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

 

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How important is ‘authenticity’?

Problem:

  1. I want to write a crime series based in Cumbria.
  2. I want to have a female detective, who needs to be at least at sergeant and better still at inspector level.
  3. I want to keep clear of the technical complications of the DNA, Police and Criminal Evidence Act and the introduction of computerised data.

But… there were no female detectives in Cumbria until the 1990s. So, something has to give. Does authenticity matter, or could I introduce a female detective earlier than it actually happened? Ironically, the Cumbria police force now has plenty of high-status female detectives, including one with the wonderful surname of Thundercloud, but this is now and that was then. So what to do? My reluctant conclusion is that authenticity does matter: I must stick with my physical setting of West Cumbria because it’s so important to me, and so the time setting has to move into the mid/late 1990s. All the necessary research is unavoidable, but I can do it. Should be fun to discover how life has changed over the past twenty years.

 

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.

 

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’.

What do readers want to know?

It’s been a busy week for meeting readers, and I’m always interested to discover what they want from me and from the books. Here are a few of the questions that crop up most frequently:

 

Q. Do you base your characters on people that you know? Do you people-watch and use it in your books? (The sub-text here is ‘Are you watching me now?’)

I never really know how to respond to this. The details of characters for the story don’t just appear from nowhere: from a few decades of people- watching there are hundreds of people in my head, but memory retains only bits and pieces – the metaphors someone uses, or the voice or style of clothes, or something they did. I remember, for example, a boy I was at school with who had wide shoulders and a short body, and how his jackets always looked too long. He and I were walking near my house one afternoon and were overtaken by a sudden violent thunderstorm. We’d never shown much interest in each other before, but in the middle of this violent weather we kissed passionately, just once, galvanised by the energy around us. That was a moment of intensity that has lingered in my memory: I haven’t used it in a story yet, but I will.

There are countless fragments like that, some visual, some emotional, that surface suddenly while I’m writing. It’s not really an intentional process. It just happens, and I think my characters and the stories are the richer for them. When I’m writing I do so for hours at a time, reaching a level of concentration which is sometimes called called ‘Flow’, (defined by Wikipedia as “the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does.” That’s it. In that state, fragments of memory appear and find their way on to the page: the outline of a character might have been created earlier, but many of the details emerge during the writing.

Q. Do you always know how your story will end?

I’ve certainly improved my planning since the random chaos of the first attempt at writing a novel, but I can’t say that I know exactly how my story will end when I start it. It’s trite to claim that the characters take over, but to some extent it’s true. If the story is character-driven, that’s bound to happen. Crime fiction, with its requirement for structure and ‘clues’ sprinkled around makes that more difficult, as I found when writing ‘Cruel Tide’. I knew quite early on how the penultimate climatic scene would work, but the final scene of reaction and resolution was written several times before I found a way of closing the story that was true to both the characters and the authenticity of the events and the setting.

Q. When is the next book coming out?

It’s a  welcome question in as much it indicates an willingness to read on, but my hear sinks whenever I hear it. ‘This time next year,’ I’ve been replying as cheerfully as I can muster, thinking as I do so of the months of work that are entailed, the planning, the problems, the research, and then the days of purdah, sitting at the laptop for hours at a time, reading, re-reading, worrying, dreaming, talking to my editor, worrying some more. Sometimes I wonder if I really want to go through it all again at such speed, but my commercial sense tells me that a year is about as long as my readers are prepared to wait for the next one before they lose interest.

Authenticity – finding the balance

For the first time in a long time I settled in front of the TV last night with a pen and notebook in hand, using the programme for learning not just entertainment. It was the first of the new Inspector George Gently series, set in 1969, and it was the date and the northern police setting that were important for me. My first crime novel is currently in progress, set in the Furness district of Lancashire in 1969, and the hardest thing about it so far – apart from the plotting, the 3 act structure, characterisation and dialogue! – has been to find those authentic touches that are so critical to the proper depiction of setting and time.

I’ve already sought out and corresponded with people who experienced the relevant settings first hand, which I didn’t personally although I was a young adult at the time. That was really helpful. I made copious notes and as I’m writing some of those details are bubbling up, still leaving 90% of the research behind. I recall talking to a community policeman from that era who told me he was offered a panda car but refused it as it would mean changing his beloved helmet for a cap. Priceless, and it’s in. And I have an ex-copper writer friend who has generously offered to check my draft when it’s complete looking for things that just don’t sound right. 

As I watched George Gently last night two things struck me very strongly about life in 1969. One was the huge impact on our lives at that time of smoking. Most of the characters smoked unceasingly. Every desk and table had an ashtray, usually overflowing, every room was blue with smoke. What you can’t get from the TV is the smell, but it came back to me. The smell of the ashtray, of smoke on your clothes after a night out, of a newly opened packet of cigarettes. And the other non-visual sensation, for me at least, was the stinging of my eyes after even a few minutes exposure to a smoky room, which kept me out of pubs for years until the smoking ban was introduced, even though for much of my early adulthood I was a smoker myself. 

At the start of the programme, there was a warning – or was it just an observation – that the attitudes in the story were a reflection of their time. The underlying theme of the story was the treatment  of women in general, and the investigation of allegations of rape in particular. I knew, but I’d forgotten. Somebody had done their homework. Out of 120 allegations of rape over a 5 year period in this one small force, the majority were withdrawn by the victims before any charges were laid and only 6 resulted in custodial sentences. Interview rooms were crowded with men asking the complainants personal questions and laughing at their responses, or shouting that they were lying, or had been ‘asking for it.’ I’m prepared to believe that things have changed, but it was a shock to see and hear just how bad it was not very long ago. For all the scoffing and resentment at ‘PC’ attitudes, many many women’s lives have been changed for the better by more recent condemnation of this kind of behaviour. 

My own story picks up some of this, but I’ll go back through again and pick up words, smells, attitudes, and expressions reminiscent of the times, to sprinkle the dust of authenticity lightly across the page. But it has to be done lightly. Some fiction lays the researched authentic detail on with a trowel, clogging up sentences and slowing down the action. You can be impressed once or twice by the quality and depth of the research, but only once or twice before it gets tedious. It doesn’t take much to achieve the effect you want: use of a word that was of its time and has since faded, a smell, an item of clothing, something being eaten. Much of the 60s detail is now regarded as retro and back in fashion, but fondue sets and lava lamps and beehive hairstyles, and the ever-present cigarettes, are still for me evocative of a very particular period.

What I won’t be doing is adding the style and model number of the electric iron that the heroine uses on her full skirt, or the packaging of the Vesta chinese curry she assembles for her supper. Do you remember dehydrated mashed potato? What were we thinking! ‘For mash get smash’. Happy days.