Hazel McHaffie

Sleeplessness and productivity

Moving mighty wardrobes …Wardrobes

… craning the neck to mitre corners on ceilings …Mitred corners

… up and down stairs with forty years worth of accumulated detritus possessions … none of these things are kind to muscles and joints already suffering wear and tear and the ravages of arthritis. So small wonder that sleep has been rather elusive during the latest stages of big renovations chez nous.

But hey ho! the old brain is safely protected in its rigid bony cage, and it’s been busily plotting the next book (well, two actually if you count the children’s annual Christmas production) in the darkness of long nights of wakefulness.

The scenes are vivid: a young woman wandering up and down the aisles of the chemists shop, reading labels and safety warnings … back at home titrating doses … cradling baby as he gulps down the milk … watching him sink deeper and deeper into unconsciousness … removing all traces …

Lying there with the video scrolling in my head, it’s so real and the sense of dread so acute, aches and pains simply vanish. And as soon as it’s a decent hour, I’m up committing the scenarios to the computer. OK, I may be knackered by the evening but I’m fired up on the adrenaline – progress with the house AND the books! Silver linings and all that jazz.

But hang on a minute …

Lying in bed: constructs perfect plot

Standing in shower: constructs perfect characters

Hanging out washing: constructs perfect setting

Sitting in front of screen: where did perfection go?!

Hey ho! Perfection is dozens of drafts away.

I’ve been toying with the idea of releasing some tempting little titbits closer to publication to whet the appetite. So I was intrigued to learn that Ian Rankin (or his publisher more likely) has just revealed the first line of his new Rebus novel – his 21st publication – Rather be the Devil, due out on 3rd November.

Rebus placed his knife and fork on the empty plate, then leaned back in his chair, studying the other diners in the restaurant.
‘Someone was murdered here, you know,’ he announced.

Would this tempt you to buy the book?

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Truth stranger than fiction

Normally I stay clear of religion and politics in my blog, but this week I just can’t ignore the craziness bombarding us. There comes a time when staying within the safe and respectable writerly world, simply won’t do.

We’re rather inured to improbable happenings on our screens in dramas, aren’t we? Professors of neurosurgery who beat the living daylights out of a colleague who taunts them, and then walk straight into theatre and perform some intricate ground-breaking surgery on a patient to widespread acclaim. High ranking detectives who get suspects into quiet corners and extract information by foul means. All without repercussions. You know the kind of thing I’m talking about. And yet, reviewers are wont to criticise authors quite harshly if their characters don’t ring true; a person in that position in those circumstances just wouldn’t behave like this, wouldn’t say that.

Well, if I were to include in my novels some of the real-life activities in the news recently, I’d be accused of writing unbelievable fiction too. Or dubious hyperbole, at the very least. I ask you.

Mature (in years) men, MEPs, indeed, brawling … abroad  … when they are supposed to be representing their country …?

High ranking ministers promoting harsh discriminatory ideas completely opposed to views they themselves expressed as their deeply-held beliefs when they were lower down the food chain … ?

A last-lap US presidential nominee, bidding to lead the largest and most powerful free country in the world, who has already openly scorned many minority groups (eg muslims, immigrants), now admitting he has sexually abused women …, seeing them as the entitlement of any ‘alpha male’ … especially ‘a star’ …?

Hugely important questions about Brexit being decided by a tiny cabal with neither MPs or the people having a say …?

Large numbers of high-earning BBC employees being accused of dodging taxes …?

Hmmm. Looking at this list I note they’re all except one about politicians. Houses of ParliamentOK, I could develop that theme but it could get nasty, so instead I’ll share my thinking about the matter of credulity.

Decent civilised people living in decent civilised communities tend to assume the integrity and honesty of public and professional figures. We want to trust doctors, lawyers, policemen, teachers, clergy, royals, social workers … we want our children to be able to trust them. But coming on top of all the scandals exposed by the media in recent years, these current horrors challenge our credulity. Can this really be happening? How is it possible? The more I thought about this, though, the more I realised that this is the stuff of thrillers. When apparently trustworthy people step outside the boundaries of the acceptable and believable. Unreliable narrators, unscrupulous colleagues, immoral perpetrators.

Shutter IslandFor example, this week I watched the film Shutter Island, a disturbing glimpse inside the world of insanity. US marshal, Teddy Daniels (Leonardo diCaprio) is sent to Boston’s high security prison for the criminally insane, on a remote hurricane-blasted island, to investigate the disappearance of a female murderess. Daniels himself has a traumatic past having witnessed the aftermath of the atrocities at Dachau and lived through his wife’s murder. But on the island he is determined to gain access to the ward where the most dangerous patients are housed, a ward in a lighthouse to which the medical team are denying him entry. It’s a film that challenges received wisdom, professional facades, and the limits of humanity. What is believable? Can I trust what I’m seeing and hearing?

Nor is it just thrillers that do this. I’ve also been reading All the Light we Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, a beautifully written, haunting novel about a blind French girl, Marie-Laure, and an orphan German boy, Werner, whose paths cross in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II. It’s by no means a thriller, but inevitably there are troubling scenes that make us question just how far humans can sink and still retain their humanity. Happenings which Marie-Laure’s great uncle says ‘sound like something a sixth-former would make up.’ In other words, unbelievable. But of course we today know about the atrocities of that era, and much as we might inwardly recoil and think, Surely not, we know these things were real and do/did happen. They become utterly credible in a spine chilling kind of way.

Spine chilling. Now that’s what I’m pondering in my own writing at the moment. I’ve always worked consciously to make my characters believable. For each book I’ve asked a raft of experts as well as discerning readers, to check the manuscript for credibility before it goes for publication. But I’m starting to wonder if any of us can predict how low human beings can sink, or how unlikely any extreme behaviours really are. And now that I’m experimenting with thriller-writing, perhaps I can push the boundaries further in my writing about a young mother who exhibits pathological behaviour, without being condemned by the literary critics. Certainly I need to keep pushing that ‘What if’ button. See how far I can go.



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Valuing mothers

Thanks to all the recent adrenaline surges from thriller-reading, my current novel is starting to take shape. The old brain needed a swift kick-start it seems. The story (working title: Killing me Gently) includes a parent/child relationship where things go seriously wrong so I’m also looking at more reflective works, books that don’t have you biting your nails or fearing your own shadow, but nevertheless haunt your thoughts after you’ve turned the last page. What makes them work?

Please Look After MotherPlease Look after Mother by Kyung-sook Shin, an acclaimed South Korean author, is one I’ve just finished. It tells the story of So-nyo, an illiterate wife and taken-for-granted mother, who has lived a life of sacrifice and unremitting work. A few years earlier she’d suffered a stroke leaving her with terrible headaches, confused and vulnerable. When the story begins she’s travelling from her rural home to Seoul to see her grown up children, but somehow she gets separated from her husband when the doors of the packed train close behind him leaving her still standing on the platform. He gets off at the next station and returns to get her but she has vanished.

Her daughter and sons do their best to find her. Disappointingly little prospective happens in the story post-disappearance, but along the way places, events, chance comments, keep triggering retrospective memories of So-nyo and her life. The family see her differently now she’s gone, regretting the things they never said to her.

She’s always been there in the background, unremarkable, low-achieving, self-effacing. A simple impoverished South Korean housewife. Boiling octopus, sauteeing anchovies and toasting seaweed. Forcing a left-handed child to become right-handed with the simple expedient of punishing left-handed activity. Money always scarce.

When the malt fermented, the entire house smelled of it. Nobody liked that smell, but Mother said it was the smell of money. There was a house in the village where they made tofu, and when she brought them the fermented malt, they sold it to the brewery and gave the money to Mother. Mother put that money in a white bowl, stacked six or seven bowls on top of it, and placed it on top of the cabinets. The bowl was Mother’s bank.’

Her devotion to her children is not reciprocated. She is a wallpaper figure. They don’t even notice her periods of mental absence, or the obvious signs of extreme pain.

‘Mother was always Mother. It never occurred to you that she had once taken her first step, or had once been three or twelve or twenty years old. Mother was Mother. She was born as Mother. Until you saw her running to your uncle like that, it hadn’t dawned on you that she was a human being who harboured the exact same feeling you had for your own brothers, and this realisation led to the awareness that she, too, had had a childhood From then on, you sometimes thought of Mother as a child, as a girl, as a young woman, as a newly-wed, as a mother who had just given birth to you.’

But now, the longer she eludes them, the more her disappearance troubles them. And a deeper and more universal mystery is unravelled: ‘affection, exasperation, hope and guilt add up to love.’ They begin to appreciate just what a powerful influence this insignificant little woman has been in their lives:

‘When she was younger, Mother was a presence that got him to continue building his resolve as a man, as a human being.’

I must confess, this wasn’t a book I’d rave about. It left me unsatisfied somehow; I wanted more resolution. And I really really really dislike second person writing; it’s one of my all time pet hates. What’s more this particular example has the temerity to make the ‘you’ refer to a different person in different sections, compounding my aversion!

But that doesn’t stop me valuing the healthy message it conveys. And learning lessons for my own writing. We would all do well to revisit the sacrifices our mothers made for us. Willingly and without complaint. To ask ourselves, can I do for my family what she did for us? It’s all too easy to take our nearest and dearest for granted.

‘Before she went missing, you spent your days without thinking about her. When you did think about her, it was to ask her to do something, or to blame her or ignore her. Habit can be frightening thing. You spoke politely with others, but your words turned sullen towards (her).’

Copyright Shutterstock (CREATARKA)

Copyright Shutterstock (CREATARKA)

I doubt whether Please Look After Mother would feature highly on that jolly little bestseller-ometer I told you about a couple of weeks ago, and yet it’s contributing to the sum total of books which can encourage us to empathise with human beings and help to create a more civilised society. That’s worth more to me than whopping sales figures.

Strange how real life often throws up weird coincidences. By chance I was actually sitting next to a South Korean translator at a meal a few days ago. I had something relevant to talk about, thanks to Kyung-sook Shin.


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Criminally insane

Ahhhah, now this one is right on the knuckle for my ongoing research. Relationships, mental health, the law, professional boundaries … it’s all there. Settle down for the long haul … glass of wine, top notch chocolate, notebook at the ready …

Plea of InsanityIt’s a psychological thriller: Plea of Insanity by Jilliane Hoffman. Full of fascinating medical and legal information. At once spine chilling and yet sympathetic to those suffering serious mental illness. Cliff hangers at the end of each chapter. Brilliant. Hoffman was an Assistant State Attorney herself and has advised special agents on complex investigations. She also had a friend caught up in a similar situation to the protagonist in Plea of Insanity. She writes with real authority.

First then, the storyline. Dr David Marquette is a successful surgeon with a dream house, pretty wife and three gorgeous kids. Then one day, emergency services take a tremulous call from their house: a child’s voice pleading for help. The police race to the scene. What do they find? A shocking bloodbath. Scenes so horrific that veteran officers are reduced to sobbing wrecks. All three kiddies and their mother brutally butchered; the doctor seriously wounded.

And now Dr Marquette himself stands accused. Is he guilty? Could a man who has dedicated his life to caring for patients be capable of such brutality? Could any sane man kill his entire family in cold blood? But is he sane? If so, he must be a monster. Or is he suffering from schizophrenia? I changed my mind several times as to his guilt or innocence – all part of the mesmerizing experience.

State prosecutor, Julia Valenciano, is hand-picked to unravel the truth and bring this man to justice, but as she delves into the mind of the criminally insane, personal baggage emerges from her own past, dark secrets from her family history that will destroy her present peace and haunt her whole future. ‘Too many lies told to too many people, too many secrets kept for too many years …’ If I’m being really nitpicky, I found the parallels a bit too contrived, but that doesn’t stop it being a cracking good read.

And it’s set my mind racing along several productive tracks for my own next book. As so often I’m hugely grateful to all these authors whose work inspires and influences me. Thanks, guys.

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Could I? Would I? Should I?

With all my talk of books lately you might well have forgotten that my blog is also about ethical issues. So, something a little more challenging this week.

QuestioningYou’ve probably heard on the news that a teenager has just become the first to be helped to die by doctors in Belgium, a country that lifted their age restrictions on assisted dying two years ago. This girl was 17 years old and terminally ill. Let’s stop and contemplate that for a moment. 17 years old … on the cusp of life. Terminally ill … a tragedy in itself. Now dead … hard to even contemplate the agony wrapped up in that reality. Sends shivers down your spine just thinking about it, doesn’t it?

Belgium legalised assisted death for adults as long ago as 2002. And in 2014 it became the only country* in the world that allows a child of any age to choose doctor-assisted death provided they have parental permission. There are strict criteria; of course there are. The minor must be terminally ill, fully and rationally understand the difference between life and death, face unbearable physical suffering that can’t be alleviated, and have made repeated requests to die. Two doctors, one of whom must be a psychiatrist, must give their approval.
(*The Netherlands permits children to have an assisted death but requires them to be aged 12 or over.)

How do you feel about this ruling?

Would you allow your child to choose to die?

But hang on a minute. Let’s not rush to judgement without properly assimilating the facts. This is not some wilful youngster throwing a hissy fit and whining about a passing ache. This is a wise-beyond-their-years person who’s known extreme and unremitting pain, who knows he/she’s not going to survive this illness. Given these circumstances, could you bear to stand by? Listening to the agonising screams? Seeing the appeal in the eyes? Watching the dying process be strung out, knowing … knowing there’s a way out, a legal option? Wouldn’t you be begging someone to do something … anything?

An opinion poll taken a few months before the law changed to allow children this choice, suggested that 75% of Belgians supported it. Understandably many churchmen, especially those of the Roman Catholic church, opposed it. OK, we know they have strong opinions and beliefs about the sanctity of life. But so too did many doctors. What does this say? They after all are the ones who care for these tragic families, make decisions about treatment, convey the bad news, feel their own powerlessness. This isn’t theoretical for them; they actually stand at those bedsides, see the agony up close and personal.

Could it be that the doctors baulk at a law that allows the life of the child to be ended actively, because they are the very people who’d be asked to actually do the deed? And they are trained to cure, not to kill. It’s so much easier for a lay person to say, ‘Oh yes, a child shouldn’t suffer unbearably; you should help them to die with dignity,’ when they know they will not be the ones called upon to inject that lethal drug.

So, maybe the question ought to be: Would you be willing to end that life yourself? And if not, is it hypocritical to approve of a law allowing assisted dying?

If so, how many of us are guilty as charged?

I’m ridiculously squeamish. I struggle to kill an insect or an arachnoid, preferring to capture them and return them to the wild. There’s something very, very special about life, especially a human life. And I’m absolutely certain I could not be actively involved in the death of a child … or … am I? Because the alternative appalls me. What right have I to insist a child endures terrible suffering? I’m not at all sure I could stand by and not do something to help if it were in my power. Maybe, just maybe, there are certain circumstances where I might feel compelled to forfeit my own comfort, my own preferences, even possibly my own principles, and put the child and his/her interests first. Whether or not I would actually do the deed is unknown. I’ve never been tested.

We haven’t come close to approving assisted dying for adults in this country yet, never mind for children. The majority of – not all – doctors and politicians oppose a change in the law. But we all ought to thoroughly consider the options and consequences nevertheless. I’m not, thank God, facing this devastating dilemma at this precise moment. You might not be. But there are too many families for whom this is no hypothetical question; this is their ongoing living nightmare. What kind of a society do we want for them?

As the late Sheila Bloom, Chief Executive of the Institute of Global Ethics once said, ‘It isn’t about knowing right from wrong – we can all do that. It’s often about choosing one right over another and finding good reasons for it.’ Or we might add, sometimes choosing the lesser of two evils.

Sobering questions for an autumnal Thursday morning, huh?


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Writing by numbers?!

Why do some books instantly capture the imagination of millions, fly off the shelves, become the talking point of after-dinner conversation and train travel, feature largely on chat shows and book festivals? Is it even possible to analyse and quantify the magic that makes them so appealing? To predict which manuscripts will go on to become mega-bestsellers?

Well, Archer and Jockers claim to have done exactly that. Archer and Jockers? Me neither.

Copyright Shutterstock (CREATARKA)

Copyright Shutterstock (CREATARKA)

They’re the authors of a new book out this week: The Bestseller Code. (Sounds vaguely Dan Brownish, doesn’t it?) Their bestseller-ometer was fine-tuned on over 20,000 contemporary novels, analyzing themes, plot, character, setting, and style; using an algorithm alleged to be right about 80% of the time. OK, I’m listening. So what are the secret ingredients of success? Become a journalist before you write your first book; focus on just two or three issues, no more; include at least one close human relationship; maintain a roller-coaster of emotions; use very active verbs … Sounding familiar?

But a predictor of success? Really?

Hang on a minute, though, isn’t this exactly what any writer wants? A winning recipe, a DIY measuring kit, a ticket to stardom. Or … well … no … on reflection … isn’t it want any publisher wants? A commercial shortcut to selection.

Before you start getting excited about the possibilities, though, it has to be said that reviews to date have been lukewarm to say the least. A ‘fascinating but ultimately futile use of multi-variate analysis‘ about sums it up.

Well, I guess it depends what you’re trying to do. And in fairness the authors don’t claim this tool identifies good books, just popular ones. Big difference. If your sole aim is to be another Danielle Steel or John Grisham or Gillian Flynn, then maybe there’s mileage in studying the list of factors that send those peaks soaring on the graph of readers’ engagement. But thankfully, lots of authors have higher aims. And good literature is based on more than commercial success. Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code and EL James’ Fifty Shades of Grey consistently featured in the analysis of Archers and Jockers as exemplars, but neither of these books is generally rated as a good book in the literary sense. Nor does either make the world a better place. Nor encourage quiet reflective thinking and empathy with people struggling with life’s big dilemmas.

Copyright Shutterstock (CREATARKA)

Copyright Shutterstock (CREATARKA)

As a writer myself, I’d be lying if I said I had no ambition to sell more of my own books – don’t we all? – but not at the expense of my principles; my reason for writing them in the first place. I just have to accept that my preferred subject areas and modus operandi are most unlikely not going to appeal to the masses. And try to be glad for those writers who do make the big time with or without the bestseller-ometer.

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Amazing talent

Fresh from the Edinburgh Festivals, I’m feeling overawed by the enormous breadth of talent I’ve been exposed to lately. So it seems appropriate to home in on another aspect of human endeavour currently impressing me greatly: the skill that goes into creating a well-crafted thriller. I could select any of the books I’ve just read but I’ll take the last one – which happens to be the meatiest!

The WinnerWhen I first selected The Winner by David Baldacci off my shelves I confess I was very inclined to return it rapidly. 565 pages … hmmm! And the layout is strangely off-putting. How glad I am that my conscience made me resist that temptation and give the book a fair crack of the whip. Almost 600 pages it might be but not one of them is surplus to requirement. Not for a second did I lose interest or skim a page. Coffees went cold, meals were late, bedtime extended way past a sensible hour. The pace, the tension, never slacken – totally gripping throughout. Why?

Dense textWell, let’s look at why.

  1. The protagonists are believable and well-rounded, their true characters emerging gradually as the story unravels. And they are multi-faceted, with strengths and weaknesses, attributes and flaws, appeal and unlikeable traits. So, LuAnn Tyler is a dirt-poor young woman shacked up in a down-at-heel trailer with an unskilled, unemployed drunk, Duane Harvey, who unbeknownst to her is dabbling in drugs. They have a baby daughter, Lisa, whom LuAnn adores and would give her life for. She’s a brilliant mother. She’s also very beautiful. Jackson on the other hand is a cunning manipulator with a brilliant mind, no scruples and no moral code. He is a master of disguise who has the power to infiltrate any world he chooses, and such is his reach that we start to suspect every new character and startle at every sudden appearance, fearing his malevolent influence.
  2. The motives of the main characters are mixed, complex and intriguing; nothing stereotypical here. So, for example, LuAnn’s conscience baulks at being involved in anything illegal but when she finds the father of her child dying and she herself has hit – probably fatally – Duane’s murderer, she realises she’s in a hopeless situation: if she does the right thing she’ll be clapped in jail and her baby girl will be taken away from her. For Lisa’s sake she must accept Jackson’s dubious offer. And even when she becomes enormously wealthy, her conscience dictates she must pay back to society in some way. But when the final challenge comes she’s not averse to capitalising on the proceeds of crime.
  3. We’re rightly wary of Jackson from the outset, but Baldacci ratchets up the tension by continually, incrementally, broadening the range of the man’s evil. We learn more and more about his modus operandi until we are fascinated by his ingenuity, fearfully anticipating his next devious move, and seeing him behind every shadow. Even though we actually learn his true identity on page 481, there is still no end to the depths to which he will sink to protect himself and his schemes, and we live in a state of high alert dreading what’s to come.
  4. On the other hand, the novel appeals to our better nature too. Flawed though LuAnn undoubtedly is, we want to see her win through in the end. She engenders sympathy and devotion in the people she meets: Charlie leaves behind his shady past and becomes her staunchest ally; Matthew Riggs forsakes his anonymity and quiet life to protect her. And LuAnn’s trust once gained becomes a precious commodity. We too care about her welfare.
  5. The plotting is so assured and clever that the improbable seems believable. The depiction of national security issues, the detail of each disguise, each manouevre, each scheme, each flight from retribution as the characters fight for supremacy or justice, keep the reader riveted and the pages simply fly by.
  6. The pace never flags. No saggy middle, no anticlimax, here.
  7. The story line is far-reaching and challenging, involving matters of international security, government shenanigans, personal crusades. Your imagination goes into over-drive wondering, what if …?

I could go on, but enough for now. Baldacci inhabits his characters brilliantly. He inspires a horrifying blend of reactions – unexpected empathy, dread, subtle identification, revulsion. And we have to ask ourselves, in LuAnn’s situation, what would I have done? Would I have her devotion, her courage, her determination? Would my priorities have been hers? Would I commit a crime for the greater good of those I love? Charlie and Matthew are convinced anyone would have done exactly what she did; now I know LuAnn, I have to ask again: Would I?

What I DO know is I’d love to be able to write with Baldacci’s assurance and cleverness. He totally deserves the lavish praise of the critics.

Praise for Baldacci

PS. I found one tiny flaw: a mistake in the name on p524! One of the hazards of using the same initial for two main characters I suspect. It surprised me though, given the stature of the author and its professional production and the number of eyes that must have checked this book.


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After the fireworks

Well, the 2016 Festivals certainly ended in fine style on Monday with a few thousand pounds worth of fireworks exploding spectacularly over Edinburgh Castle on a still dark night perfect for purpose.

Festival fireworks 1Fireworks 2

Festival fliersNow the millions of flyers and posters are being swept from the streets; the artistes have left the city’s hotels and guest houses; mysterious venues become their alter egos again; the buses return to running on time; the air in Princes Street is no longer riven with native American music; the good people of Edinburgh heave a collective sigh of relief.

As you know, I’ve enjoyed dipping into the huge diversity of amazing opportunities available in this magical city. But now it’s time to knuckle down to some serious work.


ThrillersBack to the masterclass in thriller-writing I spoke about last week. My attention has turned to analysing other new-to-me authors’ work: Heart Collector by Jacques Vandroux, The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins; The Winner by David Baldacci.

All helpful in reinforcing the essential elements I outlined last week, but also in highlighting things that don’t work for me:

Names which sound/look very similar; characteristics which are too similar. When you have a cast of many, it’s hard to hold them all in your head. Distinctive attributes help to keep them sharply defined.

Too many foreign place names.

Knowing too much too soon – reduces the tension too early.

Too many dates and flashbacks that require the reader to flick back and forth, calculating ages and years. A thriller’s meant to be tense, keeping you moving forward searching for answers.

Too many lies from an unreliable narrator; so many that they muddle the brain and the plotline.

But it’s also been comforting to see that the thriller author does not need a degree in jurisprudence! I’m hanging on to that thought at least. So many stories in this genre hinge around police procedures and court wrangles, but there are other ways to approach crimes.

Also I am newly aware that even in the staccato sentences and fast pace and intense action of thrillers, building up a detailed picture of each character over time adds to the reader’s engagement with them.

The more I read the more I’m impressed by the skill behind these books … and the more daunting my own task becomes. I’m forced back to the question: Could I do it? or maybe it’s: Could I do it? Jury’s still out on this one.





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Thriller writing

It was probably a throwaway suggestion: ‘I think you should make your next book a thriller‘, but it’s stuck in my mind – especially as it came from someone in the book world whose opinion I respect.

Well, OK, I’m prepared to consider it at least. But first I need to understand what’s involved. Would my ideas thus far fit into this genre? Do I have what it takes to master this kind of writing? So I’ve been delving into the theory; what I’d need to do to create a good thriller. To date I’ve identified seven essentials.

1. Use dread and frightening possibilities to drive the story.

2. Make it action-packed from the outset. Maintain urgency and tension (short paragraphs, cliff hangers, surprises, active verbs, each chapter revealing something new, etc etc) throughout. Include confrontation.

3. Make the stakes high. Give the bad guys seemingly justifiable aims too.

4. Keep the reader guessing till the end.

5. Give the protagonists lots of baggage and emotional complexity, something to fight against and triumph over. Make sure they endure plenty of grief and anxiety along the way. Some characters at least shouldn’t be what they seem to be. Avoid stereotypes.

6. Build dramatic tension by means of multiple points of view.

7. Have an unforgettable take-home message/meaning.

ThrillersOK, some at least of the basics.

I’ve read plenty of thrillers over the years; indeed I’m a big fan of both Harlan Coben and Robert Goddard, but I fancied testing the theory using something new to me … Hmmm, how come I have so many unread thrillers on my shelves? … Right, let’s choose something with rave reviews … an acknowledged masterpiece … and maybe something medical?

Brilliant. Flashback by Michael Palmer, a qualified doctor cum very successful writer? Fits my bill perfectly.

Young neurosurgeon Zackery Iverson has left an understaffed, under-resourced hospital and dedicated team of colleagues to return to the place where he grew up, leaving behind a broken relationship and almost all his belongings. His new workplace, the ultramodern rejuvenated regional hospital in Sterling, New Hampshire, is thriving under the leadership of his older brother Frank. State of the art equipment, a growing team of specialists, ultra modern facilities, a veritable ‘juggernaut of technology’. Sounds impressive, but where is the heart?

Zack becomes increasingly concerned about the policies and politics behind the veneer of success. How can the hospital board own so much property? Why are poor patients shipped elsewhere? Why is a very senior doctor claiming harassment and a campaign to get rid of him? Why can a young patient recall events when he should have been anaesthetised during a routine operation? Why is Zach’s new friend and colleague, Suzanne Cole, so alert and bright immediately after her surgery; and why is she behaving erratically now? And why is Zach’s own brother resurrecting childhood rivalries?

Old doubts and insecurities raise their heads. Is Zach being naive and idealistic? Is the cut and thrust of a modern medical ‘business’ simply not for him? Should he have stayed as a champion of the underprivileged and poor?

Child's disturbed bedA growing sense of dread starts to unravel in his head when he’s called in to work with 8 year old Toby Nelms, a boy who’s so disturbed he’s stopped speaking, is having nightmarish flashbacks, and is wasting away.  Why is this lad so terrified of hospitals? How does he know about Metzenbaums? – only staff working in an operating theatre would use the word. There can be only one answer: somehow Toby was awake during his surgery for an incarcerated inguinal hernia. But how could he be? And how much of his suspicions dare Zach share with Toby’s desperate mother?

Could some of his colleagues be monsters masquerading as caring physicians and nurses? Is his own brother somehow implicated? Just where do the ethical boundaries begin and end?

Yep, I’d say this fits all of the above criteria. Thrilling! Unputdownable. I’m hooked, reading long after I should be tucked up asleep.

FlashbackBut I note something else important. There are lots of characters and subplots in this story – hard to keep a handle on initially, but gradually they become rounded out and emerge as … the shrewd controlling judge … the anaesthetist with a secret unsavoury history … the cardiologist with an abusive ex-husband and a young daughter … the nanny who has served her family faithfully but is now threatened with a nursing home … the nurse who can be bought … the shallow secretary chosen for her loose morals and voluptuous body. This steady drip of detail from various sources adds greatly to the suspense. You’re left wondering just who is the real baddie in all of this? who else is implicated in some way? Everybody seems to have mixed motives, vulnerabilities and dubious characteristics. And the links between them grow ever more tortuous. A tall order to achieve that level of complex interweaving. Could I manage it? Right at this moment I’m not at all sure I could.

Having a take-home message is less of a problem to me. In this case: how far would any of us go to uphold our personal moral standards? What if it became a question of love and loyalty over rules and systems? Familiar? Yep. My kind of territory.

OK. Let’s try again with another novel, another author … a medical mystery-cum-thriller, Damaged by Pamela Callow. Again stories within stories, lots of intertwined characters with mixed agendas, false trails. A blond dog-walker, a lawyer with a haunting past, an inscrutable judge with a murdered daughter, a rejected policeman … By now I’m hugely impressed by authors who can hold all this together so successfully.

One thing is definitely in my favour. Medicine’s a hotbed of ethical quandaries – that’s why I became a novelist in the first place, of course. All those folders containing ideas and research material amassed over the years? Ideal material for intrigue and mystery and dark deeds.

So, what do I think now? Well, I’m not ruling out a thriller this time around. Indeed I’m already trying to work out some kind of grid that would make my story-line work. But, boy, what an undertaking. I might be gone some time!!



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Would you believe it?

One wall of my libraryHave you ever discovered that you’ve somehow bought two copies of the same book – neither of which you’ve read? Mea culpa. Twice! Grrrrr. On both occasions I’ve sternly resolved to order my books more carefully … when I get time. But that time never seems to materialise.

So I was mightily impressed by this story I read about recently. In the tenth century, Abdul Kassam Ismael, Grand Vizier of Persia, took his library with him wherever he went so he’d always feel at home. At first I was pretty sceptical – well, how many books were there in those days? But this man had no less than 117,000 titles. It took 400 camels to carry them and would you believe it, these living shelves were trained to march in alphabetical order! Knocks our Dewey Decimal systems into a cocked hat, huh?

Since the Festival is in full swing, I’ve only had space to dip into secondhand bookshops in odd breaks between shows this week, but so far – phew! touch wood – no duplicates among my purchases. No time to read them yet though. Nor to rearrange my shelves. Ticket for excellent Fringe showToo busy being a regular Festival-goer with my grandchildren and being challenged and bowled over by other people’s amazing talent – scriptwriters, actors, musicians, dancers, artists. So much cleverness out there. Star of the show so far: Rebecca Dunn with an impeccable eighty minute monologue about her life as Lady Pamela Moore, fashion columnist and secret agent infiltrating the lives of Wallis Simpson and Edward VIII. Fantastic.

And while we’re on the subject of brilliance … Can you get your head around a mind that could conjure up something as stunning as this living sculpture (Jupiter Artland)?

Ponds and grass sculptures

Or these wonderfully evocative weeping girl statues nestling so naturally in woodland (also Jupiter Artland)?Weeping girl statueWeeping girl second statue-2

We visited this collection of amazing installations for the second time yesterday and were impressed all over again. Highly recommended.

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