My Writing Process blog tour

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Thanks to friend and fellow-writer Sharon Bidwell for lassoing me and plonking me in the relay race that is the My Writing Process blog tour. I hope I won’t drop the baton half way round.

Q1 What are you currently working on?

I usually have about six things on the go at once, although I don’t physically work on them all at the same time. Currently I’m editing a couple of short stories for submission calls – making sure they fit the guidelines, word count and so on – and actually writing one longer piece. This is a novella partly inspired by a Pink Floyd track, which follows the actions of six or seven different victims of a serial killer, trying to get inside their heads and find out what if anything in their personalities led them to their fate. Light-hearted it ain’t, but I’m hoping it will be something a little different.

Q2 How does my work differ from others in my genre?

Well, there are plenty of crime writers, slightly fewer who concentrate on noir, but I think where I really veer off is that I hardly ever focus on the detective, police officer or other crime-solver, but instead write from the criminals’ point of view. My stories are littered with the has-beens and the “little people”, often challenged or unsuccessful, who make the great criminal world go round without ever really benefiting from it.

On top of that, I weave some fairly dark, “gallows” humour into my stories – think Keystone Cops, Frank Spencer, or (if you want something a little more up to date) the Coen Brothers – yet at the same time all my work has a distinct “Brit-grit” feel to it, which is a fairly unusual combination.

Oh – and then there are the elephants…

Q3 Why do I write what I do?

I’ve always had an interest in what makes people tick, what makes people do the things they do, and go on doing, even if it leads to disaster. I grew up watching the gritty British tv fare of the 70s and 80s – Softly Softly, Z Cars, The Professionals, The Sweeney – so that dark, violence-soaked, rain-soaked, back-alley style of drama is in my blood. And I’ve always enjoyed stories where there is no happy-ever-after, where people veer from one crisis to another or bring about their own very personal downfalls. I guess I’m just weird.

Q4 How does my writing process work?

Quite often, it doesn’t. I can sit and stare at the computer screen for hours, with thoughts jangling round in my head but nothing filtering through with sufficient lucidity to put down on paper. Once I catch hold of the loose thread and give it a tug, though, the ideas unravel, spill out and I can rattle off an entire short story in two days flat. Then I’m back to screen-staring again.

I find it almost impossible to plot, plan or work more methodically. The loose threads come when they will; listing characters or chapter headings in a notebook achieves nothing for me. In fact it can be counter-productive, because if I spend all my creative energy on an outline, I have nothing left to write the actual story. And letting the characters write their own story can lead up some very interesting blind alleys!

Q5 What’s new from you?

webDrag NoirI have a short story coming up in the Drag Noir anthology, edited by K A Laity. This is a serious look at drag in all its manifestations: the masks and disguises that people take on, the things they’re hiding from, the events that cause them to turn to such extreme measures. My own story, ‘Wheel Man’, is set in the gender-obsessed world of car theft, which Stephen Fry recently described as “the last bastion of sexism in British crime”, and examines the lengths one woman is prepared to go to, to keep doing what she loves. The book is due from Fox Spirit in October, but if you can’t wait that long you could do worse than seek out Exiles: An Outsider Anthology from Blackwitch Press, which also contains one of my short stories, ‘Dead Man Walking’. It’s available as either a print or e-book, it’s nice and cheap, and all proceeds go to charity (the Marfan Foundation) so you can donate to a good cause in the process.

And now it’s over to the next sacrifical victim, crime-buff Lucy Cameron, for the next step in the blog tour. Thanks for listening!

Drag Noir cover reveal

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Cue music, lights and feather boa. Like a stripper at a high class lap dancing joint, I can now reveal… the cover for the forthcoming ‘Drag Noir’ anthology from Fox Spirit. Like the stripper, it’s worth the wait. Like the stripper, it’s snazzy, stylish, and alluring. Unlike the stripper, it doesn’t promise more than it delivers. In fact, it’s an absolute doozy, as you can see for yourself:

webDrag Noir

The book, a whole collection of stories devoted to men and women wearing a disguise (whether they know it or not), is due in October. If, like the stripper’s customers you can’t wait that long, you can find out more at the Fox Spirit website. The list of contents includes my own short story ‘Wheel Man’, a poignant tale set in the gender-obsessed world of car theft. I get the impression the rest of the collection is going to be every bit as good as the cover, and (like the stripper’s customers) I’m struggling to stay patient too. I’ll have to try not to trip over my high heels and feather boa in the rush.

Cover image (c) sljohnsonimages.com, by the talented Stephanie Johnson.

UK’s dumbest criminal #2

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It’s time for another entry in my occasional series on dumb criminals – and this one takes some beating. According to this article in The Guardian, he chose another house in the same street he lives on to burgle. Then he forgot to check whether there was anyone at home. There was; the home-owner was in the property at the time and disturbed the burglar, who ran off empty handed. So empty handed, in fact, that he left behind the can of lager he’d been drinking from when he broke in… complete with his fingerprints and full DNA profile.

If I put that in a story, nobody would believe me!

Exiles review

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exiles-cover-small-2I finally finished reading my paperback copy of Exiles: An Outsider Anthology the other day, and have reviewed it on Goodreads.  Although I have a story in this one, it didn’t stop me being objective about the rest of the contents: it’s a very enjoyable, varied and thought-provoking collection.  You can read my full review at Goodreads.  I hope it will inspire a few more people to cough up for the book and contribute to a very good cause in the process!

Post mortem without the mess

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A note for all you crime writers out there – digital autopsies are about to move off the pages of the latest sci-fi novel and become reality instead. The borough of Sandwell in the West Midlands is planning a centre for autopsies by scanner rather than scalpel, based at one of their crematoria, in the near future.

This makes a lot of sense. There’s a sizeable Asian population in the West Midlands, many of them Muslims for whom the whole concept of post mortem investigations is anathema. This way, the experts will be able to tell the cause of death without that invasive element. And what works for Muslims may also be more acceptable to much of the rest of the population, who don’t like to think about their nearest and dearest being sliced to pieces so soon after death.

This is a great use of modern technology and one I’d like to see catching on. Crime writers, though, may have to re-think any scenes they set in morgues from now on…

Free shipping on Exiles

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exiles-cover-small-2If you’ve been thinking about treating yourself to the paperback version of ‘Exiles: An Outsider Anthology’ but have been put off by the postage charges, now’s your chance. The book is available from Lulu for just a few short days without paying shipping. Just use the code LJSD14 when ordering to take advantage of the offer. It’s available until 6th August so if you order now you should just about still catch it!

Reviews of the anthology are consistently good and I’m thoroughly enjoying the stories myself – review to come in the next few days.

Progress

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The last few weeks have been rather arid in terms of getting writing done: we’ve had trips away, days out, routine appointments and a whole load of other things going on that have made concentrating on work really difficult.

At last, though, this week I’ve been able to settle down at my desk and Get On With Stuff. And I’m really pleased with the results.

Yesterday I gave a final polish to a music-themed crime story I wrote for Grift Magazine’s latest call for submissions, and sent that off. And today, I’ve finally got going on my current work-in-progress, a dark crime novella called ‘Raise the Blade’. Several weeks ago I stalled on a scene in the first section, and haven’t been able to move past that point. This morning, for no apparent reason, I suddenly stopped swimming around in molasses (figuratively speaking, that is) and could see a way to make the scene work. Eight hundred words later, the first section is finished (at least to first draft) and I’m a much happier bunny. Long may the sudden creative burst last.

Zombie apocalypse… Birmingham?

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Here’s another amusing little tale of the sort of bizarre things that go on in Birmingham: West Midlands Police have reported more than 70 calls to their help desks about ghosts, witchcraft and, er, zombies, in the last three years.

Witchcraft I can just about get my head round and ghosts are a whole other matter; whether you believe in them or not there’s no doubting that there are some inexplicable phenomena at times, which you can hardly blame people for associating with the paranormal.  I myself experienced sudden drops in temperature, and being touched in an otherwise empty property – and that was in full daylight in a modern flat.  Imagine the same sort of thing happening after dark in a spooky environment and it’s no wonder folk phone for help.

But… zombies?  In a 21st century city?  Seriously?  I would love to know what activity sparked that particular report.  Was it a rather sick practical joke, or is Birmingham really the location of the next zombie invasion?  Can’t wait to find out!

Serpents, pineapples, and Capability Brown

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I’ve just finished reading ‘The Serpent in the Garden’ by Janet Gleeson, a historical (hysterical?) detective novel involving missing necklaces and the cultivation of pineapples, at the third attempt. Here’s what I thought of it:

I’m not sure what to make of this book. I’d tried reading it twice before and given up each time at the exact same spot – the start of the second chapter, where there’s a sudden and rather unhappy change in point of view. I’m not a big fan of changing points of view in a book, especially not so early on when readers are just starting to get to grips with a main character, to sympathise with them and, well, like them. All that hard work in the first chapter building up feeling for a character who’s going to take us through the rest of the book is suddenly lost, in a switch to a much more unsympathetic character who isn’t. The fact that we never go back to the second character’s point of view suggests strongly that this is simply an authorial device – a way to get the discovery of the first body across when it’s someone other than the main character making the discovery. It isn’t altogether successful.

This time, I forced myself to get past the ‘sticking point’ and keep reading, and overall I’m glad I did. The plot, a madcap romp involving dead bodies, missing gold necklaces and the growing of pineapples, is intriguing and fast-paced enough to keep the pages turning, and the main character Joshua Pope, a society portrait painter who takes on the case of a missing necklace for his latest clients, is likeable and engaging. The author has clearly done heaps of research on Georgian society in general and Georgian garden design in particular (Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown even makes a couple of brief appearances); and weaves those elements mostly successfully into the narrative.

However, you do have to suspend an awful lot of disbelief. Not only that Pope would agree to become an amateur detective in the first place, but also that he would keep on beavering away at the case in the face of hostility, a lack of evidence, and even a direct order from his clients to stop. Given that most artists were wholly dependent on the income from their painting, I can’t help thinking that in real life Pope would not have had the leisure to give up his work and go off on some wild goose chase for people he barely knew and liked even less. An additional spur of clearing his name feels bolted on and the circumstances surrounding that are never investigated.

It’s at this level of character motivations that the book really falls down. People do the silliest things, just for the sake of the plot, or for no reason at all. Characters act out of character or do things that are physically beyond them; their wounds and/or illnesses have a habit of disappearing whenever they become too inconvenient; and their personalities are so mercurial that you have a hard time working out who’s who because none of them show any consistency in their behaviour. Fair enough, people have mood swings but if an entire household acted so bizarrely for so long I think I’d be tempted to reach for the Evening Primrose Oil. Possibly for this reason, the characters never develop; I got no sense that any of them (with the possible exception of Pope himself) were real people in a real world.

And the pineapples that appear to be so important at the beginning of the book (so much so that entire passages are given up to describing their horticulture) turn out to be yet another device for getting a character into the right place at the right time. Rather a disappointment, that, as I liked the pineapples, dammit. They’re unusual enough to be a character in their own right!

Overall, it’s an enjoyable enough read, but you’re probably best taking it away on holiday – and leaving your disbelief firmly parked in a drawer back home.

Peacocks and paintings

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On the final day of our London stay we set off on foot for an area somewhere between Earls Court and Kensington High Street.  I can’t be any more specific than that because after walking at least two miles and getting lost twice, my sense of direction had headed in the general direction of no man’s land and I hadn’t a clue where we were.  However, we eventually fell over what we were looking for, which was Leighton House Museum, otherwise known as the home of Victorian painter Lord (Frederick) Leighton.

Rather like the Old Operating Theatre I mentioned the other day, this is a privately owned/run business, but affiliated to the National Trust on a ‘partner’ basis so NT members get in for half price.  I’d seen some pictures in the NT handbook and thought the place looked impressive, and sure enough it was.  Leighton himself appears to have been a somewhat eccentric type with a love of Middle Eastern culture that bordered on obsession.  Rather than living in a typical Victorian suburban house, he had his converted into a mock Arabic palace with a pool, fountain, stunning Islamic wall tiles, a fake divan, and (apparently, since it’s there now) a stuffed peacock.

The end result is rather bizarre.  The only conventional rooms in the house are Leighton’s study and his remarkably austere bedroom.  Everything else appears to be there for show, rather than comfort or general living.  I was left with the distinct impression that there was a lot of showing-off going on, and I’m not convinced that Leighton’s interest in Arabic art extended to any real understanding of the culture.  In one balconied area overlooking the pool, for instance, the pierced wooden screening looks very much like that used to close off the harem in a medieval sheikh’s palace – yet Leighton had no women living with him.

As well as all the Arabic stuff, the house was littered with Leighton’s paintings and sculpture, and would be absolutely fascinating for anyone with a love of his work.  Sadly, it’s also being run as something of a money-making enterprise, with even the most basic information leaflets costing 50p and the custodian behind the desk informing us with almost her first breath that “we were welcome to purchase any additional information we might need”.  Photography is forbidden (as I found out, entirely accidentally, the hard way) and the prices in the small gift shop were astronomical.

By way of a complete contrast, in the afternoon we walked another couple of miles to the world-famous V&A Museum, where we discovered vast murals painted by none other than Lord Leighton were available on public view, completely free.  It makes you wonder why the museum at his home needs to be quite so commercialised.

Harpsichords in Hampstead

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Day two of our London trip found us in Hampstead, a suburb neither of us had visited before. And if we’d thought Kensington where we were staying was posh, then Hampstead was another world again. We emerged blinking into the sunlight to find a beautiful ‘village’ centre filled with boutiques, French bakeries, antiques centres and the like, and when we glanced into a couple of estate agents’ windows we almost had apoplexy. Prices in Kensington seem to hover around the £1.5 million mark; here they were closer to £4 million, for nothing larger than a two-bed apartment. It all felt quite… rarified, somehow, if very leafy and prosperous.

We’d gone because of a couple of National Trust properties nearby – Fenton House and 2, Willow Road. The former is a pleasant 17th century merchants’ house with a walled garden, set near the top of a steep hill, presumably so the residents would have the benefit of purer air. (That isn’t me being sarcastic, by the way – it really happened. Pollution tended to settle at the lower levels.) The house itself was sweet rather than stately, with rooms that weren’t so far removed from what would be considered a ‘good size’ these days. It had a comfortable feel, and you could really imagine the occupants living there, going about their daily business, pottering in the garden, writing letters at a desk in the window.

More unusual was the vast collection of keyboard instruments, mostly harpsichords, which littered every corner of every room. There was even one stuffed into the original, um, water closet off one of the bedrooms. I’ve heard of going for a tinkle but that does seem a mite ridiculous. The virginals in the attic were more impressive, complete with beautiful painted scenes inside and out. And the view from the ‘roof terrace’, across vast swathes of central London, was amazing. The 17th century residents would no doubt have been startled to see buildings like the Gherkin, the Cheese-grater, and the Shard, from their bedroom windows.

After lunch in one of the aforementioned French bakeries we headed for the other property, 2 Willow Road. This is a complete contrast – a 1930s modernist building designed and furnished by Erno Goldfinger and apparently filled to bursting with all sorts of contemporary furniture and art works. I say apparently because we couldn’t get in. There was a problem with volunteers, and the place was closed for most of the afternoon which was very disappointing. We did manage a brief foray onto Hampstead Heath, and then tripped over Burgh House, a small but fascinating (and free!) museum about the local area, which was hidden away on a back street in the area once known as Hampstead Wells. Ten minutes browsing in there taught us everything we’d ever wanted to know about Hampstead, its origins, its famous residents, its fate during the war and a whole lot else besides. It more than made up for the annoyance of the National Trust.

Storybundle – last day

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storybundleA hasty reminder that the international crime storybundle including Exiles: An Outsider Anthology is only available for one more day.  So if you want to take advantage of this great offer (nine crime-related books from a variety of authors for a price of your own choosing) then hurry along to the Storybundle site now and place your order.  After tomorrow it’ll be too late!

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