It’s getting closer

Only two weeks to go to the publication of A Shadowed Livery and I’m excited to think it will soon be out there.

It’s an odd SL Front onlyfeeling when something you’ve worked on for so long eventually grows wings and flies the nest. There’s nothing else can be done with it, the darling either flies or it doesn’t. I keep thinking of parts I could have phrased better, twists in the plot which might have improved the story, traits of my main characters I could have emphasised, but none of these are now possible because it’s in print and ready to go.

Do other authors have this problem?

It’s not worth voting?

Britain is in the grip of a general election and many people are still trying to decide which way to vote. However, a large section of the potential electorate probably won’t vote at all, probably due to disaffection with the process – and the resulting representation they receive. A friend of mine re-posted a piece today calling upon women, in particular, to remember how hard their enfranchisement was won.

This took me to recall a piece of writing I’d been thinking about for a while. It was to be a fictional eye-witness account of the day when the Peterloo massacre took place. For those who don’t know about this, it took place in August 1819 when 80,000 people demonstrated on the streets of Manchester (England) asking for two things: the vote and the introduction of import controls to protect cotton workers’ jobs. The authorities unleashed cavalry on the peaceful protest and 18 people were killed with around 700 seriously injured.

My interest in this event came about many years ago when I attended school events at the Manchester Free Trade Hall which, at the time, I understood to stand on the site of the massacre. What I didn’t know then was the hall had been built to celebrate the defeat of the protesters and the maintenance of free trade.

So today I re-started my research, only to come upon an actual eye-witness account of the event at Having read it, I decided I couldn’t write it any better.

Anyone considering not voting in this, or any other election, should read it and think long an hard before giving up something so precious.

Social media – Good? Bad?

We’ve had an explosion of social media opportunities over recent years and as someone who pre-dates these digital connections I watch with a wary eye. I’m not a Luddite, I use the technology every day and I have done for over thirty years, so I don’t think it’s the fear of change which bothers me.

The ability to maintain connections with friends and friends of friends is, without doubt, useful. The fact that I can email or run a blog is fantastic but there are some downsides.

Sometimes, I have to admit, the common abandonment of spelling and grammatical structure causes me concern but I acknowledge that’s perhaps me being a little long in the tooth and still remembering being slapped by teachers when getting it wrong.

The biggest negative, for me, however, is the inability to express an opinion without facing the possibility of catastrophic negative responses. What people used to restrict to shouting at the TV or the newspaper is now fired off in response to a Facebook, or similar, post with, seemingly, as much venom as can be mustered.

Yesterday, a Facebook ‘friend’ posted an item with which I didn’t agree. I was about to respond then spotted the article had over 10,000 ‘likes’ and 4,768 comments so I didn’t bother. Why? Two reasons: firstly, because it seemed a waste of time adding my thoughts to this morass of opinion, anything I might have said had already been addressed 2000 times; secondly, because what had developed was a shit-storm of abuse. No rules of engagement, no manners, no structure, no mediation and, definitely, no conclusion. Something I didn’t want to get involved in.

Shame really. I understand we’ve always had the ‘Angry of Walthamstow’ banging off letters to the papers but this is just so immediate and so widespread. Differences of opinion are inevitable and are crucial in ensuring a balanced society but when this translates into people being afraid to pop their head above the parapet perhaps we all suffer in the end.

A new reality show?

Having watched the final of the amateur painting reality show  ‘The Big Painting Challenge’ and being a fan of ‘The Great British Bake-off’, I wondered if it was time to have one on writing. Half an hour to compose a poem? 50 word flash fiction piece based on a trigger. A novel by the end of the series? A complete story in six words? Convinced it would be a winner, I started thinking of possible titles. How about ‘It’ll be all write on the night’ or ‘Do it like the prose’.

Any others out there?

Building an audience

So we’re all out here in blogworld trying to communicate, yet there seems to be a chasm between those sites with a stellar audience and those with just a few dedicated followers. I’d be interested to know how you get your stuff out there.

I’ve now read quite a number of on-line articles and they mostly say the same things. Either:

a) pay me lots of money and I’ll build your audience, and/or,

b) write good, interesting content.

But there must be more to it than that. How important is it to ‘follow’ other bloggers? Are there any tricks to setting WordPress tags? Does appearance of the page matter that much – I’d assume that’s more about keeping an audience than finding one in the first place? Are there bits of advice out there that I’ve missed?

A time to write

I haven’t posted anything for a week or so and I’d like to say it’s because I’ve had my head down redrafting my novel. But it isn’t. In fact, I don’t know where the time has gone. I was reading a post from an author a few days ago where she thought her idea of heaven would be to have a couple of days with no work, children, etc so she could write. Unfortunately I don’t think it works quite like that. Someone once said ‘genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration’ and I’d probably paraphrase that as ‘writing is 1% intention and 99% dedication’. We can find any number of distractions to avoid the perspiration: the internet, emails, keeping up to date with reading, family, friends, even writing posts but any serious writer needs to put those to one side for at least part of every day and get on with the task in hand.

I no longer work so should have all the time in the world to spend writing. I do now spend much more time than I did when I went out to an office every day, but have to admit that I don’t put in the hours that I could. Stephen King, in his excellent book ‘On Writing’ talks of writing 2000 words a day, every single day, until the first draft is finished. It would be easy to dismiss this as him being a full time author so he has the ‘luxury’ of writing  that much, but it’s more than that. He’s dedicated to his job, as well as enjoying it most of the time.

I’m not a big fan of Stephen King’s writing, but I do so wish I could emulate his commitment.

What’s in a name?

I was recently listening to an interview with a well-known crime fiction writer in which she was complimented on her character’s names. She said she knew the area her characters inhabited so the names came to her quite naturally. Her words confirmed for me that authenticity isn’t just about the historical facts or geographical description but also grows from the images we create of the people in their universe.

In writing A Shadowed Livery the setting for the deaths is fictitious but it is based on a real location in rural Warwickshire. Because the novel is set in 1938 and I knew the ages of the characters I was able to plunder the 1901 and 1911 censuses for the area to come up with names and surnames which fitted not only my vision of them but were also rooted in time and place. This possibly pampers to my obsessions with genealogy and research but I still think its an important consideration when naming our characters.

It is possible, of course, and sometimes desirable, to use an unusual name but we do need to be aware of its impact. We may, for example, love the name Scarlett, but if it doesn’t fit the time and place then any character we give the name probably must be one of the principals, slightly out of kilter with the rest of her world. There are, for example, only 1,600 men named Uriah in the 1851 England census, compared with almost 900,000 called James. There isn’t a single Uriah Heep, but what a character Dickens created there. It’s easy for us to now associate Uriah Heep with patronising sliminess or  Ebenezer Scrooge (again, none in the 1851 census) with meanness, but Dickens didn’t have our hindsight, only the brilliance to devise names which fit the character. How did he do it? I don’t know but I feel a PhD thesis coming on!

Back on track

A few posts ago I wrote of the impending disaster of arriving at my penultimate chapter with 40,000 words short on my target. Since then I’ve been back at the drawing board thinking, revisiting my plan and occasionally weeping. I also discovered that my chronology was all wrong, with weekends where there should be weekdays and vice-versa.

I decided I need to get a grip and go back to basics on my plotting, to try to look at the structure of the novel and identify where I’d fallen down in my word production target – I know that sounds a bit like Stalinist economics but it is a practical consideration, novels are an average length and that’s what I’m aiming for.

So I started by going through a printed draft with the easiest task, sorting out the chronology. By having to read every scene afresh to look for date/time stamps I spotted quite a few areas where I’d skated over issues or, perhaps more importantly, missed the opportunity to add depth and colour to the scene. These were, obviously, marked up on my paper copy.

Then I remembered reading about a program called Scrivener. I’ve tried a number of different packages to help with planning and haven’t found one that suits my particular style but thought I’d have a go with this one as it is, reportedly, the best on the market. There’s an excellent 30 day free trial, where the days are actually available, that is, they don’t all have to be used up within a month, if you can only work on Wednesdays then the trial will last 30 weeks. Although a little complicated initially, especially if you don’t bother reading the manual, it does seem an excellent tool with the ability to plot using an index card and corkboard system, add an outline and notes to each card, stamp each card/scene with a status e.g. ‘To do’, ‘Completed’, etc, and to then write the text of each scene with the cards in view.

It took me a few hours to transfer the material I’d already produced but I’m now about a third of the way through my new outline with very clear indications of where the work needs to be done. Getting it done is quite another matter but at least I now feel confident I’m back on track.

I did worry it was just another diversion but then agreed with myself that if I hadn’t done something my project would be dead in the water. Instead of wasting a day or two trying something new I’d have wasted the year it’s taken me to get this far.

Researching for a novel

I’ve just signed up for a session at Stratford Literary Festival, intriguingly entitled ‘The Gory Details: Researching for Crime Writing‘. I’ll be doing a reading and signing there of A Shadowed Livery the previous day so thought it would be good fun to look in on this one.

Writing any kind of novel probably requires some level of research but historical crime fiction definitely does, especially where the piece is set just beyond the memory of the writer. I’ve blogged earlier about issues relating to the apparatus of detection, where CCTV, DNA and mobile phone records don’t feature in the toolbox, but there are wider problems of being historically accurate. For example, would a cottage on the edge of a small town have electric lighting in 1939; what was the name of our hero’s local newspaper; and, one that I was asked recently, did people in England know about the plight of Jews in Nazi Germany before the Second World War? There are, of course, also all the usual bits of detail associated with murdering our fictional victims which need to be accurate.

I shudder when I think how difficult this would be without the internet. Even if an author was lucky enough to live near a comprehensive library, with good sections on contemporary history, police procedures and forensics, how many hours would they need to spend trawling through books and articles to find the nugget they needed?

Thankfully, there are masses of resources now out there on the ‘net and two good sites pointing to them are Research Resources for Mystery and Crime Writers (which is mainly US) and Research Method for Crime Fiction Writing. I also use family history sites, like Findmypast and Ancestry to provide character names for the appropriate period and location and for newspaper research.

Roadworks ahead

Several months ago I was extremely proud of myself. I’d finished my plan for another crime novel, with every strand of the story worked out and every scene, plot point and character woven into a whole.  True, as the actual writing developed, things moved about, small holes appeared in the fabric, but nothing too serious. I was happy with the way it was going. Then, a few weeks ago, I became uneasy. Something wasn’t right. Like a truck careering through the ‘bridge closed ahead’ sign, I was running out of road and couldn’t do anything about it.

I’m now a hundred metres from that bridge and disaster looms. I’ve three scenes to write and I’m 40,000 words short of my target size. What seems to have happened is that I’d (foolishly in hindsight) imagined all the scenes I’d planned would be the roughly same length, at around 800-1000 words each. In fact, they’re not. Some are longer, much longer but others are so short they take up the slack in the average and more besides. For example, my item ‘X tells Y that the hammer is his’, only stretches to a sentence or two and has become incorporated into a longer scene.

Solution? Abandon the truck now and save myself? Or, like the plucky hero of a Saturday matinee movie, keep driving and hope something unexpected will happen?

I know what I’m going to do, but I’m not telling – it would spoil the cliffhanger. What would you do?