurements. Is her ex trying to send her a message? Or has Maddy’s digging uncovered an even deadlier secret? Will this perfect escape become the perfect trap?

My family keep telling me I’m safe. But why don’t I believe them? I stand at the very edge of the cliff face, looking at the roaring ocean below my feet. I’m in no danger, in fact my husband and his sister talk just feet away from me, watching my every move. They’re worried I’m losing my mind, and I sense their nerves as they watch me looking down on the jagged rocks below. Behind them sits our summer house. Apparently it’s my favourite place in the world, not that I can remember. Since the car accident, I’ve struggled to recall a lot of important things in my life, like giving birth to my daughter, Violet, just days after the crash. Or my supposedly perfect marriage… As I stare at the huge expanse of blue below, I have a flashback to the day of the crash—an argument, my husband’s face red with anger. Why is it so different to what everyone else is telling me about my life? Beads of sweat gather on my neck. If my memory is true, my life and my children’s lives are in danger. What really happened the day of the accident? And is there anyone I can trust? The Breakdown is by Arianne Richmonde.

Watch Her Disappear is by Lisa Regan. The girl’s prom dress, the color of champagne, shimmers in the dying light. A corsage of wilting pink sweetheart roses decorates her wrist. She is perfectly still, lying on the ground like a delicate china doll, trapped forever in a sleep from which she will never wake… When a call comes in about a young girl found dead at a high school prom—her life drained away from a fatal stab wound—Detective Josie Quinn drops everything to attend the scene. Taking in the girl’s neatly braided hair, Josie feels a flicker of recognition. But no one comes forward to identify this innocent child, murdered on what should have been the happiest night of her life. Trawling missing persons files, Josie realizes where she has seen the girl before. Gemma Farmer disappeared a few months ago, shattering her family. But why would her body appear now, on her sixteenth birthday? Josie’s only clue is the five neat little cuts on Gemma’s pale arm. Days later, another missing girl shows up, tucked neatly into her bed on the morning of her birthday, her favourite teddy beside her, her skin as cold as ice—and the autopsy reveals scars on her arm matching Gemma’s. Her head spinning, Josie fears the marks are a serial killer’s twisted way of counting his victims. But where are the other girls he’s killed, and how many more could follow? The case takes a terrifying turn when a local teen goes missing just days before she turns sixteen. Clock ticking, Josie turns the town upside down in search of answers. But when her own chief comes forward with a missing piece in this devastating puzzle spanning decades, will it be enough to get inside the mind of the most unexpected and elusive killer she has ever encountered, or will another precious life be taken?

Gone to Her Grave is by Wendy Dranfield. In the golden morning light, a beautiful young woman lies diagonally across the bed, dressed for a night out, her long lashes pressed against her cheeks as if she’s sleeping. But the crimson that creeps across the sheets tells the story of an innocent woman who has drawn her last breath… Detective Madison Harper is pulled away from Thanksgiving preparations when a local care worker, Terri Summers, is found dead in her home on the outskirts of Lost Creek, Colorado. Terri’s inconsolable mother can’t understand who would hurt such a kind soul who had dedicated her life to helping others. But analysis of the blood spatter at the scene indicates Terri knew her attacker, that she looked them right in the eye before her life was taken. The awkward way Terri’s body is positioned catches Madison’s attention. Carefully moving her, she finds a bracelet—possibly a child’s—with a single red bead clenched in the woman’s fist, as if she was hiding it. It’s the lead Madison so desperately needs, but the sudden death of one of her own team sends the investigation into a tailspin. With her coworkers crumbling around her, Madison must work day and night to trace the bracelet and crack the case. But when she’s dragged back into the disappearance of a woman and child from years ago, and finds a link to someone in her own family, can Madison stop this twisted killer before another precious life is taken? And at what cost?

A lovely day out takes a dark turn when a complaining customer is found dead… Luckily amateur sleuth Belinda Penshurst is on the scene – and ready to investigate! Belinda Penshurst has always loved Brabourne Gardens. A keen animal lover, she enjoys walking its winding paths and listening to the excited squeals of schoolchildren encountering the kind of wildlife you don’t normally find in England. So when one of the visitors is found strangled, she’s determined to learn whodunnit – and why. The victim, Simon Carter, had a reputation for making trouble… But surely that’s not a good enough reason to want him dead. Together with retired detective Harry Powell, Belinda investigates the goings-on behind the scenes, and learns that some of the staff are more savage than the animals. Is it Estelle Samuels, the anti-social owner, who clearly has something to hide? Or the security guard who takes his job too seriously? Most worrying of all, Belinda’s ex Ivan was there when the body was found, and she’s determined to clear his name. As suspicions swirl, one thing’s for sure: if Belinda keeps following the killer’s tracks, she might find herself in their sights… Can she sniff out a murderer, before she becomes prey? Murder at the Gardens is by Lisa Cutts.

Silent Little Angels is by Jennifer Chase. The water ripples as the girl’s body escapes the reeds and floats silently upwards. Her beautiful face—blue eyes frozen open, skin as white as snow—breaks the surface. But it’s too late, this innocent soul has taken her final breath… When camp counselor Carolyn Sable’s body is found floating in a lake beside Eagle Ridge Summer Camp, Detective Katie Scottmust dig deep to stay focused. As a child, Katie spent many happy weeks at that camp toasting marshmallows on the fire with her best friend Jenny… until the day Jenny disappeared. The loss will always haunt Katie, but Carolyn’s inconsolable family need answers. Searching the area, the devastating discovery of two more bodies sends the case into a tailspin. Suddenly on the hunt for a serial killer, Katie’s blood turns to ice when she finds newspaper clippings about her own past cases planted near one of the bodies. Was this twisted killer banking on Katie taking the lead? And why? Carolyn was adored by children and staff at the camp, so Katie thinks her sudden resignation is key to cracking the case. Uncovering a tragic accident involving a group of children the weeks before Carolyn left, Katie knows she’s getting close. But when the carefully laid trap Katie sets to catch Carolyn’s killer backfires, Katie finds herself in unthinkable danger and unable to even trust her own team. Can she stay alive long enough to crack the toughest case of her career, and how many more innocent lives will be lost before she does?

For seven years I believed my husband was dead – until the note arrived this morning… The day her husband Tom disappeared, Rachel’s life fell apart. Childhood sweethearts with two young children, they’d done everything together. And then, suddenly, Tom was gone. Without a word, without a note, without a single sign of where he might be, leaving Rachel to survive alone. Now, nearly seven years later, Rachel has come to terms with life as a single mother, caring for their children who still secretly long for their father’s miraculous return. But in his absence, Tom’s hidden life started to emerge, and Rachel has discovered things a wife should never have to. A secret life that betrayed everything Rachel thought she knew. Not knowing where he’d gone was no longer the main worry keeping her awake at night – it seemed much more likely he’d been silenced. Forever. Until today, when – with just one month until Tom is to be declared legally dead – Rachel receives a note in handwriting she recognises with dread: My darling, I’ve missed you so much. Give me a chance to explain. I’m coming home. The husband she’d lost is alive. And so are all his secrets… The Widow's Husband is by Lesley Sanderson.

The Light House Girls is by B R Spangler. The girl shivers in the boat, trying to hold back her sobs as the man silently rows them towards the lighthouse under a dark sky. She thinks desperately of her big sister, how they’d laughed just a few hours before as they rode the Ferris wheel at the funfair. Will she ever see her again? When the body of a teenage girl is found abandoned on a beach by a lighthouse in North Carolina’s Outer Banks, Detective Casey White is first on the scene. Breaking the news to the heartbroken parents, Casey is distraught to learn of a second tragedy: the girl’s eight-year-old little sister Shawna is missing too. Searching the lighthouse building, Casey soon finds traces that Shawna was kept there: her clothes, a teddy bear. Someone has been keeping her alive, but where have they taken her? When she learns that the girls were together at a visiting funfair the night they were taken, Casey races to interview the workers, but is only met with silence and turned backs. Digging into old cases, Casey’s blood runs cold as she realises there’s been a murder in the same location as the travelling fair going back years. Now the funfair has disappeared without trace. Thinking back to a shadowy figure she noticed by the hall of mirrors, Casey is certain when they find the fair, they will find the killer hiding in plain sight. But with the whole town terrified for their daughters,can Casey hunt them down before it’s too late for little Shawna?

Murder in the Neighborhood is by Ellen J Green. On 6 September 1949, twenty-eight-year-old Howard Barton Unruh shot thirteen people in less than twelve minutes on his block in East Camden, New Jersey. The shocking true story of the first recorded mass shooting in America has never been told, until now. The sky was cloudless that morning when twelve-year-old Raymond Havens left his home on River Road. His grandmother had sent him to get a haircut at the barbershop across the street—where he was about to witness his neighbor and friend Howard open fire on the customers inside. Told through the eyes of young Raymond, who had visited Howard regularly to listen to his war stories, and the mother trying to piece together the disturbing inner workings of her son’s mind, Murder in the Neighborhood uncovers the chilling true story of Howard Unruh, the quiet loner who meticulously plotted his revenge on the neighbors who shunned him and became one of America’s first mass killers. With Ellen’s access to Howard’s diaries, newly released police reports and psychiatric records alongside interviews with surviving family members, Murder in the Neighborhood is a compulsive page-turner that will have you asking—how well do we ever really know those around us? Are we ever really safe?

A Body on the Beach is by Dee Macdonald. Super sleuth Kate Palmer is Cornwall’s answer to Miss Marple, but when the semi-retired nurse finds herself in the wrong place at the wrong time can she prove her innocence and solve her most puzzling case yet? Kate Palmer thought spending the day at Tinworthy’s annual summer party would involve sea air, sunshine and Cornish cream cake – how very wrong she was! After a showdown with her new nemesis Sienna Stone, Kate goes for a cliff-top walk to cool off. But she is horrified to spot Sienna’s body on the sandy beach below. Rumours swirl around the close-knit Cornish community and all eyes are on Kate. Half the village witnessed her argument with Sienna. When Kate finds herself cast as a suspect and is accused of murder, can she solve the crime and clear her name? Kate knows that plenty of people disliked Sienna but would any of them go so far as to kill her and frame Kate? Could it be Sienna’s long-suffering husband Irving? Her jealous younger sister Sally? Or Timmy Thomson, the local loner who was infatuated with her? Just as Kate thinks she’s getting closer to an answer, Timmy is found dead in his own home. Does his untimely demise mean the other suspects, including Kate, are next on the killer’s list…? With time running out, Kate needs to find out the truth. Can she solve the case and save herself? Or have her days of sleuthing come to an end?

The Girl Before Me is by Laura Wolfe. I’m so worried. You aren’t safe in that apartment! You have to get out. Before it’s too late… When Rachel moves into a new apartment with her young daughter, Lily, it’s with a huge sense of relief. After escaping an abusive marriage, this perfect downtown fourth floor rental, within minutes from the lake, feels like the new beginning the two of them deserve. It’s a place to call home. A place for them to grow together. A place for them to heal. And, as Lily starts at a nearby elementary school, and Rachel begins to develop feelings for her neighbor, Alex, who lives just down the hall, she dares to hope that their life is looking up. But soon handwritten letters begin to arrive for someone called Annie. Alex says she was just the tenant who lived there before, who moved out one day without a word. Tentatively Rachel opens the first letter, intending to return it to the sender. But the note says ‘Annie. I’m so worried. You aren’t safe in that apartment! You have to get out. Before it’s too late.’ Something happened to Annie. And Rachel is not nearly as safe as she thinks she is…

Friday 18 March 2022

Silje O. Ulstein on Plotting Like a True Panster

Where plotters are usually defined as storytellers who plot their stories before they start writing them, pantsers write by “the seat of their pants”. Most of us, I think, need a little bit of both, but some of us definitely has more inclination for planning their work than others. For me, writing seems to start with a few images or scenes in my head, or perhaps just a good sentence. From there I start to search through a hazy cloud after clues, and new images pop up as I go. If I don’t know exactly what will happen in the next scene, I just jump to one that I know, and work from there. It is a magical technique, but it is also a frustrating one. It takes a lot of editing to make everything work as a whole. And when writing four hundred pages with five protagonists, multiple timelines and plenty of plot twists, it became necessary at some point to do some plotting.

It all started with the image of a huge python. A friend of mine who was doing charity work helping ownerless cats find new homes, told me that she had this fear that one of the cats would end up at a snake owners house, as prey. I just couldn’t shake the thought. I started thinking of what sort of person would do such a thing. Could this be a good idea for a story? So, I knew what the basic idea was, but I didn’t know anything about the protagonist or what was going to happen when I started writing. I wrote about a man, then changed him into to a woman. I was going for a cold and heartless character, but as I was writing she grew more and more complex. I was writing scenes here and there, building character and figuring out the details of the story, doing research when it felt necessary and discovering interesting themes that I would never have guessed to begin with. Not until quite late in the process did I start to make plot charts or even taking plotting seriously.

For me, plotting is the least fun part of the process. I guess that’s the best reason I have for postponing it. I just love searching through that hazy cloud, and I love how the characters seem to constantly surprise me. I truly believe that the freedom I had in my writing process has worked wonders for the creativity, and that plotting ahead would have killed that creativity for me. But after dreading it for the longest time, I found out that I just had to do my plotting in a fun, creative way. So instead of making everything fit into neat little boxes, I let the whole plotting process be as messy as I wanted. And it worked. Not only did I finish my novel, Reptile Memoirs received great reviews and has spread wide across the Norwegian borders.

So, how to plot like a pantser? Colorful pens, physical paper and all the freedom you need. No need to limit or structure what you put on there. The plot chart is an assistive device, not a straitjacket. If you have an interesting thought, a new idea, a good sentence, feel free to put it anywhere. Don’t let the plot holes scare you – simply leave question marks and comments. Trust that you will find solutions to your problems. If you get bored, feel free to start drawing your characters on the side. If you start to feel that the chart is becoming an imprisonment, try to find a way out. After all, we could always use more rule breakers. 

I recently sat down and started to draw a plot chart for the novel I’m currently working on. As I was putting down my planned and written scenes, I looked at it and felt that this straight line just didn’t make sense. Life is not like this, I thought, life is not this ridiculous straight line. So, in a spontaneous moment I wrote on the corner of the paper: “This is not a linear timeline. The story unfolds in an ever-expanding spacetime.” Then I drew a circle. I’m still not quite sure what it means, but it immediately spiked my imagination. I trust that everything will fall into place in the end.

Reptile Memoirs by Silje O. Ulstein Published by Grove Atlantic Press (Out now)

Liv has a lot of secrets. Late one night, in the aftermath of a party in the apartment she shares with two friends in Ålesund, she sees a python on a TV nature show and becomes obsessed with the idea of buying a snake as a pet. Soon Nero, a baby Burmese python, becomes the apartment’s fourth roommate. As Liv bonds with Nero, she is struck by a desire that surprises her with its intensity. Finally she is safe.  Thirteen years later, in the nearby town of Kristiansund, Mariam Lind goes on a shopping trip with her eleven-year-old daughter, Iben. Following an argument Mariam storms off, expecting her young daughter to make her own way home . . . but she never does. Detective Roe Olsvik, new to the Kristiansund police department, is assigned to the case of Iben’s disappearance. As he interrogates Mariam, he instantly suspects her – but there is much more to this case and these characters than their outer appearances would suggest.

You can follow her on Twitter @siljesalat

Photo credit - Oda Berby