Posted in Writing

Murder, She Wrote Reluctantly

photo of Debbie leaning on a tomb in Hawkesbury churchyard
Crime writer Debbie Young makes a grave confession (picture by Angela Fitch in the churchyard at St Mary’s, Hawkesbury)

Making notes for an article I’m writing about the importance of meeting readers’ expectations, I’m forced to acknowledge that, for a cosy mystery writer, I’m a reluctant murderer.

While I love devising an intriguing and imaginative plot that provides motive and opportunity for a multitude of suspects, when it comes to delivering the fatal blow, I have to force myself to, er, bite the bullet.

There have even been moments when I’ve regretted announcing in advance that all seven titles in my Sophie Sayers Village Mystery series would have “Murder” in the title – although when they’re all lined up together on the shelf, they will make an excellent matching set:

  1. Best Murder in Show
  2. Trick or Murder?
  3. Murder in the Manger
  4. Murder by the Book
  5. Springtime for Murder
  6. Murder Your Darlings
  7. School’s Out for Murder

Mea Culpa

I confess… a certain hesitation in bumping people off for the sake of entertainment. This may come as a relief to my family, friends and neighbours. But it’s hardly an ideal quality in a crime writer.

I’m guilty… not of murder, but of occasionally breaking the rules of what’s expected in a crime story.

I stand accused… of letting intended murder victims occasionally escape with their life at the last minute, or to have a murder turn out to be not what it first seems.

It’s a fair cop But it’s all good fun, all the same.

Must Try Harder

image of covers of first three books in the Sophie Sayers series
The first three books are available from Amazon or may be ordered from your local independent bookshop

But in my next book, Murder by the Book, I’ve pulled myself together and started the story in no uncertain terms: by chucking a stranger down the village well to a certain death.

But who is the victim? And who pushed the stranger, and why?

All will be revealed in April, when I’ll be launching Murder by the Book at the fourth Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival on Saturday 21st April.

  • For more information about the Festival, visit www.hulitfest.com
  • To buy the first three Sophie Sayers books before the fourth is published, click here.
  • For general information about the Sophie Sayers Series, click here.
Posted in Personal life, Writing

Spring Balance

In my column for the February edition of the Hawkesbury Parish News, I’m trying to persuade myself of the virtue of living in a climate with four seasons – and wishing winter away.

photo of daffodils on the lawn
Daffodils outside Hawkesbury Village Hall this week

Apparently, at the equator, the sun rises at 6am and sets at 6pm every day, all year round.

Though stunningly beautiful, equatorial sunrises and sunsets last only a few minutes, with none of the long, languid transformations that we see on Hawkesbury’s horizons.

The climate in equatorial countries varies so little, they have only two seasons: wet and dry.

That lack of seasonal variation must limit conversation about the weather: “Turned out nice again. And again. And again.”

Ex-pats living on the equator must miss hearing the phrases that drive me nuts each British winter: “The nights are really drawing in” and then “The days are getting longer”.

These are just some of the things I’ve been telling myself to make the long dark nights of winter seem more tolerable.

On short dull days post-Christmas, when it’s often felt like the sun hasn’t risen at all, if it had been possible to teleport myself to the equator for a twelve-hour day of sunshine, I would have done.

But now a scattering of cheerful blackbirds – my favourite British garden bird – has started paying daily visits to the bare-branched apple tree outside my study window, their sunny yellow beaks a little brighter each time they stop by. This natural change in their marking shows they’re gearing up for their spring mating season. That thought cheers me up almost as much as it must them, even though I suspect this is the closest I’m going to get to seeing sunshine until March.

They don’t have blackbirds at the equator. That’s another reason added to my list. I’ll convince myself eventually.

photo of branch of catkins in spring sunshine
Catkins on the Cotswold Way, behind Hawkesbury Primary School

cover of Best Murder in Show
Available in paperback and ebook

Fed up with waiting for warmer weather?
Get a dose of sunshine early with
Best Murder in Show,
set in a classic English summer,
the first in my series of cosy mystery novels
that span the course of a village year.

Quote ISBN 978-1911223139
to order from your local bookshop
or buy online in the UK, in the US,
or in any other Amazon store.

 

Posted in Events, Writing

Please Don’t Be My Valentine

cover of February Tetbury Advertiser

In the February edition of the

Tetbury Advertiser,

my Young By Name column homes in

on the real meaning of Valentine’s Day

 

 

As a lapsed Anglican, I’ve never had saints on my radar, apart from the obvious ones whose special days are pre-printed in our diaries – Andrew, George, Patrick, David, Valentine, etc – and the quartet after whom my old grammar school named its houses: St Anne, St Bride, St Francis and St Mary.

At primary school, our teams were distinguished only by colour: red, blue, green, yellow. On moving up to senior school, I was naturally more interested in the colour of the houses, rather than their saints’ pedigrees. In a kind of synaesthesia of the saints, for me St Bride (my house) will forever be associated with yellow, St Anne green, St Francis red, and St Mary blue.

photo of red pencil with St Bride's logo
Now that’s confused me – my souvenir pencil from St Bride’s Church*, Fleet Street, isn’t yellow

Strangely, we were never taught anything about our school’s four saints, and we never thought to ask. Nor did we query why in an all-girls’ school we had a single male, St Francis, alongside the female trio.

Top Trumps of Saints

I reckon the school management missed a trick to cement house loyalty. They could have turned the distinguishing features of each saint into a compelling game of Top Trumps:

St Francis:100 points for animal husbandry, 0 for maternal instinct.

I wish I could cite further examples, but my knowledge of even the most famous saints is slim. Just how slim I didn’t realise until doing some research for my latest novel, Murder by the Book** (out in April), which culminates in a murder on 14th February.

It turns out my perception of St Valentine was more Hallmark than historically accurate.

Apparently, asking someone to be your Valentine is nowhere near as appealing an invitation as I’d assumed.

The Fate of the Saint

Legend has it that the Romans made it illegal for marriage ceremonies to be performed for soldiers, on the assumption that having wives would sap their strength and their inclination for war. Valentine, a Christian priest, defied the ban, continuing to perform wedding ceremonies until the Romans arrested him. In jail, in what could be the earliest recorded case of Stockholm Syndrome, Valentine healed his jailer’s daughter’s blindness, after which, not surprisingly, they became friends. When led away to his final fate, he left her a note signed “From Your Valentine”.

His execution was cruelly prolonged: he was beaten and stoned before being beheaded.

So be wary of asking the object of your affections to be your Valentine – they might think you’re inviting them to a fate worse than death.


Cover of Marry in Haste
Wry humour about romantic relationships, available in paperback and ebook

MORE FUN READS

*More about my visit to the wonderful St Bride’s, the journalists’ church, in this post from my archive

**Murder by the Book, the fourth Sophie Sayers Village Mystery, will be launched at the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival on Saturday 21st April. 

And if I haven’t put you right off romantic fiction, you might enjoy my collection Marry in Haste, currently on special offer at 99p/99c for the ebook, and £4.99 for the paperback.

Posted in Personal life, Writing

Remembering Forget-me-nots in the Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries

My contribution to the Authors Electric collective blog this month
Visit their website to find a different post by a different author,
every day of the month (I post on the 30th)

Photo of Debbie in a bluebell wood
I’m also very partial to bluebells (Photo: Angela Fitch Photography)

As a novelist, I like to think I make everything up. 

While the standard disclaimer appears on my copyright pages declaring each book a work of fiction, little details creep in from real life.

Snippets and snapshots are dredged up from the ragbag of my memory.

Sometimes this is for no apparent reason, such as the recycling bins that appeared in three separate stories in my flash fiction collection, Quick Change. I didn’t even notice the repetition until one of my beta readers asked why they kept cropping up. For fear of seeming obsessive, I replaced one bin with a bonfire, which made for a much better story.

Other times I manage to wrestle the reasons from my subconscious after I’ve finished writing the story, such as the forget-me-not motif that runs throughout my Sophie Sayers Village Mystery series.

In the first novel, Best Murder in Show, Hector, the local bookseller, remarks on the colour of Sophie’s eyes. She’s in fancy dress as Virginia Woolf on a book-themed carnival float, while he’s playing Homer, togged out in a toga.

“Your eyes are the wrong colour for Virginia Woolf,” he tells her. “Hers were grey. Yours are forget-me-not blue.”

As the series progresses, forget-me-nots become a symbol of all that Sophie stands for. (I won’t spoil the plot by explaining what that means.)

The Roots of My Fondness for Forget-me-nots

Only after weaving this motif into the story did I realise my affection for this humble little flower dates back much further. It originates in the unlikely setting of a suburban London garden most unlike Sophie’s home in the idyllic Cotswold village of Wendlebury Barrow.

arrangement of book cover, candle and vase
Forget-me-nots in my grandmother’s treasured old vase

You see, forget-me-nots flourished in my grandmother’s back garden, in my childhood home town of Sidcup. Visiting after school, I’d skip up her garden path, admiring the low clouds of tiny blue flowers edging the concrete path beneath her washing line. Often I’d pick a bunch to present to her on my arrival, complimenting her on how beautiful the garden was looking.

Compared to the carefully cultivated garden of my other grandmother – the one I picture when I write about Sophie’s Auntie May’s cottage garden – the forget-me-not grandmother’s garden was sparsely planted. The only reason those flowers appeared there in such profusion was that she often didn’t bother to plant much else. With no competition, they quickly took over the flowerbeds. My grandmother may even have regarded them as weeds.

To my childish eyes, with their sky-blue colour and fairytale name, they were as precious and exotic as the very best hothouse roses.

I’m very glad that Sophie likes them too.

A Growing Fancy for the Little Blue Flower

Since writing them into Sophie’s stories, I’ve started to acquire forget-me-nots all around my writing desk – fake ones, of course, so they last all year round. The latest addition is a vintage pottery candleholder decorated with forget-me-not transfers, a must-buy at the local Guides’ jumble sale. Seeing my little forget-me-knot collection every day spurs me on to write more and makes me happy.

What Next for Sophie Sayers?

save the date notice for Hawkesbury Upton Lit FestTheir manifestation in my current work-in-progress, Murder by the Book, came to me in a flash, and I’m very pleased with how it’s worked out. Set between New Year and Valentine’s Day, this fourth Sophie Sayers adventure will be launched at the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival on Saturday 21st April.

But I’ll have to wait till book five, Springtime for Murder, before I can allow the real flowers to blossom in Wendlebury Barrow. Oh no, hang on, I mean fictitious ones.

Roll on, spring, I’m ready for you, real or not.

FIND OUT MORE ABOUT THE SOPHIE SAYERS VILLAGE MYSTERIES HERE

Posted in Events, Writing

The Role of Humour in Crime Writing

Photo of Debbie smiling in a graveyard
Grave thoughts about humour in crime writing (photo by Angela Fitch Photography)

A post about striking a balance between crime, humour and optimism in fiction

I often describe my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries as “feel-good fiction”, which may seem odd in a series whose titles all feature the word “murder”. But I discovered long ago that I find it much easier to write fiction if I’m allowed to be funny, and this applies to my crime writing too.

Comic Relief amidst the Crime

As with any story involving tension and perhaps fear, a touch of humour provides balance and light relief – think James BondIndiana Jones and the Cumberbatch version of Sherlock Holmes.

But in my own mystery books, I use a much larger dose of humour because the underlying purpose of my stories is not to frighten or thrill, but to be life-affirming, celebrating the positive features of community life in the village of Wendlebury Barrow.

Crime at the Castle Commendation

logo for Crime at the Castle
Coming soon to Glamis Castle…

So I was particularly pleased to hear this week that Sophie’s getting a special shout-out at the Scottish crime writing event, Crime at the Castle, in the splendid setting of Glamis Castle, the childhood home of the Queen Mother.

Scottish novelist Wendy H Jones will be citing it as part of a workshop about injecting humour into crime fiction, and she’s told me she’s using the opening line of Murder in the Manger, third in the Sophie Sayers series, as an example:

“Does your Baby Jesus need a cuddle, Mrs Virgin?” said a small sheep politely.

head and shoulders shot of Wendy H Jones
Scottish crime writer Wendy H Jones

“I’m going to use your line because I  laugh every time I think of it,” Wendy told me. She’s also kindly shared it on her radio show since she interviewed me live on her programme last year.

But much as I love laughing at my own jokes, my books aren’t all about comic effect. I embed serious themes about the value of community life and the importance of tolerance and understanding, and about love, loss and consolation.

There’s the odd moment when I’ve even moved myself to tears:

  • In Best Murder in Show, Sophie is overwhelmed with unresolved grief when she comes to Wendlebury to take up her inheritance of her late Auntie May’s cottage.
  • In Trick or Murder, she finds solace in an All Souls’ Day service in the village church.
  • In Murder in the Manger, she attends a poignant Remembrance Day service in the village school.

I’m endeavouring to keep a healthy balance in each book, but always with the emphasis on the upbeat. Like Wendy, I’m a committed optimist, and that’s our take on life.

Even if we do have to commit the odd murder along the way…


  • If you’d like to read the rest of the opening chapter of Murder in the Manger on my blog, click here.
  • For more information about Crime at the Castle, and to reserve tickets for the event, click here.
  • You can also meet Wendy H Jones south of the border at her Novel London event on 2nd February.
  • To find out more about Wendy’s crime novels, visit her website: www.wendyhjones.com