Tuesday 30 November 2010

Pathetic Fallacy

When I was a student (a very long time ago) I remember learning about the Pathetic Fallacy in literature, where natural events reflect human experience: Lear, a former king, naked in the tempest; storms at times of emotional turmoil in Thomas Hardy, and so on. I was thinking about the pathetic fallacy while driving into work this morning in ominous weather. I don’t enjoy driving in the best of conditions and at this time of year I always start to feel a little nervous. What if the roads are icy and my car skids...?
This kind of anxiety may be pathetic in itself, but being a worrier frequently feeds into my writing and I wonder if being subject to Shakespeare’s “horrible imaginings” goes with the territory of being a crime writer. Readers often ask how I think up plots for my crime novels and the answer is simple; I start with a ‘What if...?’ question, imagining a worst case scenario. Let me give you an example. Let’s say you have a job in an office. One evening you are the last person to leave. Going to bed you remember that you left your mobile phone on your desk at work, so you go in early next morning to arrive before any of your colleagues. Entering the office you discover a dead woman sprawled on the floor. Only a few people have keys to your office, and no one admits to knowing the murder victim.
This raises a number of questions. Who is the unknown victim? Why was she killed? You were last out at the end of the day and first in next morning - does suspicion fall on you? How do the police find the killer? If you write answers to the many questions raised by the body in the office, a basic crime thriller will virtually write itself.
Of course it’s not that simple. It takes a certain type of imagination to develop a starting point like this into a plausible novel with intriguing plot twists and convincing characters, and requires a lot of thought. So life as an author can be hard work, and success has imposed increasing demands on my time until there are times when I watch my life slipping out of control, like my car on an icy road...
As for the road ahead, if anyone had told me eighteen months ago that I would have two bestsellers to my name now, I would’ve laughed. But here I am. So I’m taking my journey as an author one day at a time with no idea what the future might bring. At least my car didn’t skid this morning - although if there was any ice on the road I wouldn’t have seen it through the dense fog up ahead...


Thursday 25 November 2010

Good News and Bad News

I've all but finished the edits for DEAD END and am getting quite excited about publication in May. It's not that far off! In the meantime, ROAD CLOSED is being reprinted, and CUT SHORT will be reprinted in a new format in June.
With all the focus on preparing for publication, the promotion goes on. It is not an exaggeration when I say that I regularly receive invitations to give interviews. Just today I had approaches from journalists on two local papers covering areas where I'll be signing near Christmas, saw a post I'd written go online on the Harrogate Festival website, heard about another guest post going online at the beginning of December, received a PDF from Mystery Women who had asked me to write a Guest Author Post for their online magazine which will be sent out next week and I'm waiting to see a feature about me in the Times Educational Supplement in December.
Here's the link to my post on the Harrogate website:
And links to two other interviews which came online this week, both print copies published a few months ago. This one is from Hertfordshire Life http://hertfordshire.greatbritishlife.co.uk/article/crime-pays-for-watford-author-27276/
and In Touch Magazine in Cyprus where not only is the article headed 'An Exclusive Interview with Best Selling Author Leigh Russell' but the type is in a lovely purple font! Love it!
On the down side, I wasn't invited to join a panel at Harrogate Festival - one day, when I've made my name, I hope to be there. In the meantime, it's back to the edits...

Wednesday 17 November 2010


Lately I haven’t posted much about what I’ve been up. It’s not that I’ve become blasé about my life as an author – far from it! - but since Cut Short was shortlisted for a major award I've barely had time to attend all my events, let alone write about them here.
In a typical week I might have two book signings at Waterstones or WH Smith, a panel at a literary festival, online interviews, media interviews, and invitations to guest post on several blogs in addition to the two blogs I regularly post on.
This week, in addition to all my usual promotion, I’ve been invited to judge a short story competition, and was contacted by a photographer wanting to do a photoshoot for a feature about me in The Times Educational Supplement. Yes, a photoshoot… ! Apparently he’s going to spend an hour taking a picture of me, and the whole photoshoot is going to take nearly three hours (including lunch, ahem.) I told you it can get a little crazy! I’ll tell you about the photoshoot next week, if it’s not too embarrassing. (You may have heard me say that it took longer to take a decent photo of me for Road Closed than it did to write the book... I have a feeling this venture into the world of glamour and glitz is going to go horribly wrong… It’s just not me, dahling.)
So (unusually) I’ve been thinking about my appearance and have decided to wear a hat with a wide brim, a mac with the collar turned up and a pair of dark glasses for my photoshoot. Sleuth-like or what? (What do you mean, a cover-up? The thought never entered my head!)
While I’ve been considering my appearance, I’ve also been thinking about the appearance of my next book. First of all I’d like to thank everyone who has commented on the cover design for DEAD END, here and on facebook.
There’s been some discussion about it. The first design chosen was strikingly similar to a book that came out last year. That in itself doesn't matter, except that I happen to know the other author concerned, so I was pleased when my publisher decided to use a different image. It seems that every detail of a book cover is discussed at great length. The designer, my publisher, my agent and I all had strong opinions about whether the title DEAD END should be printed in white or red.
What do YOU think?
And how much does the cover influence your decision to buy a particular book?
As for the photo of this author, I intend to be well disguised as a sleuth for my photoshoot!

Friday 12 November 2010

Constraints of Fiction vs Freedom of Reality

What's coming up for Geraldine? SCENE OF THE CRIME! http://jsydneyjones.wordpress.com/2010/11/16/leigh-russells-d-i-geraldine-steel-psychologically-acute/

On the spur of the moment we once went to visit a public gardens that turned out to be closed. Having travelled so far, we decided to drive on to the nearest town. As we drew level with a sign welcoming us to Milton Keynes, my mobile rang. My daughter was calling because she was bored waiting for a train in... Milton Keynes. I can’t recall the purpose of her visit, but like ours it was an unprecedented trip to Milton Keynes and neither of us had known of the other’s visit beforehand. It was fluke that we chanced to be there at the same time, and discovered we were there together before either of us left.
I could tell you a few more coincidences that have happened to me - although one is so strange that I wouldn’t relate it here for fear of being dismissed as an advocate of impossible supernatural events. It really was that unlikely.
I’m not alone in this. Most people can recall at least one astonishing coincidence they have experienced. How often do we introduce anecdotes with the words, ‘You’ll never believe what happened!’ But of course we do believe the story that follows, because it’s true.
So how is it that real life can throw up such coincidences with impunity when my editor warned me early on to avoid coincidences in my writing because ‘Readers don’t like them’?
When writing my crime thrillers I try to make them believable, researching small details to create a convincing illusion so my readers ‘buy into’ the world of my book. I’m pleased to come across epithets like ‘plausible’ and ‘authentic’ when reviewers comment on my fictional forensic science. (It should be authentic. My advisers range from an experience medical practitioner to a professor of forensic medicine, and even the human remains department of the Natural History Museum!) And I spend time working out how my detective can come across an essential piece of evidence without any unlikely coincidences which my readers might find unbelievable.
So it annoys me intensely that real life can be completely absurd and ridiculously far-fetched when we authors can’t take similar liberties. It’s just not fair!

NEWSFLASH: See it here first
(publication May 2011)


Wednesday 3 November 2010

Libraries and the future of reading

Recent figures show the number of active library users has dropped by over 2% while visits to library websites increased by almost 50 per cent. In 1849 William Ewart introduced a Public Libraries Bill. Conservatives objected, concerned that the middle and upper classes would pay for a service used only by the working classes. One MP announced "people have too much knowledge already: it was much easier to manage them twenty years ago; the more education people get the more difficult they are to manage.” Nevertheless the Public Libraries Act was passed in 1850.
The 19th century MP who complained that reading makes people more difficult to control had a point. Setting aside powerful arguments about the arts, culture and the advancement of knowledge, reading is essential if we are to have a population able to think for themselves. Because reading gives the individual access to all the information (and misinformation) in the world.
Over the past four centuries we have established a largely literate society in the West but literacy is losing its appeal. Today’s children feed their imaginations playing interactive games where their parents’ need for stories was supplied by books. We have the technology to move towards a largely post-literate society. All the text we need can be recorded with voice activated software for a listening audience rather than a readership. It’s easier. Already we access much of our knowledge from the television or online, and we see more stories on the small screen than the page.
But watching or listening to stories or information is a very different experience to reading. Apart from the argument about using imagination, when you’re reading you can speed up, slow down, pause to reflect, reread and refer back to an earlier passage. There is no one else’s voice to influence or interpret the meaning of the words for you. As reader you control how you read and interpret the words for yourself.
All of this makes books not only valuable but “an essential part of having and educated and literate population” as Wikipedia puts it.
So it is worrying that libraries are not mobbed by people wanting to access free books.
When Britain’s first public lending library opened in Manchester in the mid 19th century it was seen as an event so significant for literacy and democracy that Dickens visited, saying this was an institution “knowing no sect, no party and no distinction; nothing but the public want and the public good.” He would surely be turning in his grave to know that libraries are losing their popularity. If enough people lose interest in books, we risk losing our independent access to knowledge and even our ability to think for ourselves.

Monday 1 November 2010

On writing and... writing

Oxford University professor Kathryn Sutherland has thrown doubt over Jane Austen’s authorship of her novels, her scepticism based on an analysis of Austen’s letters. The theory seems to hinge on Sutherland’s expectation that Austen’s letters should be written in the same perfectly polished style as her books. But the letters, according to Sutherland, are “littered with misspelling and grammar errors”. The books are not. Therefore, Sutherland concludes, the books could not have been written by Austen. Sutherland goes on to quote from Austen’s editor, William Gifford, who wrote of a draft of Emma: “It is very carelessly copied… there are many short omissions which must be inserted.” He offers to “readily correct the proof for you.” From which Sutherland presumes that the books were at least in part written by the editor Gifford.
Oh dear.
I hope no one scrutinises my blog posts, emails, facebook comments, and tweets and compares them to my books. My books are by and large grammatically accurate, and my other ramblings aren’t. But would anyone conclude that my books were written by someone else? We don’t expect tweets and emails to be well-written, carefully considered literature. Why should Jane Austen’s private notes and scribblings be judged by different standards to those of today? Jane Austen’s letters weren’t written for publication. They were private. Why should she have written beautifully constructed letters in perfect elegant prose? Her books of course are another matter altogether and I daresay she – and her editor – checked and corrected them carefully.
Any serious author will acknowledge the help of their editor. Why should Jane Austen be any different?