Sunday, 8 February 2015

Bobbie Blandford Book 3 and the art of writing a series and period pieces

I've just started work on Bobbie Blandford Book Three. The working title is Big Girls Don't Cry (inspired by 1962 The Four Seasons song). Set in 1962, Big Girls Don't Cry sees a bank robbery take place in Stony End, resulting in the death of one of the tellers. As Bobbie investigates the case, she finds herself undermined first by a flippant remark from Leo, and then by the arrival of her Scotland Yard detective brother, Tom Blandford who, though brilliant, doesn't quite understand small town politics in the way Bobbie does.

I've been waiting to introduce Tom to everyone. What can I tell you, girls? He's gorgeous in a very Tom Hiddleston sort of way, and he's going to be setting a few hearts racing in Stony End. What else is happening in Stony End? Well, Bobbie's mum, Dina, has bought the pub, so will be having a bit more to do in Bobbie's life (whether this is a good thing remains to be seen).

I'm really getting to know my characters now, but it isn't always immediately apparent where I'm going to take them from one book to the next. I do have a story arc planned regarding Bobbie's career and romance, but other than that, I really do just come up with a new crime element for the books after I've finished the previous one.

I am, however, inspired by1950s and 60s crimes. Runaway (due out on 12th March and on Kindle on 1st April) is inspired by a 1940-50s crime I read about in a non-fiction book last year. I shan't tell you what it is, as it gives the game away. But if anyone wants to know after reading the book, drop me an email and I'll tell you.

Big Girls Don't Cry, though dealing with a bank robbery, is partly inspired by the Great Train Robbery and how the perpetrators were treated like modern day Robin Hoods when in fact they a nasty bunch of hardened criminals.

Writing a series has its own challenges. I have to remember everyone's names for a start! Then where they live. What they look like. What they've done since they were first introduced. I also have to remember whether or not I killed them off in a previous book, and/or whether they went to prison.

The main difficulty is in giving the reader as much information as they need to know about each character and what has happened before, without throwing in clumsy information drops. I realised just how this could look when in the last book I almost wrote something like: '(name) was accused of killing his real father, who had impregnated the woman (name) thought for many years was his sister...' Arrgghhhh!!!!

And for more, tune in to next week's episode of 'Soap' (remember that series?)

Another issue, with writing a murder mystery, is in not giving away who was the murderer in the previous books but in also giving enough of a teaser so that those coming to the books anew might want to go back and find out.

Then of course I have to get the local and era details right. Did you know that policemen/women didn't get personal radios till 1969? If they didn't have a car (usually a Zephyr with a fixed radio) they had 'points' - basically telephone boxes a la the Tardis or public phone boxes - where they had to be at certain times on their beat. If there was a problem, the operator would ring a particular phone box and keep ringing it until the person on the beat answered it. That can have two effects. It can make the lead up to a call out a bit clunky when writing it, or it can add drama, as no one can expect the police to arrive on the scene immediately that something bad has happened. I try to use it for the latter.

Food is my favourite thing to write about, and I love thinking back to the things I ate as a child in the sixties and including them in the story. Spam gets a lot of mentions...

After that, I use a lot of pop culture to add colour. All the titles so far have been inspired by 1960s songs, with each song being one that was in the charts in the year my story takes place. That's fun, but if I mention a song within the story I have to make sure it was out at the right time of year. I'm only up to early1962 in my story, so I can't even begin to mention the Beatles yet (Love Me Do was released in October 1962). As it happens, Big Girls Don't Cry wasn't released until late 1962 either, but I've got around that by having my heroine state that she and her friend had that as a rule before The Four Seasons.

Ironically, some friends and I were discussing using titles from songs, films etc in our work, and we all agreed that it is probably a good idea to pick them from the year before your story begins. Particularly with films. That way, you can be sure they'll have reached British cinemas (and as cinemas often repeated showings when we didn't have DVDs, you still can't get it wrong).

There is a problem with using pop culture. It can date a story, though in a period piece that's what you want. But things can still change quickly. For example, in Runaway, I mention Cliff Richard in a very positive light. As I was writing, all the stuff about the police raiding his house came out, and I considered removing him from the book. Then I realised that by doing that, I would also be judging him guilty until he's proven innocent. It wouldn't be overstating the case to say that Cliff was a huge star in the 1960s (Summer Holiday is still one of my favourite films).  He was also considered a heart-throb so it's natural the women in that era like him. He belongs in 1960s pop culture and to leave him out because of unsubstantiated allegations would be wrong.

The trick is to add enough period detail to keep reminding your reader what decade they're in, but not so much that it drags the story down. I always consider that I am not a historical writer. I am a writer who includes history in her stories. I'm not sure if that makes sense to anyone else, but it does to me.

So, there are my thoughts on writing a series and a period piece. How do you go about it?


  1. Great post, Sally.
    I more or less go about it the same way as you for my prefab village stories set in the 1950s - 16 short stories, 1 PN and another PN in the early stages.
    I made a map of the village showing who lives where so, hopefully, I won't have a character suddenly living in the wrong prefab.
    They've all got a character sheet which I add to when there's a new baby or a wedding or a death.
    For the first PN, I had a relevant to the year (1955) song title for each chapter heading. I think it took me longer researching those songs and when they were first released than it did writing the whole thing.
    Finding suitable slang words to use on the odd occasion is hard sometimes. I think of one (and it's PF world so it has to be a nice one), look it up only to find it wasn't in common use back in the 50s. "Yikes" is an example. I could have sworn Dad used it when I was little.
    It's all fun, though, isn't it. I just wish I could write as quickly as you can.

  2. I'm sorry, Pat. For some reason I didn't get notification of your comment in my inbox! I wasn't ignoring you, honestly.

    It is a minefield to write novels set in a particular historical period.

    I once wrote a novel set in the early 1920s (True Companion) and as I was writing, I had the heroine thinking that someone had 'slipped under the radar'. Luckily I remembered in time that there was no radar till the second world war!

  3. I had 2 notifications to say my message couldn't be delivered.
    Glad you saw it in the end


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