House sales and anal glands…

I have been a little preoccupied with household matters recently. Beloved Mr. B left last week to film in New Zealand. Alongside his declaration of undying love was the instruction to “sell the house”. I am not unduly fazed by these sort of ex cathedra decisions from my husband nor do I generally pay much heed to them, after all a great many complications can occur during his absence, which will render the application of his wishes as implausible but this time I was in complete agreement. It was time to move on!

It has been our desire for over twenty years to buy a house in South Shropshire, with at least five acres of land where we can create a haven for wildlife. What my husband dismisses with a regal wave of his hand, is that to sell our house requires an enormous input of labour; my labour to be exact. So, I started at the furthest bedroom and began the transformation. Ceiling, walls and skirting boards painted, carpets cleaned and all extraneous clutter recycled or donated. There I was, a woman in possession of a steam cleaner, disposable gloves and a plan. But as we know the ‘best laid plans of mice and men oft go astray’, or in my case, of ferrets and women.

IMG_2393 (1)Gus is our pet ferret and we’ve owned him since he was a kit and he’s now an impressive nine years old. He is an outdoor pet, never having been worked and lives in a large, two tiered enclosure under the sycamore. I would say that despite the odd burst of energy, Gus has committed himself to a twenty-three hour sleep pattern, rising indolently for breakfast and taking a short, lethargic constitutional in the afternoon. I am sure that Gus is extremely happy with this arrangement but to spice up his life, he is often brought into the house to have a play in the annex, which is accessed internally via one door. This enables me to separate him from out terrier Lily, who has a plan of her own for poor Gus. Unfortunately, I have a tendency to forget that he’s in the annex and leave him to it. Two weeks ago I suddenly realised what I’d done and went to look for him, predictably he’d found the pile of dustsheets to bury into and after a lengthy hunt I located him, much to his and my surprise. It was the element of surprise that did it for the future house sale, that and my head cold. Gus, being a card holding member of the mustelidae family, is equipped with anal scent glands, which blow off when the animal is shocked, threatened or generally irritated. Pleased not to have lost the wily fellow I popped him back into his pad and locked up for the night.IMG_1884

In full decorating mode the following morning I spread the dustsheets over the carpet and furniture in our bedroom and began to paint the ceiling and the walls. I love the smell of paint, it wakens the senses and clears the sinuses and, more relevantly, overwhelms the subtle, yet monumentally persistent stench of ferret anal gland secretion. An unpleasant, urine-like smell began to rear its ugly head about an hour into the decorating frenzy. Confused but committed I carried on, finishing late into the evening. I grabbed all of the dustsheets, admired my skill and fortitude and dumped them into the annex workshop. It was only when I got into bed that the smell began to permeate. There didn’t seem to be a source to the stench, or an explanation as to what it was, just the oily, musky smell of bladder weakness. The following day I shampooed the carpet, convinced that it was the source. It barely made a dent in the pong. I bought carpet freshener and ran the cleaner over it again but still the smell persisted, if anything it was digging in, seeping into the bed linen and the upholstery. I had to carry on with the decorating so, leaving all of the windows ajar upstairs, I spread the dustsheets over our leather suite and painted the living room ceiling. It must have taken me about an hour or so before the penny dropped. It was the dustsheets and Gus must have emptied his anal glands into them and now they were leaching the smell all over the sofa. I balled, bagged and binned them, drove to Homebase to purchase a bigger steam cleaner and a box of leather wipes. None of which made any difference.IMG_2397

Two weeks have passed and there is still a heady tang of urine around both rooms. It fades into your subconscious after a few minutes but I can only hope our early viewers are of a forgiving nature.

Screenplay or weeding?

Today is Sunday, which is blog day. It is also ‘loaf about’ day, ‘get the washing and ironing done’ day, ‘potter round garden day’ and ‘finish off the screenplay beat sheet day’. It is 11.30 am and I am staring at an acid blue sky, sipping tea and contemplating whether I should do a little bit of weeding before tackling these pressing issues. Resisting the weed cull, I’m now actually writing, skipping between the beat-sheet and the blog with an admirable sense of commitment, if not a heightened word count.

imagesWriting a screenplay is a very different experience to writing a novel. Both require clear visual descriptions and both rely on prose to achieve it. Each progresses through the use of dialogue and narrative and needs to have a well-structured story, with a beginning, middle and end and have believable characterisation. Theoretically the transition from one to another shouldn’t be too painful, particularly as they are both the same genre. However, whereas the e-reader or page is the only interface between novelist and reader, the screenplay is a sales document or a statement of intent, which will be altered and interpreted at every stage of its transition, if it is amongst the very few to get further than the optioned stage.

Once the idea is settled on the first stage is to write the treatment, this is usually about fifteen pages long and tells the story in prose form. It is often the first stage in acquiring development money for the project, so care needs to be taken to make this succinct but palatable. It should create visuals in the producer’s mind, without wasting time on too much description; you are not the set designer. It should also be realistic in terms of whether this is low budget or a studio breaker. If there are hundreds of authentic Tudor costumes, spaceships or dinosaurs this is not cheap. Low budget is generally contemporary, minimum sets, stunts, special effects and cast, a good example of this being ‘Blair Witch Project’.

Once your story holds together images (1)then you have to create a beat sheet. This is a working document and breaks the screenplay down into scenes. You’re not ready at this stage to start adding INT (interior)/EXT (exterior), it’s more of a list of events. It can be meandering or pithy, it really doesn’t matter because this is for you, the writer. Until you have created the first draft, everything you write is designed to help you hit the mark and bring the story to a close on page 95. Yes, it’s that prescriptive. The first act (boy meets girl) is designed to set the story and characters up but should end round about page 25, where an event will take place that will change the fortunes and path of the protagonist. Act two is the longest and should be about 45 minutes long. This is where the major conflict will take place (boy loses girl) and the final act will resolve and reveal all (boy wins girl). That’s very simplified but basically it. Structure is crucial in a screenplay.

If I can get the beat sheet finished by this evening, I will begin to map out the scenes tomorrow morning. This will involve a pack of small plain cards and a corkboard. Each card will have a heading, which notes whether it’s inside or out, day or night, where the action takes place and a brief summary of the scene. Every one will be placed in order, so I can get a clear idea of whether I have sufficient material, whether the story hits the beats and where the gaps are. If I don’t, this is the point that it will really show.IMG_2359

So, back to it but first another cup of tea and a little walk round the garden…Just to check on the state of the weeds.

A Day in the life of… DI Eleanor Raven

Eleanor Raven is the protagonist of The Safe Word and The Vault.

Born in 1982 and educated at Ryerson University, she was promoted to the rank of Detective Inspector for Toronto PD homicide division in 2011.

imagesI always start my day with a good breakfast, as I find lunch is a frequent sacrifice. I like a mixture of oats, granola, berries and a cup of black coffee. Generally, I listen to the local news and flick through yesterday’s paper. I’m out by the time the current edition arrives. Toronto is a city of weather extremes and at the moment it’s hovering around the 4-6 C mark, so trousers are a must (I only own one skirt!), lined, flat-heeled boots, jacket and overcoat. The city does not allow police officers to carry weapons off-duty but as cleaning and maintenance are time consuming and essential, I bring mine to and from duty in my handbag, when I remember to un-holster. I carry a Glock .19 and have never discharged my weapon, apart from on a firing range.

toronto rain

I usually get to my office by 7 30 am, at the latest. This gives me sufficient time to catch up with paperwork, check any reports or results that have been processed over the past twenty-four hours and drink my second cup of coffee as I review the murder board. Once my partner, Detective Whitefoot, arrives there’s not much in the way of reflective time. So, the half hour before he gets here is mine. The murder board is more than just a way of organising photographs, maps and names, it’s a method of sifting the evidence and allowing your unconscious brain to play around with the facts, create a plausible scenario or link people with motivation. I drop my mind into neutral and just wait for the processing to take place.

Laurence’s arrival is a kick-start. He hasn’t created a routine yet and has a tendency to flap around, particularly if he hasn’t dropped Monster off at k9. Today is one of those days and Laurence, who doesn’t seem to recognise the need for routine in others either, will spend ten minutes calling the dog, who is just doing his rounds. Monster makes his way through homicide, takes the back stairs down to the canteen, where I assume he is given his second breakfast, and then comes back. It’s not rocket science and it concerns me that my partner, whom I depend upon to save my life, hasn’t worked out that Monster needs fifteen minutes to carry out his own business.

dog

It’s a slow day. With likely court appearances on the horizon for the Toby Adams case, I am getting my files and notes in order. It seems likely that the DA will be select three of his known murder victims to secure a first-degree conviction for Adams.

At 2.28pm we are called to attend a potential homicide in the Kensington Market region of the city. The patrol officers have already accessed the locked apartment and discovering the occupant in an advanced state of putrefaction, called it in. The body is male, probably over fifty, naked, apart from a pair of underpants and is sprawled between the bedroom and the kitchen. The cause of death appeared to be a gunshot wound to the jaw. The weapon, a small caliber handgun is discovered several feet away from a blood covered wooden chair. A quantity of dried blood has pooled below the chair and several footprints led from it to the victim. Although I have responsibility, as a senior investigating officer, to determine whether the manner of death could be considered suspicious, in this case the forensic investigators and the medical examiner all agree that, unless contradictory evidence is uncovered at the post mortem, it is likely that the victim took his own life. Having placed the gun near to his temple and pulling trigger, the bullet entered just below his cheekbone. He was probably unconscious for several minutes, when most of the blood loss took place. Regaining consciousness, he then staggered towards the bathroom where he collapsed and succumbed to shock.

bloody hand

I arrive back in my apartment at 9.43pm. I run my bath, pour a large glass of wine and let the day’s events percolate.

In Search of Character…Carl Tanzier

I am a great fan of the HBO series, ‘Autopsy’, which focuses on strange deaths and the purveyors thereof…One of my favourite episodes covered the life of Carl Tanzier, aka Carl von Cosel, who provided inspiration for the ‘Collector’ in my latest novel, ‘The Vault’.

tanzier1

Carl Tanzier, 1877-1952 was a strange, obsessive, fantasist of a man, employed as a ‘radiologic technologist’ in a Key West Hospital tuberculosis ward. He had, according to his cv, ‘nine degrees’ in various disciplines and had a personality and vocabulary that inspired belief in his curative and resurrective powers.

Elena de Hoyos was a patient on the TB ward in the terminal stages of the disease. In her early twenties, she possessed the pale, consumptive beauty that was to capture Tanzier’s heart and take them both on a journey that was to transcend the confines of mortality (and morality), at least on a physical level. Despite professing undying but unreciprocated love to Elena and attempting to save her life with x-ray technology of his design, she passed away aged twenty-two. Distraught, Carl persuaded her family to allow him to build a mausoleum to house Elena’s remains; a vault that only he would possess a key to….

Mausoleum

That Tanzier visited the mausoleum every evening for several years was not a cause for the family’s concern; after all he had been a devoted suitor and claimed that she would visit him there in ethereal and conversational form. What did set off alarm bells was when the visiting abruptly ceased. Nana, Elena’s sister, accessed the mausoleum and was outraged, if not particularly surprised, that Elena’s body had vanished. Demanding entrance to Tanzier’s house, she was led up to Carl’s bedroom, where Elena, wearing a wedding dress, lay in the bed. It must have taken considerable mental processing to work out that the ‘doll’ was actually her sister’s mortal remains held together with wire, coat hangers and an amalgamation of rags, silk, wax and Plaster of Paris. After the police removed the body, several individuals claimed to have seen Tanzier dancing with a woman, in his candle-lit front room. The police, acting in the best interest of the local population, put Elena’s body on show at a local Funeral Home, attracting nearly seven thousand visitors over the three days it lay there!

elenaautopsy

Tanzier was released from prison a free man, as the charge of ‘tampering with the dead’ was beyond the statute of limitations. Added to the fact that the general public, far from being disgusted, were enchanted by the man’s claim of wanting to take Elena on ‘an airship into the stratosphere’ where radiation would enervate and resurrect her. An ‘eccentric romantic’ he was sent to live close to his ex-wife, who could keep an eye on his antics; Elena having been reburied in an unmarked grave. However, the generous public sentiment may not have been quite so warm, if they’d learned of the presence of a paper pipe that had been fitted into Elena’s pelvis, as an aid to intercourse.

Far from rehabilitated, Tanzier lived out the rest of his life with a doll made from Elena’s death mask. Ironically, his own mortal remains lay undiscovered for three weeks on his kitchen floor, next to her effigy.

elena

A Lesson in Kind

teaching1On Thursday I taught a class of 10/11 years olds how to structure and create stories. They’d all been writing stories since they could hold a crayon but a new face, with a couple of new approaches is always welcome. They listened patiently as I enthused over structure, character and plot development but were getting sore bums by the time I’d begun to expound upon the virtues of brainstorming ‘What if?’ scenarios.They wanted to get down to the business of writing and sharing. They’d listened and now they used the writing exercise as a basis for oral storytelling, with each other but mostly with me. A couple of sentences on paper and they’re up on their feet, flapping their paper around and ready to reveal the intricacies of their plot orally.

teaching2

Writing is such a difficult way to express your thoughts and ideas. Why should you have to go through the misery of selecting words, checking punctuation and grammar and exposing yourself to repeated criticism and deconstruction? It’s so much easier and less time consuming just to adopt an expression, establish eye contact and take your listener through the labyrinths of your imagination, constructing a drama with endless possibilities and characters that are vaguely reminiscent of parents, teachers and friends. You can also do a quick volte face when the lure of the bar wins over your epic narrative; shovel in a blood-soaked battlefield; kill off that heroine that bleated too much and create a comic side-kick. You are there, reading your audience and can turn on a dime. These Homers did just that. They read my face and body language and if they thought I wasn’t sufficiently sold on a plot, they’d adapt it. But however much we want to cling onto our oral history and cherish the sit-us-down storytellers, we have to have wordsmiths. These stories, which were told with conviction and boundless energy, were raw, unformed and unedited. The majority of the class weaved the ancient themes of lost love, singular heroes, sacrifices for the good of all and escapes from hideous monsters. What they needed was the time and consideration of planning, structure, twists, reveals and character to turn these memes into something that would merit more than just a grading.

teaching3

It made me think about whether I was writing for pretty much the same reasons. I had written my first novel to prove I could, and to play around with scenarios and characters that pleased and intrigued me. The cold reality is, that as soon as you want someone to pay to buy these thoughts, you’d better be all over the structure, punctuation, twists and authenticity. I chase reviews, positions in the kindle sales ranking and brood endlessly on my progress, or lack of. For all the time spent creating a novel, the same is spent selling it. So, as I contemplate Thursday’s brief return to the classroom, where I distributed knowledge and experience like manna, I wonder whether the learning didn’t go both ways.

My house raven…A lesson in sociopathy

Sociopath noun: person with a psychopathic personality whose behaviour is antisocial, often criminal and who lacks a sense of moral responsibility or social conscience.

harry on post

Harry came to us in 2009 as a captive bred baby raven. He was pale and featherless, apart from a covering of soft penned feathers still rolled into their protective sheath. His beady, attentive eyes were slate blue, his beak black, over large and pastel pink inside. He eyed us – I should qualify that – me with deep and lasting suspicion. His unconditional love was reserved solely for my husband. We had cared for crows and ravens before but Harry wasn’t wild or injured. He was our family pet.
His growth was rapid and invasive. Having begun life in a cardboard box he now declared the house his own and the 18 x 9ft aviary we’d built for night use and safety, was nice but not for him. Many a fruitless hour was spent trying to coax Harry into the aviary. He loved this game often feigning interest in entering, placing a claw tentatively on the threshold, waiting for me to move into ‘door securing’ position and then torpedoing off for another investigation of the garden. I would place tantalising morsels of food into the entrance of the aviary, including the universally acknowledged ‘all species’ favourite, ‘Wotsits’. This was deemed beyond fair play and would send Harry into an apopleptic rage that generally resulted in him delivering a well-placed beak hammer to some vulnerable part of my anatomy, ankles and headshots being choice.

harry CU

Harry was not encouraged to explore on his own, an opinion which he didn’t give two hoots about. His roaming was finally curtailed when a lady in our village, who bred Chihuahuas called us to say that if she caught ‘that bloody bird’ dragging her dogs round the garden one more time by their tails and ears, her husband would dispatch him with his twelve bore. Harry also delighted in peeling all the rubber seals off our neighbour’s car, stole and hid their gardening equipment and would land heavily onto the wing mirrors of moving vehicles in order to terrify postal workers.
Harry’s relationships with other species were complex and unpredictable. He loved our three dogs and would often stand proprietorially next to them while they slept. He would also devote hours concocting new methods of tormenting and antagonising them. I’d watch him saunter casually past our Labrador as he slept and bury his claws into his snout. He’d then take lazily to the air and observe the chaos from the roof of the aviary. He perfected barking, so I’d open the back door to let in a dog and Harry would barge past me into the house shrieking triumphantly and as his home invasions were generally destructive, I would race after him, shrieking as loudly.

roxie being stroked

Harry’s nemeses were the chickens. Large and dangerously stupid they would ignore him as he sat glowering on the fence planning the day’s assault. He’d finally spot an opportunity, fluff himself up and launch. The hens would all instantly rush at him, stomping and kicking until sure that today’s lesson had been delivered and then go back to their scratchings. Harry would then be forced to sit in next door’s garden his back to us, head slumped between his wings, looking like a sulky Count Dracula.

With the amateur scientist’s zeal for experimentation we would spent hours inventing new food rewarded puzzles for Harry. These would involve string, twigs and Tupperware containers, none of which lasted more than mere moments. What couldn’t be manipulated instantly by brainpower would be ripped apart with claw and beak. Delayed gratitude was an anathema.

Heartbreakingly Harry is no longer with us. What he left, apart from the destruction and scars, was a deep belief that consciousness is a dimmer switch and not the sole possession of homo sapiens. It is easy to anthropomorphise a loved pet but it was hard not interpret his sulkings, shrieks, determination and ability to swoop from a hundred feet and springboard off the top of my skull as anything other than the pleasure that accompanies intelligence.

Harry on head