Posted in Events, Writing

The Reluctant Murderer at Oakwood Literature Festival

cover of the June issue of the Tetbury AdvertiserThis post first appeared in the June 2018 edition of the award-winning Tetbury Advertiser.

“I have a no-murder policy,” said the tall, softly-spoken man in black.

If, like me, you were obliged to sit beside him for the next hour, would you be reassured by that remark, or alarmed?

What if that statement had a similar impact to those “Keep off the lawn” signs that make you want to do nothing so much as kick off your shoes and run barefoot across it, desperate to feel the cool blades of grass tickling the soles of your feet?

Or to those tantalising signs in the swimming pools that list all the things that you’re forbidden from doing: “No diving, no bombing, no running”, etc – I’m sure you can reel off the list as well as I can – at the same time helpful providing a clear line drawing showing you exactly how to commit each of those offences.

Having a murder policy of any kind might even exert the power of suggestion, in the same way that the instruction “Don’t think of oranges” immediately makes you think about oranges.

It’s All About the Context

Of course, context is all. If the man’s statement had been an unsolicited chat-up line in a wine bar, or his opening gambit at a speed-dating session, I would have been worried. What else might he have up his sleeve? “I have a no wife-beating policy.” “I have a no-coveting-my-neighbour’s-ox policy.”

Cover of Child Taken by Darren Young
Don’t worry, they all live to tell the tale

As it happened, it was music to my ears, as what had brought Darren and I together was an invitation to speak on a panel at the Oakwood Literature Festival in Derbyshire last month, and he was describing his approach to writing his psychological thriller, Child Taken.  As I am a writer of crime novels that are more Miss Marple than Nordic Noir, I really have to force myself to kill people for the sake of the plot. I’ve even started describing myself to readers as “the reluctant murderer”, which no doubt comes as a relief to my friends and relations. Listening to Darren, I was glad to know I wasn’t alone in my reluctance.

So as introductions go, his opening line was much more innocuous than one might assume. Although it turned out his surname was also Young. Now that was creepy.


set of four Sophie Sayers booksTo read more about my cosy mystery series, in which all the murders are gentle and sometimes there’s even a stay of execution, click here.

Cover of Young by NameAnd if you’d like to read more of my whimsical columns for the Tetbury Advertiser, here’s a book of the first sixty of them, available in ebook and paperback.

Posted in Personal life, Travel, Writing

The Perfect Date?

My column for the April 2018 edition of the award-winning Tetbury Advertiser

image of wishing well in a forest
Well, well (image by mensatic via http://www.morguefile.com

Feeling depleted by the snowy weather, I decided to follow the advice of my friend Orna Ross, a teacher of creative thinking, to “fill the creative well”.

It felt like timely advice for me because my latest novel, Murder by the Book, begins with a murderer shoving the victim to his death down a disused village well.

I know Orna doesn’t mean that kind of well. Instead she is referring to the mental reserves that need regular boosting if you are to sail through life, contented and creative, rather than stumbling like an automaton on auto-pilot.

To replenish those reserves, she recommends a weekly “create-date” – an outing to be spent entirely on your own doing something fun. It doesn’t need to be an overtly creative activity, just something you expect to enjoy.

My Create-Date in Clevedon

So last week, on the slim pretext of needing to research a stretch of the M5 mentioned in my novel (the rest of the book is more exciting than that makes it sound), I made a solitary trek to the coast to visit Clevedon Pier.

selfie with Pier stretching out behind Debbie
On Clevedon Pier

The only Grade I listed pier in England, it’s an elegant, minimalist Victorian structure much more to my taste than the over-hyped high-tech one in Weston-super-Mare. It even met with John Betjeman’s approval: he described it as “the most beautiful pier in England”. Might a decent pier have saved Slough from the Poet Laureate’s famous condemnation? Oh, and a seaside location, of course.

At the pier’s admissions office, I asked the young man on the till the entry price. With the sweetest of smiles he told me: “As it’s International Women’s Day, to you it’s £1”. I assumed that was a concession, not a premium.

long shot of pier viewed across beach
Clevedon’s pier is prettier than its beach

Water, Water, Everywhere

photo of ornate Art Nouveau drinking fountain
The Victorian alternative to plastic water bottles

On my gentle, sunny stroll along the pier’s wooden boards, I especially enjoyed reading the tiny brass plaques embedded in its walls, conjuring up back-stories of the citizens they commemorate.

Afterwards, a wander around a charity shop in Hill Road resulted in my acquisition of some beautiful vintage piano music. I was beginning to feel as if I’d travelled back to the nineteenth century, especially when, walking back to my car, I spotted the most spectacular Art Nouveau drinking fountain I’d ever seen. Not quite a well, but I was pleased to see it was full to the brim.

Four days later, my personal well is overflowing, and I’ve been working like a demon ever since my return.

So I think these solitary create-dates may become a habit. And at least I’ll know I’ll always be in good company.


For more information about how to enjoy a create-date, read Orna Ross’s post here

Murder by the Book, which begins with someone plunging down a well to their death, and which is set partly in Clevedon, will be launched at the free Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival on Saturday 21st April, and can be pre-ordered as an ebook already here. The paperback will also be available very shortly .

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 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