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.

Do ‘special deals’ on books really work?

I’ve just put the ebook of ‘A Good Liar’ on GoodLiar_COVER.indda Kindle store special deal for a week, starting April 1st. I have mixed special deal -stock-photo-limited-time-offer-price-tagfeelings about doing so, but it’s just for a week, and we’ll see how it goes. If it encourages people to read the whole trilogy, as ebooks or paperbacks, it’ll be worth the angst about reducing the price to less than a cup of coffee.

My ambivalence about this stems from knowing how much time and effort any author puts into writing and publishing their work : setting a very low price seems to under-value all that. But, on the other hand, if you want people to read and enjoy your stuff, making the price temporarily very attractive is a way to achieve that. One of the joys of self-publishing is that you can make those choices yourself.

It was recording the audio book of ‘A Good Liar’ that reminded me what a good story it is. The engineer who helped me – Tom Tyson, at the Music Farm in Egremont, Cumbria – is not a great fiction reader, but he was so hooked after the second recording session that he had to read the rest of the story for himself to see what happens.

Jessie Whelan is not an easy character to deal with: she’s self-centred, impulsive, and sometimes insensitive, but she’s had to battle all her adult life, and it shows. She’s also – despite years of abstinence – very interested in sex, which pulls her into a relationship that she could, and probably should, have avoided. Some scenes were really hard to read while I was doing the recording, not just because they portray sexual assault but because Jessie doesn’t really know whether to blame the perpetrator or herself. It’s not in her nature to feel like a victim, although the reader can see that’s what she was. How did Tom react while he was listening to it, I wonder? I didn’t ask him, but I will.

In the meantime, before the next trip to the studio to finish off the edits, I’ll put the ebook version on special offer for a week and see if I can introduce new readers to the trilogy. Maybe some of the millions of Lake District and Cumbria visitors will enjoy the story, and deepen their interest in this wonderful region. I hope so.

 

 

What about the ‘unreliable narrator’?

Two recent bestsellers have two things in common: the first is the use of the word ‘girl’ in the title, and the second is a story told by at least one ‘unreliable narrator’. I read ‘Gone Girl’ because I wanted to see what all the fuss was about, and felt at the end that I needed to cleanse myself from its unredeemed nastiness. Both ‘unreliable narrators’ were equally horrid and it was of little interest to me therefore which of them was the real villain. After that experience I was determined to resist the hype around ‘Girl on the Train’ and haven’t read it, or seen the film. girl-on-the-trainI read the reviews however and understand that the narrator – transposed from London to the USA for the film – is a drunkard and a liar whose testimony must therefore be suspect. I’m not sure I would warm to the character any more than I did to the ghastly creatures in the previous ‘Girl’ book.

Then I remembered another unreliable narrator, where the device was employed to such effect that I was pulled further into the story than I would have been otherwise. This was in ‘Empire of the Sun’, by J.G. Ballard, a story told from the point of view of a young boy – Ballard himself – caught up in the chaos of the Japanese attack on Shanghai in 1941, and its aftermath. Jim, the unreliable narrator, brings to the story his own childish innocence, naivety, optimism and compassion. He is unaware of his own slow decline into starvation and illness, and the reader has to glean this information not from the boy himself but from the reactions of the adults he encounters. It’s a gut-wrenching experience, in both the book and the film, and had a powerful impact on me. empire-of-the-sun

Ever since then I’ve toyed with the possibilities of using the POV of an unreliable but sympathetic story-teller. To begin with in my writing it was hard enough just to get the story told in a way that would keep the reader engaged, using the most straightforward narrative techniques – past tense, third person. I recall suggesting to my editor very early on that I might try something more ambitious and being gently warned off. Now with five ‘traditionally-told’ novels under my belt, this could be the time to stretch my skills. I’ve already given myself more time, delaying the next publication until the summer of 2018. Now I have to use that time to think about the choices I have and how best to tell a compelling story with a narrator who is likeable, even loveable, but whose view of events is limited by personality, maturity, or the complexity of the circumstances they face. It’s a challenge. I’m thinking hard about it.

What do readers want to know?

It’s been a busy week for meeting readers, and I’m always interested to discover what they want from me and from the books. Here are a few of the questions that crop up most frequently:

 

Q. Do you base your characters on people that you know? Do you people-watch and use it in your books? (The sub-text here is ‘Are you watching me now?’)

I never really know how to respond to this. The details of characters for the story don’t just appear from nowhere: from a few decades of people- watching there are hundreds of people in my head, but memory retains only bits and pieces – the metaphors someone uses, or the voice or style of clothes, or something they did. I remember, for example, a boy I was at school with who had wide shoulders and a short body, and how his jackets always looked too long. He and I were walking near my house one afternoon and were overtaken by a sudden violent thunderstorm. We’d never shown much interest in each other before, but in the middle of this violent weather we kissed passionately, just once, galvanised by the energy around us. That was a moment of intensity that has lingered in my memory: I haven’t used it in a story yet, but I will.

There are countless fragments like that, some visual, some emotional, that surface suddenly while I’m writing. It’s not really an intentional process. It just happens, and I think my characters and the stories are the richer for them. When I’m writing I do so for hours at a time, reaching a level of concentration which is sometimes called called ‘Flow’, (defined by Wikipedia as “the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does.” That’s it. In that state, fragments of memory appear and find their way on to the page: the outline of a character might have been created earlier, but many of the details emerge during the writing.

Q. Do you always know how your story will end?

I’ve certainly improved my planning since the random chaos of the first attempt at writing a novel, but I can’t say that I know exactly how my story will end when I start it. It’s trite to claim that the characters take over, but to some extent it’s true. If the story is character-driven, that’s bound to happen. Crime fiction, with its requirement for structure and ‘clues’ sprinkled around makes that more difficult, as I found when writing ‘Cruel Tide’. I knew quite early on how the penultimate climatic scene would work, but the final scene of reaction and resolution was written several times before I found a way of closing the story that was true to both the characters and the authenticity of the events and the setting.

Q. When is the next book coming out?

It’s a  welcome question in as much it indicates an willingness to read on, but my hear sinks whenever I hear it. ‘This time next year,’ I’ve been replying as cheerfully as I can muster, thinking as I do so of the months of work that are entailed, the planning, the problems, the research, and then the days of purdah, sitting at the laptop for hours at a time, reading, re-reading, worrying, dreaming, talking to my editor, worrying some more. Sometimes I wonder if I really want to go through it all again at such speed, but my commercial sense tells me that a year is about as long as my readers are prepared to wait for the next one before they lose interest.

Book group questions for my trilogy ‘Between the Mountains and the Sea’

An email last week (thanks, Lesley) prompted me to think for the first time about book groups reading my books, either as a whole trilogy or just one of the three. I know that the library service in Cumbria has sets of each of the books for loan for this purpose, and I meet people who have read my books with their group, but I didn’t realise that this sometimes entailed using pre-written questions.

ruth_sutton_triolgy covers

I’ve had a go at creating several questions, in the hope that they might engender some interesting discussion. They seem a bit vague and generic, and I’m sure readers can think of better ones for themselves, but here goes. There are four for each book, and three more that apply to the whole trilogy, which could be adapted for any of the books. Some of the questions for an individual book could be applied for the others too. Mix and match.

I would really love to hear these discussions myself!

A Good Liar

1. How are the characters of Jessie and John introduced to the reader? What do you initially feel about them? Do they develop as the story proceeds, and in what ways?

2. What do you make of Jessie’s affair with Andrew? What does it show about her character, and his?

3. Which passages from the book did you particularly enjoy, or not, and why?

4. This was the author’s first novel: what feedback or advice would you offer her for the future?

Forgiven

1. How is life in a mining community conveyed? Did you find it convincing?

2. Jessie’s independence is threatened in various ways during this story. How does she deal with these developments, and how do you feel about the choices she makes?

3. Do you believe that Maggie genuinely loves John, or is she attracted by what he can offer her?

4. How does the relationship between Jessie and Agnes develop? (This is especially interesting if you’ve witnessed it from the beginning in A Good Liar). What do you think about Agnes’ motives and behaviour?

Fallout

1. How is the character of Lawrence Finer introduced? Do you find him convincing, and what does he add to the story?

2. Do the technical details in this book about the Windscale reactor and the 1957 fire interest you? What could the author have done to improve this aspect of the story?

3. Some of the characters, e.g. Tom Tuohy, were real people working at Windscale in 1957. How does the author weave together fact and fiction. Does it work?

4. The ending of the book, and of the whole trilogy, is left open-ended. Is this satisfying? How would you have liked the book to end?

Between the Mountains and the Sea: the trilogy as a whole

1. Three different communities and decades are explored during the trilogy: what sense did you get of time and place in each of them? Were they convincing and interesting?

2. Does the dialogue contribute to your understanding of the characters? What did you like or dislike about the approach to dialogue?

3. What issues does an author have to consider when writing a trilogy? How has the author dealt with some of these issues?

If you find these questions useful, or have some better ones, let me know. And if you actually use them for a book group discussion, I’d love to know that too, and anything of the feedback or interesting insights that resulted. The next book Cruel Tide, due out in November 2015 is a crime story, and I think the questions might be a bit different.

The author as tyrant: is writing stories a form of control?

With novel number 4 all but finished, I find my mind turning on what next. There was an interesting conversation the other day about a possible plot for book 5, and I heard myself saying, ‘Well, I could kill off so-and-so, and have so-and-so falsely accused, etc etc,’ as if my characters are just pawns in my chess game. Which of course they are.

During the very first painful writing experience I recall deciding that one of the main characters should fall seriously ill and might die. I liked this character and had thought a lot about him, his childhood, his anxieties and frustrations, his strengths and talents, and I was proposing to bump him off on a whim, because I wanted to, and more importantly because I could.

As a happily single and self-employed person I must have a need for control over my own life that is perhaps higher than the normal. Creating characters and writing stories about them may be an extension of that inclination to be in charge. Novelists will tell you that their characters have a life of their own, and in their day to day actions that’s true, but ultimately if their creator decides to bump them off, or incapacitate them, they are powerless to resist. The author rules, OK?

By the end of book 2 ‘Forgiven’ I’d decided that one of the characters had outlived her usefulness to the development of the overall story and would have to go. The only question was when and how. In the end I started book 3 with a death, which upset some readers, but ‘tough’. Death is part of life, as are serious illness, unwanted pregnancy, and addictions of various kinds. We need characters who are stable and comfortable and reasonably happy, but they don’t make good stories and usually end up being hapless victims or just a counterpoint to the more interesting complexities of far less likeable people. And I’m the one who gets to decide, who lives, who dies, when, how and to what effect. I need to think about what this says about me.

Genre cliche and sex

As you may remember from previous posts, dear reader, I’ve always struggled with the notion of ‘genre’. I’m not keen on stereotypes generally, and genre has often seemed a rather lazy and delimiting way of categorising a book, to make it easier for booksellers to know which shelf to put it on. As a writer of regional/local women’s commercial historical fiction, my irritation may be understandable. ‘Fiction’ is OK, but the rest of the labels are perjorative, and it’s particularly galling when the ‘local’ label condemns my books to the bottom shelf or the back room alongside books about copper mining in Victorian Cumberland.

After a trilogy in the ‘regional/local women’s commercial historical fiction’ category, I decided to try crime fiction, which I read much of myself and have always enjoyed. As usual, I began by trying to learn about this mode of writing, and enjoyed a day at Crimefest in Bristol last summer, to immerse myself briefly and see what I could pick up. Part of it reminded me of a weekend spent at the Gilbert and Sullivan festival in Buxton the previous year. At both events everyone seemed to know everyone else, except me of course, and there was an air of shared language and complacent jollity, with much kissing and expressions of joy. Even the names at Crimefest had a certain pattern: I was struck by the number of Camilla’s and Jocelyn’s, for example, of whom we see very few in West Cumbria. That must be a cultural habit emanating from London. 

The workshop with Matthew Hall and Bill Ryan was really good, as I’ve mentioned before, and focussed mainly on the 3 act structure, that was new to me and quite challenging, which I liked. There was also the interesting idea of a parallel between the external crises in the plot and internal personal crises for the protagonist. I could see how the best of what I’ve read reflected this dual thread. I could also see how the main characters required some personal demons that made them more interesting and vulnerable, and also generated mistakes, false assumptions and some of the blind alleys and red herrings of good crime stories. 

The crime fiction shelves,and especially the Nordic noir variety, are full of depressed, lonely, single men with fraught personal relationships and alcohol problems. When does a recurring idea become a cliche? You can change gender, as MR Hall has bravely done, but still end up with the same formula: Hall’s female coroner is depressed, lonely, single etc etc. Or you can give your hero a very particular setting, as with Bill Ryan’s Korolev in Stalinist Russia, and make him a more sympathetic character, but surround his intrinsic goodness with potentially overwhelming conspiracy and evil doings. 

There is a general absence of joy among current crime fiction ‘heroes’, which inevitably affects one of the genre cliches, the requirement to include at least one sexual encounter. We are led to believe that sex in fiction increases sales. And sex does appear to be de rigeur these days in crime fiction, which is quite a challenge when many of the current protagonists, however physically attractive they may be, are deeply depressed. They are drawn to the most unlikely and unsuitable people, sometimes against all their better instincts, although the apparently inevitable sexual encounter is often described in unspecific euphemisms. We should be grateful for that at least : anything more graphic might be too grotesque. Incidentally, this feature of the genre was never mentioned in Hall and Ryan’s admirable workshop, but there it is in their books.  

So here’s my dilemma as a novice crime writer. Do I absorb the lessons from my more experienced and successful peers and include the obligatory sex scene, even inferentially, or do I eschew it in the interests of the reader’s digestion and stick to the crime stuff – the ‘meat and potatoes’ without the gravy? Much will depend on how I choose to draw my main characters, and I’ve already decided on a rather wild and perverse young woman who finds herself collaborating with a more conventional young man with a less intuitive and more procedural approach. One woman, one man, both relatively young and unattached. The reader’s expectation of sex might be high, but does it have to happen? If a sexual encounter is part of the genre cliche, it would have to be simultaneously provoked by too much alcohol in her case and uncharacteristic lust from him. I could engineer that I suppose by some tricksy plotting, but do I really want to? Is it not possible that two people of different genders can work together without sex? I remember my mother telling me gravely that such a thing was not possible. ‘They’re all the same, dear,’ she said (meaning all men). ‘They only want thing. It’s in their nature.’ I have no clear opinion on this issue.

In each book of my earlier trilogy there was some sex, but I maintain that it was a product of, and necessary to, the development of a character-driven plot. In the current foray into crime fiction, the same must apply. If neither plot nor character would generate a sexual episode naturally, by its own volition, then it won’t happen. Part of me is quite relieved. Trying to write with commitment about something implausible is too difficult. I’m grateful too that as a self-published author I’m under no external pressure to increase sales by giving way to this particular genre cliche. No editorial or marketing voice is whispering in my ear to include something I don’t feel the need for. 

This is not to say that in future books, even those with the same characters, sex might not arise plausibly and find a place in the story. But genre cliche alone will not be enough. If we rightly criticise cliche in other aspects of writing, we shouldn’t let the obsession with genre lead to formulaic structures and plots. If that makes them less likely to be best-sellers, so be it. Most of us will never make a full living from writing anyway, so we might as well hang on to our self-respect and avoid cliche in all its forms.