At the Sharp End…

Favourites from the Uxbridge English Dictionary

There’s a programme on BBC Radio 4 called I’m Sorry I Haven’t Clue. It’s subtitled ‘the antidote to panel games’ and consists of ‘two teams of two comedians ‘being given silly things to do’ by the host. A simple enough format, but one that has endured for years. The show began, hosted by the late Humphrey Lyttelton, in 1972. After the death of the famously grumpy Humph, Jack Dee took over and the show is still going strong.

ISIHAC-cast

I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue participants. Back row l to r: Jeremy Hardy, pianist Colin Sell, Tim Brooke-Taylor. Front row l to r: Graeme Garden, host Jack Dee, Barry Cryer

I rarely miss the show when a series is running, and if I do I try to do the Listen Again thing to catch up with it. In fact, I often do the Listen Again thing even when I did hear it go out live, just to have another chance to giggle. We are too short of things that make us laugh out loud these days, but ISIHAC is one of them for me.

One of my favourite rounds has always been the teams reading out their entries from the UXBRIDGE ENGLISH DICTIONARY, where new meanings are given to existing words. In 2016 some enterprising spark at Random Penguin finally brought out a collected edition, edited by Graeme Garden (a regular panellist) and Jon Naismith, who has been the producer of the show since 1991.

Here are a few of the ones that made me laugh the hardest. For more, you’ll simply have to listen to the show or buy the book.

Uxbridge English DictionaryAccomplish: a drunken sidekick

Befuddle: a tight group of cattle

Croquette: a tiny little crocodile

Dictaphone: someone you really don’t like calling

Economist: cheap fog

Falsetto: fake ice cream

Ghoulish: Hungarian stew that comes back to haunt you

Hobnob: cooking accident

Intercontinental: someone who has wet themselves all over the world

and finally:

Juniper: Did you bite that woman?

10 Things I Learned From Research

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Nosing Around in the Boston Aquarium

Boston-Aquarium

I knew I wanted to set part of Second Shot, the sixth Charlie Fox book, in Boston. Partly this was to set up the contrast of the city against the small-town feel of North Conway up in New Hampshire, where other scenes of the book take place. The internet is great for research, but sometimes there really is no substitute for going there and seeing it for yourself.

For one thing, while visiting Boston I paid a visit to the fabulous Aquarium on the edge of the harbour. Immediately, I could visualise some of the action taking place there. And, having been in person, I was able to better describe the place. Not just the look, but the smell.

As soon as you walk in through the entrance to the modern, open-plan building, you see the penguin enclosure in front of you. Upstairs is the café, so the first smell that hits you is the smell of fried fish. A little unfair on the inhabitants, I thought, but a very useful splash (pun intended) of colour to add to my description of the place.

How to Mix the Perfect Cocktail

Molotov-cocktail

For one of the major action scenes in Road Kill, I needed to have Charlie and several others hijack a moving vehicle from motorcycles while they’re in Ireland. For the best way to do this I picked the brains of an ex-military friend who suggested the good old-fashioned Molotov cocktail might be the best method, with a twist.

Petrol in liquid form is actually very difficult to ignite—it’s the vapour that burns. So, I had Charlie leave quite a gap at the top of the bottle for the vapour to build up. She also added sugar to the mix, which both makes it burn hotter and stick to whatever it hits. The final problem was how best to light such a mixture, bearing in mind she and her cohorts are on solo motorcycles, chasing a speeding van at the time.

Here my ex-military mate—who just so happened to specialise in bomb disposal during his time with the RAF—suggested firework sparklers. These are usually made from an iron wire coated at one end with a metal fuel, an oxidiser and a binder. Different types of metals will produce different colours, so Ferrotitanium will give a golden glow, while Titanium will give silver or white. The advantage of a sparkler is that, once lit, they’re very difficult to put out, so they would survive being in the airflow of a bike. They also provide a time delay fuse, if part of the sparkler is outside the cap of the bottle containing the cocktail, and part is inside where the vapour has built up.

I did wonder, in these paranoid times, if I should have described this process here, but I’ve done so in the book, and a quick Google search will bring up any number of pages that go into far greater detail. Anyway, for the purposes of the chase scene in Road Kill, it worked a treat!

Read the rest of this blog over on Murder Is Everywhere.

 

What Makes You Buy A Book?

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Last week I read a very interesting article by indie author Maggie Lynch on the Alliance of Independent Authors website about what makes readers buy books.

Maggie has clearly gone into a great deal of depth on this subject, including doing a questionnaire with her own email list. If you want to read the full study, follow the link above to the piece.

She also quotes from a very scientific survey done for the Australia Council of the Arts in 2016, which covers all kinds of genres, including non-fiction, and a lot of details on how else people spend their leisure time.

Maggie mentions various other surveys and studies, from which the answers vary quite a bit as to what are the main points of influence for book buying. A good deal of it seemed to revolve around what questions were asked and how they were phrased, although generally, we didn’t get to see that part.

Among Maggie’s own readership, the most important factor was how well-known the author was to the reader, closely followed by the cover, if the book was recommended by a friend (as opposed to being recommended via social media, which rated much lower) the description, and if it was part of a series. Way down the list was apparent bestseller status, literary prizes won, or who the book was published by.

To read the full blog over on Murder Is Everywhere, including the Word of the Week, cly-faker, click here.

On Writing: Keeping Characters Straight

It was a comment on Twitter that sparked this blog. Someone brought up the subject of trying to keep characters’ names straight in your head while you’re writing, and ensuring that you don’t have too many characters whose first or last names begin with the same letter.

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My notes of the opening page of the new Charlie Fox book!

I came up with a solution to this problem ages ago and discovered, somewhat to my embarrassment, that I had not applied it to the current Charlie Fox book. A quick check revealed that I had, indeed, not got the balance quite right. Thank you to fellow author, Graham Smith, for reminding me to make use of my own system!

Even if you don’t outline or plan, this method works well and is very simple. I jot down an alphabet in a line across the middle of a page. Then I start with the recurring characters, like Charlie Fox herself, and put a mark above the letter C to indicate a first name starting with that letter, and another below the letter F to indicate a last name.

I carry on in this way through the entire cast list, although when it comes to family members who have the same last name I usually put just one mark under that letter. I try to make the mark bold if it relates to a continuing character.

Having now gone through this for the current WIP, I can see at a glance that the letter F has become overcrowded. I’ve also got three characters with last names beginning with S, none of which are recurring from previous books, so I could pick different names for at least a couple of them. And I’ve not only got one first and two last name uses of E, but the names are all four or five letters, so there isn’t even the variety of length to separate them.

OK, back to the drawing board for some of these minor characters’ names!

Google-names-search

When it comes to searching for character names, Google is your friend!

This week’s Word of the Week is pusillanimous, meaning cowardly or timid. It comes from Latin pusillanimis, having little courage, and is a translation of the Greek oligopsychos, small-souled.

Farewell to France

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Leaving France, where I spent just about the whole of July, was hard. Not only because it was beautiful, but because it was also a place that seemed to inspire creativity. Had I realised how distracted I would be once I got back to the UK, I might have been tempted to stay on another month or two! Just until the latest Charlie Fox book was finished, anyway.

Of course, it had its downside, like the flying ant invasion that suddenly appeared in my bedroom one night. The problem was, they disappeared during the day and you never quite knew when they might pop up again. I’m not particularly squeamish, but I was feeling severely outnumbered.

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Read the full story over on Murder Is Everywhere

In Full Retreat: Writing in France

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I went to France at the beginning of July planning to get a start made on the new Charlie Fox book. I’m happy to report that the tentative 15,000 words I’d hoped for morphed into 20,000 once I got into the writing, and I’m even cautiously pleased with the way it’s going so far. I promised myself I’d have a break when I hit that point, and do some driving around to look at locations for later on in the story, but at the same time, I’m anxious not to lose too much momentum.

No chance of getting out of practise with the writing itself, though. I also had a last-minute Q&A to write for the #BlogTour I did at the start of the month for the launch of the new crime thriller standalone, Dancing On The Grave. Thank you so much to everyone who took part or supported me along the way.

And then I was reminded that I’d promised to provide a short story for a proposed anthology earlier in the year. The editor contacted me and asked for a brief sentence or two about the story, and particularly the setting of it. Within a week, if possible.

Argh!

My mind was a complete blank.

ZS and Libby-Omaha Beach

ZS and Libby Fischer Hellmann at the American Cemetery, Omaha Beach, Normandy

To read the rest of this blog on MurderIsEverywhere, please click here.

Retreating Somewhere Else to Write: Does it Work?

A close friend of mine decamps from the UK every year to Italy in order to get any writing done. You might think the climate had something to do with it, although it can be just as cold in the wilds of Tuscany as it is in the wilds of the Derbyshire Peak District.

I’ve managed to get quite a bit of work done over the first half of this year. Nevertheless, when I set off for the Aveyron area of southern France at the beginning of July for a month’s house and cat-sitting, I had hopes that my own writing retreat would prove fruitful.

Bournazel-gardens grapes

grapes on the vine at the Château de Bournazel

One of the reasons for this was the company I was keeping. I travelled down from the UK through France with my American friend and fellow crime author, Libby Fischer Hellmann. Libby was on a deadline for a book she needed to finish. I really wanted to come back with a decent start made on the next in the Charlie Fox series.

At the same time, we wanted to get out and see something of the surrounding area. Libby had spent time in France years before, and her French came back to her like she’d never been away, whereas I’m a stumbling linguist at the best of times. We agreed that we would spend the mornings chipping away at the word-face, and the afternoons out and about, part exploring and—for me, at least—part researching locations where I’d like to set the book I’m working on right now.

I confess to a certain apprehension. This is the first time I have taken my own, right-hand-drive car onto Continental European roads. Fortunately, coming from the States, Libby found it natural to remind me to stay on the correct side of the road.

 

ZS and Libby-on the road in France

ZS and Libby Fischer Hellmann, somewhere in rural France

We took the traditional Dover-to-Calais route and our first stopover was a short hop down the coast, arriving at the Normandy beaches in thunder, lightning and flash-flooding. I was doubly glad I’d remembered to use Rain-X on all the glass in the car. Call me old-fashioned, but I do quite like to be able to see where I’m going when I’m behind the wheel of a vehicle. With that, and Mrs Google doing sat-nav duties and sending us into fits by mangling the French place names—“périphérique” became “perry-ferricker”—we arrived in good time and good temper.

The following morning was the Fourth of July. We visited the American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach. A stunning setting for a sobering experience. Row after row of white grave markers looking out over the tranquil beach they died to secure. That place, on that date, brought home the true price of independence.

American Cemetery

part of the American Cemetery at Omaha Beach

 

Omaha Beach

Juno, Omaha, Gold, and Sword. Names that resonate.

There are certainly themes here that resonate with the new book, and after visiting I wanted to try to include them in the story.

We were not the only ones making a trip through France. In Tours, heading south, we chanced upon a Slovenian-registered big Honda, so laden down with luggage it was hard to spot the make, never mind the model. No doubt the rider, too, had stopped off to see the beautiful cathedral.

 

Slovenian Honda-Tours

Touring Tours by Slovenian Honda. (pic courtesy of Libby Fischer Hellmann)

 

Tours Cathedral

Amazing architecture of Tours Cathedral

The place we were looking after is in a small town in the Aveyron area between Toulouse and Rodez, lovely open roads with little traffic, winding down to river valley bottoms with narrow stone bridges. Villages with medieval architecture of picture-postcard prettiness.

Belcastel was one such example. Set on a steep hill by the side of the Aveyron river, the ancient castle began life in the ninth century before falling into disrepair at the end of the seventeenth century. It was purchased by a French architect in 1973, who restored and extended it to the current building.

Belcastel castle

Belcastel castle. The original dates back to the 9th C.

 

Belcastel balcony

View from a balcony at Belcastel castle, where it’s possible to stay.

Today, the Château de Belcastel houses exhibitions and art, and it’s even possible to stay there. Not wildly expensive, either, considering the views, not to mention the fact guests have their own moat.

Belcastel study

The study at Belcastel. Hm, wonder how much work I’d get done here…?

 

Belcastel Borg art

What looks like a piece of sculpture commissioned by the Borg at Belcastel.

 

Working in someone else’s house, both Libby and I discovered, certainly has its advantages. For me, the temptation to renovate was removed from me. For Libby, deeply engaged with current American political shenanigans, the lack of twenty-four-hour news channels was a boon to her creativity and productivity.

I found a shady spot in the garden that appealed to me, with the butterflies flickering over the lavender and two cats to keep me company.

French office

A shady spot in the garden. I don’t think this is what they mean by Open Office…

 

butterflies and lavender

Butterflies and lavender. A winning combination.

 

Spatz and Inky in the garden

Spatz (tabby) and her daughter Inky in the garden.

 

So, has our French writers’ retreat proved successful? Well, by the time I took Libby across to Toulouse to catch her train for Paris, where she spent a few days before flying home, she was a few pages away from the final chapter of her latest novel. And this was something she’d feared at the outset she would not be able to complete in time to meet her deadline.

As for me, I’d cautiously hoped to end my sojourn with perhaps a 15,000-word opening to the next Charlie Fox book. As I write this, I have already reached 17,000 words and should have a solid 20,000 done by the time I head up-country again next week for my return ferry.

So, having another writer—or maybe even other writers—present to encourage or lead by example, is clearly very good for me. I shall definitely be repeating this method of working. And the sunshine, lovely fresh food, and open roads of southern France proved a very good place to do so.

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My notes of the opening page of the new Charlie Fox book!

 

This week’s Word of the Week is peradventure, a Middle English word from the French par aventure, meaning perhaps as an adverb. As a noun, it means to have doubt that something is indeed the case, and is often used (when it’s used at all, as it’s a fairly archaic word) in a humorous or slightly mocking context.

Today is also the final installment of the #BlogTour for DANCING ON THE GRAVE. Thank you to everyone who joined me along the journey, and especially to those who invited me to contribute an article, or interview, or who reviewed the book to celebrate the launch at the start of July.

 

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“We still don’t know how it worked!” the Amazing Thai Cave Rescue

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The story started on June 23 2018, when a group of 12 boys finished football (soccer) practice and went, with their assistant coach, into Tham Luang Nang Non, (which translates to ‘Great Cave of the Sleeping Lady’) a cave system in the Chiang Rai Province of northern Thailand, almost on the border with Myanmar.

Wild-Boars-football-team

The reason the boys, aged 11 to 17, from the Wild Boars junior association football team, decided to go into the cave isn’t clear—maybe for them it was the equivalent of a trip to Alton Towers. And it does look to be a natural wonder. A huge karstic cave system beneath the Doi Nang Nom mountain range.

Unfortunately for the boys, the monsoon rains arrived earlier than they expected. As the water levels inside the cave rose, the boys and their 25-year-old coach found themselves marooned on a small plateau almost two miles underground.

There they remained, undiscovered, for nine days.

Read the full story of the Thai cave rescue, step by step, over on Murder Is Everywhere

Imposter Syndrome and the Author: the fear of being found out

They reckon that the ten greatest fears people have are:

  1. Flying (aviatophobia)
  2. Public speaking (glossophobia)
  3. Heights (acrophobia)
  4. The dark (lygophobia)
  5. Intimacy (aphenphosmphobia)
  6. Death or dying (thanatophobia)
  7. Failure (atychiphobia)
  8. Rejection (is there a proper phobia name for this?)
  9. Spiders (arachnophobia)
  10. Commitment (philophobia)

fear-of-flying

When you’re an author, you have to overcome your fear of failure and of rejection fairly quickly, although I think they never really go away. You also have to overcome catagelophobia (fear of being ridiculed) and possibly autophobia (fear of being alone) as well. Writing is, after all, a pretty solitary existence most of the time.

Most of the time it’s just you at your desk in your pyjamas (possibly with supervisory cat in attendance.) And on the occasions when it isn’t just you, such as going to writing conferences or conventions, the chances are you’d have to face your aviatophobia—which I suppose takes in acrophobia at the same time. The alternative would be to battle past either siderodromophobia or amaxophobia (fear of travelling by train or by car) before you set out.

Lulu-helping

Lulu in supervisory capacity

And then we come to one of the most widespread fears, that of speaking in public, or glossophobia, which seems to be one many people have nightmares about. I’ve known writers who literally shake with fear before going on stage to talk about their work. This is when they know full well that the interviewer or moderator is not about to ask them difficult or combative questions, and that the audience has probably come specially to hear them talk and will, therefore, not be hostile in the slightest.

But deep in every author’s psyche, there is still a hint of fear to the occasion. I don’t know if there’s a specific phobia to describe it, but the technical term is Imposter Syndrome. We fear that as we begin to speak about our latest novel, somebody in the audience will suddenly stand up, point an accusatory finger, and shout, “You’re not a real author! You’re a FRAUD!” And that this will be followed by a moment of stunned silence, and then everyone else will take up the same cry as we scurry off stage to the accompaniment of loud booing and the thud of rotten tomatoes landing about our feet.

BConSharp

Peter Rosovsky took this shot of me reading at Noir @ The Bar, Toronto

The usual time to feel the onset of Imposter Syndrome is, I feel, at the start of writing a new book. You open up a blank document on your computer and type in ‘Chapter One’ at the top of the screen and then…

…nothing.

All you have is an empty page with a small cursor flashing at you reproachfully in the top left-hand corner. And you can’t for the life of you remember how you got past this point last time around. It doesn’t seem to matter if it’s is your second book or your twenty-second. That evil little voice in your head is whispering that you were just kidding yourself if you thought you could do this.

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the dreaded page 1, chapter 1

I don’t know if every author goes through this crisis of confidence, but all the ones I know well enough for us to be candid with one another certainly do. One of the things that helps ease us out of this state is hearing from readers, either by email or on social media. We must seem like a very needy bunch, but keeping faith with something that is, essentially, the jumbled up pickings from the inside of your head—a made-up story, about people who never were, in a world that does not exist—is sometimes a big ask.

And when you consider that we live with this story often for the best part of a year, to see it from initial concept to published novel, by the time it’s done we have no judgement on its quality or worth. Our close friends and family are usually encouraging. Those with a professional interest—agents, editors, publishers—will offer guarded praise balanced by constructive (one hopes) criticism.

But that’s not quite the same as the first reader review, the first enthusiastic email, from a comparative stranger with no vested interest in anything other than enjoying a good book. It really helps allay our fears and sends us back to the word-face to chip out nuggets of gold with renewed vigour.

This weekend finds me in France with fellow mystery author, Libby Fischer Hellmann, closeted away for the rest of July to try to finish a novel, in Libby’s case, and to start one in mine. I’ve had the outline for the next Charlie Fox novel on the back burner for several months now, but have been distracted by the launch of the latest standalone, DANCING ON THE GRAVE, and getting things sorted for the blog tour, which kicks off on Monday, July 9th. (I’m excited by the questions I’ve been asked by my various hosts, and I hope you’ll be as interested in the answers.)

Meanwhile, the time has come to get on with the new Charlie Fox. I’ve had the drive down country to anticipate how I’m going to leap back into her life—or how she’s going to leap back into mine. I know my start point, and it should take you straight into the action. And I’m ready, even eager, to get cracking on the story.

If only I can get past that blank page and that reproachful cursor…

2001 for Writers

This week’s Word of the Week is hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia, meaning (as you might expect) a fear of long words. The original word for the fear of long words is sesquipedaliophobia, which comes from the Latin word sesquipedalian, which literally means ‘one and a half feet long’. This longer, perhaps less-than-serious version includes the addition of parts of hippopotamus and the Latin monstrum, meaning monster, just to make all the hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobiacs out there sweat.

Where the Story Began: the Washington Sniper Incident

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I make no secret of the fact that it was the Washington Sniper incident from 2002 that gave me the original idea behind my new standalone crime thriller, DANCING ON THE GRAVE. But, although I was aware of the story, I didn’t research it in detail because I knew from the start that my take on it was going to be very different.

It’s only recently, therefore, that I’ve gone back over the events. They make horrifying reading. The basic facts are that between February and October 2002, the partnership of John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo killed a total of seventeen people across the States, injuring a further ten. Events culminated in the incidents that became known as the Washington Sniper or the Beltway or D.C. Sniper in October of that year.

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Lee Boyd Malvo (l) and John Allen Muhammad

Malvo was born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1985. His mother, Una Sceon James, met Muhammad in Antigua and Barbuda around 1999, and he and the young Malvo formed a strong bond. James left her son with Muhammad when she came to the States, and the two followed in 2001.

Both mother and son detained by Border Patrol in December of that year, and in fact Malvo had just been released on a bond in January of the following year, just before the killings began. It’s hard to define the exact relationship between Muhammad and Malvo. The certainly stayed together for over a year. At one point Muhammad enrolled the boy in school claiming to be his father. Malvo later claimed that he’d been brainwashed and sexually abused.

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Muhammad was born John Allen Williams in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. His mother died when he was three and his father left him in the care of his grandfather and an aunt. He served in the National Guard and the US Army, serving in the Gulf War, and was a noted expert shot. He mustered out in 1991 with the rank of sergeant, after seventeen years’ service, during which, in 1987, he converted to Islam. He changed his last name in 2001.

It was initially claimed that Muhammad’s motive for the killings was that he wanted to kill his ex-wife and regain custody of his three children, but there was insufficient evidence to prove this. He had indeed kidnapped his children in 1999 and taken them to Antigua, which was when he met Malvo.

Read more of this blog over on Murder Is Everywhere.