Ninevoices have warned in the past of the dangers of being in Oxford if you’re a fictional character, and we’ve also extolled the works of other writers’ groups. The two come together in The Bodleian Murders and other Oxford stories, produced by the OxPens group in 2016.
This is the third of five collections of short stories OxPens have produced. It was a gift from my daughter and I’ve much enjoyed its variety. Some of the stories are University-based – such as of course the title story – but others are set elsewhere in the city or in the Oxfordshire countryside. Rural Bliss (set in a village near Chipping Norton) is a warning to husbands of the risks of not taking seriously enough your wife’s delight in rearing sheep. Oggi (set largely near Henley-on-Thames) is about bodgers, craftsmen who make chairs to order from wood they have, er, liberated from woods nearby.
History is well served. Burning Words takes us back to 1555, when the mere ownership of a book inscribed by a burned heretic could bring great danger. In The Stunner from Holywell we see the creation in 1857 of a beautiful painting by Rossetti and what happens to it a century later. Colin Dexter appears in Just Keep Going, with encouraging word for uncertain writers.
A Visit from Social Services describes just that, and shows us the perils social workers face making house calls on the elderly. In Time for the Wake mysteriously links Oxford with a funeral in Nigeria. The Festival of International Art and Scholarly Culture, Oxford farcically takes us back to the excitement of Olympic year in 2012, when the local Arts Committee decide to join in the festivities in ways that may mean that the dreaming spires won’t get back to sleep for a long, long time. The death count in The Bodleian Murders rivals that in an episode in Midsomer Murders, and that in only ten pages.
There are 15 stories in all. Lack of mention of the other 6 here shouldn’t be taken as any form of criticism at all! Thanks, OxPens. (http://www.oxpens.co.uk/)
ISBN 978-1-904623-24-3 RRP £7-99 Available from Blackwells post free http://bookshop.blackwell.co.uk/bookshop/home Profits from the book are shared with Oxford Homeless Pathways (formerly Oxford Night Shelter).
https://ninevoices.wordpress.com/2015/12/26/stay-away-from-oxford/ speaks for itself.
Other writers’ groups that have featured on this site:
https://ninevoices.wordpress.com/2016/01/26/delayed-reaction/ (the Just Write group in Amersham)
It seems that self-promotion is now part and parcel of being a writer, whether self or traditionally published. But where should the line be drawn?
Discovering that Marcel Proust, the creator of the iconic In Search of Lost Time, cunningly wrote a critic’s review citing the first volume Swann’s Way as a ‘little masterpiece … almost too luminous for the eye’ will hardly shock anyone in the business today. Proust was just ahead of his time.
Authors are bombarded with advice on how to promote their books, especially on social media. While it isn’t ever suggested that posting fake reviews of their own work is a good idea, the advice to authors is relentless, even ruthless, enough. There is no room for shrinking violets in this game.
Readers certainly like to be informed about a new book by an author but they may well begin to feel annoyed and manipulated if the chasing is too hard-boiled. Like ‘an insane cuckoo clock’ was the expression describing it that caught my eye when researching the subject on the internet. Is this what marketing on social media can turn into? The last thing many writers feel like being part of.
But I can feel Proust egging me on. Maybe not to write a lyrical review about a ‘little masterpiece’ of my own, but to point to a couple of prize-winning short stories in ninevoices’ writings. Maggie Davies’ Till Death Do Us Part won a Henshaw Press competition and Tanya van Hasselt’s Marshmallow Truth won the subscribers ‘Changes’ competition in Writing Magazine. Whilst the writing style in the latter story is nothing like that of my two self-published novels, it was both fun and fulfilling to try something new. Thank you Writing Magazine for this encouragement.
Each year I try to write a Christmas short story, usually with a murder in it. With varying success. I find I have contradictory emotions on just having finished The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories by the great PD James. On the one hand I realise that what I produce comes nowhere near the quality of these stories. On the other, I’m spurred to greater effort.
These four stories aren’t festive tales. And at the same time they are so atmospheric. PD teases us about what we’re reading: in one she says that the butler and his wife, the cook, are “indispensable small-part characters in any country-house murder”; and in another Adam Dalgliesh is flagged down on a country road on Christmas Eve, when “… his first thought was that he had somehow become involved in one of those Christmas short stories written to provide a seasonal frisson for the readers on an upmarket weekly magazine.”
The Mistletoe Murder (1995) is set in wartime, at a Christmas house-party in a practically empty country house. The period is well evoked, as is a pervading sadness. A gruesome killing takes place and there are very few suspects. The clues are there for us, but I didn’t manage to work it out. The ending was beautifully unexpected. A story told with real atmosphere.
A Very Commonplace Murder (1969) is a sordid story set in Camden Town, involving a voyeur who spies on lovers in a house opposite his place of work. The scene of adultery becomes a scene of murder.
The Boxdale Inheritance (1979) is an Adam Dalgliesh story. He is asked by an elderly Canon (his godfather) to investigate a murder that happened in 1902. An inheritance depends on it. That ancient crime took place in another gloomy large house, with a family assembled for Christmas, a family riven (as is de rigueur in such a setting) by jealousy and greed. Unbreakable alibis abound. The principal clue to the solution is presented to the reader but in such a way that I sailed straight past it.
The Twelve Clues of Christmas (1996) also features Adam Dalgliesh. One Christmas Eve he finds himself at an unwelcoming Harkerville Hall, deep in Suffolk, faced with a bizarre apparent suicide. Again, members of a divided family are in attendance. Our hero solves the mystery by spotting the twelve clues of the title.
He concludes that story by observing, ”My dear Aunt Jane, I don’t think I’ll ever have another case like it. It was pure Agatha Christie.’” You’re too modest, Lady James.
Talking of Agatha Christie – one of the few whodunits I’ve read a second time is Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, which I reread in order to see where the clues to the solution were. And yes, the main clue is there: as clear as day when you know its significance, but when read the first time it’s hidden in plain sight as just a piece of description. Similar to that in The Boxdale Inheritance.
So: if at this early stage you’re looking for a seasonal stocking-filler for a whodunit-lover, The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories would fit the bill. And if you’re yourself a writer of Christmas short stories, here’s a standard to aim for!
Many best-selling authors started their careers by writing short stories.
I don’t believe this particular young man succeeded with ‘O Henry’s Corner’ on this occasion, but I suspect his liking for obituary columns proved inspirational for his later books.
So – write a short story. There are plenty of competitions around. Hint, hint…
An ingenious way of combining short stories together to make a novel: I’ve much enjoyed The President’s Hat, by Antoine Laurain (first published in France in 2012, and in translation in England in 2013).
The book tells the stories of the various unrelated people who one way or another come into possession of a hat: in each case, after they do their lives change. Spoiler alert: what follows does reveal some of the action.
Disgruntled accountant Daniel Mercier is treating himself to a seafood platter in a crowded Paris brasserie, when he is asked whether he would mind three newcomers taking the spare places at his table. He agrees and then, to his amazement, President François Mitterand (no less) and two companions sit down, eat and talk amongst themselves. Daniel subsequently finds that whenever he eats an oyster he hears the words “As I was saying to Helmut Kohl last week …” When they leave, Daniel finds that the President has left his hat behind. He takes it. His life changes for the better.
Short story writer (hurrah!) Fanny Marquant is the next owner, after Daniel accidentally leaves the hat on a train. A problem in her love life is resolved, and she is inspired to write a prizewinning story (hurrah again!).
Perfumier Pierre Aslan [sic] is the next wearer of the hat. This brings us extraordinary descriptions of scents of all descriptions, and of the perfume-making process. How the hat affects Pierre, or how it itself gives rise to a new scent, I’ll leave you to find out.
Upper-class Bernard Lavallière is next, and here we move between his conservative, rich milieu and Paris’s trendier, lefty artistic community. In the course of his story we attend a ghastly dinner party in the first world and an equally awful reception in the second.
The stories are sewn together by Daniel Mercier’s efforts to locate and retrieve the hat. And just when we think it’s all over, we get a bizarre twist in the epilogue.
I found this book great fun. And very French: I can’t recall any novel in English revelling to anything like this extent, over and again, in the sheer pleasure of eating good food. And the settings and the sense of Parisian life seem so true.
The translator is named just as ‘Gallic Books’. Well, my congratulations to the she, he or they whose identity/ies lie behind that. And my thanks to my sister who gave me this book as she liked it a lot and thought I would too.
So if you have some short stories that might add up to a novel, see whether you can come up with an ingenious linking-up idea like this.
Gallic Books, RRP £8-99, ISBN 978-1-908313-47-8
A Czech student’s evocative account of a party in London on the night of the EU referendum and what it might mean for her future has won the British Czech & Slovak Association’s most recent writing competition. The first prize of £300 was awarded for Ms Bernhardt’s Brexit, by Jennifer Moore.
Jennifer is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in numerous publications, including The Guardian and Mslexia. She read English Literature at Cambridge University and is a previous winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Competition. She lives in Devon.
The second prize, worth £100, went to The Pig, the Cupboard and the Reichsprotektor, by Jack Mullin. It’s a comic tale, based on a true incident that took place in Bohemia in 1942, in which an clever Czech householder goes to great lengths to prevent his pig being requisitioned by the occupying Germans.
Jack has lived most of his life in Ayrshire, working for the Butlin family and the Rank Organisation. In 1971-72 he moved to Prague, where he married a Czech, Libuse, and worked for a time in a local engineering factory and then at the British Embassy. He has now been retired for 18 years.
The BCSA aims to raise public awareness in Britain of Czech and Slovak life in all its aspects – including history, politics, science, economies, arts and literature. It puts on a series of cultural and social events throughout the year and publishes the quarterly British Czech & Slovak Review, a cultural and political magazine. The competition is for writing about the links between Britain and the lands now comprising the Slovak and Czech Republics, or about society in transition in the Republics since the Velvet Revolution in 1989.
The BCSA will be running the writing competition (its sixteenth) again in 2017. Entry is free. For more information e-mail email@example.com.
Our picture shows Jennifer Moore and Jack Mullin (right) with the BCSA’s Competition Administrator, Edward Peacock, when they received their prizes at the Association’s Annual Dinner in London recently.
Bath Flash Fiction, Earlyworks Press, Fifty Word Competition, Flambard Poetry Competition The London Magazine Fifty Word Competition, Flash 500 Novel Opening Ouen Press, Ouen Press, The London Magazine Short Story Competition, UCG International Literary Prize
With ninevoices’ member, Tanya, winning two writing competitions this summer, Val winning another, and Sarah being short-listed, I make no excuses for urging everyone to attempt at least one of the following competitions. There are lots of them, so something for everyone:
Bath ‘Rolling’ Flash Fiction Awards. Their current competition is for up to 300 words, with prizes of £1,000, £300, and £100. In addition, the fifty long-listed story writers will be offered publication in an anthology. Deadline October 16. Details from bathflashfictionaward.com
Flash 500 Novel Opening Chapter and Synopsis. Send 3,000-word opening chapter, plus a one-page synopsis. Entry fee is £10. Prizes: £500 and £200. Details from http://www.flash500.com Deadline October 31.
Earlyworks Press Short Story Competition. 8,000-words. Fee: £5 for up to 4,000-words; £10 for over that length. Prize: £200. Details from http://www.earlyworks-press.co.uk Deadline October 31.
Ouen Press Short Story Competition. This is for a factual story of between 3,000-10,000-words. The theme is: The Journey. Entry is free. Prizes are £300; 2 x £100. Details from http://www.ouenpress.com Deadline October 31.
East London’s Writeidea Festival 2016 has a Short Story Prize aimed at writers who have not previously been published (comforting to know you won’t be competing with Hilary Mantel!). They are looking for up to 3,000-words, in any genre. There is a first prize of £300, with four runners up each receiving £50. The closing date is October 10 and entry is free. Details on their website: http://writeideafestival.org/
The WOW Awards 2017 invite entries of fiction and poetry. In each category there are first and second prizes of 750 Euros and 150 Euros. The winners and five shortlisted entrants in each category will be published in an anthology and ten shortlisted writers will each receive 30 Euros. The stories may be up to 3,000 words and the poetry entries up to 100 lines. There is a fee of 15 Euros per story and 10 Euros per poem. Deadline is October 31. Website: http://www.wordsonthewaves.com
The London Magazine Short Story Competition want stories of up to 4,000-words on any theme. There is a first prize of £500, a second prize of £300 and a third prize of £200. The winning story will be published in the magazine and the deadline is October 31. Details from http://www.thelondonmagazine.org
The Flambard Poetry Prize, awarded by Newcastle Centre for the Literary Arts to honour the achievements of Flambard Poetry Press, is for a group of five poems, which must be original and unpublished. First prize is £1,000 and a second prize of £250. Each poem must be a maximum of forty lines. There is a £5 entry fee per group of five poems and the deadline is October 31. Details can be seen on their website: http://www.ncl.ac.uk/ncla/competitions/flambard
The UCG International Literary Prize, is a new creative writing prize run by Hammond House Publishing in association with the University Centre, Grimsby. They are asking for between 2,000-3,000-words on the theme of conflict. There is a first prize of £500, a second prize of £100 and a third prize of £50. Winners will also be published in an anthology. With an entry fee of £10, the deadline is October 30. Details from their website: http://www.hammondhousepublishing.com
Last, but by no means least, why not have a go at our very own FIFTY WORD COMPETITION – inspired by the spooky photograph on our blog of today’s date? The prize may not be huge, but entry is completely free and £25 would fund a couple of pretty good bottles of wine or some other treat to inspire your further writing. The deadline is on THE STROKE OF MIDNIGHT on October 31. See below for details.
Good luck! Remember, someone has to win these prizes. Why not you? But DO remember to check all details on-line in case there have been changes or we have inadvertently interpreted them wrongly.
Does everyone else have a drawer stuffed with short story manuscripts?
I have. These are stories which over the years I’ve sent out to competitions in spasmodic bursts of energy and confidence. When they didn’t win a prize – to be fair this wasn’t actually surprising! – back they went into the drawer.
Sometimes they were pulled out again a few months later. A fresh eye might iron out a few ungraceful sentences, get rid of those sneaky verbal tics, change the opening sentence. Now it’s got a new coating of paint surely it’s in with a chance!
But no. The judges in another competition still didn’t like it. This time it’s harder to understand. WHAT IS WRONG with this story? Another tweaking? Maybe, but possibly it hasn’t got the essential bones. No amount of face lifting is going to disguise that.
Yet there is the occasional story in that pile which you are especially proud of. It’s your favourite and you know you can’t make it any better by fiddling around with it in the hope of pleasing someone else. Is this when you need to have faith in your own judgment?
Across the River , which won a Writers’ Forum magazine competition and is published in the October issue, is one I first wrote a dozen years ago and has had only tiny changes made to it since then, for it was written with a rare feeling of rightness and is sharp with memories of childhood and the Beaulieu river.
Yet this story failed to impress the judges of several competitions though it was once shortlisted; nor did it appeal to Woman’s Weekly magazine. It’s not until this year that my belief in it was vindicated. Thank you Writers’ Forum magazine and Lorraine Mace their short story judge.
I’m also especially pleased at the way the story has been illustrated with an evocative photo of a boy rowing a dinghy, wearing one of those bulky life jackets that I remember so well. Thanks are due to the magazine’s editor for this perfect choice …
Altogether it’s been worth the twelve years of waiting. Perhaps we should all have another look through that bottom drawer …
If you like beautifully written short stories with ‘heart’, do pick up October’s Writers’ Forum and read Across the River, the winning entry in its monthly competition (by ninevoices’ Tanya). As judge Lorraine Mace says, ‘Tanya paints a heart-breaking picture of a boy who believes he is the reason for the cracks in his parents’ marriage.’ But that’s not the end of the story – which builds to a gentle, well-observed climax you don’t see coming.