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 curse of genre and what’s wrong with the runt of the litter

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I won’t choose a book to read because it is of particular genre. I won’t read a book because of a label dangling from it which screams THRILLER, ROMANCE, HORROR or whatever else. The label means nothing to me. I just want to read a good book – preferably, a brilliant book. I want a book to make me think, laugh and cry, get angry, care for someone in the story and keep thumbing through the pages until the end. And after that I want to remember, reminisce and wonder: what a fantastic piece of fiction I have just devoured.

And, naturally, I want to write that book too. Many of them, to hell with genre.

But it seems people like the clarity of genre. The readers reach for their favourite genre before -if ever- they contemplate something outside their comfort zone. Publishers want that clarity, too. I’m such a lucky, bum-in-butter writer to have landed myself a publisher – the dynamic, feisty Accent Press. They gave home to my DI Marsh detective crime series and now to my new cosy crime trilogy, The Shire Mysteries. But they didn’t accept every book I shoved in front of their noses. Oh, I did have to deal with a rejection and I am still reeling from it. Remember Paula Goes to Heaven?

At first, I rejected that book myself – abandoned it like a prodigal mother leaving their new-born baby on the step of a church, hoping God takes care of it, because that baby isn’t quite perfect, not quite viable. It took me more than a year to go back to fetch my abandoned manuscript. I have been re-writing it, working hard to make it better. And I have been asking myself what is wrong with it.

It’s the genre, you see. That book does not belong to any distinct genre. It could be classified as women’s contemporary fiction but for the supernatural elements. It could be humour, but it is quite tragic in places. I could be paranormal fantasy, but it isn’t – not entirely. So, I think it’s the ambiguity of genre that renders it flawed. My heart bleeds for I love that book as I love all the others. But the others are happy and they thrive in the world. This one – this one is unwanted. I will make it better and I won’t give up on it, but sometimes you start doubting yourself and your commitment to that runt of the litter.

It is a little bit like that, isn’t it? Like with puppies. Most people want a pedigree dog with all the trademark characteristics its breed is supposed to possess. But, you know, cross-breeds can be wonderful. They ARE wonderful! They have it all: pointy ears and curly tails, shaggy coats and white socks. And they have as much bounce and give as much joy as your average Labrador, poodle or Yorkshire terrier out there. The same with books: their genre – their breed – shouldn’t matter as much as their unique bookish personalities and what they have to say.

I thought of that when reviewing Ruth Rendell’s A New Lease of Death yesterday. It is categorised as crime fiction. It may well be, but it is so much more diverse. Psychology, society, family, prejudice, vulnerability – everything is there. Narrowing it down to a sequence of steps to detect the killer wouldn’t give it justice. Summing it up as a damn-good book would.

I may be wrong. Maybe it is important for a book to belong to a particular genre? Maybe classifications in fiction are as helpful as classifications in biological sciences? Are they?

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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Sandman, the conspiracy of outcasts

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Just off the genteel Quakers Walk weaving its way amongst rolling fields towards Devizes’ White Horse sprawled upon Roundway Hill, a timid narrow footpath dives into a deep wood. The path is frequented by shady individuals: most of them skinny and unkempt, dressed in threadbare garments, looking older than their actual years due to what one would describe as falling on hard luck.

I once followed that path. It took me down a slippery slope and across a lazy stream towards a well-camouflaged network of under-the-scarp caves. Their existence was betrayed by rugs flapping in entrances and sheets of corrugated iron wedged on top of them. There were also signs of a campsite, a stack of firewood and a few empty bottles and drugs paraphernalia scattered around. The place had a distinct vibe of alienation, depravity and wretchedness about it. It was the homeless’ colony.

In the bushes not far from the path, I heard grunting noises. A quick reconnaissance revealed a couple engaging in the act of fornication. Out in the open! In broad daylight! Those were my first indignant reactions to what I was witnessing. Later on however, upon further reflection, I concluded that I couldn’t really expect the homeless to go and get a room, could I?

That god-forsaken place would a few years later make a perfect setting for Sandman. Haji had to find a hiding place, hole up in there and stay under the radar for days. He had to hide in plain view. He had to blend in. He had to look like he belonged. An Afghan outsider in an alien land, he could not book a hotel in the city or waltz into a quaint village pub in search of low-key accommodation. But he could sit around a campfire with a bunch of like-minded outcasts, and look like he was one of them. They were as disenfranchised as he was. The pariah status was his and their common denominator.

But was their shared existence on the outer perimeter of respectable society enough to give them strength in togetherness – well, let’s see…

Sandman is out tomorrow, 11th April 2019, the fourth instalment in the DI Marsh crime series.

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

Inside the mind of a cold-blooded killer

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When I decided that the hero – or rather anti-hero – of my next book would be a terrorist who crosses the width of the earth to inflict death and destruction on the West, I knew I had a tough nut to crack: getting into his head.

I didn’t want to make it easy for myself. It would be all too simple to blame it on the radicalisation of some hapless 16-year old by the social media frenzy. I wanted my villain to have a past, a life before he died inside, a background in the shape of a nation, a country and its history. I didn’t want a brain-washed, new-born fundamentalist or a convert who would need some external, divine intervention in order to grow his own backbone.

So, I found 60-year old Haji, an Afghan veteran of the Soviet War, a scientist educated in the best schools in Moscow, an agnostic, a man open to western values, a rational man, an artist, a family man. You could say, I found a good and ordinary man who turned to terrorism before my eyes. And now, I had to give him reason and credibility. I hope I succeeded on some level.

A lot of research has gone into Sandman. I knew of course first-hand of the effect Soviet rule had on all its satellite countries, of the oppression and the tight grip they had on their neighbours’ politics, security and people’s everyday lives. But I didn’t know the unique Afghan perspective: its rich religious, ethnic and historical tapestry. So, I read all I could about that country and I learned, and I was amazed. It is astonishing how little we, the so-called fat cats of the West, know of any other place on this planet! We are dangerously Eurocentric, and to survive, we have to reach out and find out how the other half lives. But that’s just a small reflection.

Going back to my research for Sandman, I must acknowledge a brilliant book by Rodric Braithwaite, Afgantsy, the Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89. Without it, Sandman would be a shallow puddle of guesswork.

Sandman is due for publication on 11th April 2019. It is ready to pre-order on Amazon and with the Publisher, Accent Press.

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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A Christmas Canon

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Astonishing how life imitates fiction! In DI Marsh’s third outing, Thicker than Blood, Mildred fights tooth and nail against being ejected from her farm and grounded in an old people’s home. Granted, she is old and she might forget where she put her glasses, but she has the willpower made of steel. Just like my Mother-in-law.

My Mother-in-law, dear old Audrey, has spent the ninety-four self-contained years of her life in her house, fending for herself, combating and defeating many a carer and community nurse who tried to tell her what was good for her. As if she didn’t know! She lived through the War and they did not, thank you very much!

Right up to this Christmas, she knew how to outsmart her long suffering son, and my poor Husband, and made him do as she said even though, frankly, she hasn’t been making much sense for years. But yet another dramatic tumble down the stairs, yet another ambulance ride, yet another long hour in A&E, and a Christmas miracle at last occurred! Audrey threw in a towel and conceded to a relocation to a lovely residential home, subject to several non-negotiable conditions and qualifications (all of which have been met): gardens, views, countryside, birds, and no more damned hospitals!

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That’s the spirit! The spirit of Christmas! A miracle we never thought would take place (such is the nature of miracles, after all). So now we can visit because she is just round the corner and Husband can sleep soundly through the night. And so can I. Merry Christmas indeed!

And what of Mildred? Is she going to come to her senses?

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My author’s evening at Story Town Corsham Literary Festival – 19th October

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You are all cordially invited to my author’s evening at the StoryTown Corsham  Literary Festival this Friday, 19th October, at 19:30, Corsham Library, to celebrate the release of Thicker Than Blood, part 3 in the DI Marsh Mysteries .