How important is ‘the horse’s mouth’

 

straight-from-the-horses-mouth-idiom

 

‘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

 

Do sex and money make the world go round?

Sex and money are powerful human motivators. Almost all the great stories involve one or the other, or both. What can I learn from this?sex

My new book is taking shape, in chapter outlines not a first draft as yet, and it’s at this stage that I begin to look at the movement in the story, how it rattles along, what makes the reader want to turn the pages. At the root of it all is the energy generated by the characters themselves, faced with the circumstances that I have created for them. What makes them act they way they do? Are sex and money critical in this story too?money-logo

Having left myself more space this time to think about the story rather than ploughing on quickly to meet the self-imposed target of ‘one book each year’, I’m interested to see how the characters are developing in my head. Straight-forward ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ are too easy: there need to be layers, nuances and contradictions that push the reader one way and then another as the story unfolds. I’m asking the ‘what if?’ questions about my story, and it seems to be working. At some point, when all thirty or so chapters are sketched out, I’ll start the first draft. Even then, details and complications will come to me and have to be incorporated, but hopefully without too many ramifications for earlier parts of the plot.

Another useful effect of spending longer thinking before I write is that I forget great chunks of the research. The things that remain are the precious bits that stay lodged in the memory when the rest has gone – the ‘nuggets’. Nothing bogs a story down as fast as too much extraneous detail which the writer has dredged up through painstaking research and is consequently determined to use. The trick is to identify the ‘nuggets’ and use them sparingly, adding colour to the story without slowing it down.

Sex and money aren’t the only things that drive action: love, fear, survival – they all play a part. Theymay manifest themselves differently in different eras and societies, but they never lose their relevance and their potency.

 

Do I really need an ‘App’ for my writing?

I didn’t know ‘writing apps’ existed until I was being interviewed for a blog last year and the interviewer asked me which one I used. He was far more digitally sophisticated than me, and seemed surprised that I was plugging away in ‘Word’, saving drafts into files, struggling to find things, taking time to find previous versions and essential research notes. Actually my writing process was even more more messy and muddled than I confessed to him at the time, but it had worked for some years, just about, and I felt “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. scrivener-essentialsHowever inefficient, my approach by last  year was a vast improvement on the frustrating experience of writing my first novel ‘A Good Liar’, which took four years from 2008 to 2012 and nearly went on the back of the fire more than once during that time.

My blogger friend had mentioned Scrivener, and I checked it out. Even the introductory blurb seemed very complicated: in the middle of the first draft of ‘Fatal Reckoning’ I was too busy to read it properly and carried on with my usual writing process that may not have been efficient but was at least familiar.

Some months later I ran a workshop on ‘Starting to Write’ at the Borderlines festival in Carlisle in 2016, and decided to mention it to the group, some of whom of course were well ahead of me, but still it felt like something that other people might use, not me.

Another few months on again and in the flush of New Year’s resolutions I’m telling myself that the time has come to try it out properly. I’m at the very early stages of researching and planning the next novel. Already I’ve eased the time pressure on myself by deciding from the start to aim for the summer of 2018 to get this book out, and the time to re-examine my writing process is definitely right. I decided to go straight in, avoiding the various guides to the software, and so this morning I downloaded the 30 day free trial version of Scrivener and have resolved to make myself try it out, patiently and with an open mind.

I have already reassured myself that the software has nothing to do with the content or style of my work, but deals only with the process of drafting in a way that might be helpful. My fear is always that my writing might become formulaic, paying too much attention to the usual protocols, but there’s no reason to believe that using Scrivener as a tool would increase that possibility, at least as far as I can see. So I’m resolved to give it a go. I reckon that by the time the free trial runs out I should have either decided to continue with it or not, and I’ll report my progress then.

In the meantime, if anyone reads this far and has practical advice to offer, I’m all ears. I am going to treat this experience as an intellectual challenge, like learning another language, which is believed to be good for an ageing brain like mine. Bring it on.

Explicit sex in the novel: too much information?

sex‘Fatal Reckoning’ has been out a few weeks now and I’m beginning to get feedback from readers about it. Overall views are very positive, but there are always some who wanted something from the plot which I didn’t choose to provide. In particular, two male readers have regretted  there wasn’t more explicit sex, or a more romantic view of the two protagonists.

They’re right. I could have added a plot development that involves a wedding, and there was opportunity for some more explicit sexual content. So why did I reject both? The wedding thing is easy: I’ve never been a fan of weddings, and both my female lead characters have similar ambivalence. I’m particularly unwilling to represent a wedding as part of the end of a story. ‘Lived happily ever after’ seems to be then required and in my experience that’s not often the case. Does that make me a cynical old feminist? Probably.

My response to the  request for more sex is another matter, less personal, more ‘writerly’. There was one explicit sex scene in my very first book, ‘A Good Liar’ but it wasn’t actually about sex at all: it was about power, and the casual use of physical force that proved to be a turning point in the main character’s view of her lover. The details were necessary to provide the reader with the facts of her humiliation, and to heighten her dilemma about how to react.

As a writer I’ve decided, for the time being at least,  that unless details of sexual behaviour add to either the plot or the readers’ understanding of a character, they should left to the imagination. The writer can feed that imagination with a fragment of detail, – the line of a shoulder, the play of light on skin – but hesitate to do more than that. Verbal descriptions of good sex fall hopelessly short of the real thing, in my view. The act itself is pretty basic and widely understood. Trying to describe in words the complex intertwining of senses and emotions, beyond the physiology of the act itself, is a pretty hopeless task and the result could fall far short of what the engaged reader can supply for him/herself. So why spoil it by explicitness, especially if the outcome detracts from the readers’ potential enjoyment?

Having said all this, I may change my mind by the time the next story gets ‘fleshed out’.

‘Angst’: does it undermine creativity, or inspire it?

There’s a Woody Allen movie – which one is it? – which opens with the young Woody talking to a psychiatrist. The boy is appalled by the idea that the universe is expanding, which he sees as a sign of impending doom. After the ‘angst’ of the past few months, I think I understand how he feels.

First there was the UK referendum decision, which was a shock. I went to bed before the first results came in, and when I turned on the radio the following morning I just sat in bed and cried. The immediate political implications – Boris Johnson? Nigel Farage? Michael Gove? – were dire, and the bigger picture – retreat to an offshore island cut off from Europe – was worse. Since then the future looks no better, with years and millions wasted on untangling a 40 year old legal, commercial and cultural framework that needed tweaking not tearing up.

Then there was Trump, and my mounting disgust at the man and everything he represented and stood for.
trump-hair-birdI longed for him to be not just defeated but annihilated.

 

 

 

 

Again, I woke the morning after the US election to find my worst fears realised. I sat with my head in my hands for a while, trying not to think seeing and hearing the ghastly man for the coming four years, and grieving the departure of the current President whom I and millions of others admire for his intelligence, rationality, optimism, grace and humour. The contrast could hardly be more extreme and disheartening.

There’s nothing to be done about either of these events and all their nasty consequences, but it’s taking me a while to pull myself around. For days I didn’t want to do anything. The new book seemed like a futile gesture, a waste of time. Future writing projects held no interest. But slowly the energy is returning. My writing is something I can do on my terms, inspired by my ideas and the glorious landscape all around me, which is still there and will continue, unless Mr Trump’s nasty little fingers stray too close to the nuclear button. My tiny contribution to creativity can’t overcome fear and hatred and racism and misogyny, but it might just push back a little, and every little helps.

Proof-reading: a wake up call

The reader who approached me at a recent library talk waited until the end of the event and spoke to me quietly. “I really enjoy your books,” she began, and I could tell there was a ‘but’ on its way. “But, I’ve noticed a few mistakes, nothing major, just little things….lots of little things.” My heart sank, but I rallied and mumbled something about the odd inevitable proof-reading problem. “Could you let me know what you’ve found?” I asked her, and thought not much more of it, until the copy of the book in question arrived with the errors painstakingly marked up and a forest of little stickers marking the pages to be looked at.

I am slowing recovering from the shock and embarrassment of what was revealed. Even when I found the delicate pencil stroke in the margin and looked for the error it sometimes took two or three attempts to even see it. They were little things: often an extra or missing short word, and eyes reading quickly for the sense of the sentence floated over without registering it. Very few readers have mentioned the errors to me, and I must have read the offending sections many times and never noticed either, but it’s still unacceptable in properly published material.

Crying and spilled milk come to mind. The book is out there, and the inquest among the editorial team has begun. All of us recognise how the errors have happened, mainly because the people trying to proof-read have been involved in the development and drafting of the story right from the beginning. Familiarity hasn’t bred contempt, just a failure to see each word on the page separate from the context that we all know so well. It has taken a fresh reader, who must read more slowly and carefully than me, to spot what we couldn’t see. I’m very grateful to my amateur proof-reader, and have told her so. She could have been aggressive about it and got my defences up, but her approach was perfect and it worked. If she’s prepared to proof-read all my previous books before they go for reprint, I’d be delighted.

As a self-published author I have the same responsibilities to my readers as a traditional publisher. If it costs more money – probably an additional £400 or so – to hire a professional outside reader for the second proof read immediately before printing, and if that process takes a week or two on top of an already tight schedule to publish one book a year, well that’s what it has to take, and it will be done.

Advice to self-publishers? Don’t cut corners on proof-reading, and don’t try to do it yourself. Once the book is out there with your name on it, the mistakes will haunt and taunt you. Your reputation and your readers deserve the best. Mea Culpa.

 

Planner or ‘pantser’: is it really one or the other?

In the past few weeks I’ve been getting into the next book, the fifth one. When I began the first one A Good Liar seven years ago, I had no idea of the implications of being a planner or a ‘pantser’ (it’s a ghastly term, isn’t it, but aptly described the exercise of writing ‘by the seat of your pants’). It turned out I was a ‘pantser’ who really should have planned more. The first draft of A Good Liar was a terrible mess and took two years to sort out. Even now it feels more of a dog’s breakfast than I’m really happy about. It sells well as the first part of the trilogy, although I sometimes wish it didn’t!

After that difficult experience I decided I would plan in much greater detail, and do try to do so, but with this latest book I’m realising yet again that however careful the plan, it won’t hold together as soon as you start writing. Writing involves immersion in the characters and their world. It’s trite to say that they take over and do unexpected things, but sometimes that’s what happens, and the carefully programmed story veers off into something else. These deviations from the plan are not u-turns, more like scenic diversions, but when they come along they are welcomed, not disapproved of. So does that make me an inadequate planner? I don’t think so.

Writing is like life, complex, varied, and predictable only up to a point. That’s what makes both of them so enjoyable. I have an outline for each chapter which gives me a sense of direction, but every few chapters I amend it, adding a chapter or removing one, introducing a new idea or nuance in a conversation or a scene to drive the story more convincingly even though the direction may not radically change. Without any plan, I’m lost. With too rigid a plan, things get stale and formulaic. So I hover happily between the two stances, – an ‘organic shaper’. That phrase sounds like environmentally friendly underwear: there must be a better term for my mixed approach to novel writing. All suggestions welcome.