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…

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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.

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…

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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.

In praise of Costa

My coffeeI had some retail therapy to attend to, so I headed into Uxbridge early this morning. I fancied kicking off the day in my local Costa Coffee, loading up with caffeine before attacking the shops. I took my writing practice notepad since mornings are my time for this new habit. Fifteen minutes on ‘a jewel’ and I was done – not one of my more inspired mornings, I admit.

At 08:30 and before the shops open, Costa Coffee is a haven, comfortable and subdued; a few early customers like myself, but none of the hectic crush that a busy shopping Saturday will later bring. The counter service was cheery, my Americano strong and delicious, my toastie crisp yet gooey and brought to my table. Seal’s Kiss from a Rose was the first track on the playlist I noticed and it was followed by a swell of Central Perk style mid-market soft rock. All very nice and right up my street.

The minutes nudged towards 09:00 and the business of beverage was well underway. Coffee machines whizzed, clanked and hissed, plates and cups clattered, the fridge displays rattled and the air conditioning hummed – all composing a vibrant mechanical backing track that was not at all unpleasant. Conversations ebbed and flowed – regulars acknowledging each other, friends meeting up, two guys behind newspapers sharing occasional observations, someone debating the climate of gun crime in South Africa; several accents in English, a chatter of Polish I think, perhaps from behind the counter.

A blast of chill air funnelled round from the door every time someone entered – I don’t mind this either since I’m at that age when I seem perpetually to feel too warm. A man came in, wrapped in a donkey jacket and woolly hat, a young girl grabbing a take-out cup, another swaddled in fake fur; a young mother struggling with a push-chair adorned with colourful toys, a teen in skinny jeans and giant headphones that looked like earmuffs.

What is it about the aroma of fresh coffee and toast? It takes me to a place of comfort and warmth, of pleasure in small things, of calm contentment. Of all the myriad coffee shops where I live – and there are too many – Costa is my favourite. I love the cosy burgundy/brown decor, the fact that there’s always somewhere to sit, upstairs if not downstairs – if you can survive the giant spiral staircase without decanting your beverage on to unsuspecting customers below. I’m not somebody who shows up every day, only every once in a while, but when I do, Costa rewards me with a heartening half-hour.