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.


Goodbye and good riddance to the hardback ‘literary’ novel?

The papers this weekend are commenting on, and apparently bemoaning, the decline in sales of the ‘literary’ novel over the past two years. Some of the articles suggest that sales of this or that novel might increase when it’s published in paperback, usually a year or so after the hardback.hardback book

I read all this with some bemusement. Firstly, I’m struck yet again by the artificiality of genre distinctions that the publishing world seems fixated on. Who decides whether a novel is ‘literary’ or ‘genre’ fiction – I think that’s the main divide, before the ‘genre’ is further sub-divided? I’ve seen it defined that character drives ‘literary fiction’, and plot drives ‘genre fiction’, but surely these are points along a spectrum, not a dichotomy? It might be easy to identify novels at either end of the spectrum, but after that the distinction falters.

The ‘literary’ tag may have to be reconsidered, especially as it now seems to be connected to poor sales, which is increasingly the traditional publishers primary concern. We’ve all heard that a very high proportion of published books lose money, and that the business is rescued from financial disaster only by a few block-busters. Some of these massive sellers can be predicted – the ghastly Dan Brown, for example –  whereas others come out of nowhere, as predictable as a win on the lottery. Does any other business trying to make a profit organise itself like this?bella-literary-fiction


And if we’re talking about sacred cows in need to disposal, what is the point of  publishing novels in hardback form first and making anyone who doesn’t want a heavy expensive tome wait for a year to get the version they actually want to buy? This is a mystery, and clearly, it’s not working. This time next year, and the year after, will publishers still be fretting about poor sales of the hardback versions and still planning to keep on churning them out? I admit to be baffled about it all.


Many readers like a ‘real’ book – I do myself: the paperback format fulfils this need. Ebooks are also useful in some circumstances.  So who wants to read a hardback, besides a tiny number of picky traditionalists who profess to have ‘standards’ and probably insist on esoteric and expensive ways of eating and drinking as well as reading?

My recent and unsuccessful dalliance with ‘Unbound’ crowd-funded publishing came across this issue all the time. Many of my readers, keen to see the new book as soon as it comes out,were puzzled that they would have to pay twice as much as normal for a ‘special edition’ hardback when they would actually prefer a paperback, lighter to carry around and easier hold with one hand in bed, for instance. ‘That’s the way traditional publishing works’ I would lamely explain, and I had no answer to the inevitable next question – ‘Why?’



A sense of ‘place’: how accurate do you need to be?

I live in Cumbria, the most north-westerly county of England, and one of the most beautiful. Both sides of my family came from here, it was the place where all my childhood holidays were spent, and when I moved back here to live twelve years ago it felt like coming homeWasdale.

When I decided, just after moving here, that I would write the novel I’d been planning for years, there was no doubt where it would be set. This place is essential to the world in my head that drives my stories. But I was wary of making the immediate location of my story too identifiable: my neighbours, the community I am part of, might not take kindly to being so clearly recogniseable, and as an ‘offcomer’ I didn’t want to sour the relationships that are important in a rural environment. So I anonymised my village, changing its features slightly and giving it a new name. When the action moved further afield those worries receded and I included real places, with their real names. In fact many of the people who read my books love to follow the locations. It’s as if my mention of places they know, peopled by imaginary characters, validates where they live.

That’s fine as long as the characters are reasonably real and mostly well-intentioned. But when I turned to crime fiction for my fourth book, I had bad people doing bad things, and didn’t want to upset the current inhabitants of my locations, so I anonymised the specific locations yet again, even though the physical geography of the area remained the same, recogniseable to anyone who knows the area.Lakes national park map

Changes of name are one thing, but actually changing the landscape of this area strikes me as quite different. It breaks the authenticity that a sense of place in fiction demands. If the setting is all a figment of your imagination, you can do what you like with it. But if you say that this is, for example, a Cumbrian story, then I feel that you should respect the land that is called Cumbria and not mess with it. At least that’s my view.

One crime story I read was ostensibly set in the Lake District, the national park located within Cumbria, but the writer didn’t seem to know the area well at all. He had travel distances and times between places that bore no relation to reality. He had wildlife that didn’t belong there. The lack of authenticity annoyed me so much that I put the book down.

Recently I heard another author talking about his novels, also based in the Lake District, although he lived elsewhere. He was so keen not to locate his stories in anywhere recogniseable that he actually changed the landscape, including new valleys and hills that couldn’t be found on the map. For some reason, I found this hard to take, perhaps because he was messing with a place so important to me. This sounds petty, but the landscape is so precious and eternal that I don;t want it to be treated like that. We create fictional people, of course, but landscape that is half real and half a fabrication? No, not for me.

Is this too precious? I wasn’t even even born here and I’m being proprietorial about the place. But the fact remains that I don’t want to read books in which the setting is an invention, despite the title that claims that the setting is real.

First audiobook!

At last, it’s done!

Audiobook covers

I started on this project months ago, thought about it, blogged about it, struggled with the abridging, rehearsed, found a recording studio, got help and did it. Then the master discs sat and looked at me for a while: what was the point of all that work if I didn’t know what to do next?

Thanks God for a competent and supportive partner with experience of packaging. ‘I can do that’, he said, and he did. He researched the best deal for duplication and packaging, worked on the design, and the first batch was delivered last week. You can buy it with Paypal for £10 – you can’t get much for £10 these days – and this would make a great gift. Just go to and it’s the first item in the Bookshop.

It looks really good, but I still daren’t listen to it. I know it’s OK, and my commitment to the book and the characters comes out in the reading, but it’s almost too personal. At one critical moment I was close to tears reading it and had to stop. There’s something about the voice that brings the words alive.

The lottery of writing fame

Last Thursday evening I had a great opportunity to see a very successful writer up close and hear the details of her career. Ann Cleeves imageAnn Cleeves was visiting Cockermouth in West Cumbria, not far from from where I live, and I was asked to ‘interview’ her live in front of a sold-out audience. So I got to decide some of the questions that I was most interested in. This woman has written an astonishing 30 books in 30 years: ‘How did it all start?’ I asked her. ‘Well,’ she said with a smile, ‘for the first twenty of those thirty years I made only enough money to pay for a week’s caravan holiday in Dorset.’

It was only after the first of Ann’s ‘Vera Stanhope’ series was bought for TV that her career really took off. And how did that happen? A classic serendipity: in a charity shop in London the book – ‘The Crow Trap’ – was picked up by a person who worked in TV production, as something to read on holiday. The company she worked for was looking for something to replace ‘Frost’ on ITV, Ann’s book fitted the bill exactly, and the rest, as they say, is history. The ‘Vera’ TV shows now sell to over 120 territories worldwide, and the Shetland series has also been successfully adapted for TV. The Crow Trap51D7rW7FLaL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_

Ann’s books are good, no question, but much of the extraordinary success she has enjoyed in the past decade stems from that chance purchase in a charity shop. As she joked herself last night, crime writers are busy dropping copies of their books into charity shops all over London, hoping to become the next TV sensation and enjoy everything that follows.

Knowing how arbitrary these matters can be, how does it make a struggling writer like me feel? Very happy for Ann, naturally. Some regret also that I left it so late to try my hand at fiction. When you first publish at 65, waiting twenty years to hit the big time is tempting fate. But the overriding feeling, if commercial success is indeed so much matter of luck, is that the only thing you as the writer can really control is the quality of the work you do. Even if your books don’t reach a mass audience, you aspire to make them truly worthwhile – well-researched, well-written, memorable, and a credit to your effort and skills. That’s a legacy to be proud of, whether you sell a thousand or a million.

How important is ‘the horse’s mouth’




‘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


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.