Mystery of the Month – The Safe Place

When we meet Emily Proudman she is pretty much screwed. She’s lost her temp job, stuffed up her latest audition, pissed off her parents, and is struggling to scrounge together enough money for a few groceries. But then her handsome, super-rich former boss, Scott, saves her from being hit by a bus. He offers her a job. Not just any job, a dream job. A live-in housekeeper – working for his wife and looking after their daughter in a beautiful estate on the French coast. Ooh la la!

But as we all know, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Emily arrives at ‘Querencia’ and is immediately bewitched when she sees the “two huge whitewashed castles standing sentinel over a fairy kingdom”. Scott’s wife, Nina, informs Emily that their 6-year-old daughter, Aurelia, is unwell. Her skin can’t be exposed to the sunlight. She doesn’t speak. And she’s prone to sudden outbursts of aggression. However, Emily soon becomes fond of her charge, and develops a firm friendship with Nina.

Emily knows she isn’t allowed in the main house, but one day decides to have a little peek. What she discovers is strange and baffling. Things get even more disturbing when a group of hikers stumble onto the property and Nina suddenly becomes hysterical. It’s clear this family is hiding something, but Emily doesn’t realise just how disturbing that something is until she’s so firmly entrenched there’s no possible way she can escape.

‘Querenica’ is the perfect setting for a psychological thriller. No phone reception. No internet. An idyllic, secluded property bordered by a forest – a smokescreen for something sinister. It’s a place where anything could happen, and no one would ever find out about it. The setting also acts as a perfect conflict for Emily – she’s finally found a place where she feels happy, something she hasn’t experienced in a long time. Does she really want to mess it all up?

The narrative alternates between three point-of-view characters, the action unfolding in the present day with flashbacks to the past. This works well and there’s some tragic reveals as we learn more about Scott and Nina’s relationship. Anna Downes has written well-rounded, complex characters, evoking sympathy in the reader for them when they do things they shouldn’t do. Emily is wide-eyed and innocent with a propensity to over share – qualities that means she easily succumbs to the charms and manipulations of Scott and Nina. Her journey from a clumsy Bambi into an empowered Belle makes for a very interesting read.

While the story is a little slow to start with, it’s necessary in order for the reader to fully appreciate the explosive finale, and the horrifying moment Emily realises the safe place she’s come to love couldn’t be more unsafe.

I recommend listening to The Safe Place on Audible. It’s wonderful listening to Anna Downes, an experienced actor, read her own story.

The Safe Place by Anna Downes is published by Affirm Press.

Standout Simile:

Hundreds of special little moments – smiles and frowns and exclamations – are being thrown into the air like bridal bouquets, and I am the only one catching them.

An update on my writing journey

I’m not sure I’ve ever written a blog post about my “writing journey”, certainly not one specifically stating it’s an update on my writing journey. I’m not sure anyone will be that interested – I’m an unpublished writer, not a published writer with a wealth of experience and advice to offer others. And it’s true that no-one cares more about their writing journey than the writer themselves.

However, if for no other purpose than for my own posterity, this is a blog post with an update on my writing journey!

I’m rewriting my manuscript…again!

For the past few years, I’ve been writing a cosy mystery, The Princess Murders. However, after receiving professional feedback, I’ve decided to rewrite it as a psychological thriller. I’m halfway through the rewrite and I’m happy how it’s progressing. I think I’ve made the right decision.

I’ve gotten some positive feedback on my manuscript!

I entered a manuscript competition, Publishable, run by the Queensland Writers Centre. While I wasn’t shortlisted or longlisted, I did receive feedback on the first 50 pages of my work. This feedback was mainly positive and encouraging. I was pleased because in the past I’ve had less-than-positive feedback on the opening chapters of my manuscript (in its cosy mystery form) and have since completely rewritten those chapters. The fact that the readers at Publishable liked my new opening chapters was good news as it lets me know I’m on the right track.

I’ve joined a writer’s group!

You may have seen my last blog post where I talk about how much I appreciate my wonderful writers group. Being part of a writers group has improved my writing no end. It’s made me more productive, more discerning, and a better writer.

My short story was highly commended!

This month I received the exciting news that my short story “Sit Tight” was highly commended in the Stringbark Tales With a Twist Award. The story has been published as part of the anthology Just Alice. It can be purchased as an e-book or hard copy from the Stringybark website. It’s great to see competitions like these run by writers who support other writers and want to see them do well.

Another short story will be published later this year in a very special anthology!

Thanks to the wonderful writers in my writers group, I was invited to write a short story to be part of a special “Lighthouse Anthology”. I’m very proud of the story I’ve written. It’s a historical mystery/thriller set in Queensland in 1887 about three sisters, one of whom has gone missing. It’s one of several fantastic stories and I feel very lucky to be included along with them. I’m looking forward to the anthology being published by Lorikeet Inc later this year.

I’ve also had rejections!

While I’ve had some wins, I’ve also had countless rejections. When that happens, I always feel really disappointed. I question whether I’m delusional. Perhaps my writing is truly terrible and I can’t recognise that fact. However, after allowing myself to feel disappointed for a day or two, and then reminding myself of those past wins, I try to get back into the swing of things. So far, I haven’t given up. I don’t intend to.

How’s your writing journey going? Please let me know in the comments below.

Mystery of the Month – Inheritance of Secrets

When Juliet’s grandparents are savagely murdered she is forced to consider the possibility her grandfather may have been a war criminal.

Juliet, a successful fiction writer, is left shaken and disturbed by the sudden, brutal murder of her beloved grandparents – the people who raised her. Her father died when she was young, her mother abandoned the family shortly afterwards and then her older sister ran away. Feeling totally alone, Juliet manages to track down her estranged sister, Lily, who is convinced the people who murdered their grandparents have been following her. They want Karl’s engraved signet ring, believing it has links to a Nazi leader.

Flashback to Germany, 1943. We meet Juliet’s grandparents, Karl and Grete, as they hurry to find shelter during an air raid. Told from Karl’s point-of view, we follow his journey as he escapes post-war Germany and befriends a man who encourages him to emigrate to Australia. Karl agrees, intending for Grete to join him when she is able to leave Germany. Things start to get really interesting once Karl is aboard the Fairsea –are all the passengers who they claim to be?

The dual narratives work successfully as Juliet pieces together what happened in Karl’s past that made him the target of someone very dangerous. Karl’s story moves more slowly, giving the reader time to absorb the historical details and imagine the hardships of post-war life – losing your loved ones and leaving everything behind for an unknown future in a strange land. Juliet’s storyline is fast-paced; she and Lily find themselves on the run, wearing disguises to evade the bad guys, desperate to find out the truth. The story culminates in an action-packed, nail-biting finale.

Sonya Bates, a published children’s book author, has written an impressive debut adult novel. Part historical fiction and part thriller, it’s full of unexpected twists and turns. Juliet is believable as the unlikely heroine who finds herself caught up in the dangerous past her grandfather tried so desperately to escape. Family ties, loyalty, greed, and the heart-breaking impact of war on future generations are thoughtfully explored in this solid page-turner that will have you eager for more.

The Inheritance of Secrets by Sonya Bates is published by Harper Collins.

Standout Simile:

My heart pounded with questions and emotions tumbling over each other like seaweed tossed in the surf, reaching out towards answers, then being tugged relentlessly back into the turmoil.

How Joining A Writers Group Improved My Writing

Joining a writers group is the best thing that’s happened to my writing. I’ve been wanting to join a writers group since I started taking my writing seriously (several years ago now). And my wish came true! I was invited to join a local writers group with four lovely, talented writers. I’m so lucky they asked me to be a part of their group. Here’s why.

I’ve got more motivation to write.

Since joining a writers group, I’m writing more than ever! We share a chapter of our work-in-progress each month, enter the monthly Furious Fiction competition run by the Australian Writers Centre, and encourage each other to enter short story competitions. Writing as part of a group who support and encourage each other to keep going has increased my output tenfold. The added bonus? The more you write, the more you learn and improve. I’ve noticed my writing has improved more in the past few months than it has in the past few years.

I’ve learned so much from giving and receiving feedback.

I’ve now got four experienced writers giving me feedback on a chapter of my work each month. When you’ve read what you’ve written so many times you’re barely processing the words anymore, having other sets of eyes on your work can really help you see it in a different light. It’s amazing what the other writers have picked up in my story that I never would have noticed or considered. My story is so much the better for it. I’ve also learned from reading their writing, about their creative processes and techniques.

I brushed up on my grammar and punctuation.

Confession. I had no idea what an en-dash or an em-dash were until the lovely ladies in my writers group explained them to me. Now, while I certainly wouldn’t call myself an expert on all things dashes, at least I’m no longer incorrectly using hyphens! While I thought I was pretty savvy with grammar and punctuation, it wasn’t until I met the expert proofreaders in my writing group that I realised I still have a little way to go. I’m so thankful they’ve saved me from embarrassing myself by submitting work with dodgy formatting and flaws.

I’ve learned that other writers are just like me.

We’ve all got similar doubts about our writing, the same anxieties about submitting our work and the same dreams and aspirations. And through our love of all things writing, we’ve formed a lovely friendship. Anna, Jodie, Kylie, and Lane: I’m so lucky to have met you. Thank you for inviting me to be part of your group, for sharing your work with me, and for your invaluable advice and support.

(A big shout-out also goes to my long-distance writing buddy, Sarah Fiddelaers, who I also share writing with, as well as our ups-and-downs of receiving professional feedback and contemplating multiple re-workings of our entire manuscripts!)

Lots of writers talk about how it can be a lonely business. But you don’t have to do it alone if you don’t want to! There’s plenty of writers groups out there. While I was fortunate enough to be invited to join my writers group, and even more fortunate when it turned out to be the perfect group for me, there are plenty of places you can find the group for you. Check the writers centre near you (for example, Queensland Writers Centre) or search online for a virtual writers group. And if all else fails, why not start one yourself?

Are you in a writers group? Let me know your favourite thing about being in a writers group in the comments below.

Mystery of the Month – Who We Were

An invitation to a high school reunion drops into your inbox. How do you feel? Are you excited to catch up with old friends? Curious to see how your life compares to theirs? Or does the mere thought of high school strike fear into your heart?

The graduates of Macquarie High are experiencing the full gamut of emotions when they receive an invitation to their twenty-year reunion. But there’s something more sinister going on. Because they’re also receiving threats — ominous yearbook entries written by someone who knows their personal information and details of their most private thoughts. Someone is holding a grudge against these former school friends. Someone dangerous.

B.M. Carroll’s Who We Were features a cast of seven main characters and alternates between their points-of-view. The multi-person narrative is becoming ever-popular in the psychological thriller genre and makes for enjoyable reading when it’s done well. And it’s done very well here. Annabel, the most popular girl in school, is now a mother of three children. Nerdy Katy has since reinvented herself and is the instigator of the reunion. Luke isn’t the type of guy to get hung up on the past. High school bully, Zach, swears he’s changed after meeting his wife and becoming a doctor. Melissa, a successful businesswoman, can’t forget her first love, Jarred… but he’s now Annabel’s husband. Grace doesn’t want her children to be the doormat she was at school. And Robbie, who was brutally bullied by the popular kids, has been living rough and hasn’t seen his family in twenty years.

Yearbook entries from the past are used to great effect, comparing each character’s school persona with their present day selves. While twenty years has certainly made a difference, not everyone has managed to cast off those high school labels. While some are eager to demonstrate how much they’ve changed, others are simply unable, or unwilling, to behave differently. Who We Were is a fascinating exploration of how the social relationships of high school can have repercussions lasting long into adulthood.

The author cleverly inserts a few shady characters into the individual narratives of each main character to keep the reader on their toes, wondering — could it be them? Are they the person sending the threats? While this is a quick read with a great hook, punchy language, and plenty of tense moments, it also touches on serious issues such as mental health and teenage drug use. The nail-biting showdown between the perpetrator and their intended victims leads to a satisfying, although tragic, conclusion.

Who We Were is a page-turning story about second chances, misunderstandings, revenge, and what happens when your life doesn’t turn out how you expected it to when you were in high school. It’ll have you thinking about your own school years and wondering if you’d do anything differently. Would you?

Who We Were by B.M. Carroll is published by Allen & Unwin.

Standout Simile:

He can’t stop. It’s like scratching a scab. He’s bleeding but he has to keep gouging.

3 Questions Writers Often Ask Themselves

Writing a book! Doesn’t that sound like fun? You can invent a story, make up some characters and send them on a thrilling journey in a fictional world you’ve created. Or maybe you have an important idea, feeling or message you want to share with the world. To be able to write is truly a wonderful gift. And yet too often, writers find themselves wracked with self-doubt and frustration. If you’re looking to get published one day, or even if you are a published author, you may find yourself asking one or more of the following questions.

Will I ever finish this book?

It seems to be taking years. Because it is taking years. And just when you think you’re finished, you find a massive plot hole. Then the rewrites take longer than the initial writes. You wonder if you’ll ever write another book because this one is taking so long to complete.

Unfortunately, it appears the only way to finish writing your book is to keep going until you finish writing it. The Self-Publishing School offers 8 Actionable Steps to Finish Your First Draft, including having a schedule, setting realistic goals and avoiding burnout. Plenty of writers have said it took them years to write their first novel, but with persistence, they all got there in the end. So don’t give up!

Why am I doing this to myself?

You might ask yourself this question when the rejections are coming in thick and fast but the acceptances are few… or never. There’s nothing quite like that awful sinking feeling after you get a rejection, where you question yourself and wonder if you’ll ever be capable of producing something worth reading. Or perhaps you’ve read work by other amazing writers (and there are a lot of them!), both published and unpublished, and think you’ll never be as good.

This insightful blog post What To Do When You Hate Your Own Writing at Writing and Wellness talks about the two times it’s normal for writers to hate their own writing. It’ll make you feel a bit better reading about other writers who feel the same as you. And again, with hard work and perseverance, your writing will get better and you’ll start to feel more confident in your abilities.

Who is going to read what I’ve written?

Congratulations on completing a polished piece of writing! But what happens when you send it to publishers and agents and don’t hear back? Or when someone gives you feedback that isn’t constructive and you lose the will to show your work to anyone else? Who is going to read what you’ve written when you don’t even want to read what you’ve written, and you’ve run out of family and friends to ask? Should you give up?

Paul Angone talks about his own experience as a writer trying to get published in an article on The Write Practice called How to Keep Writing When No One is Reading. He states you can’t be a writer only motivated by success or by being published (because unfortunately, there’s no guarantee those things will happen).

“You know you’re truly a writer when it’s simply something you can not NOT do.”

Sound like you? If it does, then I’m sorry, but it looks like you won’t be able to give up. You’ll have to push through the rejections, self-doubt and and never-ending rewrites. Keep writing stories and remember why you started in the first place. Because you enjoy it. Writing IS fun and as cliched as it sounds, if you don’t believe in yourself, how can you expect anyone else (agents and publishers included) to believe in you?

Mystery of the Month – The Understudy

They all want their daughter to be the star of the show — but how far are they prepared to go to see their precious angel in the spotlight? The Understudy is a collaboration between four internationally bestselling authors — a psychological thriller about a group of stage-mothers set in a London performing arts school.

Serial Box, a digital platform, approached Sophie Hannah (author of the new Poirot novels) to write a story to be published as a series of audio and e-book episodes. They gave her the opportunity to hand-pick the other authors she wanted to work with, and she chose B A Paris (Behind Closed Doors), Clare Mackintosh (I Let You Go), and Holly Brown (Don’t Try To Find Me). Now in print format, The Understudy features each author writing from the perspective of one of the four women whose daughters attend the Orla Flynn Academy.

Kendall Donovan has brought daughter, Ruby, to the exclusive school, leaving behind their fancy home in America. She’s determined that no one learns the real reason they left in such a hurry. Carolyn Mordue despises Ruby after what she did to her daughter, Jess, the most talented girl at the academy. Now she’ll stop at nothing to ensure Jess secures the lead role in the show. Workaholic and perfectionist, Elise Bond, is focused on her elite business to the detriment of daughter, Sadie. And Bronnie Richardson is the wardrobe mistress who seems like the perfect mother — she has a great relationship with her daughter, Bel — but like all the other mothers, is hiding a secret.

Their lives are thrown into chaos when new student, Imogen Curwood, arrives at the school. Coincidentally (or not) on Imogen’s first day, Jess receives a terrifying threat in her locker. Carolyn immediately blames Ruby — last year, Ruby got into trouble for bullying Jess. The two girls have sorted out their differences but their mothers remain at loggerheads. When more threats appear, each more terrifying than the last, the women take matters into their own hands. Especially since Adam Racki, the scarf-wearing, Shakespeare-quoting school headmaster, doesn’t appear to be listening to their concerns. Amidst the rivalry and finger-pointing, the women all agree on one thing — something is seriously wrong with Imogen, who at times seems almost spooky — and they worry their daughters may be in danger.

These are characters you’ll love to hate: all four women are bitchy, selfish and hateful (Bronnie less-so), and they are all highly judgmental of each other — from their parenting skills, what they wear, and how they choose to live. By novel’s end this judgment has turned into suspicion and paranoia as they question if one of them might be dangerous. The individual voices of each character are at times hilarious, particularly Elise, who you can easily imagine rolling her eyes at everything that happens. The story really takes off when the women decide to get their hands dirty and do their own investigative work.

This story would make a fantastic television mini-series — it’s like Desperate Housewives meets Mean Girls meets Big Little Lies. Despite the overall tone of the novel verging on highly-entertaining melodrama, it also touches on serious topics such as bullying, suicide and drug addiction. The four authors must have thoroughly enjoyed conspiring together. The Understudy is a real scream.

The Understudy by Sophie Hannah, B A Paris, Clare Mackintosh, and Holly Brown is published in Australia by Hachette.

Standout Simile:

Beside me, Carolyn scrambles onto the stage like a pregnant woman getting out of a pool, and Bronnie and Adam are up too, and all that’s missing are the torches and pitchforks.

Are You A Writer Who Goes With the Flow?

Go with the flow. It’s advice someone might give you if you’re resisting change or feeling troubled about a matter you can’t control. Just go with the flow.

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, ‘going with the flow’ can mean doing what everyone else does. But to me, the concept of going with the flow is about feeling relaxed and carefree; unbothered by the drama that life throws our way. Sounds like a great way to live.

So, how can we apply this way of thinking to our writing?

Going with the flow when your writing career hits a snag

You’re a little leaf in a big river full of other, talented leaves (i.e. other writers). You’re hurtling down the river: entering writing competitions, submitting your work to publishers, having some wins and moving in the right direction. But then suddenly, you hit a snag. You get stuck on a rock. The rock of rejection. What do you do? How can you go with the flow, when you’re stuck?

Going with the flow doesn’t necessarily mean being passive. It can mean acknowledging you’ve hit an obstacle and thinking of creative ways to overcome it.

Which plan sounds best? Sitting on the rock and feeling cranky? Or accepting the rejection, learning from the experience and moving onto the next opportunity? Personally, I’d pick option two. (Although, I’ll admit that I feel cranky and upset for at least a day following a rejection– sometimes longer.)

Going with the flow when your writing goes in a different direction

Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, sometimes you’ll hit a writing road block. The story you mapped out has taken an unexpected turn. Or you find that after months of pantsing-it, you’ve written yourself into a ditch. I meticulously plotted my whole story and it still didn’t turn out the way I expected. Now I’m rewriting it in an entirely different genre!

In this situation, going with the flow might mean recognising you’re stuck, trying something new and seeing if it works. I think my manuscript works much better as a psychological thriller instead of as a cosy mystery.

In her blog post Writing a crime novel – should you plan or go with the flow?, Louise Harnby quotes author Sophie Hannah, who says a plan needn’t thwart spontaneity. You might have a firmly plotted first draft but still feel like you need to make changes to characters, endings or plot strands. When Lee Child finds his character in an impossible situation, he will find a way for his character to get out of that situation and keep writing, rather than deleting the chapters that came before.

However, sometimes no matter how ‘zen’ you try to be, there will be days the words just don’t flow. And that’s okay. We all need to take a break every now and then. On those days, going with the flow might mean having a nap, going for a walk or meeting a friend for a coffee. The writing will still be there waiting for you when you’re ready to pick it up again.

Mystery of the Month – The Guest List

The wedding has been planned to perfection but no one could have predicted that one of the guests wouldn’t make it to the last dance alive. But the identity of who “gets it” and who is responsible won’t become apparent until the final moments of this show-stopping psychological thriller.

The Guest List is the follow-up to Lucy Foley’s bestselling novel The Hunting Party, and it’s another cracking whodunnit told from multiple point-of-view characters, all of whom have something to hide.

Successful magazine editor, Jules, is determined to have the perfect wedding with Will, a Bear-Grylls-style reality TV star. But underneath the veil of glitz and glamour lurks insecurities and jealousies. Wedding planner, Aoife, is hiding a personal tragedy behind her professional demeanour. Hannah is hoping for a fun weekend as the plus-one to husband, Charlie, Jules’ best friend (but she harbours suspicions they may be more than just friends). Jules’ sister, Olivia, is the reluctant bridesmaid experiencing trauma following an undisclosed incident, unable to reveal her terrible secret. And don’t forget Johnno, the unlikely best man who just can’t seem to get his life together. Rounding out the cast are Will’s unruly best mates from boarding school, where together they were involved in a dangerous initiation game called Survival.

The setting is an island off the coast of Ireland which can only be accessed by traversing tumultuous waves: a beautiful but remote location where you can easily fall into a peat bog, where no one will find you if you go missing, and where you might slip over the cliff edge and disappear into the sea. Not to mention there’s a wild storm brewing. With power outages, ominous notes and nasty pranks, this hostile environment adds to the confusion of the guests as they try to make sense of what has happened.

The Guest List is plotted to perfection. Lucy Foley masterfully manages multiple characters, each with complex individual storylines, and weaves them into a cohesive whole. The story alternates between the drunken revelry at the wedding reception (where it’s clear something terrible has happened, but not yet clear what) and the lead-up to the wedding. All the characters have a motive and all the clues are there and while it’s easier to guess the probable victim, the challenge is guessing whodunnit and why, making the reveal all the more chilling.

Lucy Foley has again successfully modernised the classic locked-room mystery, with a slew of secretive suspects embroiled in a suspenseful tale of toxic relationships, long-lasting grudges, betrayal, and the impact of trauma and tragedy.

The Guest List by Lucy Foley is published in Australia by Harper Collins.

Standout Simile:

The weather has cleared now and there’s sunlight on the water but the island is cast in the shadow of an overhanging cloud. It seems to crouch there like a great black beast, awaiting its next meal.

Are You A Natural-Born Writer?

As a school kid growing up, I thought I was good at writing.

I thought that because I liked reading, and writing stories in exercise books, that I was a natural-born writer. I even qualified for a special fiction writing course that was held at a university one weekend. Wow. So cool.

But there’s a lot more to being a good writer than being able to construct a logical sentence. And if I’m being honest, I got a “B” not an “A” in Grade 12 English.

It’s only been over the past few years, when I naively thought I’d turn my hand to writing a full-length novel, that I realised I might not be as good at writing as I thought I was. There are a few pieces of evidence that have led me to this conclusion.

Firstly, I will write something, believing it’s well-written. Then I’ll leave it for a little while, say a few weeks. Read it again and realise — it needs work. I’ll rewrite it. Then I’ll leave it again, say a few years. Read it again and realise — it’s utter shite. Am horrified I ever thought it was good. Ponder the possibility I may be delusional.

Secondly, I’ll give my writing to other people (readers, but non-writers) to read. Again, thinking these pieces of writing were well-written and expecting them to be impressed. The feedback has varied from: (a) radio silence, (b) politely advising me of a typo they found, and, (c) generalised comments along the lines of “yeah, I liked it”. This feedback suggests my work is not ready for submission.

And finally, reading the work of other writers. I know, I know, we aren’t supposed to compare ourselves with others. But I believe there is such a thing as a Magical Writing Unicorn. These are writers who are blessed with the ability to churn out spectacular sentences, come up with perfect plots and create complex characters. Think Margaret Atwood. People with a gift. I know writers like this. And I know I’m not one of them.

But. There’s a saying I saw on Pinterest. I don’t know who wrote it. It says: “Good things come to those who work their asses off and never give up.” (With: “Good things come to those who wait” crossed out above it). Even the Magical Writing Unicorns have to work hard. This means I have to work extra hard — writing, rewriting, editing, rewriting and editing again. Even if it takes years (it is taking years).

Then maybe one day I’ll read something I’ve written and be surprised — wow, did I really write that? One day, I’ll get that feedback I’ve been seeking. And one day, it might be me spinning spectacular sentences, planning perfect plots and creating complex characters and finding that it isn’t as hard as I once thought it was.