Categories for Miscellaneous

October 2, 2016

If we had world enough, and time – a thought experiment  

Conversations with my darling – one from November 2014…

Over dinner, he says,  “If someone came to the door now-”

“I’d tell them to go away, I’m eating.”

“If someone came to the door in half an hour-”

“I’m watching Dr Who.”

“If someone came to the door when you were in the highly unusual state of being prepared to listen to them-”

I say nothing, and wait…

“And they offered you the chance to go sleep for 200 years and wake up in perfect health, would you take it?”

“Probably not. What are the chances of something going wrong?”

“Let’s say 50/50”

“That’s impossible. How could they know if there would be a disaster, global warming, and explosion, the cleaner unplugging the lifepod so they could plug the vacuum cleaner in.”

“This is a thought experiment, let’s just say it’s 50/50.”

“Still no.”

“Whyever not?”

“I like being alive.”

“Okay what if we both were offered the chance, and we weren’t allowed to know each other’s answer?”

“I’d say no, then I’d get a job as a cleaner at the facility and unplug you.”


He thinks a bit.

“What if while you were asleep you could watch films and TV and catch up on all the reading you want to do?”

“YES! Why didn’t you say? Starting with Dr Who.”


February 29, 2016


One of the reasons I love crime fiction so much, as a reader and a writer, is that so often a novel gives us a chance to explore a different world. My current novel, for instance, was inspired by my interest in archaeology – from teenage summers on archaeological digs to the more recent Archaeology’s Dirty Little Secrets MOOC – which actually had me so interested I voluntarily wrote essays just for the fun of it.

And my first novel, A Savage Art, had a main character who was a textile artist. Again, a little bit of wish fulfilment – a life I’d like to have lived. Well, apart from the whole murder part… perhaps.

So now that’s my justification for sharing some of the details from my latest textile arts project – my first cloth doll which I made for a friend. I was persuaded to keep records of the whole process – and there were times when I thought I’d not quite get there. But in spite of the bag of discarded heads, the spare pair of wrinkled hands and the matter of the third leg – here it is!

The finished doll  admittedly looks  a little like Rod Stewart cosplaying as Ziggy – though others have suggested Toyah, or Hazel O’Connor.  But I am quite pleased with him even though I didn’t quite dare to deal with the hair much more. You might be able to see why if you look through the photos below of the work in progress….



biody bits






more hands


doll with head...






Bowie 1

What I was most pleased about was the wonderful vintage Liberty fabric I found on ebay. After I bought it and was researching the costumes Bowie wore, I was delighted to discover that he had used actual Liberty fabrics in the costumes he wore on the Ziggy tour.



Pattern adapted from Jan Horrox book on Making Fantasy Dolls – curves removed and the embroidered face all my own idea.

The supplies and tools available from her website here


January 29, 2016
January 25, 2016

Forensics for fiction  

Not everyone is as fortunate as Val McDermid when it comes to researching the difficult forensics issues in their novels. When she wrote The Skeleton Road,  a novel that highlights the difficulties of identifying a body in Edinburgh that has ties to the Balkan conflict, she was able to consult her friend Professor Sue Black, Professor of Anatomy and Forensic Athropology, who actually did some of the harrowing work involved in identifying the bodies of those killed in the conflict.

(There’s an excellent article by Helen Lewis in the New Statesman about Sue Black – do read it).

However  there are some really wonderful resources available to us all.  I’ve already written about the FutureLearn course, Identifying the Dead.  There are also useful books – among them one by Val McDermid – Forensics : The Anatomy of Crime.  That’s sitting on the pile next to my bed, waiting for my next encounter with insomnia. I may as well have a reason to be sleepless…

Sometimes, however, there is no substitute for being able to ask someone who knows the answer to some peculiar question.  As an unpublished writer I am reluctant to ask for help – I’m not the pushy kind. But I have found some useful strategies.

I’m a member of the guppies – the great unpublished chapter of Sisters in Crime. So, as well as my wonderfully supportive critique group, I have access online to lots of people who have detailed knowledge of all kinds of strange things.  That’s often a first port of call – not least because no one is at all surprised when one asks a question about how to get away with murder.

Some of the online courses also make it possible to ask questions of the course leaders – educational, and effective.

I’ve been introduced to people with specialist knowledge via Facebook friends, and I’m sure that Twitter would be another possibility.

Stuck on a forensics question in the middle of writing my last novel, all those strategies failed. A Google search discovered a UK based forensics science company, and joy of joys, an email address for a member of staff whose actual job it was to answer questions from the general public. And she was a star, and came back within hours with exactly the information I needed.

Of course it’s important to respect other people’s time, so I try to be brief and clear and I certainly don’t demand, or expect a response. But my questions have been answered more often than ignored. I have found that often people are happy to give a brief explanation, to direct me to some reading, or just to tell me that my idea isn’t workable.

Sometimes, an idea that doesn’t work, a line of research that leads to a dead end, turns out to be just as useful. Following tangents can be a dangerous time-sink though – especially for the procrastination-prone writer with a flibbertigibbet mind. Should such a person exist….

*whistles innocently*


Sources :

New Statesman : Where the bodies are buried  by Helen Lewis – a fascinating article by Helen Lewis, which may provide some inspiration.
The Independent : How We Met: Val McDermid and Sue Black
FutureLearn : Identifying the Dead   Not sure when the next presentation might be, but there’s a button to register your interest

January 12, 2016

Impulsive behaviour, free will, and psychological thrillers  

A fascinating article in New Scientist (link here) discusses research that shows that free will may be illusory – and that there are neurological differences between individuals that account for variations.

It has long seemed  to me that some of us have more free will than others, that we all likely have less than we think, and that what little we do have is hard fought for…

But I think we are attached to the idea of individual agency for broadly two separate reasons. Firstly, because we want to believe we have control in our own lives, and secondly, that we want to believe others have control in their lives so we can blame them and punish them when they do something wrong.

This reminds me of an idea posited by the late Colin Wilson, that there’s often a moment when we have a choice, between whether to cope or not cope, for instance. I certainly have experienced both sides of that – when I’ve been sensible and realised that I can make life easier for me and everyone else, and those moments where I’ve been enraged by some perceievd misdemeanour, and started a fight when a more rational version of me would let it go.

It does seem more apt to think of this as “free won’t” – a term mentioned in the linked article.

I would guess that it’s something that we can strengthen by practice, but I know in my own case it’s harder when I’m overwhelmed by stress or pain. But now I wonder if some people may have more of the neurological equipment for self control than others, too.

I am also reminded of a controversial statement once made by the wonderful PD James, which I’ve mentioned before in this blog.  She argued that middle class crime stories – often criticised as “snobbery with violence” – were more interesting because in deprived areas where crime is an everyday matter, there are fewer ‘interesting’ moral choices.

Perhaps this is actually the idea that she was imperfectly expressing – that crimes which are consciously chosen and planned make for better fiction than crimes of an impulsive nature.

While she saw it as a class matter – which I find somewhat disturbing – I can more easily see it as a neurological issue. I suppose that in some ways it is true that poverty and deprivation have long term effects on health, which likely includes neurological development – but it is clear that most poor and lower class people are not criminal, and that many middle class people are. And that’s without a careful analysis of how crime is sociologically constructed.

There are crime novels which explore what could be called disorganised crimes which arise out of impulsivity – but in general they’re not the ones I’m interested in reading or writing.  Like PD James, I am interested in moral choices – though I don’t link the freedom to make those choices to a social class.

Moral dilemmas are often at the heart of the best psychological thrillers.  Some of the most interesting characters are morally ambiguous – from  Raymond Chandler’s shop-soiled Galahad to Highsmith’s sociopathic Tom Ripley. The best heroes and villains are morally ambiguous.  That’s the kind of fiction I enjoy – where not just the plot is complex (I am addicted to story), but where the emotional landscape is too.



New Scientist. Impulsive people may have less free will

The Independent : P D James, Snobbery and Violence