Hazel McHaffie

Killing Me Gently

Out of left field

Well, this was a first, and it taught me a useful lesson.

I’m a great believer in thorough preparation. Whatever the occasion. Could be a sign of insecurity … or obsessive tendencies … or whatever, I don’t know. But I need to feel in command of the situation, in order to relax into the actual event. When it comes to speaking appointments, I do my homework, try to be totally to grips with my material, have a clear structure and aim in my head, blend humour into serious material, and make sure I’m respecting the parameters of the commission. Even so, mishaps do happen. I remember once, years ago, being unable to use my slides at a big conference because the feet on their carousel had melted! Ever after I carried my own. And another occasion where a lady in the audience became unconscious and caused a major incident.  But this week a very different unexpected event came out of left field.

As part of Book Week Scotland, I’d been invited to our local library to talk about my writing life and latest publication. Our local librarians are lovely enthusiastic people, so thank you, I should enjoy doing that. I love the fact that libraries use my work in their bookclubs. And it should be a breeze – if I hadn’t got that information at my fingertips, I was in the wrong job! Well, it should have been …

First hiccup – a streaming cold out of the blue two days before it. I went into overdrive with medicaments and positive thinking, snatched sleep and distraction therapies. I’d protect my throat by keeping silent most of the day beforehand. I’d take the car to the library instead of irritating my fragile chest with cold air. So, when I stood up to speak, no one would have suspected the battle I’d had to reach that point.

Next hiccup – a mere five minutes in, the fire alarms started up. Speaking above that level of decibels would strain the hardiest of vocal chords! But the librarian indicated to continue, it’d just be a false alarm, and went out to investigate … only to return with the instruction the building was to be evacuated, the fire brigade were on their way. Freezing temperatures outside, chatting in the icy air … I could feel my raw throat and chest palpably tightening. It took a further twenty minutes for the fire crew to arrive, pin down the problem, and let us back in. Twenty minutes to outwardly respond to conversation with all those hardy souls prepared to wait and not abandon ship (all of them!), whilst inwardly revising the structure and content of my talk. Mercifully it was completely without notes or slides so there was no need to do anything physical, and since no one else knew what I’d planned to cover, they were quite unaware of the mental gymnastics to accommodate the changed time frame.

A salutary lesson for me: you can never be totally prepared for all eventualities; accept vicissitudes with good grace. And useful reinforcement of a piece of advice given to me very early on in my speaking career: ‘if you’re feeling out of your depth, at least look the part!’

 

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Publication at last!

Wahey! It’s finally finally between covers and published and available. Phew! My eleventh novel.

As you know Killing Me Gently is something of a departure for me – a psychological thriller, and I have no idea if my regular readers will be pleased or nonplussed by the change. Several people have got in touch to say they’ve immediately ordered a copy because they ‘love thrillers’ … hmmm, but do they include this kind of thriller, I wonder? I’m hoping for lots of feedback – the honest variety, no holds barred, of course.

The story centres around a young career woman, Anya Morgan, who has it all – beauty, brains, dream home, handsome husband. And now to complete the picture, a new baby, Gypsy Lysette  … except Gypsy hasn’t read the textbooks; she doesn’t conform to Anya’s standards of perfection.

Leon Morgan is torn between supporting his paranoid wife and the demands of his job. Increasingly stressed, he starts to make mistakes, big mistakes, threatening the future of the family firm, jeopardising his marriage and his relationship with his brother.

Tiffany Corrigan to the rescue; qualified nurse, mother of three, a fount of practical wisdom. She’s a shoulder to lean on when the crises escalate … when Gypsy is admitted to hospital … when the fingers start pointing … when suspicion and jealousy widen the rift between Anya and Leon …

Then inexplicable things start to happen. Frightening things. Baby Gypsy’s life as well as Anya’s sanity are under threat. Who is responsible? The social workers and the protection team are caught on the horns of a dilemma, damned if they intervene, damned if they don’t. Will they act in time to save this family from devastating loss?

I’ve already had some lovely comments on Tom Bee’s super-special cover. That’s always a good start.

 

 

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Domestic psychological thrillers

Although I’ve read a large number of thrillers in an effort to understand the secrets and techniques that make for success, I’ve come across surprisingly few that fit more precisely into the family-based variety I’ve been trying to create myself; ‘domestic’, so-called ‘real-life’ fiction. So when I saw Until You’re Mine by Samantha Hayes in a supermarket second-hand charity corner at the weekend, I snapped it up. And I read it in two days.

I love the cover (her trademark style apparently), and the strap-line spoke to me: To create her family she will destroy yours. My kind of territory, huh?

And it got better and better the more I read about the book and its author. She’s dipped a toe in being a barmaid, a fruit picker, a private detective, a factory worker; she’s lived on a kibbutz, holidayed on Cornwall (my home county)… – a colourful life even before she took up crime writing. And in her novels she focuses on current issues, designed to challenge the reader to think, What if this happened to me or my family? Exactly what I try to do.

And indeed, Until You’re Mine bears some striking similarities to my own new novel, Killing me Gently, which becomes available for purchase this coming weekend*. Both are based around a young career woman, trying to adapt to being a mother; things clearly not being what they seem to be; threats hanging over families; marriages and relationships in peril.

In the case of Until You’re Mine, there are three principal women involved. Claudia Morgan-Brown has a history of numerous previous pregnancies all ending in miscarriages or still births – leaving her feeling ‘ an unworthy shell of a woman‘ and ‘a freak‘. Around perfect families with perfect babies ‘jealousy stuck in my craw like a bowlful of mud shoved down my throat.’ And yet her job – a job she loves – revolves around parents and children. As a social worker heading up a child protection team, she’s constantly dealing with dysfunctional, violent, abusive, disadvantaged families. Nor is she a stranger to the painful experience of removing children from their inadequate or unfit parents.

And it’s in the course of her work that she goes to check out the welfare of 2-month-old twin baby boys, Oscar and Noah Morgan, whose mother has just died of pancreatic cancer. They are being well cared for, but Claudia falls in love with their so-recently bereaved father, James, who reciprocates the emotion. ‘He was hurting. I was hurting. Together, we were mended.’ And now she’s heavily pregnant with James’ baby, but determined to keep working up till her due date and take the minimum of time off after the birth.

Husband, James, is a naval officer, a submariner, away for long stretches of time. And in reality Claudia knows very little of his past life. She does know, however, that he has inherited wealth from his first wife, enabling them to live in a huge and beautiful house, and that he has secrets about which she knows nothing. They decide to hire a live-in nanny to enable Claudia to keep doing what she’s good at.

Enter Zoe Harper, who comes with impeccable credentials, and is clearly really good with children. The twins adore her. We, however, know from the outset that Zoe isn’t what she appears to be. She lives in the ‘centre of an ever-changing lie’. We know she is preoccupied with pregnancy and babies. We know she’s recently left an intense relationship but still longs to make contact with her past. We also know she has her own agenda and is on a mission which somehow relates to counting down to the birth of Claudia’s child.

The third woman is Detective Inspector Lorraine Fisher. She’s dealing with domestic crises at home – an errant husband and a rebellious teenage daughter determined to abandon her education and career prospects, leave home and marry her boyfriend. And on the work front Lorraine is dealing with two cases of pregnant women being sliced open and left for dead. Both the victims had troubled pasts and had been in the care of social services. Both had been wanting to terminate their pregnancies early on but for some reason had not gone through with it. Both babies and the first mother have died, but the second mother has survived, and somehow the survivor is the link between the social worker, nanny and detective.

Through the eyes of all three women we inch forward towards the critical date – the birth of Claudia’s baby girl. It’s tense, gripping stuff. But the three stories simply don’t hang together. Who is to be believed? Three women desperate to become mothers. Three women juggling competing demands. Three murders already. We’re counting down the days to deadlines with huge trepidation. The suspense keeps us glued to the pages. The killer twist in the tale, when it comes, is brilliantly executed. And the last sentence is perfection.

Phew! A serendipitous find but highly recommended. And I’ll certainly be hunting down more of Samantha Hayes’ books.

* Yep, at last! We’ve had a few glitches in the publishing process this time, hopefully now ironed out. More on this next week.

 

 

 

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Allow me to introduce you …

Well, here it is, folks … the cover design for my forthcoming novel. Killing me Gently in the flesh!

This is the point at which it feels real.

Huge thanks to my faithful designer, Tom Bee. All I do is give him a synopsis of the book, a résumé of the atmosphere I want to create, and a few pointers to possible aspects of the story which we might capture, and up he comes with a selection of options. We go back and forth a little on refinements and it’s all signed and sealed. This is the sixth of my novels he’s illustrated and he’s an absolute joy to work with.

And just to give you a taster, here’s the official blurb about the story-line.

Anya Morgan has it all – beauty, brains, dream home, handsome husband, and now to complete the picture, a new baby. But Gypsy Lysette doesn’t conform to Anya’s criteria for perfection. Sleep deprived and insecure, she searches for solace and reassurance.

Leon Morgan is torn between supporting his paranoid wife and the demands of his job. Increasingly stressed he starts to make mistakes, big mistakes, threatening the future of the family firm, jeopardising their marriage.

Tiffany Corrigan to the rescue; qualified nurse, mother of three, a fount of practical wisdom. She’s a shoulder to lean on when the crises escalate … when Gypsy is admitted to hospital … when the fingers start pointing … when suspicion and jealousy widen the rift between Anya and Leon.

Then inexplicable things start to happen. Frightening things. Baby Gypsy’s life as well as Anya’s sanity are under threat. Who is responsible? And will the professionals act in time to save this family from devastating loss?

I’ll let you know when it’s ready for purchase – not long now!

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Inhabiting characters

Fragile: approach with care!

I remember going to an event years ago, where the audience walked past several actors in various poses. We were advised not to speak to them as they were already ‘in character’. And we were subsequently treated to a masterclass in how they achieved this level of identification and immersion in order to project the final images which had us mesmerised. Fascinating insights.

And I’m sure we can all appreciate how thoroughly good actors can inhabit their characters when we see the same person in completely different roles. Just think Meryl Streep – literally Oscar winning!: Mrs Thatcher in The Iron Lady,  Emmeline Pankhurst in Suffragette, Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada. She is these women for us! How does she do it? ‘Acting is not about being someone different. It’s finding the similarity in what is apparently different, then finding myself in there,’ she says. But the end result is utterly convincing on our end of the process.

Even in films where a well-known person of our time is being represented – King George VI, the Queen, Winston Churchill, Ghandi – a good actor can make us suspend disbelief by somehow capturing the essence of the character; a style of speech or dress, a gait, a look, an idiosyncratic habit. And to do that, they delve into archives, study mannerisms, learn speech patterns and dialects, anything that will increase empathy and understanding of who exactly such persons were/are. Just watch something like The Crown, The King’s Speech, The Queen, and you can see the little foibles and eccentricities that help the identification process in a huge cast of well known faces.

To an extent an author too, needs to get inside the skin of their characters, in order to make them believable and relatable. Unless we care, we don’t want to read on. In my case, I want to make them real enough for the reader also to feel their pain, empathise with their situation, identify with their challenges and choices. To ask themselves: What would I have done? With my current book, this has meant immersing myself in the psychological depths of a new mother struggling to cope; an ambitious businessman torn by divided loyalties; health care professionals grapplling with the threat of making a wrong call; a clever manipulative mind … no wonder it’s exhausting and depressing and stressful at times! Even now, when I’m reading and re-reading and reading again to make sure every dot and nuance is as good as I can make it before Killing me Gently is published. Perhaps authors too should have mentors and support networks built in to their job descriptions. And a label: Fragile: approach with care.

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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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