Wednesday 31 July 2013

More handbags - and pockets.

Last week I was burbling about what might be in a handbag belonging to a writer. Or at least, what is in this writer’s handbag. Today I’m moving on to what my characters might carry – which is potentially more interesting?

Kaz, from Never Coming Home
I think her bag of choice would be big. One of those beautiful butter soft leather totes. It might well be a
Not quite big enough for Kaz?
freebie – her mother, Suzanne, is an ex model and I think she still has enough contacts in the business to receive the occasional gift, which she might pass on. Either that, or it might be something that has come into stock in the very up market dress agency that Suzanne now runs. Brought in by the sort of glamorous woman who won’t be pictured carrying the same bag twice? Kaz is very practical, despite her unorthodox upbringing. I imagine her bag of choice would be big as she wouldn’t yet have got out of the habit of having something large enough to carry all the impedimenta a four year old daughter would consider essential, even though that little girl is gone. I’m not sure Kaz would even be aware of what she was doing, in that respect. She will have taken out the heart wrenching collection of small toys, hair scrunchies and the super size pack of wet wipes, but I bet she hasn’t thought that she no longer needs something quite so big. Although, having said that, she is a successful garden designer, so she might carry a few of the tools of her trade, - an electronic notebook, the odd seed catalogue, an industrial strength tape measure. The bag will be well cared for – but might have evidence of the occasional explosive soft drink. And I bet there are tiny seeds in the bottom and trapped in the seams.

Madison from Out of Sight Out of Mind
I can see Madison with a small, square bag, maybe a satchel type, with a very pared down contents. Only
Is this Madison's type?
the necessary essentials. Even so, there might be clues that the bag belonged to a scientist with a particular specialism. Maybe a copy of the latest research journal with the page turned down on an article about memory – or a membership card to a specialist library? There might also be a few chocolate wrappers. I suspect Madison has a weakness for the odd sweet snack when she’s deeply involved in an experiment or piece of research and has forgotten to eat.

Devlin and Jay
Having stuck my nose into my heroines’ handbags it seems only fair to pat down Devlin and Jay (I wish!)  to see what they have in their pockets. I suspect they will have something in common – there will not be much there, and that’s not because either of them is worried about spoiling the line of an expensive suit.

Devlin will have the minimum he needs to function – wallet, keys, phone – all with as little clue to his identity as possible. Force of habit rather than absolute necessity, now that he is retired from … whatever it was he used to do. And of course, he stopped carrying a gun a long time ago.
Jay – well, Jay won’t have anything at all. His pockets are empty. Nothing to show who he is, or was.
No clue at all …

Wednesday 24 July 2013

A Handbag?

It's supposed to be one of the staples of chick lit. Fashion, shoes, handbags. I don't really write chick lit - too many dead bodies in my books - but I do write about love. And I still like all that girlie stuff.

One of the deep, meaningful relationships in a woman’s life is the bond between a female and her handbag. Handbags are covetable objects – in the same realm as shoes, but I’m not talking about the outside here, but the contents – the mysterious bits and bobs that make a woman risk having one shoulder permanently lower than the other, in order to ensure that they are always within reach. I was a writer long before I discovered that there was an alternative to stuffing your essential life support system into your pockets. And it took even longer than that to figure out that handbags were desirable items, suitable subjects for LUST. But that is a completely different issue and something best kept between me and the John Lewis accessory department.

What does a writer keep in her handbag? Is it different from what a normal person keeps in hers? I’m probably not qualified to answer that question, as I’ve never been what you might call normal ...
I must confess I haven’t done a survey of writers’ handbags either, this is not a well researched academic study, but I can have a look in my own. It’s got all the usual offices – purse, keys, mobile phone. My phone is usually turned off, as I spend a lot of time in places where they are expected to be neither seen nor heard.   I won’t go into the priceless collection of paper napkins and other unsavoury stuff churning around in the bottom – old bus tickets, out of date magazine coupons. On a higher level there’s a skeleton set of makeup for the times when you start to look like one, smelling salts – I’m an old fashioned girl – hand cream, shopping lists, receipts, travel, loyalty and discount cards. In my case there is the attendant paraphernalia of being dangerously short sighted – specs, contact lenses, reading glasses. Then there is often something to read, and an umbrella. Tube maps and various items of an edible nature make guest appearances. So far, so stereotyped. But are there any signs that this bag belongs to a writer? Carrying more than one pen might be a clue. Plus a wallet with a large number of membership cards for libraries and archives, local and national – like the British Library and the National Archive. I don’t usually carry a notebook, although I know I’m supposed to. The big give away that this might be a writer’s bag is the significant amount of what is frequently referred to as ‘swag’ - mine and other people’s. Business cards with pictures of books, the pen’s again, with authors’ names on them, emery boards and lip salve, a slew of bookmarks, fridge magnets, badges and buttons - some with men in kilts. My key rings have my book cover pix on them too. All potential clues.

While I’ve been waffling, I’ve started to wonder – what would my characters carry in their bags and pockets that was distinctive? Maybe next week I will have come up with some answers?  

Wednesday 17 July 2013

Social media - staying in character?

I could just write a letter?
Writers often get advice on how to use social media. The general consensus seems to be that you should tweet, blog, etc, in the style of your books. If you write romantic comedy you aim for wit and humour. If you write anything with a cosy theme you can focus on recipes or crafts. If your books have animals in them you have no problem at all. Which leaves me, as a romantic suspense author, in a bit of a quandary. I write a love story, yes, but a lot of dark stuff too. Not exactly pink and glittery.
Those books come out of my head and down my writing arm and into my pen, so they must have a section in there somewhere where they hang out, being weird and creepy and generally scaring the hell out of the neighbours. But I don’t know anything about it until it surfaces on the page.
Social media is an important part of being an author these days. And I really do want to play the game properly.  I could make an extra effort to follow the advice to the letter. I’m a writer – it’s all about making stuff up, right? But what would the results be? As a romantic suspense author following the regular advice is a bit difficult. Any recipes I recommend could be highly suspect. Is she trying to poison someone here? My tips on a fun social event might include a murder hunt – but courtesy of my latest serial killer? What about a craft project on spent shell cases? You get the picture.
If I stay in character I should be writing mysterious, scary stuff all the time. But I’m not like that in real life. Honest! I’m an ordinary soul, who likes to laugh. I know this should not be happening if I want to be a proper died (sorry dyed) in the wool 24 hour 24 caret crime type. But I’m not. The mayhem only comes out to play when I’m writing, and where it comes from I have no idea. If Madison was real, instead of a figment of my imagination, she might be able to read my mind and tell me. In the meantime I’ll just have to go on being me, writing posts about the books, about places I’ve been, people I’ve seen, things I’ve done – the things that interest me.
Although I must say I’ve frequently had to stop myself tweeting about having a fun afternoon planning the perfect murder. In 140 characters, that might well be misconstrued.    
So, in the spirit of blogging on things that interest me but are not scary, next week’s post might be about shoes – or maybe handbags.

Wednesday 10 July 2013

Does being different come naturally, or do you have to work at it?

It’s no secret that it took me a while to discover the kind of books I wanted to write. I finally found my niche in romantic thrillers; what are known in the States as romantic suspense.
It’s a big genre there – but not so
much here in the UK. So that’s my first instance of being different. I’ve had a lot of comments from UK readers about the unexpected nature of my work – it’s a surprise to find crime and romance given equal page time in quite that way. In most UK crime writing it is quite common to have a love interest, but in romantic suspense the romance and the thrills are neck and neck, one feeding into the other. The realms I work in are not the gritty realistic stuff of the crime novels that portray criminal investigations by the police force. The crime element in my writing usually involves twisted plots and larger than life scenarios. Suspension of disbelief is required – in generous amounts - but it brings hero and heroine together - and keeps them that way- staying alive and defeating very nasty villains. Nothing like dodging a few bullets to let you know who your friends are – and if this hot guy that the heroine has hooked up with happens to be super cool at keeping those bullets at bay … It’s all good.

Predictability is one charge often levelled at romantic fiction – that certain themes repeatedly recur. That’s true, to a certain extent – but they’re popular because readers like them, so why not? One essential that I certainly adhere to is the happy ending. The relationship between my hero and heroine may not be without its problems, but the readers have to know that this couple is making a commitment to each other. Out of Sight Out of Mind has another popular theme, or trope – amnesia. It was an idea that interested me – a somewhat scary one. How would it feel to wake up one morning and not know who you were? But there was another element too – the tiny kernel of a notion that it might on some level be liberating – a fresh slate and the chance to start again, with no past and no baggage. Both those ideas are issues for Jay, the hero of Out of Sight Out of Mind. He’s desperate to retrieve his past, but he also comes to see the possibility of a brand new future … Of course, it’s really not that simple, because his loss of memory is accompanied by a deep unease about what might be hidden in his mind. With justification ...

Out of Sight Out of Mind is a bit different in that I have bucked the trope in one way – Jay did not acquire his amnesia by the traditional method of a bang on the head. It’s a lot more complicated than that. And he and Madison are being watched …

When I was working on the story – and it was unusual because I wrote down parts of it before I had it all planned out in my head – I didn’t have a way in. I had my heroine, Madison, a somewhat unusual one as she is a successful scientist with a bitter/sweet talent – for reading minds. (There’s that suspension of disbelief – king size.) I knew how the two of them would interact, but I had no gateway into how Jay got into the state he was in. I was thinking of the conventional romantic hero – the trope – good looking, well presented, in control of his life…

But what if you turn that on its head? What’s the opposite of that conventionally perfect guy? How about a homeless man, who has been sleeping rough for months, who doesn’t look like a hero should? At least, not with his clothes on. And he doesn’t smell like a hero should, either …
The idea clicked with the parts of the book I’d already written and suddenly I knew exactly how Jay had got where he was, and why. It’s a fabulous moment when that happens. One of the highs of being a writer.

Wednesday 3 July 2013

The Inspiration Files - The Theatre

I'm addicted to the theatre.  I don't get to feed my habit quite so often, now that I don't live in London, but it still has a powerful influence on me. Definitely something to put in the inspiration category.

A lot of what I get from theatre is a sense of atmosphere.
The tone created by the set, the music and the lighting all have something to offer a novelist who is looking for inspiration in conveying emotion and mood. Details can be telling. And it doesn't have to be in a theatre. I've watched plays in derelict churches, in the open air and once, in a disused film studio, where it was raining inside the building as well as out. It all provides access to memories and feelings that can be called up in other very different places and settings.

I'm pretty sure that the thriller element of what I write has its roots in my early introduction to, and subsequent fascination with, Jacobean drama. Those plays explore evil in many forms and are frequently set in Renaissance courts - sumptuous and sinister. Conspirators flit from cloister to bedchamber, men and women luxuriate in velvet and jewels, Love is deep, but often illicit and usually tragic. Revenge is sought with swords and poisoned chalices - which leads directly to the last element that characterises the Jacobean playwrights - a final scene with a very large number of dead bodies. My books are contemporary romantic suspense, so I don't do much with swords - but I'm certainly guilty over the body count.

I've absorbed a lot from watching plays over the years about timing and dialogue and the way characters interact through words.  My books are heavy on dialogue and I'm sure that comes from my fascination with drama.  My love of theatre does sometimes get me into trouble.  Modern playwrights frequently steer clear of too much explanation from their characters, on the basis that people you meet in real life don't automatically open a conversation by telling their life story, and that characters on stage shouldn't either.  Which means that when it comes to editing I'm frequently asked to add the back-story and my books are longer when they've been edited.  And don't get me started on unreliable narratives.  Playwrights are often happy to embrace contradictions, evasions and lapses of memory, if it suits the character -- a bit like people in the real world -- but I rarely get away with it.
Editor 'He said X. on page 9, and on page 27, he said Y.'
Me.'Yes, well, you see... If this was a play ...'

Another theatrical habit is building up the reputation of an as yet unseen character, by other characters constantly talking about the absent player, ready for a big entrance later in the play.  My last theatre trip was to see Noel Coward's Relative Values in Bath. A Hollywood starlet is marrying into an upper class English family. Everyone is talking about her, and the proposed wedding, long before she arrives. By the time she makes her entrance the audience really wants to know what she's going to be like. But take it from me - it's hard to make that work in a book.  I've been told so, often enough.  The reader, quite
reasonably, is looking to meet the hero and/or heroine as soon as possible. If that doesn't happen, confusion ensues- so I now try not to fall into the trap of the dramatic buildup.

I have an unrealised dream project - to take the plot of a bloodthirsty Jacobean drama and turn it into a modern romantic suspense.  It is unrealised, and I suspect it will remain so, as I really don't think it can be done - not many of those plays have a happy ending - they wouldn't be tragedies if they did.  So that's probably a theatrical project too far, but that doesn't stop the atmosphere of the theatre transferring itself into my books.

And, of course, the theatre can be an excellent hunting ground for irresistible males who have no idea that while acting their socks off on stage they are unwittingly auditioning to be the hero in your latest story.