A writer without any curiosity is like a lock without a key.
Our curiosity about the world around us, about the people we encounter, both those we know and those we don’t, about what might simmer beneath the surface of what we’re told, of what we read, of what we can see for ourselves – fuels our novels. Our curiosity leads us to our central plot and characters, and stimulates the research that will provide the flesh with which to clothe our initial skeletal ideas, and bring our story to vivid life.
My curiosity came into play when I was in New York not so long ago. I’d gone there to research a story line for the first of a series that I’m writing, The Linford Series, and on my final Sunday afternoon, having seen everything that I’d planned to see, a New York friend asked whether I’d like to go to the Guggenheim, the New York Metropolitan Museum, the Museum of Modern Art or to the Frick Collection.
Hm, I said. I’d like to go to Trump Tower.
I fear that in that moment I slid to the very bottom of the cultural scale, but I was curious to see the New York residence of a man whose taste ranges from gaud to ultra-bling. Since I’m assuming that some of you might also be curious about the Trump residence in NY, I thought I’d share my photos with you.
I wasn’t the only person who wanted a souvenir photograph taken in front of the entrance. Many had friends, as did I, standing behind the railing, snapping away.
I’d thought that the gold-framed glass doors would be as far as we’d be allowed to go, but not so! To my amazement, we were able to go inside and up to the first floor, so in I went. And look at the very first thing I saw! Yes, STARBUCKS!!!
I hadn’t expected that!
But I had expected to see tight security when I stepped across the Trump threshold, but there wasn’t a single guard to be seen. I had a somewhat voluminous bag with me, as you’ll see from the above photo, but no one was checking bags. I just walked straight in.
To get to the Trump Starbucks, visitors take an escalator that rises above, and overlooks, the tables in a large cafeteria below, the walls of which were – of course – the colour of gold.
Rivulets of water ran down the back of one of the golden walls, creating a waterfall effect.
Once at the top of the escalator, never one to walk past a coffee outlet without stopping, I found a seat in Starbucks – with difficulty, I must say, owing to the limited amount of seating.
Disappointed at a total lack of charm or character – this was the worst Starbucks I visited during my stay – I stared back down at the entrance. The security guards were at last in place, I noticed.
Lest you think Trump, with an unexpected degree of modesty and reserve, was allowing the name of STARBUCKS to dominate the lower part of Trump Tower, I’m afraid I must disabuse you. Everywhere I turned, there was another prominent name – a name that was even more dominant than STARBUCKS, and visible in many more places!
See if you can spot the common denominator in the following three photos.
Before leaving the building, I decided to indulge my curiosity in one last area – the ladies’ loos. I’ve seen some amazing loos during my travels over the years, and I thought that the Trump ladies’ loos were bound to be up among the best of them. I imagined that they’d be golden, flower-bedecked and the ultimate in luxury. But was I disappointed!
The overall tone was beige, not gold! And there wasn’t a single flower to be seen!!
How dull, I thought, and left the building.
Later that evening, when I returned to the apartment where I was staying, feeling in need of something to erase my memory of the garishness I saw that morning, I looked back at some of the photos I’d taken two days earlier, and in particular, at the photo I took of one of the clusters of sparkling chandeliers that hung above me when I went to the New York Metropolitan Opera House to hear Renee Fleming sing in the wonderful Der Rosenkavalier.
Now that’s more like it, I thought!
Over and out!
On Thursday, 26th April, the City of Oxford, plus a host of the many friends he’d made over the years, said a moving goodbye to Colin Dexter, O.B.E, creator of the memorable character of Inspector Morse.
The Memorial Service was held in the beautiful Christ Church Cathedral, St. Aldates, Oxford.
I was thrilled to have been invited to be among the guests, and before I sign off, I shall tell you how I came to know Colin. But first, the Service and the Reception.
The Service opened and closed with Barrington Pheloung & Players, the composer of the Morse theme. Not surprisingly, the Morse theme closed the Service.
* a speech about Colin, followed by a reading of one of A.E.Housman’s poems by Peter Waine, Chairman of the Housman Society, of which Colin was a member,
* a tribute to Colin, a dedicated crossword player and clue-compiler, by Jonathan Crowther, setter of the Observer Azed crossword,
* a tribute by Kevin Whately – Inspector Lewis – speaking first as one of the Morse actors, and then reading from ‘Death Is Now My Neighbour’, the 12th novel in the Inspector Morse series.
On the back of the programme, there was ‘A Crossword for Colin’. This was a crossword compiled by Colin in 1993, that had been cleverly amended for the occasion by his close friend, Don Manley.
The Memorial Service was followed by a Civic Reception at Oxford Town Hall.
After circulating with wine or juice, we took a seat at one of the tables and listened to the speakers on the platform give their recollections of Colin.
One of the many interesting things that Philip Pullman, the first speaker, said was that Colin had written five Morse novels before he’d ever been into a police station! He went on to say that you don’t have to visit every place you write about, you don’t have to be a man in order to write about being a man, you don’t have to be a baker to write about being a baker, you don’t have to murder someone to write about a murderer, BUT you do have to be clever if you’re going to create a character who is clever. Colin Dexter, a classicist with a particular love of Greek, was a very clever man.
James Neville talked about Colin’s passion for Classics, Wagner, and real ale hostelries.
Val McDermid talked about Colin and the Crime Writers’ Association – he was the first event in the first Harrogate Crime Writing Festival. They had first bonded over a shared love of ‘The Archers’. In an amusing speech, she described him as a highly sociable and charitable man, who always had time for his fans and to help new writers. He was a self-deprecating man, she said, with a wicked sense of humour.
After the talks, one of the Morse fans had compiled a montage of clips of many of Colin’s cameo appearances in ‘Morse’, ‘Lewis’ and ‘Endeavour’, and this was shown on a large screen in the front of the hall. It was highly entertaining, but also quite moving as we watched Colin change from the young man he’d been when the TV series was first made, to the older Colin of recent years.
Just before we attempted to do justice to the sandwiches and cakes that were set out on large round tables and down the centre of the room, Kevin Whately came on to the platform with Sally Dexter, Colin’s daughter, who, with Don Manley, had organised so much of the afternoon, and he presented her with flowers.
I spoke to several familiar faces afterwards. Kevin Whately tells me that, alas, there won’t be any more episodes of ‘Lewis’. Not so with ‘Endeavour’, though. Colin said many a time how excellent he thought Shaun Evans, and how well he’d captured the onset of the Morse mannerisms that would intensify over the years.
At the end of the Reception, every guest was given a goody bag. Inside, there was a postcard copy of the oil painting, done in 2011, that hangs in The Morse Bar of the Randolph Hotel, Oxford; the book Cracking Cryptic Crosswords, which was written by Colin, and a booklet in which he answers questions put to him by fans about himself and Inspector Morse.
Now to the question of how did I get to know him? I think most authors would agree that at some point in their quest for publication, they had a stroke of luck which helped them on their way. My stroke of luck was meeting Colin, who was later to read The Road Back, my debut novel, when it was still in manuscript form. Not only did Colin read the novel, but he said that he liked it so much that he wanted to endorse it. The words that he wrote are on the front cover. They are:
A splendid love story, so beautifully told.
To wind the clock back, Colin Dexter was always a great supporter of new writers, and a friend to the Oxford Writers’ Group, to which I belong. Indeed, it was at an OWG party in 2011 that I was introduced to him.
We quickly found out that:
* we both shared an addiction for The Archers, but were very critical of the recent themes and the large number of ‘new’ voices,
* Colin knew Belsize Park, where Patricia, in The Road Back, was brought up, as was I,
* and we both loved cryptic crosswords.
The following day, the Chair of the OWG received a phone call from Colin, asking if he could be put in touch with me so that he could give me a book he had witten.
We met in The Morse Bar at The Randolph Hotel in Oxford, and he gave me Cracking Cryptic Crosswords. During our conversation, we got on to Gray’s Elegy in a Country Churchyard – don’t ask! – which I’ve always liked. We started to recite it in unison. I faded before the end of the second verse, but Colin continued. Although he was already a sick man at that time, his mind was still fully alert, and his passion for poetry as strong as ever.
That was the first of a number of afternoons in The Morse Bar, me with a glass of white wine, he with a glass from which alcohol was missing. Tourists were regularly introduced to him, and as his books were on sale in the hotel shop, as was a model of Morse’s car, he was frequently asked to sign these. His real pleasure, though, was chatting to the people to whom he was introduced.
Eventually, his declining health made further such visits impossible, and his wife would make me a coffee in his home and we would chat there.
He was a good friend to me, and to many other people connected with writing in one way or another, and he’ll be greatly missed. Hopefully, from his cloud on high, he will have stopped doing his crossword on Thursday for a moment or two, switched off the Wagner, and listened to his Memorial Service and Reception, and he will know how highly esteemed he was, and always will be.
Colin Dexter, O.B.E. Rest in Peace.
Everyone else is doing it, I thought, so why shouldn’t I?
By ‘everyone’, I mean the TV and newspapers. They’re now full of highlights from 2016, and as I’ve enjoyed watching/reading them, I’ve decided to do the same myself. It’s been a wonderful, very crowded, year, but I’m going to limit myself to one memory for each month, and to just a photo or two for each.
Where better to begin than in …
For the past eleven years, I’ve been running the Oxford Chapter of the RNA, which mainly means organising a lunch at The Victoria Arms, Old Marston, on the first Tuesday of every month. I agree, not exactly demanding! It seemed appropriate, therefore, when looking back at the year, that my first entry should be something I’ve done twelve times in the past year, and the photo below was taken at The Vicky Arms while the first arrivals were waiting for the others to get there.
With memories of my fabulous retreat the year before in France in wonderful Chez Castillon, I jumped at the suggestion made by Rosie Dean that I join her and Cara Cooper in a retreat in Kent, and in February the three of us met up at The Seekers, where we spent several superb days. We each had a little guest cottage, and worked there until the evening, when we downed tools and went off to a pub/restaurant for an evening of food, laughter and writerly conversation. Not to mention the odd G&T!
I did a number of talks this past year, and was on several panels. All have been really enjoyable, and I could have highlighted any of them; however, I’ve chosen to highlight a Hertfordshire Literary Festival event in March in which I participated – a Romantic Afternoon Tea. Janet Gover, Jean Fullerton and I formed the panel, after which there was tea and cake, and time to talk to those who’d come to the event. It was a really lovely afternoon, and we were told that this was the largest turnout during the Lit Fest for an adult event.
Never one to miss a social event unless it was completely impossible to make it, the moment I heard about a tea to be hosted by the Chelmsford Chapter in Colchester in April, I knew that it’d be a perfect occasion on which to meet those who lived on the other side of the country. Scones, cakes and fizz, served up in a lovely place full of RNA friends – it sounded the ideal way to spend an afternoon, and I instantly emailed organiser Fenella Jane Miller and booked myself a place.
The tea, which was held in the historic Grade 11 listed building, The Minories, which stands across from Colchester Castle, exceeded all expectations, and a marvellous time was had by all.
May is always the month of the RNA Summer Party, and 2016 was no exception. The party was held in the Royal Over-Seas League, in Park Place, London, which is off St. James’s Street, and was a sell-out. No one gives a party like the RNA!
At the beginning of June, the Oxford Chapter lunch moved to a different venue – temporarily! It was shortly to be the birthday of Anita Burgh, who’d for years been a pillar of the Oxford Chapter. Annie had moved away from the area earlier in the year, so we decided to take the lunch to her in this, her birthday week. The sun shone on what was an extremely enjoyable day.
I always go to Umbria, in Italy, in July, to a 14th century house on the side of a mountain just outside a small Roman town. For the most part, the Italians who live in this very beautiful area don’t speak English, and I started to learn Italian so that I can talk to them. Alas, though, since being published, I’ve not done any more Italian, with the result that I’m slowly forgetting what I knew. That cannot be allowed to continue, and I intend to brush up the language before I go there next July. My novel, EVIE UNDERCOVER, was inspired by the house – it was wonderful setting a story (a contemporary rom com) in a place I know so well.
THE LOST GIRL was released in paperback in August so this has to be my event for the month. There were several write-ups in the newspapers, and I gave a number of talks at the time, including going on Radio Marlow to talk about writing the novel.
September was the Historical Novel Society Conference, which was followed by a writing retreat in The Gladstone Library, Hawarden, North Wales, which was followed by my first visit to Crete. I’m going to break my self-imposed limit of one item per month and put a memory from all three.
I was a member of the HNS committee, which helped the overall organiser, Carol McGrath, with the conference, which was held in the Maths Institute, Oxford. The conference was a sell-out, and included a large number of visitors from the US. Among the many brilliant speakers were Tracy Chevalier, Melvyn Bragg, Fay Weldon and Kate Williams. I was very lucky to be invited to be on a panel, entitled Far and Away, with Karen Maitland and Laura Morelli.
After all the work on the conference, what better to do than go on a writing retreat in North Wales with writer friends? And that was what I did.
By the end of both the conference and the retreat, I was ready for a different sort of break – the sort you have in the sun by the sea – and it was off to Crete I went.
At the end of October, I met up for the first time with someone I’d been friendly with for a couple of years on twitter – Carol Hedges. Carol and I had been saying for a while that we really must meet, and in the end we finally did so, meeting for a coffee in Caravan, near King’s Cross. It just shows that twitter and Facebook can be a great way of making new friends.
By now, you may be wondering if I ever get down to writing a novel! Happily, I do! For the past year, I’ve been back in 1930, living in my head with three families, each of whom lives on a tea plantation on the outskirts of Darjeeling. THE SECOND LEAF tells their stories. From the two photos below, I think you’ll agree that it’s a pretty stunning place in which to live, even if it is only in one’s head.
Although I go to the Ox lunches and to some of the Reading lunches, I also occasionally go to a SE Chapter meeting in London. Even if I’m unable to attend any of their meetings throughout the year, I always seem to manage to get to the Christmas lunch. Funny that! Last December was no exception, and we had a really pleasant time in the Sir John Balcombe, near Marylebone, which is now the venue for the meetings.
FINALLY, it’s been a really lovely year, a year full of creativity and friendship. I’m never more aware of how lucky I am that I belong to a writing community than when I sit in my sitting room at the end of the year, surrounded by lights and cards. With each card representing a friend or friends, many of them writer friends, or a member of my family, it’s as if I’m surrounded by friendship.
I wish each and every one of you a very happy, healthy New Year. May your 2017 be filled with the warmth of friendship.
One of the most enjoyable things about this year’s Chipping Norton Literary Festival was meeting author Chris Hill and having a most enjoyable conversation with him. I thought that you, too, would enjoy meeting Chris, so here goes …
First of all, Chris, let me say congratulations on winning one of Britain’s biggest story awards, The Bridport Prize, and on the publication of Song of the Sea God, your first full-length novel, which has already been shortlisted for two national awards including the Daily Telegraph Novel in a Year prize.
Thanks for having me, Liz – lovely to talk to you on your blog having met you recently at the Chipping Norton Lit Fest!
Song of the Sea God has been described as ‘a visionary and delightfully bizarre novel’. Where did the idea come from for the book?
I suppose the honest thing to say is that the idea evolved. The book is about a man who washes up on a small island off the coast of England and tries to convince the local people he is a god. Perhaps it began with wanting to write about the nature of god and religion in people’s lives – what faith means to them. I’m not particularly religious myself and I guess I’d describe myself as agnostic – but saying that I don’t know the mysteries of the universe is not the same thing as saying I think there are no mysteries. So I wanted to write a book about the god shaped hole in people’s lives – with jokes.
The research for a novel that takes the reader on a ‘microcosmic wild ride’ must have created particularly challenging problems. How did you set about your research?
Well, I made some of it easy for myself by setting the book on the island where I grew up – Walney Island off the coast of Cumbria. That meant I knew where everything was, the geography of it was second nature to me which gave it a basis in reality.
But the characters and the plot are nothing to do with Walney or the people there. There was a lot of research went into the rest of the book – everything from how to do psychological magic tricks like cold reading, through to the beliefs and traditions of ancient religions.
I’m flattered that since publication I’ve had experts in some of these areas tell me they think it rings true. That’s down to reading lot of library books, plenty of research on the internet and so on. I think as far as research goes, it’s always best to know more than you put on the page – it should inform what you write, rather than cause you to regurgitate information like a school essay!
Which did you find the hardest part of the novel to write, and how did you overcome any problems?
The ending is pretty intense. The way I structured it, the book starts out quite calm and even light-hearted, then gets gradually darker. There are some genuinely disturbing scenes which I think work for the reader partly because of what’s gone before. I just had to go for it, in the knowledge that what I was describing was backed up by research and in the hope that my readers would be invested enough in the plot and characters by that stage to ride the tiger with me.
What is your own favourite novel, and are there any particular novelists who have inspired you?
Hard to name just one isn’t it? I suppose my first love was the work of the American novelists of the last half of the 20th century – now recently deceased. People like Updike, Heller, Vonnegut, Bellow. They combined fabulous writing, great narrative voices and amazing plots and characters.
The novels that Sea God most often gets compared to are different ones though – all great works of course and I’m very flattered. People have said Lord of the Flies, they’ve said Tin Drum by Gunter Grass, Perfume by Patrick Suskind, then there’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, The Magus by John Fowles, the list goes on. I can see what people mean with all of those. A curious one I had was someone telling me I wrote a lot like Magnus Mills in The Restraint of Beasts – but I’d never read the book. I have now and love it. How can you write like someone you’ve never read? I guess perhaps we had similar influences?
What is the worst thing anyone’s said to you?
I’m guessing you mean in terms of writing here rather than say, romantic rejection? I’m going to assume you mean writing. The first novel I wrote was a kind of thriller – it was me trying to be liked, trying to be conventional and popular. One agent who rejected it said it was too ‘safe.’ I thought right – next time I’m going to give full vent to my imagination, and nobody is going to get to call it safe. So I wrote Sea God – my tale of a would be god told by a dwarfish mute on an island full of magic. And nobody has said it’s safe!
Would you tell us something about your next novel?
It’s called the Pick Up Artist and it’s lighter and gentler than Sea God. It’s a kind of rites of passage book about a young man’s attempt to attract women using the PUA system of ‘psychological techniques’ which he hopes will persuade them into bed with him.
And lastly, a question I’m sure that readers will be asking, Where can we buy a copy of Song of the Sea God?
It’s published by Skylight Press and the simplest way is probably through Amazon. Just click here.
Thanks very much, Liz – great to talk to you! If people want to link up with me they can find me here:
As always, a fabulous time was had by all at the RNA Summer Party 2013 – the ambiance at The Royal Overseas League, the company, the food – all were lovely. But don’t take my word for it. See for yourself …
I’ll begin with the Joan Hessayon Prize contenders. Yes, that’s because I’m among them!
Yes, once again I’ve let my photos do the talking. Bye for now!
Meet Evie Shaw, newest reporter on the gossip magazine Pure Dirt. Evie is the star of …
Libel lawyer, Tom Hadleigh, must urgently visit the 14th century house he recently brought in Umbria, Italy. Alas, Tom has a little problem: he can’t speak a word of Italian; his Italian surveyor can’t speak a word of English, and his regular interpreter isn’t available to accompany him.
Enter auburn-haired Evie Shaw, ostensibly an agency temp, in reality the newest reporter on the gossip magazine Pure Dirt. Through the manipulation of her editor, Evie, fluent in Italian, is sent to work for Tom as an interpreter.
For Tom, his house will be his sole focus for their week in Italy. Unfortunately for Tom, Evie has a different focus – namely, the exposé she must write about Tom or lose her only offer of a magazine job after months of searching.
But the path for the investigative journalist is seldom smooth, and it certainly never is when the subject in hand is as drop-dead gorgeous as Tom.
Evie Undercover, a rom com published by Choc Lit, is now available on kindle. Click here to be taken to Amazon, where you can read the first chapter of Evie’s story.
When reading a scene from ‘A Bargain Struck’ (to come out in Sept 2013) to my Friend in the North, I said that the character, Niall, took a packet of cigarettes from the pocket of his jeans. I heard her exclaim at the other end of the phone, and I stopped. Surely they didn’t have packets of cigarettes in Wyoming, 1887, she said. Didn’t everyone roll their own in those days?
Aha! She’s thinking no doubt of the handsome cowboy leaning against the fence, rolling his own as he stared at the distant horizon, chisel-jawed, eyes crinkling against the glare of the sun, I thought.
But it got me thinking (and not just about the cowboy!). Could I have forgotten to check the history of packaging cigarettes, I asked myself. There was only one thing I could do – I opened my online encyclopaedia. It occurred to me that you might be interested in what I found out.
Tobacco has been grown in America since the 17th century. In order to smoke it, the leaves were first rolled in fine paper. As you can imagine, this was laborious and it limited the number of cigarettes smoked. Until …
In 1865, an enterprising man, James Buchanan Duke, began to roll cigarettes and sell them to others for profit. Eventually, …
In 1881, James Bonsack invented a cigarette-rolling machine, which produced over 200 cigarettes per minute – the number a skilled hand roller could produce in one hour. This reduced the cost of rolling cigarettes by 50%, and it cut each cigarette with precision and uniformity. Cigarettes were packaged into tens, and the packet was marked with the name of the company that manufactured them and various logos or designs. Each packet of ten sold for five cents. Not surprisingly, the easier accessibility and cheaper price resulted in an increase in the popularity of cigarette-smoking.
In 1884, the astute J. B. Duke struck a deal with the Bonsack Machine Company, and he began to use rented Bonsack machines and work with a Bonsack mechanic. But …
By the late 1880s, he noticed that the growth rates in the cigarette industry were declining. So…
In 1890, he banded with 4 other tobacco companies to form a large consortium called the American Tobacco Company. This was the first company to produce cigarettes on a large scale.
So, yes, Niall would have been able to pull a packet of cigarettes from the pocket of his denims.