Last weekend 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 To these might be added Lunacy, although that is an outdated term and it would be a cop-out to use it as the sole explanation for a fictional crime.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changes – when did certain behaviours, attitudes and terms of speech that once were commonplace start to be regarded as outdated or inappropriate?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 the new novel I am writing shifts between the years 1965 and 2005. I find a useful technique is to draw up a detailed chronology, listing the dates of the main events and the characters’ ages at the time. This list is not for publication, but to prevent me from making mistakes.
Carmen’s Roses, the first book in my Three Novellas trilogy, can be downloaded free of charge until 28 February 2019 from Smashwords.com.
Brian and I spent five days at Gwinganna, an upmarket “lifestyle retreat” set in 200 hectares of native bushland high above Australia’s Gold Coast. We stayed in the Billabong Villas.
I was apprehensive about being woken at 5.30 a.m., deprived of caffeine, alcohol, sugar, dairy and gluten (any guest caught smuggling in such items is sent away without a refund), and having only limited access to my iPhone. I had cut down on coffee and tea beforehand in the hope of avoiding withdrawal symptoms but, in common with several of the other 50-odd other guests, I had a mild headache for the first two days. Then I felt well for the rest of the course.
The environment is beautiful, with walking tracks traversing the woodlands and valleys, and two outdoor swimming pools. There are plenty of wallabies and birds, the occasional koala and one sociable peacock.
The morning timetable is intensive, with just a cup of herbal tea at 6 a.m. before the qi gong session held in a field overlooking the sea. Then a choice of activities: an energetic walk, a gentle walk, or a guided tour of the orchards and vegetable gardens. A substantial breakfast at 8 a.m. is followed by a stretch class, then again a choice of activities such as yoga, Pilates or dance. More herbal tea at 11 a.m. and then a talk on nutrition, exercise or managing stress. Lunch at 1 p.m. includes fish or chicken with large salads and sometimes vegetable soup. Afternoons are free to rest, swim, or experience one of the many special therapies. A massage and a facial are included in the price of the retreat, and over 80 other modalities ranging from Reiki to colonic irrigation are available at extra cost. Missing my own animals, I had a session of Equine Assisted Therapy.
Dinner is at 7 p.m. with fish or meat or vegetarian options. After that most people are ready for bed, though on some evenings there are group meditation sessions.
All the staff are passionate about Gwinganna’s approach and most have worked there for many years. Several of the guests are also old hands, attending once or twice each year because they are stressed by high pressure jobs or coping with chronic illness. Brian and I had already been feeling alright before we went there, but we both enjoyed the experience, and returned feeling refreshed and relaxed. Pleased that my body composition analysis showed a normal bone mass and low belly fat, I decided that my usual diet and lifestyle are healthy enough, and do not intend to make any major changes although I feel less desire for coffee and wine. My muscle mass was a bit on the low side so I am back to cold water swimming.
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,
This year I have been volunteering with the International Bomber Command Centre (IBCC). This charity, based in Lincoln UK, was “created to provide a world-class facility to serve as a point for recognition, remembrance and reconciliation for Bomber Command” and officially opened in 2018 as part of the RAF centenary celebrations. My role involves carrying out audio interviews with World War II veterans who now live in the Auckland region of New Zealand.
(photo courtesy of IBCC)
My interest in military aviation stems from having edited Geoffrey Guy’s War, my late uncle’s memoir about his experience as a photographic reconnaissance pilot in World War II (see here for a detailed summary and review). That led me to read some of the many other books about the conflict, and go to a local airport to take a trial training flight; one of the peak experiences of my life.
By a combination of skill, hardiness, and good luck my IBCC interviewees had not only survived the war, but lived to an advanced age; they were at least in their mid-90s and the oldest was 100. Several had flown in Lancasters as pilot, flight engineer, navigator, bomb aimer, wireless operator or gunner. As the photograph shows, these operations also involved a large number of ground staff. I have not interviewed any of these, but they played an essential role. Another man in my group was a pilot with the Pathfinder force, dropping flares to mark the targets for bombing. The only woman I saw had served in the WAAF, processing the photographs taken during the raids to show which targets had been hit. Many of the men continued in aviation work after the war, and one of them was chosen for the role of a pilot in The Dam Busters movie. They felt great pride in their service as evidenced by all the books, photos and memorabilia in their rooms. Even those whose memories were failing were immediately able to recall their service numbers.
Personal anecdotes were many and varied: Being shot down in a bombing raid over Germany, and spending the rest of the war in a POW camp after a failed attempt to escape through a tunnel. Parachuting into occupied France, and managing to cross over the mountains into Spain, disguised with the help of local people. Performing a slow roll in the Gypsy Moth used for training, in deliberate defiance of the order “No aerobatics”, and getting himself and the aircraft smothered in hot oil. Managing to fly home safely after the navigator of his two-seater Mosquito lost consciousness.
They described some gruelling events with calm detachment, often with humour, and obviously had no doubt that their service had been worthwhile. Patriotism, camaraderie and the love of flying must have sustained them through the years of extreme hardship, challenge and loss. Bomber Command has been criticised because its operations caused the deaths of German civilians, and a few interviewees expressed regrets about this, but regarded it as unavoidable: “It was them or us”.
As a former psychiatrist I am interested in the mental and physical disorders that can affect military personnel. I touched on this topic in an earlier blog post and in my short novel Blue Moon for Bombers. Even a couple of my IBCC interviewees, a highly resilient group who did not develop any major problems, spontaneously mentioned symptoms such as nightmares persisting for some years after the war ended.
It is a pity that this work could not have been carried out before now. The quality of some recordings is compromised by the frailty of the aged participants. Other veterans who might have been included are too unwell to take part or have already died. But better late than never, and when they have been uploaded to its website, these veterans’ interviews will contribute towards the IBCC’s aim of “ensuring that generations to come can learn of [Bomber Command’s] vital role in protecting the freedom we enjoy today”.
For three years after the death of Khymer I was without a regular canine companion to walk, but am now having daily adventures on the beach with Ireland – a big black bouncy Labrador.
There is plenty of evidence that dogs are good for the wellbeing of humans. They provide loving companionship, a stimulus to take exercise, and opportunities for social interaction. Dog owners tend to have better physical and mental health than those without a dog, for example lower rates of cardiovascular disease and depression. These benefits as reported in many research studies are undoubtedly real, although they may be over-estimated to some extent because less healthy people are less likely to get a dog in the first place. Dogs have an established role as therapists: guiding the blind, visiting residents in care homes, supporting disabled children and adults, predicting the onset of epileptic fits or hypoglycaemic episodes, even sniffing out the presence of early-stage cancers.
Dogs can also present hazards. Falls are one danger, as I know to my cost: on one occasion when Khymer was forging ahead along an uneven pavement I tripped and broke my arm. Over-enthusiastic dogs often want to run up to strange people, or other dogs, and can easily knock them down. Constant vigilance is required during off lead walks.
Dog ownership is a significant responsibility. Leaving aside the dreadful cases of neglect and cruelty I have seen at the SPCA, many otherwise well-meaning owners leave their dogs alone at home while they are out at work all day, never realising how much they suffer from the lack of company and exercise. An ideal solution, as promoted through charities such as the the Dog Share Collective through which I met Ireland, is linking up such owners with people like myself who would love a relationship with a dog but for various reasons cannot have one of their own.
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.