The title of Murder Your Darlings is taken from a quote from a famous book about writing style, On the Art of Writing, written by the Cornish novelist and literary critic, Arthur Quiller-Couch, as long ago as 1916. ‘If you here require a practical rule of me,’ he wrote, ‘I will present you with this: “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – whole-heartedly – and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.”’ So perhaps it’s no surprise to learn that this third whodunnit in the Francis Meadowes series is set at a creative writing retreat.
For some years I have been teaching creative writing, first for the organization Ways With Words at retreats in Devon and Italy, and then for the Guardian in a series of weekend masterclasses on memoir, culminating in a six month course on memoir in association with the University of East Anglia. During that time I’ve met a wide range of students of all ages, and the interaction has definitely been inspiring.
A residential course in a remote villa abroad is very appealing for a murder mystery. Like a cruise ship, it’s essentially a closed environment, in which the suspects are effectively trapped. For a while I toyed around with a story set at a writing retreat in the UK, which would have had the advantage that I at least understood police procedures. But after twenty thousand words of that I decided I couldn’t resist the more exotic foreign setting, where my suspects are more stranded than they would have been at home. Villa Giulia, the location for Murder Your Darlings, is not the lovely Villa Pia,
where we met every year, to enjoy not just the wonderful location, but the delicious food, prepared by a team of local cooks. But my fictional villa is a similarly magical place, and my whodunnit pays a certain homage.
There is perhaps as well a homage to the process of learning new skills and challenging yourself in your retirement. Every year, arriving at the airport and meeting the regulars again, I would be reminded, on first sight, that many of them were no longer in the first flush of youth. But within a day, in the environs of the villa, all that surface stuff dropped away, and I would be wrapped up again with the liveliness of the individuals. Age is a positive advantage when it comes to writing memoir, and all my fellow writers had plenty of experience to draw on, as well, often, as great skill and creativity. Reading back their work, I found it frustrating that publishers so often throw themselves at the young and untested, when perhaps they might find richer pickings among more mature voices, even if those voices have faces that are no longer quite so alluring in an author photo.
At the end of this story, Francis Meadowes, my crime writer turned detective, finds himself recognized by a random member of the public, at the airport in Pisa. He is starting to become quite famous. How this will affect his next case is anyone’s guess. But I am working on it. You will be relieved to hear that the setting for my fourth Meadowes whodunnit is far removed from the world of literature or creative writing, in any of its forms …