Character, setting and story: the perpetual balancing act

When I started writing it was really all about setting and character: there was a background story line, but after a while that declined in importance and the interplay of the characters against the West Cumbrian backdrop became the main driving force.

GoodLiar_COVER.inddReaders love the Jessie Whelan trilogy for that reason. No one ever comments that the surprises of the plot kept them reading: it was all about what would happen to the people and the interest of the background.

Then I turned to crime fiction, in which the twists and turns of events and revelations have to be managed differently, but in the first two crime books the two leading characters were still centre stage. CRUEL_TIDE COVER FRONT reduced jpg‘Cruel Tide’ and ‘Fatal Reckoning’ are mainly character driven, despite the skull-duggery of the plots. The tension is not so much ‘who dunnit?’, but ‘would the wrong doers be brought to justice?’ There was little in the way of police procedure as neither of the two main characters were senior police people, and the police were more concerned with covering things up than searching for evidence.fatal_reck-front-cover-1

In the latest book, set in 2001 when everything about policing had changed, police behaviour and procedures are more central. The setting – the disastrous Foot and Mouth epidemic – is also vital, and now I wonder whether the delineation of character is as strong as before. As I re-write and ‘polish’ the question bothers me. In terms of ‘genre’ is this book quite different than the previous ones, and if it is, does that matter? It’s a good story, with enough twists and turns to keep things going. The body count is low – but that’s OK. I’m increasingly tired of dramas that need death after nasty death to sustain the reader’s engagement. After a while, whatever the professed authenticity of the setting, too many crime stories turn out like ‘Death in Paradise’ or ‘Midsomer Murders’. Or is that what happens when crime is adapted for TV? Is it ‘episodic’ presentation that causes the structure of the story to change? Surely what matters is not how many bodies are discovered, or even how they died, but why: what drives someone to attack another? Motive, opportunity, means, in that order. Or are we so jaded that we demand ever more violence?

My final final deadline for the current manuscript is within a day or two. Once the damn thing goes away to the editor I will celebrate for a few days before I have to think about it again. If I had a ‘publisher’ I might be able to relax a little for the next few months while the book makes it way to publication, but when you self-publish every aspect of what happens has to be organised and monitored by yourself. It’s exhausting! As my next big birthday approaches, I’m wondering – again – how much longer I want to carry on. I still have a list of things I enjoy and want to do – sewing, drawing, singing, keeping fit – all of which take time and commitment. The curse of writing is that it seems to squeeze out everything else. I have to give this dilemma some serious thought.

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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.

Do I really need an ‘App’ for my writing?

I didn’t know ‘writing apps’ existed until I was being interviewed for a blog last year and the interviewer asked me which one I used. He was far more digitally sophisticated than me, and seemed surprised that I was plugging away in ‘Word’, saving drafts into files, struggling to find things, taking time to find previous versions and essential research notes. Actually my writing process was even more more messy and muddled than I confessed to him at the time, but it had worked for some years, just about, and I felt “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. scrivener-essentialsHowever inefficient, my approach by last  year was a vast improvement on the frustrating experience of writing my first novel ‘A Good Liar’, which took four years from 2008 to 2012 and nearly went on the back of the fire more than once during that time.

My blogger friend had mentioned Scrivener, and I checked it out. Even the introductory blurb seemed very complicated: in the middle of the first draft of ‘Fatal Reckoning’ I was too busy to read it properly and carried on with my usual writing process that may not have been efficient but was at least familiar.

Some months later I ran a workshop on ‘Starting to Write’ at the Borderlines festival in Carlisle in 2016, and decided to mention it to the group, some of whom of course were well ahead of me, but still it felt like something that other people might use, not me.

Another few months on again and in the flush of New Year’s resolutions I’m telling myself that the time has come to try it out properly. I’m at the very early stages of researching and planning the next novel. Already I’ve eased the time pressure on myself by deciding from the start to aim for the summer of 2018 to get this book out, and the time to re-examine my writing process is definitely right. I decided to go straight in, avoiding the various guides to the software, and so this morning I downloaded the 30 day free trial version of Scrivener and have resolved to make myself try it out, patiently and with an open mind.

I have already reassured myself that the software has nothing to do with the content or style of my work, but deals only with the process of drafting in a way that might be helpful. My fear is always that my writing might become formulaic, paying too much attention to the usual protocols, but there’s no reason to believe that using Scrivener as a tool would increase that possibility, at least as far as I can see. So I’m resolved to give it a go. I reckon that by the time the free trial runs out I should have either decided to continue with it or not, and I’ll report my progress then.

In the meantime, if anyone reads this far and has practical advice to offer, I’m all ears. I am going to treat this experience as an intellectual challenge, like learning another language, which is believed to be good for an ageing brain like mine. Bring it on.

Explicit sex in the novel: too much information?

sex‘Fatal Reckoning’ has been out a few weeks now and I’m beginning to get feedback from readers about it. Overall views are very positive, but there are always some who wanted something from the plot which I didn’t choose to provide. In particular, two male readers have regretted  there wasn’t more explicit sex, or a more romantic view of the two protagonists.

They’re right. I could have added a plot development that involves a wedding, and there was opportunity for some more explicit sexual content. So why did I reject both? The wedding thing is easy: I’ve never been a fan of weddings, and both my female lead characters have similar ambivalence. I’m particularly unwilling to represent a wedding as part of the end of a story. ‘Lived happily ever after’ seems to be then required and in my experience that’s not often the case. Does that make me a cynical old feminist? Probably.

My response to the  request for more sex is another matter, less personal, more ‘writerly’. There was one explicit sex scene in my very first book, ‘A Good Liar’ but it wasn’t actually about sex at all: it was about power, and the casual use of physical force that proved to be a turning point in the main character’s view of her lover. The details were necessary to provide the reader with the facts of her humiliation, and to heighten her dilemma about how to react.

As a writer I’ve decided, for the time being at least,  that unless details of sexual behaviour add to either the plot or the readers’ understanding of a character, they should left to the imagination. The writer can feed that imagination with a fragment of detail, – the line of a shoulder, the play of light on skin – but hesitate to do more than that. Verbal descriptions of good sex fall hopelessly short of the real thing, in my view. The act itself is pretty basic and widely understood. Trying to describe in words the complex intertwining of senses and emotions, beyond the physiology of the act itself, is a pretty hopeless task and the result could fall far short of what the engaged reader can supply for him/herself. So why spoil it by explicitness, especially if the outcome detracts from the readers’ potential enjoyment?

Having said all this, I may change my mind by the time the next story gets ‘fleshed out’.

Writing about your own community

Every year in mid-December I borrow tables, chairs and crockery and invite all my neighbours in for the  ‘Street feast’.

feast-2016

The annual gathering took place last night: fourteen adults, two children and a baby celebrating his first birthday with us. Ages ranged from 81 to the one year old and we all packed into my relatively small space – not a buffet, a proper sit-down meal. It’s a logistical challenge, and this was the biggest yet, but every year I’m glad we do it. Our row of nine houses is just a part of our village in West Cumbria, and the conversation round the tables last night showed yet again why this part of the world is such a rich setting for an ‘offcomer’ writer: long histories, inter-connecting families, shared memories and concerns.

Offcomers must always be on the fringe but being part of a community like this is very satisfying: over twenty years in my Salford flat I knew only two of my neighbours to speak to. I was accepted here relatively quickly mainly because my son-in-law is well-known in sporting circles and makes me ‘OK’ by association. Acceptance into a community brings with it a sense of responsibility. Writing the trilogy ‘Between the Mountains and the Sea’ was my first attempt at fiction, inspired by this place and its people, and I felt a strong obligation to get my facts right, which means many hours of research and checking. Worth it though.

At the launch of my new book ‘Fatal Reckoning’ last week in Whitehaven the Director of the Beacon Museum who welcomed us to her place said that my Jessie Whelan trilogy ‘Between the Mountains and the Sea’ was one of the first things she read on arriving in Cumbria and gave her an invaluable insight into the recent history of the place and its people. I was very chuffed by that. Last night’s party added to that sense of community and I loved it, as I always do.