Hazel McHaffie

MyVLF

Pandemic bonuses

I’m always on the lookout for new techniques, intriguing approaches, novel ways of hooking in readers. And a bonus of this time of pandemic is the wealth of virtual literary opportunities on offer. Sheer luxury!

This weekend saw another MyVLF (a free global literary festival connecting readers with authors), this time all about thrillers, and appropriately dubbed Shiverfest.

What a joy to listen to successful authors talking about inspiration and technique and the whole craft of writing. The buzz it gives me reminds me of how important to my personal mental well being all things related to writing and reading are … perhaps especially during this year when our normal activities have been so severely restricted and the future feels so tentative.

So what better extension of this experience than to turn to an undisputed leader of the thriller pack, queen of crime, Val McDermid, with an analytical eye, to see what nuggets are embedded in the novel that happens to be top of my tbr pile. It’s How the Dead Speak, and instantly I’m intrigued by the unusual technique she’s adopted. One of her most famous characters, Dr Tony Hill, clinical psychologist and erstwhile offender profiler, is by now in prison serving a four year sentence for murder. But he’s using the time to hammer out the first draft of a book about forensic psychology, called Reading Crimes. Progress is slow: he can only manage short bursts in the library of the prison on an ancient and battered laptop equipped with nothing more than the most basic software. What’s unusual is that McDermid inserts a brief extract from Tony’s manuscript at the beginning of each chapter – and there are 63 of them!

Each quote captures an aspect of forensic pathology or crime or profiling or psychological truths or mental illness or violence or the mind of a murderer or reading a crime scene or narcissism or … which is potentially significant in the plot of this particular book. Clever. It at once gives a sense of the dogged determination and pent up ongoing awareness of a psychologist surrounded by criminals with no official outlet for his skills, and reassures us that this author knows far more about her subject than we do. We’re in safe hands.

Tony’s closest professional associate was DCI Carol Jordan, who, in the wake of the murder that put him in prison, has resigned from the police force, and begun to address her PTSD and alcohol addiction. Here she is being tempted to dip a toe back into her former life. The plot line relates to the discovery of over 30 skeletons of young girls buried in the grounds of a defunct convent, evidence of multiple fractures raising suspicions of serious abuse. When a number of bodies of murdered young men are subsequently unearthed elsewhere in the same grounds, the race is on to find the opportunist serial killer responsible, and put right a grave miscarriage of justice.

From an analytical point of view I was intrigued by the potential of these short extracts from Tony’s manuscript; offering insights into both the theoretical underpinnings of crime, and who might have been responsible for so many deaths in or near a convent. In reality, however, for me, the effort of trying to understand the significance and relate it to the plot, in fact detracted from the pace and pull of the story. My analytical spectacles were obscuring the story. But a valuable lesson learned nonetheless. And a useful exercise in the art of writing.

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More festival fun

Wow! I’ve just attended my THIRD virtual book festival of lockdown! Feels like a real indulgence. This one was another trip to MyVLF, a free global virtual literary festival, connecting readers with authors.

This time the focus was on historical fiction and included a stellar cast of well known names – Kate Mosse, Victoria Hyslop, Alison Weir, Elizabeth Buchan, Bernard Cornwell. Of course, they were speaking from their own homes, and I was amused to see them in relaxed lockdown mode (without benefit of hairdressers, makeup artists, camera men) side by side on the same screen with their professional promotional photos. But grooming aside, they were every inch the polished, fluent and accomplished professionals in their performance: responding to interview questions, sharing their favourite time periods, their experiences researching their topics or drafting their stories. And a day of listening to them positively enthused me, the old brain whirring into writing mode again.

They also inspired me to dig out a hitherto unread historical novel from my shelves: Philippa Gregory‘s Three Sisters, Three Queens … another household name. Perhaps the craftsmanship behind it will be even more apparent to me now that I’ve just heard about the painstaking work that predates writing such a book, the importance of a firm scaffolding of facts through which characters can weave and wander. Certainly I shall appreciate all over again the way the author must immerse herself in the dates and customs and places and mores of the time, even though most of the research never gets into the book. That’s a lesson I learned early on in my own career as a novelist: the reader mustn’t be aware of the knowledge you the author have acquired, but of course, hearing these marvellous writers talk about their obsessions, what they’ve learned, how much they know, serves only to make admiration of the finished product the more sincere.

Three Sisters, Three Queens will make a change from being back in my own specialist field of medical ethics, too. Three years ago exactly I wrote a post on this blog which looked at the subject of children in trouble through the novels of Susan Lewis. By some weird coincidence this very week a neighbour left the sequel to Stolen, the third book I mentioned back then, on the shelves at the end of our drive. Well, I had to read it, didn’t I? At the end of Stolen, Charlotte Goodman had fled to New Zealand from the UK with a little girl she had stolen from abusive parents. You said Forever picks up the story five years later. By this time Charlotte and lawyer husband Anthony have two other children biologically their own. Chloe, now legally adopted by Charlotte but not Anthony, is causing mayhem both at home and at school. When she threatens the life of the younger children, Charlotte knows drastic action is needed. But what? How can she choose between her children, the little people she loves more than life? She promised Chloe a forever-home; but can she keep that promise?

Lockdown is certainly affording me plenty of new experiences. I’ve even cut my own hair – very very short, slicing into three fingers at the same time! And painted the outside of our windows and doors, and renovated and wallpapered a walk-in-larder. Much ladder-climbing involved. It might just be a relief to get back to sitting safely at my desk writing!

 

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