The Unbound project is live!

ABurning Secret Flyerfter a flurry of activity the Unbound project to publish my next book went live on Monday. I’ve been busy the past few days emailing the link to dozens of people asking for their support. This is the very classy flyer that gives the basic details but there’s much more on this link.

Yesterday I did a marathon tour of some of the libraries at the other end of Cumbria, where foot and mouth was rampant, and heard more memorable stories from the catastrophic outbreak in 2001. It was the smell that is most vividly remembered: animal carcasses, and the smoke from the pyres. A dystopian landscape.

For the next few weeks I’ll be busy getting the link and the flyer shared as widely as possible, and encouraging people to pledge their support for the project anyway they can. If you can help, please do and I’ll be very grateful. Thanks.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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’.

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.