Posted by: Alice Fitzpatrick | February 13, 2015

Where’s the Body?

Writing a mystery novel is hard enough, what with assembling suspects, creating motives, devising the method of murder, and planting numerous red herrings.

Most mystery writers find the opening especially problematic. We are told by writing teachers, blogs, and how-to books that we have to grab the reader’s attention right away. And let’s face it, nothing grabs someone’s attention like a dead body.

However, opinion is divided as to the optimum time to reveal the bloody corpse. Some say it has to be on the first page, while others suggest by the end of the first, second, or third chapter. But most agree that it should be as close to the beginning of the novel as possible.

As a writer of traditional mysteries, I prefer that the first thing my readers see not be someone bleeding all over the pub floor. And I’m not alone in this.

Ngaio Marsh often waited until the middle of her books before killing off a character. As for Agatha Christie, people rarely show up at Hercule Poirot’s office or Miss Marple’s cottage with an account of a gruesome killing. Rather, they present a suspicion, a fear that something nasty is about to happen.

My assumptions about my readers are twofold:

  • people read mysteries for the challenge of solving the murder, and
  • people want to have a relationship with the characters. This is also why many readers prefer a series.

IMG_4329With this in mind, I want to give my readers ample time to become acquainted with my characters, to observe their interactions and note any conflicts. Thus begins a gradual buildup of suspense as readers start to ponder when, where, how, and who will be murdered. Familiarity with the characters means that readers also have an emotional reaction when the victim dies.

Having watched the characters going about their daily lives, readers not only have a deeper understanding of the motives and opportunities for the murder but can easily assemble a list of suspects. And readers like nothing more than to be one step ahead of the detective.

Unlike a police procedural where solving the murder is — dare I say it — a routine event and it doesn’t matter if the detectives have an emotional connection to the victim (although some police procedurals will occasionally include this element), an amateur detective should have a vested interest in solving the murder, a clear reason for getting involved in something that’s better left to the professionals. He or she is usually familiar with the victim, the accused, and/or the location. Likewise, the fate of the characters should be of concern to the readers as well.

For me, the traditional mystery explores the disturbing reality that quite ordinary people are often capable of taking the life of another human being. Given the right circumstances, the middle-aged man you pass every morning walking his dog or the young woman who serves tea and cake in your local cafe has the potential to commit murder. Readers need to feel that they know these people well enough to consider them suspects, even if it’s only that on the morning of the murder they acted out of character. The dog walker took a different route or the waitress shouted at a customer. It’s the little things that can give the game away.

And that’s why I make my readers wait for the body.

Posted by: Alice Fitzpatrick | September 2, 2014

What I Learned About Being a Writer From Lewis Carroll Part 4

The White Knight as Writer


         “I see you’re admiring my little box,” the Knight said in a friendly tone. “It’s my own invention — to keep clothes and sandwiches in. You see I carry it upside-down, so that the rain can’t get in.”

         “But the things can get out,” Alice gently remarked. “Do you know the lid’s open?”

         “I didn’t know it,” the Knight said, a shade of vexation passing over his face. “Then all the things must have fallen out! And the box is no use without them.” He unfastened it as he spoke, and was just going to throw it into the bushes, when a sudden thought seemed to strike him, and he hung it carefully on a tree. “Can you guess why I did that?” he said to Alice.

         Alice shook her head.

         “In hopes some bees may make a nest in it — then I should get the honey.”



I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for the White Knight.  He can come off as a silly, sometimes pathetic character, always tumbling off his horse and doing ridiculous things like placing anklets around the horse’s ankles to protect him from sharks as he travels through the forest.

But in spite of everything, he perseveres. He battles the Red Knight to protect Alice, he never hesitates to get back on his horse, no matter how many times he falls off, and he invents an ingenious use for the sandwich box. Remember that it’s the White Knight who accompanies Alice on the final leg of her journey so she can finally become a queen.

For me, the White Knight has all the characteristics of a successful writer. Just as the knight keeps climbing back onto his horse, we keep going no matter how many times we lose our way in a story or novel. The determination to write overcomes the fear of failure.

Like the knight who turns his box into a bee hive, we take bits of our writing and rework them to serve new purposes. Background information, whole scenes, and even entire characters that disrupt the flow or simply don’t belong will be cut, put aside to use later, or worked into entirely new forms.

More than 20 years ago, I wrote a story called “Maidenhair”. The narrator is fourteen-year-old Kate who is spending the summer at her grandmother’s seaside home. Upon learning that her Aunt Emma mysteriously drowned long before Kate was born, she takes it upon herself to discover the circumstances of her death.

At approximately 10,000 words, it was too long for a short story and too short for a novella, but the plot and characters stayed with me, refusing to be written off as a failed piece of writing.

When I decided to use it as the basis for the first book in my Kate Galway mystery series, l aged Kate by 40 years and changed the narration to third person subjective. In this way I could show the events of the plot through many characters’ points of view. I kept the seaside setting, the grandmother, Emma’s mysterious drowning, and the attractive artist for whom the young Kate feels an attraction.

Like the knight, we writers grow protective of our characters as we accompany them on their journeys. They won’t all become kings and queens, but as their creators it is our responsibility and our joy to ensure they become the best possible versions of themselves.

This is the final instalment of this blog series.  I  encourage you to revisit these wonderful books and find your own inspiration in them.  For now, I’ll let the White Knight have the last word.

            “The great art of riding,” the Knight suddenly began in a loud voice, waving his right arm as he spoke, “is to keep —” Here the sentence ended as suddenly as it had begun, as the Knight fell heavily on the top of his head exactly in the path where Alice was walking. She was quite frightened this time, and said in an anxious tone, as she picked him up, “I hope no bones are broken?”

            “None to speak of,” the Knight said, as if he didn’t mind breaking two or three of them. “The great art of riding, as I was saying, is — to keep your balance properly. Like this, you know —”

            He let go the bridle, and stretched out both his arms to show Alice what he meant, and this time he fell flat on his back, right under the horse’s feet.

            “Plenty of practice!” he went on repeating, all the time that Alice was getting him on his feet again. “Plenty of practice!”


Posted by: Alice Fitzpatrick | August 25, 2014

What I Learned About Being a Writer From Lewis Carroll Part 3

         I recently shared two of my favourite quotations from Alice in Wonderland and discussed how they illustrate the writing process.  For the next two weeks I am looking at Lewis Carroll’s companion book Through the Looking Glass.

You Are the Master of Your Own Words

         “There’s glory for you!’”

         “I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’” Alice said.

         Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t — till I tell you. I meant ‘here’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’”

         “But ‘glory ’doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument,” Alice objected.

         “When I use a word,’” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

         “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

         “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”

humpty-dumpty1As someone with a long history of academic writing (I still have to remind myself to use contractions!) and almost forty years experience teaching high school students the rules of writing, what I find so liberating about writing fiction is being able to break the rules.

 I enjoy having my characters speak ungrammatically. It makes me feel like I’m getting away with something. I find guilty pleasure in ending lines of dialogue with prepositions, dangling my participles, ignoring proper noun-verb agreement. This is the way real people speak and so this is how my characters must speak. Like each of us, individual characters have their own individual rhythm, syntax, and colloquialisms. For example, Kate, my English-teacher protagonist, is the only character I allow to use “whom” in her narrative voice

Not only does each decision a writer makes reflect an aspect of the character, it differentiates the characters for the reader. We’ve all read books where each character speaks in the same way, with the same voice. Put two or three characters in a conversation, remove the “he said” and “she said” and suddenly we have no idea who’s speaking. To keep consistency in my own books, I have a database of my characters’ favourite expressions. That way I can remember who says “aye” instead of “yes” and who addresses his women friends as “m’darlin’’”.

My favourite part of fiction writing is inventing and bending the language. I revel in onomatopoeia, where I create words to imitate the sound of a hand hitting a bar top, ice cubes cracking in a glass of water, or a motorcycle speeding through the countryside. Bending nouns and other parts of speech into verbs is happening more and more often these days in the real world: we “facebook”, “journal”, and “workshop”. To reshape our words in our writing gives fiction a unique voice and adds different colours to the narrative. And if someone complains, just remind him/her that we’re following in the footsteps of Shakespeare. He started it!

Following Humpty’s advice liberates a writer. Just be sure that you take your readers along with you for if you leave them behind, you’ve defeated the purpose of the whole endeavor. Your manipulation of the language is there to add to the understanding and appreciation of your story, not to block it. I have read too many writers who were, not to put too fine a point on it, were simply showing off. Readers shouldn’t have to have to be linguists to keep up with you.

Posted by: Alice Fitzpatrick | August 18, 2014

What I Learned About Being a Writer From Lewis Carroll Part 2

You Don’t Have to Know Everything

          The Hatter opened his eyes very wide . . . but all he SAID was, “Why is a raven like a writing-desk?” 

          . . .  “Have you guessed the riddle yet?” the Hatter said, turning to Alice again.

         “No, I give it up,” Alice replied: “what’s the answer?”

         “I haven’t the slightest idea,” said the Hatter.

323a2503fa71e4b0Despite her initial enthusiasm for the riddle, poor Alice struggles to come up with an answer.  In fact, the answer is never revealed nor is there any indication that the Hatter himself knows the answer.  The reader is left to assume that this is yet another indication of the Hatter’s madness, to pose a riddle without knowing the answer.  In the most recent Alice movie, Johnny Depp’s Hatter repeatedly uses this most famous unsolved riddle as a metaphor for his anxiety and despair.  But for me, it’s a reminder that as a writer I don’t need to know everything.

What I love about writing fiction is that you never know where the process will take you. Characters will suddenly reveal information or act in ways that you weren’t expecting. After writing a scene, it’s not uncommon me to exclaim, “Well, I didn’t see that coming” or “Where did that come from?”

In my first book one of my characters, while in the middle of an argument with an old boyfriend, revealed that she had not only become pregnant but had aborted their child. This did wonders for the plot as it resulted in an attempted murder and a further revelation which directly impacted the investigation.  Needless to say, I was extremely grateful to her for telling me that, but I had no idea it was part of her personal history.

Writing teachers often ask their students to compile lists to help them flesh-out their characters.  What’s in your characters’ junk drawer?  Who were their best friends in high school?  What are their favourite movies?  You get the idea.  Like an actor building up the backstory of a stage or film character, this does force writers to become better acquainted with their characters before starting to write.  But as I pointed out earlier, often the most interesting aspects of our characters are revealed through spontaneous actions.

I don’t want to know everything about my characters.  I also don’t want to know absolutely everything about the people I am in relationships with in my non-writing life. I like being surprised.  Likewise I don’t want my characters to get into predictable patterns.  If readers can anticipate how a character is going to react to every situation, they can easily get bored.

As someone writing a series, my characters are growing and developing over time, forming relationships and intimacies with each other.  My two lead characters, Kate and Siobhan, are opposites in many ways and as such they both compliment and antagonize each other.  But the more time they spend together, the more they influence each other’s personalities in ways I can’t predict.  This is what keeps me interested as the writer.

So why is a raven like a writing desk?  Because Carroll was bothered by so many people wanting to know the answer to the Hatter’s riddle, he wrote in the preface to the 1896 edition of the book “a fairly appropriate answer”: “’Because it can produce a few notes, tho they are very flat; and it is never put with the wrong end in front!’ This, however, is merely an afterthought; the Riddle, as originally invented, had no answer at all.”

Posted by: Alice Fitzpatrick | August 10, 2014

What I Learned About Being a Writer From Lewis Carroll Part 1

As a child my favourite books were those that helped me to escape into the deep recesses of my imagination, books with settings that had no relation to real life as I knew it, books that described fantasy worlds where I longed to not only visit but stay.  I wanted to fight pirates with Pippi Longstocking, fly away with Peter Pan to Neverland, and to tumble down rabbit holes with Alice to Wonderland.  But even though I grew up and learned to live in the real world (as much as a mystery writer can), Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass remained two of my favourite books.

Recently revisiting these books, I realized that many of their more memorable quotations could be applied to the writing process.  So I thought I would share some of them with you over the next few weeks.

Keep Writing and You Will Get Where You Want to Go

“Cheshire Puss,” she began, rather timidly . . . “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where –” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
“– so long as I get somewhere,” Alice added as an explanation.
“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”


I have read more than once that everyone wants to be a writer, but far fewer people actually want to write.  Writing is hard work. More than one author has lamented it’s like sweating blood.

One lesson I’ve learned is not to get hung up on how everyone else does it.  Their way is not necessarily mine.  Many writers set a daily word count, and it can be intimidating to the rest of us when they post their numbers on Twitter or Facebook.  Some people get up early and write before they go to work. Others stay up late.  Some write on the subway or the train or while waiting for medical appointments. Everyone is different.

Even though I’d published short stories in literary journals for many years, when I committed myself to writing a series of novels, I felt like I was learning to write all over again.  I started to look for advice on the “right” way to write a book.  With a short story, I simply sat down and started to write.  If it didn’t work, I’d only wasted a couple of hours, days at the most.

But a novel, well, that was a commitment that would last for years, so I was desperate to get it right.  I suspected that I should do as much planning as possible since a mystery is dependent on the revelation of clues and the planting of red herrings.  But how much was enough?

I wanted someone to tell me how to do it, so I could save myself as much heartache — and rewrites — as possible.  My goal was to write a book good enough to be published. Never mind the journey.  For me it was all about the destination.  But after struggling through more drafts, rewrites, and edits than I care to remember, I realize that the only way I could have learnt my preferred method of writing was by actually writing the book.

I recently read Making Story: Twenty-One Writers on How They Plot, edited by Timothy Hallinan, a book in which mystery writers discuss just what the title says: how they create plot.  There’s such a wide range of experiences here that everyone will surely see his or her preferred method of working reflected.  After reading this book I take comfort in knowing that my particular way of writing is the method of choice of more than one successful writer, and no matter which method they use, these published writers all get there in the end.

So whether you write in the morning or the evening, plot like a fiend or make it up as you go along, as long as you can keep at it, you will get there.  To paraphrase the Cat, trust that your writing will get you somewhere if you keep at it long enough.

Posted by: Alice Fitzpatrick | August 30, 2013

Writing Advice That Keeps Me Sane

With the sad passing of crime writer Elmore Leonard, many writers are posting his famous “Ten Rules of Writing” and debating just how closely a writer should follow another’s rules.  I thought this might be a good time to share some of the advice I’ve collected over the years that keeps me going when I stumble.

 1.      Treat your writing as if it’s a job.

Lots of writers have expressed this thought.  Since I am not lucky enough to be able to write full-time, I treat my writing as a part–time job.  All of the discipline that I invest in my full-time job -– turning up on time every day, doing my best, meeting deadlines -– I apply to my writing.  This helps to take both it and myself as a writer seriously and to keep at it.

2.      Touch your writing every day.

I’ve learnt from experience that the longer I’m away from my writing, the harder it is to get back to it.  It doesn’t matter if I only rewrite a sentence, change a description, or review my outline.  Keeping in touch with my writing keeps me connected.  It also encourages me to pick up my pen or tap at my keyboard.  I usually carry at least one chapter with me to edit on the bus or in a waiting room.  Remember that if you write a page a day, by the end of a year you’ll have a book.

3.      Whatever you give attention to, gives it power.

ImageI think this was said by Natalie Goldberg, and if it wasn’t, it should have been.  If a puppy suddenly bounds through a scene, jumping and barking and being generally cute, rubbing himself against people’s legs, dropping his ball at their feet, and generally hijacking several paragraphs worth of attention, then that pup had better play an important role in the plot.  The dog has been made powerful and the audience is expecting great things from him.

This is applies to human characters as well.  Keeping the minor or walk-on characters to a bare minimum not only keeps reader from getting confused, but focuses the reader’s attention on the characters that are important to the plot.

4.      Don’t be afraid to cut.

Like all writers, I’m in love with my own writing, well, a lot of it anyway, especially the bits that I struggled over to get just right.  But there comes the time when I have to face the awful truth that something just doesn’t work or isn’t true to the character and it must reluctantly be deleted.  “But it’s so ________ (witty, insightful, perfect),” I lament.  “I won’t be able to come up with anything as good to replace it.”   That’s when I remind myself that if I was creative enough to write what I did the first time, I’ll write something else just as good.

5.      “One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.” — Andre Gide.

IMG_3825This has encouraged me to take chances rather than playing it safe.  Some of the best moments in my books have come from me giving my characters their heads to take me to places I didn’t expect.

I usually write the first half of a book without having plotted the book out.  Oh I know the basic premise – the setup, who dies, and who did it — but the rest I play by ear for a while.  I lose sight of the shore.  It’s only halfway through the book that I go back and tweak what didn’t work and then plot the rest.

6.      “The first draft of a story is to tell you what the story is.  The next drafts are a search for the best way to tell this story.” -– Darcy Pattison, START YOUR NOVEL: Six Winning Steps Toward a Compelling Opening Line, Scene and Chapter

As a perfectionist — and what writer isn’t or doesn’t aspire to be one — I always get hung up on getting the first draft as perfect as I can.  However, this can often stop me in my tracks as go back and edit an re-edit what I have already written, afraid to continue in case I get it wrong.  Darcy’s quote reminds me that since the first draft is a voyage of discovery (we’re back to # 5) and later drafts are where I shape and rework, I can give myself permission to let go of those expectations of immediate perfection.  I am not a bad writer if I don’t get it right the first time.

Posted by: Alice Fitzpatrick | June 1, 2013

Top Ten Things Not to Say to an Unpublished Author

Fellow Canadian mystery writer Elizabeth Duncan recently posted Ten Things Not to Say to an Author (  As an unpublished (I prefer the term “prepublished”) writer and inspired by Elizabeth, I have assembled my own list.

10.      Where can I buy your book?

9.         How’s the book going?

8.         Do you have an agent yet?

7.         You seem to have been working on that book for an awfully long time.

6.         Have you thought about making it into a movie instead?

5.         Will you be able to retire when it’s published?

4.         My best friend’s cousin’s eighteen-year-old daughter just got published.

3.         How hard can it be to get published?

2.         It might be time to self-publish.

1.         Isn’t your book published yet?

Whoops, ran out of numbers, but one of my all-time favourites is  “I read lots of badly written books.  How come you can’t get published?”

Posted by: Alice Fitzpatrick | May 12, 2013

A Mother Nonetheless

As part of my annual medical check up, I’ve recently had several ultrasounds.  I’ve found myself sharing the waiting room with pregnant couples, all soft-eyed, holding hands, and eagerly anticipating their first look and their first picture of their growing child.  It’s spring and everyone seems to be pregnant.

I don’t have children – well, not in the conventional sense.  All of my relationships were with men who made it very clear that they weren’t interested.  They all looked to me to take care of them, and I suspect they simply weren’t willing to share my attention and, dare I say it, mothering with anyone else.

P1020329.JPGBy the time I realized that I should make plans to have a baby on my own, it was too late.  I went into early onset menopause and the door to children well and truly slammed shut.

Being outside the world of children has made me acutely aware of how much time people who have children talk about them.  When groups of parents get together, the conversation very quickly turns to their own children, their friends’ children, and their neighbours’ children.  Their conversations are consumed with talk about clothes, food, behaviour, school assignments, and extra-curricular activities.  Now that many of my friends are of a certain age, they have begun all over again with their grandchildren.

To someone who is childless not by choice, their talk both hurts and excludes me.  I can’t join in the conversation.  I have no considered opinion to make.  Nothing I say will be taken seriously as it doesn’t come from sleepless nights or arguments about homework.  People talk over and around me as if I don’t exist, and in a way I don’t.  I’m not one of the inner circle.  I’m not a mother and never will be.  I cannot speak to their experiences or offer them advice.

What they don’t understand — in a way that can only be understood by other writers — is I do have children.  Each of my fictional characters is my child, from headstrong academic Kate, to hedonistic artist Siobhan, and even the three bachelor senior citizens who can be found downing whiskey at the local pub.

But people would find it strange when bragging about their children’s triumphs for me to share my pride when Kate solves a murder, Siobhan finally get her pottery website up and running, or when young Byron Finch is accepted as a CID trainee detective.

Kate’s daughter, Alex, is a particular favourite of mine, if a parent can be said to have a favourite.  When I was younger and wondered what my children would be like, I imagined a daughter whom I would meet for lunch, afternoon shopping trips, and concerts.  She would be someone who was intelligent and determined.  Alexandra, Alex to her friends and family, is that young woman.  A barrister intent on becoming the youngest partner in her firm, Alex was a gift to myself, the daughter I’ve always wanted.

So if the definition of a parent is someone who nurtures, who helps her offspring to find their own way in the world, who loves unconditionally, then I have children, lots of them.  Yes, they cause me frustration and heartache, but they also give me much joy.  And I couldn’t be prouder of each and every one of them.  Even the murderers.

Posted by: Alice Fitzpatrick | April 15, 2013

Keeping All the Balls in the Air

I once took a summer drama course where we learnt how to juggle.  With 15 years of dance training behind me, I thought this was going to be a piece of cake.  After all I could kick over my head and do a double pirouette, so how hard could this be.  I started with the practice exercises, throwing one ball from hand to hand.  Then I moved on to two balls.  But once the third ball came into play, I lost my co-ordination.  I didn’t know what my hands were supposed to do.  I could throw one ball up in the air, but then what was I supposed to do with the other two?  Inevitably one or more balls would hit the ground.  I never did learn to juggle.

ImageI realized much later that this whole experience was a metaphor for how I conduct my life because I still struggle to balance all the things that are important to me.

As a high school counsellor, I have seven weeks off during the summer.  Every June I look out over that great expanse of time and make a list of all the things I’m going to achieve.  My project last summer was to complete the first draft of my second book, This Thing of Darkness.  I had written over 150 pages, so I planned to edit what I’d already written and complete the draft.

My favourite expression is “If you want to hear God laugh, make plans for your life,” or in my case the summer.  Well, God was bent over double that summer.

An agent was interested in my first manuscript and among the supporting material she wanted to see was my marketing plan.  Now I’m of the generation that grew up believing that all you have to do is write well, and someone will publish your book and send you on a cross-country promotional tour with a PA in tow.  The world of social media was a rude awakening, but that’s what I did with my summer.  A great amount of time was spent tweeting, gathering followers, begging friends begging to follow me on every site they could, making connections through LinkedIn, finding a web designer, blogging — well, you get the idea and many of you are doing the same.

But with all this going on, when was I ever going to write?  I re-edited my first manuscript and sent it off, along with my marketing plan, synopses of the first two books, blurbs on the next six books, and a bio.

I was now left with three weeks to work on the second book.  Needless to say it didn’t get done.  With no completed draft of my second book, I felt I’d wasted my time.  I heard the dull thud of a ball hitting the floor.

To my way of thinking, blogging and tweeting are like washing dishes.  There are lots of other more exciting and productive things I could be doing and besides social media doesn’t give me much satisfaction.  I can’t hold blogs and tweets in my hand, find them on bookstores or library shelves, or sign copies for friends and admirers.  I’ve been told that I need to see social media as a necessary and productive part of my writing career since it will help to get me published.  But happens when a publisher wants to see that all elusive second book?

ImageThe balls I juggle are my singing lessons and concerts, my real job which pays the bills and buys the cat food, my writing, and the necessary evil of social media.  And as for a social life, a partner, and a family, well, there just isn’t time.  Virginia Woolf famously wrote “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”  She was wrong.  I need a whole life of my own.  It’s no wonder that so many people wait until they retire and the kids have left the nest before they turn to serious writing.

The thing I realize about about juggling is that just when you think you’ve got it all under control – three balls in the air, all in perfect symmetry – suddenly one ball grows bigger and your rhythm is thrown off.  It demands more of your attention and effort to throw it, to catch it.  Or its texture changes into something spiky like a curled hedgehog so that it hurts to catch it.  Or it flashes in your eyes, blinding you to other balls.

Image It’s when all the balls compete for your attention that they tend to be dropped.  I know established writers who have voluntarily dropped their social media balls, blogging or tweeting only when they have an appearance or a new book to publicize.  But those of us who are still trying to attract the attention of an agent, publisher, or readership are still juggling as fast as we can.

But who’s to say that all of the balls have to be in the air at once?  There are days when I just don’t have enough hands or concentration.  On those days, the only ball I want to see floating through the air is the shimmering sea blue ball which is my next novel.  On those days, I just let the blue ball fly solo.

Posted by: Alice Fitzpatrick | July 28, 2012

Writing What You Know Part 2

In Part 1, I explored how my Uncle Terry’s death was the basis for the murder that Kate Galway must solve in my first book.  But Uncle Terry wasn’t the only relative of mine to withdraw from our family.  And I believe that the culmination of all of these people disappearing from my life influenced my decision to write mystery novels.

My Cousin Terry and My Grandmother, October, 1968

Terry’s son, my cousin Terry, was someone with whom I spent many summers in England and Wales when I visited my mother’s family.  After he left school, he took his father’s place in the family business.  He was a part of our lives until his early twenties when he had a falling out with our grandmother and simply walked away.  I’ve tried Googling him, searching through UK voters’ records, and writing to every Terry Raymond Davies of a certain age.  The last piece of information I have is that he once served in the air force.  Hopefully he’s been enjoying a full life: walking the dog on rainy afternoons, spending holidays in the sun, and cheering on the local football team with his children and grandchildren.  Or he could have died years ago.  We may never know.  We continue to search.

My grandfather’s only sister, Marie, didn’t disappear but rather withdrew to the Isle of Man.  In a story worthy of a romance novel, my grandfather fell in love with my grandmother when he heard her singing at a concert for World War I servicemen.  The only problem was that he was already engaged to a friend of his sister.  Marie was apparently quite upset when he broke off the engagement to marry my grandmother.  Was this the reason she moved away?  In the last picture I have of her, she is holding me as a baby.  Much later, she surprised me with a money order for my 21st birthday.  Just as Kate wonders about the life of her aunt, I have often wondered about the life of my great-aunt of whom I know almost nothing.

Aunt Marie and Me, February, 1952

I do know that Marie never married.  There is nothing unusual in this as many women of both war generations remained unmarried due to the toll the fighting took on the young men.  This is reflected in the lives of some of the older women living on my island, including one who lost her fiancé to the Battle of Britain.

So how did Marie support herself?  Did she become a school teacher, work in an office, or was she given money or a share in the family business, thus enabling her to live a life of respectable independence?  When Marie died in 1974, she left her estate to her “female companion.”  These were my mother’s words.  Older women living on their own, and if they could afford it, would often engage younger women to help them and keep them company: a combination a personal assistant and caregiver.  There is a tradition of literary ladies’ companions extending into the 20th century.  Perhaps the most famous was Rebecca.  In Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel of the same name, Rebecca is the companion to a rich American woman vacationing in Monte Carlo.  Through her employer, Rebecca meets and marries wealthy widower Maxim de Winter, becoming the tortured mistress of Manderley.

Loch Promenade, Douglas, Isle of Man

But what about Marie’s companion?  At the time of my great-aunt’s death, I thought it unusual that she would leave her entire estate to a woman who was essentially her employee, with nothing passed onto the family.  Was my mother’s  use of the word “companion” an euphemism for a relationship of which she did not approve?

In my novel, Hannah Sutherland, who had been the teacher of both Emma and Kate, planned to leave the island to set up a home with her lover Fliss.  But at the last minute, she can’t go through with it.  Did I unconsciously have Hannah plan to retreat from the family who could neither approve nor condone her lifestyle because that is what I suspected my great-aunt had felt forced to do?

My life and my books have been influenced by my curiosity about all of these people: an uncle I never knew, a great-aunt I barely knew, and a cousin I knew and then lost.

My family history partially explains why I am attracted to the mystery genre which is at its heart a search for an understanding of both events and the motives for people’s actions.  By choosing to write traditional British mysteries, to write about everyday people, I seem to have made this search personal.

As with most writers, my way of coming to terms with the world is through storytelling, and many readers see Kate Galway as my fictional alter ego.  Like me, Kate has had family members go missing, including her father and of course Emma.  Her investigation into Emma’s death becomes a personal quest to connect with this woman she never knew and to understand who Emma was and why she was murdered.  And through this process, Kate learns about herself.

When Kate had set out to learn the truth about Emma’s death, she had unconsciously viewed Emma as an extension of herself because they’d shared the same ambitions and desires.  Naively Kate had expected Emma to have reacted to situations as she would, and it had shocked her when that hadn’t happened.  It would take some time for Kate to come to terms with exactly who Emma was.

It does make me wonder how I’d feel if I were ever to uncover the truth of my missing relatives’ lives.

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