It is a great pleasure to introduce this week’s guest blogger, Anne Zouroudi. Anne is the author of the Greek Detective mysteries, based on the Seven Deadly Sins and set in the beautiful islands of modern Greece. With an enigmatic PI often likened to Hercule Poirot, her books combine mystery with travelogue, mythology and even a touch of metaphysics. Her first novel, The Messenger of Athens, was shortlisted for ITV3's Crime/Thriller awards, and is published in the US in July. Her fourth novel in the series, The Lady of Sorrows, has just been published in the UK, and was described by Alexander McCall-Smith as 'a gorgeous treat'.
To those that have yet to read Anne’s books – what are you waiting for? Go get them - but in the meantime enjoy the below:
On Fact Being Stranger Than Fiction
I’m a sucker for quirky news-stories – the ‘And finally...’ kind that newscasters finish up with on slow news days: dogs who swim oceans to get home to families in Cowdenbeath, babies who swallow razor-blades and live to tell the tale. (My son ate most of a Marmite jar once, but that’s another story). There was a story I made a note of recently, where some poor boy was lost in the New York subway system for eleven days. He survived, apparently, on a diet of news-stand confectionery and snacks. And if there isn’t a novel in that little snippet, I’ll eat my hat.
My attention was recently grabbed by a ghoulish tale from the Italian city of Naples, where unscrupulous foragers had been raiding local cemeteries for coffin wood, and selling it to Naples’s restaurants as fuel for pizza ovens. Now that would definitely put me off my Quattro Stagioni. Or a sad story from Athens, where, in the course of the demolition of an apartment building, a man’s mummified body was found in a bedroom. He was reckoned to have been dead for over a decade – and the twist in the tale was, that beside him in the bedroom were share certificates and cash that made the deceased worth millions. Money can’t buy me love, indeed – but what a gift that story is to a writer of fiction.
In truth, I’ve yet to build a book on one of these intriguing true-life accounts, though I do have, fermenting in the back of my brain, a story that came to mind as I was on a tour of Leeds’s Armley jail (a terrible place: within half an hour, I was suffering horrible claustrophobia, but the tour lasted three hours, and – guess what? – you can’t see yourself out). But it seems to me, if I ever ran out of ideas from my own (happily fertile) imagination, I wouldn’t have far to look for real-life plotlines which might, quite frankly, stretch readers’ credulity. If I were writing cut-and-slash crime, for example, would anyone believe in a second Yorkshire Ripper stalking the streets of Bradford? Too unlikely, surely. Yet just last week, lo and behold, Bradford saw again – for real - the horror of a prostitute-murdering serial killer.
So, is it legitimate to ‘steal’ a real-life idea, and turn it into fiction? Well, of course it is. Writers have been doing so for centuries. The trick, though, is to take the germ of an idea, and work magic on it, put flesh on the bones to create a unique and memorable story. And I have definitely been guilty of using incidents from my own life in my books – with the names changed to protect the innocent, of course. Any writer worth his salt takes notes – either mentally, or in one of those ubiquitous notebooks we all have – of those little happenings which are all around us, in day-to-day life. If you keep your eyes open (and if you have a writer’s – frankly nosy – disposition), you can’t go wrong.
I was on a crowded train once, and seated across from me was a blind man with a guide dog. As we pulled into Birmingham New Street station, the blind man – and half the carriage with him – was preparing to disembark. The blind man wanted his suitcase, which was somewhere in a great stack of luggage near the carriage door, and he asked a man to pass it to him.
“Of course,” said the man. “What does it look like?”
And the blind man said, “I don’t know.”
Boy, did my ears prick up! There followed a fascinating ten minutes whilst various disembarking passengers and the train’s guard tried to help the blind man find his suitcase. Was it tartan? He didn’t know. Did it have a label on it? Bless him, he didn’t know that either. So then they started asking him what was inside it, and opening up the bags on the rack. Eventually they identified his suitcase from medicines packed inside. Or did they?
For me, the possibilities for stories from that one incident are myriad. Did the blind man end up with his own suitcase, or someone else’s? What might he have taken that he shouldn’t have? What might the guard have found, opening up random bags off the rack? And was the blind man really blind, or playing games? Let your imagination run, and you’ve a plot before you know it.
My favourite train story, though, is dear to me because train travel – which I enjoy, mainly for its people-watching potential - is so often marred, these days, by idiots on mobile phones. My friend’s father struck very unlucky once, and ended up ensconced with three strangers at a second-class table, with one of the strangers – a businessman - determined to spend the whole lengthy journey shouting into his mobile. My friend’s father – and his fellow-travellers – were subjected to the businessman’s loud bonhomie and bragging for over an hour, until somewhere outside Burton-on-Trent, the businessman needed the toilet. And – poor fool! - he left his mobile on the table.
Quick as a flash, the elderly woman sitting opposite the businessman (she had been quietly knitting up to this point) stood up, slid open the window, dropped the businessman’s phone out of the moving train, and sat down. When the businessman returned to his seat, that wonderful, wicked woman was back at her knitting, and my friend’s father was apparently absorbed in his newspaper. The businessman spent several minutes searching for his phone, before sitting down to finish his journey in baffled silence.
Great story, no? And it’s one of those you just couldn’t make up.
Anne Zouroudi - Saturday