How important is ‘the horse’s mouth’

 

straight-from-the-horses-mouth-idiom

 

‘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

 

Where do plots come from?

I’m sure anyone who writes a novel is asked the question: ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ I can’t speak for anyone else, but thinking back on the books I’ve written so far, there seem to be a few places where plot ideas come from.

  • My own experience, things that have happened to me personally, together with all the emotions that surrounded them. Some of these are from decades ago, others more recent. I’m not providing any examples of these, to preserve my own privacy and the trust of those around me.
  • Stories or snippets of stories I’ve heard from other people. One of these, told to me many years ago, concerned growing up in Belfast in the 1960s with a Catholic father and protestant mother. Another, just a memorable snippet, was about a young man whose wife left him and then returned to their house a few days later while he was at work and removed every stick of furniture, every carpet, curtain and light fitting. He was too shocked and humiliated to track her down.
  • Details gleaned from contemporary newspapers and accounts. I use the Whitehaven News for some of this background colour, peering at the microfilm reader to find authentic details that could later become small valuable nuggets in the story. It’s a useful source as it’s weekly and contains all the court cases, petty theft, accidents, and features that add depth to the picture I’m painting. The post-war period I researched for ‘Forgiven’ was rich in detail that evoked that particular time: the parish council resolution that refused to celebrate the anniversary of VE Day in 1946 as they had ‘nothing to celebrate and nothing to celebrate with’; the couple who were caught handling blackmarket pork when a mouse ate through the string supporting a heavy illegal ham hanging upstairs, with damaging consequences. In ‘Sellafield Stories’ an oral history of the Cumbrian nuclear plant I found some rich detail about the reactor fire of October 1957 from people who were there at the time. Transcripts of hearings and enquiries are also great ‘primary sources’, raw, unfiltered by anything except the capacity of the note-taker to capture everything that was said. One of the survivors of the William Pit disaster of August 1947 gave evidence to the official enquiry about his experience of the explosion and his escape from the mine, and I took some of his words directly into my text for ‘Forgiven’. Maybe it’s the historian in me that get so excited about the authenticity of evidence like that.
  • Places, and what might have happened, or could happen in this setting. When I did the walk across Morecambe Bay from Arnside a year or two ago I was very struck by the care we had to use when approaching the shore at Kents Bank to avoid a shiny grey patch of mud that wobbled visibly as we came close. This was quicksand, and a false step into it could have been life-threatening. My latest novel ‘Cruel Tide’ drew its opening scene from this experience.

None of these nuggets, of themselves, provide you with a plot, but some of them will provoke the essential ‘what if?’ questions from which great stories can be created. They also remind you of features of earlier times that could provide a starting point. For the novel I’m researching at present, a casual meander around some websites has already provided a striking image that will anchor the plot at the start and leave an after-taste of menace and threat. I had to decide who would witness this image, where, when and how, and what impact it might have, and the story began to take shape. It’s very early days yet, but I’m pretty sure that I already have the first chapter. Once I get to that stage, the story ideas begin to bubble up, adding more strands and twists. The trick is to know when to stop adding layer after layer of complexity and characters, how to shape the story into the necessary peaks and troughs, and then take a deep breath and start….’Chapter One’.

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.

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.

Delectable authenticity

In the great scheme of things, few people really care about absolute authenticity, but I’m one of them. We notice the glaring anomalies, like the plastic water bottle on a recent photo of the Downton Abbey set, but to appreciate much of we see or read in historical fiction we would need to be extraordinarily expert in the details of the period. If hardly anyone will notice or appreciate the details, why do I spend so much time and effort trying to get it right? I do it because I love it; it gives me a smug satisfaction that I can defend the things I’ve portrayed and the words I’ve used. Earlier this week I was reading from ‘A Good Liar’ a conversation between my heroine and her mother about the respectability of the father of Jessie’s unborn child. ‘They live in Mikasa Street,’ Jessie pleaded, ‘They’ve got a bathroom!’. I couldn’t help myself, breaking off from the reading to assure my listeners that the houses in Mikasa Street (built by Vickers  in Vickerstown on Walney Island, named after a battleship in the Japanese navy) did indeed have bathrooms befitting the status of the workers to whom they were allocated. I beamed at them, they stared back. I’m sure none of them cared, but I did.

For more distant historical settings, the problem may be less acute, but many readers will have lived through my twentieth century settings themselves and will spot anachronism immediately. I was talking recently about the setting of my third book ‘Fallout’, in Seascale in 1957 at the time of the Windscale nuclear reactor fire. A lady in the audience told me cheerfully ‘Oh, yes, I was there that day’ and told me about watching the smoke streaming from the stack above the reactor building as she walked across the compound towards her office. ‘Which way was the wind blowing?’ I asked, but she couldn’t remember.

The setting for my next book will be around 1970 in the Furness area of what was then Lancashire and is now Cumbria. I’ve already spoken to people who worked in the newsroom of the Barrow-in-Furness newspaper at the time and next week I have a date with an ex-policeman from the same era. He laughed when I told him I was interested in the details of how it was to work in the force at that time: when the details are part of your own life you never think of them as important. But the details in my contact’s memory are gold-dust to me, and I shall listen hard, noting and remembering everything I can. How did the average copper think, talk and act at that time, before all the technological changes we have seen in the past 40 years? How did they relate to each other and to other ranks and parts of the service? Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh detectives call the men in uniform ‘woolly suits’: what were they called by their Barrow counterparts in 1970?

I know already that a large proportion of this authentic detail will never end up in the book. I’m writing a story, not a social history of the police force, and the pace can’t be bogged down by too much unnecessary information. I also know that the little nuggets of truth that emerge fresh and glinting into the text may delight only me and the few others who recognise their veracity. For most readers a few authentic details just add flavour to the image that springs from the words on the page. It could be the smell of something, a phrase or dialect word, a joke, a reference; anything can enhance the picture, like salt in food, taking it from the bland to the memorable. That’s what I’m after when I interview my bemused ex-policeman next week. By the way, all I did was send an exploratory email to Barrow police station: somehow, my request ended up on the desk of a Superintendent whose request for someone to respond carried sufficient authority that I heard back within days.

A year or two back, investigating the disaster in one of the Whitehaven pits in 1947 I came across the actual verbatim record of the enquiry into the disaster held by the National Coal Board at the time. It was tucked away in the archive of the Durham Mining Museum. Reading it was like there being there, and I managed to use just a word or two in the voice of one of the survivors. When the underground explosion happened, he said, they were some way from it but ‘the air fluttered’. What a wonderful phrase. Into the text it went and I love it still. Listening to my ex-policeman on Wednesday will give me the same delight, and hopefully the same treasure trove of authentic detail to mix into the story.

Research: when, how, and how much is too much?

Right back to my student days, ensconced in the circular reading room at Manchester Central Library for days at a time, I’ve loved research, digging around, following footnote leads, piecing a picture together and seeing it emerge in all its satisfying complexity. I still love it. The decision to write historical fiction, forty years on from my student days, was partly motivated by the research opportunities. Now the object of my investigation would be the community where I live, a multi-layered fascinating area with a deep dark past in the far north-west of England, too far from the M6 motorway to catch many Lake District tourists. Off I  went to the local history libraries and my note books filled up with details of events and people and the way lives were led.

As it turned out, by the time came to write the first novel, I was floundering in the details, which stuck limpet-like and refused to be dislodged, weighing down the action and irritating potential readers. Much of it had to go. ‘Murder your darlings’ I was told on a writing course at the Faber Academy that was too good to ignore. And I did: whole chapters, sub-plots, and characters. Thousands of words fell to the sword.

I read something by Ian Rankin, explaining he does the outline first and then decides what research he needs to do. It made sense, but I think there’s more to the research business than this, at least for me. The first stage is to think, about the characters if they already exist, or the times, or the place, and any potential dilemmas or crises that these might generate. Then for me the first stage of research starts, not looking for details but the the feel of a period or a place. The reading may be wide-ranging, with few notes, just to stimulate and titillate to the imagination. Then an outline begins to emerge: don’t ask me how this works. Ideas just bubble up from somewhere, but there are definitely more of these bubbles if I’ve been reading around, slowly sipping information and letting it ferment.

Then comes the first draft of the outline, usually ‘good in parts’ like the curate’s egg (where did that expression come from?). At this point, as the second outline grows from the first, I begin to realise what I need to find out about. There are specific detailed questions to be answered: how long does it take for a body drowned at that point to wash up somewhere else? Where did ladies go shopping for clothes in Whitehaven in 1937? When did formal adoptions start? and so on. Much of the information is findable on the internet while more arcane details mean another trip to the local history library. Even when the research is limited by this ‘need to know’ process, much of what I find out will never make it into the final text. Too much, too specific, unnecessary, intrusive, cut it out. Out of pages of notes you might be left with a glimpse, a smell, an aside, but it will carry all the authenticity you need and the rest is superfluous.

Is research necessary? Absolutely. One bad mistake and the reader’s trust can be damaged beyond repair. But the most common problem is too much rather than too little. Up to a point, authentic detail is admirable and necessary; beyond that point it’s just irritating. It’s a fine line. Whoever edits your books needs to be alert to the possibility of research overload and use their metaphorical red pencil when the line is crossed. As the author you might be disappointed by this apparent disrespect, but you’ll be grateful later. Beware of any novel where the blurb refers to ‘meticulous research’, which must be euphemism for ‘tedious name-dropping’. I could provide examples, but instead I’ll respect the commitment of the author to historical veracity and then read something else.

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.