On writing a murder mystery series – 2

Yes, I have been busy writing a murder mystery series. So far there are four books written and the fifth is my current work-in-progress. The first in the series is available now on ‘pre-sale’ on Smashwords (see link below). They all feature a bright, enthusiastic and competent Madeleine Brooks, senior Probation Officer then new estate agent, but one who brings with her an incisive intelligence and a lifetime of experience working with difficult people.

In the first book, Death in Cold Waters, Maddie is troubled. Her career as a senior Probation Officer is in jeopardy with a new and micro-managing boss. Her long marriage has challenges. And one of her more interesting clients has been re-arrested. She has serious doubts about why. But a child has been murdered and her client looks good for being the perpetrator. That’s the book which is now available – on ‘pre-sale’ (which means it’s at a discount and is available) at Smashwords and on ‘pre-order’ on Amazon (which means you can order it but it won’t be delivered to your Kindle until June 14th, release day).

The second and subsequent books have Maddie recently relocated from suburbia to a small village in the Oxfordshire countryside. I have always adored murder mysteries located in English villages. And I lived in such a village (close by two other villages somewhat similar to where Maddie lives) for five years – good experience for Maddie’s adventures.

Here is a small story about the numbering and timing of the stories. I have just finished writing Death in Cold Waters, the first in the series. However, I had already written three others which, chronologically, occur later than Cold Waters. The 1st book takes place while Maddie is still a Probation Officer, and provides several reasons why she escapes to her village location as an estate agent for the rest of the series. My good friend and author of thrillers and short story books, Thomas Ryan, suggested I should re-number the books in the series so this book can be the first. I had thought of it as s ‘prequel’ to the series. He pointed out that a prequel is often of a shorter length, such as a novella, and perhaps not always a well thought out and full story, which certainly this one aims to be.

So – I now have new covers changing the number in the series for Death at Cherry Tree Manor ( now Book 2) and Death at Valley View Cottage, (Book 3). They are due out in July and August, 2020.

If you’re interested in getting a copy of Death in Cold Waters for the discount at Smashwords, here’s the url. Although it will be $3.99 after June 14th, the pre-sale price is half that at $1.99.

As a reader of my blog, though, I have set it up that you can get it for only 99¢ by signing up for updates of times when books are available for a decent discount !



On writing a murder mystery series – 1


I grew up devouring murder mystery paperbacks, almost all British, mostly located in English villages. I loved – love – Agatha Christie, Marjorie Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy Sayers – the ‘queens’ of mystery writers and I always secretly wished I could join their ranks. But I hold them in such high respect, I didn’t dare try to emulate what the queens could do: writing a classical mystery with all its requirements, not overly long in length, good character development that would interest readers over several books, drama that did not – ever – rely on car chases or gory detailing and a pace that was just right. No getting caught in a rush of adrenaline with one impossibly horrific scene after another for the queens; instead a flow of ideas, solid detection, being alert to clues and red herrings that lead up to a satisfying climax followed by a denouement that ties up loose ends. So gratifying. Utterly delightful. And I so love the detectives they created, often amateur, otherwise of engaging character, all ages, both genders and of various body types with nary a nod at political correctness.

The big question: could I write a murder mystery that fulfilled my own stringent requirements? Did I dare try?

You’ve guessed it. I finally screwed up my courage and put fingers to keyboard. Yes, I have been busy writing a murder mystery series. So far there are three books written and being readied for publication featuring former probation officer and newbie estate agent, Madeleine Brooks. Maddie has two grown daughters and an ex-husband as well as an ex-career. She’s recently relocated from suburbia to a small village in the Oxfordshire countryside, thus satisfying one of the criteria I especially love about many of the queens’ locations: the British village.

Luckily, at one time I lived for almost five years in Oxfordshire. I commuted by train into London where I was a researcher at Imperial College London. In fact, it was there I started writing – not mysteries, but the domestic thrillers you may know. Now I can use that real village where we lived and its neighbouring villages as models for the villages I’ve created in the Madeleine Brooks mysteries. In fact, the cottage where Maddie lives is modelled on the cottage next door to where we lived. Did I use real places? The three main villages, Woodley Vale, Woodley Bottom and Courtneyside are a combination of imaginary names and real topography of various villages in South Oxfordshire. There are some clues where those villages are located by the proximity to real places such as Goring–on–Thames and, indeed, Reading, both of which feature in the stories.

Am I enjoying writing these books? Absolutely. I’m busy writing the fourth mystery right now.  I’m really enjoying writing this series.

Not just enjoying – loving it!

Elusive Genres

I find it difficult to categorise my books. I have written, but not yet published, a series of murder mysteries – categorising those stories is easy. But what about the books I have already published? I’ve been told they are ‘psychological thrillers’ but my idea of a thriller has all sorts of thrills and spills and a car chase or two. Not mine. And I always feel the term ‘psychological thriller’ has overtones of horror. I want my readers to turn the pages but not feel like the world is going to crash every time they come to a new chapter. Thriller? I don’t think so. Yet every author has to put a genre down and every time, I sweat.

Take ‘Bye Baby Bunting’, as it’s the latest. On Amazon.com, I’m ranking best in ‘Crime, Thriller & Mystery > Suspense > Psychological’. Yet I feel it’s mostly a women’s fiction type of story, all about motherhood, yes to crime (she kidnaps her birth child) with a bit of romance thrown in. The deeper issues include both the social questions around how pregnant and unmarried women were treated in the 1960s and a massive issue of what is right and what is wrong – something all my characters have to grapple with, including one of the main characters, a police detective. So, I guess, it can be read on several levels which means lots of readers love the book and a few just don’t ‘get’ it.

My book ‘Thursday’s Child’ has caused me a few beads of sweat too in trying to categorise it. It ranks best in ‘Literature & Fiction > Women’s Fiction > Mystery, Thriller & Suspense > Detective’ (or ‘Crime’ instead of ‘Detective’) on both Amazon.com and .co.uk. Yes, I do think it’s Women’s Fiction although I have had nice emails from men saying how they liked the story. ‘Mystery, Thriller & Suspense’ seems a goodly wide category that probably includes the storyline of ‘Thursday’s Child’ as I’ve thought of it as a suspense book but also a mystery. So, okay. Maybe this one fits the spot Amazon has assigned it. In Canada, its highest ranking is in ‘Mystery, Thriller & Suspense > Mystery > International Mystery & Crime. Not women’s fiction at all, but yes to the rest. And it very much is an international crime book with parts of the story in New Zealand, Canada, Italy, France, Cyprus, Scotland and more…it was great fun to write!

In the end, I write about people, often ordinary people who find themselves in unusual or even crazy circumstances which causes them to react. Therefore, ‘psychological’ seems a good adjective (of course, I’ve been a psychologist for decades…) but ‘thrillers’? I really don’t think so.

Why isn’t there a category called ‘psychological fiction’? That’s probably the genre I write in, Mr Amazon.

What do you think?

Losing Weight and All Good Stuff

Alessandra Solis is the author of an amazingly different weight-loss book, ‘EAT HOT…LOOK HOT’. She recently posed a question to her email list, “Should men tell their wives/girlfriends that they notice they are losing weight?”

What’s for dinner? Something hot I hope!

Some time ago she contacted me and asked what I would advise. To continue the story, I think I’ll just include her recent email here….

Alessandra wrote:


Do you remember that I left you with a cliff hanger last time?

To Tell or Not To Tell?

Should men tell their wives/girlfriends that they notice they are losing weight?

I consulted Dr Tannis Laidlaw, with a PhD in Psychiatry, and a fellow author who likes to weave psychological veritas into her novels, which are mostly psychological thrillers.  Her latest release is Thursday’s Child, a psychological suspense mystery. And here’s her response:

“Generally, honesty is best in relationships with some notable exceptions.

For instance, should a philanderer confess? Often the impulse to come clean is there to assuage his own guilt, and the thinking is often along the lines of “It will clear the air – after all, the affair is now over and I’ve chosen her over the other woman. Besides, I will feel better and get rid of this awful guilt and we can get on with our lives.”

Um, no. That sort of thinking spreads the misery and can have countless consequences (which may be totally deserved…).

But men noticing a weight loss? That totally depends on the partner.  If she is the sensitive type who can attribute negative motivations rather easily, then the man will have to be much more subtle. Like commenting how great his partner is looking when dressed up for a dinner out, or wearing a bathing suit for the first time that year … generally, this situation calls for being a bit creative and seizing the opportunity.

Telling her or implying she’s not so fat any more is all bad news.

Still, most women are pleased when their partner notices they are losing weight. But maybe receiving an admiring comment, like in the paragraph above, is the best, anyway. Bathed in the glow of a compliment from the person who matters most, she can have great fun in telling him the hows and the whys. Or not.”

I think you can look forward to these sorts of compliments after a month on The EAT HOT…LOOK HOT Diet! Let me know what others are saying and how they go about saying it.

Thank you, Dr. Laidlaw, for your expertise.

Have a great day!

What fun to be quoted like that!

And do I eat hot (let’s forget about the looking hot bit)? Yup, I do. Anyone for scrambled eggs with cumin? Or chicken salad with jalapeno?

Wild Blueberries, Anyone?

Just around the corner is the blueberry patch…

Blueberry season in Northwest Ontario is usually the last week in July and the first week in August, centred around the August Long Weekend (the first Monday in August). So we decided last week to check how the little green berries were ripening.

‘Our patch’ is at the back of Thunder Bay. No, not the city which was called Thunder Bay decades after my ancestors named that particular piece of water off the Winnipeg River with that particular moniker. In fact, the ‘thunder’ refers to the thunderous sound a train makes as it travels though the local tunnel there and reverberates around granite cliffs rising straight from the water’s edge.

Above the tracks is a long sloping hillside of base-rock granite which is a pinkish colour, decorated with silvery lichen and mossy patches of every hue. Areas of thin soil collect the water allowing shallow-rooted pine trees to take root and grow. At their base and sometimes in the shade, are low-bush wild blueberry bushes. We share the berries with the local black bears.

We clambered into our 15’ motorboat tied up at our dock in front of our little cottage, fired up the engine and chugged around the corner, past another couple of cottages to Thunder Bay. In 1908 when my grandfather first heard wilderness land could be had for the asking, he took a steam boat from Kenora to an area where the Canadian National Railway was being constructed. The boat tied up at Thunder Bay.  Pop (as did some of his fellow teachers) signed up for the free land, making sure he had a nice stretch of foreshore and started the family tradition of summers at the lake. In 2018 over one hundred years later, we will have generations three through five gather for all or part of the northern Canadian summer from New Zealand, southern Texas, British Columbia, Alberta and Bali, Indonesia as well as almost-local Winnipegers.

At the edge of that sloping rock, we hopped out, tied up the boat and set off across the tracks to the blueberry patch. To our complete surprise, the blubes were already abundant, over a fortnight early, due probably to long stretches of very hot weather coupled with a damp spring. We quickly filled a recycled one litre yogurt container with blubes and picked a decent lot of wild raspberries as well. Riches!

Day before yesterday we set off again, this time late in the day to take advantage of the shade the pines could offer. The temperature was about 30 degrees C (about 86 F)at 6 in the evening with a small breeze, so good picking weather. We filled our yogurt pots to the brim and set off back to the shore for a dip and wiener roast.

What could be more perfect? A swim in the fresh waters of the lake, pickles and tomato sauce and olives and … yes, everything we could think of to eat along with those wieners and a glass of wine, then fresh-picked organic wild blubes for dessert. The sun was still high in the sky and nobody else was around.




Have you read an author from Down Under lately? Here’s your chance!

Mark April 22 – 26th on your calendar! All authors are from New Zealand or Australia.

Even better, all books are on special (or free!) for these five days (including my suspense mystery Thursday’s Child and my book of short short stories, Warring Warren and other short short stories – both are free!).


Check them out for yourself here!


What a February!

I have exciting news! In fact, I have two bits of exciting news.

The first is that I am now represented by a wonderful agent, Vicki Marsdon, who has joined together with Nadine Rubin Nathan to form a new literary agency based primarily in Auckland, New Zealand, called High Spot Literary. I was a client of Vicki’s for several years when she was with Word|Link, an American literary agency and at that time she became not only agent but friend. I couldn’t be more pleased.

Hard on the heels of signing with High Spot Literary, my award winning suspense novel Bye Baby Bunting (see the previous post) was put under contract. It is to be published by Junction Publishing, a boutique publishing house based in both the UK and NZ, with an amazing group of authors in their ‘stable’. The two principles are not only both successful authors themselves but are personable and knowledgeable. Again, I couldn’t be more pleased!

So there you have it – an agent and a publishing contract both within the last month! It feels wonderful to have these two organisations with such competent people as Vicki, Netta and Marcus on my side and fighting my battles. I’m no longer sailing on my own.

That’s why I’m looking so pleased!

Bye Baby Bunting wins BRAG Medallion

A BRAG medallion?

Yes, that’s it under the title, and a BRAG award really is something to brag about. BRAG stands for Book Readers Appreciation Group (https://www.bragmedallion.com/award-winning-books/) and they critique books submitted to them for quality. Somewhere between only 10% and 20% of books put forward to them actually qualify for the award which means I am utterly delighted that Bye Baby Bunting made the grade.

Essentially, the BRAG people want to let other readers know if a book is professionally written and produced, a huge help when a book is indie published. They are not only concerned that the book is well-plotted, but whether, amongst other areas of concern, it has compelling characters, realistic dialogue, good writing style and a story arc with a satisfactory ending. The book also must be clean of typos and spelling mistakes, uses good grammar (copy editing) and boasts an appropriate title and cover. In other words, BRAG gives an independent quality control tick.

Like me, I bet you read reviews before ordering an ebook (or a print book online). The problem is that none of us can tell whether a review is independently produced or not. More than a few indie writers lean on friends, rellies and (sadly) paid professionals to give them that favoured 5 star rating. That means reviews are suspect at least.

What do we do, we readers who don’t want to waste our money or our time with a book that fails in some of these vital areas? One answer is to consult the BRAG website – a BRAG awarded book means a book meets professional standards.

In BRAG parlance, I am a “BRAG Medallion Honoree” (American spelling, of course).   I couldn’t be more pleased!

Weird list of Poisons Used to Kill People

Poison is definitely among fiction’s greatest weapons. Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes seem to have developed the audience’s taste for untraceable, fast-acting poisons. However, murder mystery is one thing, but when the story becomes reality, you have got yourself a real killer! Here is a list of the most famous poisons used to kill people throughout history.

Hemlock or Conium is a highly toxic flowering plant indigenous to Europe and South Africa. It was a popular one with the ancient Greeks, who used it to kill off their prisoners. For an adult, the ingestion of 100mg of conium or about 8 leaves of the plant is fatal – death comes in the form of paralysis, your mind is wide awake, but your body doesn’t respond and eventually the respiratory system shuts down. Probably the most famous hemlock poisoning is that of Greek philosopher, Socrates. Condemned to death for impiety in 399 BC, he was given a very concentrated infusion of hemlock.
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Aconite comes from the plant monkshood. Also known as wolfsbane, aconite leaves only one post-mortem sign, that of asphyxia, as it causes arrhythmic heart function which leads to suffocation. Poisoning can occur even after touching the leaves of the plant without wearing gloves as it is very rapidly and easily absorbed. Because of its untraceable nature it has been a popular one with the “get away with murder” crowd. Reportedly, it has a particularly famous casualty. The emperor Claudius is said to have been poisoned by his wife, Agrippina, using aconite in a plate of mushrooms.


This was a favorite of the ladies! The name of this plant is derived from Italian and means beautiful woman. That’s because it was used in the middle-ages for cosmetic purposes – diluted eye-drops dilated the pupils, making the women more seductive (or so they thought). Also, if gently rubbed on their checks, it would create a reddish color, what today would be known as blush! This plant seems innocent enough, right? Well, actually, if ingested, a single leaf is lethal and that’s why it was used to make poison-tipped arrows. The berries of this plant are the most dangerous – consumption of ten of the attractive-looking berries is fatal.

This one is a slow killer – a man-made slow killer! But this is exactly what makes it all the more dangerous. Absorption of doses as low as 0.1ml have proven fatal; however, symptoms of poisoning start showing after months of initial exposure, which is definitely too late for any kind of treatment. In 1996, a chemistry professor at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, spilled a drop or two of the poison on her gloved hand – dimethylmercury went through the latex glove, symptoms appeared four months later and ten months later, she died.

This substance is found in two marine creatures – the blue-ringed octopus and the puffer fish. However, the octopus is the most dangerous, because it purposely injects its venom, killing it in minutes. It carries enough venom to kill 26 human adults within minutes and the bites are often painless, so many victims realize they have been bitten only when paralysis sets in. On the other hand, the puffer fish is only lethal if you want to eat it, but if it is well prepared, meaning the venom is taken out, the only thing that’s left is the adrenaline of eating something which could kill you.


Polonium is a radioactive poison, a slow killer with no cure. One gram of vaporised polonium can kill about 1.5 million people in just a couple of months. The most famous case of polonium poisoning is that of ex-Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko. Polonium was found in his tea cup – a dose 200 times higher than the median lethal dose in case of ingestion. He died in three weeks.

There are three forms of mercury which are extremely dangerous. Elemental mercury is the one you can find in glass thermometers, it’s not harmful if touched, but lethal if inhaled. Inorganic mercury is used to make batteries, and is deadly only when ingested. And finally, organic mercury is found in fish, such as tuna and swordfish (consumption should be limited to 170g per week), but can be potentially deadly over long periods of time. A famous death caused by mercury is that of Amadeus Mozart, who was given mercury pills to treat his syphilis.

Now here’s one right out of an Agatha Christie novel. Cyanide seems to be extremely popular (spies use cyanide pills to kill themselves when caught) and there are plenty of reasons for this. Firstly, it is found in a great variety of substances like almonds, apple seeds, apricot kernel, tobacco smoke, insecticides, pesticides and the list goes on. Murder in this case can be blamed on a household accident, such as ingestion of pesticide – a fatal dose of cyanide for humans is 1.5 mg per kilogram of body weight. Secondly, it’s a rapid killer: depending on the dose, death occurs within 1 to 15 minutes. Also, in its gaseous form – hydrogen cyanide – it was the agent used by Nazi Germany for mass murders in gas chambers during the Holocaust.
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Botulinum Toxin

If you’re watching Sherlock Holmes, then you’ll know about this one. The Botulinum toxin causes Botulism, a fatal condition if not treated immediately. It involves muscle paralysis, eventually leading to the paralysis of the respiratory system and, consequently, death. The bacteria enter the body through open wounds or by ingesting contaminated food. By the way, botulinum toxin is the same stuff used for Botox injections!

Arsenic has been called “The King of Poisons”, for its discreetness and potency – it was virtually undetectable, so it was very often used either as a murder weapon or as a mystery story element. But that’s until the Marsh test came and signalled the presence of this poison in water, food and the like. However, this king of poisons has taken many famous lives: Napoleon Bonaparte, George the 3rd of England and Simon Bolivar to name a few. On another note, arsenic, like belladonna, was used by the Victorians for cosmetic reasons. A couple of drops of the stuff made a woman’s complexion white and pale. Just perfect!

Acknowledgements to Listverse. Thank you for this ghoulish list.

Our ‘Grand Design’

After an  endless six months, I’m able to tell you that our local council has finally approved our building design and okayed us to start on our new little house. Whew. So the waiting and anxiety is over and we can get started…not.

In the meantime, our builder, Rico, as could be expected, has become busy on somebody else’s build because nobody knew when (or if) the council would award building consent. However, this necessary delay has afforded us the opportunity to see the type of construction we’ll be using before we are involved in our own build.

We met up on site with Rico and Neil, the expert who will do the earth reshaping to produce a flat area for the house and terrace, the garage and some sort of ramp to allow trucks to bring building materials needed up to the building site. He’ll build retaining walls to hold the hillside off the house; he also will be in charge of the concrete floors and the block work for part of the garage and back wall of the house. Best of all, his work can be done in the summertime when the ground is dry and well before Rico is free from his current responsibilities on his current build.

We walked over the hillside pointing out which trees must be saved (like our 500 year old pohutakawa tree, duh…) and which must go for access to the site. Neil promises to keep the trunks for our wood-burning stove.  Not that we think we’ll need much extra heat – our architect has designed the house for so-called ‘passive solar’ heating, aiming that sunshine will provide natural heating, absorbed by walls and floors during the day, then given out in the evenings and nights.

The earth bricks are naturally insulating. Another of Rico’s builds is beautifully warm in the winter, with one stove heating a large two storey house, a house that is also cool in the summer. It’s a lot to do with the overhangs, I’m told. Winter sun reaches in; summer sun is high enough in the sky to be kept out of the house when at its hottest. Sounds good to us.

The day we were invited over to see Rico’s current earth-build was a normal working day so we could see bricks being manufactured in situ. To get there, we drove for about an hour south towards Whangarei on a series of windy roads through interesting countryside, and to the east out towards the Heads. The building site was superb, overlooking the outer reaches of Whangarei harbour and out to sea, an extraordinary section high in the hills, surrounded by farmland and bush with stupendous views. Eat your hearts out, rest of the world – yes, there are building sites here available for ordinary folk – not just the rich and famous – like this one in this beautiful land.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The owners, Carolyn and Rob (emigrants from the US), were pitching in just like we propose to do during our build – Carolyn fussing with some impressively large macrocarpa wooden beams and Rob heaping a mixture into a cement mixture consisting of earth, a couple of types of rock, paper, clay, water and a little cement. After adjusting the water content until it was acceptable, he wheeled the mix up huge scaffolding to the top of the walls. One of the builder’s assistants was doing the same, each producing a mix for a separate section. Once they got to their own bit of construction, a metal former was balanced on top of the previous row of mud bricks and filled with the gloopy mixture from the wheelbarrow. Rico took over at that point, lifting the former, smoothing the outside of the brick, emphasising the division between each brick with a few artistic swipes of his trowel and scraping off the inner side of the new brick so plaster can ‘key’ into the earth-bricks when it is eventually applied to the inside of the room. Meanwhile the other two men were back at the work area making more earth mix in their cement mixers. This is hard physical work which is keeping everybody very fit. I bet they sleep well at night.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Bob and Rico’s team are almost finished the outer walls. Soon the roofers will arrive and the construction of the inside walls and all that entails will start. Naturally we’re hoping their build goes perfectly smoothly and quickly – both for their sake…and for ours.

Later we met with Dave, the man who provides wooden framed windows. So far, we’re pricing up wooden frames for inside the deeply inset windows on the ground floor earth-brick walls and aluminium windows on the second storey which has a more conventional wooden construction. Dave is trying to persuade us to have cedar frames – they go beautifully with the earth-bricks, he says. I’m sure they do. But how much more will they cost? Watch this space – I’ll let you know.

But, it really feels like we are moving forward. I must have watched hundreds of  “Grand Designs” programmes over the years (Kevin McLeod, you’re the best!). And, yes, this does feel like a Grand Design of our own. I can just see those deep set windows with their wide sills…in cedar….