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
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.
Recently I was reading a novel by a well-known writer and came across the phrase ‘tyres hissing on the blacktop.’ That was fine, but then it was used again a few pages later. Similarly someone was described as ‘all squared away’ and soon after that someone else was also described as ‘all squared away.’ Am I a fussy nit-picker to think that an editor should have picked up these repetitions? They didn’t impinge on my enjoyment but they did just for a moment or two pull me out of the world of the novel.
It is very easy for these things to slip past an author. I hadn’t noticed in my first novel that people were forever clattering down the stairs or gazing out of windows until the copy-editor pointed it out to me. It is their job to stop these things getting into the novel. But I wonder, just as banks become too big to fail, do writers sometimes become too successful to be edited? This perhaps relates to something I wrote about a few weeks ago about length.
There are some writers who start off reasonably short and get longer and longer. J K. Rowling and P. D. James are examples. The line between richly textured and over-written is one that readers will decide for themselves and for some there can never be too much of a favourite writer. But I do sometimes read a novel and wish an editor had got there first with a red pen.
At the other extreme is the editor who is too anxious to leave their mark. Raymond Carver was so comprehensively edited by Gordon Lish that there has been debate about how far his short stories remained his own work. I don’t really care. I think they are wonderful and don’t much mind how they got to be wonderful.
But the absence of the editor is what I am most interested in here. Years ago I was gripped by The Pilot’s Wife by Anita Shreve (which I recommend), but was suddenly pulled up short when the narrator’s aunt literally aged several years overnight. Perhaps after all it is a tribute to the editor’s art that this kind of thing so rarely slips through the net. But it’s still surprising what does. Over to you . . .
This was the view from our landing window last week after the arrival of the Beast from the East. The snow has all gone now, thank goodness. Although it was so beautiful – what fabulous icicles – it was also very inconvenient. I didn’t get my car out for a week and like many other people I had to cancel a lot of plans. I know, I know, if I lived in Canada or Russia or Finland, I’d think nothing of it. But I don’t live in any of those places and several winters can go by without this kind of snowfall and bitter cold.
One or two friends pointed out that things could have been worst and that at least I wasn’t stranded in Antarctica like the main character in Cold, Cold Heart. Which leads me on to a bit of PR and a couple of bargains. The e-book of Cold, Cold Heart has been reduced for a limited period to £4.19. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Cold-Heart-Snowbound-stone-cold-killer/…/1782642161.
And Deep Water, the first in series, is a snip at £1.19 ($1.49 in the US), also for a limited period. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Deep-Water-Christine-Poulson/dp/1782642145
I had a lovely time on Tuesday at the launch of my new book, Cold, Cold Heart, at Waterstones in Sheffield. Books, wine, good company: what more could one want? A little bit of entertainment, perhaps? I decided to provide some in the form of a quiz about Antarctica, the setting for the novel. There were ten multiple choice questions and the prize was a copy of the latest CWA anthology, Mystery Tour, which I’ve mentioned before on the blog.
Here is a sample question: which of these will you not find in Antarctica?
A) Emperor penguin, B) Polar bear C) Leopard seal. D) Minke Whale.
That was perhaps the easiest. The winners got seven out of ten so the bar might have been set a bit high, but it was a lot of fun.
There was a good turn-out, especially for a miserable January evening, and there was a mix of good friends and perfect strangers.
I want to thank Russell, the events manager at Waterstones, for organising the event and enabling me to celebrate the publication of Cold, Cold Heart in style.
BEFORE: Peter’s journals stretching out of sight to the front door
Over the fifty years since Peter had first been a student at the Architectural Association he had amassed hundreds and hundreds of architectural journals and magazines. In many cases there were more than one copy, because he had been a contributor to so many over the course of his career. He had written over 500 articles and was Architectural Journalist of the Year in 1992, the year that I met him. After he died in August 2016, it did weigh on my mind that one day most of them would probably have to be thrown out. Schools of Architecture would already have runs of them and I couldn’t think what could be done with them.
But now I am thrilled to say that they have found a home. In September I had an email from Steve Parnell, now at Newcastle School of Architecture, whose Ph.d on architectural journalism Peter had supervised. Steve was planning a project by and for students called the MagSpace, and would be very happy Peter’s journals. What, all of them? I asked. Yes, all of them.
One week-end it took me a day and a half – with assistance – to assemble journals and magazines from various corners of our house. On the Monday morning Steve briefed a small group of students: they had until 4 o’clock on Friday to design the lay-out of the MagSpace, plan the shelving, make it in the workshop, assemble it and arrange the journals. On Monday afternoon Steve drove down from Sheffield in a van, we loaded up the journals, and he took them back to Newcastle.
It is wonderful to think that they will be used and enjoyed instead of gathering dust in the attic. It is poignant to think of Peter buying the earliest ones as a student – at a time when he was very hard-up – little knowing that one day he would be such an eminent critic and historian and that the magazines would be consulted by other young people at the start of their careers. I am glad that the baton should be passed on in this way. And he would so much have approved of the students participation in planning and making the space. It is perfect in every way and I want to thank everyone involved.
AFTER: the Magspace with the students who made it and Steve (second from the left).
Kate Jackson, a fellow crime fiction aficionado, who blogs at https://crossexaminingcrime.wordpress.com, has started a splendid new venture, Coffee and Crime, a book box subscription service that you can receive as a one-off or monthly. Each box contains two surprise vintage mystery novels, related goodies, such as notebooks, tote bags, coasters, a sachet of coffee, and a newsletter.
After seeing the book box reviewed by Moira at Clothes in Books, I just had to order one. This is what I saw when I opened my box yesterday and what a treat it was, so beautifully presented and with such intriguing contents. My books were Phoebe Atwood Taylor’s Figure Away (An Asey Mayo Mystery) and Mary Roberts Rinehart’s The Door. I hadn’t read either of them – in fact I haven’t read anything by either writer and I am looking forward to trying them. (You can tip Kate off about which writers you already have plenty of). It is a terrific idea and I hope it is a great success. I shall be taking out a subscription.
When Janet Hutchings, the editor of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, asked if I would read one of my stories to be recorded as a pod cast for their web-site, I was very happy to oblige. ‘Roller-coaster Ride’ was the story we agreed on, and it’s one that’s close to my heart. It was inspired by a visit to the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen. My mother had long wanted to go and I took her to Denmark for her 80th birthday and we visited it not once, but twice. Once darkness had settled over the famous pleasure garden and the air was filled with the screams of teenagers on the roller-coaster, it had an unexpectedly sinister aspect and in the way of crime writers I jotted down an idea for a short story.
Though I did eventually write the story, my mother didn’t get to read it. She died two years after our visit. Still, we had Copenhagen and she did see the Tivoli Gardens. Writing the story was a way of revisiting them and reliving our time there. My mother makes a cameo appearance. You can listen to me reading the story here: https://www.podomatic.com/podcasts/eqmm/episodes/2017-11-01T10_18_39-07_00
In Muriel Spark’s splendid novel, A Far Cry from Kensington, the narrator, Mrs Hawkins, finds herself at a dinner-party sitting next to a retired Brigadier General. She gives him advice on how to get down to writing his memoirs. Get a cat. She explains: ‘Alone with the cat in the room where you work . . . the cat will invariably get on your desk and settle placidly under the desk lamp . . . and the tranquillity of the cat will gradually come to affect you sitting there at your desk, so that all the excitable qualities that impede your concentration compose themselves and give your mind the self-command it has lost.’
The advice bears fruit. Three years later the Brigadier sends her a copy of his war memoirs. ‘On the cover was a picture of the Brigadier at his desk with a large alley-cat sitting inscrutably beside the lamp. He had inscribed it “To Mrs Hawkins, without whose friendly advice these memoirs would never have been written – and thanks for introducing me to Grumpy.” The book itself was exceedingly dull. But I had advised him only that the cat helps concentration, not that the cat writes the book for you.’
Here is my own writer’s companion, sitting among the reference works.