Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Stories surround us everywhere

First of all, let me start by saying how thrilled I am to be an official member of Type M for Murder. It's a real honor to join such a wonderful and diverse group of writers. I hope I don't lower the bar.

For the hoards of people who are unfamiliar with who I am and what I write, I'm a British transplant who moved to Los Angeles to pursue a screenwriting career but discovered a passion for writing mysteries instead - which was fortunate given the fact that my screenwriting career wasn't exactly going anywhere.

The Vicky Hill Mysteries are published by Berkley Prime Crime (Penguin USA) and follow the adventures of an obituary writer desperate for a front-page scoop. Set in the wilds of Devon in Southwest England, they are based on my own experience as - yes, you've guessed - an obituary writer.

Working for the now defunct Tiverton Gazette was the most boring job I'd ever had. I'd sit for hours in the newsroom waiting for someone to die (I'm sorry, but I did). How strange that this would form the basis for a series. Although my younger and more optimistic self shares many similarities with Vicky Hill, I can safely assure you that my parents have never been silver thieves nor wanted by Interpol.

One thing I was unprepared for was my editor's fascination for quirky British hobbies that I use as backdrops to my plots. I thought everyone knew about country pursuits such as hedge jumping or snail racing. It just goes to show that stories are everywhere around us. What may appear normal and mundane to me, might be utterly gripping to someone else. Even my manic day job working for a West Coast advertising agency, is filled with enough juicy gossip to write a whole new series. Now, there's a tantalizing thought.

One of the great things about being a writer is discovering that all those ghastly jobs and broken romances really come in useful. My old journals are filled with what now seem hilarious tales of angst and pain to say nothing of a list of jobs ranging from summer chicken "sexer" to spending a full five days in Her Majesty's Royal Navy. No doubt they too, will one day find their way into a book.

I'm intrigued to hear of personal experiences or awful jobs that you've turned into fiction and want to share. But be warned. We writers are always on the hunt for new ideas.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Back Among Friends

I’m ba-aa-ck! I couldn’t stay away, so after a couple of years’ hiatus from this blog, I am back among my Type M friends. But I have to warn you… Having grown up with Monroe calculators, manual typewriters, rabbit ears, and “princess” phones with 25-ft cords that you could drag into your bedroom, I don’t feel truly at home in this virtual world. It’s not that I can’t navigate it. I’ve analyzed research data using complex statistics software, I’ve written eight novels and more than two dozen short stories on the computer, I’ve been prowling around the web for fifteen years. I have a Facebook page with a couple of hundred friends. Indeed, even Inspector Green has a Facebook fan page, although I confess my editor, a thirty-something, set it up.

But it still feels surreal. I will set this blog adrift in cyberspace without ever knowing who reads it. Who laughs and who rolls their eyes. It’s like shouting into the wind. I miss the face-to-face contact. The quick smile and the knowing nudge, the rush of pleasure and intimacy that comes from having an actual conversation. I know this is a tired lament often muttered by us pre-computerites to the texting, twittering generation below us, but we lose with one hand when we gain with the other. Depth. Texture. Belonging.

Writers have to build connections. We can’t sit in our garrets pounding out exquisite prose, and expect to soar to the top of the bestseller lists. Or even to pay the next month’s rent. My favourite way to meet fellow booklovers is the old-fashioned way, through book clubs, readings, signings and mystery conferences, where we can sit face to face and talk. I still do that as much as I can, but California and CapeTown are rarely within my reach. Cyberspace is the meeting ground where all readers can find us. Somehow through the blogging, facebooking, listserve postings and twittering, our voices can get heard. Cyberspace can be fun, too, digging up old boyfriends you haven’t thought about in four decades or connecting with obscure cousins in Australia.

So a big thanks to my blogger family for inviting me back. I join with optimism and humour, hoping to share some thoughts and experiences, to contribute to the noisy chatter of the mystery-loving world, and maybe to hear from people who read it. What do you think about our brave new world?

Friday, March 05, 2010


I stepped across the cobbled concourse, and felt a chill in my bones as I passed the threshold beneath a grey granite arch and heard the clang of steel gates closing behind me.

I was in prison. Condemned to give a series of talks to the inmates of French penitentiaries on the subject of writing. And now, here I was, a writer of crime books face to face with real criminals.

It had all begun eight months earlier. I had been in southern California, in the midst of a book tour of the US to promote one of my China Thrillers. I received an email from my French publisher (I live in France), to say that I had been nominated for an unusual award at the Cognac festival of “polars”, which is the French word for mysteries.

But acceptance of the nomination went with certain obligations - I had to visit a number of French penitentiaries to talk to the prisoners about books and writing. Why? Because this particular award - the Prix Intramuros (literally, the prize between the walls) - was going to be decided by panels of prisoners.

A long list had been reduced to a short list of seven, and these were the books sent out to the prisons. The inmates would read and cast their votes. My book was “Snakehead”, the fourth in my six-book China series, and I was the only non-French writer to have been nominated.

So eight months later I was being ferried from a base in Cognac to prisons in the north-west of France. My first group of prisoners were all men, on remand awaiting trial, mostly young. I had declined to wear my kilt (which, as a good Scot, I often do for promotional purposes). For, after all, what man in his right mind would wear a skirt into an all-male prison?

To my surprise, they were interested, articulate, full of questions about writing, plot, character, research. And once I had tuned into the French prison slang which was somewhat different from the Parisian French I had been taught at school, I enjoyed a lively debate.

Another group, in a different wing of the same prison, was all female. They each stood outside their cell doors as I was led along the corridor, and one by one they fell in step behind me. In a recreation room at the end of the corridor we all sat around a table and they stared at me with dead eyes, listening in sullen silence as I talked. These were poor souls. Drug addicts and alcoholics, prostitutes and petty thieves. Wasted lives. I felt as if I were talking to a brick wall, until I happened to mention some of the awful things I’d been forced to eat during my research trips to China - deep fried whole scorpions, ants, sea slugs. And suddenly they became animated and the discussion came to life.

Then my departure. They filed out ahead of me. Standing once more outside their cells, to be locked in again after I had passed. This time, when the metal gates of this cold, 19th century place of incarceration clanged behind me, I was out. A free man, breathing fresh, clean air. And thanking God that fate had not led me to be locked up like the lost creatures I had left behind.

I went on to other prisons, spoke to other prisoners, and met a group of older men who had created their own prison library, and who talked with great enthusiasm and intelligence about the books they had read - what else is there to do during all those long, lonely hours?

I got back to Cognac in time for that evening’s award ceremony in the vaulted cellars of the mediaeval Château Otard, where that most famous of French kings, François Premier, had been born. To my astonishment, when the prizes were announced, I had won. This crime writer had been awarded the prize by the criminals he wrote about. Quite a plaudit, I thought. But then pride was tempered by a more sobering reflection.

When we write, perhaps there is a tendency to think of our readers in the abstract. But here, I had been confronted by readers I had never imagined. People for whom my words and thoughts, and plots, had provided an escape from lost lives lived behind bars. And that felt like quite a weight of responsibility.

One thing is for sure. I no longer think of readers in the abstract.

A footnote: I am delighted and honoured to be joining the very distinguished Type M for Murder team. During the coming weeks and months I will write about my life as a writer here in France, where writers and writing are revered and respected. I will describe the ways in which publishing and promotion differ from the English-speaking world. From the end of this month, I begin a two-month book tour of the States, so I will relay the experiences of a writer on the road direct to your screens. And when the moment comes, I will tell you, too, about the book which was rejected by every major publisher in the UK, only to be snapped up all across Europe and published first in French to the best reviews of my career.