A blank page.

That’s what all authors begin with.

Pristine white, apart from the blink of the cursor, flashing like some kind of Morse Code challenge.

Come on, it says, amaze me. Thrill me. Fill me with wonder.

Sometimes though, the author stares back, knowing that filling anything with wonder is just not on the cards. Not today, thank you.

I’m often asked the question, “Do you know your ending before you begin?”

The answer is always, “Sometimes.”

Let me give you an example – I know how my current Work in Progress ends. I know who did it. I know what’s going to happen to that person.

It’s getting there that’s the problem.

You will have guessed that I’m not a planner. I don’t meticulously work out the book ahead of time. I don’t do chapter breakdowns. I don’t have a white board. I don’t have cards.

I do have lots of Post-It notes on which I scribble character names, ideas and aide memoires as I write. Not to mention phone numbers, names, computations and other notes which I often incomprehensible, my handwriting being on the chaotic side of legible.

My writing approach is just  as chaotic and I wish I could take the time to really think about the plot and characters.

The thing is, I want to get on with it and all that preparation seems to me – well – too much like work. Also, I want to have a sudden epiphany that will surprise or even shock the reader as much as it surprises or shocks me that I thought of it in the first place.

Here’s an example – I didn’t know I was going to kill off one of the main characters in my first crime novel ‘Blood City’ until I actually did it. I also didn’t know the character who pulled the trigger was going to turn out to be the big bad. Had I planned that ahead of time the delicious pleasure of going all Game of Thrones on Glasgow crime would have been denied me. In my mind, at least.

The opposite also happened – a character I’d planned to kill off survived to die another day, in another book. All spontaneous, as I wrote, in the moment.

Now, planners might get the same thrill as they plot it all out, I don’t know. I’m too eager, or perhaps too lazy, to sit down and try it.

When writing ‘The Dead Don’t Boogie’, the first of my Dominic Queste thrillers, I set out to follow Raymond Chandler’s advice about whenever things are dull, have a couple of guys kick the door in with guns in their hands. I knew roughly what my protagonist was going to be, although I added layers as I wrote. I knew he was searching for a young girl in a seaside town in Scotland. I knew there would be other people searching for her.

What I didn’t know was why.

I was well over half way through, moving from one plot twist and action beat to another (let’s just say a LOT doors were kicked), when I realised I’d have to decide what the hell was going on. I did work it out and it required some additional scenes earlier on but hey – that’s what second and third drafts are for!

Would I recommend my approach? Actually, no. Deep down, I may even grudgingly agree that planners have the right idea.

Am I going to change my approach?

Hell, no. I’m WAY too impatient to do that….

OVER on that Facebook place, I was challenged by pal Richard Bruce to come up with seven books that influenced me.

My regular reader – she’s a nice woman – will know that I’ve been influenced very much by Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels and the western ‘SHANE’. She also knows that one of my favourite books is TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and in the past I have praised Dennis Lehane’s MYSTIC RIVER.

I decided to find other titles for this list – books that I enjoyed, have read more than once, and that I still own.

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First up was William Goldman’s debut novel THE TEMPLE OF GOLD.

Written in the late 50s, this is a funny and tragic coming of age story.

Goldman’s narrative style is so wonderful, his dialogue so easy to read – he’s an Oscar winning screenwriter, remember – that whenever I return to it, and I’ve done so many times, I’m filled with admiration and, yes, envy.

Again, my regular reader will know that when I’m pressed to name my favourite film, my mind instantly turns to ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’, which Goldman wrote.

And just recently I was talking to crime writer and Carry on Sleuthing alum Michael J. Malone about Goldman’s other works and I heartily recommend ‘Marathon Man’, ‘Control’ and ‘Brothers’ as incredible thrillers.

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CASTLE KEEP by William Eastlake was a book I discovered in my teens. In fact, I believe this and TEMPLE OF GOLD were in the same bundle given to me by my nana (Yeah, go ahead, yukk it up, I called my gran my nana. Get over it).
It’s an anti-war novel about a disparate group of US soldiers occupying a chateau in the Ardennes on the eve of the Battle of the Bulge. Eastlake himself was in the US Army and fought at the Bulge, so there is a sense of truth underlining every crazy episode in the novel. It’s told from numerous viewpoints, each new chapter a different character talking in first person. What?! You can’t do that! But he did and it works. Sure, it’s rambling and unstructured but the characters are so well drawn, so varied, the dialogue so weird, wonderful and witty, the incidents wacky and, ultimately, tragic. It’s funny. It’s profane. It’s moving.

I would imagine very few of you have read the book, but you may have seen the 1969 film, directed by Sidney J. Pollack, starring Burt Lancaster and Peter Falk. It’s an unusual war film, couldn’t be anything but considering the source, but it failed to capture the anarchy of the novel.
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There was more war and tragedy in John Prebble’s CULLODEN.
Frankly, I could have picked any one of his books. His LION IN THE NORTH is a fabulous whirlwind ride through Scottish history. His book on travelling round Scotland has never been bettered. His account of the Highland Clearances is white hot with rage. Then there are his accounts of the highland regiment mutinies, the Darien Disaster and the bloody events of Glencoe. All absolutely terrific.
But I chose this one. It is wonderfully written, immaculately researched. It is fascinating and moving. It’s one of the best historical accounts ever published, as far as I’m concerned.

Packed with detail and told with the mind of an historian but the heart of a storyteller, it’s a dense read but a rewarding one. The battle was not simply a case of the Scots against the English. It was also brother to brother, father to son. The aftermath was brutal and bloody and it echoes through the centuries.

The battlefield is one of the most potently atmospheric sites I’ve visited and can only be profaned by the new housing schemes already agreed and the proposed holiday camp. We must protect it.
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THE BLACKBOARD JUNGLE by Evan Hunter was, like most of these books, one I read in my teens. I was already a fan of Ed McBain and didn’t know that the authors were one and the same. And neither of them was his real name. It was, in fact, Salvatore Albert Lombino.

This book and the subsequent film with Glenn Ford, Sidney Poitier and Vic Morrow were controversial in their day. It kicked off the mini-genre of troubled school movies. The very title entered into the modern day lexicon. Is it slightly dated? Yes, but that’s not a bad thing. The language, considered shocking then, is tame now. But it still packs a punch and established Hunter/McBain, or any of his many pseudonyms, as a force to be reckoned with.

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RED FILE FOR CALLAN by James Mitchell brought me back to the chilly, homegrown espionage landscape of the 60s and 70s.

I was a huge fan of the TV series, which ran from 1967 to 1972 and made Edward Woodward a household name. And, frankly, fantastic actor though he was, he was never better than this haunted, complex killer for HMG.
And who can forget the melancholy theme, a guitar melody with a bare light bulb swinging in front of a brick wall?
The book was based on James Mitchell’s own TV play ‘A Magnum For Schneider’, which introduced us to David Callan. It was so successful a series followed. It also later formed the basis for the 1974 big screen spin-off. I have three further titles in the series – Russian Roulette, which Russell Hunter once told me he wished would be filmed because it had a belter of a role for Lonely (the character he played), Smear Job and Death and Bright Water. And Callan’s influence on me? If you’ve read the Davie McCall novels, you’ll see them. Both characters are flawed, loners who are part of worlds they don’t really want to be, but their skills find them trapped.
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I found Ray Bradbury’s SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES in the library at secondary school. I liked it so much I bought my own copy. At the time I was reading a lot of horror and a few bits of science fiction. I mean, a LOT of horror. Dracula, Robert Bloch, those Pan compendiums, the Alfred Hitchcock collections, plus all sorts of things I wouldn’t go near today. This book, though, is more than horror, or fantasy. It’s a right of passage. It’s about family. It’s a look at small town life. It’s a yearning for lost youth. And it’s both poetic and creepy in equal measure. I love it.

It was also filmed, back in the 80s. Produced by Kirk Douglas’s other son Peter (the man himself was an executive producer), it was a very decent stab at bringing Bradbury to life but lacked the magic of the printed page, despite Bradbury himself providing the screenplay, although British writer John Mortimer was called in for rewrites.

It boasted a fine score by James Horner, who replaced French composer Georges Delerue. I have the rejected score in my collection but not the Horner one, which is a shame.

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My final pick was a difficult choice. The more I thought, the more titles I came up with. Next week I could probably come up with seven new ones. Anyway, I have plumped for this from John Wyndham (real name John Wyndham Lucas Parkes Beynon. Need a helluva big cover for that) I’ve read a number of his books and I could have gone for any one – Day of the Triffids, Kraken Wakes, Midwich Cuckoos, Chocky, the Trouble With Lichen. But I chose THE CHRYSALIDS. I really can’t explain why. Perhaps in the current political climate it resonated. Nowadays this tale of a post nuclear world peopled with religious zealots eager to root out deviations and abominations would be called YA. Perhaps not. Triffids has been filmed a few times for screen and TV. Midwich became Village of the Damned in 1960 and spawned a sequel, Children of the Damned in 1964. ‘Village’ was remade in 1994 by John Carpenter, but not very satisfactorily. Chocky was turned into a children’s drama. It’s time someone turned their attention to the Chrysalids. It would make a great film. All I can say is that Wyndham remains one of the UK’s foremost science fiction writers.

 

So there we are. Seven books over seven days. And I’ve already thought of seven more…

 

 

I’ll be joining pals Pat Young and Michael J. Malone in Troon Library in April for an afternoon dedicated to those all-important readers.

We’ll be talking about books, each other’s books, other books we enjoy as well as inspiration, writing routines and – oh, I don’t know – dogs, maybe.

It’ll be a great afternoon and there’s even tea laid on!

Hope to see you all there.

I’ve got a new book heading your way later this year.

Something different.

Well, for me.

For once, it’s not set in Scotland. I’ve spread my writing wings across the Atlantic to set a thriller in New York.

It’s been described as Jason Bourne meets The Sopranos and it’s a fast-moving conspiracy thriller in the mould of ‘Three Days of the Condor’ (and the original book, ‘Six Days of the Condor’). There’s even a wee sly nod to that at the climax. Let’s see who spots it.

The Janus Run will be published by Contraband in September.

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‘A bullet doesn’t know good from evil, right from wrong. A bullet only knows how to kill. I was a bullet…’

 

For Cole Lang, the past was buried. A successful advertising executive, he has put one horrific marriage behind him but ahead was a new life with corporate lawyer Gina Scolari.

But then someone murders Gina. In his bed.

Big mistake.

They thought he was just a white collar pushover but they were wrong. He has secrets.

Gina had secrets, too, and one of them may have got her killed.

Was it because of her father, Tony Falcone, a former Mafioso who turned rat?

Or was it something else? Something from Cole’s past, from his days with Janus, a group so shadowy only those in the highest echelons of government know of its existence.

In the frame and on the run from the dogged cop Rosie Santoro and US Marshal TP McDonough, Cole must tap into old skill in order to survive.

But those old skills are rusty and that could prove lethal.

He forges an uneasy alliance with Falcone, who seeks revenge for his daughter’s death.

Falcone has baggage of his own, mistakes in his past he must address if they are to survive. Not the least is the Marino family, out for blood.

They have the law, the feds and the mob on their tail as they dodge bullets and bodies across the Five Boroughs.

Meanwhile, someone else is tying off loose ends. Is it Nicky ‘The Juke’ Bruno, the Marino’s cold-hearted enforcer? Or is the chilling professional killer Mister Jinks responsible?

And all the while, Janus watches and waits.

 

Carry on Sleuthing: A Death on the Ocean Wave sails back into Irvine’s Harbour Arts Centre in February.

The gang will be back together for a special show in aid of the charity Breaking the Silence, which provides support for victims of rape and childhood sexual abuse.

And if you’ve seen it before, don’t worry – there’s new material, although the solution to the mystery remains the same, so keep it to yourself.

Tell us, though, because we’ve forgotten.

Caro Ramsay, Theresa Talbot, Pat Young, Michael J. Malone and myself will be back in costume for the cast of dozens.

Details here:

https://www.ents24.com/irvine-events/harbour-arts-centre/breaking-the-silence-carry-on-sleuthing/5212363

 

 

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They called it a triumph in Grantown-on-Spey (or some kind of clapped out old banger, anyway).

And in January, Carry on Sleuthing 2: Murder at the Knickerage is heading for Dumfries – and the oldest working theatre in Scotland.

And if that wasn’t enough to get the funny bone tingling, the Theatre Royal will also host Four Crime Writers in Search of a Plot.

ALL IN THE SAME NIGHT!

Let Joy be unbound (she’s a lovely girl)!

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Yes, indeedy – Gordon ‘GJ’ Brown, Mark Leggatt, Neil Broadfoot and Douglas Skelton will be dusting off the old Tea Cosy of Inspiration (TCOI) and getting their little grey cells in gear to create a crime story before the audience’s very eyes live on stage (well, almost live. A couple of them don’t look too healthy).

Here’s the drill – the audience is invited to suggest a protagonist and a murder weapon and then choose which author will write the next section of the story. While the chosen one is sporting the TCOI and churning out some fantastic prose (it could happen), the others will field question about crime writing from the audience.

It’s fast, it’s fun and it could well be folly.

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Then the Carry on Sleuthing team – Caro Ramsay, Lucy Cameron, Michael J. Malone and Douglas Skelton – will take over the stage to present a mystifying mystery filled with suspense, danger and, well, mystifying mystery.

Either that or they’ll just do Murder at the Knickerage.

With script in hand, because they’re incapable of remembering lines and you wouldn’t want some of these stuck in your head anyway, they will invite you to listen to the witnesses, find the clues and decide who the murderer was.

However, budding sleuths have to wade their way through a barrage of jokes and sight gags to find the clues!

Don’t miss this tittersome evening of murder, mystery and mirth.

Tickets can be booked now, priced £8 for an individual show, or £12 for the two.

 

Find out how to book here:

https://www.ents24.com/dumfries-events/theatre-royal

 

 

The commemorative brochure from 1977

The commemorative brochure from 1977

My God, 40 years old.

I can’t believe it.

A Ruby Anniversary.

No, not me.

I’m talking about ‘Star Wars’, of course.

To save you getting your shoes and socks off to do some counting (I’ve already done so), the first one came out in 1977. I was but a slip of a lad. The lad in question being my dad, the slip being me (Thank you, Round the Horne).

I was already well aware of the phenomenon that was this relatively low-budget science fiction romp. The publicity machine really put the hype into hyper space. I already had the John Williams soundtrack, a big gatefold double album, the likes of which you really don’t get anymore, even in these days when the vinyl strikes back. I’d bought it three months before so was well aware of the beats and brass of the music by the time I saw the film. Unlike the CD of The Phantom Menace, there were no spoilers in the track titles (the Menace CD gave away what should’ve been a shock moment, the death of Liam Neeson’s character – by calling one track ‘Quai-Gon’s Noble End.’)

The music plays a vital part in the film’s success. Without John Williams’ genius, Star Wars would not have been icon it became. I firmly believe that. By harking back to the golden age of composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold, while still being incredibly modern, it not only resurrected the notion of the symphonic score but also swept you up into the story and carried you along in a percussive mixture of romance and bombast.  In short, it hit the right note (sorry).

I was glad to hear Mr Williams had not lost any of his magic when he scored ‘The Force Awakens.’

I saw the film in the Odeon Renfield Street, which is now gone, sadly. I saw many great films there and, in those far-off days as a film critic, had fun at press shows, meeting a few stars.

On the way by bus from Glasgow’s south side to see the first film, along with the person who was destined to be the present Mrs Skelton, our forward trajectory came to a sudden and seemingly endless stop on a bridge over the Clyde. The road ahead was blocked by a burst water main, we were told. There was a danger we would miss the screening.

We ran all the way. The Force must’ve been with us because we made it in time.

We were younger then.

Despite already knowing the music so well, I was blown away by the film. It was fun. It was groundbreaking. It gave us new stars in Fisher, Ford and Hamill, although only one of them would really be propelled into the stratosphere. It helped change cinema as we know it.

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In case you haven’t guessed, I am a Star Wars fan. No, I don’t dress up as any of the characters (although there are stories about me in a French Maid’s outfit which are, of course, completely untrue). I haven’t named Jedi as my religion. I don’t have a big light sabre (ooh, matron!)

I do still have the soundtrack LPs from the first three films AND the full colour commemorative brochure for the first. I don’t play the vinyl now because I have CDs, including a limited edition anthology box set of the music for the original three films, with outtake cues and tracks never before released. Well, it’s exciting for me.

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With the exception of the music, I was unimpressed by the three prequels. George Lucas’s lack of dexterity in the dialogue department was, despite occasional flashes, woefully apparent. As Harrison Ford once said, ‘You can type this shit but you can’t say it.’ Although I recognise that they helped lay down much of the mythology that is in use in the new films, the trilogy was po-faced and, thanks to clunky dialogue, largely poorly acted, with too much attention paid to the technology.

The franchise was saved by ‘The Force Awakens’, despite it being more or less a remake of the original film. ‘Rogue One’, the first standalone spin-off, was breathtaking, with Michael Giacchino making a fine stab at emulating John Williams’ style while also ensuring his own musical voice was heard.

Like it or loathe it, Star Wars has had an effect on our culture. There have been spoofs, spin-offs and specials. The Force Be With You, Jedi Knights, I’ve got a bad feeling about this, These are not the Droids you’re looking for, asthmatic villains with big helmets (nurse, the screens!) – all ideas and lines that have seeped into our consciousness.

Even Stephen Sondheim got into the act with ‘Send in the Clones.’ Then, of course, there was the cookery show ‘Ready, Jedi, Cook.’ I’ll get my coat.

Now the one has been released and I’m looking forward to seeing it. It even has the royal stamp of approval, with Princes William and Harry apparently appearing as stormtroopers. I may even try to make a rare foray to an actual cinema.

However, as Yoda once said, do, or do not. There is no try.

It might be blu-ray, then.

Bloody hell!

That Caro Ramsay’s got a new book heading into the hands of eager fans.

Yes – another one! Does she eat?

I'm chatting to Caro Ramsay for the launch of her new book on November 30

I’m chatting to Caro Ramsay for the launch of her new book on November 30

It’s called THE SUFFERING OF STRANGERS and it’s bound to be another belter.

And she’ll be launching it during Book Week Scotland in the Prima Vera Bistro, courtesy of Waterstones Newton Mearns.

Apparently, she’ll be in conversation with yours truly.

We’ll talk about the book, the inspiration, the symbolism with which her work is replete and the existential angst of writing about crime.

If you’ve ever been to an event with Caro, you’ll know that to be a complete lie.

The book is serious but the event will be fun.

I wouldn’t miss it.

Actually, I’d better not – Caro knows how to kill without leaving a trace.

More info here:

https://www.waterstones.com/events/an-evening-with-caro-ramsay/newton-mearns-37241

 

I complete my mini tour of Argyll and Bute for Book Week Scotland in Helensburgh.

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I’ll be chatting about how it was the writer’s life for me, after everything else proved – well – not for me.

I’m looking forward to all these events!

As with all the events this week, admission is free.

 

Info here:

http://www.scottishbooktrust.com/about/events/skeltons-skeletons-helensburgh-library

With thanks to Argyll and Bute Libraries and Scottish Book Trust.

The midway point of my three day mini tour of Argyll and Bute takes me to Campbeltown, just down the road from the land of my forefathers (which was Gigha, by the way).

This is another event for the fabulous Book Week Scotland, organised by the Scottish Book Trust (yay for them!)

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These next two events are called Skelton’s Skeletons. Will I be pulling anything out of the closet? Of course I will – I’m not heading there naked. It’s the end of November, for goodness sake. I’d freeze my plots off.

I’ll talking about the life of a writer. Luckily, that writer happens to be me so I know a thing or two about it.

I’ll discuss the books, both fiction and non. I’ll talk about the process. I’ll talk about dealing with reviews.

It’s all light-hearted stuff, so if you’re in Campbeltown, come see me.

More info here:

http://www.scottishbooktrust.com/about/events/skeltons-skeletons-campbeltown-library

 

With thanks to Argyll and Bute Libraries and Scottish Book Trust.