Tuesday 3 May 2016

Book Preview: The Body on the Doorstep by A J MacKenzie

Writing is traditionally seen as such an isolated pursuit that it's exceptional for a book to be the work of more than one person. A misconception perhaps; just reading the acknowledgements page of any novel reveals a team of family, friends, editors, publishers and publicists who have all helped breathe it into life.

Still, I was fascinated to find that The Body on the Doorstep was written as a collaboration between Marilyn Livingstone and Morgen Witzel, an Anglo-Canadian husband-and-wife duo, under the pen name of A J MacKenzie. You can read more of their writing challenges and triumphs below.

The first in the series of Romney Marsh mysteries, The Body on the Doorstep particularly caught my eye when it was mentioned in the same breath as one of my all-time favourite books to review, M J Carter's The Strangler Vine.

Kent, 1796. Smugglers’ boats bring their illicit cargoes of brandy and tobacco from France to land on the beaches of the Channel coast.

Shocked to discover a dying man on his doorstep - and lucky to avoid a bullet himself - our alcoholic Reverend Hardcastle, with a colourful past, finds himself entrusted with the victim's cryptic last words.

Who is the young man? Where did he come from, and who killed him? Why, five minutes later, was a Customs officer shot and killed out on the Marsh? And who are the mysterious group of smugglers known as the Twelve Apostles and why is the leader of the local Customs service so reluctant to investigate?  

Ably assisted by the ingenious Mrs Chaytor, Reverend Hardcastle sets out to solve the mystery for himself. But smugglers are not the only ones to lurk off the Kent coast, and the more he discovers, the more he realises he might have bitten off more than he can chew.

And here's Marilyn and Morgen's take on writing as a duo: 

Writing as a husband-and-wife couple has its own special challenges. One of the big ones is actually quite prosaic: finding the time to work together. Both of us have very busy schedules: Marilyn marks exams, is a school federation governor, a member of deanery and diocesan synods and helps to run two choirs, while Morgen lectures, is a trustee of a charity dealing with drug and alcohol issues, and a lay member of the ethics committee for our local police force. Even though we live in the same house, carving out time to sit down and work together is not always easy!

Adapting our ways of working to each other also requires some thought. For example, we use different software; Marilyn prefers WordPerfect whereas Morgen uses Word (he doesn’t particularly like Word, but it is necessary for his other work). We also listen to music when we work alone, but our musical tastes are quite different. When we sit down to work together, the music gets turned off.

With two people thinking about and working on the same plot and same characters, it would be easy for one of us to go off at a tangent and start imagining things quite differently (‘That character has red hair.’ ‘No, he doesn’t.’ ‘Yes, he does’, etc, etc.). This isn’t usually too difficult a problem to solve, a conversation and a few cups of tea usually gets us back into alignment. (Keeping a ‘bible’ of key details about characters, places and so on, giving us something to refer back to, is a big help too.)

That brings up another point, which is the need to be selfless. If one of us has an idea, but the other has a better one, it is up to the first person to give way gracefully. At the same time, the second person has to be diplomatic when putting their point forward. Killing someone else’s darlings has to be done gently. The point we always come back to is: what is best for the story?

All that said, we don’t find working together to be hard work; far from it! The sheer pleasure of being able to do the thing we both love, together, is hard to describe in words. We are very fortunate to be working together, and we know it.

The planning and thinking and writing and editing processes are full of ‘Eureka moments’. There is a wonderful feeling when, after hours of working on a plot problem or a knotty line of dialogue, we finally crack it. Here is where working with a partner really does help. If one of us has a problem or an idea and is unsure, we take it to the other. Two heads usually provide a solution a lot quicker than one.

And there is nothing, nothing at all to beat the feeling when the copies of our first book arrived. We still have a little stack of them sitting on the dining room table, and we reach out and pet them when we walk past, as if expecting them to purr. Actually, it’s us that does the purring.

The Body on the Doorstep is published in the UK by Zaffre; many thanks to them for my review copy and to Marilyn Livingstone and Morgen Witzel for sharing their writing experience as A J MacKenzie.

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