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!

 

 

 

Featured post

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?

 

Featured post

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.

 

Featured post

Crimefest 2017

Mix 150 panellists with a wave of crime writers and readers in two streams spread over four days in the Bristol Marriott and that was Crimefest 2017. I flew in late Friday so caught the second half of the programme, starting with the CWA party in the Palm Court where this year’s Dagger nominees were announced (see the CWA site  for the full list). I was asked to be the photographer at a late stage, challenged by the combination of subdued lighting and back-lighting. The fact that I’d changed my pen-name mid-year had not worked its way through to the organisers, and a number of friends frowned at my name-badge. Yes, Jason Foss is really dead I had to explain.

Debut Authors Panel

Mixing with the crowd I met up with Bill Beverley, double dagger winner in 2016 for Dodgers a distinctly different road novel which has been my favourite crime book so far this year. Apparently he was inspired by reading narratives of black slaves who had escaped the Confederacy and were awe-struck by the America that existed beyond their previous horizons. ‘Makes America strange again’ was a good slogan. I also chatted to Luke McCallin about The Man From Berlin, in which he pitched a ‘good German’ policeman into WW2. Shame his Ashes of Berlin is still a bulky hardback and I can’t lug it on my upcoming trip. How to keep a single crime relevant whilst the death and mayhem of war took place all around was another panel theme.

Picking panels (and working out which room they are in in time to get a seat) is Crimefest’s primary challenge. Then there’s the dilemma of whether to support familiar friends or explore something new. I learned that English books have ‘American editors’ to subtly adjust Britishisms for the US market. The Indie panel underlined that self-publishing has to be approached like a business, with as much time devoted to marketing as to actual writing. Professional editing and cover design were unanimously recommended by the panel. Short stories were extolled as opportunity to experiment, write in a new tone and actually finish a tale whilst the beginning was still fresh in the writer’s mind.

Anja De Jager and Felix Francis

Crime festivals are of course great social occasions. It was good to catch up with Fellow archaeology detective writer Kate Ellis, and say hello again to Anja de Jager, Leigh Russell and Mary Andrea Clark among many others. The bar proved to be a great place for (ahem) ‘networking’.

Old chestnuts were picked over, such as how ‘historical’ fiction can avoid simply dressing modern people in period costume, projecting our sensibilities into their actions. Panellists discussed how female characters can realistically make an impact in periods where women were expected to ‘know their place’, without straining credibility. The question was posed of where fact ends and fiction should begin (the truth being we make most of it up!). Several writers addressed ‘the twist’ and how whilst it is a thriller staple, simply awaiting ‘the Big Twist’ should not dominate the reader’s experience.

Anthony Horowitz was interviewed in the Great Hall, then entertained us quite unexpectedly at the Gala dinner. What could have been a straight five-minute after dinner slot with a few jokes turned into a brilliant impromptu cosy crime denuement. Horowitz announced that one of his table guests had been poisoned – at which point Felix Francis gamely ‘died’. One by one the motives and opportunities of the other six table guests were explored and the culprit ultimately unmasked.

Yes I could bore you all with another page of anecdotes, but even blogs have deadlines. With a book room crammed with the latest bestsellers and the backlists of the panellists, plus the goodybag freebies I ended an exhausting but thrilling weekend straining my case capacity and luggage allowance.

Guernsey Literary Festival

It was close to home in more ways than one. I’m not on the organising Committee, but our Castle hosted some Literary Festival events and I had three slots to participate in, so it was a busy few days preceded by a week of preparation around the ‘day job’. The fun began with a reception in the inflatable ‘space igloo’ that was the festival Hub. Slam Poet Harry Baker entertained us with an epic story-poem of a trip to Weston Super Mare. I sat next to him later at the dinner in the newly-opened Slaughterhouse restaurant on the Guernsey seafront. It did not serve the bloody steaks that the name suggests, and I’d have been tempted to add a ‘5’. The chunky chips were gluten-free and the company excellent.

Friday coincided with Museums at Night, so the Festival decamped to the Castle. I opened the batting at 5.30pm which felt like the graveyard slot when I first saw it. I knew my Mum and a couple of others were coming along but wondered how many people would turn out to see a ‘local writer’ so unfashionably early on a Friday. The answer was ‘about 50’ and they filled out the gorgeous Hatton Gallery whilst I waxed about Guernsey and the Great War, and how I researched the background to Glint of Light on Broken Glass. After a Glint-signing session, I did a stint in the local author tent, which was largely bypassed by civilians making their way to and from the lectures, but it proved to be a companionable hour amongst fellow writers.

On Sunday morning it was back to the Hub, where I’d been invited to interview crime writer Clare Mackintosh. Her second novel ‘I See You’ hit #3 in the Sunday Times paperback fiction charts this week, and was a former hardback #1. Prepping for the interview was more daunting than my own lecture. Of course I read the book, and her first novel ‘I Let You Go’, although unusually Amazon’s carrier snail took an age to deliver them causing a little angst as the date approached. I’ve been interviewed by the media or given a live lecture every couple of weeks for the past decade or more, but have only done a live author interview once before. This was new territory and I was very conscious that (a) although an exciting event, this was not about me; (b) I needed to provide the interviewee with space to talk about the new book, as writing is an industry and it demands that books be sold; and (c) I must not screw it up in front of a capacity audience. In the end it went swimmingly. The experience reinforced something I learned long ago; you can never do too much preparation.

Clare Mackintosh interviewed by Jason Monaghan at the festival Hub

So another festival slides past. Four days breather, then it’s Crimefest, Bristol. Watch this space.

 

I’m Reading…I See You

I See You is the second novel by Clare Mackintosh, having stormed into the bestseller charts with her debut I Let You Go. This week I See You is at #5 in the Sunday Times bestseller lists.

Zoe is a London commuter, taking the same route to work each day, following the patterns that we all fall into. She spots her photograph in a classified ad for a dating website and begins to suspect she is being stalked – but will the police believe her?

No spoilers here, but it begins in urban ‘domestic noir’ territory with a dash of police procedural as matters turn darker for Zoe.  I’m meeting Clare this Sunday 14th May at the Guernsey Literary Festival to discuss her latest book. It will be live on Radio Guernsey around 11am.

@GuernseyLitFest

True Crime

It’s conference season and I’m doing the rounds of crime and literary conventions. One aspect of crime writing conferences is that I get to meet, or at least to listen to, detectives and forensic investigators who have worked on actual cases. Although fascinating, there is a gruesome reality about them which can be hard to swallow.

In Edinburgh I was staying close to a pub called The World’s End, indeed walked past it a dozen times although never went in for a drink. In 1977 it was the setting for the ‘World’s End Murders’; the double killing didn’t actually take place at the pub, but that’s where two 17-year old girls were last seen alive. Their horrible deaths were not fully solved until 34 years later when forensic science had advanced sufficiently to pin the crime on two men (the instigator was already in prison for another sex killing and his wastrel sidekick was long dead). What made this case especially chilling was that I was 17 years old in 1977. The hairstyles and fashion of those two girls looked like those of my school friends when we made our first underage forays into the adult world on those Friday nights 40 years ago.

Walking past that pub and recalling that story made me reflect on the crime writer’s craft. We write about subjects too awful to contemplate in daily life, but people buy our books by the million. Crime fiction is rarely out of the Sunday Times top-ten list and usually steals several slots. So how can I write about painful death and wasted lives? My guilt falls away when I consider that the same is true of authors writing war stories, horror stories, spy thrillers, grim historical epics, apocalyptic novels and sword-swinging fantasy. None of these worlds are places we would want to find ourselves. Perhaps the only story we’d truly be comfortable inside is a light romance; preferably set somewhere warm and exotic, with a pleasing amount of cuddly sex and a whiff of adventure but no risk of actual harm.

We don’t want to inhabit those plots created by crime writers, but guided by the author we can dare to edge into them just for a while.

Thou Shalt Not Kill (part 2)

knife 1.JPG

Having considered ‘Poor Decisions’ and the millennia-old revulsion against killing, let our thoughts turn to murder. The Sixth Commandment of God gave humanity an early steer that murder is a bad thing.

 

 

Centuries of religious and moral codes have been reinforced by laws and penalties, backed up by law enforcement agencies which threaten a killer with the likelihood of punishment for his crimes (let alone eternal damnation). Not only is it a bad thing, but also a really, really bad idea.

All this results, thankfully, in a tiny proportion of a ‘civilised’ population being prepared to kill, and an even smaller number prepared to do so ‘in cold blood’. The UK Murder rate is 0.9 per 100,000 people per annum, even gun-toting USA scores just 3.6 and the killing is concentrated in certain areas and certain population groups (i.e. poor young men from inner cities, and tragically infants under 1 year). The murder rate has to be very low for a well-ordered society to continue; beyond a tipping point it’s Gun Law, and every man for himself. Guatemala, which I discussed in a previous blog, has 10 times the murder rate of the USA and feels like a war zone. On my island of Guernsey there’s one every few years, generally a ‘domestic’ or the unintended consequence of a drunken fight.

Most murders are committed in hot blood; following an argument, an irrational impulse, or a sudden burst of fear. In many cases the killer is not thinking straight, acting under the effect of drink, drugs or mental impairment. I am annoyed by books and especially films that overlook the block constructed by thousands of years of human experience which shows that being willing to kill can act against self-preservation. This is especially the case where a second person in the plot is also a one-in-10,000 killer. In a recent English ‘cosy’ I read there were no fewer than three people in a small village willing to kill without remorse.

Even under stress, most ordinary people will struggle to fire that gun or plunge that knife in self-defence ­– one reason that the claim that ‘I have a gun at home to protect my family’ is bollocks.

American police shot and killed 963 people in 2016, which is just over 1 person per 1,000 law enforcement officers. So in a 25-year career roughly 1 cop in 40 will kill someone. That doesn’t make very exciting TV, does it? It pushes many cop shows into the realm of fantasy. Last week we had the highly visible shooting dead of a terrorist by British police – remarkable not only for the terrifying 80 seconds that preceded it but for its rarity.

So how do my fellow crime-writers climb this wall? Ordinary housewives and vicars are not easily turned into murderers and policemen do not happily pull their guns and start shooting. A switch must be pulled, that block must be broken down. Writers need to work to convince the reader this has happened. The reader of murder-mystery will expect at least one murder; it’s part of the contract. Belief is therefore suspended to the benefit of the writer; the reader cuts us a little slack. The 700-plus members of the UK’s Crime Writer’s Association probably ‘kill’ more people annually than do actual criminals, but to be fair, science fiction writers also defeat more alien invasions than actually occur. Amid all this fictional mayhem the trick is then to keep it real, keep that killer’s motivation believable. Murder must be the only option available to our criminal at the split second it takes place, assuming he or she is of sound mind and capable of taking rational decisions. It can’t just be there to fulfil that contract; we must be convinced that the killer will break the oldest taboo: ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’.

Jason Monaghan is speaking at the Guernsey Literary Festival on Friday 12 May.

Alderney Literary Festival

Ald 5This has to be the best literary festival in the land (if you count the tiny island of Alderney as ‘in the land’). Its cosy, its intimate and its focus is firmly on history: historical fiction, biography and non-fiction.

As the speaker’s room at the Island hall only accommodates an audience of 50, there were very few free seats and most talks were at capacity. Only two free seats in my talk (and I like to think the ticket holders had an extra hour in bed, as I was on at 9.30am).

A dozen authors mixed freely with the bibliophiles, another nice departure from the big conventions when the big names parachute in for a panel, and equally swiftly are swept away again by their minders. Work commitments meant I missed the Friday sessions, and I couldn’t get a ticket for Andrew Lownie’s talk on Guy Burgess, but the rest of the weekend passed in a whirl. Anna Mazzola talking about her debut early Victorian crime novel the Unseeing, Lloyd Shepherd finding monsters in Regency London  and Matthias Strohn on the Real German Army of the 1930’s.

Turney Scarrow Downie

On Saturday evening there was a dinner at the Georgian where some of us dared to wear Roman or Celtic garb to hear a good-natured debate on the impact of Rome on Britain – Overpaid, Oversexed and Over Here. Romanists SJA Turney and Ruth Downie fought the corners for Rome and the Celts respectively, with Simon Scarrow umpiring. I  think the Britons won by a narrow margin of ‘thumbs up’, but I’m not precisely sure it mattered.

I was particularly interested in Simon Scarrow talking about Greece in WW2 and its aftermath, as this was the sub-plot of Byron’s Shadow and close to my heart (no pun intended – his book is called Hearts of Stone). Elizabeth Chadwick, Anna Mazzola and Imogen Robertson debated research for the Historical novel, which struck many true cords. Agent Andrew Lownie and phenomenally successful e-book author Rachael Abbott also had an intriguing debate on new forms of publishing versus the traditional model.

Ald 4 (2).jpgThen of course there was Dr Monaghan, talking about Guernsey in the Great War and the background to Glint of Light on Broken Glass. This was a lot of fun in its own right, although always tricky when it comes to the questions. Next year’s Alderney Literary festival is 23-25 March, so put that date in your diary.

 

 

 

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