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.

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’.





Press release about ‘Fallout’

Below in italics is a press release about my new book.  I didn’t write it myself: it was a gift from a very kind friend who works in PR and does this kind of writing all the time. I told her a few things and she did the rest. We’ve sent it out to ‘the usual suspects’ and wait to see if anyone bites. Maybe they will, maybe not – I’m never sure how things like this work. Is it luck, or timing, or skill, or the compelling story? The first reaction on Twitter was from a nuclear interest group in Oregon, USA, who must have picked it up with a key words search or something similar. A mystery. Anyway, here it is – everything you’ve ever wanted to know about ‘Fallout’ – the last in the trilogy – and my thoughts as it was completed. Enjoy, and if you feel inspired to order a copy right now, go through the website and order a copy at a special price. The ebook will be out before the end of June.


“The final part of an epic Cumbrian saga which is set against the backdrop of a nuclear disaster will be published at the end of May.

Fallout by Ruth Sutton is the third novel in the trilogy Between the Mountains and the Sea which has traced the life of a feisty single woman living near the Cumberland coast. It brings to a conclusion the story of Jessie Whelan, a character who has won admirers throughout the county and beyond.

At the start of this third book Jessie is working at the Windscale nuclear plant on the Cumberland coast, fretting about what’s happening there, and trying unsuccessfully to stay on good terms with her son John and Maggie his ambitious wife.

A tragic accident creates an opportunity to change her life, and in ways she could never have foretold. A stranger arrives, representing the threat as well as the promise of the nuclear age. Jessie invites the stranger into her precious new home, confident that she is now in charge of her life, but indiscretions undermine her yet again.

As her independence is challenged, deep-seated problems at the reactor threaten the future of the whole community. Jessie’s personal crisis intensifies, and her story twists towards a moving resolution. The story is set at the time of the reactor fire at the nuclear plant since renamed Sellafield.

The first two books, A Good Liar and Forgiven were critically acclaimed and followers hope that the second, Forgiven, published last summer, will make an impact at the Lake District Book of the Year competition.

Ruth, a teacher and educational advisor who still travels widely to work with school communities, notably in Canada and New Zealand, lives at Waberthwaite near Millom in the western Lake District.

She has mixed feelings about the completion of the trilogy: “Jessie Whelan’s story has been part of my life for six years. When I first encountered her as a character she was interesting, but gradually I felt her become deeper and darker, with flaws that sometimes threatened to overwhelm her.”

She added: “I love Jessie but sometimes she’s her own worst enemy. I watched her make important hard choices about her life and survive, both personally and professionally. But we all age, and in the third part of her life, heading into her sixties, I wondered about how things would be. Part of me wanted her life to end early, avoiding a sad decline into loneliness and illness. And part of me also wanted her to be happy for a while at least, after struggling for so long.”

Ruth said that as the final part of the trilogy unfolded in her mind, driven along by the drama of the reactor fire in the Windscale nuclear plant, she changed her mind a dozen times about bringing the trilogy to an end. “Various versions of the denouement were written and abandoned, and finally I settled for ambivalence. Uncertainty is part of life: I could not bear to wrap up with a tidy ribbon the story of someone so important to me.

“On the day when the final proofs went to the printers, I felt as if I’d lost a close friend, bereft. I also hope that the story of Jessie’s life will be widely read, as a testament to women like her, as well as a fascinating account of the momentous changes in our lives in this beautiful place over the past century.”

Fallout is published by Hoad Press on May 27.”



The dialogue dilemma

Writing dialogue is really difficult. I realised this on the very first ‘writing’ course I went on. One of our tutors was Louise Doughty, a skilled teacher as well as a great writer. She gave us the transcript of an actual overheard conversation to look at, and made her point quite easily that the authentic spoken word is often unintelligible in the written form. The transcript was littered with repetitions, unfinished phrases, interruptions, and other distractions that made it almost impossible to read or make sense of. It illustrated the jerky, random thought process which underpinned the articulation we were reading on the page, which was authentic but unhelpful to the reader. Our task was to take this original transcript and edit it so that the meaning was sustained but the speech was still digestible: it was a difficult but very useful lesson to learn, and if I were teaching anyone to write dialogue I would do the same.

In my own writing I use speech and dialogue extensively and for a variety of purposes; to drive the narrative, to illustrate relationship, and to add to our understanding of a character and their state of mind. That’s a big ask. The structure of a person’s speech can illuminate what we know about them: think of Jane Austen’s characters and how much we learn about them by the way they speak and the words and phrases they use. In fact, almost all we know about Austen’s people we gather through speech rather than description. I try to see and hear my characters speaking and build what I see and hear into the words on the page. Some of the nuances of what is meant as well as what is said are hard to capture without use of adverbs or more explicit ‘speech verbs’ such as ‘murmured’ or ‘explained’ that sound clunky and used sparingly.

When it comes to the second draft, I have to speak the text out loud, and frequently change the dialogue at that stage, to make it sound more more like the spoken rather than the written word. The two are quite different, and I notice in my reading that some authors don’t seem to recognise this. Their characters speak with too much complexity, in sentences that are too finely crafted to sound authentic. Of course it’s a struggle. Sometime you sacrifice narrative clarity to authenticity and hope that the reader will not notice, or forgive you.

In the third part of my trilogy, ‘Fallout’, some of the action takes place inside the nuclear plant at Windscale (as Sellafield was known then) during the reactor fire of October 1957. All the characters we see and hear in those scenes are male, with a science or engineering background and intensely focussed on the task at hand. Their patterns of speech must be – and are – completely different than conversations taking place in the home or the shop or at the Friday night dance at the club. You should be able to hear in their voices the tension they are feeling and their intense concentration on the crisis they face. What they don’t say is as important as what they do. I enjoyed writing those chapters after weeks of detailed research and thought about what it would have been like in that place at that time. I rolled it past someone with a similar background and experience to see if he felt it sounded authentic, and took his advice. I think it’s not bad: you’ll have to judge for yourself when the book appears in June. In the meantime I’ll keep working on dialogue, hoping to improve with practice and experience.




‘Real’ people in a fictional story: some questions

I’m writing historical fiction set in the region where I live, in the mid-twentieth century and therefore within living memory. I have also chosen to incorporate real events as the backdrop for my characters’ lives. I don’t regret this choice: it has added authenticity and genuine excitement to the story, but it has generated ethical as well as technical questions.

Here’s the first example. In August 1947 104 men and boys were killed in an underground explosion at the William pit in Whitehaven. This event was part of the ‘backdrop’ of my second novel ‘Forgiven’ in which a mining family, the McSherrys from Kells, played a leading part. Violet McSherry and her daughter Maggie Lowery were both screen lasses at the Haig pit, and Frank McSherry was confined to a wheelchair by a previous mining accident. Violet’s brother Tom worked at the William Pit, on the shift that was below ground when the explosion occurred. I wanted one of my characters to be involved, but could Tom be one of the men who was killed? No, I decided, he could not. The families of those killed still live in the area. A book called ‘104 men’ chronicled the lives of each of the victims. I could not ‘borrow’ the identity of any of these people, or add Tom to the list as the 105th victim, without risking offence. Instead, I added Tom to the small group who managed to escape the explosion and walked out of the pit unharmed 20 hours later. This device gave me the opportunity to tell the story from the POV of a survivor, and the story of the men’s survival was fascinating in itself. This story has been widely read and enjoyed locally, and to date no one has questioned my decision to blend fact and fiction in this way.

In Part 3 of the trilogy ‘Fallout’, a similar issue has arisen, and I am still pondering the best course of action before the book is complete and published. This time the setting is the Windscale nuclear plant in Cumbria where the world’s first nuclear fire occurred in October 1957. The events have been exhaustively documented in recent years, although many of the details were not published at the time for political reasons. One of the principal characters is a fictional physicist Lawrence Finer, seconded to Windscale from Harwell, the nuclear research establishment near Oxford. Finer is present as the fire in the reactor starts, threatens to destroy the reactor and is finally extinguished. He is spoken to by men who were ‘really’ there, including Tom Tuohy the Deputy Works manager at the time who was instrumental in ‘saving the day’. I have put words into his mouth, and into the mouths of three other ‘real’ people, based on my detailed research into exactly what was said and done at the time. It makes for an exciting blend of fact and fiction, but is it acceptable?

My editor Charlotte Rolfe is on the case, and has already consulted a publishing lawyer, who has read the relevant chapters and believes that they are OK: the ‘real’ characters are in the background, not the foreground; nothing that they say or do is detrimental to their reputations – in fact quite the opposite; what they say is consistent with the known and documented facts. He also, by the way, said that the chapter describing the fire was ‘rivetting’ which I was chuffed about.

I wonder if other historical novelists struggle with these questions? I wonder if I should give first sight of the ms before publication to the relatives of the four men named in my story, out of respect and politeness, even though technically and legally the ms is not a problem. I want to do the right thing, and I also believe that a fictional account of what happened at that momentous time is worth telling.

Ironically, on this very day, Sellafield nuclear plant is partly closed due to an apparent radiation leak, and the issue of nuclear safety is on our minds yet again.