Hazel McHaffie

crime fiction

Time to read …

If you don’t have time to read you don’t have the time (or tools) to write. Simple as that,’ says Stephen King.

So I felt totally vindicated taking a whole day off from writing and to lose myself in a gripping book. What a tonic! Just the inspiration I needed to help me sharpen up my own current scribblings.

It’s vintage Coben. All the trademark ingredients are there: clever dialogue, legal shenanigans, sinister happenings, flawed characters, convoluted plots, switchback thrills, a smattering of homespun psychology, and of course, a thought-provoking moral in the tale. Brilliant.

The book? Caught by Harlan Coben.

This one includes a missing teenager; discredited cops; an entrapment; vigilantes bent on revenge; scandals and sackings; broken marriages; tragic histories; conspiracies; trumped up charges and ruinous accusations. And it keeps you guessing till the very end. The usual vast cast includes a high percentage of damaged people with colourful back-stories and fascinating peccadilloes. Enough brilliance to make us lesser mortals decide to give up the unequal struggle!

And of course, Coben’s mastery of engaging dialogue and deft outlines make it a joy to read. Who else would capture the essence of characters, the feel of a moment, with such joyous economy, originality and humour?

How about this for a lawyer?

Flair Hickory, celebrity counsel for the defense … wore his customary gray suit with thick pink stripes, pink shirt, pink tie. He crossed the room in a way that might be modestly described as ‘theatrical,’ but it was more like something Liberace might have done if Liberace had the courage to be really flamboyant …
He strolled across the courtroom as though it were a catwalk in Milan …
His voice not only dripped sarcasm but seemed to have spent days marinated in it …
He took flamboyant and brought it to a whole new level. But now, on the other side of these questions, she could truly see how flamboyance could be close bedfellows with ruthlessness.

He’s only in the frame for a few pages but his larger than life presence lingers in the imagination, his peacock posturing, razor tongue, mocking innuendos and penetrating cross-questioning. We’re as much in awe of him as the cringing witness.

Or what about this for a teenager’s room?

Her room, like Ryan’s, looked as if someone had strategically placed a stick of dynamite in the drawers, blowing them open; some clothes sprawled dead on the floor, others lay wounded midway, clinging to the armoire like the fallen on a barricade before the French Revolution.

Resonates with us all, doesn’t it?

‘Uniquely portable magic,’ to quote Stephen King again. Enjoyed the more for coinciding with the advent of summer after a long hard winter – 5C to 21C almost overnight! I read half of Caught in the garden and felt doubly invigorated for that.

 

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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 fair isle 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 2ply 100% Shetland wool.

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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Stocktaking

As one year ends and an unknown year opens up in front of us, it’s a good time to take stock, isn’t it? But it’s all too easy to get things out of perspective.

SadNow, you (probably) and I (definitely) both know that self doubt and angst are a recognised occupational hazard for writers – well, accumulated humiliations and rejections of various kinds, and multiple petty blows to the ego, don’t exactly put one in the party spirit, do they? So it maybe won’t come as any surprise to you when I confess that I was feeling rather despondent recently about the constant struggle to achieve sales targets and get the latest book noticed.

Bucked upBut then I found Melissa Benn‘s article: Survival of the fittest, in Mslexia. What a tonic. She knows personally all about the agonies of tiny queues for signings, poor reviews, miniscule audiences, patronising jibes, totally negative feedback, being ignored by the marketing department, the demise of the mid-list author, diminishment … her list is pretty exhaustive. Merely seeing these negative experiences acknowledged as commonplace takes some of the sting out of them. And her encouraging tips on how to survive were balm to my soul. As she says: ‘the most significant difference between a writer and a would-be-writer is simple bloody-minded persistence.’ Persistence? Yep, that I can do.

ChastenedI was also chastened. I haven’t actually suffered any public abuse or vitriol such as some of the authors she quotes have endured (not yet at any rate!) so I’m instantly berating myself for allowing lesser things to bring my spirits low. I have no right or cause to wallow in self pity. Shoulders back, head high, woman!

And then there was an interview with crimewriter, Ian Rankin. He’s in his early 50s, lives in Edinburgh, and has sold over 20 million books. He’s a success. He’s a rich man. Readers queue twice around the block to hear him speak or get his signature. Our paths cross occasionally but he’s in a completely different league from me. He certainly wouldn’t recognise me if we met in the street, I’m sure. However, it took him a good 14 years before ‘money became a happy factor‘ in his writing career. And behind his present fame and fortune lies private tragedy. He says he’d give all the money he has so that his second son, Kit, didn’t have the severe disability he has (Angelman Syndrome).

HopefulThis little story puts my anxieties about book-related issues into a much healthier context. Do sales figures really matter in the bigger scheme of things?  Does anyone suffer because I overlooked a typo? Who benefits if I lose sleep anticipating possible criticism or a vanishing audience? I recall Alison Baverstock saying, think in terms of gaining one reader at a time and appreciate each book sold, rather than feeling crushed by grandiose expectations. By now my mental shake is having an effect.

Sanguine againAnd then some lovely people booked me for various author appearances. Thank you, guys! Flagging morale significantly boosted. See, it doesn’t take much to reverse the trend.

Besides, it being a new year, I’ve resolved not to try not to get myself ridiculously overloaded with busyness, anyway. As Ruby Wax (who, don’t you know, holds an MA in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy from Oxford and knows a thing or two about mental health) said in an end of December interview for the Telegraph on the secret to a happy new year: ‘happiness is not a shiny 2014 diary already clogged with meetings, phone catch-ups and must-do errands‘: we’re happier when we’re calmer and taking life steadier. That’s a pretty good idea to hang onto as we launch into a new year, I reckon. Me more than most.

So here’s to 2014 … and more peace and giving and understanding and loving in the world. I hope it’s a terrific year for you: healthy, happy, productive and contented.

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