Recently one of the earlier novels in the Pitkirtly series received an excellent review here: http://ignitebooks.blogspot.co.uk/2016/10/cecilia-peartree.html (many thanks to the reviewer! – you may enjoy some of her other reviews too). This reminded me that the novel in question was one of my personal favourites of the series. I won’t reveal what my ‘top 3’ are at the moment but I thought I would use the opportunity to ask any readers who come across this which ones they like best. So if I can get the poll option thingy to work, here we go. I think I’ve set it to accept 3 answers, but who knows what may happen? Feel free to let me know if it does anything unexpected.
While we all (including me) wait for ‘Pitkirtly XII’ to be finished, I thought I would write a bit about how I keep track of the characters in the Pitkirtly mystery series. This was something I didn’t even think about until I had already written at least six of the books. It was only then that I realised I was having to go back through previous books to remind myself of certain people’s names. Police officers seemed to be particularly easily forgotten, although I also had trouble with dogs’ names, often within the same book.
(picture for World Elephant Day)
I’m not one of those people who uses an Excel file to keep them organised, unlike one of the finalists in the recent ‘Caravanner of the Year’ contest, who claimed to have all his activities colour-coded. but after ploughing through about six novels on more than one occasion to find a minor character’s last name, I decided to use an Excel file to record a few essential details about the people I had so far encountered in Pitkirtly. Sometimes the bare essentials turn into a little more , so there’s a note against one character’s name saying “May have gone off with Deirdre after ‘A Tasteful Crime'” – and sometimes a little less, as in the case of Christopher’s neighbour, Mr Brownlow who “doesn’t really do anything but is occasionally mentioned”. That would be a very sad epitaph! Not that I’m seeing him as a potential murder victim or anything, I hasten to add.
I should emphasise here that the file isn’t exactly a planning tool, as I don’t usually update it before writing the next novel, but it helps to reduce the time I wasted in trying to remember things that should carry over from one book to another. Occasionally the thing I think I should remember isn’t there at all. An example of that is Jan from the woolshop’s last name, which I don’t think has ever been mentioned at all, although for a while I was convinced it had been. (If anyone knows differently please don’t hesitate to let me know!)
That was just a glimpse into my writing methods, for want of a better word. Now I suppose I’d better get back to putting them into practice!
I had a slight panic attack earlier this morning when I realised that my favourite notebook – the one in which I unexpectedly wrote ‘Mysterious Pitkirtly’ – had mysteriously disappeared, probably during The Great De-Cluttering of spring 2016. Last week I had to carry out an excavation to find the little case on wheels without which I can no longer travel anywhere, and I am still looking for the knitting patterns I bought in the fond hope that I would begin a major knitting project in the near future. Of course not being able to find the patterns gives me a watertight, cast-iron excuse for not starting the knitting, so it isn’t all bad!
There isn’t anything all that special about the notebook, in fact it is probably one of Tesco’s cheapest ones, and I will have to buy a new one soon anyway, because there certainly isn’t enough room left in it to write anything longer than a short story, but I feel it’s quite a lucky notebook and I want to write down my first ideas for ‘Pitkirtly XII’ in it before they vanish. Of course, if story ideas vanish it’s usually because they weren’t any good in the first place, but I think I’ve reached the stage where I can almost begin to pin them down a bit, with a view to starting writing in July. Anyway, the notebook has re-surfaced to the sound of huge sighs of relief all round, or at least from me and the cat.
Until the end of June I will be ploughing on with a completely different thing I started at the end of April while waiting to edit ‘Pitkirtly XI’. I’ve reached over 30,000 words with the other thing but I don’t think anyone will like it so will keep that under wraps for now.
While I was searching for the notebook pictured above, I inadvertently looked inside another notebook which turned out to contain my writing plan for 2016. Well, at least it gave me a good laugh, even if that came out sounding a bit hysterical.
That reminds me that my son and his friends have recently won the Edinburgh edition of the 48 hour film competition for the second year in a row, with their ‘war film’ entitled ‘His Last Words’. I’ve put the words ‘war film’ in quotes for a reason. For anyone who finds the Pitkirtly Mysteries funny, this is your chance to see how humour travels down the generations (he wrote the script): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qja5wH84AlU&feature=youtu.be
I couldn’t find any pictures that expressed what I wanted to say on the cover of ‘Pitkirtly XI’ so I have had to carry out a special photo-shoot. Regular readers will not be surprised to learn that this didn’t involve glamorous partly-dressed models, mocked-up dinosaur landscapes or both. Instead I had to make the supreme sacrifice of buying three whole packets of scones and some miniature Empire biscuits (don’t forget the Empire biscuits as they are more important than they seem), which no doubt somebody will have to eat later on. The things I do for my art!
Normally I source my cover photos from a vast collection taken by my late brother Ian Ogilvy Morrison in various places in Scotland. They usually depict locations in Fife, but occasionally I’ve had to look a bit further afield. In a few cases I’ve used one of my own pictures, but they aren’t usually as good as my brother’s.
The picture shown here is a sort of ‘out-take’ that I added on at the end of the session just for fun, although in fact I think it has come out slightly better than the others, apart from the things in the background, which I see include a card given to me by a neighbour to thank me for lending her a ladder and a ‘Scottish’ teddy bear ornament that came from somewhere in the family. I may be able to fade these out if I do use this one.
Don’t get over-excited at this point if you’re waiting for the book to come out, by the way, as I am still somewhere in the middle of the editing process. I just find if I get the cover organised it helps to motivate me to finish!
Although my latest novel is rather frivolous compared to the real world setting it attempts to depict, I thought some of my readers might be interested to know where I looked for information about the background.
I usually go online first these days to see if I can find any sources that seem both relevant and reliable. Much to my delight, I found some official Cambridge University pages about the history of the Mathematical Laboratory (later known as the Computer Laboratory) and the 50th anniversary of EDSAC 1, the computer I allowed my fictional characters to monkey around with. My favourite page, from a novelist’s point of view, was this one, which includes personal reminiscences:
As well as the content on this page there are links to other sites with images of the Laboratory and the computers – and some of the people – that inhabited it over the years.
My own programming days were a little later than the time of the EDSACs, but there were still some LEO computers in operation in the organisation I worked for, and I remember paper tape, although our own machine accepted input on punched cards. It seems almost unbelievable that we often punched up our own programs on ancient Hollerith card punches that didn’t have proper keyboards, and that the computer that occupied almost a whole floor of the building was much less powerful than a modern laptop – possibly even less powerful than my Kindle Fire, for all I know.
One of my characters, Andrew, has a background in code-breaking that is so secret that he can’t divulge anything about it, so naturally I had to read about Bletchley Park, where the Enigma codes were broken during the war. I chose a very readable book which focussed on the people involved: The Secret Life of Bletchley Park by Sinclair McKay. I am sure there are many more technical books about how the computers worked and exactly how the codes were broken, but this one told me some of the things I always want to know when writing about past events – i.e. where did the code-breakers live, what was their working life like, and what did they do in their spare time. This was all deep background as far as my novels are concerned – I can’t let Andrew say anything about his past, perhaps for years!
I also re-read a novel I already knew, to refresh my memory about the Playfair Cipher: Have His Carcase by Dorothy L. Sayers – still an excellent mystery today. I haven’t explained the cipher half as well as Dorothy Sayers did, so if you want to know the details, read this book.
To find out something about Cambridge in the 1950s, I read another book that focussed on people as opposed to events with wider significance: The Shop Girls by Ellee Seymour. This isn’t great literature and is a light, easy read, but I certainly learned a lot of detail about where people shopped, what sort of places they lived in, where the parks and green spaces were, and what they did in their spare time in 1950s Cambridge. I tried not to put it all in the novel!
If you’ve read this far down the page, you are entitled to know that I haven’t been frittering away my time writing blog posts since publishing the above-mentioned novel. Oh, no. I’ve got out my ‘lucky’ notebook again and the image that goes with this post should give you a clue to what’s happening.
I seem to have been ‘almost there’ with Quest IV (‘A Quest for Clemency’) for much too long, but I have more or less finished my final round of editing and all that’s left to do is to format the file in a couple of different ways, and publish. As so often happens, I have found a way of complicating things for myself, in this case by deciding now would be a good time to create an omnibus edition of the first three novels in the Quest series, which means wrestling with cover design again. I’ve found a few images lying around on my computer but they don’t seem quite right somehow….
Personally I am very fond of the chairs and 1950s clock picture, but it doesn’t seem dramatic enough – on the other hand I’ve also had to reject (reluctantly) some illustrations I’ve found online showing a man with dark hair and a woman with red hair both holding guns. Apart from the guns they would be just right for the characters.
My latest thinking is to put a picture of Big Ben down one side of the cover and maybe a couple of figures somewhere but not the ones with guns. This is a self-imposed torment so I may eventually decide against the omnibus altogether. It’s something I’ve often considered doing for Pitkirtly but so far I’ve only got as far as producing a limited print edition (two copies – very limited indeed!).
Anyway, returning to ‘A Quest for Clemency’, I’m hoping it will be ready in a few days’ time. I’ve really enjoyed researching, writing and even editing this novel. I hope to write a bit more once it’s published about the research I’ve done for it, which has involved two of my pet topics: the history of computers, and secret codes. The novel also starts with a train journey, which gave me the excuse to look up old train routes in East Anglia. I’m not quite sure where my fascination with disused train routes originated. It might be partly because our house is built on the land where a station once stood, or a long time before that, when I grew up near the Tay Rail Bridge and watched all the famous steam trains going past.
I like to use this limbo between Christmas and New Year to get organised for the year ahead, although the time tends to be taken up instead by a mad rush to fill in my tax return, an excess of sleep and biscuits, and more often than not by some sort of family emergency. This year one of the cats took his turn at being ill, although so far we hope this was caused by toothache and not by anything worse. I think the worst Christmas I can remember for this kind of thing was one Christmas Eve years ago when, with my son already on antibiotics for a throat infection, I had to take the car to our local garage for urgent repairs, got distracted and left the house keys on the car key-ring and had to go back for them by taxi after arriving on the door-step with my son, who by this time needed to go back to bed, to find we couldn’t get into the house. Later that day I went back for the car, drove it into our drive and said to my son with a sigh of relief, ‘That’s it, we’re not going out again until after Christmas’. We went into the house and I found one of the cats had suddenly developed a swollen ear since that morning so we had to take him to the vet to get his own dose of antibiotics.
Anyway, I’ve managed to write a draft plan for the new writing year. It has already acquired some squiggly bits and arrows indicating I’m not sure where things will fit in, but it hasn’t yet had the chance to become as messy as my 2015 plan, which didn’t justify even being called a plan by the time I had finished with it.
I have a vague memory of resolving at about this time last year not to write as much in 2015 as I had done in 2014, or maybe that was a previous year’s resolution. In any case I can’t say I’ve stuck to it. If nothing else, The Thing in the Notebook, which was unforeseen and unplanned, would have well and truly seen off that idea. There may be more Things in Notebooks but it might be that I have to find a new way to trick myself in the coming year.
I hope everyone reading this has a happy year in 2016. Thank you very much indeed to anyone who has read my books, and I hope you will continue to enjoy them for as long as I enjoy writing them.