How to index a book – or not

Arsenic, arson, Bulwer-Lytton....
Arsenic, arson, Bulwer-Lytton….

Apart from the obvious difference between fiction and non-fiction – one’s pretend and the other isn’t (more or less) – a non-fiction text should have an index. Indices are awesome, a handy way to zip around a book without having to wade through the entire tome, but have you ever stopped to wonder what compiling an index involves?

This is something I have been wondering since I started work on Poison Panic, for the simple reason that my book would need an index. Gulp.

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Birmingham RNA Writers Day

A scribble of writers?

Writing can be a lonely endeavour, so it’s great that there’s ways for us to meet up. There’s local groups, or there’s associations and organisations you can join, depending on what genre you write in. As I write historical crime and fiction with a romantic twist, I’ve joined the Historical Writers’ Association, I plan to join the Crime Writers’ Association, and I hope one day to join the Romantic Novelists’ Association (RNA).((To join the HWA and the CWA, you need to have been commissioned to write a book by a publisher. The RNA is similar, but it also has an annual New Writers’ Scheme, whereby you can join after submitting a manuscript to them. The RNA has also opened its membership to self-published authors who have sold a particular number of novels.))

I have to say that the RNA are one of the most active (and pro-active), friendly and welcoming groups you could ever wish for. You don’t even have to be a member to attend some of their events. I have been to several lunch meet-ups with the ladies (and a bloke!) and on Saturday, I was one of the presenters at the Birmingham Chapter’s Writers Day. Held in the rather grand environs of the Radisson Blu on Holloway Head, this was a full day with five speakers and opportunities to mingle – and sell books! I think everyone learnt something, be it about planning, revisions, marketing and social media, and how to publish short stories.

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Cousin Fred’s garden mausoleum

Joanna the Mad stands beside her husband’s coffin. By Francisco Pradillo, held at the Prado, Madrid

What I am about to write might surprise you. Or perhaps not, given that it’s written by someone who’s posed with a skull (don’t worry, it wasn’t real). It certainly surprised me when I first heard about it. A conversation with my mum, as we drove to Sainsbury’s one day, went like this:

“I’ve got in touch with descendants of grandad’s cousin in New Zealand.”
“Ohh… what was he called…? Fred, was it?”
“Yes, that’s right. Fred, and he – .”
“Grandad said he kept his wife’s body in a glass coffin in the lounge.”
“He -? Sorry… did you just say – ?”
“He was a bit peculiar.”
I stared blankly through the windscreen. My grandad’s cousin kept his dead wife in his lounge? How on earth does one broach this with one’s newly discovered relatives? “Oh, I hear your grandad…. erm….”

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Interview: Verity Holloway and “Beauty Secrets of the Martyrs”


I was on holiday in Kefalonia as a child when I saw my first dead body: the rather wrinkly 16th century St. Gerasimus. He wasn’t on view for tourists, only for the eyes of the Greeks, but my grandad had spent so long faffing about with his Kodak that we were the last two tourists left in the church when his coffin was opened. He almost looked as if he was asleep, but it was hard to see if he was breathing under his thick velvet brocade gown. A monk chanted as a queue of penitents shuffled towards him, each kissing a velvet cushion placed over the papery saint’s feet. A little boy – about the same age as me –  was lifted up so he could kiss the cushion. Having been raised Congregational, going each Sunday to a chapel which didn’t even have the mere suggestion of coloured glass in its windows – no statues, no gilding, and certainly no incorrupt saints – the spectacle fascinated me. Perhaps because my father was an undertaker (our family Volvo estate doubled as transport for “customers”), it had extra resonance, as if seeing St. Gerasimus helped me to understand what my dad did, dressed all in black with his very large umbrella.

Since that day, the concept of incorruptibles has fascinated me, so when I found out that Verity Holloway had written a novella about them, I knew I had to read it. Set in a not-too-distance future, as the world’s rising waters consume the land, St. Silvan is looked to as a symbol of hope by the residents of the drowning world. The pretty-boy saint travels by night, visiting other incorruptibles, including secular figures such as Lenin and an Anatomical Venus. A saintly Avon Lady, he recommends lipstick and powders to touch up the ancient figures. But as St. Silvan starts to remember who he was in life, the cracks start to show.

I spoke to Verity about her novella, her writing process and about her book The Mighty Healer, which is out later this year.

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Lament for an Unavailable Spy


At some point, Poison Panic will be available on Amazon. How very exciting. Because I had a couple of minutes in which my brain demanded something to do and because it had no better idea, I searched for my name on Amazon. I wasn’t surprised that it queried if I’d spelled “Barrell” correctly, suggesting I was looking for a Helen of Troy barrel hot brush – but I was surprised that it returned a result for Lament for a Trapped Spy. It’s a novella I wrote as a teen and self-published like a fanzine, some stapled-together photocopied pages. I sent it through the post for a couple of quid, and about 50 were ever produced; it’s been out of print for years. How on earth did it get on Amazon?

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Review: River, or The Adventure of the Haunted Policeman

River with colleague/"manifest" Stevie
River with colleague/”manifest” Stevie

There are hundreds of crime dramas on our TVs, and each one tries to attack this old genre in a new way – set it in Oxford (Inspector Morse), set it in two countries at once (The Bridge), highlight new technology (the seemingly endless CSI and NCIS franchises, Silent Witness, Bones), show the legal process from start to finish (Law & Order), do history at the same time (Ripper Street, Whitechapel, Anno 1790, Inspector Whicher, Peaky Blinders), use lavish art deco sets (Poirot), plot the criminal brain (Cracker, Criminal Minds), update an old chestnut (Sherlock, Elementary), adapt novels and short stories (most of the aforesaid, Arne Dahl), have some nice scenery (Wycliffe, Vera), set it in Brighton (Cuffs)… etc etc etc.((Clearly, not an exhaustive list.)) In none of these does anyone say “Let’s have a detective who’s haunted by dead people.”

But that’s where River is different.

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Review: Spectre, or, UnSpectretacular

Whoever Photoshopped this, you are amazing.
Whoever Photoshopped this, you are amazing.

Warning: spoiler-laden.

I am a Bond fan. I have read all the Ian Fleming novels, and the short stories, and Kingsley Amis’ study The James Bond Dossier. When I was 19 I wrote a novella called Lament For a Trapped Spy, about a 1960s Bond fan. I am hugely fascinated by the Cold War and by figures like Kim Philby. My favourite era are the 1960s Bond films – even On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – and the Daniel Craig films. I’ve never been that fond of Roger Moore, and whilst Timothy Dalton was my favourite Bond when I was 13 (because I fancied him as Mr Rochester) I grew out him. Sorry, Tim. And Pierce Brosnan was a bit too much like an estate agent for my liking. I know James Bond is not politically correct. I am a good feminist and I shouldn’t like the films and books, but I appreciate them for what they are, and it’s possible to enjoy them as period pieces, even if that can set up problems for the contemporary films.

When the publicity began for Spectre, I was very excited. Daniel Craig as Bond again! The brutal, cold-eyed assassin! Oh yes! If anyone could convincingly operate a blow-torch using his teeth (as Fleming has Bond do in Moonraker – really) then it would be Craig.

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Mourning the silence

Ingenious 19th C ear-trumpet disguised in a fan.
Ingenious 19th C French ear-trumpet disguised in a fan. From

For five years, I have lived in world of muffled sounds and no silence. It turns out that I have tinnitus, and I have hearing loss in my right ear; for the past week I have been wearing a hearing aid, and I officially have a disability.

I am in a strange space, of acceptance, of anger, of fear. And whilst it may seem that my ability to hear has nothing at all to do with writing, I must, I feel, write something.

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