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?

the-beacon-centre-in-whitehaven-harbour-cumbria-cyfge2

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?

dixondockgreen18

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’.

 

 

 

 

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.