A Psychological Thriller in #Sussex

With publication of LETHAL TIES less than a week away, I’ve been writing about my characters, the psychological issues that affect their lives, but this weeks post is about my book’s all important location: West Sussex.

Bognor Regis

I’ve lived here since 1996 and despite some of the adverse (and in my opinion), unfair publicity, Bognor in fact, boasts more hours of sunshine than anywhere in the UK, has a lovely stretch of beach and a unique coastal landscape to the west. The rocks lining the shore (Bognor Rocks) are haven to many fossils, a mysterious sight at low tide, even more so behind a sea mist or in the fading light of a sunset.

Bognor Beach

Woven into in the storyline, Sussex residents will recognise some familiar haunts: from meetings in the Waverley pub on the seafront, to a meal at Mamma Mia, and there is even a touch of romance when two character dine at Sen Tapas.

Bognor town centre features, as does the Job Centre and Marine Park Gardens. Maisie has a flat in Annadale Avenue (chosen for it’s proximity to the Station, a sneaky escape route through a garden) and Joe gets a job in Sainsbury’s as an online shopper, (a job I was hired for myself in 2016).

I have already mentioned the sea mists in Bognor Regis and in one scene, this creates an eerie atmosphere when characters find themselves at the centre of a police investigation.

sussex and the south downs

The story begins in Bognor. Maisie finds her old friend, Joe, sleeping rough in the beach hut opposite the Waverley and helps him to turn his life around.

That is, before Joe receives vile abuse on twitter. Clues in the tweets suggest they could be in danger but with a build up of suspense, one character is drawn further afield to other areas in West Sussex, fascinated by the countryside and various beauty spots.

Eartham

Nestling on the edge of the South Downs sits the village of Eartham, its idyllic pub, the George, and the Woods beyond. But when Maisie is invited on an impromptu day out, she has no idea what is in store for her.

The George at Eartham
The George is a pub where the characters enjoy Sunday Lunch
Eartham Woods
A lovely place for a walk… but for Maisie, forests cause panic.
Views from Goodwood Trundle
The view from Goodwood Trundle
The Pergola at West Dean Gardens
The Pergola at West Dean Gardens

The day takes many twists and turns. After nearly suffering a panic attack in Eartham Woods, (as a result of her phobia) she suggests heading over Goodwood way and a visit to West Dean Gardens, one of her favourite places. West Dean Gardens is an impressive estate which looks stunning in all seasons, notable for its pergola, mature trees and walled Victorian kitchen gardens.

“… as we strolled across the lawn, I could not wait to show him the pergola; a spectacular three-hundred-foot Edwardian walkway paved in flagstone. 
An air of mystery immersed us as we followed the path to the end; the climbing plants twisting around the pillars, a riot of wild roses fragrant against the feathery purple plumes of wisteria…”

East Lavant

The concluding part of the story takes place in East Lavant, a tiny village just outside Chichester. Maisie is lured to a mysterious but beautiful cottage nestling in the countryside beyond the village. Could this be the house of her dreams?

East Lavant, near Chichester

There is something about the remote woodland location that evokes suspicion in Joe. All he wants to do is protect Maisie yet fears she is becoming isolated. From the first trip to East Lavant however, the story gathers momentum, before the mystery that’s haunted them since childhood is revealed…

Pagham

The story ends in Pagham, with reference to the tranquil harbour, a nesting place for migrating birds and the tiny white herons known as egrets. Where do the characters go from here? You’ll just have to read the book to find out.

Pagham Harbour Nature Reserve, West Sussex

My debut Sussex based psychological thriller LETHAL TIES will be published this coming Sunday (April 18th 2021) and can be pre-ordered on Amazon.

It will soon be available in paperback too, and I am hoping to hold a Bognor book launch in the summer.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my blog in the run up to LETHAL TIES being published. For more information, stay in touch by networking with me on social media.

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/author.helenchristmas
Twitter: https://twitter.com/SFDPBeginnings
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Website: http://www.samefacedifferentplace.com/

Seeing The Wood Through The Trees

Featured Image 'Seeing the Wood through the Trees'

Promoting a better understanding of mental health has been the theme of my blog recently and this time I’m writing about Asperger’s. There is a character in LETHAL TIES, (my debut psychological thriller, out soon) who has the condition: AS often affects more males than females, so it seemed more natural for this person to be a boy. Connor is fostered, yet there is something unique about his character.

Handling various themes behind this book, I have concentrated on the human element. I’ve shared important facts about my two main characters, Joe and Maisie, their personalities, their back stories and the struggles that affect them in adulthood. Connor however, is still a teenager.

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT CONNOR

  • The truth about his parents is kept a secret, as both are considered to be psychopaths with no compassion for others.
  • Connor’s birth mother (when released from prison) did not bond with him and cruelly rejected him.
  • So Connor has been in and out of care homes since infancy.
  • He has been in various foster placements, none of which were successful.
  • He is later diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum.
  • But two people tirelessly campaign to foster him to give him a chance.

Connor is not central to this novel and features very little. He is none-the-less a significant character who plays a vital role in the climax. With much of the emphasis on childcare and fostering, it is the way people bond with Connor, as well as his developing personality (as he gradually lowers his guard) that adds an extra string to this story; how youngsters are perceived and treated, especially those raised in care.

A Real-life Story about Asperger’s

With this in mind, I would like to focus on a real person (as opposed to my fictitious character), someone who is close to me but who I had the pleasure of interviewing a few weeks ago, particularly about growing up with Asperger’s. Being on the spectrum is not exclusive to males. Females too have the condition and although the core characteristics of Asperger’s does not differentiate between the two, it can affect them in other ways. 

Here is Rose’s story

Born in 1999, Rose began her early years a happy little girl at the March School in Lavant where she made lots of friends. Things changed, however, when she went to High School; an experience that sparked a journey of self-discovery. 

I began by asking her what happened there, and it emerged she had endured a spate of bullying.

Starting secondary school

“Girls are generally catty, especially at that age, but quite often things passed over my head. I felt isolated because I didn’t really understand myself. It was a big period of adjustment and I didn’t know who my friends were. I didn’t understand the jokes they made, why they could be a bit cruel, or how to cope in a friendship with anyone. My primary school friends were in separate classes and making new friends, but I found it really difficult. I was constantly self-conscious which can make you feel insecure and the smallest comment will stand out to you.”

I too was bullied in lower school and remember how it felt. But I was curious to know how she dealt with the situation.

“I didn’t feel I fitted in, so I left school. This was my decision and it worked quite well for me because it was in that period I was diagnosed with ‘Asperger’s’, so it was just a year to get my head together a bit. Time to figure out coping strategies, understand myself and other people to get that confidence back. But by the time I returned to school, it wasn’t as scary any more.”

Research

Looking online, I found a list of symptoms on Medical News Today which almost echoes this:

  • Jokes, sarcasm, and irony may cause distress and confusion.
  • The person may have a highly literal interpretation of the world. 
  • Irony and humour may be difficult for them to understand, leading to frustration and anxiety.

Going back to Rose’s diagnosis, I asked her what insights she got from her assessment.

“I wondered if I might have Asperger’s. Then we watched this one short documentary as a family and everyone looked at me and said: “that sounds like you.” This was diagnosed in one sitting, which does not happen with girls. The majority are mis-diagnosed or not diagnosed, but because I was at that critical age (joining High School) it seemed to fit the framework and they thought, yep, you’re definitely Aspergic, high-functioning, but it’s not necessarily going to hinder your life.

I remember at that time I was very, very rigid. Like if anything changed, even for the better, I wouldn’t be able to compute it and it would trigger a weird panic! When I understood that I wasn’t just being a brat, I wanted to work on the side I thought was negative. With a year out, in my own little bubble, no interferences, I sort of got myself into the right headspace to make the most of my situation. To try and not lean on it and think well, I’ve got this diagnosis, which means I can be a twat and get away with it… more the opposite. I can work on myself and I will. Yeah, I was definitely in a better place to go back to high school when I did.”

Reactions to stressful situations

When she was in her own little bubble, with her own routine, without anyone coming along and changing anything, it made her feel safe and in control. But I wondered if she could remember a scenario that triggered a panic response.

“When I was very young, we were going for lunch next day at Gun Wharf and I can’t remember where I wanted to go but had it in my head we were going there. But when lunchtime came, they wanted to go for tapas and I absolutely lost it! Like it was so unjust and so unorganised. I had already planned what I was going to have and it felt almost robbed from me. But I soon learned this was only going to upset me in the long run and those I was with. It was somewhat difficult when you had someone kicking off like I was in that situation a few years ago.”

At home or with family, she was more likely to release bottled up emotions through meltdowns, another symptom mentioned in the article on Medical News Today. But how did she feel once she returned to the school environment?

Friendships

“I’d be grateful for any friendships really. Friends were a good influence in many ways and helped me build my confidence. I am quite trusting. There was a period of time through secondary school and college, when everyone would constantly describe me as being ‘too nice’ and ‘a pushover.’ I didn’t like people saying that. Being called ‘kind’ is a positive thing but everyone took me as a proper ‘people-pleaser’ and constantly singing the praises of me doing anything for anyone to fit in… Yet if I was ever anything but amenable, I’d be made to feel like I was being unreasonable.”

In other words, whenever she felt like being assertive?

“These people were tactical bullies. Bullying is not the sort of thing that gets to me, it goes over my head because you don’t necessarily care about that person or their opinion. It’s people who are close to you who tactically and emotionally abuse you. Its also camouflaged, like it will go on for years before you realise that person is not a good influence. With this one particular friendship, I felt it for a long time but every time she complimented me it was a back handed compliment – even things that sounded caring, there was an underlying threat. Tactile, manipulative stuff – it was clever and it was bitchy – proper narcissistic behaviour. Eventually there was a turning point when I didn’t like her any more. I felt on edge and she demanded so much time. Genuinely nasty people latch on to you, play the whole best friend card but its not what a friendship should be, i.e. someone you can talk to, have a laugh with.”

I was sad to hear this, it seems to reflect the classic social isolation suffered by those with Asperger’s; difficulty in developing social skills, making and keeping friends. Like males, females on the spectrum are likely to experience bullying, which may manifest itself differently based on gender. No matter how subtle or overt, exclusion and bullying can be profoundly traumatising and affect the self-confidence and sense of security of the target individuals. 

I asked her what strategies she had devised to avoid stressful situations.

“One thing with Asperger’s is you’re also likely to suffer from anxiety and depression. I developed a ritual, (which I’ve managed to shift now). When I tried to get help for it, they said, ‘if you didn’t have a diagnosis of Asperger’s you’d now be getting a diagnosis for OCD and this is just another symptom,’ but put so much stress onto one tiny thing. This one tiny ritual, it was ridiculous really. I remember once, I was talking to a professional (I think she was meant to be an OCD therapist) but with these rituals, you attach to something to them; like if I don’t follow this ritual, something bad will happen, like my family is going to die… So I would touch wood. I would touch it in a certain way. If I tried to stop myself from doing it, I’d think well, what if I don’t do it and something bad DOES happen? It’s easier to just do it! Yet this therapist looked at me in the most condescending way and said ‘how long have you been keeping your family safe then?’ I thought fuck off, you should understand, and I know it’s not fashionable, but that pissed me off so much.”

Stopping a ritual would have been a big deal for her, since it is reported: ‘People with AS may have rules and rituals that they methodically maintain to reduce confusion. A surprise change in routine can sometimes cause upset or anxiety.’

Still on the subject of anxiety, I was curious to know what other interests/obsessions she had i.e. what brings her comfort or makes her feel happy.

“Listening to music, walking the dogs. I really like walking the dogs on my own. I put music on (those little earbuds) and because I like writing, I start imagining one of my screenplays and let the music inspire me. I am quite a creative person and use this as my creative time. It gives me ideas.”

I’d like to mention at this point that after sixth form, Rose studied for a degree in English Literature and Creative Writing. She graduated in 2020.

“Music is really important in writing. I used to always like writing short stories but screen plays are my favourite format now. In everything I’ve written, characters have been central. I’ve written a comedy, a thriller, and a sort of teen drama/ghost story. So they do also have a lot of plot. This was what I wanted to do for my dissertation but it was also very serious and I wasn’t in a very serious headspace. I didn’t actually want to write anything ‘head wanky’ or dark. So I thought, I’m just going to write a comedy and I don’t know if it was particularly ‘funny,’ but it was in the style of the Royal Family/Gavin and Stacey. Good characters.

My screenplay, set in a Welsh village, was about a local pub burning down. The pub was the hub of their community, a real tragedy for the locals, and became a bit of a witch hunt to find out who was responsible. I chose to do a creative dissertation, as there was no way I was going to write a 10,000 word essay, because quite frankly, I didn’t think I would stick at it… so I thought I’d write a screen play and then, after I’d submitted my idea, my lecturer told me that no one has ever gotten a 1st on a creative dissertation. I thought, okay so I’m not going to get a 1st on my dissertation but I’ll do my best… and I did get a first!”

I told her I would love to read her screen play and asked what her ambitions were? If there was anything in the world you could have, what would it be?

“A detached cottage in the countryside, dogs, a partner… my family close by and screenwriting. It’s completely down to luck and some stuff is so subjective, you don’t know who’s going to be reading it. You send it to a publisher and you don’t know what they’re looking for.”

On UK Lockdown

The coronavirus pandemic hit the nation pretty hard and has exacerbated mental health problems especially among young people. How did she cope with this?

“I loved it, I was absolutely buzzing… No really! Lockdown was fine, we get on well as a family, we have a garden, the sun was shining and there was a lot we could take advantage of. I didn’t like my job at the time. This was at Nando’s and it was a good job – I mean, if you’re going to work for a restaurant I couldn’t imagine working for a nicer company, but I was never going to do well because of the hours and lack of routine. My shifts were changing every week. It could be any day and at any point of the day. Office hours suit me so well, because it’s routine and I know what’s what.”

Her words yet again reflect how important routine is.

“But it was also very scary and I was particularly worried about Mum. What would happen if Mum or Grandma got it? I mean some people get just like, a flu and some people get this long COVID and they’re buggered for life! Potentially even someone my age could end up dead! What I’m finding the most anxiety inducing thing is – like in the summer when I could go to the pub and mix with my friends, I was loving it… but I’ve also been scared I might become a hermit. The thought of going into the supermarket is like, there are other people and other people are dirty and might have the virus. I’m worried that could escalate into not wanting to mix with people!”

Did she miss going out and socialising with other people, though?

“Yes. If you’d asked me a year ago I would probably have said the opposite; because I didn’t like my mates. I think it’s about the friends you have. The friends I had this time, last year, would have been pressurising me to go out and break rules and it’s like – I’m just going to follow lockdown, thank you. I don’t want to go out. Just want to watch telly, do some internet shopping, have a beer…

One thing that has always been a pickle for me socially is the distance from town. I haven’t really got any friends in the village. So, if I’m going out with my friends, I’ve got to drive, which means I can’t drink (not that it’s all about drinking) but if you’re meeting in a pub it can be a bit bloody annoying. If I do drink I have to walk back and I have done this, but it took bloody hours!”

Vulnerability and Threat 

I wanted to say this was dangerous; going into town, drinking and walking back home in the dark. I asked her if she was aware of the perils in life.

“God yes, I mean we were walking up to the Trundle the other day and saying this is hazardous underfoot. And then I remembered that’s where we used to do our long-distance running, when I was at the March School and thought, that’s a health and safety nightmare, running on the Trundle but we used to do it. That was only what, 10 years ago? And things changed so quickly.”

The paths around the Trundle are very uneven with chalky dips and hollows.

“And that was another thing about the Trundle. There were people there bombing down on bikes and I was thinking, oh that’s so scary! But I remember when I was a kid – and Mum and Dad as well – cycling full pelt, then somersaulting in the air because I got caught on a stone, crashing down… and I just got up again and got back on my bike. I didn’t make a fuss, none of this ‘health and safety.’ Whereas now I’m thinking God, they’re so reckless! I used to be tough with injuries and now… I get a paper cut and I start crying.”

Something else she told me that I found alarming was: 

“Women with Asperger’s have an 80% chance of committing suicide and 90% chance of becoming addicted to drugs and I thought ‘fucking hell, those are awful statistics.’ That’s not a great position to be in but they’re just statistics.”

This begs the question, what help is available on the NHS for anxiety?

“In regard to getting help for mental health (Time to Talk), you’re either not mentally ill enough or ‘too far gone’ and if you are somewhere in between the two, you are added to a two year waiting list by which point your problems have gotten out of hand.”

It is reassuring to know mental health problems are better understood but from this statement, it strikes me there is still a lack of provision. I know Rose has Asperger’s but one of the last things she confessed is how much she really wants to rise above it and turn it into something positive. That symptoms like depression, anxiety needn’t be a problem. (NB. names were changed to protect some people’s identity and the stats quoted might not be exact as quoted by Rose on the date of her interview).

Featured Image 'Seeing the Wood through the Trees'

INSIGHTS

A most enlightening conversation, this got me thinking about my own character again, Connor, and whether I could see any clear comparisons. 

Historically, women have been less likely than men to be interested in transportation, computers, or astronomy. Connor is fascinated by science and nature, has a powerful need to understand the world around him, loves to hide and be the silent observer.

Girls are more likely to be passionate about literature, the arts, animals, environmental activism (you only have to think of Greta Thurnberg), and other topics with relational themes. There are no limits to the variety and depth of interests or expertise for both females and males with Asperger profiles.

Signs of AS include obsessive interests, formal speech, rituals, social isolation, clumsiness or awkwardness, a lack of empathy and sensory difficulties. Rose revealed a couple of these signs but not all. Other conditions related with AS are anxiety disorders, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Young children with AS are often unusually active. By young adulthood, they may develop anxiety or depression. 

For more information on Asperger’s visit: https://www.autism.org.uk/advice-and-guidance/what-is-autism/asperger-syndrome

Connor like Rose, has suffered bullying, feels isolated from his peers who consider him ‘weird’ and towards the end of my book, he is even accused of being ‘a psycho’ amongst the less educated.

ANOTHER INTERESTING STORY

Dan Jones, my author friend who I’ve mentioned in previous articles, has written a book on the subject; ‘Look Into My Eyes: Asperger’s, Hypnosis and Me.’

Dan too has a diagnosis of Asperger’s. His book is an absorbing and fascinating autobiography that offers rare insights into the workings of the autistic mind from babyhood to adulthood, the impact it had on his family and how he learned to cope with the condition.

Dan gave me a lot of help in shaping my new book, offered priceless advice about his work in children’s homes, introduced me to the late Graham Lovell, (whose life story provided some powerful insights) and his book comes highly recommended. On Dan’s YouTube channel, he publishes guided meditations to help people relax, manage stress and sleep easier, essential resources for this strange new world we live in.

What’s next? In the run up to publication, I’ve exposed some of the complex psychological issues embedded in my characters, while at the same time trying to raise awareness into mental health issues. Next time I’m taking readers on a tour around the story’s West Sussex setting, some specific places mentioned and their context in the plot of LETHAL TIES.

Back from the Beta Readers

Bognor Beach at dusk

Beta readers are essential. Beta readers will reveal aspects of your writing you may not be aware of and I have come to rely on honest feedback to fine tune my works of fiction. You may not like it. On the other hand, you may be thrilled by the response you get, but ironing out these potential flaws is what makes your work stand out above others. So be brave, ask someone impartial, someone who isn’t a friend or family, who might otherwise be afraid of offending you.

Latest Update

Time is marching on and I am delighted to report the news that my debut psychological thriller is close to completion.

The cover has been decided. I appreciated everyone’s feedback, but the 3rd design was a winner and stood out clearest as an Amazon thumbnail.

Lethal Ties by Helen Christmas

This post however, is a heartfelt thanks to those who were kind enough to give ‘Lethal Ties’ a first look. This book underwent numerous edits and re-writes and by the time it was as polished as it could be, I sent it to an editor (who I’d also like to acknowledge). But first allow me to share some of the views that came back from the beta readers.

Pacing and Style

The first of my beta readers thought ‘the pace was a little slow, with perhaps too much descriptive content which tended to slow the plot down.’

I take this onboard, while at the same time thinking about personal preferences – i.e. this is not a high-octane action thriller, but a psychological suspense thriller, which tend to be slower paced. Having read many books in this genre, I realised in my earlier draft that I revealed too much too soon, and it killed the suspense. This slow drip feed of action was done for a reason. Having said that though, the descriptive content needs looking at so I will cut this down to a reasonable level. Descriptions add colour but less is more. There is no point overdoing it and any ‘overly elaborate literary language’ can go. I was also advised on dialogue tags, e.g. trying too hard to avoid the word ‘said.’ Even my editor pointed this out, another area I can improve on. 

Dialogue Tags

Set up and pay off

Reading the response from my second beta reader got me thinking about character motivation and this was a real eye-opener, especially where the evil protagonists are concerned. 

The baddies in this story don’t feature much. They are shadows in the background, their presence so subtle, you won’t know who they are until later. This was also done for a reason and being a suspense novel, I want to keep my readers guessing. Yet I don’t want to ‘stretch people’s credibility’ too far, so this needs looking at too. Investing more time in setting up the bad guys, as well as their motives, will have all the more impact when the final twists are revealed.

A shadowy figure

The final edit

In response to this feedback, I am in the process of a final edit now, taking on board all the comments. I can reveal that ‘Lethal Ties’ is on Amazon and available to pre-order, while at the same time, I’m approaching digital publishers and agents. Having the backing of a professional company will get this out to a much wider audience, if successful; but if I have to stick to the self-publishing route, so be it.

and finally…

With publication getting close, I am so excited to reveal who my editor was. Joel Hames is a best selling author who has written many books in the corporate world of finance and law. His newest book, ‘The Lies I Tell’ is a brilliant psychological thriller about identity fraud and has just been relaunched by ‘Spellbound Books.’

The Lies I Tell by Joel Hames

Joel gave my book an extra polish in his copy edit, but his response to my book was very positive.

‘I really enjoyed this and I think you’ve hit what you were aiming for here. It’s tense and thrilling, and it was impossible to know what was going to happen, even with the benefit of the prologue.’

******

In my next blog, I’ll be exploring another theme and that is child abuse in its various forms, the impact on victims and how the cycle can be broken. This will include a special tribute to Graham Lovell, whose chat was the biggest inspiration behind one of the book’s main characters, Joe.

Book Cover Ideas

Inspiration

On a freezing cold winter’s day in lockdown, too drizzly to even venture out for a Sunday walk, I started thinking about book cover designs. I’ll keep this post relatively short but I ended up with 3 designs and would very much welcome some comments, here, with regards to which one works best. Bearing in mind that when designing a book cover it is more than just a picture; more a shop window for promoting your master piece, so the balance of imagery text and colours is important.

Lethal Ties is a tense psychological thriller set in West Sussex.

Two characters, who met in a children’s home, share traumatic memories. But as they attempt to seek the truth and trace a missing friend, they are plunged into a vortex of online threats and intimidation… until a police investigation is launched.

DESIGN 1

Book Cover idea 1 for Lethal Ties, a spine-chilling psychological Thriller by Helen Christmas coming soon.

The thinking behind this first design is fairly simple. Female lead character, Maisie, has a recurring nightmare, where she finds herself trapped in a forest. Staring up, she sees a circle of trees, the night sky just visible through the bare branches.

It is a chilling image and the lack of any other detail leaves an element of mystery, but is it too understated? Perhaps a little boring?

DESIGN 2

Book Cover idea 2 for Lethal Ties, a spine-chilling psychological Thriller by Helen Christmas with photo by Annie Spratt, Unsplash.

I was wondering if the inclusion of a character would make the cover more appealing. Sam, an angelic but vulnerable 11-year-old boy vanished in 1995, never to be seen again. But 20 years later, Maisie is haunted by a vision of a similar looking boy stood on a dark wooded roadside.

I’ve blended in the same trees image from the first design. My only concern is the boy in this photo and although he seems traumatised, he looks younger than 11.

DESIGN 3

Book Cover idea 3 for Lethal Ties, spine-chilling psychological Thriller by Helen Christmas - photo by Annie Spratt, Unsplash.

This photo was taken by the same photographer (and could be the same boy) but the back-of-the-head image portrays a sense of departure. When Sam disappeared from Joe and Maisie’s lives they never knew what happened to him. The tree in the background is very evocative of Maisie’s nightmare, as if the two are connected.

But is this image attention grabbing enough to make you stop and look? What about the title and wording? Would it tempt you to read the synopsis?

Now the book has now been professionally edited and soon to go out to beta-readers I’d love to get some opinions on the three designs. Please leave a comment in the box below to reveal your favourite cover.

First Book Review for 2021

Forest in Scotland

It is rare I dedicate an entire post to a book review, but this deserves some recognition.

For the benefit of the unconverted, I’ll explain something about the series first. ‘Six Stories’ by Matt Wesolowski is unlike anything I have read. These novels do not follow a conventional story arc. They are unique. The what is going to happen has happened, but what lurks beneath the story? Six Stories is more of an aftermath, a series of podcasts, in which six people pick over the bones of what they think happened… it is up to you, the reader, to work it out.

DEITY (SIX STORIES #5)

Journalist, Scott King, reviews a case, interviews six different people over the death of an enigmatic pop star, Zach Crystal. Think ‘The Beatles,’ ‘The Bay City Rollers’ and it may call to mind thousands of hysterical fans – something akin to religion…

But with super stardom comes a sense of invincibility. Starting out with sister, Naomi, the ‘Crystal Twins’ hit fame in the 90s until eventually, Zach goes solo. Just before his death, darker rumours about the megastar begin to surface; chilling video footage of two girls trapped in a cave, sobbing and terrified. And in a case similar to Jimmy Savile’s, accusations of abuse come crawling out of the shadows.

Who is lying?
Who is telling the truth and at what price?

This fascinating medley of view points inspired me to make some comparisons of my own, thoughts I’d like to share.

DEITY (Six Stories #5) by Matt Wesolowski

Episode 1: Monster Busters

You’ve heard of online grooming, internet predators using fake portraits on social media to attract victims. This phenomenon appeared in Matt’s second series, Hydra: Monster Busters (or pedophile hunters), adults who pose as children to entrap the online groomers – and if they agree to meet – game’s up! Here, we meet Ian Julius who claims to have caught Crystal trying to arrange meetings with underage girls but as the ultimate iconoclast, is turned into a figure of hate. 

I had to ask myself why?

If someone is famous enough, they become almost untouchable, while genuine cases, where youngsters are abused sexually by their ‘heroes’ are not believed. The ‘accusers’ are threatened or compensated. Likewise, Ian the monster buster suffers trial by media, with sparse evidence to prove what he’s uncovered about the star. The upshot is Crystal turns the tide, suing the Monster Buster £millions after his claims go public. 

Think Jimmy Savile, a man who covered up vile abuse against victims for decades and got away with it. Could this be a similar story?

Episode 2: Zach Crystal Stan

The second character Scott interviews disputes such claims, YouTuber and super fan, Sasha Stewart. In the first part of her podcast, Sasha lashes out at Crystal’s accusers. Dismisses their claims as ‘bullshit,’ quick to demonise them for exploiting the megastar to make money. In Sasha’s eyes, Crystal can do no wrong, a benevolent star who invited vulnerable girls in care to stay in his amazing woodland fairyland. He donated masses to charity and she is 100% dedicated to defending him.

Think Michael Jackson, another megastar who built an ultimate fantasy attraction.

This episode put forward a different perspective, one I could easily be swayed by. I never believed the stories about MJ, a child like figure, if not a modern day ‘Peter Pan’ who lived in a surreal bubble. The similarities are unnerving, victims offered huge sums in compensation. It begs the question were these stars easy targets to exploit?

Yet in another way I was reminded of the Rochdale abuse scandal. These too were ‘vulnerable girls,’ groomed and raped by a gang of Muslim men but instead of arresting the perpetrators, police feared the right wing backlash. Worst was the way the victims (some as young as 12) were portrayed, as if they were to blame.

Episode 3: The Secrets of the Whispering Wood

With extracts from a live interview between podcasts, this episode is quite spooky, but I’ve started to notice a common theme. All ‘Six Stories’ books include some folklore or monster in the background; in the first it was the hideous Marsh Hag, Nanna Wrack, ‘Black Eyed Kids’ in ‘Hydra’, the ‘wood-knockers’ in ‘Changeling’ and a vampire in ‘Beast.’ Deity unmasks a terrifying creature, known as a Frithghast, some form of apparition that takes the form of a deer, half rotted, exposing glowing red eyes and antlers. 

Local groundskeeper, Craig, describes the legend; a man employed to manage Crystal’s estate, a vast area of forest in the Scottish Highlands, where the megastar created his famous treehouse lit with fairy lights. Craig has seen the fans Crystal invites here (12-15 year old girls from troubled home backgrounds, or in care). But whilst security is tight, there is something sinister in the atmosphere. Rumours of the Frithghast abound, alluding to the video footage at the start… and it’s a bit gruesome.

Nothing is conclusive, only that it ends when Scott discovers a note left on his windscreen, a lead to the next interview…

Episode 4: The Special Girls

Here we meet Marie Owen, mother of one of the girls who stayed at Crystal Forest. This I found a particularly sad episode, in so much as her daughter vanished to join a vigil of mourning fans. All I discovered in this episode was how obsessed and infatuated the girls became with their idol and it made me wonder if they were looking for an escape, or a crutch, in a similar way to religion.

This story is of a mother’s pain, someone who has tried everything possible to fulfil the her daughter’s dream, yet lost her in the process. Furthermore, she is vilified in the media – so I have to ask:

Why did the megastar choose to rehouse them, from a council estate to some exquisite mansion? Was this an act of kindness or a means of compensation to suppress something more sinister?

Episode 5: You Get to Go Home

Remember Skexxixx, from Hydra, a fictitious superstar in his own right? Describing the religious care home he was brought up in and manipulated into thinking he was evil, he tells of a secret alliance with the megastar, in so much as he was contracted to write his songs after the split from his sister. Conversely, he has also recognised a darkness in him. 

“Something evil lived inside that man. Something cold.”

There is an unusual thread to this story, one that intrigues me, that when Zach Crystal went solo, he and Skexxixx formed an almost symbiotic relationship and he dated his sister, Naomi. Throughout this podcast he reveals that Zach was no angel and no genius so how did he became almost God-like?

This naturally leads into a discussion about the victims – or ‘accusers’ as they are called with a very interesting play on words: “If I punched you in the face right at this moment and you called the cops, you’d be the victim of an assault by Skexxixx; you wouldn’t be ‘Scott King the Skexxixx accuser.’”

This once again highlights the power surrounding the megastar.

Episode 6: Being Nobody

There are many strings to this story; a disgraced star, the unaccountable death of his friend, James Cryer, in the forest, a terrifying legend, accusations of former fans, the enigma surrounding Crystal’s temporary disappearance, a live TV interview in which he announced a sudden come-back and finally his demise. 

Zach Crystal’s woodland mansion and tree house were destroyed in a fire, where it is believed that he too, perished. But the loose ends floating around in the ether are too numerous, to an extent that no one really has a clue what happened.

I am not going to say much about Episode 6 but it blew me away; the man behind the mask revealed, the truth of his death and that of his friend explained in a manner that ties up the entire mystery. After reading all episodes, this book concludes with such a brilliant twist, I cannot tell you how chilled I feel… 

You just have to read it.

Dark misty forest in Scotland used to Portray the book DEITY (Six Stories #5) by Matt Wesolowski

UPDATE: First Draft of #WIP Complete

This is an update to my recent a post Entering the Final Phase of a #WIP and on September 30th, I finally completed the story.

This standalone psychological thriller set Sussex took me on a long and twisted path but I’m delighted to have crossed the finishing line.

The next day, I had an impulse to revisit a significant location in the book, the village of East Lavant near Chichester.

The story is mainly set in Bognor Regis, a pleasant seaside town on the south coast, but I needed somewhere more remote for the book’s chilling finale.

An Idyllic country village

The reason I chose East Lavant was not just for its idyllic village setting, but the narrow winding road that draws you deep into the countryside. With swathes of thick forests on both sides and soaring oak trees this was a perfect location to create a surreal and spooky atmosphere.

A web of trees

One characteristic of my character, Maisie, is her fear of forests, something that features prominently in her recurring nightmares. So when she is cut off from her friends with a deadly enemy at large, these woods are exactly the type of place her enemy would choose to lie low.

A concealed forest track

I researched the police procedures before writing the closing scene but with a full scale operation in place, involving distance surveillance, I needed to double check there were tracks in the forests to allow vehicle access…

It seemed impossible to believe how an idyllic corner of West Sussex could conceal a crime of such evil.

Fresh Inspiration

I have always advocated to other writers that putting yourself in the setting of your story can be inspiring and the extra photos will prove useful. At least I didn’t have to travel very far this time, no train journeys to London and beyond which was another advantage of choosing my home county for this novel.

In many ways it feels like a great weight has been lifted but I am looking forward to the editing process.

Has COVID-19 changed our Behaviour?

There is no doubt the coronavirus pandemic has altered our lives. Celebrating New Year 2020, who would have thought in the space of a few months there would be mass panic followed by three months of lockdown. But since the rules have relaxed how many can honestly say things are back to normal?

High Street Shopping

A series of conversations  got me thinking, in so much as I was forced to challenge my own behaviour. For example I have always felt uncomfortable about doing too much shopping online for fear of how it affects the High Street. Being strongly in favour of British retail stores and independent businesses, there is no question these establishments are being gobbled up by global giants such as Amazon. This drew my mind to a post I wrote in 2019 on how enjoyable traditional High Street shopping can be; a feast for the senses

Independent shop selling meringues and macaroons
Independent shop selling meringues and macaroons

Unfortunately the creeping consumerism associated with an abundance of online goods has grown worse and COVID-19 hasn’t helped. Even with shops gradually opening again, availability of some products has been scarce. I wanted to buy my husband a bird table for his birthday but after visiting numerous garden centres and pet shops there were none in stock. Reason? Restrictions on travel and freight resulted in a worldwide timber shortage.

With no choice but to search online, I found a nice bird table on Amazon. Begrudgingly bought it. Before I reached the checkout however, I was prompted to click a button for a free delivery option. Next thing I knew I was signed up for Amazon Prime.

How did that happen?

I don’t remember seeing any other choice for shipping… but too late. I had inadvertently signed up and the next time I saw my credit card statement I had been charged too! This naturally led me to purchasing  more products on Amazon to get my money’s worth in free postage. Sneaky or what? Isn’t this exactly what they want you to do?

All things considered, I don’t mind paying for shipping. Someone has to package up the goods and deliver them to my house by courier (sometimes next day), so why should that be free? It saves having get into my car, use petrol and pay for parking to get it myself.

But oh, how easily we are seduced by the convenience of it all.

The Global Giants

The more we talked, the more I began to shudder at the sheer power these companies have not to mention the control they exert over us and I’m talking about the big boys: Amazon, Facebook, Google and Apple. It seems no coincidence that the tech C.E.O.s of these companies faced a congressional hearing last Wednesday to argue that their companies do not stifle competition. I saw it on the news, curious to wonder how the four chief execs would defend their powerful businesses under the hammer of the US government.

It is estimated Jeff Bezos of Amazon makes $2,489 per second, more than twice what the median US worker makes in a week. This is the richest man in the world, 36% richer than our own monarchy, and despite making billions from UK alone consumers, pays not a penny in UK tax.

Jeff Bezos
Jeff Bezos looking rather smug

Mark Zuckerberg has annual earnings of roughly $15 billion but if it’s not enough he made a fortune out of Facebook, he quickly leapt in to buy Instagram, the next rising social media platform and has even joked about buying Google.

Mark Zuckerberg
Mark Zuckerberg looking defensive

According to the New York Times, members of the House judiciary’s antitrust subcommittee have investigated the internet giants for over a year on accusations that they have stifled rivals and harmed consumers.

But we’re letting it happen!

Smart Technology

The second, more sinister initiative I embraced recently was the Smart Shop app. Once again COVID-19 has rendered human contact risky, so the app is designed to reduce it. I won’t deny it saved me time. Scan your goods and pack them, scan your QR code at the end and bish bosh, shopping done.

I resisted this for weeks and everything would have been great; if only the store worker who persuaded me to try it hadn’t said that checkouts would be phased out soon. Not good news for the elderly who prefer being served at a checkout. Also not good news for the millions of workers who will lose their jobs. I felt the same when the privatised railway companies brought in automated ticket machines in train stations, and post offices had self-serve weighing machines for sending parcels. Technology is rising but at what cost? How long will it be before humans are redundant, replaced by machines and robots?

We can’t push back technology but a depiction of where this world could be going is brilliantly portrayed in dystopian thriller, HOPE by Terry Tyler, my favourite holiday read of last year; with job losses and spiralling homelessness, it outlines a terrifying vision of how Britain could end up if we let the giants take over:

HOPE is set in the UK. Year 2028 (8 years from now). “Multinational conglomerate Nutricorp is busy buying up supermarket chains, controlling the media, and financing the new compounds for the homeless: the Hope Villages.”

It’s glum but it could be real. If we let it.

My Pledge

My goal is therefore to support the High Street, and buy from independent stores and farm shops. With online shopping embedded in our culture, I may still use the internet – but will endeavour to support the smaller retailers.

It is estimated that if companies such as Amazon paid tax (even if it was only 10%) it would fund our NHS. But the sad fact of the matter is we are bowing to these all- consuming global parasites, which means people will lose jobs, go hungry and homelessness will keep rising, whilst the 1% wealthiest in the world get richer and richer and richer. Everyone has a choice and I am not trying to preach, but be careful how you shop and if you can, make responsible choices.

Entering the Final Phase of a #WIP

Atmospheric image of oak trees

It’s been a while since I mentioned writing, especially my current work in progress (WIP).

This standalone novel is a psychological thriller set in 2015 located in my home county of Sussex.

Sadly my writing took a nose dive in 2019 when I lost all confidence. I started the book in March 2019 but then things went a bit wobbly. It was like learning to ride a bike again. As soon as I made some progress, I would read it back and shake my head. Stop. Edit. Have another stab at it and still it didn’t engage! Grrrr! I was tearing my hair out with frustration, I even shed tears, thinking the creative power in my brain had been switched off. Even when we took a holiday in the most beautiful part of France, I read some good psychological thrillers to see if I could figure out where it was going wrong. I was inspired enough to embark on another complete re-write. But then the dreaded Coronavirus struck, leaving me so anxious, I was unable to move forward again.

Outline Synopsis

Joe, Maisie, Sam.
We were three kids in a care home, too young to protect ourselves.
Three friends who were inseparable until the night Sam went missing.

The story is centred around a group of fictitious children’s homes that existed in London in the 90s. Maisie, a professional woman at 32, has psychotherapy, unable to understand what lies at the root of her recurring nightmares and panic attacks.

Joe meanwhile, has led a troubled life from serving time in prison to being homeless. When the two characters cross paths in 2015, they recall memories of the strange parties they were taken to by the home’s sinister owner, Mr Mortimer… but what happened to Sam? 20 years ago he vanished, never to be seen again.

Yet as Joe tries to turn his life around, he is subject to a campaign of online abuse that makes them wonder if their enemies are still around – until a police investigation is launched.

A homeless man

Back in the writer’s chair

By mid April it struck me I needed to take a different approach; look at the nature of the police investigation at the heart of the story. Going through the chapters, I identified which parts needed research and further delighted to get some help. Speaking to a senior police officer who worked on similar cases to the one I am writing about, I have found a new direction. So I finally thrashed out the nuts and bolts of the investigation

With a brand new focus, the next hurdle was getting inside the heads of my characters. They took a while to come out, especially Maisie. So by the time I was immersed in a second re-write, I drafted her scenes in first person, something that enabled me to think like her, imagine her life and feel her anxiety (something which comes naturally.)

Joe’s character has been easier. Writing his part in 3rd person, he is a likeable rogue with fire in his belly; an angry rebellious young man at the pinnacle of his life. Now all he wants is justice.

Last of all, I wanted to be able to picture my characters which is where Pinterest came in useful. You only have to key something as obscure as ‘auburn hair’ in your search and dozens of faces appear. I found the right faces for both Maisie and Joe (depicted as Jack Falahee), as well as their childhood friend Sam.

Characters from a psychological thriller I am writing

Joe, Maisie, Sam.
We were three kids in a care home, too young to protect ourselves.
Three friends who were inseparable until the night Sam went missing.

The remainder of the story

I have now drafted out a huge part of the story and about to tackle the final phase. But with a full synopsis worked out, I think I have an adequate foundation to complete a first draft. Wish me luck because if I succeed I’ll be looking for beta readers and an editor.

I’ve seen lots of fellow authors rediscover their writing passion during these strange times and hope this will be the start of something promising. That aside, I’ve really enjoyed getting back into it.

Tales from UK Lockdown: Week 10

Bognor Rocks at sunset

Adjusting to a Different World

26.5.2020 So we’ve been in lockdown for over 2 months but now the government have eased restrictions a little, I wonder if life can ever truly go back to how it was.

Despite the negative press, many of us are lucky to spend quality time with our loved ones and still manage financially, thanks to the Government furlough scheme. Though I am aware that for some, this is living a nightmare. My heart goes out to our care workers, many of whom work unbelievably long shifts, surrounded by death and heartache on a daily basis. For them, the Corona pandemic cannot pass quickly enough.

The other major problem is the work place. Understandably companies cannot wait to get the economy moving which is fair enough. Though some people just want everything to go back to how it was which will ultimately mean filling the sky with aeroplanes again. But my gut feeling tells me COVID-19 isn’t done with us yet. Lifting restrictions too fast could easily trigger a second deadly wave… that being the case we’re doomed!

We're Doomed!

Alternatively, just cherish these days while you have them (if you can)

Over these past weeks I have enjoyed seeing the breath-taking photos people share from their daily walks; of flowers bursting into bloom, tranquil coastal scenes and the most vibrant of sunsets. Others continue to inspire me with their achievements.

Extra time

With more spare hours on our hands, we finally re-decorated our office. The plaster and paintwork was in a terrible state, a daunting task we put off for too long. Now it’s done (and having cleared out loads of unwanted crap in the process) we feel more productive than ever in our cleaner tidier environment surrounded by fresh white walls.

Office repainted (Cottagewebs)

Country walks and keeping fit

Another month on and we’re finally allowed to drive into the countryside for walks. We missed the bluebells but enjoyed a picnic on the banks of East Ashling Pond, blessed to see a family of swans and signets gliding across the water. Halnaker Windmill yesterday was equally awe inspiring, the only sound the ring of birdsong, the air perfumed with the first lacy blooms of elderflowers. And talking of keeping fit, I’ve been doing kitchen aerobics with a set of hand-made weights (two water bottles filled with sand from the beach) and occasionally enjoy a zoom pilates class with Sussex Physiotherapy.

Swans and signets on East Ashling Pond, Sussex

Making the most of fresh seasonal produce

If ever there’s a time to support local farmers it’s now and my favourite place is Runcton Farm Shop. This is a great opportunity to look up new recipes depending on what’s available for example local asparagus (delicious either as a side vegetable or in recipes such as Risotto Primavera). I also heard there was a surplus of products, due to restaurants being closed. Imagine my surprise when my husband brought home a kg of fresh mussels home, which cost £1.60. For the first time ever I made Moules Marinière such a simple recipe but absolutely mouthwatering, served with home made bread.

Moules Mariniere

Best of all, I am back to writing with a renewed passion

I never imagined writing a standalone psychological thriller would be so hard but there were times last year I almost gave up.

It’s thanks to the people who helped me, I wanted to keep going; inspirational people such as Dan Jones who shared his experiences of working in children’s homes in the 90s and his friend, Graham, who was brought up in care. But with a police investigation at the heart of the story, more research needed to be done.

Research: talking to various senior police officers allowed me concentrate on the plot, a time I felt indebted to my good friend, Marion Kille, whose husband, Andy (formerly an ops controller with Sussex police for 30 years) was happy to answer a list of questions I had prepared. I also spoke to Peter’s cousin, Denise, whose husband worked in the CID but kindly pointed me in the direction of a recently retired Detective Inspector who for the last 10 years was senior investigator for similar cases to the one I am writing about. With a new focus, everything is finally beginning to slot into place.

Inspiration: Furthermore, I changed to writing in ‘first person’ for one of the characters. Last year I practised this as a writing tip – to write a scene in first person, depict their thoughts and feelings more powerfully – then change back to 3rd person. Sharing this on Twitter, #WhatWorksForMe I had a reply from Terry Tyler, one of my favourite authors, saying “Ever thought of just writing in the 1st person anyway?” It’s working very well and allowing me to get right inside this character’s head.

Re-writing this book is like untangling a ball of wool but finally I am unravelling the plot and teasing the story out of my characters. But more about that in a later post…

Trust in You by Julia Firlotte launched in Spring 2020

Guest Post with Julia Firlotte My author journey

Julia Firlotte romance author guest blog
Julia Firlotte

With the launch of her debut novel, ‘Trust In You,’ I am really excited to invite Julia Firlotte to my blog, to talk about her author’s journey.

Julia is a local writer who I met last summer, at the Gribble Inn, Oving, West Sussex. As budding authors, we had a good chat about books and writing before she told me about her up-and-coming first novel, a summer romance set in the US.

So a very warm welcome to you, Julia and I’m intrigued to discover more about your writing process…

“Novels take their readers on a journey, with characters leading the adventure and charging ahead (or limping slowly forward in some cases). I’ve been surprised though of the journey the writing process itself has allowed me to make as a new author, it’s not just been my characters on a path of enlightenment.”

So did you plot out your story or was it character driven?

“I’m very much an inspirational writer rather than a planner. I come up easily with scenes and can fabricate a whole dialogue between characters and write it down without ever knowing where my stories are headed. Developing characters that fit with what the modern reader wants and structuring it into a cohesive storyline, that’s more of a challenge for me (and why I have several unfinished books).

As with learning any new skill, new writers need to learn their craft, but as I’m discovering, this also means learning their target audience’s preferences too. I spoke recently to a highly experienced novelist and she told me that she never puts pen to paper without knowing exactly who her characters are and what is going to happen. This approach avoids wasting months rewriting and is clearly of commercial benefit, but for me I admit I struggle with this technique.

Hmm, that is good advice. You really need to know your characters before the novel can take shape. What other elements are important to you?

“My debut novel ‘Trust In You’ is a romantic suspense and like crime and thriller writers, I like my romance to have angst and passion, not be all light-hearted dinners and roses. Trust In You started as a bully romance over a land dispute, but after listening to my characters and beta readers, by the end of the writing process the original plot wasn’t even in the book anymore. It’s a love story through and through and I think a stronger piece of writing because of it, now with a strong crime and intrigue element.”

Trust in You by Julia Firlotte launched in Spring 2020

Ooh, crime and romance… I am really intrigued now, tell us more.

“Developing characters that are believable is widely recognised as being the most important aspect of writing any piece of fiction. Whether a protagonists or antagonist is a person or a theme, likeable or someone the reader will just love to hate, they have to be real. Some useful tools I’ve discovered in my writing journey to help develop my characters are mood thesauruses and personality typing such as Myers and Briggs.

Also key is the ability to step back from the novel after leaving it to rest between drafts and asking ‘would my character really behave like this’ and more importantly ‘will my readers want to read this?’ Having a clear audience in mind during the whole process seems obvious, but is easy to overlook. I recently spent nine months on a first draft, only to have feedback that the writing is great (descriptive, insightful and well-paced etc), but what I’d actually written, meaning the entire plot and the fundamental character traits was unappealing and distasteful. Oh dear, I’d clearly missed the mark by a mile of what I had been hoping to achieve.”

Quite a tough learning curve then but you do need to develop a thick skin as a writer.

“Although disheartening, I’m really grateful for these honest criticisms as without them truly appealing stories might never be written. My author journey is teaching me more about society and my readership than I’d ever expected to learn and making me a stronger and more informed person in the process.”

Trust in You romantic suspense novel by Julia Firlotte

Thanks for sharing this, Julia, it’s been a most enlightening article. Now for those of you who are dying to get your hands on her book, here are the essential links: 

For more information on Julia’s novels, please visit her website www.juliafirlotteauthor.com and subscribe to her mailing list where you will also receive the first three chapters free.

‘Trust In You’ is currently receiving five star ratings on www.goodreads.com and is available to buy in paperback and ebook via Amazon.

Trust In You

A first love summer romance full of intrigue, lust and lies.

From the moment she met him, Ella Peterson had questions. As always, though, she’s too shy to ask.

Older and sexy as hell, mysterious Adam Brook soon sweeps sheltered Ella off her feet; but is he as perfect as he appears to be, or is there more to him than he’s telling her?

Ella’s world has already turned upside down after moving from England to rural Kansas. She and her sisters were hoping for a more secure future, but instead find that life can be tough when jobs are scarce and the stakes often higher than anticipated.

When events spiral out of Ella’s control, she learns the person she needs to rely on most is herself and her instincts on who to trust in the future.

It’s just that her instincts are screaming at her to trust Adam; it’s what he tells her that makes that a problem.

This is the first book in the Falling for You series.

Happy Easter everyone and what better way to survive lockdown than to relax with a good book?