Petal Fall

The spring sun is warm on my back. Not quite warm enough for sandals but I’d chosen a flowy skirt that blows and hustles against my legs. The grass here is smooth and green, the gravel paths weed-free, the topiary neat and clipped but the garden is silent; there are no birds, no sound of a gardener’s shears, no children running. The box has been clipped recently and the pungent cat-urine smell of it hangs in the air.

I turn a corner and find myself walking alongside a high red-brick wall. I catch the merest floral scent and look around. Here, there are pyracanthas trained against the wall, neat strips of spiky green that are not allowed to blossom or develop their exuberant orange berries. I draw in a breath that feels tight, stifled as if I’m the one being trimmed and still there is that faint scent.

Half-way along the wall, I find a scruffy old door with layers of peeling paint and grey old wood beneath. It is just ajar. I gently push the door with one finger as if less contact makes it less a trespass. Through the door are cherry trees in full bloom. The ground underneath the trees is dense with weeds and brambles. The trees themselves are neglected, but the petals spiral in the sun.

The sound of footsteps in the distance hurry me through the door and I push it closed behind me. Then the brisk, purposeful crunch-crunch-crunch passes by along the gravel. I release my breath.

The sunlight through the dense petals gives the light a fairy-tale hue. The brambles arc like strained barbed wire by the narrow path and the branches of the trees are twisted, distorted by time and disease, and over it all, this pale pink light and the faint scent and underneath the smell of petals, there is something of rotting leaves and decay, a bright note of death. I am drawn on by the gentle curve of the path and a reluctance to return to the insipid place behind me.

Ahead of me, something lies on the path. I step towards it, pulling my skirt from the grip of a thorn. The petals fall into a crimson pool of blood, scattering around the body of a little girl, her hair askew, the pink confetti landing on her pale cheeks as if it had stolen the colour from her.

A swirl of dizziness heaves me sideways and I grab a tree branch to stop myself falling and when I take my hand away, it is covered in blood. Her blood. I back away, wiping it on my blouse, my eyes fixed on the girl. Once she is hidden by the curve of the path, I turn and run to the door, my skirt tangling around my knees.

When I reach the door, I scrabble at it. There is no handle in the blank face of splintered wood and I cry out for help. My voice carries up and over the wall into a deadened silence of the other side; no birds, no chatter, no little girl’s laughter.

***

Copyright © Elizabeth Cutts August 2019

***

This was originally written for an assignment for the NCW crime course I did recently. It could turn out to be the beginning of something larger, or perhaps it’ll stay as just a snippet.

 

Vigilante

The man in the hospital bed is unconscious – sedatives according to the nurse – and I find I’m half glad he’s alive after all. It was a moment of madness, of sheer rage, and then I’d done it and I couldn’t go back.

I’d recognised the little scrote straight off. He was driving along on his whiny little motorbike smashing the wing mirrors off cars for the sheer hell of it. Jake Thornton. Jake is a small-time dealer, thief, vandal and, I am one-hundred-and-ten-percent sure, even though I can’t prove it, beater and general abuser of women. He probably kicks puppies for fun; he’s that kind of scum. And when I saw him, driving along, destroying people’s hard-earned property, I just lost it.

I accelerated towards him, the engine cheering me on, a sort of hot, rushing sound in my ears and then a jarring thud. He flew through the air like a ragdoll, arms flailing madly. He landed on the road in a messy heap as his bike skittered along the tarmac. I floored it again, bump bump, over him, and I was off, gone. Half an hour later the car was in flames.

A doctor steps into the room and stops, a little surprised to see me.

‘When can I speak to him?’ I ask.

‘We’ll call you.’

‘He’s out of danger?’

The doc nods, picks up Jake’s chart and starts to read. He wants me to go. I ought to go.

‘He’s one of our frequent fliers,’ I say. Jake’s pimply face is greyish and feeble looking against the hospital sheets. ‘Wonder if the little shit will have learnt his lesson.’

The doc shrugs. ‘Do they ever, officer?’

‘Like hell,’ I say. ‘Better get back to the station. Got to report my own car stolen today, can you believe it?’

The doc gives a short, humourless laugh, and shakes his head in sympathy. The doors slap shut behind me.

***

Copyright © Elizabeth Cutts August 2019

***

This brief story started life as an exercise for the NCW crime writing course I took recently.

Condemned

‘They ain’t getting me out of here, Sarah. Never!’ John was ranting on his favourite topic. Didn’t it occur to him that, in his refusal to leave the condemned flats, he was trapping her too? As she locked the door behind them, rain slapped at the window at the end of the hallway.

I hate him, she realised. She removed the key from the lock and examined this revelation as she started towards the stairs, him blathering on behind her. Eight floors and the lift not working. Well, why would they mend it?

When did she start hating him? When the letter came and he settled in for a fight like an angry rat in a trap? Or before that when he quit his job because the new foreman, well, forewoman actually, had told him what was what. Or even earlier?

She stopped dead and he nearly walked into her. At the wedding. Yes. Then. She had thought she looked like a beautiful princess version of herself. She had glowed; the white lace shifting and swaying, reflecting light up into her face and making her hair shine. He’d said to his mate, ‘Put a bow on a pig, it’s still a pig, isn’t it?’ When he saw she’d heard, he shrugged and took another beer. His mate had looked embarrassed, at least.

‘What are you stopped for?’ he asked.

She opened the door onto the stairwell which still smelt of piss and old concrete, even with the flats almost empty. He shouldered through before her.

‘Did it ever occur to you that I’m trapped here too?’

John turned on the top step, surprised anger on his face.

‘You what?’

‘You’re a selfish prick, John.’

‘Fuck off, we’re staying and that’s final.’ His face had gone an unpleasant blotchy red and yellow, scrunched up in anger and, what was it? Disgust? Yes, that wrinkling of the nose. Disgust. A cold, calm rage swept through Sarah.

She shoved him hard in the chest.

His look of surprise almost made her laugh, and then the flailing of his arms as he fell backwards and the crack of his head against the concrete stair edge pulled a disbelieving giggle from her and then she couldn’t stop. It was a sort of hysteria, she thought, as irresistible as vomiting. She had to sit on the top step to calm herself.

A last choked gasp escaped into the stale air from John’s slack mouth. He lay in the corner of the stairwell, blood seeping around his head.

He looked dead but she ought to check. She went down, her legs wobbling, and felt for his pulse. None. The laughter, or perhaps nausea, threatened to bubble up again. For a moment she thought about CPR, about paramedics and flashing blue lights, about stern policemen with notebooks. That could wait.

She turned and ran down the stairs, her feet clattering echoes up into the space until she burst out of the door at the bottom into the rain. She was free. Her heart fluttered in her chest and her breath came in gulps as the rain battered the top of her head and streamed down her face. The laughter escaped again because her chest didn’t have space for the joy alongside the terror. The sound of it bounced around the grey skies, the weeds and concrete until someone on the next street, waiting for a bus, smiled at the sound.

***

Copyright © Elizabeth Cutts August 2019

***

This is a slightly expanded version of a story written for my NCW crime writing course with Julia Crouch.

NaNoWriMo 2016 – update.

It’s been just over a week since NaNoWriMo ended and I did it – I wrote 50,000 words of my work in progress despite a falling a long way behind at one point but I pulled it back. It took some days with target word counts that I doubted were possible for me, so again NaNo took what I thought I was capable of and showed me I’d underestimated myself.

So why did I fall behind so badly? Mostly it was complacency. Last year I won’t say it was easy but I was surprised that I won and it felt like I did it without the expected difficulty. It was like when you win a notorious boss fight first try. I still had to take a few health potions and pulled out the wrong weapon at one point but still, the big boss turned out not to be quite the liver eating monster I expected. So this year I didn’t plan quite enough, I didn’t clear my calender of enough distractions and I didn’t set up the surrounding support systems as carefully. Lessons learnt. Bring on NaNo 2017!

 

Spooky Stories in the Hills

Last week I was tucked away into a fold of the countryside near Hebden Bridge at a writer’s retreat run by the Arvon Foundation called ‘Fiction With A Gothic Twist’. While I was there I started my NaNo16 project which just happens to be a gothic crime mystery novel.

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The view from Lumb Bank

When I first saw the schedule it looked pretty chilled out. A workshop in the morning followed by lunch prepared by the centre staff, then the afternoon free to write or for one-on-one tutorials, then dinner made by a rota of the attendees and then an evening session of readings by the tutors, a guest or, on the last day, by us the attendees. What this actually boiled down to was writing, thinking about writing, being taught about writing or talking about writing from about 7am to 10pm each day. Turns out that’s pretty intense.

Some of that intensity comes from the fact writing is a personal and emotional thing, especially for the new writer who doesn’t yet have the gnarled carapace that comes from the wounds of the editor’s pen and undeserved (or worse, deserved) one star reviews. So you turn up, say hello to a bunch of strangers, and then open up your innards to them. It was fantastic but also quite terrifying.

I learnt so much and it feels like I learnt it very quickly. My writing was better on day two than on day one, and better on day three than day two. This is largely thanks to the fantastic tutors we had – Diane Setterfield and James Friel were really very helpful and generous with their time. I was also lucky in my fellow attendees who were all lovely and very good writers too.

If you’re considering going on a retreat, thinking about scraping the cash together, wondering if it’s worth it, the answer is Yes! Do it! It was inspiring, interesting, challenging and helpful. I don’t know that you can ask more from a writing retreat.

 

Books and Podcasts in the runup to NaNo

I’m setting my next book in the 1880’s and so I’ve been researching the Victorians, their lives and times. I’m taking an approach to research that was recommended by the historical crime panel at the Killer Women Festival. Before writing I’m just doing enough to give me an accurate sense of the time, feed my plot and make sure there are no huge plot killing anachronisms, then I’ll write the first draft, and then I’ll do more detailed research on the nitty-gritty. I don’t need to know the exact details of my characters’ underwear before I write but if it comes up in the story I can check the details when I am rewriting. This is really the only approach I could take given I’m starting writing on Tuesday and I had this idea about a month ago. There simply hasn’t been time for really detailed research.

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I probably should note here that I’ve read plenty of victorian novels over the years and have seen and listened to relevant documentaries and read about the period so my broad knowledge about the Victorian period is pretty good already. I don’t have intimate knowledge of the details but that will come later. For now I’m refreshing my memory of the basic history and bringing to the fore my sense of the later victorian period and the gothic.

Victorian Britain by the Great Courses (audiobook) narrated by Prof. P.N. Allitt. This is a really good overview of the Victorian period. Listening to books is a great way for me to work on my writing while I work at my day job (as a gardener I can listen while mowing or weeding without it interfering with the work) and Prof. Allitt’s narration style was very good; interesting and entertaining without being superficial.

How to be a Victorian by Ruth Goodman. This is a great book, focussing on the day-to-day lives of everday people. I heartily recommend it (and its Tudor counterpart – I hope she writes more). She’s a living history researcher and often has insights about how things actually feel which can be missing from a drier book. For example she tells us what it’s actually like to wear Victorian sanitary protection while menstruating and how the corsets support her back when doing a job like weeding, all details that can really bring a story to life.

Since this is going to be a crime novel I’ve re-listened to my audiobook of Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime by Val McDermid. This is great stuff whether you’re writing a modern crime novel or historical since she delves into the past of each forensic discipline before bringing it up to date. There are real case studies, including some where the forensic experts were misled in one way or another.

I’ve been relistening to the darker Sherlock Holmes stories – the Speckled Band, the Hound of the Baskervilles, etc. They’re available on audible as the Complete Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan-Doyle. It cost me a single audible credit and I’ve listened to the whole thing time after time (I have up to ten hours of listening time every day – it’d quickly get a bit pricey if I didn’t relisten to my favourites) so it really has proved excellent value.

Since I need to improve my writing I’ve also been listening to the Story Grid podcast and reading the accompanying book (Story Grid by Shawn Coyne). It’s thrown up lots of useful things to think about but it’s a really heavily analytical approach, breaking down each act, chapter and scene in a very detailed way. I’m a moderately detailed planner but I can’t see the full system working to plot a book in advance (for me, no doubt it would for others) although it might prove a useful diagnostic tool for finding the faults in a full draft. Nevertheless the podcasts have made for very interesting listening and I’d recommend them.

As an alternate system for planning a novel I’ve found Take Off Your Pants by Libbie Hawker very useful. The tone is really casual and chatty which I found a little irritating but the actual techniques have really helped with the outline I’m still working on. It helps you to anchor the plot in the character arc or in multiple character arcs if the story has more than one viewpoint character. With this new perspective I’m looking back on the last book I wrote and I can see why I struggled with it so much – I was trying to fix it by trying to fix the writing when the problem was with the weak relationship between the plot and the characters.

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I’m planning on further feeding the gothic part of my mind throughout the month, first with Dracula as I already have it on audiobook (it’s one of those well worn favourites I mentioned) and then seeing what else of that ilk is available as audiobooks such as Turn of the Screw, the Yellow Wallpaper, Dorian Grey, some Poe and others. It’s such a hardship to have to force yourself to re-read or listen to such books. Spare a thought for me in my plight. Woe is me.

A note on audiobooks; they’re great but it can get pricey when you listen a lot. Libravox is an excellent resource for free audiobooks; the free ones are out of copyright books so the ‘classics’ are usually available, sometimes in multiple versions. The books are narrated by enthusiastic amateurs so do listen to the sample as the quality varies substantially.

 

A retreat, a new idea and fifty thousand words.

A Retreat

A week on Monday I’ll be on a train, humming towards a writer’s retreat with the Arvon Foundation. I’ll have a week buried in the Penines to write and to improve my writing. The course is on writing gothic fiction since my writing always seems to veer in that direction even when I think I’m writing something else. I’m anticipating a really valuable and enjoyable retreat; the Arvon Foundation’s courses have a great reputation.

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A New Idea

I have an idea for a Victorian gothic mystery which could make for a good series and my fantasy crime novel (now at the rewrite/editing stage) has been put aside while I investigate this idea further. The new idea feels good, it feels like it will have a wider appeal than the fantasy crime novel. Not only that but there are lessons I’ve learnt writing the fantasy crime novel which I will be able to apply to the gothic mystery novel and presumably there’ll be more to learn while I write the gothic mystery which I’ll be able to apply when I return to the earlier idea. I’ve had a rummage in my brain to check this isn’t a manifestation of the fear of finishing and, insofar as I can ever be sure of anything with my mind, I’m pretty sure it’s not.

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Fifty Thousand Words

I’m planning on going full steam ahead with this new idea by writing the first 50,000 words of it for NaNoWriMo2016. However, I’m going to be starting this while on my writer’s retreat and it may not be possible to work on it there; if that’s the case I’ll reduce my target word count to 40,000. If you’re NaNoing this year then feel free to add me as a buddy – I’m Maytheweed. I don’t use the forums there much and I do most of my NaNo chatting on the Absolute Write Water Cooler forums. Having said that, I won’t have internet on the retreat so I won’t be doing any chatting or registering word counts anywhere for the first week.

To those of you who are also taking part in NaNo – good luck!