Saturday, 30 July 2016

What's in a genre?

When I first started moving from seriously obsessive scribbling to trying to get someone else to appreciate what I’d written, the first question confronting me was ‘what genre do I write in?’ People want to know. At least publishers want to know, and agents and librarians and book shop owners, not to mention readers. This can be awkward if, like me, you think you’re just writing a novel, about people and the things they do, with a bit of drama thrown in. The idea of genres seemed slightly absurd.

Although I’ve got used to the notion, I am still never sure exactly what my genre is. There’s invariably a crime in my novels, because a crime provides the perfect drama. So yes, I write crime fiction, but that’s very wide. It needs tighter definition.

I find myself listed on Amazon under Crime, Thriller and Mystery. Thinking about my first two books, A Time For Silence and Motherlove, I’ve accepted that Mystery is a sensible description, but Thriller seems completely wrong. On the other hand, my third book, The Unravelling, does seem to fit that bill. Why? I couldn’t put my finger on the precise difference, so I thought I would investigate.

Dictionary definition of Thriller
    1. Something that thrills. Well yes, of course.
    2. A suspenseful, sensational genre of story. Hm. Sensational sounds a bit cheap.
    3. Pulp fiction. No, I’m not having that.

How about Mystery?
    1. Something secret or unexplainable
    2. Something with an obscure or puzzling nature.
That just about sums up all fiction, doesn’t it?

I decided the dictionary wasn’t enough help, so I turned to the fount of all wisdom, Wikipedia.

'Crime fiction is the literary genre that fictionalises crimes, their detection, criminals and their motives.' Okay, no one can argue with that.

'Thrillers are characterized and defined by the moods they elicit, giving viewers heightened feelings of suspense, excitement, surprise, anticipation and anxiety.'  But then, I’d have thought, so do romances, or historical novels, or travel memoirs.

'Mystery fiction is a genre of fiction usually involving a mysterious death or a crime to be solved.' So, it’s crime fiction.


I’ve usually settled for saying that I write psychological crime mysteries, because I focus mostly on the characters and the effect a crime has on them. But, according to Wikipedia, ‘Psychological thriller is a thriller story which emphasizes the unstable mental and emotional states of its characters… with similarities to Gothic and detective fiction in the sense of sometimes having a "dissolving sense of reality", moral ambiguity, and complex and tortured relationships between obsessive and pathological characters.’ Which is a bit more than I had in mind, though it fits my last book best.

And, of course, there’s Noir. Another splendid term that I couldn’t quite define, but it puts me in the same bracket as everything Scandinavian, so that’s okay. According to Wikipedia, ‘Noir fiction (or roman noir) is a literary genre closely related to hardboiled genre with a distinction that the protagonist is not a detective, but instead either a victim, a suspect, or a perpetrator. Other common characteristics include the self-destructive qualities of the protagonist. A typical protagonist of noir fiction is dealing with the legal, political or other system that is no less corrupt than the perpetrator by whom the protagonist is either victimised and/or has to victimise others on a daily basis, leading to a lose-lose situation.’
Blimey. Right. Well, why not?

Of course there is always the genre label ‘Suspense.’

The dictionary offers two definitions.
    1. The pleasurable emotion of anticipation and excitement regarding the outcome or climax of a book.
    2. The unpleasant emotion of anxiety or apprehension in an uncertain situation.

That is ridiculously wide. It’s either pleasant excitement or unpleasant anxiety. On the other hand, it probably gets to the root of what is so alluring about crime fiction. The two definitions cross over. We actually take pleasure in being alarmed and apprehensive. We find pleasurable emotion in the horror of murder and revel in our own terror – just as long as it’s not quite real. Not something that’s going to wreck our lives, once we shut the book. We can look into a fictional mirror and see our darkest inner self let loose, knowing that, off the page, the dark side is buried so deep we will never allow it to surface.


Check out my latest book, definitely a noir crime mystery thriller.

The Unravelling

Monday, 25 July 2016

On Tour

From today, 25th July, The Unravelling features in a blog tour, organised by Brook Cottage Books.

And it has got off to a brilliant start, with a review from Anne Williams on “Being Anne.” I couldn't hope for a better review.

Here is the full timetable for the tour.

Date: 25th July
- Being Anne
- Chill With A Book

Date: 26th July
- Fiction Dreams

Date: 27th July
- Pauline Barclay
- The Book Review Cafe

Date: 28th July
- Celtic Connexions
- Authors & Readers Corner

Date: 29th July
- Best Chick Lit

Date: 1st August
- Brook Cottage Books
- Victoria's Pages of Romance

Date: 2nd August
- Tracey Rogers

Date: 3rd August
- Devika Fernando
- Judith Barrow

Date: 4th August
- The Bingergread Cottage
- Bloomin Brilliant Books

Date: 5th August
- The Book Magnet
- Jo Lambert

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

apples and other memories

The Unravelling is published tomorrow.
It begins with Karen Rothwell driving home from work on a miserable night. An apple drops from her bag and rolls into a gutter. That is enough to spark memories of a girl she hasn’t thought about for 35 years.

I don’t think I have been blocking out any memories, all these years, but then, of course, if I had, I wouldn’t know. But I do know how random sights, sounds and smells can bring memories back to life with a suddenness that leaves me feeling as if I’m walking in past and present at once.

There’s a smell you get in institutional corridors and when I get a whiff of a specific version of it, I am immediately a child back at my first day at school and I can see a donkey. There was a pen and ink drawing of a donkey on the corridor wall of my infant school, and I am sure it was an excellent piece of artwork, but to a small child it was sinister and unnerving. You didn’t want to turn your back on that donkey.
What was the smell lurking in that school corridor? Paint, disinfectant and polish, I imagine, and, since it was crowded with terrified five-year-olds, probably a ripe mix of bodily fluids, stale milk and boiled sweets. A very precise mix. Leave out one or two of the mysterious ingredients, and you just have a not very pleasant smell equated with hospital corridors and council offices, but get it exactly right, and in a flash, time spins backwards.

Pink custard is another prompt. Not that I see much of it, but when I do…

I suppose pink custard is just a liquid strawberry blancmange mix, but while I will eat strawberry blancmange (if I must), my stomach seizes up at the very thought of pink custard. More especially, the skin that has probably formed on it. Mostly, I enjoyed school meals, especially the rare days when we had cheese salad with chips. None of your wafer thin French Fries, but proper, big, squashy chips, probably done in beef dripping. Forget the green salad bit, just pile the grated cheese on the chips, to let it melt, and pour on salad cream. NOT mayonnaise. Proper salad cream. I don’t think I would dream of producing such a meal now, but I still salivate at the memory, whereas the memory of sultana sponge with pink custard has the reverse effect. It was just a childish fad, based, I suppose, on a distrust of certain colours.

When I taste a sweet syrup, I instantly think of Rich Tea Finger Biscuits.
I can’t help it. Sweet stickiness conjures up the rosehip syrup spooned into me as a child, for its questionable vitamin C content, and since it was a health thing, I instantly associate it with the school clinic, a 1930s building with rounded windows that in turn made me think of Rich Tea Fingers.

Parsley. That’s another. The good old English curly variety imitated in plastic on butchers' trays, not the elegant flat-leaf variety. When I was a child, my father grew two herbs on his vegetable patch. Mint for peas, new potatoes and lamb chops, and parsley for steamed fish. I don’t think it ever occurred to people, in those days, that there might be other herbs, or other uses. When I grew old and sophisticated, I moved onto basil, coriander, oregano, rosemary with juniper, toasted sage on pasta with butter and lemon. I know that parsley is equally gorgeous and I use it too, but the smell still takes me straight back to a childhood when, for me, its only appeal was the way it grew, like a miniature fairy forest amongst tiny miniature flowers – germander speedwell, scarlet pimpernel and heartsease – that my father regarded as irritating weeds.
It might explain why I grew up to make miniature furniture.

I enjoy all sorts of scenery. I can marvel at mountains and ravines and deserts, but the mere sight of white rock, showing through the thin grass on chalk downs, instantly sends a shiver of excitement up my spine.
If, in my childhood, we were driving past Ivinghoe Beacon, with a white gash on its steep side, it meant that either we were starting our holiday, heading off to a caravan by the sea, or we were returning, after a long tetchy journey (everyone out of the car to push on Countisbury Hill, and why didn’t we go via Simonsbath?) and home was just round the corner. Even my first glimpse of Yosemite didn’t quite match that glow of pleasure that a white streak on a grassy hill conjures up.

What I don’t have, in my own life, are triggers that set off memories of moments that I’d rather forget. Unless, of course, there’s an unknown trigger ominously waiting for me round the next corner.


Sunday, 17 July 2016

Time and Place


My third novel, The Unravelling was published by Honno in 2016. The central character does visit Wales in one chapter, but the book is largely centred on a council estate in Lyford, which was also a setting for my second novel Motherlove. Lyford is fictional, but it's based on Luton, where I grew up. That is to say, it is based on my memories of the Luton I knew, before I moved away in the 1980s. Motherlove draws on an assortment of images I carried with me of Luton, especially Wardown Park, but the council estate in The Unravelling is inspired, more specifically by the estate in north Luton where I grew up and walked to school and watched the massive engineering of the M1 steaming past the playing field.

Why is the setting so important to me? I think it’s because it reflects my fascination with things buried under the surface, which is what the book is all about. Layers of history build one upon the other. They disappear beneath the next, but their bones are still there if you look. And that is very much what the book is about: the bones of the past scratching through to the surface.

The estate in 1969

Visit a quaint village with half-timbered houses and a castle nearby and you can’t really escape the notion of history, but most people wouldn’t expect to look for it in a post war council estate. Growing up there, as a child, I imagined it to be eternal, because children crave permanence, and yet all around me were signs of change. My grandparents spent their last years there, in one of the prefabs hastily erected after the war, but I witnessed the prefabs being bulldozed, to make way for the tower blocks that I watched rising, day by day, betting, with my sister, on which one would win.
One of the towers was called Hooker's Court. 
For some reason that escapes me, the name has been changed.

I was aware that some houses predated the estate. It's bordered by an outpouring of 1930s enthusiasm for pebble-dash semis and suburban bungalows, feeding off the main road out of town into short stubs of proposed streets that never led anywhere until the council got to work after the war.

You had to head out of the estate into the adjoining suburb, formerly a village in its own right, to find evidence of seriously old buildings. There was even a thatched cottage, slowly decaying.
It has now been moved to a museum

There are still one or two older houses on the edge of the estate, dating from Victorian times, when the railway cut through the common and created the pocket of land on which the estate was later built.

Before the railway, and for decades after, despite the attempts of 1930s developers, the area remained countryside, with a scattering of farms. All that remained of the rural life when I came along, was a small market garden and a wedge of allotments bordering the railway. My father worked one of them. They were the realm of grumpy old men with views on broad beans.
The allotments are still there and thriving

One other feature from the distant past is also still there. The Lane. Today, it is merely a neat pathway running between flats and new houses that have sprung up since I left.
It looks so in keeping with the development all around that you’d think it must be the work of modern town planners. In reality it is the only man-made feature that has been there from the start.
Here it is, in the 1880s, just a farm track.
And that is how it remained, when I used to walk home along it as a child. It was a rough, muddy, unpaved track, leading through trees, although the farm that went with it had disappeared entirely, remembered only as the name of one of the school houses.

The lane crosses a brook, these days on a neat metal bridge (just visible under the dark trees at the end), but when I was a child it was an old plank bridge, with a pipe running beside it (still there) that all self-respecting children chose to walk along.
The brook was one of many, which had been tamed, long before the estate was built, into drainage ditches. Once the house-building began, some disappeared underground, and re-emerged hundreds of yards away. Towns tend to do that. It’s odd to think there’s a river flowing straight across the centre of the city of London, the Walbrook, which was totally underground even by Tudor times and is now just a street name.
This is the point where one brook on the estate disappears
and I have never worked out where it reappears. Boys would
venture into the culverts, but not me. It was well known that
killer leaches lurked within and they would drain your blood
and you would DIE!

Although I didn’t think in terms of historical development when I was 12, I did know that there was very serious history on our doorstep. Under the railway, and through the copse where the River Lea rises (these days through a scenic metal grid in a concrete bunker), you come to banks and ditches that mark the site of a Neolithic settlement, although I always thought of it more as a wonderful wilderland of kingcups, tree dens, cowslip meadows and sticklebacks. And, of course, there is the Icknield Way, which, in Luton, can’t decide whether it’s a suburban street or a prehistoric trackway.
It is one of the great ridgeway paths that followed the chalk downs across England. Drive a hundred yards out of Luton and you cannot escape the downs on either side. They were our weekend playground, whether you were into gliding, kite-flying or just rolling down the hill.

At the foot of the downs lie reservoirs with canals and locks and a hump-back bridge that always had me squealing as we sailed over it in the old Morris 8.

The canal age began with the Bridgewater canal, the duke of Bridgewater being commemorated by the Bridgewater monument that is unmissable, poking out of the trees on the brink of the downs in Ashridge. Why it's called Ashridge I don't know, because it's cloaked in beeches and silver birches but I've never seen an ash.

Behind the crest of the downs, on the gentle dip slope, lie small villages in what you might call Range Rover country.

There is a house in the Ashridge woods that I would have loved to include in The Unravelling, but I couldn't because it's too unique to be fictionalised. So unique that from my earliest years it was my dream home, because how could anyone not want to live in a house with a blue roof? These days, when I see it, being a boring adult, I find myself worrying about how difficult it would be to replace bright blue pantiles, should one get broken. Time does that to you.

Apart from my dream blue house, I helped myself to all these imaged of Luton and its surroundings. They are not wild welsh wilderness of Celtic mysteries, and they don't lend themselves to gritty urban thrillers, but they are the perfect setting for my brand of domestic noir, which understands that the darkest traumas can unfold in the most suburban settings.

The Unravelling

and my other novel set in Lyford:



Thursday, 14 July 2016

It's a Girl!

My new novel, The Unravelling, will be out there, facing the world, on July 21st. My new baby, and it’s a girl – or at least it is all about girls. Weighing 10 ounces or thereabouts and beautiful. Mother is doing well, if a little exhausted.

How long does it take to write a book? In this case, about 3 months – or 30 years, depending how you look at it. I started writing at school, mostly fantasy or science fiction, but an early draft of The Unravelling was my first attempt at contemporary social realism. I started it, writing in biro on an A4 pad, when I was about 30, and I got at least 30 pages in. Then I stopped. I put it aside and started something else instead.

Sometime later, having progressed to an Amstrad word processor, I made another start, because it seemed too good an idea to waste, and I got as far as chapter 5. Then I stopped and put it aside, to work on something else. Periodically, over the following years, I picked up the idea again and kept restarting. I couldn’t repeat, word for word, what I’d written on the Amstrad, because it was by then on a rubbish tip and the disks (were they called disks?) were unreadable. But I knew what it was about, who the characters were, what was going to happen. Each time I made a start, I just stopped.

I don’t know why, because although the characters and events are pure fiction, the book is built upon a foundation that was crystal clear in my head, from day one, needing no research. The foundation is my own childhood in the 1960s and all the images I carry from it – the council estate, the prefabs, the gully that was half-brook, half-sewer, the old farm track and the bridge with the iron pipe, the daisies in the school playing field and the skin on the pink custard, the parade of shops where you could buy marbles and sherbet flying saucers, the cotton frocks, the scabby knees and the nit nurse, the skipping games and the urban myths.

It all sat there in my head, aching to come out, and for some reason it was always the next thing I was going to do, when I’d done something else.

Then I had lunch with my editor. ‘Any ideas what next?’ she asked, so I mentioned various ideas, including the plot of The Unravelling. ‘Write it,’ she said. So I did. I don’t know what spell she conveyed in her command, but I wrote the first three chapters, the fourth, fifth, sixth… they kept flowing. Of course I had to do a fair bit of adjusting to accommodate a different time span, but the book that had always been there just spilled out. A swift and painless labour after a thirty year gestation. What a relief.

The christening is on July 21st. Everyone is welcome.

Saturday, 2 July 2016

Alex Martin spinning Katherine Wheels

I am continuing my cunning plan to interview other authors (i.e. let them do the work), with an interview with Alex Martin, author of the Katherine Wheel Trilogy and other works.


Romance, history, adventure and suspense unite in Alex’s Katherine Wheel trilogy: Daffodils, Peace Lily and Speedwell.


 The story begins in Edwardian England, with feisty Katy Beagle working as a maid at Cheadle Manor and follows her marriage to gardener Jem Phipps, her rebarbative dealings with Lady Amelia Smythe at the big house, and her long friendship with Cassandra, daughter and eventually heir of the manor. As domestic crises, catastrophes and dramas are played out, the setting moves from rural Wiltshire, through the horrors of wartime France, post-war America, the early years of motor racing, and back to the manor. The stories see Katy fight her way from domestic skivvy to ambitious motor mechanic and successful business woman, while the fortunes of the feudal manor slip into obscurity.

Here is my interview with Alex

Question: The Katherine Wheel books are a huge undertaking, covering such an action-packed period and must have involved a huge amount of research. How did you go about it? Did you start with months or years of in-depth research, or plunge in and research it as you went along?

I wrote Daffodils over a period of ten years. I wasn't writing every day, of course, and it was the daunting mountain of research that kept stalling me. I never set out to tackle WW1 but was interested in how plumbing had gradually arrived in our little village in Wiltshire and in learning about that I, just like the characters in the book, got drawn into that global conflict - very unwillingly. Plumbing, I hear you say? Yes, we had a very old neighbour - he was nearly 100 years when he died and he'd lived in our humble string of tiny cottages since he was 4. I dubbed it Skid Row. He could remember when the only drinking water came from the village pump on the green, which features in Daffodils, as Katy has to carry it to her house in buckets all the time. He was a wonderful raconteur and told me with great relish and much embellishment how the six cottages had first one tap to serve them all, then one between them until the great day dawned when they had actual sinks with taps installed inside their old walls. And that's how The Katherine Wheel Series began. Now I have a shelf groaning with books on WW1, much of which made for sobering reading. I was shocked at what I discovered, especially the brutality and stupidity of how the British Army treated their gullible cannon-fodder, which I have woven into the story.

Question: Katy Phipps is such an unusual heroine. Not many heroines spend their days in greasy overalls, wielding wrenches. I like her immensely. Do you?

Not at first. I was in agreement with the village chorus, voiced by the likes of Martha Threadwell, the village Post Mistress and her acolyte Mrs Hoskins, housekeeper to the sly vicar. We all thought Katy a flighty, shallow flirt, and so she was. The whole Katherine Wheel Series is a study of how a young, naive, ambitious girl becomes a resourceful, compassionate and successful woman in her own right and how her character deepens and develops through her ordeals. I didn't think the world needed another book about angelic nurses, either, and as I researched the era, I was struck by the vanguard of valiant women who stepped up and swept the streets, emptied dustbins and drove ambulances. During my research I found that only aristocratic young women were allowed into the FANY to drive ambulances, so Katy, with her working class roots, was assigned to the WAAC. There she learned the trade of car mechanic and it was perfect because it lead her nicely into setting up her own garage in Peace Lily, getting involved in the glamorous world of motor racing in the 'twenties in Speedwell and even coming up with an ingenious invention that changed her life.

Question:  As the stories progress, you settle into a fine balance between two couples, Katy and Jem, Cassandra and her American husband Doug, closely connected, yet living very different lives.
Did you find it difficult switching perspectives, or did it help to keep the inspiration flowing?

Thank you. No, it wasn't difficult. In the very early days of writing Daffodils, an agent took an interest and left me in no doubt that the upper classes could be just as fascinating as those they considered beneath them. I loved switching from Katy's life to Cassandra's apparently easier one and particularly making each impact upon the other. In Speedwell the consequences of their inter-relationship manifests with devastating effect.

Question: You obviously know Wiltshire very well. Is Cheadle Manor based on a real place?

Not the manor house, funnily enough, but the little row of cottages where Katy and Jem set up home is based upon the humble abode where my kids were born and the geography of the two villages is very much the same. Although I was born in greater London, I grew up in Wiltshire before moving to south Wales thirty years ago. I do know and love it well but I'm hooked on living by the sea now. Cheadle Manor itself is entirely a figment of my imagination, which is always useful because you can create a place entirely designed to your own satisfaction and to fit the plot.

Question: Have you ever been tempted to write a scene in which Lady Amelia Smythe is throttled? I know I would enjoy it.

Yes, she's a one, as they say. I adore writing about her and she's a useful plot twister too. I have sketched out a fourth and final book in The Katherine Wheel series, Woodbine and Ivy, and this will push the characters on twenty years, with their children becoming embroiled in the second World War, which defined their generation. Lady Amelia will be tapping on by then, so she might not survive the ordeal and I shall spare her nothing.

Question: Did you have the complete trilogy planned when you started, or were you just expecting to write the one book? Has the wheel finished turning or is there more to come?

Not at all! I decided to get serious about my lifelong ambition to write stories when they pushed the pension age to a distant speck on my horizon. I joined a website called which is funded by the Arts Council and very clever. The idea is to post a piece of your work for it to be randomly critiqued by peer members, whose work you also criticise. Encouraged by all my stories reaching the top ten, and even the top five for The Rose Trail, friends I had made via the site encouraged me to self-publish The Twisted Vine. Then I thought I might as well finish up the plumbing idea set in Wiltshire by writing Daffodils and the whole thing just snowballed.

Question: You have a fourth book, The Twisted Vine, a thriller set among grape-pickers, and the vineyards of France are very convincingly drawn. Did you draw on your own experiences, when writing it?

Very much so. I, just like Roxanne in the book, was running away from a disastrous relationship to France, where I had a vague idea I might be able to get work picking grapes. I was just as green as her, though perhaps my French is a little better! I can vouch for the research about 'les vendanges', as the grape harvest is called, being utterly genuine. It's really hard work. You get up with the dawn, often picking grapes dusted with frost or, in the south, in the baking heat and work until sunset. Some farmers feed and house you well, others can be pretty grim. I learnt a lot and never regret the experience. I thought it would make a good backdrop to a mystery but I didn't personally experience the scene in the car with Armand; that was an anecdote from a friend who'd gone hitch-hiking around the same time. Even the episode in the convent was based on that real experience. However the rest of the plot is entirely fictitious. I particularly liked writing about Louis' bitterness, softened by his love of his native soil and Armand's twisted profile.

Question: What's next?

I have a lot of ideas to explore; just hope I have enough energy, discipline and time to finish them. However, the next book is written, It is currently with my editor, my son Tom, a scientist and writer and who is both brutal and professional in his role. It's called The Rose Trail and is a ghost story set in dual time, both modern and during the English Civil War. This has entailed researching another horrific war, one which divided families up and down the land and tore apart old loyalties in the name of religion. A fascinating period in our history. Again it is set in Wiltshire where a real battle, depicted in The Rose Trail, took place and creates a dramatic climax to the historical thread. I'm hoping this book will set up a series of paranormal tales with the two women, Persephone and Fay, going on to solve more creepy mysteries using their intuitive psychic powers.

Click on the hyperlinked titles of each book above or below. They are all on Amazon and in local bookstores around Gower, where I live. Here's the links again.