How important is ‘the horse’s mouth’

 

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‘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

 

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Talking about the 2001 catastrophe in Cumbria

Does it help to talk about a catastrophe years later?

The 2001 foot and mouth outbreak in Cumbria Burning Secret Flyerwas undoubtedly a catastrophe, and mention of it can still stir a wide range of emotions – sadness, anger, and fear are commonplace among my neighbours and farmers across the county. We could deal with all that by saying nothing, or by remembering and sharing memories and giving ourselves permission to move on. It’s not mawkish or self-indulgent or false to talk about bad times. They happened, people and animals suffered, children were traumatised, businesses were lost, lives were changed.

My novel ‘Burning Secret’ is not based on Foot and Mouth, but the outbreak serves as a backdrop and a catalyst to the story. Here I am talking recently about that to Paul Teague, a Cumbria writer who recalls the events of 2001 as vividly as I do. Click the link to hear our conversation, part of a longer interview that will air later this month.

Here’s another link, to the ‘Unbound’ site where you’ll find all the details about ‘Burning Secret’ and how to pledge your support for its publication, for which I will be very grateful. Thanks.

 

 

What’s the best ‘crowd’ for ‘crowd-funding’?

Having done my deal with Unbound.com to publish my next book ‘Burning Secret‘ – a crime story set during the Cumbria foot and mouth disease crisis in 2001- there’s now a link unbound.com/books/burning-secret to the page where the project is explained, illustrated and presented in a video. Alongside all this information is a list of possible pledges that interested people can make, ranging from the simplest – the ebook of ‘Burning Secret’ – to the more elaborate, a customised tour of West Cumbria with the author (me) to find the key sites and settings of my novels. The project needs hundreds of these pledges, small and larger, to reach the target fund and get the book published.

2013-11-14-crowdfundingIt’s called ‘crowd-funding’ – a term only vaguely familiar to me before I started down this road. I wonder how it really works: do people actually pay money up front for something that may not appear for months, and if so what motivates them to do so?

Apparently Unbound are interested in this too, and the research they’ve commissioned seems to be saying that people like to feel part of the project: their willingness to join this ‘crowd’ is about being a member of a shared enterprise, an insider, a patron not just a reader.

I have to admit that as a pre-internet adult, growing up before ‘social media’ were even dreamt of, all this has been something of a mystery to me. More importantly, I guess it must be something of a mystery to many of my readers too. Book buyers of my generation expect the book to be finished and ready to buy before we pay our money for it. We might buy online, but this ‘pre-order and be part of the supporters’ club‘ notion may feel odd.

If that’s true, if the baby-boomer generation doesn’t ‘get’ crowd-funding, then I need to think again about finding those pledges. ‘You have to nag people,’ is the advice I get about this, but nagging goes against the grain. I feel I have a relationship with many of the people I’m asking for pledges, and that this relationship could be jeopardised by pushing them to behave in a way that feels unfamiliar. ‘Do this for me, please’ sounds whiney and manipulative.

Clearly I have some thinking to do, or perhaps I’m just reacting too quickly and the crowd-funding process just takes longer than I expected. In the meantime the necessary link  https://unbound.com/books/burning-secret is being widely shared, but the numbers of visits to the link far outweigh the number of actual pledges. Is this what happens?

Here’s the question, does the crowd ‘pond’ from which pledges are drawn need to be wide and shallow, or small and deep?  Maybe I should focus on getting a smaller number of high-level ‘donations’ and sponsorship, rather than chasing individual pre-orders. Any suggestions?

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.

 

A new chapter?

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

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

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

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

Simplicity is seductive

Who remembers good old Sergeant Dixon, courteous, uncomplicated, with his files and his big black phone, solving crime through listening to people and figuring things out?

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Those were the ‘good old days’, before DNA and computers and CSI forensics, when policing was simple and villains were wicked and the death penalty was still the ultimate deterrent and women knew their place.

I’m thinking about the setting of a new crime series. The choice of place is easy, it has to be Cumbria. But time? Personally I prefer the present day to previous decades when oppression of various kinds was more widespread, but as a crime writer I’m attracted by the relative simplicity of policing in the past. I want my main detective to be female, but that’s unrealistic in the days before the late eighties when it was finally accepted that female police officers might be given more to do than making the tea. But I also want to avoid some of the more clinical and technical aspects of contemporary policing which radically affect both the research and the plotting. There must be a window of opportunity between these two. It would be really interesting to focus on the early days of women in CID in Cumbria, in which case I need to talk to some of those early pioneers and get their stories. That would be a worthwhile exercise, no matter what plots ideas flowed from it.

At the same time as I’m considering all this I’m watching the Brexit decision and all its implications. Today I saw the figures on the close correlation between those in favour of the death penalty and those wishing to leave the EU. And there’s a piece in the Guardian about ‘false binaries’, another way of saying that the best choices are rarely just one solution or another, which is one reason why the EU referendum was so flawed in both process and result. Real life, personal, social and political, is always complicated and pragmatism is an under-rated virtue. President Obama has maintained a good balance of principle and pragmatism, in my view, but I’m not optimistic about political leadership in the UK right now. They say we get the political leadership we deserve. We must have done something really bad.

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’.