Writing and the fine art of people watching: part 2

The human hand – a tool of communication

At the sight of him, Ali pressed her hands to her cheeks. ‘Good grief. You can’t go out wearing that.’

The above is exactly what happened a few months ago when my husband ‘The Bearded Wonder’, dressed himself in a pair of floral patterned shorts and a clashing floral shirt. By writing the body language there’s no need to qualify my words because the emotion is clear. The gesture does all the hard work. (And yes, he changed his shirt!) Including body language is the ‘show-not-tell’ approach to writing which gives physical depth to any character and interaction.

For example, without speaking, humans have a number of ways to say yes or no: A nod of the head or a shake, a thumbs up or down, a waggle of the forefinger.

The face is where we often look first for non-verbal clues, but our hands and arms also convey an enormous amount of information: pointing the way, beckoning, indicating numbers, insulting others, calming a situation, emphasising emotions and enhancing our spoken word.

But writing those gestures can be difficult. The picture above is an ‘air precision grip’ but when writing fiction, use of that official classification would be clumsy and uninformative. The gesture usually indicates that the person making it is seeking accuracy or precision and they would wave the arm back and forth in time with their words. Would we need to know that in a story? Possibly not.

Most readers understand ‘flicking the V sign’ or ‘giving a thumbs up,’ and we would write something along the lines of ‘jabbing a forefinger skyward’ rather than stating that a character ‘raised a vertical forefinger baton gesture’, so it’s not necessary to know the official names for gestures, but it is important to understand when, why and how they are used.

How we place our hands and arms is a vital part of body language, so writers need to find ways of conveying body language to inform readers, make characters realistic and emphasise the meaning of dialogue – a tricky thing to get right.

When speaking, women tend to use more hand gestures than men and I’m one for waving my arms and hands around like a maniac when I talk. But it would be confusing for the reader and a barrier to the flow of a story if all gestures were described in endless detail. Very off-putting – so be choosy about what to convey as far as non-verbal clues.

Here are a few classic hand gestures which can easily be described and used when writing;

  • The nose tap – to indicate conspiracy or secrecy
  • The temple tap/circle – stupidity, difficulty thinking, or ‘it’s all in here’
  • The forehead swipe – ‘phew’ (followed by a hand flick)
  • The brow scratch – puzzlement
  • The earlobe tug – a thinking gesture, uncertainty, or ‘listen up’
  • The ear cup – ‘I can’t hear what you’re saying’
  • The fingertip kiss – to blow a kiss, pleasure, tasty
  • The hand chop – used rhythmically to emphasise speech, assertive
  • The fist – arrives with rising anger, used in anger
  • The palms together praying gesture – can mean ‘God willing’, relief, – or, when touched to lips, a thinking gesture.
  • The palm-down-calm-down – to de-escalate tension.
  • The arms wide palms up – to demonstrate peaceful intent or as a goading action
  • The upturned claw – frustration
  • Rubbing palms together back and forth – anticipation of success
  • Dusting the palms – ‘done and dusted’, finished, done
  • Jerking a thumb – ‘get lost’ or indicating a direction

And the list goes on and on:

Arms give away obvious clues such as the defensive crossing of them, rubbing a forearm to self-sooth when nervous, or their wide open use to give or accept an embrace.

I hope these have been helpful reminders as to the vital use of hand (and arm) body-language in creative writing, but try not to over-do it. So, I’ll take my own advice and wave goodbye. Writing to do…

http://mybook.to/DeathByIndulgence

The Bloodline Will by A B Morgan coming soon…

Writing and The Fine Art of People-Watching

Sitting in a public place watching the world go by, many of us take a casual interest in our fellow human beings as a pastime. Glancing at a man in a suit, taking in his demeanour and facial expression, we may hazard a guess at his ‘type’ or perhaps what he may do for a living, but in general we take no further interest unless we perceive a threat of some sort, or discern distress, then we pay more attention.

This is an example watching people, but not of people-watching.

As opposed to the watcher of people, the people-watcher is a different breed. Train-spotters, birdwatchers, storm-chasers, and people-watchers take an in-depth interest in their subjects. Desmond Morris in his book ‘Peoplewatching’, describes people-watchers as ‘students of human behaviour’ and as ‘field observers’ who want to learn the intricacies of behaviour. They study body language, gestures, speech patterns, and in the same way birdwatchers do, they may categorise the person being watched, perhaps by their plumage, by patterns of behaviour and use of certain gestures.

Spending a weekend at a Classic Motorcycle show twice a year, (my husband, ‘The Bearded Wonder’ has a lot to answer for), I have a splendid time dividing the huge crowds of bikers into several distinct groups, based on external factors such as style of dress, attitude, bearing, and cleanliness. Very arbitrary, I know. 

Here’s what I have come up with over the past few years: There are ‘The Gnomers’: so-called because they looked like my mother’s least favourite garden ornament. Woolly hat with point, scruffy beard, baggy clothing. More often than not, they mooch around in male pairs.

‘The TT-ers’: altogether smarter, dressed in Gortex-type jackets bearing the fluorescent name of their chosen bike manufacturer, baseball caps, and sensible footwear. On the whole they are clean -shaven and often have wife and family in tow.

‘The Shiners’: simply ooze money. Expensive all-in-one leathers, squeaking and creaking as they stride past, rucksacks on, boots clean, chins and heads shaved, confident as they forge through the crowds in the direction of Bonham’s auctions with their monied counterparts, ‘The Tweedy-Belstaff Brigade’. They too wear their wealth in obvious ways. Moleskin trousers or expensive jeans, tweed or Belstaff jackets that cost a small fortune. Most of them arrive by car and go home with ‘investments’ to add to their motorcycle collections. Often accompanied by wife or floozy in matching tweed and expensive leather boots.

Into the mix go ‘The Rockabilly Throwbacks’ and the boiler-suited ‘Oil Rag Old Timers’ and the weekends can make for a most interesting way to spend my time. 

People-watching is a fascinating subject and key for fiction writers seeking to develop well-rounded and believable characters. Writers are told to make sure we read widely and study human nature. We can’t all be psychologists, but we can make the everyday world a classroom in which to study human behaviour.

 As human beings, we are designed to take an interest in our fellow man and many of our actions and behaviours are learnt. Therefore they can change over time – consider the toddler tantrums, the teenage sulks, the happy couple, the grumpy old curmudgeon … I rest my case. But how do people-watchers begin their studies?

Usually the face is where we start our analysis, more specifically the eyes.

What do eyes tell us and are they really the window to the soul as we have been led to believe? 

Looking at someone’s eyes, sadness and happiness are relatively easy to perceive; tears can indicate both extremes. In my experience, ‘crocodile tears’ are relatively easy to spot because of the lack of other facial and postural clues. They give the pretender away as being untrustworthy. 

Arched eyebrows and a wide smile are sure signs of happiness and the eyes themselves may have enlarged pupils, showing interest or love.

But watch out for those pupils decreasing in size, you may be boring the person you are talking to…

Our eyes can also reveal if we are lying.  When asked a question we often move our eyes, processing information, thinking. If a person moves their eyes up and to the left as they answer, they are more than likely telling the truth. If the eyes move up and right… a lie could be the reason why.

It’s natural to give intermittent eye contact, and an unwavering stare is seen as either intimidating or intimate, depending on who you happen to be with at the time. An unblinking stare is downright disconcerting.

Conversely, a rapid blink rate can indicate stress (aside from eye health problems). And a wink is seen as a cheeky form of flirting or a conspiratorial gesture – although not in all cultures.

Wide eyes and an ‘O’ shaped mouth indicates fear, whereas a narrowing of the eyes is a negative response such as disbelief, disgust or distaste often accompanied by the narrowing of the lips as anger rises.

Actions to disguise our true feelings often involve ‘blocking’ the eyes by lowering the gaze, covering the eyes with a hand, or turning away. This could be through shame and embarrassment or telling a ‘white’ lie, or when trying not to laugh.

Suspicion can be seen in a frown, a shift in focus, a narrowing of the eyes.

And so on…

It has to be acknowledged that these subconscious ways in which our eyes express our feelings don’t occur in isolation. Indeed, with an arch of an eyebrow, a tilt of the head, a thrust of the chin, we convey many more emotions and they in turn form part of the wider language we use, both verbal and behavioural. 

When I look at the faces of the bikers as they shuffle past the stalls and displays at the Motorcycle Show, I’m not simply categorising people, in fact I’m carrying out more in-depth studies. And don’t get me started on speech and language … goodness me.

It’s a good job nobody can read my mind… or can they? Perhaps my body language gives me away.

Next time: Hands and Arms; common gestures and interesting stories behind some of them.

I’ve been up to something…

The desk is clear, how odd.

This is a picture of my #writing shack. When I’m in full-on writing mode it is littered with scraps of paper, water bottles, half-eaten packets of biscuits and other detritus. This tidy(ish) scene, therefore, can mean one of two things.

This picture is of Dead Fred. One of my writing companions.

Either the germs I’ve had since before Christmas have finally finished me off, or I’ve completed the next book. But as I’m still here…

This is Sadie. She’s giving me one of her ‘looks’ for being obscure.

So, I should explain and apologise. I’ve been quiet on the communication front lately because I made a promise to myself last year. Not a New Year’s resolution as such, just a decision to think about my writing in a different way. To be better. In the last year I completed another book but haven’t sought to publish it. I didn’t think it was good enough. I parked it.

‘Oh no! Then what did you do?’

Wrote a better one, that’s what I did. A great idea fell into my lap, courtesy of my lovely daughter who happens to work as a funeral arranger. It took some doing to make the plot work but I did it. Dead Fred (pictured above) was most encouraging.

‘Where is the manuscript now?’

The exact location is a secret, but I can tell you I was asked to send the full manuscript to an agent a few days ago. Hopefully, as I type this, she’s reading it. Hence the tidy desk. And if she rejects it, I’ll try again, and again, and again.

Why an agent? Well, without one authors can’t submit to the larger publishers.

It’s worth a shot.

‘And in the meantime?’

I’ll be busy in 2020: Next week I’m back on the public speaking rounds. ‘How to Plot a Murder’ is the subject and very apt for some who may have struggled over the festive season with tiresome relatives – Not me, I hasten to add. I have bookings for talks and workshops throughout 2020. I’ll keep you posted.

And I thought I’d run a series of articles on ‘Characterisation’ blending it with my knowledge from years spent as a mental health nurse. ‘The Fine Art of People Watching’ will begin later this month. Sign up to this blog if you want to dive in.

Untidy desk, here we go again.

I was going to take break from writing and ease up on myself for a week or so, but I had a brilliant idea last night. Before I get cracking on the plot, it remains for me to wish you all a happy and healthy 2020 and thank you for your continued patience.

Because laughter really is the best medicine.

Panto review! Aladdin at Milton Keynes Theatre

I confess, my festive season is already complete. Done.

I occasionally review books or audiobooks, but today here is my Christmas review:

Grown-up child number two, treated me and my dear old mum to tickets for this year’s pantomime at Milton Keynes. We trotted along to the matinee performance of Aladdin in the company of hundreds and hundreds of little school children on their annual pilgrimage to ‘pantoland’.

Production shot

Why am I telling you this? Because to witness so many joyful children, howling with delight for well over two hours, was tough on the ears but a complete tonic for the soul. It was magical. I wish we could bottle it and give it away; it would save thousands on antidepressants every year.

As live entertainment goes, the British panto has everything: A story with a happy ending, drama and danger, hugely energetic comedy, cheesy jokes, and ribald adult humour. Each year, millions of us fill theatre seats to chuckle and guffaw, boo and hiss with gusto. And because of the timeless nature of the performance and outrageous slapstick, we always go back for more. This run of Aladdin was no exception. I would gladly go again tomorrow. For a large part of the show I was crying with laughter, and by the end my ribs were aching.

The children in the audience were in the same state, as were their parents and teachers. The kids hooted with giggles at any mention of bums, willies, bananas or bodily functions. They almost hovered above their seats with the hilariousness of the physical comedy in the show. And my daughter honestly thought Joe Pasquale (Wishy Washy) had drilled a new orifice in his down-belows … her face was a picture!

The baddie was brilliantly bad – ‘boo’. The princess was sickly sweet – ‘aaaah’. Aladdin was heroic – ‘hurrah’, and the pantomime dame, Widow Twanky, was a drag delight – ‘Oooo!’ But a special mention has to be made of Joe Pasquale as Wishy Washy. He was astounding, and the children loved him. With double entendre running into triple ones and some unscheduled moments of ad-lib, wig disasters and unscripted tomfoolery, I was in danger of needing incontinence pads. To the whole cast and crew – I salute you. Absolutely bloody marvellous.

Fed up with an overly commercialised festive slog? – Forget expensive presents, get tickets for a pantomine, treat someone, go as a family. You’ll never forget it.

Merry Christmas.

Review: Red Herrings and White Elephants by Albert Jack

English is full of idioms, but where do they all come from?

I’m British, I write crime fiction, and when creating dialogue I’m always struck by how many peculiar sayings we have in the English language – by that I mean British English.

‘What’s his beef?’

At times we Brits must be incomprehensible to anyone for whom English is not a first language. Thinking about it, our daft idioms must be a mystery to almost anyone from the US, from Canada, and even our cousins ‘down under’.

‘It’s brass monkeys out there’

Let’s not ‘beat about the bush’, ‘by and large’ most of what we Brits say sounds like a ‘load of old codswallop’. But if, like me you spend a lot of time searching out the origins of such sayings, then this book is for you.

Albert Jack is a writer and researcher, he’s done all the hard work. I found this gem of a book in a charity shop. It now has a permanent home in my writing shack. Packed with wonderful stories from all over the world which explain how these bonkers phrases came into everyday use, it is captivating. For example to ‘pay through the nose’ means we’ve been charged an exorbitant price for an item or a service. ‘Strike a bloody light, you paid through the nose for that, Billy’…

Pay through the nose – what an odd phrase to use. These days you’d be forgiven for thinking it had something to do with notes and cocaine sniffing.

But its origin is Viking and it’s a bloody one. After they invaded the British Isles, any citizen failing to pay the required tax imposed by the Danes had their nose slit or cut off. Luckily order was restored when Viking leader Eric Bloodaxe (what a great name) was killed by King Edred at the Battle of Stainmore in 954. Now I bet you did know that…

And my favourite: ‘Not a sausage,’ meaning either free of charge, or being penniless is derived from Cockney rhyming slang.

Sausage and mash = Cash.

Wonderful stuff, I can’t recommend this book highly enough. It was first published in hardback in 2004, but you can get it in kindle and paperback versions too. Stand by family members this may be what you get for Christmas this year!

Ali Morgan

How important is the title of a book?

Lessons learned from getting it wrong.

William Shakespeare wrote,  ‘A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.’ 

Really? May be so, but if a rose was called a snotwort or a stink-daisy, would we been so keen to take a sniff?

How does this relate to book titles, you may well ask. 

Bear with me on this…. 

On October 1st ‘Death by Indulgence’ is being published: but it was first released eight months ago as ‘Fat Chance’. IT’S A RE-LAUNCH

‘Death by Indulgence’ is the same great story as ‘Fat Chance’, but with a new title and a new cover. Available to pre-order on Amazon https://geni.us/sYeRow8

But Why?

Because the title was hindering sales. The title ‘Fat Chance’ was a snotwort or a stink-daisy, and it wasn’t coming up roses.

The title of a book is the first thing we read, enhanced by the cover design then boosted by the blurb, so after writing five novels how could I get it so wrong?

Here’s the story of what happened:

The original working title for the book was ‘The Enormity of Table Number 88’. This, I felt, captured the essence of the story, it was a catchy title and I was happy with it.

But then during a book signing event I was told in good faith by a librarian that the number 88 should be avoided in a book title because of the Neo-Nazi connotations attached to it. 

Sure enough, I researched this improbable fact only to find that it’s true. Among a few other numbers, 88 is code, used by Neo-Nazi groups, to show their far right allegiances, replacing the swastika. H is the eight letter of the alphabet. HH is short for ‘Heil Hitler’ apparently. Who knew? Not me, obviously. I was using 88 in terms of bingo calls ‘Two fat ladies, eighty-eight.’

So it was back to the drawing board, and this is where I made mistakes. 

  1. Rushing, I didn’t take time to consider enough alternative titles.
  2. I didn’t test options with readers, no straw poll, and no gathering of views from trusted fellow writers.
  3. Checking there weren’t any other crime novels with the same title is something I normally do, But I failed to check elsewhere thoroughly enough.
  4. I didn’t listen to my own niggling self-doubt about the title.
  5. Using the word ‘fat’ was ill advised. Did this title appeal to the target market? No.

In crime novels emotive words such as death, killing, murder, slaughter, slash, burn and scream can all be used without fear of misleading the readership, but ‘fat’? No. Bad idea.

Fat Chance. Chance, meaning risk or the likelihood of something happening, was a reasonable word to choose but I teamed it with fat, and the only other books with that title were about diets or dieting. 

Big Booboo

After a conflab with my publishers, we agreed that sales were below what they should have been especially as the endorsements from reviewers were shining

‘What I really love is that with each book she publishes Alison Morgan’s writing goes from strength to strength and she has once again delivered a first class read.’ Susan Corcoran.

‘An unusual story with a delicious dark side, very different to the norm, in a brilliant way. I would love second helpings of this!’ Susan Hampson.

‘If you like a book that stands out from the crowd, then this brilliant piece of psychological suspense could be for you.’ Mark Tilbury.

‘I’d recommend this to anyone who enjoys complex and compelling crime stories’.L J Cassidy.

Time for a radical decision; Start again. 

Re-launch. New title.

So to all of you who read and enjoyed ‘Fat Chance’, and to those of you who will read ‘Death by Indulgence’, I thank you for understanding.

‘Death by Indulgence’ is officially born on 1stOctober.

With huge thanks to Sarah Hardy at www.bytheletterbookreviews.com the blog tour starts on the same day via Twitter and Facebook 

Available to order now for Kindle on Amazon via this link https://geni.us/sYeRow8

For those who missed the original incarnation, here’s little taster of ‘Death by Indulgence’: 

In this excerpt Ella Fitzwilliam has landed her first proper assignment as a private investigator, despite having little aptitude for the job. Her new boss, an old acquaintance, is expecting an update.

Chapter 9. 

Wednesday 6thDecember

Val was waiting for Ella in the café around the corner from Lensham Station. Lack of creative inventiveness had resulted in it being known simply as The Old Station Café. She repeatedly picked up her mobile phone, checking for messages, each time replacing it on the table next to her coffee cup. The endless Christmas carols, blaring out from a radio in the kitchen, increased in volume every time a member of staff launched themselves through the swing door carrying a tray. A brief smile changed the general direction of the wrinkles on Val’s face as Ella bounced through the café entrance sending a brass bell jingling above the closing door.

‘You could have called to put me out of my misery. Well? What happened? Are we on?’

Unwrapping her coat and shuffling herself free, Ella was beaming. ‘We are on. I got the senior hostess job, live in, plus a wage. I can take Gordon the goldfish with me and I recommended Ada for the job as a waitress. If she gets it, I’ll have her there to keep an eye on me. Oh, and there’s an extremely useful three-month probationary period. I’m hoping that will be long enough.’

‘I hear a ‘but’ coming.’

‘But… I need to pay rent on my bedsit if I take the live-in job, and it’s too far for me to travel if I don’t.’

‘I’ll cover that cost as your payment. Will that do you?’ 

With relief Ella sat back. ‘Yes. That’s great. I’ve told them I can start next week, but they suggested I might like to bring a friend for dinner this evening to get the feel of the place. Fancy a slap-up meal? You look like you could use it and it could be handy, being a Wednesday. There’s a fair probability our targets will show up.’

Val hesitated. ‘I’m not sure if that’s a wise move for either of us. You are already buzzing, which is a bad sign, and I don’t want to be seen by either of those conniving bastards. On the other hand… Give me the insider’s gen on the place. What are we dealing with?’ 

She waved to the waitress who took their order without cracking her make-up or achieving any degree of eye contact. 

Ella found the scene amusing. ‘Enjoy your job, do you?’ she asked, dipping her head in an effort to force the waitress to meet her gaze.

The girl of indeterminate age, dark-rooted straggly platinum-coloured hair tied back in a loose bun, shrugged as she cleared away Val’s empties. ‘It’s aw’right. Want anyfing t’w’eat?’

‘No, thank you. We’re eating out later at Buxham’s. Do you know it?’

Finally, the waitress crossed the line from ignorance to vaguely sociable. She raised one heavily sculpted eyebrow and reluctantly looked at the faces of the two ladies sitting at the corner table. ‘I know of it. Private place for posh twats who can afford it.’ She scoured Val with her panda-black eyeliner eyes and gave a derisory snarl. ‘They won’t let you in looking like that.’

Ella swallowed hard and waited for the riposte from Val that arrived right on cue. ‘Is that right Miss Queen of the Undead? And since when did you become the judge and jury on dress etiquette for private clubs?’ 

The girl was unfazed. ‘I’m just sayin’ you should neaten up a bit, even diesel dykes should ’ave standards.’ 

As Val’s lower jaw headed for the table, the girl sauntered off in the direction of the service area where she slapped the paper order on the counter.

Ella, with eyes wide and an impish grin, held back, stifling the belly laugh that threatened to escape. She bit her lips together.

Val blinked, leant forward and whispered, ‘That cheeky fuckin’ little madam thinks I’m scruffy.’

‘Well she does have a point, Val. A dear friend you may be, but if we’re heading out for dinner with the well-to-do, you’ll have to snazz up. Emo-waitress got the diesel dyke bit bang on.’

‘I don’t know what you’re laughing at; diesel dykes are usually fat so that counts me out these days. She obviously assumed we are a couple, just like they all do. Such a soddin’ shame you never fancied me.’ 

Ella reached across the table and patted her friend’s hand. ‘You’re my boss, a friend and that is all. Anything else would completely ruin our working relationship. Let’s have this and go shopping for a frilly frock… just kidding. Trouser suit?’

Despite how well Ella described the luxurious interior of Buxham’s restaurant and encouraged her friend to join her there for dinner, Val would not even consider a change of style. It would take more than that to ever persuade her from being seen in her usual black jeans, Doc Marten boots, roll-neck sweater and leather jacket. 

‘Gender or sexuality are pretty much irrelevant from what I’ve gathered, but smart dress isrequired.’ Ella tapped her fingers on a large manila envelope placed carefully on the table. She frowned. ‘I really should have done my bloody homework before agreeing to this. The general manager, Carla Lewis, was a funny sort, attractive but not. One of those people that, no matter how hard they try, they never look sexy. Do you ever watch re-runs of the Carry On films?’

Val nodded. ‘Yeah, ’course I do. Doesn’t everyone?’

‘Well Carla Lewis reminded me of Hattie Jacques. Welcoming, courteous and highly informative: the polar opposite to Emo-girl over there. She was easy enough to cope with, but the clientele have very particular requirements and I’m not confident I can manage to pull off what you’re asking me to do. Do you recall the sign outside the front of the club? “For the larger life…”, well that is what the club specialises in. Some parts of the country boast a local naturist club, some clubs are men only, and some are for liberated sexual beings. This one is for individuals who love big food and big flesh, if you get my drift. Carla used words like – gastronomic glorification, foodies, Rubenesque beauties, lovers of curves—’ Ella stopped. 

Guilt waved hello to her from Val’s every pore. 

‘You knew! That’s why you sent me. You used my big fat arse to—’

The volume and extent of Ella’s accusations were tempered by the return of the waitress who materialised carrying their drinks on a tray. On this occasion there was an exchange of glances between Emo-girl and Val who produced one of her infrequent grins. This blossomed into a wide stained-teeth leer when the waitress winked at her. 

Ella was dumbfounded. Folding her arms, she sat silently back in her seat until the girl moved away to deal with a stroppy man at a table nearby who was demanding a refill of coffee.

‘Oh, for fuck’s sake. I’ve been so stupid. You’ve used me to get what you want, and now you’re hitting on Emo-girl. What do you want her for?’ Ella asked, then without pausing answered her own question. ‘Have you just pulled? No, no, no… you’ve been coming here for quite a while now, so it’s been planned. Working your way into her knickers. What an unscrupulous cow you are, Valerie Royal! Isn’t she too young for you?’ 

‘Take a closer look. She’s older than you think.’ The hunger on her companion’s face was not for want of food and Ella surrendered to the inevitable truth. Val was not going to be swayed from the chase, although when she did finally drag her eyes away from the wretched joyless waitress she answered Ella’s query. ‘And no I didn’t know exactly what or who Buxham’s caters for, but I did have a pretty good idea. It doesn’t take a genius.’ She paused, craning to catch a glimpse of Emo-girl’s backside. ‘I think I’ll give dinner a miss.’

‘Great. Who am I supposed to go to Buxham’s with if you don’t come with me? Ada’s already covering my old art class so that I can help you instead. That’s another forty quid you owe me, by the way.’ 

Val picked up her phone and, after a short delay, snapped her orders. ‘Mal. Get your glad rags on and use one of those flashy cars of yours, you’re taking Ella out to dinner. I’ll text you the details. Yes, tonight. Naturally it’s work, you moron. I’d hardly ask you to do this if it wasn’t. No, you’re not a babysitter; she needs your experience and advice. You can pretend to be Ella’s brother. Adopted brother. You’ll think of something.’

Ella was thankful. Having Malik with her would be so much more comforting than coping with Val. He would fit in, be well dressed enough to be unobtrusive, be observant and with his cocky attitude, invaluable. 

‘Is he picking me up from home? Tell him seven o’clock. I don’t want to miss too much. Evidently, they hold a gourmet pudding club on a Wednesday once a month. It could be that our two men are regular attenders. I didn’t have a chance to see the table bookings for tonight.’

Val coughed, crackling catarrh making an abrasive sound. ‘Don’t be too nosy too soon. Enjoy the evening; absorb what you can. Let Mal seek out the CCTV and security issues. You behave like a nervous new staff member.’ 

Authors are just like you and me: Crime writers are slightly to the left of that.

It’s lit-fest season and hordes of crime writers and crime fiction fans will be making their way to Harrogate for this year’s Crime Writing Festival where mingling, pitching and socialising will be done with maybe a touch of alcohol thrown in. It goes on for days…

On Saturday 13th July at the BeaconLit Fest I pretended to be Jane Wenham-Jones. Now, according to Wikipedia: ‘Jane WenhamJones is an author, journalist, presenter, interviewer, creative writing tutor, and speaker who lives in Broadstairs, Kent, a town that appears in two of her novels.’

Clearly that’s not me, so perhaps I should explain.

If great big literary festivals aren’t your thing, too far away, or beyond your pocket (‘impoverished writers are us‘), then it may be worth your while checking out a more intimate literary festival. Last year I popped along to the very friendly BeaconLit Fest in Aylesbury Vale and this year was invited to be on their crime panel. The day before the event I had a request to also be the last minute stand-in for Jane Wenham-Jones who, through no fault of her own and a set of circumstances well beyond her control, couldn’t make it.

(photos courtesy of Leigh Russell and Timea Cassera)

After the crime panel comes that dreaded moment waiting to see if anyone wants to buy a book and get it signed. They did.

So there I was, already feeling a bit of a fraud for appearing with ‘proper’ crime writers – Leigh Russell, Dave Sivers and Alison Bruce, when blow me I was going to wing it by facilitating a Q+A session in the morning about ‘What makes a book tick?’ with Morgen Bailey (editor, writer, speaker, competition judge).

‘No problem,’ I told Morgen, not having a clue what I was about to let myself in for. But, as we’ve developed quite a friendship and facilitated writing workshops together, I trusted her to steer me right. What a blast we had and all in support of local community libraries.

What goes on at a local literary festival?

Well, I can only give you insight into this particular one, as they are all different. BeaconLit is held at the villlage school in Ivinghoe – a pretty part of the world where Midsommer Murders is often filmed. How very apt.

Here’s what happened:

  • Rock up and receive a goody bag and a free bottle of beer – excellent! The charitable event is sponsored by local business and one of them happens to be a brewery. Raffle tickets were in every programme with chance to win book prizes at each session. (The raffle took on a life of its own during the day and made me chuckle more than once).
  • Grab a drink, check out the programme of events and say a cheery hello to Noelle Holten and a few other people I recognised. Got temporarily stuck in the toilets – well it is a school for very young children…The cubicles were tiny.
  • First up in the hall was Dave Sivers also pretending to be Jane Wenham-Jones but not really looking the part. He introduced the audience to a panel of New Voices. West Camel (writer, editor, reviewer) and Fiona Vigo Marshall (journalist, publisher, writer) discovered that they had tunnels and magic in common, whereas Noelle Holten (writer, publicist, reviewer, blogger) was there representing the grittier side of life as a crime writer where her career as a probation officer really stood her in good stead. They all have fascinating and award winning backgounds.
  • After a break and signing of books we met the wonderful Quentin Bates (writer, journalist,’I write about fish’… and translator). What a fascinating man he is. After his A’ levels he went to Iceland to take up a job that he thought would see him through his gap year. ‘What kept you there?’ Big smile … ‘I failed my exams’. In his words he stayed for a decade and ‘went native’. He’s now written the first ever crime series set in present day Iceland.
  • Then Morgen and I were up: We took our spare brains with us just in case…’Welcome to the Morgen and Morgan Show.’
  • This was followed by the most literary part of the day in my opinion. The results of the short story competition with the winning stories read out.
  • Lunch was a whirl of chat and sandwiches during which my mother -‘The Bongo of Great Age and Wisdom’- flirted with Robert Daws – (parents, they never cease to embarrass).
  • When it was time for the Crime Panel, the audience were in for a treat. Alison Bruce was the ringmaster/mistress, and what a fine job she did! We were awarded green, yellow, or red cards dependent on the nature of our answers. I confessed to having no middle name and the B in AB Morgan standing for ‘Bongo’ – my nickname. I confessed to halloween shenanigans, I confessed to … well you had to be there. Needless to say we laughed a lot and mostly at my expense.
  • The laughter continued with Robert Daws (actor, broadcaster, writer and trumpet player) as he was interviewed by BBC journalist and presenter Adina Campbell. The anecdotes and cock-up confessions spilled forth, keeping us all entertained and giggling. Poldark, Outside Edge, The Royal, theatre, radio … What a treat. His books, crime novels, are set in Gibraltar – clever idea that, considering the laws are British.
  • Then finally to round off the excellent day, a chance to talk about opportunities in the world of indie publishing, with Morgen Bailey once again in the chair talking to Lesley Lodge, Jane Davis and Georgia Twynham
  • Then home, kiss ‘The Bearded Wonder’, fuss the dog, shower, beer, in that order.

Phew: a packed programme, but so relaxed and cheerful it went by in a flash. I hope Jane Wenham-Jones didn’t mind me stepping in, it would have been nice to meet her. Maybe next year…

Interview with the authors:

Astounding insights into the writing of ‘Avaline Saddlebags’ by Netta Newbound and Marcus Brown

The honesty of the answers will put a smile on your face…

On 2ndSeptember ‘Avaline Saddlebags’ by Netta Newbound www.facebook.com/newbound and Marcus Brown www.facebook.com/marcusbrownpll will be published and I’m delighted to be able to bring you a tantalising fact or two about this book from the writers, who between them are well-established and best-selling authors of many crime, horror and psychological thrillers. 

As soon as I saw the cover and read the title I completely understood why this book is sending ripples of excitement through the world of crime fiction lovers. The blurb lets us know we are in for a treat, especially if we love serial killer thrillers and a detective to invest in.

HERE IS THE BLURB: Following the brutal murders of Jade Kelly and Gina Elliot, newly promoted DI Dylan Monroe is assigned to work the case, alongside DS Layla Monahan.

As the body count rapidly rises—each slaying more savage than the last—it soon becomes clear the butchered and mutilated victims have one thing in common—they are all male to female transsexuals.

With time against them, Dylan is forced to go undercover in the only place that provides a link to the victims—Dorothy’s, a well-known drag and cabaret bar in the heart of Liverpool.

Well goodness me, the setting for the investigation is ‘Dorothy’s’, a ‘drag and cabaret bar in the heart of Liverpool.’ There is the hook, and there is the key to that wonderful title. But I want to know more and September is just too far away, so Netta Newbound and Marcus Brown, the authors, have kindly agreed to give a cheeky glimpse into the creation of ‘Avaline Saddlebags’.

They’re not new to joint working arrangements, given that they’re the directors of independent publishing company – Junction Publishing, but must bounce well off each other to take on co-writing. It can’t be easy. All the more astonishing is the fact Netta and Marcus live as far apart as it’s possible to get, with Marcus here in the UK and Netta located the other side of the world.  – The Internet makes almost anything possible. 

But just how easy is it to collaborate on a crime thriller with all the intricacies of plot, dialogue, and writing style to contend with, never mind different time zones?

Let’s find out.

Netta and Marcus, welcome. Without giving away too many secrets, I’d love to know…

  • Where did the name Avaline Saddlebags come from and was it the only title you came up with for this story?

Hi Alison – Thanks for featuring us in your blog. We are honoured!

This is Marcus…

Avaline Saddlebags is a name I used to get called by a good friend who often tried to convince me to become the next Lily Savage. It wasn’t something I was ever interested in as drag queens can be terrifying and the thought of lip syncing on stage in front of a hyper critical audience didn’t thrill me at all. Still, the name stuck, and I was forever known as ‘Our Avaline’ or ‘Avaline Saddlebags’ when I entered this particular bar on the Wirral. The nickname soon went beyond that bar and people would often refer to me as Avaline when I was out and about (Ugh!).

I once asked my friend why he chose that particular name and he said ‘You look like an Avaline (I don’t!) and you’re a bit heavy around the hips (I was)… make of that what you will, but that is how it all started.

As for the naming of the book, we decided on Avaline Saddlebags very early on, then one of us, probably me, thought it might be too OTT, so we came up with another name (A Deadly Transformation / A Deadly Metamorphosis – we never decided which one), had a cover designed, then eventually reverted back to the original title as Netta rightly stated it would catch people’s eye. And along with the cover, it seems to have done the trick. 

  • Writing a book is hard enough for any author, but how does the process of writing work between the two of you? 

Marcus here! Well as you know, I am in the UK and Netta is in New Zealand. We start work about 10pm UK time, and NZ is about 12 hours ahead. We Skype one another and go through what we wrote individually the day before, chop and change it, sometimes scratch parts out and try again, then add it to the master document. It really is quite easy and not as hard as people might imagine it to be.

Netta here! I think the reason it works so well is because we’ve been working together closely for a while now and we proofread and edit together for the Junction Publishing side of things, so our writing styles seemed to have merged along the way. We had a lot of minor disagreements when we first set out, two totally different styles of writing, but now, it’s strange, I honestly can’t tell where my writing ends and Marcus’ begins and I hope that’s the same for you guys when you get to read it. 

  • If there is ever a difference of opinion, who gets the final say-so and why?

Marcus here!

It hasn’t happened really to any major degree. We are on the same page most of the time. When we’re reading through what we have worked on the night before, if anything crops up, we both make suggestions then and get it changed. It isn’t ever a drama because we’re used to working with one another so closely and are probably more in sync from editing other authors work and making suggestions there. 

Netta here! I’m the boss! Nah, only kidding. As Marcus said, we get on really well. I don’t think we’ve ever had a proper argument. We’re both pretty laid back, but not afraid to dig our heels in if we feel strongly about something. I think if we did disagree about something there could be fireworks, but it’s not happened as of yet. 

  • I’m always fascinated by how characters drive a story – what can you tell us about DI Dylan Monroe? What makes him tick? 

Dylan is a gay guy, newly promoted and working his first big case. He wants to do a good job, but also wants to win his new team over. He was promoted over some of his colleagues and worries there is resentment. When the victims start piling up, he takes it quite personally as somebody is targeting a part of his community. Catching the killer makes is what makes him tick, and although he is in a relationship, he is focused on catching the killer. 

  • Drag and Cabaret are a source of great bawdy humour, how did you achieve the balance between suspense and fun when writing about Dorothy’s, the club which features in the story?

This is Marcus.

It’s quite easy for me as I spent a lot of my twenties in gay bars, and used to go to drag shows in Blackpool, but Dorothy’s is featured for a specific purpose, and that is for Dylan to try and learn who the killer is. It’s a whole new world to him. Yes, he is gay, but it is just a part of who he is and it doesn’t define him. I suppose the humour in this is mostly the people Dylan comes across, ie, Chris/Blanche, who owns Dorothy’s and Roy/Betty Swallocks who takes Dylan under her wing and helps his transformation from DI Dylan Monroe to Avaline. There is also Dylan’s partner, Bella, who is on maternity leave throughout the book – she loves to tease him and is thrilled when he is forced into becoming a drag queen as part of the undercover operation to catch the killer.

Netta here. For me, I’ve always been fascinated by fancy dress, and I know this is different but in essence it’s the same. I love the way a shy retiring person can become raucous and wild if they dress in the right outfit. The same can be said of the opposite too. I once remember going to a fancy dress party as Lady Hamilton at my husband’s insistence as he was Lord Nelson. Well, I’m usually a bit of a party animal and it doesn’t take much to get me warmed up, but that night was the most boring night of my life. The outfit definitely toned down my behaviour – how funny. So for me, the way Dylan hated the thought of performing at the beginning and then found he had a talent for it and actually enjoyed it made me laugh. 

  • And finally… what can we expect next? And does book two of the series have a title yet?

You can definitely expect a book two, which does already have a title, but we’re not going to reveal that, just yet. We have to keep some mystery. One thing is for certain; it will be a rollercoaster of a read, with our twisted minds coming together once again.

Thank you so much for giving your time to answer my burning questions, and for your superb responses. I’m so looking forward to reading this one. Ali Morgan

Thanks again for thinking of us. It has been a pleasure!

Netta & Marcus

Avaline Saddlebags is available for pre-order via the following link. https://geni.us/cVUJt

The mystery of the missing poem: a true tale of freedom through nudity.

Harlington village, 1951 or thereabouts: ‘Audrey, don’t buy that ruddy awful cheese in future. Not only did I have a dyspeptic night, but I do believe that particular cheddar was the cause of hallucinations.’

‘What on earth are you talking about, Donald?’ his wife said, as she passed by on her way to the bathroom.

‘As the church clock chimed midnight, I saw a small boy from our bedroom window. Not once, but twice last night. He ran up the road, not a stitch on. Then minutes later he ran back the other way.’

Audrey shook her head. ‘Really, Donald?’

Indeed, what Donald had seen was true. Although Donald and Audrey are figments of my imagination, the story is not a fictional one. That small boy was my father. He was twelve years old – ‘or thereabouts’, and this revelation came to light on the day of his eightieth birthday as my brother and I sat listening to a story he’d never told before. He has a wealth of longwinded and detailed stories, many stuck on repeat. However, this one was a fresh insight into the mind of a twelve year old boy, born in 1939 at the start of World War Two. An only child, he occupied himself quite merrily and often wandered off into flights of fancy.

Dad with Grandad… such a serious child.

At the time in question, he’d become fascinated by a poem read at school which, apparently, recommended stripping off and running through trees and grass – to free the mind and soul. One inspirational night arrived right on cue and, looking out from his bedroom window, twelve year old Malcolm asked himself, ‘could I ?’

Answering his own question, he removed his striped pyjama’s and crept downstairs where he gingerly opened the door to the garden, taking care not to wake his sleeping parents. It was late, very late. The moon was high and the air muggy with the last of the summer heat as Malcolm stepped onto the grass and bounded the length of the garden and back. The sense of liberation was a revelation to him, so, not wishing the magic to end there, he ran onto the lane and towards the T-junction where he turned right.

By the light of a bright moon, he pounded along the empty road in his bare feet towards the small village of Harlington some two and a half miles away. Along the unlit treelined lanes he ran, passing hedges ditches and fields and met not a single soul. When he got to Harlington he realised how far he had travelled and, with a general glance around at the houses, accepting that his mission had been accomplished he began the trek back home.

Recounting this extraordinary tale, my father never once mentioned whether his feet were sore after all that running, just that the whole mad adventure had been exhilarating. A wonderful secret kept for decades. On his naked country lane adventure he was alone with only nature and the moon for company. No cars, no bicycles, nobody. He saw no-one. But of course we will never know if anyone saw him…

The biggest mystery remains: He ran for a total of five miles in the dead of night but he can’t remember which inspirational poem led to this spectacular happening.

Any ideas?

Audiobook Review: ‘Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand’ by Helen Simonson, narrated by Bill Wallis.


Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is available from Audible

They say all writers should vary the type of book they read. So I have done just that. While I’m busy pulling together my next book I don’t have the luxury of additional time for much physical book reading, but I do enjoy a good audiobook to listen to when I’m walking the dog or doing the unexciting chores about the house and garden. Most recently I’ve managed to catch up with a few wonderful best sellers such as The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, and Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowiz, as well as delving into a couple of duff choices that I couldn’t get into.

Here is one of my latest discoveries. Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson. What a lovely title. It immediately gives you the flavour of the book. I would have missed this when it was first published in 2010 because I was still working full time in the NHS and any nurse out there will tell you that lunch is a bonus and enough energy at the end of the day to do anything other than slump in a heap is the norm. I barely had time to read any books at all. Now I’m on catch up!

The book: What’s it about?

Here’s the blurb:

Major Ernest Pettigrew (Ret’d) is not interested in the frivolity of the modern world. Since his wife Nancy’s death, he has tried to avoid the constant bother of nosy village women; his grasping, ambitious son; and the ever-spreading suburbanisation of the English countryside, preferring to lead a quiet life upholding the values that people have lived by for generations – respectability, duty, and a properly brewed cup of tea. 

But when his brother’s death sparks an unexpected friendship with Mrs Ali, the widowed village shopkeeper of Pakistani descent, the Major is drawn out of his regimented world and forced to confront the realities of life in the 21st century.

My Review:

The quintessential English village is depicted so well in this delightful tale of loss, friendship, discrimination, snobbery and cups of tea. The story rolls along at a gentle pace, as life in the country for retired folk often does, and yet I became so fully absorbed in the story that I didn’t want it to finish. I became very attached to Major Pettigrew and was willing him to be brave, to throw off the expectation of others and to do what would make him happy. The character of his son was a study in ‘spoilt child becomes spoilt adult’, genius and there were a number of characters throughout the story I came to dislike in a similar way which made the story so much more interesting than a book full of quaint old dears being over-helpful.

The most excellent narration of Bill Wallis made Major Ernest Pettigrew come to life. I could see him in my head because of the great writing, but the intonation, the voice and the emotions attached all made for a superb piece of entertainment. I ended the book with a feeling of immense satisfaction. Delightful and endearing. I miss Major Pettigrew. Highly recommended gentle escapism.

Happy listening: Alison