Hazel McHaffie

missing persons

Serendipidy

It’s odd how often, when you’ve got something on your mind, lots of things feed into it, isn’t it?

My own current novel centres around the loving but dysfunctional Grayson family. Dad, Victor, has vanished and his neatly folded clothes are found on a beach where he used to take his young daughter, India, to play. The police are confident he took his own life. Case closed. So how can it be that India is convinced she heard his voice on Kings Cross station seven years later? And if he is still alive, what possible reason can he have to remain away from the daughter he loved so devotedly?

I guess that makes me super-sensitive to stories where people vanish without trace at the moment. But it was only when I was trying to devour all my Diane Chamberlain novels before Christmas that this one came to my attention: The Silent Sister.

The Silent SisterTeenager Lisa MacPherson is a prodigiously gifted violinist whose talent is fostered by the best mentors money can buy. She has the world at her feet. So why did she suddenly disappear? Who was the mysterious teacher who wrecked her ability? What made her shoot her first teacher dead? Did she really choose to commit suicide in a frozen lake rather than go to prison? And if not, where is she now?

Her sister Riley, who was two at the time of Lisa’s disappearance, has grown up believing Lisa was so depressed she couldn’t go on; that’s what she was always told. It’s not till she’s grown up and sorting out the family house after her father’s death, that she stumbles on newspaper cuttings that tell a very different tale, and she begins to unravel a series of clues darker and more tortured than she ever bargained for. Her whole life seems to have been built upon lies.

The plot is well structured and certainly keeps the pages turning. Plenty of twists in the tale; plenty of intriguing characters; plenty of secrets and deceptions. And true to her background as a psychotherapist, Chamberlain delves into troubled minds and convoluted thinking with consummate ease. The needles flashed and the Christmas charity knitting grew apace as I flew through this book.

And now the season of concerts and school productions and dance shows is upon us. There’s something rather glorious about the spirit that drives teachers/church leaders to produce these events year after year in spite of the dire happenings in the world as well as on our doorstep – this time terrorist attacks in sundry places; floods of unheard of ferocity; Britain sending planes to bomb Syria, the Forth Road Bridge closed for weeks causing chaos on the roads in this area … the list goes on and on. And yet these innocent voices carol ‘Peace on Earth, Good will to all men.’ Bless them.

Dancing on the EdgeI know some people will scoff, despairing of a God in all this chaos. It’s the age old conundrum: if he exists, why does he allow such suffering? Which brings me to another book I’ve just finished reading: Richard Holloway‘s Dancing on the Edge. It’s not looking at this question per se, but it is addressed to the doubting, the wounded, the excluded, the escapees who feel marginalised and disenchanted. I don’t always agree with Holloway’s thinking – goodness, the ex-bishop doesn’t always agree with himself! – but in this book he talks a lot of sense: compassion is a more important response to human behaviour than contempt. Faith should be a way of living with questions without being afraid. If only there was more compassion in the world and people could learn to tolerate difference, the world would be a safer, happier place. Keep singing, children!

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Masterclass

OK, as you now know, my latest book, Inside of Me, includes three missing teenagers and a middle aged man who vanishes without trace, so when I picked up Not in the Flesh by Ruth Rendell and read the back cover, I thought, ahah! this is about several missing persons, I’ll see how she handles it. She died just a few weeks ago, so it seems fitting to linger a while on her writing.

Rendell was, of course, a queen of crime writing, massively decorated and feted; a household name indeed. And her policemen, Reg Wexford and Mike Burden, and the admirable Dora Wexford, are widely known and loved from the TV adaptations. George Baker IS the chief inspector! But that potential for distortion notwithstanding, several interesting facets jumped out at me as I read.

First, an author of Rendell’s standing can get away with a whole lot more than I ever could. For example, she introduces a huge cast of characters in quick succession – almost 40 within the first 30 pages! We lesser mortals are advised to go very cautiously allowing time for characters to embed themselves in the mind of the reader.Master crimewriter

Then there’s the difference between a stand alone book and a series featuring the same characters. Wexford has all the advantages of being an old friend, a rounded person, reliable and constant. We know instantly if his behaviours are consistent, his comments his own. He really would say, A body illicitly interred is a body unlawfully killed. In my stand alone books there’s much more work to be done to establish a three dimensional believable person in a shorter time frame.

Years ago, when I was in search of an agent, one wrote back to me ‘You need to forget your formidable academic background‘. I was reminded of this each time I encountered erudite references in Not in the Flesh. But of course, Rendell uses them judiciously. A brain-box character can drop in a comment about the word ‘lady‘ coming from the Anglo-Saxon ‘lafdig’ meaning ‘she who makes bread’, leaving an ardent feminist policewoman to register strong objections to the use of this title – and it’s perfectly plausible and appropriate to include. It’s not what you know, it’s how you use that knowledge that matters. And clearly I didn’t get this right when I sent out my early work.

It gave me a lovely warm feeling to find an unusual shared moment in Rendell’s work and my own writing. She uses a quote (often attributed to King Louis XVII) which I used a few weeks ago in my story for the grandchildren from the mouth of a Duke who was always quoting other people to make his own points: Punctuality is the politeness of kings. Strange coincidence. Only in Rendell’s case she deliberately misquotes it: Unpunctuality is the impoliteness of policemen. I simply Googled ‘quotes about punctuality’ and up it came. I wonder if she did too.

Happily, as a result of my little masterclass with Baroness Rendell of Barberg, I don’t feel the need to change or add anything to Inside of Me. But that will all change I’m sure when my expert critics come back to me with their comments.

While I await their feedback I’m running down this interesting checklist: Writers' checklist

Hmmm!

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Inside of Me: a sneak preview

It occurred to me during the week that many of you are people who’ve read some or all of my novels to date. I should therefore do you the courtesy of giving you a priority glimpse into the latest offering, Inside of Me, currently being critiqued by my first raft of advisors.

Inside of Me manuscriptFor your exclusive scrutiny (!) then, an outline of the theme and the plot – never before seen!

The theme: Body image. Several of the characters in Inside of Me struggle to find their own ways of dealing with or escaping from problems related to their perceptions of themselves, sometimes with devastating consequences for their families and friends. Now, I might as well come clean and tell you that I personally have long-standing issues with this topic, so it’s been quite a troubling experience immersing myself in its various manifestations. What’s more, my recent illness (which incapacitated me for six months) added yet another dimension when I realised how much of my own perceived identity is wrapped up in what I do and what I achieve – for part of this time NOTHING!

The plot: Two teenage girls vanish. One is found dead, the other is still missing without trace. Then a Scottish nurse, Victor Grayson, 36, vanishes leaving behind a neat pile of his clothes on the beach, a wife and an 8 year old daughter. The police presume he took his own life; his wife, Tonya, secretly fears he may have been involved in the disappearance of the teenagers; his daughter, India, hangs on ferociously to her picture of her dad as her best friend through the haze of faulty memories and half truths.

Roll forward seven years, and India, now 15, thinks she hears his voice 500 miles away, on King’s Cross station. At the same time a third teenager vanishes. Events – both in the Grayson family and the police department – develop new momentum. India has anorexia and her mother believes she’s hallucinating from hunger. But India’s best friend takes up the case, and when the third missing teenager is seen at the cinema with an unknown person the race is on to find her before anything bad happens to her.

Exactly what is the connection between the missing schoolgirls, a Scottish nurse, a London florist, and two youngsters with eating disorders?

Concentration chez moi is on the next stages of the publishing process but this lovely weather is tempting me out and about as well. How fabulous Scotland is – hard to believe crimes can be committed amidst such beauty; and individuals be swallowed up by their own distorted perceptions.

Glendoick GardensPoppy

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Back in the saddle

How do you pick up the reins of novel-writing after a 6 months break? Hmmm. I don’t know. Never done it before. So, a new challenge this week.

I was 34,000 words into my latest novel by last October when my heart suddenly decided to throw tantrums and I got sidetracked by disability and hospital appointments and assorted treatments. The plot was pretty much decided, the principal characters fully formed. But there was one narrative thread that I’d only sketchily researched: a young father’s mysterious disappearance. How would his family react? How would they start to track him down? Would the police get involved? Would a private investigator take such a case? How complicated would the search be? Could he vanish without trace? What if it was actually a suicide? … … …

Victor’s disappearance has been lurking somewhere in the deep recesses of my drugged mind all these weeks; but I’ve been powerless to pursue him. Rust and moss have gathered; neurones slowed. Now, post successful treatment, might be the very time to drag these questions to the forefront and get down to the real process of untangling answers. Hopefully coaxing brain, hand and heart back into writerly routines in the process.

As a first step, a few months ago, I’d bought a book on the subject in the Howdunit Series: Missing Persons: A writer’s guide to finding the lost, the abducted and the escaped. It’s written by Fay Faron who, in real life, runs a detective agency in San Francisco. She’s the author of various manuals and columns on the subject, but has also penned a work of fiction herself – ideal credentials for my purpose, you’d think. She should know what I don’t know I need to know as well as knowing what I know I don’t know!

Howdunit text

Off I trotted into the sunshine to see what she could teach me for my novel. Well, come on. Don’t rush me out of the lolling life too quickly. Sudden shocks aren’t good for dodgy hearts, you know!

I’m soon immersed …

What a readable book, well-written, full of anecdotes and facts and humour. Nice short subsections, clearly signposted. Ideal. The trusty notepad is soon covered in scribbles; hints and tips to myself. Ideas to give my story depth and authenticity.

Then it’s hotfoot back to the computer to plug the notes in at relevant points in the text. Now all I have to do is re-read the preceding sections and off I go again. Writing! Ahhhh. Feels like coming home after a prison sentence. And – better still, I’ve acquired sufficient distance from my prose to be able to edit ruthlessly. I discard pet phrases with gay abandon, lose whole chunks of unnecessary material, and then get stuck into the next chapter. Hmmmmm. Not quite as speedy and fluent as I’d hoped, but, hey, it’s a start. I’m back in the saddle. First re-learn how to trot again. Next week’s soon enough to try a gallop.

 

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