I never meant to be one of my characters

My book characters changed my life, and it was weird. I invented them, and they re-invented me.  I have no idea whether that has happened to anyone else, subconscious impulses pouring out through the fingers, but when I first wrote One Two it wasn’t called that, it certainly wasn’t for publishing, and the characters were much older: it was a book I wrote in memory of my mother, who had reluctantly moved to a retirement village (they’re for old people, she said crossly. She was eighty) and turned her life upside down.  She made new friends, flirted outrageously, took on a whole new life, and died just when things were getting really interesting. I coped with it by writing her into a book with a kind of generic best friend, a lovely Scottish flirt, and a gay man who shared her love of opera, and gave them a murder to solve because she loved whodunits. It may be unconventional therapy but it helped, she is embedded in amber, enjoying herself, telling her wicked stories, vital and vigorous forever.

It was the first time I had tried my hand at a whodunit and I found the plotting absolutely fascinating. A few years later it was still niggling at me and I finally rewrote One Two in the age group I thought I knew best – my own. The ‘generic best friend’ became the main character, the title cropped up and suggested the idea of a series, and the setting changed to Scotland, where I live, and which I love. I was on an elective career break at the time, and became addicted, no other word for it. For two years I lived at my desk, writing until three in the morning, dazed and enchanted, living what had been a part-time passion for decades.

Edge isn’t me. None of them are me, although they all come from me, and my traits are liberally scattered between the four friends, but as their lives grew more interesting, book after book, it dawned on me, oh so slowly, that I could be having a more interesting life too. Couldn’t I? The Indian summer dawned for them before it dawned for me, but I found I was changing.  I was so engrossed I kept forgetting to eat, and I also made myself exercise: always that fear the wind could change and I’d be locked into a seated position for good. One genuinely unexpected result was that from being nearly William’s size I shrank down to Vivian’s size, then further.  Vivian and William started a sedate fling, almost without me noticing. In Five Six Edge joined a dating website, as bait for a Police Scotland investigation. In Seven Eight she had a ‘thing’ with another resident. In Nine Ten the characters actually shocked me by taking over. The beta readers were okay with it, but I was nervous. I knew from the Five Six research that she was entirely in character but I now no longer knew as much about life as my own imaginary friends . . .

Well, any regular reader of my blogs knows I joined a singles website just to keep up.  By the time I wrote Thirteen Fourteen I was having a thing of my own. Fun, too. The sun was shining in my Indian summer, and life was extremely good.  It still is. The books have become a celebration of the gift of energy and vitality that is so utterly unexpected and catches so many of us off-balance.

Fifteen Sixteen is stuck in limbo, with real life interfering all too often. No matter. It will come. My pen ran dry altogether for six months, not helped by me running out of money and going back to full-time work, but recently took off with a vengeance, pouring out a comedy romance about an autumn rose who finds herself in the first wives club, joins a website, and meets the kind of bizarre people one does meet, especially the perennial singles who have dodged grown-up relationships for forty years and counting.

I’m still not even sure it will be published, and if it was, whatever name would I use?  EJ Lamprey writes whodunits about characters who have been emerging into their own sunshine, but that is very much in the background of the books (okay, less so in Nine Ten). Joanna Lamprey writes SF. Another name would be nuts!  Yet anyone who started reading me via Dorothy’s encounters once she joins the YellowBrickRoad website will have expectations that simply aren’t going to be met by the Grasshopper Lawns stories. Oh well, I’ll work it out.

Hi. How are you, anyway? It’s been ages.

Picking neighbours for Grasshopper Lawns

I live in a rather untidy work-intensive home and would move into the Lawns in a heartbeat. Independence, a weekly cleaner, social life on tap and lock-up-and-go holiday capability? Haud me back!  I’m just not sure I’m interesting enough to meet their requirement of an interesting past, plus of course the place doesn’t exist . . . damnit.46

A long time ago I was a letting agent (I have been many, many things in a fairly turbulent career) and I had a few retirement village units on my books. People would buy them, then want to rent them out until they were ready to move in themselves. So what is a retirement village? How long is a piece of string?

They all had one thing in common, available to anyone over the age of fifty five.  Let me quickly tweak your perception of people over fifty five. This blog is liberally Michell Pfeiffer 1958scattered with celebrities who qualify—it has to be said that none of them do live in retirement villages (unless of course Beverly Hills counts as such) but they are all over fifty five in these photographs. Fancy one or more as a neighbour? (I should probably say here that I don’t earn a penny from this blog and am posting these pics in admiration, ack, please don’t sue me!) Kevin Bacon and Michelle Pfeiffer just scraped through the age restriction. Sean Connery could have been there since 1985 (In fact most of the pics are clebs born in the forties who could have been there years.)

 

Sean Connery 1930 Kevin Bacon 1958So, back to retirement villages I got to know in my letting days: I had one unit on my books in a purpose-built apartment block in the heart of Rosebank, which was a very upmarket suburb in Johannesburg. The apartment was large and sunny, there was a showpiece (award-winning) large shared courtyard, oh, and an excellent restaurant set-up, with meals at extremely good prices. Rosebank was a shopper’s dream back then (as best I know, still is) with superb restaurants, cinemas, and easy access to Patrick Stewart 1940theatres. The security, always an issue in Johannesburg, was faultless. It was, without question, the sophisticated urbanite’s ideal choice. As it happened, the first couple I took to see the place were put off by the elevator (we saw someone hurrying over to join us, the husband put his elegant walking stick out to stop the doors closing, and the elevator chopped his stick in half and swept us upwards and away, eek) but the next people I took, a very energetic jet-setting couple in their late fifties, signed up promptly on a five year lease.

Twiggy 1949Another on my books was a charming one-bed cottage in a complex in Bryanston, which is some twenty miles into the countryside. There were about thirty chocolate-coloured face-brick attractive cottages, each with their own little garden,  in the high-walled facility, and a central building with an excellent library, lovely reception rooms, and good frail care facilities for when life throws a hiccup. I let that one to the first viewer, who was delighted. I think what sold it to her, as much as anything else, was that as we passed the good local shops there were two horses patiently waiting in the parking lot while their riders were getting fish and chips, and renting a DVD. She loved that, the town-and-country feel of the place.

Pierce Brosnan 1953My personal favourite called itself a country club, rather than a retirement village. It was well out in the countryside, any prospective tenants had to be able to drive or be forever reliant on the place’s minibus service. It sprawled across about ten acres of land, superbly laid out and maintained. Tennis courts (four), bowling greens (two), inside and outside pools (one of each), and the houses were free standing, two bedroomed, spacious, and mouth-wateringly attractive. There were no frail care facilities, if you got sick nobody liked you any more, you had to leave. And the rent on that one was as much commission as I earned in a good month, but oh my it was lovely.Christie Brinkley

You’ll understand therefore that to me a retirement village is a desirable place to spend your leisured years, and I am constantly taken aback by the perception of a shabby old age home smelling slightly distressingly of wee. I should probably explain that I write whodunits set in a Scottish retirement village. Reader perceptions of retirement villages are definitely of interest.

Denzel Washington 1954

Grasshopper Lawns has drawn from all the places I got to know but also from the place where my mother finally grudgingly moved, which was for Europeans only (i.e. not white people, but people of any colour who were originally from Europe) and had a hodge-podge of cottages, one bed apartments and studio units set in lovely gardens with good security. Her neighbours were German, Dutch, Scottish, English, and one Russian (so exotic), and she absolutely loved the place and wished she had moved earlier. Told you and told you and told you, Mum.

Grasshopper Lawns has alternating bachelor and studio self-contained units, around a central house with library, pub, etc, is in the beautiful Scottish countryside some twenty miles from Edinburgh, and you have toDiane Keaton 1946 be single, and be an interesting person with an interesting past, to apply. Murders do happen, but only a few have been on the actual premises. Only one actual resident has been murdered; well, so far. And now that I think about it, since I invented the place, they have to let me in.  Now I just need to look the part.  No worries.

 

The Writing Process Blog Tour

I’ve been nominated by Georgia Rose for the Writing Process Blog Tour – thank you Georgia!

 

A Single Step’ is Georgia’s first romantic suspense novel, and is the first book in The Grayson Trilogy. It will be joined by ‘Before the Dawn’ this summer and finally by ‘Thicker than Water’.  Her website is Georgiarosebooks  Georgia Rose

So, the blog tour:

I have to answer four questions about what, why and how I write, then link to the blogger that tagged me, and tag two or three more authors in turn.

 

1. What am I working on now?

I’m trying to get Nine Ten Begin Again ready for beta readers, the fifth in a series of whodunits set in the greater Edinburgh area. (Which is why the pic is of the fabulous Kelpies, which soar next to the M9.) The first four have led the characters up towards this book (in between bodies and murderous villains, of course) but there’s a fairly dramatic change in character interaction and it is really worrying me, to the point where I asked two beta readers for feedback on an early draft, something I have never done before. They approved it enthusiastically (I do love my beta readers very much indeed) so it is full steam ahead. Totally nerve-wracking, as the first four books are slowly picking up fans, some of whom may be resistant to the change.  Seven Eight had twelve beta readers and because I am so nervous I am recruiting even more for Nine Ten, if anyone is up for it? Filthy job, but someone has to do it.  I always need new readers, because of the series side, but want a couple more regulars this time because of the change in the dynamic.


 kelpies 009

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

I write cosy whodunnits—also known as cozy whodunits—which is a fairly strictly controlled genre (not quite as bad as the original Detective Club rules) and if mine differ in any particulars, it is because my sleuths are neither young and trendy, nor ancient. They are semi-retired but not old. Baby boomers, really, and the hardest thing has been getting readers to see them as active and lively and not elderly Miss Marple-and-friends.  They are much more in the Rosemary and Thyme, or Murder She Wrote, age-group and I have a lot of fun with them. The books are possibly also a bit funnier than the conventional armchair detective novel, although there are some wonderfully funny ones in the genre.  The humour is very understated, my favourite readers are the ones that tell me they find themselves smiling all the way through.

 group

3. Why do I write what I do?

That is such a good question, and I have no answer whatsoever. I started my scribbling life writing historical novels (so much research) and switched to alternating that with SF. I love SF, but am not very good at it from a purist point of view, as I have a very shaky grasp on the technicalities and am frowned on by the true fundi. Detective fiction is an absolute killer, because you have to work out a murder, a murderer, then reverse-engineer the story with clues and red herrings. The first was incredibly difficult and written for private reasons. If reading them is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, writing them is like hand-cutting each piece.  Very addictive, though. . . well, I’m addicted.

 

 typist

4. How does my writing process work?

With a murder, or mystery, that creeps into my thoughts and slowly evolves in the background. Eventually it takes shape enough that I can start feeding my characters into it. They have evolved to the point where their input shapes the story further and once I have a beginning, a middle and an end, I start fleshing out, that’s the best point of all, where I will be writing four or five thousand words in a session and the world recedes into a hazy background. Eventually the draft reaches a point where I think it is complete, I put it away for a month and try to catch up on real life.  The first major edit after a month is always a letdown, it is never as brilliant as it seemed! Poking, prodding, pruning and adding (with my beta readers in mind) gets it to the point where it can go for their input, which always provokes multiple rewrites. Finally it goes for editing, and I put a release date on the blog and order the cover.

Thanks for reading and I hope you find something of interest in this.

 

I am tagging two authors I have read and enjoyed, and my third is a bright new talent:

Andy Lake is a serious and highly regarded writer who, in a lighter vein, writes some of the best SF microstories in the business, check out those tabs on his website on http://andylake.co.uk/

Susan Scott writes beautifully, I found her first via her book but she is a great blogger and there will be a wealth of blogs right now as she has just finished the April A-Z challenge on a difficult but nicely-realized subject  http://www.gardenofedenblog.com/

Kirsten Arcadio has a very evocative website and with one book out, one due and a third before the end of the year, is a talent to watch  http://www.kirstenarcadio.co.uk/kirsten-arcadio/

 

October 2013: Back to Basics (William’s in this one)

BACK TO BASICS
(The theme for October was Deception, and the element was Fire.)

firepot

The brief, three years ago, had been electrifying. Interstellar travel was a reality, with the first exploration ship due to launch in five years.  Nick Taylor had been one of three thousand experts pulled onto the project, and the years since had been the most exciting, exhausting, alarming, and thrilling years of his young life.

His section covered crew wellbeing—even at interstellar speed, the closest promising-looking planet was four years away. The ship would transport a team of experts, spend a year on the planet—all going well, of course—and return. Most of the passengers would travel in stasis, since it wasn’t logistically possible to provision up to ten years for so many people, but the minimum crew of nine—three at a time on duty, twenty-four /seven—was their main worry. How could nine people be kept from going stark staring mad in eight years, during the hours they were neither working nor sleeping?

The section personnel were gathered today for an update on that vital issue, rehashing the many suggestions that had been tabled—revolving all the personnel in and out of stasis, or choosing only crew who shared a single language; loading ship databanks with thousands of films and books; hurriedly inventing a Voyager-style holodeck. That one never drew many laughs; it was so obviously what was needed. Entertaining a crew, even a multilingual one, wasn’t the impossibility; relaxing them, however—the five volunteer teams living in trial conditions were all stressed almost to incoherence within months.

Overall coordinator Tom Burkett tapped a pen against his glass for attention, and the heated conversations died. ‘You’ll remember at the original brief we invited some SF writers, in the hope they could think outside the box on this? We’ve got a presentation from William Robertson coming up next. We’ll go through now.’

William Robertson! Nick had been a fan all his teens, still was if he had time to read, and craned eagerly over the heads of the people walking in front of him for his first close-up glimpse of the author.

Robertson was taller, heavier, and older than anyone in the room; he nodded unsmiling greetings as they entered the room, where nineteen chairs were grouped around a steel fire bowl. Fire? Nick took his place with the others, and Robertson, leaning on one of his trademark sticks, bent to touch a lighter to the bowl.

Flames leapt and Burkett spoke up. ‘No talking. Relax and watch.’

This was stupid—there couldn’t be an open fire on a spaceship!—but Nick watched obediently. His frayed nerves eased; he could smell wood burning, and an elusive faint trace of something else. Someone, presumably Robertson, threw a chunk of rock salt on the fire, which sparked and burned blue. There was something else . . . people, shadows against shadows, and the plaintive strains of a harmonica. Horses snorted nearby, and stars burned huge in the night sky. One of the men threw a log on the fire in a flurry of sparks—

Nick flinched, and was back in his seat.

‘How the hell did you do that?’ he exclaimed involuntarily. The others were looking equally startled, and Robertson grinned into his tidy beard.

‘Since we first learned to summon fire,’ he rumbled, unexpectedly Scots, ‘it has been our comfort, our safety, our dreamy pleasure, triggering our most primal feelings of wellbeing. I released a permitted narcotic—milder than a wee dram—to prime you. The crew will have the same narcotic. Imagination—memory—you’ll have all experienced summat different. And will, every time you look into the flames, no matter how often you look. Our trial team use it a few times a week, and their stress levels have dropped back well below concern levels.’

He swung his stick at the fire pot, which flickered as the stick went straight through the image.

‘It’s not real?’  Ann Moore wasn’t the only one to gasp, but she was the only one to speak.

‘Och, it’s real, burning right now, and it will for the next two years. Every flicker, every added log, all captured on holographic film for the journey. Smoke and mirrors, ken? Smoke and mirrors.’

 

A-Z Challenge – Queer eye for the straight guy

There are deviants of every sexuality, and they are deeply repugnant, but to call someone automatically perverted because they prefer the company of someone of their own sex is to call everyone living on benefits a Mick Philpott.  Or every father a Josef Fritzl.

The closet door creaked open very slowly – who remembers Elton John coming out as bisexual, and saying twice as many people waved at him? That was the late 70s, and society was cautiously accepting there were homosexual people, but still hoping a gay man could be cured by the love of a good woman (just as a gay woman was only waiting for the right man). Since then attitudes have changed and when even my mother changed direction completely on her attitude to gay men I assumed the whole world was now okay with alternative sexuality.

Anyway, this is my autobiographical A-Z, so you’re probably wondering when I’ll get to the point.  Actually, it’s my book, again. My characters have different interests, different lifestyles. Donald, who appears late in the first book, is not, how can I put this, overwhelmingly masculine. I was taken aback to be violently criticized by a reader for including ‘disgusting’ elements in my first book without, he said indignantly, any warning.

I’d already made the friends twenty years younger.  I didn’t want them pairing off and turning the books into sloppy romantic whodunits, hence building in anti-romance from the start. Maybe I should scrap the whole grown-up thing and recreate them as pre-teens, I don’t remember Enid Blyton having any of these problems.

And frankly one of the tenets of the whodunit is that it must portray its time frame accurately (see the R post). The character in question is now just a man who never married, can be a bit bitchy, and is suspected, without hostility, of being ‘a bit of a poofter’. Enough?

A-Z challenge – G is for Grasshopper Lawns

My A-Z autobiography … G is for Grasshopper Lawns, and retirement

Grasshopper Lawns is a retirement village in Scotland that doesn’t actually exist but is now so much a part of my life that it is more real to me than many places that do.  I’m writing a series of whodunits based there and sometimes when I drive down that particular country road I’m briefly puzzled to see only a field of broccoli.

At one stage of my very chequered career I worked as a letting agent and had quite a few retirement villages on my books, as people would buy their forever home, then want it rented out until they were ready to move in themselves.  The options ranged from all-mod-con purpose-built apartment blocks in cities, to sprawling developments in the heart of the African veld, with tennis courts and swimming pools.  Retirement, I realized even back then, wasn’t going to be the end of the book.  It will be a whole new chapter.

As retiring is now a shimmer on my own horizon, and taking on more reality with every scurrying year, I’m starting to prepare for it – walking every day, trying to stick to a healthy diet, ensuring  I will leap into it with a sparkle in my eye and an athletic spring in my step.  I only wish I had a real Grasshopper Lawns (with perhaps slightly fewer murders) to move to.

My Grasshopper Lawn whodunit novellas are

One Two Buckle My Shoe – http://viewbook.at/B00AVQDKXC

Three Four Knock On My Door –http://viewbook.at/B00C4FE0TG

If you leave a comment, please include the link back to your blog, there are SO many blogs competing in this challenge I’m really struggling to get back to friendly readers.

In fact I’m going to add a blog about it!