Talking about my books

Tomorrow evening I’ll be talking to the ‘Friends of Whitehaven Museum’ about the Jessie Whelan trilogy, which has the overall title ‘Between the Mountains and the Sea’. It could be quite a large group, some of whom may have read all three books and others may not even know of their existence. My appearance is part of their regular programme of speakers, and I guess I’ve been invited not as a writer but as someone who has researched and recorded slices of local history in fictional form.

So, I’m thinking: what should I talk to them about? The one thing we all have in common is the setting, and the meeting will take place just across the harbour from the site of the major backdrop event in Book 2, ‘Forgiven’, the explosion in the William Pit in August 1947 that claimed the lives of 104 local men and boys. Think of the impact of that on the local community: all those funerals, day after day, and the thousands of people whose lives were affected, children left without fathers, wives without husbands. I’ll tell them how I tracked down the transcript of the NCB report on the accident, including the accounts from the three men who survived, and how I researched another facet of ‘Forgiven’, the lives of the Displaced Persons in their camps in Cumberland in the years after World War Two. Book 3, ‘Fallout’ was set at the time of the nuclear reactor fire at Windscale, just south of Whitehaven, in 1957, and in doing the research for this book I accumulated far more detail than I could possibly have used in the story, much of which was not clear at the time, even to those who were working at the plant. That too will probably be part of what I share with the group. People are usually interested in the past history of where they live, especially when that history is as rich as ours.

As a writer I should be discussing the triumvirate of character, plot and setting, but talking about setting alone would take us far longer than the limited time I’ll have, and I must find time to say something about the process of turning local history into fiction, which presents another set of challenges worthy of conversation. I’ll try to explain how the characters were born and developed as I wrote about their lives, and how I have tried to have both setting and character drive the plot. Looking back, the process of writing looks far more rational and ordered than it felt for me at the time. I’m now learning more about how to structure and plan a work of fiction, but – in the words of the metaphor – the stable door is banging in the wind and the horse has long gone. Maybe it’ll make for a better effort for the next book. In the meantime I’ll reflect on what I thought and did at the time and not pretend that I consciously followed rules that I was mostly unaware of. Considering that admission. the books turned out better than they might have been.

I’m doing many talks to various groups around Cumbria over the summer, and each one will be different, which sounds inefficient but it’s the only way to keep things fresh. If the people I’m with seem willing to talk I’ll ask them right at the start to help me frame our discussion through their questions and interests. Managing those unanticipated expectations, adding important bits of my own and doing it all within a short time frame is enjoyably risky. It’s like really good teaching and I love it.


Swanning off to Swanage

This week has been ridiculously busy, even by my standards, and the evenings seem to have been divided between music concerts (2), football matches and cricket on TV (too many hours to contemplate) and watering the veggies. After the usual scramble and frustrations of dealing with ebook publishing, eg discovering that my Mac OS x is out of date and Kindle previewer isn’t working etc, the Kindle version of ‘Fallout’ is now available, hurray. By some happy chance this week was booked for a holiday in Swanage, in a cottage without Wifi – which was not intentional but might prove a useful break from all its potential for distraction. The bag is almost packed and I’ll be off shortly.

So for seven whole days I shall leave behind the book sales, Twitter and all things digital and devote myself instead to visiting stately homes and gardens, reading, walking, and few more hours watching football, cricket and tennis too. If the weather does what is predicted I might even venture into the sea for my first sea swims of the year. Bliss.

In the meantime, if you do manage to buy, download and read ‘Fallout’ please tell me what you think, or put a review on Amazon if you can. I love to get feedback, the more detailed the better, and stuff on Amazon always helps. See you in ten days or so.

Looking for a villain

All the characters I’ve developed so far in my writing have been flawed in one way or another – Jessie is impulsive, John so unassertive, Maggie ambitious, Violet blinkered by her religion –  but all of them are essentially good people. If, as I’m considering, I turn to crime fiction for Book 4 I need at least one character who is truly malevolent, and now I’m struggling. The big piece of paper where I’m sketching out the interrelationships in the new book is looking interesting but too benign. It lacks an attractive ‘baddie’, like Milton’s Satan, just charismatic enough to reel us in and make the inevitable betrayal all the more shocking.

Current events lead me to consider a possible backdrop of paedophilia, or people smuggling, or abuse of immigrant workers as the dark side of the plot. It may be squeamish on my part, but I want to avoid explicit violence against women, although setting the action in the 1970s would provide plenty of scope for misogyny and casual gender discrimination. My own working life began early in the 1970s, and I clearly recall how as a young married woman at my first job interview being asked what my contraceptive arrangements were. I said I would share mine if the Deputy Headteacher interviewing me would explain his. He didn’t pursue the matter. Women in general, and young women in particular, were routinely insulted and undermined, and it would be so easy to turn the story into a feminist rant, but that’s not what I want to write. I’m looking for a villain, a rounded, credible, intelligent, articulate character uninhibited by compassion or conscience whose behaviour wreaks havoc and threatens the people we love. Rather than trawl unsuccessfully through my acquaintance looking for such a person,  I may look for inspiration among fictional villains, past and present. Scarpia? Iago? Shakespeare’s caricature of Richard III?

Or should I aim for an ill-intentioned collective, the paedophile ring, the terrorist group, the cabal of bent coppers on the take? Looking across the current literature, it feels like every conceivable angle of conspiracy has been done to death, literally and figuratively. The heroic isolated protagonist against the odds, again? Maybe the nature of successful crime fiction is that it repeats the well-worn genre protocols with just enough of a twist to pique the aficianado’s interest. Is that what I want to do? For the time being it’s back to the drawing board, and the large piece of paper.



How I (almost) walked the Cumbria Way

I’m back at home, and smiling as I re-read my last post where I was speculating about how it would be to walk the Cumbria Way. What’s the phrase I’m groping for – how misguided could I have been? in your dreams Ruthie! you must be kidding? Any of those would do. Walking about 14 miles a day with a heavy rucksack, day after day, regardless of the weather, your mood or your state of health, hips and feet is tough. I came to the conclusion before very long that ten miles is probably enough, not for endurance but for pleasure. The quality of my new rucksack was such that the carrying load was bearable, and my boots and lightweight Gortex jacket defied the downpours spendidly, but after about six hours walking I just wanted to stop. ‘Are we there yet?’ was thought if not said, and every upwards incline, however benign, felt like a mountain.

That’s enough grumbling. There were some great bits: Langstrath is a splendid valley and worth a re-visit in better weather. Whoever built the path from there over the Stake Pass is a genius and the gradient melted away under your boots. A sunny morning in Langdale is peerless. The Old Vicarage in Caldbeck and The Old Rectory in Torver are divine: thank you to the Church of England for selling them both, so that I could stay in them and eat delicious food. Suffice to say that when Saturday’s forecast warned of torrential rain, thunder and lightning for the last 14 miles from Torver to Ulverston, I hatched a plan, and it worked. I rode home in my daughter’s car with most of the bags I and my companions had been  carrying and arrived back in Ulverston about six hours ahead of them. Bliss, and eternal thanks to my daughter for her cheerful agreement to rescue me.

Did I think about Book Four while plodding through Cumbria? Not at a conscious level, but maybe there was something going on in my head beyond the immediate priorities of the next hill or the next meal. When I got back to my little house yesterday I found a large sheet of paper and spread it out on the kitchen table, and now I’m trying to plan in a non-linear way, scribbling mini-portraits of characters, connecting them with lines and arrows and watching the web of relationships develop. Events and turning points are creeping into the picture too, and a list of the necessary research. Maybe all this was actually percolating during the walk as it seems to be tumbling onto the paper with impressive speed. There are yawning gaps of course, but already a denouement is taking shape. This might be the occasion for starting at the end and planning backwards, a process I’ve used many times in my professional life but never yet in my writing. Who knows; it’s very early days, but already I feel that something interesting will emerge.



Walking through history

I won’t be posting a blog piece for a week or so, while I’m doing a long walk through Cumbria, from Carlisle in the north to Ulverston in the south, via Caldbeck, Skiddaw, Rosthwaite, Elterwater and Torver. For those of you who know this region, those names have meaning. For those who don’t, aren’t the names themselves wonderful : a mix of Norse and Celtic and Saxon. All along the route we’ll be walking on trails first travelled centuries ago – tracks and bridleways and coffin roads – through settlements that date back hundreds of years, and landscapes that have evolved with changing times.

That’s part of the reason I have to live in England, where such a rich history is right under your feet. We’ll walk to the Victorian station early tomorrow, take the train to Carlisle, come out of the station, turn towards the south and start walking. For the next six days the concerns will not be deadlines and logistics and work plans but the more basic matters of weather, physical effort, food and water. We’ve booked accommodation along the route, so at least we know where we will sleep, but the rest will just happen.

What interests me is what will be in my head as we walk. Will my mind turn only on the here and now, or will it default to the usual agenda: new characters in the next book, or the plot, or how best to promote my completed trilogy beyond Cumbria to a wider readership? It would be really good to have a break from all that and live a more elemental existence for a few days, but I don’t know whether my over-active brain will agree. One of my fellow-walkers has been reading ‘Fallout’. Maybe he’s finished it by now. He may want to talk to me about it, and I know I’ll enjoy that, despite the desire to focus on the landscape, or the clouds, or what to have for lunch and where to eat it. We’ll walk and we’ll talk, and sometimes we’ll be quiet, and it’ll be great.