Hazel McHaffie

A mystery inside an enigma

We’re all rather preoccupied with Russia and Syria and the UK’s responses to their activities at the moment, aren’t we? What a burden for our politicians to carry. Poisonings on the streets of the UK, chemical weapons used in Syria, volatile tweets, warning missiles, brutal leaders, conspiracy theories … sobering and scary stuff. Complicated still further by the fact that some at least of the detail is unknown, distorted, speculative, suspected, misguided. Reminds me of Winston Churchill‘s famous quote way back when: Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.

Once you start seriously thinking about these troubling scenarios, an uneasy kind of sense of foreboding can hang around, colouring your day.

And that’s exactly how I’m feeling at the moment most of the time. Because, on top of real and major global conflict that could affect us all, I’m personally living with doubt, fear, secrecy, suspicion, in my fictional world, and it’s seriously affecting my mood and my stress levels. It wakes me up at night. It’s hanging over me while I peel vegetables. It plays in my mind while I tramp trough the spring countryside. It haunts my waking thoughts and my troubled dreams.

My main character is in the frame for a series of very perplexing happenings. Her husband, sister, sister-in-law, friend, an as yet unknown protagonist, could all possibly be implicated in some way or another. Who exactly can be trusted? Fact and fantasy are getting confused. The threat is building. The options are reducing. The risk is mounting. Fear is taking over. The professionals are getting more and more on edge. And even I am not entirely sure who to believe! It’s shiver-up-the-spine exciting but also distinctly mood lowering.

So advice is, stay well clear of me if you can, till this situation has resolved itself.

(Acknowledgement: Image courtesy of Iqoncept Dreamstime.com)

 

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Metaphors and parallels and flying needles

Wow! One in the eye for the sniffy literary snobs who look down their noses at crime fiction and psychological thrillers, eh?! In the main BBC news just yesterday morning, it was reported that such novels are more popular than any other genre for the first time. Why? Apparently TV dramatic adaptations have had a major influence, but some commentators say that crime stories ‘humanise’ stressful situations, the kind of issues that trouble people in today’s perplexing and turbulent climate. They’re looking for ‘truth, justice and redemption’, and books help to provide all three. Hopefully my own current novel will contribute to this reservoir of wisdom and understanding.

The novel itself? Well, it’s positively galloping along, and I think it’s the stronger for not preoccupying every waking moment – a deliberate strategy. I’m balancing the writing with various other activities, and I want to use this blog to tell you about just one of these pursuits because it’s not only a great stress-reducer, but it’s also curiously similar to the thriller-writing process.

Almost twenty years ago I had to go to the Shetland Islands to carry out interviews with bereaved parents as part of a major research study I was undertaking. In my free time I had the amazing experience of visiting a building that housed a huge array of exquisite fairisle garments made by a group of local knitters using natural wools and dyes from the islands. Fabulous. It was like an Aladdin’s Cave to a lifelong knitter like me. I was so impressed by their work that I commissioned a couple of articles to be made to my specific requirements. They remain prized possessions, and as good as the day they were purchased.

In a moment of ambitious zeal, I also bought a couple of books of patterns and the Shetland wool to make two garments myself. One I made soon after that trip. It took me months and months to complete!

The other one I’ve just started this week; using fifteen soft colours (with glorious evocative names like bracken and sphagnum and osprey and crowberry and mauve mist), in 3ply 100% Shetland wool, to replicate this cardigan:

Shetland knitting is different from any other kind. You knit in a complete circle, continuously, always working from the right side, to ensure tension is perfectly even and you can check the complicated patterns as you go. This creates a tube, which you then cut up through (half way between eight stitches which form a special edge called the steek) to make the holes which allow you to add sleeves, neckbands, button borders, etc. It’s nerve wracking putting scissors to the finished work that you’ve slaved over for months, let me tell you! I had nightmares the first time, fully expecting my entire garment to unravel instantly.

So why am I telling you this? Because creating this cardigan is remarkably like the process of writing my thriller. First I needed a pattern for the finished product, carefully worked out and charted – in the case of the jacket, 70 lines long, divided into five different bands; for the novel, something like 60 sections long, divided into chapters, three different points of view.

On the outside what you see is the smooth finish, the clear pattern, logical and lovely to behold. The colours/narrative threads must complement each other, be perfectly balanced, light and shade, working harmoniously together to form a single whole entity. The finished product must be satisfying and pleasing to the senses.

But behind the scenes are the workings; all the threads must be kept taut and separate, no tangling, no confusion, no nasty knots or uneven breaks. Invisible to other people but the hallmarks of a sound piece of work.

No one else will ever know the hours and hours of painstaking work that went into the making of the final product, the anxious moments, the corrections, the endless checking. Both cardigan and book will hopefully look professional and effortless, desirable commodities.

And joy of joys I’ve been able to let my brain work on the two stories I’m currently writing while my fingers worked on the knitting. Efficient or what? The ideas and pattern for Killing me Gently are entirely my own; I’m grateful to the multi-talented Alice Starmore for the inspiration behind my Shetland cardigan.

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Call the Midwife

Looks like I missed a trick! In 1998 a nurse/midwife/midwifery lecturer, Terri Coates, pointed out that midwives are virtually non-existent in literature. Doctors and nurses yes, – in abundance – but not midwives. Given that they’re at the centre of one of the most spectacular experiences common to all human beings, why is this so?

‘The responsibility they carry is immeasurable. their skill and knowledge are matchless, yet they are completely taken for granted, and usually overlooked … Why aren’t midwives the heroines of society that they should be?’

Jennifer Worth, reading about this in the Midwives Journal, picked up the gauntlet and in 2002 the book, Call the Midwife, was born. It reads rather like a novel in places, but it’s actually based on the true story of life in the East End of London in the 1950s. And of course it rose to fame when Heidi Thomas serialised Worth’s books on BBC TV, series 1 beginning in 2012, and series 7 recently ending on a tragic note which suggests it’ll be back to heal the wounds. And yes, Thomas has indeed signed up for another two series.

The experiences Worth relates rang very true to me. I trained as a midwife myself in the 60s (third from the right in the photo below, taken outside the world’s most famous maternity hospital) and remember vividly that era. Abortion was illegal, premarital sex and illegitimate children were stigmatised, the Pill wasn’t available, racial prejudice was rife, soap and water enemas and pubic shaving were common practice. I too worked in homes where the kiddies ran around in vests and nothing else, free to urinate anywhere without making washing. I learned to take newspapers with me to provide a sanitary base for my bag and coat. Young women did die of eclampsia, infections, undiagnosed complications, back-street abortions. Naive and relatively inexperienced, we accepted the responsibility of being alone in houses with no telephones, few mod cons, but the legendary lashings of boiling water on standby! We too worked long unsocial hours and attended lectures on Saturdays. We too sallied forth anywhere at all hours confidently, wearing our uniforms with pride, and turned our cloaks inside out to parade through the wards in festive red, singing carols at Christmas time.

But Jennifer Worth worked in post-war London; I in Edinburgh and Paisley. She saw a level of poverty and degradation below that I encountered. Prostitution, meths drinkers, homeless immigrants, drug addicts, huge families living in condemned buildings. Mothers desperately trying to keep their families together with no regular income, no benefits, selling hair and teeth as a last resort before being taken in by the workhouse. This was her world.

My own mother regaled me with plenty of stories of those same years and i could only admire the strength and courage of these families who took adversity in their stride and showed such fine examples of parental love and integrity.

It’s a fascinating read, and the success of the BBC show indicates that the topic has widespread appeal. The book includes a potted history of the professionalisation of midwives for those unfamiliar with developments, but the real meat is in the characters and experiences Worth grew to love and appreciate. And the enormous privilege it is to share this most miraculous experience of new birth.

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The Longest Week

As it’s Easter week it seems appropriate to reference a seasonally apposite book I’ve just finished reading: The Longest Week by Nick Page.

It was a routine execution. A humble peasant became a political pawn in an unseemly power struggle and was accorded the kind of death reserved for slaves. It happened a couple of thousand years ago. And yet this death has become the lynchpin for our civilisation. We measure our calendar from it. Macabre as it may seem, the instrument of torture upon which this young man was brutally nailed and asphyxiated has become an ornament in buildings and around necks. And perhaps more incongruous still, today, shops and children’s nurseries are full of symbols associated with this story. We all know the bare bones, but few will have probed beneath the surface.

So, after hundreds of years of retelling, is there any room for another book on the subject? Well, yes, if it’s a book like The Longest Week which does so much more than recount. It recreates the events moment by moment, describing the settings, the people, the happenings yet again, but in vivid detail, fleshing them out with fascinating little-known facts, explanations, interpretations, significances, that cut through layers of myth and misrepresentation, to provide meaning and impact and challenge.

As Page himself puts it:
The streets of this story are paved with reality. The people who tread these streets are real historical characters who lived and breathed and worked and sweated, who inhabited a society about which much is unknown. And, as we delve into history, as we strip away the layers of pious iconography and theological interpretation, we discover a tale that, for all its spiritual significance, is characterised by some very real human passions. This is a story of fear and anger, of non-violent resistance and state brutality. It’s a story of the outcasts and the powerful, of processions and perfume, of feasts and festivals, of death and darkness and, ultimately, of triumph.

And through it’s pages, we feel the claustrophobic atmosphere of the seething streets of Jerusalem as the crowds amass for Passover, the brooding tension of the arrest and illegal trial as the battered prisoner staggers from ‘court’ to ‘court’, the sad bewilderment of the man’s followers and a faithful little band of women watching from a distance as their dreams and hopes disintegrate. And using writings from the time, as well as biblical references, the author helps us delve into the reasons why. Why Pilate gave consent to the humiliation and brutality, knowing the man Jesus son of Joseph the carpenter to be innocent. Why the soldiers put such venom into their beatings and mockery. Why the prisoner endured it all without protest. Why Peter managed to inveigle his way into the courtyard of the High Priest’s house but lost courage before dawn. Why the empty tomb caused such consternation and elation. Why any of it matters today.

Page’s own conclusion is:
‘This, then, is the message of the Longest Week. It’s not really about facts and dates and theories. It’s about one man and our response to his life. The real truth is that no one has ever been able to control Christ. He storms down the hills of our theories, wild and triumphant; he marches into the heart of our lives and starts overturning the received ideas that we have carefully organised into neat little piles. The historical Jesus who challenged the oppressive religious and political systems, who was passionately concerned with the plight of the poorest of society, who became, literally, one of the outcasts, who ridiculed authority and made their wisdom look foolish, who walked the road of love to its triumphant conclusion – he’s still there. He has slipped off the purple robe and climbed down from his throne and Is giving out bread and wine to all those who need it. He’s alive and he’s kicking: the great rebel, the leader of the upside down kingdom – Jesus Christ, Joshua ben Joseph – the Son of God.

Nick Page is an unofficial historian and self-styled information-monger, and author of 80 books. He loves to research subjects and bring them alive, to be provocative and challenging. His stated aim: ‘to write interesting stuff about things that matter’. It is interesting; it does matter. And this book has prompted me to think differently this Easter-time.

Isn’t that what books are all about?

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Breathing space

I’m a firm believer in the idea that readers are active collaborators in the creative process started by the author. But when a literary agent first told me my early manuscript didn’t provide enough breathing space for the said readers, I confess I hadn’t a clue what he was talking about. I’ve a rather better idea of the concept now (I think!) but it’s an element in the writing process I constantly grapple with, never more so than now with my tenth novel.

Medical ethical dilemmas are by their very nature, triggers for debate. There are very few black-and-whites. My aim in using fiction to explore them, is to invite readers in, leave them to ask the questions, supply their own answers. What I – the author – think about the issues is irrelevant; my job is to allow them – the readers – to see the difficulties for themselves, feel the conflicts, become aware of perspectives and opinions they’ve maybe never considered before. If the characters are truly authentic and believable, they will speak for themselves, and as long as there is enough breathing space, the reader can get in there amongst them, watch, listen and feel for him/herself.

With this current domestic thriller, Killing Me Gently, I want to create suspense, even maybe terror, in the minds of readers. How is that done? By cataloguing horror or spectacle? Absolutely not. No, I have to somehow open the door to tap into their unconscious fears, give them elbow room/space to let their imaginations do the work.

And it’s meticulous work. Plotting, planning, connecting, surprising, tweaking, revising. I go over and over the threads and links. Determination … persistence … stubbornness … sheer bloody-mindedness? Call it what you will, I need it in spades this time around.

So I take comfort from Doris Lessing:
What I did have, which others perhaps didn’t, was a capacity for sticking at it, which really is the point, not the talent at all. You have to stick at it.

Or Michelangelo:
If people knew how hard I work to get my mastery it wouldn’t seem so wonderful after all.

And there you have it. In my case, not being a genius, 95% perspiration, 5% inspiration!

 

 

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The Revenant

Even when I make a conscious effort to switch off my brain and just relax, life somehow has a habit of steering me back into work-mode!

I’m at the stage of being utterly absorbed in the lives of my fictional characters (no, I do not want another cup of coffee/lunch/a break/to pack up for the night!! … please do not ring/call/interrupt/challenge/speak to me in any way or by any means until I emerge from my fictional world and readjust to yours!) and at the end of a long writing stint I feel pretty zapped. I know my subconscious can be relied on to work on issues during sleep and I can safely leave it to do so, but sometimes I crave a real switched-off complete break. That was the case one night this week so I decided to watch a DVD I bought many moons ago: The Revenant. (Just in case this word has escaped your personal lexicon, it means a person who has returned, especially supposedly from the dead.)

It’s a raw, brutal, stunning film. (Click on the picture for the official trailer.)

‘Everything screams primal in “The Revenant” – the lethal force of a wild animal, the savagery of man against man, the sustaining power of revenge, and the beauty of vast, snowbound lands seemingly untouched since the Creation.’ (Wall Street Journal)

It won three Golden Globes and considerable acclaim from critics and the public alike. Loosely (I use the word advisedly) based on a true story, and a work of fiction, about the main protagonist, a legendary explorer on a quest for survival and justice, it’s not an authentic documentary of a hero’s life, but I wasn’t looking for verifiable reality or hard facts, just some escape. A subject, then, far removed from my usual interests, so it should fit the bill perfectly. Settle down in a comfy chair, pick up the knitting, here goes …

A brief synopsis of the story line first. While exploring the uncharted wilderness of the Rocky mountains in 1823, frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) sustains life-threatening injuries from a brutal grizzly bear attack. A treacherous member of his hunting team (Tom Hardy) kills Glass’ young half-Pawnee son (Forrest Goodluck) and leaves Glass himself for dead. His beloved native American wife has also been murdered, and, grief-stricken, fuelled by vengeance, the legendary fur trapper treks through the snowy terrain to track down the man who betrayed him. (The real Hugh Glass really did crawl to safety for 200 miles over 6 weeks.)

Some reviewers have been pretty sniffy about the effects but I, in my naivety, was lost in admiration of the stupendous cinematography. And how the actors coped in the deep snow and freezing glacial rivers – yes, really in I can’t begin to understand. But, I can vouch for the authenticity of the setting; it was mostly filmed in the Rocky Mountains in British Columbia where we were recently. The filmmakers have captured the essence of Glass’ struggles, and the sheer grit needed to survive in this vast uncharted terrain, incredibly well. And the footage of him climbing inside the still-steaming carcass of a newly-dead eviserated horse for warmth, or being driven off the edge of a cliff, or being ripped and shaken by a grizzly, or guzzling raw buffalo liver, vividly convey the desperation that drove such pioneers, and the sheer forces of nature they faced.

So, a completely different scenario from my usual medical ethics work, huh? You’d think. But you’d be wrong. As was I!

Glass sees one of the trappers attempting to kill his beloved son. Would he be justified in killing the attacker if that would save the boy’s life?

When Glass is severely injured in the brutal grizzly bear attack, the trappers consider leaving the dying man behind to save their own lives. Would this be morally defensible?

Some of the men feel it would be a humane thing to shoot Glass to put him out of his suffering after the bear attack. Would it be ethically right to do so?

Glass can’t speak but his eyes are open. One of the trappers tells him to blink if he wants to die. Glass stares back wide-eyed for ages but eventually blinks. Would this be deemed informed consent?

The chap deputed to actually shoot to kill, says someone should put a rag over the dying Glass’ eyes; he can’t do the deed looking into the face of a man he knows. What does this say about mercy killing?

When Glass eventually catches up with his son’s killer, a bloody fight ensues, but in the end Glass leaves vengeance to God, as one of the indigenous Indians taught him. Does this translate to today’s issues?

Just a few challenges to give you a flavour. But hey, it’s an absorbing film anyway. Enjoy!

 

 

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More thrills from Harlan Coben

Well, as predicted, the extreme weather (commonly dubbed the Beast from the East) meant no one in our area was going anywhere any time soon. So, with all my appointments cancelled for six days, I did indeed have a lot more reading time than anticipated. And I made a rather interesting discovery.

Miracle Cure is one of Coben’s earlier works. He wrote it in his ‘naive’ early twenties and in my version (re-published twenty years later), after re-reading it himself, he makes something of an apology: it’s a bit ‘preachy’ and somewhat ‘dated’.  But those very criticisms made me feel a whole lot better. Why? Because I’ve said the same of my own early writings. So, being already a fan of his work, I was keen to see for myself just how he’d fallen into the same trap.

It’s a book set in a particular time in history, a time when HIV/AIDS was first coming to public attention. I remember it well. Fear of the unknown and sensational headlines fuelled a real sense of foreboding and doom. But I was unexpectedly thrown into this whole scenario at the deep end. I applied for a research post in the Institute of Medical Ethics which was exactly where I wanted to be, and got it. My first investigation there was to explore attitudes, fears and education around this whole topic – across the UK. In order to thoroughly understand what was happening I immersed myself in the culture and context. I spent a lot of time with homosexual men, intravenous drug users, and the folk who tried to help and care for them. I visited centres set apart for people infected with the virus, many of whom were in the terminal phases of the illness. I watched gay marches for justice. I sat in a prostitutes’ clinic on one memorable day. I cried in response to a young man who had lovingly nursed several friends through agonising deaths. I listened to terribly bigoted and judgemental people who believed this was God’s plague sent on the immoral world.

Coben’s story is set in the USA where opinion was much more polarised and vocal. It includes
– a dedicated team of doctors researching a cure for AIDS in the Sydney Pavilion
– the lead scientist, Dr Harvey Riker, whose own brother died of the disease, and who has dedicated his life to this cause
– his colleague, Dr Bruce Grey, who’s convinced he’s being followed and in danger
– a televangelist, Reverend Ernest Sanders, a rampant homophobe, who’s leading a crusade to condemn all those who contract the virus and shut down the centre
– Sara Lowell, a beautiful but crippled tele-presenter and reporter who wants to expose hypocrisy and reveal the truth
– Dr John Lowell, her father, formerly Surgeon General, whose loyalties are seriously conflicted
– Sara’s handsome star basketball player husband, Michael Silverman, whose own symptoms suggest something sinister
– Cassandra Lowell, her promiscuous and jealous sister
– Lieutenant Max Berstein, a policeman whose brilliance is hidden behind a facade of nervous tics, and whose own personal history is kept under wraps
– George Camron, a brutal hired killer whose techniques are not for the fainthearted …
– a whole cabal of powerful men who all seem to have secret and highly suspect agendas …
oh, and so many more besides,. You need all your wits about you to hold this mighty cast of characters firmly in your head and sort out the Saras from the Susans, and the Matleys from the Markeys, and the Willies from the Winstons.

But it’s well worth the effort. As I’ve said before, Coben is a master plotter, and he keeps you guessing till the end. I ended up suspicious of almost everyone! But knowing some of the tricks of the trade I had a head start once I got the hang of the points of view we were given. And it was there I think, that it became apparent that this was an early work. Here and there the POV was smudgy.

But it’s in relation to the subject matter that I most identified with Coben’s ‘naivety’. He describes his style as ‘preachy’. It packs a stack of information into the speeches made by the characters as they lecture and educate and inform. As an author with something of an agenda myself, I worried a lot about getting the balance right between spinning a gripping yarn, informing the reader, and putting across intellectual challenges. My early publishers told me it was the fictional approach to serious issues that constituted the main appeal of my books, their unique selling point. And that was the point. But I am less inclined to pack in as much information nowadays.

Coben also calls his book ‘dated’. And indeed it is – as medical works can so easily become. But it properly captures the public hysteria and professional angst that prevailed at the time. Back then we had no idea what kind of Armageddon lay just over the horizon. But we were terribly fearful, and fear and passion to avert catastrophe can drive people to extraordinary lengths. Coben has merely traced a possible scenario; and done so brilliantly.

It’s now back to my own cliff-hangers with a sense of having just had a wonderfully instructive masterclass!

(NB. The conflation of HIV positivity and full-blown AIDS is medically inaccurate in places but that too was a common error in the early years of this disease.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And yet he recognises  that there’s an energy and risk-taking about it that he hopes he still has.

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Thrillers and master storytellers

The Times once said of Harlan Coben‘s writing that it had ‘lighthearted lessons for life sprinkled throughout‘ but that it wasn’t ‘about preaching, it is about catching you by those short hairs on the back of your neck.

And that’s what makes a thriller. That elusive something that I’m struggling to identify and capture for my own current novel.

Given that over 70 million of Coben’s books are in print worldwide and the last ten consecutive novels all debuted at #1 on the New York Times bestseller list, I think it’s fair to say this is one author who definitely knows how to get a message across!

it’s actually weirdly appropriate that I’ve been reading The Innocent at the moment. It’s about somebody waiting nine years to exact revenge. I’ve been waiting rather a lot myself recently – for appointments, for test results, in hospitals, in GP waiting rooms, for advice – not nine years certainly, but long enough to make an absorbing book a godsend. And long enough to know that a brilliant reputation and a sustained plot-line that keeps you turning the pages, can compensate for a lot.

OK, Coben’s relentlessly staccato sentences, his use of the second person POV, in-house American police jargon, mile-long list of characters, don’t exactly float my boat. And I’m not going for mass shootings and exotic dancers and police corruption. But what does grab me is this author’s ability to create suspense, to plant cliff hangers at the end of most chapters, weave an intensely complex but authentic series of connections, (the inside of his brain must be like an immense circuit board!) and make me really really want to know why someone is sending ex-con paralegal Matt Hunter incriminating video clips … what his beautiful wife is really up to … why a dead nun, Sister Mary Rose, is found to have breast implants … why the FBI are involved … and who is going to come out of this whole mess alive.

Yep, this is thriller writing. I can quite see how and why it works. Question is: can I do it myself? Only time will tell. But I’m going to persevere. And keep studying the experts. Six Cobens down, five to go.

And the way things are going right now I might be doing more reading than planned! Here in Central Scotland we’ve been on red alert (the highest level which includes danger to life) for the last two days. Siberian winds and snow, unbelievably low temperatures, air and land traffic at a standstill. It’s causing major disruption to millions (no exaggeration) but looks stunningly beautiful to those of us who aren’t stuck on motorways for thirteen hours, or skidding to work in a care home, or battling through drifts to reach an ill or vulnerable person. I dare not venture out on a photo-shoot to capture just how deep the snow is, so this snap of one protected corner of the garden must suffice.

Stay safe, folks.

 

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Therapeutic boundaries

OK, you know already that my current novel, Killing Me Gently, is about pathological parent-child relationships. But it also includes contacts between professionals and families; clients and therapists. This past five years I’ve spent a more-than-usual amount of time on the receiving end of medical care (often unclothed – physically and mentally – and boy, you feel the disadvantage! Especially if you have the kind of body image issues I have!!) It’s a whole different feeling from being on the clothed healthy giving end as I was for decades. So I’ve given this subject some thought.

Boundaries (usually set by the professional) should protect all concerned, but what when those demarcations are eroded? What if emotions blur the parameters?

Healing Flynn by Juliette Mead is an example of what can happen. Madeline is a therapist dealing with clients traumatised by terrible experiences. Flynn is a photo-journalist documenting harrowing subjects such as poverty and the effects of war, in dangerous places like Freetown, West Africa. They meet when they’re both caught up in the immediate aftermath of an explosion on a North Sea oil rig, Astra Four. Madeline has been flown in to give immediate aid to the survivors and their families. Flynn, posing as an official with the oil company, uses her deceitfully to gain entry onto the rig to take photos of the aftermath. Not a good start for any relationship you might think. But three months later, his marriage in tatters and, suffering post traumatic stress disorder himself, Flynn seeks Madeline out for therapy. In spite of his provocative manner and hard exterior Madeline finds herself irresistibly drawn to him. The tension and attraction between them threaten the boundaries of what’s acceptable in clinical practice.

In fact Madeline herself is also already traumatised. Ten years before, something terrible happened to her, something she has never forgiven herself for, something that very nearly ruined her, and still torments her. And though now Flynn is the client, she the therapist, he is forcing her to recall the agony, the ache, the terrible suffocating pain. Three quarters of the way through the book we find out what happened.

There are codes for good practice. Of course there are. Therapists need to be supervised themselves, and offload their own issues. I’ve had to build in such mentoring in my former life when I was sharing deeply traumatic experiences with respondents in my research. But Madeline’s supervisor, Jillian, has herself had an inappropriate relationship with a client. Whoops ….

It’s a very slow moving book but I found it useful in analysing what could happen deep inside a therapeutic encounter. And it’s all grist to my mill at the moment while the parameters of my own current writing are still quite fluid and flexible.

Oh, and I must just share with you one lovely sentence about Flynn’s wife and daughter – well, you know how addicted I am to clever/beautiful writing:  Georgia smiled at the mirror reflection of her physical past; as Beth glared at her physical future.

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Location, location, location

It’s difficult to share much of where I am with the writing at the moment, though I can say things have taken a giant leap forward. The character profiles are fully developed; the whole plot is sketched out in sections; the menace haunting a troubled young mother is seeping out onto the page. It’s all so clear in my mind that the players are even invading my dreams as well as monopolising my days!

From the outset I’ve had a vivid mental picture of the setting for this medical thriller since I used to drive through this small Scottish town often. But this week I was actually back there, tramping the icy cold streets, imagining the happenings in Killing Me Gently, notebook and pencil in hand. Standing rooted to the spot, feeling the threat stalking through my fictional world; making it so much easier to identify key details which would authenticate the events and bring the setting alive. Sending a real shiver down my spine in the process! (OK, yes, it was hovering around zero degrees!!)

Most of this is all very much internalised and non-transferable, so I thought I’d give you a glimpse of the background canvas against which the tale is set. Hopefully that will wet your appetite without jinxing anything!

Picture, then, steeply pitched roofs with ornate decoration …

grand and beautiful old stone houses …

imposing nineteenth century churches …

names of streets and dwellings etched into the walls …

even a Victorian postbox set in the stonework on a significant corner …

But at this point the curtain closes. Thus far and no further. Some things can only be revealed on publication day!

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