I’m a firm believer in the age-old idea that a good/bad break-up can teach you something. For many people reading, it’s likely a lived experience, too. Granted, the thing you learn might be, ‘Making a relationship from a should-have-been-a-one-night-stand met at a Hello Goodbye concert is a terrible way of finding love.’ But it’s still a thing, all the same.
The Break Up in my story was no different in that sense; by which I mean, it taught me a lot.
In my early days of writing, I was convinced to my absolute core that I could only and would only ever write poetry. I took that mindset into a Creative Writing MA, by the end of which I was steadfastly falling over myself to write ever-so-slightly-experimental short fiction. Choose your own endings; second person narratives; all the footnotes you can possibly imagine. I was hooked. And it became my first ever book.
From there, I tumbled into a life of crime – and psychological suspense.
I studied, researched, wrote crime and thrillers like there was no tomorrow. I had found my place, I decided, and I started to make a writing life around it. Part of that writing life led me to teaching, which I love. But one of the first thing I teach many of my Creative Writing students is: Don’t pigeonhole yourself. When a student tells me they can only write one thing, I take a sincere amount of joy in watching their surprise when they realise, actually, there are lots of things they can be writing because there are lots of things they’re good at.
I wasn’t putting this advice to good use in my own writing, though, where I was only ever working in one genre. So I bit the bullet – and I wrote something new.
The Break Up – a book with a very different name when I first wrote it – was like nothing else I’d ever written. It was fun, flirty, easy; by which I mean, I didn’t drag myself away from my writing sessions feeling like I’d been clobbered over the head with bad feeling – which, yes, can sometimes happen when you’re writing from the POV of a psychopath, which in crime thrillers, I often am. It was like nothing else. Though that also meant it pushed me in new ways, too. The plot fell together one way, then another – then another, during editing – and the themes seemed to change from sexuality to self-care, to arriving at a mixture of both by the end.
Now, The Break Up isn’t only a self-assigned challenge – it’s an actual bloody book! With a publisher, a publication date, and readers who have found it uplifting, funny, and an all-round easy read. It hasn’t all been roses; though I don’t believe it is with any book, in one way or another. But it has been a massive learning experience in writing, representation, and pushing myself. And it’s paid off, big-time.
My takeaway from The Break Up, then, is that actually, even when we’ve settled into something comfortable, reassuring and familiar, there’s still something outside of that that can surprise us. Sometimes, outside the comfort zone turns out to be a really brilliant place to be.
She closed her notebook and set it on the table in front of her, then folded her hands in her lap. The expression she wore was soft, somehow. It had been a long time since anyone had looked at me in that way. In the village I was known, yes; meaning people knew that I existed. But beyond the moniker, the occasional half pint of shandy, and the early morning walk for the weekend newspaper, people didn’t know me that well. It wasn’t a criticism of them though; they did try to suck me into village life when I’d first bought the cottage. But the lack of neighbours had been part of the place’s appeal. Though the isolation wore thin now and then. During those times, I reminded myself that this was exactly what I’d wanted – until now.
‘You want to know what happened.’
‘If I’m going to write about it, then…’ She petered out.
‘Of course.’ I topped up my cold tea with what was left of the milk. ‘He went missing for a short while, during which time there was a search. His body was discovered. There was a trial. The suspect was found not guilty. And now we’re here.’
She looked startled. ‘There are a lot of blanks in that.’
‘Yes.’ I glanced away from her. The sensation of being seen, studied, suddenly made me uncomfortable. ‘I suppose that’s what the project is for, to fill in the blanks.’
‘You said there was a trial, a suspect?’
‘Quite a lengthy one. There was a lot about it in the papers at the time, too.’ I swallowed the beginnings of a laugh. ‘And occasionally for the anniversaries of it all.’ The media hadn’t been especially good at leaving my husband alone during the aftermath of his death, and they’d made a meal of him since. There were documentaries, whole fandoms, my solicitor had told me; with half of the clingers-on believing one conspiracy and half of them fabricating others. Everyone loved a mystery, though, and the unsolved murder of a middle-class man in rural England had given the bloodhounds a taste of something worth reporting – re-reporting.
Prue grabbed the notebook again. I watched her slip easily back into professional mode. ‘Would it be okay for me to take your husband’s name?’
There was a long delay between my saying his name and her looking up. She hadn’t written anything down. And I imagined how, in the seconds that had passed, her brain must have connected the dots and formed a watercolour. She opened her mouth twice before anything emerged; first, just a noise before it could form fully as a word. The side of my mouth twitched but I did my utmost to level out the smile that was forming. I knew how it would look. Instead, I sat passive and waited for Prue to decide what happened next.
‘Roger Miller,’ she repeated then took another pause, and a breath so deep that I worried there’d hardly be enough air left in the garden for me. ‘Which must mean the suspect in the trial was–’
The Things I Didn't Do is available to pre-order on Amazon Kindle and in paperback by clicking here.
In January 2021, the university where I currently lecture (University of Wolverhampton, that is) gifted me half of a Post-Graduate module from their Popular Culture MA: Crime of the Century. In this role, I'd be talking PG students through the Jack the Ripper murders, and the ways in which these have been represented and re-presented in media outlets. This included everything from comic books and novels, through to documentaries and televised adaptations.
I was in my element. Though I soon came to realise that it wasn't just for the joy of teaching and the excitement of lively debates with students; nor was it exclusively because I was putting my own research background (the representation of female violence in contemporary crime fiction) to good use.
No, I soon realised what was actually happening was that my creative brain was kicking in, too, and a story was falling together...
I was and am utterly enamoured with the ways in which crime is represented in the media. There is a clear distinction to be drawn between those who are found guilty and/or not guilty through our country's legal system, and those who are tried for a second time through the media. The module I taught on was and remains much more varied than, 'What did the newspapers have to say about it?' Although if you cast an eye over the true crime documentaries - and everything else under this or a similar heading - that discusses crimes from the last century, you'll find that traditional news and media outlets aren't the only means for interrogating the "truth" of someone's crimes or misdeeds.
This is where Erica's story was born.
Erica is the first narrator of The Things I Didn't Do; an older woman living out her days in the countryside where she exists under a fake name to hide her past. Everyone who knows her now, knows her as Ruby. Anyone who knew her before, knew her as the woman found not guilty for murdering her husband...
Erica put me in a mindset of wondering what it must be like to have that crime follow you around for the remainder of your days. Through the book, and through Erica, I've tried to place a spotlight over the newspapers, documentaries, never-ending allegations, and consider how Erica - or another figure, even - would respond to that, and the burden it might place on her.
I don't want to be accused of laying sympathy at the door of a murderer, let that be said now. But Erica was found not guilty. So, is she a murderer at all?
The premise of the book is that Erica hires Prue, a ghost writer, with the aim of finally telling the truth of her story. Prue is to write Erica's memoir, detailing the events as they really took place. Though, of course, we have to then believe that Prue isn't hiding anything either...
The Things I Didn't Do is forthcoming with Bloodhound Books and it will be released on February 16, 2022. If you'd like to have the book waiting for you on publication day, it's now available to pre-order on Kindle for 99p, and it's also available to pre-order in paperback.
Warmest wishes and thank you for reading -
Imagine this: You see a loved one murdered. In the weeks after, you try to piece your life back together, knowing the person responsible still hasn't been caught.
Then, he writes you a letter...
What a strange note to be writing. I’ve restarted it ten times over to try to find a good way of beginning but I don’t think I’d find one so I may as well be direct and get it all over with. I’m the person who killed your mother. There are some people sick enough to make hoaxes out of these things.
So, so you can be certain, I came in through a window at the back of the house and your mother was in the bedroom. I thought I could hear her sorting through clothes. Then I saw her appear in the crack of the doorway. Only for a second. It wasn’t until the police let slip there’d been a witness that I thought it must have been you sorting through clothes that night. It must have been you she whispered to. I’d thought it was panic. That she was talking to herself. Not that that makes much difference I don’t suppose.
But look, Sarah, I wanted to write to you to apologise. You haven’t told the police what I look like which I suppose means you mustn’t know. That’s good for us both. It means we can hopefully move on from this. But what happened that night, what I did. I never would have done that if I’d known you were there – if I’d known you were watching. It’s a terrible thing to have seen and I’m sorry you had to see it at all. I don’t know whether the apology means much.
It won’t serve anyone well if you tell the police about the letter, Sarah. They can’t find me in a room full of evidence so they won’t find me from a slip of paper. But take the apology, would you, and know that I really do mean it.
Look after yourself, Sarah, and let this go.
Sincerely, yours –
Sincerely, Yours is now available to pre-order (for 99p for a limited time only). And so begins the flurry of nerves that comes with a new book: Will people buy it? Will people like it? Those readers who were kind enough to accept Advanced Reader Copies from me are saying nothing but kind things so far. That said, I am especially lucky to have a wonderful group of ARC readers at my fingertips and their kindness has been unlimited in these past months, so they're due a thank you in every book I write/publish/dream about from here on, I should say.
Well, them and my best friend who tirelessly contends with every creative crisis I have - and believe me, there are plenty of those to go around.
But enough about the panics! Let's get to the highs of a new book.
Sincerely, Yours is unlike anything I've ever written because it's told from the victim's POV. A hardcore fan of an unlikeable narrator, I've found myself drawn to the baddie in every thriller I've written. Intention and All I See Is You both have very questionable protagonists at the helm. Meanwhile Sarah, the lead for Sincerely, Yours, is a young woman traumatised by having seen her mother murdered. A strong and determined character, though, she manages to recover, to turn her life around and.... make plans for revenge.
Sarah's life is built around media reports of crime, true crime podcasts, and so much more. Throughout this book I ask - or try to ask - big and bad questions about how violent acts impact those involved, how they stay with them long after the event, and how others can feed off those experiences. But I spin a good story while I'm at it, too...
(If I do say so!)
The blurb for the book reads as follows:
When Sarah was seventeen years old, she hid in a wardrobe while her mother was murdered in the bedroom.
As the weeks and months passed, Sarah gradually moved on from the horror of that night and managed to settle into her changed family life.
After the police confirm that her mother was one of three similar victims the case goes cold. Until Sarah receives a letter: “I didn’t know you were there, or I would never have done that. Sincerely, Yours.”
And, so begins a terrifying game of cat and mouse as the killer collects more victims and continues to elude police, all the while, sending Sarah letters.
As the killer gets closer, Sarah wonders if she comes face to face with him, will she opt for mercy or murder?
Early reviews are saying:
"This book gripped me from the start and I struggled to put it down until I had finished it - absolutely amazing."
"This is a page turner of a book and one you will not want to put down."
"By far the best novel yet from Charlotte Barnes."
Sincerely, Yours will be released by Bloodhound Books on August 24, but it's available to pre-order now for just 99p. This is a promotional price for the first couple of weeks so if you're flirting with a download, now's your chance for a bargain while you're at it. The book will arrive on your Kindle, bright and early on publication day, with the option for paperback due soon, too.
Charley Barnes in praise of collaboration:
Imagine this: You read something in a book – it can be poetry or prose, drama or hybrid. Whatever the line, it sticks with you. You carry it around for days upon days and idly think, ‘God, that’s a good line,’ whenever your mind wanders back to it.
Now imagine being able to call the author and say, ‘This is brilliant, you know, truly brilliant.’
Now, imagine being able to write back.
For both Hierarchy of Needs: A Retelling and now Myth | Woman, that’s how it’s felt to work with Claire. She gifted me with polished and flavoursome boiled sweets and in return I wrote back about the hard candy crack of her descriptions. Both of our collaborative projects have helped me to grow as a writer, with descriptions, ideas and even interests spreading into areas I mightn’t have found on my own. It’s a joy, really, to have someone say, ‘But this is how I see it…’ and to have the time to sit and explore that view, and respond accordingly with your own language, structure, voice. Still, voice is an interesting area of conversation, too, in my experience of collaborating because there have been times, in both books that we’ve published, where Claire and I have looked back and said, ‘I honestly can’t remember who wrote that.’
Claire and I have – or had – very different styles of writing when we first came together. I think that may have even been part of the appeal; to see what one might loan from or to the other. We’ve upheld those separate styles in our own independent writings. But when we collaborate something genuinely special happens: we borrow words; share perspectives; split ideas down the centre and scrape out pearls that neither of us had considered the existence of before.
Note: If you’re sensing a sea theme, that’ll be Myth | Woman talking.
Of course, with every writing project there are lows. There are the moments of, ‘I just don’t know that this is any good.’ Collaborating has meant that these, too, have been shared though. When one has doubts, the other becomes the voice of reason. Fortunately, Claire and I have even managed to tag team this part of writing; when one begins to sink, the other becomes an airbelt.
Two projects, both now published, have given Claire and I a confidence in our work – as writers and collaborators. The overwhelming response to Myth | Woman so far has been a help along the way, too, giving us exactly the boost we need to catapult us it into our next project – which we are, of course, already planning…
Claire Walker in praise of collaboration:
Writing, by its very nature, can be a solitary activity. This can be what makes it so enjoyable – the space to let your imagination go in whatever direction it pleases. The flip side, though, is that it can be a lonely endeavour. What if you’re desperate to share with someone your discovery that merfolk appear in Noah’s Ark? Or, how about if you need to brainstorm the most effective way to present sunflower lore in poem-form? Sometimes, you need a writing partner to phone and say ‘so I’ve been reading this article and I’ve got this idea…’
I’ve been lucky enough to work with Charley Barnes on two collaborations. Our first co-authored pamphlet, Hierarchy of Needs: A Retelling, began after a chat in our local library café about the possibility of working on a book together. We chatted at length about what this might look like, and what subjects we’d be interested in exploring together. It turns out that - happily! - we have a lot of writing interests and instincts in common, and after a discussion that began with Attachment Theory and ended with plant lore, we hit upon the idea of re-imagining Maslow’s 1943 theory. We decided upon a call-and-response way of working and, as I’d had the seed of an idea for a ‘starter’ poem, I drafted the first piece for the book, nervously sending it to Charley for her feedback. I remember the excitement I felt when she emailed back her ‘response’ poem, and the joy of then using that piece to write my own response. The collaboration felt very natural throughout and, after placing the pamphlet with our publisher, it was also a source of reassurance and encouragement to have the support of a collaborator during the editing process – and very special to have someone to share the ‘we did this!’ celebration with on publication day. We’re very lucky to have been able to repeat all of this process (and associated emotions!) with a second pamphlet, Myth | Woman.
We’re now busily planning our next project. We’ve decided to branch out into a hybrid poetry/prose book, and are moving away from a purely call-and-response format into something more character-led. We even have field trips planned! Initial research has been exciting, and has confirmed without doubt that yes, indeed, sometimes you really, definitely, do need a writing partner to phone and say ‘so I’ve been reading this article and I’ve got this idea…’
You can keep up with Charley and Claire's work by following them on Twitter at @charleyblogs and @ClaireWpoetry.
All I See Is You is my new psychological thriller, forthcoming with Bloodhound Books on May 4. Now we're this close to the release date, I thought it was about time I shared a taster of what the book is really about. Scroll down now for a look at the blurb and a sneak preview taken from the opening chapter...
"If you can't remember being bad, does that make you good?
Meet M who works in publishing and enjoys watching people.
M suffers from memory lapses and has established an unhealthy relationship with Caleb across the street.
Caleb doesn't know M exists...
But when M starts to practice memory recall exercises, to learn the truth about past behaviours, it sheds light on this fascination with the man across the street.
Is M dangerous or just disturbed?
And is Caleb about to find out?"
Check out the first chapter below.
It seems strange to confess to something that you don’t know for certain you’ve done.
At heart, I’m an honest person. One of my earliest memories is of finding a man’s wallet on the pavement, not fifty yards up the road from our house. I picked it up and, without looking inside it, I took it home to my father. He glanced inside and made a show of checking the cards. But, when he thought I wasn’t looking, he took a slim fold of notes from the back of the wallet and stashed them into his trouser pocket.
‘Kid?’ He raised his eyebrow. At the age of nine, this felt like a challenge.
‘Nothing,’ I said, then went back to my business of identifying flowers along the roadside, which probably felt more important to me at the time anyway.
At heart, I’m an honest person, yes. But I’ve never been especially big on confrontation. One of the reasons this is one of my earliest memories is that my parents spent the majority of my formative years arguing with each other – not over me, I hasten to add. I was never a troublesome child – at least, not that they were aware of. But over pretty much everything else there was to argue about.
‘Did you pay the water bill?’
‘What do you mean you didn’t get beef?’
‘How are you breathing so damn loud?’
Minor issues, really, in the grand scheme of things. But it doesn’t take a therapist to work out that the issues they were arguing over probably weren’t really the issues they were arguing over. It did take a therapist to reassure me it wasn’t unusual that I couldn’t remember it all though. The first time I relayed my pick-and-mix childhood to a counsellor – at some point during my three years at university, when well-being is shoved down your throat – I asked whether it was normal, to have misplaced these things so easily.
‘What is normal?’ she asked.
I hate people answering a question with a question. But I said, as plainly as I could, ‘Being able to hold on to your childhood memories, for a start.’
She laughed. ‘They’re unpleasant though. Why would you want to hold on to them?’
‘Is that how it works?’
‘Sometimes.’ She made a note of something. ‘Do you remember everything bad that’s ever happened to you?’
It felt like a trick question. ‘I mean, how would I know?’
‘Okay, do you remember everything good?’
‘No, I suppose not. How could I?’
‘So, with this limited filing system available to our brains, why would we use that space up by holding on to memories that are bad, when we don’t even have enough space for memories that are good?’
It didn’t seem like the most sophisticated explanation for the human psyche I’d ever come across, but it sort of made some sense. For the years after that, I never thought there was anything strange in misplacing things that didn’t fit inside the proverbial filing system of my mind. Argument with a friend? No, thank you. An exam grade I wasn’t happy with? Absolutely not. Being fired from a job? Eesh, pass.
There’s a problem with that though.
See, at heart, I’m an honest person. But I’m not exactly the most reliable…
The Cutter, available to pre-order now, is the third and final DI Melanie Watton novel (but it can certainly be read as a standalone). A detective novel with a new twist, Melanie and her team find themselves tracking the murder of a celebrated taxidermist who lived in the local area.
Where does the book go from there? Well, not only is the taxidermist murdered but his studio is ransacked, and after close inspection it becomes clear that several taxidermy structures have been taken from the crime scene.
Strange, eh? Stranger still, soon after this initial crime takes place the taxidermy structures start to re-appear one at a time - but they're being left at other crime scenes, complete with messages.
The team soon discover that someone is coming... for Melanie.
A twisted tale packed with targeted crimes, The Cutter completes the DI Watton series with a bang and, to find out who makes it out from this cat and mouse game alive, you'd better get pre-ordering. Remember, too, that if you pre-order on Kindle you'll bag the book for just 99p and it will be delivered directly to your device on publication day, March 15.
To pre-order now, click here.
Yesterday (February 14) I launched my debut collection of poetry, Lore: Flowers, Folklore, and Footnotes, into the world. It's been a work in progress for some time - throughout my year as Worcestershire Poet Laureate, and since the tenure finished - so it's a joy to see it unleashed, with kind reader reviews already appearing.
I, like most writers who are about to launch a book, told anyone would listen - and a few who looked like they may have stopped listening - that I had a book coming out. This announcement by me was invariably followed a burning question from them:
"So, what's the book about?"
I would flick through one lengthy answer after enough before smiling and saying, "Mostly flowers."
And they would give me a look - that look - to suggest, "But of course it's about flowers. What else could poetry be about..."
At the launch yesterday, though, and while I continue to ferret around in the back-end of plantlore and folklore to find interesting tidbits, I realised that the book isn't really about flowers at all.
It's about the type of poisons used by tribesmen who are hunting. It's about the suicide tree and how many suspected homicides it may have been responsible for. It's about consent. It's about the ocean. It's about about witchcraft and feminism and loneliness and even, a teenie-tiny bit, about love.
When flowers have been used - which is often, I'll give you that - there is a footnote attached to explain an entirely different narrative. This is usually about a myth; or an explorer; or a wild historical event. Sometimes it's about folklore and medicine - or should that be "medicine" - that used to make the world work (or at least keep it going). In many ways, Lore isn't only a collection of narratives, it's a collection of sub-narratives; stories that have slipped down the cracks, and maybe a few that never even found air .
In a time where we are looking to the future, always, for something better, I've found one of my best distractions is sitting in the garden and looking at the past.
And, to me, that is what Lore is really about.
Praise for Lore: Flowers, Folklore, and Footnotes:
‘In these pages, Barnes has shouted Boo at me, and I am mute. Well, almost. These poems have the tender
touch of Naruder’s Love Songs and the bristling brutal barb of Anne Sexton. In Lore, she guides us through a
veritable Pre-Raphaelite landscape—as deadly and murky as it is full of life-giving sensuality. Ephemeral folktales and folklore are grounded by the historical and the place-specific, both aspects weaved together with deft precision. These poems come in the form of howling riptides and gentle splashes.’ R. M. Francis
Intention wasn't just my first novel; it was also the creative element of my Doctoral thesis. In my reading and researching, I struggled to find a female psychopath who didn't feel like a candy-cane version of her male counterparts. I wanted something grizzly, twisted - but also a woman. There are books like this, I know, but throughout my days researching these books it was starting to feel more and more like female psychopaths didn't have quite the same stance that males did - and I wanted to change that.
So Gillian, Intention's narrator, is as authentic as I could think to make her. She hails from an abusive household, she leans towards animal cruelty (consider that a content warning), and she's looking to cut her teeth. Coming of age meets serial killer fiction, Intention is a young psychopath's journey into killing, and you can read a sneak preview of the book here...
You want to know what it’s like. I can understand that; I wanted to know as well, I suppose. Ultimately, it’s like anything else that any one person does despite knowing that they shouldn’t. But they do it all the same, because they’re too familiar with the feeling that they’ll experience afterwards.
Life is so heavy most of the time. You’re struggling under the surface with a weight on you and what do you do? How do you find a way to breathe again? We’re all dying to know the answer – and don’t think that I haven’t noticed the wonderful irony there – but, lacking any feasible explanations for life’s largest dilemmas and questions, instead we simply guess.
We assume things that will improve our little existence. And these assumptions, they then become our unashamed justifications for whatever condemnable behaviours we throw ourselves into. ‘It makes life a little better,’ we say, excusing our tendencies to cheat on our partners, overeat unhealthy foods, smoke. It makes life a little better, and for the majority of us that is reason enough for anything.
Does any of this sound familiar? There must be something – one mostly harmless little thing – that you allow yourself. That one cigarette at the end of the day; that eye contact with a colleague you hold for a beat too long?
‘No human beings were harmed in the making of this bad habit,’ we remind ourselves; a disclaimer to our misdemeanours. It’s only a problem, you see, when people become aware of it, when people are hurt by it. That’s when the masses will frown and judge – as though that has become the benchmark for human depravity. You’ve hurt another human being? Well, that’s a line! But it’s a line that we love to see crossed, don’t you think? There’s nothing better than finding someone more evil than ourselves because those people really put things into perspective.
If you'd like to know more about Gillian and what she gets up to, Intention is available on Amazon Kindle now for just £1.99 (you can download it here).