In her post for us this week, Australian Cheryl Rogers describes herself as a new writer. That may be true in terms of the length of time she’s been at it, but she is already a well-recognized writer of short stories. Two of her stories (“Cold War” and “King Brown”) have won the Partners in Crime (Sydney) yearly short story award. Another story, “Farewell to the Shade,” was shortlisted for the 2009 S.D. Harvey Award, and she also won the Henry Lawson Society of New South Wales Award three years running. An amazing record for a newcomer! Cheryl’s stories regularly appear in Woman’s Day and Woman’s Weekly (England) and much of her short crime fiction has appeared in EQMM after its first publication in Australia. —Janet Hutchings
In Art class last year my teenage son produced a photo-mosaic self portrait. It comprised 4400 tiny photographs that he’d taken around our home, in the vineyard and orchard that surrounds it, and at his school. They represented just some of the visual vignettes that had helped to shape his view of the world, as a person and as an artist.
That portrait hangs now on the landing and I pass it every time I climb the stairs to sit at this computer and try to write. From a distance, the images mesh together to flesh out a believable likeness of a boy I recognise as my son. Up close it’s a mish-mash; coloured pencils in the art room, the cane laundry basket where he throws his dirty clothes, an embroidered kneeler in the school chapel.
I’m no expert on art, but am told that the portrait embodies the Pop Art ethos of removing images from their context to create new meaning. That makes perfect sense to the writer in me. It’s what I try to do with words. I bang my head against the wall in an effort to bring together snippets of an eavesdropped conversation, a colourful turn of phrase, the bones of a storyline saved years ago in a shoebox, and somehow weave it all together into a believable shape.
As a novice in the field of crime-fiction writing, I am all too painfully aware that the shape must also be palatable enough for the reader to swallow; hook, line, and hopefully sinker.
How then do we fill the well, that store of reserves inside the notebooks and boxes, but mainly inside our head, where we spend so much of our time? How do we build up a collection of meaningful ideas for plots, settings, and characters? And where do we find the tools to extract them, dust them down and shape them into a believable whole? By answering these questions maybe we can start to unlock the mystery that is the process of writing.
I went looking for clues among the bricks that have helped to pave my personal writing journey. Because, as much as it might sound like a lame line from a lousy crook, I really don’t know how I got myself into this. Writing crime fiction, that is. It seems to have sprung from nowhere, like a menopause baby.
The tool “discipline” almost certainly entered the mix in primary school. We had a strict headmaster who made 10-minute creative writing exercises part of the morning routine. I was too young to appreciate the benefits of regular writing then, besides, I was too busy self-editing. He was a stickler for that, too.
Around this time black-and-white television came into our household and with it the dawn of realisation about technique. Alfred Hitchcock was a regular visitor to our lounge room, supplying my first taste of stories like Roald Dahl’s “Lamb to the Slaughter.” A re-run of O. Henry’s Full House, particularly “The Last Leaf,” both moved and intrigued me. I can still remember the sharp stab of surprise when that last leaf stayed put. Those great names meant nothing to me then, but their words and ideas had hooked the interest of this small girl on the other side of the world. Knocked for six by the sting in the tail. I’ve been a sucker for it ever since.
A Science degree sharpened my research skills and set up an interest in botany and zoology. They are useful tools now when I’m trying to work out a novel way to bump off a victim. Or trap a crook.
The best part of 15 years as a rural journalist honed my note-taking skills, taught me to respect editors, deadlines and readers, and to deliver the story whether or not the subject matter interested me.
That job also helped stock up my store of vignettes. It brought me into contact with vast wheatbelt landscapes, picture perfect farms, dense forests. And people. I was paid to listen, to write down what was said, then shape it all into something coherent back at the office. So developed my “ear” for nuances of speech and an appreciation for colourful turns of phrase. Words that would help inject some personality into a feature article.
A working holiday overseas brought new landscapes, new accents, and new and unfamiliar jobs into the mix. I spent a summer season as a press officer at a Butlin’s Holiday Centre in rugged North Wales, job-hopped as a temporary secretary in London, pumped a bicycle through the streets of glorious Cambridge during a year as a general reporter on the Cambridge Weekly News Series. All the while I was writing regular letters home and keeping a journal, building up a stash of pen portraits, anecdotes, snapshots of that fleeting phase. I had no idea then just how valuable those notes would become later, to help authenticate a place, a person, a mood. Had I known then what I know now, I’d have been more diligent.
It was only after I’d returned to Australia, married, had two children and was coping with the seasonal demands of a commercial vineyard and orchard, that I seriously contemplated writing short fiction. It had always appealed to me as a reader, because it is so accessible and can deliver such a satisfying punch.
I’d been reading quite a bit of short crime fiction—Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected; The Best British Mysteries—but hadn’t seriously considered writing it. I wasn’t even sure I could. I felt a bit like Lucy at the back of the wardrobe, pushing against the door into Narnia. Then I started entering the Scarlet Stiletto Awards, an annual award to recognise female crime writers in Australia, and scraped on to the shortlist once or twice.
The funniest thing is that once I’d started the process of trying to write crime, the story ideas came rushing in like a pack of wild dogs. All those vignettes, stored inside my head and in the journals and letters and notes stashed in archive boxes, came out of hiding to flesh out the bones. I found myself starting to think differently. My journalist’s mind had been trained to keep a lookout for interesting story ideas, but generally they had a rural or community theme. Suddenly, I was thinking an awful lot about crime. At a school athletics carnival, for example, my husband and I once found ourselves sitting a little apart from the other parents. We were quietly discussing the merits of a starter’s pistol as a murder weapon.
I don’t pretend to understand how the writing process works. I do know it is never, ever easy. And that something happens; bits from the past come together to help form characters, plot, even dialogue. That’s if I make a start on a story and leave myself open to whatever flotsam and jetsam enter the mind. Then I keep working at it, adding new layers, the way an artist might coax out an image.
For example, one day out in the vineyard, I was stung by a paper-nest wasp. I’d been rattling my brain for a plot to set in an old gold-mining settlement we’d once visited. The hot, sharp pain brought to mind the time my Grandad was stung on the tongue. He’d been given some wild honey containing fresh honeycomb and there must have been a groggy bee or at least the sting inside it. I played around with that as a murder method, matched it up with the gold-town setting and “Such Rage of Honey” (EQMM, March/April 2008) was the eventual result. Grandad survived that bee sting by the way—but Grandma needed a medicinal brandy.
The process of writing that story also threw out another idea from the memory store. I needed a tag, something to mark a character as eccentric. So I gave the villain an imaginary dog, which he’d “walk” using a reinforced collar and lead. Sounds far-fetched? It was based on something I’d seen a children’s entertainer do when working in Wales.
Once I got going, this sort of thinking started adding a whole new dimension to the family holiday experience.
On a trip to Broome, an old pearling town in the tropics north of Perth, other tourists seemed only to be interested in the beautiful beaches and the pearls. I was mesmerised by the number of whacky ways to die: sharks, crocodiles, stone fish, cone shells, tides that swept in faster than a man could run. All set in a place where the outback meets the ocean.
One night we were waiting for dinner in a little outdoor café. I became aware of an older couple, seated at another table, sipping their drinks in total silence. As they disappeared into the gloom towards their campervan, I leaned across to my husband and whispered: “Let’s just hope that if we stay married that long we have at least one word left to say to each other!”
“Pearler” (EQMM, February 2007) grew from that 10-minute observation. I saw domestic indifference, maybe even disharmony. A romance writer may perhaps have interpreted the same scene as companionable silence. Contentment, even.
“London Calling” (EQMM, September/October 2009) came from my hankering to revisit the white stucco house where I inhabited a tiny bedsit in the early eighties. Out came those letters, written home years before, to provide real events as a backdrop to the fiction and move the story along. The central character’s lifestyle bore a striking resemblance to what mine had been, hence she was relatively easy to write. For the record, my temping did not include a stint with a chemical company. Nor have I ever cocktailed anyone’s coffee with herbicide.
At first I stuck to writing about what I knew. It seemed safer. Then my son came home from school one night and described a forensic police officer he’d observed examining the scene of a classroom burglary—blonde, Mohican haircut, blue boiler suit. Straightaway I could see the potential for a character there and decided to run with it. DC Anna (“Spanner”) Swift has popped up in three stories now—“Cold War” (EQMM, September/October 2011), “Farewell to the Shade” (EQMM, February 2012) and “Wine On Ice” (pending publication in EQMM March/April, 2013). Spanner is young, fast-talking, has a passion for cars, and has what my Grandma used to call “a mechanical brain.” She’s a logical thinker, which is why she made the leap from Traffic to Major Crime. Having little interest in cars, I’d never even remotely considered creating a motor-mad motor-mouth but I like her and she’s good for me; she pushes me out of my comfort zone.
I’ve never had a full manicure complete with gel-tip nail extensions either. Unlike the central character in “Serious Bling” (EQMM, August 2011). That story grew from my bemusement at the amount of time and money spent on nail adornment. Which got me thinking: What if a nail technician had a unique style? And what if that particular style could be linked to a crime?
My new best friend Google helps out with the research now, whenever I venture into unfamiliar territory or want to revisit an old haunt. What luxury to be able to walk—or more accurately, haul myself along the marked arrows—down the pavements in a foreign country, thanks to Google Earth.
I’m hooked on this form of writing now, when the demands of family and the land we live on allow it, which is not often enough. I love trying to create a puzzle for the unknown reader whose intelligence must always be respected. Always trying to achieve that delicate balance between clues and red herrings. I get to create and spend time with some interesting characters driven by a range of emotions—greed, ambition, revenge, a sense of right and wrong. Crime is a serious and often sobering subject, but crime fiction is essentially entertainment, a form of escapism for both reader and writer.
EQMM has become an important part of this novice’s education. The magazine slips easily into my handbag, or the seat pocket in the car. So I can tap into the talent and try to learn something if there are a spare few minutes before the school bus pulls in. When a story really connects I search through old copies of the magazine for other work by the same writer. The late Edward D. Hoch and Brian Muir, Doug Allyn, Val McDermid, Melodie Johnson Howe, and David Dean are among the names on my growing watch list. British writer Mick Herron is a standout. He is so skilled at playing the reader like a fish, then delivering an ending that is as satisfying as it is unexpected.
I may never unlock the mystery of the writing process, how the bits come together like a montage on a wall. But then, why should analysis spoil the ride? It’s enough to know that when we sit down to try, something is going to happen. . . .