The benefits of enforced slow motion

In the middle of Monday night, half asleep and in my own home after several nights away, I mistook my route to the bathroom and fell backwards down a flight of fourteen steep stairs. I recall the sensation of falling, pain, and the struggle first to kneel, and then to crawl back up the stairs to the bathroom. Mostly I remember my determination to get help.

Help came quickly from a wonderful neighbour, and from the incomparable NHS. 204816I was back home three hours later, checked, X-rayed, diagnosed with snapped clavicular ligaments, strapped up tight and an appointment with a specialist for today. Pulled ligaments in my right knee are painful and I have bruises and carpet friction burns in various places.

I am right-handed. My right arm is out of commission for weeks and I have a novel to write. But it could have been worse, far worse. Last week’s blog post could have been my last and I have so much living still to do.

As it is, I’m realising already that I can manage most things, but much more slowly. Typing with one left finger, for example, means that I have to slow down both my ideas and the words to express them. For someone who’s done everything too quickly for the past sixty plus years, this is no bad thing, so long as I can accept it without fretting. I’ve moved in with a friend for a while to help me with the basics, and I’ve brought all my book writing stuff with me, determined to use my enforced rest to keep my mind and my left forefinger busy. I shall write, much more slowly than usual, and turn physical idleness into mental activity.

How important is ‘the horse’s mouth’

 

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‘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.

 

A writer’s dilemma: what’s the priority?

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After my last novel ‘Fatal Reckoning’ came out in 2016, I promised myself a break. Five books published in five years, and I needed some time out. So six months later I’m looking back and reflecting on what the break has taught me, so far.

Firstly, it’s clear that I was right to step off the conveyor belt for a while. I needed time to get my head up and look around without worrying every day about the next target and the immediate tasks. Secondly, with less intensity to occupy my head, I began to dawdle more over social media and realised how much of it is trivial ‘noise’. Thirdly, and connected to the other two, I resented the pressure I felt under as a self-published author to spend more time marketing, promoting, blogging, tweeting, just to keep sales of my books ticking over. If I stopped for a while, no one else would help: it was down to me alone. Wouldn’t it be great, I thought, to have someone else to share that load, to care about my sales and push the books onto shelves on my behalf.

After the second search for an agent, and the same negative outcome as before, I’ve given up any expectation that my books are attractive to someone looking only for the next best seller. I’ve sold thousands, and they’re all still selling, but it’s a trickle, not a flood. London-based publishing seems distant and uninterested in what I’m doing out here in the sticks (or is it ‘Styx’?). So forget about an agent. If I need to, I could go straight for a small publisher, preferably not in London, who doesn’t rely on ‘agented submissions’ and is prepared to read my backlist to see what I can do. There aren’t many of those, but it only takes one to change my life.

 

The next stage in reflection on this unpromising scenario came recently while I was away in Canada and offline for a week or two in the far reaches of Vancouver Island and the Alaskan Inner Passage. What a relief it was not to have to check my KDP sales reports and the ‘pledges’ for the crowd-funding that was supposed to finance my next book – more of that next week. In my clearer head, the images of the new book were turning. I wasn’t writing anything, but I was thinking about the story for once, not the sales, and noticing how much more satisfying that felt.

Maybe I’ll change my mind, but right now the story is my priority. Yes I’ll need an editor at some point, and when the story is as good as I can make it I’ll have to think about how people will find and read it. But not now. For the next few months I want to be a writer, not a self-publicist.

The perils of going back

I’m in Winnipeg, Manitoba, at present, visiting for a few days. Over the past two decades I’ve been here dozens of times, three times a year for several years, in the fall, the deep winter and the very early spring, working with teachers and school leaders in various parts of the city and around southern Manitoba.Winnipeg skyline.@1x

This will probably be the last visit, and I was in two minds about it. Part of me wanted to see again people I’ve worked with closely, seen in their schools, shared evenings with and many glasses of wine. It’s a couple of years since I was last here, and as the plane touched down yesterday I hoped it wasn’t a bad idea to return.

Going back can be difficult. Times change, people move on, the work we thought at the time was so significant may by now have blurred and faded, or been forgotten all together. New people are in the schools, new ideas in the air. Would they remember me? Would some say, ‘Ruth Sutton? Who’s that? What did she do?’ All that may be true, but I’m still glad I came. The city I’d seen so often in monotones of white and grey,  snow on the ground, nothing growing, deeply cold and crackling dry, is now clothed in full leafed trees, stretching out towards the plains beyond. Balconies and porches smell of flowers, children play by the river and in the parks, the air is soft.

There’s a party tonight, a retirement and farewell party for me – the only one I’ve ever had – and I’m touched by the thought of it even before it’s taken place. So maybe coming back wasn’t such a bad idea. I used to be a teacher and an educator. Now I’m a writer, with five books already out and another ‘Burning Secret’ taking shape in my head. But I’m still the same person, and happy to see however many of my old friends and colleagues will come and say hello.

By the way, to hear more about the writing, here’s a link to a  conversation I had recently, about all the writing and publishing I’ve been doing since my ‘retirement’.  It’s quite long, but I think you’ll enjoy it.

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.

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.