Friday, April 25, 2014

The Ties that Bind: Five Traits Shared By Great Suspense Novels

Grateful to the talented British novelist Maggie James--recently interviewed on this site--for publishing my article about characteristics shared by great thrillers.

You can access the article here, and I hope you'll give feedback and if you like the article, will kindly share it.

Thanks, and enjoy, and thanks Maggie!

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Author Interview: Maggie James

I had the good fortune recently of connecting with Maggie James, British psychological suspense novelist who has written Sister Psychopath, Guilty Innocence and His Kidnapper’s Shoes. Maggie was kind enough to agree to an interview, and I think psychological suspense/thriller fans—and anyone who enjoys a good read!—will find it interesting. Enjoy the interview, and check Maggie out at her terrific website.

*One of the first things that caught my eye on your terrific website was the backstory regarding your motivations for your first novel, His Kidnapper’s Shoes. You mention that part of what drove you was annoyance at having procrastinated so long before finally writing your novel. I can relate to that, I think—tell us how long you’d had the book idea, why it took so long, and what was the key to finally getting it done?

I didn’t have the idea for His Kidnapper’s Shoes for long before writing the book – only a month or two.  The urge to write, however, has always been with me. Since childhood, I’ve always wanted to be a novelist. Nothing else, just that.  As a young adult, though, I lacked confidence, as well as self-discipline. I’ve had to learn both of those traits the hard way. In my twenties, I’d tell myself that unless I received the Nobel Prize for Literature I’d be a failure as a novelist. Once I moved past such a ridiculous notion, things got easier. I was still working full-time, though, and finding it hard to grab any time to write. I penned some short stories, which were well received online, but it wasn’t until I gave up working to go travelling that everything came together for me.

*Speaking of that novel, which has received very good reviews, tell us where you came up with the unique plotline?

 The idea came to me when I was chatting to some fellow travellers in Vietnam. We were talking about child abductions and how, sadly, they often have a tragic end. One of the group pointed out that sometimes children are stolen by childless couples, or by women suffering mental illness. That got me thinking – how would it feel to discover as an adult that you’d been kidnapped as a child? I’m all about exploring strong emotions in my novels, and making such a discovery would undoubtedly trigger an intense reaction. Hence the character of Daniel Bateman. Oddly enough, when I was writing the book, a case surfaced in America in which a woman found out she’d been kidnapped as a baby. Like Daniel, she never bonded with the woman who brought her up as her own child. It does happen, unfortunately.

*Like many great writers your novels, to date, center around a certain locale--in your case, your home city of Bristol. Tell us why that is, and what opportunities and challenges that has conferred upon you?

The novels I’ve written so far could be set anywhere – the location isn’t as important to me as the characters and plotline. It made sense to choose Bristol, a city I know well, so I could concentrate on the other aspects of my writing. It may turn out to be a bonus – many writers, like Anita Shreve,  become known for basing their novels in one area, thereby grounding the reader more firmly in a sense of location. This will change, though. Although I’m still writing my fourth novel, I’m already looking ahead and I’ll base number six to some degree in Asia.

As for challenges, there haven’t really been any, not so far as setting my novels in Bristol is concerned.

*Your other novels—Guilty Innocence and Sister Psychopath—mine some of the same dark, shadow  territory that is clearly your literary comfort zone. What attracted you to this genre and why do you think you possess such a penchant for it?

Hmm, good question! It’s in total contrast to my non-writing life in many ways, and I suspect the answer lies therein. In real life, I foster homeless cats, believe in good manners and do lots of yoga. Unlike any of my characters! I believe many people harbour a dark side, though.  I suspect lots of us are drawn to the grittier side of life – hence the popularity of horror novels and films.  We like to examine the unthinkable, but from a safe vantage point. I enjoy reading psychological thrillers myself, so it makes sense to choose that genre in which to write. A perfect counterpoint to cats and yoga!

*You’re running a contest wherein readers can win a chance to become a character in your next book. Tell how that will work exactly, why you’re doing that, and what the response has been?

It’ll be for my fifth novel, which I’ll write towards the end of the summer. Anyone interested can enter on my website by signing up for my newsletter and answering three simple questions about themselves. I’m doing it in order to grow my newsletter list; I wanted to offer as an incentive something more unusual than a chapter from one of my novels or a short story.

The response has been interesting – I’m attracting some fairly extrovert entrants, and most of them prefer to be cast as a baddie rather than one of the good guys. Another example of people unleashing their inner dark sides! I’ll probably continue doing it for subsequent novels – it’s a fun way to interact with my readers.

*Your website is pretty thorough, but tell us most immediately what readers should be on the lookout next from Maggie James?

Novel number four, which I’m currently working on, examines the fascinating psychological phenomenon of Stockholm syndrome, in which victims become emotionally attached to their abusers. Novel number five, other than featuring the reader who wins my competition, is an unknown for me! I have several possible topics lined up, however. Novel number six will, as I’ve mentioned, move location to Asia and I have a vague idea as to its subject matter.

I am also considering branching into other genres. Dystopia lends itself well to the dark themes I enjoy, so that’s a possibility. I’ve also written non-fiction titles, and I may do more, perhaps on the topics of travel or writing.

*What is one thing people may think about you that may actually be misinformed, and one thing most readers may NOT know about you, that you’re willing to share?

People have told me that they intend to find out more about me by reading my novels. They won’t. I am a very private person in many ways and I keep my views, my values and myself very much out of my writing. I know many novelists do pour themselves into their books, but I’m not one of them. As for something my readers may not know about me? I’m surprised myself by this one.  As a former atheist, who then moved towards agnosticism, I now find myself embracing a more spiritual approach to life. Whether I’ll reflect that in my books remains to be seen, but I doubt it, given my answer to the previous question.

*What’s your best advice for aspiring scribes, whether like you they may have procrastinated a bit long, are just starting out, or are somewhere in between on their journey?

I’ll answer this for those who intend to self-publish, as I have no experience of the traditional route. I’d say the main thing is to be as professional as possible. Make sure every typo, punctuation and grammatical error is removed from your writing. Don’t fool yourself that your talent is so great it overrides the need for correct English. Invest in quality covers for your books; unless you have the requisite skills, don’t design a cover yourself using Photoshop.  Read voraciously; there is no finer way, in my opinion, to learn the craft of writing. Lastly, believe in yourself. The road to writing success isn’t easy and unless you’re committed to the process, you’ll struggle.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Ten Acts of Penance: Act One, Demon Witch of the Willamette. Chapter Four.

*Last chapter before the climactic conclusion to Act One!

Ten Acts of Penance

A Serialized Release

*Note:  Welcome to Ten Acts of Penance, a serialized work which shall be released through my blog in installments averaging 2-3/month. Each chapter will be archived separately, though the book will build toward a cohesive whole. For anyone joining midstream, each Act(Ten Acts, comprised of a handful of chapters each) will for the most part be able to stand on its own, but this intro and a link to the prologue  will be provided with every release, as it will serve as a reference/launching point for any ensuing chapter/Act. As with pretty much anything I present here, I welcome feedback and suggestions in the comments section, as they will prove very useful when I edit for a final draft of the completed book.

I hope you enjoy!

Book One, Demon Witch of the Willamette

Chapter Four

The Scotts' humble cabin lay about a mile outside the heart of town.  It had been dark for some time now and the woodlands in which the cabin resided rendered the evening darker still. But the flickering lamplight from within the abode beckoned them forward. Pete rapped gently on the door with his cane.

The door was drawn back a moment later and Mrs. Scott, wearing an apron over her clothes, her hair pulled back, greeted them, blushing slightly. "Thank you so much for coming," she said. "Dinner is about ready. Do come in."

Pete nodded amiably and stepped inside first. He handed Mrs. Scott a fresh-baked loaf of bread they'd purchased from the town baker on the way to the Scotts'. Liam had worried the detour would cause them to run late and inquired whether Pete could just make some bread appear, as he'd clearly done with other things. Pete had given him another one of those looks Liam was growing quickly accustomed to, and nodded upwards. "They're a bit particular about bread."

Mrs. Scott thanked them profusely for the gift and carried it over to the table where Mr. Scott and a pretty, coquettish young lady sat. “Lucy Hemshaw,” James Scott said now. “Anthony’s fiancée.” Pete and Liam both doffed their caps and bowed slightly.

“Ma’am,” they said in unison. Lucy arose and executed a quick curtsey, before moving quickly to the small kitchen to assist Mrs. Scott. James motioned Pete and Liam to be seated. Dinner was placed onto the table in heaping portions: stew (“James shot a few good squirrels today,” Tricia said proudly), beans, corn, and the bread they had brought. There was a large pitcher of water and a steaming pot of coffee.

“Would have liked to have served a nice fish as well,” James said. “No luck at the river today.”

“No worries at all, good man,” Pete said, ladling himself a large helping of beans. “No worries at all.”

“It all looks wonderful,” Liam said.

“If you please,” James said. “We say grace before meals.” Pete stopped mid-ladle, a singular look of sheepishness spreading over his face.

“Sorry,” he said. “Of course. That is always appreciated, you know.”

James looked at him strangely a moment but bowed his head. Each of his guests did likewise. “Lord, thank you for this bounty, please bless this meal and bless our friends and their mission for which you’ve sent them. We ask Godspeed in their quest to find our dear son, Anthony. We give profound thanks and ask all this in your name, oh Lord. Amen.”


Dinner began and everyone ate heartily, silently, for a time. At length, Liam regarded young Lucy.

“My dear lady,” he said. “Forgive me the impertinence of accosting you with this over dinner, but I know you appreciate time is of the essence.”

She put her fork down. “Please, sir.”

Liam nodded. “Thank you. Please tell me about three nights ago. About your fight with Anthony.”

Lucy glanced at the Scotts. “It’s okay, dear,” Tricia said, and put a hand on Lucy’s. Lucy smiled gratefully.

“We’re engaged, sir, as I think you know. We are to be married and I’ve every intention of being a proper and doting wife, but Anthony…” She paused, blushing. “He is a man, after all—I don’t begrudge him such feelings. But I have forsworn to save myself until my wedding night.” She looked down.

“It’s alright,” Liam said. “It’s quite alright. So, you resisted him, and he grew upset?”

Lucy nodded.

“I know it’s not very Christian of our boy,” James said. “But he’s young, and those fires burn hot in a boy his age. We are sorry for sweet Lucy here, but she understands Anthony is a good man, and would have come to his senses.”

“Of course,” Liam said. Pete sipped his coffee and took in the conversation. “So he stormed out,” Liam continued.

“Yes,” Lucy said meekly.

“Forgive me once more then,” Liam said. “But given the point of contention, are you certain, absolutely sure, he would not have sought even temporary affection elsewhere? I am sorry for asking.”

“NO,” Lucy replied, not meekly. “No.”

Liam decided to let it rest for a moment. Dinner continued, and they all spoke of trifling matters. When the table fell silent for what felt to Liam an uneasy spell, he regarded James. “Your fishing,” he said. “On the Willamette, I presume?”

James looked up, an impaled hunk of squirrel meat paused near his lips. He glanced quickly at his wife and daughter ‘n law to be. “Indeed,” he said. “No luck today.”

Liam looked at their hosts. Time was not on their side, he knew. “I am a detective,” he said firmly. “You have asked me to find Anthony. It was not hard to notice the uneasy looks you just exchanged at mention of the river. Tell me just what it is you think happened to your son.”

“The witch.” Tricia.

“Dear,” James chided, but Tricia shot her husband a quick look and he let her continue. Fascinating, Liam noted. James seemed a decent man but hardly one to defer to his wife out of chivalry. Clearly he at least believed the legend possible.

“The witch of the Willamette,” Tricia said. “By now you may have heard of her.” A quick sob escaped from Lucy but Tricia squeezed her hand and the girl gathered herself.

“I have,” Liam acknowledged. “And this is the prime theory to which you subscribe?”

“Yes,” Tricia said. “Others have disappeared. Nothing else stands to reason.”

“I take it,” James Scott said, “you do not share in our conviction?”

Liam inhaled deeply. “A great detective once said, ‘Once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains—however improbable—must be the truth.’ Anything is possible. I intend to leave no stone unturned.”

When they'd thanked their hosts one more time, bid goodnight and stepped back out into the now slightly chilled evening, Liam realized how exhausted he was. At first he presumed it to be in the physical sense and perhaps to whatever degree he retained a physical existence, it was. But as he gazed upward through the sporadic apertures in the tree line, at a clear and star-mottled night sky which would not for another century and a half be obscured with the pollution to which his generation had become accustomed, he understood it was something more. A body grew tired; his body, he knew, was merely on loan. He was a soul, whose fate still hung very much in the balance, and souls grew weary. Ten Acts of Penance, and he'd not yet adjudicated the first.

But the time grew 'nigh. He would return to the saloon, as the marshal had all but dared him, but first he would visit Frieda's, the boarding house. Anthony's parents and fiancé had insisted no matter his state of agitation he would under no circumstances have sought the company of another woman, particularly in such a place as that. Liam was in fact inclined to believe them but he also knew that flaring passions sometimes stirred irrational and uncommon behaviors. But there was another reason he knew he must call upon this house of questionable repute.

"We'll walk together back to town," Pete was saying now. "I'll take my leave back to our quarters then. You have places to go, and by now I'm sure you know they are ones I cannot attend with you."

Liam nodded. He mused silently that it might be nice if his companion would thump his cane and transport them instantaneously the mile back to town--alas, he was learning quickly that Pete was selective about which "parlor tricks" he was willing to employ. They walked silently for a time, Pete pausing occasionally to rest his feet. At length, the faint lights and oppressive stench from town presaged their return.

"I reckon we part here," Liam said, eyeing a part of town where he knew the boarding house stood. "I guess I'll see you later."

Pete regarded him squarely. "One way or the other, yes."

"I may be too late."

Pete nodded. "Yes. That is possible. Your job at this moment is to find out."

Liam frowned. If he were too late, he was almost disinclined to deprive Anthony's parents and fiancée of their otherworldly suspicions--the horrors of things imagined, he'd long-since learned, were sometimes more palatable than the horror of things proved true.

He inhaled deeply, the heavy crush of grief overcoming him once more. He closed his eyes. He must focus on the Scotts' pain, not his own, if he were to accomplish redress for either. He opened his eyes, nodded and turned to go. After a few steps, he turned back. Pete had withdrawn his pipe and was striking a match.

"Forgive me," Liam asked, "but what of your job?"

Pete paused mid- inhalation and raised an eyebrow. "My job?" He extinguished the match with a quick shake.

"The gate," Liam said. "Is it unattended?"

Pete smiled wryly. "It's never unattended," he said. "The lines would be worse than Disney."

Liam grinned, his first in what seemed an eternity. Pete raised his cane and pointed to the section of town toward which Liam had begun to head.

"Get out of here," he said.


"G'evening, sailor."

Liam was reasonably certain it was the first time he'd received such a greeting, but it did not offend him the least. It was, in fact, encouraging.

"Are you Frieda?"

The woman who'd greeted him looked him up and down. He regarded her in turn. Her heavily-mascaraed face was pretty at first glance but belied, it appeared to Liam, the true number and hardship of her years.

"Aye, sailor," she said. "I am. What are you looking for tonight? Place to stay? Company for the night?"

"Neither, in fact." Liam watched as her face registered disappointment, then annoyance.

"Then what? I got whiskey. Can sell you some bottles on the cheap--won't set ya back nearly as much as the saloon."

"Thank you, no."  Her annoyance transformed into anger.

"Then you're wasting my time," she snapped. "I know who you are--new lawman in town. Means a whole lot of nothing to me. 'Less you're gonna arrest me for something, I think I'll be asking you to take your leave."

Liam suppressed the slight grin attempting to creep across his face. She was like something out of a spaghetti western.

"Soon enough," he promised. "I'd like a quick look around. Maybe talk to a few of your boarders."

Frieda folded her arms. "Just why would I let you do that, lawman?" She sneered. "And lawman or not, what kinda man turns up his nose at the chance at a pretty lady, or a bit of whiskey?"

Liam took no umbrage. He was busy surveying the scene and contemplating his next move. He could play the heavy hand and force his way upstairs, but it was not time to make a scene. He was about to acquiesce to Frieda's demand for his departure when he heard footsteps--more than one pair--descending the stairwell which climbed out of sight behind her. A young, scraggly-looking fellow, his arm dangled capriciously around a sweet-smelling, painted lady, clomped into view. They both paused near the bottom of the stairwell upon spotting him.

“You there,” Liam said to the man.

“What the hell do you want, stranger?” The perfumed girl tugged at his arm.

“Easy, baby,” she said. “He may be law.”

The scraggly lad scoffed. “Town’s got but one marshal. And I ain’t up to no different than him.”

“You work on the ships?” Liam asked.

“Yeah, I work on the ships.” The scraggly man motioned upwards with his head. “Same as most of the fellas up there. We work hard, ships are always undermanned, we deserve a bloody break every now and again. What’s it to you?”

“Nothing at all,” Liam said. “Enjoy your evening.” He turned to Frieda, who eyed him even more warily than before. “I am sorry for the intrusion. I think I shall pay another visit to the saloon.” He turned and went to the door.

“You do that,” she called after him as he stepped back out into dark of night. “You just do that.”