Going off on one …

There’s always a tension in writing between enjoying the process and hitting a deadline, even if that deadline is self-imposed. I’ve written before in this blog that I’m a planner; I like to have the skeleton of the story and an outline of characters in place before I put metaphorical pen to paper.

In my latest project I’m writing a family saga covering over a hundred years, based on family history research I’ve carried out since the 1990s. The principal characters are based on several generations of family members and what I know about their lives. Their stories gave me the structure for my story.

So, as is my wont, I planned the novel from start to finish and sketched characters using the masses of material I had to hand. I then found it a wrench to depart from the facts to create a narrative which hung together. Every time I didn’t have the necessary information it gave me grief – I had to keep telling myself ‘it’s a novel, it’s a novel, make it up!’. I’ve written two earlier novels and lots of short stories which were, more or less, complete figments of my imagination so it shouldn’t have been a problem, but it was. I’d become constrained by the truth. Day by day I started to make little excursions into fantasy, only small steps at first – the colour of hair, the description of a cottage – and I enjoyed it. Before long I was inventing new characters, battles, journeys and, best of all, conversations.

Then a new problem arose. I’ve been enjoying the trips so much that I keep on inventing more and more. I keep, as my wife describes it, ‘going off on one’, travelling paths which are not on my map, creating lives which never existed, just because they’re interesting to explore.

Is this what writing is all about, inventing and exploring the worlds of the mind? I’m beginning to believe it is.

Did you kiss the dead body? – Situation development

I recently came upon a poem Death by Harold Pinter which apart from being brilliant in its own own right is also, in my opinion, an excellent framework for developing plot. Just the sort of questions we should be asking about any character or situation in our writing, not just the dead body of Pinter’s work. For example:

Who was the dead body?

Who was the father or daughter or brother
Or uncle or sister or mother or son
Of the dead and abandoned body?

Check it out – I’d like to quote the whole poem here but it appears to be covered, quite rightly, by copyright but you can see it at http://www.haroldpinter.org/poetry/poetry_inart.shtml

I love the line ‘Was the dead body naked or dressed for a journey’.

So much talent

Last weekend I had the enjoyable experience of attending a number of sessions at the Allingham Festival, a now-annual event in Ballyshannon, County Donegal, honouring William Allingham. On Saturday, a literary lunch, with poetry for dessert, was followed by a discussion between local writers and the Irish Writers Centre.

We then moved on to the keynote session with Anne Enright in discussion with RTE’s Sinéad Gleeson, providing useful insights into the life and writing processes of Ireland’s Laureate for Fiction. Flash fiction and poetry awards, and the launch of Monica Courish’s new collection A Dying Language, rounded off my time – others, more robust than I, continued with a concert and late right revels in various bars.

On Sunday, Ann and I read extracts of Wild Atlantic Words at a staggeringly good event in The Thatch Bar. allingham1

A beautiful setting and around 20 people giving readings, recitations, poems and songs.

I’ll certainly be going again, hopefully for the whole weekend next time.

Elementary my dear Watson

I’ve recently returned from a long holiday in France and whilst I did do some writing (honest) a lot of my time was spent reading. I’d loaded my Kindle with a mix of material but I set myself a goal in the first few days of getting through an anthology of the complete collection of Sherlock Holmes stories. There are four novels and five collections of short stories.

In one respect I failed, I only read three of the novels and all of the short stories. I chose to miss out on The Hound of thsherlock-holmese Baskervilles, partly due to me having read it before (but then I’ve read them all before) though primarily because it’s been done to death on TV and film and also I didn’t enjoy reading it the last time.

The plots of all of them are absolutely bonkers but they’re largely very well written. The crux of the story is almost always revealed within the first couple of pages then Holmes darts here and there gathering clues until the culprit is revealed. With alarming frequency what happens to the perpetrator depends largely on their social class. Genteel, or just plain rich, murderers always seem to have had a good reason to have done away with their wife/husband/business partner so Holmes lets them go or speaks on their behalf at trial. Woe betide anyone from the lower classes, however, as they’ll find themselves shot or at the end of the hangman’s noose.

A device used quite a lot by Conan Doyle is to have the perpetrator, once they’re caught, tell the background story of why they committed the crime, it seems quite a clever way of revealing this without Holmes having to appear even smarter. Unfortunately, if you’re wading through every story it can become a little wearing.

Conan Doyle wrote many of the stories for publication in periodicals and I was fascinated to see two of them share the first few pages word for word. I was also interested to note that the title of Mark Haddon’s highly successful mystery novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time was taken from one of the Holmes short stories Silver Blaze.

The stories are of their time, as is the language (I lost count of how many times Watson ‘ejaculated’), but I think any aspiring crime/mystery writer should at least take a look at them to consider structure and how to move a plot along.

For my part, I loved them, though I’m not likely to try to read them all again on one holiday!

Why can’t they get it right?

As an author of crime fiction I strive for accuracy and continuity. Now, I may not always get it right but at least I try. As a result, both a blessing and a curse, I notice flaws in other people’s work, particularly on TV. Sometimes it’s just the easy ones, the result of editing or costume changes but at others it’s just plain poor.
I’m currently watching Homeland and ended up screaming at the screen last night for two awful errors. The first was the dialogue between the various terrorists switching between English, German and Arabic with no rhyme nor reason to it. The one language they’d have in common, I imagine, would be Arabic – notice I say ‘imagine’. I hope I’d have researched it and explained the differences if there were any. The second was more subtle, though a double blunder. Someone is called into a room with ‘you’d best watch this on TV’, then a news item starts (so how did they know it was going to be on?). On the item an American is being interviewed by a German TV journalist in English. The programme is on German TV but no subtitles.
I know we have to suspend disbelief but come on, give us half a chance.

The joy (?) of being an author

I’ve had my head down for weeks, so apart from five hours a day wasting time on my newly discovered Twitter (@charliegarratt3), I’ve been redrafting the novel, working title: Let Venom Breed. Back at the end of June I was in the mire, still 20k words short of target and lost down narrative arc alley. I’ve added about 16k words since then and am close to finishing the first draft. Five months ago I’d only reached 40k words and only had my last few scenes to write. Consequently, my first full draft will actually incorporate a substantial redraft – if that makes sense.

I’m in a good place mentally with my writing and I’d say, without receiving sponsorship, or anything, I don’t think I’d have arrived at this point without Scrivener. I referred to it in an earlier post where I’d just started using a trial version of the program and was still unsure. I used the trial and was so happy with it I bought the full version. I also plugged in to a free online workshop from Learn Scrivener Fast which gave me a few more helpful tips (although they have chased me a bit to buy other products – but I guess they’re in business so it’s fair enough). It’s an incredibly versatile piece of software and I’ve found the payback to be well worth the time I had to put in to learn how to use it.

So, enough of the free advertising for them. Not really meant to be an ad, simply a bit of writerly advice to have a look at it. If it helps, why not?

Biggest problem with spending so much time writing is that there’s not much left for marketing of the previous novel, A Shadowed Livery. Anyone want that job?

May I help you sir?

Today was not good. It started well enough with a sunny morning and the opportunity to get on with some gardening, but the main task of the day was to drop off some copies of my novel, A Shadowed Livery, at a bookshop who’d initially offered to take some. The reason I’m delivering them myself is that it appears to be impossible to get onto the bookshelves through a distributor unless you are a big name or are part of the stable of a major publisher. I’m neither and although I’m immensely grateful to my publisher, we’re both aware that marketing budgets are limited.

The bookshop in this case reluctantly took a small number, saying ‘we don’t normally take fiction unless it’s a known author’. Chicken and egg, I’d say – how does an author become known unless their books are on the shelves?

I left, muttering, I bet Stephen King hasn’t been in begging you to stock his latest novel!

I then went for a well earned sandwich and cuppa, only to be asked by the young woman behind the cafe counter if I was alright to take the tray myself or should she carry it to the table for me. Do I really look that old?

At least when I arrived home my wife was able to tell me she’d received a notice from Amazon promoting my book.

Musings

This week I visited The Four Masters bookshop in Donegal Town to ask if SP_A0085they’d  take some of books. To my surprise, and unbounded joy, they already had them on the shelf. I was so impressed I’ve put a photo as my new header image.

I’m plodding through my redraft of my current novel, though it is something to be undertaken in small bites. This morning, due to associated research to check what was in the news in March 1939, it took me around two hours to get to 300 words. I feel that accuracy is important but sometimes it takes so long to find material which will only provide half a line in the manuscript. Still, it is easier than trawling through a physical library. Actually, it was an interesting time historically, Germany invaded Czechoslovakia, finally bringing Europe to the brink of war and the siege of Madrid was almost at an end, cementing Franco as head of Spain and bringing the Spanish Civil War to a close.

Also, as an avoidance technique, I’m checking my Amazon ratings from time to time. Aren’t they strange? I had a very nice review on the Crime Fiction Lover website a few days ago and it must have resulted in some sales, I imagine only 2 or 3 , but I shot several hundred thousand places up the ratings on Amazon.

Suspension of disbelief

Last night I attended a play. I wouldn’t go to the theatre that often, partly because we don’t have one nearby but I enjoyed this one immensely. My English Tongue, My Irish Heart is about emigration and its effect on personal identity, the subject of my wife’s memoir The Road Taken.

What I found fascinating about the experience was that the play was ‘in the round’, had no sets, no discernible scene changes, no costumes, and the five actors played all of the parts (spanning 1600 years) yet I shared every emotion all the way through. What I’m trying to say, I think, is that everything told me that what I was seeing wasn’t real but I was still almost in tears at the end of the first half and pleased with all their small triumphs. And it wasn’t that I share their story, I’m not Irish and although I’m an emigrant I don’t think it’s in the same way as the characters in the play.

How was this suspension of disbelief achieved? I wish I knew. Certainly the acting was very good but it was more than that. I watch TV and film drama all the time with great actors and some of it affects me emotionally and a lot doesn’t. I can only imagine it was the stripped down nature of the work which made me listen to the words – what was said and how it was conveyed. No distractions.

There’s a lesson here somewhere for my own writing. I don’t fully understand it yet, but I’ll keep thinking and, hopefully, improvement will come.

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 http://www.peterloomassacre.org/eyewitness.html. 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.