Monday, 24 October 2016

Never mind the fuel efficiency, look at the curves

As part of the research process for my novel A Murder To Die For I've been spending quite a lot of my time in the 1920s and 1930s. Although the novel is set in the present day, the plot centres - to some degree - around the life and works of a fictional crime fiction writer called Agnes Crabbe and her lady detective, Miss Millicent Cutter. Their story pretty much takes place between the wars and I've been immersing myself in the style and the fashion of the era to get a sense of it. And from a very early stage in the writing process I knew exactly what Miss Cutter would look like.


Model, actor and socialite Louise Brooks was sassy, tomboyish and seductive. She had an amazing life - hedonistic, scandalous and enigmatic (there's a nice Arena documentary about her which someone has kindly put up on YouTube here) - but ultimately tragic towards the end of her life as she was forgotten by Hollywood and ended up almost in penury. She was an icon of 20's 'flapper' society and the silent movie era and she is exactly how I see Miss Cutter.  


I quite fell in love with Ms Brooks during the novel's progress. But I also fell head over heels for the gorgeous Art Deco curves of 1920s and 1930s transport. Now, I don't know much about cars or bikes or trains and, whenever I think about those decades, all I see in my head are Model T Fords. What I hadn't expected was to find was vehicles of such staggering beauty as this 1930 Henderson KJ Slimline motorcycle:



   
How beautiful is that? It looks like Batman's spare batbike. And how about this 1937 Delahaye 135MS Roadster?


Or this 1939 Bugatti Type 57c cabriolet:  


Even the trains were gorgeous. We all know the Mallard in the UK but how about this New York Central Mercury engine from 1936? Oh my.



These were vehicles designed to be streamlined ... but sexy as well. I look at today's diesel trains and utterly boring hatchback saloon cars and I long for the days when money wasn't the primary method of valuing something. In my last book Why Did The Policeman Cross The Road? I recount a story told by advertising guru Rory Sutherland:

'Eurostar wanted suggestions on how to improve the service. Engineers came up with a £6 billion solution that involved laying a whole new set of tracks and faster trains that got you to the coast 40 minutes earlier. It strikes me that it’s a pretty unimaginative way of improving a train journey just to make it faster. They could have put on decent wi-fi and had all of the world’s top male and female supermodels wandering up and down the carriages serving Château Pétrus for the entire journey instead and they’d have saved around £3 billion. I’m pretty sure passengers would see this as an improvement and people would actually be asking for the trains to go slower.’

Yes, petrol is expensive. That's why your car is shaped like a jelly mould. But one glorious day, when renewable energy makes vehicles cheap to run, maybe we can have some style and elan back again. And maybe our vehicles will once again be as beautiful as those they enjoyed nearly 100 years ago.












Tuesday, 18 October 2016

And we're funded!

Hello blog-o-nauts. I do apologise for the lack of communication for a week and a bit. Things have been crazily busy at Colgan Towers. However ... it's all been worth it as A Murder To Die For has reached the heady heights of being 100% funded! The book is going to happen!


(That's a colour doodle I drew some time ago. It doesn't form part of the book (although it is a scene from the book) but I thought it would add some colour to an otherwise wordy post).

Crowdfunding a book is hard work. There's no denying it. It means tweeting about the book three or four times a day. It means creating Facebook pages and posting photos on Instagram. It means doing talks and making personal appearances and sending out targeted emails ... all of it aimed at pimping your wares in a most un-British way while shouting 'Give me some money!' at all and sundry.

As I said, it's hard work.

But, like most things in life, hard work pays off. And here's a quick reminder of what all of this work was for.

A Murder To Die For is a book that I've wanted to write for a while. As I explained in an interview on Jennie Ensor's excellent blog recently:

'The idea for a comedy murder mystery grew out of a pub discussion (as all the best ideas do) with some non-police friends (I was a cop in London for 30 years). I was explaining why I don’t watch cop shows – procedurally they are nonsense and their accuracy is usually appalling - things like ‘good cop/bad cop’ during interviews for example. That breaks the rules of evidence as any information gained under threat or duress will be inadmissible at court. However, I do love murder mystery because it’s a world removed from real life. It’s generally very silly and melodramatic, like a game of Cluedo made real. And it suddenly occurred to me that there might be a great deal of humour to be milked from throwing the two genres at each other – real policing versus murder mystery.

'One of my favourite TV shows is Midsomer Murders because it does just that; it straddles the two genres. It’s filmed around where I live on the South Bucks/South Oxon border so it’s fun to spot the locations. But what really attracts me to Midsomer is the ingenuity of the crimes. While Det Ch Insp Barnaby appears to be a modern cop investigating a homicide, the circumstances of the death are nearly always pure golden age murder mystery. My favourite ever is an episode called Hidden Depths where the murder is committed by a man being staked out on his croquet lawn and then being bludgeoned to death by his disabled wife firing his wine collection at him with a replica Roman trebuchet (a kind of catapult)! Or that great episode where Martine McCutcheon is crushed by a giant wheel of cheese. Or the episode where Phyllida Law is killed when a towering pile of newspapers is pushed on top of her by her dotty husband Edward Fox. Genius!'



I wanted to write a comedy because there simply isn't enough mainstream comedy in fiction these days. There's plenty on the sci-fi and fantasy shelves. And there's a lot on the women's fiction shelves too. People like Douglas Adams, Marian Keyes, Terry Pratchett, Helen Fielding, Jasper fforde, Sophie Kinsella etc. are some of our bestselling authors. But the middle ground has been somewhat sparse in novels since we lost some of the great humorists. In recent years we've said goodbye to Tom Sharpe, George MacDonald Fraser, David Nobbs, John Mortimer and so many more. There are people keeping the flame alive - John Niven and Jonathan Coe being two of my favourites - but there's room for a lot more comedy. We're particularly lacking in farce. I love a good farce, me. Farce is comedy that involves situations that are highly exaggerated, extravagant and improbable but grounded in the real world. Think Fawlty Towers, for example. What could be more mundane than a mid-range seaside hotel? But throw in a series of misunderstandings, some decent slapstick and a cast of eccentric characters and you have comedy gold. Tom Sharpe’s books are all classic farce. I guess the most famous is Wilt – the story of mild-mannered Henry Wilt who is so dominated by his wife Eva that he acts out a fantasy of murdering her by dumping a fully clothed sex doll down a hole on a building site. Unfortunately the doll is spotted just as thousands of tons of concrete is poured on top of it and, with perfect bad timing, Eva goes missing. A simple - if disturbing - drunken act quickly degenerates into delicious farce. Farce makes me laugh. And, with everything going on right now on both sides of the Atlantic, don't we all need more laughs?

The final thing to say about this book is that it's a tribute to my late father. Dad died in 1991 - 25 years ago this year - at the cruelly young age of just 51. A retired homicide detective and just turned pro writer, he was part way through writing his first novel, a murder mystery called The Chief Constable Regrets, when he suffered a massive and unexpected heart attack. My first thought was to try to finish the book off but, unfortunately, he didn't leave enough notes behind for me to do so. So I've done the next best thing; I've incorporated some of his book into my book.

A Murder To Die For is a murder mystery set during a murder mystery festival and the action takes place in the village of Nasely, home of the reclusive golden age crime fiction author Agnes Crabbe. The plot of one of her most celebrated novels, Swords Into Ploughshares, becomes relevant as the story progresses (no further spoilers will be issued!) so I used Dad's writing as Crabbe's writing. Therefore, whenever an extract or a quote from Crabbe's book is mentioned, it's actually from Dad's unfinished novel. It was a nice way to incorporate his writing within the context of my novel and I hope that I've done him justice.

So there you go. A murder mystery. A farce. A tribute to Dad. And now fully funded and ready to start its journey through the production process.

Exciting times!

Thank you SO MUCH to all of you who took a chance on me and pledged your hard-earned money to make the book happen. You are the very best kind of people - true philanthropists and patrons of the arts - and I couldn't have done it without any of you, no matter how much or how little you could spare. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Oh, and in case the rest of you missed my subtle hyperlinks, you can pre-order A Murder To Die For here!




Friday, 7 October 2016

Murder at 134,000,000 Miles Per Hour

Today's bloggage is a guest post by Damon L Wakes who has written a somewhat unusual murder mystery ....

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Ten Little Astronauts is a murder mystery in space.

Ten astronauts are awoken from suspended animation – chosen from a crew of thousands to repair their steadily freezing ship – only to discover that one of their number has been killed, and that the murderer is now amongst them. In order to survive and repair the ship, they must work out who is responsible, because if the impostor doesn’t kill them, the cold will.


There are a whole lot of ways to write a murder mystery. If there weren’t, the butler would always do it, and nobody would ever bother reading more than one book. However, though there are a whole lot of mysteries, there are also a few rules. It is generally expected that it should be possible – at least in theory - for the reader to work out whodunit before the murderer is revealed in the book. It would be terribly unsatisfying for the solution of the mystery to be that the murderer was not, in fact, a guest at the hotel, but an opportunistic burglar named Chad who snuck in without anybody noticing and only got caught because his DNA was found at the scene. Page 304: Chad dunit. Everybody go home.

In order to avoid Chad ruining everybody’s fun, most murder mysteries follow a range of conventions:

• There are a limited number of suspects.
• The murderer is a character the reader is already aware of.
• The mystery is solved only by rational and scientific methods.

Some settings are better suited to this sort of scenario than others. Agatha Christie’s mysteries often take place in a small village or a country house, or on board a moving vehicle. These places all make for a small cast of characters to begin with, and lend themselves to a “somebody in this room is the murderer” scene at the end. I began writing Ten Little Astronauts with these points in mind – a spaceship is more or less the ultimate moving vehicle – but once I got started, I realised that I would have to borrow more than just a handful of Christie’s tricks. The premise of my book – a small cast of characters, hopelessly isolated with a murderer in their midst – overlapped so heavily with And Then There Were None specifically that the only way I could avoid writing a rip-off was to make it an homage.

Nevertheless, shifting the setting to a tin can in a vacuum demanded a brand new plot. With the ship itself hurtling through space at unimaginable speeds, so far beyond help that an SOS sent at the speed of light would take years to be heard, there was no need for chapters dedicated to explaining how the cast became so trapped and why they couldn’t call for help. The hostile environment also helped to ramp up the tension and get the action off to a quick start. However, the new story demanded a great deal of research. Where Christie drew upon an extensive knowledge of medicine and chemistry, I had to develop an understanding of cosmic rays and explosive decompression.

The space setting handed me an obvious reason for the small cast of characters and an immediate explanation as to why the murderer was so certainly one of them, but at the same time it made it a challenge to ensure that the solution would be rational and scientific. Lightsabres and hoverboards make for exciting sci-fi, but it was clear that for the murder mystery itself to shine, the world of Ten Little Astronauts would have to stick as closely as possible to our own. I learned everything I could about real life in space, and visited a WWII submarine – HMS Alliance - to get an idea what it would be like on board a vessel that must carry its own atmosphere. Seeing the interior of the submarine for myself, and speaking to a former submariner about what conditions were like, informed a spacecraft characterised by exposed machinery and bare metal, rather than white plastic and polished glass. The Alliance was such an influence on the setting as a whole that I later returned to film the video for the book in its control room (The video is small but if the link doesn't work or you want to see a larger version click here).



If you’d like to see Ten Little Astronauts make it into print, you can pledge at Unbound, where there’s also an extract available (Click here). You’ll get a copy of your very own (among other rewards on offer) and your name will be recorded for all time in the back of the book.




Tuesday, 4 October 2016

The Write Path

How do writers write? What's their process?

It's a question that's always fascinated me and it's led to me reading any number of books on the subject ... William Strunk Jr and E B White's The Elements of Style, Stephen King's On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Annie Dillard's The Writing Life, David Quantick's How to be a Writer and How to Write Everything, William Goldman's Adventures in the Screen Trade ... I've read them all and many more.

You can learn an awful lot from such books. You can learn a lot too from being a voracious reader and by analysing how the authors you love do what they do. However, the one thing that you have to discover for yourself is how you plough your own furrow; you have to find the writing method that suits you. And you can only do that by writing.

My next book, A Murder To Die For, is a comedy murder mystery. And, as a tribute to my late father, I'm incorporating extracts from his unfinished first novel within the body of mine (see here for the full story). Dad only completed the first few chapters of his novel before he died. However, he spent several years beforehand plotting and researching it. Admittedly, in those far off pre-internet days, such things took a little longer but, knowing Dad as I did, he would not have written a single word of his book before he had every wrinkle ironed out. He was meticulous that way.

And it seems that lots of writers do the same; they work everything out before they type the first word of Page 1. A good friend of mine has been going through this plotting process for at least two years for his first novel and he recently shared some photos with me of his plot notes.


I'm sure it all makes perfect sense to him. However, it wouldn't work for me.

What I've discovered, after some 35 years of writing, is that I don't work like that. Yes, I make notes and I have piles of notebooks and sketchpads that are evidence of that fact. Some date back to the late 1970s and they are all bulging with ideas, thoughts, snippets of dialogue, character sketches and useful facts. But you won't find any kind of a plot contained inside any of them. Let me explain why.


I bought a typewriter with my first ever wage packet in 1977 (partly because my handwriting is so abysmal) and I used it to write short stories and scripts. And then in 1981, when I was 20, I wrote my first novel. Thankfully, I kept the manuscript and I read it recently. And it was awful. And so was the novel that came after it. And the next. And the next. However, by the time I'd written my fifth and sixth novels, they'd started to get better. Like any skill, be it juggling or playing golf, your ability improves the more you do it.

Writing a book is hard work. And the hardest thing about writing a book is nailing your first draft to the paper; the long and often arduous job of starting at Page 1 and continuing until you've written something like 80-120,000 words. The arrival of word processors in the mid-1980s made the process a damned sight easier, it must be said. But, more importantly for me, word processing allowed me to develop a way of working that took the hard work out of the process.

My method, quite simply, is to get writing as soon as I can. Naturally, I don't start until I have a pretty good idea of the story I want to tell but, at the start, the idea might be quite simple and undeveloped. The idea for A Murder To Die For, for example, was to have a murder take place at a murder mystery convention where everyone is dressed the same way and then to set the police against the murder mystery fans in a race to solve the crime. Hilarity ensues! I had a few ideas for characters and a few action sequences in my head. I also had a bunch of settings in mind, mostly based on real locations in and around where I live on the South Buckinghamshire/ Oxfordshire border. But that was all. Now, I could have spent months developing my characters, plotting out the course of the various plot strings, and researching content. But I didn't. I sat down and started writing. I got a rythmn going. And as I did so, magical things started to happen ... new plot ideas would occur to me while others would be excised or replaced ... the relationships between the characters started to evolve ... a complex and complete novel began to emerge almost as if it was appearing out of thin air. It felt creative and organic. And it was fun every minute of every hour of every day. The writing didn't feel like a chore; I couldn't wait to get to the keyboard.


That's how I like to write; I literally feel my way through the plot. And it works for me. The alternative method of plotting it all out beforehand and then having to face the physical task of 'writing up my notes' just seems too mechanistic to me. It sounds like hard work. And I can't help but wonder whether, if Dad had just got on with the writing instead of agonising over the details, he'd have written more than just four chapters before his untimely passing. I really wish he had.

The hardest part of being a writer is that first draft. But once you have that completed, the fun can really begin. Re-drafting, editing and re-writing is an utter joy. It can sometimes mean making some drastic changes - for example, I realised very early in my second draft that I had too many police characters so I had to drop some of them, and a whole plot strand, and merge two cops into one to streamline the story - but it was worth doing and the book was so much better for it. By not minutely plotting things beforehand I was left with some blunders and a few plot holes. But re-drafting can easily fix that.

I also sent my first drafts out to critical readers, all friends and/or colleagues who know me well enough to tell me if something is wrong or doesn't work. And they always do, sometimes quite savagely! By the fifth draft, I was feeling pretty happy with the novel. And no part of the process had felt like hard work.

I did a count up recently and discovered that I have written or part-written 18 novels, nearly one every two years for the past 35 years. None have been submitted for publication before. A Murder To Die For is the first. But now that I feel confident that my novel writing is good enough, I'm going to be looking to get a few more published.

My plan over the next few years is to write one new novel a year. But I'm also going to re-visit those 18 unpublished novels - although the earliest ones are piss-poor they have some great ideas and plotlines - and treat them as first drafts. They can all be brought bang up-to-date with my current level of ability. I couldn't even consider that kind of commitment if all I had was 18 plot outlines and mountains of notes. So maybe there is some method in my madness after all?

So how do you like to work? What's your writing method?

I'd love to hear!


Oh, and if A Murder To Die For sounds like a book you'd like to read, why not help crowdfund it by clicking here? It's already 80% funded so not much further to go!




Sunday, 2 October 2016

It's all over bar the shouting

I just ran a competition for subscribers to my new book A Murder To Die For asking them to find 12 Agatha Christie novel titles hidden inside a poster.


I had lots of entries and quite a few got it right but there could be only one winner ... and there was! Well done Pamela McCarthy!

And the answers?

If you want to know, visit here.