It comes as a shock to many people (it did to me) that AA Milne wrote a murder mystery. Just the one, published in 1922, but it was enough to earn him admission to the inner sanctum of crime writers.
Is “The Red House Mystery” a good book? I’d say it’s fair enough, and very much in the style of its time, which is fine if you appreciate the Golden Age of crime. It certainly has many of the classic elements – the country house, the house party, the locked room, the wastrel brother who reappears from abroad and, of course, the amateur sleuth, with his slightly dim sidekick. If the denouement draws on a plot line which is peppered throughout those Golden Age mysteries, it’s none the worse for that.
Of course, it’s a whole other discussion about whether the detective’s sidekick only really exists to fulfil the main purpose of allowing the sleuth to show off his or her genius and give fulsome explanations regarding his or her thought processes. In the case of Red House’s Bill, he appears to be at the dimmer end of the bell curve of intelligence and certainly hero worships his friend Tony, the man who solves the case.
Tony’s a really interesting character, a man of independent means, who takes on various jobs just for fun. He’d have been well served by further crimes to solve with his sidekick. I could envisage a whole series of cases in which our two heroes pop up at house parties and the like, solving crimes, causing chaos and generally having a whale of a time. Alas, those books were never written.
Somebody even suggested that Bill reminded him of Piglet, but Tony and Bill makes me think of Raffles and Bunny, not least because of the “slash”. I usually say if you’re not sure what slash is, get your mother to explain when you get home. This time I’ll give a definition, straight from Wikipedia. “Slash fiction is a genre of fan fiction that focuses on interpersonal attraction and sexual relationships between fictional characters of the same sex.”
Milne himself objected to love stories getting in the way of the detection, so he takes Bill’s love interest “offscreen” pretty rapidly, then – ironically – proceeds to give us an almost love story between his two leading men. If you picked up this book without knowing the author or context, you might think you were reading a romantic mystery, with a gay bloke (Tony) who pursues, and then is all over, another man.
From the moment Tony serves Bill, first in a shop and then in a restaurant, “Something about [him], his youth and freshness, perhaps, attracted Tony”. He arranges a proper introduction to Bill and they quickly become “intimate”. Yes, that word clearly didn’t mean quite the same in 1922! As the story proper gets going, Bill is flattered, delighted and proud to be liked (and needed in the cause of investigation) by Tony, who soon after tells Bill he’s wonderful for describing someone so well, at which Bill is happily embarrassed.
Should I mention how often Anthony takes Bill’s arm when they’re walking? I know that this practice was not uncommon between men in the early twentieth century, and nobody batted an eyelid, but they seem to be at it all the time. Then there’s the hand holding; Tony tells Bill he’s the most perfect “Watson” before taking Bill’s hand in both of his to say, “There is nothing that you and I could not accomplish together…” (That’s the sort of thing he says a lot.) Bill responds by calling him a silly old ass, and Anthony replies with “That’s what you always say when I’m being serious” which is very similar to a tense, flirtatious interchange between Laurie and Andrew in Mary Renault’s “The Charioteer”.
They even end up sharing a bed, although strictly in the way the characters share a bed in “Three Men in a Boat”. That’s another element which is hard to interpret innocently with modern eyes, although those of us who were brought up on “Morecambe and Wise” know that Eric and Ernie weren’t “at it” when the lights went off.
So what the heck was going on in “The Red House Mystery”? It’s terribly easy for us to look back at books written so long ago with our “slash goggles” firmly in place and see things which the author didn’t intend. Perhaps we see things which aren’t there at all. You only have to look at the volume of Holmes and Watson romances that have sprung up to find people interpreting old stories in a very present-day fashion. But gay men did exist in the 1920s (or at any point in history) and gay or lesbian characters can be found, thinly veiled, in classic books such as “A Murder is Announced”.
Maybe Milne was just being observational in his writing, basing Tony on somebody he had known, weaving in elements of conversations he had heard, as so many of us do. I have little doubt that he had no intention of giving us that romantic storyline, but he did so, nonetheless.

The last post in this series sees three more writers revealing their musical inspiration.

Elin Gregory 

I’ve had masses of inspiration from music over the years. Jethro Tull’s Songs From The Wood inspired a long bildungesroman that I would love to work up into a novel. It’s about a hill with a wood on it flanked by two villages, King’s Norton and Brynlas, where the villagers protect the secret of the wood – a fully functional shrine to the celtic god Nodens – and in return benefit from the god’s protection. High jinks ensue when one of the hereditary protectors turns out to of a lavender persuasion. But there is sheep and beer, darts and village against village football and general good times to offset the edgy bits. I have 90k words of it, some of which I stored on Skyehawke. Cup of Wonder has most of it in it.

But these days I prefer something with a more epic scope and less recognisable lyrics so *blush* I quite enjoy listening to Two Steps From Hell aka Nick Phoenix and Thomas Bergersen. They write music for computer games and are – did I mention epic? They are the most epiccy epic in the history of epicness!  Best of all, since I don’t play computer games I have NO mental images to go with the music so can apply them to anything.

This one – Heart of Courage – has everything one might need to give a story a boost nicely compacted into 2 minutes.

I’ve also been listening to uillean bagpipe music for my Romano-Celts. Dark Slender Boy seems appropriate with its minor keys, especially since most of the story is a bit on the down side…

1940s swing music hits the spot for Sam Hobbs, my lame shepherd, and I have a whole playlist of 1920s songs for Winstanley Briers Winstanely and Miles Siward.

But usually I don’t play anything while I write. The music works away on my subconscious while I do other things – like ironing or driving – and I have memories of the feel of it later.

Louise Van Hine 

I wrote one book in the form of a symphony in five movements, and another book in the form of a set of etudes.

BTW I stole the idea from Anthony Burgess, a composer/novelist who wrote “Napoleon Symphony” as a sort of a spoof of Beethoven’s “Emperor” concerto and “Napoleon Symphony” – the Fifth which was dedicated originally to Napoleon, until he crowned himself Emperor.

Charlie Cochrane 

I always have something on in the background when I write – favourite music of the moment, sports commentary or sometimes an audio book. While I’d find it hard to say (with one exception), “Oh, that song inspired that character/story”, the music itself makes me want to write, if that makes sense. Vaughn Williams’ Variations on a Theme by Thomas Tallis gets my creative juices going every time.

The exception is a song called “Boeotia”, by Matt Alber (track six here). When I heard that song I had to write a story based around it. I don’t know enough about the time when Alexander and his father were conquering half the known world, so I cheated a bit by having the historical bits happen within dreams – that’s how “Dreams of a Hero” was born.

Alex Beecroft:

Music doesn’t seem to work that way for me. For a start, I don’t listen to much music these days, except when doing housework, and that tends to be trance music without any words. I did listen to a lot of 18th Century sea shanties when I was writing my Age of Sail books, and they were excellent for letting me know the kind of things that the sailors of the time thought and said about themselves and their lives. I also listened to classical music of the time, so I could hear the soundtrack of the officers’ lives. I think that gave the overall setting a bit more texture, but nothing really became part of the story in such a dramatic way that it could have said to have inspired scenes or plot points.

Oh… oh, I lie (or at least, I have just remembered something.) Actually I did watch a TV programme about the castrati, which featured male soprano Michael Maniaci, whose voice is amazing. Listening to him sing inspired me to make John Cavendish in False Colors a countertenor and gave rose to the scene in which Alfie persuades him to sing and is awed by the result.


KC Warwick:

The music running through my mind while I was writing ‘Prove A Villain’ was Vaughan Williams ‘ Fantasia on Greensleeves’.  ‘Greensleeves’ always reminds me of Elizabethan times, though I must admit that I smile to myself when I remember Michael Flanders’ wonderful monologue on  ‘Green Fleeves’, (this chap Anon’s writing some perfectly lovely stuff, but no one seems to know who his agent is…) Sorry, I digress.


I’ve never been one to constantly have music on, I’ve never owned a walkman or an ipod or anything like that. I seem to have entirely skipped the CD generation and most of my records are vinyl. And I have nothing from this century, either, to the horror of the children of a friend who visited once!

It seems entirely incongruous but while I was writing Transgressions I was addicted to Billy Holliday and would play her obsessively on repeat while writing. The era is completely wrong but the “he was my man and he done me wrong” soulfullness was entirely right at the time.

Mozart’s Requiem sparked a plot line in Standish where Rafe’s son dies and he holds an enormous funeral where he meets up with Ambrose again. But I never actually wrote that, because it seemed entirely out of character for Ambrose to allow such a tragedy to bring them back together. So I dumped the entire idea which broke my heart as I adore that particular requiem.

I can hear a piece of music and have it paint pictures in my head as to what is going on–there’s a piece of music  (Polovetsian Dances by Borodin from Prince Igor) which very clearly tells me the story of a war-hardened warrior and him falling in love for a young recruit all bare chest and no chest hair. I haven’t allowed myself to watch the ballet, because I know jolly well there’s no such plot line in it. But it has sparked a bunny and the notes have gone into my “to do later” file.  Probably around the time of Ghenghis Khan. Oh great. More research.

Charlie Cochrane

I was having a google chat with Elin Gregory when (as often happens) things took a daft turn and we decided it would be a good idea to ask some of our favourite historical authors whether music inspired them to write – and how. Turns out it wasn’t such a daft idea – we had some great responses, which I’ll post here over this week.

Anne Barwell:

I’m one of those individuals who puts together soundtracks on occasion but the music isn’t exactly reflection of the time period, more the characters/storyline. “Sounds of Silence” – Simon and Garfunkle, “All It Takes” – Stellar (NZ band), “Touch of Your Hand” – Glass Tiger, “There You’ll Be” – Faith Hill.

Lee Rowan:

Hm… It’s seldom a single song. Andrea Bocelli’s “Con Te Partiro” (the original, not the duet with Celine Dion) is pretty much the theme song for the Royal Navy series. I almost played Bocelli’s “Romanza” album, and Bryan Adams’ “So Far So Good” and Al Stewart’s “Year of the Cat,” to pieces. And Jackson Browne’s “Lives in the Balance.” Totally out of period, but the right emotional note.

Winds of Change, Eye of the Storm — The soundtrack for Master and Commander. Also Romanza and Sogno, Bocelli, (What can I say? I don’t understand much Italian, but the flow of words and a strong tenor… mmmm. and October Project’s two albums.

Home is the Sailor – mostly Enya, for some reason.

Walking Wounded, Mellissa Etheridge’s “Yes, I Am,” and Bocelli, again — also Carlos Nakai, a Navajo flute player.

Tangled Web was a mix of all of the above, and Chanticleer, and the Windham Hill Solstice albums. And, in all cases, probably several things I’ve forgotten.

Finding the right music really helps.

Ruth Sims:

I have to say that music has influenced everything I’ve written (admittedly a very small list). Music, in particular the music of the 19th century Romantics such as Chopin, Liszt, Mahler, Debussy, Tchaikovsky (I never said I could spell the blasted name!) and perhaps first, of course, Mozart and Beethoven. That shouldn’t surprise anyone who has read either The Phoenix or Counterpoint: Dylan’s Story. Music that digs deep into my emotions always makes me write. And often cry. Song on the Sand, my favorite of my short story-ebooks, was completely inspired by the lovely song by the same title from my favorite play, La Cage aux Folles. While writing Counterpoint, I listened day and night to violin music, especially that of Josh Bell. Of course that gave me an excuse to have lots of pictures of Josh Bell all around.

Charlie Cochrane

When I booked to do this blog, I was going to do a write up of the RNA Christmas party, but plenty of people have reported back on that so I decided to muse about a conversation I’d had just last weekend over lunch with two fellow authors. How can we expand our relatively small part – historical – of a growing but still relatively small genre – GLBT romance?

I’m worried that when we promote, through all the usual social media from facebook to yahoo groups, we’re promoting to the same, small audience. Often we’re promoting to each other. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – most of us authors want to keep an eye out for new books to read and the core audience of  avid readers should be valued and cosseted. They’re our life blood.

But I’m convinced there’s a bigger market. Look at the success of Mary Renault’s books or Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy. Look at how many people watchedBrokebackMountain. Think about all the fans of boybands who go crazy when there’s the slightest hint of romantic interaction (real or imagined) between the band members. Or the ladies of a certain age (classic romance readers!) who go all gooey at John Barrowman concerts when he talks about his partner Scott. How do we get these potential readers to know about our books?

Well, there’s the question and if I could answer it effectively I’d be very rich. I’m sure that attending events or being members of writing organisations which are not primarily for writers of GLBT books must help. It gets our names and our genre ‘out there’, hopefully reaching new readers with the help of the accompanying promo opportunities these organisations provide. Being alert to things which are outside our usual run of things and being brave enough to take advantage of them – posting at a different yahoo group, a chance to do a reading at a library, getting an article into a trade magazine, etc – could and should be things we look out for.

But could we be doing more, and is it something we could be doing more effectively together? Who’s up for making 2012 the year we push the boundaries out?

I’ve read all E M Forster’s novels, starting with Maurice and working my way through the rest in no particular order. I’ve even read the fragments of novels he left behind, unfinished. They were all intriguing, some – Maurice and A Passage to India – were stunning, and the experience left me wanting more. There isn’t “more”.

After A Passage to India the novels ceased. I’ve read various theories as to why, for example his late flowering discovery of physical love somehow stifling his ability to write. There were a few short stories, of course, and I’ve been working through as many of these as I can get my hands on. Some of them are brilliant – such as the  delightful The Celestial Omnibus and the amazingly slashy Story of a Panic – while The Machine Stops is an incredible piece of science fiction which predicts the world of the webcam and the ipod. But I knew there were some stories I’d not tracked down so, when I came across The Life to Come and Other Stories, I was really excited. This collection contains some of Forster’s hitherto unpublished gay fiction: better than that it contains a highly informative introduction by Oliver Stallybrass.  

His theory about why EMF had given up writing novels is simple, and based on the writer’s letters. What he wanted to write was unpublishable at the time and what was pubslishable he didn’t want to write. He still worked on short stories, with varying degrees of success in terms of getting them accepted, and some of these were evidently for his own gratification. A number of these “indecent” stories were destroyed, as he believed they were inhibiting him artistically (what a loss!). What remains, and has made it into the collection, are some extraordinary pieces. 

Consider Maurice. Would you imagine its writer constructing tales in which a respectable married couple meet a couple of sailors at the seaside and each go off for a bit of rooty-tooty in the bushes?  Or a widower having a liaison with an amateur rent boy in the woods of the house where he’s a guest? Where the son of a late Romanic English family undergoes the “rape turns to love” trope? Or a son of the empire indulges in a liaison with a man of mixed race – a man he vilifies in public, behind his back – then kills his lover during sex, after which he commits suicide? 

As a reader I was surprised at what I found – so out of keeping with the rest of the canon – although given what I’ve read about Forster, I should have known better. There are a number of echoes in these tales of his life and his desires; do look them out if you can.

Tripped up by words. 

In my one Regency story I have a charcter talking about how hard the snow is falling; he calls it a blizzard. Nice, traditional English word, I thought. Imagine how cross I was to recently discover that not only is “blizzard” a late nineteenth century word as applied to weather, it’s American in origin. What right had it to trip me up like that? 

Trouble is, it’s too easy to just assume things about language. Yes, I look up brands to see if they’re contemporary for my heroes (that’s why Orlando can’t snaffle jelly babies) and I check out phrases, too (which is why Helena couldn’t say “Goodnight Vienna”) but some words seem so obviously “old” that I don’t bother. Perhaps I should, but when to stop? 

I guess for most of us there’s an internal sort of check which means we’re fine if we’re writing post 1700. If the word/phrase is in Shakespeare or the King James Bible, then we’re safe.  So I can use punk, “eye for an eye”, ‘’beggars description” and the like to my heart’s content. Plumber, spectacles,  barricade, shuttle; they’re all nice safe words.  Some are surprises, too – skyscraper goes back to the Age of Sail, and was then used as a nickname for things like tall hats. Dunce, admiral, stationer – all these words can be traced back a surprisingly long way.

Clearly there are some obvious words which a writer could never use in a story set earlier than the twentieth century – bikini, Quisling, green in the sense of concerned for the environment, gay in the sense of sexuality., tank in any sense other than a storage receptacle. But there are some phrases which could catch you out. “The cat’s whiskers” comes from the days of radio, so couldn’t be used to describe something really good in Regency days. Nor could your Victorian spy be brainwashed. He could, however, have gone to see a floodlit rugby match, although they weren’t necessarily called floodlights then. 

Aren’t words confusing, or is it just me getting old?

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