When plots strain credulity

The current fashion in crime fiction seems to be for the writer to visualise the plot of a story in terms of a series of gripping scenes. It’s certainly the way to go if you fancy selling to TV. The drama of these scenes can lie in the characters and their individual or collective crises. Or it can rest in the extraordinary landscape, or with a revelation, or twist in the story, or – possibly – all of these at once. As authors we imagine the details that would make these scenes as engaging as possible, but it’s not easy.

The problem lies in the machinations necessary to get your characters into a particular space at a particular time with a worthwhile revelation to share. The frequent victim of this process is authenticity. What we end up with is a story that just doesn’t makes sense.

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All writers try to avoid too many coincidences and accidents in plotting, although one or two are useful if they drive the story forward. Similarly, we treasure dysfunctional characters with flaws, because they can be delightfully unpredictable and prone to mistakes, both of which help with the ‘twists and revelations’ issue. Coincidences, accidents and characters’ poor judgements are all OK up to a point, but if overdone can steer a plot towards improbability. The reader may be asked to ‘suspend their disbelief’ once too often, and if the reader is me the story is dismissed as a ‘fix’.

With the first draft of Book 7 rolling along, I’m right in the middle of this dilemma. I have a number of great scenes in mind, and need them to work without stretching authenticity just that bit too far. I’m looking forward to seeing what my editor will think when she sees the first draft in a month or so.

 

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What price expertise?

How easy backpack-book-books-256431it must be to finish a manuscript and just send it off, confident that a small army of people employed by your adoring publisher will immediately step up to do everything necessary to get your masterpiece into the hands of equally adoring readers.

Editors, designers, proof-readers, printers, they’re all provided, and you the author need not worry about any of it. You’ll have to respond to the editor, and approve the cover, and check the final proofs, but most of the responsibility rests with your publishers. For this they get well rewarded if your book sells well, and carry the deficit if it doesn’t.

If your books sell really well, and in doing so keep the entire operation afloat, your publisher will be very keen to support you in any way they can. If like me you write what is mysteriously called ‘genre fiction’ the publisher will want you to keep those books rolling out, one a year if you can manage it, and if that means providing the expert help you need to keep going, so be it.

A good crime writer knows the importance of research and getting the facts right. accident-barrier-caution-923681.jpgWhatever setting you choose – contemporary or in the past – the details of police procedures and enquiry methods need to be correct. Forensic science has changed radically over the past thirty years or so, and is progressing all the time, so those details too are very time-specific and all too easy to get wrong. What does the self-publishing writer have to do?

The trick is to gather around you a team of people to help, so that you can spend your time assembling all this information into an engaging story. You’ll need someone to advise about policing, and someone else as the forensics expert. Other aspects of criminality might need expert input too – gang behaviours, money laundering, drug smuggling, whatever. The aristocracy of the crime writing world, Ann Cleeves, Peter Robinson, Val McDermid and the like, will have all the necessary experts ready to assist, presumably paid for out of the hefty profits the publishers will make from the resulting best-sellers. The self-made artisans of the writing world, however, don’t have such support, unless we find and pay for it ourselves. At which point I ask myself, what price expertise?

I’m used to finding the production experts I need – editor, ‘type-setter’, cover designer, proof-reader, printer, – and paying each of them the agreed fee up front, before the book goes on sale. But I’m now I find myself wanting expert help of a different kind even as the book is being written. Unlike many crime writers who have had careers in the law, or the probation service, or the police, I have no professional background and expertise to draw upon. I choose a setting, and characters, and a story, but I still need expert input to get the crime details right, and sometimes the story itself will hinge around the procedural details.

I’m really grateful to the retired DI who advises me, and who wants nothing more for his help  than cups of tea and acknowledgement in the book, but I’ve struggled to find someone on the forensics issues. Textbooks and online sites are available, but they have to relate to the time period: for a story set in 2001 I scoured the booklists looking for a a text written before that time, to make sure that it was pertinent to my setting. It’s interesting to do it all myself but it takes so much time, and trying to complete a book a year is just too much.

The latest move is to cast my net wider in looking for expert help that won’t cost me more than I can afford. architecture-building-campus-356086.jpgMy local University website reveals teams of academics specialising in the very areas I want help with. Hallelujah! I scoured the staff lists, looking for the expertise I need, picked some names almost at random, and sent an email explaining what I was looking for and that I couldn’t offer remuneration. My expectations were low, I admit, but were confounded when I got reply from one name almost immediately, taking up my offer to go and talk about what I’m doing and what I need. Result!

As much as the expertise, what I’m most looking forward to is the chance to talk to someone who is interested in what I’m doing. Writing as a self-published author, and living in a wonderful rural location, it can be a lonely life. Maybe this could be the start of a collaboration that will be fun as well as fruitful.

How can I enjoy my writing more?

It’s some weeks since my last post, and I’m still debating whether I want to write another book. It could help if I could pin down why the prospect feels problematic. What is it that fills me with trepidation?

I’ve already accepted that my recollections of the past year have been coloured by my fall down the stairs just over a year ago and all its consequences – temporary immobilisation, pain, frustration, endless physiotherapy. I’m almost back to normal fitness now, but it’s been a long haul.IMG_1725

The content of last book was difficult too. I chose a backdrop – the catastrophic Foot and Mouth outbreak in Cumbria in 2001 – that required very careful research and a balance between authenticity and fear that the ghastliness of it all could overwhelm the ‘front story’. The research was painful, but I live in a farming community and couldn’t get the details wrong.IMG_0637

I was also working with a new editor, which was fine in the end but felt different than the well-worn relationship I’d had earlier. The new editor is very experienced in what makes for successful commercial genre fiction, but sometimes her expectations clashed with my obsession with authenticity. Yes, her ideas for a scene or the ending would be exciting, but if they felt ‘unrealistic’ I couldn’t go along with them. It’s quite a strain to pay someone for their advice and then decide to ignore it. And when I did agree with her, after the first draft, our shared view required a complete re-write of the first quarter of the book, which I didn’t enjoy at all.

For all these reasons, and probably others too, writing the last book rarely flowed easily. I had a deadline, and achieved it, but when ‘Burning Secrets’ finally emerged it didn’t excite me, even when it was clear that readers enjoyed and some think it is my best to date.

Looking back, I think I was so taken up with the research that I didn’t spend long enough on the structure before starting the first draft. So the writing stopped and started, got stuck and had to be rescued, and in the end had to be hammered into submission by some agonised re-thinking of the final scenes. Very stressful. If I could summon the patience and imagination next time to create a better detailed outline, that would definitely help to enhance the writing experience, and avoid painful rewrites further down the line.

Now I have the Arvon writing course to look forward to, which starts on September 10th. I signed up for this particular as the focus seemed to be on structure and plot, which is exactly what I need. I’m going with an open mind to see if help, advice and an undivided focus will clarify the future enough for me to stop writing without regret, or carry on.

In darker moments I think about the boxes of unsold books stored in my writing shed. While I have a new book to promote, sales of all the books tick along nicely. If there’s no new book, will I still be able to sell the backlist? I don’t necessarily need the money, but those boxes could haunt me for a long time.

A sense of ‘place’: how accurate do you need to be?

I live in Cumbria, the most north-westerly county of England, and one of the most beautiful. Both sides of my family came from here, it was the place where all my childhood holidays were spent, and when I moved back here to live twelve years ago it felt like coming homeWasdale.

When I decided, just after moving here, that I would write the novel I’d been planning for years, there was no doubt where it would be set. This place is essential to the world in my head that drives my stories. But I was wary of making the immediate location of my story too identifiable: my neighbours, the community I am part of, might not take kindly to being so clearly recogniseable, and as an ‘offcomer’ I didn’t want to sour the relationships that are important in a rural environment. So I anonymised my village, changing its features slightly and giving it a new name. When the action moved further afield those worries receded and I included real places, with their real names. In fact many of the people who read my books love to follow the locations. It’s as if my mention of places they know, peopled by imaginary characters, validates where they live.

That’s fine as long as the characters are reasonably real and mostly well-intentioned. But when I turned to crime fiction for my fourth book, I had bad people doing bad things, and didn’t want to upset the current inhabitants of my locations, so I anonymised the specific locations yet again, even though the physical geography of the area remained the same, recogniseable to anyone who knows the area.Lakes national park map

Changes of name are one thing, but actually changing the landscape of this area strikes me as quite different. It breaks the authenticity that a sense of place in fiction demands. If the setting is all a figment of your imagination, you can do what you like with it. But if you say that this is, for example, a Cumbrian story, then I feel that you should respect the land that is called Cumbria and not mess with it. At least that’s my view.

One crime story I read was ostensibly set in the Lake District, the national park located within Cumbria, but the writer didn’t seem to know the area well at all. He had travel distances and times between places that bore no relation to reality. He had wildlife that didn’t belong there. The lack of authenticity annoyed me so much that I put the book down.

Recently I heard another author talking about his novels, also based in the Lake District, although he lived elsewhere. He was so keen not to locate his stories in anywhere recogniseable that he actually changed the landscape, including new valleys and hills that couldn’t be found on the map. For some reason, I found this hard to take, perhaps because he was messing with a place so important to me. This sounds petty, but the landscape is so precious and eternal that I don;t want it to be treated like that. We create fictional people, of course, but landscape that is half real and half a fabrication? No, not for me.

Is this too precious? I wasn’t even even born here and I’m being proprietorial about the place. But the fact remains that I don’t want to read books in which the setting is an invention, despite the title that claims that the setting is real.

How important is ‘the horse’s mouth’

 

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‘The horse’s mouth’…where did that phrase come from? And how did it come to mean ‘authentic first-hand information’? However that happened, I’m learning yet again just how powerful such information is when writing a story set in the recent past.

The first novel I wrote was set in 1937, too far back for me to find real people to talk to about how they lived their lives, and I had to be content with first hand accounts in print. The next one, set in 1947, lent itself to listening to people who were around at the time and had stories to tell. I also found the transcript of the National Coal Board’s enquiry into the pit accident in Whitehaven in August 1947 which provided first hand testimony in the witnesses’ own words. By the time I reached the third novel, set in and around the Windscale nuclear power plant in 1957, I was able to find loads of people who remembered the reactor fire there in rich detail, as well as Youtube footage and other contemporary accounts.

The first two crime novels, ‘Cruel Tide’ and ‘Fatal Reckoning’ were set locally but dealt with the issue of institutional child abuse, of which they were no cases from my chosen area that I could draw upon. I relied instead on the report of the enquiry into events at the Kincora boys’ home in Belfast, and the news items that are painfully frequent as historic cases are uncovered.

The novel I’m working on now is set during the 2001 foot and mouth outbreak in Cumbria. There are two sets of factual details I have to get right. One is about the disease itself and its impact on the area. The other is about methods of policing at that time, so that I can ensure that the ‘crime detection’ aspects of the novel are accurate. Family dramas are as old as the hills, but the contexts in which they play out change with the times.

The historian in me loves digging around to find the the best information, and although books and online research are useful there’s really nothing as rich or satisfying as listening to people who lived through the events I’m describing. So far I’ve talked in depth to two CID people who were serving officers in Cumbria at that time, a local vet who played a significant role right through the FMD outbreak, and a man whose job it was to value the farm animals before they were killed. Incidentally, some of the animals were actually free of the disease but were victims of the need to prevent its spread. The memories of my interviewees are raw: it was both cathartic and painful to share them with me. Next I’ll be talking to another person, who liaised with the army and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (as it was in 2001), and to a forensics expert who was professionally active at that time.

The end product of all this activity will be a novel which will also hopefully be a chronicle of a particular time and place, and a community in crisis. This is the community I will live in for the rest of my life and it’s very close to my heart. I owe it to the people here to get it right, and to weave the fictional story and the factual background together in a way that does justice to both. It’s the people, – their memories, their insights and the words they use – that bring life and authenticity to the writing. It’s also one the most fascinating part of my various writing projects, and I’m really grateful to those who are willing to talk to me.

And I still don’t know how and why it came to be known as ‘straight from the horse’s mouth’.

Do you?horse-289x300

 

Talking about the 2001 catastrophe in Cumbria

Does it help to talk about a catastrophe years later?

The 2001 foot and mouth outbreak in Cumbria Burning Secret Flyerwas undoubtedly a catastrophe, and mention of it can still stir a wide range of emotions – sadness, anger, and fear are commonplace among my neighbours and farmers across the county. We could deal with all that by saying nothing, or by remembering and sharing memories and giving ourselves permission to move on. It’s not mawkish or self-indulgent or false to talk about bad times. They happened, people and animals suffered, children were traumatised, businesses were lost, lives were changed.

My novel ‘Burning Secret’ is not based on Foot and Mouth, but the outbreak serves as a backdrop and a catalyst to the story. Here I am talking recently about that to Paul Teague, a Cumbria writer who recalls the events of 2001 as vividly as I do. Click the link to hear our conversation, part of a longer interview that will air later this month.

Here’s another link, to the ‘Unbound’ site where you’ll find all the details about ‘Burning Secret’ and how to pledge your support for its publication, for which I will be very grateful. Thanks.

 

 

Do readers need a ‘friend’ if the context is complicated?

Three years ago I was in the final stages of writing my third novel Fallout, which had as its backdrop the nuclear reactor accident at Windscale in Cumbria in October 1957.windscale-disaster-6-638

Deciding on that context for a story about finding love in later life was a gamble. For a start, the background might end up being much more interesting than the main story line. And dealing with a real event was always going to be tricky. It’s a touchy subject here in Cumbria even after sixty years: the final report on the incident used a phrase about ‘local errors of judgement’ that still rankles. (Actually the phrase was inserted into the report by the Macmillan government as a way of explaining the incident to the Americans without blaming the government’s own rushed reactor building programme.) And of course, because it was a ‘real’ incident within living memory it was essential for me – a local ‘offcomer’ – to get the facts right.

The inside story of the reactor fire was a complicated technical issue. How was I going to help the non-scientific reader to understand what was really going on, and why the key the decisions were made? The plan was to place a character on the inside of the Windscale whose job was to ask questions about the operation of the reactor. This character would act as the reader’s ‘friend’, gathering information in an intelligible way. in ‘Fallout’ this character was Lawrence Finer, seconded to Windscale from Harwell, the nuclear research facility near Oxford.

In my next book  ‘Burning Secret’ I face the same issue – explaining farming to a non-farming readership, and then clarifying the complications of a catastrophic infection that decimated our farm animals in 2001. I need a character that acts as the ‘guide’ to a specialist subject for a non-specialist audience. Talking to a local dairy farmer last week it occurred to me how to handle this. dairy_farmerLarge dairy farms often employ people to help with milking and the care of the herd, but during the outbreak restrictions were introduced that made it impossible for dairy farm workers to work normally, going home after work and coming back the next day. This particular farm asked a family friend from Liverpool to come and stay on the farm for the duration to help them, and the young man had no experience of farming life. He reacted to the everyday routines of the farm as you or I might, noticing things that the farmers took for granted, asking naive questions, making mistakes through lack of experience. In literary terms, this character’s function is somewhere between the Greek chorus and the gravediggers in Hamlet, and more emotionally detached than the farmers themselves as the outbreak spread ever closer. In a crime story, as this will be, the ‘stranger’ can also be a useful source of tension and mystery. Let’s see how it all turns out.