Tag Archives: (a) For Readers

The Dreaded Mrs Willis:

How writers find their characters, part two: (here is part one):

The Goods Themselves (with apologies to Isaac Asimov):

In my experience all high street shops have their Mad Mary, a slightly odd customer who comes in to the shop every other day but is never quite sure what she wants. She rambles unintelligibly and sometimes chunters to strangers as she makes her bewildered way along the street to the next shop, there to baffle the counter staff with puzzling requests for stuff they don’t sell either. A Mad Mary is generally identifiable at some distance by stooped posture and fly-away hair, and often has one eye in Liverpool and the other in Birkenhead, if you know what I mean. The counter staff scatter from the shop floor at her approach and push one another playfully back out to serve. Please don’t think I am making fun of this unfortunate person; but I’ll bet the staff of every shop in the land will recognise the local representative of her tribe.

At a garage where I worked some years ago we had one customer – I’ll call her Mrs T – whose Read More →

Cosmic rays: the bad speller’s excuse

Image: Dictionary entryEureka! Vindicated! Writers, take note…

Writers often feel doomed to suffer the slings and arrows of those who delight in pointing out spelling errors that we would swear were not there when we saved our text file. But we now have the means to answer back. Some while ago on BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time, presented by Melvin Bragg, a bunch of scientists confidently asserted the existence and effects of cosmic rays. These particles, said to be leftover bits of atoms that arrive at our planet from outer space at phenomenal speeds, apparently pass through everything in their path including our bodies and, crucially, our electronic gadgets.

There are, say the scientists, something between tens and hundreds of these little beggars passing through our bodies every second (I can’t feel them. Can you?). They cause all sorts of effects from entertaining polar aurora to seriously worrying cancers by Read More →

Mr Farquhar’s discomfiture

How writers invent their characters, part one: (here is part two):

Image: Annual accounts.When I was a brash young man not quite fresh out of school but still as green as a seasick virgin in the world of business, it occurred to me when the tax office demanded to see my accounts (of which there were none at that stage) that perhaps I ought to get myself an accountant.

Having by that time worked at a variety of jobs, all more or less tedious, boring and paying piffling wages, I had taken heed of a remark made to me by an uncle, to the effect that “You’ll never get rich working for someone else, Sonny Jim.” As it turned out I never got rich in any case, but at the time I figured there was nothing to lose by taking Uncle Bill’s advice to heart, especially as I disagreed disagreeably with the boss of the taxi company for whom I drove at that time. He was a horrible man, demanding and contemptuous. So I quit, bought a better car and Read More →

The Pensioner’s Revenge

Image: Road sign, frail persons.I drive a delivery van sometimes for a local company. I suppose that conjures up an image of White Van Man, that universally reviled tribe of aggressive, impatient, intolerant drivers generally stuck to your rear bumper or cutting in front at the traffic lights. It’s a simple enough job at heart that pays the bills and leaves me brain space for other, more interesting projects. At the end of a working day I can forget the whole thing. I never need take work home or worry about what troubles tomorrow might bring like a managing director viewing his overdraft with baleful eye whilst the bank breathes down his neck and gleefully refuses a loan for further expansion.

In fact, when the sun shines – admittedly a rare enough event in the UK nowadays **– and trade is just a little slack I can sometimes enjoy a gentle cruise around the delivery route with views over hedges and walls that lower-seated motorists never get to spy. Then, I catch entrancing glimpses out over the sunlit sea where golden sandbanks populated by flocks of wading birds dry at low tide, or of distant blue-grey mountain tops with picturesque electricity pylons striding from ridge to ridge.

Delivering to one customer I savour the scents of Read More →

The Last Banana

Image: The last banana in the fruit bowlI read a passage in Rachel Abbott’s The Back Road the other day that depicted a father coming down to breakfast. He kisses each of his children affectionately and takes a piece of toast from the rack in the middle of the table, at which his daughter Ruby is somewhat put out because she had her eye on just that exact piece of toast. I expect this little domestic scene might resonate with many, and in my case it put me in mind of the time all the family – five of us, mum, dad, me, my sister and her boyfriend – were cooped up together aboard a tiny motor cruiser for a fortnight’s holiday.

We were moored at the then new marina in Dartmouth. This was in the 1960’s when marinas as such were all more or less new to the British Isles. Our 19 foot boat had two berths and a cooker in the cabin, two benches and an outboard motor in the cockpit. One of us was elected to sleep on the floorboards between the cockpit benches. Guess who? Yup, that’d be me. Eating meals, going to bed and getting up in the morning was an elaborate ballet of pre-planned moves so that nobody trod on anybody else’s feet (or in my case, face).

But y’know, we had a fantastic fortnight’s holiday. Mum produced a Read More →

Cash on Delivery

A sailor’s tale:

Image: Yachting Monthly, May 1998 issue.

Yachting Monthly, May 1998 issue.

Mention of my father in an earlier post reminded me of a yacht I owned twenty five years ago. It was a Folkboat, a modest enough vessel as yachts go, but beautifully built of tight-seamed carvel mahogany resplendent in varnish from truck to waterline. People used to ask how I ever found time to sail it, believing it must be hell to keep all that varnish up to standard. I used to tell them it was not the acres of varnish that took time to maintain, it was the fiddly bits, the mahogany handrails, portlight bezels and edge beadings, and lots of yachts have that sort of trim even if built of things other than wood.

When glassfibre was invented boatbuilders rapidly took up the new material and became plastics manufacturers instead, while their customers grasped thankfully at the delusion that GRP was virtually maintenance-free. Note that word virtually. Turns out it covered a host of sins from fading colours and stress cracks to the dreaded boat pox (or osmosis, to give its proper name). I never found it took much longer to varnish my wooden topsides than others took to polish their plastic ones, but still the battle has been largely lost. Nearly all yachts are built of plastic these days; even I have partly succumbed to its shiny lure.

Back in the day, however, when my yacht was based in Read More →

A taxing issue:

Gaiety Row, or getting around the rules:

I heard on BBC Radio 4 the other day a tale of enterprising army officers of the nineteenth century who, banned from entertaining ladies in barracks, duly set up their ladies in a row of houses across the river Thames which they dubbed Gaiety Row (the houses that is, not the Thames). The moral is that human nature invariably finds a way of getting around unwelcome rules, and the sting in that tale is the present hoo-hah about company tax avoidance in the UK.

Amazon, Google, Starbucks and others stand accused of unfairly avoiding taxes in the UK by engaging in obscure and complicated dealings designed to make it appear as if profits were made not in the UK but elsewhere, where the tax regime is less burdensome. On the radio and TV they have the cheek to call this News, and it has led to much outrage and hand-wringing on the airwaves. My radio and TV sets vibrate daily with newscasters and interviewers whipping up controversies between the accused and some outraged taxpayers’ alliance of which I have generally never heard before. Perhaps they were invented for the purpose, I sometimes think. (Oh, so cynical, Charles…)

One shocking casualty in this debate is the Read More →

The Lewis Man, by Peter May

I read a good book the other day #1

The Lewis Man book jacket

This might well turn out to be the longest book recommendation I ever make, so make the most of it. I had to tell you about this book at length because it has something in common with my own mystery/romantic suspense series. They share a theme; not the main thrust of the story, but a sub-thread within the story.

Just think for a moment: Are you a Do Your Duty And Look After Your Elders sort of person, or an Out of Sight, Out of Mind, Put The Silly Old Fart’s in a Home And Forget About Them sort of person? In either case it behoves us to think what might be our own fate when we grow old and feeble and begin to suffer from dementia. This might happen to you!

In my books, Enoch is an elderly character who I tried to depict in a very natural sort of way complete with all his frailties, the usual ills of old age both physical and mental: things like constantly wanting the loo and being overwhelmed by a sense of grief and survivor’s guilt for a lost partner. But Enoch is at least still compos mentis, if a little slower of thought than he used to be – all of which is what makes him the “very different detective” of my blurbs.

In The Lewis Man Peter May has brilliantly depicted life for someone who is not only elderly and frail but also trapped in dementia. That’s not what the book is about, mind. The Lewis Man referred to in the title is a body found preserved in the acid peat of the isle of Lewis in the outer Hebrides; a bog-body such as has been found all over northern Europe. I don’t want to spoil the plot so I won’t say any more about it, but I wish I had read The Lewis Man before I began writing my first novel, for Peter May has shown me a technique that I might have found useful.*

By adopting the device of Read More →

A Cat on the Doorstep

We had a cat once. In fact we had two. Smut arrived one day on the back doorstep of my parents’ house, the place where I was born, and made himself at home. He was a totally self-contained creature, completely independent in body and spirit. He brought home a rabbit one day bigger than himself. He wrestled it up the stone steps to our back door, his contribution to the household economy as I suppose, for he did not make a meal of it for himself. Instead he Read More →

Sunset Glossary: Or English like what she is spoke


Editorial note: Since this article was written Sunset over Salhouse Broad has been revised and re-titled to become the Just One Mistake mystery and romantic suspense trilogy. So wherever you see Sunset, read JOM (or any of its individual titles). The glossary still applies.

A writer’s choosing to use dialect or technical words in a novel is apt to be fraught with misunderstanding. Not all readers will be familiar with these localised words, or with the peculiar usage or spelling of them that we often find in our English regions. They may not be recognised for what they are, so there is also a risk that some readers will revolt against what they see as the author’s laziness in failing to check his spelling. Nevertheless, used in the right places and in moderation dialect and idiom can enhance the depiction of character. Who does not know perfectly what is meant when, in Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow, Lucille Fallon in answer to a question in court says, “He done it.” And to a further puzzled query, “What he been sayin he do.” And again, “Yes sir! He done!”.  And do not those deliberate (mis)spellings and carefully chosen words instantly tell you something interesting about the speaker?

That’s why in Sunset over Salhouse Broad/Just One Mistake Rob often starts a sentence with Read More →