Adding Flavour to your Writing


443px-German_Bratwürste

German Bratwurst at Nuremberg’s main market square,

Something that is often underestimated in fiction is the importance of food and beverages. They are as much part of a nation’s culture and heritage as architecture and art, music and dialects, local costume and customs. Leave out the flavour of food and drink locals like to consume and you’re only telling half the story, robbing yourself of a valuable tool that will draw readers into your narrative by subtle means.

Go beyond mentioning ale, wine, cheese, meat, onions and bread. It is the more intricate detail that helps writers to conjure up an authentic setting, allowing readers to not only see, hear, and feel but TASTE the flavour of a point in time and a real or fictional place.

Food and drink also help writers to characterise protagonists in culinary terms. Think Ian Fleming’s James Bond without his customary shaken but not stirred, super-cool martini or Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot without his beloved tisane. Not quite the same, is it?

bierglas emptying itselfPerhaps your detective protagonist is a gourmand, astonishing villains with amazing feats of culinary prowess that hint at equally accomplished execution of public duties? Or your hapless Latin protagonist cannot prepare a chorizo Mexicano with tostadas to save her life and is as hopeless at cooking as she is at recognising a good man in your romance novel?

Be literary foodie detective

A foreign character becomes that much more genuine in flavour and scent when your “I-must-be-trendy-or-die” heroine teeters into a Berlin bar on her stilettos, orders a Berliner Weisse mit Schuss, climbs onto the bar stool and smiles broadly at the barman, only to display remnants of Bockwurst between her teeth.

The words fish ‘n chips alone conjure up a picture of Britain’s seedy and run-down seaside resorts, of screaming kids in prams pushed around by indifferent mothers in white leggings and baggy tops, of wheeling seagulls, drizzling rain and fierce gusts blowing litter everywhere. Add a steak and kidney pudding accompanied by mushy peas, followed by a sticky bun and plastic cup of tea and you have a setting that is unmistakably British and noir.

Permit the scent of crispy bacon and a heap of baked beans on toast in the early hours of the morning to lure your crime-fighting hero’s growing paunch off-track, and your reader can digest the fact that even the toughest detective needs comfort food once in a while and shouldn’t be asked to forego his full English for an early arrest of the villain.

A culinary starting point

A great advantage of researching historic food and drink is that often writers come across stuff like “this brewery has been producing Hefeweizen (wheat lager) and dark lager since 1827”. It provides us with a genuine reference point in history, allowing us to concentrate on a small area within a village, town or city from which we can expand into the wider (historical) world of our chosen period setting.

Why not use the street in which the brewery stands as a setting for a scene? Let the brewery’s day-to-day operations become a realistic background to your main action. Without going into a huge amount of detail, your writing will allow readers to hear the clip-clop of dray horses pulling a heavy wagon full of kegs; readers will unconsciously wrinkle their noses at the manure dotted around in this cobbled street and sense the air is filled with the stink of fermented hops, malt and wheat. The fictional employees of such a business could even become walk-on characters in your story’s secondary plot.

640px-Sb_zaf

By the way, the brewery mentioned here is located on the Northern German Island of Rügen. The Stralsunder Brauerei has been supplying Baltic resorts with beer since 1827, when the brewery was founded.

640px-Störtebecker-Glas_(3)Let your protagonist drink a dark lager called Störtebecker Hanse Porter, named in honour of 13th century pirate Nicolas (Klaas) Störtebeker, and readers will imagine your manly hero’s rugged good looks and steely gaze. And if your protagonists munch their way through a platter of hearty Braunschweiger, Kohlwurst and Bregenwurst sausages, served with boiled potatoes and steaming kale, readers know the setting is as northern German, Protestant and rural as it gets.

This simple peasant meal will act as a reminder that your story is set in empty, bleak and entirely flat landscapes, lined by deserted white sandy beaches where icy winds rush through dunes even in summer. In this desolate landscape the air is filled with the scent of smoked fish and ham, and the screech of gulls riding the steely grey Baltic waves drown out conversations between windswept protagonists. This is a landscape made for epic, smouldering love stories that don’t end well, leaving a smoky aftertaste on readers’ palates, when they reach the final page.

fcauliflower with rolling eyesEqually, no literary excursion to Prague in the Czech Republic is complete without an ice-cold serving of a glass of light golden Krušovice, a lager with a dry straw aroma served to the office of Václav Havel, when he was the republic’s president back in 2003. The beer has been brewed in Czech Republic since 1517 and the brewery once belonged to Emperor Rudolf II, who purchased it in 1581 for the Czech Crown. Now there’s already a historic novel contained in that one sentence! Why did Rudolf buy a brewery? Whom could a writer murder to make this a whodunit with beer?

And while your hero and heroine are gazing lovingly into each other’s eyes over the din of Strasbourg Cathedral’s bells and the merciless fall of the guillotine, why not let them have a fruity glass of Alsace wine, while they’re nibbling slices of grilled Saucisse de Canard? It’s a sausage made from duck, for which Strasbourg’s surroundings and Brittany are famous. Oh go on, it’s the aristocrats’ final meal together, before the doomed lovers’ heads get chopped off!

The importance of food and drink production

From fluffy white ducks and geese that waddle through meadows and farmyards in the Alsace and Périgord regions in France to the sturdy peasants working steep vineyards of the Rhine and Mosel valleys in Germany, food and drink production has shaped the way our landscapes look and the way people have traded and dealt with each other over time.

little boy munching chicken legsEven when writing a science fiction novel set on another planet, food and drink production that nourishes the beings living on that planet should therefore be uppermost in a writer’s mind. Agriculture will have influenced that planet’s landscapes. Food and drink will be an integral part of the culture our story is based on. Who eats first in a hierarchical society? Who gets the biggest cut and who gets only the scraps?

Is drinking alcoholic beverages a sin, a feat of prowess for manly men or a confounded nuisance for those who have to enforce the law?

If this article has provided you with a morsel of culinary inspiration for your next novel, be sure to pass it on. Spice up your romance with mulled wine; remove greasy burger taste from your Belgium detective’s palate. Serve him cuisine à la bière with a steaming bowl of mussels with frieten instead, adding a glass of Liefmans, brewed in Flanders since 1679, for a refreshing aftertaste. Squirt a little wine into your heroine’s barley water to mellow the minx.

little green pear yawning widelyBon appetite, writers!

 

(picture credits: all animation sourced via heathersanimations.com,

Picture 1: Nuremberg sausages, By Gerbis – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13280953

Picture 2: Stralsunder Brewery,  CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9768916

Picture 3: promotional Sailing Glass/Segelglass identity for Klaas Stoertebeker lager, Bild Segelglas als Identitätsmerkmal der Biermarke Störtebecker,  von Günter Haase – Eigenes Werk, CC-BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40978499)

 

 

 

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When About Me becomes all About Them


1 test tubesAs some of you may know, I have been an About.me.com subscriber and had my details on it. It used to be a great site…until I tried recently to update my details and couldn’t. I submitted an error ticket, got a brief reply they were dealing with it…and heard nothing more…until I received an email proclaiming “exciting news, we have changed the design, made everything looking great blahblah.”.

The new design is, of course, utter crap for those who use the “free” option. No idea what the paid version is like, I cannot even progress to looking at other people’s profiles anymore, as I seem to be permanently stuck in “updating mode”. I had planned to upgrade to a $9.00 per month paid option this year, but now I shan’t. Not worth it, as the new style about.me page is awful. They have also done away by the looks of it with our carefully assembled collections of people we might want to collaborate with in future – in my case writers, illustrators and editors. The design options are now more restricted than ever, one can only upload one link per social network, so I had to mention my Willow the Vampire blog in the text, instead of providing the link at the bottom as before among my more detailed bio. Why make us fill out all that stuff half way through last year, when it’s now all been deleted and we had to complete everything again? No warning was given to subscribers beforehand. Customer service is clearly a foreign concept to this outfit at About.me.com.

I was particularly irritated that the minimalist description, which used to show up next to our photographs/artwork is now meaningless, because it won’t be seen anymore or if any of it is left at all, it just sits at the start of the bio without meaning. My photograph, previously part of my page, has also disappeared, leaving just part of my artwork visible. Worse, the site insists on us putting our location in, which appears at the very top with our profession. If any of you were thinking of signing up to the site, don’t bother, it’s no longer worth it. It used to be a great site, now it’s a waste of space and time.

It’s now all about THEM, no longer about US, the actual subscribers. If this was an experiment in marketing their new paid for services, it’s utterly failed as far as this member is concerned!

 

 

Leprechauns infiltrate Twitter?


flying pixie manYes, you’ve read that correctly! A week into their second promotional adventure on Copromote the pesky little leprechauns shy 9-year-old Linus Brown meets, when he explores his new surroundings in rural Lincolnshire, have managed to charm no fewer than 67 lovely Copromoters into given the ebook a 6,700% boost. To their utter astonishment, 212,933 Twitter followers discovered a sales link to the leprechauns’ ebook in their “in-box”. There’s still one more week to go, so who knows what these sneaky little so-and-so’s will get up to over the next 7 days?

While Linus & The Leprechauns are busily marketing their children’s book on Copromote, their long-suffering creator and co-author is still assessing writing contests for 2016. Here’s one from the wonderful people at Narrative Magazine, if you’re coming over all “literary” and want to submit to the magazine’s submission guidelines:

http://www.narrativemagazine.com/winter-2016-story-contest

Writing Opportunities for Spring 2016


Fox Book Cover

Master of the Foxhunt

 

Birds are tweeting their little heads off, the first fresh green leaves are appearing on our trees. A daffodil or two may even be poking their heads out of the soil to say hello….time to sharpen the old goose feather quill and start thinking about entering writing contests again. And just when I’m recovering from my nasty “festive” cold and start contemplating getting back to creative writing, Aerogramme Studio have helpfully published a list of writing opportunities for February and March this year:

 

Opportunities for Writers: February and March 2016

Loverly people that they are!

Since my nose wouldn’t stop running and prevented me from doing much writing this last fortnight, I’ve re-read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and devoured Susanna Clarke’s marvellous “Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell” books to get me into a “fantasy” frame of mind for my own writing. I managed to write one chapter of my Merlin fan fiction epic “Let The Questing Begin”, despite coughing my guts out during the process, have managed to start another chapter. The epic adventure is nearly at an end, so will soon be published via Bookrix as a FREE ebook . A lengthy writing sample if you will.

I’m still revamping this WordPress site and Willow the Vampire’s own blog, so hopefully there will soon be a few more reading samples appearing here and on Willow’s bloodsucking WordPress site, too.

Incidentally, what I loved about “Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell” was the wonderful use of location, magical and real, that the author makes in her book. Couldn’t put it down – and while I admit to have at first been slightly daunted by the enormous size of the book (1,000 pages), after the first few pages I was so hooked, I couldn’t put it down. I’d meant to read the book for ages, but never found the time, so this was a real treat. Who’d have thought that sober, grumpy Yorkshire could be put to such magical and fantastical use?

And if you’re wondering about the picture at the top, it’s the draft for a book cover “Master of the Foxhunt” I’m working on. It’s an old-fashioned ghost story with a dash of black humour that I’ve nearly finished (about 50,000 words long as an ebook). So watch out for the sales links appearing for that soon!

Tulipomania Part 2


Gerrit Adriaensz-Berckheyde, De Bocht van de Herengracht te Amsterdam, ca 1685, www.rijksmuseum.nl , Public Domain

Gerrit Adriaensz-Berckheyde, De Bocht van de Herengracht te Amsterdam, ca 1685, http://www.rijksmuseum.nl , Public Domain

The tulip craze lasted just a few years, reaching its height in 1636 and coming to a spectacular end in February 1637, when prices crashed due to governmental intervention, leaving thousands of speculators penniless and victims of wide-spread ridicule. Moggach’s book makes use of this craze by mirroring tulipomania with a passionate, but ultimately doomed love-affair.

The Rijksmuseum’s blog provides a great timeline for the most important events, displays fabulous paintings of tulips sold at the time and also shows some of the gorgeous white and blue Delftware flower stands specifically created to show off tulips and other bulb-grown plants to their full advantage, namely indoors in Holland’s cold climate.

In a Business Week article, tulipomania is compared to the dot.com bubble the world saw not all that long ago. It is hard to imagine today how one man, the proud owner of a dozen tulip bulbs for the variety Semper augustus, could possibly turn down an offer of 3,000 guilders for ONE bulb in 1624, when that represented about a whole year’s income for a wealthy merchant.

The name of this greedy beggar was not recorded by history – leaving one to speculate if he was one of thousands of tulip-investors forced to jump into Amsterdam’s grachts, after losing everything in the tulip-crash of 1637, including their homes, mortgaged to the rafters to buy tulip bulbs.

Semper Augustus, public domain, Anonymous 17th-century watercolor of the Semper augustus, created before 1640, famous for being the most expensive tulip sold during tulip mania in 17th century Netherlands

Semper Augustus, public domain, Anonymous 17th-century watercolor of the Semper augustus, created before 1640, famous for being the most expensive tulip sold during tulip mania in 17th century Netherlands

Semper augustus was the most expensive tulip bulb ever sold during the craze and provided inspiration for quite a few painters – as well as prompting author Moggach to write a love story about people involved in the tulipomania of 17th century Amsterdam.

It’s also hard to imagine what times were like for people. After eons of wars with Spain the Netherlands suddenly saw huge wealth poured back into its country from trading with newly established foreign colonies. Perhaps for the first time in history, merchants began to financially out-class the aristocracy. They could afford to build mansions, deck themselves out in the latest fashions, wearing precious silks, gold embroidery and semi-precious stones like their nobles before them. Merchants could now afford commissioning paintings just like the rich upper crust had done for centuries.

Society was changing rapidly on a never-before seen scale, aided by Europe’s Reformation. Moggach makes use of religious doubt extensively in her book, although the ending of her novel is utterly contrived as a result and very unsatisfactory in my view.

But the influx of vast sums of money also allowed the Dutch to create a country in their own image, draining wetlands, reclaiming land from the North Sea, engaging in huge construction programmes to improve their country’s infrastructure. Yet another challenge to God, to the Grim Reaper, to Eternal Darkness – the grachts have endured, no matter what craze befell human minds in the interval.

This look towards extension of one’s alotted life-time is a long, long philosophical and religious way off from the medieval – and catholic – view of eternal damnation, heaven and hell.

Perhaps nowhere is that more evident than in Amsterdam. The wealth it must have taken to create the grachts/canals is staggering, practically incalculable in today’s money.

The houses that would eventually grace the Prinsengracht and the Herengracht, where Moggach’s love story “Tulip Fever” is set, sprung up in those heady days when money seemed to be as plentiful as duckweed floating in English village green ponds.

Amsterdam's canal, c. 1686 Amsterdam Municipal Department for the Preservation and Restoration of Historic Buildings and Sites (bMA) Stadhuis, zijde Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal •Attribution • File:Paleist3.jpg • Uploaded by BotMultichill • Created: 1 January 1686

Amsterdam’s canal, c. 1686
Amsterdam Municipal Department for the Preservation and Restoration of Historic Buildings and Sites (bMA)
Stadhuis, zijde Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal
• Attribution
• File:Paleist3.jpg
• Uploaded by BotMultichill
• Created: 1 January 1686

Occupying the Gouden Bocht or Golden Bend of the Amstel River, the Herengracht reached only as far as the present-day Leidsegracht until 1663. After that date, Amsterdam’s fortifications were expanded and Herengracht, Prinsengracht and Keizersgracht were all extended. Buyers wishing to build on Heregracht were encouraged to buy not one but two lots of land and construct double-width mansions.

As a by-product of the three canals having been laid out at a greater distance from each other, the lots were not just wider, but deeper, allowing merchants to build veritable palaces.

Adorning their Amsterdam-palaces with classicist facades and richly stuccoed interiors, especially the magnificent ceilings, the merchants also established lovely gardens that were opened once a year to the public. You can just imagine them being filled with tulips of the richest hues, can’t you?

Where the Amstel River bends, just by the Nieuwe Spiegelstraat (the “new mirror street”), the richest citizens chose to build their dwellings, which prompted the public to rename this part of the river the Golden Bend.

Moggach’s fictional young wife Sophia, lover Jan van Loos and cuckolded husband Cornelis would have been neighbours to the real-life family living at Herengracht 475, the wealthy clan of the De Neufville, who lived their from 1731 to 1733.

Jan Breughel the Younger, Satire on tulipomania, ca. 1640

Jan Breughel the Younger, Satire on tulipomania, ca. 1640

Interestingly, a list of the real people, who lived in the Golden Bend of the Herengracht during the time Moggach’s book describes, includes the following names:

  • Jan Bernd Cicker (#460)
  • Gerrit Braamcamp (#462)
  • Cornelis Munter (#468)
  • Willem Andriesz Munter (#444)
  • Jacob Boreel (#507)
  • Maria Meerman (#480)
Ilya Repin Sadko Public Doman, Google Cultural Institute

Ilya Repin Sadko Public Doman, Google Cultural Institute

all of them have first names Moggach uses in her novel – better still, “Meerman” is the Dutch word for mermaid/mer-people and servant Maria dreams in the novel of swimming through an underwater world. You see, writers’ minds soak up everything they see and regurgitate every morsel as something totally different, something inspired!

Admiral Verjick van der Eijck, source Wikipedia, Public Domain

Admiral Verjick van der Eijck, source Wikipedia, Public Domain

What is missing in Moggach’s novel is the ebb and flow of humanity. Between the years of 1578 and 1665, the time when Amsterdam sided with the supporters of the Reformation, urban development reached an unprecedented scale. The city grew from 30,000 to 160,000 people – only London and Paris were larger at that time. This huge influx o new residents was not just driven by the Reformation though, which forced large numbers of protestants to feel the catholic South, but was also the result of Antwerp losing its hold as “Golden Age” centre in favour of Amsterdam.

Although a single, much older canal existed, the way Amsterdam looks today is due to a four-phase construction programme that began in earnest in 1585. By 1613 a second phase had completed an even larger section of canals and between 1613 and 1625 the third phase was completed.

The final phase took place in the years 1656 to 1665, the time the Gouden Bocht was constructed and Amsterdam’s most prestigious address was created, the Herengracht between the uneven numbers 441 to 513 and even numbers 426 to 482. I can’t help but wonder what Maria Meerman (if I’d known this name existed, I’d have made it my pen name!) got up to in her mansion. Did she “swim” through stuccoed rooms, floating by her magnificent rear garden, waving at the goldfish in her pond, while casually picking off dead petals from her Semper augustus, tulipa clusiana and Violetten Admirael van Enkhuizen?

The latter bulb was sold for 5,200 guilders, an all-time record in the winter of 1636, when the sale of just 70 tulip bulbs achieved revenue of 53,000 guilders for a handful of orphans, whose father had left them nothing but tulip bulbs.

Two Sides to a Heart & Two Sides to a City


There are two parts to my blog post today, although you could say they are vaguely related, as both parts are about thriller writing.

Firstly: Calling all thriller writers:

Thriller Writing Contest for Bookrix Authors: The Music of Eric Zann (German: Die Musik des Erich Zann). It’s free to join Bookrix.com as a reader and/or author – it’s a German/English language self-publishing platform. You can upload your submission in either German or English – or both!

Writing Contest Theme: Choose a sentence from Howard Phillip Lovecraft’s story “The Music of Erich Zann” as inspiration for a short story. Use this sentence within your story. You have from 15.09.2015 to 10.10.2015 to post your story to this thread: http://www.bookrix.de/post/group;content-id:group_9738093986,id:1769300.html http://www.bookrix.de/_group-de-thrilling-stories/

Remember, you must become a member of Bookrix, before you can enter the contest. The winner gets not only a virtual pat on the back and potentially lots of readers and reviews on Bookrix, especially when delivering your story in German, but can also look forward to a book prize:

Im Sommernachtstraum / Die Bürgschaft 11,80 EUR, 210 Seiten, ISBN 978-3-940445-80-3 http://www.amazon.de/Sommernachtstraum-Die-B%C3%BCrgschaft-Jugend-Roman-Theaterst%C3%BCck/dp/3940445800/

Also available as an eBook. EUR 0,99 http://www.amazon.de/Sommernachtstraum-Die-B%C3%BCrgschaft-Jugend-Roman-ebook/dp/B006MRNQ6K

And while you may not be keen on the book prize, if German isn’t your first language, you should remember that the majority of Bookrix readers is under 40 and therefore able to read English pretty well – lots of potential readers and therefore potential purchasers of your own books! Phil Humor, the organiser of the contest, has thoughtfully provided various links to Lovecraft’s story:

Here’ s the German Wiki Link and short story description:

https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Die_Musik_des_Erich_Zann

Die Musik des Erich Zann (Originaltitel: The Music of Erich Zann) ist eine Kurzgeschichte von Howard Phillips Lovecraft, geschrieben im Dezember 1921 und erstveröffentlicht im März 1922 in der Zeitschrift The National Amateur. Sie gehört zu den beliebtesten Erzählungen Lovecrafts, wurde vielfach nachgedruckt und in mehrere Sprachen übersetzt, unter anderem ins Deutsche und ins Französische. Bis in die Gegenwart hat sie Schriftsteller, Illustratoren, Filmemacher und nicht zuletzt Musiker zu eigenen Schöpfungen angeregt.

Plus some more info in German and English:

http://www.hplovecraft.de/index.php?id=werke (downloadable short story in German)

http://www.yankeeclassic.com/miskatonic/library/stacks/literature/lovecraft/stories/musiczan.htm

  1. P. Lovecrafts Bibliothek des Schreckens “Die Musik des Erich Zann” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wUbZ9IylQzA Part 2 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JHPr4cndkm4

Secondly: Two Sides to a Heart, Two Sides to a City

Back to my “location” focused blog theme now: recently I read two very different books that both used the  setting for their books as brilliant metaphors for the “internal” journey their protagonists undergo in the course of the story. I’d like to delve into the first one, which is a brilliant thriller by the Russian writer Boris Akunin, whose popular “Erast Fandorin” adventures have wowed not only hordes of readers but also international critics over the years.The novel in question is “The Coronation”. You can read my general review at my Goodreads page, if you like.

Nicholas_II_by_Boissonnas_&_Eggler_c1909The narrator of the story is Afanasii Stepanovich Ziukin, a butler at the Green Court in St. Petersburg of Tsarist Russia. It’s the week before the coronation of what will be the country’s last Tsar, for soon the tides will turn against the monarchy; chaos will break out across Russia and many members of the ruling Romanov family will be murdered. Nicholas II reign lasted from 1.11.1894 to 15.3.1917. The coronation in question happened on 26th May 1896, (old style date lists this as 14th May 1896)

However, the novel isn’t about that. It’s more about the build up to all the horrors still to come – at first glance.

At second glance, however, it is a wonderful novel about one man who rediscovers his heart. His early love for a high-born lady was thwarted some 30 years before the plot starts. It broke his tender adolescent heart and he closed himself off to all human emotions other than “adoration” for those he serves. As Afanasii is forced to get involved in the adventures of Erast Fandorin, he learns to love again. Throughout the book Afanasii refuses to acknowledge that he is capable of love, however, and it is this refusal, which ultimately saves his life and soul in a tragic twist of fate.

With every fence or drain pipe he has to climb during the adventure, Afanasii not only gets used to seeing Moscow – and imperial Russia for that matter – in a different light. As his limbs get accustomed to the unusual exercise, so does that other muscle, the human heart, get used to the unfamiliar feeling of loving.

Author Akunin shows us the grand imperial palaces and parks as they were when Tsar Alexander was about to be crowned emperor in Moscow. By way of contrast, we get to see the murky side of impoverished Moscow, where gangs of thugs rule supreme, calling themselves “king” over their subjects of cut throats, pickpockets and pimps. Sounds familiar to modern day Russians by any chance?

Spb_06-2012_Palace_Embankment_various_14Akunin also uses the different palaces to show us how rivalry between the Romanovs was expressed in more or less subtle ways. This rivalry greatly added to the poor decision making that was ultimately the monarchy’s downfall. For example: upon arrival for the coronation, the Grand Duke Georgii Alexandrovich, who is the zar’s uncle and Afanasii’s employer, the butler discovers the Green Court’s members and staff have been put into the Small Hermitage Palace, which has only 15 rooms to accommodate them all. Even the butler and his assistants have their own servants…so where are they all to sleep? He suspects that this was a vindictive manoeuvre by the youngest of the Grand Dukes, who can’t stand his older brother Georgii, but is in charge of all that happens in Moscow as the governor general of the capital. His decision to put the Green Court into such an easily accessible, and poorly defended palace, has far reaching, tragic consequences.

Naturally, Akunin also uses Moscow’s buildings and streets to demonstrate the immense gulf that lay between the Romanovs and the enormous number of aristocrats the Russian ordinary people had to support with their labours. Virtual slaves, they hardly earned enough to eat and clothe themselves or have a roof over their head. And there is another brilliant metaphor Akunin uses to show us something important that happens to his protagonist, whenever he changes location:

With every part of the adventure, Afanasii, who lives and works in several palaces throughout the year, as the Romanovs travel from residence to residence with the change of the seasons, the butler loses or ruins parts of his clothing. To Afanasii, his courtly clothes mark him out as a man of distinction; he believes they give him his dignity and he uses them like armour against emotional involvement. Shedding his outer layers of skin or emotional armour, if you like, always comes with a dramatic change of location.

Tsaritsino_from_helicopter-1The butler’s courtly clothing either gets lost or torn while climbing over fences or scampering up or down drain pipes or his clothes get stolen in the dangerous streets of the suburbs. We are told how much fashionable clothing costs – and while in comparison to what court butlers earn it is not such a lot, in comparison to what the ordinary man or woman or child in the street earns, it is an unimaginable fortune.

It is rare for me to close a book and then want to read it all over again in an instant. This is such a book. If you want to learn how to use your chosen setting/location in many different, subtle ways to say something important about your protagonist’s inner workings, this is the book to read. It is also rip-roaring fun to read, despite its very serious theme and setting. Read it prior to writing your own thriller and your submission to Bookrix should be in with a very good chance of winning!

Feeling Romantic and Ready to Entwine?


heathersanimations.comThis morning I opened one of those mailshot emails from Inkitt and this is what it said:

“Today at 11am PST, we are launching a brand new Romance writing contest!

“Entwined”: http://inkitt.com/entwined We can’t wait to start reading early submissions. Who will be the first to submit? If you have friends who love to read or write romance, let them know by forwarding this message, or by retweeting this tweet: https://twitter.com/Inkitt/status/642346605291696128

Thank you so much for helping us spread the word! Looking forward to reading your submissions. Best of luck,

Ali Albazaz  Founder & CEO | Inkitt.com Kulturbrauerei (Haus 1, Aufgang D) Schönhauser Allee 36 • 10435 Berlin Mobile: +49 170 8647236

So get writing, soft-hearted WordPress authors, for Inkitt only ever give us a month to get things done…although kindly, they allow writers to upload at any length and stuff that has previously appeared elsewhere and wasn’t specifically written for the contest. Finding it hard to get started? Imagine it’s snowing outside and you’re snuggling up to your stud-muffin; he’s feeling sleepy, so why not tell him a bedtime story that will send him off to nod with some very lovely dreams about you and him, cuddling in front of a storytelling hearth, entwined with a glass of his favourite wine?

Remember though, whatever you enter, should conform EXACTLY to the competition rules, topic and submission guidelines or you’ll throw away your chance of winning. Good luck to all of WP’s romantic writer’s hearts out there!

Be very afraid, dear Fellow Authors!


heathersanimations.comIt seems that when I last blogged I omitted to tell you that apparently Inkitt(dot)com membership is by invitation only. You can get an invite, if you follow them on Twitter and give them a chance to check out the quality of your writing via links to your blogs/published work. So far so good.

Entering into their fun and free “Wanderlust” writing contest is fine by me, but there are more sinister things afoot. Authors, be afraid, very afraid, for the publishing world is changing again and as usual, not for the better. Inkitt promises us a brand new publishing concept that is supposed to revolutionise the way in which authors come before their audiences. No revolution is bloodless, and sadly, this one will kill off talent in favour of publishing platforms raking in the $ and £. Here’s why:

This morning I opened an email from Inkitt, a platform promising to get talented authors before publishers and literary agents, telling me that now they’re looking for authors to upload their novels by deadline 1st October 2015. The more votes, the greater my chances of getting a publishing contract, apparently. And the beauty is that all their lovely members will help me improve my novel! Yay.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, painted by Johann Nepomuk della Croce (1736-1819)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, painted by Johann Nepomuk della Croce (1736-1819)

Why oh why would I want to allow other users, who at best equal my talent and writing prowess and at worst, resemble those hopeless entries we see on telly’s “Britain’s Got Talent” making a total idiot of themselves, mess around with my already written novel? I’m not being arrogant here – the majority of these platforms are populated by teenagers barely able to string three sentences together. And all three of those sentences are usually about their favourite TV show or pop star.

Are Inkitt’s users critical readers trained in proofreading and editing? Nope.

Would anyone in their right mind have suggested to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to change his compositions in favour of some layperson’s idea of what music should sound like? Would the world have been presented with sublime works like Don Giovanni or Die Zauberfloete? I don’t think so, do you?

Are Inkitt’s employees professional literary agents with clout in the publishing industry and the connections to make this children’s writer a critically acclaimed, bestselling household name for generations to come. Nope.

Inkitt’s angel investors have no publishing background by the looks of it either, nor do any of their employees. Their only claim to fame is that one of their senior personnel designed the original Twitter logo once upon a time. Does this instil me with confidence in them making good on their publishing contract promises. Nope.

Worse, we already know that the concept of too many cooks spoils the literary broth. We know so because Hollywood subjected us to two decades of prequels to the sequels, all made with the same accountant-inspired knitting pattern of plots that were so predictable, we knew the ending of the blockbuster before we’d even watched the adverts!

Hollywood executives would allow small, hand-picked audiences to determine the ending of films. As a result, we were presented with rubbishy fodder for the uncritical masses, until small indie films stole the show at award presentations and made comparatively large amounts of money with well-written, original scripts at their openings and via DVD sales. Suddenly Hollywood execs pricked up their ears and polished their designer glasses. Could originality really be making a comeback in the movie industry? Yeiks, better find a scriptwriter who can still think outside of the accountant-manufactured box!

heathersanimations.comPlatforms like Inkitt and SOOP (soopllc(dot)com), another so called author-driven website promising writers a leg up in the publishing jungle, seem to have completely missed the point.

At SOOP they want authors to merely pitch an idea and let the trolls on their site decide, which novel idea an author should go with…ever heard of ORIGINALITY, dear SOOP (Silly Oiks Offer Pooh)? Jane Austen, Wordsworth and Dickens are revolving in their graves as I’m writing this!

READING, READING, READING critically the very best literature has to offer will help new authors to improve their own writing, not the well-meant but by and large meaningless comments left on sites like Wattpad and their ilk. Let those who want to publish teenage-angst-ridden drivel and Justin Bieber sex fantasies do so at places like Wattpad. Allow those of us who have talent that should be nursed by other talented, professionally trained people strive for excellence and critical acclaim.

With the latter comes longevity in the business, even if “50 Shades of Grey” type authors do make the big bucks fast. Will anyone want to read that puberty-driven drivel in 20 years time? Nope.

Are really talented authors driven by money, money, money alone? Nope.

It’s the literary journey from A to B, from thought onto page, that ultimately makes us tick. Alright, a bit of loot along the way also helps, but it’s not what drives REAL writers to put finger to keyboard and ink onto the page. It’s the art of writing, and yes, it is an art form, dear SOOT and Inkitt, not purely a $$$$ venture, that keeps talented writers sane and busy scribbling.

Writing is our way of making the world work for us, in our image, to our design. Little G.O.D.s that we carry inside make us do it (or do I mean D.O.G.s?), not the promise of bestseller lists, literary wine & nibbles evenings or book signings.

Inkitt informs us that “previously self-published novels also qualify” to enter in their new novel writing competition. Uh, last time I checked, every self-publishing author who sells via platforms like Amazon’s Createspace, Bookrix or Neobooks for example enters into a legally binding contract.

Self-published authors publishing on respectable platforms like Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Smashwords etc are not permitted to allow their books to be published for FREE in one part of the world/Internet and sold for hard currency in another. It seems Inkitt’s people don’t even bother checking the basics of the self-publishing world either.

Even platforms where people publish for free may stipulate a certain amount of time has to elapse before authors are permitted to publish elsewhere. The prospect of discovering the next deliverer of drivel that sells has seemingly completely blinded Inkitt’s team.

heathersanimations.com

What’s good writing? Damn, I’ve forgotten again!

Would I rather chew off my writing arm than publish a novel (for FREE) on Inkitt? Yep.

Ranting over. It’s safe to come out again, dear fellow authors.

Being Epic on an epic Scale: Review of Cornwell’s 1356


1356 coverBernard Cornwell presents us with another magnificent tale here. “1356”, is part of Cornwell’s Grail Quest series of novels, and set during the 100-year war between England and France.

The author has won many fans with memorable series of books such as “Sharpe”, which was adapted for TV and starred actor Sean Bean in the title role, the “Warrior Chronicles” and the “Starbuck Chronicles”. All of them owe much to Cornwell’s meticulous research into the real geographical locations where his fictional action takes place and the historic events that inspired his narration.

This is “boys own” stuff though and readers expecting modern Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Zena the Warrior Princess type heroines will be bitterly disappointed. Writing for a male readership clearly obsessed with rape fantasies, Cornwell’s women are strictly victims never heroines. It’s sad that Cornwell should pander to this type of male readership. His constant reference to women getting raped all over the place is not so much down to the harsh medieval world he’s writing about but shows he wants to keep such male readers happy. Still, Cornwell is a brilliant writer and this blog post is about the way in which Cornwell uses location to conjure up a believable world. I leave you to judge him on the gender issue.

EPIC on an epic Scale

Battle of Crecy

Battle of Crecy

Nobody could accuse Cornwell of not knowing how to do “epic”. The reader knows she’s in for an epic adventure the moment she opens the book. This novel is divided into four parts plus a prologue and there are a few helpful maps. The prologue begins with a location: Carcassonne in southern France. From there Cornwell transfers the action to Avignon, then Montpellier, then Poitiers, before finally reaching the climax with an astonishing battle fought between the forces of King Jean of France and England’s Prince of Wales in 1356.

Cornwell’s locations have been carefully chosen to represent the build-up to the final battle in this most epic of wars – 100 years blood-soaked years of it! And this was just one of many “skirmishes” between English archers and French knights.

We are treated initially to brutal fights between fairly small forces, sometimes just a few people fighting each other, sometimes groups of soldiers battling it out in small confined surroundings. Each encounter is fiercer and bloodier than the previous one, and with each encounter the locations get bigger, ultimately leading to the Big Bang between England and France in the autumn of 1356, when some 16,000 men and horses collided on a vast field and hillside.

Crecy Village Sign, by Peter Lucas, own work

Crecy Village Sign, by Peter Lucas, own work

The story travels from the outskirts of Carcassonne across the south of the country to the north of France and the town of Poitiers. Along the way Cornwell’s sweeping narration takes in hamlets and hovels, forests, marshland, fields, crumbling towers and fairly new monasteries, noisy taverns, whorehouses, formidable abbeys and imposing castles. In short, Cornwell presents readers with the whole medieval world known to an English soldier fighting in France.

Carcassonne, France, photograph by Jondu11

Carcassonne, France, photograph by Jondu11

The final battle is described in all its horrors and Cornwell doesn’t flinch away from stating it as it is. This is not the heroic battlefield of fantasy novels. The author travelled to the real location to get a feel for the landscape and setting, describing it in beautiful detail as it must have been in 1356.

And that battle is the real blood, piss, shit, chopped off limbs, guts and gore stuff that happened. Six thousand English soldiers meet ten thousand Frenchmen in a clash so loud it makes your ears ring, your eyes water and your teeth shatter with the din of it.

Edward III counting the dead on the battlefield of Crecy by Virgil Master, illuminator

Edward III counting the dead on the battlefield of Crecy by Virgil Master, illuminator

You can practically feel the trampled vines crunching under your feet and you’ll find yourself flinching from horses’ hooves as they kick and scream in their final moments. The clanging of spiked morningstars flattening metal helmets, crushing skulls in the process, is deafening. You’ll be checking every so often if brain matter spattered across your shirt while you were busy turning pages.

Men hack, cut, bash, batter, shoot, bite, kick, punch and trample. They don’t stop until their opponent is utterly crushed, literally, and the landscape is awash with blood, urine, excrement, rotting corpses and the tears of the survivors.

Cornwell’s “1356” battle feels totally real. For any budding writer out there planning to write a fantasy novel with a big battle scene this is essential reading.

Nothing like A Year in Provence

Palais des Papes, Avignon, photograph by JM Rosier

Palais des Papes, Avignon, photograph by JM Rosier

None of the buildings or landscapes provide any comfort or solace in this novel. This is not the France we know from holiday brochures or from reading the delightful A Year in Provence, where pretty thatch-roof cottages or magnificent castles light up the landscape and the gaps are filled by cosy restaurants serving delicious food.

These villages and towns are littered with hostile abodes where humans and animals find few creature comforts, even when some buildings are relatively richly furnished. No matter how strong or thick the fortified walls, somebody will find a way to destroy them and kill everything and everyone within. Even a location within a location, for that’s what buildings are, can serve to drive home a point, in this case: war doesn’t stop at one’s threshold just because you’ve locked the door. You can’t pull the duvet over your head to block out the hounds of war.

Cornwell’s landscapes change from hot and bothered to mud-spattered and half-drowned. His protagonists face hidden dangers in forests, in rivers and on hilltops where man and horse can die of thirst gradually or be cut down by an arrow in a blink of an eye. Even at Thomas of Hookton’s own stronghold, the Castillon d’Arbizon, there is a traitor who passes on information to Thomas’ enemies.

Caerphilly Castle, Wales

Caerphilly Castle, Wales

Castles are draughty and dark, stink and more often than not act as prisons rather than refuge. The castles and fortresses remind us that swearing allegiance to the wrong overlord can become a prison of mind, body and soul, as both Roland and Robbie find out.

Church buildings are equally hostile, inhabited as they are by deranged monks, power-hungry cardinals, duplicitous abbots and sadistic priests. Cold and dark or filled with smoke from too many candles, these churches are either decorated with mysterious paintings that have lost their meaning over time or they are being painted by arrogant artists who create art for the glorification of their patrons, not for the glory of God.

These locations are not holy places but unholy representations of man. There is no salvation here, only damnation and horrible death.

The hilarious scene between Thomas of Hookton and the ancient Countess of Malbuisson in the Saint Dorcas convent is simply priceless and particularly amusing for an atheist like myself: it tells me everything there’s to know about the absurdity of religion and churchmen!

Legend versus Reality

heathersanimations.comThis medieval world is not the world of bards and chivalry, of Breughel-peasants frolicking in fields. This is the world of Hieronymus Bosch, hell on Earth, where chaos reigns supreme. No building, no city, village or town can provide safety. Young Roland, champion at so many French tournaments, soon learns that the battlefield is nothing like the chivalrous jousting places he’s used to. Cornwell beautifully compares locations of real battles and skirmishes between enemies with the glamour of courtly tournaments.

Cornwell takes us from certainty to uncertainty, from fact to fiction. Just as historians have been baffled ever since, why the French lost the battle in 1356, when they vastly outnumbered the English, nobody knows for certain, where this battle actually took place.

heathersanimations.comAfter a prologue and several exact locations in space and time, the narration enters the mists of legends. Legend has it, the battle took place some 8 miles distance from Poitiers, near the Abbey of Nouaillé, on the 19th September 1356, but nobody has been able to identify the actual Champ d’Alexandre, the flat hilltop that reputedly served as the battlefield.

Although Cornwell went to visit the alleged location of Champ d’Alexandre, he could only choose the spot that seemed most logical to him as the field for a great battle. The mystery surrounding the actual historical location just adds to the romance of the novel and our enjoyment of it.

Using Location to underline the Leitmotif

Right from the start Cornwell uses location to demonstrate the “them and us” situation. While the gentry and rich hide behind massive walls of Carcassonne’s enormous fortress, the burgers of the town are left defenceless. The township is pillaged and raped by the English.

The novel plunges the reader straight into the hell of warfare in the first few pages – there is no glory here, no glamour; it is vile, it is brutal, it is the stuff of nightmares. There is no sanctuary to be found for the ordinary man, woman or child anywhere, not even in church, where soldiers also rape, murder and plunder.

Rich and powerful people usually find a way to survive and this theme surfaces throughout the novel. While the King and cardinals hide behind enemy lines or enter the battle only with their body guards, the foot soldiers plunge into the melee and are hacked to pieces.

The rich, most notably kings, churchmen and princes, have a tendency to survive. They might occasionally get captured, but as long as their followers can raise the ransom, these captives will eventually go free.

Location, Location, Location takes us to the Happy End

Tournament at Bute Castle, Cardiff

Tournament at Bute Castle, Cardiff

In a novel where location has such importance, naturally location acts as the final reward.

The two anti-heroes of the book, English archer Thomas of Hookton and the Black Prince, are eventually rewarded, not so much with riches of a material kind, but with the ability to go home to England after many years of fighting in France. Neither man hides behind others or seeks shelter behind fortified walls. They are found at the heart of battle every time and therefore deserve to go home unharmed and dripping with (albeit unexpected) glory.

Here an author has used a profusion of locations to give his story the epic scope the historic event requires. But the choice of locations also serves to explain the complex characters of the two anti-heroes, Thomas of Hookton and Edward, Prince of Wales. Both men are portrayed as fully rounded as the hillside where the battle took place; they are as immovable and firm in pursuing their own code of honour as the fortified walls of Carcassonne’s gigantic castle.

medieval weaponry display at Cardiff, Wales

medieval weaponry display at Cardiff, Wales

When we see them in their final battle, the main characters of the book are no longer protected physically by anything other than a hedge and a few trees. Mentally, physically and emotionally they can no longer hide, neither from their enemies nor from readers’ scutiny. Exposed to the battle and to the critical eye of the reader, the personalities of the two anti-heroes are laid bare, just as the characters of their opponents, King Jean of France and an assortment of enemies both Thomas and Prince Edward have made along the way.

Presented with a large dollop of humour and an even larger helping of historical fact with regard to weapons, battle tactics, armour and deployment of archers, “1356” is a fantastic read for battle-hardened fantasy readers who have so far shied away from historic novels but would like to get a taste of a clash between real medieval forces.

The Reek of Red Herrings


cover of red herringThere is a tendency to set murder mysteries and crime novels in urban jungles these days.
The Reek of Red Herrings by Catriona McPherson is a contemporary example of how authors can use the traditional “village” setting successfully to demonstrate their overall theme. A village location can be far more than just a pretty background for foul deeds and thrilling action.

Here the village represents not simply a closed community with its own set of beliefs and rules, a world in miniature, but mirrors the tightly packed herring barrels of the book title, where layer upon layer of creature must be exposed and investigated before our sleuths can get to the bottom of the mystery.

The dark, winding, narrow and inhospitable streets of Gamrie, a village snaking up a steep crag overlooking the sea, are as confusing as the villagers’ family names and hereditary connections, causing sleuths Dandy and Alec to constantly lose their way in this investigation – intellectually, ethically and physically.

Even the architecture of Gamrie’s houses is baffling to the extreme. Several families live in one multi-story house, but the division of the rooms and different levels makes no sense to outsiders. The village’s precarious location on the crag overhanging the sea poses a constant threat to human and animal lives, just as uncovering the truth does, because revealing it will cause a scandal that will wreck the fishing community’s livelihood.

A Barrel of fishy Goings-on

Clupea_harengus_Gervais.flippedSet in 1930, this wonderfully atmospheric and dark murder mystery begins when amateur detectives Alec Osborne and Dandy Gilver are called in by the boss of a Banffshire fishing fleet to investigate on the quiet the macabre appearance of body parts in his herring barrels.

Married forty-something Dandy Gilver is glad to get out of a boring Christmas get-together with some of the dullest elements of her family; her handsome and much younger friend Alec Osborne is alone in the world, so always ready to plunge into sleuthing at a moment’s notice. Before Dandy’s husband Hugh can utter any kind of seasonal protest, the two detectives are off to the northeast coast of Scotland for a new adventure.

Pickled Philly-oolies

Catriona McPherson

Catriona McPherson

Their latest client cannot risk going to the police but must find out how, whether due to accident or foul play, human remains got among the herrings. So the respectable Mr. Birchfield summons the two amateur sleuths to his Aberdeen harbour office and asks them to investigate undercover in the village of Gamrie, the origin of these particular fishy barrels.

Posing as brother and sister, the two detectives plus Dandy’s elderly Dalmatian Bunty promptly head to Gamrie, where they are forced to stay in a cheerless hotel called the Three Kings. It’s run by mad-as-a-hatter landlady Miss Euphemia Clatchie, the first in a long line of eccentric local characters. Euphemia is also the first character who serves beautifully as a suspect in this barrelful of red herrings. The two detectives go undercover as a couple of philologists, or philly-oolies, as the fishing community calls them.

By asking pertinent questions among local households what ancient customs fishing folk are still practicing, the two sleuths try to discover, if a murder took place or whether Mr Pickle, the chopped-up man in Mr. Birchfield’s herring barrels, was simply the victim of an accident at sea and got into the barrels by a series of unfortunate circumstances.

Although initially these old customs seem quaint and rather sweet, the more our sleuths delve into the traditions of Gamrie, the more they are appalled by the sinister implications of some of these customs. The brains of Gamrie’s inhabitants, one feels after reading a few chapters, are just as pickled as herring and as inverted as the words philologists and philly-oolies!

Leading us by the Nose from one foul Stench to another Horror

If the thought of body parts among the herrings makes you shiver, wait until you read the bit where Dandy follows husband Hugh’s advice and visits a Gamrie curio museum. Naturally, the contents of that place would have been a source of wonder and pleasure for emotionally stunted Hugh Gilver!

Clupea_pallasiiFor everyone else, however, private museums devoted to the art of the taxidermist, are quite simply horrific. This reviewer once went to such a place in Arundel, Sussex, in the late 1970s and still has nightmares of squirrels posing in 18th century silk breeches several decades later.

Just as Agatha Christie often uses a cosy village location and manor house as background for her murder mysteries, McPherson introduces the “them and us” theme into her novel. Here a mansion-cum-museum at the edge of the village mirrors the closed village world of Gamrie.

Just like Gamrie, the museum is also a place where not everything is as it seems. The Searle brothers, who run the museum, are at first glance kind old gentlemen, but at second glance they are something else entirely. See how McPherson uses the different sections of the museum to build up her horror effect and how she changes the direction of her novel. It’s a fabulous use of location by a writer.

With each new room of horrible exhibits we are given insight into the Searle Brothers’ mindset and catch a glimpse of their ultimate goal. Leaving behind the genre of the cozy at the doorstep of the museum, McPherson takes the reader by their clammy hand and leads them ever so gently into a Gothic horror story!

It’s another example of using mirror images in a novel to drive home one’s overall theme, in this instance: living in a narrow and confined environment is apt to unhinge the mind.

Herring_catch-Sep200The museum visit introduces us to a new mystery serving as the sub-plot; here we have smelly dead things not contained by a barrel but presented in glass cases. Both mysteries have the foul stench of fishy business about them and before Dandy and Alec can say “kippers”, they are investigating the possibility of serial killings.

Salted Conundrum

The Reek of Red Herrings is McPherson’s most ambitious novel to-date, starring hordes of colourful characters and presenting the reader with two murder plots simultaneously; as the title says, it reeks of red herrings and there are several barrels of them standing by in Gamrie.

Infused with McPherson’s very own brand of black humour, the story plods along like a put-putting old trawler in heavy sea, hampered by rough weather and the two sleuths’ inability to understand ancient Doric lingo.

This reviewer often found herself laughing out loud at Dandy’s attempts to impress Alec with her “translations” into English, which then turn out to be totally wrong, to the great amusement of Gamrie’s fishermen and women.

The sleuths’ inability to understand Doric is yet another metaphor: Dandy’s and Alec’s modern minds also fail to understand what drives stuck-in-time local minds. This has serious consequences for their investigation.

Fishy Folklore

McPherson must have spent ages researching all the different customs, wedding lore and superstitions among early 20th century fishing communities, because she delights us with a veritable flood of them.

The abundance of same name individuals in the village, which are as bewildering to Dandy and Alec as they are to the reader, serves rather well to demonstrate how inbred the place really is and therefore, how unhinged Gamrie is as a community.

Gamrie’s tradition of “handfasting” young couples seems nothing more than a hypocritical excuse for these “pious” villagers to sleep around before settling on the financially most advantageous partner. Greed and material advantage are the basis for marriage in Gamrie, not love or companionship. Cloaked in a mantel of folklore and brandishing before them their god-fearing Doric expressions, which are nothing more than a barrel of lies, these villagers are unwilling, not unable, to rise over senseless superstitions.

Having recovered her ethical stance during a year’s absence, Dandy states quite clearly to one villager at the end of the novel: ” we won’t return”. Our sleuths wash their hands of this fishy community and walk away for good.

A Mystery as changeable as the Weather

Dandy Gilver's not a fair weather girl

Dandy Gilver’s not a fair weather girl

We are treated to the whole range of Scottish climate in this village, ranging from drizzle, fog and sheets of rain to raging blizzards, thunder and lightning and even mudslides and tsunami-like waves. Naturally, the weather serves to make the village location more atmospheric and “gothic” for us, but as with the streets and buildings of Gamrie, the weather serves as a triple-layered metaphor and is not just there for decoration.

Firstly, harsh climate demonstrates how precarious the existence of such a small community is and how dependent small communities like Gamrie are on each other.

Secondly, the weather undermines our sleuths’ efforts to discover the truth about the chopped-up man in the barrels at every turn. Repelled physically by the rain and snow, the cold and the wind, our sleuths are also prevented intellectually from finding out the truth, because the locals’ attitude towards them is as changeable as the weather. One minute Gamrie’s residents are talkative and co-operative, the next moment residents button their lips and allow gale force wind to slam doors shut in our sleuths’ faces.

Simply getting about from A to B to interview suspects is a struggle. And when our sleuths do manage to leave their hotel, a gale drives them like helpless autumn leaves to places they don’t necessarily want to investigate. Just when Dandy and Alec think they’re hot on the trail of unravelling the mystery of Mr. Pickle, they lose their footing on an icy patch or a cold breeze blows them off course and they drift off into a new direction on an icy float of more misconceptions and deceit.

Finally, Gamrie’s temperamental climate prompts readers to suspect malevolent undercurrents are driving the lives of these fishermen and women, but when one is tossed and turned about in heavy seas, where does one turn for dry land – and a stable theory of who committed a crime? Banffshire’s changeable weather mirrors the ever-changing theories our sleuths, and the reader, develop about the case.

Doggedly carrying on

heathersanimations.comUnusually for a McPherson novel, the last chapter sees us back in Gamrie, a year after the dramatic events. Bunty has died of old age and a new puppy is wrecking the car seats, as Alec brings the car to a screeching standstill in Gamrie harbour. There is no feeling of a job well done with the closure of this murder investigation and the nature of the crimes mean there cannot possibly be a happy ending for Gamrie either. However, the community carries on doggedly, using superstition and folklore to block out reality.

Dandy and Alec carry on doggedly with another case, blocking out how the stay in Gamrie has highlighted that their relationship is stuck in neutral after eight years as fellow sleuths. They may have gone to the village weddings as the mirror image of best man and maid of honour, but they are far, far from being the happy couple.

We are spared Dandy’s pain over losing her beloved dog Bunty, but are left to wonder if horrible Hugh shot her behind the woodshed, as he keeps threatening at the start of the novel. The arrival of a new (male) puppy on the scene suggests that Dandy is moving on with life, but her ambivalence about the puppy mirrors her ambivalence about her marriage to Hugh.

The reader suspects this puppy may be one of Hugh’s ill-conceived ideas, an animal foisted on Dandy against her will. The naughty behaviour in the car suggests this is a dog in no way adequate to follow in Bunty’s well-behaved paw prints.

Bunty was, as Dandy tells us towards the end of the book, “quite the most comforting creature ever born”. One feels therefore, Dandy will forever be deprived of Bunty’s spotted kind of emotional support. It’s a sad ending all round, and not just for dog-lovers.

A Whiff of new Horizons

The only true sliver of hope at the end of dark and macabre adventure is the fact that Alec and Dandy’s relationship is blossoming into something resembling romance. Maybe Bunty had to die to make way in Dandy’s heart for somebody else? Who knows, the next book may well see Hugh Gilver’s long overdue demise! Perhaps he’ll be washed away by Gilverton’s infamous drains, drowning in a pool of mud as dull as the life he’s led his wife.

This reviewer got a little carried away when she read about cosy get-togethers in Dandy’s hotel room at the dismal Three Kings…Alec and Dandy sitting next to one another on her bed, two pairs of naked feet frolicking in hot water buckets…

Hold on to your cloche hats, ladies, don’t get carried away, for this is as steamy as it gets. You won’t be seeing Dandy rolling round in 50 shades of Scottish heather with toy boy Alec here!

But this was a clever way of using the Gamrie hotel room location as a metaphor for the sleuths’ deepening relationship. In earlier books we saw Dandy and Alec standing about uncomfortably whenever Alec had to visit Dandy’s bedroom to discuss their current case in private. The vastness of Dandy’s Gamrie hotel room and the lack of furniture – there is not even a chair in her bedroom – mean that the two sleuths have to come closer physically (and therefore emotionally) and sit together on Dandy’s bed or they can’t have a private conversation. Brilliant stuff.

Fortunately, there are enthusiastic foxtrottings at Gamrie weddings that permit Alec to put his arms around Dandy in public. In his chaste capacity as her pretend brother. A boisterous dance through Gamrie’s icy streets leads our sleuths all the way to a snug wedding bed, complete with curtains, a bottle of whiskey and a lump of cheese on the pillows to sustain an energetic couple throughout the “doings”. Unfortunately, Dandy and Alec are in the company of the entire village population and not free to partake of such endearing village customs. Bother!

Still, this positive use of village infrastructure gives romantically inclined readers hope there will be 50 shades of “goings-on” in future McPherson novels.

Murder most foul

To sum up: in this novel the use of the village location is as multi-layered as a barrel full of herrings and as complex as North Sea marine life. It’s not a picturesque pastoral village setting à la Jane Austen, but a hostile environment where mankind thrives at its peril. Narrow streets harbour narrow minds in Gamrie; this cut-off seaside community is awash with mental disorders, family feuds, greed and envy.

And if, like this reviewer, you disliked salted herrings before you read this book, you’ll detest the things even more, when you’re done with the novel. It’s not so much a question of The Reek of (Red) Herrings that made this reader feel queasy reading Catriona McPherson’s book, it’s the foul stench of human behaviour. The novel deserves more than five stars if Goodreads’ rating system would only allow it. It certainly merits one star for each herring barrel containing parts of Mr Pickle.

Murder (Mystery) is Easy


Agatha Christie as a child, promoting the 1977 book An Autobiography, by Agatha Christie, published by Dodd, Mead Publishing House

Agatha Christie as a child, promoting the 1977 book An Autobiography, by Agatha Christie, published by Dodd, Mead Publishing House

Few authors have managed to use the “village” as a background to murder mysteries as successfully as Agatha Christie has. It is a setting she returns to again and again, not just for her Miss Marple stories, but also for many of her Poirot books. As Murder is Easy is quite a short, neat little novel, I’ve chosen it to demonstrate how village life can serve brilliantly as a background to a story, be it romance, horror, sci-fi or a cosy whodunit. The “village” is more than just a “location” in this particular story, it represents the novel’s theme: appearances can be deceptive.

Is this a murder mystery or a romance novel? One isn’t quite sure, for the hero Luke Fitzwilliam, a retired policeman returning to England after many years abroad in the Mayang Straits, is rather inept at sleuthing, but quite skilful at courting gorgeous Bridget, his fellow amateur sleuth.

Published in 1939, the novel does show its age in the way that Luke views his potential future wife at the start of the novel, but rather surprisingly for the era switches at the end to a far more enlightened way of looking at relationships, one that a reader in 2015 can appreciate and understand.

An aptly named Lady

Meeting a dithering old lady on the train to London, Luke is amazed to hear that his fellow passenger Miss Lavinia Pinkerton is on her way to Scotland Yard to report a series of murders. She lives in a small village where several unexpected deaths have led her to believe that a serial killer is on the loose. Lavinia reminds Luke of a much loved aunt, which is why he gives a certain amount of credence to the old lady’s story. His confidence in her is simply based on the fact that favourite aunts, no matter how eccentric, usually know best. And besides, anyone called “Pinkerton” must have a talent for sleuthing!

First edition, published in 1939

First edition, published in 1939

Sinister Village Idyll

Luke is soon haring off to the village where Miss Pinkerton lived. Intent on completing the old lady’s detective work, for the Pinkerton lady herself has been foully murdered before she ever had the chance to cross Scotland Yard’s threshold, Luke is soon faced with a barrel full of red herrings and a list of suspects as wide and long as a village green.

At first glance, the village of Wychwood-under-Ashe is picturesque and tranquil, a little haven among the sheep, wild flower meadows and blue bells. Upon further inspection, however, Luke discovers the village is awash with sinister characters, from the antique dealer with a penchant for satanic rites and pornography to the affable, but arrogant young doctor and the village drunk with a tendency to wife-beating. Even children can be quite nasty, horrid enough to get themselves murdered. Soon Luke’s imagination runs wild. Indeed, the girl Luke falls in love with may secretly be a witch; she resembles a lady with a broomstick Luke once saw in a picture!

Ashe Ridge is not a beauty spot for hikers and bird watchers – it looms threateningly above the village like a vulture waiting to strike at any moment; verdant meadows and fields are more likely to host Walpurgis Night celebrations for a coven of witches than be the setting for toddlers’ teddy bear picnics or village fetes with bunting, tea and crumpets.

Appearances can be deceptive, the author tells us with her setting. And therefore we should watch out for the most unlikely of murderers…

Well-placed Cousins

Luke’s friend in London arranges for him to stay at Lord Whitfield’s mansion in Miss Pinkerton’s village. Whitfield is a self-made man of humble origins, a newspaper magnate who was born in Wychwood-under-Ashe and now lords it over his fellow villagers at every opportunity. A prize bore and self-important puffed-up little man, Lord Whitfield’s behaviour is responsible for much of the humour in this story.

Since Whitfield’s secretary and betrothed is a cousin of Luke’s friend in London, Luke goes undercover, posing as an author researching a book and pretending to be one of Bridget’s cousins. This allows him to stay at Whitfield’s mansion, where Luke enjoy a certain amount of “protection” from nosy village gossips and preying eyes. Romance looms on the horizon as soon as Luke arrives and Agatha Christie has great fun with the English attitude of fair play here. How can Luke call himself a gentleman and remain under the same roof as the man whose betrothed he’s stealing?

Creating Mirror Images

The use of the mansion in a village setting is also a familiar Christie ploy. Here we have another closed and potentially lethal microcosm, even smaller than the village itself. What goes on in the mansion is a mirror image of the village world beyond the wrought-iron gates.

There is the middle-aged poor relation, who talks about nothing but gardening and takes no interest in anything around her, just like the widow of the murdered doctor or the village solicitor. There are the servants who don’t take their employer seriously and try to steal a march on him the moment his back is turned, just like a young murder victim from the village did. There is the secretary who has set her cap at bagging a rich man, just like the old doctor’s daughter, who is secretely engaged to the doctor’s successor.

The very building of Ash Ridge Manor is not what it seems, having started out as a beautiful Queen Anne mansion and now sporting Gothic turrets and other Victorian architectural horrors. Using the mansion on the outskirt of the village also serves to create a “them and us” atmosphere, always good for a few sinister goings-on in a whodunit!

In a typical Christie twist of events, it is Bridget, not Luke, who unmasks the murderer before a few more corpses can litter the blooming countryside. As Miss Pinkerton warned at the outset, the killer is the most unlikely of people, and the revelation is therefore quite shocking. Bridget is in many ways a younger version of Miss Pinkerton, an unlikely sleuth. She is beautiful and accomplished, but not an open or friendly person. Like Miss Pinkerton, Bridget is also blessed with a keen intellect and powers of observation, but this fact is lost on most people, because like Miss Pinkerton Bridget is able to mask her true nature very well. The two women are another example how the use of mirror images, be they locations or people, can create a far deeper meaning and more satisfying reading experience for the reader.

This is also a good opportunity for Christie to highlight another disadvantage of village life and constrast city life versus village life: the lonely spinster who everybody knows, everyone relies on to help out but nobody loves or values.

Nobody believed spinster and “busy-body” Miss Lavinia Pinkerton and that fact cost somebody their life. In London, so Luke’s friend from Scotland Yard confirms, Miss Pinkerton’s suspicions would have been taken seriously. In Wychwood-under-Ashe, however, the local policeman is too narrow-minded to believe Miss Pinkerton.

Many of us, like Lord Whitfield, dream of returning from city life to the rural “idyll” because we imagine we’ll matter more there than we do in the metropolis. This is yet another case of appearances being deceptive, as we see with Lord Whitfield, whose good intensions get up villagers’ noses to such an extent that everybody mocks him, sometimes openly as one chauffeur does to his face and sometimes behind his lordly back, like one young murder victim did.

Catching a Glimpse of the real Miss Christie

Murder is Easy is an enjoyable read, and quite revealing at the very end, when the author lets something of herself shine through. Bridget asks Luke, if he LIKES her, caring far less if he is in love with her.

“Liking is more important than loving. It lasts…I don’t want us just to love each other and marry and get tired of each other and then want to marry some one else.” (Bridget, page 254, line 16, 2/6 Edition published for The Crime Club by Collins)

One feels that Agatha Christie is speaking truly from the heart here, having one failed marriage under her belt and now being secure in a far, far better relationship with her archaeologist husband. Reading between the lines, one suspects the author was dazzled by dashing good looks and romance the first time round, but found her true soul mate after divorcing her two-timing cad of a husband.

Naturally, Luke and Bridget have the good sense to run off to London to start their married life, away from gossip, narrow-mindedness and preying villagers’ eyes.

Lavinia’s right: Murder is easy!

heathersanimations(dot)comOverall, it’s not one of Christie’s best murder mysteries, reminding one too much of plots used for her Poirot and Miss Marple novels, but the author does present us with a truly terrifying killer here and a view of village life that rings true – without the murders, obviously, but with all the resentment and neighbourly feuds that brew up so nicely in closed communities, I can recognised every village I’ve ever lived in. Villages are witches’ cauldrons, where disappointments and dislikes are likely to bubble and simmer quite harmlessly for quite sometime before erupting into something foul and deadly.

At the end the reader is left with the uncomfortable question, if perhaps this sort of thing goes on far more often than one thinks? After which thought my mind drifted off to Harold Shipman and Rose West. Ye-es, it seems that Murder is Easy. There simply aren’t enough Miss Pinkertons and savvy aunts out there to keep us safe!

And, of course, in 1939, when murder mystery fans where nosing through Agatha’s book, London’s children were being evacuated to safer grounds, since the greatest murderer of them all was getting his weapons ready to kill us all…

Writer’s Easter Egg Hunt


free gif from heathersanimations(dot)comHappy Easter everyone!

If you’ve ever been on an Easter Egg Hunt, you’ll know that a substantial percentage of eggs never find their way into a child’s gob, because a child chasing for eggs will eventually grow tired of the game and ignore their parent’s carefully chosen hiding places in favour of easier targets  (grandparents usually) . Although some kids come prepared and bring a fully trained chocolate sniffing hound to the annual Egg Hunt, (guilty as charged).

A substantial number of book ideas swirling around my head will also never make it onto the page, because I’m too busy chasing after blog ideas, article ideas or press release ideas on behalf of my clients, who pay me to be as original as the Easter Bunny when it comes to delicious offerings. Like the famous Swiss chocoloate bunny I shake my head at the seasonal madness of it all, until the little bell around my neck tells me my head’s about to explode.

So instead of hunting for chocolaty goodness I could present to you on a weekly basis, I’ve been concentrating on red herrings in my Inspektor Beagle murder mystery (German language, hence the spelling) and juicy morsels for The House Detective , my novel for children aged 8 – 12 (English language).

I also discovered via the Bookrix(dot)com platform’s sales and download-per-book data that English readers apparently want to consume everything for free, while my German readers are quite happy to pay for the books they download. So instead of casting my free literary eggs before unpaying greedy-guts readers, I have been concentrating on blogging in German and gathering research material for future German blog entries to promote my forthcoming German language murder mystery.

My full-length Inspektor Beagle novel, this precious “Osterei” , German language readers will only be able to obtain by offering hard cash, not sweet talking or the promise of sending me an electronic Easter card next year or saying something nice in the review part of Bookrix. Maybe I’m turning into rather a material girl-Bunny but I don’t see why my hard work should always go unrewarded while English readers gobble up whatever they find for free in a hunt round self-publishing platform’s hiding places. Consumers hand over hard cash to get their hands on a chocolate egg at their local supermarket, right? So why not pay for the literary egg authors have crafted for them? Calory free, I ask you!

Now we know what most readers are hunting for at Easter: Freebies. The most desirable Easter egg a writer can hunt for, in my opinion, is TIME, that sweet old favourite of mine. Taking out time to write fiction is a real treat for me. Also calory free, which is a bonus. And stealing moments for reading. Ferociously. Reading series writers’ stuff, for here we can see how characters are constructed over time, in new circumstances, with new side kicks, using readers’ feedback to create the most perfect Easter Egg a fiction fan could possibly want. free gifs from heathersanimations(dot)comA book that transports readers, taking them on an adventure or a journey, inviting them to become part of a family saga, a fearless amateur detective duo or play their part in a thrilling heist, a steamy romance, a hair-raising thriller, a spine-tingling horror, ghost or vampire story. Or maybe some cute chick travelling the world with the help of an egg.

What are you hunting for this Easter?

If I were a Terrier…


…I would hurl my cute little body in front of every nasty jogger who huffs and puffs past my Mistress, those supporters of child-labour produced sports shoes, who spread their sweaty stinkiness to all and sundry.

A whole herd of joggers emerging from Buckingham Palace

A whole herd of joggers emerging from Buckingham Palace

If I were a terrier, I would bark my head off at every runner and shame them for the pavement-hogs that they are, never giving way, no matter how much space there is to left and right or how laden mothers are with toddlers and their buggies or how much elderly women with their shopping bags struggle to remain upright, when forced to jump out of the way of nasty joggers.

As my terrier self I’d nip the ankles of those grunting women, whose mighty bottoms I see wobbling past me at little over 4 miles per hour, their pinched faces expressing nothing but the ardent desire to get home to their couch, their box of chocolates and their favourite TV soap, if only Cosmo and Vanity Fair would declare fat-arsed women the next beauty icon!

Have I mentioned how much I loathe joggers? With my terrier tenacity in over-drive I’d chase after every long-limbed macho jogger, who has replaced his 60-a-day addiction with obsessive running, came rain or shine, and now splashes through puddles, covering innocent passers-by with an avalanche of mud as he races past them with haughty superiority.

Bute Park at dawn - even then not totally jogger-free!

Cardiff’s Bute Park at dawn – even then not totally jogger-free!

Grrr, if I were a Jack Russell called Bertie or Bob, I’d poo on the favourite trail of every jogger who’s ever sneaked up on my beloved human, those men and women who pass by so closely that their pervy elbows touch my beloved Mistress in their wake, treating her to a bout of heavy breathing in the process.

Woof, if I were a button-nosed fluffy Yorkie with an anarchic attitude I’d trip up charity runners who blithely take over an entire city park to show the rest of us how altruistic they are.

Why exactly do pensioners and mothers with toddlers who come to the park for a bit of fresh air have to jump out of the way when these park-pests arrive without warning and insist on running three-in-a-row? Parks are there for everybody and not just for those who obsessively support one cause to the detriment of everybody else around them.

Doggies unite and free this planet from these fiends, these joggers with their i-Pod deafness, their “talk to the cheek” attitude and their total disregard for other pavement users!

Oh, and if I were a Rottweiler with big teeth and jaws the size of T-Rex I’d rip the ankles off those WordPress geeks who are constantly messing around with the layout – it’s taken me nearly 8 minutes to get to my dashboard…who in their right mind makes it so difficult for bloggers to update their blog? Grrrrrr, biting, biting, tearing off those geeky trouser-seats NOW!

Staying Cool in the City


Copyright Maria ThermannNow that the skies are grey and the rays of the sun are no longer tickling our red and blistering noses, it seems inconceivable that only a few weeks ago it was too hot to work in the office.

Taking a refreshing stroll along the Thames Embankment on a very hot day, I spotted how London’s citizens tried various ingenious ways to stay cool in the city.

Thus I’m sneakily introducing my first, and most favourite point of interest in the capital – sorry HRM Elizabeth II, but the River Thames beats the “lady of the stamp” any day as London’s best tourist attraction!

Even on the hottest day of the year there was a gentle breeze blowing that cooled the wrinkled writer’s brow – walk along the lovely Thames Embankment and sooner or later you’ll come across a fountain where you can cool off your steaming toes.

 

Blackfriars Bridge in the Background

Blackfriars Bridge in the Background

Tide's out, kids!

Tide’s out, kids!

When the tide’s out, people walk along the patches of “beach” that appear along the river bed.

Just cruisin’

For those with more money than sense there are the official river cruises, some via stately old river barges, cruisers or former steamboats, others via power boats that zoom past with an almighty roar and spew up brown waves in their wake. The much cheaper version is to take an ordinary river bus.

St Katherine's Dock by Tower Bridge

St Katherine’s Dock by Tower Bridge

Cruises start from various points along the river, my favourite spot is at St Katherine’s Dock, where this couple sat patiently in a little pavilion – like a bus stop for the Thames – and awaited the arrival of their cruiser, while enjoying the magnificent aspect of Tower Bridge.

 

 

 

Making a Splash

My favourite image of this summer are unquestionably the parents and children who stayed cool by diving into the fountains at the National Theatre, which overlooks the Thames Embankment by the London Eye, roughly opposite Westminster and Big Ben.

Fountain at National Theatre, Southbank

Fountain at National Theatre, Southbank

Kids keeping their cool in the city

Kids keeping their cool in the city

Pedestrians startled by Mayor Boris Johnson's latest efforts to clean up the city's mean streets

Pedestrians startled by Mayor Boris Johnson’s latest efforts to clean up the city’s mean streets

At certain intervals during the day the kind people of the South Bank-National Theatre complex press a button and within moments people are engulfed by refreshing spouts of water – only they don’t know where the jets of water will come from next, for the fountain’s sprays shoot out at random in different spots.

With a lot of squeals and laughter, the youngest of London’s citizens find relief from the searing heat, a perfect image of summer as it should be, don’t you think?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

HMS Belfast near Tower Bridge

HMS Belfast near Tower Bridge

Family Fun by Hayes Gallery, Thames Embankment

Family Fun by Hayes Gallery, Thames Embankment

At the other end of the river, that bit where HMS Belfast, a cruiser from WWII, is moored, whole families gathered around fountains, had a picnic and enjoyed the spectacular London skyline from just outside Hayes Gallery.

Erasing horrid Memories

This summer I’ve seen a different side to London, one I liked very much. Many years ago, when I worked in the city for more than a decade as an office slave, London was a complete construction site, where it was virtually impossible to get anywhere near the River. My memories are of noisy construction crews whistling and jeering at anything looking even vaguely female, of cranes polluting the skyline, of mud and dust everywhere.

southbank street artist blowing soap bubbles

southbank street artist blowing soap bubbles

Over the intervening two decades the embankments on both sides have been transformed and turned into London’s best attraction – and I’m clearly not alone in this point of view, judging by the hordes of people who use the River Walks every day from dawn till dusk and beyond.

My next post will be about my splendid walk from Tower Bridge to Rotherhithe, which turned out to be a delightful village, not a boring suburb with uniform new apartment blocks, as I had suspected.

This is where my post took you today

This is where my post took you today

After more than three decades in the UK, this summer has been the first time that I’ve actually begun to understand why people rate London so highly – up to now, I’ve detested it. These past few weeks, hot and steamy as they have been, have done much to clear my mind of horrid work-related memories and regain my “cool” about the Big City.

The true aim of my snap-happy wanderings through London is, of course, to gather background material for a future murder mystery series. So alongside the pictures I’ve been taking notes on the smells, sounds, temperatures and light conditions I’ve encountered along the way. I can still hear the children’s giggles, when a flurry of soap bubbles headed our way…

Bye Bye Red Room


Princess_Victoria_and_Dash_by_George_HayterGloomy news for authors who have enjoyed the warm glow of the Red Room’s pages. With a short notification to all members Red Room’s cosy hearth fires were extinguished this week and the loud, cold brashness of Wattpad was announced, for Wattpad have acquired the Red Room.

The new owners immediately switched off the lights, put out the coals, and killed the Red Room’s purring literary cat, presumably to remind talented authors that their time in literature’s motherly embrace is over and the harsh reality of trashy novels and illiterate word-salad has arrived.

Wattpad is a site that can best be described as a bottomless pit of teenage angst and fan-girling giddiness with very few sparks of talent in sight among its members (at this point I’m quickly naming authors Michelle Barber and William Stadler among those talented highlights, before they send me an angry red raspberry via their WordPress blogs). Generally speaking: If you don’t write gushing books about Justin Bieber or other pop sensations, if you don’t like reading endless sexy scenarios of juvenile fan fiction dreams, Wattpad won’t really be for you.

During the few days that I was a member some months ago, I must have looked through about 150 groups of readers/writers on Wattpad; frankly, I didn’t discover a single group any self-respecting grown-up writer would wish to join and engage with.

Although I got a lot of reads/downloads for the stuff I uploaded, nobody left a single comment, which means no feedback that is constructive, if you have WIP you want advice on. People just press “like” buttons, if you’re lucky, but most readers just consume story after story for free without so much as bothering to press any of the Wattpad review buttons to at least let you know they liked what they read.

Eek! Is that a bottom feeder I spy with my little eye?

Eek! Is that a bottom feeder I spy with my little eye?

For the august literature gang assembled at Red Room to fall into such a black hole must be heart-breaking. Many authors have used the fantastic author pages and blogs they received with their Red Room membership to build up a solid fan base for their work over many years.

These were readers and talented, professional writers who left grown-up comments, constructive critiques, helpful advice – not “cor’ blime me, that was a corker/stinker of a story” or words to that effect. The author page one gets with Wattpad resembles a poorly constructed social media site – not the glorious author profile and blog the Red Room furnished their members with.

So yet another small but beautiful thing has been gobbled up by a big fat American fish that cruises the waters of literature and the world of reading with an unending appetite for Facebook contacts. A huge behemoth of a shark that’s hungry for authors’ connections, but essentially an eating machine that’s not very keen to regurgitate anything useful in return, making the world of literature the poorer for it.

Yep, you're right, it's a an ugly literary shark.

Yep, you’re right, it’s a an ugly literary shark.

When I dared to complain to the outgoing Red Room team, I got not one, but two defensive emails back, from two different senders no less.

Since the Red Room will close its door any moment now, any new emails from Wattpad will naturally go into my spam folder…which is also a Big Fat Bottom Feeder that gobbles up writing…the type of trash good authors and good readers don’t want to see.

Consider yourself pounced!


mopple tapping footQuietly and almost without me noticing, this blog has crept up to the 1,000th follower mark. In the immortal words of Winnie the Pooh’s friend Tigger: “Consider yourself pounced!”

Naturally, in the nicest possible way and with velveted paws. There may be the occasional outburst of excited whisker twitching and purring though, as I bounce around the room on the bounciest tail of all, with arms flung wide open to give all my lovely followers and WordPress readers a virtual hug. Thank you all for continuing to stop by and for putting up with my boring ramblings (as a person half my age told me a few days ago) and I promise I shall do better in the near future.

But now there’s time for bouncing and purring for two milestones were reached today:

  • this blog has increased in followers by staggering proportions and
  • some of the ebooks I recently uploaded to Bookrix.com are now starting to appear at a variety of online outlets. Yay!

    Willow the Vampire series draws blood at Amazon, iTunes, Barnes & Noble, Thalia and Bookrix!

    Willow the Vampire series draws blood at Amazon, iTunes, Barnes & Noble, Thalia and Bookrix!

  • Author can't believe her luck...such lovely readers!

    Author can’t believe her luck…such lovely readers!

Beagle Mania claims another Victim


Caynsham Beagles ca. 1895

Caynsham Beagles ca. 1895

While out hunting – or should I say beagling – for suitable pictures or artwork to use for my next Inspektor Beagle book cover, I noticed that many good things in life are beagle related.

Well, there’s Snoopy for a start, who fills my heart with joy, then there’s Gromit (the resonsible adult in Wallace & Gromit), who makes me feel less down-trodden, and there are all those wonderful beagles that keep us safe at airports where they sniff out drugs, explosives and all manner of nasty things. Beagles are clearly born to be heroes.

No wonder it was the first name that sprang to my mind when I began writing about the police force working in a small seaside town at the east coast of England in WWII.

Understaffed and without guns or petrol to fuel their cars, they still had to uphold the law, while Hitler & Co were popping up uninvited for a spot of daily air raids on the promenade and equally unwelcome visitors in U-Boots arrived from across the English Channel to complain about the lack of Blue Flag amenities at Kent’s beaches. And people today are complaining that Magaluf’s gone to the dogs!

A beagle, so learned authorities on the subject tell us, can find a single mouse let loose in a one acre field within 60 seconds – while most other dogs would give up and go home after 15 minutes, demanding a word with their psychiatrist on the subject of depression and feeling like a failure.

My Inspektor Beagle (NB: German spelling for inspector) also has a keen nose, not so much for mice, but for trouble and potential villains. His colleague Monty the policedog (basset) also has a keen appetite for crime solving and but prefers biscuits soaked in milk on the whole. Unfortunately, neither of these lovely hounds was any good at guiding this blind author-mouse through a mine field of technological failures, when she tried to upload their adventures into an ebook publishing template.

Just like a heroic beagle I persevered in sticking to my mission though. I sniffed out the right way to do it, for there is no proper explanation given on the site. I eventually uploaded my text into the Bookrix template and published my ebooks. Amidst lots of bilingual swearing and threats of launching my own air raids on software developers who design things without bearing the over 50’s techno phobe in mind!

Should any other writerly hound out there in the virtual WordPress world wish to follow in my paw prints, be sure to stay clear of the “if you have a finished book upload it here” button, for the darn thing doesn’t work and if it does upload your chapters, it muddles them up completely in the table of contents until you end up with two of everything.

Just use the “I want to write my book into this template manually” option and copy and paste each and every chapter, no matter how tedious this may seem, into the Bookrix editing template, which is directly linked to the table of contents.

Only use bona fide ebook publishers

Only use bona fide ebook publishers

After each copy and paste process, save your work at the bottom of the screen, then click on “new chapter” and repeat the process until your upload is done. Check each and every chapter of your book by clicking on the chapters in your table of contents on the left hand side – I discovered one chapter was missing, despite having saved my work.

After a day or so you will get a notification by email that your book has gone on sale. I’m still waiting for all the other links (eg Apple iBookstore, Kobo etc) to become available, so I can share them on this page. Here is the first crop of my virtual beagling for literary fame (or book sales, I’ll settle for one or the other) for Inspektor Beagle’s first outing as an ebook.

 

Inspektor Beagle ermittelt - German language short story collection, murder mysteries

Inspektor Beagle ermittelt – German language short story collection, murder mysteries

German speakers are welcome to moan about my spelling and grammatical errors. I’m determined to blame those on Microsoft’s inability to a) publish Microsoft 2010 with a German language dictionary included in their standard version and b) to publish a German language proofing tool that’s actually compatible with the 2010 version, as claimed on their site. Enough ranting. Back to positive beagle-beaming adventures on the ebook front:

It’s totally FREE to upload and publish your books via Bookrix; each work gets an ISBN number for which you don’t have to pay upfront. The best thing is that you get your own author profile site, which has its own blog and automatically displays all your books. I’m loving it and have just signed up to various groups within the Bookrix community so I can promote my books and get involved with readers and fellow authors. No, they don’t pay me to say any of this. Wished they did.

I just wanted to share a fairly positive experience from a techno phobe’s point of view. BTW, the site offers excellent stats on sales activity and, unlike Amazon, there are proper age group categories for authors who write for children and YA audiences, so readers can actually discover your books in the category they’d expect to find them in.

Best of all, you can upload your text in plain old WORD without the need to convert into another medium first. Bookrix does that for you free of charge and for all the different formats that distributors use, including Kindle/Amazon/Kobo/Google/Apple iBookstore/Libri/Thalia/Barnes & Noble/Beam and various other formats.

Bookrix also allows you a range of cover options and a large number of royalty free templates for artwork/photographs to use. I chose using my own cover pictures (option 2 on the Bookrix screen), but used their template to insert title and author name, which is great, because there are lots of colour & font options and your text will always appear perfectly positioned.

Bookbaby on the other hand I’ve yet to master and find totally user unfriendly. Twice now I’ve converted said Inspektor Beagle into an epub format and twice Bookbaby has thrown me out with some incomprehensible techno babble message. Potentially a ruse to get authors to pay for a service they get for free elsewhere. They are also demanding $20 per month for author websites and $19 for each and every ISBN. Which is why I beagled off to Bookrix instead.

Incidentally, I have deactivated my Facebook page, because somebody pretending to be me had set up a site under my name, using some of my details. Pee-off to you, whoever you are.

You're knicked, Facebook Fraudster!

You’re knicked, Facebook Fraudster!

Accept no substitutes! This is me: the REAL writer of stories from the hearth.

 

 

 

(picture source Wikipedia, in public domain)

Am I too late for Spring Cleaning?


Willow the Vampire & Sacred Grove for Buchrix I’d been looking for ages through new WordPress themes to find the right new layout for Willow the Vampire’s blog site and now I’ve finally found it. Am still tweaking things, but it’s beginning to look much more like I wanted the site to look like in the first place, all those years ago when I first braved the world of blogging. It’s good to “spring clean” one’s blog from time to time, to think of new themes or perhaps to catch up with old ones that have been lying abandoned, but not forgotten, in the dusty drawers of one’s writer’s mind.

My latest WIP, The House Detective, is another of those semi-abandoned projects that I recently unearthed during a spring clean – and now I’m writing again, with chapter nine progressing nicely and with ideas for a second book. No doubt there are writers out there who are organised and can stick to one book project at a time, but I am a “fluttermole” who gets so many ideas that they have to wait their turn, get written as an outline and then shelved until the hamster wheel inside my head builds up enough momentum to spew out the next writing phase.

der kleine maulwurfAnd just like Mr Mole abandons his spring cleaning for going on adventures with Mr Badger, Mr Toad and Ratty the Great, my mind tends to stray into other imaginary worlds where my fictional heroes leave their current setting and have their big and small adventures somewhere else, before coming home and sheepishly finishing their “homework” with dull-old-me and the setting originally intended for them.

two big booksHaving started on this belated spring cleaning of my mind (and my dusty, coffee-stained laptop drawer), I have begun to prioritise the writing projects under the heading “bits with the greatest chance of commercial success”. Not that this has ever been a motivating factor in my writing before; I write mainly because I MUST or I’ll get carted off by men in hospital uniforms and bundled into their smelly white vans. But I feel that it’s time to bring some order into the chaos and since there has to be some heading with a number one, two, etc below, I might as well “follow the money trail” and see where this takes me. A writing friend of mine has been sending her book to various agents for the past couple of years, and after long deliberation I have decided to do the same. Will keep you posted on any rejection letters that are meaningful or entertaining:)

When was the last time you had a spring clean of your writing drawer? Did you unearth any gems?

Willow book cover1You can find Willow the Vampire’s shiny new blog here at WordPress: http://willowthevampire.com. Stop by stop by and meet the residents of Stinkforth-upon-Avon. Be sure to take some garlic along or you might find yourself the main course at Willow’s dinner table.

 

(artwork copyright Maria Thermann; animation sourced from heathersanimations.com)

 

In her own Words


220px-Alkaios_Sappho_Staatliche_Antikensammlungen_2416_n2“I have no complaint
Prosperity that
The golden Muses
Gave me was no
Delusion: dead, I
Won’t be forgotten…”

These prophetic words were possibly sung or spoken but certainly written by one of the greatest writers the ancient western world produced: Sappho. To her contemporaries she was one of ancient Greek’s divine Muses.

Finally, after all that build-up on this blog I got to see “Sappho in 9 Fragments” by playwright Jane Montgomery Griffiths last Friday. If you ever get the chance to catch this wonderful show – put together with great passion by director Jessica Ruano and actress Victoria Grove – do go, for it is witty, thought-provoking, sexy and full of love. Love for one of the world’s greatest poets but also for love itself, the act of falling in – and out of – love time and again.

The play is underpinned by fact, namely the scarcity of Sappho’s surviving work, which is only available to us in fragments. This fragmentation has, over the centuries, allowed Sappho’s words to be twisted and moulded into whatever – mostly male – interpreters wanted them to be.

The show was performed in the confined space of the lovely ARCH1 venue here in London, where a metal frame or scaffold laced with sturdy ropes had been erected in the centre of the room. This interesting artistic device allowed “Sappho” (Victoria Grove) to move only within the spider’s web that history had woven for the poet. It was a full-blooded, emotional and stunningly athletic performance by Victoria Grove and will stay in my mind for a long time.

And, if like me you should be so fortunate as to meet Victoria Grove before or after the show, be prepared for a beguiling smile and an eye-watering handshake – my goodness, that young lady is strong!

Stardom for all Eternity

What would it feel like to be a mega-star of the literary world for most of one’s lifetime? To have wise men and women hang on one’s every word, to be elevated to the title of 10th Muse by people who are also stars in their contemporaries’ eyes? Mega-celebrities who feel they must raise one of their numbers to that eternal pedestal of fame and declare that person divine?

The rest of us humble mortals are blinded by such talent and close our eyes lest such brightness of genius should burn us; yet, we snatch at the hem of a celebrity’s toga and hope a fragment of that charisma, that talent, that divinity will rub off on us.

220px-Sir_Lawrence_Alma-Tadema,_RA,_OM_-_Sappho_and_Alcaeus_-_Walters_37159Sappho correctly concluded that she would not be forgotten after her death, but she can’t have imagined how she would be endlessly reinterpreted through the ages and have her very essence vilified and raped, celebrated and sanctified, and swallowed whole before being regurgitated over and over for centuries.

The Magic of Words

When the Iklaina tablet was found in the ruins of a medium-sized Greek town not so long ago, archaeologists speculated that literacy during the late Mycenaean period was far less centralized than previously believed. To be able to read and write was for many centuries regarded as something magical, mysterious and otherworldly, for even during Mycenaean times it was mostly rich aristocratic big-wigs who were literate.

220px-AncientlibraryalexIt took nearly 600 years before the written word was no longer regarded as something only spirits and gods might be able to create. Even during King Arthur’s time, around 670 AD, literacy seemed like something Merlin might conjure up over breakfast before playing chess with a dragon. Interestingly, in Welsh folklore the ability to use “words” or rather the skill of poetry is part of a magician’s tool box.

Once the Linear B alphabet ancient Greeks had used was transformed into what we now utilise as our 26 letters of the alphabet, poetry and literature really began to flourish in the Western world. Enter Sappho and her contemporaries.

Of course, ancient Egyptians and Chinese people would snigger at us backward barbarians, for they could read and write more than 3,000 years ago. Good for them! But hieroglyphics don’t compare with the sheer bravura and musicality of Sappho’s words and even Chinese people admit they get muddled with all those complicated symbols, so what use are such fragments in a contest of writers from antiquity?

220px-Metileme_by_Giacomo_FrancoBorn around 620 BC on the Greek island of Lesbos, which lies off the coast of modern day Turkey, Sappho is widely credited with being one of the earliest and best writers in the western world. Although only fragments remain of her work, we can judge by poem no. 1, which is a Hymn to Aphrodite and thankfully complete, how great her writing is.

Falling in Love with a Word

120px-Petra_townAlthough Greece was a very political country and Sappho herself was exiled for political reasons and forced to leave Lesbos for many years, her poetry deals with politics between two people, not party politics of men.
She writes poems about two people, who fall in and out of lust, passion, love and reason – for falling in love is, of course, very much like losing one’s reason. One could argue Sappho’s poetry deals with the most important politics of them all, namely the politics between men and women, women and women.

Jane Montgomery Griffiths’ play intertwines poet Sappho’s lament with the modern day love-trials of a chorus girl called Atthis, a name that stems from something the 3rd century philosopher Maximus of Tyre wrote about Sappho, namely that she was not unlike Socrates in her sexuality.

Reputedly, Socrates loved men, while Sappho loved women (although her poetry fragments show she also flirted with men). “What Alcibiades and Charmides and Phaedrus were to him, Gyrinna and Atthis and Anactoria were to her…” wrote that old gossip Maximus of Tyre.

The Object of Desire

220px-NAMA_Aphrodite_SyracuseYoung and inexperienced chorus girl Atthis is seduced by the star of her show, but poet Sappho is seduced by the trappings of fame. While Atthis laments the lack of love an unequal partnership has brought her, Sappho suffers from an abundance of love. Both women are trapped by the wrong kind of love, one feels; love that stems from pure selfishness.

Love for the written word has had scholars through the ages get their knickers in a twist of how to interpret Sappho’s words – and life – in a way that would suit them best – but not always with the intention to devour or obliterate the person who wrote the poetry. It seems to have been more a question of being unable to see the wood for the trees for those scholars, of being so blinded by stardom and talent that one only sees fragments…

It made me think of French actress Brigit Bardot, who once intimated that her life had been stolen and destroyed by men, because they wanted her to be whatever they desired rather than see her for what she actually is. All that they chased after and grasped at were fragments of Bardot, but they never sat down to meet Brigit.

Described by her contemporary Alcaeus as “violet-haired, pure, honey-smiling Sappho”, the woman portraying her in Jane Montgomery Griffith’s play writhes, screams and struggles in history’s cobweb against the injustice of it all, just as Atthis laments being trapped in a spider’s web woven by a promiscuous seductress. Both women are in a loveless relationship that ultimately destroys who they are. While Sappho is seen only in fragments because she well-beloved, Atthis is only able to see fragments of the object of her desire, for she is blinded by love.

Beware what you wish for, Lovers

Roman bust of Sappho found at SmyrnaWhat writer doesn’t dream of achieving immortality with their words? Sappho did, but at a terrible price, for we will never be able to see her and her work as intended – just as we are unlikely to ever catch a glimpse of Norma Jean behind Marilyn Monroe’s blonde bombshell mask or hear Mozart’s music without being prodded by Austria’s tourism mammoth in case we forget the legends little Amadeus inspired after his untimely death, aged 30.

Could it be the very pinnacle of fame Sappho achieved that fragments her – rather than the scarcity of surviving manuscripts?

Scarce Facts of Love

220px-Bust_Sappho_Musei_Capitolini_MC1164She was born sometime between 630 and 612 BC and probably died around 570 BC. Poet Sappho was exiled from Lesbos sometime between 604 and 594 BC; nine books of her work formed part of the Library of Alexandria’s collection. She counts Cicero, Alcaeus and, rather surprisingly, Gregory of Nazianzus, among her many fans. She has been a lesbian icon for centuries.

(all pictures from Wikipedia)

Fragmented Points of View


220px-Bust_Sappho_Musei_Capitolini_MC1164Blogging about that ancient Greek wordsmith Sappho the other day reminded me how good novels, just like the play “Sappho in 9 Fragments”, only ever reveal fragments of a person’s true identity. Ancient Greek performers wore masks and perhaps Sappho’s lovely maiden friends performed some of Sappho’s poetry in masks, scampering about in endless folds of soft tunics, frightening the sheep – and males – on the Island of Lesbos. Who and what people really are, is normally hidden to us, unless they choose to reveal their true identity. A poet may think he or she is wearing their heart on their sleeve when they write a piece of poetry, but in reality the reader can never fully grasp what the poet felt.

Something else occurred to me in connection with Sappho and that is how few fragments history has left us of great women. We know they existed and we even know some of their names, but that most ferocious of all time-travelling termites (the Latin term I believe is Evil Swine-y-cus), has succeeded to all but erase them from history.
Greek men would hop about excitedly because they had just invented democracy, but in their eagerness to pat each other on the back they forgot to extend free speech, free vote and free EVERYTHING to women. A few centuries later those horrid Romans turned up and the sorry saga of omission continued, for ancient Romans were just as good at leaving women out of history as their Greek counterparts.

In all fairness, occasionally we get to hear of a Roman woman of high rank, but it’s usually in connection with some demented emperor who’s killed his wife to marry another, ate his daughters or made sheep’s eyes at his mother. We see fragments of Cleopatra, but only through the eyes of Evil Swine-y-cus.

With a few exceptions like Hildegard von Bingen we hear little from medieval women, for Europe was infested with nasty-minded monk-boys who couldn’t bear the thought that a girl could run an abbey and market town better than they could. So they set about to vilify women and erase every trace of them through the ages.

Now and again we get fragments of what historic women felt and dreamed, for thankfully thousands of ancient Egyptian stone tablets found under the rubble of workers’ huts have begun to reveal what every-day life was like for women. Some glimpses of what Roman women’s conditions were like can also be gleaned from tablets found at some of Britain’s old Roman forts. Soldiers would write home to their mothers, sisters, wives and girlfriends, and a few tablet replies survived the annual cull Evil Swine-y-cus has performed ever since Neanderthal girls started leaving graffiti on cave walls.

Another curious thing about fragments is that they urge us to find out more. Frankly, I couldn’t care less about know-it-all and show-off extraordinaire Julius Ceasar, who was a prolific scribbler, always bragging about his achievements, filling stone tablet after stone tablet with his conquests.

220px-Queen_Boudica_by_John_OpieBut Cleopatra, boudica, Sappho or female pirates Elizabeth Patrickson and Jacquotte Delahaye are a different matter. I could happily spend days online or in the library to forage for a few morsels about their lives, no matter how vague the historic fragments may be.

The same “must-read-on” effect is achieved in novels where a location is revealed in short glimpses; it draws us in, just like the protagonist we want to know where we are, what our surroundings look like and whether or not they pose a threat to us. The heroine strikes a match and discovers she’s in a cave; the match goes out and she strikes another, this time discovering a tunnel, with the 3rd match she’s facing a sleepy bear and so forth. Fragmentation of location raises the tension and forces the reader to turn the page. It’s an excellent device that works in any setting.

Let your heroine walk through a crowded restaurant or cafe, one by one she recognises faces, they either greet her or studiously ignore her…until she sees the one face she’s been searching for all along. With every new table or nook in the restaurant comes a new encounter that reveals fragments of where our heroine is headed or where she has come from to arrive at this point in the story.

What also works very well is when a plot is revealed through different people’s point of view. The most famous example of this is perhaps Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” which is told in letters. Although this style of writing is firmly embedded in the 19th century and hardly ever used today, it is nonetheless a very good dramatic device to raise the tension of your novel. Each letter writer sees events in a slightly different way – giving us a fragment from their own perspective – and this eventually gives the reader a full picture of what has happened in a linear timeline. Fragments of impending doom or a heroine’s ultimate fate shine through here and there, but all the players and the reader won’t know the real extent of the terror about to happen until it is unleashed.

So once more with feeling:

Roman bust of Sappho found at Smyrna“Sappho in 9 Fragments” by Jane Montgomery Griffiths, directed by Jessica Ruano and starring Victoria Grove will do its historically best to draw in every happy little sheep that turns up at Arch1 Live Music Venue on 7th May. Let the 21st century Sappho enchant you and you’ll catch a fragmented glimpse of the real Sappho and her mates on Lesbos.

(more info at www.sappho9fragments.com )

(source of pictures: Wikipedia)