Month: July 2017

Hide & Seek – Part Ten

Poirot stood at the window of his guest room in Somersby Hall, contemplating the scene of morning breaking upon the rambling grounds below. The rear gardens bore scattered signatures of attempted horticultural endeavours, but the areas beyond the terrace were given over to the whims of nature, which in its own way was no bad thing. Clutches of bluebells nodded their heads in haphazard gatherings about the courtyard while campions of white and pink intruded into the flowerbeds whose intended incumbents had long since withered in their presence. Fledgling shoots of yellow archangel were rearing their heads, ready to take the place of the indigo clumps when the bluebells began to fade. A rugged figure loitered on the edge of the copse, shotgun in hand and flat cap pulled low on his brow. From this distance Poirot could not see his face, but guessed it to be Barton, the gamekeeper. No doubt he too was mourning the loss of poor Clara, perhaps already missing her visits to his hut.

The morning had begun rather more abruptly than Poirot would have liked. The prodigal son, Harold Bottomclutch, had returned at dawn and the reunion had not been as auspicious as his parents would have hoped. The news of his sister’s brutal murder had been met at first with confusion, then disbelief, then the bitter grief that one might expect. A night’s sleep (aided, no doubt, by the repeated consumption of small strong drinks) had enabled Lady Bottomclutch to rein in her hysterics – indeed, she had even seen fit to instruct her son to remove his muddy boots in the hallway, before he retreated to his quarters to indulge his anguish in private.

One of the things that both mystified and drew admiration in Poirot about the English was their steadfast refusal to be given over to emotion of any kind. His travails brought him frequently to incidents of high drama, but those involved were often good enough to keep the deep horrors of their feelings very much to themselves. There was a sharp tapping at his door, followed by the arrival of Captain Hastings.

“I’ve come to let you know that breakfast is being served,” said Hastings, not quite his usual chipper self. “I say, Poirot, I’m dreadfully worried about the state of Venn’s car. Whatever will we tell him?”

“Hastings, there has been a murder most foul, yet it is the motor vehicle that worries you?” Poirot chided him, but a smile lurked beneath the formidable moustache.

“Murders are ten a penny for the likes of you and me, old chum,” Hastings replied, thrusting his hands in his pockets and striding over to join Poirot at the window. “But a car like that, well, that’s a rare and beautiful machine. Whatever will we do about the tyres?”

“I am sure, mon amie, that the tyres, they can be fixed,” said Poirot, making great effort to reassure his friend. “And the murder, it can be solved, non?”

Non. I mean, yes, I’m sure it can… I say, what’s that fellow up to over there?”
“The gentleman with the gun? It is the gamekeeper, non?”

“He hasn’t got a gun, looks like a length of rope,” replied Hastings. “But yes, you’re right, it’s that Barton chap. Poor fellow. Banished into a hut in the woods like that.”

Poirot doubted very much that Barton actually lived in his gamekeeper’s hut, but was in no mood to debate the matter with Hastings. In fact, he might very well be in the mood for breakfast, now that the Captain mentioned it.

Breakfast should have been a solemn affair, but indeed it was quite raucous. Lady Bottomclutch has positioned herself next to Captain Hastings and seemed to find great vigour lurking in the glass of tomato juice that never left her hand. Her other hand showed no interest in cutlery or toast, but was otherwise engaged under the table, a manoeuvre Hastings was at great pains to avoid as politely as possible. The Bowley sisters did not survive on tragedy alone, it seemed, as both had great appetites for the array of breads and cold meats laid out upon the table. Ethel made snide remarks directed at Major Walker, questioning not only his title but also his parentage, to which he responded with boisterous gusto. Mr Philpott the vicar had been nervously buttering the same slice of toast for more than half an hour, whilst trying to pull the conversation to more genial pastures, but his gentle Norfolk lilt was lost among the rabble. His winsome son James remained breathless and wan, refusing all sustenance yet managing to look remarkably dapper in crushed velvet and lace. It was to everyone’s delight that Harold Bottomclutch had recovered his disposition sufficiently to partake of some sausage and egg and was in muted yet earnest conversation with his father.

Poirot sat quietly, watching the scene and all its players, his little grey cells absorbing all they could. He intended to begin his questioning directly after breakfast; hunger sharpened the mind, therefore Poirot believed that it was so much more difficult to lie on a full stomach. Picking up a silver tea spoon, Poirot prepared to set about the single boiled egg that sat before him; an egg, he noted, that looked remarkably like himself.

“Mr Poirot, I am sorry to disturb you, sir,” Derbyshire the butler appeared, ghost-like, at the detective’s side. “There is a Chief Inspector Japp from Scotland Yard here to see you. He says you are expecting him, sir.”

“Aha! Oui! Merci beaucoup, monsieur Derbyshire!” Poirot replaced the spoon and removed the napkin from his chin. “I will see him at once.”

“Another chap from London?” Lady Bottomclutch called out from the other end of the table. “Oh, bring him in here, please do! The more the merrier!”

At that moment, a reassuringly familiar figure draped in a well-worn overcoat and wearing a battered trilby strode into the room.

“You two ‘erberts can’t go anywhere without finding yourselves a body, can you?” Japp addressed Poirot and Hastings. “Well, well, well. What ‘av we got ‘ere, then? You’d better tell me all about it.”

The Thing About Writer’s Block

Not just the scourge of authors, writers and poets – anyone who has ever sat down in front of a blank page will, at some point, have experienced the phenomenon popularly known as ‘writer’s block’. I have come to an important conclusion about this most maligned of conditions and it is somewhat controversial, probably won’t be popular, but I thought I would share it with you anyway.

It doesn’t actually exist.

The natural flow stops not because of some mystical interference from the literary gods, but rather because something somewhere isn’t quite right, the narrative has gone awry or because something just doesn’t work. When the words dry up for no apparent reason and everything comes to a grinding halt, go back and look at it again. Retrace your steps, find out where you’ve gone wrong, look for the bits that don’t fit. There are all manner of things to think about, these are just a few…

Planning

Whilst the debate between ‘Plotters’ and ‘Pantsters’ will rage until the end of time, it’s fair to say that if you don’t know what, ultimately, you are trying to say or where the narrative is going, you’re going to hit dead ends far more frequently than if you have a clearly defined objective or resolution.  You don’t have to have all the details worked out, but you do have to know what the point of it all will be.

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This is me having a think about stuff. Or I might have wind, difficult to tell.

You Don’t Know What You’re Talking About

They say to write what you know and there are very good reasons for this. Writing from your own experience will always be more authentic than relying on imagination alone. But we don’t always want to restrict ourselves in this way, so research becomes very important. Read, watch, listen, visit, converse –  as much as possible make it your personal experience. You can’t write what you don’t know.

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Research is the writer’s friend.

It Doesn’t Work

Not every idea is destined to become a fully-blown, finished work. It might have sounded brilliant in your head when you thought about it on the bus, it could even have held great promise when jotted down in your notebook. But when it comes to properly bashing it out on the page, it just doesn’t gel. Maybe only bits of it are wrong, perhaps the perspective is wrong, or to could just be that it’s a non-starter all round. Don’t be afraid to abandon these lost causes in favour of more fruitful pursuits.

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Consign bad ideas to the fiery pits of hell! Or a wood burner. Whatever’s easier.

It’s You

Not you personally, you are just lovely. But if you’re tired, distracted or simply not in the right frame of mind, it stands to reason that writing will be a struggle. Professional writers have found ways to minimise these effects and have to be able to overcome them in order to produce work to order, often to tight deadlines. That’s what makes them professionals. But even the most dedicated and hard-working professional will sometimes have to admit defeat and either have a break, sleep on it or take a step back.

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It’s not you, it’s me. (But actually it is you.)

It’s An Excuse

No one ever said this writing lark would be easy. Good writing takes practice, patience and lots of bloody work. There are no shortcuts – writing is time-consuming and other aspects of your life will have to be sacrificed. This isn’t for everybody, for a myriad of reasons. But if you really, honestly, want to be a writer, these reasons can only ever be excuses. This might be tough to hear, but if writing is what you really want to do then it will have to become a priority (at least, a lot of the time) and little hiccups like ‘writer’s block’ will have to be wrestled down and overcome very quickly if you want to be taken seriously.

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Writing is hard. Rolling around on the grass is easy.

Getting Over It

There are lots of oft-repeated hints and tips for tackling those times when pen and paper just won’t get it together; oft-repeated because they are good advice. Going for a walk is my favourite. It gets the blood pumping and a change of scenery can jolt a tired brain back into action. Walking is brilliant for thinking. If I’m struggling with a scene I take myself for a good stomp and let myself think of all the wildest and most outrageous things to write – I mean, really let the imagination go. These things will never make it onto the page but it’s better than thinking about nothing and, eventually, the crazy ideas settle down into something much more sensible and useful.

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A nice walk is a good idea.

I am a big fan of tea, although lots of writers prefer coffee. Some even swear by alcohol, but I can’t say I recommend it. Writing is my job and I don’t drink when I’m working. Often I don’t drink the evening before, either – certainly not to excess. You have to treat it like any other job and give it the respect it deserves. Food, too, is very important. The brain needs glucose and all sorts of things to work effectively. Genius is never achieved on an empty stomach.

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A cup of tea is a good idea.

What it all boils down to, is that writing takes time, effort and just a smidgeon of talent. Don’t romanticise it or swath it in esoteric nonsense. Put the kettle on, your bum on your seat and just get on with it.

Hide & Seek – Part Nine

The mood in the drawing room of Somersby Hall was solemn and tinged with suspicion. Lady Bottomclutch was draped across the chaise longue, her tear-streaked face drawn and silent, an empty decanter on the occasional table next to her and a heavy bottomed glass discarded on the floor by a carelessly pendulous hand. Major Walker and Mr Philpott the vicar stood by the fireplace, alternately muttering disbelief and shaking their heads. The Bowley sisters huddled together, spitting poison quietly between them and eyeing a platter of sandwiches that had been forgotten in the melee of events. Family butler Derbyshire loitered stoically by the door, attempting to maintain an air of normalcy whilst acting as a sentry, under strict instructions from Captain Hastings that no one was to leave the premises except with the express permission of Hercule Poirot.

“Will you harridans not refrain from your infernal muttering?” Major Walker snapped at the sisters. Tact was never normally his strong point, but this evening even less so.

The sisters were identical in appearance and dress, the only thing to separate them was that one spoke vile things, the other merely thought them. They were barely in their forties, but spite had prematurely aged their pinched faces, cold beady eyes of icy blue glared out from sunken sockets and turned up little noses sat above thin, mirthless lips. Both were dressed smartly in navy twin sets and pearls, pleated skirts to match and at a respectable length, shoes flat and sensible. Faded brunette locks were forced into tight buns at the base of the skull and, unsurprisingly, left hands were bereft of jewellery of any kind. Only Ethel spoke, while Enid kept guard by her sister’s side.

“We couldn’t help but notice that the girl called you to account good and proper, mister Walker. How galling that must have been for you.”

“How… how dare you, you mischief making witches!” Major Walker spluttered his words as if they were bile in his mouth. “What are you suggesting? If you have something to say… I suggest you say it right now!”

“Calm yourself, Major, calm yourself – this is no time to be fighting among ourselves,” said Mr Philpott, placing a firm hand on Walker’s arm, which was by now trembling with rage.

“And come to think of it, where’s your lovely boy, vicar?” Ethel continued, her toxic tirade now untapped. “He made himself scarce pretty quickly, didn’t he? His face was a picture.”

“My James is completely incapable of such a vile act!” It was the vicar’s turn to battle outrage.

“Some say he is incapable of a great deal of things,” smirked Ethel. “And lord knows, he isn’t especially fond of women, is he?”

Mr Philpott was speechless, which was just as well, as the words that were forming in his mind were most unbecoming of a man of the cloth. Before they could stain his lips, the sound of wood on wood announced an arrival and Derbyshire stretched to attention as the aforementioned James Philpott appeared at the doorway.

“I’ll thank you not to take the lord’s name in vain in front of my father,” trilled James, his dainty nose in the air and hands on hips. This defiant display was hampered somewhat by his reddened eyes, damp cheeks and an unusual air that suggested that the contents of his stomach had been recently evacuated.

“Oh, here he is,” said Ethel, her mouth a cruel gash across her face. “Evidence disposed of, is it?”

James grew pink, but the evening’s events had already drained his resolve and he had not the stomach to make further riposte. Instead, he threw himself into an armchair and, removing the delicate pocket knife from his velvet waistcoat, began cleaning his fingernails in earnest.

Revelling in the young man’s defeat, Ethel stalked the room and settled by the platter of dry, curling sandwiches, Enid shadowing her steps one by one. The Major refilled his glass and offered Mr Philpott and James the same, keeping one eye on the sisters, as if he thought they might attack at any moment.

“Of course, poor Clara wasn’t exactly the apple of her parents’ eye,” continued Ethel, indicating the unconscious Lady Bottomclutch with a deftly brandished sandwich. “She was an embarrassment to polite society. Even more so than their dreadful son…”

Derbyshire cleared his throat in the most deliberate fashion, halting the monstrous monologue not a moment too soon. At his side was Hercule Poirot, flanked by a stoney-faced Lord Bottomclutch and Captain Hastings, who bore a most fearsome expression.

Excusez-moi, mademoiselle,” huffed Poirot, uncharacteristically stern and moustache especially rigid. “Poirot wishes to speak with you all. This evening’s events have taken a turn most unfortunate, vraiment. There is, perhaps, a killer among us and Poirot intends to find out who it is. In the morning, we will be joined by the formidable Inspector Japp from Scotland Yard. He will be on the first train from London. Until then, Poirot insists that everyone returns to their rooms, locks their doors and awaits further instruction at breakfast. No one is to leave the house. Mes amies, there is evil in this place and Poirot will pluck it out like a rotted feather!”