Hazel McHaffie

Killing Me Gently

Calling all would-be crime writers

Anything that advocates books and reading gets my vote. And we writers are trained to look out for those anniversaries and special commemorative dates which might be useful hooks. Unsurprisingly, then, certain days this past week jumped out at me.

World Book Day was on 7 March, the day before International Women’s Day. Plenty of people and publications and organisations jumped on the bandwagon, with the usual plethora of articles and events. Quite rightly so. Universal appeal. Books open the mind … and transport … and educate … and improve the ability to empathise … and … but you know all that.

Did you know, though, how often The Big Issue extols the benefits of reading? Impressively often, actually. Over the years, as part of their mission to ‘dismantle poverty through creating opportunity‘, they’ve championed many causes: better literacy, keeping libraries open, tax freedoms for independent bookshops, reading lists, more book reviews, reading for pleasure for children, taking books into prisons … to name but a few. So, again unsurprisingly, this special edition devotes a large part of its pages to literary matters as its nod in the direction of the official World Book Day.

What’s more, this week they also launch a competition to find a new crime writer. Ambitious, huh? And no lightweight tokenism, either; there’s a two-book deal with HarperCollins for the winner – not to be sniffed at. They’re looking for ‘heart-stopping writing and nail-shredding suspense’. Any takers? Hats off to The Big Issue, I say. Most of us probably buy it to support their  efforts to drive social change, but it’s worth much more than a toss straight into the recycling box. As well as the competition details, for example, there’s a fascinating interview with Tim Waterstone who founded the biggest high street bookchain we know so well today. Now there’s a man who totally loves books! Even though he grew up in a 3-book household. Given his empire today he can afford to be generous, but nontheless, I like his healthy approach to the issue of bricks-and-mortar-shop versus online: ‘If you know what you want, you’re going to go to Amazon. I do it myself numerous times a year! But we all know online can’t replicate the same feeling of pleasure you get in a great bookshop.’ Well said, that man. And let’s support the independent bookstores in particular who don’t have all Waterstone’s advantages.

As for my own writing, well, I’m at the last-revisions-before proof-reading stage with Killing me Gently – when I’m not hurtling up and down the country, that is. Crazy month, chez nous. Must crack on …

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Parallels

A long time ago – 12 April last year, to be precise – I showed you the beginnings of a new project to create a fair-isle jacket using authentic Shetland Island techniques and wool. Progress has been slow because it could only be knitted with full concentration on the task; not the kind of easy creativity to accompany reading or watching TV.

Well, it’s now finished.

And I’m very conscious that, as at the beginning, it has continued to be a kind of allegory for my writing. All the colours (in this case 15 different shades) have to be in the right place at the right time, just as plot threads do.

Any loose ends must be tucked in neatly so there are no stray strands anywhere – that task alone took weeks of painstaking work.

The patterns must align and form a cohesive whole. No one must be able to see the workings.

And the end result stands or falls on the overall effect.

Interestingly the book has taken rather longer than the knitting, and certainly far more hours, but, whilst I’m confident the jacket will attract lots of comments about the time, effort, skill involved, I’m equally sure that few, if any, will appreciate the same aspects behind Killing me Gently! And yet … I’m simply following instructions for the jacket; the novel is entirely my own design and creation. But, hey, nobody ever told us life would be fair!

I’m pleased to report that the fifth draft of Killing me Gently is shorter, tighter and more tense than version four. Both the beginning and ending have been completely re-written. All the helpful comments from my raft of critics and experts have been taken seriously and have paid dividends. The book is now within a whisker of being ready for the last (I hope!) round of critical comments, inching inexorably towards that day when I say it’s mature enough to leave the nest for good. Maybe the day for wearing that Shetland jacket, huh?!

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Frozen in time

I’ve been to a very dark place – psychologically as well as physically – for the sake of my art this week. Mostly readers never know the agony and ecstasy behind a book, so I thought I’d give you a glimpse into what’s going on behind the scenes with Killing me Gently.

Come with me and let your imagination take over.

Imagine a distraught young woman careering along an unlit muddy path beside a fast-flowing river at 3am on a freezing February morning.

It’s inky black everywhere. Unseen branches reach out and tangle with her hair; ivy and exposed roots lie in wait at her feet. She slips and slides in the mud. Each heaving breath tears at her throat and lungs.

After a while the roar of the water cascading over rocks lures her closer, blocking out the echo of the relentless screaming that drove her to run away. She climbs onto the low stone wall and leans over, oblivion beckoning seductively. Will she …. won’t she …?

Now imagine an elderly woman scrambling through that same path, twilight enfolding her, sensation ebbing from her toes and fingers.

Her mind too is seething, watching the power of that relentless water … imagining the force … feeling the despair in that young woman’s heart. Picturing the growing horror of being disorientated, alone, lost … knowing not a single soul knows where she is.

That’s where you’d have found me on Tuesday evening this week. Consolidating the opening chapter of my current novel. Immersing myself in the horror. Feeling it killing me gently!

This is easily the scene’s tenth version, but I think …. I hope … I believe … it’s now almost there. Immediate. Setting a scene. Capturing key elements. Hinting sufficiently to draw the reader in. Making them ask … How desperate is this young woman? What is she running from? What has driven her beyond endurance? Will she slide into that abyss? Who has she left behind?

I’m not alone in revising and revisiting and re-editing my introduction endlessly. We all know the importance of the beginning of a story; no one more than an author who has to pitch to an agent/publisher! But once again the trick lies in deciding when it’s good enough. Going to the river, experiencing its reality, feeling spooked, has helped me towards that decision.

And for me, there’s a purpose as well as a limit to the psychological damage!

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Multi-tasking

I love it when the writing involves solid thinking time. This week the brain’s been working overtime during the night, but I’ve been able to mull over new ideas and possibilities while outwardly tramping in the glorious autumn scenery – simultaneously improving physical fitness and mental spark, and making the most of the light and warmth before winter grabs us by the scruff … yep, they say it’s imminent!

Somehow bright sunshine transforms the view, doesn’t it? and visiting the same place – Penicuik House in Midlothian – on two different days, paid dividends. The 18th century Palladian mansion is a ruin (albeit a very elegant one), destroyed by a fire in 1899, but the grounds are open to the public and the numerous walks are gorgeous at this time of year.

So a few cogitations gleaned from my wanderings …

I’m trying to provide more contrast in my prose – hard lines against the softer aspects, darkly sinister against lightly optimistic. Outwardly the Morgan family have everything … but something is very wrong in their household. Family, professionals, friends are wanting to see the best side of their privilege, but the safety of a baby is at stake here. That conflict/contrast was epitomised in the fabulous colours and outlines in the grounds of Penicuik House.

The storyline needs to beckon the reader on, like these alluring pathways, seducing us with suspected horror, false security. It’s not just the baby’s welfare we’re concerned about here; a marriage is in jeopardy, professional relationships are threatened. But we have to care enough in the first place to stick with the players in this drama, to creep right into their lives, to root for them.

The foreground action needs to have a coherent backstory that rings true but doesn’t intrude. We’re watching the principals but we want to believe in their context, understand why they’re kicking up the leaves, keeping their backs to the light, creating long shadows, hiding things from us.

And that backcloth too, needs to be intriguing enough to draw us in. At once credible but intriguing. And maybe just a bit scary.

After the second long tramp, I was certainly seeing light at the end of my literary tunnel. It may get dark and ominous as we sink down into the psychological mire, but there has to be hope of some kind of resolution to pull us along. The sun goes in every now and then, leaving us floundering in the darkness before we can see our way out of the quandary they present us with. But we’re inching closer to the light all the time.

Phew! Exhausting stuff mentally. But exhilarating physically.

A good week overall on the writing front, then. And more encouraging news … that Sunday BBC psychological thriller I mentioned a few weeks ago – The Cry? … it doesn’t steal my thunder at all. Wahey! No need to re-write my tale. But after watching/analysing/critiquing each episode carefully, I realise that, in a film, so much is conveyed by the actors’ skill – a look, a pause, the tone of a voice. With Killing me Gently, I have to imagine the camera rolling but capture the tension and emotion in my words on the page.

Oh, I nearly forgot … I’ve also finished writing the first draft of the annual McHaffie Christmas story-play. Which reinforces what I’ve just said. The story will be enhanced, and brought to life, indeed, immortalised, by the expressions, the voices, the actions of the players: my grandchildren. They will undoubtedly steal the show! As they should.

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Nothing new under the sun

Big sigh!

Publishing anything – a letter/article in a newspaper, a research paper, a novel – is always subject to time. Will someone else pip me to the post? Will I appear to be a plagiarist rather than an original thinker? Two incidents have stirred that old anxiety for me recently.

It’s a while since I read a novel which explores an ethical issue in my own sphere of interest, so I was intrigued by Susan Lewis’ 2017 book, Hiding in Plain Sight, especially when I kept reading and found her story overlaps with no less than three of my own novels.

* One of her principal characters is Penny Lawrence who led a disturbed childhood before running away aged 14. In Over my Dead Body (2013), I tried to get inside the mind of a child who struggles to relate to her family, and a mother who agonises over her own response to her child.
* Penny Lawrence gets involved in the world of selling babies to infertile couples. I asked a lot of what-if questions about surrogate pregnancy in Double Trouble (2005).
* When Penny Lawrence meets up with her mother and sister almost thirty years later, all three are forced to face the fractures in their family lives foursquare. In my current novel, Killing me Gently, I’m delving into the effect parents’ and children’s behaviour and emotions can have on family cohesion and integrity.

And curiously one of the titles I considered for my book was Killing in Plain Sight.

But there the similarities end. Susan Lewis’ take on these issues, her writing style, her whole approach, are completely different from mine. Character and plot tend to be far darker, the psyche more tortured, the secret lives more sinister. She’s quick to reassure us that her books are not intended to leave us feeling frightened or miserable but they do dabble in disturbing and sensitive subjects – in this case family tragedy and mental illness. I too deal with sensitive and troubling issues, I have even been known to end on a sad note, but I do aim to have redeeming features in my characters, and to leave lots of breathing space for the reader to form his/her own opinion on the rights and wrongs of what happens.

There’s ample room for both of us to be writing on these issues, I think.

So hopefully this same maxim will apply in the case of the new Sunday evening drama, The Cry, which started this week on BBC1. I couldn’t believe my eyes when the trailers started just after I finished my latest edit of Killing me Gently. Difficult to predict the degree of overlap at the moment but there are uncanny similarities.

I’ve never seen so many flash-backs and flash-forwards before, but we know this is about a young mum (played by Jenna Coleman aka Queen Victoria!) struggling with a fractious baby who vanishes mysteriously, and now the mum’s on trial for something baby-related. The series will be finished before my book comes out, so if push comes to shove I can always tweak my own plot if necessary, but of course, I devoutly hope it won’t be. Months, if not years, of blood, sweat and tears have gone into creating and realising this psychological thriller, getting it balanced, making the point.

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To act or not to act

Remember last week I mentioned the cases of child abuse or mistreatment that go to court? That got me thinking.

I’ve been creeping uncomfortably close to this area in my current novel, Killing me Gently – the delicate relationship being built up in the early weeks and months following the birth of a new baby and mysterious things happening which perplex the professionals responsible for ensuring everyone’s safety. We know that some children can be very difficult to love; some appear to reject overtures of maternal affection; some parents struggle to bond with their child for assorted reasons; some parents actually harm and even kill their children. Cruelty and rejection can come in many guises (as I’ve had brought home to me recently in the experiences foster carer Cathy Glass recounts), but so sensitive and nuanced is this whole topic that primary care teams and social services can be unsure of how best to support such families, when to intervene, when indeed to remove the child from the biological family.

Perhaps it was this preoccupation in my writing life that reminded me of a recent news report that I filed away for reference purposes. At the beginning of August a serious case review found that professionals had missed a series of opportunities to save the life of a little girl, Elsie Scully-Hicks, in Cardiff. Pause for a moment and just look at that gorgeous little smiling face … And then take in the fact that this precious life was snuffed out before she even saw her second birthday.

Elsie had been placed with fitness instructor, Matthew Scully-Hicks, and his husband, Craig, at the age of 10 months, and following due process, formally adopted by them just two weeks before her death aged 18 months. The couple were described as well educated and articulate, and highly regarded by each of the involved agencies as good positive parents. They’d already successfully adopted an older child. Indeed, such was their standing that a catalogue of significant bruises and fractures were dismissed as normal childhood accidents (as Elsie’s adopted father alleged). There was indeed a conspicuous lack of professional curiosity about each of her many injuries.

In reality the stay-at-home dad was struggling with her care – he described her as ‘Satan in a babygro’. And when she was just 18 months old, he shook her so violently before throwing her to the floor, that he killed her. Last year he was jailed for life after being convicted of murder at Cardiff Crown Court.

The agencies concerned have promised to learn lessons from this review, but of course, nothing can bring little Elsie back. No one involved in this case will ever forget her. I rather suspect some professionals will never forgive themselves. I shudder to think what it’s like to live with these weighty responsibilities; just getting inside the skin of health visitors and social workers grappling with such judgements in my fictional world is more than enough for me – and I know the outcome! Pause for a moment and think of all those courageous people engaged in making these momentous decisions every day. And living with the consequences. I salute them.

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Bingo!

It’s some time since I could give you concrete evidence of progress with the current novel: Killing Me Gently, but this week marks a major MAJOR milestone.

4.15am on Saturday morning
I’m up and onto the computer.

Peace reigns; the brain is whirling, the fingers flying.

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10am on Saturday morning
The last 3500 words are written … culminating in THE END.

First draft ………. COMPLETED! Wahey!

Phew!! And …breathe! More so with this one – a thriller – than most. It has all come together. Characters have dragged me off piste; events have taken me down unexpected paths; but we have all come through to a finale.

Of course, there are weeks and weeks of work still ahead, refining, editing, slashing, tightening. Increasing the pace, sharpening the dialogue, quirkifying the people, authenticating the detail. But that first draft is like a kiddie’s sandcastle. All the sand has been dug up, piled in one place, roughly in shape. It looks like a castle but the turrets and crests aren’t defined, the drawbridge is wont to collapse, the flag’s at half-mast. Now the real artistry can begin, but hopefully there’ll be no more scavenging, no more turning stones to see what’s underneath.

Another task still to come is to make contact with professionals – social workers, health visitors, GPs, paediatricians, psychiatrists. To present scenarios from the book to them; seeking their expertise as to plausibility and accuracy. If X does this and this, what are the implications for M and R and P? What would happen next in real life? Is my scenario possible? That’s a very exciting stage. Discussing the characters with other people makes them even more real.

And the title …? I’m veering towards Killing me Kindly … or perhaps …?? Everything’s up in the air. But I feel liberated. I have space to breathe. Space to stroll on the real sand, maybe even dig in it with grandchildren!

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State of Wonder

It’s hard to catalogue my progress with writing Killing me Gently without betraying its secrets, but safe to say it’s almost writing itself these days. I’m poised on a knife edge, living the tension, peering over the cliff edge, fearing the worst. In a perpetual state of wonder at the way the brain works, unravelling a stream of words and ideas that other brains will understand and react to, each in their own idiosyncratic way.

Ann Patchett‘s State of Wonder has inspired me to constantly revisit my own prose and try to make it sing like hers. The story is remarkable enough – reading rather like a PhD student expanding her research into fertility and malaria in the Brazilian jungle to inform a novel – but the way it’s written is the most striking thing for me. Enviably beautiful.

Dr Annick Swenson is an eccentric scientist who, for decades, has been studying one of the remotest tribes in the rain-forest. The pharmaceutical company who sponsor her are naturally keen to get progress reports on the drug she’s meant to be developing, but she not only keeps her work shrouded in mystery, she sets up an elaborate ring of protection against being found herself. A mild-mannered lab researcher, Dr Anders Eckman is sent out to investigate but all that returns is a curt letter from Dr Swenson saying that he has died of a fever, his body taken into the jungle by the Lakashi people and given a Christian burial. And no, she didn’t witness this herself.

Dr Marina Singh – Anders’ colleague and Dr Swenson’s former student – is sent out to retrace his steps and bring back more details for his grieving widow and three young sons. It’s a heart stopping journey into the dark heart of an unknown place, all her possessions being lost on the way, and no assurance of any answers. But what she finds is so much more terrifying than anything she anticipated: naturally occurring drugs that blow her mind, a tribe whose female fertility reaches into the seventies (the mind boggles!), a people immune to malaria, a scientist whose dedication to knowledge takes her way beyond the accepted limits of ethical practice, ancient rituals and old hostilities, and a completely different version of events surrounding her friend and colleague Anders. She is challenged beyond her worst nightmares … battling with a giant anaconda strangling a small deaf boy; resurrecting old medical skills; choosing between one human friend’s wellbeing and that of another; weighing up her chances of happiness against a new set of values; setting humanity against science; deciding just how much of the truth can ever be told.

And Patchett weaves a devilishy intriguing scientific plot (which alone must have taken months of painstaking research), through a maze of profound philosophical notions and disturbing ethical arguments, without missing a beat in the hearts of a cast of fabulously colourful characters, and maintaining a wonderfully fluid linguistic style that carries something of the rhythms of the jungle. At first you feel the steady pulsing of masterly prose, your feet firmly on the ground. You stand uncertainly for a short hiatus listening for the tom-toms, wondering where she will take you, if the story will indeed take you anywhere. Then the drumbeat changes, gathering a momentum and power that builds up tension, twists and turns like a mighty river sweeping through tangled undergrowth in uncharted territory. It winds itself around you feverishly, like the lethal coils of a snake, thrashing this way and that, constricting your breathing, until you reach the unexpected and emotional crescendo of the final scene.

A fascinating book. I’m not surprised it was shortlisted for the Orange Prize.

 

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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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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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