Fact, fiction, and genre expectations

At the Words by the Water festival in Keswick last week, we were able to witness two versions of the same real events and thereby to compare them. The events in question concerned the life and work of  Alan Turing, the mathematical genius whose work enabled the German ‘enigma’ code to be cracked during World War 2. The first presentation came from Turing’s nephew Dermot Turing who gave us five ‘myths’ about his uncle and proceeded to use his detailed knowledge of the family and the history to replace these myths with something closer to the truth. His talk was followed by a showing of ‘The Imitation Game’ a 2014 film ostensibly about Turing’s life and war work, and the events leading up to Turing’s death by suicide in 1954.

At the end of his talk, Dermot Turing urged us to enjoy the film we were about to see, but warned us that the Alan Turing we were going to see portrayed was not, perhaps, the real man, but a filmic construct. He didn’t use those words: in fact he was very polite about a film that demonstrated each of the five myths that he had previously been at pains to deconstruct. No point in railing against it, I suppose, although I doubt whether my reaction would have been so measured.

The film was much heralded when it was released. I can’t recall all the fulsome epithets used by the critics, but some of them at least thought it was very good. But did it actually tell the story accurately? No. In some crucial respects, the needs of the film, the demands of the genre and the presumed expectations of the audience clearly over-rode any semblance of historical accuracy. One example: Turing was already working on the German code before the war began and had cracked it by 1941, but in the film the breakthrough is beset by technical and political difficulties and wasn’t achieved until much later in the war, as the need for it became ever more urgent, creating a false tension that never actually happened.

The script – in my view – was dire, cliche-ridden and sentimentalised. I checked later: the scriptwriter was American and born in 1981. To what extent, I wondered, were both the script and the unfolding of the story affected by the demands of the 3 act structure so beloved of film-makers: – the ersatz crises, the bullying army officer, the cynical MI6 man, the fresh-faced young man who had by some fluke turned up in the code-breaking team. And then there was Keira Knightley as the only woman on the team. Words fail me. Why her, again? I assume I was expected to suspend my disbelief for the sake of the story, but instead I was increasingly  irritated by the whole sorry mess.

On the way out I began thinking about my own attempts to weave real events into a fictional setting, and whether I too should be castigated for sacrificing authenticity in pursuit of a good tale. The issue is most pronounced in the third book of my West Cumbrian trilogy ‘Fallout’, which is set against the backdrop of the nuclear reactor fire at Windscale in October 1957. I had 90,000 words rather than an two hour film script to play with, but still the responsibility to portray the real events as accurately as I could weighed heavily on me, for two reasons. First, it was a point of pride that I got my facts right. And second, Windscale is just a few miles up the coast from where I live and the fire happened not that long ago, within my memory and those of many people who live around me in this area. You can’t, and shouldn’t, muck about with the known facts when many of them are known by so many. My research was careful and meticulous. Even if it made a better story I couldn’t make the fire last longer, or less long, or do more damage, or require intervention beyond the means of the local men who managed to get it under control. So why did the makers of ‘The Imitation Game’ claim to use a real story, take such liberties with it, and get away with it? I can be very critical of my own attempt to blend fact and fiction but at least I tried to respect the events rather than abuse them.

Historical fiction that purports to represent real events raises particular challenges when those events are within living memory. It’s something I’d like to think more about as a writer, and try not to imitate ‘The Imitation Game’.





Explicit violence in crime fiction: is it necessary?

Interesting piece in the Telegraph this week about the apparent increase in explicit violence in crime fiction. I read a fair sprinkling of the genre, and know that I have learned my limits in what I choose to read, and to watch. Reading words leaves less of an imprint on my brain than seeing and hearing images on a screen: and it’s easier to skip pages than it is to block both sight and sound. I skipped many pages in the Stig Larsson trilogy, although by the third book I was skipping to avoid badly edited tedium, wondering if it had in fact been edited at all.

Most of the time I prefer my books and films to infer, and avoid excessive violence. Against children the mere inference of violence is too much for me: I even have to avoid  some of the NSPCC ads on TV. Violence and cruelty against adults, female and male, are difficult, and even more troubling is the trend towards female victims, where the violence tips over into sadism that makes the reader complicit. Not good. I have no doubt violent scenes in books sell copies – why else would there be such a plethora in these times when sales seem to count more than anything else? I want to sell copies, of course I do, but not if it means writing something I really wouldn’t want to read myself.

One of the beauties of self-publishing is that the author can be under no external pressure as they make choices about content, style and everything else. Instinctively, and without any evidence, I picture the editor of a publishing house whispering in the author’s ear how a bit more explicit sex or violence would catch more readers’ attention, and probably media attention too, cajoling and tempting the writer to go against their own better judgement. Maybe that’s just my ‘don’t even think about trying to push me around’ mindset. Maybe it would never be like that, but for me it’s hypothetical anyway. My editor Charlotte is a fine professional and an old friend who knows there would be little point in pushing me to do anything I wasn’t happy about.

My interest in writing crime fiction for the next book, number four, remains strong, and I’m gradually resolving some of these issues in my head. There are bound to be bad and violent people and actions, or there would be no crime in the crime fiction. But I want to make both content and style more subtle if I can, without sacrificing the grip of the story. I just hope crime fiction readers who pick up a book of mine aren’t so jaded that they lose interest unless the details are laid out, full and frontal and covered in gore.

Bad things can happen in good places

After finishing the trilogy based on the life of feisty but difficult Jessie Whelan, ‘Between the Mountains and the Sea’, I’ve been thinking about the next book, or possibly the next series, having realised the commercial advantages of a series when each book encourages sales of the others. I’d like to set the series in a location dear to my heart, the west coast of Cumbria, and move towards crime fiction. It’s a well-worn genre, and difficult to do anything entirely new, but that doesn’t bother me: the range is so diverse, and the variables so many that my goal of something suspenseful and fresh will be achievable if I try really hard and use what I’ve learned so far.

Part of the freshness I want would be in the location, a neglected part of the country which has wonderful potential – beautiful, complex, layered, with the inwardness that stems from geographical isolation. It’s also where I live, and that could be the source of dilemmas to come. There can’t be a crime story without bad things happening, caused by people behaving badly. They may not be evil people, but they do evil things, for whatever reasons. I will be setting these evil matters within a community that I’m part of and that I’m very fond of. Do I have the ‘detachment’ that may be necessary, and will I care if what I write upsets those who would rather not have the region’s dirty linen, even the fictional dirty linen, exposed in public?

Hasn’t this been a problem all along?  In the three stories so far, bad things have happened, and so far my neighbours are still speaking to me. But the bad things so far have all been external, an explosion in a pit, a fire in a nuclear reactor, neither of them caused by the wanton action of bad people. Blame, if we wish to allocate it, could be placed at the door of a process of cutting corners, or even human error, or the impact of political haste or a flu epidemic, not stemming from from deliberate acts by malevolent individuals.

If it’s crime fiction there will have to be a crime, and probably a series of crimes, and the criminals will probably be local. Not every baddie could be an ‘offcomer’ newly arrived from the distant iniquitous dens of London or even Leeds. Of course some of the evil-doers will be local: even a cursory scan of the local papers reveals plenty of evidence of local wrong-doing, and occasional acts of startling ferocity such as the recent multiple killings by a deranged taxi driver, Cumbria born and bred, who shot his victims both deliberately and then randomly before turning the gun on himself.

What I will need to do is use all the geographical details of my chosen setting but find the crime details elsewhere, to avoid crossing the line between crime fiction and ‘true crime’. As with most local fiction, authenticity will derive from the details of place and time, not from the characters, who remain fictional. The exception to this rule I made myself in ‘Fallout’ – part 3 of the trilogy – in placing known people from the Windscale nuclear plant in 1957 into the story as part of the backdrop. I took legal advice about doing so and was assured that it was acceptable, so long as nothing any of these people were given to do or say was at odds with the known facts, or in any way detrimental to their characters or reputation. It would be a different matter if any of these ‘known’ characters had been given criminal things to do.

In the first part of the trilogy I grappled with these choices, and decided to anonymise the village where most of the action takes place, which was loosely based on the village where I live. I changed its name and tweaked the neighbouring locations too, although more distant locations were left alone, visible on the map and in life. All the characters were fictional, although one – the vicar at the time – did possess some of the characteristics of the actual vicar at the time when the story was set. Even so, some of my neighbours were convinced that some of the characters in the story were real people. ‘You got so-and-so off to a tee,’ someone said to me, although ‘so-and-so’ was entirely a product of my imagination and – as far as I knew – bore no resemblance to any real person, living or dead. When I protested, my neighbour smiled, putting a finger to the side of the nose in the time-honoured gesture of ‘You can’t fool me’.

So, known setting and unknown characters and events will be required to make this work without doing insult or injury to my home turf. That decision helps. For a start I won’t have to spend many hours combing through back numbers of the North-West Evening Mail or the Westmorland Gazette and can let my dark imagination roam a little more freely. Now I have to get on with it.


Can characters be real people?

It was one of those spooky evenings when you get the impression that the people you’re talking to know more about what you’re talking about than you do. The Millom Ladies Guild were listening politely to my stories about the real vicar who inspired the one I depicted in ‘A Good Liar’ when one of them said, ‘Oh, yes I remember him. I was there when the new school was being built.’ (If you know the story of A Good Liar, you’ll understand all this: if you haven’t read it yet, now’s the time!) Thank heaven she didn’t disagree with either my details or the description of the vicar. A little later I was talking about the fire in the nuclear reactor at Windscale in October 1957 and the people there who played a crucial role, and one of my audience was a cousin of a man I had referred to.

This is why the writing of Part 3 of my trilogy, ‘Fallout’ set in the community around Windscale at the time of the fire caused me some anxiety. I wanted to tell the inside story of the fire, the details of which were revealed only recently, fifty years after the event. This meant naming names, or giving fictional names to men who would be instantly recogniseable to many of the local people who will read the book. If I name them, I wondered, can I also give them words to say, words that they might have said but there is no actual record that they did so?

I decided to include half a dozen real people, under their own names, as minor characters in the background of the action. The main Point of View inside the plant is carried by an entirely fictional character, a visiting physicist from the Harwell nuclear research labs. The ‘real’ characters were named, given things to do and words to speak, during an event within the living memory of both myself and probably the majority of the potential readers. My editor wasn’t sure how to deal with it, so we called in a lawyer who deals mainly in copyright issues, for an opinion about the ‘ethics’ and legality of doing what I’d done. His view was that it was OK, for three reasons: a) the named people were playing a background not a foreground role; b) what they did in my story was supported by the evidence in the official history of the incident and was therefore a matter of public record; c) nothing that I had them doing or saying could be seen in any way as negative or blameworthy, in keeping again with the conclusions in the factual historical record in Lorna Arnold’s ‘Windscale 1957: Anatomy of Nuclear Accident’. On top of all that reassurance, the lawyer also said how much he enjoyed the relevant sections and wanted to read the rest.

One of the ladies in Millom asked, ‘Do you have to get permission to include real people?’. A good question, and I sincerely hope that the advice I sought was correct and that the answer in this case is ‘No’.

‘Real’ people in a fictional story: some questions

I’m writing historical fiction set in the region where I live, in the mid-twentieth century and therefore within living memory. I have also chosen to incorporate real events as the backdrop for my characters’ lives. I don’t regret this choice: it has added authenticity and genuine excitement to the story, but it has generated ethical as well as technical questions.

Here’s the first example. In August 1947 104 men and boys were killed in an underground explosion at the William pit in Whitehaven. This event was part of the ‘backdrop’ of my second novel ‘Forgiven’ in which a mining family, the McSherrys from Kells, played a leading part. Violet McSherry and her daughter Maggie Lowery were both screen lasses at the Haig pit, and Frank McSherry was confined to a wheelchair by a previous mining accident. Violet’s brother Tom worked at the William Pit, on the shift that was below ground when the explosion occurred. I wanted one of my characters to be involved, but could Tom be one of the men who was killed? No, I decided, he could not. The families of those killed still live in the area. A book called ‘104 men’ chronicled the lives of each of the victims. I could not ‘borrow’ the identity of any of these people, or add Tom to the list as the 105th victim, without risking offence. Instead, I added Tom to the small group who managed to escape the explosion and walked out of the pit unharmed 20 hours later. This device gave me the opportunity to tell the story from the POV of a survivor, and the story of the men’s survival was fascinating in itself. This story has been widely read and enjoyed locally, and to date no one has questioned my decision to blend fact and fiction in this way.

In Part 3 of the trilogy ‘Fallout’, a similar issue has arisen, and I am still pondering the best course of action before the book is complete and published. This time the setting is the Windscale nuclear plant in Cumbria where the world’s first nuclear fire occurred in October 1957. The events have been exhaustively documented in recent years, although many of the details were not published at the time for political reasons. One of the principal characters is a fictional physicist Lawrence Finer, seconded to Windscale from Harwell, the nuclear research establishment near Oxford. Finer is present as the fire in the reactor starts, threatens to destroy the reactor and is finally extinguished. He is spoken to by men who were ‘really’ there, including Tom Tuohy the Deputy Works manager at the time who was instrumental in ‘saving the day’. I have put words into his mouth, and into the mouths of three other ‘real’ people, based on my detailed research into exactly what was said and done at the time. It makes for an exciting blend of fact and fiction, but is it acceptable?

My editor Charlotte Rolfe is on the case, and has already consulted a publishing lawyer, who has read the relevant chapters and believes that they are OK: the ‘real’ characters are in the background, not the foreground; nothing that they say or do is detrimental to their reputations – in fact quite the opposite; what they say is consistent with the known and documented facts. He also, by the way, said that the chapter describing the fire was ‘rivetting’ which I was chuffed about.

I wonder if other historical novelists struggle with these questions? I wonder if I should give first sight of the ms before publication to the relatives of the four men named in my story, out of respect and politeness, even though technically and legally the ms is not a problem. I want to do the right thing, and I also believe that a fictional account of what happened at that momentous time is worth telling.

Ironically, on this very day, Sellafield nuclear plant is partly closed due to an apparent radiation leak, and the issue of nuclear safety is on our minds yet again.