Category Archives: Writing

The Girl Who Did Blog Tours

Today I welcome Marnie Riches, as she writes about what she writes about. 

From Middle Grade to Murder: a children’s writer’s descent into depravity

As an avid reader of middle grade fiction at the time I wanted a complete career change, writing for children seemed the obvious thing to do. I understood children because I owned two and had once been one myself. I knew quite a few words. Great. More to the point, as my children were toddlers at the time, I decided that ideally, since I could paint as well, I should be creating picture books. Perfect! So, I knocked up a 32 page dummy of a story about a selfish, lazy hippo, called Billy the Messy Hippo. It was a didactic, overly long story, where Billy got his comeuppance for being a shitehawk to the other toys.


Billy Bathroom

Really, I wanted to punch Billy on the nose for spilling his drinks and bullying teddy. Maybe a spell locked in the freezer would cool him down. Or maybe I could disembowel him and throw his plushie stuffing in the bin. OK. Perhaps this short format wasn’t working for me. And the illustrations took weeks and weeks to do – it just wasn’t practical. There were better illustrators out there, anyway. I laid my picture book aspirations to rest (no bludgeoning or shallow graves were required).

Next, I wrote a middle grade novel about a girl called Zeeba, who goes on the hunt for aliens, sighted above the hills in Huddersfield. She got roped into a high octane world of spies, subterfuge and gangsters. There were some menacing, corrupt policemen and a disembowelled cow.

Er, whoops.

There were more children’s novels – the first six books in the Time Hunters series for 7+, published by HarperCollins under the pseudonym Chris Blake. Lots of fighting and peril in them, of course. Plus a puzzle to be solved.

Everything I had written for children included a high concept mystery, a great deal of tension, thrills a-plenty and violence. But I felt my nasty narrative was stunted by the age-banding. Perhaps I needed to try something else…

So, having developed the sparing, highly visual style of a children’s writer, I started to pen a crime novel for grown-ups. The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die was the first novel in a gritty, gripping, often violent Euro-noir series, featuring a young criminologist called Georgina McKenzie. In writing these books (I’m currently working on book 3 – The Girl Who Walked in the Shadows), I feel like I’m home. Everything fits. My writing style is still very akin to that used by Young Adult authors – I use very little exposition. Each chapter contains a distinct, often visual scene. I try to keep my dialogue snappy and realistic. But importantly, I am now able to make people have sex, drink heavily, smoke drugs, commit criminal offences, be utterly unpleasant to one another and, yes, disembowel other people. I think I’ve found my literary calling.

Marnie Riches, The Girl Who Broke the Rules

The Girl Who Broke the Rules is the second instalment in the series. In this book, I feel I’ve really got into my stride with my characters. It’s a story, seemingly about the brutal murders of sex workers, that flits between the red light district of Amsterdam and the strip-clubs of Soho. I wanted to explore themes of parent/child relationships, sexuality and the abuse of vulnerable migrants. I hope readers will see shades of Nesbø, Larsson and Thomas Harris in there, since these three are my biggest influences.

The question remains, however, as to whether I regret trading middle grade for murder? The answer is no. Because I will still continue to write children’s novels when my adult fiction deadlines allow. For, although a warped, adult imagination lurks behind my terribly boring, respectable middle-aged exterior, there is still a part of me that laughs at fart jokes and wants to tell utterly daft, touching stories about discovering the world through a child’s eyes; making sense of their relationships with adults and peers.

In fact, I predict I might well be working on a high concept children’s thriller before the year is out and maybe, just maybe, there won’t be a single disembowelling!

(Respectable middle-aged exterior?? She’s got pink hair!)

What Five Children and It Did Next

My first event on Monday was learning more about Kate Saunders and her much praised book Five Children on the Western Front, which won last year’s Costa. I’ve not read it yet, nor do I know the Edith Nesbit original stories all that well. I read some, but it was a long time ago.

Kate wrote this sequel to Nesbit’s books for the anniversary of WWI last year. She had long ago worked out that those children were just the right age to be caught up in the war that Nesbit didn’t know about when she created their idyllic, magic, free childhood.

Kate Saunders

As a child Kate felt that E Nesbit spoke directly to her, and she reckons that the author ‘put all the seeds down’ and she simply wrote her book, based on what was already there. Kate’s own teenage son died a few years ago, so she feels the far too early loss of young people very strongly.

She had plans for whom to kill off, but at least one character was saved by book reviewer Amanda Craig, who forced her to rethink. And in Monday morning’s school event, it appears Kate managed to make chair Daniel Hahn cry, which just goes to show how books can affect people.

Writing your last letter home, for if you don’t survive the war, features in Kate’s book (this was the moment my first pen decided it had had enough). She said it’s ‘outrageous that young people are sent away to be killed’ and she found that using magic in her story meant that it wasn’t all about life on the home front, but she was able to let the younger children see what went on in the trenches, while they were trying to help the Psammead.

The one thing that doesn’t translate well to a new book like this is the way Nesbit treated servants. She was very un-pc, and Kate has made a point of being nice and kind to ‘her’ servants, in whatever accents you get.

The audience in the Writers Retreat were fairly young, but they had nevertheless read both Kate’s book and the Nesbit ones, and they came up with some really excellent questions. Kate told them she began writing at nine, and that in twenty years’ time it could very well be one of them who would be talking at the book festival.

On the subject of dramatisations of novels, she feels it’d be hard to get in there and beat War Horse. This former actress once had to pay her son to come to the theatre with her.

Kate had to work hard at not revealing who dies in her book, or the fates of any of the characters. The children kept asking, though. And with war you just can’t have anything but a sad ending. It can’t be avoided. The thing for Kate was that there should be kindness, and there’s a strong sense of right and wrong.

There will be no more sequels of other people’s books for a while now. She wanted her book to be true to the feeling of Edith Nesbit. She compared it to considering rewriting the New Testament, which is something you just wouldn’t do.

Generally Kate doesn’t know what the end will be until she gets there. It’s ‘better to make it up as you go along.’ She needs a good start and then she has to have a shape that she strives for. After that she might rip up chapters (computer fashion) to make her book better.

Leaving something of an echo of themselves

To have one biro run out of ink is a bit of a misfortune for a Bookwitch, who takes down notes the old-fashioned way at events. To have [her only] two biros become ink-free in the space of a couple of hours is something Lady Bracknell might have a few things to say about. So I’m starting with my second event on Monday, because it is in much more dire risk of not being blogged about, unless I make up half of it.

Edge of Your Seat Thrillers was a really good event, documenting how Tim Bowler and Sam Hepburn write their award winning and shortlisted books, chaired by witch favourite Ann Landmann. OK, so she did threaten us on the back row, but we refused to budge. Even Sam and Tim had to silence their mobile phones, because Hollywood would not be phoning just then.

Sam told us about her new book If You Were Me, and read a bathroom scene from it. Very more-ish. I suspect it might be as good as her first novel. Tim read from Game Changer, which is about a boy with a lot of phobias, but who doesn’t spend quite all his life in a wardrobe. Only some of it.

Sam Hepburn

They discussed reading aloud, which they both do and enjoy. They talked about writing dialogue, which can be hard. Normal conversations don’t sound anything like what you see in books. (I know. Not even the lovely Tim spoke totally grammatically when interviewed.)

They continued with their ‘terribly technical’ chat and Tim apologised for giving us all this advice we’d never asked for. He doesn’t plan, and both authors reckon things happen when you simply sit down and write. Characters start to behave uncharacteristically. Their advice is not to plan too much, if you must plan. Even Carnegie winners have doubts about their writing, and rubbish writing can be good raw material for what comes next.

Sam always types her stories, and Tim mostly does as well, including on his Blackberry (yes, he knows!), which helped him produce 2000 words on his journey to Edinburgh yesterday.

Does literature have a role to play? Yes, it does. Those cavemen didn’t have to start drawing pictures to survive. It was more the urge to leave an echo of themselves behind. It’s the same today. Authors don’t have more ideas than other people; they are just differently wired in how they use them.

If he could have, Tim would have liked to have written Tarka the Otter, while Sam rather fancies being the author of Northern Lights.

Tim Bowler

In the bookshop signing session afterwards, we had a veritable hugfest, as Tim needs to hug to begin with and then again when parting. This time I had both Offspring there who had to be hugged, although Tim rather doubts the existence of the Resident IT Consultant, whom he’s never seen. However, Ann Landmann could confirm he is real.

2 x Michael Grant

The place I had to be on Saturday afternoon was a nearby author hotel, where I was going to interview Michael Grant. Again. (He interviews so well! How can a witch not go for him over and over again?)

Michael had just arrived in Edinburgh, but had skipped immediate jetlag by doing research in England first. Some nautical research, and a wide-eyed new discovery in the shape of the London Oxford Street branch of the shop that is never knowingly undersold. Michael loved it, and had had no idea such a place could exist.

He looked better than ever, tanned and thin, and pretty unstoppable. This time I made sure he had coffee that didn’t politely go cold, although it might have been dreadful coffee for all I know. I had the tea.

I’d been reading his new book, out later this week, the second and last in his Messenger of Fear series. I wanted to ask why he’d gone in such a new direction, and what will happen next, and then what comes after that. Lots of books, is the answer. We got to admire his daughter’s new hair, which cost a fortune, and my photographer learned some financial tips from Michael’s son (who wasn’t there, and nor was his sister).

We got longer than planned, as Michael was hungry and wanted a sandwich as well. He can eat and talk at the same time.

Afterwards we walked over to Charlotte Square for his event, and I can tell you that was one long queue he had, waiting patiently. It’s always good when there are lots of teenagers at teenage events.

It was fortunate that Michael had already shown us the disgusting images on his laptop, so they didn’t come as a complete surprise when he started off with them. (His wife doesn’t like them, either.) And he set us a problem to solve, making the tent into a sealed brick building, with monsters coming out of the floor, wanting to eat three humans. He wanted to know what our monsters looked like. (Blue, in my case. A bit blobby.)

This time Michael had decided to preempt the perennial question about where he gets his ideas from, not wanting to get annoyed, or claim that they come from Tesco, next to the yoghurt. That’s partly the reason he’d found himself this software that produces such creepy and disturbing pictures.

At one point I thought Michael claimed not to have been on a riding course (and I could just visualise him on this horse), when I worked out he’d not been on a writing course.

One of his book ideas he described to his editor as The Seventh Seal, but with fewer Swedes and more teenagers. (You can never have too many Swedes.) As for sex, that is more fun to do, than to write about. Although we learned that he has a past writing Sweet Valley Twins books, which is actually a bit disturbing.

Michael has completely ruined his editor, who has gone from someone who recoiled from his suggestions, to actively embracing them. With Messenger of Fear he put in everything he could from his own fears, which have mostly to do with his children, and if he got rid of them, his wife. (He has tried.) Then it’s fire, and small closed in places.

Michael Grant

He’d never put himself in the books, but when asked who in Gone is most like him, it’s Quinn, ‘the unreliable friend, the backstabbing little shit.’

And on that note we stampeded to the bookshop next door, where he signed books until he eventually got rid of his fans.

As for me, I can’t now unthink some of the ideas Michael has put into my head; from bricked up book festival tents, to being the one fed to the monsters.

Embracing the Darkness

At one point last week I got so desperate for blogging assistance that I rounded a few likely people up. I’d like to say that Danny Weston volunteered his services, but in actual fact it was a ‘pal’ of his who made him ‘speak up.’ If he hadn’t, I’d have forced him. I mean, if he’d been anywhere near. I hope he isn’t – wasn’t – but since I don’t know this Weston chap, I can’t be sure. As long as he keeps that creepy Mr Sparks away from me!

“They say the devil has all the best tunes. That may be the single thought that fuelled my debut novel, The Piper.

Looking back, it’s hard to say exactly where the idea came from. I know I wanted to write a good old-fashioned ghost story and at the back of my mind, I was thinking about The Pied Piper of Hamelin; that much misunderstood tale that had the greedy burghers of a German town paying the ultimate price for double-crossing its eponymous hero.

And I thought about an old saying that I’d heard many times, but rarely paused to consider fully.

‘Who pays the piper calls the tune.’

So, I decided, my story would involve music. It would involve water. And it would feature a supernatural presence that has returned over the centuries to seek its revenge. Scaring people with mere words on paper is a real challenge. I knew that I needed to find a suitable landscape in which to set my story and I found it in Romney Marsh, that bleak almost treeless wilderness down on the South coast, replete with streams, lakes and canals. After some research, I found out about a church, St Leonard’s in Hythe, one of only two in the UK that house an ossuary – a place where bones are stored. As soon as I read about what was stored down in ‘the crypt,’ I knew it would feature in my story.

I decided early on that I also wanted to set the book in the past, merely because it seemed easier to convince an audience of ghostly happenings back in the day, rather than the perfectly lit interiors of the present. I focused on two time periods – the early 1800s and the eve of World War Two. My lead characters, I decided, would be evacuees, a fourteen-year-old boy, Peter and his seven-year-old sister, Daisy, exiled from their home in Dagenham and sent out into the countryside to face a terror that is centuries old. When I learned that this mass exodus, which involved 3.5 million children, was actually called ‘Operation Pied Piper,’ I realised that I had just been handed something that felt very much like a perfectly-wrapped gift. I had to use it.

In early October my new book, Mr Sparks will be released. The eponymous character is not human. He is a ventriloquist’s doll. He’s been around for a long time… a very long time. He tells everyone he meets that he used to be a real boy and quite frankly, his talents exceed those of the various ‘operators’ he’s picked up along the way. His latest sidekick is a young Welsh boy called Owen, who finds himself going to places he doesn’t really want to visit. The same places where I intend to take my readers.

Danny Weston, Mr Sparks

Once again, I’m riffing on a classic fairy tale here; in this case Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio. And once again, my aim with these particular words on paper is to make the reader feel uneasy… unsettled… and dare I say it? Scared.

Have I succeeded? We’ll have to wait and see.”

Danny Weston



Go Sell a First Draft

It’s one thing to be rescued by people you know, and another for a complete stranger to write a perfect and well timed blog post for a witch, just like that. Here is CJ Daugherty* on the book that everyone is talking about right now:

‘Let me start by saying, like so many writers, I love To Kill a Mockingbird. And I adore the film adaptation, which I consider to be one of the truly perfect book-to-film adaptations of all time.

TKAMB poster

When I was a child, I watched the film and cried during the courtroom scene. I was terrified of Boo Radley, whom I envisioned as a kind of ghost; an unknowable terror. But Scout saw through his frightening facade. Her belief in him, and her sympathy towards his plight, changed me.

I can honestly say that I am a kinder person because of To Kill a Mockingbird. I cannot think of many other books that affected me in this way.

So when I learned there was a sequel, at first I was thrilled. How exciting and marvellous that such a thing should be found! How wonderful for book lovers.

As more was revealed, though, my views began to change. What we know now is Go Set A Watchman isn’t a sequel. It’s an early draft.

We know that Harper Lee worked closely with her editor to revise that draft, rewriting the book over and over and over, across many years, polishing the rough stone down to the perfect faceted gem that is To Kill a Mockingbird.

I might still have been fine with the release of this early draft, if Lee hadn’t tried so hard for so long to keep it hidden away. If those who loved her and spoke for her – because she is, Boo Radley-like, afraid of the world; too frightened to leave her flat in New York when she was young, afraid to leave her home in Alabama when she grew older – if they hadn’t maintained until their deaths that there was no other Harper Lee book.

Sadly, elderly people are vulnerable, and there is money to be made. Unimaginable sums of money.

Obviously, there is simply no way for us to know if, in a nursing home in her nineties, Ms Lee did not just, at long last, change her own mind. Or if her mind was changed for her by younger, stronger people with Manhattan mortgages to pay.

Does that make you uncomfortable? I makes me very uncomfortable.

You see, I grew up surrounded by elderly southern women. This was the world of my childhood. I think of Harper Lee now and I see my grandmother, a fragile, white-haired southern lady trapped in the modern age, and bewildered by it. As a child, I watched her retreat from the real world to her garden in small-town Texas, where she spent her days taking care of her roses and listening to ancient sermons on a reel-to-reel tape player.

When she went to the supermarket in 1985, she still put on white cotton gloves and a straw hat and drove her enormous ancient Buick like a captain guiding a ship through rough seas. If the manager of the supermarket spoke to her kindly, as he often did, it flummoxed her utterly. She did not want to speak to modern men.

All the way home she would complain about it.

‘I do not understand why that man must always speak to me,’ she would say in tones of vexation.

Sometimes I would venture a defence of the kindly supermarket manager. ‘I thought he was nice.’

‘He was nice,’ she would explain as if this were perfectly obvious. ‘But I do not know him.’

When she was older, my grandmother would sign anything you wanted her to sign. Anything to make you stop asking and let her get back to her memories and her roses.

According to Harper Lee’s now-dead family, she was much the same. I think it is the way of southern ladies of that generation.

So I worry.

Then there is the fact that I am a writer. And as a writer, I know what first drafts look like. Any writer can talk with horror of ‘ugly first drafts’. Writing a novel is a process of evolution. We come to our stories gradually. Painfully. And when we get there, after much, much work, everything that came before seems disastrous to us.

The first draft of my book, Night School, contains vampires and witches. The final book is about Bullingdon Club style secret societies. I worked a long, long time to get to where I ended up.

I wouldn’t want anyone to sell the evidence of my journey.

So here, for all to see, allow me to make the following statement:

Someday, if I’m lucky, I will be 90 years old. If I am still a writer then, it is entirely possible that young lawyers in expensive suits and thrusting publishers with more ambition than morality will come to you and tell you that CJ Daugherty wants the first draft of Night School published.

If that day should ever come, remember what I am telling you now: It is a lie.’
C.J. Daugherty

(*Former crime reporter CJ Daugherty is the author of the international best-selling Night School series. Her books have been translated into 22 languages, and are number one bestsellers in multiple countries. She is now co-writing a new series, The Secret Fire, with French author Carina Rozenfeld. Find out more at

Old books

When Mother-of-witch died, Offspring were young and needed looking after when I went off to be with her. There was a complete lack of available relatives at the time, so anyone who happened to be standing near when the Resident IT Consultant asked for assistance was roped in for after-school care. For six weeks! I can never thank them enough.

Yesterday morning Helen Grant took one look at this blog – or what tried to pass itself off as Bookwitch – and told me she would write it herself, if I’d let her. It feels particularly appropriate to accept her kind offer, since she is just about the only author who did meet the Grandmother, and about whom the Grandmother always asked questions, once they had met. And seeing as the Grandmother not only dealt in Oxfam books, but was known to have culled her own books rather enthusiastically, this post about old books fits right in:

‘Our household has finally obtained its first eReader. It’s not mine; whenever anyone asks me whether I have one, I always reply (truthfully) that since I do most of my reading in the bath, it probably isn’t a good idea. A paperback may survive an unexpected plunge into the water (as the crinkled pages of a number of my books will testify) but I don’t think an electronic gadget would cope.

I can imagine, however, that the day will come when I will cave in and buy one of these things for myself. At present we live in a family home whose walls are lined with bookshelves, but when I look into the distant future and imagine myself as an empty nester, I’d like to think I shall be travelling the world – and travelling light. When I went overlanding from London to Kathmandu in 1992, I took all six of Trollope’s Barchester novels with me; nowdays I could take along ten or a hundred times as many books in digital format. I suppose, too, that when we downsize from our family house I shall have to cull some of my books. (Writing this, I went to take a critical look at my bookshelves and could not see a single one I was prepared to part with. Hmmmm.)

There are some books, however, that I could never replace with a digital version. I have quite a few old books, the oldest dating to the eighteenth century, many more to the nineteenth. I have three children’s anthologies which appeared in the 1940s and belonged to my mother when she was a child. When I was a teenager, my mother had her own book cull and took those to the local charity shop; outraged, I marched down there and bought them back. They are still on my bookshelves. One of them includes one of the best fairy tales in existence, Melisande by E.Nesbit, in which the wicked fairy excluded from the christening wishes that the baby princess shall be bald.

Other treasures include The Silver Fairy Book, which I also remember from my childhood (I have failed to extract my parents’ copy from their clutches so I ordered my own from Abebooks), The Lady Ivie’s Trial by Sir John Fox, some beautiful Victorian translations of Homer, and an extensive collection of old editions of H.Rider Haggard’s adventure novels.

Leighton Library

All of these are old books, some of them centenarians, with yellowing pages and the dusty scent of age lingering about them. To replace them with eBooks would be a minor act of barbarism.

Because I treasure old books, I love antiquarian libraries. The corner of Scotland shared by the Bookwitch and myself is fortunate to have two: Innerpeffray Library near Crieff, and the Leighton Library in Dunblane. Both seventeenth century libraries created by local noblemen, each of these is very well worth a visit. One of the truly marvellous things about these libraries is that you are allowed to handle the books (respectfully, of course). I recently spent a happy half hour in the Leighton Library leafing through the pages of Buffon’s Natural History and marvelling at the engravings of animals. At Innerpeffray my pet book is The Treatise of Specters, which is crammed with spine tingling material, lovingly collected and printed in 1658. A visit to Innerpeffray also offers the opportunity to look at the chapel adjoining the library, which has, amongst other attractions, a leper squint – a small window allowing lepers (who were excluded from church) to watch the services from outside.

Library of Innerpeffray

There is, I think, a kind of magic in very old volumes. Bookwitchery, you might say…’