Late Mail

(Late Mail is a 300 word murder mystery)

My phone pinged with a message. I expected it to be a friend, checking in after David’s funeral.

‘Hello Lauren. You think you’ve got away with it, don’t you?’

It was David, but it couldn’t be, we’d just cremated him. Someone had hacked his account.

‘Who is this?’

‘Did you really think you could murder me and not be caught?’

Nobody knew what had really happened other than me and David, and he was dead.

‘David’s death was an accident. Stop this cruel joke now or I’ll report you to the police.’

They police had questioned me, maybe suspected me, but I claimed never to have taken the tiller before, that I was confused, that I was trying to stop the boat. Putting it into reverse was judged by the coroner as an accident. 

‘I saw you looking at me, you knew what you were doing.’

‘You’re not David. Please stop this.’

‘Would the police have believed you if they knew you spent every childhood holiday on a canal boat?’

My stomach lurched. My childhood and my father’s abuse was a closed book. I spoke to nobody about it, other than David, I had trusted him, until he made a joke of it that day, one he paid for with his life.

‘Whoever you are you’re crazy.’

‘Not crazy, but I am angry. And you’ve made one mistake.’

‘You can’t be David, you’re dead.’

‘You still have those photographs.’

I should have burned them. Photographs of me as a teenager, at the tiller, threading my father’s narrow boat into a lock.

I’ve emailed Detective Connery. He knows where the photographs are.

There was a knock on the front door. I looked through the window and Detective Connery was outside, with three other officers.

“Open the door please, Mrs Baker.”

Writing can't only be a mirror

illustration of age and ethnicity

When I was a teenager I had no idea what it felt like to be sixty, or even thirty. Now I’m older I am told sometimes that I can’t possibly connect with the mindset of a younger generation. Frankly I think both opinions are misjudged.

We have imagination
Anyone who is astute and observes those around them cannot possibly be restricted to writing within their own age group, gender, ethnicity and sexuality. If that were the case then every novel would only contain one generation of characters who look, act and think alike.

The only limit to our writing should be our powers of observation, the breadth of our reading, the ability to listen and our imagination.

First Love

(First Love is a 1250 word short love story)

Mary moved to a small village on the coast within a year of Vernon’s death. Her friends told her it was too soon, that she ought to wait and not make decisions so hastily but, if anything, she had waited too long.

They never had children and Vernon hadn’t been interested in identifying the cause or seeking a solution. In later years she was convinced that he thought more of his garden than he did of her. He treated the lawn with the attention he had conferred on her, when they were first wed, and fussed over his chrysanthemums with a tenderness of touch she had once enjoyed.

The town house was sold within days of putting it on the market and, once settled in her new cottage, Mary decided to take up painting again. She had the time, the freedom, and no one to belittle her attempts. She was free to express herself in ways that would previously have been criticised as frivolous.

Never having considered herself as particularly talented, despite two years at art college, Mary found the courage to contact a local art group. They met twice a week in an old chapel, now the community centre. The first time she walked through the doors she felt comfortable. The group was comprised mostly of women, but there were also three men there. They were quiet, almost apologetically so, and didn’t command the space as some men seemed to have done during her life.

The teacher, Sam, the woman Mary had spoken to on the telephone, welcomed her and made cursory introductions to a few of the othermembers, but soon excused herself in order to set up a still life on a central table. 

Only a few members of the art group positioned themselves to attempt to capture the rather dreary assembly of apples and pears spilling off a glass dish. Mary tucked herself away, near the back of the room, and turned the cover on her new pad of cartridge paper. The room had a high vaulted ceiling with dark beams against white plaster. The lower half of the walls were clad with rich pine planking, polished to a rich lustre by generations of women. She wondered whether it had always been women who gave rooms a sense of welcome and of cosiness.

Mary hesitated, not sure whether to attempt to draw the two people immediately in front of her, their backs hunched in concentration, or try to capture the sense of space in a room which was taller than it was wide. She knew she needed to make a mark, to break the spell that a pristine sheet of white paper presented.

No paint today, just pencils, soft pencils that would glide over the paper and react with the subtle texture of it. A line appeared, as if by its own volition, and she began to retreat from her surroundings, not really aware of what she was drawing, lost from the present to a place in her past where life had held promises, mysteries and passion. The spell was broken by a voice at her shoulder

“That’s excellent Mary?”

The voice of the teacher made her start. Mary hadn’t been thinking about what she was drawing, but on the paper in front of her was the face of a young man, one she recognised even though something about the nose wasn’t quite right.

“It looks very much like Peter Duncan. Have you bumped into him at the pub?”

Mary didn’t know who Peter was. The face before her had been buried in her memory for fifty years. It was David, a boy she had dated and fallen in love with when she was sixteen years old. He moved away with his parents when his father was offered a promotion. For a few months they had exchanged letters, but the interval between each communication lengthened. He never replied to her last letter. She had enclosed a drawing of him and a pressed flower, a silly gesture from a teenage girl that had probably made both him, and his new friends, laugh. What would a boy do with a dead flower and a sketch drawn by a teenage girl.

The comment from Sam drew others to her drawing. Mary wanted to cover it with her hand, but she hesitated, and then it was too late. She let her fingers rest on the table.

“It does look like Peter,” said a woman she thought was called Anne. “You must have met him?”

“It’s just a face I imagined,” Mary whispered.

Everyone agreed that it was an astonishing likeness of Peter and someone said that she must show it to David.

“David?” She repeated. Her breath snagged.

“David owns the Three Ducks. Peter is his son, he’s around at weekends sometimes with his partner. You must have seen him there.”

Mary hadn’t been in the village pub. She had no objection to alcohol and enjoyed a glass of white wine, but Vernon had not beenone for socialising and the idea of going into a pub by herself was unthinkable.

“Oh, I couldn’t. I don’t even know him.”

“Come with me,” Anne said, “We can pop in today. I often go there for lunch after class.”

Mary wasn’t sure but found herself accepting.

She put the drawing to one side, thinking about David and where his life might have taken him. Would they have stayed together had he not moved away? Might they have married, had children? 

After a cup of tea and biscuits, Mary made an attempt at capturing the still life, but it didn’t offer inspiration and her efforts were stilted and awkward. The portrait she had half-finished remained tucked in the back of her pad.

Four of them headed for the pub at lunchtime, after the class has disbanded. Anne had given her no chance to refuse and Martinand Jayne were equally enthusiastic to see David’s reaction. All were certain that there was a striking resemblance to Peter in her drawing. 

“Has David owned the pub for a long time?” Mary asked.

“He was there when I moved into the village,” Jayne said.

The other two confessed to being incomers too later additions to the village than David.

“There’s not that many locals left,” Anne said. “David’s not from round here either, but I know he must have bought the place over twenty years ago, because Peter went to the local primary school.”

“And Peter’s mother?” Mary asked.

“As far as I know they split up when Peter was quite small, but neither of them ever mention her. I don’t think she moved here with David.”

When they entered the Three Ducks there was a man with thinning grey hair behind the bar. He had his back to them but had heard the door open and could see who it was in the mirrored glass behind the bottles.

“I’ll be with you in a moment ladies,” he called cheerfully. Only when he turned did he notice Martin. “Sorry old chap, didn’t spot you there amongst the lunch brigade.” 

It wasn’t the boy Mary remembered and had drawn, but the man he had become. Behind his shoulder, propped ona shelf, was a small frame that held, behind glass, a pencil sketch and a dried flower. So many years had passed, but the flower had retained some of its colour, hinting at a life that might have been or, hopefully, one that had merely been delayed.

Miss Chatham

picture in a park for Miss Chatham poem

They walk together in the park
at three fifteen each day.
Miss Chatham and Euphorbia
quietly make their way.
One loved in life, one never held,
both showing time’s decay

Some note quietly, as they pass,
this singular mismatched pair.
The lady clothed in Sunday best
and her friend’s wild wispy hair.
Both alone, but twinned for life,
Miss Chatham and her teddy bear.

Timing is everything

I spent seven months writing a book about the world 100 years after it has recovered from a pandemic virus, rising sea levels and massive solar storms and what happens?

The same month I started sending my manuscript out to agents, we get a pandemic corona virus and a threat that the western Antarctic ice sheet may fail (that alone would raise sea levels by an estimated three metres). All we need now is a repeat of the Carrington Event of 1859 (now overdue) and I’m three for three.

As my son put it. “Who will want a book that anticipates disasters that are actually happening? That’s too bloody scary.”

Do you write within a genre?

writer thinking about plot and genre

I didn’t set out to write in a particular genre. In fact I’m not sure where the plot for my first novel came from, but I am fascinated by the way most of us make decisions in our teens that inform and influence the rest of our life.

I have heard, on more than one occasion, that the protagonist in a first novel can strongly resemble the authors imaginary life.

Not wanting to risk writing a veiled autobiography, for my first novel I chose a female protagonist. Then she needed to have one of those life defining problems, so she became pregnant – without being sure who the father was. Looking back I now realise that I didn’t entirely escape the ‘borrowing from real life’ syndrome, but at least it wasn’t my life, just someone close to me.

In fact my daughter pointed out that I’d also used someone I know as a template for the villain of the drama (fortunately nobody else has noticed, especially the person in question).

I didn’t think about a categorising my work until after I’d finished that novel and someone asked me which genre I wrote within. It took a few years, and a lot more writing, for me to feel comfortable with the phrase ‘commercial women’s fiction’ – and I’m still not sure that’s accurate. I write about relationships between people – that’s what interests me more than crime, science fiction, history, mystery, murder or fantasy.

Having said that, the novel I’m currently working on is set 100 years in the future and may stray into YA fiction. But it’s still basically about relationships – about trust, betrayal, love and greed.

Did you set out to specifically write within one genre?

Choosing character’s names

choosing character's names in a novel

My character’s names often change as a novel develops. Sometimes the original name just doesn’t seem to suit the way the character or their backstory develops.

There’s a theory called nominative determinism which speculates that your given name might define what you do in life. I don’t subscribe to that theory, but names do need to fit the characters.

I used the name Marcus in a novel recently, but you have to resolve the possessive suffix, either Marcus’ or Marcus’s. I would instinctively go for the former, but apparently this is a contentious point. I resolved it by changing his name to Martin.

Has anyone else experienced this problem?

For my current novel in progress all the characters have been given names from the Old Testament – no idea why, but it appears to be working and it feels ‘right’ for the story – for me at least.

They are Ethan, Abby (Abigail), Hannah, Isaac, Martha, Beth (Bethany), Daniel, Simon, Peter and Mary.

In my head there’s a connection between my novel, set 100 years in the future, and names from over 2000 years ago.

Does anyone have a better way of choosing character names?

How do you start a novel?

Book cover for White Lies and Black Sheep

I had heard from many different sources that there is a tendency to put a version of yourself front and centre of your first novel. I wanted to avoid this trap so decided to write from the perspective of a young woman. Writing is a form of escapism and jumping both gender and age was an interesting challenge.

The original concept
I started with the premise of a girl thinking she might be responsible for someone’s death. In law she might be guilty of manslaughter if not murder. Of course she isn’t, but doesn’t know the full details of that fateful night.

So she had to have some terrible grudge against him to make her feel guilty of wanting him dead, or at the very least punished. She would have to move away from the scene of the crime, create a new life and then return later to discover the truth. 

I planned for her to fall pregnant, but not want to reveal the father because it could have been one of two people. One being her boyfriend, the other his father who raped her when she was drunk after a party.

I also wanted to write from the point of view of a woman aged eighteen and her return, at the age of thirty-six, to the village where she grew up. 

And I wrote all this before the #metoo hashtag came into prominence.

White Lies and Black Sheep probably falls into the genre of ‘commercial women’s fiction’, not chic lit as it covers too many serious topics in an otherwise light novel. I still like the story structure and the characters, but it would be odd if I didn’t think my writing hadn’t evolved since my first novel.

How to act like a human

lots of blurred people

Everyone human being is made slightly different. Given that there are now over seven billion of us that’s pretty remarkable. It’s also not surprising that some of us malfunction in minor ways.

When I was a child
I thought everyone else had a sixth sense that I was lacking. As an adult, and after several different and sometimes interesting psychiatric diagnoses, I have come to realise that we’re all different in some way (not just me) and that applying labels doesn’t change anything.

As a child I didn’t understand how social interactions worked. I watched, trying to see how people communicated beyond the words they uttered. Small changes of expression, subtle body movements and hand gestures, variations in tone of voice and small pauses – they all augmented what they said or even replaced speech altogether. I didn’t have an innate ability to pick up on all of this so I studied cartoons, where an artist uses a set of facial rules for expression.

The people watching syndrome
This problem with ‘reading’ people also turned me into an extreme people watcher. By the time I was at university I was also supplementing my course work with reading about non verbal communication and body language. And I devoured several accessible books on psychology and psychiatry – plus attempting a few that were beyond my understanding.

So this is me
I am a hotchpotch, created by observing other people and trying to imitate their tics, blinks and sideways looks. I’m quite good at it now.

What I never realised was that all that observation would turn out to be useful when creating characters in stories. I had unknowingly been building a reference library in my head of characterisations.

What about wearing a label?
Maybe all writers should wear a warning sign, ‘Everything you say or do may be used in a novel’.

My particular label?
According to a recent diagnosis (about 5 years ago and very detailed over several meeting) I am ‘sub clinically autistic. Even my GP doesn’t quite know what that means so who cares.

Have you had a label attached to you that either makes you laugh or explains some of your quirky habits?