Sunday, 6 December 2015

Thoughts on Gender Stereotypes

My stories always begin, in my head, with a killer. It is his or her motivation that shapes the narrative, and everything else spins out from there. There has been more than one such character, because it is hopefully not too much of a spoiler to reveal that the character of the killer changes from book to book. Finding a character readers would want to follow throughout a series was more of a challenge. It was also more important because, although I didn't realise it when I started out, my detective and I were going to be working together for a long time. 

My original detective, in the initial stages of the first draft of my first book, was very different to Geraldine Steel. He was a middle-aged man, a curmudgeonly kind of Dalziel, with a dash of Dalgliesh's culture. As my story progressed, I grew less confident about writing mainly from a man's point of view. I wondered, for example, how a man feels when he sees an attractive woman. Afraid of creating a character who was not fully credible, and reluctant to fall back on stereotypes, I changed the gender of my protagonist. With Geraldine Steel I was on familiar territory, at least vaguely able to remember what it was like to be a woman approaching forty.

Satisfied it had been the right decision to change the gender of my main character, I found it easier to inhabit her thoughts and feelings than my original detective. So Geraldine Steel gradually emerged as a character, my detective's gender no longer an issue for me. 

Four years later, the suggestion that I might write a spin off series for Geraldine's sergeant, Ian Peterson, was irresistible. Ian Peterson was already gaining a following in his own right, and a spin off series gave me the opportunity to write more stories. I happily signed a three book deal for Ian Peterson.  

Only then did I stop to consider what I had let myself in for. I had committed to writing a series with a male protagonist, coming round full circle to writing from a male point of view. 

Who was it called marriage the triumph hope over experience? My husband was quick to respond to the news of my spin off series. 'I suppose you'll be wanting to come to football matches with me now?' As we were discussing which team Ian Peterson could support, my son-in-law, another  football fan, joined us. 'Why does he have to support a team?' he asked. 'That's such a stereotype. Not all men are football fans.' 

Thinking about Ian Peterson's character I realised that there was no pressure to resort to cliches at all. I simply needed my readers to find him a credible character, regardless of his gender. Writing from Geraldine's point of view I was not permanently aware of her as a woman. The same could apply to Ian Peterson. He would be a detective with a character of his own, who happens to be a man. Once I began to think of him as a person, all my problems with him seemed to vanish.  As before, my detective's gender was no longer an issue for me.

My husband still goes to football matches while I stay at home, writing. Perhaps we are stereotypical in that, but hopefully my characters are not. 

This post first appeared in Shots Magazine blog 

Friday, 13 November 2015


"Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind" (John Donne 1572-1631)

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Another interview

Thank you to Lloyd Paige for the next interview on the Blood Axe blog tour

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Evolutionary Concept in Book Selling - Open a Bookshop...

James Daunt hopes a new physical bookshop opening in Seattle "falls flat on its face" because it is owned by a competitor. Some people might see this as karma, with Waterstones having put so many independent bookshops out of business, but I find it rather sad. With so many bookstores closing, surely every genuine book lover would welcome the opening of a new one. 

But this new physical bookstore is owned by Amazon. 

Waterstones seem to think Amazon should remain an online store - although Waterstones were happy to profit from selling kindles, and have their own online store. 

Do you agree with James Daunt, that Amazon has no business opening a bricks-and-mortar bookshop, or with the blogger,, who writes: "Amazon is smart. Amazon looks at where its competitors went wrong and it improves. That is the beating heart of true capitalism. Evolution." 

What do you think? 

Sunday, 1 November 2015

How did I get here?

After the usual email discussion between my publisher, publicist, designer, agent, and key booksellers, we have finally agreed on the cover for Murder Ring, the eighth Geraldine Steel title. Here it is.
can hardly believe this is my eleventh published book since Cut Short came out in 2009. By the end of 2016, the number of my published books will go up to thirteen... and these numbers don't include the different editions, large print books, all the titles published in translation... Adding them all together, there are over fifty different covers so far... I have a copy of each of them, together with proof copies of the U.K. editions. I used to look at my collection sometimes, when I was having an insecure writing day, trying to reassure myself that I really can write.
To be honest, these days I am usually so busy writing, editing, and running around on research trips and book tours, that I don't have time to step back and look at how far I have travelled as a writer. I'm not talking about my physical travels, although that has been quite unbelievable too, when I stop to think about it. My research has taken me all over the world, from Margate in the South of England, to Scarborough in the North, and further afield to Paris, Greece, Rome and the Seychelles. 
What I find difficult to believe is that from scribbling down a story that randomly occurred to me, I have become what used to be called a 'mid list author' - half way between the top bestselling authors and those who only scrape a living from writing. I am now a full-time author, living (quite comfortably) off the proceeds. Not that I am complacent. So far so good is all I can say. Sales seem to be going well, but every day is a different story. Which, I suppose, is appropriate for a fiction writer... but I'm not sure how I ended up in this thrilling precarious career. 

Murder Ring is available for preorder on Amazon. The Ebook is published in November. The paperback is published in 2016.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Hunting for Facts

Sir Tim Hunt would be a poor scientist if he did not focus on facts, and clearly he is talented in his field. He won a Nobel a Prize. In claiming that women are more likely to cry than men, he was stating a fact. Women are more likely to cry when emotional. So what? Men are more likely to resort to violence. Of the two, I know which reaction I deplore. 
Sir Tim's communication skills are perhaps not so impressive. Maybe he would not be employed as a diplomat, or a counsellor. He might struggle as a stand up comedian. Because, let's face it, his way of expressing himself can be clumsy. He's the typical unfunny after dinner speaker, a bit tipsy, a tad nervous, We've all heard them, and it can be embarrassing, painful even. At best, inexperienced after dinner speakers are dull. Thankfully Sir Tim was only invited to give a toast, not a whole speech. What could possibly go wrong? 
What went wrong, I mean seriously eminent-lifelong-career-wreckingly wrong, was that three journalists tweeted his pathetic joke out of context. A transcript of the full speech has now been leaked by an official, completely exonerating Tim Hunt of misogyny. The worst criticism that can be levelled against him is that he made an unfunny joke. His admission that he was joking was omitted from the tweets. Two of the three tweeters have now retracted, claiming they "could not recall enough" to comment further. 
Forget about the victim's eminent career. A man has been forced to quit his job, in a "resign or be sacked" ultimatum, on the basis of a twitter frenzy provoked by a misrepresentation of the facts, at best a misunderstanding of what Sir Tim said. 
I believe in democracy. But if we are to countenance mob rule by social media, let us proceed responsibly.
This kind of stupidity is counterproductive. At least one feminist sympathiser is now a feminist sceptic. Issues like fair representation, for men as well as women, and free speech, are more important than any perceived snub to feminism. I'd go so far as to say the feminist response here was emotional and irrational. It makes me want to cry that not one of these tweeters and retweeters paused to ask for the facts. 

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

The Benefits of Research

In Transit...

Isn't life strange? Nothing less than National Crime Reading Month could have prompted me to respond to a request for "500 words on any topic of interest" while waiting at one forty a.m. for a seven hour connecting flight to London, having just completed a four hour flight to Abu Dhabi. Yes, writing fiction has taken me into some unexpected places to research my books. 

A lot of my research has involved talking to CID officers as my psychological crime novels also fall into the category of police procedurals, since my protagonists Geraldine Steel and Ian Peterson are detective inspectors. I've spent hours chatting to staff in mortuaries, visiting Metropolitan Police Serious Crime Command, sitting alone in a prison cell (voluntarily!) and passing an exciting afternoon with a Fire Investigation Team (yes, an entire afternoon, just me and a team of firemen!) 

All authors follow their own processes but, for me, research follows the plot. I tell a story, aware that certain areas need research. Having completed the manuscript in draft, only when the story is in place do I fill in externally verifiable information. For me, the danger of conducting research before seeing the narrative through is the risk of being distracted. It is all too easy to inadvertently shoehorn material extraneous to the story into a book, just because the writer finds it interesting. 

Herman Melville did exactly that, including pages of detailed information about whales in his famous novel, Moby Dick. These information dumps would have a place in Wikipedia. For any reader following the dramatic conflict between Ahab, demented captain of a whaling ship, and his nemesis, the great white whale that took his leg, the factual chapters are tedious. 

My research involves meeting people from all walks of life, in all sorts of places: market traders, forensic anthropologists, race course managers, psychiatrists, prisoners in a closed prison, the Spanish equivalent of our CID in Barcelona, the British High Commission in the Seychelles - there is no place on earth where a crime writer might not find herself.

Not all my research has been fun. Watching a sheep's eye being dissected was hardly enjoyable, although it was interesting. My worst research experience so far involved live maggots. I haven't put that in a book yet. It was so gross I prefer not to dwell on it, even in my imagination. 
Recently a new series has led me to overseas locations. I'm writing this on my way home from two weeks' research on a tropical island in the Indian Ocean. Along with the beaches and the cocktails at sunset, I spent time at a local police station and the police headquarters in the capital - again voluntarily! - as well as checking out different settings in the book. After a few weeks at home, working on edits, I'm off again to Paris in July, Greece in August, and Rome in September...  

Just time to send this off before I have to switch to airplane mode.  It's two a.m. in Abu Dhabi, and the flight to Heathrow is boarding...

Thursday, 21 May 2015

It's a tough life as an author

Research for the first book in my new Lucy Hall series for Thomas and Mercer starts in a room with a view...

Saturday, 16 May 2015

No Exit Press out for lunch

With No Exit authors Anthony Quinn, Robert  Olen Butler, Luke McCallin, and Howard Linskey

Catching up with friends at CrimeFest

More about the panels in tomorrow's post.
With Linda Regan, Lee Child, Alex Shaw, Lizzie Hayes.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

CrimeFest 2015 Friday begins...

Bristol is waking up, and we are in a room with a view of the river...
It's going to be a very busy day.
9am panel with Melanie McGrath. (This is going to be a challenge... as I'm used to getting up at 11 - after being brought tea in bed at 9 and then working in bed for a couple of hours, I hasten to add!) 
10.30 coffee with some regulars from my creative writing courses on Skyros.
12.30 interview with a journalist.
4pm my talk about Gender Issues in Crime Fiction. 
6.30-7.30 CWA Dagger shortlists are announced at a drinks reception (I have to attend a raise a glass as one of the Debut Dagger judges)
8pm out for dinner with friends. 
I'll try to find time to post some photos... 

On the way to CrimeFest 2015 in Bristol, the journey begins...

Saturday, 9 May 2015

Why We Love Crime Fiction

The appeal of crime fiction

You might be surprised to hear what many strangers tell me. From intellectual young men to kindly middle-aged grannies, professional young women to retired policemen, their eyes light up as they mention it. Even the wording they use is often the same. They are all keen to confide that they "love a good murder!" Bookshops and libraries, bastions of culture and civilisation, join in with posters announcing, "We love crime."
You might be forgiven for thinking that I live in some Orwellian society where words signify the opposite of their original meanings, or that I live in a penal colony inhabited by criminals. Neither is true. These ordinary members of the reading population are referring to crime fiction, or murder mysteries. Of course you knew that. So widespread is the appeal of the genre that no one can fail to be aware of it. In books and on television, mysteries remain one of the most popular genres of fiction.
How do we account for this? It's a strange phenomenon. I don't like reading about true crimes. It's too upsetting. Any real crime is one human being causing another human being to suffer, for their own selfish purposes. There is nothing redeeming about it. Yet somehow, in fiction, crime stories become transformed into a form of entertainment, usually focusing on "a good murder".
There could be several reasons why the genre is so popular. Firstly, crime fiction deals with the timeless conflict between good and evil. While detectives may not be without their flaws, they are fighting on the side of justice. The killers may not be totally evil characters, but they commit acts which are wholly evil. Crime fiction is, at heart, goodies and baddies.
Secondly, crime fiction is packed with suspense. Most of my reviewers describe my books a "page turners". The genre offers the excitement of the chase. Finally, the genre allows us to play out our own fears in a safe environment. A book may be scary, but it is just a book. We can look away, skim read, or close the book. We rarely have such control over the things that frighten us in real life.
But it is impossible to really pin down why some kinds of books appeal to a mass market, while others don't. I am just thankful that the genre in which I write is so popular. Long may it last!

Tuesday, 5 May 2015


We read a lot of posts by books lovers criticising Amazon. Is it disingenuous of me to write a post in their defence, just when my agent has negotiated a three book deal with them for a new series I am writing? Well, perhaps you might like to read to the end of my post and then draw your own conclusions. After all, that is one of the glories of reading, that we are free to do just that, read and make up our own minds.
    We read a lot about Amazon decimating our bookshop chain, Waterstones, just as Waterstones was previously accused of destroying independent bookshops. Part of the perceived problem with Amazon was the rise of ebooks. But let's examine this. Waterstones rushed to take a share in the market for kindles. That appeared short term at the time, but turned out to be a sound business decision. 
    It may be ironic that selling kindles helped the bookshop chain to survive, but to some extent 'supping with the devil,' as some characterised it, meant that Amazon played its part in helping to save the bookshops. I am not suggesting that Amazon's motivation was anything other than commercial, but it created a virtuous circle. And that, surely, is what we are witnessing in the book world today. The truth is that the advent of ebooks and ease of purchase online have resulted in more people reading more books. That can only benefit all book sellers, and that is largely thanks to Amazon. 
    I value bookshops and libraries. It is well known that I have campaigned vigorously to support both. But I cannot see why there should be a conflict between print book and ebooks, or physical stores and online book providers. I appreciate the fact that I can buy books online wherever I am, at any time of the day or night. That does not prevent me from going into bookshops, which I frequently do, and buying books there. Amazon has not put up barricades outside bookshops. On the contrary, with more people reading, if bookshops are canny and make their spaces reader friendly, they could be selling more books than ever before, as the community of book readers and book lovers grows. 
    There has never been a better time to be a reader, or a writer or, I think, a bookseller. 

Sunday, 15 March 2015

What's in a Name?

In Arthur Miller's play, The Crucible, John Proctor struggles with his conscience when asked to sign a false testimony denouncing his neighbour as a witch. With his own life at stake, he caves in to save himself. At the last minute changes his mind and refuses to sign to save his own life. When his inquisitor wants to know why, Proctor cries out, 'Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life!... How may I live without my name?'

Yet many of us freely choose to adopt a new name, one that can come to play a very important role in our lives. There are many possible reasons why an author might choose to write under a pseudonym. Anonymity gives a sense of liberation. In my real life, I would never become obsessed with ways to commit vicious crimes (honestly!) Behind the mask of a pen name, I am free to go where I choose in my dark imaginings. It isn't me, it's my author self conducting research. Writers of fiction are sometimes likened to children because we pretend and make up stories. For some of us, doing so under a pseudonym enhances the game.

There is nothing new in this. Yet recently the notion of a pseudonym has come under attack. When JK Rowling chose to publish The Cuckoo's Calling in 2013 under the name Robert Galbraith, many people expressed outrage. Perhaps it was disingenuous of her publisher to allow the author's real identity to 'leak' when the book initially caused little interest. Once fans learned the identity of the author, sales rocketed. But so what? JK Rowling has fans. She became a 'celebrity' through writing books that engaged a generation of young readers, many of whom might not otherwise have discovered the joys of reading fiction, not by having cosmetic surgery, sleeping with a footballer, and behaving outrageously on television. Only a few authors have achieved the status of cult celebrity through their writing. It is understandable such an author would be tempted to break free of her name. With such large sums at stake, perhaps failure was inevitable. 

Celebrity is exploited in a different way, when writers publish under someone else's name. This seems uncontroversial - as long as the ghost writer is acknowledged. There was an outcry when a major publisher produced young vlogger Zoella's Girl Online, without crediting her ghost writer on the cover. Katie Price, on the other hand, is upfront about admitting 'Of course I didn't write it,' when interviewed about her books, and her ghost writer achieved recognition for writing the books. James Patterson, writing a book a month and earning five times as much as JK Rowling, is open about his books being a 'collaborative process' with a ghost writer. Like Katie Price, he openly acknowledges his writing partners.

So while authors can have a field day making up events and creating characters in fiction, any deception in claiming authorship is unacceptable to readers. 

Saturday, 28 February 2015

What if...

A question commonly posed to authors is: ‘How do you start writing a novel?’ This is often followed by questions such as: 'Where do you find your inspiration?' and 'How do you develop your characters?' These are questions I am frequently asked. With eight books out in the shops and the ninth one out this May, the source for my ideas hasn't changed. It can be expressed in two short words:  ‘What if?’

Although my narratives are flights of fancy, I present scenarios that could conceivably happen to anyone. What if your flatmate was a serial killer? What if your boss liked to commit murder in his or her spare time? I think the more credible a story is, the more frightening it becomes, so I make my narratives as authentic as possible, while doing my best to maintain the suspense readers expect from the crime genre. This is why I try to keep the police procedure in my books reasonably accurate. My fans in the police force are very forgiving, allowing fiction a little dramatic licence where the story demands it. So my Detective Inspector Geraldine Steel spends less time behind a desk working on budgets and expenses claims than might happen in real life, and more time viewing crime scenes and chasing after criminals.

Killer Plan opens with one of these ‘what if’ scenarios - a seemingly innocuous meeting. Caroline is sitting on a bench in the park watching her young sons play football. Her husband is at home, preparing to mow the grass. It's a quiet scene of everyday life… until Caroline inadvertently invites another character to tear her world apart.

Have you ever unknowingly met a killer in the park…?

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Judging Writing Competitions

Helen M Hunt interviewed me recently about the process of judging short story competitions. 

Tell us about the short story competition you are judging at the moment. How many entries have you had to read, and how did you find the process?

I am currently judging the 2014 Bedford Short Story competition. There were several hundred submissions, but I am not reading them all. A panel of readers chose a short list of ten entries from which I will select a winner. This is not the first short story competition I have been invited to judge. The process is always interesting, because I get to read some brilliant stories! 

For the CWA Debut Dagger Competition, I sit on a panel of judges. We read a shortlist of around a dozen entries chosen from hundreds of submissions by a large panel of readers. Last year's judges were two senior editors from major publishing houses, a leading literary agent, an independent publisher, along with myself as a bestselling author. We compared our opinions over lunch and reached a consensus. The discussion was fascinating, as we approached the reading from different viewpoints.

What appeals to you about the stories you think are worthy of winning, or being short listed? What sort of things are you looking for?
First of all, the writing has to communicate clearly, and have an impact right from the start. That is a prerequisite for consideration. After that, there has to be a hook. This could be an intriguing plot premise, an engaging character, or the lucidity of the prose. Any of these could draw me in and make me want to read on.

Is there anything that really turns you off a story? What should people avoid doing?
As with any reading experience, if the writing is confused, repetitive or poorly expressed, that would put me off. If you want to be taken seriously as a writer, you have to communicate well and engage your readers. Avoid cliches in your style, and stereotypes in characters. Plots should not stretch the reader's credulity too far, but nor should they be too predictable. It is a fine balance, and not easy to achieve.

Do you feel you can tell in the first few paragraphs whether a story will be any good?

What would your main advice be to people entering writing competitions, either for short stories, or any other sort of writing?
Enjoy the writing process for its own sake. If you don't love it, find something else to do. It's great to win a competition, better to be published, and even better to earn a comfortable living from writing fiction, but best of all is the experience of writing itself. 

Have you ever entered any writing competitions yourself, or would you want to?
I have not entered any writing competitions, although my publisher did ask me to write a short story for him to submit to a competition. We are waiting to hear how my story did. Since I am used to writing novels, I found the short story a challenge!

Thursday, 8 January 2015

On being a Late Bloomer

I've never discussed bloomers online before, but I suppose there's a first time for everything. An article in praise of 'late bloomers' set me thinking, being a 'late bloomer' myself. Here's the link
Our age is obsessed with the concept of age. Just about everyone in the public eye seems determined to resist or conceal the ageing process. Why? What are a few wrinkles weighed against life experience, maturity and the understanding that hopefully accompanies 'old age'. 
Shakespeare wrote of 'that which should accompany old age' which he described as 'honour, love, obedience, troops of friends'. Instead, our society regards the elderly with disgust and derision. Our young people show an unprecedented lack of deference or respect to their elders, and we are all expected to emulate youth. It is part of a wider issue. We no longer want to use obsolete technology. Youngsters insist on having the latest model of everything. Kids using last year's phone are ridiculed. Who ever tries to get a broken toaster fixed any more? Chuck it out and replace it. As Neil LaBute wrote, 'We live in a disposable society. It's easier to throw things out than to fix them. We even give it a name - we call it recycling.' And of course he goes on to say that we apply the same principle to our relationships. As soon as they stop 'working' for us, we quit. Separation, estrangement, divorce... what has happened to loyalty and commitment, seeing things through 'for better or worse'?
Because there always will be 'worse', along with the 'better'. Yes, it's better to be young and fit and healthy than old and physically weak. It's better for us as individuals, but why do we judge others for ageing? Because we do. Why does it matter? Why do we all have to meet some image of youthful perfection? Our teeth must be perfectly straight. Our hair can't go grey. We must strive to be popular and rich. What's wrong with crooked teeth? What's wrong with being shy? Why is it despicable to be ugly? Who makes up these rules and decides whose face is ugly anyway? 
I couldn't have written my books when I was younger. I hadn't lived enough or read enough. We all come to writing at different times in our lives. It doesn't matter. Unlike almost everything else in life, creative endeavour in any artistic field is a great leveller. When we read a book, we often don't know anything about the writer. We might gain an impression from the prose, but we could be wrong. It doesn't matter. When we write a book for others to read, or read a book someone else has written, we are human beings engaged in significant communication. That is all. And that is everything. 
I would have been proud to be a 'wunderkind', publishing great books before the age of 25, but I'm equally proud to be a 'late bloomer.' Age is immaterial. How we live, and what we do with our time is what counts.