Vicky Newham


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Four of my favourite panels at CrimeFest 2014

ImageI really enjoyed the following panels. This is a personal selection, based on what interests me as a reader and writer, and as a human being. I have tried to quote people accurately, and/or to convey the essence of what was being discussed but it will inevitably be a selective account.

 

Death in high heels: women as victims

The panel consisted of: MR Hall, Jessie Keane, Jessica Mann, Martyn Waites and Ruth Dudley Edwards as moderator.

ImageThis panel kicked off to a controversial start with Jessica Mann saying that the cover of a crime novel now has to have an image on it of a tortured woman. This sent a bit of a ripple through the audience. Jessica has written 21 crime novels and reviews them, so I assume she has some evidence for this statement but I’m not sure I think it’s true. Or perhaps it’s the word ‘torture’ that bothers me. Jessica said that levels of sadism and torture have increased in crime fiction. I think most of us would agree that this is true, overall, and I have noticed changes and trends in cover design but I don’t think they have necessarily changed in the same direction. A popular crime fiction cover is the ‘anguished woman’ on her own in a bleak landscape. I have seen dead female bodies on covers but I haven’t noticed this as a trend, or even that it is something particularly common. But, is a dead body on a cover that shocking? Okay, it might not be that subtle but we are talking about crime fiction after all.

In terms of convention it is often women who are victims in this genre. At a criminology lecture I went to a few years ago, given by Prof David Wilson, we were told that certain groups of people are often victims of violent crimes because they live on the fringes of society or under the radar. He said that they are often disempowered, voiceless and anonymous and therefore ‘easy’ targets. He cited prostitutes, the homeless and illegal immigrants as examples. Women as victims of real life crimes tend to attract attention when reported in high profile cases, for example, the Suffolk strangler. Other statistics tell us that young men are usually both the perpetrators and victims of violent crime. So, does fiction have to mirror society? Does it have a duty to be realistic? And, if it should portray reality, which reality? Do you read books to be thrilled, shocked, repulsed? For escapism and entertainment? Or to be made to think? Or does it vary? I know with my own reading I have definite moods, and often read a couple of books at a time to give me the variation I want.

Martyn said that it would appear that women don’t seem to mind violence given that more women than men read crime fiction. Jessie Keane said that her readers don’t have a problem with the violence in her books.

The panel then discussed whether the increasing violence does any harm, whether it depraves and corrupts. MR Hall says that he thinks it probably does, and that he is slightly squeamish about violence in his books. He said that what interests him is why women consume crime fiction when some of it is so violent. He said that it’s difficult to say what is and isn’t gratuitous in terms of violence. I agree with this. I’ve heard authors saying that it’s intrinsic to their plot or characterisation. And I’ve read crime novels where the violence has felt excessive and unnecessary. Interestingly, MR Hall said that he thinks that TV handles violence cleverly, that it often gets behind the violence. To some extent I think this is true, as it can show a victim’s life, personality and relationships – but then so can a novel. I think that some TV drama handles violent crime very well but I have noticed that some of it has become a bit sensationalist and thrill-seeking. I turned off a couple of episodes of Silent Witness in the last couple of years as the first few scenes had half a dozen or so murders, all shown in quite a graphic way. To me it felt like shock tactics.

Martyn mentioned that he’s based a couple of his plots on real crimes, citing embryo stealing and cannibalism. I wonder if this makes a difference to how a book is perceived?

One of the panel members said – and I didn’t make a note of who – that if violence is well written it is literature and if it’s badly written it’s torture porn. Initially this irritated me but when I thought about it I decided that in a way it is true: it’s all in the writing. For me, though, it’s not just that: I am bothered by the form that violence takes and what motivates it, also by how it’s framed and explained. For me, reading and writing crime fiction is about the exploration of what motivates people to commit hideous acts and how these acts affect both the person who’s committed them, and the victim and the people around them.

I had several questions I wanted to ask but in the end I didn’t ask any of them.

 

Entertainment or issues: does a crime novel have to have something to say?

This panel included: Simon Kernick, Michael Malone, Andrew Taylor, Robert Wilson and Sophie Hannah as moderator.

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Sophie started off asking the panel whether the topic was something that they worried about.

Robert said yes, and that he likes to tackle issues head on but also in the spirit of a Noir novel: as entertainment. With regards to what comes first, Robert said that it was setting then characters then story then issues. He cited the example of his book set in W Africa, in which school girls are captured and sold to cure people of HIV/AIDS. Michael agreed that setting is important for him too and that often issues just ‘find’ him through that. Simon said that he doesn’t think about whether his books have anything to say. He just wants to write a good story which people will enjoy. Robert said that his readers don’t reach for his books for light entertainment, that he deliberately makes demands on them.

Discussion then moved to whether issues can be part of the story. Sophie gave the example of Murder on the Orient Express which she says has two messages: that the seemingly impossible sometimes isn’t impossible, and that the murderer isn’t always the most guilty person.

Andrew said that for him his process starts with setting then story then a title, and that questions and themes emerge. He said that for one of his books it was: could someone like me kill, and if so, under what circumstances? (Perhaps also, could I kill, and if so, in what circumstances?) He said that in his first book, the Anatomy of Ghosts, he wanted to explore the various ways we can be haunted and by what.

Next came discussion of whether readers can take against a book which overtly ‘has a message’, or which someone perceives to have a certain message. Sophie referred to how it can be a strange experience when someone says, ‘Oh, you’ll like this book because it’s about x’ when this is just their opinion, especially when you read it and don’t think it’s saying the same thing at all.

Next came discussion of whether readers make assumptions about authors based on gender. Simon said that he thinks there is a perception that female authors write about issues in more depth. This led on to discussion of whether how a book is marketed can hinder it sometimes, for example, if it’s marketed as a thrill-a-minute read, it might not receive literary acclaim.

Sophie said she wondered whether all crime novels ask moral questions, along the lines of ‘Is this a good guy with some bad points or a bad guy with some good points?’ This is similar to the idea that most behaviour – and people? – are morally ambiguous. The panel discussed how the topic of moral ambiguity can be floated via the use of a ‘What if?’ question as the starting point for a story. Both Sophie and Andrew said that they liked using these.

 

Nicci French and Lars Kepler: when two pens are better than one

This included: Sean French, Nicci Gerard, Alexander Ahndoril, Alexandra Coehlo Ahndoril, with Maxim Jakubowski as moderator.

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This is the second time I’ve seen Sean and Nicci talking about writing together, and I find them both fascinating to listen to: warm, open and funny. It would be easy to think that they were always going to end up collaborating as they went to the same university and studied the same subject (but didn’t know each other). Then, when they were both working on the New Statesman, they used to read each other’s pieces and swap feedback.

Nicci said that she wanted to be clear that writing a novel with another person isn’t easier than doing it on your own. It’s not half the work, and although you have another person to share the highs and lows with, the actual writing process can be difficult. She said that their first book came about because they stumbled on the phenomenon of recovered and false memories and agreed that they had such a good plot idea that if they didn’t write about it, someone else would. This book became the Memory Game.

Alexander was writing mainstream books when he met Alexandra. She was an actress then and he ‘lured’ her into writing historical novels. They said they started collaborating to break the loneliness of writing. Alexandra says that they feel they owe a lot to Stieg Larsson, and that their name, Lars, is a tribute to him.

Something both couples agreed on was that it was important to have one name on the book cover, that two would be a distraction: the reader would wonder who wrote which sections. They also agreed that they have very different writing styles from their partners, and that they work hard to give their books a single voice which isn’t either of theirs, which is characterisitcally ‘Nicci French’ or ‘Lars Kepler’. Nicci said that how this comes about is a ‘mysterious act’, it’s ‘uncanny’. I’ve heard Sean and Nicci say this before and you get the impression that they genuinely don’t really know how it all comes together and that they are both slightly surprised (but pleased, obviously) that it does.

Both couples said that they each write separate scenes or chapters and then e-mail them to each other. Alexandra and Alexander sit side by side when they are writing, whereas Sean and Nicci work in different parts of the house: Sean in the shed at the bottom of the garden and Nicci in the attic. Nicci said that the ideas for their books come out of their marriage, and that they plan and plot their books together. Both couples referred to the need for trust between them, to drop egos and to believe that the other person, when changing work, will do so for the better. Nicci talked about how in their collaboration, they prod each other into areas they might not otherwise go, and that often what they end up with is very different from what they’d envisaged or planned.

Finally, they discussed how they switch off given that they work and live together. Nicci and Sean said that they don’t switch off really, that writing is their way of exploring things that they’re scared about. Alexandra said that they also tend to live, dream and think each book 24/7 but, because they have small children, they have a rule that the children are their priority.

 

Keeping us in suspense: thrills and chills

This panel had: Isabelle Grey, Penny Hancock, Claire Kendal, Robert Wilson, with Stav Sherez as moderator.

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Stav introduced the topic by referring to Hitchcock, who he describes as the master of suspense, and to Hitchcock’s examples of the ticking bomb (suspense) and the bomb that explodes suddenly (surprise). Stav mentioned how crucial time is to suspense and asked the authors how they use time in their writing, and how they controll it.

Claire said that The Book of You spans eight weeks, and that this was a deliberate technique to control time. Penny said that the plot of Tideline ran over seven days. Isabelle said that she doesn’t think about chronological time when she writes.

Next, Stav asked whether suspense is a technical thing, or whether it stems from ‘character’ and from the reader having empathy with the characters. Isabelle said that there are ways of creating suspense by setting up questions to which the reader wants answers, and by doing this in a clever way, for example, by layering the questions. She gave the example of the question ‘Is x going to happen to y?’ and how it becomes more interesting if the question is ‘If x happens to y, how will y be affected and what might y then do?’

Claire said that she thinks that character, language and empathy all intertwine to create suspense. Stav mentioned how suspense can be created by unsettling the reader’s expectations. Robert said that he has multiple PoVs in his novels, and that he switches between them to create suspense much in the way that Stav suggested. Penny explained how in The Darkening Hour, she has a dual narrative and the reader doesn’t know who the goodie is and who’s the baddie. As the reader never knows who’s telling the truth, this creates suspense.

Discussion then turned to whether it creates suspense if the writer doesn’t know what is going to happen in the novel, that if the writer knows too much, does this ‘telegraph through’ to the reader? Claire said that she planned her novel out before she started writing. Robert said that he doesn’t plan before he starts writing, and Stav says that it takes him several drafts to decide who’s responsible for the crimes, that it takes him this long to decide what serves the story best.

Finally, in response to a question, the panel discussed how tense and PoV might affect suspense. Isabelle said that she always uses 3rd person. Claire used 1st and 2nd person PoV in The Book of You because she specifically wanted intensity and immediacy.

How to create suspense has to be one of my favourite topics in writing. I honestly could have listened to the panel discussing it for another hour.

 

Vicky Newham © 2014


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The debut author panels at CrimeFest 2014

Having just realised that I went to 20 panels at the weekend and wrote 42 sides of notes, I’m going to break up my blog posts. This one covers the debut author panels. It is, of course, a personal summary of what touched and inspired me.

Some of the photographs are better than others: photography wasn’t easy in one of the rooms as the panel was positioned with windows behind them, hence the dark pics in some instances, or use of ones from when the panels were setting up.

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I find these sessions fascinating for a number of reasons and it is such a pleasure to see and hear authors, whose first novel has recently been published, talking about them with passion and excitement. When they mention how long they’ve been writing for or how long they’ve dreamed of seeing a novel in print with their name on it, it fills me with joy for them. I also find it interesting to hear what their influences are, and how their backgrounds and jobs inform or have enabled their novel writing.

Thursday’s panel kicked off this year’s convention. Authors were: AK Benedict, Ray Celestin, VM Giambanco, Sarah Hilary and David Thorne, with Jake Kerridge as moderator. I’d met Alexandra and Sarah for the first time last year at CrimeFest, and it is particularly lovely that since then both of their novels have been published and are doing extremely well.

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There was something on this panel for everyone and book settings included Essex, Seattle and Cambridge. I enjoyed hearing about the authors’ backgrounds and how these led up to, and have contributed to, their novel writing. Here we had a highly creative bunch of writers with backgrounds including film editing, music composition, and comedy writing.

Discussion turned to how their plots came about and what clinched their choice of location. David said that moving to Essex prompted his plot and how one of its themes is whether people can ever escape their origins. Valentina discussed her wish for a setting that offered both urban landscape and wilderness (Seattle). Her detective is the new girl on the squad, which I think sets up an exciting dynamic. Alexandra’s time travelling serial killer had me dashing off to the bookshop despite having The Beauty of Murder on my kindle. She was captivating to listen to and I predict huge success for her. Ray’s book is based partially on a true story of an unsolved crime, which interests me in terms of the necessary weaving of fiction and fact. Sarah said that when she devised her plot she wanted to write about domestic abuse, not as a polemic but through story, to make readers question what they know.

Friday’s panel included: MJ Arlidge, Mason Cross, Jake Woodhouse, Kate Griffin and Colette McBeth, with Jake as moderator again. It was interesting to hear about how the authors got published and also whether they told anyone they were writing a novel and hoping to get it published (two of them didn’t).

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Kitty Peck and the Music Hall Murders is the book that resulted from a competition win with Stylist magazine and Faber by Kate Griffin. Her protagonist stood out for me: Kitty, the ‘naïve but ballsy’ seventeen year old trapeze artist in an East End music hall in Victorian Times. I have a feeling that this book is going to grab people’s imaginations. Mason mentioned that luck had helped him to get published: he posted work on the website, Authonomy, and was contacted by an agent. He calls it ‘luck’ but the fact is he wrote the piece that was spotted and took a gamble. His writing has been compared to that of Lee Child.

MJ says he was influenced by Stieg Larsson and Larsson’s protagonist, Lisbeth Salander. He has nursery rhymes as the titles of his books in a nod to James Patterson. Jake discussed how James Ellroy’s American Tabloid had influenced him. In his (Jake’s) novel he has three characters, each of whom has equal weight in the narrative. Colette said that Precious Thing is a book about ‘appearances’, and how things are often not as they seem or as they are presented. She said that she’d had the story in her head since she left university. Colette took a Faber Academy novel writing course which she said was very good. The panel also discussed how much research they did. Most of them said ‘very little’, and commented on how research can be a displacement activity and distraction.

The panel on Saturday had: Clare Donoghue, Matthew Frank, Rob Gittins, Claire Kendal and Paul Mendelson, with Laura Wilson as moderator.

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Clare, an ex-lawyer, talked about writing Never Look Back whilst she was doing an MA Creative Writing and said that her journey to publication has been quick. She was one of two debut authors I heard say they map out their plot using a spreadsheet. Rob Gittins writes for a range of TV dramas and has come up with an ingenious witness protection plot. Claire Kendal teaches English and Creative Writing. She said that her novel, The Book of You, is a homage to Samuel Richardson’s book, Clarissa. It exaggerates the common phenomenon of unwanted attention into stalking, which often has an inbuilt escalation to it. She said she wanted the voice of her protagonist, Clarissa, to be fevered and intense. The way that Claire spoke about this book got me scuttling off to Foyles again, and I even broke my hardback rule in the process!

What I found interesting on this panel was that whereas Clare said that her path to publication had been quite quick, Claire and Rob talked about a more protracted process. I think this shows how different everyone’s experiences can be and that it’s important to have no expectations when you’re writing. Furthermore, that you have to be prepared to be in it for the long haul and the sheer love of writing.

Paul had success early on with a script he wrote, but said it took him a while (and twelve non-fiction books) to find his fiction voice. He chose to set his book in South Africa, a place he’s stayed in. Matthew described his protagonist detective who is just starting in CID. This is a fresh take on things, a departure from the popular Detective Inspector, and will open up interesting possibilities for his character as well as creating challenges for him. I’m curious to know more.

Sunday’s panel included: Neil Broadfoot, James Carol, Charlotte Williams, Emma Kavanagh and Rebecca Muddiman, with Laura Wilson as moderator again.

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The backgrounds of these authors definitely made me prick up my ears as three of them overlap with passions and interests of my own. James is a horse trainer and riding instructor and Emma has been a psychologist with the police and military, specialising in trauma. Charlotte has worked as a psychotherapist, and sings and plays folk music. Emma talked eloquently about how there are many degrees of normal, and how different people’s reaction can be to a situation, hence choosing a plane crash for her novel, Falling. Emma, like Clare Donoghue, also mentioned using a spreadsheet to map out her plots.

James didn’t mention that he had any horses in his book but Charlotte talked about how the stories of Raymond Chandler, and her training, made her interested in having a female protagonist in a room and an attractive man comes in as the set-up for her story. She wanted to examine how normal people can be driven to murder. Neil had the audience oooh-ing when he said that he had interest from a publisher via a tweet when he was shortlisted for the Dundee prize.

Rebecca completed an MA Creative Writing. She has won two acclaimed writing competitions, the second of which resulted in her publishing deal. She discussed writing about an experience which she’s not gone through, that of being a mother, and how she then had to extend this to how a mother would feel if their child was kidnapped.

These were my panel-inspired purchases. I am looking forward to reading all three.

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In many ways the backgrounds and writing experience of these twenty authors couldn’t have been more varied but they also had a number of things in common: they all came accross as highly creative, for one; some of them had studied writing formally, some hadn’t; and some of them plan in a highly detailed way whilst others plunge in. What struck me most, however, was their commitment to their projects and to writing the best story they could.

Vicky Newham © 2014


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My experience of Crimefest 2013

Back home from Bristol, and I’m still basking in the afterglow of Crimefest and feeling rather floaty. People are asking how it was. Well, pull up a chair and I’ll tell you all about it….

The panels were excellent, with interesting panelists and well-informed moderators. The topics were varied, interesting and useful and offered something for everyone, regardless of whether one was a writer, reader or publishing person (we’re all readers, after all). I have to confess to being a kit of a keeno and went to ‘something’ in almost every available slot, but this wasn’t exactly a hardship (although pretty tiring). That said, I didn’t go to any sessions which I didn’t enjoy or learn from, and most of them far exceeded my expectations. This photograph is from the Crime Fiction and Moral Hypocrisy panel.

20130531_160613The best thing about the weekend had to be hearing from authors whose books I’ve been reading, and talking to them, some briefly and some in more detail. I find it so inspiring and exciting to hear writers talk about their work: what made them want to write; how they got into writing and got published; why they wanted to write a particular book; how they set about researching and writing it; what they love and hate about writing; their new projects.

It was also fabulous to chat to people I’ve been conversing with on Twitter over the last twelve months. Many of these are aspiring authors, like me, people who have also written their first book and are either seeking agent representation or are evaluating publishing options. To be able to share our hopes, dreams, experiences and fears … well, there’s nothing like it. I found everyone to be be very friendly, and happy to chat, and being on Twitter certainly helped with introductions. Although calling people by their Twitter handle was a bit – er – weird!

It was also enjoyable to see and meet people I didn’t previously know of. Several authors spoke so enthusiastically about their work that I changed my opinion of their crime fiction sub-genre and promptly dashed off to buy their book. I mean this entirely positively: we all have reading preferences, and it is refreshing to be pushed out of one’s comfort zones and nudged into something slightly different. I also find it beneficial as a writer to learn about new genres and have realised that I love the overlap of the crime novel with horror, some sci fi, and, of course, the thriller.

I discovered several new (new-to-me and debut new) authors and bought their books too. My embarrassing new writer crush has to be Pierre Lemaitre (too many reasons). Other new-to-me authors include: Valerio Varesi (beguiled by his language and book settings); Robert Goddard (what a clever and amusing man); Simon Toyne (it was the mid-life crisis stuff that swung it); Yrsa Siguroardottir (just, wow!); Hanna Jameson (what an assured, articulate debut author). In total I came back with twenty new books. Yes, my credit card was far busier than I’d promised myself, and I’m still stroking book covers and sniffing beautiful cream pages. Here are some of them.

20130603_202727The accommodation given to the conference was excellent. Crimefest had a self-contained area on the second floor of the Marriott with several rooms for the panels, sessions and signings, and there were toilets and an area for the book stalls and refreshments. This gave the conference a friendly feel, and most events were in this area. I spoke to several staff at the Marriott and they were all delightful.

I didn’t stay at the Marriott, and my accommodation at the Travelodge was great value. I paid £145 for 4 nights (I went down a day early). That was for a double room with en suite and shower. It didn’t include breakfast, or wi-fi in the room, but there was a TV and kettle in the room plus free wi-fi in the bar. The ‘five minute walk’ to the Marriott was accurately described and was along a well lit, busy road. I soon met people who were staying in the same hotel but I also felt perfectly safe walking up the road on my own.

On the downside, I didn’t think the lunches were particularly good value for the extra £8 but the Marriott is quite an expensive hotel so this was probably on par with £4-ish for a cup of coffee or tea. However, there were plenty of shops nearby where you could go and grab a sandwich, salad or some fruit. And the café opposite the Marriott did a mean espresso.

The only thing I didn’t enjoy was the Gala dinner but this was probably due to the fact that this was my first Crimefest. The e-mail that went round beforehand, asking us to nominate two people to sit with, might sound okay in theory but in practice I didn’t know anyone to ask to sit with and felt uncomfortable about requesting to sit with someone I didn’t know (Hello, stalker) just because I fancied talking to them (and especially since they’d no doubt have people that they wanted to sit with). I’m sure I read somewhere that tables would offer an even amount of writers to non-writers. Ours didn’t. The food was delicious but not very substantial, and given that the £40 ticket didn’t include any wine, I don’t think it offered good value for money. Just my opinion, however. Two possible solutions might be that a) newby delegates, who don’t know anyone, could perhaps be given a table with someone who could act as a facilitator, or b) that they are allowed to choose to sit with people they’ve got to know during the conference. To be fair, however, gala dinner organisation is always hard. Sorry, ex-teacher: can’t help going into problem-solving mode!

My favourite panels were: Death Overseas, because I’m fascinated by crime fiction in countries other than the UK; the everyman in a thriller, because the Simons Kernick and Toyne were hilarious, and should definitely set up a comedy trio sideline along with Kevin Wignall; Major cities, major crimes, because the cities discussed are so distinctive; both of Rhian Davies’ Fresh Blood panels, as all the debut authors were inspiring; Who makes the best protagonist, as it was fascinating to hear why each author chose their specific detective; and Barry Forshaw’s interview with Robert Goddard, see below. Due to clashes, I sadly missed a few panels which I wanted to go to.

20130602_111215Overall, it was a fabulous event, friendly, great value for money, and very well organised. I shall definitely go again, and would recommend it to anyone interested in crime fiction.

Vicky Newham © 2013


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In anticipation of Crimefest 2013

When the draft programme was published on the CRIMEFEST website, my indecision about whether to go evaporated and I booked my ticket and hotel. Since then there have been numerous anticipatory mutterings on Twitter about it, who’s going, who’s doing what. Several months later, here I am, in my hotel, re-visiting the programme and marking off the sessions I want to attend. Proceedings kick off today at 13.30 and I’m really looking forward to it.

I know from attending conferences when I was teaching how tiring these events can be. The days pass in a flash, and you realise that you haven’t eaten or drunk much water. But I also know how valuable and informative they can be. At CRIMEFEST, panel discussions are scheduled for the entire day, with no more than twenty minutes in between them to shuffle off – via the loo – to the next one. This provides excellent value for money, hurrah, but does mean that opportunities to chat to people are fleeting until the evening. And the bar, if you have the energy. Oh yes, the bar at these events is where the ‘hidden curriculum’ takes place!

I am looking forward to seeing, and hearing from, some of the people whose books I’ve been reading. It will also be lovely to say ‘hello’ to some of the folk I correspond with on Twitter, to put a name to a face, or a face to a book cover (… in the case of people who have their latest book as their avatar!). Unfortunately, a few interesting sessions clash and I’ve been trying to decide which to go to! As always, I have personal interests and professional ones. As a result of my previous incarnation as a teacher of A-level Psychology, and my continued interest in almost all things psychological, I am drawn to certain topics; the book I am writing, however, and those I have planned, will lure me into slightly different panel discussion rooms, such as ‘Underbelly – the gritty side of the street’ and ‘The changing face of London’. Other sessions which have caught my eye are: ‘The joys and pitfalls of technology in a crime novel’; ‘Moral hypocrisy in crime fiction’; ‘Crime & Crossover’, and the panels with debut authors.

It will be interesting to review the event on ‘the other side’. How will my my expectations sit with my actual experience?

Vicky Newham © 2013