Friday, 26 November 2010

Round Robin: Floundering, with (probably misplaced) Faith

To review, my assignment from the estimable Doug Worgul:

So, David. My first question has less to do with the process of writing a story and more to do with creating a story. Your novel, Shock and Awe is a suspense/action thriller based on real-life geo-political, military, and espionage scenarios. What stories, plots, characters has your fertile mind imagined based on some of the world’s current conflicts; Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea (maybe Chechnya, perhaps Venezuela)?

Next, which is more satisfying to write, the action sequences or the internal moral conflicts your characters struggle with?

Finally, who would you cast in the major motion picture version of Shock and Awe?

Thanks, Doug. Interesting questions—and the first one is somewhat disturbing, because my approach to constructing a story is somewhat like tossing a bunch of lumber into the air and hoping it will magically assemble into a house as it falls. I can’t really think my way through a plot without writing it, so I generally have only the vaguest idea what happens next.

I should mention that I never set out to be a thriller writer. I just happened to write a book that falls into that bin. But I hardly ever read in the genre, and most of the ideas I have don’t fit the genre. (I’ve completed one full novel since Shock and Awe…and it’s an urban fantasy!)

I really need three elements to get a story running, and I have a hard time getting them all on the same table. I have to have characters that interest me; I have to have a theme or question that interests me; and I have to have a place where I can box them in to let things happen. (I get many of these elements all the time, but they seldom belong in the same story.) The setting and situation, such as the conflict-ridden regions you mention—is usually the last element that is decided.

I’m utterly bored by the idea of writing stories where the protagonist is someone assigned to protect our nation or the President or whatever/whoever from disaster. Where’s the underdog aspect of that? The underdogs in that scenario are invariably the bad guys. I have to have characters who are a little bent, or are trapped or deceived into something, or are unwilling to act (the latter being a recipe for a protagonist who is really a lot of trouble for the writer).

Your list of countries is worth thinking about. I couldn’t do anything with Afghanistan because I don’t know the place or people well enough. I can imagine a great story taking place there, if I knew Afghan tribal intrigue well enough, with someone—maybe an Afghani-American returning home for some reason?—being smuggled from place to place on sort of an underground quest, but I don’t have the knowledge to write it. Ditto Chechnya.

North Korea is a no-go, because I can’t imagine a story set there that wouldn’t be about the North Korean nuclear program and turn into a good guys/bad guys thing.

I have thought about Iran many times, because I understand Iran and Iranians reasonably well, and I think a great deal of fun could be had with the complexity of the situations of everyday life there but I’ve never had characters and a theme present themselves. Maybe someday.

Venezuela? Now you’re getting warmer. Much of Latin America is dissolving into chaos, and at least two of the novels I’m toying with are set at least partly in Latin America. Another moves from North Africa (also a bit chaotic) to the US.

Let’s talk theme/problem. One of the big ones for me recently has been the commercialization of US intelligence. About 80% of our black budget now goes to private companies; the NSA in particular contracts out all manner of work. The idea of intelligence, paramilitary capabilities, and profit motivation all gathering under one roof is spooky to me—and I foresee that in parts of the world, small multinationals will emerge to run lawless areas of failed states (in return for economic concessions, of course). I have a story along those lines that takes place in the Peruvian Amazon, at the potential flash point between Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, and Brazil. The protagonist is a failed, drug-addicted medical doctor who saw things in Kosovo that he can’t shake, and has essentially been drafted by the local representative of such a “security corporation.” The book has sprawled out of control, and I need to simplify it somehow. I have more than 200 pages, and the situation is just getting set up properly. It'd be a 700 page novel if I let it play out.

Another theme? Well, torture and compulsion is always something to gnaw on. And, despite what the experts say, torture works. Oh it doesn’t usually work well on the individual being tortured. But torturing or harming their loved ones works wonders (that's how the Soviets approached it). So I have a story about an American who is tortured by the CIA by mistake. When they realize they have grabbed the wrong fellow, he is then sent out of Europe on a rendition flight to North Africa, where it is assumed he will die at the hands of interrogators (who have been assured that he was involved in a number of bombings in Morocco). He survives, though not exactly unscathed, and comes back to the US, intent on revenge. Then, like so many victims, has to face the question of what is fair in the matter of retribution. How many pages? About 130.

Last but not least, I have a partly finished novel about a fairly smart, irreverent young guy who in the course of data theft (his livelihood) stumbles across something he shouldn’t see. This one starts in California but detours down into Mexico. The theme or issue in this one is genocide—but not the nasty, old-fashioned Hitlerian type, or even the easy-going machete-wielding African tribal type; no, this is 21st-Century genocide, fast, clean, neat. Almost undetectable. Again, more than 100 pages. This one is easier to work on because I can see where it is headed, but I’m having a lot of trouble managing the tone, because the character is a little flip and the subject matter is pretty dark.

Am I stuck? You betcha. In every case, what I’m writing needs simplification, boundaries, limits: a crucible, a box, a lifeboat, some simplifying factor that corrals everyone and contains the sprawl.


Second question: Are action scenes or moral dilemmas more satisfying to write? That’s easy—moral dilemmas. Since I tend to write such scenes from a close POV, it is a fine opportunity to inhabit someone else’s head, and it has that charge that some people get from acting.

I actually think that scenes of sex or violence are more challenging to write, because you have the problems of keeping it fresh, keeping it believable, and not getting tied into knots with all the Tab A-Slot B nonsense that such scenes require. But they are craftsmanship issues, and therefore not as satisfying to me as something deeper. Of course, when you’re lucky you can get both action and moral dilemma rolling in the same scene, and that’s the best of both worlds.

Third: Who would I cast in Shock and Awe as a major motion picture?

I have fairly clear pictures of my characters in my head, but I never fill them in with actors. (Do the rest of you?)

The male protagonist, Boyce Hammond, would be fairly easy—someone a little on the boyish side, but able to do angst if needed. Ewan McGregor* could do it (he does Americans just fine). So could a lot of other guys.

Carla Smukowski would be a problem. A-list (or even B-list) actresses don’t look like her. She’s a little brawny for a female. Hollywood would without a doubt cast Hilary Swank, and it would probably work. Carla doesn’t look a thing like Swank, but between Boys Don’t Cry and Million Dollar Baby I’m sure Ms Swank could pull it off. But that’s not what Carla looks like.

Thanks, Doug. That was fun. *(See comment trail for odd slip of the forebrain, adeptly caught and translated by Neil Ayres.)

And with that, on to prizewinning novelist (and my neighbor, at least in SoCal terms) Ryan David Jahn.

So, RDJ: Acts of Violence certainly is as noir as the books by your Californian predecessors (Chandler, Hammett, MacDonald, et al), but it employs a very different literary toolkit (and isn't a detective novel anyway). Did you always want to write crime novels, or were you drawn to other genres as well? Have you written or started novels in other genres? How do you think writers in other genres, or literary fiction, have influenced your approach?

(For extra credit, why do people read and write crime fiction in the first place?)

Second, you’re a screenwriter as well as a novelist, which shows in your attention to economy. But Acts of Violence is very internal, with character thoughts spilling directly onto the page and adding a third (and very literary rather than cinematic) dimension to the narrative. What would you care to share about the differences between the two forms—-and, in particular, which feels more rewarding and natural to you?

Monday, 22 November 2010

place and purpose

Wonderful insights into your thinking and writing, Ciara. Thank you.

Place has also been a primary theme in my writing, whether it’s fiction or journalism. A strong,  nuanced and well-integrated description of place within a narrative not only puts a story in geographic, cultural, political, social, and psychological context, it gives the story more texture, depth, and richness, than it would otherwise have, which provides the reader with a much more satisfying experience.

There are other things my fiction and journalism have in common. I read somewhere that there are writers who write sentences, some who write paragraphs, some who write chapters, and then those who write books. Myself, I’m a  sentence writer. ‘Doesn’t matter if I’m writing novels or journalism or even advertising copy, I find myself focusing much of my creative energies on crafting each sentence as an individual work unto itself. I also expend a lot of effort on crafting a strong lead sentence and compelling lead paragraph. I’ve never been known as a particularly tough editor, but my staff reporters and freelancers would probably all tell you that I’m pretty unforgiving when it comes to lame leads.

Having said that, writing a novel is for me a spiritual experience. Whereas journalism is not. Which goes to your question about my statement that writing Thin Blue Smoke fundamentally my understanding of myself.

Three years on, I continue to be surprised that Thin Blue Smoke even exists. I didn’t think I had a novel in me. But I did. In fact, I now think I may have three in me. Maybe four. (If I live that long. I’m a slow writer.) That’s the first way in which my understanding of myself has changed.

The process of writing the novel also was something catharsis for me. I didn’t know it at the time, but my journalism career was coming to an end and I was approaching a professional and personal crossroads. At both conscious and subconscious levels, I was dealing with some of life’s bigger issues — loss, love, squandered gifts and opportunities, purpose and direction, and whiskey. Not coincidently I suspect these are the main themes of the novel.

Finally, about six weeks or so from completing the book, I realized that a peace had quietly come over me and that I had come know that writing this novel (and perhaps others) was what God had (has) in mind for me, which is something I have struggled to know my entire life.

The second novel is progressing slowly. Painfully slow. But I like the basic story even better than the first. I expect it to take me another two years to finish. Juggling a full-time day job and full-time parenting sometimes means I may only write two or three sentences a day. But they’re usually really good sentences.

* * *

So, David. My first question has less to do with the process of writing a story and more to do with creating a story. Your novel, Shock and Awe is a suspense/action thriller based on real-life geo-political, military, and espionage scenarios. What stories, plots, characters has your fertile mind imagined based on some of the world’s current conflicts; Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea (maybe Chechnya, perhaps Venezuela)?

Next, which is more satisfying to write, the action sequences or the internal moral conflicts your characters struggle with?

Finally, who would you cast in the major motion picture version of Shock and Awe?    

Friday, 19 November 2010

Round Robin: Ciara Hegarty

Alis asked:

Ciara, The Road to the Sea is set in a very particular time and place. Is there something specifically Irish in its themes or do you think it could have been set anywhere? And how does landscape and the importance of place impact on the way you choose tell your story?


Hey Alis, thanks for your question. And apologies to all for not passing on my congrats to all the exciting things that have been happening with you MNWers - I’m not on this blog v much and I can see I’m missing out!

Those of you who know me will know that I am not very good at talking about my own work...I just find it difficult, or strange or something, discussing what I’ve written, and am intensely shy about it al! so my answer may be considerably shorter (and likely less well-expressed than the others!)

Re the Irishness of it - I think it, for me at least, it’s fairly pivotal to the book - in how it’s bound together, how the characters interact, the general feel of the setting and the traditions and so on. Of course, the nitty gritty of the story and the major themes could be set anywhere...but in setting it elsewhere it would become a totally different book. Maybe that’s the same for any story though? It’s a very interesting question now that I think about it. It would actually be an intriguing experiment for one author to take the same story and place it in different times/cultures/places to see the different outcomes. I expect those things - place, era etc would dictate, to perhaps a great extent, how it was written.

For example, there there are certain Irish elements that pervade throughout - not simply in the setting and the characters’ speech etc but in the history and traditions of generations before that dictate the ways things are for this family - expectations formed by Catholicism, the culture and ‘ways’ handed down that gave me the threads with which to weave the fabric of the community and the central family. Of course the era (the 1940s) dictated certain aspects too.

Many people have asked whether the theme of incest came from the awful stories that have come out over the years over there - and here - and thus it could be construed as a specifically Irish, or at least Catholic, issue. But it wasn’t at all, and I am a bit dismayed when people ask me this as it was not in my mind in the slightest...This is where the story could have been set anywhere - it happens everywhere, to all sorts of people in all sorts of situations...I was more concerned with portraying a different angle or instance of incest - while it is always wrong and disturbing, for my characters it was almost inevitable that it would happen, a natural thing, and maybe a necessary thing - although I am wary of using the word ‘consensual’. Exploring the characters’ emotions with regard to what happens and the effects on the wider family and community were equally important as the reasons for the act itself happening. I worry about talking about it to be honest, as I would hate to be seen to be undermining the very real issue of abuse...But my book is not a comment on this, it’s simply its own story in which incest happens...

Obviously the shame and ‘what to do with’ young, unmarried mothers has been well documented in novels and the cinema over the years. But again, although these responses are society/culture/era-bound, I’d like to think that this was more generic rather than specifically Irish. And in fact, I hope there is the sense that the family/community reaction in my book is not the ‘stereotypical’ response.

I suppose the most specific Irish issue that is touched upon regards the feeling of unease that some people felt about welcoming back young Irish men who had fought with the British in the war (a minority viewpoint in my book).

A sense of place is definitely an important element of the book, and important to me as a writer and as a person...and I think the same is clear in my second book. For me, the characters of a book are inextricably linked to their surroundings, to the world the author creates for them. Kathleen (the main character) is so connected to her landscape for various reasons - I hope the reader gets a sense of this and feels it would be rather tragic for her to have to leave. In my new book a sense of place is equally prevalent. It is viewed from two distinct viewpoints over the course of time and we see how important the landscape around them is, among other things, in terms of connecting these characters as the story evolves.


So, to Doug: How does the thought/writing process differ when writing features/articles etc compared to novel writing - does one ‘feel’ very different from the other? Also you said previously on the blog that writing Thin Blue Smoke ‘fundamentally altered’ your understanding of yourself. I expect many writers empathize with this - it would be great to get it going as a talking point...was it that book specifically that had this effect of you, or the process of writing itself?

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Latest Round Robin Interview: the joys of the Fourteenth Century

After the recent flurry of excitement from Brian, Len and Tim, we’re back to the round robin interviews today. Just to remind you what my brief is, here’s Faye’s introduction.

And now my questions for Alis Hawkins, author of Testament and a fellow historical scribbler. Alis' first novel Testament is a fast-paced timeslip tale, and she has recently completed the first draft of her latest book, The Black and the White. Now that I feel like Parky having delivered that introduction, I'd like to ask Alis whether TB&TW is also a timeslip piece or a straight historical (and if it's the latter, how different she finds the experience of writing about one time period as opposed to two in the same story); and in particular what she thinks are the challenges and attractions of writing about the more distant eras she favours (TB&TW is set in the 1300s)?

Thanks, Faye! I like the idea of being a ‘historical scribbler’ – it conjures up an image of somebody hunched over a sheet of parchment, stripped and trimmed wing-feather in hand, a pot of oak-gall ink in a horn at their side; an image totally at odds, I may say, with the rather technophilic truth of me sitting at my ergonomically-uplifted Macbook and tapping at my wireless keyboard.

Anyway, to the question. No, The Black and The White isn’t a timeslip novel, it’s set fair and square in the fourteenth century. In the middle of the Black Death, to be precise.

So, how different an experience is it to be writing about one time period as opposed to two in the same story?

In a nutshell, it’s very liberating. Not to have to think about batting resonances back and forth between the different time periods, not to have to step out of one carefully-constructed world into another, totally different world, not to have to break the two different narratives up into nicely self-contained episodes that also provide enough of a ‘but what next?’ is pleasant.

There’s also the release from the insistent little voice that has been making its voice heard for years now. The voice that tells me that I’m just better at the historical voice than I am the contemporary.

But in choosing to write ‘straight’ historical fiction there are pressures as well as liberations.

One of the reasons for confining myself to split-time fiction, prior to my current book, was the feeling that I had no right to be a ‘real’ historical novelist. I have no claim on history – my degree is in English and I although I’m fascinated by the medieval period everything I know has been gleaned piecemeal. I felt that it would be a massive act of presumption to write a historical novel; I worried that it would imply that I felt qualified in some way to do so. It’ all very well having a historical strand in your novel (even if it amounts to half the book) but if you’re clever, you can make the history a necessary preoccupation of one of the solidly contemporary characters and sneak it in that way. ‘What can I do’ you’re implicitly asking the reader ‘my characters are just fascinated by all this stuff.’

If you’re not a ‘real’ historical novelist and you get details wrong, you can hide behind the fact that you’re actually just a contemporary novelist whose plot demanded a foray into the fourteenth century. Once you’re writing straight historical fiction, you’re into a whole different ball game. I now feel a far greater pressure to get things right. I know how cross I get when historical novelists get things wrong, particularly about my beloved fourteenth century. For instance, in a well-regarded and best selling recent book set in the fourteenth century, the author had a reference to the manner of Edward II’s rather painful alleged death several years before he actually died.

I realised I was going to have to be a lot better versed in fourteenth century life than I had been for the writing of Testament. Not that I was slipshod in my research for that book. Not at all, I just confined myself to what I needed to know for those very specific bits of life the narrative demanded. As long as I knew about those bits in great detail, I felt I could ignore, for example, the political situation, or what other classes of person were wearing.

With the prospect of 100-150 000 words of undiluted fourteenth century life to write in The Black and The White, a novel that details two rather traumatic months of my central character’s life and touches on everything from sleeping and eating to the layout of towns and the differences between the fourteenth century landscape and our own, I felt the need to know a lot more. So I researched subjects from underwear to fairies, from what kind of knife would have hung from a man’s belt to what the weather in the summer of 1349 was like, from what coins were in circulation during that year and how men wrestled (a near-murder is committed during a wrestling bout). I consulted a website that claims to be able to tell you the phases of the moon in long-gone centuries. And another that told me the precise date of Easter that year. I not only read everything I could get my hands on about charcoal burning, I became a charcoal burner and have now graduated to hearth-watcher at the twice-yearly earth burn at the Dean Heritage Centre in the Forest of Dean. Historical fiction can take over your life.

I also learned more than I ever hope to need to know in real life about how long it takes to suffocate somebody to death, when rigor mortis sets in and when it wears off, as well as burial customs of the fourteenth century. (There are several deaths in The Black and The White and, despite appearances, there is a suspicion that not all of them are due to the plague. Which is kind of the point of the book, really.)

As with any historical fiction, the vast majority of what I learned didn’t make it as far as the page, but I hope it has stopped me making the kind of errors that annoy me in other people’s writing. (Twelfth century people sitting on bales of hay annoyed me in an otherwise excellent and enjoyable book the other day…) It won’t have stopped me, of course, because nobody can know everything and I shall, no doubt, make my share of the bale-type error. But the intention and commitment is to be as error free as possible.

However, the necessity for research is as much a pleasure as it is a pressure. I’m fascinated by the medieval period in general but there’s something about the fourteenth century that, I think, links it to our own time. There was such a feeling of change in the air, such a feeling of impending global doom as pestilence followed famine and war; there was even, towards the end of the century, a considerable amount of popular discontent with the way England was being governed and her involvement in foreign wars.

As far as the actual writing is concerned, that’s been more pleasurable than the split time narrative, too. Unlike my work on previous books, I haven’t had to work out how the characters in the contemporary strand of my story could possibly come to know what happened in the historical strand. (I was rather pleased with the way this happens in Testament, but the discovery of a medieval wall painting is not a trick you can pull off again and again…) All I have to do is work out how best to tell the reader my characters’ story.

Writing split time novels – for me at least – there was always a sense that the whole thing was as much about how we view history as it was about the story I was telling. On the whole, I think that worked in Testament. For various reasons (some of which are alluded to here) it didn’t work in the novel that followed it. But writing straightforward historical narrative does not immunise you against the fascinations of looking at history from another viewpoint, in fact there’s an extent to which, in The Black and The White, there is a slightly knowing game going on between me and my readers as they come to the narrative with a post-Christian, post-Freudian, post-Enlightenment eye and can form very different ideas of what’s going on beneath the surface narrative than either of the two main protagonists could possibly do.

To answer the second part of Faye’s question, I suppose it’s this business of world views and how ours, now, is so different from theirs, then, that drives my fascination with the fourteenth century.

Once, when I was talking about Testament at a book group, I was asked whether a fourteenth century person would really have believed a particular thing. Surely, the questioner said, there were those who did believe that sort of thing and those who didn’t, who took a more rational view? But, of course, she was asking the question with a modern mind, a mind that finds it very difficult to imagine not having access to a variety of ways in which the world might be viewed and its events interpreted. We, in the western world of the twenty first century (and the twentieth century was no different) have a highly sophisticated way of looking at and responding to events in our environment, whether it’s on the world stage – volcanoes and tsunamis, war and famine – or in our own psyche. As long as we’re mentally healthy and appropriately educated, we can choose rational, scientific, logical worldviews which are based entirely on empirical evidence, or we can choose a worldview based more on the mysterious forces which we feel are at work in our universe, whether they be God, fate, destiny or luck. Most people, if they’re honest, juggle the two.

In the medieval period there was no juggling. There was just the one worldview. God made everything. God controlled everything. God judged everybody. Heaven and Hell were as real as a city you’d heard of but had never been to. More real, since you were likely to have heard a lot more about them, particularly Hell.

So the answer to my questioner was, yes they did really believe that, because they lacked any framework that might have allowed them to believe something else. Theirs was a closed system. There was no explanation for anything – seen or unseen – that did not come back to God.

And that, for me, is one of the fascinations of writing medieval fiction. People in the fourteenth century were just as clever as us. They were often far more resourceful and personally capable than us. Within the confines of their worldview, they understood their world better than we do. As a consequence, they were probably more confident and at ease with themselves than we are. And yet, their view of the world was one that – even to people of faith – is alien to us today. Trying to emphasise both the similarities and the differences is a fascinating task.

And now my questions for Ciara Hegarty whose The Road to the Sea was published in February of this year. Described as ‘A paean to the lost landscapes and communities of Ireland, and a meditation on the responsibilities of parents’ it is a morally complex tale that makes you care about its characters.

Ciara, The Road to the Sea is set in a very particular time and place. Is there something specifically Irish in its themes or do you think it could have been set anywhere? And how does landscape and the importance of place impact on the way you choose tell your story?

Monday, 15 November 2010

Kindle Debut

First it was self-published.  Then it came out in German.  Now Dragonchaser is available on the Kindle.  At £1.71 (the US version retails for $2.71), what do you have to lose?

This is my first foray into the ebook market and it will be interesting to see how it goes.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Authors for Autistica

Along with a number of other authors (including Ken Follett, AL Kennedy, Louise Doughty and R J Ellory) I am taking part in a charity auction to aid research into autism. Over the next ten days or so, people can bid for our services, the resulting funds going to Autistica. Some of us are offering to name a character in our next book after the person submitting the highest bid; some of us are offering to critique the opening chapters of an unpublished manuscript. Since the book I am currently working on is set in the seventeenth century and only bidders named Praise God Barebones, Sir Roger de Clifford or similar could be squeezed into the text, I have opted to offer a critique. I am impressed by the reserve price Autistica have put on my critiquing (and I hope you are too) but it is after all for charity. I’ll try to give value for money to whoever bids for me! Anyone curious to know more can go to:

The auction runs until 21 November.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Congratulations, Brian!

Brian McGilloway's Bleed a River Deep has been included in Publishers Weekly's list of the 100 best books of 2010. It is one of only six crime novels published in the US to make the cut. Congratulations, Brian - a fantastic achievement!

For more details see:

Monday, 8 November 2010

Round robin: why I gravitated towards the Victorian era.

So, after a bit of re-jigging of the round robin order, it's my turn, and Tim has asked me what attracted me to the Victorian era in particular, and whether I can see myself writing in other eras at some point.

The attraction of the Victorian era for me is a many-splendoured thing, and I think it has a lot to do with the fact that so many of my areas of interest can be found there. Because they seem quaint and dated to us, it's easy for us to forget this, but the Victorian era was one of tremendous progress: technologically, intellectually and socially. I'm a bit of a nerd and I love my gadgets (even if I don't always understand exactly what they're doing), and in the 63 years and seven months Victoria was on the throne, they made huge strides towards the understanding of the world we currently have today. There was Darwin's Origin of Species, of course - a massive 'eureka!' moment - and our practices of medical hygiene and surgical sterilisation took their first steps under Victoria. Of course, one of the vital ingredients for an interesting plot is to have some sort of change and turmoil rocking the boat of your character's life, and so to place them in an era in which so much is changing is helpful in achieving that.

However, I have a hypothesis that as a society becomes more technically advanced, it's as if they sometimes become a little frightened of the speed at which they're moving, and so they subconsciously put the brakes on in other areas, often by becoming - outwardly, at least - more socially conservative. This certainly seemed to be the case in many respects as far as the Victorians went, if you compare them to the 18th and early 19th C preceding them, which seem to modern eyes to have been more permissive than the Victorians who came next.

It is important, though, not to take this apparent primness at face value, because (as I have discussed ad nauseam on my blog), underneath that voluminous white underwear, the Victorians were a friskier generation of people than they probably would have wanted you, or the people next door, to have known about; and they were better at making moves towards social change than they might have admitted, too. The working class suffragists of the northern mill towns began their campaigning for the right to vote for all adults, male and female (as opposed to the rather more notorious suffragettes, who only seemed to care about well-off women being able to vote alongside their well-off male counterparts - don't mention the name Pankhurst to me around the time of an election unless you want a lengthy diatribe); and from 1874 it was possible for a woman to train as a doctor (although they did have to attend a women-only institution - the London School of Medicine for Women - to do so; and no doubt they would have faced prejudice from patients and other doctors once qualified). Those of you who know me will know I'm a soft touch when it comes to animals, and while the Victorian attitude to our non-human relatives was by no means ideal, again, they were making progress: the RSPCA1 was a Victorian invention, as was the Vegetarian Society. Oh, and apparently something called the NSPCC2 came about later in the Victorian era, too. (Internet disclaimer: don't take my tone too seriously there, will you?)

Anyway, you get the idea - it was a very confused, conflicted, neurotic era, so that's probably why it and I clicked. There's something very intriguing about a society that invents the camera and then immediately sets about making the first photographic pornography and taking pictures of the bodies of their dead relatives to keep in the family album; and yet as I say, over time the Victorians have still become grossly misunderstood by the majority of people, and had their already-pretty-damn-peculiar quirks exaggerated to mythic proportions; and I have an affinity with the misunderstood and the misinterpreted too that probably informs my interest in the period. On a purely shallow level, I think the Victorian era was more aesthetically beautiful than any period before or since - I love the clothes and the decor (the Victorian attitude to the latter being about as far from minimalism as you could manage, and no bad thing); and being a bodiceripper, I don't think it's beyond my remit to comment on how much better the men put themselves together then. Perhaps I've spent too much time looking at history books, but I think Prince Albert was a bit of all right in his day; and the other day I caught myself ogling a portrait of Elgar on the cover of Classic FM magazine. When I rule the world, football club shirts, baseball caps, tracksuits and trainers will be banned.

Finally (as far as the first half of Tim's question goes), I'm reminded of a quote that - if I recall correctly - is attributed to Stephen King; who, when asked why he wrote the types of stories he does, replied "what makes you think I have a choice?". In many ways, I think it's the same for me and my era of choice - these are the characters who come to me, and I think my Muse wears a waistcoat and top hat and carries a cane. At least, I like to think so.

As for writing about other eras, actually I already have - the third novel I completed (which may see the light of day at some point, once focus has shifted from the WIP) starts at the very end of the Victorian era and segues into the Edwardian (I know, so adventurous, aren't I?). From there, I have ideas for one or possibly two more sequels to that book, which would take me further into the Edwardian era and perhaps (if I'm feeling brave) into WW1, which is probably as modern as I can see myself getting. As for going back in time from 1837 (when Vic took the throne)...well...I can't see it at this point, anyway; at least not as far as full-length novels go. I enjoy reading about a wide variety of times, but writing about them...not so sure.

For the non-Brits:
1 Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals
2 National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children


And now my questions for Alis Hawkins, author of Testament and a fellow historical scribbler. Alis' first novel Testament is a fast-paced timeslip tale, and she has recently completed the first draft of her latest book, The Black and the White. Now that I feel like Parky having delivered that introduction, I'd like to ask Alis whether TB&TW is also a timeslip piece or a straight historical (and if it's the latter, how different she finds the experience of writing about one time period as opposed to two in the same story); and in particular what she thinks are the challenges and attractions of writing about the more distant eras she favours (TB&TW is set in the 1300s)?

Friday, 5 November 2010

Brief Pause

Just a quick reminder of the Round Robin order, after a small tweakette:

Dee Swift
MFW Curran
Tim Stretton
Faye L Booth
Alis Hawkins
Ciara Hegarty
Doug Worgul
David Isaak
Ryan David Jahn
Eliza Graham
Frances Garrood
Brian McGilloway
LC Tyler
Suroopa Mukherjee
Aliya Whiteley

Still lots of interview goodness to stay tuned for!

Round Robin - World-building in Fantasy

And so to Tim Stretton, another writer who likes to go down paths unknown. Tim’s novel, The Dog of the North, is a fine example of world building – Mondia is a fully realised fantasy land of epic proportions, which was visited first in the novel, Dragonchaser. But I would like to ask Tim, which came first? The world or the plot? And why? And would he ever consider writing his books the other way around?

Finally, as it is something that effects us all and Tim has had some experience in this area, I would like to ask him whether self-publishing via e-books is something that has become not only more viable, but also more appealing?
--Matt Curran

The challenge faced by fantasy novelists in bringing their worlds to life is the same one which faces all writers of fiction, except in a more extreme form.  When we read Deborah Swift's The Lady's Slipper, the reader must be compelled and convinced by a world they can never have visited.  Even L.C. Tyler, whose novels are invariably set in present-day Sussex, where I live, is creating a fictional analogue rather than the real thing: "Sussex", rather than Sussex.  The writer works unobtrusively to lay down the ground rules for their world regardless of genre.

The fantasy novelist goes only one step further, in creating a world about which the reader knows nothing.  (At least at the outset; by the end of some fantasy series, the created world can be stiflingly familiar, particularly if it recycles the tired epic fantasy tropes).  The wise fantasist will make familiarisation as easy as possible for the reader.  It is sensible to ground a fantasy world in some aspects of the one we know, however much you subsequently departs from it.  (The Lord of the Rings can be read at least in part as a lament for a pre-World War I England).  My Mondia novels draw heavily on Renaissance Italy, with its glittering surfaces and treacherous depths.  I hope this gives the stories greater richness, because readers are unconsciously bringing their own perceptions of the period, and so doing some of the heavy lifting for me.  This approach also acquits me of the need for tedious exposition, which slows the story, and allows the reader to make a greater emotional and imaginative commitment to the story.

Plot, for me, is rather less important.  There are only five--or seven, or twenty--plots; the exact number is unimportant.  The key is that there are so only so many ways you can configure character interaction, and those ways are susceptible to codification and analysis.  Whatever the shape of your plot, someone has been there before.  I hope that the ending of The Dog of the North surprises, satisfies and moves the reader, but my aim in getting there was not to make a shape which had never been seen on the page.

The third leg of the stool, which Matt does not mention, is character.  Plot and world together, in whichever order they are conceived, make a sterile brew.  It is character which draws us in, character which keeps us turning the pages.  Some writers give us plot without meaningful characters--Agatha Christie springs to mind--and create fiction analagous to an intellectual puzzle.  (This is an observation rather than a denigration; no value-judgement is implied).  The idea for most of my fiction begins with character.  Without characters to keep me interested, the world is flat and static, the plot a limp succession of events.  The projects with which I struggle are the ones where the characters resolutely refuse to come to life.

The Dog of the North is my only commercially published novel (and this was self-published before being picked up by Macmillan New Writing).  My two previous novels, Dragonchaser and The Zael Inheritance, exist solely as self-published titles.  Self-publication met most of my objectives as a writer, the one missing thing being breadth of audience (unfortunately the one which allows the writer to make a living).  Print-on-demand  technology, for instance with Lulu, brings self-publishing into the grasp of most writers, but the cover prices remain significantly higher than commercially published books, even where the writer is prepared to take a negligible royalty.  The rise of the ebook counters even this problem; it is possible to publish an ebook for the Kindle, iPad or Sony reader which retails for next to nothing.  As these reading platforms grow--and the Kindle looks to be here to stay--this is a market which will become increasingly important for self-published writers.  I still don't see it being especially lucrative, but if your aim as a writer is to put your fiction in front of the widest possible audience, and build a reputation by word of mouth, ebook publication is something you should take very seriously.

* * *

Next on our round robin is Faye Booth, whose novels Cover the Mirrors and Trades of the Flesh have a fresh and compelling take on Victorian England.  Faye, what is it that attracts you to that period, and as your career develops can you see yourself writing in other settings?

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Radio 4 Story

I hope you don't mind my interrupting the round robin for a short post just to say that BBC Radio 4 are airing a new Devlin short story tomorrow afternoon at 3.30pm as part of the Red Herrings series. The story, In Pursuit of the Uneatable, is read by Eugene O'Hare and will be available to listen on iplayer here for seven days after broadcast.

The other two stories in the series, which starts today, are by Lynda La Plante and Andrew Taylor and are well worth catching if you get a chance.