Distractions, a writer’s guide

Each day I skip writing, I’ll look at my desk guiltily and then slink off like a disgraced criminal fleeing a crime scene. Curse ye, distractions, I’ll mutter as I shake my fist like an old cat lady on her lawn.

But what if distractions are a good thing? What if, properly channeled, they could catapult you back into writing?

I offer a few possibilities for capitalizing on your distractions:

  1. Read or watch things that immerse your brain in your setting. For me, that’s rewatching Hercule Poirot or reading a new 1920s mystery book. Sometimes the lure of the era draws me into my novel.
  2. Do homework. Excuse yourself from writing if you do some research instead, like reading that book on English history, writing a book review or preparing this a blog post.
  3. Clean something. Yes. Cleaning or organizing, especially your writing area, will either make you feel excited about possibilities or just so tired of cleaning you’d rather write 100 words.
  4. Bribe yourself. I don’t suggest this often, but some days I give myself leave to do something totally unrelated in exchange for some writing.
  5. Daydream about completion. I’ll picture getting a call from a publisher that my book is ready or I’m sitting down to chat with a happy reader over a cup of tea. It reminds me why I started this journey in the first place.

Now please excuse me while I eat a pint of ice cream and watch Golden Girls re-runs…

Advertisements

A Curious Beginning by Deanna Raybourn

curiousAn elegant historical romance with a hint of mystery and a butterfly collecting heroine.

The novel opens at a funeral with the unusual heroine, Veronica Speedwell, unable to shed a tear for her lately departed guardian. Veronica is a thoroughly modern woman despite her Victorian surroundings – she’s a lepidopterist or butterfly collector with a scientific bent, an unknown past and an enjoyment of love affairs. Imagine a grown up Flavia de Luce meets romance heroine.

After the funeral she startles a would-be thief and manages to put up a good fight before being helped by a baron. The baron dumps her in the lap of Mr. Stoker, a scarred, handsome and muscular taxidermist whose greeting is little more than a growl of displeasure. The baron’s murder puts them both on the run, winding up at a traveling circus, and things only go downhill from there.

I don’t often read romance, not through any special dislike but because I have a long backlog of mystery books. This prose is elegant and enjoyable, although it took some time before we reached the murder and the circus. Veronica is strong-willed, even if that’s unlikely for her upbringing with two spinster aunts, but it helps to move the story along as she gives the world as good as she gets.

The story spends a lot of time on the fire between Stoker and Veronica, while making it clear that Veronica is her own woman and will choose Stoker on her own terms or not at all. There are similarities to this and Deanna Raybourn’s first book, Silent in the Grave, but Veronica is stronger and far more scientific than Lady Julia.

The ending brings the plot to an interesting close without banishing all of the miscreants, leaving plenty of opportunity (and future revelations) when Veronica and Stoker agree to an expedition together…

30-DAY E-BOOK LOAN COURTESY OF NETGALLEY.

The Monogram Murders by Sophie Hannah

monogramA modern homage to Agatha Christie’s Poirot.

Writing under the Agatha Christie name, Sophie Hannah has crafted an immensely complicated murder. The premise is fantastic – a woman tells Poirot not to prevent her death at the same time that three people are murdered in an elegant London hotel, monogrammed cufflinks in their mouths.

Recounting this story is a detective named Edward Catchpool, modeled after many companions who do not understand Poirot. The main difference being Catchpool’s feelings are treated with equal weight to the murder plot. So we learn a lot about Catchpool’s fear of dead bodies, which made his chosen profession of homicide detective rather odd.

The three odd deaths are soon traced to a village tragedy, but Poirot and Catchpool struggle continuously against a parade of partial truths and side characters. During the final denouement, things twist around repeatedly and confusingly. Yet even when the entire story comes out, it remains slightly convoluted.

The main plot was genius. I would’ve loved a little more period detail, and a dash less moaning in Catchpool, to find it an utterly delightful Christie. The addition of the subplot felt unneeded and I was surprised by Catchpool feeling even a slight moral dilemma about the murderer.

A solid addition to Christie’s canon of works, I look forward to trying the next one.

The Affair of the Mutilated Mink by James Anderson

AffairofminkA tongue in cheek version of a classic whodunnit, but also an excellently constructed mystery.

The 1930s house party at Lord and Lady Burford’s is a very clever parody of classic whodunnits. It owes as much to PG Wodehouse’s ‘jolly good’ style as it does to Agatha Christie’s brilliant plotting.

First there’s the charming Hollywood actor, the irritable screenwriter and the movie producer determined to film a movie at their estate. But then things start to go a little sideways when there appear a distant cousin, an uninvited actress and the two rival suitors for Lady Burford’s daughter.

When a murder occurs, the gentle Inspector Wilkins claims himself to be unlikely to solve the mystery and calls in Scotland Yard. The name dropping of Lord Peter Wimsey and Roderick Alleyn finally clued me in that this was a parody.

The inspector who is called in, Mr. Allgood, is a good poke at all the classics with his disdain of the local constabulary and his stubborn insistence on “only the facts”. This book is really like 3 or 4 plots at once, I am amazed at how the author managed to hang them together.

The ending is like the movie Clue – each denouement is proven believably correct and then shown to be wrong. After Allgood is left gaping and insisting it is all a big conspiracy in Oriental Express fashion, Wilkins produces the correct solution.

All in all a very enjoyable and amusing parody that still manages to bewilder you and keep you guessing, rather like an elaborate shell game.

The Winter Garden Mystery by Carola Dunn

DaisyWinterGardenA bold, vivacious sleuth takes on the 1920’s  with style.

Daisy Dalrymple is a modern woman with incredible energy and enthusiasm. She is the opposite of Poirot, she rushes from clue to clue, place to place, with a mixture of determination and persuasion. Even the Chief Inspector is in awe of her.

She comes from wealth but chooses to make her own way as a magazine writer and amateur photographer. When she arrives at Occles Hall to write about the garden, she’s caught up in the discovery of a buried body. It is poor Grace Moss, the parlourmaid who supposedly went off with a traveling salesman.

After an absolutely bumbling investigation by the local police, who are terrified of the dragonesque Lady Valeria, the case concludes with the arrest of Grace’s fiancé. As a Welshman, he’s a foreigner and makes for an easy target, despite his grief. Unable to let matters stand, Daisy summons her favourite policeman from Scotland Yard, Chief Inspector Fletcher.

Like many recently written 1920s mysteries, Daisy had a fiancé killed in the war and she has two possible rivals for her affections – eligible and kindly Philip Petrie, or sharp but kind Alec Fletcher. But Daisy does not spend all her time feeling lovelorn, she gets right on tackling the case – complicated by the possibility of suspects right in Occles Hall itself.

The culprit was not a big surprise but nor was it instantly obvious. I was most impressed with Carola Dunn’s take on the modern woman – Daisy ends up saving the inspector herself.

The Garden of Eden by Ernest Hemingway

A sordid story that goes from blissful newlyweds to insane nightmare. 

It is difficult to describe this intense 1920s book – it isn’t a thriller, nor a classic. It is more of a very tiny soap opera. What starts as a golden, idyllic honeymoon of love making and eating turns into a dysfunctional menage a trois.

This is a posthumous book published after Mr. Hemingway’s death. As such it has been cut down from 125,000+ words to a mere 70,000 by an editor removing an “unneeded sub-plot”. One wonders if he did the book a favour or not.

It starts with Girl and Boy, blissfully immersed in their extended honeymoon and seemingly unaware of real life. Eventually you learn Catherine is a rich woman supporting her new husband David, a writer.

Catherine starts out by telling David of her insatiable appetite and how she is a destroyer. She’s going to destroy him, she says, but he just takes it in stride as your typical feminine exaggeration. He even says she’s too sleepy to be dangerous. Too bad she’s serious.

One reviewer says this is “Catherine’s quest to gain control in her life by becoming a man.” She gets a boy’s haircut and forces him to role play as a girl. The story goes on to involve another girl whom Catherine draws into their unfortunate marriage, before running into a bland, unsatisfying ending.

Some people have said this is about a woman who is powerful and nonconformist, struggling to express herself in a male dominated 1920s. Or about Catherine’s need to fill a void in herself and how David is a passive accessory to her mental instability.

It might have these brilliant layers but as a story it just feels unfinished, somehow managing to be uncomfortably racy while also uninteresting.

The Secret of High Eldersham by Miles Burton

secretA simple murder turns into a twisted case of witchcraft, abduction and evil.

4 years after arriving to run a pub in the tiny and tight knit village of High Eldersham, Mr. Whiteman is inexplicably murdered. Constable Viney, a young’un who never dealt with worse than a drunkard, is suddenly confronted with a knifed man drenched in blood.

Poor Viney is hopelessly outclassed. While waiting for his superiors to arrive, he downs a pint and makes an effort to investigate. But luckily for him, Scotland Yard is called in and Inspector Young soon arrives.

I was a little sad not to have ‘met’ ex-policeman Mr. Whiteman other than the briefest mention at the beginning. The author captures character vignettes extremely well and Whiteman is the sort of jovial, good-natured person I’d get on with pretty well.

It soon becomes clear that High Eldersham is very odd and doesn’t care for outsiders. So why then did they tolerate Whiteman so long? And why kill him now?

The story takes a bit of a supernatural turn and Inspector Young soon calls in his “intuitive” friend Desmond Merrion. Mr. Merrion is a bit of an expert in the supernatural and agrees that something is up.

The book descends into an occult darkness that feels almost Sherlockian. It is difficult to tell how an entire village is involved from uneducated farmers to the wealthy Sir William and his pretty daughter Mavis, odd Mr. Hollesley in love with Mavis, and the cynical Dr. Padfield.

Whether truly supernatural, the plot is most certainly evil. Inspector Young and Mr. Merrion almost lose everything trying to uncover the devilish conspirator…

30-day ebook loan courtesy of NetGalley.

Death in the Clouds by Agatha Christie

A classic locked room mystery featuring a bold, devious murder in mid air.

Somehow an old woman is murdered on a flight from Paris to London in plain view of several passengers. What might have passed as a death by wasp sting is foiled by the presence of Hercule Poirot.

Mr. Poirot is not just any detective. To most mystery readers, Agatha Christie is legend. Arguably her most treasured creation is Hercule Poirot, a short Belgian with a beautiful mustache and a penchant for truth and absolute symmetry. In this case, Poirot is one of the suspects (although not very seriously) when a murder is committed behind his back.

The murder by exotic blowpipe is so boldly, imaginatively executed that the Chief Inspector Japp is positively insulted. And yet, despite Japp’s insisting it to be mere luck, our favourite OCD detective Poirot says we must judge the end result. It is a successful murder.

This time Poirot is not accompanied by the sweet Hastings, who is a chivalrous bundle of passion and kindness, a Watson-like figure. Instead we have a French detective who believes in the psychological elements of a crime, unlike Japp, yet even he begins to doubt Poirot at times.

Despite Poirot’s frequent cry of ‘the grey cells’ and his disdain for rushing around, he does just that in this book. He follows and questions suspects, persuades them to do things for him, hunts for evidence, and generally gets so involved that it’s impossible to determine who he’s after. This one kept me guessing until the end.

Sometimes cozy murderers are sympathetic, especially when the victim turns out to be a blackmailer. But this murderer is pretty well heartless and ruthless, without even a shred of conscience…

Murder Fantastical by Patricia Moyes

A delightfully eccentric family’s refusal to sell their estate ends in murder.

What starts out as a deceptively simple murder in a tiny village proves to be a fantastically clever plot. The beloved Manciple family is eccentric to an almost unbelievable degree – even as you fall for them, you can’t help but wonder if they know far more than they let on?

All the aunts and uncles have returned to the ancestral home to vet a newcomer, the fiancé of beloved daughter Maud. But things go rather awry when the borgeouis neighbor (and successful bookie) who wouldn’t take no for answer is shot in the driveway.

Is it murder? Chief Inspector Tibbet is called in because the local policeman Sir John is too obviously a friend of the family. The head of the household, Major Manciple (who is a far cry from the stereotypical bluff major), helpfully compiles a list of suspects, motives and means for Tibbet.

But things are far from simple. Even though the plot of the victim to buy the house is fairly obvious, the story has far more depth than I expected. Vague characters like the ex-Bishop of Bugolaland and the ninety year old Aunt Dora are suspicious in their vagueness, while the Major’s darling wife Violet seems incapable of murder.

And the main characters provide so much fodder to unravel! An emotional gun-toting but pacifist ex-Major. A beautiful, vunerable and oddly remote daughter. A jealous, handsome and intelligent fiancee. A loud-mouthed boorish son who inherits his father’s business.

When a second death occurs, Tibbet is forced to work very hard and the plot plunges through so many twists that it is difficult to keep straight. When the denouement comes, in true Agatha Christie style everything clicks into place. You realize the meaning of many little oddities you had noticed without noticing. You curse yourself for a dunderhead and stand amazed at the author’s brilliant mind…

The only weakness in this highly enjoyable book is Tibbet’s wife. She’s not a bad character but she lacks Tibbert’s charm and she seems to play a very thin role. She comes in more at the end but seems to be a narrator for the plot while Tibbet’s away.

But don’t let this discourage you. This is a classic British mystery that pays homage to the greats, yet with a rare hint of something different. Even while you feel good has triumphed, it is not without a high cost, and the characters defy the typical endings you imagine for them.

One character seems to sum it up quite well – “You needn’t imagine I’m going to fit into your cozy little happy ending.”