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’.

 

 

 

 

Research: when, how and what?

I’m doing an online crime writing course with the Professional Writers’ Academy, and Week Three is devoted to ‘research’. This is not the first thinking I’ve done about it: you can’t write a family saga based in a specific place (West Cumbria), and a specific time  (the first half of the twentieth century), without spending a daunting amount of time digging for details, followed by even more time deciding how little of that detail is actually needed. What I’m beginning to understand are the various layers and type of research to be undertaken, and when’s the best time to do it. The first duty of a writer after all is to write, and you have to make sure that research doesn’t become a distraction from the writing rather than a necessary preparation for it.

As soon as I’ve decided on the ‘setting’, both time and place, I’ll start researching the first layer of information. It could be about the geography of the area, using maps and visits, just to get the lie of the land, literally. Or it could be combing through the newspapers for the given time, looking for the details of lives lived at the time and the background events. In 1969 the first people walked on the moon, and the provisional IRA was formed, both of which might be in the minds of my characters at that time, or have a bearing on the plot. The original germ of an idea for a story can be helped by this immersion in the times, and some details or incidents jump out at you. Many things may find their way into your notebook, but only a few really stick in the mind. I recall the court case reported during rationing in 1947, where it was explained that an illegal ham hanging in someone’s attic was discovered when a mouse ate through the string and the ham crashed through the ceiling into someone’s bedroom. That found its way into my second novel ‘Forgiven’. In the third one ‘Fallout’ I’m inside the nuclear plant at Windscale ten years later and learn that one of the essential maintenance procedures for the reactor required someone to hold down a button with their finger for long periods of time, until the finger hurt. Who knew? It showed just how troublesome the care of the old reactor had become.

You have to know when to stop ‘reading around’, or the fascination of what you discover can absorb too much of the energy that should now be devoted to the next stage, getting on with the development of the plot and the characters, and on into the first draft. When you get writing, you quickly discover the gaps in the research that will need to be filled, and the list of specific questions mount. What model of motorbike would someone buy in 1947? What were police radios like in 1969? What would be on the juke box in the cafe in 1970? When and why was the decision made to turn off the fans in the burning reactor?

A remarkable number of these questions can be answered without ever leaving the house, if you’re prepared to pick away online until the answer is found. Even better, you can sometimes discover the gold seam of authentic first hand ‘primary’ information, such as the transcription of the accident enquiry about the William pit explosion of August 1947 that was part of the backdrop of ‘Forgiven’. Or the 1985 Hughes Report on the Kincora Boys’ Home scandal in Belfast that provided much of the background of institutional child abuse that I used in ‘Cruel Tide’.

But some of the best information is uncovered when you talk to people. They give you snippets that you would never find elsewhere and add valuable authenticity to your story. I heard from an ex-policeman that he refused to drive a Panda car on his rounds when they came into use because it would have meant swapping his helmet for a flat cap, and he wouldn’t do it. The daughter of a woman who’d sorted coal in the screen shed at a local pit told me that the screen lasses had to wear gloves whenever they went out to cover their scarred hands that no amount of scrubbing could properly clean. Hard work, and hard times, before the process was mechanised and the screen lasses passed into history.

I learned the hard way that much of this wonderful detail can slow your story down and has to be sacrificed to ‘pace’. In the first novel ‘A Good Liar’ great swathes of background detail about a minor character’s clothes and shoes was cut out, and some of looping ‘side-stories’ needed to go as well: however interesting, they were a distraction and inessential to the main thrust of the action. They had to go, however much it grieved me.

Maybe I’ve made this rod for my own back. It might be less onerous, and authentic detail more straight-forward, if I chose contemporary settings. Historical settings make the writing life harder, with more hours necessarily devoted to gathering and checking the detail. But I still think that such a setting lengthens the shelf-life of the book, which matters a great deal to a self-published author whose promotion and sales have to be spread over a longer time frame than the commercial publishers. So long as I keep writing and publishing, my previous books will keep selling as they are already set in the past and cannot therefore age.

 

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’.

It’s show time!

Last weekend I went to Gosforth Show, my first and possibly my only local show of the season. The summer months here in Cumbria are stuffed with shows: from July to September there’s one every Saturday and Sunday, and sometimes mid-week as well. Some are small, some massive. The biggest ones are generally in the more populous and popular areas of the Lake District, taking advantage of the influx of visitors at this time of the year. The formula is always much the same: local farmers and gardeners present their offerings in a large number of ‘classes’. It could be ‘best Herdwick tup’ (ram), or best calf, or leeks, or sweet peas, or even strawberry jam or Victoria sponge cake. Competition is fierce and the winners are impressive. And of course there are ‘attractions’ such as the ‘monster trucks’ at Gosforth Show this year, which apparently cost a fortune but may have contributed to the biggest numbers ever attending the show. I managed not to see them, but from my spot in the Local History tent the noise was deafening. During the display women of my age came to visit me, asking ‘Why does anyone want to watch those ghastly things?’, to which I had no adequate response.

Despite the noisy mysteries of the monster trucks, I had a great time, so good in fact that I didn’t have a chance to see the rest of the show beyond the Local History tent until I carried my stuff to the car at the end of the day, just as the Grand Parade of all the animal winners was processing round the ring. What did I do all day, you might ask. Well, I stood in front of the home-made display explaining and illustrating my novels, talked to people who passed by, and sold a heap of books as well. There were some great conversations, about the settings of my trilogy, which book readers preferred, and why, and the local events that form the background of the plots. A couple stopped by, and the man stared at the cover of the third book ‘Fallout’, which depicts some of the men who went to fight the fire in the nuclear reactor at Windscale in 1957, wearing their protective suits and helmets. He pointed at one of the men in the line. ‘That’s my Dad,’ he said. I was thrilled to have found such a close connection to this iconic event in Cumbria’s history. He was thrilled to see his Dad on the front cover of a book, albeit unrecognisable in his anti-contamination gear. The man was so thrilled he bought the whole trilogy. I did assiduous research for the Windscale details, and I hope this reader finds the result interesting at a personal level.

I can’t remember how many people came by to tell me that they’d read and enjoyed my books and to enquire about the next one. And there was the usual number of people who told me how many others they had lent their copies to. Sometimes books lent out don’t come back, and there’s good business in replacing them, which is fine.

There’s a special reason why I enjoy the Gosforth Show in particular. In the second book of the trilogy ‘Forgiven’ a key scene is set at this show, in 1947, which marks another backward step in the relationship between my flawed and sometimes thoughtless heroine Jessie and her daughter-in-law Maggie. Writing it made me wince and smile simultaneously. As one of my readers has told me, ‘That Jessie, sometimes I could slap her.’

By the end of the day I’d sold more books than I would sell through other outlets in a month or more. It meant standing on damp grass in a draughty tent for five hours, but so what. When you self-publish that’s part of what you sign up for, and I’m lucky that I enjoy it so much. On Saturday September 3rd I’m doing a workshop at the Borderlines Book Festival in Carlisle. It’s called ‘Successful Self-Publishing’ which might be on the optimistic side, but it’s a better title than ‘How to try really hard to self publish without losing money’. I’m learning all the time and it’ll be fun to share, and to find out how other people are managing too. If you Google ‘Borderlines Carlisle’ you’ll find the details among the workshops at Tullie House, on Sept. 5th at 2-5pm.

Being ‘hefted’ and the details of landscape

Living as I do in Herdwick sheep country, the idea of sheep being ‘hefted’ is something you take for granted. It means that the sheep are ‘hard-wired’ to remain within a certain terrain and not to roam beyond it, even though they are often on common land on the fells (hills) and unhindered by walls or fences. Lambs born into the flock will learn the details of that landscape and become experienced leaders of the flock later. As well as being useful for farmers, being hefted is a life-saver, when sheep need to find shelter and know which wall would offer the best protection from the wind and snow.

Since I started writing fiction set within this landscape, I’ve realised that people can be hefted too, born and raised in a place that becomes imprinted on the mind, and grows over time. My neighbours can tell me what flowers used to grow in the disused quarry across the road sixty years ago, or when a certain house was extended, or where the old road ran before it was straightened and ‘improved’. I remember my first harvest supper in the village hall, when the after supper entertainment was a quiz: in family teams we were shown slides of the minutiae of the village, a gatepost, a chimney stack, a wood pile, a fence, and asked to say exactly where it was. Some of the teams got all thirty of them correct while recent ‘off comers’ like me struggled to identify half a dozen. That was ten years ago, and I’d be more successful now.

But being intimately familiar with a local environment doesn’t necessarily mean you’re ‘hefted’. The additional criterion, as I understand it, is that you are unwilling to leave and always try to return. I wonder if I pass that test? I love to travel, and do so regularly, but increasingly once I’m off the plane I long to be back in my little patch of heaven in West Cumbria. The final stage of the journey west leads over Corney Fell on a winding single track road, at the summit of which you get the first view of the coast, from Black Combe to the south up to St Bees Head further north, with the Isle of Man on the horizon and the coast of Scotland from the far side of the Solway west towards Kintyre. The view is of course dependent on cloud cover and visibility, but even if I can’t see it, I know it’s there and my heart lifts. 

The place where I live is imprinted on my mind in ever-increasing detail, and now attached to it are the fictional characters that I have scattered around the area. I could show you where my heroine Jessie Whelan lived at almost every stage of her life, where her son John and his wife Maggie first met, walked, and fell in love. There’s the street in Kells where the McSherry family lived, and the route the two women took to work at the Haig Pit.   In the current book, ‘Cruel Tide’, I know the wood where a body was found, and I’ve found the house high on the Furness fells where the final scene takes place. The problem of writing in this way is that the locations are so clear in my own mind that I can forget to describe them fully enough for my readers. 

One of the reasons the books sell so well locally is that readers love to see their familiar territory described and peopled with stories that are authentic and plausible, in terms of their own lives and experience. The joy of shared recognition of a building, or a view gives the reading experience a special  dimension that appeals to the ‘heftedness’ of local readers. The challenge is to provide that same emotional response for others too.

Of course I’d really get a kick out of putting on a ‘Jessie Whelan’ tour for the trilogy, all around its setting ‘Between the Mountains and the Sea’. For the new book (out in November) and the series that will hopefully follow, the tour would start with the extraordinary landscape of Morecambe Bay. Maybe it’s time to buy a bus.

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.

 

Talking about my books

Tomorrow evening I’ll be talking to the ‘Friends of Whitehaven Museum’ about the Jessie Whelan trilogy, which has the overall title ‘Between the Mountains and the Sea’. It could be quite a large group, some of whom may have read all three books and others may not even know of their existence. My appearance is part of their regular programme of speakers, and I guess I’ve been invited not as a writer but as someone who has researched and recorded slices of local history in fictional form.

So, I’m thinking: what should I talk to them about? The one thing we all have in common is the setting, and the meeting will take place just across the harbour from the site of the major backdrop event in Book 2, ‘Forgiven’, the explosion in the William Pit in August 1947 that claimed the lives of 104 local men and boys. Think of the impact of that on the local community: all those funerals, day after day, and the thousands of people whose lives were affected, children left without fathers, wives without husbands. I’ll tell them how I tracked down the transcript of the NCB report on the accident, including the accounts from the three men who survived, and how I researched another facet of ‘Forgiven’, the lives of the Displaced Persons in their camps in Cumberland in the years after World War Two. Book 3, ‘Fallout’ was set at the time of the nuclear reactor fire at Windscale, just south of Whitehaven, in 1957, and in doing the research for this book I accumulated far more detail than I could possibly have used in the story, much of which was not clear at the time, even to those who were working at the plant. That too will probably be part of what I share with the group. People are usually interested in the past history of where they live, especially when that history is as rich as ours.

As a writer I should be discussing the triumvirate of character, plot and setting, but talking about setting alone would take us far longer than the limited time I’ll have, and I must find time to say something about the process of turning local history into fiction, which presents another set of challenges worthy of conversation. I’ll try to explain how the characters were born and developed as I wrote about their lives, and how I have tried to have both setting and character drive the plot. Looking back, the process of writing looks far more rational and ordered than it felt for me at the time. I’m now learning more about how to structure and plan a work of fiction, but – in the words of the metaphor – the stable door is banging in the wind and the horse has long gone. Maybe it’ll make for a better effort for the next book. In the meantime I’ll reflect on what I thought and did at the time and not pretend that I consciously followed rules that I was mostly unaware of. Considering that admission. the books turned out better than they might have been.

I’m doing many talks to various groups around Cumbria over the summer, and each one will be different, which sounds inefficient but it’s the only way to keep things fresh. If the people I’m with seem willing to talk I’ll ask them right at the start to help me frame our discussion through their questions and interests. Managing those unanticipated expectations, adding important bits of my own and doing it all within a short time frame is enjoyably risky. It’s like really good teaching and I love it.

 

What makes a good book cover?

SAM_1212A couple of years ago, when my first novel was in production, my ‘book designer’ asked me to go to a bookshop and look at covers. ‘See what you like,’ he said, ‘and what will make people want to buy your book. Then we can give Kevin the cover designer some direction and criteria.’ So I looked, and felt that most of them were anodyne and boring. Nothing about many of the covers made me want to take the book off the shelf, never mind hand over any money for it. I wanted to be struck by the cover image, engaged, intrigued – some reaction. It wasn’t about liking or not liking, more about curiosity.

The first book ‘A Good Liar’ played safe: it combined three images, all of them aesthetically attractive, which collectively gave the reader a sense of what lay within. The second book ‘Forgiven’, looking back on it now, played even safer. It was a beautiful image of a green valley and distant a distant snow-capped ridge, and in the foreground a gorgeous granite stone wall which epitomises the area where the books are set. We had tried to create a cover image using photos of pit wheels and women with children, but it was too fussy and nothing was working. The running theme of the book was ‘forgiveness’, and in the end I felt that the distant peek of light in the sky symbolised that feeling, but it was a bit of a stretch. Basically it was just a beautiful image.

Now we’ve had to make a decision about the cover of book three, ‘Fallout’, which is set against the calamitous event of the world’s first nuclear reactor fire, in Cumberland in 1957. It’s a tough time for my heroine Jessie Whelan too – no more details! – and I wanted a sense of anxiety in the cover, nothing too soft or bland. A beach scene this time, I decided, to complement the view of fells (that’s a Norse word meaning ‘hills’ that’s commonly used in Cumbria): one of the wonderful west-facing beaches that we enjoy in this region. But it had to be a special beach scene, and we found one, with a red sky, beautiful but threatening too. Still I wanted more: among the photographs I’d found of the reactor fire was one of a group of workers in their anti-contamination suits and helmets, looking like spacemen. The clever cover designer imposed this image on the beach below the red sky and the cover of ‘Fallout’ stared out at me. I loved it: as intriguing as I had hoped for and authentic too.

I made a poster and took it round the local bookshops to alert them to the forthcoming publication. One buyer at a local attraction flinched and literally stepped away from the image. ‘We can’t sell that here,’ she said. ‘It’s too frightening. Not the kind of thing for this shop.’ It’s not a proper bookshop, granted, but other crime fiction books on the shelf have quite graphic images. I was surprised by her reaction and I should have asked her to explain it, but I didn’t. Later she confirmed to the books’ distributor that she wouldn’t be carrying copies, even though the first two books in the trilogy sell well there. Nothing I can do about it, I suppose. It was never my intention to upset anyone, but then the line between curiosity and aversion is notoriously thin. I wanted the ‘Fallout’ cover to convey the danger that threatened my heroine and her community, and clearly it does that effectively. But I think there’s more to it: most people’s impression of the Lake District and Cumbria is green hills, sparkling lakes and Beatrix Potter. For those of us who love the wild west coast, that image needs a challenge, and I think – I hope – that my three novels portray real life here, not some romanticised idyll. If people’s reaction to the ‘Fallout’ cover starts some conversation about this dichotomy, that’s a good thing. It may cost me some sales, but maybe not. I’ll have to wait and see.

By the way, you can see all the covers on the books page of my website http://www.ruthsutton.co.uk. Have a look and see what you think.

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’.

About ‘noticing’

In the past few days I’ve met many new people, re-connected with friends I’ve not seen for years and heard so many stories, told in many different voices. Half my mind has been on the content of our conversations, but I’ve also been noticing habits of speech, how people walk, all sorts of things about them that I’m storing away to use in future. People won’t reappear in my fiction as complete replicas of those I’m seeing around me. I’ll take a turn of phrase here, a posture there, an over-heard snippet of conversation and many other apparently trivial observations, stir them up and leave them for a while. Then I’ll discover which details bob to the surface when next I’m creating a fictional persona. My memory may need a jog, so I’ll make a few notes:  just a hint – a smell, a hand, a scar, a voice – an impression to spark a later response.

It’s clear to me that these observations have always been part of my fascination with people, but I’m now more specific and intentional in my ‘noticing’. And I’m more curious too, about the backstory and how and why someone’s idiosyncratic characteristics have developed. Give your imagination space to play and you can capture so much interesting stuff. Even if I’m not sure yet about the plot and shape of Book 4, I’m beginning to find some of the characters, and consider how they may react and behave in challenging circumstances.

I think I already have the central character. She is someone I already ‘know’, with a rich backstory already in place. Now I have to find the people around her, or against her, and provide the circumstances in which all them can reveal who they really are. Once the final painstaking stages of publishing Book 3 are behind me, then I can let the fun part of Book 4 really start. It won’t be long.