Killing Your Darlings

Every writer will have to face this dilemma at some stage. No, not the violent dispatch of spouses or family (I’ll cover that next week, for those that are interested) but that heart-wrenching process of getting rid of those much-loved quirks and foibles of one’s writing. It might be a delightful but gratuitous chunk of prose, a pointless character to which you have developed a personal attachment for even a subplot that serves no purpose.

People, I feel your pain. As a writer who revels in using ten words where one will do, has endless pointless characters (many of whom don’t even have names) and scatters superfluous story arcs with gay abandon, I am perhaps more guilty of harbouring ‘darlings’ than the average writer. But my publisher is tolerant of such indulgences as literary excess is rather my style, albeit with tongue firmly in cheek.

But when I received this response after submitting my latest PorterGirl novel, I sensed that the days were numbered for the biggest darling of them all…

Hi Lucy,
I have just finished reading Sinister Dexter for fun, I liked it a lot and your writing is improving all the time.

Sinister Dexter is in your voice and I don’t want to change it too much. I think the story is great and again it is character driven, you do tie your hands somewhat, writing in the first person and in the present tense…

Readers of the books and the original blog will know that I am partial to writing in First Person Present Tense which is, I know, considered to be a bit gimmicky in literary circles. When I first started writing the blog, an-almost-real-life account of my experiences as the first female Deputy Head Porter at one of the UK’s oldest and most prestigious Universities, the device worked very well. It gave an intimate and immediate account of an unusual and unique journey into the esoteric world of the academic elite and allowed me to share the inner thoughts and observations of Deputy Head Porter to great effect. For the first book, even, it still proved effective and I received positive feedback from readers who said they felt like they were with our heroine every step of the way. First Person Present Tense has become the signature style for PorterGirl and is a huge part of the quirky style and feel of the thing.

But I can’t deny, it can be a bit of a bugger at times. Firstly, most people hate FPPT. There is a danger of wandering into the realms of stream-of-consciousness type ponderings on the page. It can make character development tricky for anyone not directly engaging with the protagonist at regular intervals. It’s not that I have anything against other tenses –  Who Shot Tony Blair? and my Poirot parodies are all written in Third Person Past Tense and, I can tell you, it’s a damn sight less fiddly.

The end of Sinister Dexter is set up to introduce an additional character point of view for the book that will follow. I even have a cunning ruse to extricate myself from the shackles of FPPT and move to Past Tense, should I choose to do so. With the trilogy of novels now in place, it would seem an opportune moment to take the series forward and move on from what is perhaps the most striking and recognisable aspect of the PorterGirl style.

But… is the killing of this – perhaps the biggest of darlings – a slaughter too far?

First Lady Of The Keys – Amazon UK     Amazon US

The Vanishing Lord – Amazon UK     Amazon US

Old College – A Visitor’s Guide

Straddling the ancient river of one of Britain’s most venerable cities, Old College is among the most esteemed Colleges of The City University. Even those with a firm grasp of the complexities of higher education are likely to be baffled by the anachronistic nuances of the academic elite, a world mostly unseen by those not permitted passage beyond those hallowed walls. A little light reading is required by any wishing to ingratiate themselves into College life, but it is well worth keeping in mind that even veterans of scholarly society don’t really know what’s going on. A quick glance at this visitor’s guide will have you swanking around like an alumni in no time.


Ruled by a sort of benevolent autocracy, Colleges have at their head The Master of College. This role is usually taken by a person of great academic achievement and often also of high standing within society. The Master of Old College is both a professor of economics and a Lord of the Realm, which is fairly impressive. A somewhat sinister and distant figure, he spends a good deal of time abroad, avoiding his sex-mad, surgically enhanced wife who is sadly devoid of any notable talents beyond those bought and paid for in Harley Street.

Luckily, Old College is blessed with the formidable force of nature that is The Dean to keep things relatively on track in his absence. Previously an international lawyer with a dubious past in Kuala Lumpa, The Dean is fearless, tactless and prone to random violence. A handsome man in his mid-forties, Deputy Head Porter has held a candle for him since their first meeting. Fraternisation between The Fellowship and College Servants is not so much frowned upon as simply unthinkable, and his often frenzied approach to enforcing discipline and maintaining reputation make any union between them unlikely. He is ably assisted by the softly-spoken Senior Tutor, whose remarkable tolerance makes him perfect for dealing with students and Fellows alike.

The Fellowship

‘The Fellowship’ is a rather romantic title for the multifarious conglomerate of academics who make up the ruling body of College. Although there are some bone fide proper jobs performed by members of The Fellowship, a great deal of them seem to exist simply to occupy the dining halls and their only reason for being in College is that they haven’t anywhere else to go.

Keeping an eye on the vast sums of money passing in and out of College are The Bursars. Traditionally, one collects the money whilst the other spends it, although Old College is now down to one Bursar and even he is currently locked in a dungeon in a French chateaux.

Sitting firmly and distantly beneath The Fellowship we have the College servants. All the really important roles are covered by this somewhat pompous term – Housekeeping, Maintenance, Catering, Gardeners and, of course, the Porters.


Ensconced in the muted splendor of the Porters’ Lodge, the bowler-hatted jacks-of-all-trades are at the top of the humble servant pile. Although I am sure other departments might dispute that. The Porters, naturally, are not the carriers of bags but the keepers of keys. The role is so broad and varied it is difficult to encapsulate concisely. Always on hand (except when they are sneaking off for a smoke), Porters act as security, deliver the post and are called upon to deal with everything from lost property to broken hearts. But woe betide any who upset the Porters. Think of Porters as butlers with attitude.

lucy tiff queens for pops

Here I am, doing some actual Portering.


Housekeeping staff whose primary priority is keeping the student quarters from becoming biohazards. Bedders keep the College spick and span whilst accumulating some of the more salacious gossip, which makes them great allies of the Porters.

Formal Hall

By definition, Formal Halls are formal dinners often used for the entertainment of College guests. As such they are governed by certain guidelines, customs and rules set out to ensure all College members behave themselves. Failure to observe these guidelines may result in punishment up to and including death, or something far worse than that – being sent to see The Dean. Eating and drinking (especially drinking) is taken very seriously indeed by The Fellowship and they expect everyone to attribute a similar gravitas to the consumption of victuals. Formal Halls are held once a week in full term and are seen as a way of keeping your hand in for the Feasts and Balls that are a common part of College life.

The Other Place

Among the upper echelons of British society, there are only two Universities given any consideration. Their annual boat races are a long standing tradition and the contention between them goes back centuries. It is considered bad form to utter the name of your academic rivals, hence the University that is not your alma mater is automatically known as The Other Place.


Punting is a prerequisite of proper City life. The art of gently steering a flat-bottomed boat with a twelve foot pole along the urban waterways is one which must be mastered by anyone wanting to be taken really seriously in College. Here in the City, we always punt from the rear of the boat, whereas The Other Place adopts the rather undignified practice of dragging the boat through the water, punting from the front. Heathens.


Fairly frantic punting

(Bit random – but click here to see William Shatner punting in Cambridge)

This covers the basics of a complex and convoluted ‘organisation’ (I use the term loosely) that, despite ambiguous origins and esoteric arrangements, has managed to thrive for eight hundred years, becoming inordinately wealthy and more powerful than government or the church.  How the University wields its power is difficult to know, but how they maintain it can be easily observed. 

Welcome to Old College. You’ll never leave…


First Lady Of The Keys – preorder NOW!

Porters & Knights

Without doubt, my biggest mistake in the early days of my Old College career was trying to apply my hard-earned real-world logic and thinking to the academic environment. It has taken me a long time to tuck away the intellections of Her Majesty’s Finest and finally wrestle my mind towards the Machiavellian and contrived thought processes that govern the internal workings of Old College.

In fact, you almost have to approach thinking as if you were a person who had never thought at all. It really is that random. Having considered this at some length, I can only conclude that the academics have heads so full of dusty nonsense that there is little room for much else. Porters have plenty of room inside their heads. That is what makes them such a wily and adaptable breed.

And this is precisely the thing that will be of help to us here in Chateau de Chinon. Having learned from the Antique Shop Owner that the Templar carvings in the cave resembled markings found in the dungeons of the Chateau, our next point of progress seems clear. It is gaining access to the buggers that could prove difficult.

“If the Curator and his staff are the only people who have access to the dungeons, there must be keys or a device that controls entry,” I say to my captive audience of The Dean and Professor Duke.

“That stands to reason,” replies The Dean.

“Do you suppose the Curator might give us a tour?” asks the Professor. “Especially if we asked nicely?”

“Maybe,” I reply. “But probably not. Judging by the young lady’s reaction to our mention of the dungeons I would suggest that it is a place they would rather keep to themselves.”

“So we need the keys, then” The Dean says, his feet shuffling against an urgent need to pace. “Well, I’m up for a scuffle as much as the next man but taking them from the Curator by force could land us on the wrong side of the Gendarmerie, you know.”

“I have heard,” continues the Professor “That those fellows don’t have a right side. Imagine going through life with no right side, too. Poor chaps.”

“For once, I don’t think violence is the answer,” I reply.

“If not violence, then what?” asks The Dean, genuinely perplexed.

“A place like this must have hundreds, maybe thousands, of locks,” I say. “And that means lots and lots of keys. They must be kept somewhere. The Chateau must have a sort of equivalent to our very own Porters’ Lodge. Keys can be difficult articles and they most definitely demand a place to be kept.”

“Wowawee, you’re right, Deputy Head Porter!” exclaims the Professor. “Genius! I imagine, though, it’d be hard to find the place where they’re kept, you know.”

“Hmm, my thoughts exactly,” I reply. And then, I say something that I feel cannot go unsaid. “But it is not a task that should be attempted on an empty stomach. Breakfast was ages ago, you know.”

We are able to obtain a delectable selection of crusty breads, meats and cheeses from the visitors’ canteen and set up a cheery little picnic in one of the courtyards. The afternoon air is fuddled by a warm breeze, skipping its way from the Vienne River and we watch happily as children explore the corners and crevices of the courtyard, no doubt imagining themselves as Knights of old. It is quite the perfect accompaniment to our lunch.

A watchful eye from a place unseen bears the dark sheen of a sadist’s delight. If truth is what they seek then let them find the truth. But truth is naught without eyes to see and ears to hear and air to breath. A helping hand to guide to truth is what I gift you now…

“You know, I’ve been thinking twice over,” announces Professor Duke, between mouthfuls of brie. Oh, this should be good. “With the crypt, the cave and now the dungeons, it strikes me that the Templar spent quite a lot of time underground.”

“Well, they were greatly persecuted, after a time,” The Dean remarks. “If you were accused of heresy and threatened with execution you would hardly be strutting about the landscape, would you.”

“Oh, I bet so,” the Professor retorts, defiantly. “I would strut about proudly, and then accuse them of heresy and threaten them with all sorts of evil things…”

I hop to my feet to shake off the inordinate amount of crumbs that have accumulated about my person. The saddest truth about crusty bread is that far too little of it finds its way into the mouth. As I am performing my little jig, I am startled by a hand snatching at the hem of my waistcoat.

“Hey!” I swipe it away rather too enthusiastically and find myself back-handing an unfortunate young man who now looks absolutely terrified.

Je suis désolé!” he wails, holding both hands to his stricken cheek.

“Oh.” I struggle to come up with much more, other than “Sorry about that.”

“Now what’s up here?!” Professor Duke leaps to my side and gives the young French gentleman a hard stare. “You can’t go about grabbing…people! It’s not appreciated, you beast!”

“Oh, he’s French,” says The Dean, waving a lump of cheese around dismissively. “It’s probably a sport to him.”

Looking down at my waistcoat, I suspect the thing he was so interested in was the College crest embroidered on one side. I look from the crest to the lad and the face he returns suggests that this is the case.

“You have a coat of arms?” the lad asks me in hesitant English. “You are Knights?”

“Of a sort, I suppose,” I reply kindly, not wishing to upset the chap further. He is clearly no threat to us. “We are on something of a quest. Following some other Knights who came before us, a long, long time ago.”

“Very famous Knights, no less!” says the Professor. “They were kept here in the dungeons, back when the Chateau was brand new. And, yes, I’m a knight of sorts.”

“Oh!” exclaims the French lad, suddenly seeming quite enthralled with us. “I know the Knights you mean. S’il vous plaît – you will follow me!”


With Professor VJ Duke