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A Writer’s Epiphany

For some time now, I’ve been fooling around with various bit and pieces with a single thought in mind. “I need a bestseller; something that will take the world by storm.”

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Bestseller is an overused term. It seems to me that every other book plugged on Twitter is a NYT bestseller. The word has become diluted to the point where everyone is using it. For example, I have a bestseller already. The Filey Connection outsells all my other books. Does that not make it a bestseller?

Little surprise, therefore, when I came up with this vague notion of writing a bestseller, that I couldn’t fathom the ingredients. I tried a lot of things based on what I’d seen heading up the Amazon rankings. None of them worked, and I lost interest in less time than it takes to write a post like this.

This morning, the truth dawned on me. I’d fallen into the bestseller trap. In other words, I was trying to turn out what I think would be a world-beater, when I should have been writing what I want to write.

I’ve been plodding along as a novelist for the better part of 20 years now. I’m not outstandingly successful, but neither am I a total flop. My Sanford 3rd Age Club Mysteries have a small but loyal following, Flatcap’s audience is building slowly but surely, and Spookies begin their second outing this Thursday. I don’t profess to be an expert on writing novels but I have been around long enough to know the traps you can fall into. And I had fallen into one of the most basic.

Light-hearted mysteries are my thing, not hard-boiled, noir. Humour is what drives me, not describing lurid sexual encounters between the male and female leads. Crackpot robots who insult their human masters are much more fun than fighting crazed computers determined to wipe out mankind on a galactic scale. Fun and entertainment are what my works are about, not issues or commentary on the human condition. There’s nothing wrong with these other genres. They attract readers by the million, but they don’t push any of my writing buttons, so they’re best left to all those excellent writers who can turn them out.

This was a lesson I learned years ago and then forgot.

It came back to me in a glorious moment of epiphany this morning, and I promptly abandoned my latest mega-tome, the tale of a man and woman from the police forensic department, thrown into bed together whilst battling a self-aware computer hell-bent on committing murder and rape on every street corner in the galaxy.

I’m going back to fun, entertainment and writing what I want to write.

Flatcap and the Campervan

It appears that Flatcap’s Guide to UK Holidays is gathering fans, having picked up two excellent reviews in the last few hours.

Mr W said, ‘Been there! Done that! Got the T-Shirt! LOL’

And Derek Townsend admitted, ‘I loved it because it reminded me of me and many other married men I should imagine, a laugh a minute.’

What’s all the fuss about? Well, admittedly, one or two people have bought the book thinking it was a serious guide to holidaying in the UK. In truth it is a 98-page advice column on the iniquities of holidaying in the UK, and it’s accurate to within a millimetre of its calculated curve.

So as a special Monday treat, here is a snippet from said tome, Flatcap waxing eloquent on the subject of owning your own holiday home.

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Photo © Beverly Goodwin

Have you ever been stuck behind a campervan? Most of the drivers have never been behind the wheel of anything larger than a Nissan Micra, so to them the mobile home is a juggernaut. As a result, I’ve never found one yet capable of travelling faster than 50mph, and that’s only on motorways. On main, trunk roads they can’t get up sufficient head of steam to make 30, and they won’t travel on roads with a lower classification because the drivers don’t believe they can fit into them.

Why are they like this? If you pull along the nearside of one, you’ll find the passenger seat empty, and then you know why. It’s because she’s in the back preparing the Sunday joint, and he’s taking it steady because he doesn’t want to spill the gravy.

Suppose you pull along the nearside and his wife is sat in the passenger seat?

He’s like you; a married man, and she’s nagging him to take it steady. She’s reminding him of the Spalding Incident. Briefly, what happened was he stopped at a set of lights. Some young chick crossed the road in front of him and he was so busy ogling her legs, he didn’t notice that the lights had changed. A bus behind him gave him a touch of the horn and he snatched at the clutch. The campervan lurched forward like a kangaroo testing out a spacehopper, and in the back, the sherry trifle, which hadn’t quite set, was left listing dangerously to port, and his wife’s carefully arranged potpourri splattered all over the shop. As a result, she spent the entire 25 miles from Spalding to Sleaford hoovering the carpet, polishing the foldaway dining table, and trying to correct the tilt on the trifle. Ever since this incident, she’s insisted he keep his speed down.

Mobile homes come in all shapes and sizes, from a compact VW Westphalia, which first saw the light of day as a plumber’s van in 1972, to vehicles the size of a removal van. No matter what make, model or size you look at, they all have one price: more than you can afford.

About 15 years ago, I owned a dark green, 1971 Vauxhall Viva estate. The doors didn’t lock, the engine mountings were blocks of wood and it did about 7 to the gallon. I gave £40 for it, which was about the right price. If it had been the above-mentioned VW Westphalia, it would have carried a price tag of about £2000. The mechanical, physical and fuel problems would have been just the same, but the price would have shifted into overdrive . . . which is more than most VW Westphalias can do.

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And there you have it. Flatcap’s Guide to UK Holidays is chocabloc with such sensible advice, all of which you can take as gospel or with a pinch of salt, but of course, salt is bad for your blood pressure.

A bit like holidays with Her Indoors as it happens.

What is Da Hong Pao?

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Without giving away any of the plot, towards the end of A Killing in the Family Lee Murray, Joe’s giant, idiot nephew, imagines that “How Dow Pong” is “jam roly-poly from Japan.” Joe and his two companions, Sheila and Brenda, put him right.

Da Hong Pao is the most expensive tea in the world. According to an article on Wiki, it sells for about £22,000 an ounce.

Considering I complain at the price PG Pyramids at a fiver for 240 (just over 26 oz) you can guess I’m never likely to buy Da Hong Pao.

I mention it because it demonstrates the idiotic lengths we authors go to in order to find a gag.

I’d never heard of Da Hong Pao until I watched an episode of the excellent BBC series, Death in Paradise. For those of you who haven’t seen the series, it centres on a nitpicking, anally retentive detective from the Metropolitan Police relocated to the fictitious island of St Marie in the Caribbean. Part of the storyline of the episode in question concerned an unfinished cup of Da Hong Pao.

I thought it was an invention of the writer, but logic prevailed. I research my books, and I’m sure the scriptwriter researched his, too, so I followed it up, and lo. He didn’t make it up. It really is the most expensive tea in the world.

I wonder how well it would go down with a sausage butty from The Lazy Luncheonette.

Spookies 2 – The Man in Black

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The Man in Black is scheduled for release on November 27, so you have over three weeks to wait. That’s the bad news. The good news is, it’s already on Amazon and available for pre-order at a guaranteed price of £1.99.

The second in the Spookies series of horror thrillers, it’s set in the run up to Christmas and in the Ashdalean School where a violent spirit is making its presence felt. Coincidentally, the Wicked Witches, local megastar pop singers, are making their latest video in the grounds of the Ashdalean, and the production company have hired Tony ‘Sherlock’ Holmes and his security company to look after their on-site equipment.

All of which is nothing to do with the Spookies team, Sceptre Rand, Pete Brennan and Kev Keeley (not forgetting Fishwick, Sceptre’s ghostly butler) Until Sherlock gives them a call and arranges to meet them in a local pub.

In this excerpt, we pick up the tale soon after they have arrived at the pub.

***

“What’s the Ashdalean?” Sceptre asked sipping on a gin and tonic.

“Posh school over the west side,” Kevin explained. “I thought you’d have heard of it, Sceptre.”

She looked down her nose at him. “I don’t know every tinpot, private school in the country, Kevin. And you, Sherlock, you’re providing security for the place?”

“Like asking your dog to look after the fillet steak,” Pete muttered.

“That’s not fair,” Sherlock protested. “I’m straight as a dye these days. Anyway, I’m not guarding the school personally. I have guards on for that. I’m looking out for the film company’s gear while they’re making this new video. Besides, there’s nothing worth nicking in that place. Only books and stuff.”

“Books are a treasure in their own right, Sherlock,” Sceptre told him. “They contain information and information is priceless.”

“Yeah?” Sherlock looked at Pete and then Kevin. “So how come you hang around with these two losers? The last book Pete read was the police disciplinary code, and the only book Kev is interested in is a price on City winning the Premiership.”

“Never mind trading insults,” Kevin said taking a large swallow of his lager. “You said you had the bottom line for us on some ghosts, Sherlock.”

“First off,” Sherlock said, “how much is it worth?”

Pete shrugged. “Depends on the information and how much of it we can confirm.”

“Granted,” Sherlock agreed. “But it has to be worth, like, a ton or two up front.”

Pete shook his head. “I wouldn’t hand you a fiver on the strength of your usual form. Give us the inside story and we’ll work from there.”

“Yeah, but I’m brassic, Pete.”

“You’ve just said you have a plum contract,” Sceptre pointed out.

“I do, I do,” Sherlock confirmed with a vigorous nod. “But it’s a pukka job. Ninety days settlement. This is not a back hander from the Lane sisters when they worked the pubs in Ashdale town centre. These chickens are worth, like, bazillions these days. I have to invoice ’em and they pay up three months after the end of the contract. In the meantime, I have guards to pay, overheads to meet.”

“And choccies and beer for the girlfriend if you want your legover,” Pete said.

“Now you’re getting the picture,” said Sherlock.

Pete stared him in the eye. “Give us the general drift, Sherlock.”

The security man sighed. “All right. I was coming off shift this morning when I bumped into Danny Corcoran. He’s a cleaner there. He told me they’d had a ruckus in the library. Books chucked everywhere, window smashed in the door and stuff, and this voice kept talking to him.”

Pete’s features darkened. “If it came from Danny Corcoran, it’s twaddle. Is he still doing coke?”

“That’s what I thought,” Sherlock admitted, “but he was a hell of a mess, Pete. Blood all over his T-Shirt and his nose looked like it had been busted. I’m telling ya, something went off in that library. And that’s not all. The movie bods are getting interference on their cameras. I know. I saw this one myself. Some bloke showing up on the cameras who isn’t there for real. A man dressed all in black?”

“Johnny Cash?” Pete asked.

“Very funny,” Sherlock retorted. “I mean it, Pete. I saw it myself.”

Sceptre looked to her two friends. “What do you think?”

Kevin shrugged. Pete was more definite. “It’s come from Sherlock via Danny Corcoran. That makes it suspicious, but if Sherlock can get us in, there’s no harm looking into it.”

Finishing off his lager, Sherlock shook his head. “Can’t do it, mate, at least not while the Wicked Witches are in town. I might be able to do summat after Christmas, or you could approach the headmaster, Trent. ”

“Then the information is worthless,” Pete said.

***
So how will Spookies get into the school? Will Sherlock survive financially? Who was The Man in Black?

You’ll have to wait until November 27th to find out. For now, make sure of your copy by pre-ordering it here (Global link).

Alternatively, there’s a launch party on Facebook on the actual day of release and everyone is more than welcome to attend.

Eastward Ho

By the time most of you get to read this, we shall be in the starting blocks for the final dash to Manchester Airport. We’re clearing off to sunnier climes for a week.

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(This is sunrise in Torremolinos from last year. I can’t put up a picture of Cyprus cos I haven’t been there yet.)

Mrs R doesn’t mind me taking a netbook with me, it’s useful for downloading daily photographs so the camera memory is clear every morning. Also, because I’m an early riser and she’s a late sleeper, it gives me something to occupy my tiny mind while she decides to move.

But she absolutely forbids the internet in any shape size or form, other than half an hour sometime in the middle of the holiday, usually when she’s sleeping the previous night’s beer off.

That aside, I shall be incommunicado for the next seven days… which is a bit awkward because I was hoping to be in Cyprus (groan).

If it’s any consolation to you, standing between me and the Mediterranean sunshine and our arrival back home are two of the worst flights I can ever recall booking. We fly out in the afternoon and get there around half past nine in the evening, local time. I reckon it’ll be eleven o’clock by the time we see our digs. Coming home, it’s even worse. We leave Paphos at two in the morning and we’re on the tarmac in Manchester at just after five a.m, which is usually the time I’m getting up.

All I can say is, the bit in between had better be worth it. I’ve never been to Cyprus, so I have no yardstick.

So, I’ll see you all in a week armed with tales of gloom, doom and outright terror. In the meantime, remember that carelessness breeds accidents. I know. It’s how I ended up with four kids.

The Series Effect

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It’s been a remarkable week. On Tuesday, A Killing in the Family reached the #1 slot on Amazon UK’s Cosy Crime chart. Then, yesterday, just for a few hours, The Haunting of Melmerby Manor hit the top spot on the British Horror chart, but this time it was in the USA.

Separate titles, separate genres, but they have one thing in common. They’re both single titles from series. Melmerby Manor is the first in the Spookies series of paranormal mysteries, and of course, A Killing in the Family is the twelfth title in the Sanford 3rd Age Club Mysteries.

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The Sanford 3rd Age Club didn’t really take off until book 5, Murder at the Murder Mystery Weekend, and from there, things just exploded. At one point last year, all ten titles available at that time could be found in the Cosy Crime top 100.

The more surprising of this week’s hits is The Haunting of Melmerby Manor, first because it’s a bigger hit in the USA than it is in the UK, and second because it’s the first of a series. The second title, The Man in Black (cover pictured below) is not due out until November 27th.

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I used to knock on doors for a double glazing company, making appointments for the salespeople. That was hard work. Selling books is damn sight harder. You’re competing with giants like Agatha Christie, Conan Doyle, James Herbert and Stephen King, and you’re just one of millions vying for the readers’ attention.

Turning out a series makes life just a fraction easier. Not much, but a little.

There’s a sort windsweep effect with a series. Like a truck speeding past you, the wake ruffles your hair as if it’s trying to drag you along, well a new title in a series does exactly the same thing. Regular readers snap it up, but new readers take the title and they realise it’s only one of a dozen. Those who like the new title go back and pick up earlier volumes, and naturally, because it’s a series not a serial, all titles are stand alone; you can read them in any order.

But it ain’t easy. Good friend Carol Hedges blogged on the iniquities of writing a series and I have to agree with everything she says. You know your characters, but you have to ensure they don’t behave out of character, you’re constantly seeking new angles, new situations, and when you’re working as far down the line as I am with the Sanford 3rd Age Club Mysteries, there’s always the risk of boredom setting in.

But it’s worth it because the series effect is real. Between STAC #11 (Death in Distribution) and STAC #12 (A Killing in the Family) the series languished. As at this morning, there were no less than six of the titles in the cosy crime top 100, riding on the back of the new title’s success.

I’m looking forward to the release of The Man in Black to see what effect it has on sales of The Haunting of Melmerby Manor.

Numero Uno

The best laid plans, etc. I had an entirely different post set up for today, but overnight events changed my mind.

For those of you who don’t know, Crooked Cat Books released the 12th Sanford 3rd Age Club Mystery, A Killing in the Family a week last Saturday (September 27th).

As usual it shot up the Amazon UK Cosy Crime chart and made the #2 slot on Monday the 29th, behind Lynn Florkiewicz’s latest Lord James Harrington tale. It spent the rest of the week wobbling between #2 and #3 and with my good friend Lesley Cookman releasing the fourteenth Libby Sarjeant novel, I knew we were not gonna do much better.

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I crawled out of bed this morning to a wet, windy and thoroughly miserable day, opened up the browser and checked the book’s progress, and as you can see from the image above, A Killing in the Family is…

NUMERO UNO

How long this will last remains to be seen. Lynn is still breathing down my neck, Libby, sitting at #5, is not too far behind, and there are other, familiar writers rushing up to join the throng. But for now, I can wallow in the wonderful glow of a number one chart hit. I wonder if The Beatles celebrated with an extra slice of toast.

It’s not without precedent. Christmas Crackers made #1 at the end of November last year, and held onto it for two weeks.

And as usual, I take no credit. It’s all down to the readers who have taken to Joe, Sheila, Brenda and the gang.

To you all, I say a massive, “THANK YOU” and get ready for #13. It should be with you early in the New Year.

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I regret I still cannot allow comments here until someone puts the lazy spammers out of business.

Wednesday Writing: Typecasting?

I was mentioned in dispatches by fellow Crooked Cat author Jane Bwye.

Jane commented on how I’d broken away from the tried and tested line of light-hearted whodunits into grittier and more esoteric areas, but then returned to the whodunits. Jane’s comments were not a serious analysis, but she hit the nail on the head when she said that as a writer you’re always keen to push the boundaries.

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The Sanford 3rd Age Club Mysteries have been remarkably successful. More so than I ever imagined, and the 12th title, A Killing in the Family, like most of its predecessors, has rocketed up the Amazon UK Cosy Crime chart within days of its release.

There is always a risk of boredom with any series, and there are always those projects on the hard drive which yearn for attention. The Flatcap series of cynical and ribald humour is an example, so too are the Spookies series, the second of which, The Man in Black is due out in November.

Further examples are the three “hard” novels on my list: The Handshaker, The Deep Secret and Voices. They are recognised by others as good examples of their genres. Voices, in my opinion, is the finest book I’ve ever written, and in contrast to the STAC Mysteries, which take less than three months to write, it took almost two years.

And yet, these books do not sell. And that is a factor of the very success the Sanford 3rd Age Club books have enjoyed.

A perennial worry for actors is typecasting: playing the same type of role over and over again in different movies/TV shows. It’s a problem which can affect authors, too. Can we imagine Agatha Christie writing chicklit? Can we seriously see Conan Doyle emulating Alan Sillitoe and Stan Barstow with a slice-of-life melodrama? Would Stephen King succeed if he wrote a romcom?

I’m not nearly so well-known as any of these authors, but even I’m typecast as a whodunit writer, and it makes life difficult when I try to plug these grittier works. On Amazon book pages there’s always a line of links and images under the heading, “Customers who bought this item, also bought…” On checking the book pages for my hard-boiled works, I find that customers still turn to STAC Mysteries and Spookies. That’s just as true of Voices, which is about as far removed from cosy crime as you can get.

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The obvious solution would be to write these under a pen name, and there’s some justification for that when I check the Flatcap pages. There are few people looking at STAC and Spookies when they’re buying Flatcap. Trouble is, Flatcap isn’t written under a pen name. Each cover carries my real name.

Pen names create yet another problem for the author: separate accounts. The Handshaker was originally published under the pen name David Shaw, and that meant having two accounts. I already spend a greater part of my day trying to raise visibility (it’s called marketing) of David W Robinson and Flatcap, and if I spend any more time at it, I might as well give up writing altogether. I won’t have time.

And yet other authors seem to manage quite well. My very good friend Lorraine Mace sells children’s books in her real name and hard-boiled crime thrillers as Frances di Plino. But then, Lorraine always was better organised than me.

And perhaps that’s what this rambling and inconclusive post should be telling me. Get organised.

That’ll be the day.

That’s Number 12, What About Number 13?

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Today sees the official release of A Killing in the Family, the twelfth Sanford 3rd Age Club Mystery, and many people are asking, how do you write so many, so fast.

One of the primary requirements is a sad life ;) I don’t get out enough which means I tend to create my own worlds, and the world of the Sanford 3rd Age Club is just one of them.

The STAC Mysteries are comparatively short. They come in at between 50,000 and 60,000 words. The action is not cut for the sake of brevity, but descriptive, so-called “scene-setting” is trimmed. Is there any point in using two pages describing the interior of a pub? We all know what a pub looks like inside and outside. The same can be said of character description. Ian Fleming would set up a whole chapter describing a character and giving us his entire history. I prefer to use a single paragraph for a broad description. Anything else the reader needs to know about the character, can be learnt as we go along.

Is it easy working on a series like this?

Good friend and fellow Crooked Cat author, Carol Hedges discusses this very problem on her blog so I won’t go into it too deeply, but I agree with Carol. It’s not as easy as you may think. You have to know the core characters inside out, because if you don’t, you’re sure to slip up somewhere along the line.

The biggest problem I face when planning (I use the word in its loosest possible sense) is new settings, locations and that vital, vital clue which will tip off our hero sleuth to the killer.

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Right now, while A Killing in the Family makes its way up the Amazon cozy crime chart (it’s at #10 as I write) I’m working on the next in the series, tentatively titled A Theatrical Murder, with the action taking place in Skegness (pictured) and centered around a bizarre production of Hamlet. It’s progressing well, and should be with you by New Year.

But there’s another important ingredient necessary for turning out a long running series. Enjoyment. Not the reader’s but the writer’s. I get bored with them, sure, but when that happens, I have other work I can concentrate on.

By and large, however, I love working with Joe, Sheila, Brenda and the rest of the born-again teenagers of the Sanford 3rd Age Club.

Out and Already Climbing

A Killing in the Family, the twelfth Sanford 3rd Age Club Mystery, is officially released at midnight BST, tonight, but as usual, in order to be ready for the launch, it’s already out there and selling. As I write, it’s at #12 in the Amazon UK cozy crime top 100.

It’s late arriving. It was due in July, but I got bogged down with other works, other matters, and fell seriously behind with it. All up then, it’s between two and three months adrift of schedule. This also explains why it’s set in the height of summer.

As a backdrop, the story also picks up the subplot which began with Sanford 3rd Age Club Mystery #11, Death in Distribution which I’m not going to tell you about because I’ve no desire to spoil the enjoyment for those who may not have read it.

 

Pendle Hill, courtesy Wikimedia Creative Commons, Copyright, Charles Rawding

A Killing in the Family is set under the shadow of Pendle Hill, north of Burnley, an area which has always held a fascination for an old paranormal buff like me. The village of Sabden, close to the fictitious location that is the true setting of our story, is the “home” of the Pendle Witches, ten of whom were hanged for their “crimes” in the early seventeenth century.

A Killing in the Family also sees the return of an old friend, Maddy Chester, whom Joe first met in The Summer Wedding Murder a year or more ago. What we didn’t know is that the crafty bugger has kept in contact with Maddy and even been of a couple of dates with her since the events of Windermere.

So where does the Sanford 3rd Age Club go from here? Will Joe become more entwined with Maddy? Will the annoying events and people of the backstory ever be resolved?

All I can promise is that you won’t have to wait as long for #13 (working title A Theatrical Murder). We’re hoping to have that with you by the end of the year.

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In the meantime, there is a launch event on Facebook which kicks off at about midnight tonight. Everyone is more than welcome to join in, but don’t expect to see me there until tomorrow morning. I need me beauty sleep.

THE STAC MYSTERIES