As we speak, I am in the midst of a Blog Tour for the publication of my new book, the second in the Lakes Crime Thriller trilogy, BONES IN THE RIVER. I should have been talking about the book at Newcastle Noir and CrimeFest as well.
Current circumstances—UK lockdown for Covid-19 coronavirus—have put paid to any physical festivals or conventions. So, everything has moved online, with panels and interviews and readings. I took part in the recent Virtual Noir At The Bar (Episode 5 on April 29, from about 44:00min to 51:00min) instead of actually meeting up, in an actual bar, to do actual readings from our works.
As well as keeping on top of the Blog Tour, I’m also deeply into the planning of the next two books. And that’s where I run into the biggest questions of all.
How are we going to write about the events of 2020 in the future?
If I look at BONES IN THE RIVER, for instance, the events of the story occur at the annual Appleby Horse Fair, held in the Cumbrian market town for hundreds of years and famous as being the largest gathering of Gypsies and Travellers in Europe.
This year it has been cancelled.
The opening scene, in which a man accidentally runs down and kills a child on a deserted country road at night, could still happen in lockdown—but not after he’d just spent an evening having a meal with friends where they were undoubtedly all sitting around a dinner table—inside—in close proximity.
My CSI, Grace McColl, goes from crime scene to office and out into the field again, mixing with both the public and her colleagues. My detective, Nick Weston, goes to interview suspects and potential witnesses in person rather than by phone or Zoom, because how can you really get a feel for the reactions of the people you’re talking to unless you can see them while you talk.
People are brought in for questioning—their legal representatives sitting alongside them. What will happen in future? Zoom again, or will this cause a major leap forwards in projection hologram technology?
Grace visits her mother, Eleanor, who has moved back from the south coast up to Appleby. Grace’s ex-husband, Max, has been making himself useful around Eleanor’s new house and garden, perhaps as a way of trying to reinsert himself into Grace’s life. Even with the slight easing of lockdown due to take place in the UK from June 1, this is dubious behaviour. They have a barbecue—which as it’s outside would probably be allowed. But Nick also attends and he doesn’t count as family. Not sure he and Grace stay the full six feet apart at all times there, either…
Besides, Nick’s a father with a young daughter, Sophie. Would he risk her health by associating with others more than he absolutely had to for his job? And what about Nick’s partner, Lisa, who has been working suspiciously late at a hair and beauty salon that wouldn’t be open for business yet anyway.
While one of the other CSIs is suspended for a supposed error. He’s staying at home in his scruffs, watching the TV and playing video games—perfectly feasible in these lockdown times! But then he gets a visit from one of his colleagues and, instead of insisting the man stays on the doorstep so they can chat (no garden available in a little terraced house in Workington) he invites the man inside his home—without hand sanitiser, gloves or face mask.
The Travelling community at the Fair live in close proximity inside their vardo and bow-top horse-drawn caravans, and spend their time largely out of doors, but at the Fair they all mix and mingle with no thought to cross-contamination. There’s plenty of washing goes on, but it’s mostly of horses in the River Eden, as fits with tradition rather than to prevent the spread of Covid-19 infection.
And at the stand-off near the end of the book, the police are more concerned with the numbers involved than the risks of getting too close to the saliva of others.
If I’d been writing this book next year, and setting it this year, it might have been a very different story altogether.
So, what do I do about the third instalment? Do I mentally set the story pre-winter 2019, when Corona was still just a beer, and a virus was something more likely to be contracted by your computer than by your elderly relatives?
After all, I didn’t specify that BONES IN THE RIVER was set in any particularly year. It’s contemporary but not tied to any specific, non-transferrable event—the millennium, for instance.
But, in a few years’ time, the obvious setting of a book pre- or post-Covid-19 will undoubtedly date it. I went through my very first book recently, KILLER INSTINCT and UN-dated it. I didn’t change the story but I did take out references to minor things that I felt dated it badly. References to computer floppy disks, video cassette tapes—even public phone boxes, most of which have either disappeared from our streets or been turned into tiny libraries or stations for community defibrillators.
The next book I have planned is a bit more of an experiment, and therefore could be set at any time in the last few years. I don’t intend to make reference to Covid-19 in that story. It still feels too soon. Too raw.
This will give me time to see what’s going to change in societal behaviours in the slightly longer term before I start the next Charlie Fox book. If Charlie’s greatest threat to someone in the future is that if they don’t stop what they’re doing, she’ll cough on them, it’s going to change things in a big way…
What are your feelings, both as writers and readers about the inclusion of Covid-19 in books written right now, to be read in the next year or eighteen months? Do you want them to reflect these strange times in full and horrible detail, or do you read as more of an escape of what’s going on around you, and therefore not want to be reminded?
And will pre-2020 become seen as the new Golden Age—both of crime and of life?
This week’s Word of the Week is petrichor, meaning the smell of rain on dry earth. It comes from the Greek petra which means stone and ichor, which means the fluid that flows in the veins of the gods in Greek mythology. My thanks to EvKa for sending me this among a whole list of wonderful words. A gift to treasure for a logophile like me!
You can read and comment on this blog over on Murder Is Everywhere.
NOT Newcastle Noir with Neil Broadfoot, Noelle Holten, Ed James and Zoë Sharp
Over the first weekend in May, I should have been in Newcastle, attending Newcastle Noir, organised by the wonderful Jacky ‘Dr Noir’ Collins. I was lucky enough to attend the very first crime fiction event Jacky organised, back in 2014 at the Literary & Philosophical Society—the Lit & Phil.
The event has grown hugely since those early days and is now a fixture in the crime writing festival calendar (ahem, 2020 excepted, of course). It now finds its home at the Newcastle City Library, a fitting place for readers, authors and books to combine.
Jacky is still planning to hold some virtual panels online but in the meantime, having got together with my intended fellow panellists for the Murder They Wrote item on the programme, I thought it would be fun to do a bit of a Q&A on writing and publishing with them over on Murder Is Everywhere here.
Hard as it is for me to believe it sometimes, this will be book thirteen in the series. They do not get any easier to write.
Mostly, though, I feel that’s the way it should be. If something is worth having, it should be worth struggling for. And I do agonise over the story, the development of the characters and the continuing journey of my main protagonist, Charlie herself. I always try to find a slightly different problem to throw at Charlie, a different means of testing her.
This time, the question I posed at the outset was, having resigned from the executive-protection agency run by Parker Armstrong and been forced to give up her company-subsidised apartment in New York, has she gone over to the dark side by taking on a job for a shady international arms dealer?
Usually, you have the reassurance of your agent and publisher behind you. They are excited by the initial idea, approving of the outline, and then they get to go through the delivered manuscript, line by line, to give you their feedback and advice.
Or not, as the case may be. I’ve delivered books to publishers before now only to be greeted by weeks of silence before the copy-edits turn up with no comment on the work other than corrections to punctuation and spelling.
It can make the approach of publication day something of a nail-biting experience.
This time, however, is different.
Read the rest of this blog over on MurderIsEverywhere.
There’s no doubt about it, spending most of your day hunched over a computer keyboard does not do your neck/back/shoulders any good. I’m making regular trips to my physio at the moment in order to be able to keep working while still actually being able to sleep at night. In this job, it counts as Repairs & Maintenance.
He examined my upper spine and said it looked like I’d been, “dropped repeatedly on my head.”
Yeah, thanks for that.
But, all this has got me wondering about a better way to work. If you read my blog of a few weeks ago, you’ll know I’ve been experimenting with dictation software. Sadly, there are times when there’s no substitute for sitting down with hands on keys.
Yes, I do have a proper ergonomic typing chair at my desk. If I’m away I have a mesh backrest which I can attach to a normal chair to give more lumbar support. But, I’ve also been looking at standing desks (a treadmill desk being a Step Too Far, methinks) and kneeling chairs. I’d love to hear from anyone who has experience of these, so please drop me an email if you use either and find them brilliant/terrible.
I’ve even looked at kneeling chairs which have an added backrest. The reviews are very polarised, however, which makes me a bit reluctant to try one without a personal recommendation.
Besides, where would the cat sit? Ah, across my hands as usual…
This week’s Word of the Week is egotist, which comes from the Latin ego for ‘I’. It means an inflated sense of your own importance, feeling intellectually or physically superior to others. This is versus egoist, which does not necessarily mean to feel superior to others, but certainly to have an unpleasant preoccupation with yourself. Whereas to be a narcissist is to have a recognised psychological disorder where a person shows excessive self-admiration. The name comes from Greek mythology where Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water.
I have always been a fairly fast typist. Ever since I first learnt to put my fingers on the home keys and type without looking at them, I’ve picked up speed from there. I can now type without looking at the screen, never mind at my hands. And when I wore most of the letters off the keys of my last keyboard, it didn’t matter to me at all.
But, I’m intrigued by the daily word counts that people who use dictation software seem to be achieving on a regular basis. Last year, I purchased a copy of Dragon on eBay, but sadly, despite the seller’s assurances, it was not compatible with my Mac. I even tried using the dictation element of Word, but ended up shouting at the computer when it consistently mocked my accent by mishearing things. I swear it was doing it on purpose.
Nevertheless, I was still intrigued by people who tell me how much they can get done during a limited period of the day just by talking to their computer rather than sitting with their fingers at the keyboard. You Lie. (That last bit the computer’s response to me giving the instruction “New line.” Hmm, is it passing comment, I wonder…?)
Yes, in case you haven’t get guessed, I’m using dictation software to write this blog. It’s my first attempt. Please bear with me.
Read the whole of this blog over on MurderIsEverywhere.
Nosing Around in the 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
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.
Fellow crime author and CrimeThrillerGirl blogger, Steph Broadribb recently invited me to answer questions about procrastination, writing in cafés, and the perils of cats.
#CRIMEWRITERSINCAFESPROCRASTINATING – ZOË SHARP TALKS PROCRASTINATION, WRITING ON THE MOVE AND THE PERILS OF CATS @AUTHORZOESHARP
“Today kick-ass thriller writer Zoë Sharp is joining me for Crime Writers In Cafés Procrastinating. As the title suggests, this feature is all about the lengths writers go to procrastinate when they should be writing, and how they (eventually) manage to win against the temptation of the path of procrastination to finish their books.
“I’m a huge fan of Zoe’s books, and super excited to grill her about procrastination, her writing habits and her latest book DANCING ON THE GRAVE.
“Welcome Zoë! So tell me all about your latest book—Dancing On The Grave?”
Zoë Sharp: “Basically, it’s my take on the Washington Sniper incident from a few years ago, but set in the English Lake District. If you want the slightly longer explanation, it’s an exploration of what it means in today’s culture to desperately want to be famous, regardless of what you want to be famous for. It’s about the way we treat our ex-military personnel when we’re finished with them. It’s about loyalty, betrayal, love, and revenge. Just the everyday story of country folk.”
“How long did Dancing On The Grave take to write?”
ZS: “Far too long. I actually finished the first version of this book eight years ago. It was just about to go out on submission when Derrick Bird went on the rampage in the west of Cumbria, shooting twelve people dead and injuring a further eleven before taking his own life. It wasn’t close to the storyline of my book, but at the same time it was too near the mark. The book was withdrawn from submission and I put it away for a long time. It was only recently I felt able to get it out and work on it again.”
“What’s your favourite writing/procrastination spot—home, café, bar, other?”
ZS: “Home, probably, although ‘home’ is something of a moveable feast at the moment. As I write this, I’m actually sitting in the kitchen of a house in the Aveyron valley in southern France, where I’m house and cat-sitting for the whole of the month. That’s always been the beauty of this job—the fact you can do it anywhere.
“Of course, the flip-side of that is that you can also fail to do it anywhere. I like to make pencil notes when I’m out and about, in cafés, usually, or waiting rooms, or wherever, and then type up my notes and expand on them when I get back to my desk. It doesn’t feel right to make notes at my desk. Here, I go and sit at the bottom of the garden, then it’s back to the kitchen table, or the one under an awning outside, to attempt to transcribe my scrawl onto my laptop.
“If I’m in the UK, there are always other jobs that call to me. I’m in the midst of a house renovation project, so there are a million other things to do that are particularly difficult to ignore when the weather’s good and you don’t know how long that state of affairs might continue. This is why there are fewer distractions in the winter. Except for the cats, of course. They love to sit on paper (particularly with muddy feet) or my lap. Or my keyboard. Or my hands. Maybe they’re the feline equivalent of literary critics?”
To read the rest of this entertaining interview, click here.
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.
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!
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.
For the #BlogTour Day5 I’ve stopped by with David Harris at BlueBookBalloon for a great Q&A session where we discuss the dark and smiling countryside, researching CSI work, and the pros and cons of veering away from a series.
And now for something a little different – today we’re joining the blog tour for the fantastic Dancing on the Grave by Zoë Sharp.
Well known for her series featuring Charlotte (Charlie) Fox, Zoë has also written standalone fiction before and has now returned to this with Dancing on the Grave:
BBB: Your new book, Dancing on the Grave, is a standalone – coming after a long series of books featuring Charlie Fox. Is it easier or more difficult writing a standalone? (Is it “Yay! Freedom!” or “Where do I even start?”)
ZS: It was both those reactions, really. Writing standalones in third person and being able to use multiple viewpoints does give you a great sense of freedom. By using close-third, it was fascinating to be able to get right inside the heads of the characters rather than just Charlie Fox, which with the exception of a couple of the short stories, I’ve always written in first person, so I’m always telling the story from Charlie’s point of view and hers alone. With Dancing on the Grave, I limited it mostly to four POVs – the CSI, Grace McColl; the young detective, DC Nick Weston; and the other main players in this drama, Patrick Bardwell and Edith Airey.
This allowed me to really look at the motivations of the people involved – especially those you would consider to be the antagonists – and understand why they were carrying out such apparently monstrous acts. Crime fiction for me is more about the ‘why’ rather than the ‘how’. After all, with this book you’re following the actions of the sniper almost from the start. This is not a whodunit where you have to work out his identity (although that comes into the story to a certain extent) but what his reasons are. And especially what drives Edith, the disturbed teenager who throws in her lot with the sniper.
Plus, it’s good occasionally to take a break from a long-running series – I’m just starting Charlie Fox book thirteen now – so you can return to it revitalised and refreshed. I have quite a few story ideas that simply wouldn’t work for Charlie. This gives me the opportunity to write them.
BBB: The book is set in the English Lake District, a traditionally peaceful area. What made you want to set a story of murder in such a place?
Confession time. I last worked in an office environment more than thirty years ago. All I had on my desk back then was an electric typewriter and a landline telephone. The answering machine still had tape cassettes in it. I got to work in the mornings, worked all day, ate lunch at my desk, and went home at five-thirty.
OK, it was not without its occasional moments of drama, like the time I accidentally got locked into the building one night and had to climb out of an upper-storey window and then scramble across rooftops to freedom. Or the time, one week into a new job, when the boss said, “Right, we’re off on holiday next week. If the bailiffs arrive while we’re away don’t let them take anything…”
But generally, the biggest no-nos were arriving late or sneaking off early. People didn’t even leave their desks to smoke. In fact, I used to work sandwiched between two people who both chain-smoked and would leave cigarettes burning in their ashtrays while they nipped out on some errand. They didn’t like it when I stubbed out their cigs in their absence. My excuse was if I had to smoke passively while they were around, then I was damned if I was going to do it while they weren’t.
My how things have changed. (Eeh, I remember when all this were fields, etc.)
And when I set up in business on my own as a freelance photojournalist back in 1988, my word processor was an Amstrad 9512 that had no internal memory and required the insertion of a Start-of-Day disk to remember what it was in the mornings.
If there was a mouse anywhere near it, it would have looked like this:
I was pretty technologically advanced by owning a computer at all, I can tell you! Not to mention my Motorola brick phone. Groovy, man.
Distractions were simpler in those days. They involved staring out of the window:
And a game of solitaire meant shuffling the deck before you began:
Early computer games were not exactly Fortnite:
But now we’re overwhelmed with daily distractions. Not to mention four-legged ones:
But that can sometimes be a good thing, as at the moment when I confess to anxiety in the run-up to my new standalone crime thriller, DANCING ON THE GRAVE, coming out next week. I need something to take my mind off it, and I thought I’d share with you some of my favourite sites for getting sidetracked:
For the weirdest would-be detective pairings, just click the link. This one brought up: “He’s a hate-fuelled devious inventor from the Mississippi Delta She’s a chain-smoking hip-hop safecracker with a flame-thrower. They fight crime!”
I’m hopeless at crossword puzzles, but somehow I can’t leave this one alone.
Mine came out as Full Metal Darkshadow, or the Diva alternative was Titanic Callgirl. How about you?
But just in case wrestling is not your thing, how about your Blues Name? Mine’s Steel Eye Davis.
So help me out here—or sink me deeper—what procrastination aids do you use to while away the help you concentrate while you’re mulling over a storyline?
This week’s Word of the Weekis ultracrepidarian, meaning one who is presumptuous and offers opinions or gives advice on matters of which they have no knowledge. It supposedly comes from the Greek artist, Apelles, who overheard a shoemaker criticising the shape of a foot in one of his paintings. The phrase became, “Ne ultra crepidam judicaret.”Which can be literally translated as, “Do not judge beyond the sandal.”