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.

Can characters be real people?

It was one of those spooky evenings when you get the impression that the people you’re talking to know more about what you’re talking about than you do. The Millom Ladies Guild were listening politely to my stories about the real vicar who inspired the one I depicted in ‘A Good Liar’ when one of them said, ‘Oh, yes I remember him. I was there when the new school was being built.’ (If you know the story of A Good Liar, you’ll understand all this: if you haven’t read it yet, now’s the time!) Thank heaven she didn’t disagree with either my details or the description of the vicar. A little later I was talking about the fire in the nuclear reactor at Windscale in October 1957 and the people there who played a crucial role, and one of my audience was a cousin of a man I had referred to.

This is why the writing of Part 3 of my trilogy, ‘Fallout’ set in the community around Windscale at the time of the fire caused me some anxiety. I wanted to tell the inside story of the fire, the details of which were revealed only recently, fifty years after the event. This meant naming names, or giving fictional names to men who would be instantly recogniseable to many of the local people who will read the book. If I name them, I wondered, can I also give them words to say, words that they might have said but there is no actual record that they did so?

I decided to include half a dozen real people, under their own names, as minor characters in the background of the action. The main Point of View inside the plant is carried by an entirely fictional character, a visiting physicist from the Harwell nuclear research labs. The ‘real’ characters were named, given things to do and words to speak, during an event within the living memory of both myself and probably the majority of the potential readers. My editor wasn’t sure how to deal with it, so we called in a lawyer who deals mainly in copyright issues, for an opinion about the ‘ethics’ and legality of doing what I’d done. His view was that it was OK, for three reasons: a) the named people were playing a background not a foreground role; b) what they did in my story was supported by the evidence in the official history of the incident and was therefore a matter of public record; c) nothing that I had them doing or saying could be seen in any way as negative or blameworthy, in keeping again with the conclusions in the factual historical record in Lorna Arnold’s ‘Windscale 1957: Anatomy of Nuclear Accident’. On top of all that reassurance, the lawyer also said how much he enjoyed the relevant sections and wanted to read the rest.

One of the ladies in Millom asked, ‘Do you have to get permission to include real people?’. A good question, and I sincerely hope that the advice I sought was correct and that the answer in this case is ‘No’.

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.”