Writing a novel involves spending an awful lot of time on one’s own. It can be difficult to meet other writers and that is where the Crime Writers’ Association is such a godsend. I joined in 2002 when my first novel came out and through the CWA I have made some very good friends. They have helped to keep me going through the inevitable ups and down of a writer’s life. And there’s the opportunity just to hang out with other writers at conferences – I have been to the Lake District, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Hereford, Shrewsbury, Lincoln. We are a famously convivial lot. But the stellar event in the UK crime-writers’ firmament is undoubtedly is the Daggers Dinner, held this year on 24th October at the Leonardo City Hotel in London. The photo shows me and my friends, Sarah Ward (left) and Kate Ellis (right) quaffing prosecco. Kate won the Dagger in the Library that evening. The winner of the Gold Dagger for best crime novel of the year was M C Craven for The Puppet Show.
The following week-end I headed up to Newcastle to hear my short story, ‘Safe as Houses,’ read brilliantly by Janine Birkett as one of three stories on the programme of Haunted: Ghost Story Readings for Halloween at the Lit and Phil (a Newcastle Institution – in every way). The other too were a Victorian shocker, ‘The Phantom Coach’ by Amelia B Edwards, and the disturbing ‘Three Miles Up’ by Elizabeth Jane Howard. It was all great fun. The other reader and the producer, Stephen Tomlin of Demiparadise Productions, is shown here with me and Janine.
So now it’s back to earth . . . But there’s the CWA Christmas Party and a spring conference in Torquay to look forward to.
If you are a crime writer, I hope you’ll consider joining us. If not, you could join our sister group, the Crime Readers’ Association, for free and receive news and reviews every month: http://thecra.co.uk.
Some years ago I was invited to submit a horror story for an anthology. The brief was that it must include some aspect of contemporary technology. I said doubtfully to my husband, ‘I’m not sure this is my thing.’ His reply was bracing: ‘You’re a writer, aren’t you? So write something!’ And I did. The story, ‘Safe as Houses,’ was duly published in Phobic: Modern Horror Stories, by Comma Press. It begins with a woman hearing a baby crying over a baby monitor. But there’s no baby in the house. . . I scared myself writing it! That’s part of the fun.
A few months ago I was contacted by an actor, Stephen Tomlin, to ask if ‘Safe as Houses’ could be one of three ghost stories to be included in a series of Halloween readings that he was planning for the north of England. I was delighted to agree and I’ll be attending one of the performances at that Newcastle institution, the Lit and Phil on 1 November. I am looking forward to hearing something that I have written performed by a professional actor – a first for me.
For details of the other venues and how to book tickets, go to www.demiparadiseproductions.co.uk
I don’t go in for bingeing on box sets. I am happily working my way through the 33 episodes of Inspector Morse, but I am strict about watching only one an evening. They last around an hour and forty minutes, so though I am sometimes tempted to go on to the next episode, it’s not so hard to resist. However binge-reading is another matter.
The hot weather made me think of those summer days long gone when I would go into a kind of trance and read for hours at a time. The years between sixteen and my mid twenties were my great reading years. I was doing an English A Level and then an English degree, followed by an M.A. and then a Ph.D. I was supposed to be reading, but even given that, I did read an awful lot. One summer I read all the Shakespeare plays that I hadn’t already studied and I mean ALL of them.
I can’t read like that these days – just as I can’t sleep until noon. Rarely do I succumb to the charm of a book and neglect everything in order to finish it. The last time I surrendered to a novel and spent the week-end reading it was when we picked A Gentleman in Moscowby Amor Towles for our book-group. All those years of work and child-rearing have got me out of the habit of long sessions with a book. Though I do still read a lot, it tends to be only on holiday that I can spend a whole afternoon with a novel.
But having said, there is a kind of binge-reading to which I do succumb. A couple of years ago, I discovered Mick Herron’s Slow Horseson my Kindle. I had bought it – perhaps because I met him at Crimefest – and then forgotten about it, as tends to happen with e-books. It was both gripping and darkly funny. By time I had got round to reading it, the deplorable Jackson Lamb and the sorry crew at Slough House were several adventures further on. In the long ago pre-internet past I would have to go to a book shop (remember those?) to look for the next instalment, and I might have had to order it. Or, if I was in low water financially, all too likely in those days, I might instead have gone to the library (an endangered species now). But now it is the work of seconds to buy someone’s whole back catalogue in order to devour them one after another. So in that sense I am a binge-reader, and though it is great to be able to finish one novel and go straight on to find out what happened to the characters next, perhaps something is lost too. There is a pleasure to be had in anticipation and delayed gratification (not to mention the importance of supporting book shops and libraries).
Having said that, if anyone should be tempted to download all Mick Herron’s books – or mine for that matter – please don’t feel you must hold back.
This is a second posting – I don’t know what happened to the first one. It mysteriously disappeared shortly after it appeared on my blog.
I am working my way through the entire box set of Inspector Morse DVDs, all thirty-three episodes, rationing myself strictly to one an evening. And how well they still stand up: well-plotted, well-scripted, excellent direction and photography, the glorious setting of Oxford, and above all the superb double act of the brilliant John Thaw with Kevin Whately as his sidekick. The supporting cast is excellent, too. Every episode is stuffed with familiar names – there’s even John Gielgud in one. The whole thing is such a class act. There is also the fun of spotting Colin Dexter appearing, Hitchcock-like, in every episode.
It is hard to believe that the the first one aired in 1987. These were the days before mobile phones and the internet made the work of the police – and the crime-writer – more complicated, and yet on the whole they have not dated very much. The most startling aspect is the women’s clothes: shoulder pads so enormous that they almost have to turn sideways to go through doorways. Did I once dress like that? I fear I must have, but memory has drawn a merciful veil over what I actually did wear. I was reminded of another way in which life has improved by an episode in which Morse is at a college dinner. At the end of it the woman sitting next to him lits up a cigarette while she is still sitting at the table: unthinkable these days! It is the little things that make you realise that, yes, this was thirty-two years ago.
PS Have just heard the sad news that Barrington Pheloung, who wrote the atmospheric score, has died.
It’s a while since I had a guest on the blog and it’s lovely to be joined today by my friend, Sue Hepworth. Sue’s new book EVEN WHEN THEY KNOW YOU was published in May. It’s full of acutely observed detail, thoughtful, touching, funny and poignant. It’s been described by one reader on Amazon as “Celebrating friendship, nature, love and lust for the over 50s.”
I asked Sue to tell us :
What is the book about?
On the face of it, it’s about a woman grieving over the death of her best friend and trying to find solace through her other friends, a relationship with a man she meets, and through paying close attention to nature and the changing seasons. But there are other themes, one of which is an exploration of how much of our history we need to share with others with whom we have meaningful relationships.
How much of the book is based on your own experience?
The book is set on and around the Monsal Trail in the Derbyshire Peak District, and the Trail is just half a mile from my home. Just like Jane, the main character, I walk or cycle on the Trail several times a week, and I notice the changes in the trees and vegetation as the seasons turn. The other crossover with my own life is that my closest friend died four years ago, and I have mined my experience of that to use in the book.
What is your comfort reading?
If I’m very upset I turn to poetry, often to Lifesaving Poems, published by Bloodaxe. When I have the winter blues I read The Secret Garden, or The Enchanted April. When I’m ill I read 84 Charing Cross Road or Mary Wesley’s Part of the Furniture. But the book that lives on my bedtime table and provides comfort in every circumstance is Garrison Keillor’s Leaving Home. This is quite a list, isn’t it? I find the world a dark and desperate place right now.
What is the book you first remember reading on your own?
A picture book called Tell Me A Story.
And the first ‘chapter’ book I read was an Enid Blyton Secret Seven book.
What single thing would improve your writing life?
For my retired husband to be out of the house from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday to Friday.
Describe the room where you write.
The room is filled with light. There is a window facing north over fields and a limestone edge beyond, and a south facing window, which looks over the front garden and then to pastures. The walls are painted pale turquoise and the wall above my desk is filled with paintings and prints of Wensleydale. Behind me are the bookshelves. There are photographs of my family everywhere. My husband makes stained glass, and a beautiful panel he made for me rests against the back window. My desk is usually littered with papers, and is only tidy when I have just finished writing a book.
Sue writes an entertaining blog at Suehepworth.com. Do check it out.
Last September I posted a photo of my desk all clean and tidy in preparation for beginning to write a novel. Well, I’ve done it and this is a photo of my desk last week just after I sent off the final draft to my editor. After I’d pressed send, I danced around the house. Note writer’s companion cat asleep on the shelf on the left and celebratory glass of wine in the centre. I thought of my husband and wished he were here. It’s the first novel that I have written without him at my back. Still, it was a sweet moment and I raised a glass for us both.
Not long to go now to the annual British Library event, Bodies from the Library, and I am busy putting together my talk, Murder in Mind: The Crime Novels of Helen McCloy. She is a fine writer who has been unjustly neglected. I intend to put that right. If she is known at all it is for Through a Glass, Darkly – a novel I find chilling even on rereading – but she was far from being a one-novel wonder. I’ll be looking at the reasons why she sank out of sight so completely and saying why I think she is well worth reviving.
I’ve also been rereading with great enjoyment the novels and short stories of Cyril Hare in preparation for the session in which Martin Edwards and I will discussing him: Cyril Hare: Master of the English Murder. He is another writer who is not as well known as he deserves to be.
There will also be sessions on John Dickson Carr, E. C. R. Lorac, and much much more, including the chance to mingle with fans of golden age crime fiction. For details of what I am sure will be a splendid day, go to https://bodiesfromthelibrary.com
It’s an exciting moment when your editor sends you the cover design for your new novel. It makes the whole enterprise seem so much more real. And I am delighted by what the designer has come up: truly and fittingly sinister, I feel. An Air That Kills is the third in the series and this cover continues the colour scheme and general design of the other two. I am lucky to have such striking covers.
Can a cover persuade someone to buy a book? Not sure, but at the very least it can grab the book-buyer’s attention. And conversely a cover can put a reader off: that has certainly happened to me.
Does this mean I have actually finished writing the novel? Well, no, I still pondering the last few chapters as well as revising the earlier ones. But there’s nothing like seeing the cover (and being given a publication date: 22 November) to light a fire under a writer …
Long ago when I was doing an English degree I chose an option on American Literature that involved reading a novel every week for a seminar. One week it was Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. It is a long novel – around 600 pages of densely written prose – and though I tried very hard, I didn’t quite make it to the end and came in fifty pages short. In those days, I felt obliged to finish every book that I started and those fifty pages weighed on me. I don’t feel that obligation now and that’s been the case for quite a while. If I’m not enjoying a book or it fails to grip me, I have no compunction about abandoning it. I regard it as the writer’s job to keep me reading. There is one exception: I do try to finish the books that we choose for my book group, though even there occasionally I end up skipping.
And I have to admit that sometimes persevering with a book that I am not initially enjoying does pay off. One of the great things about doing an English degree was that I read some marvellous things that I might not otherwise have read – among them, Paradise Lost, Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and, yes, Moby-Dick. But these days, I read for pleasure, particularly when it comes to crime fiction, and if there isn’t something – narrative pace, or character, or the quality of the writing – to keep me reading, I am ruthless and the book goes in the bag for the charity shop.
PS. I’ve just got my copy of Moby-Dick off the shelf and to my surprise there are underlinings right up until the last ten pages. Maybe I went back and finished it.
PPS. I really didn’t finish James Joyce’s Ulysses – and I am pretty sure that I never will.
I could not resist this book cover. Stephen Spielberg, eat your heart out.