My position is that I don’t find much difference. Crucial to both adult and children’s novels are pace, the creating of an immediate and intimate engagement with the main character, a proper story arc, having something worth saying, big trouble and at least one belly laugh.
On either side of the age divide, there’s one particular aspect of novel-writing that I like to emphasise. It is this: whether I’m writing for children or adults, I always moonlight as a murderess.
|the death mask of Maria Manning, murderess
I have been thinking recently about all the instruments of death I’ve deployed in my nine Venetian novels.
Venice is a city with a remarkably low crime rate, so I’ve had to test my creativity.
Working backwards … in my latest, The True & Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters, I used a laundry boat.
Given that The Harristown Sisters is all about hair, I’ve also inflicted more than one follicular assassination. I don’t want to say who or when or exactly how, but it concerns certain dangerous quack products for the hair. My sisters sell quack hair potions themselves, yet it is a surprise to them when one falls victim.
Women of the Victorian period used petroleum products to strip the grease from their hair, and it led to several deaths in both London and Paris. The Hairdressers’ Weekly Journal of 31 July 1897 warned how petrol vapour, being heavier than air, could invisibly flow from the point at which the liquid was applied to a flame, drawing an ignition back to the head. This was the fate of the twenty-eight-year-old actress Irene Musa (Mademoiselle Pascaline) who was having a lotion of petrol applied to her head when some drops fell, reaching a lighted stove nearby. The fire rushed to her clothes and hair. Struggling with the flames, the actress tried to throw herself out of the window. Her sister and a woman friend caught her by the feet just before she dropped several floors, but she died anyway of her burns.
|The recent Russian edition
of The Remedy
In The Floating Book, I wrote of the Syrian printer Johannes Sicculus, falsely accused of minting counterfeit coins. The tools of the two trades were similar and several early printers suffered bad fates. Sicculus’s hands are cut off and hung on chains around his neck before he is decapitated. This takes place between the two columns of the Piazzetta, the traditional place of execution in Venice. His death is witnessed with horror by one of my protagonists, Lussieta, married to a printer herself.
In Carnevale, I used horses and ice. The Grand Canal froze over six times in the 1700s. When that happened, the Venetians took to their newly solid byways with gusto, as this painting of 1708 shows (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)
There were even horse races on the Grand Canal. I used the ice-storm of 1791 for several deaths in the family of my protagonist, Cecilia Cornaro, a painter of portraits and lover of both Giacomo Casanova and George Gordon, Lord Byron.
That year, a grand tournament of horses was held on the solid green ribbon of the Grand Canal. The whole family had gone together to watch the event. We climbed the fragile wooden dais near the Carità church and found seats among a hundred other Venetians and a handful of dazzled snow-struck tourists. I sat with my nieces on either side of me, my mother and Sofia behind, and my father in front of us. The little girls thrust their tiny hands inside their panther-skin muffs; my father’s head looked pale and tender in the clear cold air.
With fanfares and flourish of flags the race began. There was a plume of glassy splinters as the hooves rutted the ice. At first the racers galloped in a smooth arrowhead formation. But seconds later a single horse and its rider lost their footing and slid loose from the pack. We saw the pointed head of the horse hurtling towards us and the rider with his mouth open in a silent scream. As the rider and horse collided with it I heard the backbone of the dais snap and then felt myself flying across the ice ….
Cecilia Cornaro faces a different kind of murder - the temptation to end herself when cruel man makes her life unbearable, stripping her of dignity and self-respect.
Byron has bombarded her with his fascinations. But what she believes is his passion turns out to be the shine of her own love reflected back. Soon enough, the monster leaps out of the mirror and commences to trample her, with cruelty or cold indifference which is crueller than cruelty. But fortunately Cecilia, nearly submerged in the swollen Grand Canal, almost letting go of her painful life, has a revelation …
In children’s books, you must, of course get rid of the parents. I have despatched parents in particularly Venetian ways.
In The Undrowned Child, I based my prologue on a real life incident in which a gondola was accidentally run down by a ferry. In my case, a murderous flock of seagulls provoke the tragedy, but again no spoilers as to how.
‘The fish ate her,’ people say….
In The Mourning Emporium, poor Renzo loses his mother to an ice flood.
A Heath Robinson contraption whereby the early winter sun is directed to melt an iceberg on which my heroine, Teo, is strapped.
I also ravage the city with ‘The Half-Dead Disease’.
The ship’s cat Sofonisba is made to walk the plank. (I must have been in quite a mood when I wrote that book, as I even kill Queen Victoria.)
In Talina in the Tower, it is Ravageurs – hyena-like creatures who roam Venice with French pretentions, fearsome appetites and murderous intentions.
In Talina, I also deploy death by scorpion. Venetians nursed a superstition about witches, that these ladies could kill by burying a scorpion, wrapped with the victim’s hair, in a pot of sand. As the scorpion slowly expires, so does the owner of the hair.
|A witch placing a scorpion into a pot in order to make a potion.
Etching by F. Landerer after M. Schmidt.
These glistening Venetian glass scorpions are made by the hand of a master craftsman at a beautiful shop near San Tomà, and never hurt a soul, despite their terrifying realism. I did, however, find a dead one next to my bed in Venice the year I wrote Talina in the Tower and was somewhat perturbed, being infected by the Venetian superstition that these sinister creatures signify sad and dangerous journeys.
|my domestic scorpion
But the villain of the piece ends up being pursued up the dim ramp that winds around the bell tower interior by two Sea-Saurs. With the consequences you’d expect.
Here's a miniature Saur I found on my terrace the other day.
Again, perfectly friendly.
Anyone like to tell us about interesting murder weapons they've deployed recently?
Michelle Lovric's website
The True & Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters was published by Bloomsbury UK on June 5th this year. This week sees the publication of the American edition, also by Bloomsbury but with a new and very different jacket.