Do readers need a ‘friend’ if the context is complicated?

Three years ago I was in the final stages of writing my third novel Fallout, which had as its backdrop the nuclear reactor accident at Windscale in Cumbria in October 1957.windscale-disaster-6-638

Deciding on that context for a story about finding love in later life was a gamble. For a start, the background might end up being much more interesting than the main story line. And dealing with a real event was always going to be tricky. It’s a touchy subject here in Cumbria even after sixty years: the final report on the incident used a phrase about ‘local errors of judgement’ that still rankles. (Actually the phrase was inserted into the report by the Macmillan government as a way of explaining the incident to the Americans without blaming the government’s own rushed reactor building programme.) And of course, because it was a ‘real’ incident within living memory it was essential for me – a local ‘offcomer’ – to get the facts right.

The inside story of the reactor fire was a complicated technical issue. How was I going to help the non-scientific reader to understand what was really going on, and why the key the decisions were made? The plan was to place a character on the inside of the Windscale whose job was to ask questions about the operation of the reactor. This character would act as the reader’s ‘friend’, gathering information in an intelligible way. in ‘Fallout’ this character was Lawrence Finer, seconded to Windscale from Harwell, the nuclear research facility near Oxford.

In my next book  ‘Burning Secret’ I face the same issue – explaining farming to a non-farming readership, and then clarifying the complications of a catastrophic infection that decimated our farm animals in 2001. I need a character that acts as the ‘guide’ to a specialist subject for a non-specialist audience. Talking to a local dairy farmer last week it occurred to me how to handle this. dairy_farmerLarge dairy farms often employ people to help with milking and the care of the herd, but during the outbreak restrictions were introduced that made it impossible for dairy farm workers to work normally, going home after work and coming back the next day. This particular farm asked a family friend from Liverpool to come and stay on the farm for the duration to help them, and the young man had no experience of farming life. He reacted to the everyday routines of the farm as you or I might, noticing things that the farmers took for granted, asking naive questions, making mistakes through lack of experience. In literary terms, this character’s function is somewhere between the Greek chorus and the gravediggers in Hamlet, and more emotionally detached than the farmers themselves as the outbreak spread ever closer. In a crime story, as this will be, the ‘stranger’ can also be a useful source of tension and mystery. Let’s see how it all turns out.

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.

What makes a good book cover?

SAM_1212A couple of years ago, when my first novel was in production, my ‘book designer’ asked me to go to a bookshop and look at covers. ‘See what you like,’ he said, ‘and what will make people want to buy your book. Then we can give Kevin the cover designer some direction and criteria.’ So I looked, and felt that most of them were anodyne and boring. Nothing about many of the covers made me want to take the book off the shelf, never mind hand over any money for it. I wanted to be struck by the cover image, engaged, intrigued – some reaction. It wasn’t about liking or not liking, more about curiosity.

The first book ‘A Good Liar’ played safe: it combined three images, all of them aesthetically attractive, which collectively gave the reader a sense of what lay within. The second book ‘Forgiven’, looking back on it now, played even safer. It was a beautiful image of a green valley and distant a distant snow-capped ridge, and in the foreground a gorgeous granite stone wall which epitomises the area where the books are set. We had tried to create a cover image using photos of pit wheels and women with children, but it was too fussy and nothing was working. The running theme of the book was ‘forgiveness’, and in the end I felt that the distant peek of light in the sky symbolised that feeling, but it was a bit of a stretch. Basically it was just a beautiful image.

Now we’ve had to make a decision about the cover of book three, ‘Fallout’, which is set against the calamitous event of the world’s first nuclear reactor fire, in Cumberland in 1957. It’s a tough time for my heroine Jessie Whelan too – no more details! – and I wanted a sense of anxiety in the cover, nothing too soft or bland. A beach scene this time, I decided, to complement the view of fells (that’s a Norse word meaning ‘hills’ that’s commonly used in Cumbria): one of the wonderful west-facing beaches that we enjoy in this region. But it had to be a special beach scene, and we found one, with a red sky, beautiful but threatening too. Still I wanted more: among the photographs I’d found of the reactor fire was one of a group of workers in their anti-contamination suits and helmets, looking like spacemen. The clever cover designer imposed this image on the beach below the red sky and the cover of ‘Fallout’ stared out at me. I loved it: as intriguing as I had hoped for and authentic too.

I made a poster and took it round the local bookshops to alert them to the forthcoming publication. One buyer at a local attraction flinched and literally stepped away from the image. ‘We can’t sell that here,’ she said. ‘It’s too frightening. Not the kind of thing for this shop.’ It’s not a proper bookshop, granted, but other crime fiction books on the shelf have quite graphic images. I was surprised by her reaction and I should have asked her to explain it, but I didn’t. Later she confirmed to the books’ distributor that she wouldn’t be carrying copies, even though the first two books in the trilogy sell well there. Nothing I can do about it, I suppose. It was never my intention to upset anyone, but then the line between curiosity and aversion is notoriously thin. I wanted the ‘Fallout’ cover to convey the danger that threatened my heroine and her community, and clearly it does that effectively. But I think there’s more to it: most people’s impression of the Lake District and Cumbria is green hills, sparkling lakes and Beatrix Potter. For those of us who love the wild west coast, that image needs a challenge, and I think – I hope – that my three novels portray real life here, not some romanticised idyll. If people’s reaction to the ‘Fallout’ cover starts some conversation about this dichotomy, that’s a good thing. It may cost me some sales, but maybe not. I’ll have to wait and see.

By the way, you can see all the covers on the books page of my website http://www.ruthsutton.co.uk. Have a look and see what you think.

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.

Woohoo!

“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.”