Is the end in sight for the ‘psychological thriller’?

A year or so ago,  it seemed as ifLBF_2017_logo_white_background the psychological thriller was destined to overtake most other sub-genres of crime fiction. There’ll always be a market for ‘cosy crime’, but the best-seller thrillers were at the other end of the spectrum, featuring graphic violence and sadism, much of which was either directed against or perpetrated by women, and written by women too. Highly improbable twists and turns were the order of the day, and the final climax was required to be sickeningly bloody.

As an aspiring crime fiction writer I was depressed by this trend. I found the books very hard to read, couldn’t contemplate writing that way, and was therefore apparently condemned to be ‘unfashionable’. Was this just squeamishness or cowardice on my part? No, it was a choice, and I chose not to go that way. My two crime books ‘Cruel Tide’ and ‘Fatal Reckoning’ were strong on setting and character, but seemed to fall between two stools – harmless ‘who-dunnits’ on the one hand, and miserable misogyny on the other. I was heartened when Fahrenheit Press agreed to pFahrenheit press logoublish my crime novels both as ebooks and POD, but I was less interested in writing further crime fiction if I couldn’t resolve my dilemma about the style.

Discussing my future writing ideas recently with a well-connected London-based ‘commissioning editor’ I was surprised and pleased when she offered the view that the trend for violent thrillers was waning, nudged away by a renewed interest in rural rather than metropolitan settings and a gentler view of life, which would in turn produce a different style of crime fiction.

And in recent reports from the London Book Fair, similar views have emerged there too. Maybe it is felt, as I have felt myself, that excessive violence verges on the pornographic and has reached its limits as a popular genre. If this is true, I for one am delighted.

Wishing I’d mentioned ‘Bindoon’ in my novel ‘Cruel Tide’

Whenever I talk to local audiences about the two crime books, Cruel Tide and Fatal Reckoning, I explain that the institutions where the abuse of children occurred were not on the Morecambe Bay coast of Furness as is portrayed in the stories, but elsewhere. I also explain why I ‘anonymised’ the communities, to hide their identity. One of the challenges of writing local fiction is that communities don’t relish being named as places where bad people do – or did – bad things.

Just this week I’ve been reminded of another challenge: having done so much research about your potential subject matter, how much can you actually use without incurring the critical response – ‘Excuse me, your research is showing.’ The trick is to use only a fraction of the information you have, just enough detail to conjure up the authentic feel of setting or story without boring or overwhelming the reader who wants the plot to move on.

Here’s a case in point. While I was investigating institutional child abuse and how it was covered up in the 1960s and 1970s, I discovered the extent of ‘child emigration’ to the old ‘colonies’ during the post-war years, and the horrific experiences of some of those children. In particular I read about a boy’s home in Western Australia  called Bindoon, which was run by Catholic priests.bindoon-1-1Hundreds of boys were sent there and subject to appalling physical and sexual abuse, which was either not known about by both English and Australian authorities or was discounted or covered up to save them the problem of sorting it out.

In my novel Cruel Tide, a mysterious character appears who seems to have spent much of his life in Australia, and has returned to search for his younger brother who has also ended up in care. Without spoiling the plot, let’s say he meets a tragic end. In all but the final draft of the novel, as he lies dying he says one word ‘Bindoon.’ It’s a strange word, and I really wanted readers to wonder about it, and follow later attempts to find out what it meant, or even check it out themselves. My editor wasn’t sure. The word was new to her too. ‘Is it too distracting?’ she asked. ‘Is it necessary?’ In a sense, it was distracting and even unnecessary, but I held out for its inclusion until the very last draft, when I folded, succumbed to advice and took it out. If you want to see the context, read Chapter 21 of Cruel Tide. Better still, read the whole book.

This week, there it is in the top news stories: ‘Bindoon’, as the enquiry into historic child abuse begins its work in London, with a focus on the abuse suffered by the child migrants in Australia. How I wish I’d left the reference in place, as a testament to those nameless boys and what they went through.

 

Authentic local setting: useful or off-putting?

It was a wild and snowy night, with a full moon wierdly visible through the snow, as I drove to a readers’ group meeting at Grange-over-Sands library on Thursday and spoke to the hardy souls who turned up. Talking about the new book ‘Fatal Reckoning’ grange-librarywithout giving away most of the plot was a challenge, so I relied on questions to pick up what my ‘audience’ wanted to discuss. ‘You obviously like to use specific local settings,‘ said one, ‘but what about people who nothing about the place? Doesn’t that specificity make them feel excluded and put them off?’

It’s a good question, and one that’s been on my mind for a while. Many of my most enthusiastic readers are local to the region of West Cumbria that I love and have used as the setting for all my books so far. The area has everything a story backdrop should have – interest, historical depth, variety, beauty and even controversy, in the local nuclear industry based around Sellafield. Occasionally I have to anonymise the community I’m writing about, but mostly the place names and the details are precise, and that’s what many of my readers enjoy. They haven’t seen references to their own home turf in novels before, and it’s great fun to recall them in your mind’s eye as you read.

But there’ll be many more readers – I hope – for whom the area is unknown and the specific references immaterial. Honestly, I don’t think this detracts from their reading pleasure. All of us read about places we don’t know, and accept the author’s word about what the settings look like. Too much description is a drag, but we appreciate enough detail to picture the scene, whether the setting is authentic or not. We enjoy finding out more about the setting of a good book: evocations of Ann Cleeve’s Shetland or Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh add immeasurably to the reading experience.

For me, setting is important on a number of levels. For all readers it provides the visual context of the story, adding colour and depth to the ‘events’. Sometimes, setting is so crucial that it becomes almost a character in itself. CRUEL_TIDE COVER frontIn my first crime novel ‘Cruel Tide’ the vast mudflats of Morecambe Bay and its sneaking tides are central to the plot. This can be achieved whether or not the reader knows the area herself. Local knowledge is not and should not be essential, but it adds another layer of enjoyment for some readers. This is especially so when the locality has previously been neglected in fiction, which I feel West Cumbria has been. Cumbria has been celebrated by many writers and poets, but not the west of the county, where the mountains meet the Irish Sea and seams of coal stretch further west under the waves. Coal and ore mining have gone, steel and iron works have closed, ship building has been replaced by nuclear submarines and commercial fishing is a shadow of past prominence, but the fascination of this coastal area continues and cries out to be shared. My next writing project may be different in characters and genre, but I’ve no doubt the setting will be the same, and hope it will be appreciated whether the readers are familiar with it or not.

A new chapter?

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I knew this week would be busy but it’s been more than that: it feels like the start of a new chapter in my short writing life. Two events happened simultaneously. First, my new book ‘Fatal Reckoning’ was officially launched, on Friday at the Beacon Museum in Whitehaven, on the top floor (visible in the photo) with a superb view over the harbour and out to sea. It was a very enjoyable afternoon although I say it myself. One of the best parts was the introduction from the Director of the museum, Elizabeth Kwasnik – an off-comer from Scotland – who said that my trilogy ‘Between the Mountains and the Sea’ had given her valuable insight into the recent history of West Cumbria and its people. The historian in me was very pleased about that.

Second, the night before the Beacon launch the new ebook version of ‘Fatal Reckoning’ appeared on Amazon and the Kindle Store, published this time not by me but by Fahrenheit Press, who specialise in digital publishing, mainly of crime fiction. I’ve been fascinated to see how they set about establishing their books – and now mine – on the radar of crime fiction readers, mainly using Twitter. Chris McVeigh, who started Fahrenheit Press has also written a blog piece about the details of the curious partnership between us, by which they publish digitally and I do the paperback version. Two different formats, two different audiences, two different approaches, and an interesting development in self-publishing. As I explained last week, Fahrenheit’s version of Cruel Tide on Kindle has a completely different cover. Click the link to see it. And while you’re there, check the new ‘Fatal Reckoning’ cover too.

Both these developments have made me think, yet again, about what I’m doing and what next. The setting in Cumbria has to remain central to my writing, no doubt about that. Also, I really enjoyed weaving fact and fiction in the trilogy, and want to do that again. Could I combine that approach with a ‘crime’ story, as I tried to do in the first book in the trilogy ‘A Good Liar’? Does the next book need to be the start of a new series, which might be more lucrative but can be restrictive too?

My fiction writing life will be shorter than many authors, simply because I didn’t start until I was 60. So if the number of books left in me is relatively small, what are my priorities? I don’t want to spend precious time churning out books that might sell but don’t really interest or inspire me. Needless to say, a new idea is already forming, but nothing I want to talk about just yet.

What does a book cover really mean?

This is a bit complicated. Just to start things off, here are the covers of the two crime fiction books I’ve published, last year and last week.

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I think they’re quite good, but what they indicate more than anything else is the setting – Morecambe Bay in ‘Cruel Tide’ and Whitehaven harbour in ‘Fatal Reckoning’. The fact that they deal with dark deeds is implicit, not unmistakeable. These are the covers on the paperbacks that are in the shops, but they will not be the covers of the ebooks. How come?

Here’s what’s been going on ‘behind the scenes’. The ebook versions of both these books are being published not by me and my imprint ‘HoadPress’, but by an international crime fiction publisher called ‘Fahrenheit Press’ fahrenheit-press.com. They specialise in ebooks and POD, but rarely if ever publish paperbacks, unless there’s an enormous demand, at which POD becomes impractical. Casting around for a way to avoid the ‘agent’ route to publishing I found Fahrenheit Press a few months ago, sent them a copy of ‘Cruel Tide’ as an example of my work to date, and said that the sequel was in production. Long story short: the MD of Fahrenheit, Chris McVeigh, and I met in London, talked about the various routes to market and made the deal outlined above. I find the business of Amazon algorithms etc quite puzzling – as I wrote about a week or two ago. Chris understands that whole business better than I ever could, so why not give it a go, just to see what happens? He’s preparing both books for digital production right now, and when he’s ready I’ll take down my Kindle posting for ‘Cruel Tide’ and he will replace it immediately with his, adding ‘Fatal Reckoning’ as an ebook for the first time. The difference will be the covers, which we have been discussing this week. His preferred covers are completely different than my originals, denoting not setting but ‘genre’. They are very dark and stark, as befits a dark tale in two parts, and he’s called both of them ‘Judith Pharaoh novels’. So simple. When they’re finally agreed and published – in a week or two – , you be able to see them on the Amazon and Kindle websites and make your own comparisons. This is the first time that anyone else has published my work, in any format, I’m fascinated by the experience, so different from a traditional publishing deal.

Here’s to the Society of Authors

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I love the Society of Authors, for all sorts of reasons. For a start, they let me join, which for an independently published author is a real bonus, as most of the writers’ groups won’t let me join regardless of how many real, well-produced and well-written novels I sell. Second, they provide a source of professional information for any writing or publishing query I might have. Third, they organise useful events, and are trying hard to spread these beyond the capital. Fourth, the monthly journal ‘The Author’ always provides ideas, questions and provocations to make me think about both writing and publishing and keeps me in touch with the inside of the book world that is still relatively unfamiliar turf for me.

This month’s edition of ‘The Author’ contains an article by Louise Doughty entitled ‘The Horror of Being Published’. I have tried without success to get ‘traditionally’ published, which was the form Louise was referring to, but reading the piece rang bells for me, even though my form of publication is on a much smaller scale than hers. Almost all writers, except the handful of global names, have to jostle for shelf space with others and are routinely rejected by people browsing for a book to read. When you’ve spent a year with nothing else on your mind except the research, writing and production of a book it’s hard to realise that this effort may be of no interest to others.

Louise is a highly respected writer, who chairs book prize panels: I’m just a humble supplicant in those very few competitions for long form fiction that permit independently-published entries. One of the few is a local Cumbria-based competition of long standing. Every year I send off the required four copies of my previous year’s publication, and every year until now they have received no mention whatsoever. Fair enough, maybe they’re just no good, although their sales and my readers seem to indicate otherwise. This year my novel ‘Cruel Tide’ was ‘shortlisted’. It got a favourable mention from one of the three judges, but as I collected my ‘certificate’ the Chair of the panel told me with a smile that he and the third judge on the panel ‘don’t like novels’. I’d suspected so, but was surprised to hear him say it. Hey ho. It’s my choice whether to bother entering next year.

‘Just keep writing’ says my partner. And I will.

Incidentally, Louise Doughty was one of the first tutors I encountered when I decided at 60 that I wanted to write fiction. She was a very accomplished teacher and I’m grateful for everything I learned from her and Tobias Hill on that Arvon course in 2008.

 

 

 

 

What’s in a name?

I always struggle with titles, and then with the cover image that should illuminate the title and engage the reader: as an independent author/publisher, these decisions are all mine. The image on the cover of ‘Cruel Tide’ developed before I even started the book. It came to me when I did the walk across Morecambe Bay and was struck by the menace of quicksand very close to the northern shore. The snaking, threatening tide that covers these huge mudflats twice every day connected with another cruel tide – of abuse, cover-up and corruption that have damaged so many children’s lives. The decision about both title and cover came to me quite quickly.

Not so with the sequel to ‘Cruel TideI’ that I’m currently completing. My editor Charlotte and I have brainstormed possible titles, but nothing really stood out. Then in the final stages of the first draft, in one of those times when the story seems to be writing itself, the words ‘Seize the Day’ became suddenly significant and I could see them on the cover, with a dark image of one of the settings – no details for fear of plot-spoiling.

The first thing you do is check how many other books already exist with that title. Of course there are several, but then you have to take them one at a time and decide whether the replication is significant. The most recent was non-fiction, an autobiography, so that was OK. Another appeared to be a religious tract, too different to bother about. There was one fiction book, but a very different genre.

I think I have my title. Next I’ll think hard about the image, and start working with the cover designer Kevin Ancient who did such a wonderful job with ‘Cruel Tide’. Crime fiction covers seem to be have some common characteristics, to ensure that readers understand what may lie between the covers. Decisions to make. Watch this space.