Don’t delay, start writing straight away!

How to avoid doing things that will postpone your literary success

Not having the ideal office chair should not stop you putting pen to paper
Not having the ideal office chair should not
stop you putting pen to paper
People talk a lot about 'writer’s block' and how it can hold up a work in progress, but in my experience a far more dangerous thing to watch out for is 'writer's delay'. 

Not getting on with writing is often called procrastination, but I don’t like that label as it implies there is something deliberate about doing things to avoid writing, such as stopping to tidy your office, or sharpening all your pencils, or going on social media.

Many ‘How to Write’ books start with advice about finding a finding a suitable place in your house to write. Then there will be suggestions about what IT equipment you should have installed and many paragraphs will be devoted to the importance of choosing a comfortable chair.

I’m not saying any of these things aren’t helpful, but I don’t think they should stop you getting on with your writing if you already have some good ideas for a novel or a short story.

My advice would be to get your ideas on paper as quickly as possible. You can always type them up later and then revise what you have written as many times as you need to.

I recently read a book about how to write a crime novel that had several pages at the beginning dedicated to the importance of attending writers’ conferences, just to make you feel more like a writer!

I think that is a bad idea as it will just hold you up from starting to write. All you really need in order to get going are some strong ideas and a notebook and pen so that you can write the ideas down as soon as they occur to you. You should carry the notebook with you everywhere and note the ideas as quickly as you can while they are still fresh in your mind.

The other thing you need to do is to decide what genre your proposed novel or story belongs in and read some examples written by successful authors.

Make sure you carry a notebook and pen or pencil at all times
Make sure you carry a notebook
and pen or pencil at all times  
But you may well be a regular reader of the genre already, as most writers tend to want to write a book or short story of the sort they enjoy reading themselves. If you are already familiar with the genre, you can get straight on with writing. The main thing is to be clear about what type of fiction you are attempting to write before you start.

It is hopeless to try to write a detective novel, or a Regency romance, if you don’t ever read that type of book. If you write the sort of book that you enjoy reading yourself, you will already unconsciously have picked up the rules and conventions of the genre and will have a feel for what is right and what isn’t, as you write your own.

The plot of a book never comes to you fully formed, but you will get ideas for characters and settings as you go along and will need to make a note of everything that occurs to you straight away.

It can all be woven into a plot for a book with a beginning, middle and end and, hopefully, a satisfying conclusion for the reader, later on.

I sometimes get ideas for the novel I am currently working on as I am waking up in the morning. If it is the weekend, it is tempting to turn over and go back to sleep, and if it is a week day, you might be under time pressure to get up and start your day. But if you can possibly spare a few minutes after you have woken up, it is a good idea to write your ideas down in your notebook before they are lost to you for ever.

Another thing I find useful is a project book with coloured tabs separating the sections, so I can list in an organised way all the information about characters, setting, plot and themes that have occurred to me randomly and been jotted down in my notebook.

Of course, it’s nice to set up a smart, well-equipped writer’s office with a lovely, comfortable chair to sit in, but it should not be at the expense of getting on with your novel or short story.

It will probably be obvious where you will find peace and quiet in your house to write and you can make do with just the basic equipment and stationery you already have, to begin with. If you later find your chair is uncomfortable, just swap it with another one from somewhere else in your house.

Prolific and successful writers, such as Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins, probably didn’t waste a second thinking about their chairs, but just got on with writing all those books.

You could take a leaf out of the great Andrea Camilleri's books and write a letter to yourself
You could take a leaf out of the great Andrea
Camilleri's book and write a letter to yourself
If you do suffer from writer’s block after you have started the first draft of your novel, your project book, with its information about plot, setting, characters and themes, should provide you with the inspiration you need to keep on writing.

Another trick I have heard of is to just write anything you can think of on to the blank page to get yourself going, even if it is a couple of lines of poetry, or a paragraph of description that has no real connection with the story you are working on.

You could also take a tip from the great Italian crime writer, Andrea Camilleri, which I once read about in one of his Inspector Montalbano novels, The Potter's Field. Montalbano has reached deadlock in a case and can’t see any way forward, so he sits down and writes himself a letter, taking himself to task for his obtuseness and what he feels he has done wrong during his investigation.

You could write to yourself along the same lines and say: ‘Dear author, What is the connection between these two characters? Who has properties overlooking the field where the body was found and has your detective been to see them all yet? What would your protagonist usually do at this time of the day? How can you get him or her further forward with what they are trying to achieve?’ Usually, the answers you think of will help you get going with your story again.

But whatever you do, don’t let trivial things delay you from starting to write in the first place! You can wait until you have made some money from your first novel or short story before you buy yourself a smart writer’s chair!



Dame Ngaio Marsh had a lifetime love of the theatre

A detective novelist who brilliantly describes backstage life

Ngaio Marsh, who was one of the leading female detective novelists of her time, died on this day – 18 February – in 1982 in her native New Zealand.

Ngaio began writing detective novels in 1931 after moving to London to start up an interior decorating business.  Stuck in her basement flat on a very wet Saturday afternoon she decided to have a go at writing a detective story and came up with the idea for her sleuth, Roderick Alleyn, a gentleman detective.

Ngaio Marsh came to be seen as one of the Queens of Crime
Ngaio Marsh came to be seen as
one of the Queens of Crime
She sat down to write what was to be the first of a series of 32 crime novels featuring Alleyn, who she named after an Elizabethan actor, Edward Alleyn. Her detective was to work for the Metropolitan Police in London, even though he is the younger brother of a baronet.

Her second novel, Enter a Murderer, published in 1935, and several others, are set in the world of the theatre, which Ngaio knew well as she was also an actress, director and playwright at times during her life.

After leaving school she had studied painting before joining a touring theatre company. She became a member of an art association in New Zealand and continued to exhibit her paintings with them from the 1920s onwards.

Ngaio allows her detective, Alleyn, to meet and fall in love with an artist, Agatha Troy, in her 1938 novel, Artists in Crime.

She directed many productions of Shakespeare’s plays in New Zealand and Australia and the 430-seat Ngaio Marsh Theatre at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand is named in her honour.

In her 1946 short story, I Can Find My Way Out, which features Alleyn, Ngaio once again uses the theatre as her setting. A new playwright, Anthony Gill, is waiting nervously for the premiere of his first play at The Jupiter Theatre in London.

The female lead, Coralie Bourne, has been kind to him and advised him on his play, but the male lead, Canning Cumberland, is known to have a drinking problem and can be unpredictable, which worries Gill. Two of the other actors also resent Cumberland, one because he was given the best part and the other because he was given the best dressing room.

Meanwhile, Roderick Alleyn and his now wife Troy are entertaining a friend, Lord Michael Lamprey, for dinner. He is keen to join the police but his conversation with Alleyn is constantly interrupted by phone calls that are actually meant for a delivery firm. When one of the callers asks if they can deliver a suitcase to playwright  Anthony Gill at the Jupiter Theatre, Lord Michael thinks it would be fun to take the job as he has been unable to get a ticket to see the play.

Sophie Hannah's collection of stories is published by Apollo
Sophie Hannah's collection of
stories is published by Apollo
Before he reaches the theatre, the case falls open and he discovers a false ginger beard and moustache, a black hat, a black overcoat with a fur collar and a pair of black gloves.

On an impulse Lord Michael puts the whole outfit on and insists on being allowed to deliver the case in person to the playwright backstage.

As Coralie makes one of her exits from the stage, she sees him standing in the wings wearing the beard and black clothes and faints. The male lead, Cumberland, also reacts with horror when he sees him and locks himself in his dressing room.

Lord Michael continues to watch the play from the wings with fascination, although he becomes increasingly aware of the smell of gas. Eventually, he traces the smell to one of the dressing rooms, gains access and drags out the unconscious occupant, but sadly it is too late to save him.

He rings Alleyn and the detective arrives at the theatre with his men, where it does not take him long to discover that one of the actors has been murdered.

In just 18 pages, Ngaio sets up the story, establishes the characters and their relationships, brilliantly describes the dressing rooms, equipment and atmosphere backstage, drawing on her experience of the theatre, and allows Alleyn to solve the crime.

I Can Find My Way Out is among a collection of stories chosen by the author Sophie Hannah entitled Deadlier: 100 of the Best Crime Stories Written by Women. The compilation is also available in hardback

Along with her fellow Queens of Crime, Margery Allingham, Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers, Ngaio was to dominate the genre of crime fiction from the 1930s onwards with her novels, short stories and plays.

In 1948 Ngaio was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire for services in connection with drama and literature in New Zealand. She became a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire for services to the arts in the 1966 Queen’s Birthday Honours.

Ngaio’s autobiography, Black Beech and Honeydew was published in 1965. She was inducted into the Detection Club in 1974 and received the Grand Master Award for lifetime achievement as a detective novelist from the Mystery Writers of America.

Her 32nd and final Alleyn novel, Light Thickens, was completed only a few weeks before her death. The story revolves around one of her greatest theatrical passions, Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth.

Ngaio died in her home town of Christchurch and was buried at the Church of the Holy Innocents, Mount Peel.

The Ngaio Marsh Award is given annually to the writer of the best New Zealand mystery, crime or thriller novel. Her home in Christchurch is now a museum and displays her collection of antiques. On her desk lies her fountain pen filled with green ink, which was her preferred writing tool.

Ngaio Marsh’s 32 Roderick Alleyn crime novels and her collections of short stories are available in a variety of formats from or








Lonesome Road by Patricia Wentworth

Miss Silver is at her best as she pits her wits against a potential murderer

The latest Hodder paperback edition of Lonesome Road
The latest Hodder paperback
edition of Lonesome Road
The reader learns more about the background and character of the mysterious Miss Silver in this third novel by Patricia Wentworth to feature the elderly lady detective.

In Lonesome Road, published in 1939, heiress Rachel Treherne is convinced her life is in danger and goes to see Miss Silver at her office in London, after she remembers a friend mentioning the name of the private investigator.

Miss Silver is sitting at a walnut writing desk in a room that looks more like a Victorian parlour than an office. Rachel sees she is a little woman in a snuff-coloured dress with ‘what appeared to be a great deal of mousy-grey hair done up in a tight bun at the back and arranged in front in one of those extensive curled fringes associated with the late Queen Alexandra, the whole severely controlled by a net.’

She begins to have second thoughts about confiding in Miss Silver, but the elderly lady encourages her to say what she is worried about and so Rachel tells her that she thinks someone is trying to kill her.

Rachel explains that her father left her an immense fortune that she has to administer as a trustee. She has used some of the money to set up retirement homes for elderly people who are not very well off. The rest of the capital is tied up. She can leave it to her relatives in her will, but is unable to give much of it away now.

She has received an anonymous letter telling her she has ‘had the money long enough and it is someone else’s turn now’. This has been followed by two more letters, the third saying simply, ‘Get ready to die.’

Rachel tells Miss Silver she has had a narrow escape from falling down the stairs. Then her curtains were discovered on fire in her bedroom and someone tampered with her chocolates to try to poison her.

Patricia Wentworth wrote
32 Miss Silver mysteries
Several members of her family live with her in her house and she tells Miss Silver she loves them all and can’t bear to suspect any of them.

She arranges for Miss Silver to come and stay with her. Miss Silver says she is to tell her family that her new guest is a retired governess, which is, in fact, perfectly true.

It is the first time any clue about the mysterious old lady’s background has been given to the reader by the author.

Miss Silver also quotes the poet Tennyson twice during the meeting with Rachel and says she admires the great poet and frequently quotes him to her clients.

But before Miss Silver even arrives at Rachel’s family home, the heiress has had another brush with death, having fallen over the side of a cliff. She later says she felt sure she was pushed. She manages to cling to a bush growing out of the side of the cliff and is rescued by a friend who has come to look for her.

Going to stay in Rachel’s house in the guise of an impoverished retired governess gives Miss Silver the chance to observe Rachel’s family. She points out later that they talk to each other as though she isn’t there because they feel she is unimportant.

She quickly realises that Rachel’s older sister, Mabel, considers herself to be an invalid and wants Rachel to back her grown-up children financially in their various ventures.

There is one cousin who wants Rachel to spend her money on charitable projects she is interested in, while another cousin is clearly short of money and very anxious. A third cousin, who is an artist, wants Rachel to marry him.

Meanwhile, the maid, Louisa, who is devoted to her mistress, goes to desperate lengths to make Rachel aware of the fact she is in danger from her whole family.

Thank goodness for Miss Silver, who sees and hears everything while she sits in the background knitting.

Lonesome Road is well worth reading, if you like novels of suspense, as it maintains the mystery well and doesn’t let the reader relax until the final page. 

Buy the book from or




The Saltmarsh Murders by Gladys Mitchell

Sleepy village provides interesting material for Freud follower Mrs Bradley

The Saltmarsh Murders was the fourth Mrs Bradley mystery
The Saltmarsh Murders was
the fourth Mrs Bradley mystery
The Vicar’s maid is strangled only a few days after giving birth to an illegitimate baby that no one has ever seen in The Saltmarsh Murders, the fourth novel to feature the psychoanalyst and amateur detective Mrs Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley.

Conveniently, Mrs Bradley is staying at the Manor House in the village of Saltmarsh, as a guest of the local squire and she is only too happy to lend a hand with the murder inquiry.

As a professional psychiatrist and follower of Freud, Mrs Bradley finds a wealth of interesting cases in the village to test her theories on. She encounters a female resident who believes everyone in the village is some kind of animal and meets the bizarre inhabitants of a remote bungalow who have imprisoned their neighbour in the crypt of the church.

The story is told from the point of view of the young curate, Noel Wells, who lives at the vicarage and is in love with Daphne, the Vicar’s niece.

Mrs Bradley adopts Noel as her ‘Watson’, asking him to introduce her to some of the families in the village and also to provide her with secretarial assistance.

Noel is both terrified and fascinated by Mrs Bradley. He admires her brains and beautiful voice, but he hates being prodded in the ribs by her yellowed talons and is unnerved by her sinister cackle. Seeing Mrs Bradley through his eyes, when he does not completely understand her theories or why she is behaving the way she does, is amusing and also a clever device by Gladys Mitchell to keep the mystery going until the end of the book.

Some of the Mrs Bradley novels were adapted as a BBC TV series
Some of the Mrs Bradley novels
were adapted as a BBC TV series
Mrs Bradley’s investigation uncovers a smuggling racket and involves a corpse going missing, the vicar being locked up in the village pound and an exhumation being ordered, before peace can be restored to the sleepy village of Saltmarsh.

The book reveals a lot of interesting detail about life in England at the beginning of the 1930s. As a schoolteacher, Gladys is able to portray children and young people very well and, as in her first three books, she uses them as main characters.

Gladys wrote 66 novels featuring her amateur sleuth, Mrs Bradley, as well as mystery novels under the pen name Malcolm Torrie, and historical adventure novels under the pen name Stephen Hockaby.

She got off the mark in 1929 with Speedy Death, which introduced Mrs Bradley, and she never looked back, writing at least one novel a year throughout her career and gradually building a large and loyal following for her eccentric but brilliant detective.

Gladys was an early member of The Detection Club along with Agatha Christie, G K Chesterton and Dorothy L Sayers, but frequently satirised or reversed the traditional patterns of the genre in her novels.

In 1961, Gladys retired from teaching but continued to write. She received the Crime Writers’ Association Silver Dagger in 1976.

The last Mrs Bradley mystery was published in 1984, the year after the author’s death in Corfe Mullen, a village in Dorset.

The Saltmarsh Murders by Gladys Mitchell was first published in 1932 but has been republished by Vintage Books and is now available as a paperback or Kindle edition.

It is available from: or



Death in Ecstasy by Ngaio Marsh

An unusual setting for a 1936 detective novel with a closed circle of suspects

Death in Ecstasy is available as part of a Ngaio Marsh collection
Death in Ecstasy is available as
part of a Ngaio Marsh collection
When bored journalist Nigel Bathgate attends a meeting of a dubious spiritual cult just out of curiosity, he gets more entertainment than he bargained for. As he watches a group of people at the altar pass round a silver flagon of wine, he sees one of them drink from a jewelled cup and then immediately fall dead to the floor.

At first the other initiates think the young female victim is experiencing ecstasy, but then one of them notices her clenched teeth and ‘lips drawn back in a rigid circle’ and makes the others aware that she is dead. Nigel keeps his nerve amid the panic and asks to use the telephone to ring his close friend, Detective Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn of Scotland Yard.

Alleyn and Bathgate soon discover that the victim, Cara Quayne, a beautiful and wealthy young woman, was a deeply religious initiate who had been training for a month for the bizarre ceremony of becoming the Chosen Vessel at the House of the Sacred Flame.

Nigel’s suspicions had been aroused by the distinctive smell coming from the victim, who had died immediately after drinking the ritual wine. He and Alleyn quickly discover that the wine had been poisoned with cyanide.

As Bathgate was present when the death occurred, Alleyn allows the journalist full access to the investigation, allowing him to take notes while he questions the witnesses. He also encourages Bathgate, who in many of the novels serves as Alleyn’s ‘Watson’, to befriend  a young couple who were present at the altar when the murder took place.  This would of course not happen in real life, or modern detective novels, but I think the author can get away with it because the story was written more than 80 years ago.

The actor Geoffrey Keen played Marsh's detective Roderick Alleyn in TV adaptation
The actor Geoffrey Keen played Marsh's
detective Roderick Alleyn in TV adaptation
Alleyn takes the names of all the people who were with Cara at the altar. They are all suspects because any of them could have added the cyanide to the wine as they passed the flagon round. And at the top of the list is Father Jasper Garnette, the officiating priest.

This fourth Detective Chief Inspector Alleyn mystery by Ngaio Marsh, published in 1936, is a departure from the country house mystery that was so fashionable at the time. But it has a limited circle of suspects, as they are all middle-class people living in flats and houses in an upmarket area of London, who pay calls on each other and dine with each other.

Alleyn and Bathgate uncover the usual motives for murder, such as lust, jealousy, greed for money and unrequited love. They come across a significant clue when they find a book hidden in Father Garnette’s bookcase that falls open at a page with a recipe for home made cyanide. Ngaio is very clever with this clue, which keeps the identity of the murderer hidden until the end, and she provides enough twists along the way to distract the reader.

I would recommend Death in Ecstasy because it is a well written, satisfying puzzle that reveals more about the character of Ngaio’s series detective, Roderick Alleyn. 

Death in Ecstasy was adapted for television in 1964 with Geoffrey Keen in the Alleyn role, Keith Barron as Bathgate, Joss Ackland as Jasper Garnette and Nigel Hawthorne as a temple doorkeeper. 

One of three novels featured in Book Two of a Ngaio Marsh Collection published by Harper Collins, it is available from or