Mystery of the Month – The Corset

Sixteen-year-old seamstress Ruth Butterham is convinced she has the ability to harm others by stitching evil thoughts into her needlework. She is awaiting trial for the murder of her mistress when wealthy Dorothea Truelove meets her in the Oakgate Women’s prison. Dorothea has a keen interest in phrenology and wants to study Ruth’s ‘crania’, believing it to be “the palace of the soul”. She thinks Ruth may be able to change the shape of her skull if she works to amend her murderess ways.

This is the premise of The Corset, the latest gothic mystery from Laura Purcell, author of the very successful Silent Companions – another haunting tale where the reader questions whether the main character is victim to a supernatural evil or human evil.

The story alternates between Dorothea’s and Ruth’s points of view, with Ruth recounting her upbringing with an alcoholic artist father, and ailing mother, who works tirelessly stitching clothes for the demanding Mrs Metyard. After a violent attack by a fellow schoolgirl, Ruth channels her feelings of anger and resentment into the stitching of a corset. A series of tragic events follow, leading Ruth to believe she is responsible – but is she really cursed or is it all coincidence?

The Corset is inspired by the true story of Sarah and Sally Metyard, a mother and daughter who operated a milliner in London in 1758 and who abused an apprentice so badly that she died, resulting in the pair being hung for murder. Ruth is sold by her mother to the fictional version of Mrs Metyard following the death of her father, where she and four other girls are subject to horrific treatment at the hands of Mrs Metyard and her daughter, Kate. Laura Purcell skilfully describes Ruth’s torment, encouraging a great sympathy for her as a character and causing the reader to question how she could possibly be a vindictive killer. However, Dorothea believes Ruth must be lying because her story doesn’t match up with what Dorothea feels in the shape of Ruth’s skull.

Anthropological studies have shown that the tight lacing of corsets could change the skeleton of the wearer and for some, the position of their organs. The metaphor of the suffocating and restrictive corset rings true for both Dorothea and Ruth. Dorothea feels trapped by her father’s expectations of her – she should not be “spouting on about criminals, or science, or any other topics a young lady should be ignorant upon.” He wants her to marry well, but Dorothea compares being a society wife to “standing in a bog” and instead wants to marry a policeman and live in London. Ruth experiences a similar lack of control over her life, unable to escape the clutches of the Metyard’s for fear that harm will come to her mother and believing herself to be the victim of her own hand.

Purcell’s writing is visceral and several scenes make for uncomfortable reading, particularly a description of Ruth’s mother’s graphic childbirth experience and the girls’ violent treatment at the hands of the Metyards. The plot is as expertly woven as Ruth’s handiwork, with a few shocking twists, including one involving Mrs Metyard’s beastly husband, The Captain. The conclusion is tightly sewn, leading the reader to the true villain of the piece. Another triumph for Laura Purcell, The Corset is chilling, brutal and spellbinding reading that leaves no loose threads.

The Corset by Laura Purcell is published by Bloomsbury Raven.

Standout Simile: –

Evil thoughts float about the house like smuts from a fire. They speckle, they smear, they find a way in.

Decluttering Your Writing

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when you’ve got stuff everywhere.

When my husband and I prepared the nursery for our baby, we cleaned out an entire room of “stuff”. We live in a three-bedroom suburban house – one bedroom for sleeping, one as a study and one as a room for “other stuff”, which we turned into the nursery.

Even thought it was a chore deciding what stuff to keep (and where to put it), and what to throw away, it was worth it. Afterwards, when the room was cleared, my mind also felt clearer.

The feeling I get from editing my writing is similar to how I felt when I’d thrown out a bunch of unnecessary clutter from our house – it’s easier to see what I have of value and what needs to go.

It’s natural for a writer to be verbose in early drafts. In a blog post called The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up Your Writing for grammarly.com, writer Karen Hertzberg states: “We tend to ramble when we’re writing; it’s our brain’s way of finding just the right words. It’s fine to pour those words out into your first draft, but once the draft is finished, it’s time to start cleaning house.”

I found that a great way to ‘start cleaning house’ on my novel was changing the point of view from third person to first person. It was an exercise that made me realise how much redundant/ filler language I was using. For example:

  • A character nodding while also saying ‘Yeah’. By nodding, the ‘yeah’ is assumed.
  • The point of view character “watching” and “seeing” someone else perform an action rather than simply stating the action that is happening. (“I watched her pour the glass of water.” “Minnie poured the glass of water.”)
  • Lots of characters “looking at” each other when they speak to each other. Presumably they are looking at each other when they speak to each other, unless they are trying to avoid eye contact (in which case, this may be important to the story and should be mentioned).
  • Similarly, “he grinned at me”. When only two characters are in the scene, it’s enough to say “he grinned”.
  • Over-describing, such as “he sat down on the couch” instead of “he sat on the couch” or “he shrugged his shoulders” when “he shrugged” would suffice (as you can’t shrug any other body parts).
  • Using dialogue tags and then having the speaking character perform an action instead of closing the dialogue without a tag and then having the speaking character immediately perform the action.
  • I have a habit of overusing “began to” and “started to”, for example: “He started to unpack a box…” and “a rash began to appear…” rather than: “He unpacked a box” and “a rash appeared”.
  • I also overuse the word “was”, for example “who was holding …” as opposed to “who held…”
  • Goodbye to over-usage of “that” and “just” – both words that aren’t usually necessary.

Scene by scene, I’ve been cutting and pasting my work into the Hemingway Editor. This app tells you if you’re using too many adverbs when a better word would have more impact, when you’re using overly complicated words when a simpler word would suffice, and which sentences are hard to read or very hard to read. I found this a great way to see my writing from another point of view (even thought it’s the point of view of a machine – so you don’t have to take all of the suggestions on board!)

Removing excess “stuff” from the spare room made it easier to see the floor. Removing excess “stuff” from my manuscript, made it easier to see the story and where I may need to make more drastic cuts. This may include entire scenes, characters or subplots. Don’t despair that they’ll be gone forever. Just like you may store your winter clothes away under the bed for the summer, you can save these scenes and pieces of writing in a separate folder and refer back to them if and when you need them again.

But for now, I’m off to find somewhere to fit all the new stuff we’ve bought for the baby into the nursery…

Mystery of the Month – The Psychology of Time Travel

“She asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up. I told her: solve mysteries.” – Odette

Me too, Odette. As a big fan of murder mystery novels, I was immediately attracted to the concept of a time travel murder mystery. The Psychology of Time Travel, the debut novel by Kate Mascarenhas, is exactly that, and much more.

In 2018, archaeology student Odette finds a dead body in the basement of a toy museum. The elderly woman is riddled with bullets, but no one knows who she is. The door was locked from the inside and there’s no weapon. Odette becomes obsessed with solving the mystery – who is the victim? And who is the murderer?

In 1967, four female scientists invent time travel. Margaret, Grace, Lucille and Barbara invite the BBC to witness their achievement but the interview goes horribly wrong when Barbara has a mental health breakdown as a result of excessive time travel. Soon everyone is talking about ‘the time traveller who went mad’ and Margaret encourages the other scientists to permanently shut Barbara out or risk jeopardising their operation.

In 2017, Barbara (Granny Bee) and her psychologist granddaughter, Ruby, receive a newspaper clipping foretelling the death of an elderly woman five months into the future. Who sent the letter? Worse still, does the letter predict the death of Granny Bee?

In The Psychology of Time Travel, Kate Mascarenhas has created a detailed alternate version of reality. Time travel is controlled by an organisation called the Conclave, headed by power-hungry elitist Margaret. Time travellers wear a tracker watch that counts heartbeats to determine what year they’d be in if they’d lived their life in chronological order. Multiple selves co-exist in the same timeline including several versions of oneself attending their own funeral. There’s also a time-travel generated bacteria called macromonas which can be fatal.

The novel cleverly explores the consequences of time travel, including its impact on mental health and attitudes towards death. As time travellers can visit loved ones and versions of themselves after they have passed away, the Conclave introduces compulsory initiation rituals for new time travellers to neutralise their responses to death. The impact of these rites is that time travellers become alienated from ordinary people, as one character muses: “I like watching people have emotions I don’t feel anymore.”

In an interview with publisher Head of Zeus, chartered psychologist Mascarenhas has said she was influenced by psychological screening tests conducted by NASA and her thorough world-building is demonstrated by an appendix at the end of the book containing a detailed psychometric test for time travellers.

The Psychology of Time Travel is noteworthy for its large cast of entirely female viewpoint characters, all of whom are diverse and representational. The story is strengthened by the core relationships between these characters including familial (mother/daughter, grandmother/granddaughter) and romantic, particularly the relationship between present-day Ruby and past Grace which is described by a beautifully written allegory – ‘my life is a ring of a very strange shape’.

A thought-provoking and deeply original novel that will leave you believing anything is possible.

The Psychology of Time Travel by Kate Mascarenhas is published in Australia by Harper Collins.

Standout Simile: –

They heard Ruby’s approaching footfall and then she was there, yawning with her hair tangled like the wool shepherds save from hedgerows.

The Lure of Secrets in Fiction

I have a confession to make. I’m guilty of flipping to the last pages of a book to find out the secrets at the end.

I’m better than I used to be. When I was in primary school, I was a big fan of the mystery series, The Nancy Drew Files, and used to cheat by reading the ending more often than not. These days, I appreciate the pay-off from exercising patience (I simply read faster to get to the big reveal).

In her popular blog, Helping Writers Become Authors, K.M. Weiland states there is only one reason that readers read, and that’s curiosity. A clever author will “milk that secret for everything it’s worth” if they want the reader to continue reading their book (or you could just do what I did, and skip to the end).

I realised that I’ve always preferred to read (and write) stories based around a key secret and the consequences of that secret being revealed. I even noticed that ‘Secrets’ is one of the most popular words in the titles of books I’ve recently read and enjoyed:

    The Secrets at Ocean’s Edge by Kali Napier
    The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty
    Little Secrets by Anna Snoekstra
    The Secrets She Keeps by Michael Robotham
    Her Mother’s Secret by Natasha Lester
    The Secrets of Wishtide by Kate Saunders
    The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton

I’m not the only person who can’t resist a story with a shocking secret.

At this year’s Brisbane Writer’s Festival (BWF2018), I attended a session with crime fiction writers Aoife Clifford, author of All These Perfect Strangers and Second Sight, and the prolific Denise Mina, currently promoting her true crime novel, The Long Drop. The panel was chaired by Brisbane author, Ben Hobson (To Become A Whale) who asked both authors about secrets in fiction (predominantly crime fiction). Aoife noted that at the heart of a crime novel is a secret, especially in a country town or a place where you think you know everybody, but you don’t. Denise agreed that almost all crime fiction is based on getting the reader to “wonder something”.

As demonstrated by my list of ‘secret’ books above above, crime fiction isn’t the only genre using secrets to lure readers. There’s crime fiction on that list, but also historical fiction, and another popular genre for secrets – domestic noir. In his blog post, The Secret to Secrets in Novels on This Business of Writing, author C. Patrick Schulze notes that almost every type of novel can use the power of secrets by creating suspense, and to enhance the climax by revealing a shocking plot twist. A secret also provides an excellent source of conflict between characters. As Aoife Clifford stated at BWF2018, secrets are great because there’s so many things that can go wrong. They affect the relationships of characters who wonder, ‘what else are you keeping from me?’

The secret may not always be the answer to a whodunit but could be a family secret kept private, or as in some popular classics, a hidden wife locked in an upstairs chamber or the identity of a mysterious benefactor. One of the most popular novels (and now television adaptations) of late is Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies. The three main characters are all keeping a raft of secrets, each with their own potentially devastating consequences.

A writer with the ability to craft a well-timed secret is a bit of a secret in itself. At BWF2018, Ben asked Aoife and Denise about writing scenes where secrets are revealed. Aoife said this was the hardest thing of all. She stated that structure is really important and suggested delivering the message in small amounts by cutting away and then coming back, and telling the story of one important event from six different perspectives. Denise agreed with the idea of “parcelling information out” and asking yourself if you want the reader knowing before the protagonist. In her post, K.M. Weiland recommends writers reveal the answer at the latest possible moment in the story and at a time when it will be most devastating to the characters. Sometimes that may be halfway through the novel as in Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte and Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.

Secrets in fiction play on the reader’s desire to know the truth. A clever author will get the reader involved by reaching out to them, allowing them to become an active participant in the story. Finding out the answers can become a bit of an addiction. In the words of Aoife Clifford: “Secrets are delicious, we can’t get enough of secrets.”

What is the best book you’ve read with a secret? Let me know in the comments section below.

Buy Second Sight by Aoife Clifford here.

Buy The Long Drop by Denise Mina here.

Buy To Become A Whale by Ben Hobson here.

Mystery of the Month – Lethal White

Lethal White, otherwise known as Lethal Wait, amiright?

Since October 2015, I’ve been slowly turning to dust waiting for the fourth instalment of Robert Galbraith’s crime fiction series about Cornish detective, Cormoran Strike. The third book, Career of Evil, ended with Strike capturing the “Shacklewell Ripper”, crashing Robin’s wedding and receiving a death stare from her now-husband, Matthew.

Lethal White begins by tying off the loose ends following Robin’s “I do”. For those readers lamenting Robin’s decision to proceed with her marriage to the obviously unsuitable Matthew, and who have been wondering what she will do when she learns Matthew blocked Strike’s calls on her mobile phone (i.e. all readers); this gets answered in a lengthy prologue at the start of the book.

The novel then jumps forward to one year later. London is preparing for the Olympics. Business is booming following Strike’s fame as the man who caught the Ripper, and he’s distracting himself from thoughts of Robin with the beautiful and convenient Lorelei. Meanwhile, Robin has been experiencing panic attacks and comparing her marriage to the act of “moving chess pieces on a board that was vibrating in the preliminary tremors of an earthquake.”

The plot kicks off when Billy, a disturbed young man, bursts into Strike’s office and says he witnessed a child being strangled “up near the horse” and buried in a dell. An elaborate spiderweb of a story ensues. Strike discovers the dell is on an Oxfordshire property belonging to Minister for Culture, Jasper Chiswell, where Billy and his older brother, Jimmy Knight, grew up. Chiswell subsequently hires Strike and Robin to investigate a case of blackmail involving Jimmy, the leader of a radical left wing political group protesting the Olympics. Robin goes undercover as Chiswell’s goddaughter, working in the House of Commons to get dirt on Minister for Sport, Della Winn and her lecherous husband, Geraint. Here she meets Chiswell’s latest wife, the much younger, horse-obsessed Kinvara, his industrious daughter, Izzy, and disturbingly charming illegitimate son, Raphael.

There’s plenty of sordid activity amidst both groups – affairs, sexual harassment, deception, double crossing and betrayal which seem disparate but are somehow masterfully connected by the end of the novel. And at 650 pages, it’s a long time to wait for answers. However, I was so absorbed in the story that by the time we finally reached the end of Part 1, and the suitably gruesome and dramatic discovery of the dead body, I’d forgotten I was reading a murder mystery. In fact, there’s so much going on it’s impossible for the reader to correctly guess the answers to any of the novel’s questions – why is Chiswell being blackmailed? Why are they quoting Latin? What do all of these horses have to do with anything? Towards the end when Strike is encouraging Robin to piece together the solution, even she gives up and chooses instead to sip champagne and enjoy a warm breeze.

There’s an overarching theme of ‘pairs’ throughout the novel but as usual, the core of the story is the pairing of Strike and Robin. Amidst second-guessing their feelings for other and analysing each other’s romantic relationships, their discussion of the case and their banter as they bounce theories off each other provides the most enjoyable parts of the novel. Unfortunately, in Lethal White, much of this doesn’t occur until the final quarter when Strike and Robin are literally digging in the dirt for answers.

J.K. Rowling (we all know she’s Robert Galbraith, so I won’t digress) wrote the best-selling series of books in history so naturally, everyone has high expectations for her latest work. Lethal White doesn’t disappoint – it’s superior storytelling, balancing an entertaining mystery with the personal lives of its main characters, especially Robin, who has hit a wall and uses this novel to find her feet again. There’s some clever writing between the lines, themes with multiple interpretations and subtle political commentary including a statement Della makes during Strike’s interview about men’s crimes always being blamed on women “who should have stopped it, who should have acted, who must have known.”

Several other reviewers have stated it needs a good edit, but we’ll leave that up to the poor sod who has to turn it into a screenplay for the next television adaptation. This is a novel to savour while we eagerly await the next one.

Lethal White by Robert Galbraith is published in Australia by Hachette.

Standout Simile: –

It was no use trying to suppress the panic: that only made it fight back, trying to bend her to its will. She must ride it out, as though the fear was a bolting horse, easing it onto a more manageable course. So she stood motionless, palms pressed against the partition walls, speaking to herself inside her head as though she were an animal handler, and her body, in its irrational terror, a frantic prey creature.

Writing During My Pregnancy

I haven’t announced my pregnancy on social media with a photograph of baby booties or me standing in a meadow holding my belly and looking dreamy. One reason for this is because after two losses, I wanted to be certain this baby was a grower. Even now, at 37 weeks pregnant, I’m still cautious about referring to my pregnant state, despite the fact it’s obvious. I acknowledge other women who would love to have a child but who struggle or who simply cannot. I think about how they feel seeing other people’s happy announcements.

When I started my blog, I wrote two posts per month. One, a book review of a mystery novel – my chosen genre of writing. Two, a post about writing relevant to the stage of my ‘writing journey’. On this journey, I’m currently writing during my pregnancy. And it’s been different to writing during my not-pregnancy.

During my not-pregnancy, a period of my life which I recall now with some difficulty, I had a writing routine of evenings after work and weekends. Over the past two years, I’ve written the first draft of my cozy mystery novel and have nearly finished the first redraft. I’ve been efficient with my blogging, with last month (August 2018) being the first month I haven’t met my self-imposed deadlines.

The writing journey highlight of this year has been reading a piece from my work-in-progress at the launch of The Secrets at Ocean’s Edge – Kali Napier’s debut novel, at Avid Reader in February. (If you haven’t read this novel yet, you absolutely must). That evening, while I was reading my work in front of Kali’s sold-out audience, I thought I was having my third miscarriage. However, the next day, my husband and I visited our obstetrician and saw (and heard) something we hadn’t before – a heartbeat. And today, many months later, I have a foot poking me in the side of my abdomen.

The Write-Off Trimester

During my first trimester of pregnancy, I felt like crap. Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t vomiting and I went to work most days. I was grateful for my healthy pregnancy. But once I got home from work, I didn’t feel like doing anything. Not a single thing. Couldn’t even read a book, let alone write. Bedtime was 8pm. I accepted that during this period, I wasn’t going to be able to maintain my usual writing routine. Or any routine. Productivity – zero.

The Baby Brain Trimester

I started feeling better around 16 weeks into my pregnancy. I was eating more food and had more energy at work. During the day, I used my brain a lot for process-driven work. But something was different. “Your brain is shrinking,” my co-worker helpfully informed me. Turns out ‘baby brain’ is a legit thing. When I came home from work and tried to be creative, I’d read back over what I’d written and realise I’d made some embarrassing mistakes. Things I found I could do were editing (requires less creativity) and flash fiction (shorter bursts of creativity). I made headway on my cozy mystery using the Hemingway Editor and made sure I entered Furious Fiction with the Australian Writers’ Centre every month. I even submitted my manuscript to a few competitions. Productivity – fifty/fifty.

The Quick! Catch Up Trimester

Three weeks ago, I started maternity leave! Look at all the free time. Look at all the free time FLYING BY WHERE IS IT GOING HELP?!

Along with getting my blog back on track, I’ve made some significant changes to my cozy mystery. A few months ago, I wrote a post about writing in different points-of-view, deliberating over whether or not my story would be better told in first person or third person. And I’ve made a decision! I’m currently halfway through changing my story into first person. The main character, Sylvie, is much more present on the page. A fresh point of view is also like a fresh pair of eyes – showing me where things can be cut and hopefully, leading me towards my goal of a snappier, polished story.

I’m engaged in writing again. It appears Baby is also engaged… in my pelvis. I could go into labour any day now. I don’t know what to expect from this new chapter of my life or how much time I will have for reading and writing. Maybe not much at first. The benefits of being an unpublished writer is that I’ve only got my own deadlines to meet, so I will be kind to myself – at least for the first few months. Wish me luck!

Mystery of the Month – April in Paris, 1921

Spring has sprung so why not start your September with April in Paris, 1921 – sexy historical fiction budding with romance, intrigue and mystery?

Former WWI nurse, Katherine ‘Kiki’ Button has shed the cocooned life her parents planned for her (marriage to a baron and babies) and emerges free as a butterfly in London, seeking employment from close friend and occasional lover, Bertie Browne, subeditor of The Star newspaper. He sends her to Paris to attend fancy society parties and write tongue-in-cheek gossip columns about bohemians, artists and aristocrats.

In the city of dreams, Kiki drowns her war memories in champagne, fancy cocktails and frequent trysts with a variety of lovers, including artist Pablo Picasso. Things get interesting when Picasso asks Kiki to find a stolen painting of his wife. At the same time, Kiki’s old spymaster, the enigmatic Dr Fox, blackmails her into tracking down a mole or else risk the release of secrets that will endanger her beloved Tom. Naturally, the two mysteries are somehow linked.

A debut novelist but an experienced writer, Tessa Lunney is well-researched on war and war fiction with an in-depth understanding of the political and social climate of the era and setting. Her depiction of 1920s Paris is sumptuous and vivid, from the fashions and food to its famous inhabitants. It’s easy to visualise Kiki sitting on the windowsill of her studio, smoking her cigarettes with her legs dangling high above Parisian streets, relishing her freedom. The residual trauma of the war is ever present, lurking in the background for many of the main characters. Lunney’s writing style is swift with bursts of snappy dialogue and poetic imagery.

A quick and easy read, April in Paris, 1921 is as bright and colourful as one of Kiki’s society parties – full of larger than life characters and over in a whirlwind of jazz dancing and purple cocktails. Kiki is an intelligent, modern woman, expertly decoding the clues in Keats poems planted by the confusing Fox and charming everyone she meets (often into bed). A refreshing leading lady, Kiki, ‘the blonde Australienne’, does what she wants, enjoys flirting with danger and relishes in the challenges she faces as a blossoming detective.

Devour this novel as you would a delicious pastry or rich piece of cake. And leave room for seconds as there’s unfinished business with Fox and Tom, as well as the first seeds of fascism paving the way for a sequel.

April In Paris, 1921 by Tessa Lunney is published in Australia by HarperCollins Publishers.

Standout Simile: –

The sky was purple like lilacs, like royalty, like a bruised mouth, as it slowly passed into darkness.