Authenticity – finding the balance

For the first time in a long time I settled in front of the TV last night with a pen and notebook in hand, using the programme for learning not just entertainment. It was the first of the new Inspector George Gently series, set in 1969, and it was the date and the northern police setting that were important for me. My first crime novel is currently in progress, set in the Furness district of Lancashire in 1969, and the hardest thing about it so far – apart from the plotting, the 3 act structure, characterisation and dialogue! – has been to find those authentic touches that are so critical to the proper depiction of setting and time.

I’ve already sought out and corresponded with people who experienced the relevant settings first hand, which I didn’t personally although I was a young adult at the time. That was really helpful. I made copious notes and as I’m writing some of those details are bubbling up, still leaving 90% of the research behind. I recall talking to a community policeman from that era who told me he was offered a panda car but refused it as it would mean changing his beloved helmet for a cap. Priceless, and it’s in. And I have an ex-copper writer friend who has generously offered to check my draft when it’s complete looking for things that just don’t sound right. 

As I watched George Gently last night two things struck me very strongly about life in 1969. One was the huge impact on our lives at that time of smoking. Most of the characters smoked unceasingly. Every desk and table had an ashtray, usually overflowing, every room was blue with smoke. What you can’t get from the TV is the smell, but it came back to me. The smell of the ashtray, of smoke on your clothes after a night out, of a newly opened packet of cigarettes. And the other non-visual sensation, for me at least, was the stinging of my eyes after even a few minutes exposure to a smoky room, which kept me out of pubs for years until the smoking ban was introduced, even though for much of my early adulthood I was a smoker myself. 

At the start of the programme, there was a warning – or was it just an observation – that the attitudes in the story were a reflection of their time. The underlying theme of the story was the treatment  of women in general, and the investigation of allegations of rape in particular. I knew, but I’d forgotten. Somebody had done their homework. Out of 120 allegations of rape over a 5 year period in this one small force, the majority were withdrawn by the victims before any charges were laid and only 6 resulted in custodial sentences. Interview rooms were crowded with men asking the complainants personal questions and laughing at their responses, or shouting that they were lying, or had been ‘asking for it.’ I’m prepared to believe that things have changed, but it was a shock to see and hear just how bad it was not very long ago. For all the scoffing and resentment at ‘PC’ attitudes, many many women’s lives have been changed for the better by more recent condemnation of this kind of behaviour. 

My own story picks up some of this, but I’ll go back through again and pick up words, smells, attitudes, and expressions reminiscent of the times, to sprinkle the dust of authenticity lightly across the page. But it has to be done lightly. Some fiction lays the researched authentic detail on with a trowel, clogging up sentences and slowing down the action. You can be impressed once or twice by the quality and depth of the research, but only once or twice before it gets tedious. It doesn’t take much to achieve the effect you want: use of a word that was of its time and has since faded, a smell, an item of clothing, something being eaten. Much of the 60s detail is now regarded as retro and back in fashion, but fondue sets and lava lamps and beehive hairstyles, and the ever-present cigarettes, are still for me evocative of a very particular period.

What I won’t be doing is adding the style and model number of the electric iron that the heroine uses on her full skirt, or the packaging of the Vesta chinese curry she assembles for her supper. Do you remember dehydrated mashed potato? What were we thinking! ‘For mash get smash’. Happy days.

First draft: edit as you go, or plough on?

A few days after getting back from our long trip, my sense of urgency about the first draft of book 4 was overwhelming. I had an outline, or thought I did, which had taken weeks to develop and looked as if it would carry me through the first draft. So I began at the beginning, avoiding the trap I’d fallen into earlier of starting with scenes I was most excited about, regardless of chronology, and hoping I would piece it all together later. That way madness lies, for me at least. So Chapter 1 it was, and then on to chapter two, then three. So far, so good. But by now the inadequacies in the outline were beginning to show. Threads had been left hanging, by default not be design, some actions seemed implausible, minor characters said unexpected things and threw the storyline around. 

I stalled, went back, fixed some of the difficulties, re-wrote the outline for the next few chapters and continued. By now all sorts of unexpected things were happening, and the urge to go back and tweak previous chapters to fit in with the current direction was slowing me down. Of course there would be some inconsistencies and things to be fixed, but remembering them was the first challenge and finding them in the text was even harder. Why did someone decide they had to Gateshead? Where did Gateshead come from? In desperation I tried ‘Find; Gateshead’ but that didn’t work. I’d have to go back and re-read all the previous chapters to track it down. 

After a number of such frustrations I decided that tweaking things as I went along would ruin the sense of forward momentum that had been turning up such unexpectedly good scenes. This was a first draft, that would be read with care by my trusty editor and annotated in detail to guide the essential re-write that would have to happen anyway, however much fiddling around I’d already done. I’m finally doing what my editor advised me to do in the first place: just crash on through the first draft, amending the outline as necessary as I go, keeping track of plot and all the other threads as well as I can and put it right, all at once, in the second draft rather than ‘toing and froing’ and driving myself nuts.

With that in mind, at least the chapters are rolling along nicely and the fleshing out of the story keeps turning up things I’m happy with and had not anticipated. Which is good, isn’t it? I just wish is wasn’t keeping me awake at night.

Should I change the cover of one of my books?

The publication of my second novel ‘Forgiven’ in 2013 felt very stressful, or at least that’s how I remember it. I felt it was better than the first one ‘A Good Liar’ and had certainly been easier to write, taking a year rather than the previous tortuous four year process. But I underestimated how long it would take to get the final stages of the publication business sorted out, and wanted to get it out into the shops as early as possible in the Lake District visitor season, when probably I should have taken decisions more carefully. Patience was never my strong suit.

The main frustration was about the cover. The cover of ‘A Good Liar’ had taken quite a while to put together and consisted of three parts: a old photo of schoolchildren to place the story in its time; an atmospheric picture of Wastwater to reflect the setting; and a profile of a woman to indicate that the protagonist was female. As one of the booksellers told me, ‘It’s a good cover because it tells the reader about what’s inside.’ When it came to part 2 of the trilogy ‘Forgiven’ I struggled first with the title, which doesn’t give much away, but did pick up one of the themes of the book, and I quite like one word titles. The setting was mainly west Cumbria and the town of Whitehaven in the immediate post-war years, with a family of coal miners at the centre of the action. The cover we ended up with was a gorgeous photo of the local landscape in spring, from a photo taken at about this time of year, when the valley floors were bright green with new grass and there was still snow on the fell tops. A lovely image, but it told the reader very little about the book itself. 

From the outset, this book has sold less well than ‘A Good Liar’ and when the third in the trilogy was published the following year, that one sold better too. I began to wonder whether one reason for this might be the enigmatic title or cover of ‘Forgiven’. If the author’s name is well-known then I’m not sure that title and cover matter very much. But I’m expecting visitors to Cumbria to pick this book off a shelf and be interested enough in it to buy it, and why would they, really? They don’t know me from a hole in the ground. They need more at first glance than ‘Forgiven’ could offer them. For ebooks the cover matters less, but for a book on a shelf, competing with others in the reader’s view, the cover matters more.

If I’m right about this, I’m asking myself whether I should approach the reprint of ‘Forgiven’ as an opportunity to ‘re-brand’ it with a new cover. The title is fixed and unchangeable, but changing the cover would be easy and there are many precedents for doing so in the traditional publishing world. As a self-publisher I have absolute discretion about how my work should look, and this could be the time to exercise it.

So, I’m back to the age-old question, what makes a good book cover? The bookseller I referred to earlier takes the functional approach: the cover should indicate what’s between the covers. In that case I might need some reference to winter, hard times and to the pits, and perhaps some images of people of the period. In other words, I could use the same formula as we used for the first cover. Or I could use a more striking image, such as the one I chose for book 3 of the trilogy ‘Fallout’, and enjoy the mixed views that followed. The cover of ‘Fallout’ was designed to surprise, if not shock, the reader and succeeded in that intent, for good or ill.

I’ll have a few months to think about it as there are still enough from the first print run of ‘Forgiven’ to see us through this summer’s busy season. Is a picture of an old coal mine a turn-off for the largely female readership my books attract? Should I hold out for an image of the screen lasses, the remarkable women who worked on the surface sorting and grading the coal, despite the copyright issues that we ran into last time? It’ll be interesting to start again and take longer over the design than I did last time, and even more interesting to see whether a different cover affects sales. 

The beauty of writing historical fiction is that it doesn’t have a limited shelf-life: it can be as relevant in ten years’ time as it is now. But the down-side of that agelessness is that it can’t burst upon a waiting world as something completely of its time, new fresh, contemporary. Within the historical fiction genre I’ve tried to avoid the Catherine Cookson cliches, and romanticising a past era that was challenging, complicated and fraught with ambivalence. The cover could reflect some of that at least, rather the rather bland if beautiful image it has at present.

Writing this post has made up my mind. I’ll start thinking about the cover of ‘Forgiven’ now and give myself, and the cover designer I work with, more time to make the best choice. And my new crime fiction book which is due out in November will need a brilliant cover too, which should be ticking over in the back of my mind from now on, while I’m still writing the first draft. Not for the first time, I realise that turning thoughts into words – written or spoken – helps me to pin down what I’m thinking about. I’ll be another year older this week, and beyond the age when my mother’s Alzheimers started. I keep looking for signs that my brain is seizing up, but for the time being, thank heaven, ‘cogito ergo sum’.


Local sensitivities

I was speaking at a local Women’s Institute last night, and chose to focus on the challenge of writing fiction set in my local area within living memory. It’s a tricky issue, and it’s rarely raised as a question when I talk about my books, so I wanted to air it myself.

Here in West Cumbria, and in many other settled rural locations I’m sure, people are sensitive about where they live, their neighbours, their histories and their reputations. Details of the landscape are very well known to those who’ve lived in the same village for generations, and memories are long and intense. I realised very soon after I came to live here ten years ago that ‘offcomers’ like me are a subject of curiosity and possible suspicion. Would I ‘fit in’ I wondered? It’s easy to upset local sensitivities, although forgiveness is quick if your motives are deemed to be positive, which is just as well or you could be so afraid of upsetting someone that you compromise yourself too much.

The up side of local fiction is that people love to read about where they live, to see familiar names and places on the page. But you have to get them right! I know of one place in ‘A Good Liar’ where I’ve given the wrong name to one of the passes that run between the valleys, spokes of a wheel on the west side of the Lake District with the Scafells at the hub.  Was it Black Sail pass that should have been Scarth Gap or the other way round? It’ll be corrected before the next reprint.

In developing characters to populate this landscape I have carefully avoided any similarity in name, appearance or disposition to anyone I know to be living or have lived here. It’s a fiction, I tell my local readers repeatedly: you may recognise some of the places but the people are made up. Some still nod sagely and tap the side of the nose to indicate that they know I have to say that, but we both know that one of the characters is really so-and-so, isn’t it, eh? There is one exception to this rule, the vicar Lionel Leadbetter in ‘A Good Liar’, who was based on the real vicar of Waberthwaite and Corney in the early years of the last century. Stories about Rev. Pottinger abound and he was clearly an important and recogniseable local figure who made his mark on this community in a positive way, despite of or more likely because of his energy and forceful personality.

In the second book of the trilogy ‘Forgiven’ I wanted one of my characters to be part of the main background event, the explosion in the William Pit in August 1947 that killed 104 men and boys. Each of the 104 was memorialised in a poignant book called ‘104 Men’, published a few years ago. Was it ethically appropriate for me to add another fictional person to that list, the 105th man, just to beef up my story? I decided not, not because I was afraid of any local reaction but because it wouldn’t be right. Another opportunity to blend fact with fiction was available, however, and I took it. Three men walked out of that pit alive, 20 hours after the explosion took place. Their experiences were told, first hand, to the enquiry held by the national Coal Board into the disaster, and I had one of my characters become part of that small group, to live and tell the story of courage and experience and resourcefulness that saved their lives.

The third book ‘Fallout’ presented a further, and the most tricky, demand to a writer looking to blend fact and fiction in an era where the facts are still within living memory. In October 1957 the nuclear reactor at Windscale, just up the coast from here, heated up uncontrollably and then caught fire. It was a tiny reactor by modern standards but if the fire had caused the reactor building to collapse, which was possible, the uncontrolled release of radio-active material into the atmosphere would have been disastrous. In my book ‘Fallout’ this event forms the backdrop to the final part of the family drama that began twenty years before with the start of my trilogy ‘Between the Mountains and the Sea’. Some of the details about what happened at Windscale (now re-named Sellafield) are well-known to many local people, although much of the story – and in particular the underlying causes of the accident – was protected by the Officlal Secrets Act until the papers were released in 2007. In writing the first fictional acciount of what happened during that historic week, I had to make two choices. First, I decided to place a fictional character right at the heart of the action, in the form of a nuclear expert called Lawrence Finer who had been seconded to Windscale to help with problems in the reactor. Secondly, I chose to include some of the key people at the plant as minor backdrop characters, observed by Lawrence Finer as they played their roles during the crisis. I was worried about legal as well as ethical considerations and took advice from a lawyer who specialises in publishing matters. I was told that my treatment should address three issues; one, were the facts about the people and their tasks accurate? two, were the ‘real’ people well in the background, not the foreground of the story? third was anything going to be recorded in my work that could be deemed damaging to the reputations of these people?

I was lucky. The facts had been meticulously gathered and recorded in a book written by the official Atomic Energy Authority historian, Lorna Arnold in ‘Windscale 1957: Anatomy of a Nuclear Accident’. I had already given the key role to a fictional character who was plausible but had no actual equivalent in the plant at that time, leaving the ‘real’ characters in the background. And, thanks to the actual exemplary expertise and courage of the men I chose to mention, their reputations – which had been unfairly damaged at the time by the Government enquiry into the incident – could be enhanced rather than damaged by the facts of the case. On that basis I decided to go ahead, but when the book was published in June 2014 I had some concerns about a possible local reaction. To this date, there has been none, apart from the repeated feedback from people who worked at the plant that they didn’t previously know what had really happened there in October 1957. Incidentally, some of the irradiated mess left behind after the reactor fire was extinguished is still being dismantled today, 60 years later. In this part of the world, the fact that nothing has been said to my face to indicate unhappiness about my treatment of the story doesn’t mean that nothing is out there. The only roundabout feedback has been that a relative of one of them men involved bought several copies of the book to send to family members in Australia. I interpret this – if true – an an indication of acceptance, but then I would say that, wouldn’t I?

Murdering my darlings

I’ve reached the conclusion that time away from ‘the current work’ enables me to step back and view what I’m doing more objectively, and more clearly, but it has to be a certain sort of break to be most effective. Here’s how it seems to work for me. I’ve been writing outlines and planning the current book (number 4) for some months now. I knew I would be taking two months away from it early this year and expected that this would provide the space I needed to reflect on the project – characters, pace, themes, plot and so on – so that everything would be clearer when I returned. But that didn’t work. The time away was like being on a different planet, so exciting, varied, all-consuming, and exhausting at times that there was no space in my head to reflect at all about the book. After I’d got home and recovered for a while I just started the first draft as I’d planned to do, using the outline much as it previously stood.

Ten days later, into the first draft and rolling along quite nicely, I’ve just had another shorter break over the Easter weekend. Immediately beforehand I was up to my ears in writing and editing, working and reworking the original outline as the detail on the ground was revealed – as  I mentioned in my previous blog post. Maybe that was why, during four non-writing days, my head has been wrapped around the story to the point where I could hardly sleep. Two darlings have been ruthlessly put to the sword as a result. The first of them, the opening paragraph, was nudged towards its demise by my perceptive editor Charlotte who skims the drafts every now and then and always asks incisive questions. The old first paragraph which I’d polished carefully for months, is now dead, and the one will be sharper, clearer and more likely to capture a reader’s attention.

The second doomed ‘darling’ is a character from my third book, who was about to reappear in this one. I was looking forward to meeting him again, but yesterday, when I was half watching Wolverhampton Wanderers vs Leeds United on the TV, I suddenly thought ‘Why do I need him here? What’s he adding to this story? If he has a function, is that not already being played by another character? Why complicate matters unnecessarily?’ Scales fell from eyes and when the next stage of the outline is re-written, he will be gone. 

Have I ever mentioned the Faber Academy course I went on years ago called ‘Stuck in the Middle’? Just a weekend, but I still remember the shot in the arm it gave me. Gill Slovo and Sarah Dunant led it as a double act, a pincer movement of perception and experience that caught many of us round the table in the middle, making us look at our half-finished work from the outside rather than the inside. It was harrowing but salutary. I’ve thought about signing up again, but I don’t think I need to. I think I can be ruthless – no pun intended – all by myself. Maybe watching football helps. 

From outline to first draft

I hope someone’s noticed that I’ve been away, out of the blogsphere all together, for weeks on a long and amazing trip to Argentina and Antarctica. Actually, it’s over two months since I’ve posted anything, and now there’s so much on my mind I’m not sure where to start.

The question on my mind right this minute is this: how helpful is a detailed outline before you start the first draft? Five years ago I might have said, ‘Who needs an outline. I have a few characters and a few ideas and doesn’t it all just roll out?’ Two months ago I would have said,  ‘An outline is absolutely essential and the more detailed the better.’ Right now, today, I’m thinking. ‘The most helpful thing about an outline is that when you get lost, you have some idea where you are. It gives you a bigger map, but with a smaller scale so you can take in the whole picture more easily.’ But, just like with OS maps of the Lake District, sometimes the paths marked on the map don’t correspond exactly with the paths on the ground.

The first draft is where your writing feet meet the ground. Only then can you see more detail in the territory. Contours and dotted lines turn into real hills and walls. PH marked on the map becomes a real pub, which could be closed and boarded up, or open and welcoming. I spent much of my ‘thinking abut the new book’ time in the past few months on the outline, changing it again and again until I was sure it made sense and flowed and had a good balance of character and events, internal and external dilemmas and conflict, the highs and lows of a classic 3 act structure, and all that. When I actually started to write last week, the first two or three chapters fell on to the page pretty quickly, following the outline page by page. But then things began to spread out. I thought I’d dealt with all the ‘what-ifs’ but then more popped up, demanding to be pursued. Characters said some things I hadn’t expected, and unforeseen anomalies became glaringly obvious.

I’ve noticed before that as I go from outline to draft the story gets darker. Why is that? I think of myself as a reasonably happy and optimistic person, but the words seem to be pushing me into ‘noir’. ‘Cumbrian noir’ – a new genre perhaps? The current book is definitely feeling more ‘noir’ than the previous ones. It should, given that it’s a crime novel rather than the ‘family saga’ tag that loosely describes the trilogy published in the past three years. In crime novels, necessarily, some people do bad things and some people suffer: that’s the nature and impact of crime. But the things I want them to do and suffer seem more ‘noir’ in the draft than they were in the outline.

Seven chapters in now: the overall plot is holding together OK but the chronology has changed a little. I’m having to look ahead three chapters in the outline rather than one to get the best sense of where to go next, and wondering of course why I didn’t anticipate the extra twists and turns that seem so obvious now. I don’t regret this: actually it’s rather fun and keeps me engaged for hours, while the washing up languishes in the sink and I stay cloistered in my upstairs cubbyhole, facing away from the stunning view beyond the window. At the end of several hours writing I feel I’ve achieved something more substantial than the mere fleshing out of a given story. I also need some exercises to relieve my aching neck and shoulders.

I try not to word count: it’s the quality of the words not the quantity that matters. But I couldn’t resist counting at the end of Week 1 and it came to an impressive 20,000 or so. Sounds far too much, but there they are, and most of them read and checked and amended. So far, so good.

Tomorrow there are distractions, in the form of a trip to Cockermouth for a book-related evening at the New Bookshop where I’ll talk about my work as a ‘local author’. That should be fun too, although not as deeply satisfying as keeping on writing, to which I’ll return on Friday.