Alternative History

[Originally posted on Goodreads 2018-04-17.] I mentioned my pending novel The Fourth Protectorate in my earlier Crime and SF blog post. I also spoke briefly about it during Keith Skipper’s July 2017 monthly mardle in Radio Norfolk’s Matthew Gudgin’s Teatime Show. For those who are interested, here’s a little more information about the novel’s genre.

The Fourth Protectorate is an alternative history with supernatural elements, but what actually is alternative history? It’s sometimes referred to as a ‘what if?’ genre. What if something happened in the past that caused subsequent events to diverge from real life? That something is the point of departure, and the subsequent events form an alternate timeline (or history). I think the most well-known (but not the earliest) alternative history story is probably Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (first published in 1962). The point of departure in that case was the different outcome of an attempt to assassinate US President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In real life, Giuseppe Zangara tried to shoot Roosevelt in February 1933. The premise of The Man in the High Castle is what if Zangara had succeeded? In real life, Roosevelt felt so strongly about supporting the Allies during WWII that he broke tradition and stood for a third term. The alternative timeline has Roosevelt replaced by an isolationist who keeps the USA out of the war, which changes the outcome.

The ‘what if so-and-so died at an earlier point in time?’ premise is a common point of departure. The reverse ‘what if so-and-so didn’t die?’ is also used (to comic effect with Red Dwarf and rather more seriously with Star Trek: The Original Series). Other points of departure can be somewhat vaguer, such as ‘what if a battle was lost instead of won?’ (as with Len Deighton’s SS-GB, where the Battle of Britain was lost), or the point of departure can be something seemingly trivial (‘for want of a nail’).

In the case of The Fourth Protectorate, which is set from 1984 to 1995, the principle point of departure is the Brighton Bomb. What if it had killed the Prime Minister and the entire Cabinet? The event occurs in the chapter that’s rather unimaginatively called ‘Point of Departure’, and you can accept that as the actual point of departure if you like but, whilst thinking about the exact differences between the alternative timeline of the story and real life, I came to the conclusion that the real point of departure occurs earlier, but the differences are much subtler until 1984 is reached. So what actually causes the divergence?

In the world of The Fourth Protectorate, the supernatural exists, although most people aren’t aware of it, but there’s a constant conflict between good and evil. One side is trying to make the world a better place and the other is trying to ruin it. Both sides have some ability to predict future events, but neither side can interfere with free will. They can, however, plant suggestions in people’s minds to influence outcomes. People are free to choose to follow or ignore those suggestions, but those who have a natural predisposition towards the suggestion or those who have a weak will are more likely to comply. So when is the actual point of departure?

What if during the Blitz a bomb toggle was operated a fraction later? A minor suggestion planted in the airman’s mind that causes a momentary delay. The dispersal pattern changes, a different set of buildings are destroyed and a different set of people die. The global outcome is unchanged, but minor deviations start to occur that can lead up to a bomb or some people being in a slightly different location a few decades later. It may also have led to more significant changes. The Prime Minister and other ministers are never named in the book, so they may not be the same as in our real timeline.

So the principle point of departure is the ‘what if so-and-so died?’ type but the actual point of departure is a seemingly insignificant change that had a knock-on effect. This conveniently means that any minor discrepancies from real life at the start of the book now have an explanation (such as the reason why famous/infamous people who lived in that region in real life don’t appear to exist in the story).

One of the interesting things I’ve encountered while writing the novel is the background research to refresh my memory of the 1980s (and the previous decade). It’s reminded me of just how volatile that era was. There were definitely a lot of ‘what if?’ moments.

© OpenStreetMap contributors. (View larger map.)

Norfolk

[Originally posted on Goodreads 2017-06-16.] The Private Enemy is set predominantly in Norfolk, mostly in and around the city of Norwich and in a fictional rural Fenland neighbourhood in the west of Norfolk. The story may be set in the future but, much like today, the people living there aren’t homogeneous. They vary according to their upbringing, social status, employment and surroundings. Norfolk inhabitants are so often unfairly stereotyped in the media as ignorant, Mummerset-speaking, inbred rustics that I thought it might be useful to give a brief overview of the real Norfolk and how the fictional Norfolk of the novel differs from it. (There may be mild spoilers below in terms of the back story, but most of it’s already in the book blurb.)

Norfolk is a largely rural county, and its culture has been influenced by its geography (amongst other things). Situated in the east of England, with the North Sea to the east, north, and north-west, it’s not really a place that travellers pass through on route to somewhere else. In the past, it was even more isolated before the Fens in the west were drained (although that was done a long time ago). The transport links have improved in recent years with a more frequent intercity train service and the duelling of the A11. On the other hand, the rural public transportation within the county has declined.

However, despite its apparent isolation, Norfolk’s culture and language have been shaped by incomers over the centuries: Romans, Angles, Saxons, Danes and Normans have all left their mark. Later, and more peacefully, came the Strangers — refugees from the Low Countries. (The word ‘stranger’ originally meant not a native of that place, but the Strangers in Norfolk has come to mean those particular immigrants.) Their influence can be seen in Norfolk architecture, the language, names and even symbols, such as the canary.

The modern strangers are from further afield, such as Eastern Europe, but there are also incomers from other parts of the UK, include those retiring here, those who fell in love with the county when visiting it on holiday, and those who came here for work placements. (My husband falls into that last category. We moved here in the mid 1990s having both studied at the University of Essex where we met.)

Norfolk is a lovely county with deep roots, but the seeming idyll masks homelessness and poverty. The future Norfolk of The Private Enemy has this same mixture, but in addition it has urban gangsters openly engaging in territorial disputes (which thankfully the real Norfolk doesn’t have).

This deviation from reality is due to events in the back story. Thirty-two years before the start of the novel (at some point in our near future), a fuel crisis triggered global anarchy that lasted two years. Peace was restored and the concept of nationality was abolished. The purported reason for this is that nationalism can cause conflict. Instead the world is divided into numbered sectors with a new capital city (to avoid any associations with the past) in the middle of each region. Sector 1 is the overall administrative centre and is the effective global ruling body.

In reality, far from creating the continually advertised ‘one world united in peace and prosperity’, the sectors (which mostly correspond to the old boundaries) are more fractured than before. Since the story is set mostly in Norfolk, with a few scenes in the capital city for this sector (Sector 55), the focus is on the fractures in this particular region.

The enmity between the rural and urban areas is a result of city raiders invading farmland during the anarchy. The passage of time hasn’t softened the long-held grudges of those who had to defend their homes and families against attack. Within the urban areas, rival gangs emerged during the anarchy to compete for resources, and they still hold sway through corruption and force of arms. So the fictional future Norwich is divided up into neighbourhoods controlled by gangsters and the so-called ‘Neutral Territory’, controlled by financiers and politicians, which acts as a buffer zone.

There are also ideological divides. The ‘Anti-Technology League’ want curbs on technology, claiming that the unsustainable energy demands required by high levels of technology caused the anarchy. Other groups want technological growth (or regrowth). The Anti-Techs seem to get their way some of the time, but Sector 1 are rather selective as to which demands they apparently submit to. Computers are banned, except for government departments (since they’re needed for administrative purposes). This means no Internet, emails or other forms of global electronic communication. Most mobile phone masts were destroyed during the anarchy and haven’t been replaced. This just leaves landlines for instant communication. There are no televisions, but there are cinemas. Radios are back to being analogue, which means they’re subject to static (and if that static happens to interrupt news items, only the paranoid would consider that censorship). And just to show that the Anti-Techs aren’t an all-powerful lobby group, Sector 1 has refused to ban electronic billboards used for product advertising (interspersed with little messages from your friendly politicians).

The Anti-Tech’s message that our modern gadget-filled world caused the anarchy has fuelled nostalgia, and the mismatched retro fashions reflect the desired idylls. This is further back in time for the rural areas than for the city, and the labour-saving devices, such as washing machines, that still exist are used but kept out of sight and not discussed in polite conversation (more a case of keeping back with the Joneses rather than keeping up with them).

The most prominent gangster in future Norwich is Jack Preston. The anarchy broke out when he was eleven years old. A fan of film noirs from the 1930s and 1940s, his adoption of a gangster style image from that era was essentially a coping mechanism, but he becomes so powerful and influential that others copy him, and he now drives the fashion in this region. (Other regions fall back on other styles. The reduced global communications means that sectors start to diverge.)

The next most prominent gangster, and Jack’s rival, is Big Stan O’Brien. He doesn’t want to be seen to be copying Jack, so he taps into his Sector 53 ancestry and adopts a Godfather-like figure, but since this mash-up is from Jack’s preferred era, he’s still effectively mimicking Jack.

So how do people talk in future Norfolk? Much like today, there are a variety of accents. The native Broad Norfolk is still in use, but social status is also a factor. As in real life, there are some professionals who grew up with Broad Norfolk but softened it as they moved up the promotional ladder (for example, this is the case with Detective Inspector Charles Hadley). There are also professionals who don’t soften their accents (Detective Sergeant Sarah Fenning) as they view it as part of their identity. In the city there are those who have a Norwich accent, and then there are those who are trying to copy Jack or Stan’s affectations. There are also incomers with their own accents.

That’s the world of The Private Enemy, but the difficulty came in deciding how to represent these various accents. Writing guides frown on the use of funetik, and they have a point. It can be quite incomprehensible. The first 10,000 words of this novel formed the major part of my portfolio for my diploma in creative writing. The work has also been critiqued on other courses and writing groups, and at various times I’ve used various approaches, including following the much advocated advice to use dictionary spelling and allow the word choice and cadence to establish the voice. After all, if I’m spending all that time studying the art of creative writing, I ought to follow the laws laid down by the experts.

I dutifully corrected all the spelling and sent my first chapter round to my latest group. The result?

Is [Broad Norfolk character] American?

How did that happen? I’d used Norfolk syntax, so why did it sound American? (This wasn’t Jack’s hard-boiled affectation.)

Earlier, I mentioned immigrants to Norfolk, but I didn’t mention the emigrants. When you saw the word Norfolk in this blog’s title, did you immediately think of Norfolk, England (famous for its admiral) or Norfolk, Virginia (famous for its naval base)?

One of the earliest Englishmen to settle in the Virginia colony was Adam Thoroughgood from King’s Lynn, Norfolk (England). The early settlers undoubtedly brought their native accents with them, but over the generations the pronunciation of the sundered groups diverged as new immigrants from other areas arrived and the natural evolution of language occurred. However, despite this change, there are still a few elements common to Broad Norfolk and some parts of America that aren’t so common in the rest of the UK. For example, in Broad Norfolk ‘wholly’ is used in the sense of ‘very’, ‘yard’ can mean garden, and a person might address their friend as ‘ole partner’. So, while there are some very distinctive words and phrases in Broad Norfolk, there are a few cases that can superficially appear American if the pronunciation isn’t clarified.

Another bit of feedback from the group came in the form of corrections in a returned copy where the initial h’s from words in the dialogue were crossed out and replaced with apostrophes. Other dialects may drop their aitches but Norfolk doesn’t drop haitches. In addition, some of the dialect’s idiosyncrasies can look like typographical errors, such as the regularisation of the third person singular present tense (‘she do’, ‘he say’, ‘that look like rain’).

The problem with this creative writing rule is that it relies on the reader being familiar with the accent. Broad Norfolk is a little-known dialect that’s frequently misrepresented. There are so many times that I see this rule presented with some example dialogue followed by a statement that the reader will naturally hear such-and-such well-known accent when reading it.

The other advice to writers is to avoid dialects altogether and always use standard English, but the concept of standard English is a fallacy as English is a pluricentric language. (I’ve seen enough edit wars over the years to verify this.) There are standards within regions but even these can be disputed. Alice may believe that her public school accent is standard English and think that Bob sounds awfully common. Bob may believe his estuary accent is standard and think that Alice sounds a bit posh.

I could’ve saved myself a lot of headaches if I’d stuck with one specific textbook English for all the characters. Not only was the Broad Norfolk causing me problems, but also the hybrid accents for characters like Jack and Stan. However the drawback with standardizing the way everyone talks is that it suggests a lack of diversity, but the whole point of the setting was its fractured nature.

Incidentally, in case there’s any misunderstanding, I’m not a linguistic expert nor can I speak Broad Norfolk. My experience is limited to living in Norfolk for over twenty years and listening to people airing their views on the local radio, nattering on the bus, conversing with cashiers or checkout assistants, or chatting with friends and neighbours. (Any resident of Norfolk who claims that the dialect is extinct must be living in some kind of élite enclave.) I therefore decided to solicit the advice of Norfolk dialect expert Keith Skipper, which was just as well as it turned out that I’d unwittingly picked up some long-defunct words from an old book written by a late Norfolk author.

In the end, I decided on a small amount of spelling deviations. The feedback so far has included:

Didn’t like the dialect.
Really didn’t like the dialect.
Didn’t have a problem with the dialect.
Liked the dialect.
Would’ve liked more guide to the pronunciation.
Would’ve liked footnotes.
Haven’t got round to reading the story yet but really enjoyed reading the glossary of Norfolk terms at the back.

Which just goes to show that readers (like people in general) are diverse, and there’s no one-size-fits-all solution.

Incidentally, the second edition of The Private Enemy is due out on 30th September 2017. The font is smaller (10pt instead of 11pt) and the layout is more compact. This has reduced the page count and overall size and weight, which means a reduction in print and postage costs and this will be reflected in a reduction in the retail price. The revised first edition will continue to be available until the end of September [2017]. More news on the new edition to follow in the next month or so.

Crime and SF

[Originally posted on Goodreads 2016-06-27.] I’ve written about my children’s books in a post about The Foolish Hedgehog and a post about Quack, Quack, Quack. Give My Hat Back! but I haven’t really said much about my adult fiction, so I thought it was about time to write about my published fiction and a pending novel.

I’ve Heard the Mermaid Sing is a short story ebook (approximately 2,500 words) set in 1928 about a yegg (thief) from St Louis who’s fleeing to Europe on the RMS Aquitania after a jewellery shop heist turned to murder when an off-duty policeman happened to turn up to get a bracelet repaired at the wrong moment. The story is written in 1920s vernacular, but although I was aiming to reproduce the style of that era some slang doesn’t age well. There was one phrase in particular that I had to cut when my writing friends advised against it as they said it conjured up an inappropriate image, and it wasn’t the image I had intended. As much as I wanted an authentic feel, there’s no escaping the fact that anyone reading it is living in the twenty-first century.

The Private Enemy is my first published novel, although it isn’t the first novel that I wrote. The first draft dates back to the early 1990s (possibly 1992, although I can’t remember exactly) but I completely rewrote it after going on the online creative writing course I’ve previously mentioned and the first 10,000 words formed the majority of my portfolio for my later diploma in creative writing. It’s a crime/thriller story set in a technologically-regressed future where the world has been divided into numbered sectors, each with a governing city called Central City, which is located in roughly the geographical centre of the sector. The back story is that 32 years before the events in the first chapter, a fuel crisis triggered global anarchy that lasted for two years before order was restored. The aim of those restructuring the newly established peace was that by removing national identities wars could be averted, but human nature being what it is this merely papered over deep resentments and corruption. The regression in technology is publicly justified by the fuel limitations and the lobbying of anti-technology groups, but privately the restrictions on technology allows greater control over communications. This isn’t a whodunnit mystery, but a story about one person’s private quest to prove that murder has been committed and ensure that justice is done in an increasingly volatile world. The novel is approximately 136,000 words. The paperback (revised first) edition is 140mm (5.5in) wide by 216mm (8.5in) high with a 32mm (1.3in) spine. The text is 11pt on cream paper. It’s also available as an ebook which, without the hefty print costs, is a lot cheaper. [Update 2019-09-18: there’s now a second edition paperback.]

The Fourth Protectorate is actually the first novel that I wrote, although it has had many titles and undergone many revisions. I wrote the first version in the early 1980s when I was probably around eleven or twelve years old, and it was heavily influenced by science fiction stories I was reading at the time, in particular Doctor Who and the Cybermen. (Before the proliferation of videos, the novelisations were the only way to access those old Dr Who stories, and they had the added advantage of not suffering from low-budget props.) As I grew older, I became more interested in politics, so by the time I went to the University of Essex in my late teens, the science fiction elements of the story had been toned down, with a totalitarian government rather than futuristic machines as the antagonist. I put the story on the back burner and returned to a fantasy story that I had started when I was seventeen. My third novel was The Private Enemy. I wrote a few other stories after that and from time to time switched attention back to the earlier novels, but after I rewrote The Private Enemy, having improved my writing style on the creative writing course, I decided to revisit that first novel and I rewrote it from scratch. It still has a residual science fiction device echoing back to that first draft, and it still has a police state from that second draft, but (I hope) it’s much better written. (It also now has a supernatural element that wasn’t present in the earliest drafts.) The 1980s have been and gone, and the novel is now set in an alternate history from 1984 to 1995 that charts the rise of a Cromwell-style Protectorate in Britain that becomes a dictatorship. Britain in the real 1980s was fairly turbulent, with plenty of strikes and riots, but the alternative 1980s in the story notches this up. How does the Protectorate establish itself? Through a referendum. Hmm. Yes, seriously, I wrote that before the recent [2016] referendum was proposed.

On a side note, if you’re at all interested, I voted to remain last week. While I’m disappointed with the result, we need to move on or we may, like those sci-fi stories where attempts are made to change some past event, make a bad thing worse, but I hope that, at the very least, people will learn from it. However, recent events have taught me that I was wrong to think that just because my novel is set in an alternative history from 1984 to 1995 it can’t be affected by current events, so I’ve decided that I really ought to crack on and get it finished before life overtakes it. It’s currently around 133,000 words, so it will probably be around the same size as The Private Enemy. It’s going through the final tuning stages at the moment. Are there any plot holes? Does the topology of the world in the story make sense? (That is, if characters go from A to B, does their route make sense? A few rough sketches can help here.) Are any scenes too dialect heavy or too wordy? These things usually require an impartial reading by someone experienced in the art of creative writing. How much more work needs to be done will depend on the feedback. The final task is proof-reading to pick up any spelling mistakes or typos that have been missed in earlier readings.

A Little Duck with a Hat

(Contains spoilers!)

[Originally posted on Goodreads 2016-06-16 at the start of a giveaway of five signed copies of Quack, Quack, Quack. Give My Hat Back! this post describes the book and explains how the story came about. That giveaway has closed, but there is currently a Dickimaw Books giveaway of two signed copies this book that ends 2019-11-01.]

Little Duck lives on the side of the Amazon, and he likes to row his wooden dinghy on the river and loves his big, black top hat, but one day the naughty wind snatches the hat from the duck’s head and makes off with it. The duck chases after it and, one by one, meets up with his various friends who are out on the river, and they join in the chase. In the end, the duck gets his hat back, and they all celebrate with some ice cream. There’s a fair bit of repetition as each new character joins in the chase. The book is a saddle-stitch paperback. At the beginning, there’s an illustrated list of the major characters with a brief bit of information about them, which can be skipped. The last page of the book, after the end of the story, contains the names and images of some of the animals that appeared in the background (sunbittern, cormorant, seriema, giant river otter, cock-of-the-rock, frigatebird,¹ and heron). Within the actual story part of the book, the text is arranged at the top of each page, and a wide landscape image spans the double-page spread below. The book is intended as a ‘read it to small child(ren)’ story not a ‘learn to read’ book.

Now I ought to warn you at this point that a few of the words in the story contain more than two syllables. A teacher once criticised me on this. She said that small children don’t understand words like ‘yacht’ and ‘catamaran’. Personally, I think that children are intelligent enough to work it out by looking at the picture, especially if the adult reader could helpfully point to it. However, I realise that not everyone shares this view, so if you feel that children should only hear monosyllabic words, then this book isn’t for you. The full list of characters involved in the hat chase are: the duck (rowing a dinghy), the arara parrot (in a catamaran), the sloth (sailing a yacht), the caiman (punting a lily pad) and the capybara (paddling a coracle). At one point a school of piranhas try to eat the hat. The river dolphin rescues the hat.

Image of the author wearing a hat and a duck glove puppet.

Although I’m English, my mother was born in Brazil. Her father was English and her mother Belgian. It’s rather a long story involving shipwreck (on her paternal grandfather’s side) and war, occupation and supporting the Belgian resistance (on her mother’s family’s side). My grandfather decided to move back to England after he retired in 1963 to be near his widowed sister and also for health reasons (he had developed skin cancer). This turned out quite fortunate for me as otherwise my mother wouldn’t have met my father, and then I wouldn’t be here to tell you about my books. I still have family in Brazil (and Belgium and various other parts of the world), and in 1991 I went with one of my brothers to visit some of them. We took a long-winded route when travelling from one set of family to another and ended up in Manaus by the Amazon. The river (especially at that point) is much wider than Magdalene’s illustrations and she added far more colour to vegetation than actually appears there, but such artistic licence makes the pictures more interesting to small children. (Besides, realism is hardly a top priority in a story with anthropomorphic animals who aren’t viewing some of their friends as a tasty snack.) In addition to all my various relatives, I also have a friend, Paulo Cereda, who lives in Brazil. He likes ducks, and we both like hats. He also has a software tool called arara, which is the Brazilian name for a macaw parrot, and I’m on the development team. One day we were chatting about ducks and hats, and he produced an image of a yellow duck wearing a top hat. It sparked an idea in my head that eventually became ‘Quack, Quack, Quack. Give My Hat Back!’ He very kindly gave me a duck hand puppet, and he also gave Magdalene a macaw hand puppet, so we have some props when doing book readings.

There’s an audio extract from the start of the story (although I’m sorry there’s currently no audio version of the book).


¹It’s labelled ‘Frigatebird’ but it’s more specifically a ‘Magnificent Frigatebird’. The ‘Magnificent’ part was dropped because the page was getting a little cluttered.

Every Little Counts

[Originally posted on Goodreads 2016-04-15.] Some years ago I attended a seminar at the Norwich Writers’ Centre given by a literary agent. (Incidentally, if you are a writer living in or near Norwich, there are some great resources available. It is, after all, England’s first UNESCO City of Literature.) This is an excellent way of finding out about the publishing industry. I had previously been to a talk given by a panel of agents and publishers at the University of East Anglia, which was informative, but it was in one of the lecture theatres, and so was more formal. The seminar at the Writers’ Centre was much more like a small group tutorial followed by brief one-to-one discussions with the agent. When we signed up for the seminar, we all had to provide an extract of our work (the first five pages, A4, double-spaced) and the cover letter we intended to send with submissions to agents. In the individual meetings, the agent gave her advice and suggestions on how to improve our pitch.

My extract was from the start of The Private Enemy. I had previously done a diploma course in creative writing, and the first 10,000 words of this novel had formed the majority of my portfolio. I had also been on other writing courses and writing groups so, by this time, the beginning of my novel had been pretty much analysed to death. (The remainder was subsequently critiqued in private lessons with my writing tutor.) The agent only had two comments to make about my extract before moving on to my query letter.

Her first comment was that she didn’t like science fiction. Fair enough. There are some genres that I don’t like, and if I’d been sending in the query letter for real I would’ve selected an agent who accepted SF. (Some of my writing peers who critiqued my work also didn’t like it, so I was well aware that a writer can’t please everyone.) Her second comment was a suggestion to cut out the mention of an open window, since she felt it was an irrelevant detail, and this brings me on to the topic of this post.

When writing a novel, every little detail must count towards something. This is more formally known as conservation of detail. If an item is described, it must have some significance. For example, a Chekhov’s Gun or some implement that’s later used needs to be mentioned so that the reader doesn’t say, “Hey, where did that come from?” In a mystery, clues need to be seeded throughout the novel otherwise the reader will feel cheated. Red herrings are also useful if the writer wants some misdirection. The reader should be able to assume that the characters and the world of the novel are like reality unless otherwise indicated. This means that the writer doesn’t need to tell the reader that all the characters are human and living on Earth. However, the writer does need to mention if the characters are, say, multi-tentacled lifeforms in another galaxy.

It’s boring for readers to trawl through endless pages of description that catalogues every button and stitch of clothes or every leaf and blade of grass in the surroundings. This doesn’t mean that the opposite extreme is good. A total absence of description gives the impression of formless beings floating around in the ether. The reader can assume that the characters are wearing clothes as they walk around the city, but a few details (such as a pinstriped suit or a hoodie and ripped jeans) can help to form an image in the reader’s mind. The reader can assume that the city has roads and buildings, but a few pertinent details can help to form the world of the novel.

To return to the window example, what does an open window add to a story? There could be an unseen character behind it, eavesdropping. It could be used as an unorthodox method of entry. It could cause a draught that blows an important scrap of paper behind a piece of furniture. It could signify a need for ventilation that might not otherwise be taken for granted (for example, to show it’s stifling hot or to reduce smoke or gas inhalation). Alternatively, it could be just an open window. In which case it needs to be cut because it’s a little detail that doesn’t count.

Critiquing is a useful way of detecting these unnecessary details. (In case you’re not familiar with the writing process, book reviews are for the benefit of potential readers for works that have already been or are about to be published. Critiquing is a tool for writers to help improve a work in progress.) Feedback can highlight the need for pruning. The critiquer may simply flag instances, but another more interesting phenomenon may occur. If the critiquer knows that the writer is in the habit of applying conservation of detail, any accidental slips can sometimes be interpreted as significant. When this happens to me, it usually triggers one of two reactions: oops, better cut that or hmm, that’s given me an idea. The latter is like discovering some coins down the back of the sofa, which is rather fun.

If you have hours to spare and you don’t mind being sucked into the black hole of TV Tropes, you can read more about the Law of Conservation of Detail over there.

Imagination

[Originally posted on Goodreads 2016-04-06.] One of the most common questions that I’m asked about my writing is “Where do you get your imagination from?” I always find this difficult to answer as it sounds like asking “How do you daydream?” My question is “How do you stop daydreaming?” as this can be a major issue for me. Ooh, look at that smudge. It’s shaped a bit like a dragon. Hmm, dragons… Sorry, what were we talking about?

Imagination is shaped by our senses. Since pre-history, our ancestors have observed the world, and these observations spark ideas that can lead to stories (or scientific discoveries). For some reason, I seem to have a blind spot for things that most people notice, such as a friend’s new clothes or haircut (the most notable occasion being when I walked right past a bucket full of roses that my husband had bought for our first wedding anniversary — I’ll never live that one down¹) but little things of no consequence can trigger musings that can follow such a labyrinthine path that I forget the original observation that set off my thoughts. The same observation can lead to different ideas for different people. For example, if I see a crow pecking at roadkill it leads to a children’s story about road safety and stranger-danger (The Foolish Hedgehog), but for someone else it might lead to a horror story.

When I was a child, there was plenty to stimulate my imagination, some of which I’ve already mentioned. At this point I’m going to shamelessly plug my brother’s book Into the Lion’s Den: A Biographical History of the Talbots of Malahide, which was reviewed by the Irish Independent because imagination can thrive when the family grapevine includes rumours of alleged spies and, centuries earlier, a rather blatant breach of sacred hospitality involving murder at breakfast. Most of the holidays that I can remember involved visiting relatives which, to me, was far more interesting than theme parks or hot, sandy beaches, as some of them had big, old houses. One that particularly stands out in my mind is the place where one of my father’s aunts used to live. (It was certainly big from the point of view of a six year old who lived in a small terraced house.) My two older brothers and I slept in attic rooms when we visited (my next sibling down was only a baby at the time) with sloping ceilings and dark corners. The views consisted of a kitchen garden in the rear with a scarecrow and a field in the front with a scarecrow. I’m not sure how the crows felt about them, but they certainly spooked me. On top of the hill beyond the field was a castle which, naturally, my brothers informed me was haunted. It is, after all, obligatory that older children tell the younger ones ghost stories.

When I moved up from primary school to a nearby local private school (where I was a day-girl) I was told by older girls about the phantom goalie who apparently haunted one of the lacrosse goalposts. It’s easy enough to dismiss such stories as a wind-up if you’re safely inside a populated building, but as a first former² whose classroom is in a hut on the boarder of said lacrosse pitch, it certainly stimulates the imagination. Especially in the winter during prep, which entailed walking from the main building after tea, down an unlit path, past the tennis courts, open-air swimming pool, high hedge and the pavilion that smelt of muddy boots and linseed oil, and then sitting in silence doing homework from 4:30 to 6pm. (First years got off earlier at 6pm. The older girls didn’t finish until 6:20pm.) If memory serves me well, there were only eleven of us in the class back then. It was even more entertaining when gales rattled the hut or when the foghorn was in action.

Everything around us can trigger ideas, if we are receptive to them. Sometimes I can definitively say what inspired a particular part of my stories (and close family or friends may be able to spot them, especially in my novel The Private Enemy), but sometimes I can’t pinpoint the source. The essence of long-forgotten memories can seep through the layers of detritus that have accumulated over the years, merge with other memories and blend into the imagination, inspiring stories, characters and places. Memories can be unreliable. Something that seemed large and spooky as a child, can turn out to be small and ordinary as an adult, but the distorted memory is more interesting to the story-teller. Look at the world, for a moment, from the eyes of a child and forget mundane reasoning.

However, I think that most of all, the imagination is fed by stories (regardless of whether they are novels, plays, films or relatives spinning a yarn) because most of the things I see that set me daydreaming are things that remind me of something I’ve read or heard or watched. Stories are built on imagination, but they also feed the imagination. If, after you put down a book, you find yourself thinking about the characters and the world they inhabit, then don’t ask me where I got my imagination from, because you’ve got one as well.

Daydreaming is easy. The hard part is converting those thoughts into words that can hook readers and, in turn, stimulate their imagination.


¹In all fairness, he had cunningly hidden them behind a bicycle as he’d bought them the day before. My absent-mindedness at least meant that the surprise wasn’t spoilt.

²First form in secondary school is now Year 7 these days.

Beginnings

[Previously published on Facebook 2015-12-14.] It was a dark and stormy night, and the hailstones came down like a fistful of clichés flung by a thunder-god. Yes, dear writer, the start of a novel is a perilous place. What path will you take? Choose wisely or suffer the dread curse from the reader. Will you take the scenic route that meanders like a lazy river through the lowland plains, the sunlight glinting off its ripples? The narrator, a tour guide. On your left, there’s the protagonist. Do you see that baggage she’s carrying? All her emotional and relationship issues and back story will be explained in full detail later, but, since we have all the time in the world and a patient reader, let’s have a summary now. Over there on your right, there’s the protagonist’s best friend. At various times, the friend will listen to an account of the plot so far and ponder over possible actions. Alas, this isn’t a read-your-own-adventure, and the reader won’t be able to select the quick option to terminate the story. Yonder, is the ditzy character with a goldfish-memory and head stuck so firmly in the clouds that all the other characters have to say, “Honestly, don’t you know that! Everyone knows that 〈insert info dump〉.” Ahead, we have the 〈insert minority group〉 characters, who will immediately use stock phrases and actions so that the reader can easily identify them as 〈insert minority group〉 and be reassured straight away that this is an inclusive novel, without the awful suspense of having to get to know them as the story progresses.

But what of the other route? The short cut that takes the readers by the scruff of the neck and throws them into the thick of it (in medias res, if you prefer the technical term). Let the reader find out for themselves what the characters are like by seeing how they deal with events. Add a dash of detail that sparks that amazing — and often forgotten gift — the reader’s imagination. Writing a murder mystery? Before the end of the first chapter I want to find either a corpse or someone whose enemy count is incrementing faster than a travelling salesman’s odometer.

Sadly, it’s easier to parody bad prose than it is to write a cracking great first sentence. I’m still searching for that elusive gem to adorn my work in progress. I hope that one day I’ll find it.

First Drafts

[Previously published on Facebook 2015-05-21.] I prefer writing first drafts (or complete rewrites) using a pen. There are too many distractions on the computer: email notifications, the spell checker, hitting the wrong key on the keyboard (an increasing issue over recent years). I find writing the first draft hard. It’s easier to edit it later once the ideas are on the page. The characters, places and situations develop in my mind, frothing, fermenting and expanding until they fill up inside my head and it seems like there’s no room for anything else. Writing these ideas down is like a mental trepanning. It’s tough trying to drill through but once the flow starts it builds up momentum and becomes faster. Interruptions break that flow and trip the momentum. So I switch off the computer, leave the answerphone on, select an album on my mp3 player and wedge in the ear plugs.

My handwriting is verging on illegible to most people. In my haste to write down the ideas before they evaporate I miss out small words, drop syllables, or spell phonetically, but it’s enough to trap the ideas on the page before they vanish, and I can later type them up on the computer. Once the first draft is done, then the editing will smooth out the rough edges.

So if I don’t seem to be around online or I’m not answering the phone, don’t take it personally. I’m just writing or thinking. It’s not you I’m avoiding, it’s the Person from Porlock.

World Book Day 2016

[Originally posted on Goodreads on 2016-03-03 to coincide with World Book Day.]

World Book Day has come around again and, as always, it’s got me wondering what’s my all-time favourite book. My tastes have changed over the years. Once I might’ve said Great Expectations, but I went off Dickens in my twenties. Then I probably would’ve said Pride and Prejudice, but I think I prefer Northanger Abbey now. Pride and Prejudice is fun, but the plot remains firmly rooted in that era. These days, Lizzie Bennett would likely be a high-flying career woman. Lydia Bennett might still go off the rails, but it’s less likely that her actions would prove quite so catastrophic to the rest of her family. Northanger Abbey, on the other hand, moves with the times. John Thorpe would now be a bore droning on about his car and his sister Isabella would be posting selfies and gossiping on social media. Northanger Abbey (if it hasn’t been converted into a hotel or housing estate) would still be an old building that’s been thoroughly modernised.

On the other hand, my favourite novel might actually be The Big Sleep. Raymond Chandler’s wise-cracking Philip Marlowe lifts the story and propels it along. Or is it, perhaps, Ice Station Zebra that tops my list? Forget the film, the novel is fast-paced with an unreliable narrator:

“This time you believe my story?”

“This time I believe your story.”

I was pleased about that, I almost believed it myself.

The Lord of the Rings is another favourite that I’ve read countless times but, then again, I also like the gentle humour of The Little World of Don Camillo.

One of the great things about Goodreads is that it’s reminded me of long-forgotten books that have grown dusty on our numerous shelves. I like the site’s recommendation system. There are, of course, such systems in on-line stores, based on purchasing history, but there are plenty of books that I’ve bought from second-hand bookshops or book stalls or that have been given to me, and there are those I’ve borrowed from the library. There are also books from the on-line stores that I’ve purchased as presents that don’t reflect my reading tastes. This skews the data used by the software for recommendations, whereas on Goodreads the data is more representative and the recommendations make more sense.

It’s been fun adding all the books I can remember reading. It’s triggered memories of story-fragments. What book was that? When did I read it? Was it a library book or was it one of mine that was lost or given away?

I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t have a number one favourite book, but there are books in various genres that I love reading and re-reading. Wit, pacing and well-formed characters transcend genre.

The best thing about World Book Day? In an age where I so often hear “I’d rather watch the film”, it’s a great reminder that books are still loved.

The Tale of The Foolish Hedgehog

[Originally published on Goodreads 2016-02-10, two days before a giveaway for five signed copies of the illustrated children’s book The Foolish Hedgehog.] This is the story of how I came to write The Foolish Hedgehog given that my primary emphasis has been on writing text books and adult crime/thriller/speculative fiction rather than children’s books.

I have always loved reading and writing and as a child my favourite genre was adventure stories. In fact, that’s still true today. However, I also loved mathematics and hated pulling books apart in English Literature, so when it came to choosing my path through higher education, I opted for the maths route and kept writing as a hobby.

Life often doesn’t pan out the way you imagine and at some point I found that I had switched tracks from being a mathematician to being a computer programmer with an interest in typesetting, specifically TeX. As a result of my work in that area, I was interviewed by the TeX User Group (TUG) for their interview corner. Dave Walden, the interviewer, put the idea of self-publishing into my head. Although I was confident about my typesetting abilities, I wasn’t so confident about my writing skills.

A friend of mine, who’s also a writer, suggested I try a writing course. She had already been on the diploma creative writing course at the University of East Anglia (UEA), and thoroughly recommended it. At first I thought it would be too inconvenient. I had given up full-time work to care for my son and we live out in a village with infrequent bus services, but I discovered there was an online writing course taught by Caroline Gilfillan at UEA, which overcame these obstacles. It was only a three-month course for beginners, but I thoroughly recommend it for enthusiastic writers with a busy lifestyle. (This particular course has stopped, but the Writers’ Centre, Norwich now has some writing courses.)

The course included a section on Vladimir Propp who studied folklore. The Wikipedia article on Propp gives a lot more detail, but he essentially broke fairy tales up into sections and listed a sequence of functions (tropes) that fairy tales employ in their narrative. One of our assignments was to write a story that followed this scheme. After toying with the usual princes, princesses, young apprentice/farmer-turned-heroes, I saw some roadkill and “The Foolish Hedgehog” came into being.

The principle functions this story follows are: interdiction (warning not to go somewhere), violation of interdiction (disobeying the warning), trickery (the villain attempts to deceive the protagonist), guidance (protagonist is led to a vital location), liquidation (issue resolved) and return (protagonist returns home).

After I had set up my imprint to publish my text books, I decided that I may as well publish the story (mostly for the fun of it and to try out the different style of typesetting required for illustrated children’s books). The story was greatly enhanced with the inclusion of the illustrations provided by my friend and Norfolk artist Magdalene Pritchett. (If you go to any of the South Norfolk art exhibitions, such as in Poringland, Kirstead or Hempnell, you will likely see her paintings. She’s also exhibited paintings at Eye in Suffolk.)

The story is about a little hedgehog who lives with his grandmother. He promises that he won’t go near the wasteland (the road) where the dragons (vehicles) live, but one day he’s tempted onto the road by a hungry crow. It can be used to introduce children to the concept of road safety and stranger-danger. Here’s an extract from the start of the story:

There once was a little hedgehog who lived with his grandmother.

Every evening when the little hedgehog went out to play, his grandmother would always say:

“Don’t ever go onto the hard wasteland. There are dragons there. Great giant creatures, with eyes shining brighter than the moon. Their roar is deafening, and their breath is poisonous. They have no claws, but their round feet will trample you.”

Every evening the hedgehog promised his grandmother he wouldn’t go near the wasteland.

But one day, as he played with some fallen leaves, he heard the roaring of the dragons. He wanted to see if they really were as big as his grandmother said.

“I’ll just have a peek, that’s all,” he thought. “I won’t step on the wasteland.”