Category Archives: Writing

Noir From the Bar: The Story of the Stories

Video by Simon Bewick of Bewick Consulting.

#BlogTour #TheWaitingRooms @EveCSmith @OrendaBooks

Having had the pleasure of hosting Eve Smith at Virtual Noir at the Bar many weeks ago, I am delighted to be hosting her as part of her blog tour for ‘The Waiting Rooms‘.

Here’s Eve to tell us how she appeared to preempt the COVID-19 crisis we find ourselves facing.

Many thanks to Orenda Books, Anne Cater and Eve for having me on this blog tour.

Vic x

The Waiting Rooms: When Fact comes uncomfortably close to Fiction
By Eve Smith

I first had the idea for the The Waiting Rooms around five years ago, after reading some terrifying facts about antibiotic resistance. We don’t really hear much about this issue, which is why WHO calls it “the silent pandemic”. But the shocking reality is that over 700,000 people die from antibiotic-resistant infections each year, which is almost as many as malaria.

The predictions are that ten million a year could die by 2050 if we don’t start doing something about it. And I thought, what would happen, if these drugs did stop working?

If there was a limited supply of new antibiotics, and only certain people could get them, what would happen if society had to choose?

The trade proofs for my novel arrived near the end of January. Around the same time, the Chinese authorities conceded that there was evidence of human-to-human transmission of a novel coronavirus and WHO convened an Emergency Committee to assess whether the outbreak constituted a public health emergency of international concern. A Cobra meeting called to assess the threat in the UK lasted an hour and Matt Hancock bounced out saying the risk to the UK was “low”. Less than six weeks later, prompted by both “the alarming levels of spread and severity”, and by “the alarming levels of inaction”, WHO characterised COVID-19 as a pandemic. 

Whilst my book is obviously set in a fictional world, in the advent and aftermath of an antibiotic crisis which triggers a pandemic, the increasing links between the two is unsettling. Obsessive handwashing and hygiene; masks worn in public places. Handshaking being a thing of the past. Emergency hospitals and quarantine. Enforced isolation. Segregation of the elderly, as social distancing continues. 

The premise of my novel is that, after the antibiotic crisis, no one over seventy is allowed new antibiotics, in a last ditch attempt to keep resistance at bay. In reality, antibiotic use by age group is a U-shaped graph: the highest number of prescriptions go to the young and to the old. In the UK, the over-75’s account for a quarter of all antibiotic prescriptions. The over-65’s account for a third. Which is why, in my book, the elderly are sacrificed to protect the rest of the population. Denied treatment, they are sent to hospitals nicknamed ‘The Waiting Rooms’: hospitals where no one ever gets well.

Such an abhorrent concept seemed unthinkable, at the time. And yet, as Covid-19 rampages across the globe, we hear of terrible choices imposed on doctors in hospitals and workers in care homes facing inadequate supplies of protective equipment, ventilators and ICU beds. At these times, I take comfort in the fact that, at a global level, society has made a decent, unselfish choice. To slow the spread of this disease, we have isolated ourselves to protect the elderly and the vulnerable. We have made that sacrifice, to protect them.

The uncomfortable fact however remains that antimicrobial resistance will increase both the frequency and the severity of pandemics like this one. Early estimates attribute around half the deaths from Covid-19 to secondary bacterial infections such as pneumonia and sepsis, despite effective antibiotics being administered. The WHO have warned of a surge in antibiotic resistance due to the sheer volume of drugs being used.
How much worse would this pandemic be if none of those drugs worked?

After the powerful recent serialisation of her novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, which Margaret Atwood wrote back in 1984, she was often asked if the misogynistic society she invented was a prediction. She replied: “No, it isn’t a prediction, because predicting the future isn’t really possible: There are too many variables and unforeseen possibilities. Let’s say it’s an antiprediction: If this future can be described in detail, maybe it won’t happen. But such wishful thinking cannot be depended on either.”

My hope is that, after witnessing first-hand the destructive force of disease on a global scale, governments, farmers and industry will stop abusing or taking for granted the miraculous drugs we already have and start treating them with the respect they deserve. Thereby ensuring that The Waiting Rooms remains a speculative work of fiction.

The Waiting Rooms” is available to order as an ebook on Kindle, Kobo, Hive and iBooks, paperback available from 9th July. For more about the book and Eve herself, visit Eve’s blog, or you can follow Eve on Twitter.

Getting to Know You: M.J. Arlidge

Hope you’re all keeping well. If you’re looking for something new to read, M.J. Arlidge’s eighth Helen Grace novel ‘All Fall Down‘ is due out next week (Thurs, 11th June) .

Matt has joined us today to give us a little insight into his work as a writer and some advice for those of you out there who’d like to give it a go yourselves.

I’m hoping to host Matt at a Virtual Noir at the Bar in the coming weeks so make sure you’re first to find out when he’ll be appearing. Sign up to our newsletter now.

Big thanks to Matt and Orion Books for making this happen.

Vic x

M.J Arlidge

What do you like most about writing? What do you dislike (if anything)?

I love the escapism of it. I never get tired of sitting down at my desk and opening up my laptop. There are dozens of different characters and numerous interweaving stories in each of my books, meaning I have a whole host of different people to climb inside and bring to life. I love working out what makes characters tick, what’s important to them, what would drive them to do reckless or desperate things. It’s so enjoyable to escape from my normal life, especially so during lockdown! 

There’s not much I dislike, though there’s no question writing a novel is a hard slog. I’ve just written the first chapters of a new one this morning and the road ahead seems long!!!

What inspires you to write?

Anything and everything. Just life really. I find ideas come to me unbidden and at the strangest times – in the middle of the night, when I’m in the shower, when I’m shopping in the supermarket. And once a really good idea pops into your head, it has you, you have to write it. 

Do you find time to read, if so what are you reading at the moment?

Yes, of course! I love reading and always find time, usually at the end of the day. Generally I read novels, but at the moment I’m making use of lockdown to consume the works of Yuval Noah Harari – Sapiens, Homo Deus etc. I find his work absolutely fascinating. 

Which author(s) has/have had the biggest influence on your writing?

So many authors to choose from. Thomas Harris, James Patterson, Harlan Coben…but I think I’ll have to plump for Stieg Larsson. When I was writing Eeny Meeny (my debut novel), Lisbeth Salander was very much in my mind. She was the most unusual, most interesting crime fighter I’d ever come across. There are shades of Lisbeth Salander about Helen Grace – I was desperate to make her as unconventional and intriguing as Larsson’s brilliant protagonist. 

If you weren’t a writer, what would you be doing?

Wow. Good question. I would have loved to have been a photographer. Or a chef. I still harbour fantasies about the latter, but I’m probably too old…

What do you think are your strengths and weaknesses?

That’s probably not for me to say! I’d say I work hard and am very committed to my writing and my readers – to the extent that when I’m writing a novel I find it hard to resist creeping back to my office late at night or as the sun is rising.  

What are you working on at the moment?

I’ve literally just started writing Truth or Dare, the ninth novel in the Helen Grace series. Usually the first few chapters are utterly terrifying, but actually I’ve really enjoyed starting this one. 

Where can we find you online?

At my Facebook page or on Twitter.

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

To borrow a phrase from Nike, just do it. Don’t spend too long prevaricating – pretending to research stuff, when actually you’re just putting off writing. Just be disciplined and get that first draft done. Only then do you have something you can work with, something you can potentially sell. When I was writing my first novel, I still had a day job, but managed to carve out one hour a day (5pm-6pm) to write. It was slow progress, but I got there in the end, and, boy, was it a good feeling!

What’s been your proudest moment?

The day Eeny Meeny was published by Penguin. To have joined the ranks of authors at such an impressive and important publishing house blew my mind!

What was the best writing advice you received and who was it from? 

When I delivered the first draft of Eeny Meeny to my agent, she declared that it was good, but needed “more emotional cruelty”. It was sage advice and something I bear in mind every time I’m penning a new Helen Grace novel!

ALL FALL DOWN by M.J Arlidge is published by Orion Fiction and out in hardback on 11th June 2020.

**Bones in the River Blog Tour**

I’m thrilled to be taking part in the blog tour for Zoë Sharp’s “Bones in the River“. I’ve known Zoë for many years now but here’s a little bit of background to the enigmatic writer.

Zoë Sharp began her crime thriller series featuring former Special Forces trainee turned bodyguard, Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Fox, after receiving death-threats in the course of her work as a photo-journalist. Zoë opted out of mainstream education at the age of twelve and wrote her first novel at fifteen.

Zoë’s work has won or been nominated for awards on both sides of the Atlantic, been used in school textbooks, inspired an original song and music video, and been optioned for TV and film.

When not in lockdown in the wilds of Derbyshire, she can be found improvising self-defence weapons out of ordinary household objects, international pet-sitting, or crewing yachts in the Mediterranean. (It’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it.) Zoë is always happy to hear from readers, reader groups, libraries or bookstores. You can contact her via email.

My thanks to Zoë for having me on her blog tour.

Vic x

Don’t Quit the Day Job:
Zoe Sharp

I suppose there was half a chance that writing fiction might have been my day job, right from the start. After all, I penned my first novel at the age of fifteen—and I do mean ‘penned’. I wrote the entire thing, long-hand, in a month, and gave myself the most appalling writers’ cramp in the process.

That early effort did the rounds of all the major publishers, where it received what’s known in the trade as ‘rave rejections’—everybody said they loved it but nobody actually wanted to publish it.

Looking back, I’m rather glad about that.

Because, in order to be a writer, you need different experiences under your belt. At the age of fifteen, I’d had few worth mentioning. Apart from living aboard a catamaran from the age of about seven and leaving school at twelve. But that, as they say, is probably another story.

Having failed at my first attempt to be a novelist, I became side-tracked by a variety of jobs in my teenage years, including crewing boats and learning astro-navigation. I was mad keen on horses, rode competitively, and once even took part in a rodeo. I learned to shoot—did a little competing there, too. Long guns, mostly. I considered myself an average shot with a handgun but, as I discovered on my last visit to a US indoor gun range, most people can manage to miss the target entirely at less than ten feet.

As for jobs, I became a freelance motoring writer at the height of the classic car boom of the late 1980s. That quickly transmuted into being a photojournalist, having taught myself both how to write commercial magazine articles and also how to take images good enough for numerous front covers and centre spreads.

It was hardly surprising, then, that eventually I’d have to start writing a character who was a photographer. Enter Grace McColl, first in Dancing on the Grave and now in Bones in the River. Grace started out as a keen amateur photographer, who became involved in providing evidence for the defence in a court case. She was then approached by the Head CSI at Cumbria police, who asked her if she’d ever thought of joining the side of the angels. Always nice to be able to write any parts of the story concerning photography without having to do lots of research.

My time spent writing about cars also played a part in Bones in the River, which begins with a hit-and-run incident. Understanding how the mechanics of a vehicle work makes writing scenes with them in so much easier and, I hope, more accurate.

Plus, all that time spent with horses came in very useful for a book that takes place during the largest Gypsy and Traveller horse fair in Europe. There were still plenty of times when I had up to a dozen different scientific research books laid on the table at the side of my desk as I wrote, though. Fortunately, forensic science and pathology are such fascinating subjects.

They tell you to write what you know. I disagree. I think you should write what you’re desperate to find out instead.

Bones in the River“, the second book in the Lakes crime thriller series, was published worldwide on May 26 2020 by ZACE Ltd. You can grab a sneak peek of the first three chapters, and is available from all the usual retailers.

Reflections on Noir at the Bar – four years on

It’s four years today since I hosted the first Noir at the Bar in Newcastle. If you’d asked me then what my expectations for the event would be, I would have been excited just to do a second one.

Our first Noir at the Bar in Newcastle

So it’s a huge surprise to me where Noir at the Bar has taken me, and many others.

Zoe Sharp has been a wonderful Noir at the Bar supporter

In addition to giving readers and writers a space to socialise, championing writers and bringing people from all over the world together, Noir at the Bar has helped me form some of the most important friendships of my life. Many of you will know that Jacky Collins – AKA Dr Noir – has been my partner-in-crime through this adventure. Three years ago, I read at Edinburgh’s Noir at the Bar for the second time and met Kelly Lacey of Love Books Group. I’ve met so many wonderful people throughout the course of Noir at the Bar and I hope that will continue.

Kelly Lacey and I

Despite being locked down for many weeks, Noir at the Bar is still bringing people together through our virtual events. In addition to that, Simon Bewick has masterminded an anthology called “Noir from the Bar“, a collection of short stories from thirty authors who have – or will – read at Virtual Noir at the Bar. All profits will be donated to NHS charities. This anthology was put together in thirty-five days. Simon, the editors, the writers and the designer, Nicola Young, have achieved an incredible feat.

Noir at the Bar continues to bring people together, inspire and demonstrate the goodness in people.

Vic x

Guest Post: James Henry on Writing a Crime Series

Today on the blog, I have James Henry, author of the DI Nicholas Lowry series. James’s books are popular among readers and writers of crime fiction alike.

Whitethroat‘, the third in the series is due out in July and James is here today to give his thoughts on writing a crime series.

My thanks to James for taking the time to share his experience with us.

Vic x

James Henry

Tips on writing a Crime Series

When I start thinking about writing a new crime series, my first rule is to try and write each book in such a way that it works, as far as is possible, as a standalone novel. That is to say, a reader should not have to have read book one in order to understand and enjoy books two, three or four – each should be satisfying in its own right. The point of this, of course, is that you can still pick up new readers with each new book as your series develops – readers who may then dip back to earlier books. If you achieve that, you continue to build your audience.

To do this successfully, remember a few key points when starting out:

Keep a notebook detailing simple things – like description of characters physical traits, their age, their habits and peccadilloes. You think you will remember the simple things; you think you will remember your character prefers white bread to wholemeal; you won’t – but your reader most certainly will… You will thank yourself for having something to refer back to. 

However, I would caution against going overboard on detail too soon: you have a long road to travel, so be wary of packing too much baggage in the early days. You have to carry it all with you. Allow characters to develop gently. The first book in the series should focus on the story, making the plot as tight, engaging and pacy as possible.  

As your series progresses you can allow your characters to develop. The more books you write the more backstory you will accumulate – a sense of shared history involving character relationships, tragic events, celebrations, any number of things. You will draw on this history in your writing, but do so judiciously – too much repetition risks slowly the pace of the story as a whole. Say that book one sees your detective break up from a long relationship, as well as receive a great promotion at work. A long explanation of the reason for their new job in book two may not warrant the page space it takes to tell; but exploring the reasons why they are miserable and drinking more than usual in spite of having an important new job, very well may. 

Remember that as your series develops you have to write with two readers in mind: your new reader, the one who may be discovering this series for the first time; and the readers who have been with you from the start. From now on, think about how you orientate new readers in the world you have created as well as keep things fresh for those who are familiar with it. For instance, you can re-introduce the setting, the landscape – but perhaps you can add some new detail on the geography or history of the area. There is always a way to make the familiar newly interesting.

With all this to bear in mind, the writing may seem hard work, much beyond a one off novel say, but there is a sense of satisfaction in an adding another layer to the world you have created that can only be had by series fiction.

Thoughts on Virtual Noir at the Bar

OK, so since my last post about Virtual Noir at the Bar, things have gone a bit, well, insane. Virtual Noir at the Bar is being hailed as “the best night in”, “a reason to know what day it is” and “the highlight of the week”. Our afterparties are getting a bit of a reputation too, bringing people together until the wee small hours.

This week sees our eighth virtual outing with yet another stellar squad of writers. Within a couple more weeks, we will have hosted more than a hundred authors – and we still have at least another hundred on our guest list. You can still sign up to our mailing list to be first to find out the full line-up every week.

So, every Wednesday evening, after I put my little boy to bed and begin to get ready to host another virtual gathering, I reflect on how different doing a virtual event is to hosting an event in the flesh. I also think about the similarities, the things I miss about “live” events (i.e. non-virtual) and the things I’m grateful for when broadcasting from home.

We’re trying to keep Noir at the Bar as close to the “live” events as possible. There’s still a hat, albeit a new one after the old ratty tatty hat disintegrated the other week (if that had happened in a bar someone else would’ve tidied the mess up).

I try to keep the informal style going but it is very unnerving making jokes and name-checking people into what is, essentially, a void. I can see the chat happening in Zoom and, from the feedback we’re getting, people seem to be enjoying it but I do miss the immediate response of hearing the audience give me a drum roll when we’re picking names from the hat and the “woos” when they hear something impressive.

On that note, I have felt so self-conscious that my own “woos” of appreciation reduced in length and I started to worry they sounded sarcastic. I said that a couple of weeks ago, that I encouraged everyone else to do it but didn’t feel comfortable doing it myself for fear of offending anyone. That lasted half the evening as I got a lot of encouragement from the audience to reinstate the woos, safe in the knowledge that my appreciation was genuine.

Every Wednesday night, I still put perfume on and curse myself for having had a tidy out of my make-up and never replacing the stuff I chucked. I have very limited supplies and this leaves me discomfited.

I know lots of memes have popped up recently about staring at your own face on Zoom calls but it is very unnerving. At least in the bar, I don’t have to see myself. Similarly, we don’t record our outings when we’re in an actual bar so I don’t have the opportunity to go back and criticise every little mistake and weird facial expression. I am delighted, though, that people are able to use our archive to catch up at their leisure if they’ve missed an “episode”.

I love the fact that we’re no longer bound by geography. We’ve always been lucky that writers are willing to travel to appear at Noir at the Bar but with Virtual Noir at the Bar, we are able to host writers from their homes. So far we’ve hosted writers from LA, New Zealand, Germany and Iceland.

I’m also aware that by being accessible to anyone with a computer means that we can reach people no matter where in the world they are. People are getting up early in NZ to be part of the live event – I can’t get my head around it! Being virtual also means that people who may be housebound or unable to come to a public event can still be part of it. We also have a lot more space for people in the virtual bar so there’s no fear of anyone not being able to join us.

I haven’t enjoyed asking people to support us financially. I know people are enjoying the events but they don’t come cheap. Mentioning our Ko-Fi page feels crass – even though no one makes any money out of VNatB – any donations go towards hosting software and the like. We’ve pledged that any surplus will go to NHS Charities Together.

RIP the ratty tatty hat

I like that I only have to have a presentable top half. I don’t have to squeeze myself into jeans which is just as well because I’m not sure I’d be able to stand them at the moment – lockdown weight gain is a thing, ok? So, yeah, I’m delighted that I can wear my elasticated trousers while hosting VNatB.

I like that, within minutes of the event ending, I can be in my pjs eating a crisp sandwich (now do you understand the lockdown weight gain?).

As is customary with Noir at the Bar, we have hosted established and emerging authors and I’m delighted that we’ve been able to keep the community together during this bizarre time.

I like that I can stay at the afterparty until I’m ready to go to bed. I don’t have to factor in getting home because I’m already there!

I don’t get to hug my friends. We still do a group photo but it’s not the same. I don’t get to mingle with the audience during the breaks.

I’m grateful to every writer who has given up their time to read at Virtual Noir at the Bar. I’m indebted to Simon Bewick who keeps the plates spinning. I’m delighted that Virtual Noir at the Bar has obtained what some are calling “a cult following” (I think they said cult, anyway). But I really wish we could all get together properly.

Until then, see you at the virtual bar every Wednesday.

Vic x

Virtual Noir at the Bar

Video created by Simon Bewick of Bewick Consulting.

Don’t Quit the Day Job: Philippa East

OK, so COVID-19 is a thing and the UK is enforcing social distancing – thank goodness. With that in mind, lots of bloggers are trying to help people get through the partial ‘lockdown’ with book recommendations as well as introducing you to some new authors.

As part of that, I’ve decided to resurrect my ‘Don’t Quit the Day Job’ series.

Lots of people don’t realise that although you may see work by a certain author on the bookshelves in your favourite shop, many writers still hold down a day job in addition to penning their next novel. In this series, we talk to writers about how their current – or previous – day jobs have inspired and informed their writing.

Today it’s the turn of Philippa East to tell us about how her work as a clinical psychologist helped her writer ‘Little White Lies‘. My thanks to Philippa for sharing her experience with us.

Stay safe, everyone.

Vic x

Philippa East headshot

I first got the idea for Little White Lies when I caught a snippet of a news story on TV – a teenage girl in Spain had disappeared then re-appeared a few weeks later, all under mysterious circumstances. There were many question marks over the case: had she been abducted, or was something else going on? The TV showed the family in a courtroom and I found myself thinking – what on earth are these people feeling now? Do they trust each other at all?

I knew I wanted to write a book about a missing child, I also knew there was a solid precedent of popular books on the shelves exploring this topic. But as a psychologist and therapist, I have always cared most about the pieces of the story that never usually get told. Tragically, children go missing all the time; I was fascinated by what might happen once a missing child came home. 

But what did I really know about this topic? Heartbreakingly, cases of children being found alive months or years after their disappearance are incredibly rare. My story started where most other ‘missing person’ books ended. So how on earth was I going to write about that?

The question really quite stumped me until I realised that, while I had never been involved in a real-life case like Abigail’s in Little White Lies, maybe I did have expertise that could help me, via my work with adult survivors of childhood trauma. In Little White Lies, against all odds, Abigail has escaped and survived her abduction. In the same way, the clients who I was seeing in my work had (physically) survived their childhood experiences. For both Abigail and my clients, a whole new journey would now begin. 

Little White Lies is about a family trying to heal after the very worst of traumas. The book focuses on the relationship between Abigail and her family – her mother Anne especially – both before and after her abduction. The more I wrote, the more I found myself delving into issues of responsibility and guilt, the instinctive desire to avoid what is most painful, and the healing power of acknowledging what went wrong – all themes I had encountered many times in my therapy work. Little White Lies went through many, many drafts as I wrote it, but it was when these themes came together as the heart of the novel that I was able to shape the story into the book you’ll read today.

These days, I am struck time and again by how much being a writer and being a psychologist have in common. Both therapy and writing are all about words and narratives; these truly are the “tools of our trade”. In both fiction writing and in the process of therapy, we share and absorb stories in order to make sense of the world, and try to understand our own complicated human natures. And both characters in stories and the clients in my practice go on profound journeys of change. 

Looking back now, I wonder whether I would ever have had the confidence to write Little White Lies without my background in psychology. To be honest, I am not sure that I would! 

LITTLE WHITE LIES JPEG copy

**Little Friends Blog Tour**

Jane Shemilt blog tour graphic

It’s a real pleasure to be taking part in the blog tour for ‘Little Friends‘ by Jane Shemilt.

Having trained in education, Eve finds herself tutoring other dyslexic children in addition to her own daughter. As the children grow closer, Eve builds bonds with their parents and the three families begin to spend time together despite their vastly different backgrounds. 

Written from the point of view of the three mothers, I found this story utterly compelling.

As their secrets are revealed, a quiet horror dawned on me. When reading ‘Little Friends’, I was filled with dread. I knew bad things were going to happen – and were already happening ‘behind the scenes’ – but I could never have imagined some of the horror that would unfold. 

I felt the way in which Shemilt approached some very difficult subjects was perfectly balanced: there was plenty of drama without it feeling unnecessary or exploitative. 

The characters are richly detailed and the descriptions transported me to the locations with the characters. Some of the beauty explored in the locations was in direct opposition with the heinous acts that occurred. 

The foreshadowing helped me work out what was happening but that didn’t detract from my enjoyment of this slow burn novel. 

Fans of Liane Moriarty will love ‘Little Friends‘. 

My thanks to Jane and her publishers, Penguin Random House, for including me in the tour. Remember to check out tomorrow’s post on Stacy is Reading

Vic x