What is something so grim as illness doing in a light, comfortable mystery? Let me tell you a story.
Back in the day, I went on a first date. It was with a Welshman, in a beautiful spot on the river Thames: Maidenhead. The restaurant was right by the water, blue from the sky from where the sun was shining. It was a golden day, and I was hopeful of passing an enjoyable lunchtime.
And then …
My date began to discourse. He gleefully related anecdote after anecdote of disease and resulting fatality.
‘There was this man, you see?’ the Welshman continued with relish. ‘It was in the papers. Twenty-five he was and fit as a fiddle, so he thought. An athlete. And then. One day. He dropped dead. Stone dead.’
‘Really?’ I asked curiously.
‘Tuberculosis! Didn’t know he had it. Well, doesn’t that just go to show? You never know.’
I repeatedly tried to turn to the conversation to happier themes, but with determination, he wrenched it back. Finally, realising what I was trying to do, he explained,
‘I like a bit of death.’
As you can imagine, I excused myself as soon as possible, and we did not have a second encounter. But what is the point of my sharing that with you?
It’s that the story is amusing. It has likely made you smile, even laugh. It has lifted your mood, even though it includes sickness and mortality. Therefore it is reasonable to conclude that medical matters can have a place in light literature.
Health Issues in the Great Cozies
Let’s look at one of the novels Daphne du Maurier, who has been listed as a cozy mystery author. In Rebecca, it is a health condition that is the key to unlocking the puzzle of ‘what happened that night?’ There are no disturbing medical details. They would be extraneous to the plot and the genre. We are simply informed of the illness.
In The Pale Horse, Agatha Christie uses disability to throw us off the scent. Miss Marple’s recovery from illness takes us to warmer climbs where she might convalesce in A Caribbean Mystery.
A popular device in whodunnits is the victim’s medication, being used as a vehicle for murder most foul: an overdose or substituted with a dangerous substance or with something harmless but depriving the patient of necessary medicine. What is crucial is the treatment, if you’ll excuse the pun, of the illness. That is, no graphic details, just as a cozy murder takes place usually off-camera.
Why Asthma for Amanda?
So we come to medical matters in the Amanda Cadabra cozy paranormal mystery series. I have been asked why I gave our heroine debilitating asthma. Doesn’t that make her weak? Physically, yes, she is below par. However, that is the very reason why she needs the indispensable component of the genre, magic. She also relies on her familiar, who is, in a sense, her seeing-eye cat.
The origin of Amanda’s asthma provides a vital part of the overall story arc of the series. It also gives her a reason to be at the clinic constructed during Book 2, Amanda Cadabra and The Cellar of Secrets. It creates balance with Inspector Trelawney. He surpasses her in fitness, but she has the greater, and vitally important, mystical abilities.
A Bit Special
When I researched the format, the formula for a cozy paranormal mystery, I knew that I wanted mine to be a bit different. Amanda’s physical limitations give her the opportunity to develop and demonstrate other kinds of strength. On the other hand, at the same time, it makes her grandparents and fellow villagers disarmingly protective regardless of however provoking their quirks might be!
A medical condition sees the dispatch of one of the less likeable characters. It also influences Granny and Grandpa’s decision as to which level of existence they choose and when.
So, I hope you’re satisfied with the place of medical matters in the cozy context. Even fatalities, the very heart of a whodunit. Perhaps, after all, you’ll say as regards your taste in literature,
‘I like a bit of death!’
Meanwhile, I am now 30,000 words into Amanda Cadabra Book 5, with 15 chapters complete and pretty much finalised.
Back next time with more musings for your entertainment.
PS If you want to start the series:
Amazon, Apple Books,
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We all agree that ‘write’ ‘book and ‘read’ should be spelt just so. Those are the agreed correct order of letters. I promised you a couple of weeks, in my post about misspelling, to give attention to The Rules. Precisely, what happens when we don’t all agree?
What rules are we talking about? So far, what I’ve written would pass the spell-checker, editor, beta reader and eagle-eyed book-fan everywhere. Now let’s try this:
Spot the Difference
I realise I was late for the theatre. But I had a flat tyre. I asked Dr Smith for help, but he said, ‘On my honour, I don’t know how! These wheels are aluminium. Can’t we just have a cosy chat?’
Now, depending on where you live, you may take exception to 7 things in that paragraph and declare about each of them,’ Whoever wrote that got it wrong.’ And if you live in the USA, you would be right. In US English it would read:
I realize was late for the theater. But had a flat tire. I asked Dr. Smith for help, but he said, “On my honor, I don’t know how! These wheels are aluminum. Can’t we just have a cosy chat?”
The first is British (or UK) English. The second American English. If you were taking a spelling test in one and used the other, then you would almost certainly lose points. New Zealand and Australia use mostly UK English. South Africa uses the identical form. Canada, as one would expect from the world’s third favourite nation, is easy-going, recognises both and comfortably straddles UK and US variants.
Pick One And Commit
As an author, that’s what I have to do. Well, sort of. I use British spelling throughout my novels and nearly always in these letters. Nearly? Yes, you may have noticed that I usually spell ‘cosy’ – as we do in the UK – as ‘cozy’. Gasp, shock, horror. Why this anomaly? It is because the title of the genre in which I write the Amanda Cadabra series listed as ‘cozy’. Generally speaking, the subgenre is written as ‘cozy paranormal mystery’. Check on Amazon, Kobo, or Itunes. Yes, but surely British publishing houses …? No, even Penguin describes that shelf with a ‘z’ Which, incidentally, here we pronounce as ‘zed’.
So, often the best you, as an author, can do is to pick a side: with exceptions, where necessary. ‘Why this moral elasticity?’ you may ask? For the sake of clarity. As writers, we are here to convey our story to you, in the most entertaining, enjoyable way possible. As my books are set in a village here in the UK, using British English is my way of seasoning the dish for your delectation. If anything does trip you up, each novel has a glossary of UK-US English terms used within the pages, and here on the website, you’ll find one too.
Your Rights As A Reader
It is reasonable to have certain expectations as the literary consumer. If you’re reading a novel set in Oklahoma in which all of the characters are locals, then you can anticipate that the book will use US spelling. What if someone rides in from England? You would still expect their dialogue to be written using US English because that doesn’t affect the pronunciation.
On the other hand, if the story is set in London, then it will almost certainly use UK spelling.
How about non-fiction? There are no holds barred here. An Australian author writing a treatise for the Australian market on the history of population movement from America may choose Australian English because of the intended target market. On the other hand, if the book was about emigration from Australia to the US and written for the American students, for example, then the author may choose US spelling.
The fact is that on a global level, the rule is that there are variants. The variant is only a letter or two difference. And what is a letter or two between friends? And there are only two versions or each one, as far as I remember. It’s hardly mayhem and revolution. Think of it as two flavours.
What’s In A Name?
In the end, language is a vehicle. It is a means to convey meaning, to create emotion, to enable us to understand one another, to co-operate, to share, to inspire, to co-create even. The widespread use of sign language, the facial expression, the body posture is testimony to the written word as just one way. Of them all, the written word is the love of my life. I love British English. Yes, it looks ‘right’ to me. But who would want to eat just one flavour ice-cream all the time?
Amanda Cadabra Book 5 continues to develop with a brand new minor character. Back next week with more thoughts for your entertainment.
Happy nearly spring!
PS If you want to start the series:
Writing, like having a student, teaches you. Well, of course, it gets you practising your craft, but there are 5 bonus extras.
For example, in the process of writing the Amanda Cadabra books, I have been enlightened on, among other things, joinery, architecture, Hertfordshire, the history of witchcraft, Cornwall, explosions, structural integrity, the paranormal, treatments for asthma, clinic design, reception areas, churches, stately homes, hidey-holes, cats and apples.
Broadly speaking, they all fall in a small number of categories.
The Big Five
Thes are location, history, costume, language, and customs.
Ok, but why go to all this trouble when it’s just a made-up story? Can’t you simply invent it? Valid point, but the background has to be believable for the plot to flow. Anomalies are distracting. I know that my readers are smart and well-informed. The Devil is in the detail …. if you get it wrong. So how does this work in practice?
X Marks the Spot
For Amanda Cadabra, I had to find a village on the outskirts of a big city. Why? Because it takes place in a village, but I’ve never lived in one. So a hamlet with the demographics of a city is something I can work with. I looked on the map and I was in luck. With the first one I visited, as soon as I drove in, I knew I’d found Amanda’s home.
However, some the action takes place in Cornwall, and it’s a while since I’ve been there. I needed Google Maps, Wikipedia, tourist websites, Google images, and YouTube videos. Finally, I began to see the small town where Inspector Thomas Trelawney lives and works at the police station. Researching place names in Cornwall and Cornish, I came up with Parhayle. His boss and best friend Chief Inspector Michael Hogarth, lives in a small village near the coast. I found the perfect candidate on raised ground overlooking the water and called it Mornan Bay.
Your chosen location will dictate the local flora and fauna: which bird is singing in the hedgerow in late June, what flowers are blooming in the meadow in early May.
What if you set your story right where you live? Well, have you ever shown visitors around your town? Probably, as I have, you’ve looked up points of interest. Which bring us to … history.
Back in the Day
Thanks to showing guests around my city, I learned the height of Nelson’s column, including the statue (169 feet 3 inches/61.59m), what the lions in Trafalgar Square are made of (bronze), when St Paul’s Cathedral was built (1675 to 1710), the length of Tower Bridge (800 feet/240 m), and the stone used for facing Buckingham Palace (Bath stone). Everything that exists in a village or town has a history that gives the location colour and texture.
To give Amanda’s home, Sunken Madley, I needed to research what people in villages did, how they lived. I looked up YouTubes of Village of the Year and listened to what residents said about their lives. My mentor, author TJ Brown also made me a present of two books: The British Countryside and The Book of British Villages . All of this helped me to get a sense of the location for the books.
Wearing Those Threads
If you set your story at any time in the past, you need to be able to mention, even if in passing, what your characters are wearing. Their status and income will also have a bearing on their taste in clothes. This helps the reader build a picture of each person.
Samantha Briggs in Books 2-4, is a fashion victim who runs riot with Daddy’s credit card on Bond Street. For her, I had to research high fashion that would be worn by someone in their late teens. Vogue and reports on the various fashion weeks were a great help here.
Amanda loves the colour orange and has a somewhat childlike sense of dress. I looked at a lot of orange clothes! Inspector Trelawney is always immaculately dressed in suit and tie. What sort of suits would he buy on a policeman’s salary? Shopstyle.com was a great help, so was GQ.
Language? Well, that’s easy. English surely? However, as I wrote to you last week, there is a great deal of variety under that umbrella term: dialects and foreign or regional accents. For Amanda Cadabra, I researched the Hertfordshire accent. I found some rare footage and a recording of some elderly folk speaking the way they did in that county decades ago.
One of my favourite scenes that I tremendously enjoyed writing is of two old Cornish friends in a pub in Cornwall discussing the weather. I had to listen to YouTubes and research Cornish dialect so that I could, phonetically, convey the rich flavour of their speech.
This Is How We Do It
Finally, we come to customs. These vary from place to place, just like language. And happily, they include food. I researched Cornish cuisine and reminded myself of traditional British favourites too: pasties, jam roly-poly, Victoria Sandwich, marmalade roll, scones and fairy cakes. Amanda, Trelawney and Hogarth each were given a favourite biscuit.
So there you have it. Novel writing is an education, but researching for your story is so much fun you don’t realise along the way just how much you are learning. You become five departments in your film production: costume designer, location manager, dialect coach, background researcher and local consultant. This is one of the great joys of being a novelist. And I am convinced that everyone has a novel in them.
I know that I promised to write more about writing in ‘English’ and just how elastic a term that is, and I shall come back to that.
Chapter 8 of Amanda Cadabra 5 has gone into the ring binder (which means its in it’s near-to-finshed form), and the book makes steady progress towards its release in the spring. The first of my crocuses opened today, and I drove past the first magnificent display of daffodils I have seen this year. So, the new novel is shooting up with the flowers. Back soon with more titbits from the writing life.
Happy Almost Spring,
PS If you want to start the series:
Do You Love Romance?
‘Not at all. I don’t want any of that primrose path stuff cluttering up the plot,’ you may say.
Fair enough. When I feel that way, do you know which aisle I head for? The children’s section. (Except for that chapter in Tom Sawyer. You know the one.) Want to include more grown-up fiction? A thoughtful reader has compiled an excellent list on Goodreads: here.
Bring It On
Can’t get enough of that St Valentine’s Day feeling? Looking for a romance novel? It’s not quite that simple. There’s a spectrum. At one end we have ‘clean romance’ or as, Barbara Cartland, doyenne of dalliance, called it ‘pure romance’. Simply put, this is where the protagonists behave with a degree of decorum, and the narrative ends at the bedroom door.
Then we have a middle section where the story takes us from tasteful action with the chamber that goes up to erotica. Do not confuse this with porn, by the way. Writing erotica well is an exacting art, and for our purposes would have a romantic context.
Love in A-midst – Cocktail
Some of the significant romantic works of fiction are not through and through romance. Really? Take Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, for example. These are as much thriller as on the subject of l’amour. Gone With The Wind is as much historical fiction as the latter. (Reading that actually got me studying The American Civil War.) So it may be worth browsing other shelves for your next romantic read.
Just a Dash
If you’re finding that no genre is safe from the fond flame and don’t mind or want, just a soupçon of two hearts that beat as one, then this is where you have the greatest scope for a full library and hours of literary enjoyment. Isaac Asimov, in his epic Foundation science fiction series, finds time and space for the tender passion. If you’re peeking around the door at horror, you’ll find romance elements in the likes of Dracula and Frankenstein.
Fantasy? The Lord of Rings has a wistful sampling of true love. Terry Pratchett in his Witch and Discworld series clearly felt that no story is complete without romance.
And Now We Come To It
It was only a matter of time. Cozy mystery. In my particular case, cozy paranormal mystery. Where does romance sit in that? Here is my experience.
When, two years ago, the genre was explained to me by fantasy writer TJ Brown, I went off in search of the rules of the game. Back then, I gained the impression that readers preferred their stories without romance. I duly wrote Amanda Cadabra Book 1 accordingly. Amanda and Inspector Trelawney move from distrust, suspicion and irritation to a connection of some description by the end of the book.
Revelations From Readers
And then … I found readers were seizing with enthusiasm on the possibilities of a warmer liaison between the two. Tim had wisely said to me that your readers will tell you what they want. The Readers had spoken. I was only beginning to get to know Amanda and Trelawney. Through books 2 – 4 and into 5, I let them develop their connection at their own place. They are, of course, kept in a holding pattern by the professional nature of their relationship. If you are reading the whole series, I do hope that you are enjoying seeing how it unfolds and where it goes!
Since my maiden voyage into cozy, I have discovered many, if not most, books in the genre include a romance component. Consequently, I gather than most readers like this side order served with their main cozy course.
That concludes this brief foray into the flutterings of the heart in literature. Amanda 5 is now 21,000 words in, and 5 chapters are much as they will be when delivered to you.
Back next week with more ponderings for your entertainment.
Happy last weeks of winter,
PS If you want to start the series:
A Choice of Four Reactions
What is your reaction when you see a misspelling or an correct use of grammar? I did a poll on Twitter. Half said they were mildly annoyed, a quarter were extremely irritated, a quarter felt disturbed. No one picked the ‘It doesn’t bother me’ option.
What sort of bugbears are we talking about here? Common culprits are: ‘They’re is’ ‘Me, two’, ‘Come over hear’. Words that evade spell-checkers. How does it feel, just reading those? The chances are that if you a keen reader, it does not improve your mood. Why?
Here’s my theory. Chaos. Not ‘chaos theory’ but simply that we enjoy order. It’s calming. Agreed spelling and grammar is order: this is what we do, this is how we do it.
We are creatures who have relied on the recognition of patterns for our survival. When something deviates, it could indicate danger. The apple that is brown instead of green, the cheese that has blue fur on it, the smell that is too pungent, too sweet, the snap of the twig that breaks the silence. We recognise the thing that doesn’t fit, and it raises the alarm.
In the case of correct usage of language, it should raise a red flag in certain circumstances. If you’re reading the website or an email from someone that you’re thinking of employing, for example, the standard of communication can indicate that they are competent and attend to detail. (However, I must admit that I have tapped out emails in haste and after hitting the send button have spotted a mistake.)
Mistakes may be pardonable in emails. However, if one of these spelling transgressions appears in a novel or a work of non-fiction, it disturbs the flow of our concentration, our engagement with the narrative. The more we have paid for the book, the more we feel entitled to receive text that is expertly edited. That is a reasonable expectation.
Here’s the thing: it doesn’t consistently annoy you, or not always to the same degree. ‘Yes, it does,’ you insist. Let’s do an experiment. Don’t you love those?
You get a letter from the Tax Office. It tells you have supplied incomplete information. The writer tells you:
‘Fill in and return in the next too days or you may face prosecution.’
Now you’re annoyed, right? If these people are going to make demands and induce stress, the very least they can do is spell correctly!
Now let’s try this.
You are in your garden. The family living next door are delightful people, and you have become good friends with them all. Suddenly their little girl pops her head over the fence, calls ‘hello’, and waves a piece of paper.
‘I wrote this for you!’ she says with glee.
She passes it to you, and there is a page of her 6-year-old handwriting, at all angles and surrounded by colourful doodles. You begin to read. It is entitled …
My First Storey
It jumps out at you, doesn’t it? But are you annoyed? No. She’s 6 years old, and this is her present to you.Not so sure that misspelling should be a capital crime now? Let’s do one more experiment.
Your current favourite author has just published her 9th book in the series that has you riveted. She seems, from interviews and social media, to be a charming lady too. You snuggle up, get cozy, coffee steaming on the table beside you, to take advantage of two solid hours of bliss.
However, for one reason or another, she brought this book out in a hurry. There in chapter three, is …(gasp) ‘She could not here what he said’. Oh dear. In chapter 5 is another, and throughout the book, there are a dozen such errors. Do you stop reading at any point? Unlikely.
Later you take up a novel that has been recommended by someone you actually don’t like all that much. Nevertheless, it sounds vaguely interesting. Hm. You begin to read … chapter 2 … typo … chapter 3 …. misuse of grammar and a missing word. By the mistake in chapter 5 …? Yes, you probably throw in the towel, thinking, I didn’t really want to read it in the first place.
Who’s In The Driving Seat?
Now we’ve established that our reaction depends on the circumstances. Good. Or is it? Isn’t the problem that we are allowing ourselves to be controlled emotionally by circumstances that we have chosen to engage with? What are the alternative reactions that could leave us less ruffled?
How about this: congratulate yourself on knowing how to spell and use grammar correctly, that the error has been spotted by your informed eagle eye, even allow the flash on indignation that you can’t get a refund and maybe … let it go. Does it really matter? Is it worth dwelling on?
Reading any book for the first time is to some extent a gamble: if we lose, we get minutes or hours wasted and disappointment. However, most of the time, we win; win entertainment, a roller coaster ride, the joy of the characters’ journey, the elation of the ending. It’s worth the throw of the dice, isn’t it?
If you find a favourite author who has let something slip in their book, there is one more thing you can do that will definitely make you feel good: drop them a line and tell them. I have a team of beta readers who do just this for me, and they are gold! And please, if you see me using ‘here’ it should say ‘hear’ or a trespass of that nature in something I have written, do, please tell me. I will feel nothing but appreciation.
However, what about when we don’t agree on the rules? What then? More about that next week …
Book 5 of the Amanda Cadabra British humorous cozy mystery series continues to grow. Back soon with more thoughts to entertain you.
Happy Valentine’s Month,
PS If you want to start the series:
What Do We Mean by ‘English’?
Before I first put pen to paper, or should I say, finger to key, on my first novel, I had a decision to make. What sort of English was I going to use? The answer to ‘do you speak English?’ is not a simple one.
If you’ve ever had a new phone, tablet, or other mobile decide, likely you’ve been asked to set up the language you prefer. Sometimes it’s defined by country. Usually as English, as spoken in England, Britain, and conversely as spoken in the USA. At other times, especially in dictionaries, the alternatives are categorised as ‘as spoken in North America’ or outside of it.
What is the difference? For example, here in the UK, we spell words such as colour and neighbour with a ‘u’ apposed to ‘color’ and ‘neighbor’ in the US. ‘Theatre’ rather than ‘theater’, ‘surprise’ rather than ‘surprise’ are two more instances. Which to choose?
The Amanda Cadabra novels are set in Britain, and so, as a British author, I choose UK English. But how to provide for those who might not be 100 per cent familiar with it? Simple; at the end of each book and here on the website, readers will find a glossary of UK-US terms and usage.
Good. So it’s all in UK English, then? Yes, but not everyone speaks in the same way throughout the UK. Accents vary tremendously. The books include Scottish, Welsh, Cornish, Hertfordshire and Cockney ways of pronouncing words. You may, upon a New Year’s Eve, have sung Auld Lang Syne. That’s the Scottish way of saying Old Long Since or, for old time’s sake. Beloved Sunken Madley resident Sylvia is from the East End of London, she’s a Cockney, and so she drops her ‘h’s. Hence she says ‘ello rather than hello.
Of course, there are also ways of pronouncing English that are special to any particular English-speaking country. Consequently, we have the favourite carer at Pipkin Acres Residential Home, Australian Megan, hailing a visitor called Gwendolen as ‘Gwindolen’ and Amanda as ‘Amenda’.
The word ‘foreign’ is a descendant of the Latin word meaning ‘outside’. That could be just ‘outside your village’ even. In Sunken Madley, retired headmaster Gordon French makes a point of reminding Amanda about newcomers. As he puts it, they are ‘not Village.’
In the days when most travelling was on foot, neighbouring settlements even a couple of miles apart, especially over steep terrain, were divided by the time it took to make the journey. In comparative isolation, each hamlet could develop their own unique ways of expressing identical ideas.
To this day, Cornish people, in the south-west of the UK, refer to Brits on the other side of the Tamar River, the traditional boundary of their land, as being ‘Up North’. Here on the other side of the River, we use the same term to mean the part of England up towards the Scottish border.
However, all in all, customarily today, we use the word ‘foreign’ as a designation of another country.
Dialect and Language
Along with accents are words that are peculiar to a region or land. ‘Ken’ can be used in Scotland for ‘know’. ‘Bairn’ can be heard in the north of the UK for ‘child’.
Next we move into actual foreign tongues. The Cornish language term bian frequently appears in the novels, as Grandpa’s term of affection for Amanda, meaning ‘baby’ or ‘little one’. There is a Frenchman in a Book 4, Amanda Cadabra and The Rise of Sunken Madley, who speaks in French. In Book 1 we have some Swedish too. How to deal with these so readers can understand the words and sentences? The convention is put all foreign words in italics. As they will be likely unfamiliar, it will be apparent that the italics are not for emphasis so that flags them up as non-English. How to convey their meaning? There are two ways. One is by context, the other is by direct translation. Here’s an example of the first one
‘Muchas gracias,’ said the girl.
‘You’re welcome,’ he replied.
Even if you don’t know a word of Spanish, you can gather that what she said was ‘thank you.’
For the second method, here is an example from Book 1, Amanda Cadabra and The Hidey-Hole Truth, for the use of the magical language of Wicc’yeth, spoken by the Amanda and her grandparents:
‘Forrag Seothe Macungreanz A Aclowundre,’ Amanda read the title, and attempted a translation. ‘For the Making of … Wonderful
The third way to clarify foreign language usage in a novel is to use English but state that the protagonists are now speaking in another language.
Why Do It?
Why complicate matters? Why not just make everyone in the books English.
First, because adding accents, dialect and terms from other languages words, adds texture, colour, variety and even entertainment in the misunderstandings that can arise.
Second, Sunken Madley is on the outskirts of London. The capital of England is one of the most culturally diverse in the world. So a village on its outskirts would naturally reflect that. This kind of consistency with the real world is vital for creating a story that is believable. The goal is to makes it as easy as possible for you to suspend disbelief and be carried into the narrative, to care about the characters, and to see it as easily as possible in your mind’s eye.
Why make in on the edge of a city at all? Why not make it in the depths of the countryside?
Simply because I want to follow the advice to ‘write what you know.’ I have never lived in a village. I have stayed in them and know people who have lived in them, but I have never had the actual experience. As a city girl born and bred, the edge of London is the best I can do. And you, my dear readers, deserve my best.
Book 5 is now climbing towards 20,000 words, which is about a quarter of the way through. Today I weaved in another strand! Back soon with more insights in the world of creating fiction and news.
If it’s a cozy environment, why have villains in it at all? In a word, contrast. As Shakespeare wrote: ‘How far that little candle throws its beams! So shines a good deed in a naughty world’. Our warm and fuzzy setting, while not a naughty world, has dusky elements that only our bright and plucky main character, usually female in this genre, can overcome.
The Scale of Villainy
Baddies come in various degrees of baddiness. On one end we have the uncontrollable psychopaths with no moral compass whatsoever: Hannibal Lecter from The Silence of the Lambs, Sauron from The Lord of the Rings, Mr Hyde from Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
With reference to the photo above, this is a lookielike of James Bond arch-villain Blofeld’s cat. A mention therefore must be made of villains you love to hate. From the beginning we don’t take them seriously so there is a diminished sense of threat. They openly revel in their misdemeanors so there is no mystery.
Next, there are those who perhaps did once have a sense of right and wrong but are overcome by emotion, for example, jealousy: Mrs Danvers in Rebecca and Iago in Othello.
Finally there are good people who do bad things. Jane Eyre’s Mr Rochester makes the best of a bad situation with his first wife. He arranges for private medical care, as it were, while living a lonely and despairing existence. Rochester fights against his growing attraction to Jane which manifests itself as abruptness. However, at last, out of desperation, he attempts a deception that, exposed, leaves Jane traumatised. Good person; bad deed.
The Way You Tell ‘Em
Where do these figure in cosy mystery? Turning to the queen and godmother of the genre, Agatha Christie, we observe her treatment of villains. The author has ‘evil’ in one of her titles and even the apparently mild Miss Marple uses the adjective ‘wicked’. Christie’s murderers are cold, calculating killers who, in pre-1965 Britain would have faced execution.
In the cosy genre we eschew the gore of the rampaging axe-wielder using unacceptable language to express his dissatisfaction. However, we do have our pick of the scale if we present them apparently palatably. Christie accomplished this cleverly. Her murderers appear normal, even likeable or sympathetic, until the dénouement, the unmasking at the end. Then the part of our cosy world with the dark patch of unsolved crime is lit with the beacon of truth.
This leads me to believe that the secret to wring baddies in a cozy mystery, is to do with presentation.
Learning on the Job
I developed much of my own method courtesy of TJ Brown author of The Unhappy Medium, when I had the privilege of top editing his novel Tom Fool, second in the comic paranormal series. Top edit? This is the final check for continuity, flow, and includes analysis of the mental and emotional terrain of the book. The editor looks at how well they work and suggests any way that they might be improved. And here I learned about how to write villains in a fun read.
Tim’s principle baddies are evil, so evil that he nudges them into caricature. His lesser villains he renders ridiculous in their obsessions. (Rather like Cruella de Ville in The One Hundred and One Dalmations) There are scary scenes, moments of chilling fear and split seconds of shock that, with a word, a phrase, or sentence, he artfully switches to helpless giggles on the part on the reader. Tim’s tools: absurdity and diffusing. Of course, all nasties come to a sticky end and justice is served while the heroic goodies live to fight another day.
I learned so much from those weeks working with Tim, who finally convinced me I could write a novel of my own. That was when he told me of a genre hitherto beyond my ken: cosy paranormal mystery.
The Miscreants of Amanda Cadabra
The baddies in the Amanda Cadabra series, similarly to Tim’s approach, are in two tiers: the shadowy witch-clans of the Cardiubarns, Granny’s family, and the Flamgoynes, their cold-war-style foes. From birth, the threat to Amanda is very real and dictates her secretive life-style. Although I prefer to avoid such weighted words evil and wicked it is clear that both clans are thoroughly ill-intentioned. Nevertheless, the amoral fashion in which they do not hesitate to bump each other off tips edges them towards comic.
Each book has its own mystery. However, there are no psychopaths among the criminals, who are driven by emotion such as jealousy and fear. But wrong has been committed and fairness to the victim dictates that they are brought to justice, which of course they are.
This being the world of warm and fluffy (with an edge), no character to whom we have become attached perishes. However, even if it is an outsider, it is still a case for our heroine of ‘ritin’ ‘rongs’, in the words of Richmal Crompton’s incomparable William. When Amanda does so we share the moment with her and our sense of balance in satisfied, our faith in the ultimate victory of light and right restored.
The subject of villains and their treatment in literature is a vast and deep one. This is but my take of an overview and a how-I-do-it.
The manuscript of Book 5 is now laid out on my carpet, a crucial stage in its development. It is growing into the dish that I hope will be for your cozy delectation.
Back next week with more ponderings, revelations and news.
Happy Winter Days,
PS If you want to start the series:
Born To Be A Storyteller
‘I could never do what you do!’ Have you ever said that? It’s often what readers say, and each time I think: ‘But you are a natural narrator. All humans are. It is what, among other things, we are born to be.’
First of all, it’s true; you probably couldn’t replicate what I do in the way that I do it. No two writers follow precisely the same process. But then, I don’t think you’d want to. However, read on and see how yes, you could, you can, you do, produce, create, non-fiction and fiction. You’re good at it because you’ve been engaged with this since you were tiny.
The Dog Ate My Homework
At some point in your earliest years, you will have spilt your milk, knocked over the biscuit tin reaching for an unauthorised cookie, got mud on your best shoes. And the question came: What did you do that for? They were asking you for … your story. Now, your reply might have been factual:’ I didn’t see the cup,’ or fiction: ‘You said I could have one.’ The point is that you produced a narrative. And in explanations and apologies, you have been doing it ever since. And you’re good at it. Needs must. We’ve all been in the situation of ‘you’d better come up with something and you’d better make it good’. The legendary Scheherazade knew that only a rivetting tale with a cliffhanger ending could make her homicidal royal husband stay the executioner’s hand for the night while she came up with the sequel!
This Is How We Do It
We are natural teachers: as parents, siblings, friends, tutors, co-workers, instructors, bosses, neighbours, pet owners, or just simply fellow humans. We all at some time, need, want to know how to do something. Even unwittingly, we convey how-to’s to other people. Maybe today someone watched you buy a ticket at the train station, use the coffee machine, make a sandwich. You went through a sequence of procedures that told the story of how you do that thing. Has anyone ever said to you, ‘You’re a really good teacher.’ Don’t we love to be told that?
‘But that’s factual, that’s just non-fiction,’ you say. Making up a brand new story about new people and places and creating a plot just out of your head? I couldn’t do that!’ I used to say exactly the same thing. And I was wrong.
It’s Going To Be All Right
Your best friend’s relationship is over; your sister has broken her arm. At the moment of crisis, they can only see and feel the intensity of distress, but you can see the wood for the trees. You say:
‘It’s going to be okay. You’ll get over this in time, and it will be just a memory. You’ll probably even laugh about it. When you feel like it, we’ll dress up, and we’ll go out to your favourite restaurant. We’ll order the best wine on the menu, and I’ll ask them for a special cake with a candle so you can make a wish.’
You paint them a picture of a happier time. You’ve done that. The events you describe haven’t happened yet. At the time you say all of that … it’s fiction.
Yes, But …
‘Saying it is one thing’, you protest, ‘writing it down is another.’ Well, here’s the news: you don’t have to. Agatha Christie to some extent and especially Barbara Cartland, romance author of some 700 novels dictated their books! You have a recording app on your phone or tablet or computer? You can record your narrative. You can type it up yourself, ask a friend, or pay $5 to someone on fiverr.com to do it for you. There are kind beta-readers and professional editors who can take care of the next step for you. The fact is that you will l have created a tale, a make-believe story. It can be firmly rooted in a real place and characters you know. It can be a few words long. Don’t believe me? Check The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories
It turns out that you can do what I do: create stories. You have narratives that someone out there wants to hear, read, know. So whether it’s one-to-one, into your phone, scribbled on the back of an envelope or typed out, keep telling your stories.
Why We Respect You
As authors, we have great respect for you, our readers, precisely because you are storytellers too. It is like we are dancing for an audience of dancers, singing for an auditorium of singers. So when you tell us that you enjoyed our performance, our tale, it is our hearts that sing. So do, if you can, tell a writer of a book, or an article, a tweet, a post, a comment, that you liked what they wrote, if it made you laugh, or feel better or see things in a new way. Please, tell us. It means the world to us.
And now … the new Amanda Cadabra novel is now almost 15,000 words in. January will have one final book offer. Book 1 of the British humorous cozy mystery series, Amanda Cadabra and The Hidey-Hole Truth has a 25% price drop to just until the end of the month. Back soon with more musings and news.
PS If you want to start the series:
Sign up to keep in touch: https://amandacadabra.com/come-on-in/
One of my book reviewers was kind enough to say, ‘You write men particularly well.’ Several generous readers have remarked that all of the characters are believable, including the males.
How is it done? Not being an authority, I can only tell you how I do it for my particular cozy paranormal mysteries. How I put myself in their shoes.
First of all, I don’t think of the character as ‘a man’. The individual is simply a person. After all, in most cases, pregnant parents don’t think of their child as ‘he’ or ‘she’ but as ‘the baby’ for as many as nine months. They imagine sharing the things they enjoy with this individual regardless of gender, whether it’s Mozart or metal, sewing or soccer, art or astrophysics.
Second, the character, the person, is governed by social codes, the strongest of which is determined by gender. We can think of it as a fence. The shape can round, square, regular or with bulges in it. It can be a low ornamental flower bed border with gaps or 20 feet high barbed wire with an electric current of 7000 volts.
So, what determines the nature of this gender fence? The country where the character lives, the class he is born into and socio-economic background of his parents, his caregivers are all significant factors. For example, in the 1700s in Europe, an upper-class man was expected to wear make-up, have long hair, either his own or a wig, dress in silk, satin, velvet and lace, dance, speak French and write poetry. Consequently, a male who deviated from this was at a severe disadvantage. Georgette Heyer entertainingly explores this in her masterly historical romance novel Powder and Patch.
Fast forward 200 years and the general definition of manliness would preclude all of the above. Just for fun, let’s expand on that and look at how social class affects the fence. Take Billy Elliot, the film and musical based on the play Dancer by Lee Hall. This story has a boy growing up in the 1980s in the coal-mining stronghold of England’s industrial North East. Understandably, drawn to ballet, Billy comes up against the stone wall of working-class prejudice. However, he overcomes the monumental odds in the joyful finale.
By contrast, in About A Boy, the novel by Nick Hornby that was subsequently made into a successful film, our young hero has a very different shaped fence. It is 10 years after Billy’s formative years. Marcus, child of a folksy, adoring, middle-class mother, lives with her in a fashionable part of London and is encouraged to express himself artistically. He finds himself caught between her values and those of their trendy new friend, but nevertheless finds his own happy medium.
So now we come to our hero of the Amanda Cadabra British humorous cozy mystery series, Detective Inspector Thomas Trelawney. As his name and role came to me, I saw him: fit, tall, mid-brown hair. I sensed his fence. Middle-class. That told me accent. Cornish, from a fishing port. His gender fence is shaped from working-class, traditional expectations and those differing ones of his parents.
A fence doesn’t have to be a limitation, it can be as far as our experience goes, like a tidemark or a boundary stone. Usually a child can attend only one school at a time or be educated at home, can only live in one place at a time. You can only swim in water, walk on land. What is Trelawney’s terrain? In this case, the system worked backwards. As I sensed Thomas’s character, I knew what his parents were like. His mother is passionate, energetic, and humorous, his father is gentle, quiet, kind. Trelawney attended university as anticipated and approved of by his parents. However, what he studied, his career choice met with doubt, even protest.
An individual then, is a person with fences. Some that that person knows are there, some they accept, others they move, some they escape by relocating, some they simply ignore or don’t notice. These are the things that, in my opinion, form a character. They are the things with which we can all, in some way or another, identify. That’s what makes that person sympathetic, makes us care about what they get up to, how they are treated and if they get a happy ending.
Scientific research now tells us that there is more difference between individuals than between genders. Once characters appear to me in my mind, I hear their voices. The more I get to know them the more I know what they would and wouldn’t say, what they would and wouldn’t do. They show me who they are, because or in spite of their formative fences. As people. Recognisable people. People Ideally, who will engage, intrigue, delight and above all, entertain you!
As a writer, it’s fun to set up notions of the boundaries in the imaginary world and then subvert them. Sunken Madley’s teashop is owned by two men, keen bakers and patissiers. The best shot in the village is a woman. The most intimidating presence is … a cat.
I hope that this brief sketch of a very complex subject, of how one author writes in one sub-genre, has been enlightening, and if you are an aspiring writer, shown you that writing another gender is a lot less of a challenge than you might think. If you are a reader, may this will enrich your experience of the books you read in general and the Amanda Cadabra series in particular.
What news from the writing front? I am now about 4000 words into Book 5 and breaking off to ‘pen’ this letter to you.
If you’d like to join the Amanda Cadabra voyage, Book 1, Amanda Cadabra and The Hidey-Hole Truth is on a 50% price drop until 14th January on Amazon kindle.
Back soon with more writing news and if you’d like to ask me about this letter, please drop me a line, or find me on Facebook and Twitter. Hearing from you makes my day.
Happy New Year!
PS If you want to start the series:
Thank you to everyone who took advantage, or shared the news, of the free kindle download offer of Amanda Cadabra and The Flawless Plan, in the 72 hours up to Christmas Day. I hope this seasonal tale from the British humorous cozy paranormal mysteries helped with last-minute presents and rewards to you who worked hard to make it a joyful time for friends and family. And now, for coming week, the next month, the new year ….
Whether you are in still in the midst of festivities, or in recovery, it’s hard to miss that 2019 is making its grand finale. So, what of the emerging decade, the twenty-twenties, just days away now? How about new year’s resolutions? Is one of them to read more? If you’re a workaholic, is it to take a little more time out for yourself? Be more positive? More optimistic?
One thing most people agree on is that the winter holiday season can be expensive. To make it easier to begin a new cozy mystery reading project, here is a special discount. Starting the Amanda Cadabra series with Book 1, Amanda Cadabra and The Hidey-Hole Truth, will have a price drop to $1.99 for the first two weeks of January 2020 on Amazon Kindlebooks. This is an unprecedented offer. Hopefully, will help with any or all of your best intentions for the coming year: reading, relaxing and enjoying an inspiring trip. Where? Into a murder mystery world where, with a little magic and the courage of both the ordinary and extraordinary, good always triumphs. If you enjoy it then there are three more books in the series. So far!
(For a taster, you can watch the book trailer here or read or listen to the opening chapter here).
By the time I write to you again, it will be 2020, and I hope to have news of progress on Book 5. The plan is to get it into your hands by March at the latest. Also, I will tell you my new year resolutions that are intended to enhance your enjoyment of the cozy mystery experience.
All in due course. See you in 2020.
Wishing you a happy finale to the twenty-teens,
PS If you want to start the series: