Jason Joins A for Authors

It is with great pleasure that I can announce that I have signed up with London Agency A for Authors. I am looking forward to working with Annette Crossland and Bill Goodall on a new mystery series. 2018 is going to be an exciting year.

With Annette Crossland and fellow A for Authors writer Leigh Russell
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Small Island, Big Discoveries

Following up from the earlier post ‘Bring up the Bodies’, the island of Alderney continues to throw up exciting finds. We had only two short days this summer to rescue as much as we could from an electric trench that ran for some 300m along the edge of Longis Common. The trench was barely 1m wide and up to 1.2m deep so was truly a section through Alderney’s early history. To complicate matters further it was cut entirely through wind-blown sand, which does not tolerate a straight section for more than a few hours. Indeed by the time we returned for our second foray a week after the first, there had been significant slumping of the sections into the trench. In some cases this revealed new finds, but in other cases it dumped archaeology in a heap. I am still not sure whether the features we called C, D and E were three burial cists cut perpendicularly or just one burial which happened to follow the line of the trench.

Some 35 tonnes of spoil had been machine-excavated. Members of the Alderney Society had retrieved over 50kg of archaeological finds from this by the end of the summer, plus a great heap of slabs which once belonged to burial cists.

We have now had two carbon-14 dates obtained from the burial ground. The cremation I dug out literally using my hands had been in a later  Iron Age pot, but its C-14 date range was 198-47 BC, so most probably second century BC. The first skull found on the site has been confirmed to belong to the otherwise headless ‘skeleton 3’. It worried us at first that this was at right angles to the other burials and appeared to have been in a coffin rather than a stone cist. However the C-14 date again pointed to the late Iron Age; 174-19 BC. So the burial was probably later than the cremation and could indeed have taken place in that transition period when the Romans were asserting their control of the region after 56  BC. This is the period in which I initially placed the fine ‘Belgic’ pedestal urn we extracted from a collapsing cist further uphill from the skeleton.

More fun has followed. A keen-eyed local chap brought in a clutch of three bracelets, two of which were made of shale (imagine grinding a bracelet out of shiny black shale!). The third was of copper bronze and in a fragile condition. It was taken to Jersey Heritage’s conservator, who initially thought it might have been silvered.

 

As he cleaned off the corrosion products he noticed a criss-cross lattice on the inside of the bracelet. Moreover, this seemed to contain metal threads. The provisional conclusion is that this is an impression of a fine material the deceased was wearing, or at least was wrapped around the bracelet. Textile preservation is rare in archaeology, but a fine material containing metal threads would be a pretty unique find for Iron Age Britain.

So we now know there was an extensive late Iron Age graveyard at the south end of the Common. Half a dozen graves were already known and this summer’s rescue dig revealed a dozen more. In addition there were traces of at least one building and suggestions of more, in a style suggestive of the Romans. The 50kg of finds have now been washed and includes Roman pottery. Overlooked by the Iron Age settlement of Les Hougettes, and running down towards the late Roman fort at the Nunnery, the electric trench suggests there is over 200m of archaeology in a west/east direction and we suspect this extends at least 100m to north and south.

‘Time Team’ once approached me for suggestions on potential sites for a programme on the Channel Islands and I said “go to Alderney” as the archaeology was fantastic and barely messed about by modern intrusion (they went to Jersey). The little island barely 3 miles long keeps turning up treasures. The sand of Longis Common appears to overlie an entire Iron Age and Roman landscape. We will certainly be returning in the summer of 2018.

 

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How I Stopped Being Too English

Whilst selling my books at a Winter Fayre this weekend I tweeted “I sometimes feel I’m too English for this”. I’m no shrinking violet, but when I first came into writing I felt uncomfortable pumping up my own books (and hence, myself). I didn’t have the ego to say “my books are great, buy ‘em”, and keep saying it. Of course, that is what we now have to do as writers. Some self-published authors I know claim to spend half their working hours simply promoting their books, via Facebook, Twitter, forums, attending book fairs and answering fan queries.

I might protest that I’m a writer, not a marketeer, but today a writer must be both.

Again, I attend various functions with the great and the good and generally resist the temptation to have a selfie with that celebrity. A well-mannered little voice tells me that they’re here to have a good time and the last thing they want is this six-foot curly haired chap wanting a quick snap to post to Twitter. However it is likely that the celeb has a publicist who is telling them to “get onto as many people’s social media feeds as you can, dahling”. The actors, musicians and writers who appear on the talk shows are not there because they have nothing better to do; they have a product to sell.

Gradually I have come to realise that self-promotion is not an end in itself, but an essential part of the industry we are in. Yes dahlings, you might think that novel-writing is an art form but publishing is an industry. Enough Englishness remains for me to be wary of ‘shameless’ publicity-seeking, but as time allows I’m now tweeting and blogging with the best. As we reach the 100th anniversary of the events central to ‘Glint’, I’m running a Facebook campaign combining appropriate images with teaser extracts from the book. I have no idea ultimately how successful this will be, but I know exactly what the outcome of doing nothing will be.

Promoting one’s books may not be the mark of a gentleman, but it is the mark of the modern writer.

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Nazis – The Ultimate Villains?

We all hate Nazis, agreed? (If not, stop reading here). When I was a small boy, the ‘Germans’ were the baddies in our games, on TV shows and those stalwart WW2 films. Only when I began to study history properly did I understand the difference between the Germans as a people and Fascism as a creed. You could indeed have ‘Good Germans’, even in a WW2 context. In films such as Cross of Iron and Stalingrad, and the TV series ‘Das Boot’ and ‘Our Mothers, Our Fathers’ we see the war from the German side. We empathise with characters doomed to fight a losing war they no longer believe in, but we never empathise with the Nazis. Even when we are rooting for the German squad or submarine crew we see the shadow of the ‘hardened Nazi’, the Gestapo and the SS falling over the characters’ lives. The ‘Good Germans’ become victims too. There is plenty of room for ambiguity – are we really hoping that Oberst Steiner will kill Churchill in Jack Higgins The Eagle Has Landed?

A panel at the entertaining ‘Morecambe and Vice’ festival last weekend chaired by Guy Fraser-Sampson comprised Howard Linskey, Chris Petit and Luke McCallin. All have set novels in the context of Nazi Germany. The question was posed as how a detective story can be written against a background of escalating horror and atrocity that marked the Second World War. When millions are being systematically murdered, when people can be arrested, tortured and killed without recourse to legal process, who cares about a single body in the library or the theft of some countess’ emeralds? It is the job of the author to make us care.

The Nazis were intensely bureaucratic and whilst their leadership behaved like gangsters, pillaging Europe’s riches for their own enrichment, the lower tiers busied themselves with solving humdrum traffic offences, fraud, theft and ‘ordinary’ murder. The Germans had tiers of police and security services – not just civilian police, but also the Abwehr, Kripo,  Gestapo, the SD, Sipo and so on making ripe territory for intrigue and setting tripwires in the path of any investigation.

Contrary to popular belief the Germans did not have a well-oiled efficient war machine. Nazis of all levels were spurred on by personal ambition, jealousy and fear as much as doctrine. Hitler encouraged jockeying for position between his officers. Inter-service and inter-departmental rivalry was poisonous, and putting a foot wrong could ultimately be fatal. McCallin’s Abwehr officer Reinhardt has to negotiate this political minefield to solve the murder of a high-profile woman in occupied Sarajevo. He remains the ‘Good German’ whilst others around him participate in war crimes with enthusiasm or at least allow themselves to be dragged along by the tide of history. ‘Only following orders’ many tens of thousands adopted a ‘grey morality’ simply to survive.

‘Great’ historical personalities such as Caesar, Alexander and Napoleon committed brutal acts that today we would call war crimes but the distance of time has dimmed the shock. All the world’s major nations’ histories hold atrocities to be ashamed of and there are a fair few men such as Ghengis Khan with the blood of millions on their hands, yet the Nazis hold a special place as the villains par excellence. Perhaps it is because their atrocities were so recent, perhaps because they were more visible than those of Stalin, or closer to home than those of Pol Pot. My Channel Island home fell under their darkness, and the rest of Britain so nearly fell too. The ‘what if’ of Len Deighton’s SS-GB came close to being a reality. The Czechs faced this horror at the hands of Heydrich, the subject of Linskey’s Hunting the Hangman; he shows up the contradiction in many Nazis, as when home from being a ruthless liquidator of undesirables Heydrich apparently loved his family.

The Nazis have become the poster boys for evil chic; smart grey uniforms, skull badges, black leather coats, sinister swastikas and screaming eagles. Unnervingly this still lends them glamour, shown by the auction value of SS-daggers and the like. Their uniforms contrast with the dull greens and browns of the Allies, their ‘wonder weapons’ contested against utilitarian Allied machines. History porn TV documentaries and books endlessly probe into their mystique. Their influence extends routinely into Science Fiction, especially the barely disguised ‘First Order’ of Star Wars Episode VII with its Stormtroopers and gleefully ruthless commanders. ‘Neo Nazi’ groups still strut around, forgetting how decisively the fascist creed was crushed.

Nazis become the enemy of choice in movies as diverse as the Indiana Jones series, ‘Captain America’ comics, to The Blues Brothers. It is so easy to cast Nazis as the bad guys that we writers must not become lazy. Yes, we know they are bad, we get it. Yes, the iconography oozes evil. Now make us care about the characters opposing them, or oppressed by them, or forced to co-exist with them; we know how Nazism ultimately fell, but the characters don’t.

 

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Don’t Fear the Editor

 

So the draft NRT is back from beta-readers. The lovely things the trio said about the book were great, causing big beams of joy on my writerly face. The criticisms gave pause for thought. No, I’m not sharing – only the final version sees the light of day. What happens at beta-read stays at beta-read.

At first read-through an editorial critique of a draft can be daunting. Okay I take some comments with a pinch of salt, others can be easily adapted, but where there is a consensus saying essentially the same thing, those aspects need to be addressed. That means a lot more work on a story that already felt finished. I’ve asked a trio of people for opinions, and I have them. If there are faults, best address them now as literary agents and publishers take no prisoners.

A novel is like a cats’ cradle in that if you tweak one part, the rest trembles. More extensive structural editing is more akin to a game of Jenga; pull out the wrong block and the whole thing falls in a heap. Experimentally I deleted a whole scene, because I wanted to kill someone (not the editor, but the central character in the scene who would have been dead two days in the revised plot). Yep, that was the Jenga scene and whole chunks of plot blocks started to tumble down. Hastily I re-inserted it.

To get to Draft 5 has taken me 9 months and it feels heart-wrenching to start unpicking and rewriting. This is where the author takes over from a person who simply wants to write a book – some people I’ve met would have simply published Draft 5 as an e-book or KDP. It is not like starting again, though, and once I had that list of a dozen ‘must do’ edits morale soon spiked back up again.

The good news is that I have 85,000 words of pretty decent prose, a plot with beginning middle and end, a full set of characters and some near-perfect scenes that don’t need a jot of editing. Best of all, 85k is short of the 100k that a modern mystery should aim for. I have 15,000 words of headroom to develop that character, flesh out that subplot, and twist the middle a little more. The key danger to avoid is killing the cracking pace with 15,000 words of flab simply to tick the editors’ boxes. I was once asked simply to ‘make the book thicker so it looks better on a library shelf’­– that’s not the territory I’m in anymore.

So, draft 6 is underway. I’ve opened the bonnet, pulled out a few creaking parts and reached for the spares box. They say that the first page of your novel is never the first page when it finally comes to print, and with NRT that looks like being true. Rather than slipping into a gently escalating crisis, the lead character is now there on page 1, line 1 – and she’s in deep trouble.

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Rubber Duck Moment

Okay, I admit it. My work-in-progress contains a rubber duck moment. Codename NRT, the novel has a very short timeframe. There is no chance to get to know the characters before they are plunged into the mystery on page 1. Thumbnails must suffice until enough pages have been peppered with hints and clues from their mode of dress, their speech, the background information they let free with and straight prose description. I’ve avoided ‘plot bricks’ as far as I can; those clumsy speeches where someone says ‘But Sally, you are my sister!’

Key pieces of a character’s history should fall out in natural dialogue, challenge and argument.  We as readers are new acquaintances of these people, and within the story come the subtle enquiries new acquaintances make – are you married, do you have any children? If not asked directly people often go for the opening, ‘So you actually worked for NASA?’ This explains the character’s hint of a Transatlantic accent and allows a lead in to how she ended up in the USA and why she came back. We already know she’s scarily smart. Police procedurals are allowed to be more blunt: ‘Exactly what is your relationship to the deceased?’

 Drink is great. In their cups, people often spill their life story. Not always in a coherent fashion, not always honestly and rarely in chronological order but it tumbles out. ‘I was drinking this stuff when I met him in that night club.’

 A point came in NRT where there were still many unanswered questions about character A. She keeps her own council, we never meet her friends or her family or her workmates; all these are usual vehicles for allowing us to expand our understanding of the person underneath. We often see a character at work, we see the interaction with Mum/Sister/Boyfriend and they naturally ask about her day, or remind her of some upcoming appointment. Not so with A. So I needed a rubber duck moment to allow her to open up, drop enough facts about her past to allow us to piece together the last clues to her motivation.

 The classic scene has our grizzled hero explain that the reason he’s hard-bitten and avoids company is because his father threw away his rubber duck when he was six. He never trusted anyone else again, never wanted to be a father himself, never cared for family. Movies often use this vehicle, some well, some clumsily. Unlike novels, a thriller only has moments to create thumbnail characters. Female thriller heroes/villains/femmes fatales often need such a moment to explain why their behaviour is abberant – an abusive relationship, a lost child, an ugly assault, bloody men obstructing their path to the top. By their nature males can often get away with violent, obsessive or antisocial behaviour without needing deep psychological analysis of how they got there.

 So two of my characters come together in bar, tired, jaded at the end of their tether. J is chatty, needing company. She gets very little out of A beyond single-line responses, but is enough for us to finally understand A’s life choices.

‘Do you want to call your people?’

‘I don’t have any people.’

‘Mum?’

‘Died having my sister.’

‘So you’ve a sister?’

‘She died too. It was very Victorian.’

Mother, sister and next her father are dealt with in a few words each. We already know why she quit NASA and are getting to understand how she came to work there in the first place. It is not purely a rubber duck moment though; by using the past, I lead into hints and undercurrents of what is to come. This woman has no family and no ties; but does she have a plan?

 

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Arsenic and Old Ale

Whodrunkit?

Theakston Old Peculier have been sponsoring the UK’s biggest crime writing festival since the dawn of time (or so their PR goes). This was my third encounter with the crime-loving crowd packed (literally) into the Old Swan Hotel in Harrogate, venue famously of Agatha Christie’s mysterious flight in 1926.

Lee Child’s approach to writing intrigued me – he said he ‘never changed anything’, writing from start to finish without the waves of re-editing and drafts that some of us authors do. The audience wanted to quiz him on his reaction to Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher, but his stated view was that his book was complete – the film did not affect the book.

Crime writer panels asserted that the reader has an expectation that ‘order will be restored’ at the end of the novel, but there is a growing appreciation that ‘justice’ is not always served. The messiness of the real-life crime / resolution was freely bypassed by many writers.

Ian Rankin in conversation

Ian Rankin acknowledges the complexity of the work surrounding Rebus’ investigations but drops just enough hints that this other work is going on elsewhere to allow his detective to pursue the case. As much as we strive for accuracy, we know there are false aspects to many crime stories that require the suspension of disbelief. Former US prosecutor Alafair Burke says she ‘corrects’ the reader’s perceptions by allowing characters to make asides about the unusual aspects of the case; the protagonists know as well as we do that this is not routine police/legal work.

The ‘Dark Side’ panel considered the use of supernatural elements in crime fiction, with a consensus that ‘magic’ should not be used to cheat the reader but it was fair game for characters to believe in the supernatural and act as though it was real. It was acknowledged that even ‘realistic’ procedural police stories contain a great deal of fiction. The demands especially of TV shift our detectives away from reality. This led nicely to the historical panel ‘Ashes to Ashes’ discussing the limits of research. Essentially, if an author is unable to establish a historical fact it is unlikely that readers can either.

Ideas flowed in the panels, in the bar, in the fringe drinks parties and the beer tent. It was

difficult indeed to find slots in which to eat. One author proposed that she would not plan her novels ahead, so that twists sprung naturally and surprised her as much as the protagonists.

Steve Mosby suggested keeping a ‘Bad Ideas’ file, on the grounds you might one day need them. There was tension between the idea of keeping a character running from book to book in a series, or burning them up in a standalone novel leaving them broken.

To cap it all came the late night panel ‘Where The Bodies Are Buried’, a free-for all loosely chaired by Sarah Millican with Mark Billingham, Val McDermid and Lee Child. Head buzzing with ideas (and wine) I can’t even start to re-hash the crime-tinged jokes. However, one uncanny fact was that a certain US politician raised his orange-tinged head in almost every panel during the weekend. Everyone agreed we live in strange times – perfect for crime and thriller writers!

 

 

 

Bring Up the Bodies

I felt as if I was in a scene from a Jeffrey Flint novel. An email came in saying a skull had been found in the island of Alderney, then a phone call from the police concerned they had a crime scene. It had turned up in a trench being dug for an electric main across the dunes of Longis Common. Was this a crime scene or an archaeological site? Which aspect of ‘blood and trowels’ was involved?

From the start I was pretty sure the skull was ancient – there were reports of Roman burials in that area dating back to Victorian times. However, sensationalist stories swirl about Alderney and inevitably some people started to wonder if this was a slave worker murdered or worked to death by the Nazis during their occupation of the island. The fact that the skull came from under the road, and the road was laid round about the war, suggested to me that this was most likely to be pre-war. The depth of 1.2 metres was also about right. There is I believe a whole Iron Age and Roman landscape buried under 1-2 metres of sand at Longis, possibly a whole village or fort. Only a hundred metres or so from the finds stands the best preserved late Roman small fort in Britain – the Nunnery.

 I couldn’t fly to Alderney as notice was too short to get a flight, but my local colleague Isabel was able to examine the bones and the site. The police decided this was not a crime scene and we archaeologists were in business. I was able to bring the bones back with me latter than week in an ‘evidence’ bag. Then came a call that more skulls had been found. It was 8.30pm and I was settling down for a movie. There was still free seats on the Friday morning flight, so I was in the island by 9am next day. Unlike the UK, little Alderney has no resident professional rescue archaeology unit to call on but the all-volunteer Alderney Society were on hand to lend assistance.

 It was summer-holiday brochure hot and I always love working in Alderney. The site overlooks wide Longis Bay with France 9 miles in the distance. Workmen soon showed me the lengths of wall – presumed Roman – emerging from the 300m long trench. We walked the trench and spotted something sticking out of the side. It was an Iron Age pot that had been clipped by the excavator scoop. I could easily dig it out of the sand with my hands, scooping fragments of pot, charcoal and burned bones into bags to be ‘excavated’ later.

 My colleague Isabel and I then tackled the second skull, which was jutting into the trench just over a metre down, within a stone-lined cist whose lid had been partly torn off by the excavator. The skull had also been damaged (and was still protected by ‘Police Do Not Cross’ tape) but I set to, again mostly with fingers. I had only once dug up a skeleton and that was in 1980. Then I had used a teaspoon to gently remove a Merovingian woman’s bones from a wet sticky ditch, using a paperclip to clean her teeth.

 

 

In the case of Alderney it was fingers, and we had a race against time as the project needed to push forward and the all-sand sections don’t stay in place very long. I believe Skull 2 to have belonged to a woman, and she (?)  was buried with her chin on her chest, looking at her feet. Maybe she had been lowered in a shroud to give her that hunched posture. Her face was almost intact and I found the lower mandible as well as some vertebra. The ribs were well under the road so I left those in place.

 And then we found a third body, a few metres further down the trench. This was a small skeleton- possibly a juvenile, Skull 1 had also looked like a juvenile and I’m wondering whether it once belonged to this body as I only saw legs and a pelvis. A full skeleton was a different matter to retrieving damaged skulls. We’d also walked the trench with Rick from the engineering team and found half a dozen other likely spots. It was time to halt the commando raid, take stock, and call for reinforcements.

 

The Character Edit

Keen-eyed readers of my facebook page will have noticed the word count ticking upwards on my new thriller codenamed “NRT”. Draft 3 is only a few words short of the 80,000 mark and more or less done. I call Draft 3 “Animate”. By the end of Draft 2 I had a beginning, middle and an end. I had a full set of major characters, a fully functioning plot and a fair number of twists. Draft 3 is where I flesh it all out, developing the scenes, planting the clues and turning loose ends into blind alleys. The last remnants of Draft 1’s flow of consciousness have been tidied up and I’m working on the English, the grammar and the action sequences. There’s no point in writing a nail-biting chase scene in Draft 1 if your plot turns out not to need it.

Up to Draft 3 I stay excited, as my original ideas are changing and characters start to drive the story themselves. I know them by now, pretty certain how they will react to a crisis and what they will do next. Draft 4 signals the start of the polishing process, craft takes over from inspiration.

Draft 4 is the ‘Character Edit’, which aims to turn them from cyphers to people; someone you might have met at work, chatted to at a party or overheard on the train. Someone you will feel for when they bleed and miss (if) they die. I step back and decide how many key characters I have. ‘Glint’ had three viewpoint characters, and everyone else made up the supporting cast. George, Edith and Artie needed deep back stories and a definite arc, but everyone else was merely passing through and their details would be polished in the ‘Continuity Edit’.

NRT presents a different challenge. There are five main characters, but the timeframe of the story is the shortest I’ve ever attempted. This leaves relatively little space for developing the backstory without resorting to ‘rubber duck’ speeches (“the reason I hate men is because my Daddy threw away my rubber duck”). It also compresses that character arc. If there is no time to ‘develop’, can they at least ‘learn lessons fast’? There’s no mucking about. We meet H at the top of page 1 and by the end of the second paragraph we know her problem. J is introduced a paragraph later and we immediately learn who C and D are too. Four of five key players are on the pitch before the reader turns the first page.

Starting Thursday I’m going to read through NRT taking just the scenes of one character, as if this were a single viewpoint novel just about them. This way I achieve continuity of dialogue, action, emotions, motivation and indeed clothing. The character’s viewpoint must also be heard – it can’t all be about her, what about my problems? Imagine NRT is a film script, and woman A is being played by a major star. Her agent is standing next to me saying ‘Give her more lines. Give her that joke.’ Or indeed ‘She’s not taking her clothes off for no good reason.’ For the next two weeks I’ll be an advocate for each of my five leads. The word count may pump up a little more as I flesh them out, but that’s not the prime objective. Five strong but fallible people are ready to be launched into the mayhem I have prepared.

After that, it’s off to my editor for her initial thoughts. More drafts will surely follow.

 

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