Hazel McHaffie

psychology

Two Little Girls

Psyching myself back into my current novel after all the excitement and busyness of the festive season, required a game plan. First, read a new-release novel from my shelves about a woman struggling to love her baby: Two Little Girls by Kate Medina. Even the cover sent a chill down my spine: a pair of tiny red sandals full of sand, lapped by the edge of the waves; the text ‘Two little girls walked to their deaths and nobody noticed …’ interspersed with the bald title. Says it all. And indeed the story includes these macabre murders, so it felt oddly serendipitous that, on the very day I read it, the BBC showed a documentary about the murders of the so-called ‘babes in the wood’, 32 years ago. Listening to the parents decades later brought home the indescribable horror these families live with daily.

And because of this reality, I felt uncomfortable seeing the novel dedicated to the author’s own two young daughters. Hmmmm.

Kate Medina has had a lifelong interest in psychology but she uses it effectively. Her characters ring true; policemen hypothesise, psychologists analyse and theorise, ordinary people don’t turn their brains inside out! The setting too, feels authentic – I know people who have a holiday home in Wittering!

We’re aware from the first few chapters that …
Laura aka Carolynn Reynolds, is the mother of a little girl found dead in the sand dunes at West Wittering beach two years ago
… she suffers from major psychiatric problems
… she’s in hiding
… her life is a tissue of lies
… her husband Roger is in on some at least of the lies
… she was tried for the murder of Zoe, the daughter she found so difficult to love
… she was acquitted because of lack of evidence
… Detective Inspector  Bobby ‘Marilyn’ Simmonds  who worked on the case at the time,  still believes she was guilty
… Dr Jessie Flynn, the psychologist Carolynn has been seeing, struggles herself with layer upon layer of psychological damage
… and Carolynn was running alone on the beach when a second little girl was murdered.

Phew! Is she guilty? Is she not? Is anyone else in danger?

Which brings me nicely to how far would my own protagonist go when her baby drives her beyond reason? And I come back to the writing with a renewed sense of what constitutes a thriller. A preparatory day well spent.

 

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Thrillers – lessons learned

OK, with a pile of thrillers of various kinds now read and analysed, I’m a bit closer to refining my own choices for the current novel. What have I decided so far?

Main narrative thread
The issue must be one I personally care about. And I need to be clear who I’m trying to appeal to. A tale of individuals seeking personal justice or dealing with their own family dramas holds my interest more than stories about money laundering or righting organisational wrongs.

Main protagonist(s)
The lead doesn’t have to be likeable but the reader must care about his/her fate so the character needs to be carefully drawn and handled, with a plausible and intriguing backstory.
His/her motivation must be worthy so readers will root for him/her.
He/she must be up against tremendous odds.

Secondary characters
Too many tangential stories and secondary characters run the risk of losing narrative tension and interest. (Or am I a wimp when it comes to holding umpteen names and storylines in my head?)

Style
Short sentences and staccato prose can help build tension but lose impact if used too often. Sentence structure, length and complexity need to be varied.
Grammatically incomplete sentences also need to be used with caution; they can hold up the pace of a story.

Action
The psychology of the characters must be authentic and plausible. (See writers like Jonathan Kellerman who’s a psychologist himself and uses a psychologist to help solve crimes, or Linda Fairstein who was a prosecutor focusing on crimes of violence against women and children and really understands police procedure.)

Accuracy
If the story includes historical reality or geographical locations, the facts must be spot on accurate.

So, with that foundation, I’m now concentrating on fleshing out the profiles of my own characters.

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Somewhere in the deep recesses

Cross It keeps cropping up, year after year, doesn’t it? – the banning of objects or activities or statements, lest certain people take offence.

‘Offensive’ includes, not just way-out books and films, but long-standing statues of the Virgin Mary/Jesus Christ/nativity scene, classics like To Kill a Mocking Bird/The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Hallowe’en, scarves, crosses, prayers, peaceable religious folk who refuse to compromise on their principles … the list goes on.

I’ve seen the hurtful effects of narrow, rigid intolerance up close, and it’s not a pretty sight. Nor is it edifying to anyone. For me it boils down to arrogance: I’m right; full stop. Ergo, everyone else who holds a different opinion is wrong. Hello? By whose divine decree? Never mind ‘your’ rights, what about those whose rights you’re denying?

There’s far too much talk of rights nowadays, in my opinion. Wow! Only last week we heard that frozen embryos are suing their mother, actress Sofia Vergara, (who?) for the right to life! They’ve even been given names – Emma and Isabella … don’t get me started!

But seriously, in the humdrum everyday world, with rights come responsibilities. And our planet would be a kinder place if everyone tried to put themselves into other people’s shoes, esteeming them as better than themselves. And adopted the ‘Judge no man till you’ve walked a mile in his moccasins‘ principle.

Why am I writing about this on a blog about ethics and books? Well, of course, kindness and justice and rights and interests and conscience all play a part in deciding what’s good and right. But something more specifically triggered these ruminations. Let me explain.

Isolation in a wheelchair I spend a lot of time listening. And over the years I’ve become increasingly aware of older people confiding that they’ve secretly had doubts about many things they were once sure about, but they haven’t liked to voice them for fear of being reprimanded/corrected or of upsetting others. And as the day of death approaches, they can be much exercised by the consequences of their wavering beliefs. What a damning indictment of the rest of us. How have we managed to create a society that means these vulnerable fellow-citizens must worry alone and afraid? And let’s not lose sight of the fact that, when you live alone, largely inactive, with few distractions, such misgivings can assume quite overwhelming dimensions.

Supportive handsAnyway, a couple of weeks ago I had an absolutely amazing conversation with a wonderful elderly lady with advancing dementia. Quite how we got onto the subject I can’t now remember – we roam from topic to topic as the mood takes us – but suddenly she was talking about assisted dying. She had a personal and an intellectual stake in the subject, but had never before talked about it (or so she alleged). Why? Because most people ‘wouldn’t be interested’ in her views, and those who would ‘might not approve’ of her position. We had a brilliant hour and a half together and I’ve seldom left a discussion on this subject more exhilarated. Deep inside this ageing brain, parts of which are definitely scrambling, was a coherent and thoughtful mind that could still argue a logical case and hold a defensible personal viewpoint. My respect and admiration for her is immense. And how sad that a beautiful intellect like that is being slowly but inexorably diminished by this disease. I am doubly resolved to keep her sparking on as many cylinders as possible for as long as it’s feasible.

Oh, and speaking of approaching death … did you know that researchers have found evidence that creative people worry less about mortality because their artistic works will live on after their demise – a kind of existential security. Well, that’s the conclusion drawn from the findings of the people at the University of Kent, reporting in the Journal of Creative Behavior, anyway. Hmmm. We’ve lost a large number of iconic figures this year, haven’t we? Were David Bowie or Leonard Cohen or Victoria Wood or Carla Lane or Ronnie Corbett comforted by the lasting cultural legacy they were going to leave behind? Did it motivate them to keep creating? Rumours abound of highly creative people being riddled with angst, frequently depressed, constantly worrying whether their next work will be a success, whether they are still up to snuff. But, hang on a minute … the Kent study wasn’t done with celebrity figures; it tested psychology students more or less inclined to creativity. So, is it a matter of degree then? OK, I’ll need to think on it. Maybe I’ll talk to my clever friend about it while I still can.

 

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A tribute to my fellow authors

6 March was World Book Day so it’s fitting that this week I should share my admiration of great authors. The sheer imagination behind their work, the persistence and diligence that brings their hard work to fruition, their impressive ability to keep me glued to their books.

To celebrate, I temporarily called a halt on those dreaded ‘anorexia books’, turning instead to some real page turners to raise my spirits and put me in the mood for some serious plotting of my own. Ah yes, and I dug out some lovely merino wool I’ve been saving for the right occasion. Mmmmm. Bliss. Close the door; shut out the world.

Books and knittingFirst up was Diane Chamberlain’s, The Lost Daughter which tells the story of a woman who, when she was sixteen, helped in a kidnap which went disastrously wrong. The girl goes on to live an exemplary adult life, but always the shadow of her past lurks menacingly above her, and when her conscience finally gets the better of her, she must decide whether to keep quiet – and risk a man’s life; or to tell all – and risk destroying her own family. This is more than a tense will-she won’t-she kind of book, Chamberlain brings her customary psychological insight and social awareness to bear in creating believable characters who are dealing with extraordinary situations. What’s more, it has a happier ending than I was steeling myself for. A bonus!

Next came Tess Gerritsen’s Bloodstream. Just in the first few chapters we have the massacre of a family, a mysterious shooting in the woods, the discovery of a human femur, a man having an epileptic fit, a schoolboy running amok killing his teacher, a doctor with a haunted past, a policeman with a drunken wife, and skullduggery in the hospital labs. Phew! What links all these people? Holding all these disparate strands together is a masterly feat in itself. ‘Last week, Satan arrived in the buccolic town of Tranquillity, Maine …’ writes a local reporter. Guaranteed to stir up fear and trouble, you might think. But violence of a particularly vicious nature has erupted in this town, loving children are turning into ugly strangers – and history is repeating itself. Decades ago, other young people also turned into killers. Why? The new doctor in Tranquillity, Dr Claire Elliot, is in a race against time to uncover the reason before anyone else dies, and before she loses her only son, or her own life.

The knitting growsDeborah Lawrenson’s The Lantern was another intriguing read with it’s own hauntings. (Indeed, curiously enough, there were several common elements between it and Bloodstream.) Unsophisticated Eve falls in love with an older man, Dom, and their whirlwind romance leads them to a rundown but beautiful house in  Province. But as summer turns to autumn the house begins to reveal macabre secrets and troubling mysteries, and Dom grows increasingly distant. What exactly did happen to his beautiful first wife? – shades of Daphne du Maurier here. And what is this voluptuous scent that pervades the house? – vanilla with rose and the heart of ripe melons, held up by something sterner, a leather maybe, with a hint of wood smoke. Whose bones have been unearthed beneath the old swimming pool? Who is leaving a lighted lantern in the exact spot where lovers trysted in days of yore? And what is behind the mysterious hallucinations?

The jacket so farWhat a treat to be totally swallowed up in stories with complex plots that interweave time and place and people. Books that needed my full concentration to unravel and truly savour. The knitting grew at a terrific rate as you can see! And ideas for my own next novel flooded in – indeed so quickly that I was even forced to commit them to the computer during my reading sessions. I am rejuvenated and invigorated. And immensely grateful.

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Books, lists and preparations

Yesss! I had no less than three good excuses for sitting down for hours with a book In December, when I really should have been busy ticking things off the to-do list glaring at me from my desk. Three cast iron excuses to boot. 1. I’d just had a wisdom tooth extracted, and was under instruction to take things easy for a couple of days. 2. The roads were treacherous with snow and ice making it inadvisable to venture out. 3. The author of the said book is Linda Gillard, and after the year she’s had, I was keen to review her book before Christmas. Which reminds me … 4. The book’s set at Christmas time so the mood was exactly right for reading it in December.

House of SilenceHouse of Silence is Linda’s fourth novel, and although it once again features mental illness and dysfunctional families, it’s otherwise very different from the three earlier ones I’ve read. Good start. As you know, I’m somewhat allergic to formulaic writing.

Gwen Rowland is a wardrobe assistant for film and television productions. She’s good at it too. But she’s alone in the world.

Aunt Sam did booze, Sasha did drugs, and my Uncle Frank did men – boys if he could get them. This unholy trinity went down like ninepins in the ’90s, martyrs to over-indulgence. All three died tragically young of, respectfully, cirrhosis of the liver, a drugs overdose and AIDS … My mother, fond as she was of cliches, would have said, “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” And Sasha did.

Since the death of her mother, Gwen has dreaded Christmas with its appalling memories, and essential loneliness. So she finds it hard to understand why actor-boyfriend Alfie Donovan is reluctant to take her to Norfolk for his family celebrations. He has no choice but to go; it’s his duty to visit his mother and sisters. But why isn’t he appreciative of the richness of his own privilege – not just relatives, but a stately Elizabethan-manor-house home, and celebrity? Why isn’t he keen to share it?

Eventually Gwen wangles an invitation, though Alfie predicts it’ll be her ‘second-worst Christmas‘ ever. She warms instantly to the practical but eccentric sister Viv, and the scatty but creative Hattie, who still live at Creake Hall, but she grows increasingly disturbed by the changes in Alfie. Where is the family affection? What has made Rachel Holbrook, renowned children’s author, and their mother, hide in her room, granting only occasional audiences to visitors? Who is the mysterious gardener, Marek Zbydniewski, who sees right into Gwen’s soul? And what exactly is Hattie trying to tell her?

The cold and cavernous house is full of photographs and portraits, but they aren’t what they purport to be either. The sisters offer explanations for some of the discrepancies, but Gwen is growing increasingly mistrustful of everything about this family. Things just don’t add up. Who are they? And what secrets are they concealing? As she works on one of Hattie’s unfinished patchwork quilts, Gwen unravels more confusion and mystery that take her into a labyrinth of such complexity that the reader has to keep readjusting his or her own compass.

We’ve come to expect richness and depth in her characters from this author, who combines a light touch with thorough attention to detail. This time the layers of authenticity come from psychology, quilting, gardening, writing, acting, music. And although the underlying tale takes us into dark places of the mind, there’s plenty of light and shade, with eccentricities and humour providing the contrast and lifting the spirits.

So, the verdict? I enjoyed the book greatly. No difficulty sitting tight for a day and a half. Although, to be ultra-pernickety, I confess I’d personally have preferred a less tidied-up ending, and far fewer exclamation marks …! Sorry, Linda, but your prose is strong enough not to need them.

OK, review posted, now I can get back to that to-do list.

Decorate the house …decorated fireplaceWrap parcels …parcelsBake cakes … mull wine … Relax! I’m not going to bore you with humdrum domesticity. No, only wish you all peace and happiness whatever the season means to you.

 

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As good as Jodi Picoult or your money back?

Time to return to the topic of that sticker I mentioned a few weeks ago, as seen on The Midwife’s Confession: ‘As good as Jodi Picoult or your money back.’ Similar to the one on my own latest novel: ‘If you like Jodi Picoult you’ll love Hazel McHaffie.’ Seeming even more relevant now because at my book launch last week I was introduced as ‘Scotland’s Jodi Picoult’!

Question is: Is the comparison a good or not so good idea?

I confess I’ve only just discovered Diane Chamberlain, the author in question. My daughter gave me one of her books for Christmas, and I bought a second one on the strength of the blurb on the cover. I read them both in four days during the Christmas holiday break.

The resemblance is obvious from the outset – before you even open the book. The pretty feminine covers. The personal challenge: ‘A lie will save one family, the truth will destroy another. Which would you choose?‘ Both very Jodi Picoult.

So what about inside? Was this author as good? Would I be due a refund? Should I be glad or sad that my own latest book has a similar slogan?

The Midwife's ConfessionTara, Emerson and Noelle are close friends, so the two younger girls are devastated when Noelle is found dead after taking an overdose of pills. But as they sort her possessions and talk to other people, facts come to light which show them that the Noelle they knew was a fiction.

When they unearth a letter revealing a hideous secret, they are torn by indecision. If they tell the truth it would destroy a family; but by maintaining the lie they would be perpetuating the grief of another. Add to this a twelve year old with recurring leukaemia loaded with steroids and fighting for her life; a dead baby; surrogate pregnancies; and you have a flavour of the intense emotional and psychological undertones of this story.

The multiple first person voices style is very Picoultesque, but there the similarities end. No court scenes or legal ding-dongs. No stereotyping. No homespun philosophising. Indeed, Chamberlain’s psychology is altogether much more convincing and less contrived than Picoult’s. Not surprisingly perhaps since she’s a trained psychotherapist.

Breaking the SilenceSo what of the second of her books that I read? Breaking the Silence is written very differently. All in the third person too. Instantly I feel a lift of spirits. Here’s an author who rings the changes. Who’s not formulaic or predictable. No rut in sight. My kind of gal.

The story weaves between the present for astronomer, Laura Brandon, and her daughter, Emma, and the past life of former nurse, Sarah Tolley, now an old lady with Alzheimer’s.

Moments before his death, Laura’s father makes her promise to visit Sarah, who’s in a retirement complex, but whom she’s never even heard of before. As a consequence of her doing so, however, Laura’s husband commits suicide. Her five year old daughter, Emma, witnesses the shooting and now refuses to talk and is clearly terrified of men. On the advice of a child therapist, Laura contacts Emma’s biological father, Dylan Geer, a hot air balloonist, who was unaware of her existence but becomes mesmerised by this mute child.

But as this father-daughter relationship blossoms, Laura becomes increasingly obsessed by the stories emerging from Sarah’s fading memory. She starts to unravel a tale of love, despair and a terrible evil that links them all.

Chamberlain’s training and experience in psychology have given her a genuine understanding of how people tick, how relationships work, helping to authenticate the actions and reactions of her characters. They ring true. Having had to observe professional confidences herself (like me), I think she understands the capacity of some people in positions of trust to bear a hefty burden of secrets, and the inability of others to do so. Lies and deceptions play a large part in both books.

Chamberlain says of her novels that they are ‘part suspense, part mystery, part romance and one hundred percent family drama.’ A fair assessment. The suspense and mystery elements keep the pages turning effortlessly. I was particularly gripped by the stories of the CIA government approved mind-control experiments that took place in the 50s and 60s in psychiatric hospitals in the US, about which I’d heard but never understood in this intensely moving way before. No wonder this was the inspiration for Breaking the Silence. Very clever.

But I must confess the coincidences in both books stretched my credulity somewhat, especially in The Midwife’s Confession. OK, they tidied up the story lines but they lacked plausibility for me.

So, will I be reading more Chamberlain? Probably. (And keeping my fingers crossed that she doesn’t pall like Picoult.) Will I be claiming a refund? Happily, no.

What then of that controversial sticker: did it help or hinder? Well, it meant the book caught in my antennae initially, which was good. Although for anyone who really doesn’t care for Picoult, it could have had an unwarrantedly negative impact. So swings and roundabouts there maybe. It also made me compare the two authors throughout, which had pluses and minuses for Chamberlain. But for me overall Chamberlain came out of it well.

And for Saving Sebastian? At the moment the jury’s still out. Time will tell. And your input … please!

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