DAVE SIVERS - WRITER
Murderously Good Crime Fiction
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   Dave Sivers - Crime Writer

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05 December 2017

Killer Questions #6: Susi Holliday

Today I’m delighted to welcome my good friend, Susi Holliday, to sit in the hot seat and answer some killer questions.


 

I recently spent a great evening at the London launch of her new book, The Deaths of December. Susi is the author of Black Wood, Willow Walk and The Damselfly, a trilogy set in a slightly creepy Scottish village based on her own home town. She works as a pharmaceutical statistician and lives in west London.

Susi’s website is at www.sjiholliday.com

1.  Why did you choose crime as your genre?

Despite having been asked this question many times, I am not 100% sure. I was a big horror fan when I was younger, so I think the dark psychological aspects of criminals was something that always interested me. I enjoy the mystery solving aspect of crime and trying to resolve things for the victims. I actually considered joining the police at one point, but I became a scientist instead.

2.  The term ‘crime fiction’ covers a multitude of sins: thriller, police procedural, psychological, espionage, hard boiled, etc, etc. Where would you say your work fits on the spectrum?

Well when I started writing my first novel, Black Wood, it was very much in the psychological horror camp, with a bit of crime from the past. But then for some reason I introduced a policeman and I couldn’t get him to go away, so it became a bit of a mix of psychological and procedural (with very little procedural detail!)

3.   Where do your main protagonists come from? Do they wander into your head fully formed, or do you start with a role for them and then build their characters up?

With the first three books, there is a recurrent character, my policeman – Davie Gray. But I don’t see him as the main protagonist in any of the books. In Black Wood, I knew Jo’s story straight away, and she arrived fully formed – but then in editing she lost a bit of her snark to make her a bit more likeable. In Willow Walk, Marie was developed along with the storyline. In The Damselfly, Polly was fully formed as she had already been very briefly mentioned in the first book and I always knew she would come back to try and redeem herself. In The Deaths of December, it’s a bit different as it’s more of a procedural with a serial killer and the main protagonists are the two detectives, Eddie Carmine and Becky Greene. It was Eddie’s character in my head who really drove the whole story, and Becky developed and slotted in nicely alongside him.

4.  How important is location to you? Is it no more than a backdrop to the action, or almost a character in the stories?

My fictional town of Banktoun is crucial to the stories. It’s a small town and it’s the isolation and claustrophobia of the place that drives the characters’ actions. It has often been cited as being like a character in itself. In the new book, I have another fictional town, but this time it was more of a locational reason rather that it shaping the lives of the characters, but that said, I still like to make sure it’s neatly drawn and believable.

5.  Sex and violence – do you show this to the reader, or does most of it happen off the page?

There are sex scenes in the Banktoun books, but in The Deaths of December there is only a thwarted one. I like a good sex scene, if done right. I keep the violence to a minimum, although there is one scene in my latest which was fast and dark and horrible and I wrote it while feeling anger and I think that shows. It was necessary to the plot, so I kept it, but in general I prefer to keep the violence to a minimum.

6.  Apart from the protagonists, are there other points of view you like to use? The perpetrator, the victim, victim’s loved ones, etc?

I always write multiple viewpoints. I like to tell the story from many different angles, to keep the suspense and the pace and to make it interesting to write.

7.  Do you do a lot of plotting and planning, or mostly let the story carry you along?

A fair bit of plotting and planning. I start with an idea and email it to myself, then I keep adding to it until I have the story formed. I then try to do a formal chapter by chapter outline, but usually I write a few chapters first, maybe up to a quarter of the first draft, then I sit back and replot the rest in detail. I have tried to wing it but I have always found myself stalled at 20k. I might go back to some of these abandoned works and resurrect them one day.

8.  What does your writing life look like? A standard week with routines, or writing spells snatched amid the everyday chaos?

Well I still have a day job, so it’s trying to fit things around that. I write in short bursts, mainly – often in a notebook on the train or tube. I am trying to learn to dictate so that I can avoid using a keyboard for too long, but it’s tricky. I like the idea of a routine but I never manage to stick to it.

9.  Disciplinarian or procrastinator?

I work well to a deadline. Too much time on my hands and I will squander it badly.

10.  Where would you like to think you’ll be in five years’ time?

Hopefully with a big pile of books that I have written, including some genres other than crime, childrens’ books and screenplays. And maybe living somewhere a bit quieter, where the nocturnal banshees don’t wake me up at 2am.

Thanks, Susi, for answering my Killer Questions.


 

It looks like a regular advent calendar.

Until DC Becky Greene starts opening doors...and discovers a crime scene behind almost every one.

The police hope it's a prank. Because if it isn't, a murderer has just surfaced - someone who's been killing for twenty years.

But why now? And why has he sent it to this police station?

As the country relaxes into festive cheer, Greene and DS Eddie Carmine must race against time to catch the killer. Because there are four doors left, and four murders will fill them...

It's shaping up to be a deadly little Christmas.

You can buy it now at 
http://amzn.to/2k869hy


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30 September 2017

Way Out West: (Mini) Epic Road Trip



A good part of September 2017 has been taken up with Chris and I returning to the USA, this time to do some hiking and sightseeing in some of the national parks of Arizona and Utah. And pretending we’re born to be wild on Route 66.

We flew into Phoenix from London Heathrow and were transferred to the
Omni, a delightful resort hotel in Scottsdale where, to be honest, we had probably the best meal of our stay. More about cuisine in a bit. But, after a long-haul flight, we wished in retrospect, that we'd opted to spend a day there and unwind before picking up our hire car and heading out on the first leg of our adventure.

That first leg was all about seeing and experiencing the Grand Canyon. We picked up our Subaru Forester late morning and drove to the
Grand Canyon Caverns Inn at Peach Springs - about 195 miles. Our tour arranger had suggested we consider staying at Williams, an hour away, because they'd received feedback that the inn was a bit basic. But we were blowed if we were going to start the next day an hour earlier - especially as the Siverses were about to try camping for the first time in our lives. How basic could it be?

‘You half-expect Jack Keruac to walk through the door’

In the event, I wouldn't have missed the inn for the world. It's really cool. Yeah, it's not five star swanky, but the rooms are reasonably clean and everything works. There's a diner on hand that has decent enough grub and does an exceptional, huge portion of apple pie. Breakfast is thrown in and is fine. It’s on the historic, but long since defunct, Route 66 and you half-expect Jack Keruac to walk through the door. 



Route 66, perhaps the most iconic road in United States history, originally ran from Chicago, Illinois, through Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona before ending at Santa Monica, California, covering a total of 2,448 miles. It served as a major path for those who migrated west, especially during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, supporting the economies of communities through which it passed. But it was officially removed from the United States Highway System in 1985, having been replaced in its entirety by segments of the Interstate Highway System. Bits of the road that passed through Illinois, Missouri, New Mexico, and Arizona have been designated a National Scenic Byway of the name ‘Historic Route 66’, and several states have adopted significant bypassed sections of the former US 66 into the state road network as State Route 66.

Driving on a dead straight stretch of blacktop, seeing your hands on the wheel, the car dashboard, the road ahead narrowing to infinity, awesome scenery that couldn’t be anywhere else in the world, and a huge, huge sky, you feel as if you’re part of a book cover you’ve seen many times before.



At 10am we met our guides from
Arizona Outback Adventures (AOA) and fellow lunatics proposing to hike down into the canyon and camp there for three nights. Did I mention we’d never camped?

The hike in is about ten miles - a couple of miles of steep (about 2,000 feet) descent and then another eight miles to the Havasupai camp ground, passing through the Havasupai Native American village en route. The steep down bit was tough - I have a thing about heights that makes me rubbish at going down, and the 40-odd degrees of heat were something our training for the trip couldn't prepare us for. But lovely guide and back marker Aya provided all the support and encouragement I could have asked for, and I made it!

‘I now have photographic evidence that, not only have we camped, but it rains in the Grand Canyon!’

There followed two days of sleeping and living in a tiny tent, being fed three meals a day by Aya and Stephanie, and hiking out to some awesome waterfalls, including Mooney Falls, 185 feet tall and higher than Niagra.



We also had some serious rain, although not enough to trigger the dreaded flash flooding. But I now have photographic evidence that, not only have we camped, but it rains in the Grand Canyon!



It’s vast down there, much bigger and wider than I’d expected, and greener too.

Our hike out of the canyon began at 5.30am, the idea being to get out of the canyon before the noon day sun. Again - we made it. I go up better than down, but it was damn hard work - but in the end, it was an unforgettable experience, and gave us a different perspective than looking down from the rim.

Once we were out and had recovered those belongings taken in and out of the canyon by mule train, it was time to drive on to the 'Grand Canyon Village' - where all the tourists go. 192 miles, because there’s this canyon in the way!

On the way there, our tyre pressure warning light came on, yet a check and a gas station showed no problems. To cut a long story short, when we took the car to the village garage, the mechanic who checked the tyres assured us that they were fine, and that the altitude fools the sensor. He has 15-17 cars a day in with the same concern. When we subsequently descended, the light went out again. 

A word about cuisine and then I'll only mention it once again. Mostly it's nothing to write home about, and the same everywhere: steak, burger, meatloaf, chicken. Seared salmon. Occasional bison stew. Ridiculously huge portions. And often waiting in line to be seated, even if you have a reservation. Service is chequered too - some great servers and some slow, clueless ones, often with no discernable rush on and despite tipping up to 20% being encouraged.

That's enough digression for now. Our day in the village saw us hiking around much of the Canyon's rim. It's spectacular. The light on the rocks, the sheer size and the huge skies that were to be a feature of our tour, all somehow looked as if someone must have painted them.

‘It’s impossible not to hear the theme from The Big Country… in your head’

Having seen the Grand Canyon from the inside and outside, it was time to move on. Next stop was Monument Valley, home of the amazing sandstone formations seen in many a John Wayne western. After a drive of around 160 miles, we checked into the amazing
The View hotel, less than a decade old, owned and run by the Navajos, and cunningly designed to blend in with the landscape. The views from the windows are awesome. We arrived in good time to meet our Navajo guide, Don, who took us around many of the monuments, told us some local history and cultural stuff, and explained how the weather is constantly reshaping the landscape.

   

It's impossible not to hear the theme  from The Big Country, The Magnificent Seven, or any John Ford western, in your head when you look at these iconic structures. And nigh on impossible to take a bad photo. The following day we did a sunrise photography tour in Monument Valley and a sunset tour in nearby Mystery Valley.

   

From Monument Valley, we made the 122 mile trip to Page and the Lake Powell Resort. It was partly a break in the journey, but we still passed an enjoyable day before moving on. An early start (again) saw us walking through Antelope Canyon, a jaw-droppingly gorgeous narrow ‘slot canyon’ with astonishing natural lighting effects. In the afternoon, we took a float on the mighty Colorado River.



The next day, we visited the lookout point over the river’s ‘Horseshoe Bend’ before making the 153-mile drive into Utah and Bryce Canyon, where we stayed in
Bryce Canyon Lodge. From here you could hike out into the canyon and see the fascinating rock ‘hoodoos', including one that resembles a statue of Queen Victoria.

Our final stop was Zion National Park (a mere 75 miles). Tip: the National Parks will charge you for entrance. If you’re visiting several, it might be cheaper to pay $80 for an annual pass that gets you and your vehicle into them all.

‘The best fish and chips outside the UK’



It’s different again. More spectacular views of rocks, but much more about majestic peaks, and plenty of varying routes to explore over the two full days we were there. There’s a shuttle bus between trails too. We stayed at the
Cliffrose Lodge which had the advantage of being a short stroll from the visitor center and the Brew Pub which does the best fish and chips outside the UK. We discovered that the restaurant at Zion Lodge is also very good.

We flew home from Las Vegas airport (170 miles). I know this will be heresy for some, but we saw all we wanted of the Strip from the airport windows.

In toto, we drove some 1,200 miles and hiked perhaps 75 miles. Despite all that exercise, I still gained about four pounds in weight. If you’re a keen walker and love getting out into awesome scenery, this will be perfect for you, even more so if you’re an enthusiastic photographer.


 


24 July 2017

Another Feast of Fun and Crime at Harrogate

Well, that's another Theakston's Old Peculier Crime Festival over, and I have waved a fond farewell to Harrogate until next year.

In case you didn't know, it's a huge annual get together for anyone and everyone interested in reading or writing crime fiction (or both!). I go to hear some fascinating and sometimes provocative author panels and interviews, to hook up with old mates, and to make a few new friends too.

I've been going since the second year, and have missed maybe a couple since. So I reckon this was about my twelfth Harrogate. Increasingly I spend a lot of time 'networking' (as I call it) and this year I bought tickets for selected events, rather than pay out for a weekend rover ticket and miss half of it. But if you're new to crime writing festivals, you won't want to miss a moment!

I arrived in Harrogate late afternoon on the Thursday, having pre-booked train tickets and then realised that there was a 'Noir in the Bar' event on in the Blues Bar, with author readings and a performance by the fabulous Slice Girls, running from 4pm to 6.30pm. So I dumped my bag in my hotel, The Yorkshire, handily close to the station, and hurried along to catch some of the fun, arriving just after 5. The place was heaving, which meant the Slice Girls had to wait to get in, and I found myself queuing up behind them. I had a chat with Susi Holliday, who made me, she swore, the honoured first recipient of a handsome Slice Girls badge. 


  
 

Noir in the Bar proved a great start to the weekend, with some brilliant readings and some hot - sorry, classy - stuff from the Slice Girls. When it was over, I returned to my hotel and grabbed a bite to eat before heading over to the festival venue, the Old Swan Hotel, to see who was around. I fully intended to pace myself this year and felt pretty good about heading back at 10.40pm. But then I bumped into one of my oldest friends, who emigrated to Canada over 40 years ago, has started writing crime, and was over for his first Harrogate. A couple more bumpings into saw me crawling into my bed at 1am. It then got steadily later, night on night. Plus ca change...

I won't give a blow by blow account of the weekend. I saw: Clare Donoghue, Elly Griffiths, James Oswald, Simon Toyne and Lesley Thomson talking about The Dark Side - supernatutral elements in crime fiction; Julia Crouch, Sabine Durrant, Stav Sherez, Mick Herron and Shari Lapena on Endearing Monsters - the human side of even the most horrendous villains; the great Kathy Reichs and Ian Rankin, each giving tour de force live interviews; Val McDermid's ever-popular New Blood panel, this year with Fiona Cummins, Jane Harper, Joseph Knox and Kristen Lepionka - all of whom we'll be hearing much, much more about; Mark Billingham, Sarah Hilary, Steve Mosby, Belinda Bauer and Melanie Raabe on ideas and where they come from; a special 'Vera' TV panel with Ann Cleeves, who writes the books, Brenda Blethyn, who plays the title role and Kenny Doughty, who plays her sidekick, Aiden - nicely chaired by the BBC's Steph McGovern; and, last but not least, Stranger than Fiction = Chris Brookmyre, Kati Hiekkapelto, Eva Dolan, Sarah Lotz and N J Cooper discussing the propensity for crime fiction ideas to spring horribly into real life. This year's Festival Chair, Elly Griffiths, should be proud of the feast of literary entertainment served up.

But the greatest fun was just seeing fellow crimeys. I had my customary afternoon tea in Betty's; grabbed a selfie with Lee Child (just for great fans in the village, you understand); joined new chums Carolyn (Amanda Robson) Gillis and Caroline English in photo ops with Ian Rankin and Rod Reynolds; enjoyed seeing my lovely friend, Vicky Newham, and her enforcer/editor, Clio Cornish, promoting Vicky's upcoming debut novel; and tried to grab at least a moment with all the lovely crime fiction folk I knew. It's such a huge festival that I know from social media on the way home that I failed in the latter mission. Better luck next year, when Lee Child will be the Festival Chair.

  

    

If you're any sort of a crime fan, give Harrogate a try - but book accommodation early! Every year it seems to disappear that bit faster. Check it out here.


 
4 May 2017

Rum, Cigars and Coffee: The Cuban Experience


After last year's fabulous holiday in the Galapagos Islands, getting my head around anywhere else proved quite a challenge. But then the improved relations between Cuba and the USA suggested that it might only be a matter of time before the island became overrun by MacDonald's and Starbucks. So we decided this was the perfect moment to explore this slice of Latin America set in the Caribbean.

We booked
Cox &King's Splendours of Cuba tour. It departed from Gatwick, not our most convenient airport, so we drove down the day before and stayed over.

It's a nine hour flight into Havana, although Virgin Atlantic's amazing crew contrived to make it seem rather less. We were met by our excellent guide, Adriana, and somewhat surprised to discover that there were only five of us booked on the tour – we’re used to groups of a dozen or so. Serena, Liane and Catherine were all great company though, so we were a jolly little group.



Havana

Although with the five hour time difference we arrived at the Hotel Santa Isabel at around 7.30pm, our bodies were telling us something else by the time we'd unpacked and eaten something. The good news was that, although the hotel is on one of the main squares, it was quiet by the time we turned in. But, despite being shattered, the body clocks then insisted it was waking up time way before we needed to get ready and breakfasted for our tour of old Havana.

The humidity isn't as strength-sapping and sweat-soaking as Singapore, for example, but still noticeable, and it gets hotter the further East you travel. The old city is fascinating - a bit of a faded beauty, but a UNESCO World Heritage site which is being nicely restored. Lots of old-fashioned cobbled streets. We kicked off our tour at the former Bocoy rum factory, where we had an interesting introduction to the process for making the Cubans' national beverage - and an opportunity to try ‘flambee cappuccino’ - imagine a cappuccino with rum in it - but the rum is heated until it sets ablaze, then the barista pours into the cappuccino from head height. It tastes amazing.


We carried on to visit the other local squares, with stately buildings and also the Cathedral. Construction was started by the Jesuits under the Spanish, but they were kicked out for underpayment of taxes. The Franciscans (eventually expelled for the same reason) picked up and completed the project but couldn't afford the original spec. So the clock tower is narrower than the bell tower, and the niches on the outside that should house statues of saints and angels are empty.

Our morning ended with a visit to the 'Camera Obscura', a cunning arrangement of lenses and mirrors on the top floor of the Gomez Vila building, providing an extraordinary panoramic view of the city.


Lunch in a local restaurant began with a rum cocktail and ended with a shot of rum (see a theme developing already?), a cigar and an espresso, with the sommelier chatting to us about why this is the Cuban Holy Trinity and the right way to enjoy a cigar.

Having lunched, and with three rums already under our belts, next up was a ride into new Havana in one of the many classic old American cars still in service as taxis. We were in a green 1950s Buick - huge fun!



Amongst the sights we saw was Revolution Square, the huge public space where Fidel Castro used to address the people, and a park where a life-sized statue of John Lennon sits on a bench. On the way back to the hotel, we paid a visit to the El Floridita bar where Ernest Hemingway enjoyed his daiquiris. This was exciting and exhilharating - the place was heaving, an energetic band was singing, playing and dancing, and the daiquiris were to die for. The atmosphere really transported me back to Hemingway's time, and there is even a life-sized statue of the man himself sitting at the bar, so you can raise a glass to him.

   

A word about the weather and the music. We found on both our days in Havana that it started off bright and sunny but it clouded over by midday. But, like any country, different places have different weather systems. At Las Terrazes, it was cooler and wetter - almost English conditions - so you do need to pack prepared for all eventualities! Trinidad was scorching.

Everywhere you go there is a band or a combo playing exactly the music you'd expect. At some point they will come round offering homemade CDs for sale and, when you decline, inviting you to drop a tip in the box. If I’m honest, the novelty of being serenaded by ‘Guantanamera’ everywhere you go, and being unable to hear table conversation, gets a bit wearing after a while, to the extent that offering to pay the poorer acts not to pay crossed my mind more than once.

You soon realise that this is going to constantly erode the change you're trying to save for the public loos, which is often hard to come by. A 25¢ tariff for the loos is mandatory, however grotty you find them (actual seats are few and far between and used paper goes in a bin to avoid blockages; and soap, working taps, and working hand driers are hit or miss (but note - I've seen far worse than Cuba's worst).

In general, this country runs at a slower pace than Brits are used to, with things not always available (if I had a dollar for every empty ice cream freezer I saw…), and not always much logic to how things are done. Tourism is in its infancy, so don't go expecting international standards. It's best to just go with the flow. Do be aware that it’s a poor country where tips are customary.

For our first proper evening in Hanava, we'd pre-booked a Trattoria (okay, not so Cuban) that sounded promising online. When we arrived, we were assured that in fact they didn't take bookings! - but it was no problem, because a table became free whilst I was protesting. Hugs from the owner, who tried to pretend it had all been a windup.

The meal proved a bit of a mixture. Lovely cheese and ham platters, pasta dishes not so great, super tiramisu.

Our second day in Havana, we were left to our own devices. We took a taxi out to Hemingway's former home, which was a fascinating time capsule, although the number of hunting trophies on every wall was a little depressing - but you'd have expected nothing else from this most macho of authors. 



Our afternoon was spent at the Museum of the Revolution, which is a must if you want to understand why the events of over 50 years ago still exert such a massive influence and have shaped the country’s development. It’s not very modern, but fascinating to view relatively recent Cuban history from a Cuban perspective. Outside there are planes, tanks and other relics of ‘the triumph of the revolution’.

     

The cathedral was open - a seemingly hit or miss thing - when we were walking back to our hotel, so we took a look inside. It's nicely understated, with a peaceful atmosphere. There are green makeshift skirts handed out to women whose shorts or skirts are judged too short, but the lady in the bikini top was apparently not a problem.

That night's dinner was at the
El Rum Rum cafe, which I do recommend. The seafood paella is brilliant.

On The Move


Next day, bags, packed, we made the hour and a half trip from Havana to our next stop, Las Terrazas, a community of about 1,000 where everyone has to contribute in return for a concrete house - a huge improvement on the wooden shacks they used to live in - and a place in this friendly village-like society. We met a local artist, who makes his own recycled paper, saw the store where the few items still available on ration cards can be obtained (every Cuban household is still entitled to these subsidised basic rations) and learned about the massive reforestation project going on.

Our local guide was quite a joker, and a local celebrity who plays in a band in the evenings and has played gigs in Brixton.

Our next day was a full day tour of Vinales, on the western tip of the island. The town centre is full of charm and character. The valley in which it sits was originally settled by aboriginal people who arrived some 500 years before the Spanish, but who have long since disappeared. We visited a cave with amazing limestone formations, through which we took a short boat ride. We went on to see a quite astonishing mural, representing prehistory, painted on the side of a mountain. 


The morning also included a chance to try 'the best pino colada in Cuba' - add as much rum as you want, to taste. We all felt it lived up to its billing.

After lunch, we visited a tobacco farm and watched a worker hand-making a cigar, which I felt obliged to sample. There was also some gorgeous rum-laced coffee to enjoy in the farmhouse, where a Peak District tea towel hung incongruously on the wall.

  

So on to Day 6, and Saturday already. This was primarily a road journey to Cienfuegos, 'The Pearl of the South', via the Peninsula de Zapata. The journey took nine and a half hours altogether, but took in a visit to the Bay of Pigs, and a museum all about the failed invasion of 1961. We also saw a reconstruction of an aboriginal village, learned about old-style charcoal production, and took a look at a crocodile conservation project.


Day 7 began with a walking tour of Cienfuegos. It’s very French in character, having been founded by French immigrants in 1819. The city is compact with a lovely main square and a delightful theatre whose boards have been trodden by all the greats. 

   

We moved on to the impressive Botanical Gardens, with their orchids, medicinal plants, huge bamboos and more, before making the 90-minute journey to Trinidad, where we were staying in a ‘casa particular’ – a sort of posh B&B – for three nights. Our first night in Trinidad featured dinner at a private restaurant, although sadly the meal was little different to most of those included in our tour – ‘traditional family style’ with chicken or pork, rice with beans and a salad of cucumber, tomato and grated cabbage. We had that a lot. At least we weren’t tempted to stuff ourselves and in fact I returned home weighing a couple of ounces less than when I left.

Trinidad


Trinidad itself is exactly what we expected it to be. Heat haze on cobbled streets, hot, hot, hot climate, houses painted myriad colours, people hustling and bustling streets so narrow it’s easier to just walk than drive (how our coach driver managed some of those turns…). The place starts to wake up at about 6am with traders walking through the streets, shouting – think of one of those Victorian movies, like Oliver!, and dump it in an old Latinate city, and you get the idea. We took a city tour on our first morning, visiting the elegant Plaza Major, which contains the cathedral and the fascinating Museum Romantico, once the home of the absurdly wealthy Conde de Brunet family and full of frescos, paintings, fancy old furniture, porcelain and paintings.



We found a pretty fine lunch at Casa Villalba and then we had the afternoon to ourselves, cruising the markets and trying in vain to get reception worth a damn in one of the so-called wi-fi hotspots. There’s only been generally available internet access for about 18 months, so staring at phones is a new addiction. You buy a scratch card with an ID and a password and it gives you an hour’s use – if you can (a) log on and (b) hold the connection long enough to do anything. I guess if you never had it at all before, it’s still an improvement. But you know, ten days with next to no internet isn’t a bad thing at all. There is life without it, I discovered.

For the evening, we had pre-booked a restaurant that we found online – and it was even better than it looked!
La Redaccion does a gorgeous line in daiquiris, fabulous risottos, a lamb burger that makes a burger a thing of beauty, and OMG, the chocolate brownie! It was so good we booked again for the next night. Even the music – a talented singer/songwriter/one-man-band – was great, and not a bit obtrusive.

Our final day based at Trinidad, we went a little off-piste. We visited the Valley of the Sugar Mills, just outside the city, taking in, and climbing to the top of the Manaca Ignaza Tower. The tallest lookout tower ever built in the Caribbean sugar region, it was erected in 1750 to observe and control the slaves working in the sugar cane fields. It’s 7 stories high and 136 steps to the top, and provides a magnificent  view of the valley. Its bells are still intact.

That was the itinerary for the day, but we had asked Adriana if we could do our traveling on the old steam train that runs between the Sugar Mills and Trinidad, and it was so much fun! It made a real day of it.


Che

So, all of a sudden, it was our last full day, and we were on our way back to Havana via Santa Clara. The latter is the scene of a turning point in the revolution, where Che Guevara’s guerillas came down from the mountains and, despite being outnumbered 10 to one, derailed an armoured train intended to reinforce Batista’s troops. As well as seeing the site of the derailed train, we visited the mausoleum containing the remains of Che and his men and women fighters, who met their end in Bolivia in 1967, and a museum dedicated to his life. It is simple, moving, and humbling.


Time Running Out


Our last night was to be spent in Havana’s Melia Cohiba Hotel overlooking the sea. It has some very decent restaurants and – I don’t know why – we got lucky and found ourselves in a ridiculously large suite the size of a football pitch, with two bathrooms and a massive sitting room.

We found time on the last morning to visit the lovely (and priceless) collections in the Museum of Decorative Arts before our transfer to the airport for our flight home.

So what did I make of Cuba overall? It’s a developing tourist trade, but okay if you keep your expectations realistic. It helps if you like rum, aren’t expecting great cuisine everywhere, but are prepared to winkle out some good-looking restaurants before you go, if not all meals are included in your tour. The people are great – I never saw anyone get cross or worked up. It’s a bit ‘manana’-style laid back, perhaps partly because of the heat and humidity, but if you go with the flow it makes a pleasant change from the frantic rush that is 21st Century western life.

I hope they’re reaching a point where they can continue to honour the revolution that overthrew Batista, but start to look seriously forwards. Golden arches on every corner? I think they’ll resist that sort of thing for a while to come, but change will happen. Right now it’s unique and accessible, with plenty to see and lots of variety. Go if you can!

If you’re interested, on the flight out I watched ‘La La Land’ and thought it was overrated. On the way back, I tried Brad Pitt in ‘Allied’: it whiles away some time...

I did get to read Here Be Dragons by Sharon Bolton, Tastes Like Fear by Sarah Hilary and Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough – all amazing company on my travels and hugely recommended.
Oh, and I made a little progress with Archer and Baines Book 5, but I’ve concluded that there’s something about writing on aircraft that doesn’t quite work for me. Hey-ho! Back to work… 

 

1 April 2017

Handling Stress as an Indie Author


Being an independently published author is the best job in the world for me. It’s like being a one-person publishing house with only one client – me.

I love it, because all the decisions are mine. The business model I’ve evolved over the last five and a half years perfectly suits my personality. I decide on the book package that will be published, the pricing strategy and the publication date. It’s my business and my brand.

What’s more, I don’t have publishers or agents breathing down my neck. I can make absolutely sure the book is as good as I can make it. And I never make promises about the publication date until I’m completely confident that’s achievable.

Of course, the potential downside of being free to set my own deadline could be that I find it too easy to coast along. But that doesn’t happen, because I do have one major external pressure – the readers who keep asking when that next book will be!

My seventh book, and the fourth in the Archer and Baines series, The Blood That Binds, launches in ebook form on 4 April 2017, and it’s always an exciting time.


The lead up to this point is many months of slaving over the first draft, knocking it into some sort of shape and playing editorial ping-pong with my ‘beta’ readers – the first people to see my baby. I’ll also be working with my cover designer so I have something almost good to go when the book is. 
 

But that cover, and even the title of the book, stay under wraps until it’s ready to go to my editor, That’s the moment I know for sure that she and I have something we can work on, and that’s when the serious plate spinning begins.

With the current book, for various reasons, I was keen to have a relatively short ‘flash to bang’ time once I was confident the book would fly. But to give a book its best shot at a good start in life, it’s essential to make sure readers know it’s coming and know when it’s on sale.

So, in just a few short weeks, I needed to get the word about The Blood That Binds out there - notifying the publication date through my Subscribers Club newsletter and through social media, getting it on pre-order, arranging a blog tour, creating press releases, flyers and trailers, and organising a great online launch party – whilst simultaneously putting the finishing touches to the book package.

With all that underway, Carrie from Intuit – who are best known for the Quickbooks accounting software - approached me saying they thought I’d be a good fit for an upcoming graphic they were creating for Stress Awareness Month in April.

They’re looking to start a conversation around how to combat stress in the workplace, especially for those freelancers and independents just starting their journey. They wanted me to write a blog post, sharing productivity tips to help encourage work-life balance, lower stress, and inspire others to be as productive as possible in their day-to-day lives.

My first thought was that this was way too stressful a time to be thinking about this! It was only when I stated a reply setting out why I couldn’t find the time to do it that I realised that those reasons were all about stress – and that I do have a coping mechanism for dealing with it.

I also figured that this piece could tie in nicely with my blog tour. So here goes…

As I said earlier, the actual writing of the book is less stressful for me than getting it down that final straight to publication. There’s a lot of blood, sweat, tears and occasional self-doubt along the way, and showing the work to others for feedback always brings its tensions. But the business of orchestrating a good launch, with so many things to be done, on top of the demands of my other job and from daily life, could easily be overwhelming.

What keeps me focused, and makes it all seem a lot less daunting, is to have a plan. In a former life, I did my fair share of project manager and project director roles, and I draw on that experience to treat the publication phase as a project.

I don’t use any fancy software. I have a standard Word template with all the tasks I need to complete, from sending the book to my editor, through publication to the end of the blog tour. Each task is broken down into its elements. It’s not a one size fits all approach, but most of what I need to get done is there. All I have to do is take a shot at how long each element will take, set a target date, and everything on a version of the template for that particular book.

The plan will show each task element, when it needs to be done by, who else (if anyone) is involved, and how long to go to publication date after that element is completed. It gives me confidence that the publication date I settle on is achievable, and I know what I need to do in any given week.


Without the plan, I’d likely be charging at everything at once in a not very scientific way. This way, I just set the time for each task element aside at the right time and cross them off as they get done -  which is very satisfying.

It works for me. I can see at a glance where I am in the overall scheme of things, and I also know how much time I have available for other aspects of my life.

By the way, it’s really, really important to me not just to lock myself in my office for the duration. I think much better when I’m doing something more mundane, like jobs on my allotment, or in the garden, or going for a walk. So, for example, I am able to draft blog posts (like this one) in my head, so that when I sit at my keyboard I already know what I’m going to do.

That’s it, really. My four tips for combatting stress as an Indie author:

1.         Have realistic, achievable goals.

2.         Don’t put unnecessary pressure on yourself by offering up publication dates before you’re certain you can meet them.

3.         Have a plan.

4.         Make sure you have a work/life balance that forces you to step away from the pressures of the indie role.

16 February 2017

Killer Questions #5: Chris Longmuir



Today I’m thrilled to welcome Chris Longmuir to sit in the hot seat and answer some killer questions. Chris is a fellow indie crime writer, a good friend and, when it comes to the technical side of self-publishing, my guru!

Chris is an award-winning novelist and has published three novels in her Dundee Crime Series. Night Watcher, the first book in the series, won the Scottish Association of Writers’ Pitlochry Award, and the sequel, Dead Wood, won the Dundee International Book Prize, as well as the Pitlochry Award. Missing Believed Dead is the third book in the series.

Chris also publishes a historical crime series, The Kirsty Campbell Mysteries, set during and just after the Great War. This series features Kirsty Campbell, one of Britain’s first policewomen. There are currently two books in this series: The Death Game, and Devil’s Porridge.

Her crime novels are set in Dundee, Scotland, and have been described as scary, atmospheric, page turners. Chris also writes historical sagas, short stories and historical articles which have been published in America and Britain. However, A Salt Splashed Cradle is the only historical saga currently published. “Writing is like an addiction to me,” Chris says. “I go into withdrawals without it.” She is currently working on a new Kirsty Campbell novel. 


As well as the above, she has published two non-fiction books - Crime Fiction and the Indie Contribution which is an examination of crime fiction as well as an evaluation of independently published books in this genre; and Nuts & Bolts of Self-Publishing, an in depth look at self-publishing with step-by-step instructions on how to publish ebooks and paperbacks.

I first came across Chris when I was trying to dip my toes into indie publishing and feeling a bit daunted about how you format an ebook. Poking around on the Internet, I found an invaluable step-by-step guide on her blog, which she’d published purely to help other writers. I contacted her for clarification on a few points and she was generous and patient with her advice then, and has been ever since whenever I’ve got stuck. I’m delighted that she’s now making her knowledge and experience available more widely through her ‘nuts and bolts’ book, and anyone interested in the indie route to publication should grab a copy without hesitation.

Chris is a member of the Society of Authors, the Crime Writers Association and the Scottish Association of Writers. She designed her own website and confesses to being a techno-geek who builds computers in her spare time. You can find out more about her at http://www.chrislongmuir.co.uk.


So, Chris, why did you choose crime as your genre?

I suppose it was because my preferred reading has mostly been crime, although I went through a horror phase as well. I started out with Agatha Christie when in my early teens and progressed, through time, to the darker stuff. Maybe that was because I took a detour by reading Stephen King, James Herbert, Dean Koontz and many more like them. I still read Dean Koontz, I think he's a fabulous writer. I also remember reading Bram stoker's Dracula at an early age, as well as Frankenstein, although I never thought Frankenstein to be very scary.

I write two different crime series. I started off with contemporary crime in my Dundee Crime Series. This is the series which has my major prize winning books. Night Watcher, the first book in the series won the SAW (Scottish Association of Writers) Pitlochry Award, and Dead Wood also won this award a few years later, but it then went on to win the Dundee International Book Prize which, as you know, was my breakthrough into publishing. After I wrote the third book in the Dundee Crime Series I started a new series, the Kirsty Campbell Mysteries. There are two books in this series with another in the pipeline and they are historical mysteries set during and after the First World War.

However, although crime is mostly what I write, I do write other genres as well. I have published a historical saga set in a fishing community in the 1830s, and I have also published two nonfiction books. The latest one, the Nuts & Bolts of Self-Publishing, was published on 7th February.

The term ‘crime fiction’ covers a multitude of sins: thriller, police procedural, psychological, espionage, hard boiled, etc, etc. Where would you say your work fits on the spectrum?

I think my crime fiction is an amalgam of genres. I like to think I write crime thrillers, but they are also psychological because I like to get inside my characters’ heads, even the killer’s. That is because I like to know what makes a person do the things they do. What makes one person a law abiding citizen, and another person a killer. But there is also another aspect to my crime thrillers and that is the puzzle element. I like to keep my readers guessing. I suppose you could say I write thrillers with an Agatha Christie type mystery at the centre of the story.

Where do your main protagonists come from? Do they wander into your head fully formed, or do you start with a role for them and then build their characters up?

I usually start with one character and a scene, which I see in my mind’s eye, and then build from there. I think my writing can be quite visual because I shut my eyes and watch the scene taking place. It’s like having a built in TV screen in my head. However, because I write two different crime series there are some characters who appear in every book and their characters continue to develop as time goes on.

How important is location to you? Is it no more than a backdrop to the action, or almost a character in the stories?

I need to write about locations I know. I like to be able to walk the streets and visit the places where my crimes take place. So, I will never write a story set somewhere exotic which I have never visited, although I believe some writers have no problem doing this. Thinking about it, I expect my location, a dark and scary Dundee, is probably a character in the story.

Sex and violence – do you show this to the reader, or does most of it happen off the page?

There is sex and violence in my books but it is not graphic. I will not describe the mechanics of either the sex or the murder, although I have no problem describing the outcome of the violence or the feelings of those involved. I leave most of it up to my readers’ imaginations. However, having said that, there is one scene in my historical saga, A Salt Splashed Cradle, which is a bit more graphic than my norm. You could say it was a bit risqué.

Apart from the protagonists, are there other points of view you like to use? The perpetrator, the victim, victim’s loved ones, etc?

I write multi-viewpoint which means that I will take you into the heads of several characters including victims’, perpetrators’, police, and even the killers’ head. But I do not head hop within scenes. Each character whose head I am in has their own scene or chapter.

Do you do a lot of plotting and planning, or mostly let the story carry you along?

Excuse me while I laugh! I’m afraid I’m a pantster, I fly by the seat of my pants. When I start a new book I have no idea where it will take me. I start with a scene and a character and take it from there. At some stage the character will start telling the story and that’s great. The only problem is that I have no idea who the killer is apart from the fact he or she must be present at an early stage of the book. I think it’s cheating to introduce the killer a few pages before the end. The other problem with not knowing the identity of the killer is that he or she must be available to commit the crime. The killer can’t be having a nice cup of tea with granny and be sticking a knife into someone thirty miles away at the same time. That means I have to keep a timeline charting where everyone is at any one time.

There is an exception. As I said earlier, I also write nonfiction and that has to be meticulously planned and structured. My new book Nuts & Bolts of Self-Publishing required a lot of research and I needed to structure it in a way that would be easily understood by anyone wishing to self-publish. The step-by-step instructions on how to do various things such as formatting for Kindle, was done with my fingers on the keyboard testing everything out as I wrote it.

What does your writing life look like? A standard week with routines, or writing spells snatched amid the everyday chaos?

I try to write most days, although life sometimes gets in the way. I usually do my emails and various admin tasks at the start of the day. Then I get down to writing or writing tasks after that. I try not to let things like Facebook and Twitter get in the way. That’s why I seem to vanish from social media from time to time. And that’s why my promotion and marketing suffers. Writing is more important.

Disciplinarian or procrastinator?

A bit of both, I think. I’ve always been a workaholic so I suppose that’s the discipline bit. But I can also procrastinate although I get annoyed with myself when I do.

Where would you like to think you’ll be in five years’ time?

Alive! Still writing! And with a lot more books under my belt. Success for me is providing my readers with books they will enjoy.

Before I let you go I’m intrigued with your mention of a nonfiction book. Can you tell me something about it?

Well, it’s certainly different from my crime thrillers. You could say I have abandoned my life of crime to explore the mysteries of self-publishing. The book is called the Nuts & Bolts of Self-Publishing: How to Self-Publish Ebooks and Paperbacks.

It all came about after I did a workshop at a writers’ conference last March. I suppose it was then I realized just how much knowledge I possessed about self-publishing. Even though you call me your ‘guru’ I always took the title of ‘guru’ with a pinch of salt because I took it for granted that I knew the answer to any question you asked me. Well, to cut a long story short, when I looked at the handouts I had prepared I realized I had the synopsis of a book. So I wrote it.

There is a lot of information packed into the pages of this book which contains my step-by-step guide to formatting as well as lots of information on costing, pricing, author services, ISBNs, PLR, ALCS, Legal Deposit of books, and lots more. I even bought a subscription to Microsoft Office 365 so that I could update my instructions. So the formatting information applies to the most up to date version of Word, with instructions for older versions in an Appendix at the end of the book.

I have always wanted other authors to share in any success I might have, and this is my way of helping them.

Thanks, Chris, for answering my Killer Questions. And for all your help and support along the way.

NUTS & BOLTS OF SELF-PUBLISHING: HOW TO SELF-PUBLISH EBOOKS AND PAPERBACKS

The ultimate guide to self-publishing



Step-by-step instructions on what to do to produce a professionally designed book. How to create accounts, how to format your manuscript for ebook and paperback publication, how to add a TOC, how to acquire an ISBN and register your book, how to upload and submit your book for publication, and what you need to do after publication. Plus information about costing and pricing your book, author services and outsourcing, as well a lot more.

If you only buy one book on self-publishing, this is the one for you. Check it out and buy it here.


11 January 2017


Killer Questions #4: Nic Parker 


Today I’m delighted to welcome horror fantasy author Nic Parker to sit in the hot seat and answer some killer questions.

Nic was born in 1971. Her love for the horror genre flourished in early childhood. She enjoyed the opulence of genre productions in the eighties, chasing after forbidden video nasties with friends, and reading mainly Clive Barker and Stephen King. Since her twenties she’s had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing many household names from the horror genre in her role as a journalist for Moviestar magazine. She is an avid book collector, passionate about art and likes to try out new recipes from her many cookbooks. Nic lives in rural Germany with her husband and six cats.

Descent to Hell is the first part in the Hell trilogy with main character Charlie Ward.


How would you describe your genre?


It’s horror fantasy with emphasis on horror. My next projects also include thrillers, both supernatural and psychological.


Which other writers’ work do you think it would most appeal to?


Hmm, it’s always hard to compare yourself to others but depending on the story I think Stephen King would fit as he mixes horror with fantasy and maybe John Connolly as it’s supernatural yet I am miles away from the beautiful prose of Connolly.

 

Where do your main protagonists come from? Do they wander into your head fully formed, or do you start with a role for them and then build their characters up?


I honestly don’t know. They come forward from out of thin air and then just begin a life of their own. They are probably excesses from decades of watching horror movies and reading horror books and comics.

 

How important is location to you? Is it no more than a backdrop to the action, or almost a character in the stories?


That depends on the story. I think there are authors that can vividly describe surroundings or cities with few words but I also enjoy learning more about a city or place where the story is set. In general I think the focus should always be on the characters.


Sex and violence – do you show this to the reader, or does most of it happen off the page?


Yes and definitely yes but I would never write torture porn scenes, as they are obsolete. If readers are aroused while reading a sex scene or cringe when reading a violent scene then I’ve done my job.


Apart from the protagonists, are there other points of view you like to use?


Depending on the story it’s appealing to explore the protagonists’ and the antagonists’ points of view.

 
Do you do a lot of plotting and planning, or mostly let the story carry you along?


Before I sit down to write the story has advanced about 70 percent already in my head. New ideas and/or characters will be filled in as I write.

 
What does your writing life look like? A standard week with routines, or writing spells snatched amid the everyday chaos?


The latter, I’m afraid. Especially this year, with my part-time job, six cats to tend to and our ongoing refurbishments in the house and my surgery in September it was sometimes hard to get any writing done at all. I hope I can find more time to write in 2017.


Disciplinarian or procrastinator?


I am German, discipline is embedded in my DNA ;-)


Where would you like to think you’ll be in five years’ time?


Hm, I guess I’d be satisfied with world domination. Yeah, that’d do ;-)

Thanks, Nic, for answering my Killer Questions.

 

Descent to Hell by Nic Parker




A man forced to enter mankind’s most feared territory…a child dragged into the underworld!

When Charlie Ward’s beloved niece is kidnapped by an atrocious demon he has to find the secret  gateway into the one place every human wants to stay away from: Hell!

Armed only with courage and determination Charlie has to survive in a forbidding place filled with despair and anguish. He must face challenges no mortal should ever have to undergo that threaten to destroy his very soul.  

Check it out here.

23 December 2016

My Ten Top Reads of 2016


The end of the year is always a good time to look back over the past twelve months and remember the highs and lows. As always, the highs have included some amazing books but, I have to admit, one of the lows is realising how relatively little reading I seem to have got through in 2016.

It’s an odd thing. When I worked full time in London, I had about three hours a day, five days a week, to commute and got through heaps of reading on the train. Since giving up the day job, my life has become much less structured and, without that enforced sitting, I find myself with much less in the way of reading windows. There’s a New Year’s resolution in there somewhere.

I’ve still read some great books, and here’s a round up of the best ten I’ve enjoyed in the past year. The top three will come last, but here’s the other sensational seven, in no particular order:

The Missing, by C L Taylor. On the surface, this is the story of a mother’s determination to find out what happened to her missing son, and that’s page-turner enough. But what gives it its depth and poignancy is the compelling study of how what has happened impacts on the whole family. Layer by layer, some nasty little secrets are revealed, and the conclusion is both sad and satisfying.

The Murder Road by Stephen Booth. Stephen’s Cooper and Fry series, set in Derbyshire, is always like reuniting with old friends. The relationship between protagonist detectives Diane Fry and Ben Cooper has had more twists and turns than a theme park ride over the years, and this one is no exception. But there’s also an intriguing new mystery here concerning a hamlet with only one road in and out, and a stuck lorry with a bloodstained cab and a missing driver.

No Turning Back by Tracy Buchanan. When a local radio presenter is attacked by a crazed young man whilst out with her young child, her instincts to protect her daughter results in the teenager’s death. Her life is turned upside down as she is judged in the court of public opinion and some seek their own retribution. And the presenter herself may not quite be all she seems. This is an absorbing, pacey read.

Descent to Hell by Nic Parker. Apart from crime, my other favourite fiction is speculative stuff, especially horror and fantasy. Some of my favourite reads over the years have somehow managed to blend the two, notably Stephen King’s Dark Tower saga and Peter Straub’s Floating Dragon. Nic Parker’s debut novel is very much in the same territory as ordinary guy Charlie Ward journeys into the underworld to rescue his young niece. Parker’s vision of Hell is not what you might expect, and nor are some of the characters Charlie meets. A page-turning tale of love, heroism and finding support in the unlikeliest of places.

Little Black Lies by Sharon Bolton. One of two Sharon Boltons I read this year, and both were goodies. In this one, unusually set in a tight community in the Falklands, we find a deep friendship between two women that was shattered when one was responsible for the accident that killed the other’s sons. What sort of revenge is the grieving mother plotting, and what does it have to do with the disappearances of other young boys on the island? Bolton provides a claustrophobic emotional rollercoaster ride that keeps you off balance to the very end.

Splinter the Silence by Val McDermid. A new Tony Hill and Carol Jordan novel is always something to open with anticipation, and this one didn’t disappoint. Psychological profiler Tony Hill becomes suspicious about a series of suicides among women tormented by online trolls, even though their circumstances appear to be very different. As well as a satisfying mystery, this book continues the ups and downs of the relationship between the two main protagonists, whose messy personal lives – and personalities – always seem to conspire against them.

I See You by Clare Mackintosh. Clare’s debut, I Let You Go, was my book of 2015 and worthy winner of this year’s Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award. This second novel shows that this is a fine writer who’s here to stay, and has a brilliant premise: women’s photographs appear in the classifieds section of a London newspaper with a website and a phone number. The sites and numbers are bogus and the photos have been plucked from the Internet without their knowledge and consent. Then bad things start happening. A first rate psychological thriller.

Which brings me to my top three. All of them are absolutely outstanding reads that had me impatiently turning the pages and thinking about their stories when I wasn’t actually reading the book. All the books in this top-ten selection are highly recommended, but these three are serious must reads.

In Her Wake by Amanda Jennings. When the female protagonist’s mother dies, her life is swiftly turned upside down by events and the unravelling of the truth about her life – a life built on lies and terrible crimes. What she finds out sees her running out on her controlling husband and off to Cornwall to find herself – which she does, but even then what she finds is darker and more distressing than she could have imagined. This has the lot – mystery, emotion by the bucketload, and even a touch of the supernatural. Fabulous.

Fever City by Tim Baker. Wow. If you only read one thriller from the 2016 crop, you’d best make sure it’s this one. The assassination of President J F Kennedy provides the backdrop, but this is a hardboiled, slick, relentless piledriver of a conspiracy novel, covering decades and blowing away other books on the same theme. A Los Angeles private investigator, hired to find the kidnapped son of one of America's richest, most powerful men and gets mixed up in something bigger than he could ever have imagined. Decades, his son stumbles across evidence from JFK conspiracy theorists that sends him on a quest for the truth. Read this book. You won’t want to put it down.

Daisy in Chains by Sharon Bolton. Up against In Her Wake and Fever City, it was going to take an amazing book to come through as my book of the year, and I read Daisy in Chains quite late on. I’ve chosen it for it’s intriguing themes, its genius in keeping you guessing and wrong-footed throughout, the creative ways in which the story is told, and an end which, even if you had an inkling of the solution, will still leave you gasping at the final reveal. Maggie, a reclusive lawyer and true-crime author is asked by the fans of a charismatic convicted serial killer to take a fresh look at his case with a view to overturning his conviction and life sentence. Bolton lifts the lid on the women who write adoring letters to such men and, despite her initial determination not to get involved, Maggie is drawn into the case. The unfolding tale cuts between narrative, reports and Maggie’s own notes. It’s genuinely creepy and will have you reading long into the night.

So that’s my top ten for 2016. I can’t wait to see what next year will bring.


17 October 2016

Guest Post: Birth of a Book by Rebecca Bradley
 
Today I'm turning the blog over to my good friend and fellow crime writer, Rebecca Bradley, to tell us about the thinking behind her new novella. Three Weeks Dead, which is a prequel to the events of the first in her DI Hannah Robbins series, Shallow Waters. If you want to know a bit more about the character of Sally Poynter, one of the main cast members in that book, this is for you.

Rebecca is a retired police detective and lives in Nottinghamshire with her family and two cockapoo's Alfie and Lola, who keep her company while she writes. Rebecca needs to drink copious amounts of tea to function throughout the day and if she could, she would survive on a diet of tea and cake while committing murder.

So... over to you, Rebecca




I want to thank Dave for having me on his blog today. I asked for help with a blog tour at pretty short notice and Dave very quickly and kindly offered me space on his blog, so thank you, Dave.

The question Dave wanted to know was how the novella came about? It has quite a different starting point to my two novels, in that we’re not looking to solve a murder, but weirdly, there is a dead body involved…
 
How far would you go if someone took your wife?

Especially, if you buried her a week ago.
 
 
I have a list on my phone of story ideas. I get these ideas from all over the place. From overhearing things, reading books, newspapers, online articles and magazines, and seeing things while I’m out and about. The list has about 15 ideas on it so far. I really do need to start writing faster. 

The above idea was sat on my phone for quite some time, but I knew it wasn’t strong enough for a novel and would only work on a shorter story, so when I decided to write a prequel to Shallow Waters, I realised this was the right time to bring this idea out. 

It was something I’d read in on online news article when I was doing research for Made to be Broken (book 2 in the DI Hannah Robbins series). I was looking at who targets animal testing laboratories and I found this article that said an animal rights group had actually dug up a woman, a family member of the people who owned the laboratory, and held her ransom (several years ago) in an attempt to get their own way. 

It was the most unusual thing I had ever read and it stuck with me. The offenders were caught and convicted. I don’t think the family gave them what they wanted. The article wasn’t clear on that part of it. 

So, without wanting to be disrespectful to the family and mimicking their personal torture, I simply used the initial idea – which is no different than using the idea of murder, which we as crime writers all use – and created a story from it. 

I had to ask myself, in what situation would a loved one be prepared to follow demands for a buried family member and if they are an upstanding member of society, how far exactly would they be willing to go? How much of a struggle would it be for them to cross that line between right and wrong? I also had to figure out what my bad guys could be after that was so worthwhile that they would be prepared to do something as gruesome as dig up a grave!

It was quite taxing if I’m honest, writing Three Weeks Dead, but it was also a lot of fun going back and revisiting characters I already knew but at a time in their lives when they were fresher faced.

So, it came about because of a tiny piece of information I’d held onto and my mind just wouldn’t let it go. The story grew from there.  



Three Weeks Dead is out in eBook now. Check it out
here.


31 August 2016

Killler Questions #3 - Sam Carrington


Today I’m delighted to welcome fellow crime novelist Sam Carrington to sit in the hot seat and answer some killer questions.



Sam lives in Devon with her husband and three children. She worked for the NHS for fifteen years, during which time she qualified as a nurse. Following the completion of a psychology degree she worked for the prison service as an Offending Behaviour Programme Facilitator. Her experiences within this field inspired her writing. She left the service to spend time with her family and to follow her dream of being a novelist. Saving Sophie is her debut psychological thriller novel.

Why did you choose crime as your genre?

I think crime chose me! Criminology and psychology have always fascinated me; the whys particularly – like, why does a person go down the ‘wrong’ path in life? Why did they commit a crime? Why did they choose that particular victim? etc. And also the ‘whats’: What factors influenced their deviant behaviour? What was their childhood like? What was their motive to commit the crime? Having worked with offenders in a male prison, all these questions came into play. So, when I began writing, the darker aspects of human behaviour also became central in my writing.

The term ‘crime fiction’ covers a multitude of sins: thriller, police procedural, psychological, espionage, hard boiled, etc., etc. Where would you say your work fits on the spectrum?

Mine is firmly in the psychological thriller genre. I focus on how the events within the story affect the people they are happening to: how they think, react and interact with others. Crime is central to the story, but the police involvement is not the focus.

Where do your main protagonists come from? Do they wander into your head fully formed, or do you start with a role for them and then build their characters up?

I think a bit of both. In Saving Sophie, the character of Sophie was pretty well formed in my head from the first chapter. Her mum, Karen, however, was one that developed over time, layer by layer. As the novel progressed, more of her character seemed to show itself, and there were a few occasions where I found myself writing parts of her story that were not in my original plan. The actual process of writing is really exciting when that happens!

How important is location to you? Is it no more than a backdrop to the action, or almost a character in the stories?

I think it’s important to have a good feel for ‘place’. I don’t think that in Saving Sophie location is a character in its own right, but I do think it gives a certain atmosphere to the story. Being more of a small town, country location in Devon, it might be hard for some readers to imagine the differences in attitudes, for example, to crime (or the fear of it). There’s a slightly more relaxed feeling in terms of letting older children out to play, or, like Sophie, letting her out with her friends into the town at night even though she’s only seventeen. I am speaking only from personal experience here. I have lived in Devon all my life and brought my own family up here and I’m not saying I’ve not been afraid or worried about letting my children out to play, just that it’s likely to be different to someone who has been brought up in a big city! Even though some of the places I use are fictitious, they are based on a mixture of actual towns that I know, so I hope that they come across as authentically as possible. The only real location I have used in Saving Sophie is Dartmoor because this location is important for the story. Dartmoor is a character in itself and an amazing place that we visit often and absolutely love. It will also play a key part in my next novel.

Sex and violence – do you show this to the reader, or does most of it happen off the page?

In terms of violence, I show what I think is required for the story to come across as authentic but without the gory detail. I don’t feel the need to show gratuitous violence and would rather hint at it and let the reader’s imagination take them wherever they want. And actually, that’s the same with sex. I would write a sex scene if it felt right for the characters and the progression of the story, or to show more of their character. In Saving Sophie that didn’t seem to be needed – the relationship between Karen and Mike, coupled with the relatively short timescale the story was set over, meant a sex scene wasn’t really ‘called’ for!

Apart from the protagonists, are there other points of view you like to use? The perpetrator, the victim, victim’s loved ones, etc?

For Saving Sophie I stuck with the three, third person points of view of Sophie, Karen and DI Wade. Although there was some insight into the perpetrator’s viewpoint through emails, they didn’t have their own point of view chapters. I would like to use the perpetrator’s viewpoint in a future novel, mainly because I’ve had first-hand experience with working with those who have committed serious offences and think I could create some really interesting scenes! Obviously as I’m only on my second novel, these creative decisions might change from book to book and I’d be keen to experiment with different viewpoints.

Do you do a lot of plotting and planning, or mostly let the story carry you along?

I begin with a one-page synopsis and then add more detail to this so that I have a couple of pages. This will act as my plan. Things are likely to change, but it gives me a solid idea of where I’m heading so that I don’t go off the beaten track. I will add, delete, shuffle and alter various parts of the story depending on what ‘ta-da’ moments come to me in the middle of the night, or while driving. So, nothing is set in stone. I scribble a lot of notes in various notebooks – that I often can’t find ever again – so what starts out as a neat, organised way of writing, might quickly descend into a chaotic, panicked search for a brilliant plot twist idea that I had three weeks prior and can’t quite remember…

What does your writing life look like? A standard week with routines, or writing spells snatched amid the everyday chaos?

It should be a standard week with routines. However, working from home means I’M the one all three offspring shout to/call when they need something, when they want to be taken to work, or a lift to a friends, food cooked, etc. etc. Plus, the two dogs and one cat are pretty needy too. So, the reality is, my writing life can look chaotic with snatched spells of writing. I’ve tried to be better organised and have been getting up earlier to begin my day before the teenagers begin theirs!

Disciplinarian or procrastinator?

I don’t have many excuses. I’m free to write full-time. But – oh, the procrastination!! Social media is such a pull… Even the cooker might suddenly need cleaning! I’ve searched the internet for inspiration on “How to organise your time more effectively” – but you can see where that’s going… I actually think I was better disciplined when I had loads of other things on. I tended to focus better when I knew I only had two hours to write before I was due somewhere. My only hope in future is to fool myself into thinking I’m meant to be in a certain place at a specified time!

Where would you like to think you’ll be in five years’ time?

I would love to be in a position where I was on my fifth novel and had a lovely fan base of readers who were waiting in great anticipation for my latest book. My next novel introduces forensic psychologist, Connie Summers and I hope she is going to be making appearances in later novels as part of a series.

Thanks so much, Sam, for answering my Killer Questions.

SAVING SOPHIE by Sam Carrington



A teenage girl is missing. Is your daughter involved, or is she next?

Your daughter is in danger. But can you trust her?

When Karen Finch’s seventeen-year-old daughter Sophie arrives home after a night out, drunk and accompanied by police officers, no one is smiling the morning after.

But Sophie remembers nothing about how she got into such a state.

Twelve hours later, Sophie’s friend Amy has still not returned home. Then the body of a young woman is found.

Karen is sure that Sophie knows more than she is letting on. But Karen has her own demons to fight. She struggles to go beyond her own door without a panic attack.

As she becomes convinced that Sophie is not only involved but also in danger, Karen must confront her own anxieties to stop whoever killed one young girl moving on to another – Sophie.

A taut psychological thriller, perfect for fans of The Girl on the Train and I Let You Go.
Check it out
here.

3 August 2016

Hanging Out at Harrogate



The last weekend in July found me making what has, for years, been an almost annual pilgrimage to the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival at Harrogate. 

As well as mingling with crime writers and readers alike and hearing from some of the best and hottest names in the genre, it’s one of the friendliest festivals around. It also gets bigger each year, so much so that one wonders how long The Old Swan Hotel can accommodate the ever-swelling numbers.

This year, the approach to the venue featured an enormous ‘READ’ sign. Maybe if I’d been more enterprising, I’d have found a way to tack ‘Archer and Baines novels’ on the end.


I get something different out of Harrogate every year. When I first started going, I attended every single event within the festival (which can be pretty exhausting) because I wanted to learn all I possibly could about crime writing. But it’s also an opportunity to catch up with old friends, some of whom I only ever see at events like this, meet online friends in real life for the first time, and make some completely new ones as well, and socialising and networking has become an ever more important element of the weekend as my writing journey has progressed.


 
One of the things I had to do before I set out was a bit of planning: which sessions did I not want to miss, which ones were of least interest to me, and which ones were I neutral about? The reasons were simple – on the social side, I had dinners, lunches, afternoon tea in Betty’s (always a tradition) to squeeze in, as well as couple of actual businessy meetings.


But all that still left me plenty of time to attend plenty of 'in conversation' and panel events. I especially enjoyed:

  • The charming and funny Linwood Barclay chatting to Mark Billingham;
  • 'You Couldn't Make it Up. Or Could You?' with Sharon Bolton, Mari Hannah. Peter James, Graham Bartlett and Yrsa Sigurddottir discussing whether life imitates art or vice versa when it comes to true crime and fictional crime;
  • 'Set a Scientist to Catch a Killer', with ex-CID officer Dave Gaylor, forensic podiatrist Haydn Kelly, Dr Brooke Maganti, an author with a doctorate in forensic science, and authors Elly Griffiths and Kate Medina;
  • The great Jeffery Deaver in conversation with Mark Lawson;
  • The ever-popular 'New Blood', chaired by Val McDermid, with Martin Holman, JS Law, Beth Lewis and Abir Mukherjee showing why they are ones to watch;
  • 'Political Corruption', a great panel chaired by Charles Cumming, with Gillian Slovo, Mark Lawson, Kate Rhodes and Frank Gardner, who all had real-life experiences to recount;
  • and Peter Robinson in conversation with Mark Lawson.

But my pick of the bunch was another 'in conversation' slot with the wonderful Val McDermid being sort-of interviewed by comedian Susan Calman. These two Scots could easily take to the road as a 'Val and Sal' comedy double act. Hilariously funny, but insightful at the same time.

Unfortunately, the most comfy seats in tha hall, as well as the coolest spots, were right at the back. I took pictures of the panels from the big screens, but they are all rubbish and I won't inflict them on you.

This roundup wouldn't be complete without a mention of my friend Clare Mackintosh, whose stunning debut, I Let You Go, I have raved about as my 2015 novel of the year. Well, it turns out the judges for the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year award agreed with me. It's the second year running my choice has matched the award (Sarah Hilary's Someone Else's Skin won it last year), so watch this space for my tip for next year!



Photograph by Charlotte Graham Photography

 

12 July 2016

 

Watching a Book Festival Grow


Facebook has this thing where it slips what it calls a ‘memory’ on your timeline – a blast from your past in the shape of one of your old posts. It’s not always the warm fuzzy thing they imagine it will be – it’s just as likely to be about having you cat put to sleep, or a family member dying as about a wedding or a book coming out. But still…

Lately, an awful lot of these memories are of BeaconLit, the literary festival in my local area that I am privileged to be involved with.


It’s amazing to think the event is (just) into its fifth year, the fourth festival having happened the Saturday before last. It was conceived, and still very much exists, to raise awareness of books and writing in the ‘Beacon Villages’ – in the corner of Buckinghamshire where Ivinghoe Beacon is the major landmark – and to raise funds for the Beacon Villages Community Library.

The first festival was a half-day affair in a marquee on a slightly wild and windy day. The marquee billowed, the wind tried to blow through, but the audience enjoyed two top-class panels crime and romance – and some workhops and stuff in the break.

A year later and we had expanded the festival into a half-day event in Brookmead School, Ivinghoe, which has an excellent new hall for the main event, a good sized ‘old’ hall for circulation etc. We had a new associate in Chorleywood Bookshops, our nearest independent bookshop (which has supported us ever since), and ran five events throughout the day.



We’ve continued to tweak the format, and to do things a little better each year. This time around we obtained some invaluable extra sponsorship and were also able to include some extra goodies in goodie bags that had previously contained just the programme brochure and some flyers. This time there were special BeaconLit chocolate bars, courtesy of Rumsey’s of Wendover; complimentary copies of Buckinghamshire and Berkshire life; and a free book in every bag thanks to the generosity of lovely Karen Sullivan at Orenda Books.

We are constantly trying to reach out to a wider audience, but the charm of the event, which partcipants and punters alike love, is BeaconLit's village feel. We get a lot of local help in putting the festival on. The school lends us the venue, we hire extra chairs from Ivinghoe Town Hall (which volunteers ferry back and forth in the backs of their cars), and local people loan us sound equipment. Tesco Tring, less than four miles away, not only gave us some invaluable sponsorship, but one of its staff volunteered to help set up and on the day, and worked exremely hard. These are the things that really contribute to the unique 'local' atmosphere.


For the programme, we mixed up ‘in conversation’ two-handers with four-person panels, providing visual variety as well as a good blend of events within the festival. Amanda Jennings, chatting to BBC presenter Adina Campbell, kicked off and set the tone perfectly A ‘New Voices’ event – Morgen Bailey grilling debut authors Angela Clarke (crime), Rachel Dove (Mills & Boon romance) and Jeannie Waudby (young adult) followed before a break that included performance poet Mark Niel.

   

An eclectic afternoon kicked off with freelance writer Sandra Smith interviewing Buckinghamshire and Berkshire Life editor Jan Raycroft, and then it was my turn. I got a break from moderating this year, but on the day poor Alison Bruce was unwell. Fortunately, Adina Campbell loves BeaconLit so much that she stepped in at short notice and made a great job of opening up Tracy Buchanan, Fergus McNeil and me on how we create a sense of place in our crime novels.

   


The day ended with an absorbing chat between Emma Darwin and Liz Harris on ‘writing outside the box’ in historical fiction.



We still don’t get everything right. We still have a lot to learn about reaching out in ways that will really boost our audience to the scale our excellent guests deserve, and not all of our new ideas work out. But I’d say overall the event has moved on from those early toddling steps. We put on a festival that is praised for its organisation and its quality, and that our audience and everyone who takes part thoroughly enjoys.

The best thing about this year is that the work is no longer falling on three pairs of shoulders. We have a new, enlarged and invigorated committee with a festival under its belt and already planning the next one!

If Ivinghoe, Bucks is a manageable journey for you, you could do worse than to see for yourself in 2017. 


21 June 2016

Killer Questions #2 – Rebecca Bradley

Today I’m thrilled that my very good friend and fellow crime writer Rebecca Bradley is here on the blog in the hot seat for my Killer Questions, where I get to ask other authors what makes their writing tick. Rebecca’s second DI Hannah Robbins novel, Made to be Broken, comes out at the end of this month, and I can tell you it’s a cracking read.



Rebecca is a retired police detective who lives in Nottinghamshire with her family and her two cockapoo's Alfie and Lola, who both keep her company while she writes. Rebecca needs to drink copious amounts of tea to function throughout the day and if she could, she would survive on a diet of tea and cake while committing murder on a regular basis, in her writing of course.

Sign up to the newsletter on her blog  to receive the first five chapters of Made to be Broken and for exclusive content and giveaways.

Welcome, Rebecca.

Why did you choose crime as your genre?

I always seem to have been drawn to crime. I started reading it from a young age, starting with Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and Secret Seven and then Nancy Drew before moving on to Agatha Christie. Later in life I joined the police service and when it came to starting to write, crime seemed like the natural place to be.

The term ‘crime fiction’ covers a multitude of sins: thriller, police procedural, psychological, espionage, hard boiled, etc, etc. Where would you say your work fits on the spectrum?

My current series is firmly in the police procedural sub-genre, though there’s nothing to say I won’t stray out of it at some point. I do read wider than the genre I write in and my ideas definitely stray from the police procedural path. They even stray from the crime path!

Where do your main protagonists come from? Do they wander into your head fully formed, or do you start with a role for them and then build their characters up?

That’s a difficult question to be honest. I don’t tend to overthink my characters before I start writing. They’re definitely not fully formed in my head when I sit down to write but neither are they just roles that are needed. They are somewhere in the middle and they manage to start breathing when on the page. Or, should I say, I hope they start breathing, I hope my readers think they’re breathing. I’m not one of these who knows every little detail about my characters. Each one still has a lot to reveal about themselves, to me.

How important is location to you? Is it no more than a backdrop to the action, or almost a character in the stories?

I think in crime, location plays quite a large role for the reader and I’ve found the readers who live in Nottingham, where my books are set, really like it when they recognise the places that are mentioned. Though, it’s the characters the readers care about and turn the pages for and not the location, so nothing will trump the characters.

Sex and violence – do you show this to the reader, or does most of it happen off the page?

I’ve done both. Sex is definitely off page. I can’t write sex. I hate it. It’s not that I’m prudish. I worked in sexual exploitation as a police detective, you couldn’t shock me, but I just can’t write it myself. I’d probably win the bad sex award. My violence isn’t gratuitous. In fact it is very minimal and not very descriptive. It’s more about the feelings so the reader is left to imagine it, which I think can be more powerful.

Apart from the protagonists, are there other points of view you like to use? The perpetrator, the victim, victim’s loved ones, etc?

Yes, I tend to use a couple of points of views in my novels. Because my protagonist is in first person point of view, I swap out of her head in some chapters to get a wider view of the story. It all comes together though.

Do you do a lot of plotting and planning, or mostly let the story carry you along?

I’ve only written two books so far. The first one I just started writing and it took me forever as I had no idea what I was doing or where I was going. With Made to be Broken I wrote a plan out before I started and I found this helped me immensely. When I start book three I’m going to make the plan more comprehensive and hopefully this will work even better.

What does your writing life look like? A standard week with routines, or writing spells snatched amid the everyday chaos?

Because I live with a genetic condition that means I live with a lot of pain and fatigue, I write as and when my body tells me I can. But I do write every day.

Disciplinarian or procrastinator?

Both. But, as long as I’ve done the work before I go to sleep, I’m happy. Because I work from home now, I have all day and my own timeframe. So, I’m disciplined in that I will do it every day, but I can procrastinate and put it off until late afternoon.

Where would you like to think you’ll be in five years’ time?

I would like to think I’d be still enjoying writing novels. Having at least another five or seven out. At least. Definitely a new series as well as the Hannah Robbins series. And if I’m lucky, I’ll have some loyal fans who will love reading my work.

Thanks, Rebecca for answering my Killer Questions.

Thank you for having me. It’s been great fun.



A rising death toll. A city in panic.

A young mother is found dead in her home with no obvious cause of death. As DI Hannah Robbins and her team investigate, it soon becomes clear that the woman is the first in a long line of murders by poison.

With the body count climbing, and the city of Nottingham in social meltdown, the team finds themselves in a deadly race against a serial killer determined to prove a point.

And Hannah finds herself targeting an individual with whom she has more in common than she could possibly know.


03 June 2016 

Gorgeous Galapagos

How do you describe the indescribable? There is nowhere on earth like the Galapagos Islands. If there is a Heaven, and it's anything like the Galapagos, I'm booking my place now. Please.

We'd been talking about going, it seemed, forever, and actually went as far as to book last year  through Steppes Travel. But, for some strange reason, the tour we had chosen was undersubscribed and had to be cancelled. We went to Bhutan instead, but after we booked that trip we were contacted by Steppes again. They had another Galapagos tour, departing in May 2016 that was definitely running. Would we like to go?

You bet we would. This tour had the added attraction of being accompanied by TV naturalist and wildlife photographer Monty Halls, who also happens to be President of the Galapagos Conservation Trust. It meant missing Crimefest this year, and I must admit to being gutted when I found how many of my online friends I'd miss meeting in real life, but this was a holiday high up on the bucket list.

The main feature of the trip was a cruise around several of the islands, with plenty of opportunities for snorkeling - something neither of us had ever done, so we booked ourselves a course of three beginner lessons and bought ourselves some kit, including a mask with prescription lenses for me. It was to prove a good call. We experienced our first snorkeling in the sea, our first close quarters with marine life, and our first underwater photography.  Swimming with baby sea lions was something I'll never, ever forget.


 

Our adventure began at Heathrow, from where we flew into Quito in Ecuador via Amsterdam. We had two full days in Quito, with a day in Guayaquil at the end of the holiday, but I'll blog about that another time. The real excitement started when we landed at Galapagos Airport after our internal flight from Quito. A short bus transfer and we stood on the pier awaiting the dinghy (panga) to take us to the MV Evolution, which was to be our home for the next week.



It's a nicely appointed boat. Our cabin was a decent size, and tour director Steve and his team looked after us well and managed to keep delicious meals coming, three times a day, with nothing too much trouble.

After settling into our cabins and having a briefing, it was time for our very first landing on an island, where we saw an abundance of frigate birds, sea lions, red Sally Lightfoot crabs, blue footed boobies (yup - they have bright blue feet), as well as some marine iguanas.

Be warned - it's on the Equator, and the sun needs to be treated with respect - cover up, use plenty of sun cream and wear a suitable hat!

Our party of 30 was generally split into two random groups, each led by one of the Evolution's naturalist guides, Alex and Sam, and these guys really know the islands, their history and geology, and their unique indigenous wildlife. We got a real sense of what Darwin had seen on his visit, and how his ideas about the origins of species took shape.



Alex the Guide

Keeping the islands the most special place on earth (and I'm going to keep right on saying it) isn't easy. It requires a passion, and making sure visitors don't forget the basics. So nothing is to be taken away from the islands, nor left on them. The creatures are fearless of humans, and the way to keep it that way is to treat them with respect. It still means you can get pretty damn close - generally within touching distance.

We'd met up with our fellow travelers in Quito and, over the next week, we all got to know each other pretty well. They were a lovely, friendly bunch. No one formed cliques, and you could sit on any of the four tables in the boat's dining room with any permutation of group members and be sure of an interesting chat and some real laughs.

I could give you a blow by blow account of each day, but it would get wearisome for you and not to the experience justice. Suffice to say, the usual format of the day was a landing by panga and a nature walk, back to the Evolution for lunch, some snorkeling, and another landing for a short walk that more often than not included  a truly fabulous sunset.


 

 

    


The pace was fairly relentless, although there was usually an hour or so to put your feet up.


 

But it meant as much as possible was packed into a week that flew by. Every day was filled with blue sky, glorious sunshine and astonishing sea and sky.




Each island had its own character and its own creatures. One even had a ‘post box’, where you could leave your postcards, unstamped, and take away any near to your home for hand delivery – a fun idea – I wonder when ours will arrive!


So, rather than give you a daily diary, here are all the things we saw:

Birds: frigate birds, blue footed boobies, tropic birds, pelicans, penguins, Darwin finches, herons, red footed boobies, nazca boobies, vampire finches, short eared owls, storm petrels, mockingbirds, Darwin doves, hawks, flamingos.


    


    


   

On land: sea lions, land iguanas, lava lizards, giant tortoises (many over 100 years old and some over 150 weighing more than 500 pounds).


    



Amphibious: Sally Lightfoot crabs crabs, marine iguanas.


    


Under water: More fish than you can shake a stick at, sharks, baby seals, giant turtles.



    


    


It was the best time. And we didn't visit all the islands, so we have an excuse to go again one day!

We return to normal life with so many amazing memories. Our thanks to Steppes Travel for putting together an awesome tour; to the captain and crew of the Evolution for making us so at home; to Alex, Sam and Monty, for enriching the experience.

And to Annabel, Mandy, Tim, Tinker, Chris, Hilary, Diana, Susan, Angela, Keith, Steve, Liz, Tony, Rona, Stella, Sue, Douglas, Midge, Nick, Sue, Andrew, Anne, Graham, Julie, Chris, Wendy and Simon - our onboard 'family' for your company, your friendship and all the fun we had together. Missing you already. We won't forget you.

 

12 May 2016 



Killer Questions #1 - Jane Isaac

Today I'm very excited to be hosting my very first ever guest on the blog. My very good friend Jane Isaac is kicking off a brand new series of interviews in which I get to ask authors of crime fiction - and other genres - about what makes their writing kick.



Jane Isaac lives writes detective novels with a psychological edge. She lives with her husband and daughter in rural Northamptonshire, UK where she can often be found trudging over the fields with her Labrador, Bollo. Her first novel, An Unfamiliar Murder, was nominated as best mystery in the 'eFestival of Words Best of the Independent eBook awards 2013.' Later in the year her fourth book, Beneath the Ashes, will be published by Legend Press. Her website is www.janeisaac.co.uk

Welcome, Jane, and thanks for being the guinea pig on Killer Questions.

Why did you choose crime as your genre?

My love of mysteries started early with Enid Blyton (I could often be found reading the Secret Seven under the bedclothes by torchlight!) and later Agatha Christie, Sherlock Holmes, P D James and Ruth Rendell. I love a good page turning whodunnit with twists and turns aplenty so when I set out to write a novel, it seemed the obvious choice for me.

 

The term ‘crime fiction’ covers a multitude of sins: thriller, police procedural, psychological, espionage, hard boiled, etc, etc. Where would you say your work fits on the spectrum?

I aim for a mixture of police procedural and psychological. I have a lead detective in each book running the police investigation, however I’m fascinated by extraordinary things happening to ordinary people and I also write from the point of view of a victim or somebody else affected by the case so that we see the mystery unfold from both sides.

 

Where do your main protagonists come from? Do they wander into your head fully formed, or do you start with a role for them and then build their characters up?

It takes me a long time to get to know my characters. I start off with some initial ideas and add the layers slowly – description, background, hobbies, family life, motivations – until they become real to me. Only then, do I feel I can start to write their story.

 

How important is location to you? Is it no more than a backdrop to the action, or almost a character in the stories?

I think the importance of location is wholly dependent on the story.

In my first book, An Unfamiliar Murder, I set it in a fictional Midlands county, loosely based on Northamptonshire which gave me the opportunity to move things around and play with the settings to suit the story. With the second in this series, The Truth Will Out, I used the same Midlands setting, but also sent one of my lead characters to hide away in a very real setting in the Scottish Highlands because I wanted it to be somewhere people could picture in their minds and relate to.

My latest book, Before It’s Too Late, marks the start of a new series based in Stratford upon Avon and it’s been really interesting setting a mystery in and around such a well-known and beautiful town. The juxtaposition between the kidnap in the novel, where the victim is kept in a disused pit, and the stunning Warwickshire countryside seemed to present a savage beauty that worked well.

 

Sex and violence – do you show this to the reader, or does most of it happen off the page?

I think how sex and violence are received is a very personal experience to the reader. We all have different levels of what is acceptable and what key words work. My books are predominately psychological thrillers so I’m very much a fan of setting the scene and leaving as much as I can to the reader’s imagination, which can sometimes be a far more powerful tool.

 

Apart from the protagonists, are there other points of view you like to use? The perpetrator, the victim, victim’s loved ones, etc?

There are times when additional points of view creep in to inform the story. In some of my books, I insert snippets from the antagonist or killer’s point of view. I did this a lot in The Truth Will Out – by the third chapter we know who the serial killer is, but sometimes it can be more captivating to find out what they are thinking and what their motivations are. Obviously this needs to be used sparingly, too many points of view would be confusing, but the story should be all important and if another point of view informs the story and makes it a deeper and more compelling read, then it’s worth including.

 

Do you do a lot of plotting and planning, or mostly let the story carry you along?

The extent of my planning has changed as my writing has progressed. I did very little planning for my first book and it took me almost eighteen months to complete. Now that I’m writing book five, I have found that a detailed outline (four to five pages) does give me some context and sense of direction so that I can get the words down on the page quicker.

 

What does your writing life look like? A standard week with routines, or writing spells snatched amid the everyday chaos?

I have a day job and a family so tend to squeeze my writing into gaps as and when they appear. Often, late at night when the house is quiet I may catch an hour. Occasionally, on a Sunday where we have no plans I’ll sit in my jammies and write all day. There’s something special about writing in jammies – it seems to concentrate the mind!

 

Disciplinarian or procrastinator?

With my hectic lifestyle I do strive for some discipline with my writing, setting aside hours here and there, but often fail. I’m so easily distracted!



Where would you like to think you’ll be in five years’ time?

I probably should be really ambitious here and say I’d like to achieve over a million sales and be a Sunday Times Bestseller. But it’s not really about sales for me (although don’t tell my publisher I said that!). Writing books is predominantly a hobby and one I do because I enjoy it. If I’m still able to write good twisty turny mysteries, that people enjoy reading, in another five years, I’ll be happy. 


Thanks so much, Jane, for coming on and answering the killer questions.



7 April 2016 

First Monday - A New Club for the Criminally Minded!

The crime fiction world is a vibrant, friendly community of authors, readers, bloggers and publishing industry professionals. You only have to go to any crime writing festival or event, or watch the chatter on social media to see what I mean.

I’m sure it’s the same in any genre.

Social media is a great way for us to all keep in touch, but nothing is quite like a festival when so many ‘crimeys’ get together. The sad thing has always been that most of us can usually make one, maybe two festivals a year.

Now, at least for those of us who can access London, that might have changed. On Monday 4 April, I attended the first ‘First Monday Crime’ event,  supported by The Crime Writers Association, London City University’s Crime Thriller MA Programme, The International Thriller Writers and Goldsboro Books. As the title suggests, the event is held on the first Monday of each Month, unless it’s a bank holiday.

Several publishers have committed to sponsoring the events, with Orenda Books doing the honours for that inaugural meeting in the College Building of City University.

There was a fabulous panel to listen to, chaired by the excellent Barry Forshaw (author of Brit Noir) and featuring Elly Griffiths (author of the Dr Ruth Galloway series), Amanda Jennings (author of In Her Wake),Mary Paulson-Ellis (debut author of The Other Mrs Walker) and Leye Adenle (Nigerian author of the gritty thriller, Easy Motion Tourist). It was accompanied by mini-cupcakes, wine and a chance to buy the books.

But the very best part of it was the social interaction. I scouted out the Peasant pub, where we’d be adjourning to later, before the event kicked off, and bumped into a number of fellow crimeys on the way to the college. Afterwards, the pub was packed. It was so good to see so many old friends, make a couple of new ones, and meet a number of online mates in real life for the first time.

The idea of a monthly get together is quite fabulous, and will certainly help fill the gap between festivals. I’m already booked for the next one. If you like the sound of it, check it out here.  


30 March 2016

Making National News – The Allotment Factor


Anyone who knows me, or follows me on social media, will be aware that, when I’m not writing, I’m often to be found pottering around my allotment.

When I say, ‘when I’m not writing’, that’s not quite true. There are usually two types of day up at the allotments: there’s the sunny Sunday when just about everyone is there, and you spend at least as much time gossiping as digging, pruning, or whatever you set out to do; and then there’s the quiet type, where you might not see another soul.

I like both types of allotment shift, really. But the second type is a gift to a writer. First, you can get on and do what it is you actually went there to do, which ultimately leaves more time to bang away at your computer keyboard. But secondly, none of the tasks is exactly mentally challenging. So while I’m digging , I might be thinking about where to dispose of the next body. When I’m hacking away at some dead wood, a method of killing might be on my mind. I’ve composed whole chapters in my head whilst weeding or slapping preservative on the shed (a job I must do again soon).

We acquired our first plot about seven years ago. Well, I say plot. It was a barely defined area of wilderness with plenty of ground elder (which you can never get rid of), goldenrod, miscellaneous brambles and so on. So we created the productive allotment we have today literally from scratch.

More recently, the plot opposite ours fell vacant. I should say at this point that I’m the labourer. The brains of the operation is Mrs S, who lovingly cultivates the seedlings, chits the potatoes, and works out what we’re going to plant where and when. Her plan drives my work programme. So when another plot, right on our doorstep, came vacant, it was a chance to grow a bit more stuff and to have a couple more beds for crop rotation.

We didn’t really need the whole plot, but the powers that be were happy for us to adopt half of it; so, over autumn and the start of spring, I’ve been getting it ready.

I posted  a couple of pictures on social media recently, so people could see how the new plot was looking. One is reproduced below.


Quite a few people commented that, with chicken wire all round and sturdy posts, it was a bit like a mini Stalag 13. Those who have followed the sorry story of the fruit and veg rustlers - who pinched quite a bit of produce from local allotment holders last summer - on social media, assumed it was to keep human pilferers out. But it wasn’t.

Quite a number of the plots are surrounded by wire and often topped off with bird netting. It’s to keep out the local fauna. Birds can strip your fruit and certain vegetable plants in a heartbeat. Furry animals are also a threat, as any reader of Beatrix Potter will know. And then there are deer. They do find their way into the villages quite often and have been known to turn up on the allotments. Anyone not fenced in may well find their hard labour in raising produce decimated by hungry deer finding easy pickings.

Explaining that deer, and not humans, are the reason for the mini-Stalag effect reminded me of the occasion a few years ago when I managed – without actually trying – to get a story onto national news.

I’ve been writing village news columns for my two local newspapers for over 20 years. It’s a great discipline to write something every week to a deadline, it’s fun to be invited to cover local events, it puts something back into my community – and it even pays a very small fee.

So when, back in 2010, the Parish Council decided to invest in ‘deer alarms’ for the allotments to help deter the four-legged rustlers, I popped a few lines in the column. It was just a little bit of local news that only a few villagers would care about, right?

Wrong. My editor rang me up, intrigued. What exactly were these deer alarms? I explained that they were radios tuned to BBC Radio 4 that would be turned on by the same sort of sensors that activate outdoor security lights after dark. Why Radio 4? It’s a talk station. The theory was that, if they were triggered by marauding deer coming in the night, the human voices would scare them off.

Well, the editor was tickled by this and made a feature story of it. It might have ended there, except that the Daily Telegraph then picked the story up and this appeared:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/gardening/8018341/Radio-4-The-new-gardeners-friend.html

Not surprisingly, the story even got a mention on the Today programme, where John Humphrys’ colleagues were delighted at the thought of his dulcet tones being so terrifying to Bambi and his gang.

I’d love to say that my story making the national news was a huge boost to my journalistic career. But alas, I didn’t even get a mention. It’s a great story though, on a par with my once being invited to jam with former Fleetwood Mac guitarist Peter Green.

What? You haven’t heard that one? Well…

…maybe another time.

6 February 2016

Fantasy Casting

 

 

Since the new Archer and Baines novel, Evil Unseen, launched on 28 January, I’ve been doing a whistle stop promotion tour round a number of blogs, where the hosts have generously interviewed me, reviewed the book, or both.

It was on the lovely Jane Isaac’s blog (http://www.janeisaac.co.uk/new-publication-interview-evil-unseen-by-dave-sivers/) that I was thrown the question, 'If you sold the TV rights to the books, who would be your ideal cast for the duo (Archer and Baines)?'

I think there are very few writers, if they are honest, who have never, ever, fantasised about having their work adapted for film or TV, although I suspect many of us also doubt that it will ever happen. I also know writers, though, who ‘cast’ the characters in their books, at least to the extent of cutting out pictures to stick over their desks to help them visualise their protagonists, or villains, for that matter.

But, to be honest, I’ve always had an image of Lizzie Archer and Dan Baines in my head that isn’t especially based on anyone real, and the idea of focusing on actual actors first threw me and then panicked me.

You see, when I read a book, I have my own mental image of the characters in much the same way as I do for the characters I write about. And when I see a film or TV adaptation of a series I know well, I rarely think, ‘Yep – that’s exactly who I had in mind.’ The exception was the Harry Potter series, where I thought the casting was inspired. Alan Rickman, in particular, was my Snape, long before the films were announced.

So the notion of saying to readers, ‘Oh, by the way, I think this or that actor look just like Archer and Baines’ feels like the author telling his readers that whatever image they have of the characters is wrong – and I don’t want to do that.

Well, I bottled it. I turned the question back on Jane, who in turn dodged the question and threw it open to her blog readers. There’s been a little bit of feedback, but I think it’s actually a rather good game.

So come on. Who would you like to see cast as Archer and Baines? Or, if you’re an author, who would you like to see playing your characters?

22 December 2015


My Best Reads of 2015

I’ve noticed that a lot of my writing and blogging friends are posting lists of books they’ve enjoyed in the past year. I don’t tend to do reviews of other readers’ books in my own name (although I do some under a pen name for a few of the books I really enjoy). What I do do, though, is include a ‘recommended read' or two in most of the newsletters I send out to my subscribers.

So, as it’s nearly Christmas, and you might just be on the lookout for a last minute gift or two, here’s a roundup of the books I’ve been tipping in 2015. They’re in no particular order and haven’t necessarily all come out in the past year. They’re just the books I’ve especially liked. By sheer fluke, there are ten of them.

Rebecca Bradley – Shallow Waters
This incredibly successful debut novel introduces DCI Hannah Robbins, a protagonist who is determined, emotional and full of secrets. It deals with some dark themes and is as sure-footed a first novel as I've read.

Mari Hannah - Deadly Deceit
This is the third outing for her DCI Kate Daniels. I love this series set in the North East and its great cast of characters puzzling over three nasty crimes with only the most tenuous of connections. As the picture becomes clearer, it becomes evident that Daniels faces her greatest challenge yet.

SJI Holliday - Black Wood
Another compelling debut and, for me, the best debut novel of the year. Something nasty happened to two young girls in Black Wood, leaving one paralysed and the other a psychological mess. The mystery of what actually happened is withheld from the reader until the very end. What we do get is the grown-up Jo, full of secrets and contradictions, suddenly confronted with a face she recognises. At the same time, there are a series of frightening attacks on young women by a figure in a balaclava. It’s a mix of small-community claustrophobia, intriguing mystery and perfect pace that will make it very hard for you to put down.

Craig Robertson – Random
A real page-turner. A series of apparently unconnected victims, each with the little finger of their right hand severed, has Glasgow living in terror of a serial killer.
Through the killer’s eyes, we see him devising a series of games that enable him to select his random victims. But we also gradually learn what is really behind his killing spree. The tension is further ratcheted up when he chooses the wrong victim and comes to the attention of a vicious crime boss. This is a story told through the eyes of a serial killer that pulls off the neat trick of engaging our sympathy.

Sarah Hilary - No Other Darkness
If Sarah Hilary's stunning debut, Someone Else's Skin, was dark, it was a picnic compared to the second in her absorbing Marnie Rome series. The long-dead bodies of two small boys are found in an underground bunker, and Marnie and her team are determined to find out why. The boys' story, and the explanation when it emerges, are unimaginably sad and painful, but the mood never descends into the maudlin. Along the way, Hilary's intriguing protagonist reveals a few more of her own secrets. Another gripping read from a British crime writer who is really going places.

Clare Mackintosh - I Let You Go
It's difficult to say too much about this book without giving away some of its twists and turns, including one shattering twist you can't possibly see coming. It all stems from a hit and run on a dark night, a child left dead, and the consequences of the event. But absolutely nothing is as it seems. Clare Mackintosh somehow contrives to change the nature of the book more than once as her brilliant debut proceeds. The plot and the beautifully absorbed characters make you keep on turning the pages. This was my book of the year and I can't wait for more from this author.

Alison Gray - Lady’s Slipper
The second outing for Alison Gray's DS Abby Foulkes is a darker affair than its predecessor, Hibiscus Fruit. Gone is the claustrophobic but somehow tranquil Greek Island setting. Here we have the harder, more spacious interior of Newcastle's cityscape, with harrowing crimes and a protagonist who, like the author, is really hitting their stride. But it's not just the current mystery that holds our attention. If the subtext of the first book was the anger and denial stages of Abby's grief for her murdered partner, this now gives us glimpses of a move towards acceptance - and readers will be waiting impatiently to accompany her on the next stage of this journey. Whether it's good murder mystery or three-dimensional human interest you enjoy, this is a book that will deliver a great read.

C L Taylor - The Lie
This book is a cracker - full of tension from the beginning and brimming with atmosphere, with a believable cast of characters and a claustrophobic setting for events of the past coming back to haunt Taylor's well-rounded, flawed but likeable protagonist. I read this book in Bhutan, not a million miles from the Nepal of the harrowing back story, and Taylor captures a sense of place that you can reach out and touch. Nothing is as it seems, and the book is rich in twists and turns that keep catching the reader off balance. It deserves the critical acclaim it has gained.

Marnie Riches - The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die
Marnie Riches' protagonist George McKenzie is a different kind of heroine: quirky, tough and vulnerable, with hangups and a touch of OCD that are there but never laboured. A truly international thriller, this is the antidote to the glossy jet set variety, showing us the seedy side of life - in particular in Amsterdam, which is richly and convincingly depicted. The crimes are satisfyingly nasty, but never too graphic - well, not too often, anyway - and there is a sense of menace that will keep you on the edge of your seat, as well as guessing. There is more to George than meets the eye, but I won't spoil it for you. Suffice to say that I'm looking forward to meeting this character again.

Eva Dolan - Long Way Home
The first of Eva Dolan’s Zigic and Fereirra novels, set in the Hate Crimes unit in Peterborough, and a real web of intrigue which gives us a peek into the nasty world of gangmasters and quasi-slave labour. Dolan’s characters are truly three-dimensional and she has created a world with shades of dark and light that had me turning the pages.

Happy reading, and my best to you for Christmas and 2016.


17 December 2015

 
Evil Unseen – Publication Date and Cover Reveal


Plans for the upcoming publication of the next Archer and Baines novel, Evil Unseen, continue apace, and it should be going on sale on Thursday 28 January. I have it back from my copy-editor and will be making the last lot of tweaks between now and the end of the year.

So watch this space for more details of the book’s launch. I’ll be announcing dates and venues for the promotional blog tour that will kick off on publication day, and details of the online launch party.

Meanwhile, it’s time to unveil the sensational cover my fabulous designer, Jessica Bell, has created for me. I love it and hope you will too.




09 December 2015

 
The Cat’s Out of the Bag!

 

Ever since Dead in Deep Water came out last year, did really well and boosted the sales of all my other books in the process, fans of Lizzie Archer and Dan Baines have been asking me when the next one is coming.

It's great as an author to have your next book being eagerly anticipated, but I’ve been careful not to make firm promises about publishing dates. One of the benefits of being an Indie author is that you don’t have to be a slave to the publisher’s deadlines. You can make sure your book is as good to go as you can make it before unleashing it on the world, and it’s a measure of control you surrender at your peril.

With Archer and Baines Book 3, it’s just as well I’ve adopted this policy, because writing this book hasn’t been my easiest experience. Writers talk about Second Book Hell – the pressure of producing a second novel that lives up to the promise of the first. That circle of hell didn’t happen to me with Dead in Deep Water. Maybe it kicked in on the third in the series precisely because it was that second book that exceeded my expectations by some distance.

Whatever the reasons, getting the book to the point where it’s gone through my wonderful beta readers – four of them this time! – had its final edits and polishes, and gone to the professional proofreader I’ve engaged, has taken way longer than I wanted, or could have imagined.

But, for me and for Archer and Baines fans, the waiting is almost over, and I am delighted to say that Evil Unseen will be available from Amazon in ebook and paperback early in the New Year. I should be confirming the actual publication date very soon.

The other thing about being an Indie author is you don’t just write the books. Behind the scenes, I’ve worked with my brilliant cover designer, Jessica Bell, whose amazing cover I'll be unveiling soon; chosen a proofreader; and set up a blog tour to promote the book. Watch out for the tour dates, and details of the online launch party, which I’ll be announcing shortly.

One of the things I know readers like about the series is finding out what happens next to the characters. Evil Unseen will see Archer and Baines tackle their toughest case yet, and will also herald some changes in their personal lives and professional relationship.

The other piece of good news is that I feel like I've really got my mojo back - I’ve already made a start on Book 4, and I’m really excited about it. I won’t tempt fate too much, but right now I’m hopeful that after Evil Unseen makes its appearance, the next book in the series won’t take quite so long to emerge.

My fingers are firmly crossed.


19 November 2015


Knowing Where the Bodies Are Buried

When any crime writer sits down to make a start on a new story, they know there will probably be a body or two (or more) somewhere down the line. What readers rightly want to find out – and will be trying to work out ahead of the sleuths – is who killed them, and why. Maybe how they did it, too, if that’s part of the mystery.

Those are key questions in any mystery. But where the body is found is also a significant ingredient of the story.

I first started thinking – really thinking – about this when I was looking, the way you do, for the right place to stash a body in the fourth Archer and Baines novel, which is still in its early stages. No spoilers here, but the plot structure demanded a particular set of circumstances around the discovery of this corpse. As it happened, I stumbled across just the right solution, although I then had to do a bit of research to make sure my scenario was plausible. But it got me thinking.

Say your story structure simply involves someone being murdered and their body being found soon afterwards. The killer might be able to simply leave the body where it fell and run off. But this depends on where the murder is. It could be somewhere linked to the killer, in which case they might want to move it.

Even then they could just dump it somewhere for the inevitable dog walker or jogger to come upon. This may be a cliché, but there was a serial killer case recently where the same dog walker discovered two of the bodies on separate occasions. The point is that here you have a body, it isn’t in any way hidden, and it will soon be found, so the protagonist can get on with solving the crime.

But what if the plot requires that the body isn’t discovered for a period of time? Maybe someone – not the killer, but an opportunist – has demanded and been paid a ransom for a missing person who is in fact already dead. You need the body to be found after the ransom is paid, but maybe not long afterwards.

Or maybe, as with the brilliant recent ITV mystery ‘Unforgotten’, the body needs to be found decades later, sparking a mystery that starts with ‘Whose bones are these?’ In the latter case, the opening scene reveals a body buried in a cellar and only discovered when the floor is taken up.

If the plot demands an interval between the killing and the discovery, some fine tuning will be needed. How long between the stashing of the body and its being found? What prevents it being discovered sooner? What ensures it won’t lie undiscovered forever? And what causes it to be found at the ‘right’ time?

The longer a body has lain buried, the more the evidence that can help with identification may have deteriorated. How significant is that to the story? What scientific principles will the author need to understand? Will a possible location make identification almost impossible, when the plot prefers it to be easy?

These are all reasons why the ‘right’ location can be so important and take some time - maybe some research, too - to decide upon.

In many murder mysteries, the finding of the body is just a necessity that kicks off the whole investigation. Sometimes the scene itself is a mystery that the writer has to solve.

So… where in your part of the world would make a great place to put a body?



7 October 2015


Here Be Dragons: Adventures in Bhutan


For quite a long time now, Chris and I have fancied visiting Bhutan, the small 'Dragon Kingdom' roughly between India and China, and we decided that 2015 was going to be the year.


Oh Kolkata!

The Cox & Kings tour we chose would normally go via Kathmandu, with a day in the city squeezed in before flying on to Bhutan, but the Nepalese earthquake has made the region unsafe for visitors; so instead we kicked off our holiday in Kolkata (Calcutta). We'd never visited India's old capital before, so it was still an exciting prospect.

Time zones, flight times, and a little matter of a three hour delay in Delhi, meant that we left home at 4pm on Sunday and touched down at Kolkata at around 7pm on Monday.

My first impression of the city as we drove to our hotel brought back many memories of India: everyone out and about after dark, all the shops open, a moveable feast in terms of numbers of traffic lanes and even direction of travel down a carriageway. Every form of transport imaginable. And lots of hooting. I mean, lots.

They have some 'no horn zones' in Kolkata. Naturally, no one takes any notice.



The next morning, we met the rest of our group - a lovely bunch - before embarking on our day in the city. This was pretty full-on, including the Motherhouse Convent where Mother Teresa lived - extraordinary to be reminded of the life she lived, and to see her tomb. Also St Paul's Cathedral, a 'potter's village’, where they make amazing life-sized idols for religious festivals, the Queen Victoria Memorial and museum, and a cruise on the river. Along the way, we saw a number of landmark buildings, several of them colonial.



            


Our dinner was in the wonderful Baat Thai at the Oberoi Grand, the finest Thai meal I have ever enjoyed and highly recommended if you ever find yourself in Kolkata.

 

Into the Dragon Kingdom

The following morning we departed for Paro in Bhutan. The journey to Kolkata airport was certainly entertaining, and the shortish flight was fine. Before we had even landed, I could see this was a beautiful country. It's very rural, with mountains and lush countryside. We headed for our hotel as schools were turning out, children immaculate in uniforms in keeping with traditional Bhutanese dress.


After settling into our rooms, there was enough time before dinner to pay a quick visit to Paro town, have a peek at some shops and discover a sublime cafe.

Paro was only a transitory stop, and the next morning we moved on to Thimpu, the capital of this 700,000-strong kingdom. Bhutan means 'Dragon Kingdom', 'Land of the Fire Dragon' and 'Land of High Mountains'. The latter is certainly true. The altitude means that, until you acclimatise, even a flight of stairs leaves you breathless.

Another feature of the country is that some of the big population centres have hoards of stray dogs, which sleep all day and bark all night, so earplugs are essential. There is surely a gap in the market for a day time dog waking service to reverse this behaviour.

Our first morning in Thimpu included a visit to the National Memorial Stupa, a monument to the third king, who died at just 49, leaving the kingdom to his then 16 year old son, who proved a successful leader, introduced democracy to the country, and then abdicated in favour of a new king for a new-style kingdom.

It's said that making three circuits around the stupa brings good luck; needless to say, I put it to the test and trust it will rub off on my books.

The afternoon saw the first of two visits to the annual Tschechu Festival, with huge crowds in their finery turning the main square into a stadium to watch a series of dances, each with its own religious significance and all performed exclusively by monks. We saw the Dance of the Stags and the Hounds (Shawo Schachi); dancers in knee length skirts and dog and stag masks represent the conversion of a hunter to Buddhism by the saint Jetsun Milarepa.




The next day kicked off with a visit to a 169 foot tall golden Buddha, still in construction and due to be closed to the public for two years the next day. It's beautiful and awesome and you can walk around inside, seeing the ornate pillars, other representations of Buddha and the necessities of religious celebration. There is a peaceful atmosphere you don't want to drag yourself away from.



We then returned to the festival, to see more dances from another vantage point. Most of our group expected it to be too much of a good thing, but we really got caught up in the carnival atmosphere, the noise, the colour and the spectacle.

Our afternoon included a visit to a nature reserve to see some animals, including Bhutan's national animal, the takin, and a trip to a simple monastery.


Carbs and Willies

By now, we were already appreciating that you don't visit Bhutan for the cuisine. Every lunch and dinner is a buffet, and invariably includes rice, noodles, chicken bone without much meat, and some vegetables. In theory, I would always rather have local fare than English food for tourists or Big Macs, but the same thing every single lunch and dinner - produced with varying degrees of skill - for ten days would make even the least committed foodie weep.

We had also been noticing that there are, frankly, willies everywhere you look. On sale in shops, in a variety of colours, some with smiley faces; on restaurant counters; as door handles; and on the corners of buildings. It seems these are primarily to ward off evil, and to encourage fertility.

    

Rough Riding

Our next day was simply intended as the first stage of a two-day journey east to Bumthang. This was going swimmingly until about an hour after lunch, when we found ourselves at the back of an incredibly long queue. We were on 'the main highway', inferior to a UK B road and with little in the way of surface (often dirt or deep mud), plenty in the way of roadworks, and a fair few sheer drops. The cause of the delay was a rock fall completely blocking the road. After a delay of some four hours, we were on our way again, with the same queue ahead of us, competing for space with a similar queue wanting to come the other way. An hour on, everything had stopped again, this time because enterprising road workers had seized the opportunity to dig up the road ahead while nothing was moving. We finally checked into our hotel in Gangtey at around 10pm.


    

Day two of the Bumthang jaunt was a long, just as bumpy, but less painful ride, broken early on by a visit to a local monastery with a charming parochial festival going on. In the afternoon we stopped at the impressive Taronga Dzong fortress, which now has both administrative and religious functions, before completing our journey at a reasonable time. Although these long, difficult journeys are not for the faint hearted, it gives a real insight into what the Bhutanese face in getting around their country. Our maître d in Thimpu's family are in Bumthang, so she has two days' travel - by bus - just to see them.

Retail Therapy

The next day dawned glorious, with minimal driving involved. We even managed a couple of what our guide called hikes and we called short strolls. Sights to be seen were a couple of interesting monasteries and the Jakar Dzong fortress, where we were lucky enough to be able to join in a blessing ceremony, which will assure us all of a long and happy life. We rounded off a thoroughly enjoyable day with free time in downtown Bumthang, where most of the ladies in the group managed to partake of some shopping.

Our next day was an early start for another very long road trip, to Punakha - but first we visited a superb arts and crafts centre, and were able to witness some yak wool weaving. It also afforded another shopping opportunity. The day also included another road block delay.
 

Dzongs and Madmen

Our full day in Punakha saw a relatively leisurely start. We visited the monastery dedicated to the 'divine madman' who started the interest in phallic symbols. People wanting to conceive children come here from all over the world with some success - there are photos of delighted families to prove it! In the grounds, monks were practicing their music skills. On the way to lunch, we dropped in at an art shop displaying and selling work by three young painters.

But the highlight of the day, and one of the showstoppers of the whole tour, was Punakha Dzong, built in 1637 to serve as the region's religious and administrative centre. It has been damaged by fire and earthquakes over the centuries, but been fully restored, and is stunning in every way - its sheer size, its architectural grandeur, its wall art and its gob smacking main temple, with countless statues of saints and deities.

We spent the next day heading back to Paro, stopping off en route in Thimpu again to visit the National Library and see the Guinness Book of Records 'World's Largest Book' (a coffee table book that would require a huge coffee table) and a chance to see more local crafts.

 

Eye of the Tiger

Our final day in Bhutan dawned bright and early for an eagerly awaited hike up to the Taktshang ('Tiger's Nest') monastery, which clings to the side of a mountain at some 10,000 feet above sea level. It's steep and relentless, the day was hot and humid and, to be honest, my minimum goal was to make the first of two lookout points - which I achieved and was rewarded with some great pictures. I did go on further, but know when not to push myself, especially at altitude. One of our group made it right to the monastery itself - hats off to you, Margaret!



We also visited Rinpung Dzong an a typical Bhutanese farmhouse, before a final chance to explore and shop in Paro. Our journey home was staged over three days, with overnights and lazy times in Kolkata and Delhi.

 

So would I recommend Bhutan?

Most definitely. The countryside is stunning, many of the sights spectacular, and it truly is what we westerners - perhaps rather patronisingly - think of as 'unspoilt'. The people are friendly and all have at least some basic English. And the money is easy to understand. One chhertum = one Indian rupee (also accepted) = one UK penny. So 100 chhertum = one UK pound.

The hotels we stayed in were clean and comfortable, but not up to UK standards, and some of the customer service we take for granted in the west is a work in progress in a developing tourism industry that is of great economic significance (only hydroelectric power brings in more revenue. The monotony of the diet, especially when it is poorly executed, makes you long for something different. And you can't see the country without travelling some considerable distances on appalling roads. But we had a whale of a time!

Now, where shall we go next?

PS. My holiday reading consisted of No Other Darkness by Sarah Hilary, I Let You Go by Claire Mackintosh, The Lie by CL Taylor and Lady's Slipper by Alison Gray. All were superb and are highly recommended. They were enthralling companions on my travels.


20 July 2015


Epic Weekend at Harrogate Crime Festival: 16-19 July 2015

 



My summer ‘festival season’ concluded at the annual Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate. Like Crimefest in Bristol, I went as a punter, and those two bigger events have nicely bookended the two smaller festivals in which I had an actual part to play.

I usually go to these events for any number of reasons, but there are three big constants: 1. No matter how many panels, interviews etc you attend on crime writing, there will always be some nuggets to take away and incorporate into your writing life; 2. Immersing yourself in the crime writing world can trigger the occasional real eureka moment where a solution to a problem with a work in progress suddenly becomes clear; and 3. For the people. I have collected so many lovely friends in the crime writing community over the years that one of the biggest challenges is spending as much quality time with all of them as I would like.


As always, I arrived in Harrogate in the late afternoon on the Thursday and got settled into my hotel room. Sniffing out accommodation this year has been especially tricky, as there was a lot going on in the town over the weekend. I wound up taking a weekend ticket including a weekend pass for the festival and three nights in the White Hart hotel, which I’d not tried before and will be returning to. A pleasant, comfortable room, lovely, helpful staff and decent food. The only fault I could find was a serious dearth of any jam other than raspberry at breakfast, which was more than compensated for by the staff’s ability to scavenge some strawberry for me on request.


The Thursday night’s events included the announcement of the winner of the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award – and I was absolutely thrilled that this year it was won by my good friend Sarah Hilary, richly deserved for her stunning debut, Someone Else’s Skin. I bumped into her first thing on the Friday morning and it was great to see her still taking in what she had achieved and pinching herself.


 

And so the programme kicked off on Friday morning with Sara Paretsky in conversation with Val McDermid, a spellbinding start to a weekend of events of which this year’s Festival Chair, Ann Cleeves, should be proud. The chemistry between the creators of VI Warshawski, and Tony Hill and CarolJordan, was absorbing and very funny.


I’ve long since learned to balance attending events with a bit of socialising and a bit of getting out of the hotel into Harrogate. Even so, if I gave a detailed account of every panel I attended, it would be getting dark outside and you’d be thinking about your bedtime hot chocolate. So, with respect to some other great events, with fabulous authors, here are my highlights…

 

‘Your Perfect Match’ was moderated by David Mark, and the panel included - as well as novelists Isabelle Grey, Anya Lipska and James Oswald - librarian James Bain from Orkney Library, which boasts 18.9k Twitter followers. Hearing how readers looking for new material can find just what they’re looking for gave us writers new insights into promoting our work in a fast-changing literary world.


US novelist Lisa Gardner in conversation with Ann Cleeves was absorbing and entertaining, with the two authors drawing each other out so that it was impossible to decide who was interviewing who. We heard about Lisa’s formidable research efforts, including a visit to the not-for-the-squeamish Body Farm, as well as Ann’s involvement in the TV adaptations of the Vera and Shetland novels.


The New Blood panel is always an exciting opportunity to hear from the latest newcomers, and Renee Knight, Clare Mackintosh, Ben McPherson and Lucy Ribchester, moderated by Val McDermid, added more novels to my ever-growing ‘must read’ list.


A real tour de force was another conversation piece – this time it was BBC Breakfast’s Steph McGovern talking to Paul Abbott, the writer behind TV masterpieces such as Shameless, Touching Evil, State of Play, Cracker and most recently No Offence. His back story alone is astonishing, and his workload – seven projects currently on the go – stupefying. You really wonder if and when he sleeps.


Of course, the spaces in between attending sessions were filled by serious, professional networking. Here I am with Leigh Russell and Rebecca Bradley, hoping someone will furnish impoverished writers with three straws for our one cup of tea; with Cath Staincliffe; and hard at work in Betty’s with Rebecca Bradley, Rosie Claverton and Bob Barker. I was forced to make this second visit to the iconic tea rooms after the previous day’s shock of them running out of scones.




 

 

 

I swore to pace myself this year, but that seemed to involve staying up later and later each night. Thanks to so many friends, old and new, for their company - and apologies to the lovely Steph McGovern, who had to buy the drinks after the festival hotel finished serving non-residents. My round next time, Steph.  

My thanks again to Anne Cleeves, the festival committee and volunteers and all the participants for making it such a great festival weekend. 



2 July 2015

 

The Days Were Just Packed: How I Spent June 2015

This post reminds me a bit of those ‘How I spent the summer holidays’ essays we had to do at school. But June 2015 has been a month or work and holidays – and my holidays never consist of lazing on a beach – so I’ve not blogged for a while. Ideally, I might have done a post on the pleasure of having my books out in paperback, another on my first book festival as an invited panellist, one on my action-packed holiday in the West Country, and a fourth on the latest BeaconLit festival, right on my doorstep, where I am heavily involved in the organisation.

 It hasn’t worked out that way, so I’ll accept a slapped wrist and cover the whole month in a single post. It’s been quite a month!

Paperbacks!

When I first started self-publishing eBooks in August 2011, my delight at being able to get books I believed in onto the market, at having complete control over the process, and having people actually buy the things, was pretty satisfying. 18 months later, the first Archer & Baines novel did quite well, and the publication of the second in the series last summer saw sales of all my titles snowballing. Dead in Deep Water hung out for a few weeks at number 2 in the Kindle Serial Killers chart and The Scars Beneath the Soul reached number 3.

I was perfectly happy with my books in Kindle form, but people who prefer a physical book kept asking about a print version; and then an invitation to appear at a small literary festival in Norfolk made me realise I would be the only one on the panel without books to sign.

Two things had tended to put me off self-publishing in print. One was getting my head round the formatting, and especially the cover design. The other was the financial viability of a paperback after production costs had been met.

The solution lay in Amazon’s print on demand service, CreateSpace. With a lot of hand holding by my good and patient friend, Chris Longmuir, I found the formatting relatively straightforward, and the maths showed that I could set a competitive price and still receive a fair royalty.

I’ve blogged before about how I found my brilliant cover designer, Jessica Bell.

The books arrived, first as proof copies, then as boxes of ‘author copies’, towards the end of May. I was ready for my festival; and I found that holding your own real, live book in your hand is something very special. They look and feel beautiful. And they arrived just in time to offer the very first signed copies in an ‘Authors for Nepal’ auction.


 


Mulbarton Words Week

 

So, with just over a week to spare, I had paperbacks to take to my gig in Norfolk.

The day before the event, I popped over to Leicestershire to help my friend, Jane Isaac, celebrate the launch of her new book, Before It’s Too Late, which I am currently reading and highly recommend. The cake below was delicious!


 

Mulbarton Words Week has a similar small community feel to my own local festival, BeaconLit, but the events are spread over a week rather than squeeze them into a single day.

I appeared on a crime fiction panel with Cambridge-based authors Alison Bruce, Penny Hancock and Kate Rhodes. Alison had tipped the organisers off that I have form for moderating panels, so I was asking the questions as well as supplying my share of the answers.

 

    


The audience were engaging and welcoming, and for the first time I found out how it feels to have someone approach you with a copy of your book and ask you to sign it for them.

 It feels pretty special.

 



Into the West

Less than a week later, we set off for a much needed break. The main purpose was to join a group for the weekend visiting ancient sites such as stone circles and Iron Age settlements, but it’s quite a jaunt to West Cornwall, so we decided to make a week of it and hired a cottage. We also departed a day early, breaking our journey at Bath, where we enjoyed tea in the Pump Room, a potter round the city’s more interesting shops, and then dinner, bed and breakfast at the lovely Bath Priory Hotel.

Our cottage in Cornwall was near St Just, a stone’s throw from Land’s End. Purpose built and modern, it is in the middle of nowhere. Rejoining civilisation is via an entirely bland T-junction, which gave every venturing out an invigorating Russian-roulette feel.

The ancient sites weekend, ably led by John and Jill Moss, was fascinating, and great fun too, with stories of giants and other legends over Saturday night dinner.

 

The rest of our stay was a real mini-holiday and included visits to St Michael’s Mount, St Ives, Mousehole, and some splendid gardens.


      

 

BeaconLit 2015

No sooner were we back than we were plunged into the final preparations for our local festival of books and writing, BeaconLit. It was the third outing for a great little festival, and this year I moderated two panels: New Voices, with hot first time novelists, and Real Game of Thrones, with three great historical fiction authors. It was a successful day, enjoyed by authors and audience alike, and I also did a few more of those book signings!

 

   


Being on the festival committee, means the glamour of the event itself is balanced out by a lot of graft setting up the venue and then taking everything down again. But all the positive feedback makes it worthwhile.

 July looks quieter. Well, apart from the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival…


26 June 2015


Kicking off my Festival Season at Crimefest

I’ve been a books and writing festivals attender for over ten years now. More recently I’ve had a part to play in some smaller gigs, but there are some big crime writing events I regularly go to just to soak up the atmosphere, listen to the authors, meet up with old mates and, more often than not, make a few new ones.

This year I’ve had four events lined up for my ‘festival season’, kicking off in Bristol with Crimefest just over a week ago. It’s a festival that grows year on year but somehow manages to retain its charm and accessibility. Crime writers and fans are passionately enthusiastic about their genre, and we could talk – and listen to others talk – about it all day.

As is my routine, I left home on day one – a Thursday – and arrived with time to get into my hotel room, dump my bag, and walk round the corner to the Bristol Marriott, where Crimefest was happening. As always, Fiona, who sells coffee and cookies, was set up for business, so that was lunch sorted before the first session – one of a number of ‘fresh blood’ panels, this one including my good friend Susi (S J I) Holliday.

I’ll not give you a blow by blow account of every panel and talk I went to, but my highlights were:

·         A number of ‘in the spotlight’ sessions – 20 minute bites in the form of talks rather than discussions. I especially enjoyed Rosie Claverton talking about ‘criminal insanity, Emma Kavanagh on psychology and firearms policing, and Tom Callaghan on ‘a sense of place’ – that place being Kyrgyzstan, the setting of his debut novel.

·         A lively discussion on what constitutes a psychopath and how many of them are walking amongst us doing scarily high-powered jobs rather than chopping people up.

·        
A refreshing dialogue about ‘crime in the city or countryside’ that didn’t make the usual gritty vs cosy distinctions.

·        
‘Things that go Bump’ – looking at crime with a supernatural element, and easily the funniest event of the weekend.

·        
‘Emerging Indie Voices’ – for the second year running a chance for successful self-published authors to talk about the benefits of not being tied to a big publishing house or having to go through an agent to get their work out there. As an indie author myself, I was keen to pick up some new tips as well as supporting a panel that included friends Chris Longmuir, Joanna (J F) Penn and Jill (J J) Marsh.

From Thursday lunchtime to Sunday lunchtime, it could have been non-stop panels and other sessions, but I have long since learned to take some time out to give my brain a rest!

Best of all, though, I got to meet up with old friends from previous festivals; hook up with people I’ve met online; and make some new friends in the coffee queue, in the bar, or in between sessions. It’s amazing and heart warming how your circle grows year on year.


   

      

If you’re going to any festivals this year, whether as an old hand or a newbie, I hope you enjoy the event and find time to have some fun. And if you happen to find yourself at Mulbarton Words Week in Norfolk for the crime panel, at BeaconLit in Bucks or at the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Festival in Harrogate, do say hello!


7 April 2015


Cover Story

I’ve currently got more reasons to be excited than you can shake the proverbial stick at, and they are all interlinked.

In June I will be appearing at two literary festivals. I’ll be moderating some panels at BeaconLit, in my own backyard, again; but I’ve also been invited to join Alison Bruce, Penny Hancock and Kate Rhodes on a crime fiction panel at Mulbarton Words week in Norfolk – my debut as an invited  panel member (as opposed to moderator at an event I help to run).

That’s pretty exciting in itself. But it made me realise I need to finally bite the bullet and organise print editions of the first two Archer and Baines novels – The Scars Beneath the Soul and Dead in Deep Water. So far all my titles have only been available as eBook, but you can’t really be part of a festival and not have physical books available to sell and sign.

So I’ve mugged up on the CreateSpace print on demand service with help from my very good friend Chris Longmuir, and I’ve earmarked some time to put the text of the books in the required format.

But they will require proper paperback covers – a back and a spine, as well as the front cover image needed for an eBook.

I created the original eBook covers for the two books myself, using images from the Chilterns, where the books are set. I thought they were okay, and had even received some nice feedback, but to be honest I’d always felt they lacked a bit of wow. Faced with the need to get my head round a complete paperback cover – let alone finding the time – decided me that it was time to invest in some outside expertise and take the opportunity to upgrade and rebrand the covers at the same time.

I like being an independent author, and I always advise people considering taking the indie route not to pay others to do things they can do themselves, but to be honest about the extent of their own skillset. Now it was time to heed my own advice. But where to find the right designer?

I am a member of the excellent Alliance of Independent Authors, and they have a members-only forum on Facebook, so I started there, seeking recommendations. And, because writers are such lovely, generous people, the suggestions poured in. I checked them all out and it was clear from her portfolio that Jessica Carmen Bell – who had received a lot of plugs in answer to my request – looked to have just the style I was looking for.

I made a great choice. I am so lucky to have Jessica on my team. She completely got what I was looking for – a clear, corporate brand for the series, with each cover conveying something of the essence of the book. We worked as a team, with me providing an outline of each title and my own thoughts about what might be on the covers, and Jessica applying her creativity to produce a selection of mock-ups for each book. She has been happy to respond to suggestions for tweaks, and to come up with additional ideas if needed. The stunning results are below.


            


I now have two superb, professional and eyecatching covers, which received a literal flood of compliments from friends, fans and fellow writers when I unveiled them on Twitter and Facebook. What’s more, I also have the cover for book three up my sleeve for when that is published later in the year. I’m not going to hex the book by revealing the cover or the title yet, but Jessica has done yet another amazing job and I can’t wait to share it.

So… festivals to look forward to, print books in the pipeline, shiny new covers, and book three well on the way. As I said at the start of this post, a LOT to be excited about. It’s going to be a very busy summer!


19 February 2015

 

Why Place is Important

In one of my very early blog posts, I talked a little about how the Archer and Baines novels had come about, and why – partly out of cussedness – I had wanted to set a crime fiction series in my local area of Aylesbury Vale, rather than a gritty city. I know the area and, although it’s certainly pretty rural overall, I didn’t subscribe to the notion that it thus had to be the home of cosy crime.


Place is important. Where a story takes place inevitably shapes its feel, and even constrains what is able to happen within the tale. Stephen Booth and Peter May are examples of authors who take the rural setting and produce dark and gritty crime fiction unique to its setting and, if I needed proof that these characteristics only exist in concrete jungles, writers like these point the way.


But I also wanted to give my corner of the Chilterns a place on the crime fiction map. I’ve enjoyed introducing readers to the collection of market towns and villages that, between them, offer more variety of location – and arguably more scope – for a series of stories.


I can have the claustrophobia of a small community in turmoil, or a serial killer ranging more widely. I can have urban noir-ish plots in a big town like Aylesbury, or something nasty amongst the allotments. And the close proximity of Archer’s and Baines’s part of Buckinghamshire both Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire also allows me to create jurisdictional tensions.


The Vale of the books is not a carbon copy or the real thing, and I’ve especially enjoyed seeing local readers reviewing the first two books and spotting (or thinking they spot) the villages that my fictitious ones are loosely based on. But more recently I’ve been thinking that readers who are not from Around Here might be interested in knowing more about the place that the stories are set, so I’ve been spending a little bit of time creating an Aylesbury Vale page on my website. You can see it by clicking the tab at the top of the screen.


The page is in its infancy. I plan to include more details and pictures as time goes on, and I hope it will give readers who like the Archer and Baines stories an extra little dimension.


Whether you’re a writer or a reader, how important is place to you? Is it just a magnolia backdrop for the characters to perform against? Or is the landscape an ingredient in the story that compliments the characters and the plot? 


04 February 2015

Lovely Blog Award



My friend and fellow crime writer, Alison Gray (
https://thrillerandcrime.wordpress.com/author/alisonmgray/), has kindly nominated me for the Lovely Blog award. The rules are simple: write seven facts about yourself, then link to up to 15 of your favourite blogs and ask them to do the same.

In common with others who have taken up the challenge, I’ve tried to come up with facts people may not know about me, So here goes:

Fact #1: Dave, not David.

No one – not even my parents, not even when I’ve annoyed them – has called me David since I left primary school, and I’ve grown out of the name to such an extent that it really has nothing to do with me any more. I always introduce myself as Dave and, if someone then starts calling me David, I will politely correct them.

Fact #2: It rhymes with Rivers.

Ah, the downside of a surname like mine. You see it written down, and you’re not sure how to pronounce it. Or you’re convinced I can’t spell my own name and it must surely be Silvers.

Well, as with the Christmas carol, it’s a case of No ‘L’. But I can’t blame folk for being confused about the pronunciation. It’s the weirdness of the English Language. For example, why is Sean Bean pronounced ‘Shawn Been’, and not either ‘Shawn Bawn’ or ‘Seen Been’?

So, just to clear it up, Sivers rhymes with Rivers – and absolutely not with Fivers.

Fact #3: Too many allergies.

As a kid I had hay fever, which my mum thought for ages was a propensity for ‘summer colds’. As I’ve got older, the list of allergies has got longer. I get hay fever-like symptoms if I eat raw apples or good quality dark chocolate (not enough to keep me from the latter, though). I have problems with some, but not all, birds, dogs, cats etc.

But I am in real trouble if I’m around horses or eat melon, of all things, and need to avoid them at all times.

Fact #4: I’ve been jackstay transferred between ships and winched into a helicopter.

During my civil service career, I was lucky to get to some interesting places and do some exciting things. On one occasion I spent a day with the Royal Navy. We were flown out to a warship in a helicopter that landed on the deck, then, after a tour, we were transferred by jackstay – basically a harness on a wire – to a Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) vessel. I still remember being instructed to raise my legs so as they didn’t catch on the RFA’s rail, then immediately lower them so that someone would catch me – otherwise I’d carry on until I smashed into the ship’s superstructure.

The helicopter couldn’t land on the RFA, so we were winched up for the flight back to Portland. I still have a photo of me and colleagues, in full flying kit, in my office.

Fact #5: I once sang the part of Sir Joseph Porter KCB, from ‘HMS Pinafore’ in a Gilbert and Sullivan concert.

Fact #6: I wrote my first book when I was six.

But don’t imagine I was a child prodigy. I had discovered a series of books featuring Mr Twink, a cat detective, whose sidekick was a rather dim police dog called, amazingly, Sergeant Boffer. They solved various animal mysteries, and I enjoyed them, so naturally I nicked the concept and one of the plots and wrote and illustrated my own book, casting my very own puppy in the detective role. Fortunately, I never submitted them for publication, and I’ve since learned that plagiarism is best avoided.

Fact #7: My first piece of published fiction was in Take a Break magazine under the pen name ‘Melanie Blake’.

I was trying all different sorts of writing at the time, but wanted a separate persona for women’s magazine fiction. I also submitted as Jessica Staunton, but only Melanie struck gold.

I’m now passing the Lovely Blog award on to:

Jane Isaac (http://www.janeisaac.co.uk/blog/)

Evonne Wareham (http://evonneonwednesday.blogspot.co.uk/)

Sue Nicholls. (http://www.suenicholls.com/)
If you choose to take part, do link back to me, share your seven facts, and pass the baton on to up to 15 other bloggers.


17 October 2014


On the Trail of the Lonesome Pine


This is the third of my trilogy of posts about our recent trip to the USA and covers our time in Virginia.

Throughout our latest American adventure, various songs ran through my head synonymous with where we were. In Virginia, there was a fair bit of John Denver going on, but also the Laurel and Hardy song that is the title of this post. I can’t help what my subconscious dredges up…


SHENANDOAH NATIONAL PARK
 

We said our farewells to Gettysburg in particular and Pennsylvania in general and set off for Shenandoah (another song) National Park – but making a little detail to take in the Mountain Heritage Arts & Crafts Festival in Jefferson County, West Virginia. Chris, who did most of the research for this trip, had spotted this event, which featured some 200 stalls, selling high quality items of every art or craft you could wish for. It was well organised and – best of all – there was superb live bluegrass music throughout the day to enjoy.

Having thoroughly art and crafted ourselves, we got back on route and made for the amazing Skyline drive in Shenandoah National Park. This immaculate 105-mile road through gobsmacking scenery has 75 ‘overlooks’ and is a joy to drive. The Blue Ridge Mountains really do have a blue ridge.

We were staying three nights in the sprawling Skyline Resort. It’s a little rustic compared to the hotels and B&Bs we stayed in on the trip, but is a good setup. Our timber chalet was comfortable, the lady in the coffee shop was wonderful, and we met some nice people, including several Brits. The resort loses marks on its restaurant, which twice served us cold food and perhaps suffers from lack of competition.

Our first night showed us the most amazing sunset, and although we were higher up here, I was never really cold. Being at the resort for two full days meant we were able to take three ranger-led hikes – not very demanding ones, to be honest, but with plenty of stops for information about the geology of the area, the wildlife, and even the different nicknames for various types of hiker. One walk was to the summit of Stony Man, which does resemble a man lying down.


     


We were taught the protocol when encountering black bears. 100 yards is reckoned to be a safe distance. Any closer - don’t run as (a) they have a chase instinct and (b) they will catch you. Instead, wave your arms about and make lots of noise. The theory is that they will probably not have encountered this before and, rather than risk it being a danger, they will go away. Sadly (or fortunately) this little fellow was the only black bear we met.

 


Our time in the National Park was relaxing after all the frenetic sightseeing, and in a way we were a little sorry to move on. Next stop was Charlottesville. Here we stayed at Prospect Hill, a former plantation house where guests stay in what were once slave quarters.


 

The B&B had just taken on a new chef with a view to opening its restaurant more frequently, with a serious menu – instead of just a set meal at the weekend. We were lucky enough to arrive on the first day they tried this. I’m not sure what they did about publicity, or maybe they wanted to start low-key and iron out any wrinkles – but it wasn’t well attended. Those of us who gave it a go enjoyed a real treat. If you’re ever in the area, check out the dining at http://www.prospecthill.com/restaurant.htm.


The next day we headed for Monticello, designed and built by Thomas Jefferson, an American Founding Father, the main author of the Declaration of Independence and the third US President. He was clearly an extraordinary man – a visionary and inventor with an ever-inquiring mind and fertile imagination.


 

We took the house tour, the garden tour and the slave tour, which gave us a real feel for the site. The house, which is gorgeous, reflects the man, yet he was a contradictory figure in at least one way: he could not square the keeping of slaves with a just and fair society, yet at the same time could not see how the US economy could continue to thrive if the slaves were freed. As a consequence, not only did he kick the issue into the long grass during his presidency, but he himself owned over 100 human beings, only a handful of whom were ever freed by him.

The following day we left Charlottesville and headed for our final stop, Williamsburg; but we stopped on the way to spend much of the day in Historic Jamestown, a living museum on the site of England’s first colony in America. It was established by the Virginia Company of London in 1607 and briefly enjoyed good relations with native tribes (Pocahontas was a daughter of one of the main tribal chiefs), but that didn’t last long.. The early arrivals struggled for survival, battling disease and starvation, and the settlement ceased to exist in 1699.




The site has been recreated with Native American village and a reconstruction of the fort and buildings inside it, including the church. We had various guides, and were treated to an interesting version of English History: for example, did you know that Philip of Spain was King of England by virtue of marrying Queen Mary? Or that Henry VIII’s son, Edward VI, died not of syphilis but of TB? We were models of restraint in the face of these mangled facts.

The highlight of the visit had to be the life-sized reconstructions of the ships that brought the first colonists over in 1607. They are rather lovely, but you also realise how small they were in relation to the numbers living on board.




 

Dodgy history aside, it was a fun and absorbing day out, and not too far from our hotel in Williamsburg, where we enjoyed a room service dinner

So our full day in Williamsburg – the last day of our holiday - dawned, with bright, warm weather. Historic Jamestown is a reconstruction of a small settlement. Colonial Williamsburg reconstructs a whole city centre as it was in the time of the Revolution. Shopkeepers and guides wear period costume and partly act in character and there is much to see. But before we started to investigate the historic areas, we toured a busy market selling arts and crafts and produce.



The colonial area itself is all gorgeous architecture and a host of interesting houses and shops. In the afternoon, there was also a complete ‘revolution in the air’ pageant, with news of General Washington’s victories, harsh treatment for a deserter from the rebel army, a marching band, artillery and a visit from the French General Lafayette, who made a pompous but, I suppose, rousing speech. As with Jamestown and all the historic sites we visited, everything was exceedingly well done and added to what by now was a stuffed mental attic of memories.

 
    


A fine dinner in our hotel’s smart restaurant, and then we were packing for the drive to Dulles Airport, Washington and our flight home.

It was probably the longest drive of our whole holiday, so we were keen to break the journey. Chris had noted Wegman’s Market Café and Seafood Bar, #1 on Tripadvisor for Fredericksburg. When we arrived in the massive parking lot, Wegman’s turned out to be a ginormous supermarket, and I started having my doubts. But we ventured inside and after wandering around for a bit, thinking it was all a terrible mix-up, we stumbled upon a sizeable bar in the middle of the building, where you could perch on a stool and have lovely food prepared and served to you. Chowder, lump crab cakes and an American take on bread and butter pudding, all delicious – one of our best meals of the entire trip.

With that final happy memory locked away, we completed the drive to Dulles where, alas, Hertz embarrassed themselves again with a chaotic system for dropping the cars off. Why simply park and drop off the keys, when you can instead be ushered into a line, with no information on what is going on, and wait around mystified until a little guy in a waistcoat of invincibility ambles along with a tablet, grabs whatever data he needs, gives you a receipt, and shuffles on to the next car?

The flight home was pain-free, and I watched and enjoyed ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ to help pass the time.

So that’s it. We crammed an awful lot into the three weeks of our fabulous US holiday and, as always, joked that we’d come home for a rest. Time to start planning the next one!

29 October 2014

 

Pennsylvania Six Five Oh Oh Oh


I know, I know – odd name for a blog post, but I remember seeing a biopic about the band leader Glenn Miller, starring the late, great James Stewart. One of the songs was ‘Pennsylvania 65000’ and the band would call this alleged phone number out between chunks of music. Once, to mix it up, they say ‘Oh Oh Oh’ instead of ‘thousand’.


See, one paragraph in, and I’m rambling already. Why am I telling you this? Ah, yes. Because (a) Pennsylvania was the second leg of our recent American holiday; and (b) whenever anyone says ‘Pennsylvania’ to me, ‘Six Five Oh Oh Oh’ immediately pops into what I laughingly call my mind.


Best I move on, and swiftly. Last time I wrote about our visit to New York. After all that street-pounding amid the crowds and crush, we took the Amtrak to Philadelphia for a change of pace and the start of a mini-tour of Pennsylvania.


Day One


Architecturally, Philadelphia’s historic centre is gorgeous, full of elegant charm. As soon as we’d settled into our hotel, we set off for the Barnes Foundation, where we had pre-booked timed tickets. It’s an impressive building which houses one of the finest collections of Post-Impressionist and early Modernist paintings, including artists such as Renoir, Cezanne and Matisse. We were especially blown away by the Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani, who had somehow escaped our notice before and whose distinctive style of portraiture is very classy.


Our first evening in Philly was spent at the City Tavern, a hub in the 18th Century for meeting, drinking, eating and talking revolution. I’m afraid the serving staff wear period costume, but at least they don’t pretend it really is the 1700s, and the food is what we’d call decent pub grub here.


Day Two


The following day, we hit the historic trail in earnest, seeing, among other things, Independence Hall and the Constitution Centre. It was fascinating to see where the Declaration of Independence was actually signed and to hear some of the stories. Example: Thomas Jefferson is credited with drafting the declaration – but did you know that his draft read, “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable, that all men are created equal…”. It was Philly’s favourite son, Benjamin Franklin, who changed ‘sacred and undeniable’ to the much more powerful ‘self-evident’.

    

 
The Constitution Centre is a museum all about the constitution and looks at the movement towards more equality over the centuries. You can have your picture taken being sworn in as President, with all the past presidents looking on, and do a lot of other interactive things.

It was a busy day that also took in some cool historic buildings and the former home of Betsy Ross, who is claimed to have been commissioned to design and sew the first US flag, although a quick web search suggests that there may be a degree of popular mythology in her story.


Day Three




 

Next day, we beat the queues to see the Liberty Bell before breakfast and went to the Hertz desk at the Marriott hotel to pick up our rental car. Suffice to say, this was the most disappointing part of our whole holiday, with a vehicle that had been booked months in advance rolling up an hour and 20 minutes late, but we were on our way to Lancaster by midday.

 
The attraction of Lancaster is that it is in Amish country, and we had booked an Amish house and farm tour. If you’ve seen the Harrison Ford film, ‘Witness’, you’ll know what we expected to see, and we weren’t disappointed – men and boys in straw hats, women and girls in bonnets and aprons, horse drawn buggies and ploughs, and spectacular farmland. But we picked up some fascinating facts, too.


The Amish are known as ‘Pennsylvania Dutch’. Why? Well, not because they originated from The Netherlands. They came from Germany and still speak a German dialect amongst themselves. But, when first asked where they were from, they said they were ‘Deutsch’, and people just assumed the word was ‘Dutch’ in English, and not ‘German’ in German.


We heard interesting stories about how the Amish are moving with the times but staying true to their beliefs. Do they use electricity? Sure – but supplied by generators or car batteries, so that they do not connect to the grid and thus the wider world. The same principle informs a fascinating debate that is live now. Whilst most of the West is hell-bent on getting people out of their cars and onto bikes, the Amish bishops are wrestling with whether people should be allowed to add bikes to transport options that include, not only horse power, but also adult-sized versions of kids’ scooters. These things have wheels almost the size of bicycle wheels, but there is only so far that scoot-power will get you. The concern is that pedal-power has much greater range and may encourage people to travel out of the community and into the wider world.

      


We stayed at King’s Cottage Bed and Breakfast (http://www.kingscottagebb.com/), a little outside Lancaster’s main drag, and were well looked after by Janice and Ann. Both nights we were there, we dined at a bistro just a couple of miles away.


Day Four




This was the only day of our holiday when it seriously rained, but it contrived to do so while we were checking out a couple of the county’s charming old ‘covered bridges’. Our real destination for the day was the Amish village of Intercourse, a business hub, but also a touist attraction. It is literally awash with Amish craft shops, and you can actually buy tee-shirts and baseball caps with ‘I Heart Intercourse’ on them – try wearing that in the UK and see where it gets you.


The thing is, we knew it was a tourist trap, but we didn’t much care. It was a fun day, ambling around the shops and stopping to enjoy some of the best ice cream we had ever tasted. You do have to beware, though – it’s tempting to blow a month’s income on things that look great at the time, but which you’ll find no place for in your home once you’ve lugged them back.


Day Five


We woke to the realisation that our US holiday was already halfway through. Today we were headed on to Gettysburg, but this was a Friday, the day when a huge indoor food market opens in downtown Lancaster. We wanted to see it; and what’s more, we had eaten out for ten nights now and – churlish though it may seem – you can have too much of a good thing. So we spent time taking in the sights and the smells and purchasing bread, pate, cheese, olives, muffins, a bottle of wine and a few other things besides for a picnic in our room.

We arrived in Gettysburg mid-afternoon-ish. Here we were staying at The Inn at Lincoln Square (http://www.innatlincolnsquare.com/index.php), smack in the heart of things.  We were met by the wonderful and tireless Jeannine, a self-confessed one-woman-show, who insisted she was at our beck and call 24/7. Our room had a washing machine, but as soon as we expressed an intention to use it, she insisted that we had better things to do with our vacation time and that she would do our laundry for us. A lovely lady and a real star.

There was allegedly a guided walking tour starting out from the hotel across the road, which we decided to join, but the hotel reception knew nothing of it and no guide showed up. Undaunted, we went for a stroll.

There is much to admire about Gettysburg. It is of course the scene of arguably the turning point battle in the American Civil war, in which almost 8,000 died and some 27,000 more were wounded – the bloodiest battle of the conflict. The war cemetery is the scene of Lincoln’s iconic Gettysburg Address, so the place is steeped in history. Every beautiful clapboard house has its own civil war story: the shells still embedded in the walls, the bullet holes, the posters in the windows telling of the remarkable women who were living there at the time. So many dwellings became makeshift hospitals, caring for wounded Union and Confederate soldiers alike.

Yet, it’s fair to say, there’s a generous helping of bonkersness too. There are lots of slightly strange ‘museums’, and shops selling ‘civil war’ stuff that presumably sell enough tat to make it worthwhile.

And Ghost Tours. Dear God, if you want ghost tours, this is the place for you. Judging by the posters, there are so many that they must all keep bumping into each other. Every place we visited has its ghost tours, and I know we have them in the UK, but this felt like the world ghost tour capital.


Day Six


We drove to the Visitor Centre for the Gettysburg National Military Park to start a full-on day dedicated to the battle of Gettysburg. There was an informative film to watch, ‘A New Birth of Freedom’, followed by a visit to the astonishing ‘Cyclorama’ painting of the battle by the French artist Paul Philippoteaux. It measures 377 feet in circumference and 42 feet high, and the viewer stands in the middle of it with a canopy overhead. Stone walls, broken wheels and a cannon are amongst the ‘real items’ in the foreground that, taken with trompe l’oeil  effects, draw you in and make it hard to be sure where reality leaves off and painting begins.


 
A commentary, plus light and sound effects bring the work to life.

Next up was a guided bus tour of the battlefield. It was very well done, stopping at strategic points to be told what happened next. I won’t spoil it/bore you. Suffice to say, the Confederate commander, Robert E Lee, was winning the battles, but losing too many men in the process to win the war. He hit on a daring plan to take the fight to the Union, acquire much-needed supplies from the rich Pennsylvania farmland, and strike fear of invasion into Northern hearts.


Depending on which account you read, either Lee’s plan was a tactical disaster, or he was undone by mistakes made by a couple of his generals who took it into their heads to think for themselves.

The tour is not just for Civil War nerds and is accessible to anyone with a general interest in history and how great events unfold. Along the way, we saw monuments to every regiment on either side that took part – and there was a bonus for me. We passed a statue of Lee and, at the next stop, I asked the guide to repeat the sculptor’s name: Frederick William Sievers. The surname is an alternative spelling of my own and there is a good chance that he fits into my family tree somewhere (I mentioned in my New York blog that there are only two Sivers families in the whole of the UK). Best of all, Frederick is my dad’s name!


    

Back at the Visitor Centre, we took in the fascinating museum dedicated to the Civil War and a nation divided over what freedom means.

Back at our room, the wonderful Jeannine had done our laundry, and we found a map with a self-guided walking tour of the city; so we decided to pound the streets one more time. It was interesting, with lots of information available, and we had another bonus – a lively Celtic music concert on the steps of the Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church.

And so our time in Pennsylvania was all but over. We had a week of holiday left, and our one fear was that the time would fly like an eyeblink. We liked Pennsylvania a lot, not least because there was so much variety to enjoy.

Tomorrow, we would be heading off to Virginia, which will be the subject of my next post.

13 October 2014

 
New York, New York


     

I’ve been quieter than usual for the past few weeks. We arrived home less than a week ago from three fabulous weeks in the USA, took a couple of days getting over the jet lag, and a couple more getting back on top of life, including some writing jobs that couldn’t wait.

Now I’m back on what laughingly passes for an even keel, and eager to share my memories of a brilliant holiday.

This was our third trip across the pond, having taken in New England in 1989 and the Deep South ten years ago. We’d been talking about a serious visit to New York for ages, and decided that this was the year. Once that decision was made, we didn’t want to go all that way for a short holiday when a longer one would do.

Sooo… we decided to combine our visit to the Big Apple with mini-tours of Pennsylvania and Virginia. And what a lot we crammed in!

We’ve been to Jamestown, a British colony in America long before the Pilgrim Fathers set sail; spent a day in colonial Williamsburg, catching a whiff of the revolutionary spirit; seen where the Declaration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia; visited the Monicello home of President Thomas Jefferson, who was opposed to slavery yet kept over 100 slaves; toured the battlefield at Gettysburg, where a pivotal and bloody part of the Civil War played out; been up close and personal with the Statue of Liberty, the icon that told the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning  to breathe free that they had reached America; and we've discovered what their experience was really like on Ellis Island, where they were processed on arrival. We've stood at the 9/11 Memorial, a reminder of one of the darkest days in the USA's history.

We’ve also spent time amongst the Amish people, experienced the bustle and glitz of New York, fallen in love with the splendour of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the tranquillity of Shenandoah National Park… and more besides.

If I attempted to fit everything into a single blog post, (a) I’d never get it out, and (b) I’d be like the most boring of buggers who show you all their thousands of holiday snaps in one toe-curling evening. But I do want to share the highlights with you, so if you’re still reading, my plan is to spread the narrative over three posts, kicking off with New York.

We arrived at our hotel in the early evening, with little more on our minds than food and bed. The concierge directed us to 55th Street, just a block away, where there was a concentration of restaurants and cafés. We found a decent Italian but, more significantly, spotted a Pret, which would become our breakfast haunt for the whole of our stay. Yes, I know we have them there, but each morning we picked up coffee, cereal pot and muffin, grabbed a window seat, and just people-watched the New Yorkers until we were good to go. It beats spending ages in a hotel dining room.

Day One

We started our tour at Battery Park. Here you can look across the water to the Statue of Liberty – our first glimpses – and take a look at a number of monuments. The park is actually named after a row of cannons that used to defend the old fort.


From there, it’s but a short walk to the 9/11 Memorial. Standing on the site of the World Trade Centre that fell on 11 September 2001, it’s a very dignified and moving monument to the 2,977 people who died that day and the six who were killed in the 1993 bombing of the centre. The pools and waterfalls in the footprint of the twin towers have a sense of peace – even with vast numbers of visitors constantly passing through. The name of every victim is there to be read, and to be found by loved ones.

We’d bought a week’s Metro Pass, which works a bit like a London Oyster Card – good for all subways and on the buses – but we were already feeling the effects of all that walking, and it was only Day One. We rounded the day off with a walk up to Greenwich Village, which didn’t quite quicken my pulse the way it was supposed to, although there was some interesting architecture. Still, we found the Caffe Reggio, once frequented by the likes of Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix. It retains a Bohemian, arty atmosphere, has on display its original espresso machine, dating back to 1902, and can claim tom have introduced cappuccino to America. It does a sublime line in cheesecake, too.



 

 

Day One, and I could already feel some of my hard-won weight loss of the past 18 months sliding back on.


Day Two

Our second morning saw us off to the Rockerfeller Centre, and the 70th floor observation deck known as the Top of the Rock for a jaw-dropping panoramic view of the city by day.

     

The afternoon was spent at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. With limited time, our focus was on the American Wing, with stunning works by Leutze, Whistler and Sargent, to name but three of our favourites. And we were especially impressed with some truly lovely Tiffany glass.

No time to eat properly before going out for the evening, so we grabbed a hot dog with everything on it  from a stand – a messy experience – before picking up our tickets for ‘Beautiful’, a brilliant musical about the life and work of singer-songwriter Carole King, and her troubled relationship with her co-writer and sometime husband Gerry Goffin. If you’re old enough to remember her amazing ‘Tapestry’ album, you’ll need no introduction to her; if you’re my vintage, you’ll be astonished at how many songs from your younger days were composed by her and Goffin, or by their stable mates, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. If the show comes to the UK – and it ought to – I urge you to go.


Day Three


For our third day, we went back to Battery Park to pick up the ferry that makes a circular trip to the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, and back to the park.

The statue is probably the most readily-identifiable icon on the planet. Even so, there was something awe-inspiring about being so close to it and being able to walk around it. There is an audio tour which tells you all sorts of things you (well I, anyway) didn’t know.

For example, the French supplied the statue, but nothing to stand it on. It was down to the USA to pay for a pedestal, and the newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer took up the cause, creating an early crowdfunding campaign that promised to print the name of every donor, no matter how small the donation. Millions sent money – whatever they could. Schoolchildren across the country donated pennies. In August 1885, it was announced that the final $100,000 for the statue’s pedestal had been raised.

I’d never really thought about Lady Liberty’s green colouring. You probably already knew this but, just in case, it turns out she is made of copper, which naturally turns green with oxydisation.


We next made the hop over to Ellis Island, the gateway to America for immigrants between 1892 and 1954. The facility is now a brilliantly presented museum with an audio tour that includes the voices of immigrants remembering their experiences. It was a very moving visit, with the tour putting you in the shoes of people arriving with hope in their hearts for a new life, but fearful of what to expect. It was surprisingly well organised for the time, with translators on hand, arrangements for contacts such as family members already living in the country to come and collect them, and food available. But the staff doing the processing were overwhelmed. Medical checks were crude and cursory, and failure meant being returned home. There were heartrending stories of whole families arriving, only for a grandparent to be sent home, never to be seen again.

Record keeping was also limited. There are computers on which you can look up names, and I couldn’t resist checking out my own. A distant relative of mine has done our family tree and got back to the 17th Century, when there were only two Sivers families: watermen in London and chimney sweeps in Sussex. I did find some Siverses, and some from London; these were probably relatives, but all you get is a name, a date and where they came from, so I wasn’t able to feel a connection. I struck gold dust later in the holiday, but more of that in the next post.

Ellis Island was one of the highlights of my holiday. In the evening, we had dinner at The View, New York’s only revolving rooftop restaurant, on the 48th floor of the Marriot Marquis hotel on Broadway. The revolving floor makes a 360° turn every hour. Go for the breath-taking views of New York by night, not for the food, which was nothing special.

Afterwards, we stood and enjoyed the spectacle and atmosphere of Times Square by night.



 

Day Four


It was Saturday, and we were feeling pretty footsore. Today we had the Guggenheim Museum and Central Park in our sights. We still had our Metro Passes, but we grabbed a cab for convenience.

The Guggenheim should have been a great visit, but so much of it was closed for renovation that it was not really worth the ticket price; we were unable to see any of the things we had been looking forward to. Feeling a bit disappointed, we headed for the park, and here we got a bit of a bonus. There was an extraordinary parade going on, of German American organisations – a never-ending flow of floats, marching bands and choirs. Colourful, folksy, at times slightly bonkers, it was great fun to see.

We headed into the park. It is vast, and was awash with people taking their leisure. There are maps everywhere and we had several guidebooks. Even so, we couldn’t find everything we wanted to take a look at, but it really didn't matter. We did find the ‘Alice in Wonderland’ sculpture, which is superb, although it’s impossible to get a photo of it that doesn’t include some kids.


Day Five


Where had the time gone? We were leaving for Philadelphia tomorrow, and this was effectively our last day. We could have spent another week and still found things to see and do.

But there were two things we really wanted to do. I was anxious to see Grand Central Station. I’m not some anorak-wearing railway buff, but I’ve wanted to see it for myself, ever since I heard Mary Chapin Carpenter’s 9/11 inspired song. The video at http://cnnpresents.blogs.cnn.com/2011/09/09/remembering-911/ is well worth a watch.

I wasn’t disappointed. Grand Central Station has a grandeur I’ve never seen in a railway station, and it was lovely to see the four-sided clock, the information board for the Hudson Line, the stars on the ceiling and the statues of Hercules, Minerva and Mercury over the entrance, all of which are mentioned in the song’s lyrics.

      

And so to our last ‘must tick box’. We wanted to walk the pedestrian walkway of the Brooklyn Bridge, the impressive structure liking Brooklyn to Lower Manhattan. It’s a fascinating walk, with ever-changing views and information about the bridge along the way. When it opened in 1883, it was the largest suspension bridge in the world, and only the spire of Trinity Church stood taller in the city.

The engineer and inventor John A Roebling was employed to design and build the bridge, but fell victim to ‘caisson disease’ (‘the bends’) which afflicted many of his workers operating at depth to create the bridge’s foundations. Roebling was unable to work, but relayed instructions for the completion of the project through his remarkable wife, Emily. Today, you can still see why it was labelled ‘the eighth wonder of the world’.


So that was our visit to the Big Apple. To be honest – and I don’t know why – I can’t say I fell in love with the city in the way I had expected to. Maybe my expectations were too high. Maybe there’s just too much of it for it to have the sort of clear-cut character that Florence or New Orleans have. But it was a brilliant time. There was much to see, do and admire and it was an unforgettable experience.

In my next post I’ll be sharing our adventures in Pennsylvania.

 

1 September 2014


My Amazing August – What Did I Learn?


On 29 July I published my second Archer and Baines novel, Dead in Deep Water. The first in the series had, I thought, done quite well for the start of a new indie series, and I was hoping to gain new ground with this one.

Putting out a new book really is like releasing a baby into the world. You hope the world will be kind and that it will prosper, but by the time you wave it a tearful farewell on its journey, you’ve lived with it for so long that you can’t be sure. Will anyone else love it as you do? Or are you just another biased parent?

When the book went live on Amazon, I’d done what I could to create some advance interest, with Facebook posts, tweets and cover reveals, and I held a fun launch party on Facebook which many of my online mates dropped in to.

If I’d entertained fantasies of J K Rowling-style e-queues desperate to snap up Dead in Deep Water on day one – which fortunately I hadn’t – I’d have been sadly disappointed. Sure, the book was selling, but it got off to a quiet start. Still, I was pleased to see sales gradually increasing, and delighted when, after a few days, it slipped into the lower echelons of the Kindle top 100 Serial Killers chart.

And then suddenly, it was in the top ten and then the top five, where it has hung out ever since, even spending a heady week at number 2.

Now don’t get me wrong. I'm not delusional. These Kindle charts show how your baby is doing compared to others, but Amazon helpfully break the charts down into quite specific sub-genres. Serial Killers is a subset of Crime Fiction, which itself is a subset of Crime, Thriller and Mystery, which in turn is a subset of Books; so number 2 in Serial Killers is a long way from the Sunday Times bestseller list. But I’ll take number 2 in any chart, thank you. And the book did also make the Crime Fiction chart, although not the top ten.

So what about actual sales? I won’t go into actual numbers, but suffice to say that it sold four times as many copies in August as the first Archer and Baines, The Scars Beneath the Soul, had managed in its best month to date.

Moreover, having a new book out and doing well seems to have worked wonders for my other titles. All four enjoyed their best month’s sales ever: The Scars Beneath the Soul, reached number 4 in Serial Killers, and the anthology Dark and Deep: Ten Coffee Break Crime Stories, made number 7 in Crime Anthologies – the highest ever ranking for each book.  Even the hybrid ‘Lowmar Dashiel’ crime fantasy hybrids (published in August 2011 and January 2012) saw their best months ever, with Inquisitor Royal entering a chart for the first time in the Serial Killers top 100. As someone trying to build a brand, that is most encouraging.

And there were single days when my total sales were what I would have previously considered not bad for a whole month. Overall my total sales for all titles in the month of August were more than five times my previous best month.

Ah, I hear you say, he’s worked out what brought all this about and is going to share it with us.  Yes, well.  Um… not sure, actually.

What I did leading up to the launch wasn’t much different to what I did in the run-up to the launch of The Scars Beneath the Soul. I did have bookmarks printed in advance and thrust them into the hands of anyone foolish enough to ask me if/what I write, which may have translated into a few purchases. And, needless to say, I’ve been pinching myself and sharing each new high with my long-suffering online chums, who have not only put up with it, but been incredibly supportive and pleased for me, sharing my news and helping to spread the word. I’m pretty sure that had an effect, despite some blog posts I’ve seen recently asserting that engaging with social media doesn’t sell books.

But it’s even more complicated than that, I think. I'm sure, in many cases, that people who enjoyed The Scars Beneath the Soul were coming back for more; but that doesn't explain everything, because, for every two copies of Deep Water sold in August, another copy of Scars found its way onto someone’s Kindle. So apparently a lot of people were finding their way to Archer and Baines through Book 2 and buying Book 1 as well; and there are plenty more out there who bought Book 1 but haven’t yet found their way to Book 2. In short, this exciting ride has been very little help in formulating future marketing strategies.

Perhaps the most interesting fact then is the way ALL my titles have had such an upturn in fortunes. It does seem a fair bet that a number of readers have discovered me through the latest book and sought out more of my work. 

Of course, that increases the pressure, just a little bit, to get the next thing out there. August was great, and I’m really hoping the momentum keeps going.  But from today I’m locking myself in my garret and working in earnest on Archer and Baines Book 3, which I’m excited about already. Because, once I fall through what Stephen King calls that hole in the page and into the story, stuff like sales figures and chart rankings are forgotten.

Which is how it should be.

2
9 July 2014

Dead in Deep Water Launch - Interviewed by my Own Character!

Today is launch day for Dead in Deep Water, the sequel to The Scars Beneath the Soul and the second Archer and Baines novel, so the blog is given over to that event.  Later today there will be a link-up with the launch party on Facebook.

One of the minor characters in the book is Claire King, chief reporter at The Aylesbury Echo, the local paper in Archer’s and Baines’s Aylesbury Vale - so who better to interview me about the new novel?


CK:  Dave, thanks for taking time out from your busy launch day to talk to me about the new Archer and Baines novel.  I’m sure all our readers will be excited to see a second book in the series set right here in Aylesbury Vale, but I wondered why you’d chosen this area as your setting?


DS:  Thanks for interviewing me, Claire.  The choice of location wasn’t so hard, for two reasons.  First of all, I live in the Vale myself, so it’s nice to be writing about an area I know pretty well.


CK:  And the second reason...?


DS:  Some years ago, when I was first contemplating crime fiction, I went to a crime writing festival at which there was a session about the ‘gritty city’ versus the ‘cosy countryside’.  In the Q&A session, I said I lived in rural Buckinghamshire, where the nearest city was Milton Keynes; and asked whether, since the world probably wasn’t holding its breath for the great Milton Keynes crime novel, I was doomed to write Miss Marple-style cosy crime?  One of the panellists said I needed to get myself into a big inner city and immerse myself in some of the seedier areas.  Never one to shirk a challenge, I decided that I wanted to write gritty crime set in my own area.


CK:  The Vale is certainly a big canvass.  Increasingly it’s part of the London commuter belt, and some pretty nasty things go on around here.


DS:  They do, although I must admit I’ve painted the area with a slightly dark brush; but many local readers have said how much they like the fact that the books are set here, and that they recognise their area.


CK:  The book starts with the discovery of a teenage girl’s body, who is the victim of a drowning.  Where did that idea come from?


DS:  There are a number of large expanses of water in the area, and I thought one of those would be a great place to find a body.  I thought that making the victim a good girl and an excellent swimmer would immediately raise questions - what was she doing there alone, and how did she manage to get herself drowned?


CK:  And you have a second copse soon after, this time battered to death on some allotments.  Isn’t that the sort of cosiness you’ve been trying to avoid?


DS:  Ha ha, you’ll have to find out why he was killed.  This book is more small community-centred, but some of the themes are pretty dark.


CK:  Speaking of darkness, in The Scars Beneath the Soul, both Archer and Baines were battling some horrendous personal demons.  Is there any sign of resolution or moving on in the new book?


DS:  Both the characters are defined, and somewhat trapped, by what has happened to them in their pasts.  These aren’t chains they are going to easily break, but you will see some development in both their story arcs, and also in their relationship with each other.  Not that all the changes are necessarily for the better!


CK:  So can we take it there are more Archer and Baines novels in the pipeline?


DS:  Yes, I have several more story ideas sketched out and am also planning some short prequels about the two characters before they met - so for example we will be seeing something of Lizzie Archer’s time at the Met before her disfigurement.  Readers will be able to compare that Lizzie Archer to the one they already know and see how her injury has changed her.


CK:
  And finally, I’m delighted to have a small part in Dead in Deep Water.  Can I look forward to more appearances?


DS:  You never know, Claire!  You were the lead character in a book I started some years ago that remains a work in progress and may surface in some form in the future.


CK:  So long as you don’t kill me off.


DS:  I couldn’t possibly comment.


CK:  Thanks again for your time, Dave, and good luck with the book.


DS:  It’s been a pleasure, Claire.

04 July 2014


Glamour and Graft at a Small Literary Festival

Last year I was honoured and delighted to be asked to join the organising committee for a literary festival right in my little corner of the Chilterns. 

It was one of a number of exciting new ideas following on from our local library breaking away from local authority control to become a community library.  The motivation?  A festival of writing and books to promote reading in the area and also to raise some much needed funds for the library, which relies heavily on its volunteers.

Why BeaconLit?  The library is the Beacon Villages Community Library, serving the villages scattered around the Ivinghoe Beacon landmark.  And, not only was this to be a literary festival, but the beacon does get lit occasionally - most recently for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012.

So I joined a small but enthusiastic committee, and we decided to launch a half-day event making use of the marquee that Ivinghoe Entertainments puts up on the village green (‘The Lawn’) each year for the summer festival weekend.  Ivinghoe Entertainments had kindly offered us the marquee as a venue for the Saturday afternoon, sandwiched between clearing up after Friday night’s summer ball and getting ready for Saturday’s comedy night.

The half-day event, with two author panels, was well received, with an encouraging turnout, so we decided to do it again this year, but with a full day’s programme.  This meant a change of venue to accommodate the enhanced timescale.  In keeping with the aims of the event, we wanted to keep it local, and we also wanted to keep the ticket prices reasonable, and we realised that the venue that best met our needs in terms of space was the local primary school, Brookmead, recently extended with a spacious new hall, its good sized original hall, and some options for breakout sessions.  The school’s forward-thinking Head, Katherine Douglas, was delighted to host us and the countdown began.

The format of the day focused the morning on writing and publishing, with talks and workshops, and the afternoon more on the books, with two panels and an ‘in conversation’ slot.  Numbers were up (with visitors from as far afield as Staffordshire, Shropshire and Derbyshire), lessons learned from last year paid dividends, and most of the feedback has been great.  We’re planning BeaconLit 2015 already.

I suspect with any event there is a lot of graft that goes on behind the scenes that the punters neither see nor care about.  It’s even more the case with a small event in a small venue, run by a relatively small team. 

In my case, it really was a heady mix of glamour and graft.  On festival day, I fronted the event, making announcements when it was time for people to take their seats.  I gave a talk about my journey so far in self-publishing eBooks.  And I moderated two author panels: young adult fiction with Hilary Freeman, Caroline Green and Teri Terry; and a ‘Heroes and Villains’ crime panel with Stephen Booth, Jane Isaac and Anya Lipska.  All exciting stuff.


    
      Talking Self-publishing                           The Crime panel with Jane Isaac, Anya Lipska and Stephen Booth

Watching Emma Huxley welcoming delegates along with YA panelists
Teri Terry, Hilary Freeman and Caroline Green


On either side of the day, I helped shift chairs from the local church and town hall, generously loaned or hired at a modest fee, to supplement the limited number of adult-sized chairs at the school.  On the day, there was more chair shifting in the midday break, from the breakout rooms to the main hall, and I also took time out to check on a missing author.  The day before BeaconLit had seen me making authors’ ‘name tents’, badges for authors and volunteers, and festival signs for around the venue, including - most glamorous of all tasks - signs to the loos.

During the buildup, I had been webmaster, publicist and author liaison.  Other committee members had been similarly busy, and our little team of augmentee volunteers on the day also worked hard.  At the end of the festival itself, having run on adrenalin for about 12 hours, my brain was begging me not to ask it to do anything too clever. 

But it was worth it.  We have a great and growing little festival that is gaining in reputation and supporting an important cause in my community.  I’d caught up with some author pals, made some new friends, and been part of something that the audience enjoyed.

So look out for BeaconLit 2015.  The website is www.beaconlit.co.uk.  Drop by and check it out.


09 June 2014

 
This is Not a Football Story
 

You’re suspicious, I know.  Why would I bother to say it’s not a football story if it isn’t?

Trust me.  This is so much more than a football story.

You won’t see me posting about religion or politics online.  And normally I wouldn’t mention football.  But there are exceptions, and this is one, after recently watching my beloved Queen’s Park Rangers win an amazing playoff final at Wembley to gain promotion back to the Premier League.

Oh, you’re suspicious now.  But stick with it.  This really isn’t a football story.

I grew up in West London, in the heart of QPR territory.  My grandfather was born just a handful of years after the club was first formed, and he, my dad and my uncle were all supporters, so it was in the blood. My dad took me to watch them, and that was that.
 
Through the years - school days, starting a career, getting married, travelling the world, and trying to get somewhere with my writing - all the ups and downs of a life - the music of The Who, Bob Dylan, Rod Stewart, Bruce Springsteen, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Emmylou Harris end many more have been my soundtrack.  The ebb and flow of QPR’s fortunes has been a big part of the backdrop.

I’ve seen them become the first Third Division club to win a Wembley Final, coming back from two goals down to beat First Division West Bromwich Albion and lift the League Cup; lose an FA Cup final and another League Cup final - to lowly Oxford, for pity’s sake! - also at Wembley; and lose a promotion playoff final at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, when Wembley was being rebuilt. 
 
I’ve seen them win two promotions in successive seasons, going from the third tier to the big time, only to crash back down to Division Two; battle their way back, and - with one of the finest club sides this country has ever seen - miss out on the First Division title to Liverpool by a whisker. 

But over the last 20 years there seem to have been far more bad times than good.  More demotions than promotions, and two occasions when it looked like the club would go bankrupt.  I’ll never forget the supporters’ club rattling buckets for change outside the ground.  Managers and owners have come and gone. 

Perhaps the lowest ebb of all was the 2012/13 season when, having somehow clawed their way back to the top level, and survived their first season there by the skin of their teeth, they went back down again with an absolutely dire team peppered with journeyman players who, to put it mildly, consistently disappointed in relation to the salaries they were drawing.  The club we loved had become unrecognisable.
 
And so to last season.  Journeymen largely gone or loaned out and some hard-working new faces brought in.  QPR made a good start, looking as if they would stroll back to the premier league - but just a few serious injuries to key players changed all that.  Hopes of finishing in the top two and gaining automatic promotion quickly faded, and in the end we were relieved to secure even a place in the playoffs.  Our top scorer, Charlie Austin, returned from injury and we managed to squeeze past Wigan to face Derby County at Wembley.  At stake a multi-million pound promotion to the world’s richest league.

Here’s why this isn’t just a football story.  It’s a bit about my life, and a bit about ordinary football supporters like me.  For followers of the top clubs, a disastrous season is not winning a trophy or not qualifying for the Champions’ League.  For most of us, not getting relegated is a good season.  Going up a league is a great one.  We follow our team through all the frustrations and knockbacks because it gives us little dreams to dream.  And dreams are something everyone needs.

I have two great friends going back to primary school, lifelong ‘Rs’ fans like me.  Their own grown up sons are now season ticket holders and sit with us at matches.  But Wembley was even more of a family affair, with two wives and a daughter also joining us.

A guy came and sat on the other side of my wife, and a flash of recognition passed between us.  I wasn’t sure where I’d seen him before.
 
We came to the game with hope, but low expectation, but the team held its own and go in 0-0 at half time.  Then, fifteen minutes into the second half, disaster struck.   Gary O’Neill sent off for a cynical foul.  Down to ten men with half an hour to go.  And it became a siege, the ball rarely leaving QPR’s half. 
 
We somehow hung on, but no one in the ground could imagine, even if we survived until full time, that we were never going to score, and would never hang on for half an hour of extra time for the lottery of a penalty shoot-out.
 
Then, with less than a minute left, we somehow mounted an attack.  Junior Hoilett won the ball on the right wing, fell over, somehow picked himself up again, and tried to pick out Charlie Austin, charging in from the left.  Derby captain Richard Keogh stuck out a boot but only succeeded in prodding the ball a foot or so away from the goal.
 
And, dear God, there was Bobby Zamora.
 
Zamora.  Never quite disliked by the fans, but never really embraced by them either.  Bobby seemed beset with fitness problems, rarely looked good.  The response to his name being announced in the line up was usually groans of disappointment.  He’d also been misquoted as no longer liking the game that paid his wages, which hadn’t gone down well.  Yet more recently he had started to make a habit of coming off the substitute’s bench to change games.  And here he was, in front of goal, the ball at his feet.
 
I knew it was a goal before the shot left his boot.  At the same time, I didn’t dare believe it until it hit the back of the net.  Zamora’s transition from zero to hero was complete.
 
And the fans?  You can see that moment here: http://deadspin.com/bbc-announcer-goes-bonkers-as-qpr-scores-90th-minute-wi-1581083245.  It’s not long, and worth a watch.  That commentator? I was him, to the power of ten.  You’d have seen a whole new side of me. 

Strangers united in a common cause were going bonkers together.  The little guy sat next to my wife hugged her, then hugged me.  I realised later that he’d sat next to me at a couple of home games.  I wonder if he realised it too.
 
All the way back to the train station, Zamora’s name was being sung.  The Derby contingent, who I felt kind of sorry for, were long gone.  It was an amazing feeling.

And that’s why this isn’t just a football story. 

The late, great Liverpool manager, Bill Shankley, was dead wrong when he said football was more important than life or death.  I’m sure he was joking, actually.  But, as human beings, there’s something in our souls that makes us want, not only to dream a little, but sometimes to dream big dreams. 

There’s a sad postscript to this story.  It’s one of the reasons I finally decided to write and publish this piece.  I and some friends have a little QPR emailing network and, over the years, a group of passionate American fans have joined in.  They always find the games on TV and come over now and then just to see the team.  A couple of days ago, one of them passed away after a long battle with cancer. 
 
You know what?  His family and friends are delighted that he lived to see the team go up, and he was one of a large US contingent on their feet in front of the TV and celebrating Bobby Zamora’s goal.  Rest in peace, Mike.

Yeah, sure, I cheated.  Lots of football in this piece.  But what it’s really about is this.  As human beings, playing or supporting sport allows us to dream those big dreams - and sometimes they come true.


21 May 2014

Hitting the Festival Trail

Last weekend saw me at CrimeFest 2014, the first of the literary festivals I will be attending this year.  I love these events; they are an opportunity to catch up with old friends, make some new ones and maybe recruit some new readers too.  And, of course, you get to hear authors talking about their craft, something most writers can listen to forever.

CrimeFest takes place in Bristol, a place that always has a nice feel about it.  I arrived at lunchtime on the Thursday, just in time to dump my bag at my hotel and get down to register before the start of the first panel - one of three 'Fresh Blood' sessions introducing debut novelists, including my friend Sarah Hilary (pictured with me below), whose sensational Someone Else's Skin came out earlier this year.



Getting through a festival like this takes some stamina.  Not only is there a panel roughly every hour, but there's the annual Thursday night 'pub quiz' (don't ask!) and a host of other events.  I usually try to take a little time out for a drink and a chat with friends and to get out of the conference hotel for the odd hour.

But mostly, it was about the crime fiction.  I won't list all the panels I went to, but there were thought-provoking sessions on whether a crime novel has to have 'something to say', and how much our characters reflect ourselves.  There were three sessions on gender and women in fiction - something that should be important to men who, like me, have strong female protagonists in their work - and one on 21st Century police procedurals - again, especially interesting to me, as this is Archer and Baines territory.

A session on psychology in crime fiction was fascinating, and I enormously enjoyed hearing some of the hottest self-published authors talking about how it's been for them.

In the end, it was over too soon, and I can't wait for BeaconLit in June, where I will be moderating two panels, and the Theakston's Old Peculier crime writing festival in Harrogate in July.

I'll sign off with a little gallery of pictures taken with crime writing friends during CrimeFest - top row, left to right, Stephen Booth, Alison Bruce and Anya Lipska.  Bottom row, Chris Longmuir and Evonne Wareham.  Thanks to them and many other mates for their company over an absorbing and inspiring weekend. 

        

       





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13 May 2014

A Morning With the Real Cops
 


Anyone who writes (or reads) crime fiction will know that it’s a genre where authenticity counts.  Readers expect crimes to be plausible and, when the police investigate, they want to feel that they’re looking over the shoulders of real cops whose methods are the genuine article.


That’s not to say that the ideal crime fiction novel reads like a manual on police procedures - even the keenest real-life cop would find it hard to imagine that setting the pulse a-racing.  And the realities of police procedure often have to be altered in the interests of the story.  But even when one does take a bit of literary licence, it’s nice to actually know you’re doing it and to know why you’ve chosen to do it that way.

 
A week or so back, I happened to be in contact with my local neighbourhood policing team in connection with a bit of journalism, and I asked if there was any chance of a visit to Aylesbury Police Station.  This is where my fictional detectives, Lizzie Archer and Dan Baines, are based, and I thought it was long overdue for me to see how the real thing stacked up with the station in my imagination.


Shortly afterwards, I received an email telling that my visit had been approved by the Area Commander and inviting me to contact PC Kirstin Harding, who would be happy to show me round.


So it was that I visited Thames Valley Police in Aylesbury, seeing the intimidating rear entrance where suspects under arrest enter, the somewhat more welcoming front desk, the custody suite (including trying out a mattress in a cell!), interview and consultation rooms, store rooms and evidence stores - and the offices where the detectives hang out.  Kirstin patiently told me how the processes work and why things are as they are. 


I learned a lot - for example, some of the cells are ‘dry’ with no loo or wash basin, so that a suspect cannot attempt to wash evidence off themselves.  I also appreciated how meticulous modern police are about ensuring everything is documented every step of the way.  The role of the custody sergeant, which is rarely shown in police drama, is absolutely crucial, and one which carries both authority and responsibility in huge measures


Some things were much as I had imagined:  the corridors weren’t in the best decorative order, and the open plan office where most of the detectives sit is so like I’d envisaged that I half-expected to see Dan Baines or DC ‘Joan’ Collins at one of the workstations.  Some things were somewhat different.  The interview rooms were small and windowless and hot, but they were not grey and cheerless.  The tables have wooden tops in warm shades and the walls are decked out in Air Force blue fabric above the dado rails.


There’s also very much a sense of looking after people in custody and keeping them safe - a far cry from the 1970s TV cop shows.


It was a fascinating and rather fun visit.  I’m very grateful to Superintendent Chiariello for agreeing to the visit and to Kirstin and her colleagues for their time and trouble, and for all their kindness in looking after me.   

 
05 April 2014


Virtual Networks and Real Friends


 

L-R: Susi Holliday, Jane Isaac, Rebecca Bradley, and me.



If there's one tip I pass on to aspiring writers, it's that these days an online presence is absolutely essential, and it's never too soon to start. Whether you're commercially published or self-published, the chances are that promoting your work will mostly fall upon your own shoulders. Not only do publishers not have the budget to give any but the biggest names vast swathes of publicity, with signing tours, posters and so on, but they expect that authors will want to interact with their public.

Put simply, your work may never be discovered by potential readers if you don't give them every opportunity to find out that it exists.  Yet I still come across serious aspiring writers who reach for the cross and garlic when they hear the words 'social media'.

I must admit, I was one of those, less than three years ago.  I'd set up a website in 2007 to showcase my work and start trying to build a readership.  I was aware that there was no obvious way for people to find it, but I didn't understand all this tweeting and facebooking stuff.  It was all just people saying they were on a train or having kippers for breakfast, right?

Wrong - as I soon discovered when, after publishing my first eBook, I was encouraged by friends to bite the bullet and sign up with first Twitter and then Facebook.  It took a bit of getting the hang of, but I worked out right from the start that it's not about pimping your book - that's the last thing you should do if you want anyone to take any notice of you.  What it is about is connecting with people with shared interests.

The very best thing about making these connections is that you can gradually build a wide and supportive network within a friendly and generous writing community.  I have made some good mates online, and some really good friends too.  Don't let anyone tell you that these are just 'virtual friends', either - that there's something bogus about chatting to people online who you may never get to meet.  I have met a number of my best online friends 'offline' so to speak, and those real life meetings have shown exactly why these are the people I talk to most in cyberspace.

A case in point was last night's launch party for Jane Isaac's new novel, The Truth Will Out.  Jane started off as an online friend and then we met at last year's inaugural BeaconLit festival.  She is as lovely for real as online, and it was great being there to celebrate her success.  I met two other online friends - Rebecca Bradley and Susi Holliday - for the first time at the party, and it made for a great evening, as the picture at the top of this article shows.

In her speech, Jane said what a lonely occupation writing can be, but it's not half as lonely as it must have been back in the quill pen and garret days.  These days there are other writers just a click away who understand when the work is sticky and celebrate with you when something goes well.  They may even be kind enough to share some of your news with their own networks.

And it's not just about writing.  I occasionally talk allotments with online friends, and I have been tipped off to a wide range of interesting and useful blogs.

Sure, keeping up with social networks can be a time suck, but all social interaction requires a bit of effort.  And, just like with offline friends and family, sometimes time gets away from me and I may not dive into that cyber-pool for a few days - but the same can apply to some of those phone calls we keep meaning to make.  Many old friends are on social media too, and I keep in touch with them more than I used to do.

So, if you want to write, chat to writers and readers.  There are some great people out there.


24 February 2014

 
Blog Hop - My Writing Process

 

Today I’m taking part in Blog Hop - something between a chain and a relay where authors talk about how they go about their work.  My thanks to good friend Evonne Wareham for inviting me to follow her on Blog Hop.  Her post, which appeared on 17 February, can be found at http://evonneonwednesday.blogspot.co.uk/.


So to the ‘writing process’ questions:


1.      What am I working on?


Most writers have more than one WIP (work in progress) on the go at any one time - something nearing completion, something they keep picking up and putting down again when they get a moment, something else in the planning.  Plus blog postings and, in my case, newspaper columns and maybe some script or song writing.

But top of my WIP list at the moment is a sequel to The Scars Beneath the Soul, which will see the return of Detective Inspector Lizzie Archer and Detective Sergeant Dan Baines.  I don’t want to hex it by saying too much, but suffice to say it’s currently with my editorial team for their comments and I am keeping my fingers crossed that it gets the thumbs up.

 

2.      How does my work differ from others of its genre?


The most consistent theme of the reviews and feedback I’ve received on The Scars Beneath the Soul is that the characters of Archer and Baines really seem to have struck a chord with readers - which is great news for an author, especially if you have a series in mind.

I’ve tried to get my two protagonists out of the straitjacket of the more stereotyopical fictional cops.  Yes, they both have horrendous personal issues to confront, but these stem from life-changing moments in their lives that very much define their characters and drive their behaviour. 

There’s also an element of what may or may not be supernatural going on.

I’m writing Archer and Baines in real time and want to give them the opportunity to change and grow as characters, just as real people do as they gain new experiences and influences.

 

3.      Why do I write what I do?


I write the sort of thing I like to read - and what I enjoy best is crime/mystery and ‘speculative fiction’ (which could include fantasy or horror).  My Lowmar Dashiel mysteries are a hybrid blend of detective story and sword and sorcery.  As I’ve mentioned, there’s a hint of the supernatural about Archer and Baines, although this will never be the main focus of the books.


4.      How does my writing process work?


It usually starts with an idea, which I allow to grow in my mind.  At some point I’ll start jotting down the odd note, but I don’t like to over-plan - I tried doing a detailed chapter plan once and the actual writing felt a bit like painting by numbers.  I like to know how the story starts, where it is headed, and some of the things that will happen along the way - all or which give me a bit of structure.  But I like to let characters surprise me by taking the story off in a direction I hadn’t originally thought of, and to allow new characters to take the stage.  I’ve known minor characters to turn out to be much more important than I ever intended.

My commitments don’t allow me to have a writing routine, so I have to schedule sessions on a week by week basis.  I work on the first draft without doing too much editing along the way.  Only when the first draft is complete do I go back and start fixing plot problems and generally polishing the book, until it reaches a point where my little team of trusted readers can have a go at it.  By that stage I hope it will be in fairly good shape.

 

Next on the Blog Hop:

 

I’m now passing the baton on to Susie Kearley and James T Kelly. Their posts will appear on Monday 3 March.  Susie is based in Buckinghamshire like myself.  We both have weekly columns in The Bucks Herald and are regulars at the same writers group.  Susie’s blog is at http://Susiekearley.blogspot.co.uk/.  Here’s a little more about her:

Susie Kearley is a freelance writer, working for magazines, newspapers and book publishers in the UK, USA and internationally.  She covers a wide range of subjects including healthcare, gardening and travel.  She has a new book out called Freelance Writing on Health, Food and Gardens.

I met James through Twitter, and have guested on his blog at 
http://jamestkelly.com/ 

James has been writing since he could lift a pen and has writen articles for a number of companies. Now he writes fiction and has two short stories available: one a suburban horror called You are Just a Guest; the other a superhero tragedy called The Homeless Hero. He’s currently writing a series of epic fantasy novels full of dragons, magic, and fairies with multiple personalities.


05 February 2014


Marvellous Myanmar

 

Just after Christmas, Chris and I set off for tour of Myanmar, still known to most of us as Burma.  It was the latest of a number of trips we have made to East Asia, and our expectations of a fascinating time were not disappointed.

I returned to my usual muddle of deadlines and stuff to do, as well as a couple of other things beyond my control.  As a result, I have only now had a chance to review my photographs and think back on the experience.

The first thing to say is that the trip was an incredibly rewarding peek into Myanmar’s culture and heritage.  The second thing to say is that the place is now a hot ticket for tourists.  Our guide boasted that there had been over 2 million visitors in 2013, and my old mate Wikipedia seems to bear that out.  The nation is, quite rightly, bound to want to capitalise on this burgeoning tourist industry - so if you want to enjoy it before tourism starts to change the country’s character, don’t leave it too long.

The climate at the time of year that we went was hot and humid, but not too oppressive.  It did give me a good excuse to break out the panama hat.



 

Myanmar is about a lot more than pagodas and Buddha images - but there are still a lot of them.  Our adventure started in Yangon (Rangoon), the former capital and still Myanmar’s biggest city, and our first stop was the astonishing Shewdagon Pagoda - 2,500 years old and containing relics of the past four Bhuddas.  Not only is it covered with genuine gold plates, but its crown is tipped with 5,448 diamonds and 2,317 rubies, with a 76 carat diamond at the very top.  It’s one of those sights that causes the jaw to genuinely drop.

 


Our tour of Yangon also took in the National Museum, the octagonal Sule Pagoda and the colourful, bustling ‘Scott’ Market.

 


We rounded off the day with high tea at the Governor’s Residence, set in sumptuous gardens in the embassy quarter.  It’s a tough job, but we writers are used to roughing it.


 

The next leg of our tour was Amarapura, near Mandalay.  Highlights here included the 200-year old U Bein footbridge, made of 1,060 teak posts and used by monks and locals to make the more than 1km crossing between villages over Taungthamon Lake, but perhaps the most extraordinary sight was hundreds of saffron-robed monks queuing for lunch at Mahagandayon Monastery.


 


In the afternoon, we toured Mandalay, the last royal capital before the British took over, rounding off with a spectacular panoramic view of the city from Mandalay Hill as the sun set.

Our next stop was Bagan, capital of many ancient kingdoms and now an archaeological zone covering 26 square miles and featuring some 4,500 pagodas.  To fully appreciate it, we took a balloon ride over the area, and it was like looking at a veritable forest of pagodas in a wide range of shapes, sizes and styles. 

    


During our stay in Bagan, we saw a number of pagodas up close and well as visiting a local village and seeing a traditional puppet show.

Next up was Inle Lake, the real highlight of the whole tour for me.  Inle is Myanmar’s second largest lake and the hub of thriving communities.  We spent most of our time there on the water, seeing wooden homes on stilts and the crops they farm actually on the lake - some 60% of the country’s tomato crop grows there.  We also saw their rich variety of artists and craftspeople at work and had a lesson in local cookery - I’ve actually managed to make a decent fist of reproducing one of the dishes, but we will draw a veil over my efforts with some of the others.

 

But the most amazing sight on Inle Lake is, without a doubt, the local fishermen.  Using boats that are somewhere between a canoe and a punt, they work their nets with their hands, stand on one leg, and use the other leg to work the oar.

 


Before flying home, it was back to Yangon, where a memorable sight was a 125ft Buddha image.


 

All in all, a fabulous trip that seemed over all too soon.  Now, where are those holiday brochures?


09 December 2013


Great People Create Great Stories 


The tributes to the late Nelson Mandela continue to flow, and rightly so.  He was unquestionably the great figure of my generation.  His passing makes the world a darker place.  We are all pygmies now.

On Saturday night, we both wanted to watch our DVD of 'Invictus', starring Morgan Freeman as Mandela and Matt Damon as the South African Rugby captain, Francois Pienaar.  A similar thing happened after the 7/7 London bombings: I played Bruce Springsteen's 9/11 tribute album, 'The Rising' for days.  Some things just feel right.

If you haven't seen 'Invictus', I urge you to.  It's quite astonishing, yet the story is simple.  Mandela is elected president, with a vision of creating a 'Rainbow' nation based on reconciliation and forgiveness for the apartheid years.  The Springboks rugby team is seen so much and a hated symbol of white supremacy that the black South Africans cheer their opponents.  There are moves afoot to abolish the Springboks entirely.

Mandela realises that taking away what the white South Africans cherish will be a body blow to the Rainbow nation and, instead sets about uniting the country behind their national side.  What's more, he sees it as vital to his plan that the team, who are being panned by the pundits for their lack-lustre performances, should do well in the 1995 Rugby World Cup.  So he engages with the captain, Pienaar, and inspires him to lead the team to victory.

The film is clevery put together.  We see Mandela's allies wondering why, with all the problems on his plate, he is bothering with this.  We see Pienaar's family, who still regard Mandela as a terrorist.  And, as the film moves to its climax with the final victory over New Zealand, we see a nation uniting in hope and then jubilation.

Why am I going on about this?  I like to tell stories, and I like to hear them.  Much fiction these days is about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.  It's exhilarating to be reminded that, in real life, extraordinary people can create great stories in relatively ordinary circumstances.  When Mandela was in Prison on Robben Island, the notion that he would be President one day might have seemed far-fetched.  The idea that one of his first priorities would have concerned the Springboks team might have seemed laughable.

Rest in peace, Madiba.  You wrote more stories simply by living your life than most writers can conjure in a lifetime.



05 November 2013

 

It’s the Way They Tell ‘em

 

There was an item in the BBC news yesterday about art treasures stolen by the Nazis that had been found in Munich.  I first heard the story on the 8 pm news, but it wasn’t the story itself, fascinating though it was, that really woke me up. 

In the lead-n to the item, the newsreader said the haul had been valued at around £800 million.  We then went over to the in-depth report, where - within a paragraph or so - the reporter was speaking of an ‘amazing, priceless’ collection of artworks.  

Er, no... I thought, actually they don’t appear to be priceless.  The price is apparently £800 million.  Surely, if something is priceless, it’s impossible to put a price on it?  

I can see how this apparent inconsistency occurred.  The headlines tend to deal in the facts, and so a precise value figure was quoted.  The function of the report is to bring the story to life.  It’s a much more colourful thing, and the reporter probably felt justified in utilising colourful language.  It was the juxtaposition of the two versions of the same story that jarred and made the reporter’s claims of ‘pricelessness’ seem overblown and a little silly to my ears.  Maybe he should have left it at ‘amazing’. 
 

One of the first things a writer learns is to chop out almost all the adjectives and most of the adverbs.  If you need a lot of flowery description, your writing isn’t vivid enough.  We're also taught to try and avoid cliches - 'priceless art' is one, I think.  

I'm not really knocking the poor old reporter.  Maybe the discipline of news reporting, when so much has to be done on the fly and under pressure, makes it hard enough just to get the story out, without having to worry about these rules as well.  But 
I shall certainly keep an eye out for such little contradictions in my own work in future.  I suspect they're easier to trip over than we realise.

21 October 2013


The Trouble With Titles


When I first got the idea for my first crime novel, The Scars Beneath The Soul, the book’s title somehow suggested itself to me at around the same time.  It seemed to me to say something about one of the book’s main themes.  It has since been pleasing to have feedback from people who found that title intriguing and enticing.  I want people to read my stuff, so anything that draws them in is a plus in my book.

By the time the book was completed, I already had sketchy ideas for several other Archer and Baines stories, and I jotted them down, each with a working title.  The sequel to Scars is one of my works in progress, but at some point in its development I felt that its working title wasn’t quite right and adopted another that I thought fitted it much better.

But recently, I’ve been dithering over it again.  I discovered through one of my friends on social media that the original working title has in fact been used for a new novel just out.  Having congratulated myself on not having a title clash on my hands, I then foolishly went to Amazon to see if the new working title has been bagged.

The short answer?  Yes, more than once.  So I put on my thinking cap and decided to go to a relevant scene in Shakespeare for inspiration.  Naturally, the Bard had something there that might work, and sounded to my inner ear as if it would be unique as a book title.  But no.  Someone has been there before me.

More to the point, when I tried it on a mocked up cover, I didn’t like it anyway. 

So, for the time being, working title #2 remains firmly attached in my head to this second Archer and Baines book.  At the moment, it seems right, and I want to use it.  Yet the gremlin on my shoulder keeps hissing to me that I ought to strive for originality.

What do you think?  Does it matter if there are a few books out there with the same title?  Or is it better to try and be unique?  I have a bit of time to decide, but right now I’m decidedly on the fence.



03 October 2013
 

My George Harrison Moment

Most of my writing year revolves around journalism or writing novels and short stories.  But, around this time of year, you’ll also find me writing and directing a community Nativity.

It started about four years ago when the Vicar asked me to direct a nativity in a barn - I think I was the only person she knew with any vaguely relevant experience - and I must have managed to avoid any major disasters because I’ve had the job ever since. 

I should add that the cast consists of adults, not children, although a couple of little’uns and the occasional donkey have often featured - ignoring the sensible warnings against working with children and animals.  It’s great fun and involves working with a great bunch of people.


Since that first, fairly traditional, production, part of the challenge has been to bring something fresh and different to the Christmas story.  We’ve had a 21st Century Nativity and a narration by the Angel Gabriel, and then last year I had the mad idea of doing it as a musical.

It wasn’t as mad as all that, because I had my good and brilliant friend Judith Sheridan (
http://www.singingallowed.com/) to co-write the songs with me.  Anyway, it went down well with the couple of hundred people who came to see it, and with the 40-odd actors, singers and musicians who took part.  We (me, Judith and the cast) all felt that we wanted to get more out of the show and the hard work that had gone into it.  So we decided to do ‘Mary! A Nativity Musical’ again this year, but as a longer show with extra scenes and some new songs.

This year’s show will have 12 original songs - the eight we wrote last year plus four brand new ones.  At least, I intended them all to be original.

This is how Judith and I co-write: I write the lyrics and, in the process, a basic melody seems to come along too.  I warble this into my voice recorder and send the audio file, along with the lyrics, to Judith, and that is where the real magic begins.  The next time I hear the song, it is still just about recognisable as what I started with, but with harmonies, backin
g choir and some amazing instrumental arrangement.

We started rehearsing a couple of weeks ago.  As far as I was aware, Judith was still working on the music side of it - we were focusing on the moves and the script.  Yet when we got to where one of the new songs should have come in, the actor concerned started to sing it - to the right tune.

“Oh,” said I, surprised, “I didn’t know Judith had done the music for that already.”

“She hasn’t,” he chuckled, “I was just singing...”  and he named a composition by a slightly better known songwriter than myself (try internationally renowned). 

It’s only the first four words and the accompanying notes that are identical to the other song.  After that, both the lyrics and the tune part company with it.  The spooky thing is that the earlier song is not one I really know.  I doubt if I’ve heard it more than four or five times in my life; I don’t think I know any lyrics beyond the title; and I’d struggle to hum the tune at all. 

I can only suppose that it had nevertheless lodged in my old mate the subconscious

Funny thing, the subconscious.  Many a time it has supplied an answer at a pub quiz, when I would have sworn I didn’t know it.  My guess is that it spotted those first four words and ‘helpfully’ retrieved the melody to go with it.  What I thought was creativity was in fact a buried memory.

People of my generation will recall the former Beatle, George Harrison, having a huge hit in 1970 with ‘My Sweet Lord’, only to be found to have ‘subconsciously’ plagiarised the Ronnie Mack song, ‘He’s So Fine’, a 1963 Chiffons’ hit.  Apparently, George had thought the Christian hymn, ‘Oh Happy Day’, was his inspiration.  Suddenly, I thought I knew how he must have felt.

Fortunately, there’s no harm done.  I’ve changed the tune completely now, and that soundalike will never see the light of day.  But it’s got me thinking how easy it is for a creative process to be influenced by other works without us being aware of it.  I wonder how often it really happens.

They say there’s nothing new under the sun, but I’m off to write a short story about a Victorian detective called Shorlock Helms, who has a dentist sidekick called Wilson.  I reckon it’s that fresh new thing the world has been waiting for.


12 September 2013

12 Things I’ve Learned from Self-Publishing eBooks

I’ve been self-publishing eBooks for just over two years now.  When I started, I didn’t really have much idea about how I was going to make potential readers aware of my book, nor any strategy for what to do next.  

I've learned on the job, and to be honest 
there’s still a degree of trial and error.  I don’t think anyone has a one-size-fits-all set of answers.  But, for what its worth, here are a dozen lessons I have learned - most of them the hard way, some from others' mistakes - from the journey so far:


1.         Your number one objective when starting out is to build a readership and engage with them.

2.         A strong online presence will not guarantee success.  Not having one will almost certainly guarantee failure.

3.         It’s never too soon to start building your online presence.  Don’t wait until the book is already on sale.  Use your online networks to create anticipation for your baby.

4.         Do have an online launch party.  See how other people do it, rather than throwing something together.  You won't have any clearing up to do, either.

5.         A good price offer for the first book in a series is more likely to encourage readers to take a punt on a new writer.  If they like book #1, they may pay a little more for book #2.  But remember how price-conscious eBook readers can be.

6.         The big advantage you have over commercially published authors is control.  Never, never, relinquish that control by, for example, making promises to readers about a publication date before the book is good to go.

7.         There is no need to spend a fortune on elements of the production process you can manage ‘in house’, using either your own skills or those of trusted friends.  But be 100% honest and realistic about how good those skills really are.  Your published package needs to be as good as it can possibly be. 

8.         Amazon tells you who else your readers are reading.  If you hook up with those authors and their readers on social media, those readers might check you out and like the look of your book too.

9.         Constantly plugging your book in social media is not engaging with people.  It is spamming them.

10.       Have a marketing strategy.  Whatever you do, growing a readership and a reputation takes time.  Be ambitious, but realistic, about your goals. 

11.       Celebrate successes - a book launch, a good review, a little milestone in sales.

12.       Most of the above probably applies to all but the top commercially published authors too.

 

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