Literary Corstorphine has talked a lot about writing, but not very much on how to write. In this post, I’ll talk about just that, with a bit of a hand from several published authors.
“If you get a bit stuck, kill someone.” – Wendy H. Jones
Who could say this but a crime writer and get away with it?
On Wednesday, 30th May, the Hub on St John’s Road, Edinburgh hosted Corstorphine Festival’s Writers’ Night. Hosted by Corstorphine’s own Cecilia Peartree, the line up included Wendy H. Jones down from Dundee, Jane Riddell, Ann Stenhouse, and Kate Blackadder. As well as crime, these ladies have published in genres as varied as science fiction, YA (Young Adult), children’s, family relationship, historical romance and literary fiction.
I include some potted biographies of the other writers below, but some of the discussion may be of interest. These are taken from my own, somewhat chaotic notes.
Yours truly opened the discussion, and pointed out that I was something of a “rank amateur” compared to the rest of the line-up. I was the only one discussing non-fiction (or is it fiction? Let’s not go all meta!) Anyway, I hope to gear this blog post more towards other people’s opinions!
Talking of murder…
My own question: There being a lot of murder writers around these days, I asked the obvious… how do they research certain subject matter without causing too much alarm to the authorities? Looking up firearms and body decomposition online will probably land you on a watch list!
Me: I jokingly suggested no Google as an answer to this quandary. They store everything.
Wendy H. Jones fielded this question. She had worked in medicine, including a stint in an eye hospital in east Jerusalem where she would frequently encounter members of the public who had severe injury or trauma to other parts of their bodies. This meant that she is already au fait with a number of medical details.
She cultivated a friend in the police in Dundee and discussed. They will be able to provide you with a lot of up-to-date information.
- Crime has been changed. Bodies can be fingerprinted and processed through the database in five minutes for example.
- MITs (mobile incident teams) are also deployed across Scotland, since the merger of the forces.
Wendy admits “you have to play a little fast and loose” when it comes to such matters.
Audience question: “How do you put yourself into the mindset of historical characters?”
Anne Stenhouse: She is adamant that she writes historical romance, and not historical fiction. Some research is necessary, but not so much as to bog the project down.
Anne points out that the position of women in the Regency Period was extremely different. Girls did not speak to adults in the same fashion that they do now. Women were effectively property until/unless they came to be widows – if that happened, then they gained a certain level of rights which were otherwise delegated to their fathers or husbands.
Wendy H. Jones: Two of her young adult novels are set in historic cultures: The Warriors in China and another is set in ancient Egypt. Wendy says that research is important as long as it doesn’t get in the way of the book.
Cecilia Peartree: Setting some of her work in 1950s Berlin provided a number of challenges, particularly as the city has been constantly changing over the past sixty years or so.
And now onto the bane of writers (and film producers)… consistency. The way to deal with this problem is to go over your work thoroughly, and making charts & notes to keep track of it. And before publication, it is wise to have a number of people go over it, to try and find what you have missed. The ladies were extremely open about some of the issues that they had encountered in their own work.
Jane Riddell: Jane found out that one of her character was pregnant for 18 months.
Cecilia Peartree: Among her writing issues were a dog which had three different names in a single novel, and a baby which changed gender.
Wendy H. Jones: She recommends keeping tight control of what your characters look like – be consistent with things like eye/hair colour etc. All of this can be achieved through keeping notes separate to the story itself.
The writers also pointed out some miscellaneous problems encountered by today’s writers:
Kate Blackadder: Kate points out that there has been a sharp decline in magazine outlets, partly due to the internet.
Jane Riddell: Jane discussed the difficulty of finding a readership within cyberspace. She also says people often have to see something seven times for it to stick in their mind. Advertisers know this, which is why they are so persistent in repeating images.
Cecilia Peartree: There is a danger of real life intruding too much into novels. Cecilia does a lot of work in committees and there is the concern that if this features in her work too much that people will assume it is based on her real life and Corstorphine in general.
Chewing Gum on the Mantelpiece
Wendy H. Jones: Chewing gum on the mantelpiece is a metaphor for something mentioned early in a novel. It has to be relevant later in the plot, because a crime reader will assume it is a clue in the plot, and will be disappointed if it is left unresolved.
She has to do a lot of plotting “to keep track of the bodies and to control the police” within the story.
Characters that bully you
Wendy H. Jones: Sometimes she says “characters start to bully you”, i.e. they start to take on their own identity and dictate to you their likes & dislikes. This can sometimes be little planned. One character, for example, she felt would be a whisky drinker as she was writing the story.
My own trumpet
I talked about Corstorphine’s links to Elizabeth Gaskell, Dickens etc, the sculptures of writers in South Gyle and read out the Rival Bellmen by the local writer Robert Cuddie.
On a very different note, the audience learnt about Daphne du Maurier’s uncle. He was a one-time editor of the Daily Mail, who held some unusual notions about Edinburgh. Were Corstorphine Hill and Gogar featured in the Bible? Probably not, but he thought so.
Jane writes novels and short stories about exotic locales and often uses photographs for inspiration. She works within contemporary fiction, and the family relationship genre. She has also written a series of books featuring a cat… the Bakhtin Chronicles, based on the Russian philosopher of the same name.
Her non-fiction work – Words’Worth: a fiction writer’s guide to serious editing – speaks for itself.
Anne writes historical romance, which is often set in Regency London. She sometimes uses Edinburgh’s New Town for inspiration. Her other works include a novel about Travellers set in Midlothian & a new novel set in the world of community theatre.
Kate writes novels, short stories & serials, many of which are set in Scotland e.g. Melrose, Edinburgh and the Highlands. She says it is easier to set short stories in various locations than novels, as they require less grounding.
Her stories have been published in a number of places, but she has put them into three collections, which are available on Kindle.
Her breakthrough came after winning a competition in The People’s Friend.
Wendy H. Jones
Wendy writes about crime in Dundee, which is apparently the murder capital of Scotland. It is also, as she told us, the last resting place of one of the prime suspects in the Jack the Ripper case – William Henry Bury, who was executed at the Bell Street Police Station.
She has had two series of crime novels published and a third on the way. Many of these start with the word “Killer” e.g. Killer’s Crypt, Killer’s Craft etc. Her protagonist is D.I. Shona McKenzie, a native of Dundee, who was raised in Oxford and thus brings something of an outsider’s eye to the city.
Wendy has also written YA novels – the Fergus & Flora series, and a children’s book, called Bertie the Buffalo.
Cecilia Peartree is the pen name of a locally based author, who largely writes crime novels, and has also dipped her toe into science fiction.
Her crime novels are set in the fictional Fife town of Pitkirtly. She has also used 1950s Berlin & Barcelona as backdrops to her work.