Would you rather live in Handcock’s Bottom or is Marston Bigot more up your street?

I had a whale of a time when conniving the settings for my cosy crime series The Shires Mysteries. Truth be told, I nearly wet my pants.

To find a name for the village that would host all of the crimes I had in mind, I needed something memorable but authentic – something that would sit comfortably alongside all the real-life places in my county. Something that didn’t sound out of place in the Shires.

I reside in a place called Upper Studley. Upper is a common qualifier for an English village and it sounds immensely better than Lower or Little. They are equally common but less classy than my Upper. Then you have the Bottoms. They are, well literally, at the bottom of the ladder. For how would one feel dwelling in Handcock’s Bottom, or Scratchy Bottom, or Bottom Flash? How about Crinkley Bottom or Bottom Burn? If you aren’t into Bottoms, then would you consider buying a cottage in Buttock or a small bungalow in Great Butts? They are real villages proudly inhabited by real villagers.

I decided against setting my stories in the nether regions. I set my sights high – closer to Upper than Lower. Upton struck me as a possibility. There are a lot of Uptons around here. Think Upton Cow Down – yes, it’s a real place that can be found on a map, as can Upton Snodsbury. But they seemed too pretentious to me.

Tiddley Wink tickled my fancy. It’s a not a big village. In fact, it isn’t a village but a tiny hamlet. When I drove through it for the first time, I blinked and I missed it.

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My mother-in-law is now a resident in a residential home located in Limpley Stoke. Oh yes, she is! When we visit, we can pop over to the village pub called The Hop Pole Inn. Oh yes, we can! Here it is:

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The Hop Pole Inn in Limpley Stoke

Ultimately, I opted against naming my fictional village using an existing name, so Tiddley Wink and Limpley Stoke had to go, as well as Booby Dingle, Grope Lane, Farleigh Wallop and Clench Common.

Finally, I settled on Bishops Well. Not very imaginative, I hear you say. Life can be so much more out of this world than fiction!

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The Church of St John the Baptist in Bishops Well
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The Prom Queen and an Ugly Duckling

I am an emotionally charged Mummy. Yesterday was Daughter’s prom. Fab day for Daughter, a rollercoaster of emotions, dramas, malfunctioning Satnavs, makeup disasters and bare-knuckle fights for me.

A whole day off work was requisitioned so that I could assist Daughter in her transformation from her customary leggings/baggy t-shirt getup and an aversity to hairbrush to… well, this amazing beauty I hardly recognised. I hasten to add that by assisting I mean chauffeuring to and from appointments, getting under her feet, stabbing her with a mascara brush in the eye and tying her shoelaces. I left the proper stuff to the professionals. And here comes my Prom Queen:

I am amazed and proud, and taken aback by her confidence and grown-up poise neither of which she got from me. And I thank her lucky star for that!

To illustrate my point, I will take you back in time to my own prom. What a tragic affair that was! For I was the ugly duckling who had never made it to the rank of swan.

First of all, it was a social event. Social events weren’t for me. They scared the living daylight out of me (still do, but pst…) as I had no idea what to say and felt deeply uncomfortable rubbing shoulders with all those people who knew exactly what they were doing. My thoughts were far away in lands fantastical and if I were to articulate them, my peers would regard me with contempt, I was sure of that. So I kept my mouth shut. I had no boyfriend. I had zero social acumen.

On the morning of the prom, while other girls were having their hair and nails done, I was away attending the final of The Young Writer 1985 competition. Instead of shoes and makeup, I was contemplating restless ghosts and the sound of a black horse’s hooves on a cobbled road in my gothic horror piece. Incidentally, I came third so that wasn’t a runaway success either.

From that event, my Dad drove me home at breakneck speed (in his car, not a black-horse-and-cart). With half-n-hour to the start of the prom, I hurriedly refreshed, washed the ink away from my fingers and wrapped myself in my new shiny dress (my Mum had chosen it for me on her own. I had been too busy doing something much more important at home).

It wasn’t only the dress that had been chosen for me behind my back and without my input. It was also my partner for the evening. Did I mention I didn’t have a boyfriend? But I did have a few good-Samaritan friends. One of them had recruited their brother’s mate to accompany me. So there I was in his arms on the dance floor, breathlessly counting the steps and never taking my eyes off my feet. Poor guy, it must have been the worst night of his young life!

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When you want to go invisible – step by step instructions

When you want to go invisible:

  1. You climb under the tiniest footstool in the house;
  2. You keep your tail tucked under your backside and avoid wagging it;
  3. You put on an innocent, but sheepish face;
  4. You pretend the legs and tail sticking out from under the stool have nothing to do with you.

Visual guidelines:

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This dog has performed the invisibility manoeuvre. The causes are still under investigation – I am checking all my slippers for bite marks and whether my bed has been slept in by uninvited guests. The local cat population is being examined for missing tails and ears. Husband will inspect his flowerbeds for signs of tunnelling. Meantime, Dog remains invisible.

Breaking news: a new book deal

I am thrilled to announce that yesterday I signed a three-book deal with Accent Press for my new series, The Shires Mysteries. I am buzzing with excitement, singing from the rooftops (badly) and purring with pleasure.

The Shires Mysteries feature a pair of accidental sleuths from the depths of Wiltshire’s countryside, a place called Bishops Well, a large village with aspirations to be a town or, according to some inhabitants in the know, a medieval market town which over the centuries fell on hard times. There are a few places like that in Wiltshire. Mine is a cross between Devizes, Trowbridge and a small village with its own claim to fame that I know well, but it’ll let remain anonymous.

One of my intrepid sleuths is Maggie Kaye, a woman of many talents, some of them quite out of this world; she is a Jack of all trades and master of none, with her finger in many pies, including education, journalism, a spot of gardening and the supernatural. The other is Samuel Dee, a widower and retired barrister, who comes to Bishops Well seeking peace and quiet. His best laid plans are derailed when he ends up as Maggie’s neighbour and reluctant confidante.

In the first book, a famous Polish director, a cult figure from the eighties, is murdered at his own birthday bash. Maggie pursues the killer, dragging Sam with her whether he likes it or not. Don’t expect anything gruesome, procedural or blood-curdling. The Shires Mysteries are light and humorous – the genre known as cosy crime.

Accent Press are planning to release the first book, Wide Angle – the Director’s Cut in August 2020. I have doodled a commemorative banner to fill the space between now and then.

The Shires

 

Have you ever worried a sheep?

On our annual pilgrimage to the Lake District, we stopped at Lancaster. Apart from the uplifting medieval architecture, I was swept by the language of public notices: the bizarre, the quaint and the outright hilarious.

Looking for somewhere to park, we were disheartened to discover that most of parking spaces were reserved for Residents Only. And I must say, the local residents squatted on the wall resolutely, giving us an evil -beady- eye. Pesky lot!

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Going deeper into the old-town centre of Lancaster, I uncovered that another lot of ‘residents’ was having a much better time than they deserved, serving it at Her Majesty’s pleasure in one of Her castles offering no doubt five-star accommodation. Yes, I am talking about the Lancaster Prison. Imagine, putting in your CV where you have spent the last fifteen years! Nothing to be ashamed of, I hear you say?

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I elected not to enter that establishment however and headed for the lush Williamson Park. Alas, a word of warning: the place is rife with all manner of peril and countless dangers. To name one: shallow water! Beware, oh random passer-by and wear your armbands!

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To escape the clear and imminent dangers of Lancaster, we drove all the way to Grasmere in the Lake District – only to find out that the roads there were NOT FOR CARS! And I have the proof:

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So, one has to walk, hike, trundle, trudge, trot and climb – anything but drive a car! But, while you’re on-foot travelling, mind the SPEEDING RED SQUIRELS! They are quite some devils on wheels, and they totally and utterly disregard all the signs telling them to SLOW the hell DOWN! Look out:

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But never you mind the squirrels. Worrying sheep is a criminal offence in the Lakes, and quite rightly so! Sheep are genteel and anxiety-ridden creatures – you would be too if your future as a piece of lamb or, if you were lucky to live longer, as a piece of mutton, was mapped out for you at birth! So do not worry them! Tread carefully and sing lullabies when you pass them by on your hikes. Shhhh…

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But then again, do these faces look worried? Do they? Do they?

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Then again, appearances can be deceiving, I am afraid… Very, very afraid.

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DI Gillian Marsh of the #not-me generation

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DI Gillian Marsh is a handful. She can be abrasive and insubordinate. She is a thorn in her boss’s side because she simply doesn’t know her place. She is every murderer’s worst nightmare because if you’ve got something on your conscience you won’t shake her off your scent. Her team know not to get in her way as she steams through her cases like a runaway train that will wait for no one. No, Gillian isn’t likeable, but that doesn’t worry her. She wasn’t born to be liked – she was born to get to the bottom of the matter. That takes dogged determination, hard-nosed attitude and never letting go. It is no wonder that with all those characteristics, DI Marsh is affectionately known as Pitt Bull.

I am quite particular about not labelling DI Marsh as a lady-detective. Not because she isn’t a lady, but because she wouldn’t appreciate the label – the gender label. When she’s on a case, she isn’t a woman. Neither is she a man. She has no gender.

She is just a damn good detective.

I have been brought up to take gender equality for granted. I have never submitted to gender stereotypes and have led my life as a human being, full stop. If I had to describe myself, I would never start (or finish) with I am a woman. Womanhood would constrict me to one side of humanity. I wouldn’t want to miss on what the other side had to offer. I wouldn’t want to take sides. So no, I am not a feminist. I don’t see a point in gender wars.  I have now passed my beliefs to my protagonist. I won’t have her defined by reference to men or be seen through a man’s eyes. Gillian doesn’t aspire to be man’s equal, or even to be better than any man. Her straightforward and uncomplicated objective is to be the best in absolute terms, without bringing sexuality into it.

I like to think of DI Gillian Marsh as the prototype of the next generation – the post #me-too generation. I like to think of her as the #not-me generation. No one would dream of reducing her to her femininity. No man would dare to take advantage of her womanhood. Make no mistake, Gillian Marsh would not be abused. Being a woman does not make her vulnerable. That’s how she is and that’s how I like her.

That’s what makes her a damn good detective.

Gillian is tenacious and methodical. She analyses cases to death. She calls that inventorising. In her head, she runs an inventory of facts and evidence, mulls them over, tries different angles and matches all the pieces until they all fit together. She doesn’t give up. That constant and entirely absorbing process leaves her little time for domesticity.

Her daughter, Tara, is her Achille’s heel. Gillian is an impromptu mother. She blunders through motherhood, plagued by insecurities and anxieties. God knows how she gets through mothering without major incidents! Probably beginner’s luck. And there is another character flaw on the domestic front. It is to do with men. Gillian doesn’t know quite what to do with them after sex. Men seem to slip through her fingers like sand. She can only give them so much of her time, and that is never quite enough. But that’s the choice she knows she has to make. She has to choose her job. After all, she may not be the greatest lover the world has seen, but –

…she is damn good detective.

Re-blogged from Accent Press:

https://accentpressbooks.com/blogs/author-posts/di-marsh-generation-not-me-by-anna-legat

Sharp and swift – the language of the masses

Yesterday’s People’s Vote march in London was brimming with sharp, swift and deadly language of political rallying. It was the language of the masses and for the masses. I was fascinated with the crispness of wit, the depth, the satirical edge, the hilarity.

It takes a master wordsmith to deliver a powerful message in a few words that can be squeezed into the tiny space offered by an old cornflakes cardboard box. I came across many of those homemade, juicy bits yesterday, and I devoured them.

The phrase food for thought could not be more appropriate: it was a feast!

As a writer eternally struggling for that perfect turn of phrase, I received  a free lesson in what it is to be succinct, funny and genuinely passionate all in one.

I managed to smuggle something out in a doggy-bag:

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Canada in instalments: 2 Glaciers — my travelogue, part 2

Even in the height of summer, you can find a cool spot in Canada. You can go further than that and find a place that is frozen rock-solid. All you have to do is to catch a ride on a huge, Moon-baggy like vehicle with wheels the seize of a house all the way up the mountain […]

via Canada in instalments: 2 Glaciers — Anna Evans-Wylie

How I lead a double life

Every seven years, so it is believed, we undergo a full molecular transformation. Short of shedding skin, we find different things funny and get up in arms over different issues, we drop our old habits (even those that once amounted to an insurmountable thirty-a-day), we swop our likes and dislikes, we lose our strengths and acquire new weakness, and we emerge on the other side as someone else. As writers, we do it with even greater frequency.

If we add to it changing personal circumstances, births and deaths, marriages and breakups, house moves, job redundancies, intrepid journeys and other cataclysmic events, God knows what multitude of personalities we carry inside us! As writers, we kill and resurrect those personalities round the clock, we store them at the back of our notebooks, we chop them, mix and match them, pick and choose, buy two for the price of one, adopt them and disinherit them at a whim…

Many of them make it into our stories. They are much more realistic if we had an opportunity to live inside their heads at some point in our constantly morphing lives. They turn up on the page with ease and we are able to switch between them, dash from one to another in dialogues in which we take sides, try to talk reason and simply cannot deal with the other character’s pig-headedness. In Life Without Me I had to feed on my assertive, professional, no-nonsense self when I stepped in Georgie’s shoes and had to starve myself of any common sense whenever Paula tottered in wearing her high heels and little else. While writing the opening chapters of Swimming with Sharks I lived in my pyjamas, hiding under the bed whenever there was a knock on the door, but when Gillian marched onto the scene, I lost the pjs, got in the car and let the road rage take me to my destination (because, let’s face it, the world is full of fools I don’t suffer gladly and someone has to let them know that).

There are times when characters get under our skin. They won’t listen and they are not particularly likeable, and you really want nothing better than to kill them off. But, like I said, they don’t listen. They won’t go away. They won’t let you write them out of the story no matter how many traps you set for them. They can be exhausting, but you have to deal with them. I like to take breaks from them, offering them the traditional excuse of ‘Look, it’s not you – it’s me.’ Today I’ve been writing about Reggie, a South African mercenary with a heart wrought into a nugget of steel. I just had to throw in his way young Bella – a delicate flower of a woman who brought back tender memories – to soften the bastard up a bit. And so it goes. Sometimes I have to switch between stories, leave one to sulk in the background and reach out to another one, make new friends and remember myself to old enemies.

I know some of my characters, some of my multiple personalities, are pain-in-the-arse, incorrigible wastrels, but God forbid, someone should say that to my face. It feels like a slap, and I have to fight the urge to slap that someone back. Because my characters are my babies. Not all of them are good, or decent, or agreeable, but they are mine.

Recipe for a short story in Russian

I’ve always felt this natural affinity with Russian culture and literature (not the most popular thing to say in the current climate, I admit, but culture has nothing to do with the present regime in Russia; regimes come and go, culture endures despite their efforts to thwart it). Ever since I discovered that Anna Legat, the greatest prima ballerina of all times, happens to be my namesake, I have been having this irrational fantasy that maybe – just maybe – my dad’s ancestors hadn’t arrived from Germany, but from the glitzy St Petersburg, wearing tutus and humming tunes from Swan Lake. And that may explain why I felt so at home with the characters from Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida.

There is nothing to rival the breadth and the depth of the Russian soul captured by some of the greatest of Russian writers. You feel swept away and carried into the depths of every story, only to come up for air at the end of it and be instantly pulled in again by the next one.

There are several master strokes to each story one can only hope to emulate.

Firstly, each story has something to say, something to contemplate, something to register at the back of the reader’s mind. It is usually a deep philosophical question which is very cleverly reduced to a small, everyday occurrence that somehow manages to burst out of the straight jacket of triviality. It leaves you deep in thought.

Secondly, the plot yields to the character. People come to life in these stories. They are all sorts of them – such richness of personalities and their quirks and secrets; their delusions and their simple-mindedness, their vulnerabilities and their killer-instincts. It’s all there, throbbing and competing for air. The landscape – the famous Russian landscape – isn’t a setting; it is a character too. It plays its part to perfection.

Thirdly, humour. It is only ever so subtle. It lives in the undertones of the language (excellently captured by Chandler), in situational comedy and in the characters’ minds. It also lives in the shadow of the darkness and fear that are never too far, squatting in that bigger, grander house next door.

Fourthly, the silence and the understatement have their role to play too. The stories don’t quite end. It’s up to the reader to conclude them in her mind. The stories rely on an intelligent reader who can take them further.

Bobok is probably my favourite, but then I am biased towards Dostoyevsky as one of my idols (no, not as the flawed, prejudiced human being he was, but as an amazing writer). It is a story of a little man overhearing the dead in a graveyard. The dialogue brings them all to life! This quote makes you think, The wisest person of all (..) is the one who calls himself a fool at least once a month – an unheard of ability in this day and age. In the olden days a fool understood at least once a year that he was a fool, but nowadays – not a hope!

My First Goose by Babel left me covered with goose-bumps! Try it to learn about the survival of the fittest in Bolshevik Russia – read it.

Whilst Chekhov’s The Lady with the Little Dog made me think that life was too short to waste it, Lermontov’s The Fatalist made me reflect on whether any of it really mattered because as he put it, After all, the worst that can happen to you is death – and death is inescapable.

But then again, just contemplate the afterlife for a minute, as in The Greatcoat by Gogol, and that may put even death in its place. Perhaps revenge lives just that little bit longer than death? And if revenge does, then why not everything else?