Extracts · Guest Post

GUEST POST!! How I Write Fiction by poet & novelist Laura Stamps

I have something a little different to share with you on The Shelf today – a guest post from poet, short story writer, and novelist Laura Stamps in which she shares her process for writing fiction, as well as sharing an extract from her latest novella!

Laura is the author of novels, novellas, flash fiction collections, and poetry books. Nothing makes her happier than playing with words and creating new forms of fiction.

Her latest novella It’s All about the Ride: Cat Mania (Alien Buddha Press) just came out (September 2021). Laura is the winner of the Muses Prize, as well as the recipient of a Pulitzer Prize nomination and 7 Pushcart Prize nominations. Her short stories and poetry have appeared in over a thousand literary magazines worldwide. She is the mom of five cats and has been in feral cat rescue for over forty years. You can find Laura every day on Twitter at @LauraStamps16, and via her website: www.laurastampspoetry.blogspot.com 

How I Write Fiction

Believe it or not, my writing day begins the minute I wake up in the morning. I’m a runner, and running is fantastic for writing. I think Joyce Carol Oates, who is also a runner, would agree. Running gives you the time and space to flesh out new stories, create outlines, and fix troublesome endings. And that’s exactly what I do first thing every morning while I run. In fact, I’ve never finished a run without coming up with the solution I needed that day for a story or novel chapter.

Image Description: Laura’s zippered canvas writing notebook – complete with pockets for pens, memo pad, and current manuscript!

I keep everything I’m currently working on in my writing notebook, which is a zippered, black canvas, 5.5 x 8.5 Rite in Rain Weatherproof Cordura Fabric Notebook Cover that I bought years ago on Amazon. With plenty of pockets for pens, notes, a memo pad, and my current manuscript, it’s my “portable office” and provides whatever I need to edit and compose first drafts.

Most novelists and fiction writers schedule certain times of the day for writing. Some write early in the morning before the sun rises. Others write late at night while everyone is asleep. Because my fulltime job is hectic, I work on my novels, novellas, and stories while I eat breakfast, lunch, and a snack before bed.

You’d be surprised how much you can accomplish in three 30-minute writing sessions every day. Seriously! I’ve worked this way for decades. In the process, I’ve published 64 books with numerous publishers in the last 33 years, and over a thousand of my short stories and poems have appeared in literary magazines worldwide.  

Anything can inspire a new novel, novella, or short story collection. Sometimes it’s just an image, or someone I’ve seen during my day. Sometimes it’s a theme I’d like to explore. Other times all I have is the first sentence or the last sentence. But it’s always something that intrigues me. Something that won’t let me go until I write about it to satisfy my curiosity.

First drafts are written by hand in a little 3×5 spiral-bound memo pad, typed on computer, printed out, and tucked in my writing notebook until I can edit it at my next meal. And so it goes. Several days are spent editing by hand at meals and typing up those edits until the chapter or story is finished. Then I start on the next chapter or story, using the same process, until the entire novel or short story collection is complete.

Image Description: Laura’s writing space

Fiction is a messy business. Nothing arrives in an orderly fashion. Bits and pieces of a story or chapter can come to me at anytime and anywhere: the post office, the shower, the car, at the sink while washing dishes, you name it. That’s why one pocket in my writing notebook is reserved for notes scribbled on scraps of paper (or whatever is handy at the moment). Some of these notes are plot or character details. Some are ideas for new stories or novel chapters.

When it’s time to write the first draft of a story or chapter, I spread these scraps of paper on the table around my meal. Then I arrange them in the order I wish them to appear in the story. This stack of notes on scrap pieces of paper is my “outline.” Then it’s just a matter of going through these notes and writing the first draft, which I can usually complete in one sitting.

Each story or novel chapter goes through at least 15-20 edits before it’s finished. Then, when the entire book is complete, I edit it another two or three times for continuity and flow. After that, the book is ready to be entered in a competition or sent to a publisher.

I never take a break after I finish a book. I just keep writing and start on my next novel or short story collection. By then I’ve accumulated enough notes on scraps of paper in my notebook to compose the first draft of the first chapter or the first story in the new book.

There’s no need to take a break anyway. It’s too much fun to create new stories and characters. Plus, I love pushing the traditional boundaries of fiction to find new formats better suited to my novels and novellas.

My latest novella, It’s All About the Ride: Cat Mania, is the perfect example. This novella is about a neurotic cat rescue lady. Because she considers herself a magnet for bad-news men, she decides to heal her chronic PTSD with self-help books and YouTube videos. Her thoughts become a roller coaster ride, traveling at top speed, as the story races from one hilarious therapy and cat adventure to another.

Since her thoughts move so fast, I had to create a special format for this novella. She’s the kind of person who says what most of us think, things we would never say out loud. But she has no filter, so she says them. As you can imagine, this novella is a fast read. Because of that, it needed a different kind of structure to free the pace of the plot and allow it to flow smoothly.

Eventually, I created an unusual structure of 132 short chapters. This format gave her the freedom to tell her story in her own fast, humorous, wacky way. See for yourself in the excerpt below!

Image Description: The cover of It’s All about the Ride: Cat Mania has a psychedelic cat on it in shades of blue, green, and hot pink!

An Excerpt from It’s All about the Ride: Cat Mania

(2021, Alien Buddha Press)

1.

Here I am at PetSmart. Me and my empty cart, looking at all the things you’ll need if you adopt a dog, because my best friend adopted a dog. She loves that dog. She said I need a dog. She said if I come to PetSmart, see all the cute dog products, I’ll fall in love with the idea of adopting a dog, too. Except, I’m a cat person. I’ve always been a cat person, and that will never change, so why am I here?

2.

I’m still at PetSmart, wandering down one aisle after another, looking at dog products to make my best friend happy. The friend who wants me to adopt a dog, who forgot I grew up with cats. I’ve always had cats. I have cats now. I love my cats. I need to tell my dog-loving best friend this isn’t going to work. It isn’t. Just. Not. Working. 

3.

Although tiny Chihuahuas are cute. You have to admit. In their little dog outfits. But I don’t need to adopt a dog. I just need to leave. I am leaving. I’m leaving this empty cart behind. And walking out. I’m walking out of PetSmart without any dog supplies. I’m walking out without adopting a dog. I’m a cat person. Cats make me happy. Happy is good. I don’t need a dog. I just need to leave. I’m a cat person. And I always will be.   

4.

Happy is good. I’m trying. Trying. Trying to be happy. I am.

5.

Coming back from the grocery store on a Sunday morning, my husband driving, me in the passenger seat, talking about something, I can’t remember what, we reach the top of Harbison bridge when I see a feral kitten, just six or seven weeks old, dart like a flash of tabby out of the bushes into heavy traffic, into the wheel of an SUV, bounce off, terrified, and begin to drag its injured body toward the other side of the bridge, while I scream for my husband to “STOP THE CAR!” while I leap out, while I dodge traffic, while cars screech to a halt until I reach the kitten (finally!), scoop it up in my arms, dash back to the car, jump in, cuddling the frightened kitten to my chest, while my husband yells, “What should we do!” and I shout, “Take me to the Emergency Vet!” since it’s Sunday, and my vet is closed, but even though I spread a fabric grocery bag on my lap to make a soft bed for it, and even though I shower it with love and assurances of a long life, the little tabby passes away before we reach the end of the street, so we turn around and drive home, where I hold a beautiful funeral for this sweet babycat to let it know without a doubt in those last moments and in death it was loved, it was loved, it was loved by me, and always will be.

6.

It’s not easy being in feral cat rescue. But I’m a cat person. I want them all. I love them all. I can’t have them all. Well, I could if I lived in the country. On a farm. But I’m not a farm person. Horses? Cows? Pigs? Chickens? HORRORS! Not happening. I’m not a farm person. I’m a forest person. Give me green. Give me trees. Lots of trees. Green and trees. That’s me.

7.

Fact: My husband would divorce me if I lived on a farm with a hundred cats. He tells me that whenever I show him a photo of a cat. Like I’ve forgotten. Like I could. With him reminding me every day. Right.

8.

Fact: Can’t irritate the husband. He’s a good one. Took too long to find him. Had to throw a few bad-news boyfriends back in the pond first. Okay, they threw me back in the pond. First. Just tossed me away. All of them. Back then. Back in the dark days. But who’s counting? Besides, it happens to everyone, every woman, doesn’t it? Of course, it does.

9.

But. But. We cope. And keep moving forward. Move. Forward. I’m trying. Keep. Trying. 

My thanks go to Laura for taking the time to write a guest post and for sharing an extract of the book. It’s All about the Ride: Cat Mania by Laura Stamps is published by Alien Buddha Press and is available to purchase now from Amazon.

Reviews on The Shelf are free, honest, and unbiased and I don’t use affiliate links on my posts. However if you enjoy the blog please consider buying me a coffee on Ko-Fi!

Blog Tours · Extracts

BLOG TOUR EXTRACT!!! Death in the East by Abir Mukherjee

Death in the East1905, London. As a young constable, Sam Wyndham is on his usual East London beat when he comes across an old flame, Bessie Drummond, attacked in the streets. The next day, when Bessie is found brutally beaten in her own room, locked from the inside, Wyndham promises to get to the bottom of her murder. But the case will cost the young constable more than he ever imagined.

1922, India. Leaving Calcutta, Captain Sam Wyndham heads for the hills of Assam, to the ashram of a sainted monk where he hopes to conquer his opium addiction. But when he arrives, he sees a ghost from his life in London – a man thought to be long dead, a man Wyndham hoped he would never see again.

Wyndham knows he must call his friend and colleague Sergeant Banerjee for help. He is certain this figure from his past isn’t here by coincidence. He is here for revenge . . .

Calcutta police detective Captain Sam Wyndham and his quick-witted Indian Sergeant, Surrender-not Banerjee, are back in Death in the East, another rip-roaring adventure set in 1920s India. Selected by The TelegraphFT, and The Guardian as one of the best crime books of 2019, I’m delighted to be able to celebrate the paperback release of the Death in the East by sharing an extract with you today!


The sound of the drums died.

In the periphery of my vision, I saw people begin to disperse. Slowly, and like a newborn foal, I got to my feet. Brother Shankar offered me a steadying hand but I declined, and trembling, with my mouth bone-dry and my throat aflame, made my way back to the dormitory.

I entered to words of congratulation, acknowledging them with barely a nod. Then, exhausted, I fell onto my cot and pulled the blankets close. I shut my eyes and prayed for sleep, but none came. Instead I lay there in the limbo of delirium, in pain and too weak to move.

The hours passed. The gong for dinner sounded. My dorm-mates departed for the mess hall, and I lay where I was. If I’d been able to think, I might have realised that there was something new about my pain; something different from the usual symptoms of with- drawal. I might have taken it as a sign that things were changing, maybe even improving. But lying there, having undergone my first treatment, all that was beyond me, and eventually, I passed out.

I awoke to darkness and in the full grip of a fever, my body drenched in sweat. Trembling, I wrenched myself up, and as I started to shiver, realised I was still without my shirt. I fumbled, looking for it, then gave up and staggered out of the hut, making for the mess hall and the cauldron of herbal tea. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught something, a shadow watching me across the courtyard. I turned, but the figure dissolved into the blackness and for a moment I thought I heard padded footsteps receding into the night. I tried to pull myself together. My body felt hollow, and as I filled a cup and drank it down, it seemed as though the tea was simply soaking through my desiccated shell, straight into my cells.

Two more cupfuls and I headed back to the dorm. Once more, sleep eluded me. My muscles began to cramp. In an effort to quell the pain, I found myself standing, then walking, pacing to and fro, up and down the length of the hut. I must have kept that up for hours, just walking back and forth and muttering all sorts of non- sense to myself, until finally, overcome once more with exhaustion, I fell onto my bed and suddenly I was back in 1905, running through the rain, with Bessie Drummond’s voice echoing in my ears, chasing after a man who’d jumped onto the tracks at Shoreditch.

— — — — — — —

It was Adler who woke me. A gentle shake of my shoulder. ‘You survived again, my friend. How do you feel?’ ‘What time is it?’

‘Half past seven. You missed roll call and prayers but I thought it best to wake you for breakfast. You need to keep your strength up.’

‘Thank you,’ I said, rubbing the sleep from my eyes. ‘Besides, we’ve had other things to deal with.’

‘Don’t tell me we’ve run out of herbal tea,’ I said, then caught the look on his face.

‘The boy, Philippe Le Corbeau. He’s disappeared.’

I looked over at the Belgian’s bunk which lay empty, save for dishevelled sheets half spilled onto the floor.

‘Disappeared?’

‘Some  men  have  trouble  overcoming  their  addictions,’  said Adler. ‘The pain gets too much for them. They try to run, to escape to the nearest town or a village where they might find a dose of heroin or opium or even just a drink.’

‘He just walked out?’

‘There are no locks on the doors. The monks keep an eye out, but if a man’s truly desperate, he’ll find a way. Now and again, someone gets out, but there’s nowhere to go except Jatinga village, and Le Corbeau’s hardly going to get what he wants from the white residents. As for the natives, they know better than to take in a fugitive from the monastery.’

A strange expression, like the first tendrils of winter, descended over his crumpled face.

‘What is it?’ I asked.

‘It’s just that we generally find them by first light. They either make their way back or are handed in by the locals.’

‘It’s still early,’ I said. ‘Maybe he’ll show up.’ ‘Maybe,’ said the Jew.

I found my shirt on the floor beside the bed, put it on and headed for the latrines. When I returned, Adler was waiting. He stowed his mosquito net into his cabinet and walked over.

‘One question, Mr Wyndham,’ he said. ‘Last night, when you were walking all the way to Jerusalem, you called out some names. One, I think, was Jewish. A man called Vogel. He is a friend of yours?’

I stared up at him. Vogel – in my mind it was a name inextricably

linked with that of Bessie and the man I’d thought I’d seen at Lumding station.

Suddenly, more images of the night flitted across my mind. I remembered Adler once more at my side, trying to feed me herbal tea as I ranted.

‘He was just someone I once met in London, a long time ago.’ ‘Jewish?’

‘Yes.’

Adler considered this for a moment, then moved on. ‘Well . . . are you ready for breakfast?’

‘Yes.’

‘Then come.’

He turned towards the door, but I stopped him with a hand. ‘I wanted to say, thank you.’

He looked at me curiously. ‘For what?’

‘For . . .’ It was difficult for me to say the words. ‘For helping me get through the night.’

He smiled. ‘You would have done the same for me.’

I nodded. But if history was anything to go by, that was a lie.

And I wondered what he’d say if he knew the truth.


If that little teaser has whetted your appetite to read more, Death in the East by Abir Mukherjee is published by Vintage and is out in paperback, ebook and audiobook tomorrow (06 August 2020) and available from all good bookstores and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, and Book Depository.

If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green BookshopSam Read BooksellersBook-ishScarthin Books, and Berts Books

My thanks go to Hope Ndaba at Vintage Books for providing an extract from the book and inviting me onto this tour. The tour continues until 7 August 2020 so do check out the other stops for more reviews and content. 

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Blog Tours · Extracts

BLOG TOUR!!! An EXTRACT from Avenge The Dead by Jackie Baldwin

Avenge-the-DeadSometimes murder is the only way to get even…

Four friends with dark secrets. One killer out for revenge.

DI Frank Farrell and DS McLeod are tasked with investigating the brutal murder of a defence solicitor’s wife in Dumfries.

It’s been over a year since they left the town after an investigation robbed them of a dear friend. But now they’re back and must find a way to move on.

When the son of another defence solicitor is murdered, a strange tattoo etched on his body, the case takes them into darker, more disturbing territory.

It leads them back into the past – to a horrific fire in a cottage that took a woman’s life, to four friends harbouring dark secrets – and finally to a killer waiting patiently for revenge.

I am delighted to be able to help kick off the blog tour for Avenge the Dead, the latest in Jackie Baldwin’s DI Frank Farrell series of police procedurals.

In this extract, taken from the start of the book, you’ll get just a hint of the thrillingly dark events to come…


Prologue

15th May 2005

Colette flopped back on the pillows, the enormity of what she had just done creeping in around the edges of her intoxication. She could hear them laughing and joking, stumbling around the tiny cottage on drunken legs, as they gathered up their stuff before making their way back to the guest house. There was a light tap on the door.

‘Come in!’ she yelled, pulling up a sheet to cover herself.

He stood framed in the doorway, looking at her with a concerned and slightly worried expression.

‘Are you sure you’re OK? I can stay if you want, keep you company?’

Her expression softened. As the effects of the alcohol started to wear off she suddenly felt a rush of blood to her head. What on earth had she been thinking? How would she face them all in court tomorrow? Her breath caught in her throat. She needed to be on her own. She heard his name being called. If she didn’t get rid of him the others would come clattering in and that was the last thing she wanted.

‘Honestly, I’m fine. Best if you head back with the others. I need to get some sleep. We’ve got court in the morning.’

‘If you’re sure?’

He crossed the room on unsteady legs and leaned over to peck her cheek, swaying from side to side.

‘You’d better hurry,’ she said with a weak smile. ‘They’ll not wait for long.’

The sound of slurred voices gradually receded down the country lane leaving her alone with her thoughts. Trying to pre-empt her inevitable hangover she padded down to the kitchen, knocked back some paracetamol and filled a pint glass with water. Now that the effects of the alcohol and ecstasy were wearing off her teeth began to chatter. Fortunately, the log fire lit without protest. She went back up for the duvet from her bed and dragged it down to the couch, huddling beneath it for warmth.

It had been a long boring two weeks in Jedburgh with each of them acting for one accused from a drunken brawl that had resulted in multiple charges. The evidence had been so convoluted that the sheriff had decided to rule on it the next morning.

Denied the freedom they had hoped for and with the trial effectively finished they had all decided to blow off steam. She had joined in with gusto taking them all by surprise, but already the night’s events were starting to disperse from her memory like wisps of smoke. She had been quite the free spirit before she moved to Dumfries and took up with Peter Swift, the fiscal depute. Realizing how conventional he was she had succeeded in subduing her wilder impulses. Until now. What if they talked and word got back to him? She shuddered. Too late for regrets. It was done. She’d been feeling more and more stifled by the relationship anyway. Maybe it was time to draw a line under it.

The doorbell rang. She rolled her eyes. What now? Making her way to the door she flung it wide expecting to see her friends.

Her eyes widened in horror as she was grabbed by the throat and pushed back into the house by the masked intruder. Terrified, she realized that he was holding a hunting knife. The tip pressed into her neck and she could feel the heat of it as it pierced her skin. Still, he said nothing.

The knife pressed deeper. She felt an itch as the warm blood trickled down her neck. Adrenalin flooded her system as she weighed her options. He’d backed her into the lounge, still at knifepoint. His silence was, if anything, more unnerving than the knife pressed to her throat. He backed her up to the couch which was piled high with blankets and throws.

Suddenly, the mound shifted.

‘Colette?’ a voice slurred. ‘What’s going on?’ The blankets slid off to reveal one of her friends, still drunk and with an expression of confusion and burgeoning fear on his face. He lurched to his feet.

Colette sagged in relief. Thank God, everything would be all right now. There were two of them.

‘Phone!’ hissed the man. ‘Or I’ll slit her throat and then yours. Leave now and keep your mouth shut or die here.’

Colette saw her friend frown, swaying from side to side.

She held her breath. All he had to do was lunge at her attacker, dial 999, anything! What was he waiting for? No! What was he doing?

Hot tears wet her cheeks as she watched him throw down his phone.

‘Tell anyone and I’ll hunt you down and kill you,’ her attacker snarled.

Unable to look her in the eye, the man she had called a friend ran past her. She heard the door slam.

Maybe he’s gone to get help? she thought, her mind reeling at his betrayal. But Jedburgh was two miles away.

It was down to her now. With a surge of rage she twisted and kneed her attacker in the groin. His grip loosened for a second, but then he roughly threw her on to the couch, pinning her down. All she could see were his pitiless blue eyes boring into her. Screaming obscenities, she clawed at the rough wool balaclava, determined to see his face. His fist connected with the side of her head, but she managed to pull the balaclava half off. She froze in shock.

‘You stupid bitch,’ he snarled. ‘Now, you have to die.’ The next punch he landed knocked her unconscious.

***

She awoke confused and disoriented. All around her flames leapt and the acrid smell of smoke burned her lungs. The house was on fire! She had to get out! Throwing off the already smouldering duvet she crawled to the front door. The way to the kitchen was blocked by the advancing flames. As she stood up and fumbled with the handle she realized to her horror it was locked and there was no sign of the keys. She ran to the window and swung a nearby vase at it. The vase broke but the window didn’t.

She knew then that she was doomed to die here in this fiery coffin. She remained at the window, her hands outstretched, peering into the night, not wanting to observe the march of the fire as it started to crawl up her body. Hope flared. There was someone out there. She could see a shadowy form silhouetted against the moonlight. She thumped her fist against the glass and screamed for help. Her friend must have come back. He could save her! He could break down the door, get her out. She beat harder, her hand aching, the heat almost unbearable now. What was wrong with him? Why wasn’t he moving? Could it be her attacker? She banged furiously, screaming in agony and terror as the flames curled up her body, releasing the meaty aroma of charred flesh.

The shadowy shape melted silently back into the trees.

The cottage continued to burn.

Avenge the Dead by Jackie Baldwin is published by One More Chapter and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers, including Hive, Waterstones, Book Depository, and Amazon

My thanks go to the publisher for providing this extract, as well as to Emma Welton from Damppebbles Blog Tours for organising and inviting me onto this tour. The tour continues until 12 March 2020 so do check out the other stops for more content and reviews!

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Blog Tours · Extracts

BLOG TOUR!!! An EXCLUSIVE EXTRACT from Something in the Water by Catherine Steadman

Something in the Water CoverErin is a documentary filmmaker on the brink of a professional breakthrough; Mark is a handsome investment banker with a bright future. 

They seem to have it all, until Mark loses his job and cracks start to appear in their perfect life. But they’re determined to make it work. 

They book their dream honeymoon and trust that things will work out – after all, they have each other. 

On the tropical island of Bora Bora, Mark takes Erin scuba diving.  

Mark is with her – she knows he’ll keep her safe. 

Everything will be fine. 

Until they find something in the water… Erin and Mark decide to keep their discovery a secret – after all, if no one else knows, who would be hurt? 

Their decision will trigger a devastating chain of events which will endanger everything they hold dear. 

Something in the Water is the debut thriller from actress and writer Catherine Steadman. Selected for the Reese Witherspoon Book Club in July 2019, the novel has been praised for the complex moral dilemma that it poses, and its gripping pace.

Already optioned for adaptation by Twentieth Century Fox, I’m delighted to be able to offer an extract from Something in the Water on The Shelf today.


Have you ever wondered how long it takes to dig a grave? Wonder no longer. It takes an age. However long you think it takes, double that.

I’m sure you’ve seen it in movies: the hero, gun to his head perhaps, as he sweats and grunts his way deeper and deeper into the earth until he’s standing six feet down in his own grave. Or the two hapless crooks who argue and quip in the hilarious madcap chaos as they shovel frantically, dirt flying skyward with cartoonish ease.

It’s not like that. It’s hard. Nothing about it is easy. The ground is solid and heavy and slow. It’s so damn hard.

And it’s boring. And long. And it has to be done.

The stress, the adrenaline, the desperate animal need to do it, sustains you for about twenty minutes. Then you crash.

Your muscles yawn against the bones in your arms and legs. Skin to bone, bone to skin. Your heart aches from the aftermath of the adrenal shock, your blood sugar drops, you hit the wall. A full-body hit. But you know, you know with crystal clarity, that high or low, exhausted or not, that hole’s getting dug.

Then you kick into another gear. It’s that halfway point in a marathon when the novelty has worn off and you’ve just got to finish the joyless bloody thing. You’ve invested; you’re all in. You’ve told all your friends you’d do it, you made them pledge donations to some charity or other, one you have only a vague passing connection to. They guiltily promised more money than they really wanted to give, feeling obligated because of some bike ride or other they might have done at university, the details of which they bore you with every time they get drunk. I’m still talking about the marathon, stick with me. And then you went out every evening, on your own, shins throbbing, headphones in, building up miles, for this. So that you can fight yourself, fight with your body, right there, in that moment, in that stark moment, and see who wins. And no one but you is watching. And no one but you really cares. It’s just you and yourself trying to survive. That is what digging a grave feels like, like the music has stopped but you can’t stop dancing. Because if you stop dancing, you die.

So you keep digging. You do it, because the alternative is far worse than digging a never-ending god-awful hole in the hard compacted soil with a shovel you found in some old man’s shed.

As you dig you see colours drift across your eyes: phosphenes caused by metabolic stimulation of neurons in the visual cortex due to low oxygenation and low glucose. Your ears roar with blood: low blood pressure caused by dehydration and overexertion. But your thoughts? Your thoughts skim across the still pool of your consciousness, only occasionally glancing the surface. Gone before you can grasp them. Your mind is completely blank. The central nervous system treats this overexertion as a fight-or-flight situation; exercise-induced neurogenesis, along with that ever-popular sports mag favorite, “exercise-induced endorphin release,” acts to both inhibit your brain and protect it from the sustained pain and stress of what you are doing.

Exhaustion is a fantastic emotional leveler. Running or digging.

Around the forty-five- minute mark I decide six feet is an unrealistic depth for this grave. I will not manage to dig down to six feet. I’m five foot six. How would I even climb out? I would literally have dug myself into a hole.

According to a 2014 YouGov survey, five foot six is the ideal height for a British woman. Apparently that is the height that the average British man would prefer his partner to be. So, lucky me. Lucky Mark. God, I wish Mark were here.

So if I’m not digging six feet under, how far under? How deep is deep enough?

Bodies tend to get found because of poor burial. I don’t want that to happen. I really don’t. That would definitely not be the outcome I’m after. And a poor burial, like a poor anything else really, comes down to three things:

  1. Lack of time
  2. Lack of initiative
  3. Lack of care

In terms of time: I have three to six hours to do this. Three hours is my conservative estimate. Six hours is the daylight I have left. I have time.

I believe I have initiative; two brains are better than one. I hope. I just need to work through this step by step.

And number three: care? God, do I care. I care. More than I have ever cared in my entire life.


Something in the Water by Catherine Steadman is published by Simon & Schuster and is available now in paperback and ebook from all good booksellers and online retailers, including Hive, Waterstones, Book Depository and Amazon.

My thanks go to the publisher for providing this extract, and a copy of the book, in return for an honest and unbiased feature. Thanks also to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for organising and inviting me to take part in this tour. The blog tour continues until the 22 May so do check out the other stops along the way for reviews, features, and more! 

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Blog Tours · Extracts

BLOG TOUR!!! An EXCLUSIVE EXTRACT from Call Me Star Girl by Louise Beech

Tonight is the night for secretsCall Me Star Girl Cover

Pregnant Victoria Valbon was brutally murdered in an alley three weeks ago – and her killer hasn’t been caught.

Tonight is Stella McKeever’s final radio show. The theme is secrets. You tell her yours, and she’ll share some of hers.

Stella might tell you about Tom, a boyfriend who likes to play games, about the mother who abandoned her, now back after twelve years. She might tell you about the perfume bottle with the star-shaped stopper, or about her father …

What Stella really wants to know is more about the mysterious man calling the station … who says he knows who killed Victoria, and has proof.

Tonight is the night for secrets, and Stella wants to know everything…

I am delighted to be able to offer an exclusive extract from Louise Beech’s taut and emotive psychological thriller Call Me Star Girl today. Read on and find out why everyone is talking about this book!


STELLA
THEN

Before they found the girl in the alley, I found a book in the foyer at work.

The girl would be found dead, her neck bloody, her body covered with a red coat, and with no obvious clues as to who had left her that way. The book was brand new, unopened, wrapped in brown paper, and had a single clue as to who had left it there.

A note inside the first page: Stella, this will tell you everything.

After I had picked up the package, unwrapped it carefully and read those words, I looked around the silent radio station, nervous. I’d been about to leave after my show; about to turn off the last light. The nights can be lonely there with just you and the music, and an audience you can’t see. Between songs and commercials, every sound seems to echo along the empty corridors. Every shadow flickers under the cheap fluorescent lights. I don’t scare easily – if anything I love the isolation, the thrill of doing things no one can see – but the book being on that foyer table, where it hadn’t been an hour ago, unnerved me.

Because no one had been in the building since the start of my show.

I looked at the front cover, all smoke greys and silvers; intriguing. The man’s face – half in shadow, half in light – was an interesting one. The eye that was visible was intense – its eyebrow arched, villain-like; and the damp hair was slicked back. The title said Harland: The Man, The Movie, The Madness.

It was Harland Grey. I vaguely remembered the name from news stories. A murderer. Hadn’t he killed a girl on camera, in a movie? Yes. When she disappeared, no one even realised the last scene she filmed had been her death, at the hands of Grey in a cameo as her killer.

I read the blurb, standing alone in the foyer, but it told me little more than I already knew.

What did it mean? Who the hell had left it there?~

Why?

Stella, this will tell you everything.

Presenters often receive weird things in the post, but someone had been in the building and delivered this by hand. Tonight. How had they got in? I hadn’t heard the door slam. You need a code to enter the building. Maybe it was just one of the other presenters messing around? But why would they?

The lights buzzed and flickered. I held my breath. Exhaled when they settled. I would not be spooked by a trickster.

Stella, this will tell you everything.

How did they know what I wanted to know? What was everything?

I opened the main door, book held tight to my hammering chest. The carpark was empty, a weed-logged expanse edged with dying trees. It’s always quiet at this hour of the night. I waited, not sure what I expected to happen – maybe some stranger loitering, hunched over and menacing. They would not scare me.

‘I’m not afraid,’ I said aloud.

Who was I trying to convince?

I set off for home. I usually walk, enjoying the night air after a stuffy studio. I’m not sure why – though now it seems profound – but I paused at the alley that separates the allotment from the Fortune Bingo hall. Bramble bushes tangle there like sweet barbed wire. It’s a long but narrow cut-through that kids ride their bikes too fast along and drunks stagger down when the pub shuts. I rarely walk down there, even though it would make my journey home quicker. The place disturbs me, so I always hurry past, take the long way around, without glancing into the shadows.

I did that night too.

But I looked back. Just once, the strange book pressed against my chest.

It was two weeks before they found the girl there.

Two weeks before I started getting the phone calls.

I didn’t know any of that then. If I had, I might have walked a little faster.



If you can’t wait to read the rest of Stella’s story, Call Me Star Girl by Louise Beech, published by Orenda Books, is now available in both paperback and ebook from all good bookshops and online retailers, including Hive, Waterstones, Book Depository, and Amazon

Thank you so much to Louise and to Orenda Books for letting me host this extract, and to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for inviting me to take part in the blog tour. The blog tour continues until the end of the month so check out the other your stops for further extracts, reviews and more! 

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Blog Tours · Extracts

BLOG TOUR!!! The Glorious Dead by Tim Atkinson

The Glorious Dead CoverWhat happened when the Great War ended and the guns stopped firing? Who cleared the battlefields and buried the dead?

It’s 1918 and the war may be over but Lance-Corporal Jack Patterson and the men of his platoon are still knee-deep in Flanders mud, searching the battlefields for the remains of comrades killed in action.

But duty isn’t all that’s keeping Jack in Flanders. For one there is Katia, the daughter of a local publican, with whom he has struck up a romance. And then there is something else, a secret that lies buried in Jack’s past, one he hopes isn’t about to be dug up…

I’m delighted today to be part of the blog tour for The Glorious Dead, Tim Atkinson’s fascinating novel about a little-known aspect of The Great War. Focusing on the soldiers who stayed to clear up the aftermath of four long years of fighting, the novel is a testament to the forgotten generation, as well as to those who endeavoured to preserve their dignity and memory afterwards. I’m so pleased to be able to share an exclusive extract from the second chapter of the book with you today.

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The old ex-RAMC ambulance bounces along across the weed-strewn cobbles of the Menin Road and into the Grote Markt. ‘That’s right,’ Ocker shouts as Blake, the platoon driver, eases off on the accelerator. ‘Give ’em one last ride to remember.’

The wagon stops and the engine judders to a standstill in the empty market square. Four years of constant shelling have left Ypres little more than a bombed-out ruin, but just three months after the Armistice the roads have all been cleared and piles of stone line the streets, covered in a thin layer of snow.

‘Right.’ Sergeant Townend jumps down from the cab, and runs his stick along the canvas sides of the truck. ‘Everybody out!’

‘They can’t hear you, Sarge,’ a muffled voice replies. ‘You what?’

‘They’re all flamin’ dead!’

Lined up inside the ambulance, sewn into sacks tied with luggage labels, the results of the morning’s exhumations drip and settle on the wooden stretcher shelves.

‘Come on,’ Jack says, unbolting the tailgate of the old green Albion lorry that has been following the motor ambulance back from Zonnebeke. ‘I’ve had enough of this.’

‘Me too,’ says another soldier, jumping down and wiping his brow with a tartan handkerchief.

‘What’s the plan then, Jacko?’ asks Ocker as he watches Sergeant Townend turning on his heels and striding off across the cobbles.

‘The plan?’ Jack narrows his eyes and frowns as he stares after the NCO. ‘That depends on where’s Townend’s going. Anyone know?’

Skerritt grunts and raises his hand. ‘Anyone who can talk!’

‘Said he was going to see that the coolies have dug the graves,’ Ocker says. ‘Before we all march over there and tuck these coves in.’

‘The what?’ says Fuller. ‘Coolies?’

‘Y’know – little Chinese fellas,’ Ocker puts a finger to the corner of his eyes and pulls the skin tight.

‘Well he’ll be lucky,’ Jack says, ‘after what happened yesterday.’

‘Wha— why?’ Fuller shrugs. ‘What happened yesterday?’ ‘Later, sunshine.’ Ocker slaps a hand on Fuller’s shoulder.

‘When you’re older.’

‘I’m bloody nineteen I am!’

‘Yeah, yeah – and I’m the King o’ the flamin’ Belgians.’ ‘Come on,’ says Mac, folding up his handkerchief. ‘Put us all

out of our misery. What did happen yesterday, Jack?’ ‘A Chinaman were murdered,’ Jack says. ‘That’s all.’ ‘Murdered?’

‘Aye, lad, killed.’

‘The fate you took so much trouble to avoid, son,’ Mac mutters.

‘But?’

‘Aye. An’ now they’re all confined to barracks at De Clijte until they catch the bugger that did it.’

‘Then what, Jacko? What’ll they do to him?’ ‘Shoot ’im, I reckon.’

‘Shoot him?’

‘Someone really ought to tell the coolies that the flamin’ war is over,’ Ocker laughs. ‘Don’t you think?’

‘Poor wee beggars.’ MacIntyre stuffs the tartan handkerchief back into his tunic pocket. ‘Have yer no seen the conditions they’re working under?’

‘Poor flamin’ fools, more like,’ says Ocker.

‘Never mind all that now, lads,’ Jack interrupts. ‘We’re wasting precious time here. Townend’s going to be at least half an hour before he finds out what’s actually happened. He’ll be expecting t’Chinks to have dug t’graves ready for this lot.’

‘So he’s got a bit of a surprise coming.’

‘Aye. Now, what about Ingham? Anyone know where he’s off to?’

‘Well he won’t be digging no graves!’ says Fuller. ‘Not officially, anyway.’

‘Nah, he’s gone to fetch the sky pilot,’ Ocker tells them. ‘If he can find one, that is. So, anyway, I reckon, as that’s Ingham and Townend taken care of . . .’

‘What?’

‘I reckon we’ve time for a beer, if we’re quick about it. What d’you think, Jacko?’

‘Why not,’ Jack says. ‘The local?’ The men all cheer. ‘The local!’

The ‘local’ – such as it is – is little more than a  wooden hut above the cellar of Monsieur Steenvan’s old café on the bombed-out corner of Station Straat and Malou Laan in Ypres. Not much to look at. Not that the men mind.

‘The crafty old bugger certainly seems to have a knack for making money,’ Ocker says. ‘Skittles off to Poperinghe within minutes of the Jerries taking over back in 1914 . . .’

‘Someone had to make sure the British Army’s thirst was quenched,’ Mac interrupts.

‘. . . and then as soon as the fighting’s over he’s back in Ypres like a shot staking the family’s claim on its old estaminet.’

‘Not that there was much left of it by then,’  says Jack. ‘There is now, though, ain’t there?’ Fuller says. ‘Thanks to us!’

‘Less of the “us”, sunshine.’

‘I ’elped him build it an’ all,’ Fuller protests. ‘You wasn’t the only ones scrounging bits of wood and old corrugated iron for him.’

‘Keep yer voice down, will yer,’ Jack hisses.

***

The subterranean world of cellars and crypts close to the railway station in Ypres is proving fertile soil for the new buildings that are rising from the city ruins. Entreaties from the British to leave the area untouched go ignored. Only round the ancient Cloth Hall and the cathedral is no building work allowed. A stencilled sign swings on a wire that surrounds the cordon sanitaire. A solitary guard nods as the men hurry past.

THIS IS HOLY GROUND

NO STONE OF THIS FABRIC MAY BE TAKEN AWAY IT IS A HERITAGE FOR ALL CIVILISED PEOPLES

‘Only the British Army could make a bloke stand guard over a pile of rubble,’ Ocker says to the sentry. ‘Worried the locals are going to pounce on you and rebuild the place while your back’s turned are you, mate?’

‘Actually, you know, that’s exactly what they are worried about,’ says Blake.

‘What’s that, mate?’

‘And he hasn’t even had a drink yet, either!’

‘Yeah, but don’t argue with him. He’s armed and dangerous, ain’t you, Blakey? Armed with that Bible that goes everywhere with ’im.’

But Blake is ignoring them. ‘I can think of no more beautiful monument to the dead . . .’ He stops for a moment, closing his eyes as he tries to remember the rest of the speech he has read in the papers.

‘What? No more beautiful monument than this old pile of stone?’

A more sacred place for the British race does not exist in the world.

‘Blimey,’ Fuller laughs. ‘Who the hell said that?’ ‘Winston Churchill, actually.’

‘Oh, yeah?’ the boy says. ‘Has he ever seen the place?’

‘Aye, lad,’ Jack says. ‘Commanded one o’ the Jock battallions at Plug Street Wood. Isn’t that right, Mac?’

‘It is so.’

‘Well, either way, it’s just a heap of bleedin’ rubble now,’ says Fuller.

‘Oh, fair dinkum, mate, it’s a very nice pile of rubble!’ ‘Cleared a lot of it myself,’ says Jack. ‘And under fire, an’ all.’ ‘No doubt when this wee chicken-hertit callan’ – Mac turns, poking Fuller in the chest with his finger – ‘was still tied ti’is mammy’s apron strings.’

‘Me mam was ill,’ the boy snaps.

‘Aye, laddie, we know. She tied the apron strings tae tight.’

***

The men hurry down Boter Straat, turning left towards the Rijkswachtkazerne. A cart piled high with furniture squeaks down a narrow alley followed by an old dog with a limp. Heading into Station Straat, the men arrive at the door of the ‘local’. A painted sign above the door reads ‘British Tavern’, but Jack isn’t ordering drinks in English.

Zes pintjes, er . . . asjeblief?’ He removes his cap and walks up to the bar. Two locals in heavy coats look up briefly from a game of cards. Another customer smiles, but not at them. A young girl laughs before the woman serving turns and begins drawing down a jug of beer. ‘Hey, lass.’ Jack ruffles the girl’s dark hair. ‘What’s does little Françoise find so funny?’

‘You!’ the girl replies with a cheeky smile. Along the bar her elder sister Katia stands decanting a foaming mug of cloudy auburn liquid from a pewter jug. A line of chipped earthenware tankards stands waiting in a row along the wooden counter. Katia knows Jack’s order, however he chooses to say it.

The bar of what was once a modest family hotel is little more than a low trestle table set before a row of wooden barrels. The larger casks tilt forward slightly on the cracked stone floor. Wine flasks with brass taps squat on the shelf above, together with a few old, unlabelled bottles. ‘Why do you try to speak Flemish?’ the little girl asks. Jack takes the first of the mugs the barmaid has filled and closes his eyes, taking a long, slow drink.

‘Why not?’ He licks the moustache of foam from his lips. ‘It is grappig, that’s all.’

‘Funny? What, me saying it in t’first place?’ Jack says. ‘Or the way I say it?’

‘Both,’ Françoise replies, wrinkling her nose.

‘Well,’ Jack shakes his head and pouts. ‘That’s a fine way to encourage a chap who’s trying his best to learn the local lingo.’

‘Don’t be sad!’ the girl looks up him at him.

‘How could I be sad,’ Jack smiles, picking Françoise up and spinning her round, ‘with thee here to make me laugh. Friends?’ Jack puts the girl down and offers her his hand. ‘Vrienden?

‘Vrienden!’ the girl smiles.

‘Now, Françoise’ – he passes her the tray – ‘be a good girl an’ take these over to the men, will yer? I just want to have a quick word with your big sister.’ The girl curls her fingers round the edges of the tray, without once taking her eyes off the beer. ‘Steady now!’ Jack calls. ‘Be careful, lass. Them lads is thirsty!’

‘You should not ask her to do that, Jacques.’ The older girl is standing watching, smiling, idly circling a tea towel on the bar. ‘She is too young.’

‘She’s not!’ Jack says. ‘I were doing more than carrying trays when I were her age, I reckon.’

The woman smiles and shakes her head. ‘I think I can imagine!’

‘Anyway, how else is a fella going to get a moment to himself with—’

Bier alsjeblieft!’ The young woman breaks off to serve another customer. Their brief conversation moves too fast for Jack to follow, but it is obvious that the man is something of a regular. She is getting him a glass Jack notices – a clean one, too.

‘Hey, Katia, geef me een kus!’ The man is dangling a crumpled banknote in the air like bait. As Katia reaches for the cash the man snatches it away, grabbing her wrist with his free hand.

Nee!’ the woman is struggling. ‘NEE!

He pulls her towards him and puckers his lips before looking around. But nobody else is laughing.

‘Cheers!’ Jack leans across and clinks his mug – hard – into the man’s round, stemmed glass, spilling some of the beer. ‘Cheers, yer fat Belgian bastard.’

‘Cheers?’ the man looks puzzled for a moment. ‘Cheers?

Vaar kom je vandaan?

Hij komt uit Engeland.’ Katia is smoothing down her apron and replacing a pin in her hair.

‘Ah, English!’ the fat stranger shouts. ‘You are English.

Tommy?’

‘No – Jack.’

‘Ha, ha – erg grappig. Very funny.’

Françoise, ga in de rug en haal papa. Vertel hem de heer de Wulf hier.’

The girl trots off behind the counter to fetch her father while Katia resumes the slow, circular movement of the towel she is rubbing on the surface of the bar. Her hair, hurriedly pinned back after the brief exchange across the bar, still escapes in a few loose strands. Her cheeks are flushed with embarrassment and anger.

‘Hey, Jacko, you joinin’ us, mate?’

‘Ah, he’s too busy with the langue d’amour!’ ‘I’ll be along in a minute, lads.’

‘We haven’t got all day, you know.’

‘Yeah, come on, Jacko,’ Ocker says, bringing back the empty tray. ‘We’ve time for another if you’re quick about it.’

‘Blimey, that can’t have touched t’sides,’ Jack picks up one of the empty tankards.

‘Thirsty work, grave digging,’ says Ocker. ‘You should know that, Jacko.’

‘Love?’

Katia picks up the pewter jug. The barrels only travel a short distance by road from the brewery in nearby Poperinghe, but the beer is always lively. Monsieur Steenvan’s eldest daughter, as her father taught her, is taking great care filling each of the mugs in turn. But time and the men’s thirst are pressing.

‘Happen I’ll take these over,’ Jack tells her, putting the half-filled mugs on a tray. ‘Bring us the jug across later. We’ll top ’em up for ourselves.’

‘Hey, je negeert me – you are ignoring me.’ The fat man with the beer glass is turning to address the half-empty room. ‘They are ignoring me – Tommy and his girlfriend. Look at them.’ He laughs, making another grab for Katia’s hand, knocking the jug she is holding in the process. ‘Hey! Give that to me. I need a top-up, too.’

‘Look, mate, there’s a flamin’ queue here,’ Ocker says, elbowing past the man to help Jack with the tray.  ‘And  you’  –  he shoves the man away – ‘you’re at the back, you fat ugly bastard.’

Jack catches the stranger’s arm as he shapes to throw a punch, but he can’t prevent him sticking out a boot and send- ing Ocker, together with the beers, crashing to the floor. ‘Now that weren’t very friendly, was it?’ Jack pulls the man back, sharply.

‘Let go of my arm,’ he winces. But Jack’s grip tightens and he twists the man’s wrist, forcing the stranger to turn sharply in an attempt to unwind from the pain.

‘Leave this to me, Ocker lad.’ Jack shoves an arm up the man’s back, but Ocker is already scrambling to his feet and aiming a full-blooded punch at the fat man’s gut. As he doubles over, Ocker’s knee cracks hard into the man’s jaw through a cushion of soft flesh. Jack releases the grip on his wrist and the man goes sprawling across the wet floor.

‘No, please – stop!’ cries Katia, holding her hands to her face.

‘Come on, lads.’ Blake is standing up and flapping his arms. ‘Enough! No need for violence.’

But Ocker hasn’t finished. ‘You want your mates to know you’ve been in a proper fight, don’t you, cobber?’ He kneels beside him, lifting the man by the scruff of the neck and slapping his cheeks.

‘Smashed a perfectly good jug there too, Ocker. As well as spilling our beer.’

‘Reckon we ought to rub his fat face in that, Jacko. What do you think? After all’ – he lifts the man by the scruff of the neck again – ‘obviously missed the main event, didn’t you, mate?’

‘Too bloody fat to fight,’ says Jack. ‘Wouldn’t fit that gut in t’trenches.’

‘Come on now, lads, you’ve had your fun,’ Mac interrupts. ‘And I want my beer.’

Katia has turned away and is already filling up another jug. ‘That’s enough now, Ocker. Come on – the beer’s ready.’ Jack takes the fresh jug Katia has just filled and moves towards the table.

‘Enough? Mate, I’ve only just started!’

‘Later, Ocker. Leave it. You’ll have the redcaps on us if you aren’t careful.’

The fat man struggles to his feet, slipping on the wet floor but suddenly smiling as he drapes a heavy arm around Ocker’s shoulders. The few remaining customers in the tiny bar have fled, leaving their cards on the table. ‘We are all friends here, heh?’ the fat man is slurring. ‘Heh! Heh?’

‘Jeez, this guy’s a nutter,’ Ocker shakes his head. ‘You should’ve let me finish him off just now when I had the chance.’ Jack starts picking up the broken pottery shards, placing them back on the sticky tray. ‘Sorry, love. Tell your pa we’ll make it up to him. But he won’t miss that jug. Not when he sees what else he’s got coming to him.’ Katia calls to someone in the back room of the estaminet. ‘Scrounged a few elephants the other day. Some decent lengths o’ timber, too.’ ‘Elephants?’ She looks puzzled.

‘Aye, lass. Old sheets of iron just like them ones.’ He points to the ceiling. ‘I’m sure your pa will find a use for ’em. As well as all the other stuff.’

‘I can find a use for them,’ the fat man shouts, wiping his face on a handkerchief. ‘I can pay for them,’ he reaches in his jacket pocket for a wad of notes. ‘With this!’

‘They’re not for sale,’ Jack says.

‘Ha, Steenvan pays you in . . . beer, no?’ ‘No!’

‘Ah!’ He turns and winks at Katia. ‘Maybe la belle Katia is what you are after, eh?’

‘I’ve told you,’ Jack says, ‘they’re not for sale. ‘Not to you, anyhow.’

‘But, Jacques,’ Katia slowly shakes her head, ‘you don’t understand. Monsieur de Wulf is—’

‘Hey! Wat is er gaande?’ Her father appears at the curtained door between the small kitchen and the bar. His dark eyes flit round the room before noticing the broken pottery shards on the bar.

‘Katia!’ he shouts. ‘Wat gebeurt er?

Het was een ongeluk, papa,’ the girl spreads her hands and shrugs. ‘An accident . . .’

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The Glorious Dead by Tim Atkinson is published by Unbound and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Unbound, Amazon and Waterstones. Many thanks to Tim for sharing this exclusive extract with us today, as well as to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for organising the tour. Tour stops continue until 09 November so please do check out other stops for more on the book. 

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