Posted by: Alice Fitzpatrick | July 22, 2012

Writing What You Know Part 1

Writers, especially beginning ones, are often advised to write what they know.  Many authors take exception to this as they feel it’s unnecessarily restrictive, that a skilled writer with appropriate research should be able to write about any subject matter.  I’m not about to wade into this debate here.  But I think that even when writing about a different historical period, an unfamiliar culture, or a job we’ve never done, we can’t help but bring something of ourselves into the mix, whether we’re aware of it or not.  And in my case I was quite surprised to see just how much of my history I bring to my writing.

My first book is based on a story called “Maidenhair” that I wrote 21 years ago.  At approximately 10,000 words, it didn’t easily fit into the length required by literary magazines and so was never published.  The narrator is fourteen-year-old Kate who is spending the summer at her grandmother’s seaside home.  After learning that her Aunt Emma drowned long before Kate was born, she sets out to discover the circumstances of Emma’s death.  The story goes beyond a simple mystery as the search awakens Kate’s adolescent sexuality and eventually she relives the events that led to her aunt’s suicide.

When I came to write the first Kate Galway novel, I decided to base it on this story.  However,  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.  (Imagine my dismay when I discovered Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce books and learnt how successful a young girl’s narrative voice can be.)  I kept the seaside setting, the grandmother, Emma’s mysterious drowning, and the attractive artist for whom the young Kate feels an attraction.

Even as I was writing the initial story all those years ago, I was conscious that I was exploring the theme of family secrets.  But it wasn’t until I expanded the story into a novel that I realized just how large family secrets loom in my own life.

My Father’s Side of the Family: Tsar Nicholas II, Tsarina Alexandra, and their children

For one thing, I know nothing about my father’s family.  I know their last name and I think my grandfather owned a bicycle shop, but that’s it.  My father simply never talked about them.  Since they spoke a different language than I and lived behind the Iron Curtain for most of their lives, he never took me to visit them.  He did, however, once say that we’d been White Russians during the revolution and had to flee to Poland where we changed our name, but even so, anyone who saw our name would recognize it as royalty.  So I grew up imagining that I was descended from a surviving member of the house of Romanov.  Once I saw Ingrid Bergman’s Anastasia, it became blatantly obvious who my grandmother really was.  The grainy black and white photograph of the squat Slavic woman my father said was my grandmother was obviously part of the elaborate deception my aristocratic family had been forced to perpetrate in order to remain safe.

With so little known about my father’s side, I clung onto every scrap of information I could about my mother’s family.  But even then, much was hidden.  Just like the mysterious Aunt Emma whom Kate never knew, people in my family had a habit of disappearing.  I realized later that I had unconsciously patterned the death of Emma on that of my Uncle Terry.

My Uncle Terry at My Parents’ Wedding. He Would Die Five Months Later.

Terrence Hugh Fitzpatrick was my mother’s younger brother.  After following the family naval tradition and serving in the merchant marine during World War II, he was taken into the family business.  Only one month after the birth of his son, Terry fell asleep at the wheel, rolled his car down an embankment, and bled to death.  As you’d expect, his death devastated the family.  My mother, who was pregnant with me at the time, wasn’t allowed to attend the funeral as a precaution against complications with her pregnancy.

But even a seemingly straightforward car accident was problematic.  My mother often spoke about the family’s suspicion that Terry may have suffered from haemophilia since he tended to get nose bleeds whenever he was excited.  Did he have haemophilia?  We’ll never know for sure, but this story has been kept alive.  It’s as if the family couldn’t believe that their only son, with such a bright future ahead of him, could die such a senseless death.  In grief it is typical for people to look for someone or something to blame.  No one wanted to hold Terry responsible, so the haemophilia myth allowed us to transfer the blame.  It was the disease that killed him, not his own carelessness.

Like Terry, Kate’s aunt was on the threshold of her life having just been accepted into Cambridge University and about to become the first person from the island to attend university.  Part of what Kate is up against as she searches for the truth of Emma’s death is that the islanders have mythologized Emma, hiding any suspicions they might have had of her dark side.  However, it is this dark side that Kate is forced to uncover and confront.

“Would you want to know something about Emma, even if it wasn’t nice?” Quentin asked.

“It’s not the nice things that get you killed, is it?”

TO BE CONTINUED: Two more relatives go missing in Part 2.

Posted by: Alice Fitzpatrick | July 13, 2012

Getting Away With Murder

If you knew you could get away with it, that there would be no repercussion, no retribution, no punishment, would you do something that you know is wrong?

At some point in your life, you’ve probably considered this question whether in first year philosophy class, after a few beers with your mates, or in the privacy of your own thoughts.  This question is designed to challenge your moral code.  Do you act responsibly and ethically because you believe it’s the right thing to do or only to avoid the consequences?  Has your sense of morality evolved out of compassion and a generosity of spirit toward other people or has it been imposed on you by social and legal forces?

And why am I, someone who barely passed my first year university philosophy course (never to attempt another) considering this idea?  Strangely enough all this popped into my head because of some work done to my next door neighbour’s house.  On three separate occasions, workmen  left a portion of their work unfinished in spots conveniently out of sight of my neighbour, but all within my view.  Were these men forgetful, sloppy, or did they actually think, “Well, Ms. X won’t see ever this bit, so why bother”?  Now I’m not saying that any of these gentlemen would commit murder.  That’s a considerable leap in logic.  But what it did start me thinking about is that acting irresponsibly like this, effectively charging for a full job and then cutting corners, is the thin end of the ethical wedge.  How far someone takes this depends on the individual.  But every time we do something irresponsible or illegal and get away with it, it makes it a little easier the next time.

As a mystery writer who must create realistic psychological profiles for my ‘villains’, I’m fascinated by not only why people commit crimes but how they are able to rationalize that they can get away with them.   Because I write traditional British mysteries (also called cozies), I am especially intrigued by what motivates seemingly ordinary people to commit the ultimate crime.

The novels of crime and thriller writers are populated with serial killers, paid assassins, and professional criminals.  I can understand their motivation, be it abnormal psychology, financial advancement, or fear of retribution.  But my murderers are the school teacher, the hairstylist, and the retired accountant down the street.  (It’s always the quiet ones, isn’t it?)  What makes them step out of their everyday lives and strangle, poison, or bash in the head of another human being?  Not only is the act of killing someone often gruesome, there’s the dead body to be dealt with.  But that’s just the beginning.

After they get rid of the body, or just leave it where it fell (hoping against hope that there are no forensics on the scene), they must  construct an elaborate deception that is able to stand up to intensive  scrutiny, just as they have to stand up to police interrogation.  They must create an alibi, downplay any shared history with the victim, deny having access to anything resembling the murder weapon, demonstrate shock and confusion about how their fingerprints, hair, saliva, or lipstick came to be on the body, and swear that the eyewitness was obviously mistaken when he saw them entering the victim’s home at the time of the murder.  And even if they manage to pull all that off, they must live out the rest of their lives aware that at any moment if even one lie is proven to be unsound, they could be arrested.  Would your accountant or hairstylist be able to do that?

So over your fifth or sixth beer, if someone asks you the question —  would you do something you thought was wrong if you could get away with it — think very carefully before you answer.  Or you could end up in my next book.

Posted by: Alice Fitzpatrick | July 3, 2012

The Origins of Meredith Island

When I sat down to write the first book in the Kate Galway series, I knew that I needed a setting to which I and my readers would want to return time and time again.  I wanted a place where I could control all aspects of the setting: the weather, the geography, the flora and fauna.  I feared that a real location would involve endless hours researching minutia lest I get  irate e-mails from readers saying that I got it wrong.  For my first book, I invented a toxic mushroom known on the island as  Widow’s Teacups.  Its name comes from an incident 150 years before when a woman made broth from these mushrooms and gave it to her husband every day for two weeks.  The toxic build-up eventually killed him.  I’m not sure if a mushroom with this characteristic exists or if it would be able to grow on an island, but in my world it does.

As a writer of traditional British mysteries, I wanted an isolated location, and there’s nothing more isolated than an island.  I’ve always lived near large bodies of waters, and I especially love the sea.  To spend every day with the changing colours of the ocean, the smell of salt in the wind, and the sound of waves hitting the rocky cliffs, well, this is the closest I get to heaven.

My fondest childhood memories are of carefree summers spent in Tenby, a resort town in Pembrokeshire on the southern coast of Wales.  So when I created Meredith Island, I couldn’t help but be influenced by Tenby.

Part of the medieval wall in the town.

The town’s history dates back to the Norman Conquest and many of the castle walls built in 1264 can still be seen today.

The next 550 years saw Tenby’s rise and fall, including its success as a busy national port, the site of a battle during the English Civil War, and a plague epidemic.  During the 19th century it was revitalized into the favourite summer holiday spot it is to this day.  Victorians flocked to Tenby’s beaches and the spa-like bath houses for the benefits they believed sea bathing provided.

Tenby Harbour

 

Because Meredith Island’s history only spans 150 years, it doesn’t have Tenby’s elegant Georgian and Victorian row houses.  But like the streets that curve down and around Tenby’s harbour, Meredith Island has a road that runs along the edge of the cliffs past Kate’s cottage and sweeps down to the island harbour.  There you will find The Fish and Filly pub (known to the islanders as The Filly), The Sea Breeze restaurant, Craggy’s Shop (a combination of post office, bank, and convenience store), a wharf for the ferry that travels back and forth to the mainland, and a shelter for fishing boats.

Cliffs at St. Govan’s Head

 

 

 

 

Travelling along the Pembrokeshire coast, we find tall cliffs rising out the sea, places not unlike where I imagine Kate’s Aunt Emma must have drowned over fifty years ago.  It is her death that Kate investigates in the first book.

 

 

Looking over the wall from my cousin’s house.

 

 

 

 

The church next door to my cousin Jim’s house is the inspiration for the island church presided over by the Rev. Imogen Church.  Kate observes that God must have a sense of humour to have given someone called Church a religious calling.

 

 

 

 

St. Govan’s Chapel

 

At St. Govan’s Head a long flight of stone steps leads down the steep cliff-face to a 14th century chapel built over the cave where St. Govan lived and preached eight centuries before.  I took the liberty of reducing a similar building to ruins so that in the second book a team of archaeology students can come to Meredith Island to excavate it, only to discover — well, something a lot more interesting than foundation stones.

 

English Heritage plaque commemorating George Eliot’s time in Tenby.

 

 

 

Tenby has been a vacation spot and inspiration for many writers, including Daniel Defoe, Lewis Carroll, George Eliot, Beatrix Potter, and Dylan Thomas.

 

 

 

 

Beatrix Potter’s blue plaque on the hotel owned by the family of my cousin’s partner.

 

 

 

 

While I don’t anticipate getting a blue English Heritage plaque anytime soon, I’m humbled to be in such esteemed company.

Posted by: Alice Fitzpatrick | June 17, 2012

Hello world!

Born in northern England, Alice Fitzpatrick was raised in Oakville, Ontario, where she began to write as soon as she could pick up a pen.  After abandoning the idea of becoming the youngest person to win the Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry, she earned both her BA in Fine Arts and BEd in English and Drama. Along the way she received her MA in Interdisciplinary Studies.

Now living in Toronto, she has worked as a teacher of English, ESL, and Drama and most recently as a guidance counsellor, while publishing short fiction and personal essays and teaching creative and therapeutic writing.

The author of the Kate Galway mysteries set on an island off the coast of Wales, Alice’s first novel, Not Wisely But Too Well, was one of ten finalists for the 2012 Arthur Ellis Award for Best Unpublished Crime Novel.

 When she is not writing, she can be found either singing, performing, or reading mysteries with her three cats.

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