Crimefest 2019

It was not quite déjà vu at this year’s Bristol Crimefest as the venue had moved to the Marriot Grand. The hotel was closer to the historic heart of the City, so was a welcome change, allowing a little exploration in each break and a different selection of local restaurants to sample, where I tasted my first Indian Shiraz. Gala dinners can be indifferent, but the Grand earns a gold star by providing a particularly yummy gluten free chocolate mousse cake for afters; a step up from the fruit salad often offered as my gf alternative.

Panels and talks took place in a set of rooms which required a little detection skill to locate and navigate between. We had our own Crimefest bar, but most serious drinking (I mean, earnest literary conversation) took place in the main bar. If you’ve never been to Crimefest, it operates as two and sometimes three parallel sessions from Thursday to Sunday, each lasting 50 mins with 20 minutes in between to locate the next session. The programme is online, and I won’t bore you by listing the 60+ crime writers who spoke.

One novelty was that we got to see a preview of the first 90-minute episode of the new series of Agatha Raisin, which was a jolly way to spend a Friday evening replete with wine and pizza. I sat on the table with some of the production crew at the Gala dinner and there was also a panel including ‘Agatha’ actress Ashley Jensen.

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Not 007: Claire Kendall, HB Lyle, JD Fennell, Sarah Armstrong, Mick Herron

Take-aways included a comment from Mick Herron, when asked how much research he had to do for the Slough House series of spy novels. He replied that he simply made it up; which worries him when real Security Service staff comment on how accurate his books are. We heard about the challenge of fiction in the Post-Truth world, full of anger and misinformation. Several speakers came out with fact-is-weirder than fiction. Danielle  Ramsey related the unnerving experience of ‘creating’ a British seaside gangster then being confronted by unsavory people who found her story too close to the truth. Jeffrey Seger also found his Mikonos-set gangster was uncomfortably close to a real one. Paul Hardy had to include an author’s note to explain that a horrible act he featured in his story was based on a real case.

Several panels tackled historical fiction, and the need to create period feel. William Sutton made the point that whereas a contemporary writer such as Dickens had no need to explain social or technical subtleties of his era, the historical writer needs to provide this for the modern reader. Familiar periods of history make things easy on both reader and author, although are more likely to attract the detail fanatic that is the bane of all successful writers. Some working in obscure periods such as Indrek Hargla’s medieval Estonia have the challenge, but also the freedom, to make much up. Guy Bolton whose characters work in highly familiar 1940s Hollywood with real moguls and actors, in contrast has to carry out very detailed research.

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Kate Ellis, Leigh Russell, Danielle Ramsey, Douglas Lindsey, William Shaw

The 1930s are seen as the change-over period where policing became more scientifically based but many things which are now illegal were permitted, if not approved of, in the past. Long-running series characters are challenged by changing times, which some authors build into the story arc and some simply ignore, allowing history to wash past unnoticed. Longer in the tooth authors rued the fact that their childhoods in the 50s and 60s were now ‘historical’ periods, but Peter Murphy commented that he still needed to research his 60s novels as relying simply on memory did not suffice. I asked the question as to how writers avoided falling into period clichés. Using the right language, avoiding familiar plot drivers and choosing characters that don’t immediately evoke period stereotypes was the best advice. David Penny suggested that as you can’t visit the historical period at least the location can be researched.

Charlie Gallagher, a serving policeman, opined that modern procedure is so boring that even a ‘police procedural’ aiming for realism needs to take liberties to remain interesting. The writer can get away with this if the set-up is plausible, and strict formalities are less important than plot and character. We considered whether a lead detective is allowed to be happy, how writers avoid creating one who is a cliché and whether series novels should include a cliffhanger to lead into the next book.

In my final panel, Caroline England explained how she likes to introduce love in her stories, then be rotten to her characters. Gunnar Staaleson said that the crime writer’s job was at first to build up believable characters. “Then kill them,” added Kate Rhodes.

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Lessons from a Litfest

Another year, another Guernsey Literary Festival. Unlike all the other festivals I go to, this event is more of a smorgasbord; a feast to suit many different tastes. Rather than bingeing on the whole, people I have met are picking at two or three choice morsels. In this way the festival achieves a broad ‘hit’ across the population rather than going for a sharply targeted deep engagement such as (say) Alderney’s historical themed festival or Crimefest Bristol where I’m bound next week. It is a markedly different strategy and local engagement is extensive. There were 60 or so authors and a variety of big names, and I donated a copy of Glint of Light on Broken Glass to each of the goody bags to make them welcome to Guernsey.

WP_20190503_15_32_51_ProThe opening party was fun, only an hour, but chance to hear from a quartet of speakers and mingle with many like-minded friends on the island. On the Friday I was asked to introduce Dr Matthias Strohn (who was quicker to smile than I was when the camera was produced!) speaking at the blow-up Festival Hub in the Market Square. I’d met him at the Alderney festival two years ago and his subject this time was the end of the Great War. As a German historian and reserve army officer who advises the British Army and lectures at Sandhurst, Matthias offered some unique insights. Most telling was how ‘Britain centric’ our view of that war is. The Germans on the other hand were far more concerned with the Russian threat to the east and the French to the west, until the final year of the war at least. He explained how the German view that their army had not lost the war came about via the observation that (1) Germany fought the war because it was surrounded by enemies (2) none of those enemies had any soldiers on German soil at the conclusion of the fighting. The scene was set for ’round 2′.

I was asked initially whether I would moderate a talk by crime writer Mark Billingham, but having seen Mark in action I knew he needed no moderation – he was once a stand-up comedian. In the event he was paired with Erin Kelly, in the bigger venue of St James where even the audience just shy of 100 rattled a bit. Writers’ forums endlessly discuss whether it is best to plan a novel or fly by the seat of your pants (‘planners’ vs ‘pantsers’). Erin takes the same approach as I do, essentially writing a first draft composed of the main scenes of the book not necessarily in order. She then revisits in draft 2 to knit these together into a coherent story. She and Mark also discussed research and the tip was not to write it down as if swotting for an exam, but to use the points that stick. In this way the writer avoids ‘information dumping’, on the reasoning that all this researc =h must show somewhere.

WP_20190506_11_44_27_ProOn the Monday it was a change of venue again, to the spanking freshly refurbished Frossard Theatre at Candie to introduce Dr Gilly Carr. Gilly has worked with the Museum on a couple of occasions and co-created its current exhibition ‘On British Soil’ about Nazi persecution in the Channel Islands. Gilly has worked consistently for the past decade to change the narrative on the German Occupation, which had become in parts saccharine encouraged by cosy tales of wartime make-do-and-mend, partly ‘boys toys’ enthusiasm for the many fortifications and weapons left on the islands and partly by the euphoria of Liberation Day celebrated every year on May 9th. Gilly was talking about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, as experienced by Channel Islanders who were persecuted by the Nazis. Victims deported to Nazi concentration camps belatedly got the opportunity to apply for compensation in the 1960s. Many were in no state to describe their suffering, and there was an added complication that PTSD was not recognised as a medical condition at that time. Claims could be made for wounds, diseases or disability, but how could people find recompense for damage that has not even been defined? More can be found on Gillys website https://www.frankfallaarchive.org/

So, I only managed four events, but I’m now warmed up and in the mood for Crimefest Bristol next week.

Things We Writers Learn

I’m writing a book set in the 1930s and passed the 30,000-word mark today with a loud hurrah and a celebratory glass of Diet Coke. My last novel was Glint of Light on Broken Glass which all in all took three years to research and write, with one of those years being absorbed by getting the detail of 1913-1919 correct. I was helped by it being set right outside my front door and by its sedate fable-like tone which allowed liberties with language, but I had to carefully avoid modern expressions and Americanisms.

So to the 1930s, and I’m reading as much as I can and catching films made in or about the period. One challenge of my new thriller is that my cast of characters are witty, fast-talking and at times violent. Without delving into cliché I need to get those snappy conversations right. I’m taking a leaf out of Lee Child’s book, in that I heard him at a conference saying that as soon as he hits a point where he needs a piece of research, he does it there and then. Usually I retrofit my research, glossing over the detail until I’m sure the plot demands it. I wasted enough gloriously evocative scenes in my early writing to learn this lesson.

My early drafts are largely conversations, to allow my characters to drive the story forward which I will then back-fill with time and place as the plot becomes clear. However for the 1930s this means stopping and checking when I stumble across a word or phrase that could be anachronistic. A thesaurus, various books of phrase and fable and online versions are hastily consulted. This week I learned that jolly hockey sticks did not come in until the 1950s, but not my cup of tea or right up your street might just be acceptable after 1930. To my surprise Beating up and snitch were much older than I thought, so fine to use.

I also learned how to pick a lock and open a locked suitcase this week. There are Youtube tutorials which will dissuade you of the value of locking anything ever again. I’ve done some work on Swiss banknotes,  obsolescent German firearms and London ‘roadhouse’ clubs. One of the drawbacks of using the web for research is that more and more the search terms come up with adverts. This was particularly the case when looking for hotels to base my skulduggery in. I was surprised to learn, for example, that you can still buy British Union of Fascists flags over the internet. I expected to be able to find a selection of fascist marching songs, but was intrigued to find many carried by Russian websites with explicit warnings that it was illegal to download them in Germany. Having also looked up pederast, Irish street slang and the history of the mafia I must have a very dodgy-looking search history!

Farewell Black Desk

So it’s farewell to my faithful black desk, too old and rickety and too darned heavy to be moved again. I bought it from a pre-IKEA furniture store on the outskirts of York in 1989 and since then it has taken up station in at least half a dozen different studies of mine. Flat-pack, self-assembly chipboard, its veneer is peeling and its structural integrity relies largely on screw blocks and willpower.

As for the drawer unit, the drawers have been reluctant for a decade; piled too high with more pens and paper than they can cope with, stained by ink and tippex and blobs of blu-tac. Together with the desk it is bound for Bulk Refuse Heaven.

This was the desk where I wrote Shadow in the Corn, half of Byron’s Shadow (long story!), Shadesmoor, Lady in the Lake, Blood & Sandals, Islands that Never Were and Glint of Light on Broken Glass. Four dormant novels were also tapped out on is face, together with A Gallo-Roman Shipwreck from Guernsey,  Roman Pottery From York, A Shypp Cast Away About Alderney and a couple of dozen academic papers and the same number of short stories.

A pine desk that did service as one of my children’s homework desks has been commandeered as the place where the next two books will be completed. Smaller, it should be more maneuverable up the steps of the next garret and maybe the one after that.

The Black Desk is dead – long live the Pine Desk!

Writer Blocked

We’re used to hearing about ‘Writer’s Block’, romantically imagining our author has been deserted by his or her muse; no inspiration, clueless about the next twist of the plot, capable of only writing flat doggerel.

Maybe uncharitably we might quietly think our author is just being lazy. Perhaps too much absinthe, even? You don’t hear of Teacher’s Block or Treasury Dealer’s Block.

However writers dwell in the real world. I’m moving house, and can barely get near my desk let alone find a couple of hours to allow the muse back. That picture is my study, this week. And yes that’s a copy of Fight Club on top of the clutter – ‘You don’t own stuff, stuff owns you’ echoes around the room. Two recycling bags of paper came out of the room just today, to add to the eight already nestling in the hall, not to mention two one-tonne rubbish sacks on the drive.

From the deeper recesses of the filing cabinet come the first drafts of novels, unpublished or unfinished novels from decades ago, short stories, a play and a couple of bad poems. Crime writing conference paperwork reaching back into the 1990s forms a heap on the floor. A few programmes and select souvenirs go into the memorabilia box, but the rest are off for recycling. Files of correspondence with publishers and agents going back to my first works have all been kept. For now.

Friends who write also hit blocks that have nothing to do with a shortage of inspiration. If not blocks, then at least speedbumps; a shift in the day job, election to a committee, the loss of a relative, a long vacation, poor health, having a child or even a demanding new puppy. Real life intrudes the whole of the time, floating icebergs into the path of our otherwise serene cruise.

That’s probably enough dredging of metaphors for one blog. It’s my first for three months, but with a new garret identified, this writer will be unblocked pretty soon.

Christmas Comes Early

We see it every year. Christmas creeping ever earlier – cards in the shops by September, the first trees and tinsel appearing in October and those ‘catchy’ Xmas tunes of the 70s are playing by November. The Grinches of course complain; 12 days of Christmas, not 42 days, they say.

My American readers may not get this, as you have a lot of hullaballoo over Halloween, then Thanksgiving too. However, you did start the accursed ‘Black Friday’ which has now infected this side of the pond and this year trespassed onto my birthday. In Britain, Halloween is still mostly for kids and Goths, whilst Thanksgiving is reserved for expat Yanks (and just misses my birthday annually too). That November birthday was an important milestone for me as a kid. ‘No Christmas talk until after my birthday!’ was my petulant rule. I didn’t want cheapskate relatives conflating two gifts into one, or my party being upstaged by elves and department-store Santas. Once I had a daughter with a slightly later November birthday this became an even easier rule to police.

WP_20181125_15_02_53_ProThen practicality started to erode my principles. Children, nephews, nieces, significant others and close relatives all deserve presents. I’m a rubbish present buyer, and hate going shopping on precious weekends, so squeeze it into lunch hours. At one present per lunch hour, that’s a long lead-in time. Move to an island, and the lead-in lengthens with those last posting dates and annoying customs rules.

The net result is that I have to start shopping in October so I can drop off gifts as I work WP_20181125_15_03_08_Promy way at sub-Santa speed around the UK. Who can blame retailers for wanting to sell to me? Island life of course poses the logistic issue of boats delayed by weather, shops selling out by December, or never actually stocking the desired items at all; ‘we won’t have a delivery before Christmas’. Really? You are Amazon’s best friend, local retailer.

Once the starting sleighbell has been rung, I admit to being a complete Christmas fan. Carols, Dickensian cards of Christmas-that-never-was, cheesy tunes of yesteryear, turkey and roasties, mint chocs, port, wine, desert wine, beer with turkey sandwiches in front of the movie, Queen’s message to the Empire, bringing a tree inside, trimmings, parties, prezzies, relatives, Dr Who Special, the lot. Apart from the weather, which out here is usually rain, wind, or wind-with-rain.

But this year, Christmas can’t come early enough. I’m sensing it everywhere, a palpable wish to get started on all that hedonism reeled off in the previous paragraph. 2018 has been a grim year of sliding hope. Brexit is depressing and boring, no matter which way you voted (or wished you had voted). The world of Trump and Putin is a fearful place full of conspiracy and rivalry, in which critical problems such as climate change are being forgotten. 2018 has been at best uninspiring. Perhaps this is why people all around me are plunging into Christmas with glee. ‘Tis the season to be merry,  so let’s be merry as soon as we can for as long as we can.

Garden Centre Faux SnowI’m still holding off buying that tree until December, but the boxes of trimmings are already down from the loft and waiting. Half the presents are bought, the cards are ready to be written. On the internet radio there’s a US ‘Christmas Country’ station allowing some escape from the standard 40 UK Christmas pop songs. The Garden Centre is blowing faux snow around and animatronic penguins serenade the shoppers.

I’ve even been to my first ‘Christmas Dinner’ – on my birthday!

An Eye for Nature

PLV 1Whilst working on a new thriller, and editing the one I ‘finished’ earlier, I have a new project to keep me out of mischief. I’m teaming up with artist Peter Le Vasseur to produce a book on his life and work. In particular the book will feature Peter’s later works with ecological and conservation themes.

PLV3Although Peter was born in Guernsey and returned here to live in the 70s, his formative years as an artist saw him enter the ‘sixties London art scene with clients including film stars, musicians and the aristocracy. The Beatles bought one of his earliest works, whilst he was experimenting with fantasy in what he calls his ‘Alice in Wonderland’ period. His early fantasies are still cropping up in London auctions, with his 1964 work Tattooed Sailor recently selling at Sotheby’s for many times its estimate.

 

Peter finally established his iconic style of highly detailed paintings of the natural world, generally packaged with a ‘message’, although for himself he claims not to be political. At times his work has a dark humour or carries ironic titles as it reflects the impact of the modern human world on both the environment and traditional societies.

This will be a high quality art book with the paintings as its main focus, so is going to need a significant amount of financial support to be produced. It would be particularly relevant to a large international organisation involved in environmental issues, or to a multinational with corporate social responsibility objectives which might like to sponsor a work it can give to its major clients.

I’m interested in ideas from you folks out there. Share with your contacts and see if we can find that sponsor. I can be contacted through this blog page.

For more of Peter’s work see www.peterlevasseur.com .

For those living in Guernsey, Peter currently has an exhibition of his works at the Coach House Gallery, and his large work The Tree of Life is on permanent display at Guernsey Museum where it was voted ‘The People’s Choice.’

 

Bring Me Some Crime

The cheekily-named Morecambe & Vice revels in its tagline ‘Bring me Some Crime’. On its second outing this year, the festival of crime felt more assured and distinctive. As befitted the venue in the Winter Gardens on the seafront, it was compered by bouncy double-act Tom Fisher and Ben Cooper-Muir. Guest crimesmiths sat on sofas in front of the safety curtain and curtains billowed in empty theatre boxes high above. At least, I think they were empty…

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Ben & Tom

High above hung the once-gloriously decorated plaster ceiling and a warning notice WP_20180929_11_32_43_Prodeterred anyone from venturing upstairs to get a closer look. Warnings were a popular theme in Morecambe, what with quicksand and tides to catch the unwary. I took my toe-tag name badge and found a place amongst the cabaret-style seating. The audience seemed bigger than last year, perhaps 80 for each session and 200 or so overall.

As befits a concert hall, there was a showbiz theme, with panellists asked to reveal secret talents and then perform – singing, performance poetry and even fire-eating was on the bill. Chills were not only in the storylines but in the biting wind that brought horizontal rain in from the Irish Sea on the Sunday.

Every conference has its structure, but often panels are loosely wrapped opportunities to Plug My Book. M&V chose the approach of highly focussed subject talks. Four lawyers talked courtroom dramas, real and fictional. Four northern writers talked about their home turf. The item entitled ‘Crossing Sides’ featured four writers who worked in other genres; the point was made that romantic novels and crime novels can have rather similar narrative arcs.

A Crime Masterclass discussed flaws in crime novels and how to avoid them. One common theme was the need to establish basic truth within a novel to make it feel ‘realistic’, then make up the stuff essential to the plot. Fictional villages, obscure points of law and unlikely but possible twists can then follow. Sorry I can’t plug the names of the 50+ guests and speakers.

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Jake Arnott, Alex Reeve, Sarah Hilary, Mari Hannah and Paul Burston assert that Crime is Crime

Particularly interesting was the ‘Crime is Crime’ panel, addressing LBGT issues in crime novels. How gay characters were often limited to victims or villains, or perhaps as a token sidekick. Putting a gay or trans character as the lead investigator is a particular challenge, especially when not required as a plot driver.

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Elly Griffiths on the sofa with Peter Robinson

A study of Agatha Christie’ plays showed her to be the leading female playwright of all time. Capping the first day was a classic sofa interview of Peter Robinson by Elly Griffiths, including his not-always flattering thoughts on the TV adaptions of his DCI Banks novels.

wp_20180929_16_09_03_pro.jpgA walk along the seafront gave me the opportunity to strike a pose by the statue of Eric Morecambe. The photo gained more facebook ‘likes’ than any of my regular posts showing that to succeed on the internet, it helps to make an idiot of yourself.

 

 

WP cropOh, and we met Inspector Ted, abandoned bear turned crime-fighting mascot so internet-famous that local villains even recognise him when they are nicked.

Next year’s dates and programme are to be established but incredibly cheap advance tickets are already on sale.

@MorecambeVice

My Voice it Made an Avalanche

Fiona Apple’s song ‘Container’ opens Showtime’s The Affair, which is in its 4th season.

My voice it made an avalanche/ and buried a man I never knew/

And when he died his widowed bride/ met your daddy and they made you.

The show itself riffs on that avalanche we can start by carelessly kicking a few stones. Serial blunderer Noah (Dominic West) falls in love with tragic waitress Alison (Ruth Wilson). The gravel starts a tumble into an impusive affair, divorces, babies, stunning success, stunning fall from grace, the destruction of careers and families, blackmail, perjury, disappearance, mental deterioration, stalking and death.

Maybe not the best advert for frustrated teachers chatting up waitresses.

Whilst series 1 was glued together by the romance and a vaguely crimey mystery set in bleakly beautiful  Montauk, it settled into more soapy territory in series 2 and 3. Like true soap characters, Noah, Alison and their erstwhile spouses Helen and Cole are predisposed to make bad choices. At times I’ve come to not caring anymore; sort yourselves out guys! It could have been happy(ish) ever after in series 1, certainly in series 2, but no this is TV dramaland. Nobody lives happily ever after.

There is quality in the well-crafted dialogue, character study and the superb cinematography. Daringly there are extended scenes filling a whole inter-advert block with a single conversation or therapy session. Best of all is that season one employs two strong POV: his and hers, and they are not telling the same story. In ‘his’ segments, Noah is frustrated and clumsy whilst Alison is the free spirit; a muse for the wannabe novellist. In ‘her’ segments, he’s the solid, assured one whilst she’s an ill-dressed emotional mess. If re-telling the same scene twice in one episode has its unsurprising aspects, it turns both our characters into unreliable narrators. People wear different clothes, drink different drinks, use different words. Perhaps it is too extreme played back -to – back but it represents the patchy way two people recall the same incident and modify it in their own minds. We, the viewer, don’t actually know where the truth lies.

The trick tires once S2 turns it into a four-way POV, and especially if we don’t care about that scene in take #1, to see it again with the swearing reversed or a bigger horse becomes hard work. However, it has certainly influenced my own writing of PoV characters. From Glint onwards I’m favouring the strong, limited, PoV that brings out a character’s thoughts and prejudices rather than allowing us into the head of every train guard and passer-by we meet.

And that avalanche of small decisions having dramatic consequences? A great starter for any mystery.

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