Tuesday, June 26, 2012

If it's dark it must be better.

This title only applies to chocolate!

Amazon just sent me a list of the best mysteries and thrillers of the year so far. And I read it with a growing sense of annoyance. They were ALL dark, violent and mostly by men.  I.e the typical list of nominees for the Edgar award.

So can somebody tell me why darkness and violence is somehow equated with higher quality? And why the traditional mystery is now called cozy and we less violent mystery writers are given a condescending pat on the head? After all the most successful writer of all times--Dame Agatha herself--wrote exactly what I write: a good story, among ordinary people, with no excessive guts or gore. And there are plenty of terrific writers still following in Agatha Christie's footsteps: Louise Penny, Julia Spencer-Fleming, Margaret Maron, Nancy Picard, Carolyn Hart, Deborah Crombie to name a few. (and you'll notice they are all women).

These writers show us the human condition at its frailest--when relationships and communities are shattered by a murder. They explore the depths of character. They take us somewhere with vividness of setting. Who has not shivered when reading Louise Penny's novels set in wintertime Quebec? Or smelled the fresh scent of the great plains in Nancy Pickard's Kansas?

These writers create a world, people it with real people and make us care about them. We so called cozy writers write about people you know, people who could be your next door neighbor, and thus when murder strikes on an ordinary street it is all the more shocking. If we wrote about loners and alcoholics, drug runners and CIA operatives then murder would be commonplace. Life would be cheap.

For us life is precious and it is devastating when it is wasted. 

It seems that too many people think that what is wanted today is fast pace, lots of explosions, people dying on every page in horrid ways--in other words A VIDEO GAME!
But I can tell from the number of people who check out my books from libraries, who write me lovely fan letters and who put me on the New York Times bestseller list this year that many people long for well crafted books, decent people, interesting settings and a good chuckle sometimes too.

I'd love to hear your comments on the cozy versus noir debate. Please chime in.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Watch out--Fashion Police!

Did you know that there really are fashion police at Royal Ascot? Apparently outfits were becoming unseemly and now rules have been instituted and enforced. Skirts no shorter than one inch above the knee. Dresses must have one inch straps. Gentlemen must wear jackets. Ladies must wear hats and if they choose a fascinator instead it must be at least four inches across.

If you flout these rules you will not be admitted to the race course. Young ladies in demure purple outfits (and hats) are waiting at each entrance to vet the outfits. But there is no size limit on hats and no rule that bans ugliness or stupidity in outfits. And I think I saw the queen in the same pale blue she wore on the royal barge. Surely there should be a rule about wearing the same outfit twice!!

Personally I think fashion police are a great idea in today's fashionless world. I'd forbid outfits that don't go together and look as if they've been put on in the dark from the used clothing bin--leggings with skirts over them and T shirts with short jackets that don't cover them. I'd forbid very small bikinis on very large bodies. I'd forbid jeans at the opera.

How about you--what would you like the fashion police to enforce?

Monday, June 18, 2012

Attack of the Killer Dress

So there I was, standing in the dressing room in Macy's with the dress over my head and no way to get it on or off. It was a jersey fabric creation with no zipper and I had tried to put it on, found it was too tight for me, and then tried to take it off again. And got as far as my head when it wouldn't go any further.

So what do I do now? Stagger out into the hallway, revealing my bare flesh and underpants, mumbling for help through the folds of the fabric, scaring away children who think a headless monster is coming for them? Or stay where I am until I suffocate and they find my lifeless body on the floor? It's also cutting into my arms and my boobs at this stage so lack of circulation will be a problem. I wriggle, I squirm, I strain and move it about an inch. Oh for the days of the shop assistant who actually helped and found dresses and said in silky tones, "Oh modom does look nice in that" to everything one tried.

And I find myself thinking about the book I am writing. It's the seventh Lady Georgie book and my characters all have personal maids to dress them. This would never have happened to Georgie. She has the world's worst maid but even she could have yanked the dress from Georgie's head. And I realize now that maids in historical times were not a luxury, they were a necessity. Those Victorian dresses with twenty four little pearl buttons all the way up the back could not be put on without the help of a maid. Let's face it, no husband would be patient enough to do up or even undo 24 pearl buttons! And the corsets! Someone had to tug on those corset strings while the suffering female held onto the bedposts. At least my heroine Molly Murphy is sensible enough never to have worn a corset in her life.

So now that none of us has a maid, why do manufacturers have to make so many complicated clothes? I was looking for a fancy type of dress to wear on a cruise. They all seemed to do up with impossible back zippers or side zippers and hooks and eyes one couldn't reach. Or, in the case of the dress currently stuck over my head, no zipper at all, just a long thin tube with long tight sleeves and I don't know what possessed me to try it in the first place. Oh, yes I do know. It was on sale!

I finally extracted myself, dear reader and lived to tell the tale. And I bought a long black skirt instead to wear with various jackets. Those I can take off by myself.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Sunday Sneak Peek

I haven't done much to my new book this week as I've been involved in the edits for my upcoming Molly book, The Family Way. But now they are done and ready to be shipped off and it's back to Lady Georgie and a murder that has just taken place.

Here's another snippet to whet your appetite:

This topic of conversation was broken off by the arrival of Darcy and Jack, both wearing proper dinner jackets and both looking rather handsome. Jack’s red-blond hair had been slicked into submission and he looked highly uncomfortable his current garb.
“Here they are at last,” Edwina said. “Come and meet your aunt and your great aunts, John.” It was clear that Edwina was not going to give up calling him by her son’s name.
Irene glowered. Princess Charlotte held out her hand in regal fashion but Virginia almost fell upon them. “Two divine young men,” she said. “What fun. If I’d been a few years younger I’d have given you both the key to my room and had you both at the same time.”
Edwina raised her lorgnette. “Really Virginia, you go too far,” she said.
“Edwina. You’re such a prude,” she said. “Look at this gorgeous dark haired boy. He wouldn’t mind a roll in the hay, I can tell. One can see that he’s had his share of thrilling encounters with the opposite sex.”
Darcy simply looked amused. “If I had, I wouldn’t mention them in present company,” he said.
Virginia had seized his hand in her own claw-like ones. “Isn’t he a gem?” she said. “So is this the new heir?”
“No, Virginia. He is Mr. O’Mara--the one who escorted John from Australia.” She went over to Jack who was standing as if he wished the floor would open and swallow him. “This is your great nephew John. Isn’t he like his father?”
“One can see a likeness, I suppose,” Princess Charlotte said dubiously. “We should have a séance, young man, to see whether your father wishes to contact you. Also to find out if you’re the one the spirits warned us about. And for whom there is danger.”
“You and your spirits, Charlotte. Such rubbish,” Edwina said. “You’ll have the boy thinking we’re all mad.”

More later..... Rhys

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Another Best Laid Plans day

You'd think I'd have learned by now that life is not a steady road, moving ahead smoothly at a pleasant upward incline toward happiness, security and Nirvana. After speedbumps in our road of life in the form of John being diagnosed with lymphoma, then discovering this spring that he needed a stent, and then my spectacular fall in April, resulting in a fractured pelvis I should have thought a little longer before I gave an interview and said, "This enforced home stay has had its good side. I've been able to forge ahead with my next book and can now relax for a while."

On Monday the editorial suggestions for my next Molly book arrived from Minotaur. Then yesterday the page proofs arrived from my other publisher, Penguin. Same message for each of these. No huge rush but could they have them back in a couple of weeks please.

Now there are no serious rewrites to be done for Molly but annoying small things like "can we tighten the first hundred pages a little". This requires reading, evaluating and pruning every single page. And making it less obvious about who the bad guy is. Again these are often one word or one sentence tweaks but they are quite labor intensive.

And as for page proof corrections. I am the world's worst proofreader. When I read my own stuff I read what I think I have written, not what is really there. But I always manage to find a sentence or two in which I've used the word 'think' three times and doesn't seem to have bothered anyone in the editing chain. And I'm confident that the book is also being read by professional proofreaders--again a wrong assumption, given the number of letters I get starting, "I really like your books but I have to point out several glaring typos...."

I don't know what they expect me to do--grab the books off Barnes and Noble's shelves and go through with a red pen?

So I'm now feeling the pressure again. We leave for Europe on July 18. Before then I need to spend long hours in the gym getting those legs used to carrying me for long distances again. And I have to make decisions on clothes for 6 weeks, ranging from Olympic events to the boulevards of Paris to relatives with dogs to the journey home on the QM2.

Nothing's a big deal, compared to what I was going through six weeks ago, but the book by the pool is probably not going to happen!

And today a plug for my other blog, Jungle Red Writers. I am the host this week. Tuesday I have Suan Elia MacNeal as my guest (she wrote Mr. Churchill's Secretary), tomorrow J. Sydney Jones and his atmospheric historical thrillers set in Vienna, then thoughts on the queen's jubilee and a good laugh at funny English sports that you probably have never heard of.
Do stop by to visit. Susan is giving away a copy of her books today!

Friday, June 8, 2012

Reading up a Storm

There are good things about being stuck in a chair for six weeks. One is that I can look out of the window and see interesting things--like the heron that flew over the other day, or this little scene that went on right below my window:

The other good thing is that I've had time to read. I don't usually read fiction when I'm writing a book because I tend to pick up the other author's voice. However six weeks with nothing else to do was too tempting. I found that I felt like nostalgia, safety, comfort food reading. So far I've read Kate Morton's The House at Riverton (having LOVED the Forgotten Garden), The House at Tyneford --I'm obviously going through my House AT phase--which I also enjoyed, Jacqueline Winspear's Elegy for Eddie (terrific), and I've just finished Nancy Mitford's Don't Tell Alfred. Nancy Mitford's first person voice is so perfect for when I'm writing the Lady Georgie books. She IS the British upper class in the 1930s. She reminds me of women who were friends of my aunt, teachers at my school whose voices are now fading in my memory.

I have other books waiting to be read but you know what I'm going to do? I'm going to re-read The Lord of the Rings, something I haven't done for probably twenty years. When I was young I re-read that book every six months. I knew it by heart. When I took my daughter Clare around Europe we played non-stop LOTR trivia games, waking each other in train carriages to ask, "What was the name of the Ent who...." 

So now I need to revisit it with fresh eyes. To see how much I remember. Have you ever had one book that has been part of your life like that?

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Diamond Jubliee

I've lived in California for more years than I care to admit to and most of the time I think of myself as American. But this weekend I've been one hundred percent British. I have watched all the Diamond Jubilee festivities religiously on the telly. I have even stood and sung Land of Hope and Glory along with the crowd.  And secretly I've been glad that I didn't have to personally stand out in that rain. I love my native country dearly but not the weather. It was why I left in the first place.

The Brits were so good about standing outside in that awful weather,weren't they? The queen in her light outfit on the Thames. Those singers standing on their barge while rain cascaded down their faces. All those people on the Mall waving their flags, little children sitting on shoulders cheering. My hats off to them all.

I thought the queen was marvelous. She's 86 and she didn't flag, didn't need to sit down all that while on the Thames and went through a whole concert looking interested while obviously she was worrying about her husband in hospital.

The only disturbing factor to me was that she took Charles and Camilla, Wills Harry and Kate everywhere with her, but no sign of her other children or grandchildren. I glimpsed Anne once, sitting in the audience, but what happened to Andrew and Edward and their offspring? Why didn't they get a chance to wave from the balcony? If I'd been them, I'd have been miffed that Camilla, of all people, got to be in the spotlight, up close and cozy whispering to the queen, while they were shut out. Has there been anything about this in the British papers?

One thing was clear--the Brits really know how to put on a good show. I'm going to be there for the Olympics and I'm looking forward to more of the same, and to an umbrella with the Union Jack on it!
By the way, did I ever mention that I had tea with the queen when I was a girl?
I'll tell you more about it in my next post.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Lament of a Strong Woman

During my recuperation from breaking my pelvis I've been blessed with lots of visitors. But one thing they all say is, "You're looking so good."
I know they are trying to be kind and maybe I do look good, but I feel like saying,"You can't actually see where I have two lots of broken bones. It's just my outside that looks good. Inside I'm hurting."
But I don't say it. I just smile and say thanks.
Because I'm a strong woman and my friends are used to my being a strong woman.

I've been a strong woman all my life. A strong kid first. At ballet school I was the only girl who never cried. Since our ballet mistress used to walk up and down with a stick and any arm or leg that wasn't perfect got the stick on it, this was no small feat.
I went across Europe on my own at twelve. Had to find the right boat across the Channel, the right train in Ostend and then spend a night and day on the train to Vienna. I wasn't worried, neither were my parents.

All through my married life I've been strong and efficient. I don't call my husband to kill spiders, change lightbulbs or even clean gutters. I do it... and I've finally decided that I am a fool.
Those helpless women have got it right. They look up with  big appealing eyes and say, "I couldn't possibly get up on a step ladder to change that lightbulb. I couldn't possibly go up into the attic because there might be spiders." And big strong man takes pity and says, "Don't worry, I'll do it for you."

My husband waited on me while I couldn't move but as soon as I could hobble around with a cane he started saying how good it was for me to get back to being busy. Maybe it is, but Ms helpless female would have squeezed another couple of weeks of being waited on out of the event. So now it looks as if I'm back to being the strong woman again... and it's not always a good thing.
What do you think?

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Sunday Sneak Peek

I made good progress in the walking department this week. I can now get around using a cane and can go down stairs using the cane and the bannister. So I'm now more hopeful that I'll be back to normal soon. I realized that I have missed shopping for six weeks. May go crazy at Chicos!

Anyway, the new Lady Georgie book is progressing nicely and here's a sneak peek at what I was writing this week. If you don't like any spoilers, please don't read!

Eventually I must have fallen asleep and I awoke to a wild morning with clouds racing across a sky heavy with the promise of rain. The fire was already burning merrily in my grate, having been lit by an unseen, unheard housemaid, but the prospect outside was so unappealing that I lay under the covers until Queenie eventually arrived with my tea.
            “Sorry miss. It’s so bloomin’ dark that I overslept again,” she said. “Shall I run you a bath? And what will you be wearing?”
            “My kilt again with a jumper, I think, and yes, please do run me a bath.”
            The clock in the great central foyer was chiming nine as I made my way down to the breakfast room. My nanny back in Scotland would say that I was heading down the slippery slope getting up at such a late hour. The three sisters were sitting together at one end of the table, but there was no sign of the others.  They nodded to me as I came in, then went back to devouring kidneys. I must say they all had healthy appetites.
            “Beastly day,” Edwina said at last. “Serve Cedric right for bringing down the architect chappy for his wretched amphitheater. I hope they both get soaked to the skin.”
            “I can’t think what the boy was thinking,” Princess Charlotte said. “Hordes of people tramping over the estate. Not a moment of privacy. Didn’t you try to talk him out of it, Edwina?”
            “Of course I did, but he wouldn’t listen. I’m utterly appalled by the whole thing, especially by his callous attitude toward those cottages. People have lived there for generations—our estate people and he simply couldn’t care a fig. I don’t know how I could have raised such a selfish son. His father would give him a good talking to if he were alive.”
            “Maybe we should have summoned his father during the séance last night,” Virginia suggested.
            “I don’t wish to hear any more about that séance,” Edwina said. “News of it has quite upset the servants. In fact—“ she broke off at the sound of an anguished wail. “Now what?” she demanded. Far off we could hear what sounded like a hysterical outburst.
            “You see what I mean, Charlotte?” Edwina said. “You’ve got them all frightened.”
            We sat there, poised as in a tableau until we heard the sound of feet running in our direction. Elsie, the head parlormaid came bursting into the breakfast room. “’Beg pardon, Your Grace, “ she said.
            “What is it, Elsie?” Edwina had risen to her feet. “Who is making that ridiculous noise?”
            “It’s Lady Irene’s maid, Your Grace. She says she can’t wake Lady Irene.”