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.

 

 

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.

Writing about your own community

Every year in mid-December I borrow tables, chairs and crockery and invite all my neighbours in for the  ‘Street feast’.

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The annual gathering took place last night: fourteen adults, two children and a baby celebrating his first birthday with us. Ages ranged from 81 to the one year old and we all packed into my relatively small space – not a buffet, a proper sit-down meal. It’s a logistical challenge, and this was the biggest yet, but every year I’m glad we do it. Our row of nine houses is just a part of our village in West Cumbria, and the conversation round the tables last night showed yet again why this part of the world is such a rich setting for an ‘offcomer’ writer: long histories, inter-connecting families, shared memories and concerns.

Offcomers must always be on the fringe but being part of a community like this is very satisfying: over twenty years in my Salford flat I knew only two of my neighbours to speak to. I was accepted here relatively quickly mainly because my son-in-law is well-known in sporting circles and makes me ‘OK’ by association. Acceptance into a community brings with it a sense of responsibility. Writing the trilogy ‘Between the Mountains and the Sea’ was my first attempt at fiction, inspired by this place and its people, and I felt a strong obligation to get my facts right, which means many hours of research and checking. Worth it though.

At the launch of my new book ‘Fatal Reckoning’ last week in Whitehaven the Director of the Beacon Museum who welcomed us to her place said that my Jessie Whelan trilogy ‘Between the Mountains and the Sea’ was one of the first things she read on arriving in Cumbria and gave her an invaluable insight into the recent history of the place and its people. I was very chuffed by that. Last night’s party added to that sense of community and I loved it, as I always do.

A new chapter?

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I knew this week would be busy but it’s been more than that: it feels like the start of a new chapter in my short writing life. Two events happened simultaneously. First, my new book ‘Fatal Reckoning’ was officially launched, on Friday at the Beacon Museum in Whitehaven, on the top floor (visible in the photo) with a superb view over the harbour and out to sea. It was a very enjoyable afternoon although I say it myself. One of the best parts was the introduction from the Director of the museum, Elizabeth Kwasnik – an off-comer from Scotland – who said that my trilogy ‘Between the Mountains and the Sea’ had given her valuable insight into the recent history of West Cumbria and its people. The historian in me was very pleased about that.

Second, the night before the Beacon launch the new ebook version of ‘Fatal Reckoning’ appeared on Amazon and the Kindle Store, published this time not by me but by Fahrenheit Press, who specialise in digital publishing, mainly of crime fiction. I’ve been fascinated to see how they set about establishing their books – and now mine – on the radar of crime fiction readers, mainly using Twitter. Chris McVeigh, who started Fahrenheit Press has also written a blog piece about the details of the curious partnership between us, by which they publish digitally and I do the paperback version. Two different formats, two different audiences, two different approaches, and an interesting development in self-publishing. As I explained last week, Fahrenheit’s version of Cruel Tide on Kindle has a completely different cover. Click the link to see it. And while you’re there, check the new ‘Fatal Reckoning’ cover too.

Both these developments have made me think, yet again, about what I’m doing and what next. The setting in Cumbria has to remain central to my writing, no doubt about that. Also, I really enjoyed weaving fact and fiction in the trilogy, and want to do that again. Could I combine that approach with a ‘crime’ story, as I tried to do in the first book in the trilogy ‘A Good Liar’? Does the next book need to be the start of a new series, which might be more lucrative but can be restrictive too?

My fiction writing life will be shorter than many authors, simply because I didn’t start until I was 60. So if the number of books left in me is relatively small, what are my priorities? I don’t want to spend precious time churning out books that might sell but don’t really interest or inspire me. Needless to say, a new idea is already forming, but nothing I want to talk about just yet.

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.

 

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’.