Fava Beans and a Nice Chianti

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Halloween is perhaps a fitting opportunity to take a look at a certain type of character who often finds a home within psychological suspense fiction; the sociopath…

* * * * *

When we hear the word psychopath we tend to think of infamous mass murderers, names like Ted Bundy, Dennis Nilsen and Fred West evoking memories of some of the most horrific crimes of the last few decades. Fiction has many compelling psychopaths – Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs of course, Misery’s Annie Wilkes and American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman; and there’s Max Cady, Robert De Niro’s terrifying vengeful psychopath in the film Cape Fear.

Yet most people who score solidly within the Hare Psychopathy Checklist aren’t killers, and the word we associate with the less murderous on this spectrum today is… sociopath.

You won’t find most sociopaths stashing bodies under the floorboards or consuming a victim’s liver with fava beans and a nice chianti.  They’re part of the community.  They are your boss or your next-door neighbour, or the guy who smiles at you at the bus stop. 

They’re sharp-witted and can be fiercely intelligent; they hold down jobs, often with considerable power and influence; they enter relationships, they marry and have children; at work, you might call them shrewd or ruthless, single-minded or controlling; in social situations they’re the life-and-soul.

For most people encountering such a person, the word sociopath doesn’t immediately spring to mind. If you label them at all, you might say they were a con-artist, cheat or bastard.

But words like this sell these destructive individuals short.

Motivated only by their own needs and drives and without conscience or empathy, sociopaths have the capacity to wreak havoc.  They are narcissistic, manipulative and deceitful, shallow and self-serving. They’ll tell you what you need to hear, to get what they want. And when they’re done, they’ll depart without a backward glance, leaving any amount of disruption in their wake.

Most people can’t understand the way a sociopath thinks. Most people are able to empathise with others, share their pain or distress and offer comfort because they care about how others feel. Most people will think through the possible outcomes of their actions and avoid doing things which cause harm to others. Most people have values, standards and morals, and appreciate how these underpin society.

Most people strive to be good, kind, understanding and loving; but not the sociopath.  To the sociopath, these traits are weaknesses to be exploited.

Speaking as a writer, I think sociopaths are fascinating. They’re terrific antagonists, shocking in their ability conceal their true nature, hiding in plain sight, and capable of the sort of behaviours that are beyond normal people. They give the writer so much that is unsettling and potentially catastrophic to play with.

I was in thrall to a sociopath for just a few months, very many years ago. Now it turns out there is much about the psychology of the sociopath which is finding its way into my writing; like character traits, and wiles and ways with which I became too intimately acquainted.

They say ‘write what you know’, don’t they? And that’s interesting, because I think what I went through way back then, might be helping me to write better bastards today.

And that’s an unexpected payback, for sure.

Nine lifestyle and fashion trends that make me feel out-of-step

tattoo-631206_1280I must be getting old…

I’m taking a risk here, as I’m pretty sure there will be a few readers standing-by to take issue with me. But if I can’t be contentious on my own blog, where can I? Here are some thoughts on just a few contemporary lifestyle and fashion trends which make me feel, well… old.

1. A passion for ink:

The craving for tattoos on every inkable scrap of flesh is a trend that’s completely beyond me. Extended ink used to be the province of gang members and warlords boasting allegiances and body-counts. Now it seems, ink is cool and everyone wants a tattoo, or several. From a cute little devil on an ass-cheek or a rose on an ankle, we now have sleeve tattoos, whole-back imagery and random scatterings of words and clip-art creeping across shoulders, chests and necks and down arms and legs. Some look upon it as an expression of what matters in their lives; some simply pick images they fancy from the tattooist’s catalogue; others wake from drunken outings to discover indelible messages in embarrassing places. And is there anything more unsightly than a woman in a graceful couture gown, her elegant image scarred with an obtrusive back or shoulder tattoo?

2. Facial foliage:

I don’t know about you, but IMHO, men whose looks are improved by a fulsome beard are few and far between. I’m not talking about close trimmed growth – light stubble or the careful cultivation of what used to be known as ‘5 o’clock shadow’ – but the tangle of undergrowth now sprouting from male faces everywhere. Often ungroomed, untamed and extending scrappily down the neck, is it a throwback to the 70’s hippie era, a craving for simpler times? Do men really believe it makes them look more masculine? Are they blindly following the edicts of men’s grooming magazines or are they relieved that this particular trend masks the fact that they’re just too busy, or lazy, to shave? I know… I know… there are plenty of women who will disagree with me. But beards… I just don’t get it.

3. Boob jobs and botox:

Since when did artificial, Barbie Doll looky-likey become the norm? As a woman born in the 60’s and educated to strive for and expect equality in the workplace and beyond, it disturbs me to see women unable to feel comfortable with the naturalness and individuality of their own bodies. Fearful that their looks aren’t good enough, or worse, sexy enough, they balloon their breasts, plump up their cheeks and lips, swell their buttocks to some grotesque parody of a feminine ideal. Men – some men – don’t seem to mind that what they admire is fake. By their enthusiasm for this pretence, they encourage women with self-esteem and body confidence issues to pump themselves full of chemicals and substances that have no place beneath human flesh. Girls as young as 16 going for breast implants; older women with their faces scragged up behind their ears, their lips tight and immobile. The craving for porn-star looks – is this what feminism and equality was meant to bring us?

4. Footwear – fashion or fetish:

Talking of porn-star looks… seven inch heels used to be the province of fetish shops and stalls at the Festival of Erotica. We used to call them ‘bedroom shoes’, because that’s where we played with them. Yet, here they are, in every high street shoe shop. Young women are forcing their feet into these perilous articles and tottering around, barely able to put one foot in front of the other without clutching on to a friend or passing banister. But all young women wear bizarre fashions, every generation, no exception, myself included. I’m only taking shoes as an example here. What discomforts me is the blurring of boundaries, the aggressive sexualisation of fashion, and not just footwear, seemingly without limit.

5. Pings, rings and dings:

Always-on, social media is with us everywhere. Etiquette and courtesy have gone out of the window in restaurants, cinemas and homes – even, for some, in the bedroom. Our Pavlovian response to those chippy audible commands is to reach for our phone or tablet – which of course, is by our side – and respond immediately to every Tweet, comment, status update or email. As a result, every natural social and even intimate activity has the potential to be interrupted a hundred times. Even those who know they are being rude by jumping to attend to a ping or a ring will do it anyway, accompanying their knee-jerk response with a helpless shrug or a mumbled apology. Worse still, is to see the person who hears his or her phone go off in a remote place, suffer, squeaming from one buttock to the other until they can make an excuse to dip into whatever pocket or bag contains the demanding device. Social media has much to offer society, but the intrusion into our face-to-face social time, the demand it makes for immediate attention, is a price we pay.

6. Demise of the landline:

How did that happen? Increasingly people are abandoning the traditional telephone landline in favour of their constant companion, the mobile phone. To have both is deemed – by some – no longer to be necessary. I understand when a person is on-the-move, regularly relocating or a frequent traveller. But using a landline is so much more… comfortable. The sound quality is better and a landline enables us to ‘take up the position’ on the sofa, telephone handset curled into our shoulder, for a nice, long natter. You can’t curl up with an iPhone. A landline requires you to settle down to take a call. It expects you to give that call your full attention, for as long as it lasts. Maybe the days of the nice, long natter are slipping away.

7. Travelling light:

I read a piece in a magazine this week which seemed to coalesce all my thoughts about the transitory nature of… modern stuff. A young woman wrote that she no longer had collections of CD’s, Books or DVD’s – but kept everything in the cloud. She bought ever cheaper clothes which she could dump before the next season, or discard at the end of a holiday. Her furniture came from Ikea, because it was cheap enough to leave behind when she moved on. This woman travelled light through life – and this seems to be the way these days. Play it right and you can move house in a hatchback. Modern stuff is short-term, temporary and easy to shrug off when you move on. But those who live in the cloud will never have the pleasure of owning a bookcase with bowed shelves, crammed with volumes which relate the story of their life.

8. The cult of celebrity:

In the world of Hello and OK, WAGS, TOWIE and the Kardashians, paparazzi and appearances, fashionistas and their designer handbags, too many are being sucked into the shallow, vacuous world of celebrity. This is where the young aspire to be famous for being famous, not for acquiring any skill or mastery, achieving status within a profession, forging a career. Instead it is enough to be spray-tanned and squeezed into the tightest, shortest garments, then photographed falling out of the hottest nightclub or dangling off the arm of a footballer. In the cult of celebrity, ignorance and stupidity are badges of honour and achievement is being seen in the right place.

9. Scripts, soundbites and the death of authenticity:

With an election coming up in the UK, we’re drowning in soundbites, scripted speeches and staged appearances. Nice and safe, rallies of the party faithful have replaced the pitch-and-toss of a Town Hall meeting or session on a soapbox – the politics of yesteryear. Modern politicians are polished and dressed, coached and prepped to within an inch of their lives, directed to stay on-message, forbidden from eating anywhere near a camera or getting caught – heaven forefend – talking to an actual member of the voting public. Everything is stage-managed and the fear of being caught off-guard is palpable as politicians are ushered, surrounded by minders, from one scheduled activity to the next. The reason people warm to a Boris or a Nigel is because in their clumsy oration, bad-hair days and offhand asides, they offer a tantalising glimpse of spontaneity and reality – the way politics used to be. Today, it’s all about leaving the right impression. Politicians are afraid of being seen being… real.

So I’m certain you’ll take issue with some of my thoughts. I don’t – obviously – want to be trolled, but I am interested in hearing from anyone, whether you’re in unashamed agreement or horrified opposition. Or do you have any other trends and fashions to add to my list – things you don’t ‘get’ about modern life?

These are, after all, only my own humble opinions – and they’re put out here in the interests of generating a little lively interaction.

So… please… don’t be shy. Let’s have a debate!

Ten Top Tips to Instantly Improve Your Writing

pencil-sharpener-390609_1280 - 2A ‘Happy Sunday’ quickie – and a chance to catch some old posts too. A few ideas on sharpening up your writing – great tips and snippets of advice I’ve received over the last four years.

  1. Learn how apostrophes work; and semi-colons.
  2. Well, it’s really rather important that you just do this. Run search and delete on every instance of the following words: really, just, quite, rather, very, oh, so, well and suddenly. Check out my post ‘One Word At A Time’ for this and other editing tips.
  3. Practise Show vs Tell the Anton Chekhov way: Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.
  4. Take a chunk of back-story or exposition and rewrite it into a dialogue. Then repeat. Then repeat again. Dialogue is much more engaging than flat-text exposition and a page of conversation is easier to read than a thumping boulder of a paragraph.
  5. Focus on sensory detail. Not just sight, but sound, taste, touch and smell. It will enrich your reader’s experience. I blogged here about using all the senses.
  6. Every time you see two clever, descriptive adjectives side-by-side, delete at least one of them. Yes, every time. Writers can publish with excess of adjectives, but only once they’ve sold a gazillion books and are unassailable. (If you doubt me, check out J.K. Rowling/Robert Galbraith – but then go and delete half your adjectives, because you won’t so easily get away with it.)
  7. Review your work for any not-so-perfect tenses (past perfect, past continuous and past perfect continuous) and opt for something more immediate. I blogged about how this works here.
  8. Delete the first paragraph of every chapter. There’s no need for foreplay, dive straight to the action. Hmmm, personally, I appreciate literary foreplay, so I’m not sold on this tip – but better writers than me will endorse it.
  9. Delete the last paragraph of every chapter. Don’t hang about after the action. Get out, fast. This, I can vouch for.
  10. Clichés – avoid them like the plague… Yes, you guessed it, I blogged! This one might actually hit the mark (doh!)

Farewell to a Summer of Foxes

I’ve had a wonderful time this summer, watching foxes relax in my garden. But now it’s over.

2014-07-27 10.54.56My flowerbeds bore witness to my garden visitors long before I first saw them. Shrubs starting out on their summer growth flattened; my neat bark overlay was mysteriously pushed off the flowerbed and scattered. At first I assumed an army of local cats were doing what cats need to do – but I was happily wrong.

A trio of reynards have been relaxing in my recreation space for weeks now. At first I photographed them whenever I saw them. I amassed a huge file of iPad/iPhone snaps before I acknowledged their appearance was not rare but commonplace. I looked out for them every day, and – apart from a few days when I had some heavy-duty cutting and pruning done by a local gardening firm – I saw them several times a day. I began to take my vulpine visitors for granted.

They saw me too. They would watch me, watching them. They were happy with my presence, but only as long as there was a door or window between us. They would stand me watching from an open window upstairs – far enough away not to be a threat – but would only tolerate a closed window downstairs. The slightest twitch of my fingers on the door handle would put them to flight. So I kept an eye out for them. I made sure not to open my windows too noisily; I refrained from emptying anything into my dustbin whilst they were around. It was just too lovely to see these beautiful, delicate wild creatures enjoying my space.

2014-06-12 10.46.57But last week, they disappeared.  At first I had no idea why; but I was chatting to my neighbour at the weekend and it turns out that as delighted as I was to welcome my feral friends, so my neighbour was dismayed. The foxes accessed my garden via her own – and where mine had become their sleeping zone, my neighbour’s garden was, yes, you guessed it, their toilet. To be fair, I wouldn’t have been that thrilled either.

My neighbour has apparently blocked all access to her garden and in barricading her fences, has deprived my foxes of their now trusted rest area. I understand why she’s done it, but I’m sad at the thought that I won’t see my foxes again – at least, not until they can figure a way around or under the barricades.

Meantime, I do have a host of photos and for those animal lovers amongst you, I thought I’d share a few of my favourites, and a few seconds of video too, as a Farewell to Summer. Enjoy…

2014-05-06 14.16.492014-05-13 09.45.092014-05-16 17.54.302014-07-27 17.34.45

Am I the toiletry industry’s wet dream?

This morning, I counted up how many different products I apply to myself before I leave the bathroom.

Turtle-neckEarly on in my yet-to-be-published novel, SINGLED OUT, my main character, a woman in her 40’s readies herself for the day. It seems to amuse people that her make-up routine is, shall we say, comprehensive. This has been insightful, as her exact routine used to be my own in the days when appearance was everything and I faced customers and prospects on behalf of one global technology company after another, every working day. Safe to say, as a home-based freelancer, I’ve let myself go a little since those high-pressure days.

And yet… I remain in thrall to the toiletry and cosmetics industries. It seems I cannot rise in the morning without recourse to no less than 23 jollops, unguents, creams, lotions and potions. And that’s before I begin my now significantly curtailed make-up routine.

Impossible, I hear you cry! Well, here it is, this morning’s precise schedule of application:

  1. Toothpaste – a minty-fresh dental drenching
  2. Gum gel – yuk, temporary measure only, I hope
  3. Mouthwash – yes, I do love that minty-fresh feel
  4. Soap – duh
  5. Shampoo – twice, primer and undercoat
  6. Conditioner – topcoat
  7. Shower cream – soap is for the basin, bottled jollop in the shower
  8. Ph-neutral wash – muse no further upon this
  9. Shaving mousse – see, I still have some self-respect left
  10. Deodorant – what did the old advert say… may your armpits be charmpits?
  11. Hair mousse – it’s purple, does it really make my highlights gleam, I wonder?
  12. Anti-ageing serum – meant to sound medical, but off-the-shelf from Boots
  13. Face cream – I think this one actually does a job
  14. Eye cream – a micro-pot of magic with an earth-shattering price tag
  15. Talc – summer… summer
  16. Body lotion – scrummy one infused with tiny flecks of something gold, summer indulgence
  17. Athlete’s foot cream – purely pre-emptive, as I love to swim
  18. Heel balm – ditto above
  19. Lip salve – I keep a half-dozen of these dotted about the place
  20. Hair putty – gravity-defying sticky stuff
  21. Hairspray – I’m an 80’s girl, so shoot me
  22. Hand cream – I go back to this at least 5 times a day, but it pays off
  23. … last but not least, I can’t leave the house without a squirt… Eau de Parfum

As far as make-up goes, my significantly curtailed routine still involves eight products on an at-home day and ten on a going-to-a-meeting day.

You might call me a little OCD – and I would of course protest. But as a woman with a bathroom all to herself – I get all the cupboards, all the shelves, all the drawers, every flat surface, the whole dressing area, all of it – I can give free-rein to my corporal indulgencies. So I do.

Just don’t ask me if I line my jollops up facing forward with exactly, precisely the same space between each one.

We need to talk about… Sex

Note on a tree in a forestBlogging is generally good fun, but with so many blogs seeking an audience it can, even on a good day, be likened to pinning a note to a tree in a forest.  And if that’s the case, then posting on a Friday afternoon is like writing that note in invisible ink. Whatever the world at large was getting up to on Friday afternoon (and the sunny Saturday and Sunday that followed for that matter), you weren’t reading blog posts, were you?

Yes, I committed a social media faux pas when I posted my latest blog last Friday afternoon.  It was the one headed Precision detail in a novel – not just any place but this place about how I used notes and photographs to help me recall places and senses and inject precision detail into my writing.  I’ve been trying different days and times for posting and last week I plumbed the depths – a Friday afternoon ahead of a weekend that teased (the UK at least) with the promise of a little sunshine. Not only that, but I might allow that it wasn’t the most compelling of posts – interesting for some, but hardly challenging, contentious or amusing in the way a properly engaging blog post needs to be.   A double-whammy, for sure. I’m sorry, ok. Mea culpa and all that.

So last Friday afternoon it hit the water with a barely perceptible splash, before sinking without trace over the weekend, with hits in numbingly modest numbers and just one kind soul commenting; a dead body of a post, leaden and dull. Yesterday’s thoughts already half a mile down your blog reader, never to surface.

A few weeks ago, I penned a post on the challenges of writing sex into stories (Marmite Moments: Writing good sex). Strangely (who knew?), it was my most read and commented post of the last year. To be fair, a substantial dose of the credit for that is due to WordPress for offering me a second slot on Freshly Pressed – thanks, Ben! But it did get a few people going and it garnered some great comments and a whole host of new bloggers to connect with – and after all, that’s what makes blogging fun, isn’t it?

So clearly, I need to go back to writing about Marmite.

Or maybe… Sex.

That’s it. Not Marmite. Sex.

So I’ll see what I can do over the next few days, and I’ll be back soon with something to get properly hot around the collar, as it were, about.  Don’t get too excited though – this is still a blog about writing, not a blog about sex. But with the creative juices flowing, I imagine I can find a way to slip in a few sneakily salacious musings.

All in the best possible taste, of course.