Recently I had the pleasure of attending New Zealand’s first crime writing festival, Rotorua Noir. I’d been invited to take part in a panel session called “Digging into the Past”, which was a surprise because my novels are set within my own lifetime and I had not previously thought of them as historical. But of course they are, because the world has changed such a lot in recent decades. Writing about the recent past, which I will arbitrarily define as covering the 70-odd years following World War 2, is somewhat different from tackling more obviously historical settings such as medieval England or Ancient Rome.
Human nature doesn’t change much and nor do the basic motives for murder. PD James summed these up as the four Ls – Love, Lust, Lucre and Loathing. To these might be added Lunacy, although that is an outdated term and it would be a cop-out to use it as the sole explanation for a fictional crime. Only a minority of murders in real life result from the delusions and hallucinations of mental illness. Most murderers do however have some or all of the personality characteristics which are labelled psychopathic, and psychopaths have always existed.
So, the main challenge for writers of historical crime fiction is getting the background right. Checking on the dates of major events is easy enough. It is harder to capture the subtle cultural changes – when did certain behaviours, attitudes and terms of speech that once were commonplace start to be regarded as outdated or inappropriate? Social attitudes have changed considerably, with the advent of political correctness and greater acceptance of minority groups. Then there are the practical details of everyday life, for example: When did the use of computers and mobile phones become widespread? When did the contraceptive pill became available to unmarried women? When did gramophone records give way to cassettes and CDs? What clothes were in fashion, and what songs were in the Top 10? What did people have for breakfast? While most readers might not pick up inaccuracies about such matters, a few will delight in pointing them out.
How should the writer deal with those historical aspects which might cause confusion unless they are explained? “Show not tell” is the ideal. Overloading the text with facts, in the style of a history lesson, is to risk boring and patronising the readers. A better way to convey information is through the characters’ speech and behaviour, which demands considerable skill, or by including explanatory notes at the beginning or end of the book.
My own long and winding path to becoming a fiction writer illustrates these points. During the 1980s I wrote three novels based on my experiences of working as a doctor in England: Overdose set in a psychiatric hospital, Fatal Feverfew in an alternative health retreat and Unfaithful Unto Death in rural general practice. Having previously found publishers keen to accept my medical books, it was a shock to find that fiction publishing was a different ballgame and after a few rejections I gave up. I put my typescripts away in a box, and almost forgot about them.
In 2000 my husband and I moved to Auckland, and having retired from medicine I had time to take up other interests and decided to have another go at fiction. I wrote three linked short novels: Carmen’s Roses, Blue Moon for Bombers and The Windflower Vibration, set between England and New Zealand with flashbacks to the characters’ earlier lives as far back as 1940. Self-publishing had become a viable option and, feeling that I was getting too old to spend time waiting for responses from traditional publishers, I decided to try the indie way and thoroughly enjoyed the freedom it conferred.
Wondering what to write next I remembered my 1980s novels, though I wasn’t even sure if they had survived the major decluttering process which preceded our move. I managed to find the faded typescripts and read them again. Some of their content seemed old-fashioned and rather shocking – arrogant doctors who disrespect their patients, accept lavish hospitality from drug companies, drink alcohol before driving, sexually exploit junior colleagues – such behaviour would not be tolerated today although it would be naive to believe it never happens. Should I tone my text down, to avoid offending modern readers? But I decided to leave it largely unchanged, as an only slightly exaggerated record of how things sometimes used to be.
The timeline of my forthcoming novel You Yet Shall Die shifts between the late 20th and early 21st centuries. While writing it, I found it useful to draw up a detailed chronology listing the dates of the main events and the characters’ ages at the time. This list, not for publication, helped to prevent me from making mistakes.
Here is my annual roundup of some books I have recently enjoyed or found interesting. They are arranged by alphabetical order of title, and the links refer to the Amazon versions.
A Life of My Own by Claire Tomalin: The memoirs of a literary editor and biographer whose distinguished career has been combined with an eventful personal history. Despite her experiences of family tragedy, she has found contentment in later life. She comes over as remarkably intelligent, energetic and capable, and writes in elegant prose without a trace of self-pity or self-praise.
A Treachery of Spies by Manda Scott: The narrative of this long and ambitious thriller alternates between France and the UK, the 1940s and the present day. Investigation of the murder of an elderly woman reveals links with her past as an SOE agent during the wartime Resistance. The historical detail is extensively researched. An absorbing read, even if the convolutions of the plot had me baffled in places.
Admissions by Henry Marsh: Another memoir from the British neurosurgeon whose previous book Do No Harm was on my 2016 list. Descriptions of his clinical cases and frustrations with the NHS are interwoven with reflections on his own life and the approach of old age. Thoughtful, frank, provocative and drily humorous.
Air Force Blue by Patrick Bishop: Following on from Fighter Boys and Bomber Boys, this is a masterly account of the history of the Royal Air Force and its role in World War Two, illustrated by personal accounts from those who lived through the conflict.
Bluff by Michael Kardos: A fast paced American thriller about a magician who turns to cardsharping in the hope of reviving her failing fortunes. I don’t know how to play poker, so much of the detail went over my head, but even so I found it a gripping read with a clever twist at the end. Not for the squeamish.
Into the Gray Zone by Adrian Owen: Through years of painstaking research using neuroimaging techniques, the author has shown that brain-damaged patients who appear to be in a vegetative state are sometimes aware of what is said to them and capable of mental responses. This has important implications for their clinical care, even when recovery is not possible.
Salt Lane by William Shaw: Having been brought up in Kent, I liked the descriptions of the remote landscape near Dungeness which forms the backdrop to this British murder mystery. The investigation, led by a female police detective with a complex private life, touches on the topical theme of illegal immigration.
The Kingdom by Emmanuel Carrere: This extraordinary book is described as a novel but the first part, the story of a French intellectual’s passionate though transitory immersion in the Catholic faith, appears to be autobiographical. I did not finish the second part, a fictional account of early Church history focused on St Luke and St Paul.
Unmasked by Andrew Lloyd Weber: a memoir by the brilliant composer of many hit musicals (Cats, Evita, Phantom of the Opera and more), who was brought up in a bohemian London family and has led a colourful life.
Words at the Threshold by Lisa Smartt: The utterances of dying people are often dismissed as nonsensical ramblings, but this linguistic analysis of some clinical examples suggests they often contain insights about this life and the next, expressed in symbolic terms.
I haven’t published any new books of my own this year, but the Smashwords version of Carmen’s Roses – the first of my Three Novellas – is free from this link until Christmas Day. If you enjoy it you might also like the others in the trilogy: Blue Moon for Bombers and The Windflower Vibration. All these are also available through my author page on Amazon.
Best wishes for the holiday season,
There are said to be seven key elements in fiction: character, plot, theme, point of view, setting, conflict and tone. Which comes first when writing a novel? My own current fiction project is based on a theme: how personal identity relates to family background. Though the story is not autobiographical, my interest in this topic was prompted by some recent events in my life which lead me to consider such questions as: How do people respond when faced with a stranger claiming to be a close relative? Or when their own parentage is called into question? Is personality shaped more by heredity or early environment, and can either of these influences be overridden by the exercise of choice and free will? Now that DNA testing and online genealogical databases are so easily available to anyone with an internet connection, more and more people are being faced with questions like these. I am finding the writing process quite hard going, probably because tackling a theme is not the easiest starting-point for a novel, at least not in my hands. It is best for themes to emerge subtly, rather than being thrust down readers’ throats, and sometimes even writers themselves are not aware of them.
There is no right or wrong way to begin creating a book. Some writers are inspired by the setting: a geographical location, social community, a historical period or imagined future. For some the plot is key, whether they work out a detailed outline in advance or see how it evolves as they go along. Some focus on the personality of their characters and the relationships between them. Others pay most attention to style and structure, aiming to create a sense of suspense, conflict, mystery, excitement, romance, wish-fulfilment or whatever is required by fans of the genre concerned.
My own six previous novels were inspired by personal experience of real-life settings: for example my first summer in New Zealand (Carmen’s Roses), and working with patients in an old mental hospital (Overdose). I did not consciously set out to explore particular themes when writing them but, looking back, several themes did emerge: the conflict between orthodox and alternative medicine, illicit romances, and later books contain a hint of the supernatural. They do not fit into conventional genres and were not designed to have mass market appeal, but some readers have enjoyed them enough to post nice reviews online. I have no idea when, if ever, my new novel will be ready for publication but meanwhile details of my earlier books can be found on Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk or Smashwords.com.
Assigning their books to the most suitable categories in online databases is an important part of marketing for self-published authors. People looking for new reading material often search under these categories, but will be disappointed if the content of what they get is different from what they expect. Several different categories would often seem equally appropriate for the same book. Determining which of them will achieve optimum exposure on Amazon is a complex process, and there are websites giving expert advice.
In my own experience I have found that classification of non-fiction books is usually quite obvious, but finding the best category for novels – many of which could be described as “cross-genre” – is more challenging. Thinking back to my medical career, it reminds me of the difficulties faced by doctors who are required to give diagnostic labels to that large number of patients who are clearly ill but whose symptoms do not match any officially recognised disease.
Taking crime, mystery and detective fiction as an example, classification systems such as BISAC (an acronym for “Book Industry Standards and Communications”) include many different divisions and subdivisions. Both as a reader and a writer I find it somewhat overwhelming to have so much choice, though I realise the development of these subject headings is based on extensive market research.
A code I have avoided up till now is the one called “cosy” (UK) or “cozy” (US). I feel this term sounds uncomfortably twee and – given that books about murder are designed to entertain – that it goes too far towards trivialising such a serious topic. The phrase “cosy crime” is surely an oxymoron, though perhaps this is the key to its appeal. Some “cozies” – an even more irritating name – are far too whimsical for my taste. But a recent conversation with a writer friend prompted me to Google descriptions of the genre, and I found that it was broader than I realised. According to the entry in Wikipedia, typical features include:
- an amateur detective, usually female
- a closed community setting such as a village or a house party
- murder by a non-violent method such as poisoning, often occurring off stage
- murder motivated by greed, jealousy or revenge, often rooted in the past
- little or no sex
- emphasis on character and plot rather than action
- a thematic element relating, for example, to pets or hobbies (BISAC has introduced the subdivisions of general, cats and dogs, crafts and culinary)
Most of the books by the great Agatha Christie meet these criteria, and they are now classified as “cosy” – though I think this gives quite the wrong impression, a view apparently shared by her great-grandson James Prichard, who administers her estate. What other term would be better – “traditional” perhaps?
My own novel Fatal Feverfew, a rather lightweight and old-fashioned murder mystery set in England’s west country, fits well into the cosy genre as described above. A while ago one reader gave this book a negative review, and I think this was partly because I had referred to it as medical fiction and it did not align with her conception of that genre; medical crime novels are usually more graphic and dark. I have now moved Fatal Feverfew into the cosy category on Amazon and Smashwords, and hope this will help it reach an appropriate target readership.
Once again, with the help of the annual summary provided by Goodreads.com, I have looked back at the books I read last year and selected twelve of the best. It was a difficult choice because I had listed 44 books and these were only the ones I really liked, because out of respect for fellow authors I no longer post ratings of less than 3 stars or review books written by friends. Not having done much writing of my own lately I spent more time on reading books by other people, spanning a wider selection of genres besides my usual focus on mystery/crime/psychological thrillers, and including some that were heavy in more ways than one. In alphabetical order:
A History of Loneliness by John Boyne: a powerful novel about the mental conflicts of a devout but somewhat naive Irish priest who is unwillingly forced to acknowledge the issue of child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church.
A Very English Scandal by John Preston: a “non-fiction novel” about the politician Jeremy Thorpe, who was accused of the attempted murder of his homosexual lover. Writing with brilliant dead-pan wit, the author manages to turn this sad and sordid story into a gripping black comedy.
Churchill: A Life by Martin Gilbert: the wartime prime minister Winston Churchill has been voted “the greatest Briton who ever lived”. This huge book is his authorised biography, and though I cannot claim to have read every word it is certainly a monumental achievement.
Daisy in Chains by Share Bolton: an intriguing if far-fetched psychological thriller about the relationship between an imprisoned surgeon, convicted of murdering some overweight women in and around the Cheddar caves, and an enigmatic female lawyer.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman: Eleanor is an obsessional and isolated woman with a troubled past. Through a chance encounter on the streets of Glasgow, she gradually begins to relate to the world around her and make some friends. This perceptive and original novel is both funny and sad.
Floating by Joe Minihane: a memoir about the physical and mental benefits of wild swimming, as experienced in lidos, rivers and seas around the UK.
He Said/She Said by Erin Kelly: during a Cornish music festival at the time of a solar eclipse, a young couple witnesses what might or not have been a rape. The repercussions of this event will haunt them both for years. A complex psychological thriller with a shocking twist at the end.
Holding by Graham Norton: although I am not a fan of Graham Norton’s TV show I enjoyed reading this, his first novel. A gentle mystery story set in an Irish village, it is cleverly plotted and the characters are sympathetically observed.
If This is a Woman by Sarah Helm: a detailed and meticulously researched history of the appalling events at Ravensbruck, Hitler’s concentration camp for women. A harrowing but salutary read.
The Five Side-Effects of Kindness by David Hamilton: “Scientific evidence has proven that kindness changes the brain, impacts the heart and immune system, is an antidote to depression and even slows the ageing process”. In contrast to the dark character of some of my other choices, this is a positive inspirational book describing the ways in which everyday acts of kindness can benefit both others and ourselves.
The Ice by Laline Paull: an “eco-thriller” set in the near future. An ice-cave in the Arctic collapses, due to global warming, revealing the body of a man. The intricate plot revolves around the conflict between commercial and environmental interests.
The Student Body by Simon Wyatt: I wanted to include a New Zealand book, and this first novel by a former police detective describes the investigation of the murder of a young woman near a West Auckland beach. Plenty of local colour and procedural detail.
I hope you enjoy some of these recommendations.
I depend almost entirely on reviews for discovering books that sound interesting and enjoyable to read. The best reviews, I think, provide a balance between a factual description of the book and the personal opinions of the reviewer. They usually include a summary of the content, though in the case of a novel it is infuriating when they reveal too much of the plot. There is also a discussion of the context, perhaps citing similar books and filling in the historical or cultural background, acknowledgement of the book’s good points and constructive criticism of its flaws. Writing a review, as I was sometimes asked to do during my former academic career, is quite an art. It takes a lot of time to read through the book and take notes, perhaps do some research about its subject-matter, and then compose a piece that is fair to the author and will hopefully prove interesting and informative for potential readers.
The detailed reviews in quality publications such the Listener, Spectator and Literary Review are often worth reading as essays in their own right, even when the books in question do not appeal. Many of the shorter reviews on public platforms such as Amazon and Goodreads are also well written and thought out, but a few of them represent individual opinions of an extreme kind, ranging from lavish praise to abusive condemnation. Some of the good ones have been paid for by the authors; some of the bad ones say more about the prejudices of the reviewer than about the book itself.
Many books never get reviewed at all, so from the authors’ perspective perhaps any review is better than none for publicity purposes. However, all but the most stoical authors feel a certain trepidation before looking at their reviews. Some have been so badly angered or upset by reading them that they no longer do so. While most of my own books have received positive reviews, and these are highly gratifying, it is the occasional negative one that can stick in the mind and feel soul-destroying. And it is baffling when there are completely different verdicts on the same book. Having recently been devastated by a 1-star rating of my Three Novellas on one site, I was comforted to find on its Amazon UK page a 5-star rating with the comment “Jennifer brings together all her experiences from previous work to produce a superb trilogy finishing with an interesting twist.”
I would encourage reviewers to be kind as well as honest, remembering that all books have both good and bad points, and that those they hate might be loved by someone else and vice versa. Personally I no longer post ratings or write reviews for books I dislike, but prefer to give up reading them and move on to something else.