This can be a difficult question to answer. But in the case of my short story, ‘Accounting for Murder,’ which appears in the new CWA anthology, Mystery Tour, edited by Martin Edwards, I know exactly where I got the idea. About eight years my husband and I bought a small, derelict house in Northern France. Restoring it has meant over the years many trips to Monsieur Bricolage, the DIY store. Sorting out some papers a while ago, I found the receipt from one such trip, listing the items that Peter had bought. It occurred to me that it told a little part of the story of the restoration – and right there and then, I had the idea of writing a short story consisting entirely of receipts. And that is more or less what I have done with ‘Accounting for Murder.’ It took me a while to see how I could do it, but once I had, the story almost wrote itself.
I was thrilled when it was accepted for the latest CWA anthology, Mystery Tour, which comes out this month, published by Orenda in hardback and paperback with a classy cover. My copies have arrived and I am happily working my way through stories by Ann Cleeves, Kate Ellis, Martin Edwards, Kate Rhodes and many other terrific writers, some of them old friends, others new to me.
Might it not be the perfect Christmas present for the crime fiction fans in your life?
Last Saturday I was at the launch of The Starlings and Other Stories at Waterstones in Wrexham. Nine of the twelve authors were there along with David Wilson, the photographer whose work inspired our stories. I did wonder if we would outnumber the audience (it’s been known to happen with smaller groups of writers than this!), but there was a good turn-out and the audience was responsive.
It is rare that publication of a collection of short stories is marked in this way, but truly there is something special about this book. I don’t know of any other that combines images and texts in quite this way. These aren’t illustrations: as I’ve explained in an earlier blog, the photographs came first. And what photographs! As Chris Simms writes in the introduction ‘these weren’t the cosy compositions of tourist shop tea-towels. By his own admission David’s photographs – beautiful as they are – often carry “a sense of eerie foreboding.” Brooding woods emerge from pale mist. Lonely farmsteads are threatened by stormy skies. An abandoned building leaves you wondering what happened to those who once lived there.’ Perfect starting points for a crime-writer and it was fascinating to see what everyone had made of it.
It was lovely to meet the team at Graffeg who are responsible for a beautifully produced book along with the other writers, and – especially – David Wilson. The photograph shows from left to right in the front row, myself, Margaret Murphy, Kate Ellis, Helena Edwards; in the second row Toby Forward, Ann Cleeves, David Wilson, Martin Edwards, Cath Staincliffe, Chris Simms.
I’ve been busy with some short stories lately. It’s especially interesting, I think, when one is writing to a brief. The first time I did that was some years ago when Ra Page at Comma Press asked me if I’d like to try my hand at a horror story involving modern technology for an anthology he was editing. Horror? modern technology? Not really my style, but when I mentioned it to my husband, his response was bracing: ‘You’re a writer, aren’t you? So, write something.’ I did. I wrote a story, ‘Safe as Houses’ about a house in which everything is controlled by state of the art technology and what happens when something gets into the system.
It was fun, so I was happy to say yes when my crime-writing friend, Kate Ellis, invited me to submit a story for a collection with a rather unusual starting point. Every story is to be based on a photograph of Pembrokeshire by David Wilson in a collection published by Welsh publisher Graffeg, who’ll also be publishing the short stories. Wilson specialises in wonderfully atmospheric black and white photographs and it was hard to know which one to choose. A farmhouse about to be engulfed by mist rolling down from the hills? A deserted and rusting petrol station? A burial chamber outlined against a stormy sky? In the end I settled for a view of the windswept beach at Freshwater West with a path leading through the dunes. I finished the story this week and sent it off. That’s something I love about writing short stories: the satisfaction of having completed something. A novel by contrast is such a long haul.
I’m very much looking forward to seeing what the others make of their photo and I’ll write about that when the anthology comes out.
Kate Ellis’s new novel, The Shroud Maker (she is so good at titles) has recently appeared in paperback. She kindly agreed to be interviewed on my blog.
I began by asking her how she carves out time to write. What is her writing routine?
Over to Kate:
How do you carve out time to write? What’s your writing routine?
I’m lucky enough to be able to write full time so I do regard it as a job. I try to be very disciplined so I start writing at around 10.30 most mornings (after getting all the routine stuff and household chores out of the way). I take a break for lunch and then work through until around 5 pm when hunger gets the better of me. I use the evenings and weekends mostly for relaxing (and possibly bell ringing or archaeology) – although if I have an urgent deadline I will work then too if necessary.
What comes first for you: a theme, plot, characters?
It’s different in every book. Sometimes a theme comes first – say obsessive jealousy or a longing for revenge. At other times I’ll come across a story from history which I have to write about…or one from the present day which offers tempting murderous possibilities. Of course I know my series characters very well (almost like real people) but the other characters tend to appear in my mind as I’m writing.
So often in your novels the present is intertwined with the past. Tell us a bit more about your interest in history and archaeology?
History has fascinated me since I was a child. I was never happier than when I was wandering round some National Trust property imagining all the people who’d lived there and how the events of history affected their lives. I suppose my interest in archaeology developed from that. There’s nothing more satisfying than digging up an object that somebody in the past actually held and used. They do say that inside every archaeologists there’s a detective trying to get out so I’ve found it quite easy to include it in my books.
Who are your writing heroes? Whose books do you like to read, and why?
As I was growing up I devoured the works of Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and Ngaio Marsh and then I went on to enjoy the books of Ruth Rendell, P D James, Colin Dexter and Reginald Hill. I do love a good mystery and I must say I favour crime novels that aren’t too cosy but aren’t too graphically violent either – the middle ground where I think I pitch my own books. At the moment I tend to look for books by Peter Robinson, Phil Rickman, Peter Lovesey, Martin Edwards, Ann Cleeves and Christopher Fowler. I also enjoy historical crime by the likes of C J Sansom and Lindsey Davis.
A favourite bookshop?
I like most bookshops but indies with knowledgeable staff and genuine enthusiasm for books will always do it for me. Many are struggling at the moment and I wish more people would use them (and support libraries, of course).
What are you writing now?
I’ve just completed my next Wesley Peterson novel – it’s called The Death Season and will be out next year. I’m also working on a fifth Joe Plantagenet novel.
I reviewed Kate’s novel, The Cadaver Game, on the blog last week. You can find out more about Kate and her books at http://www.kateellis.co.uk
I’ve decided to have an occasional round-up of crime fiction that I’ve enjoyed and I’m featuring three novels today.
I came across a review of The Mangle Street Murders by M. R. C. Kasasian on one of my favourite blogs – http://clothesinbooks.blogspot.co.uk/2014/03/the-mangle-street-murders-by-mrc – and thought it sounded worth a look. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It is set in the late nineteenth century. Sidney Grice, a ‘personal detective’ as he styles himself, is a kind of anti-Sherlock Holmes. Whereas I imagine Holmes to be rather attractive in a saturnine way, Grice has a glass eye which he keeps taking out and a repellently supercilious manner. However March Middleton, the young woman who goes to live with him as his ward and becomes his assistant, is more than a match for him and the play of wits between the two is great fun. The story moves along at a cracking pace. There are plenty of jokes (Conan Doyle makes an appearance at one point) and although I guessed some of the solution to the mystery, it really didn’t matter.
My second novel is Asa Larrson’s The Second Deadly Sin. She is maybe my favourite Scandanavian writer and I wasn’t disappointed. She is so good at really gripping openings. A bear attacks a dog outside a farm house and is shot and wounded by the farmer. The bear is hunted down and killed: in its stomach is a human hand. Meanwhile in a nearby town a woman is murdered and District Prosecutor Rebecka Martinsson and Police Officer Anna-Maria Meller get to work on the case. They are both attractive characters. The story is a complex one with its roots in the past and if there was a weakness it was in the flashbacks to a hundred years before. I wasn’t quite convinced by them and found myself wanting to get back to the main story. But still, a very good read leading to a tense climax.
Kate Ellis in The Cadaver Game (great title!) also makes use of connections between the present and the past, and does so very skilfully, using journal entries from a couple of centries earlier. This too has an arresting opening. Two young people run naked through woods at night, paid to take part in a game which turns out to be anything but. It is some time before their bodies are found and meanwhile the police, alerted by an anonymous phone call, find the body of a woman in a cottage. This is the sixteenth outing in a very successful series featuring DI Wesley Peterson. A complex plot is well handled, the ending was clever, and I loved the enticing Devon setting.
So three novels I can happily recommend if you are looking for some holiday reading. Kate’s new novel, The Shroud Maker, is just out in paperback and I have asked her to be my guest on the blog soon, so something to look forward to.
Incidentally I’d love suggestions for my own holiday reading. Something with a French flavour would be particularly welcome.
Titles are very much on my mind at present as I mull over the options for my recently completed novel. Of course whatever my agent and I settle on, it won’t necessarily be the title the book ends up with, but still . . . you want something that’ll get you off to a good start and attract the eye of an editor. And this is by no means easy. A good title should pique the reader’s curiosity, it should tell the reader something about the book, but it shouldn’t tell them too much. Some of best titles, I think, are allusive rather than descriptive, they come at the novel from a slant. SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS, MISS SMILLA’S FEELING FOR SNOW are recent titles that I find memorable and evocative. The title should fit the novel so well that you can’t imagine it with any other name. LORD OF THE FLIES. THE CATCHER IN THE RYE. GONE WITH THE WIND. CATCH TWENTY-TWO. Great titles, all of them, It comes as something of a surprise to discover that Margeret’s Mitchell’s original title for GONE WITH THE WIND was TOMORROW IS ANOTHER DAY: nothing like as good. And CATCH TWENTY-TWO wasn’t Joseph Heller’s first idea either.
Im my experience a title is either obvious from the start or it gives you endless trouble. One way round this is to begin with the title. That’s more or less what I did with my short story, ‘Don’t You Hate Having Two Heads?’ I happened to see this, the title of a surrealist painting, in an article in THE TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT, and it stuck in my memory. And when sometime later on holiday in Venice I visited the Guggenheim museum and saw Max Ernst’s sinister painting, THE ROBING OF THE BRIDE, in which the bride does indeed have two heads, well, the story almost wrote itself. My friend the crime writer Kate Ellis who has some great titles, often uses them as a jumping off point: that’s what she did with her latest book, THE FLESH TAILOR, an archaic name for a surgeon. Similarly with my novel FOOTFALL I had the title in mind some time before the novel began to form round it.
In the end there is something mysterious about a good title. It’s not necessarily something you can decide on just by thinking about it. Like an idea for a novel, it can arrive out of the blue and you know it when you see it.