It’s no secret that the pandemic has caused challenges for almost everyone. From money worries to anxiety and even just plain boredom, even the luckiest among us have dealt with some form of issue.
For writers, the pandemic might seem like a perfect time. After all, most of us are easily able to work from home, and writing in some form or another is always in demand, particularly now everyone has more time on their hands to spend reading.
However, writing is a creative art, and as such, things aren’t always as easy as they might seem. In a recent article, many authors discussed how the pandemic lockdowns have caused them to endure the dreaded writer’s block.
The condition comes about when writers struggle to think of new ideas, and it can be a real challenge when writing is both your favourite hobby and your livelihood.
As a content writer and team leader, I’ve seen first-hand that the pandemic has given rise to more writer’s block. Some of my team at my day job have experienced it, as have many of my friends who write creatively for a living or blog in their spare time.
All of us have, during the lockdowns, have experienced some form of writer’s block. In some cases it’s a severe lack of imagination, where we know that we have to write about a certain topic, but we can’t think of anything. Some people I know have also experienced a milder issue, where they just suddenly come towards the end of a sentence, paragraph or chapter, and can’t think of the next few words to tie everything together with.
In my case, the most common form of writer’s block that I experience often is when I simply don’t have any motivation to put my fingers on the keypad and start typing. It’s a horrible feeling, and it makes me just want to stare into space and do nothing.
Many individuals, whether they’re writers or not, have experienced a serious downturn in their mental wellbeing thank to the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic and the fear of catching the virus and harming others. For writers, this can cause of compound writer’s block and make writing tough.
Also, when you can’t go out regularly and experience new things and meet new people, it’s hard to get new ideas. You might think that having a lot of time to think would push writers to get more ideas. However, imagination relies on inspiration, and being unable to go out and get it means that it can hard to think of shiny new ideas, especially if you’re writing for a living and need a regular supply of them.
Writing isn’t easy at the best of times, but during a global pandemic it’s even harder. Writer’s block is often made even worse by panicking and thinking about it; the worse your anxiety around it, the harder it is to write. In today’s uncertain age, where almost everyone has anxiety, writing’s a real challenge. As such, writer’s block can be really difficult to deal with.
Every writer is different, so it can be a challenge to find a technique that will help you to overcome your writer’s block. There are loads of different ways to get over writer’s block; many people I speak to often recommend getting up and walking away from your computer, and doing something completely unrelated to writing, like getting yourself a drink or a snack. When they go back to their computer, they often find that they can write again and feel that their minds are refreshed.
Personally, I have a couple of tried and tested tricks that help me. One of them is talking aloud to myself about the topic I need to write about, and then try to get them down on paper. Another is to read extensively for five or ten minutes, then try to get inspiration from that.
I also like to go for a walk; even if I can’t go to a new place, like a pub or bar, right now, and meet new people, a walk sometimes helps. Walking around, even areas that I already know well, can bring me some inspiration, or just wash the fluff out of my brain.
If none of that works then it’s easy to get frustrated, especially as I’m a professional writer, and without my skills I wouldn’t have a roof over my head and snacks in my tummy. I’m very fortunate, in that I’m usually able to overcome my writer’s block with a bit of perseverance, but there’s always a nagging doubt at the back of my mind that one day things won’t come back to me.
One thing that I think I, and all other writers who are struggling to produce new ideas at a rate of knots, need to remember that this is an incredibly tough time for everyone, and what we’re all doing is amazing. The writing community, both creative and corporate, is coming up with new ideas and crafting new art while the world is literally crashing and burning around us. Not everyone can write and create amazing content, but everyone needs it.
Art and writing have been the cornerstones of the pandemic and have held us all up during these trying times. That’s why book sales rose so much during the lockdowns. Everyone needed an escape from the drudgery of everyday life, and books were there for us. Remember that the next time you’re giving yourself a hard time for struggling.
Teacher and writer Rebecca Wait, author of the amazing thriller Our Fathers, The Followers and other incredible contemporary novels talks to me about her writing and how she uses her experiences to inform her work.
Tell me about how you came to define your writing style. What drew you towards thriller and mystery writing?
Despite the subject of Our Fathers, I’ve never really thought of myself as a mystery or thriller writer until recently. My previous novel The Followers also occupies quite clear crime/ thriller territory, though it was never marketed that way (and when asked, I always describe my books in unhelpfully vague terms as ‘contemporary fiction’). But I read a lot of thriller and mystery novels, which I think often distil some of the most important elements of novel writing, with their emphasis on clear story-telling, narrative momentum and pace. The very best also display depth of characterisation, psychological acuity and emotional heft – which essentially makes for the perfect novel.
What is your background and how did you get in to writing professionally?
I’ve always written stories, and decided when I was still quite a young child that I would be a writer one day (whilst having no idea, obviously, what it involved). I finished my first novel not long after graduating from university and was taken on by my agent off the back of that (she’s fantastic, and is still my agent now). Then I secured a book deal for that first novel, and everything followed from there.
This all makes it sound like it was very easy for me, but in terms of publicity and book sales I would describe my success as pretty modest – it’s often felt like two steps forward and one step back, which I think a lot of writers would echo. Our Fathers has been my most high profile book to date. I’d never have been able to make a living from writing alone. I qualified as a secondary school English teacher after university, and have been balancing teaching and writing ever since. I’m lucky that I enjoy both jobs, so it’s worked out well for me, though occasionally I feel a bit frazzled and short of headspace.
Please tell me about your books. Why do you think readers are drawn to them?
Well, I hope they offer the things I look for myself in the books I read: a gripping story, well-drawn characters and emotional impact. I’ve always been especially interested in the nuances of relationships, and those micro-interactions between people that carry so much more weight than might appear. So I suppose one of my main focuses has always been the gap between what’s on the surface and what’s below the surface. It also occurs to me that all three of my published novels have some kind of trauma at their heart: my most recent two deal with the lead up to and aftermath of a violent crime, whilst my first, The View on the Way Down, focuses on a catastrophic tragedy that befalls a family. So there’s a lot of darkness there, but I also try to inject some warmth and humour.
Where do you find your inspiration? Are there any particular places or incidents you draw on when you find yourself with writer’s block?
I definitely find inspiration from teaching – not specific events, but just being out there in the world, interacting with people; and my students can be very funny. Similarly, an evening in the pub with my friends (though that feels a long time ago now) can get my ideas going. I also read a lot of non-fiction, especially medical and psychology books, which sometimes spark ideas. The novel I’m currently working on is about a particularly dysfunctional family, and so I’ve been reading a lot of self-help books about distancing yourself from a toxic mother (I should add here that my own mother is lovely; unfortunately too lovely for the purposes of my research).
If you could collaborate with anyone, living or dead, on a writing project, who would it be and why?
I’m not sure I’d be a very good collaborator when it comes to novels; it all feels so internal that I can’t imagine I’d play well with others. But if I could force another writer to collaborate with me, I’d ‘collaborate’ with Hilary Mantel on a novel. (I put collaborate in inverted commas because I wouldn’t really plan on helping much. I’d just watch her beadily to see how she works, make some mental notes, and then claim 50% of the credit when the book came out.)
What books do you enjoy reading yourself and how do they influence your own work?
It definitely varies depending on my mood. At the moment, I only seem to be reading thrillers. I’m in a lockdown slump, and really need a strong storyline to carry me through a book. Usually I read more widely: lots of contemporary fiction, lots of non-fiction, plus as an English teacher I obviously read a lot for my job and at the moment that’s taking up most of my mental capacity. I’m doing Middlemarch with my A-Level class at the moment, over Zoom, which is fantastic, but also quite high-effort for us all.
In terms of influence, I think it’s quite indirect for me: I notice when I read what other writers are doing well (and sometimes, what they are doing less well), and that can give my own work a steer. For example, if a plot development has been really carefully seeded throughout a book, I might go back and look again at how those clues have been planted, and how the reader might have been misdirected.
Do you have any projects coming up that you are particularly excited about?
I’m excited about the novel I’m working on at the moment, which I’ve almost finished now. I really am pleased with it. But it’s hard to sustain giddy levels of excitement during lockdown. At the moment, I get more excited about my next meal than about my work. For instance, I’m making pancakes later. It’s all I can think about.
Are there any new books or writers that you are looking forward to coming up?
I really enjoyed Romy Hausmann’s novel Dear Child, so I’m looking forward to her next book, which is out later this year. And Elizabeth Strout has a new novel out in October – I can’t wait for that.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
Thanks for the interview!
Many thanks to you Rebecca; it’s been an absolute pleasure learning about your writing and background!
Kellerman brings back his gruff, burly LAPD homicide lieutenant Milo Sturgis and psychologist Dr Alex Delaware, who join forces once again when Milo has a very cold case foisted upon him by the higher ups.
He’s unwilling to take on the case, which is more than 35 years old, but he and Alex go to meet a wealthy and influential young businesswoman who has used her connections to wangle herself a review of the case, despite it’s age and the very low probability that it’ll get solved.
From the first meeting with the women, a gym wear mogul whose mother was found shot dead in a car miles on a remote road in LA, it is clear things aren’t what they seem with this accident case. The site where the car is found is very from her home in Danville, but besides that there’s very little for the pair to go on.
From this first meeting, it’s clear that the unusual yet well-matched sleuthing duo know that they’ve got their work cut out for them. The woman has little information to go on; she only found out a few years ago from her stepfather what had happened to her mother. Her stepfather refused to tell her anything and there’s limited information out there about the case.
She only has one photo of her mother; a strange picture that shows her standing awkwardly alongside the man she’s supposedly in love with. The only possession she has left from her late mother is her necklace, made of Serpentine, which is where the novel gets its name. The jewellery isn’t something that this seemingly stylish lady would wear, but her daughter clings to it like a comfort blanket that reminds her of the mother she never knew.
With her stepfather now dead and gone, the young woman is desperately searching for answers, and she’s happy to get the help of a pair of experts, neither of whom is as happy to be taking on the case. Milo and Alex have limited information from the start- there’s not even an accurate site for where the car was torched all those years ago.
Kellerman’s characterisation is brilliant in this novel; there are some really amazing characters involved with this case as it unfolds. One of my personal favourites is the last living detective who was assigned to the case: a truly obnoxious vegan who goes by the name ‘Du’.
It’s as the pair, with a little help from Du and the Internet, delve deeper into the case, that they see that it’s not the dead end they’d originally thought it was. In fact, alongside the initial victim, there are several other unexplained and unusual deaths connected to the case. For example, the boyfriend of the murdered woman, who raised her daughter, died on a hike when he’s clearly not an man who’s accustomed to spending time outdoors.
As the case shambles on, Milo and Alex realise that there’s more to this case than meets the eye. There’s something sinister going on, and there are powerful people who don’t want the truth to see the light of day.
Much like The Museum Of Desire, Serpentine is witty and engaging. The main detective, Milo Sturgis, is reminiscent of some of the best hardboiled detectives. His supporter and fellow investigator, psychologist Alex Delaware, who’s also the novel’s narrator, is his opposite, and in a way the pair turn the traditional detective pairing on its head.
While many detective duos are headed by a cerebral detective who is aided by a strong everyman, in this case Milo is the strong, burly, ordinary bloke. Alex is the cerebral thinker of the pair, and he assists the LAPD detective by using his professional and personal knowledge to assist his more streetwise colleague.
Together, the pair works hard to solve the case. As with the previous novel, there are a couple of small issues with the plot, and it does feel a little frustrating how hard the sleuthing duo works, only to have some major for major breakthroughs in the case to drop into their laps. While luck and coincidence must, in real life, assist with some cases, with a cold case like this one, it seems highly unlikely that so much good luck would bring so many great pieces of information and fresh leads to light.
These issues are small and inconsequential, however, when you consider the excellence of this fast-paced plot. Kellerman is a master at suspense, and his excellent characterisation will keep you engaged and invested in the story throughout this witty mystery.
Overall, Serpentine is much more than just a dry old cold case story. The plot quickly transforms into a fast moving modern thriller with plenty of twists and turns to keep you guessing. There are plenty of mysteries associated with the cold case where the investigation begins, so there’s enough to keep you entertained and leave you with no idea what’s coming next, which is ideal for a police procedural.
As a massive fan of her reimagined Poirot novels, I’m really pleased to be able to share my interview with Sophie Hannah. She shares a unique insight into her work from the very beginning, so if you’re a fan of any of her work, either her standalones or her Poirots, then you should definitely read what she has to say.
Tell me about how you came to define your writing style. What drew you towards crime fiction and thrillers?
As a reader I’ve been a mystery addict since I started with Enid Blyton’s The Secret Seven series at the age of seven. I discovered Agatha Christie when I was twelve, then moved on to Ruth Rendell. My favourite writers have always been crime writers. So, it was probably inevitable that I would gravitate towards crime and thrillers as a writer; I have a very strong affinity with the genre and it’s what I most love to read.
What is your career background and how did you get in to writing?
Writing had been my hobby since childhood, but I first became a published writer as a student. I published my first picture book (Carrot the Goldfish – inspired by my husband’s observation that a piece of carrot peel in water resembled a goldfish!) and two poetry pamphlets while doing my degree and MA. Then when I was working as a library admin assistant after graduating university—I’d chosen a very easy, undemanding job in the hope that I’d have lots of time and mental energy free for my writing, and this plan worked brilliantly! — I published my first full-length poetry book. On the back of that, I was offered the most amazing opportunity: a two-year Creative Arts fellowship at Trinity College, Cambridge, which is where I started to write novels. I published three non-crime novels before discovering my natural niche of crime, and Little Face, my first crime novel, was published in 2006.
How did you get to become a published writer? What was it like getting your work published?
One of my university tutors really encouraged my poetry writing. He suggested I send off a selection of poems to magazines and then later to a small press publisher, and I started to have regular publication success. People wanted my poems! My first book was a limited edition, 200-copies-only pamphlet, but I really felt as if I’d made it and was now a properly successful writer. The same tutor was also the MD of Carcanet, one of the main UK publishers of poetry, and not long after that he published my first full-length poetry book, The Hero and the Girl Next Door. When it came to publishing my novels though, it was a much harder work.
My wonderful agent at the time absolutely ripped apart my first novel, Gripless, which was agony but she was totally right about everything that was wrong with it. Her feedback enabled me to make loads of improvements and finally it got published. It didn’t sell too well, however, and neither did the next two novels. They simply weren’t commercial in a straightforward way, so I can understand why they didn’t, and I still love them regardless. I then went through two more agents and lots of disappointment before finding my amazing agent Peter Straus, who I’m still with now, and having my big breakthrough with Little Face, whichbecame a surprise word-of-mouth, massive bestseller, sold to 34 countries and led to publishers all over the world saying to my agent and to Hodder (my UK publisher) ‘Please send us lots more books like Little Face by Sophie Hannah’.
Tell me all about your books. Why do you believe readers and critics enjoy them?
It’s always my aim to create an irresistibly suspenseful hook – to present the reader with a seemingly impossible mystery that they won’t be able to resist because they’ll be desperate to know what’s going on. In Little Face, for example, a mother insists that her new-born baby is missing and that an unknown baby has been left in her place. The baby’s father, however, is equally adamant that his wife is lying or insane.
In my latest standalone psychological thriller, Haven’t They Grown, the protagonist encounters the children of her estranged friend who, twelve years after she’s last seen them, are still three and five years old – no taller and apparently no older than they were more than a decade earlier. My readers can be sure of a complex and twisty ride, followed by a satisfying solution. They tell me they never see what’s coming, which is very important to me, because I’m often disappointed by the guess-ability of solutions in thrillers.
How did you find reimagining the Poirot novels? Talk me through your process of making them unique while still being true to Agatha Christie.
Thanks to my lifelong and obsessive Agatha Christie fandom, the blueprint for her particular and genius approach to storytelling is somehow imprinted in my DNA. However, Agatha Christie is the greatest crime writer of all time, so the last thing I wanted to do was to try (and, obviously, fail) to ‘be’ her, or copy her—I was very clear about this from the start. I wanted to stay faithful to the Christie-esque elements that readers love — the irresistible premise, the intricate plot and un-guessable solution — but I’m still writing as me.
How did you come up with the character of Inspector Catchpool? What was it like to create a character as part of such a renowned series?
Poirot belongs very much to Agatha Christie and I didn’t want to seem to be appropriating him. Catchpool is my middleman. I invented him so that he could kind of represent me in the book: he’s a new person working with, and writing about, Poirot, and so am I! To be honest, I have never seen writing continuation novels as being all that different from writing a non-continuation novel. We use true/already-existing elements in our fiction all the time. The novel I’m writing right now, for example, is completely original and not a continuation novel, but it already contains some real places and some real things in the world. Poirot, though a fictional character, is a very real thing in the world.
Are there any other classic crime fiction series that you’d like to reimagine?
I’d love to have a go at Enid Blyton’s The Secret Seven series! I think mystery is the perfect genre to hook in young readers—why would anyone ever want to read a book that wasn’t a gripping page-turner? That’s certainly how I felt as a kid.
Do you prefer writing non-fiction, fiction, or poetry? Is the process different when writing each type of text?
The process is the same for all of them, really. I don’t have a preference, because whatever I’m writing at any given moment is always the thing I love the most, and the need to satisfy my inner perfectionist means that I have to commit fully to my current project, finish it to the absolute best of my ability and make it as good as it could possibly be.
What books do you like to read yourself and how do they impact on your own writing?
Mainly and overwhelmingly, it’s crime fiction and thrillers: I re-read my Agatha Christie collection every few years. Ruth Rendell, Nicci French and Tana French are also firm favourites. I’ve just read an amazingly gripping book called The Housewarming by SE Lynes, and now I’m desperate to read the rest of her novels!
Is there anything else that influences your writing (places, people, films etc)?
Some of my best ideas come from real-life dramas, grudges and weird experiences. I’m absolutely fascinated by psychology and am always trying to understand what might motivate a person towards a particular action or behaviour. I also have a habit of taking something I’ve seen or experienced in the course of my everyday life and asking, ‘What if…?’ to build up that scenario into something dramatic enough to be the subject of a thriller.
If you could collaborate with anyone, living or dead, who would it be and why?
Cameron Mackintosh. I’ve co-written (with my friend, composer Annette Armitage) two musicals: The Mystery of Mr.E (a murder mystery musical) and Work Experience (a musical locked room mystery). Very small and local productions of both have been staged in my hometown of Cambridge, and were huge, sell-out successes. The Mystery of Mr. E also did a small, national tour, which was thrilling. The pandemic has put paid to further plans for the moment but watch this space! And my dream would be to have Cameron Mackintosh collaborate with me to stage both at the West End. So, Sir Cameron, if you’re reading this, please get in touch!)
What’s next for your writing? Have you got any exciting plans to develop it that you can share with us?
My current most exciting projects are, firstly, my online coaching programme for writers, Dream Author, which launched in 2019 and has had the most incredible success so far in terms of the difference it’s made to members’ lives and writing success levels. The programme offers psychological, practical and commercial help (and any/all other help a writer might want or need!) to writers in all genres and at all levels of experience—we have bestselling authors as well unpublished writers just starting out.
I created the programme because I’d noticed that so many writers I knew were creating unnecessary suffering for themselves just by the way they were thinking about their writing, not analysing or challenging the thoughts that were harming both their wellbeing and their ability to work towards their goals. When we learn to think about our writing situations and ambitions in the most helpful way, the positive results can be really dramatic. Anyone who’d like to find out more should visit the Dream Author website: https://dreamauthorcoaching.com/. You can sign up at any time!
I’m also at the moment currently writing Book 11 of my Culver Valley crime series. My detectives Charlie and Simon haven’t had an outing since book 10 in 2016, and I’m hugely exciting about this one coming out later in the year. Details will be available very soon and anyone who’d like to receive news of this latest book, or any of my other projects, can sign up to my newsletter at: https://sophiehannah.com/.
Are there any new books or writers that you are looking forward to coming up?
There is one in particular I’m very much looking forward to but it’s a top-secret project at the moment so I can’t divulge any details! Once it is officially announced there will be lots of excitement, however.
Do you have anything to add?
In the past couple of years, I’ve discovered how much I love podcasting and my How to Hold a Grudge podcast (based on my self-help book of the same name) now has five seasons available on iTunes, Spotify and all podcasty places! I discuss, with various guests, all things grudge-related. In the latest series we’ve covered apologies, complicity, forgiveness, plus the grudge worthy overlooking of Agatha Christie’s Mary Westmacott novels, the US Election and literary prizes.
I’ve also created a private weekly podcast for Dream Author members only, which covers all of the programme’s core topics. There’s a bonus episode on the Dream Author homepage all about building resilience, which anyone can access and you can find How to Hold a Grudge on iTunes here: https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/how-to-hold-a-grudge/id1439465411
Huge thanks to Sophie for answering my questions! As a huge fan of your work it’s amazing to find out more about your writing process.
It’s Valentine’s Day on Sunday, which means that everyone in a relationship will be posting soppy, loved-up social media posts.
For us singletons, in normal times we’d have a fun night out with our pals, or go on the pull and have a laugh.
Myself, I’ve always wanted to try speed dating and try my best to put them all off by being as wacky as possible! I’ve never actually done it because I want a friend to go with me and, so far, no one has volunteered.
However, during the pandemic, none of that is possible, as everything is still shut down to keep us all safe from the virus. Therefore, we need to find new ways to entertain ourselves.
Whether you’re in a relationship and sick of the site of them, or you’re single and fancy doing something fun, you can find solace in a good book.
While you might think romantic fiction is the perfect choice for your Valentine’s Day read, if you don’t like it then it won’t make you happy.
Instead, if you’re a fan of thrilling, action-packed novels, then why not try some crime fiction instead?
Just because you choose to avoid romantic fiction, doesn’t mean that you can’t read something that’s not Valentine’s Day themed.
The romance-laden holiday is a popular choice for crime fiction writers who use the nature of the day, with all its secrecy about crushes and focus on love, to their advantage in their plotting of fiendish mysteries.
So, if you’re searching for an exciting new read this Valentine’s Day, then check out this list of crime fiction novels and mysteries set around the holiday.
5. The Saint Valentine’s Day Murders: Written by Ruth Dudley Edwards, this novel is a truly terrifying tale of obsession. The novel is crafted in the style of a Golden Age mystery tale, making it an engaging choice for readers who love traditional, cosy crime fiction. The protagonist, Robert Amiss finds himself stuck in a dead-end Civil Service job in a non-descript backwater. In the midst of this dullness and banality, comes a spate of maliciousness and petty-minded sniping. What initially appears to be just malice and office nastiness quickly turns sinister when the wives of the bureaucrats are sent a poisoned box of chocolates. The murder puts Amiss in the thick of a complicated investigation, and together with a novice detective who’s obsessed with crime fiction and a local superintendent, he works to uncover the truth. In the course of the investigation, the intrepid threesome delves through marital strife, lies, deceit and unfulfilled ambition in search of the truth. This is a tantalising tale modelled on Golden Age cosy crime novels, so it’s perfect for fans of that sub-genre who want something new to check out that’s Valentine’s Day themed.
4. Gilt by Association: Another cosy crime novel, Karen Rose Smith’s novel features an unlikely amateur detective: a home stager. Caprice De Luca is a busy lady; she’s searching for a new dress, helping out her sister with her new baby and training her puppy. Despite all of this and preparing for a Valentine’s Day dance, De Luca still has the time to take on a new client with a picturesque home that is easy to turn into the ideal setting for a hearts and flowers themed open house. Things quickly turn from romantic and sweet to daunting and sinister when the homeowner is found dead. De Luca is drawn into a tempting mystery that threatens her Valentine’s Day plans. The novel will entice anyone who likes a crime story without all the gore that usually goes along with them.
3. Claws And Effect: Part of Rita Mae Brown’s Mrs Murphy series of cute, cosy crime fiction, Claws And Effect features a set of conniving animal sleuths who set about uncovering the mystery of a murder in the boiler room of a small town hospital on Valentine’s Day. With the help of the local postmistress, they work to uncover the clues and decipher the meaning behind the local gossip that has proliferated around the victim. It’s a cosy, sweet tale that makes a great gift for yourself or your loved one this Valentine’s Day. If you’re a young crime fiction fan, or you just don’t like particularly gruesome books, then this could be an ideal choice for you to read and entertain yourself with over this Valentine’s weekend.
2. A Judgement in Stone: Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement In Stone begins with a massacre on Valentine’s Day, as four members of the wealthy Coverdale family are murdered. The suspect is their housekeeper, who shot them as they watched an opera on TV. When she is apprehended by the police a couple of weeks later, they discover a secret that she’s kept hidden for decades and that brings out the complexities of social class and the ways that it can have an impact on all of our lives. This is a gripping thriller that’s impossible to put down, so it’s an ideal choice to keep your mind off your relationship status.
1. Valentine: As the name suggests, Tom Savage’s Valentine is about an obsessive Valentine who’s desperate to win over the woman of his fantasies, fictional bestselling author Jillian Talbot. She already has a lover, as well as a great career and awesome friends who love her very much. A creepy stalker could ruin her life; or take it. The book was turned into a film in 2001, but it wasn’t remotely similar; the book is chilling and haunting, the film is gory and frightening. As such, even if you didn’t like the film, the book is worth checking out this Valentine’s Day if you’re looking for a spine-tingling thriller that will set your teeth on edge and keep you hooked.
Short story collections are usually a mixed bag; they usually contain half-baked ideas and the tales that preceded longer, better writing projects. While it’s interesting to watch the thought-process unfold, short story anthologies can sometimes compromise on readability as a result.
As such, I wasn’t expecting every story in Philip M Stuckey’s collection, Matters Of Life And Death, to interest me. I’d expected that some would be works in progress, but I was amazed by how engaging and unique each one is in this incredible collection.
The stories range from futuristic stories of how tech is changing our lives, through to timeless tales of witches and sorcery. There’s also a truly terrifying reimagining of the Bogeyman that will actually haunt your dreams. Some of the stories are clearly set in a specific time period or setting, usually the English countryside. Others are timeless and seem to be set in another world, but the author still keeps them grounded and unique.
Characterisation is amazing in this collection of short stories; Stuckey creates two dimensional, well-rounded characters with backgrounds, feelings and unique perspectives, despite the short length of most of the stories. Some are as short as just one page, but they still manage to pack a punch and capture the reader’s imagination.
What unites this disparate group of tales is the author’s unique storytelling and inventive plots. Stuckey deftly combines human interest with inventive plotting to create relatable short stories that capture the imagination and hold it long after you’ve finished this relatively short book.
While each story is unique and inventive, that isn’t to say that there are not some similarities and reoccurring themes throughout the collection. The tales in Matters Of Life And Death are all bound together with the same focus on human nature and the way that people are connected to the earth and the mysterious forces that drive the often inexplicable occurrences that come about in nature, such as coincidences and supposed miracles.
Also, some writing techniques, such as the simile of a mute dog straining at a leash, are repeated in several stories; after a couple they become noticeable. However, these repetitions are few and far between, so while you might notice them slightly more than you would in other short story anthologies, they don’t detract from the tales as much as they do in other collections. It’s clear that all of these stories are unique and that they’ve all been written specifically for the collection; they’re not just old, half-finished projects that are thrown into a short story book to make up the numbers and get something published. These are all engaging stories in their own right, and together they create an unmissable short story collection that has something for every reader.
One of the issues in this innovative short story collection is that some of the dialogue reads too well; it sounds like a written diary entry. Most people don’t speak in this flowery, descriptive way, so the dialogue sounds a little forced. The dialogue in some stories, such as the first one in the collection, Witch In A Bottle, should really have been a diary entry or a written statement. As dialogue, it seems a little overdone and unlikely, but it would make a fantastic written statement from the character in question, a historical priest who is the victim of a supernatural possession or crime.
My only other issue with Matters Of Life And Death is that there’s no author introduction. It would be amazing to have insight direct from the author’s mouth about the inspiration behind the short story collection, which is usually reserved for the introduction. This book is only around 100 pages long, so a short intro wouldn’t have made it too long and difficult to read. It would also give us an insight into the author’s fascinating life; Stuckey isn’t just an author, but also a entrepreneur, a singer, songwriter and a poet, so he clearly has a lot of interesting things to say. If they ever re-release this short story collection in the future, I think that his publishers should definitely insist on an introduction; I’d buy another copy just for that addition!
Despite these small niggles, I’m a pretty big fan of this collection of enthralling tales. It’s a great book to binge-read, simply because once you start it, you won’t be able to put it down until it’s finished. Some of the stories are haunting and evocative, so they’ll stay with you for a long time.
Overall, I think that Philip M Stuckey’s collection of eclectic, occult themed short stories is engaging and intriguing in equal measure. If you enjoy creepy, spine-tingling tales, then you should definitely check out Matters Of Life And Death. This incredible anthology has got me all excited for the author’s upcoming fantasy novel, The Hunt For Moss And Magic. If it’s even half as good as the short stories in this collection, then it’ll be a knockout.
Dog-lover and author of Dog Days Ericka Waller talks me through her writing process and all the work that goes into turning her ideas into amazing novels. She also tells me about her dogs, so she’s automatically awesome!
Tell me about your career background. How did you become a published author?
That’s a long story. I always loved reading and writing. I did well in English but didn’t go on to university. I fell into marketing, which I didn’t really enjoy. Office life was not for me. Chats round the water cooler and drinkies after work. It felt like being the weirdo at school again.
The sudden loss of a close friend (aneurysm while at work) made me realise life was too short. She left three children under nine without a mum. I’d just had my first child. Suddenly my life felt like a bomb. I left my job to get my NCTJ in journalism. I already wrote a blog about my life as a mother. I ended up becoming a columnist for the Brighton paper. I had two stabs at getting a book published during that time, and then finally got accepted onto the Faber course for Novel Writing.
The rest is history. That is a very short version, which does not include my anxiety, or the many almost misses and luck along the way. Nor does it do credit to my husband who demanded I not give up and forced me on the train to London for the course each week.
Tell me all about Dog Days. What inspired you to write it?
Grief, suicide, sadness and awkward women! I lost a very close friend (yes, another one) very suddenly. He was involved in the Shoreham Air Disaster. I think I needed to exorcise my grief, hence George. George has more than a dash of the friend I lost, Maurice, in him.
My husband also lost a friend, to suicide. I saw the black hole it left in people’s lives and realised how you never really know how people are feeling.
I wanted to write a character who turned out to be a lot more vulnerable than he appeared. Debunk the myth it’s a selfish thing to do. It’s tragic yes but I don’t believe it’s selfish.
I suffered from post-natal depression after all three of my children and found it fascinating to wake up with a completely different head to the one I was wearing the day before. I thought about books like The Yellow Wallpaper and the idea that women think themselves in and out of things. It’s so damaging!
There is still a lot (too much) pressure on women to have a baby, start an organic candle making business, lose weight, breastfeed forever and enjoy every second of sleepless nights, nipple hairs, a lack of pelvic floor and never being able to anything for yourself without guilt weighing you down. Real life is had. I wanted to write a complicated woman, neither mad nor bad, just struggling.
Why do you think readers will enjoy reading your book?
Hopefully because, all of the above aside, it’s funny and honest and real and encourages the reader to live in the moment and enjoy what and who is important in life. It may change opinions on suicide, post-natal depression and even really grumpy old men! Obviously, it’s a hard sell on getting a dog…
What books do you like to read and how do they impact on your own writing?
I love character driven books. Anne Tyler is my favourite author. Her characters are so real, so happy and sad and honest. I still think about them. I also love Katherine Heiny, Mary Beth Keane, and Dianne Setterfield. I love irrelevant character traits damaged people. I am not plot driven. I care more about the people than the story. I love Fredrik Backman, Hanya Yanagihara for the worlds they create, and oh god I could go on and on and on.
Is there anything else that influences your writing (places, people, films etc)?
Music and poetry yes. I think my brain absorbs a bit of everything, people, places, experiences, sounds, memories, and trauma, chews it up and then spits it back out a while later as a book. It’s not a conscious decision I make. I didn’t choose to write Dog Days. George, Dan and Lizzie moved into my head and refused to leave till I exorcised them. I do like to explore films and books I’ve not read or seen before in between writing, to see what comes out afterwards. I watched a lot of Poirot and listened to a lot of Dean Martin while working on book two…
If you could collaborate with anyone, living or dead, who would it be and why?
Anne Tyler I think, probably. Yes her, or Fredrik Backman because I love them so very much. Can I have two? Can we live together while we write?
I’ve got to know- how many dogs do you have and why do you love dogs so much?
I have three dogs. A Labrador called Buddy, a miniature dachshund called Wiener and a Griffon called Enzo. I love that they love me unconditionally. I need that. I am impossibly hard on myself and finickity to live with. A real Virgo-pain-in-the-arse. My dogs love me when I win, when I lose, when I cry, when I fail, when I fall. They offer me a constant I’ve not always had in my life. You won’t be surprised to hear I lost my aunt a few years ago. I lived with her growing up. She was my second mother. She was more than that to be honest. Anyway, she used to say to me: ‘It doesn’t matter what has happened. It doesn’t matter how you feel. Get up, get up every day, wash your face with a clean hot flannel, make a pot of tea, then take your dogs for a walk.’ I do that, every day, regardless of how bad I feel and I always end up feeling better.
Are there any new books or writers that you are looking forward to coming up?
Helen Paris who was on the Faber course with me and has her book Lost Property coming out in April. Everything about her is exceptional and her book is so good I can’t talk about it without feeling emotional.
I’m also loving some of the translated literature coming out. Look out for Mad Women’s Ball by Victoria Mas, and Lonely Castle In the Mirror by Mizuki Tsujimura!
Anything you’d like to add?
To anyone writing, don’t give up. To readers, give something new a go.
Thanks for taking the time Ericka, it’s been ace to hear about you and your writing (and your dogs)!
With the current lockdown measures set to continue for some months in the UK and many other parts of the world, we’re all having to get used to the fact that we’re going to be stuck inside for a good chunk of 2021.
That means finding inventive ways to get enjoy ourselves. For book lovers, that means finding ways to buy new reads that aren’t browsing bookstores and charity shops.
Internet shopping is the ideal solution; currently there aren’t any QVC-style shopping channels for books that I’m aware of, and most book catalogues are for fancy volumes, not normal novels for the everyday buyer.
When shopping online for books, it’s easy to get burned, as I’ve learned myself to my cost. You could wind up receiving a book that’s not the one you wanted, or that’s in really bad condition and not fit for a place in your collection or precious tomes. It’s different to shopping for books in stores, as you can flick through them and actually see them, before you commit to paying for them.
In some rare cases, I’ve even ended up receiving books that I bought online in the wrong language! So, without further ado, here’s some top tips on making sure you get the best books possible when you buy online.
Check Out Independent Bookstores
Not just a tip for getting the best possible products, but also a point for anyone who wants to support local businesses. While major corporations get richer, small businesses struggle to get the funding and support they need to survive the pandemic. So, where possible, check out independent bookstores that have gone online when you’re buying books. Often, you’ll find that you get a better level of service and higher-quality products.
Ex-Library Books Are Usually The Best Quality
While it is a shame that so many libraries are closing down and getting shot of their stock of books, ex-library books are usually great quality and make a great second-hand book buy. So, if a listing for a used book states that it’s an ex-library book, then the chances are that, provided this is true, then it’ll be in good nick. Most library books are well taken care of, and if they become too worn or get damaged then the library usually throws or gives them away and replaces them.
Look Out For Listings With Pictures Of The Actual Book That’s For Sale
Many listings for second hand books will show a generic image of the cover, so you don’t know the actual condition of the book you’re buying. If possible, try to find a site or platform that shows pictures of the book you’ll be buying, so that you can see what it looks like before you pay for it.
Read Customer Reviews Carefully
Reviews from past customers can be a great indication of what a seller is like, but you should always read the content of the reviews, rather than just checking out the star or number rating. Some reviewers don’t understand the numbering system, so they’ll put someone down low when they actually like their service (happens a surprising amount). Alternatively, some reviewers will mark a seller down for something that isn’t even their fault, like the courier being late or the parcel being damaged in transit. Other buyers will be angry for an issue and might make bold claims that sound too outlandish to be true. When reading reviews of anything, my tip is to always look for consistencies. Often, if several reviewers are saying the same thing, then it’s likely to be true. If one person is saying it, then it’s just their word against the seller’s.
Consider Online Security
It’s not just the selection of books and products that you need to be wary of; when buying anything online, you need to think about website security. After all, you’re going to be giving the site not only your payment details, but also a lot of highly valuable data. If your antivirus software flags a site, then be wary and avoid using it, unless you’re sure that it’s just your software being overzealous. Check the site’s Terms and Conditions and make sure that they align with what you expect. If possible, you should also try to pay using a payment service like PayPal or Stripe, so that you don’t have to hand over your payment info to a third party.
Watch Your Bank Account Or Credit Card After The Transaction
Once you’ve purchased your lovely new books, you need to watch your credit card or bank account to make sure that no money is taken. In many cases, fraudsters tend to target certain sites because of weak security, so if other users of the same website report in reviews that they’ve been hacked, then don’t use it. If you notice that you get hacked after using the site, then mention it online, but don’t blame the site; it might be a coincidence. Just make others aware that it happened, so that if others notice an issue then the company can take steps to improve its online security. Also, be proactive and deal with the fraud promptly to reduce your chances of losing too much money and getting into financial difficulties. Some banks and credit card firms will reimburse you if you can prove that it was fraud, so contact them as soon as possible to have them deal with it.
Keep A List Of Your Favourite Book Buying Sites
If you’ve used an online book buying site a few times and like it, then bookmark it on your browser, or if you’re old school, then keep a handwritten list of your favourite sites for replenishing your bookshelves via the internet. Then you can keep going back to them and finding the amazing books that you love to read! You can also recommend them to your friends who want to find books they love online. You might find some niche stores that sell the books you like, such as used natural history books or manga novels.
With a little bit of time and research, you can usually find online booksellers that will give you the service, selection and support that you expect. Whether you’re buying new or second hand books, you want to make sure that you get what you want and don’t waste your hard-earned cash, so be selective and if in doubt, look elsewhere. Happy book buying!