There are several schools of thought about how to get things done. One is to carry on with one project until you’ve finished, another is to start doing lots of things at once so that you don’t get bored. I suppose my approach falls somewhere in between these two extremes. I don’t like to find myself actually writing more than one novel at a time, because if I’m writing I like to centre myself as far as possible in the world I’m writing about and not get pulled out of it and into another one – even if it’s the real one!
However, with the first draft of ‘The Queen of Scots Mystery’ complete, I did find time to do a little research for my next project while I was waiting for the printed copy to arrive.
If you look closely at the picture, you’ll see a DVD case entitled ’1950s’ which should give a clue about the setting for my next novel. I find watching these excerpts from Pathé news not only provide information about what was happening in specific years, but also give a feeling of the tone of reporting at the time. For example, when I was researching 1951 and the Festival of Britain I discovered several sections in the newsreel footage for that year that were surprisingly disrespectful to women, which made me think about how much attitudes have changed since then. You can also get some ideas about what the weather was like during major national events, who the celebrities of the age were and what the people in the background were wearing.
With this year being an important anniversary of the Coronation, I expected to find souvenir supplements in some of the papers, but I couldn’t track down any of these. I suppose I have always thought of the Coronation as particularly significant because it was the first big event I can remember – and I think this is mainly because of the souvenir chocolate that was distributed to children at the time! The ‘Radio Times’ had quite a nice feature about it and I’ve managed to source a magazine which seems to specialise in nostalgic articles about Britain.
But I’m actually getting quite a bit ahead of myself with this talk of the Coronation – that will be for one of next year’s novels! In the one I plan to start in July, the King hasn’t even died yet.
Don’t worry about me neglecting ‘The Queen of Scots Mystery’, by the way – the final editing process has now begun and I hope to have it ready within the next few weeks.
This weekend I’ve observed a direct link between the weather and my motivation. It only serves to confirm a vague feeling I got a few years ago when we went to Barcelona on holiday, that I would quite like to retire to Spain if it wasn’t for the food and the language barrier, which oddly enough wouldn’t be quite so insurmountable if I hadn’t already learned some Italian.
Yesterday, which probably represented the full extent of the Scottish summer, I managed to get through a whole list of things I’d been meaning to do and even some that I hadn’t even got as far as meaning to do, from cleaning the bath to designing leaflets to formatting two books in paperback. The leaflets are for a craft fair at which I will attempt to interest people in my novels. Any resemblance between this craft fair and the one described in ‘The Queen of Scots Mystery’ is not just coincidental but a brilliant endorsement of my psychic powers, as at the time of writing this it hasn’t happened yet.
Anyway, I’ve now ordered a printed copy of ‘The Queen of Scots Mystery’ for my final edits, which will have to include a good deal of consistency checking because of the number of times I changed my mind about what was happening as I wrote.
I don’t think this will be the final cover design but it’s always very encouraging for a writer to see their efforts begin to look like a book at all, and I am hoping this will spur me on to finish the edits in good time so that people will be able to load this on to their Kindles to take away on holiday!
I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the people of Pitkirtly decided to form a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Characters before long. I really haven’t been very nice to some of my long-running mystery novel characters in the latest one of the series, and this tendency has got even worse as the editing process has continued.
It’s not that I’m a particularly cruel and heartless person in real life, although I suppose anyone who writes murder mysteries must have some sort of deep-seated urge to get rid of some of her fellow-human beings – although maybe by sending them to Australia, or to the moon, or into a parallel universe and not by killing them. I suppose it’s just that during the course of a novel things have to happen to the characters, and for the sake of variety some of the things have to be bad!
Only this past week I decided to torment that sweet and innocent person, Jan from the wool-shop, an activity which I must admit has been quite good fun as it has meant bringing her out into the spotlight and having a closer look at her appearance and the way she dresses, i.e. in hand-knitted jumpers, often with big knobbly flowers stitched on to them. Sometimes a character stays in the shadows for so long that it’s hard to picture them at all, and my excuse for doing something bad to them is that they deserve their hour on stage. However in Jan’s case I have drawn the line at having her carted off to hospital, or worse, and I have even thought of something nice to do to her in the next novel to make up for my cruelty. I don’t think divulging this is going to be a huge spoiler, because poor old Jan seems destined to live on the periphery for ever and not to have an entire plot devoted to her mediocre life. But I may be completely wrong about this, especially now that I’ve written it down here. The way my mind works is so contrary that part of it is already working on ways to make her a star.
Inspired by someone’s recent post on a writer’s forum where they asked for quotes from characters, I’ve put together some quick extracts from ‘The Queen of Scots Mystery’. They may not make much sense out of context, and in fact I’m hoping they don’t! But maybe they will convey a flavour of the novel, although it is not yet in its final shape. By the way, the quotes aren’t necessarily shown in the right order here, just to make things even more confusing, but despite this they do give a couple of very tiny clues about what’s going on.
‘You’ll never guess what’s happened!’ said Jock, advancing into the house with only this small amount of encouragement.
‘Have you seen it?’ said Jemima to Neil. ‘Something to do with zombie horror. There was a special showing for pensioners. Half price. We got a cup of tea and some biscuits – only rich tea, though, not custard creams.’
‘We had to live on falafels,’ she said. ‘It was a cruel and unusual punishment.’
‘Are you aware, sir,’ said one of the men cautiously, ‘that you’re listed as the next of kin of Miss Amaryllis Peebles?’
‘I don’t keep all those things in my head the way you do,’ said Christopher crossly, rubbing a hand across his brow.
I wish I hadn’t bothered cheering you up,’ said Amaryllis, giving him a hard stare.
‘I don’t think so…’ He pictured the scene. ‘Someone walked past. Oh, no, it was only Christopher Wilson,’ he added dismissively. ‘I wouldn’t bother about him if I were you.’
‘We’ll decide who to bother about, if you don’t mind, Mr Macrae.’
Now, now, Charlie,’ said Jemima, who had treated Mr Smith like one of the family ever since the time she had let him sleep in her spare room. ‘Just try and pretend you’re not a policeman for five minutes.’
This spring I’m being haunted by Mary, Queen of Scots. Having finished the first draft of my latest novel, ‘The Queen of Scots Mystery’, I’ve now temporarily moved on to the task of sourcing props for – guess what? – an amateur theatre production of ‘Mary Queen of Scots got her head chopped off’ by Liz Lochhead. It’s one of those productions where the props are random and weird, ranging from a miniature portrait, some tarot cards and a decorated hand-mirror to two sets of dominoes, confetti and one of those old-fashioned car horns that clowns sometimes use.
There are plenty of images to choose from, because Mary, Queen of Scots is one of the most famous and controversial people in Scottish history, but perhaps my favourite is the picture of the ‘Mary Queen of Scots clarsach’ in the National Museums of Scotland. I have a tenuous personal connection to this. During one of my sporadic attempts to trace my family history, I discovered that this clarsach was supposed to have been given to one of my ancestors by Mary, Queen of Scots. The story is that the ancestor was the best clarsach player in Scotland, but I must say a label I read at the museum once casts doubt on this claim, suggesting the household had a specialist clarsach player and my ancestor probably wasn’t much good at all. Of course this can neither be proved or disproved, which is an example of the frustrations of tracing family history!
I started the Pinterest board half-hoping to be able to populate it with pubs called ‘The Queen of Scots’, but oddly enough a Google search hasn’t returned any real pubs of that name, so I’ve had to resort to using other kinds of image. I wonder if this is an unlucky name for a pub or something. Certainly there was quite a bit of bad luck attached to the one in Pitkirtly in my latest trip there!
When I say the end, of course I mean just the end of the first draft. It is already clear (as it always is at this stage) that there are things in the middle that need to be re-arranged a bit. However, I can cautiously say ‘The Queen of Scots Mystery’ is reaching its climax. Sadly I’ve just had to send another character to hospital., but it’s in a good cause as it means I am very much closer to catching up with the villain of the piece.
Two things always happen at this point in my writing. One is that I forget the names of the more peripheral characters, and I’m on such a roll with the story that I can’t be bothered to go back and look them up, so the final pages are peppered with asterisks to remind me to fill them in later. The second thing is that everything starts to accelerate towards the end and I have to go back later to fill in some explanations, otherwise nothing would make any sense at all.
Oh, and there’s a third thing. This is by far the worst. There’s a restless part of my mind that begins to think of the story I’m currently working on as complete, and starts to wander off in other directions. For instance, it has been trying to create a title and structure for the novel I plan to write in the summer, and I’ve been trying to calm it down by reminding it about all the research I have to do before I get anywhere near that stage.
Today I returned home. Or at least to my virtual home, Pitkirtly. Everything looks much the same as when I was last there. It isn’t the kind of place that changes very much, or very quickly. Apart from the new Cultural Centre and new police station that have sprung up during the time I’ve been writing about the place, obviously. The Happiness Club has been and gone. The snow that played a large part in the plot for ‘Frozen in Crime’ has gone, but the icy wind still blows over from Siberia from time to time – it wouldn’t be April in Fife without that particular meteorological feature.
The characters have been quite welcoming so far despite my recent neglect of them. One or two have, I suspect, got out of hand in my absence and started to make a mess of their lives. It will be up to me to straighten things out in the next little while.
I am not entirely surprised to feel at home in my fictitious town as I write, and I’ve met the characters so often that I think of them as friends. The really funny thing, it seems to me, is that I feel equally at home when visiting the small towns on the Fife coast that my town is based on. I sort of expect to meet Dave and Jemima at the fishmongers’ or to hear Jock McLean holding forth at the local pub about teenagers, and I sometimes look for the Cultural Centre and get a surprise when it isn’t actually there.