Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Murder in the DIY store...

I've not done very much writing in the last couple of weeks. Not much creative writing, anyway. I've been at Shetland Noir, and since then I've been busy with a freelance project that falls into the editing category rather than the story writing category. Maybe the lack of lavish description and Byzantine plotting opportunities has been getting to me, because I've been having ideas in the strangest places.

Today we had to take the car to be serviced, which is one of the boringest jobs in the world, and unpleasant too, because you get the same car back at the end of it, plus a huge bill. The job was going to take a couple of hours, so my husband and I went into a nearby DIY store to while away some of the time.

The DIY store was not my idea. I know household jobs have to be done, but they don't fill me with a zealous passion to grout tiles or stick rawl plugs into walls. I don't know how any retail experience can be quite so horrifically dull as a DIY store. I mean, we are talking about a huge shop here, one it would take you several minutes to jog the length of, were you so inclined. There are shelves and shelves of things you can buy, and all of them are boring. The stuff is mostly beige or grey, for goodness' sake. The only thing likely to make your pulse quicken is the pricing. £380 for a toilet!

I'll admit I did complain quite a bit for the first few minutes. But then I started to think: I wonder if you could stage a murder story in here? (I think the chain of thought went something like: I'm dying of boredom > death > murder.) So I tuned out of the thrilling (not) conversation my husband was having with the shop assistant about tongue-and-groove flooring, and tried to think about murder instead.

I have to say that I think the Christmas grotto had definite murder scene potential. Imagine the pathos! How poignant to find a corpse amongst the glittering baubles, the white tinsel Christmas trees and the light-up penguins! Even better if there is Christmas muzak playing in the background - Santa Baby would probably cover the sounds of last gurgles and death rattles very nicely.

Aha, you may say, but isn't a DIY store a rather public place to commit a murder? You'd be caught on CCTV for sure, assuming one of those friendly assistants in their distinctive polo shirts didn't see you first. No problem, say I. See this rack of handy masks with dust filters? Pop one of those on and you've covered your face very nicely.

Now for the murder weapon. I lingered for a while by the power drills. They were all out on display, begging to be picked up and examined. On buttons were begging to be pushed. "What are you doing over there?" asked my husband. I put the drill down. "Er, seeing whether they were charged up or not. I guess not..." So that's one plotline thwarted. I guess it would have to be one of the other, blunter instruments. Which one? Use your imagination. If I can put a cheese grater into a crime story, you can think of a use for that stainless steel toilet roll & brush holder.

Finally: the victim. Well, that's an easy one. Whoever dragged you into the DIY store in the first place...

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

German traditions make me cry

I realised this morning that it is Saint Martin's Day (11th November). I couldn't believe I hadn't thought about it until now. 

We lived in Bad Münstereifel in Germany for seven wonderful years while the children were small, and we took part in the Saint Martin's festivities many times. I liked Karneval, with its costume parades and sweetie-throwing, very much indeed, but Saint Martin was my favourite event of the German calendar. The centrepiece of the celebration was always a torch-lit procession around the town, which was an unbelievably picturesque event, what with the dancing flames and the beautiful old half-timbered houses. For several weeks before the procession, all the kindergarten and primary school children would be feverishly at work making lanterns to carry. In the olden days, these would have had actual flames inside, but modern ones have a little light bulb. Everyone would gather in the Klosterplatz, a square near the church, and there was always a brass band playing the traditional St. Martin songs, such as Sankt Martin ritt durch Schnee und Wind and Ich gehe mit meiner Laterne. I still can't hear those tunes without welling up! Then "Saint Martin" would ride into the square on a horse - a very calm, good-natured horse, considering all the lights and loud noises. He would lead the procession around the town centre and all the children would follow with their lanterns. The brass band would play and we would all sing the songs as we walked. When we got back to the square, there would be a huge bonfire attended by the local fire brigade (just in case). Then "Saint Martin" and an actor dressed as a beggar would act out the legend of the saint, a Roman soldier who took pity on a beggarman freezing in the snow and gave him half his warm cloak to wear. The children always loved the bit where Saint Martin took out his sword and cut the cloak in half. Afterwards, all the children got a bun with big chunks of sugar on it. 

We all have our own special memories of the Saint Martin's procession. This is my favourite: one year when our son was too tiny to walk around, my husband carried him. When we got to the Catholic old people's home, a number of the old people were at the door watching, and with them was a small group of nuns. On impulse I whispered to my son that he should blow them a kiss. He was, I must say, a remarkably good-humoured toddler, so he did as he was asked, and I was amused to see all the nuns sighing over his adorable cuteness! I bet he hates to be reminded of that, now he's a whopping great teenager... 

My daughter's keenest memory is quite different. The year she was in the German fourth grade, the top year of primary school, I gave her her first mobile phone to take with her on the procession, in case she got lost or couldn't find us afterwards. She was thrilled. In fact I doubt the beggarman was more thrilled with his half-a-cloak. 

When we left Germany, I always swore that I would go back for Saint Martin's Day. But in 7 years I have only ever managed it once, mainly because of the cost of flying everyone back. It has gradually ceased to loom so large in my mental calendar, while Hallowe'en and Guy Fawkes Night have become more prominent. But whenever I think about it, I still wish I could be there, walking over the worn cobblestones and singing along with the brass band. I listened to some of the traditional songs this morning on YouTube and found myself crying a bit, just from nostalgia. 

I always knew we would have to leave Bad Münstereifel one day. We went there for 2 years, after all, and stayed for 7, but there was no way of stringing it out forever! But I'm pleased to say that like so many of the other aspects of our life there, the Saint Martin's procession is described in my first novel, The Vanishing of Katharina Linden. Of course, I've added a dark twist to it - someone vanishes during the procession! But it's all there, right down to the fact that if you walk right behind the horse you have to watch where you step...

Here's a short excerpt:

It was almost time for the procession to begin. The local brass band, resplendent in hunting-green uniforms and peaked caps, were assembling at the corner of the square, hoisting trombones and trumpets and horns, which glittered in the light of the lanterns and torches. Someone tried out the opening notes of one of the songs, a song so familiar that the words formed themselves inside my head as I listened: Sankt Martin, Sankt Martin, Sankt Martin ritt durch Schnee und Wind . . . It finished with a squeak which sent a ripple of laughter through the crowd.
Someone from the council had climbed the steps at the side of the square and was talking inaudibly into a loudhailer. Then we heard a clatter of hooves on the cobblestones and St Martin rode into the square.
Of course, all of the spectators except the very youngest knew that St Martin was really someone from the town, dressed up in a red velvet cloak and Roman helmet; in fact my parents even knew the family who lent the horse. But there was always something magical about St Martin; he was real in a way that Sankt Nikolaus and the Easter Bunny weren’t. For one thing, he was undeniably solid, and so was the horse: if you followed too closely behind it you had to look where you stepped.
As we watched, St Martin wheeled the horse round and began to ride slowly out of the south side of the square, the crimson cloak undulating on the horse’s hindquarters as it moved, the torchlight making the great golden helmet glitter. The band fell in behind him, and struck up with the first bars of ‘Ich gehe mit meiner Laterne’, the signal for the schoolchildren to follow. As the rest of us surged forward, I could see Frau Eichen counting the children again.
‘Can I go on ahead?’ I asked my mother hopefully, seeing that she was making woefully slow progress with Sebastian in his buggy. I was afraid we would be stuck right at the back, where we could hardly hear the band, and we would be last back into the square to see the bonfire.
She shook her head. ‘I don’t think that’s a good idea, Pia.’ I didn’t bother to ask why.
‘I’ll go with her,’ said my father, turning up his collar. He looked at me sternly. ‘And stay where I can see you, Pia. No running off.’
‘Yes, Papa.’
I fell into step beside him; with his long legs we made good progress, and were soon pushing our way further up the procession. First it wound up the Heisterbacher Strasse and past our front door, then it followed the line of the medieval defensive walls west towards the great gate, the Orchheimer Tor. I looked about me at the excited faces, the flickering torches and glowing lanterns, and the ancient stones of the walls, interspersed with arrow slits. We could have been back in the Middle Ages, on our way to a coronation – or a witch-burning...

Above: no witches burning - just a bonfire! 

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Shetland Noir: some news!

As I've mentioned on my blog before, we spent our summer holiday in Sweden this year. I didn't know very much about Sweden before we went, but I love visiting new places, so I visited windmills and churches, shopped at Gekås Ullared AB, and tucked into kanelbullar (cinnamon buns) with merry glee. For a writer, no experience is ever wasted, and this proved to be the case once again because not long after we returned from Sweden I heard about a writing competition with a Nordic twist.

Organised by the Shetland Noir book festival, the competition was to write a piece of crime fiction of between 500 and 1000 words in length which included the following ingredients: at least one corpse, or part thereof; one darkened room; at least one Nordic reference; blood; the misuse of at least one kitchen utensil; a telephone that rings unanswered. I love a challenge, and I very much enjoyed trying to think up a story that could fit all of those things into 1000 words, but I was very grateful that I had spent my holidays in Sweden - otherwise I am not sure what my Nordic reference would have been! (An ABBA record playing in the background, perhaps...)

My main reason for entering the competition was that the first prize was travel to and from Shetland Noir. I didn't think the chances of my actually winning first prize were very high, but I really, really, wanted to go to the festival, and of course, if you don't try, you definitely don't get anywhere. So I got to work, and wove in a lot of memories from our holiday - the story is set in Haverdal, where we stayed, for example. I even gave my hero a kanelbulle to eat! (I'm envious.) The story is called The Beach House, and it is the first piece of adult crime writing I have ever done, although my novels, which are usually categorised as YA, have a strong adult readership too. I especially enjoyed thinking about "the misuse of at least one kitchen utensil" - so many gruesome possibilities!

Anyway, to cut a long story short: my story did win first prize. So I'm thrilled to say that I'll be going to Shetland Noir in a couple of weeks' time to receive the Jimmy Perez Trophy - named, of course, after the hero of the well-known series of crime novels by Ann Cleves, who very kindly sponsored the prize. As well as attending some of the festival events, I'm really looking forward to visiting Shetland itself, as I've never been there before. In fact, I've never been that far north before - I think the furthest north I have ever been in my life is Moscow! So I'll be sure to take loads of photographs and try to see as much as I can. Who knows - perhaps further stories will suggest themselves when I'm there? I'm very often inspired by interesting locations.

If you're interested in attending Shetland Noir, it takes place on 13th-15th November 2015 (how very apt, to have a crime fiction festival beginning on Friday 13th!) and the full programme can be found here: Shetland Noir programme

(Above) The beach at Haverdal: scene of gruesome fictional events...

PS Since writing this, I've been asked by a few people when and where they can read The Beach House. I've been talking to the organisers of Shetland Noir about it, and the current plan is to produce a printed pamphlet for the festival, comprising my winning story and the two stories that won second and third place. I don't yet know whether this will be something that non-attendees can get hold of, but if not I will ensure that my story becomes more widely available in due course, either online or in print.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Hallowe'en reading: YA authors recommend!

Only a few more sleeps until Hallowe'en! In honour of this interesting (and pumpkin infested) event, I decided to ask some of the YA authors I know to recommend some appropriate Hallowe'en reading. "A scary read," I suggested. After all, some of them have actually written some pretty scary stuff. Anything was up for grabs - kids' stories, YA, adult stuff too. Anyway, here's what they came up with!

Sally Nicholls recommends: the classic The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (adult). Published in 1959, the book has been filmed twice and adapted into a stage play too. (I've only seen the black and white 1963 version with Claire Bloom, and jolly scary it was too.) Author Caroline Green seconded this recommendation!
Sally is no stranger to scary books, having written one of her own: her YA novel Close your pretty eyes is based on a gruesome true life story, of baby farmer and murderess Amelia Dyer. Eleven year old Olivia is convinced that the remote house where she lives with her foster parents is haunted...

Bea Davenport recommends: Here Comes A Candle to Light You to Bed by Maggie Prince (YA). After her parents' divorce, Emily and her mother and brother have to move to a tiny old house in an undesirable part of London. It's a difficult adjustment for all of them, and made harder by the uncomfortable atmosphere of the house. Then Emily finds out that it was lived in by plague victims in the seventeenth century...
Bea has written some scary books for young people - The Serpent House and for younger readers, My Cousin Faustina

Eve Ainsworth recommends: A Monster Calls, written by Patrick Ness from an original idea by Siobhan Dowd. A film version is out in 2016. "I just found it so raw and terrifying," she says. Eve is the author of YA novel Seven Days and the upcoming Crush.

Luisa Plaja recommends: Monster by C.J.Skuse (YA). "As a blizzard rages outside, strange things are afoot in the school’s hallways, and legends of the mysterious Beast of Bathory – a big cat rumoured to room the moors outside the school – run wild..."
Has Luisa written anything scary herself? "Um...well, I wrote about an evil sprout for the e-book anthology Girls Heart Christmas edited by Jo Cotterill and Julie Sykes," she says. "That's mildly scary in a not-very-scary-at-all kind of way..."
Girls Heart Christmas is aimed at readers aged 8-12. Most of the 8-12 year olds I know have fairly strong nerves, but all the same, sprouts are pretty scary, lurking there on the plate looking green and unappetising...

Tamsyn Murray recommends: Lockwood & Co (YA) by Jonathan Stroud. "Just read the first one and adored it."
Tamsyn is the author of My So-Called Afterlife, a ghost story with a difference. The ghost is 15-year-old Lucy Shaw, and you won't believe the place she has to haunt...! I've read this one myself and really enjoyed it - it's not scary so much as darkly humorous, and very engaging.

Rhian Ivory recommends: The Dead House by Dawn Kurtagich (also YA). "Carly gets the day. Kaitlyn gets the night." Brrr. Rhian's debut YA novel The Boy Who Drew The Future has some scary moments too!

Emma Pass recommends: Long Lankin by Lindsey Barraclough (YA). It's "seriously scary", she says. I must admit I fancy reading this one myself, because I've always thought the legend of Long Lankin was spectacularly nasty!
Emma's own book The Fearless (also YA) would appeal to those who like their thrills and scares from zombies and the walking dead!

Kendra Leighton recommends: "A favourite scary read of mine is Uncle Montague's Tales Of Terror by Chris Priestley—a collection of spooky short stories which cleverly link together at the end of the book. The stories feature terrible things happening to naughty children, and read like a cross between M.R. James and Tim Burton. Macabre illustrations are the cherry (pumpkin?) on top."‬
Kendra's YA novel Glimpse is "a ghost story, a love story, and a story of a girl fighting for her future by confronting her terrible past."

Coincidentally (perhaps even spookily?!) I have a recommendation from Chris too!

Chris Priestley recommends: "Robert Aickman - the scariest author I know." (adult) I'm an Aickman fan too - his story The Inner Room is one of my very favourite scary stories ever - so I enjoyed asking Chris for his favourites. "I love The Inner Room. Cold Hand in Mine maybe - as a collection," he suggested. "And Ringing the Changes is another cracker of a story."
Chris' latest book is Anything That Isn't This - "a Kafka-esque nightmare of a story... about love."

And finally....

Helen Grant recommends: Sleep No More by L.T.C.Rolt (adult). As anyone who reads my blog will know, I'm a massive fan of ghost story writer M.R.James, so you might have expected me to recommend him. However, I've gone on about MRJ's stories for so long now that I think anyone who isn't convinced just can't be helped! L.T.C.Rolt deserves a mention because his work is less well known but extremely creepy! Some of his stories - The Garside Fell Disaster, for example, or Bosworth Summit Pound - give me the creeps just thinking about them, even when the sun is shining.
Of my own books, the most Hallowe'en appropriate is probably Wish Me Dead - because it is about a long-dead witch who is seemingly able to grant wishes from beyond the grave...with unforseen consequences for my heroine, Steffi.

Those are our recommendations - I'd love to hear yours!

PS Check out more scary Hallowe'en reading recommendations on Kendra Leighton's blog: Spooky YA Hallowe'en Reads!

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Nosferatu rises again!

In spite of the fact that this started out as an author's blog, I seem to end up blogging about films rather a lot! A good story is a good story whatever the format, I guess.

Anyway, I'm back on the topic of films again today, because I'm very excited about an upcoming event - the premiere of Dmytro Morykit's new score for Murnau's 1922 silent horror classic Nosferatu.

Back in November 2014, I attended a performance of Dmytro's score for Fritz Lang's Metropolis, at the Strathearn Artspace in Crieff - I blogged about it here: Metropolis

I'm thrilled that Dmytro chose to write a score for Nosferatu this time (and as he lives in Perthshire, as we do, there has been plenty of opportunity for prying and nagging on this particular point!). I've seen Nosferatu twice before and it's a splendidly creepy film. I can't help being reminded of a point made by Professor Aaron Worth at the recent M.R.James conference - that we find superannuated media forms frightening (haunted video tape, anyone?). Nosferatu is a case in point; its antiquity makes it all the more creepy. It deserves a musical background worthy of it - and what better than a live performance, to really "bring it to life"?

The details of the premiere are as follows:

27th October 2015, 7:30 pm - 9:30 pm
Royal Spa Centre
Newbold Terrace
Leamington Spa, CV32 4HN
Box Office: 01926 334418

30th October 2015. 8:45 pm - 10:15 pm
The Guildhall, Leicester
Guildhall Lane
Leicester,  LE1 5FQ
Box Office: 0116 253 2569

After the premieres, Nosferatu will also be performed at: Strathearn Artspace, Crieff on 30th January 2016;
The Byre Theatre, St Andrews, 6th February;
The Waterside Theatre, Derry on 1st April;
and The MAC, Belfast on 2nd April.

I plan to attend the performance at Strathearn Artspace in January so I'll no doubt be blogging about it afterwards! I'll also be posting an interview with Dmytro Morykit on this blog in the near future so look out for that. Finally, if you're near any of the performance venues, do go - judging by Metropolis, this is going to be a thrilling and vivid experience!

Nosferatu: dead good.