Fire Without Smoke

I don’t smoke. I just don’t get it, so my lead characters don’t smoke either. You might think that old hippie Jeffrey Flint might have done the odd roll-up in his time, but if so he keeps quiet about it.

wine-drinkerIn my crime reading pile, I have noticed that most fictional detectives smoke to a fault. Its part of the hard-boiled image, maybe. Often I suspect it reflects the writer’s own lifestyle – indeed many writers are shown posing with a cigarette for their publicity photographs which strikes me as distinctly odd. If I were to display my vices in publicity shots, I’d be holding a half-eaten Toblerone, a gluten-free brownie or glass of Chateauneuf du Pape. None send the message that I’m a rebel or a thinker or sophisticate, just that I’m probably overweight.

So to those detectives, pluckily cheating death by shooting, stabbing, car smash or fiendish trap yet stalked by Reaper nonetheless. The smoking trope is strange – pipe smoking is somehow homely, and the Americans seem to think there’s charm in chomping cigars. Anti-smokers are cast as tight-asses. With widespread smoking bans in offices, the overflowing ashtray is now the mark of period fiction and ‘dates’ otherwise contemporary novels. There’s a curious trend in contemporary American TV dramas to portray smoking as a cute adventure, which jars with reality. When we’re talking gangsters and the underclass, yes, but not 90% of urban professionals.

I am bored of reading about characters who have to go out and buy their cigarettes, fiddle with them, light up and stub out. Over the same timeframe, they don’t go to the toilet, scratch their ear or an one of a hundred other personal habits they might exhibit. A Nordic Noir I read this year would have been two chapters shorter if the hero had been a nonsmoker. The stressed detective may also drink coffee and hard spirits, but any other choice of drink is used as character shorthand. Usually it shows affectation, or weakness. Banana smoothie, Earl Grey tea or a snack-pack of Trail Mix anyone?

Partly to poke fun at the trope, Flint and Tyrone drink diet coke, eat Mars Bars and crisps. Their weakness is real ale or cheap wine and maybe the occasional takeaway. Some of the villains and minor characters smoke, but the books are mainly populated with the educated middle class, increasingly health-conscious and lifestyle aware. I just don’t want to wear the print off my fingers typing all that smoking routine. Given that several fondly remembered  relations were killed by the tobacco industry I also don’t want to lend it any glamour.

So what about ‘Glint of Light on Broken Glass’?, set in an era when cancer was barely understood by doctors let alone ordinary working men. We know that tobacco was a major crutch for the men in the trenches, and I’ve even heard the Great War could not have been endured without it which is a curious thought. The Channel Islands’ hardest fought sporting event ‘The Muratti’ was sponsored by a local cigarette company. So I allow smoking to be there in the background – it happens, like eating and drinking but I don’t make a fetish of it.

 

 

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“Ingrid wants more sex”

Okay, I know this is a family blog but  we’re going to talk about sex this week (stop sniggering at the back!). The book I’m working now on requires a frank and realistic approach to sex scenes, but has led me to look back on my oversexed hero of novels past.

Jeffrey Flint is a bit of a lad, indeed some would say ‘womaniser’. He’s not manipulative, he doesn’t have any kind of plan, but he simply loves women. Young, smart, fun and politically on-message what’s not to like? Except he’s a little too ‘summer of love’ to suggest he’s capable of commitment. Not for Flint is that long-suffering spouse to return to after each adventure, to ground him in reality. He remains a free spirit.

So, Flint flits from woman to woman, between and often within books. When I was discussing Byron’s Shadow over lunch with Ingrid – my editor at the time – she suggested the books needed more sex. I went home and wrote a card, which I pinned on the slanting ceiling of my garret – ‘Ingrid wants more sex’.

But in the end I pulled my punches. Mummy porn wasn’t mainstream at that time and I feared writing purple-prose laden bad sex.  I wanted also to avoid  clinical  scenes that read like model aeroplane instructions, viz  ‘place axle (12) in wheel hub (13) but do not glue’. . We’re all adults and we all know what happens. We also know that it takes a good deal longer than the 37 seconds shown in the average TV naughty scene. To relate a full passionate encounter blow-by-blow would take pages and pages and be cringingly dull (to me). Even worse where Maddy Crowe is my viewpoint character.

Then I always wonder how much of an author’s sex scenes give away about their own love life, their own frustrations and fantasies? There’s a lot of personal anecdote woven into the Flint books, and I have name-checked a couple of my friends but no characters are based on real people. Still there’s a worry that the curious might strive to identify the ‘real’ Vikki, Lisa, Willow, Maddy, A1, Chrissie and the rest of the cast. In end I hint, give a flavour and no more. I know what is going on, and the reader can fill in the blanks. Flint’s sex life is funny, quirky, offbeat and impulsive. Its also an essential component of the plots rather than being merely there to titillate.

A reader once asked me about a beach scene in Byron’s Shadow when Flint and Lisa are together. ‘What did they actually do?’ she asked. I just smiled.

 

 

 

Author Vanishes!

Crime writer Jason Foss has vanished. In a move reminiscent of 1984, or the more paranoid Roman emperors his name has been erased from e-books on sale. Only a few hard-to-find first edition hardbacks remain of his five archaeological thrillers featuring offbeat lecturer Dr Jeffrey Flint.

Suspicion falls immediately on his alter ego, Jason Monaghan, whose name now emblazons the Flint series. Jason explains his motives for this decisive move:

“When I wrote my first Flint books, I was also writing heavyweight archaeology textbooks under my own name and did not want to cause any confusion between my fiction and non-fiction output. I was also aware that publishers did not want more than one book per author per year, and ultimately I might develop a second pen name in a different style to publish in parallel. Foss was easier to spell than Monaghan too, and harder to mis-pronounce in bookshops.

“The internet has however made pen-names almost irrelevant. Unless you take enormous care to remain anonymous, the rest of the world can find out your real name in 0.15 of a second. A more serious problem is that the more connected your output, the easier it is for search engines to make links between them, raising your ranking. Having two or more names fights against connectivity. Then of course there is the question of what to call your website, facebook page, Amazon author page and so on: do you have one per name?

“I was for a while the first or second ‘Jason Foss’ on Google but gradually slipped below various dopplegangers as social media use ballooned. The real me meanwhile was always in the top ten. My archaeology and Museum work entailed a steady stream of papers, and frequent newspaper, radio, magazine and  local TV slots. Monaghan became more visible than Foss.

“This year I published Glint of Light on Broken Glass under my own name, as its initial market would be in Guernsey where I’m well known. After a discussion with Endeavour Press it was decided to rebrand the whole backlist, creating a satisfying body of crime and historical fiction, archaeology and local history. I’m now working to bring all my internet channels together too.

“So Jason Foss is no more. Farewell, old mate.”

 

 

 

 

A Sense of Place

In a recent debate on a writers’ forum the question was asked whether you had to actually have visited a place to use it as a setting for a novel. My answer to this is both yes and no.

YES if the place is well known, such as London, and many of your readers are expected to Glint Coverhave been there or read other books set there. I won’t say ‘seen movies set there’ as TV and film often use places far removed from the location of the plot to double as the setting. They will also play fast and loose with geography to fit the pace (car chases often do this if you watch too closely).

It is very important if the setting is almost a character in itself, such as Cephalonia in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. Intimate knowledge becomes essential, which is why I worked so hard at getting the feel of Guernsey right in Glint of Light on Broken Glass. It is also why many ‘locals’ dislike books set in the islands by people who have been here only briefly, if ever; they miss the essence of the place. The Flint books were enhanced by my being very familiar with York, Kent, London and Hadrian’s Wall.

NO You can get away with glibly setting something ‘in London’ if you just mean tourist byrons-shadow-2016London or a non-specific suburb where detail on the ground is not important. I had Flint visit Glastonbury and Bath in Lady in the Lake, even though I’ve never made it to either. I also set much of the action for Byron’s Shadow in Nauplion, which I planned to visit before completing the book but only made the trip a decade later. I had been to many other places in Greece and researched carefully so ‘my’ Nauplion is not so different from the ‘real’ one I finally visited, although both exist in my mind. The Greek dig is an amalgam of my digging experience elsewhere on the continent – it was hot and tiring everywhere.

Of course none of your readers will have been to first century Rome, which is helpful to writers of historical fiction such as Lindsey Davis who haven’t been there either. A dedicated historical novelist can out-research most of the audience then only faces the challenge of making this long-lost world live and breathe. Science Fiction and Fantasy writers have even more freedom, but possibly even more challenge. Not only has the writer not been there, but the place does not exist – or at least not in the form portrayed. This is where a writer such as Tolkien needs skill to make us feel we are walking under the shadows of Mirkwood or struggling into the Misty Mountains. It helps if the writer uses familiar references, such as a hilltop castle, so the reader can start to imagine this made-up world. Writers of alt-history and steampunk novels invert this idea so that our familiar world is twisted into something that does not exist.

In the end it is that cliché ‘sense of place’. Without overdosing on adjective and purple prose, the writer must make the setting feel real. If the readers have never been to Samarkand, Deadwood or Westeros, they must end the book feeling as though they have.

I Canna Break the Laws of Physics

It was Scotty’s iconic line from Star Trek, which of course broke the laws of physics every episode. This goes beyond Sci-Fi though and into the world of thrillers and adventure, whether books, TV or films.

The special effects geek in ‘When the Dust Settles’ explains to Maddy that if a film director wants a man thrown backwards by a shot from a puny 0.38, he’s not going to object. As a sometime scientist, the laws of physics as employed in fiction are important in maintaining my suspension of disbelief. All fiction requires this. We need to believe that lone investigator can crack the case that has the police baffled, that heroic archaeologist can find that lost city when everyone else has failed, that secret agent can overpower the evil genius’ goons. Even if we need to believe in magic, dragons, aliens or vampires, that belief comes easier if the non-fantastic elements of the plot match our own experience of universal laws.

Which is where physics come in. Action sequences can be difficult to portray in books. I sometimes think ‘who’s been punched? Whose hand is on whose throat? Where’s the knife now?’ so tend to keep action sequences simple in my Flint series. In ‘Glint..’ the immense Battle of Cambrai is portrayed poetically, with a taut single viewpoint conveying the confusion of battle without my character ducking from each shell and moving from ruin to ruin. Not only the laws of physics but the laws of chance seem to be against the men of the Royal Guernsey Light Infantry.

TV and film though thrives on action, and directors delight in breaking Mr Newton’s laws as well as those covering Thermodynamics, basic human physiology and statistical probability. Number one sin is hanging onto a cliff edge by the fingertips, leaping and grabbing ropes or chains or helicopter skids mid air. Just about possible for a stuntman or circus performer with a good deal of practice, not for our average hero. That pact with the scriptwriter is broken and I no longer believe what I’m being shown -even in fantasy such as the Hobbit trilogy. It’s also been done so many times before its just boring (sorry, Hooten & the Lady).

hooten

Falling from heights is in the same category. I was gratified to see the SAS hunk in the latest ‘Our Girl’ hospitalised after a mere 15-foot heroic dive onto a beach whilst grappling a terrorist (and using him to break the fall). Yes people can fall off mountains, out of tall trees, jump from planes into the sea and survive, but generally they will have multiple fractures or have their internal organs re-organised by the experience.

Kick-ass heroines fighting men. Okay if she has some special martial art she can deploybill involving throws and dodges, or can stab with a pointed weapon fast and skilfully, but an average man is so much stronger than even an athletic woman. A fight involving fists, grappling, blows with edged weapons, or grabbing at a knife hand is likely to end just one way. Especially as our heroine is usually young, lithe and wearing impractical attire.

ramboThen there’s ballistics. We’re getting better on the whole of recognising what a mess a bullet can make of the human body. The degree we portray this is largely dictated by the certificate we want our film to have, or whether it will be screened post-watershed. There is still room for the ‘bang you’re dead’ approach to  gunfights, as seen in the Bond movies; we don’t want Saving Private Ryan every night. However there is danger in this fantasy approach to guns – our hero shoots on the move (very little chance of hitting anything), he shoots from the hip (little chance of hitting anything beyond a few feet away), he shoots with both hands (how does he aim?) or he blasts away with a machine gun (when the recoil means that after 4 or 5 shots his bullets will be going up in the air somewhere). This lack of reality may indeed help fuel the bizarre American love affair with firearms.

I won’t even mention car chases…

Peril is not exciting if our hero is not facing a risk of actual death or maiming. Yes we want them to survive and yes we know they are a cut above armchair adventurers such as me, but it is a lazy cheat to allow him/her to bend universal laws when the writer has written his hero into a corner. Much better if s/he can use their intelligence, training, experience and skill to get out of the situation. Rather than shout ‘Never!’ at the screen or throw the book down in disgust, we are instead impressed by the cleverness of the writer.

Asterix #5: The Fiat Gearbox

It was a divers’ joke. The object they found was a blue-grey colour, heavy, metallic. It was the size of a man’s oustretched palm, with a circular central hole and three vanes each with a screw hole. Three further supporting lugs added strength. They called it the Fiat Gearbox, or the Messerschmitt gearbox, thinking this might be a relic from the Occupation rather than a piece of the Roman ship. There was a fair amount of modern junk which had collected in the scour pits formed by Asterix, including  a ‘Sealink’ saucer, so it was not an unreasonable idea.

Then we found a second one, embedded deep in the pine tar. There is even video of a diver chipping it out. I had the job of cleaning this, painstakingly using a pin drill to cut away the clinging tar. It was clearly Roman – and far more ancient than Fiat!bilge pump j

A quick literature search showed that similar objects had been found on several Mediterranean wrecks of the Roman and Byzantine periods. Each was subtly different, but the general design was the same – a metal fixing with circular hole supported so it would attach to a wooden structure. The Lake Nemi bilge pumpobjects were bearings for a bilge pump. Finds from the sunken barges on Lake Nemi dating to the time of Nero offered the best indication of how these would work. A simple chain of cups was powered by a crank and served to scoop water overboard. The design had clearly been in use for at least three centuries by the time Asterix went down.

The presence of a bilge pump explained the ‘limber holes’ cut onto the undersurface of the floor timbers in Asterix. these would allow bilge water to flow freely along the hold of the ship. They only made sense if there was a pump – and this pump had to be located at the lowest part of the ship. Out two parts were however found up in the aft hold, too far back to be effective. Either the pump could be unshipped when not required and was stored at the back, or our two bearings were being carried as spares. One is on display at Castle Cornet and the second at Guernsey Museum. Cleaned and conserved, less burnt than the first,  the second one has a dull bronze-brown colour.

The presence of this ‘Roman’ invention on an otherwise ‘Celtic’ style ship further shows how ‘Asterix’ employed the best technology each culture could offer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wrecked!

Wrecked coverFor the past few months I’ve been editing a book written by a colleague. Wrecked, Guernsey Shipwrecks, is the work of Patrick Martin. When Patrick was working at Fort Grey Shipwreck Museum he asked if he could write a book about the wrecks on display. This seemed an ideal opportunity to publish some of the large collection of photographs and other images in the Museum collection.

The book takes a look at some unusual wrecks, as well as those familiar from displays in Guernsey’s Shipwreck and Maritime Museums.

Wrecked is on sale from 9 December from the Museum shop, other boookshops and online from  Guernsey Museum Shop

What – no dinosaurs?

Don’t we just love dinosaurs?  Big, bizarre and scary, with impossible names from a land far away and long ago. Unlike, say dragons and unicorns, they are also real. Children dinoprintdon’t need to ‘believe’ in dinosaurs to find them fun. As monsters they make great toys, and as we grow up we find there is fascinating science emerging from their study.

It wasn’t always like this. When I was a boy in the sixties the word ‘geek’ had not yet been coined for the sort of seven year old who borrows adult books about fossils and palaeontology out of the library. The dinosaur was not mainstream. There were no cuddly brontosaurus’ for toddlers, no dino colouring books and only a few plastic kits from Aurora when I wanted a model. Far fewer species were known, and these were the stereotypes; Triceratops, Stegosaurus, Tyrannosaurus and so on. They were cold-blooded, stupid reptiles who turned up as stop-motion monsters in films like One Million Years BC. Experts could only guess why such successful animals that had dominated the planet for 160 million years became extinct 65 million years ago. My local museum in Rotherham had no dino bones, so the Natural History Museum in London became a shrine I dreamed of visiting.

Gradually dinosaurs came out of museums and universities to become public property. A new age of dinosaurs saw children’s books, toys, games, cartoon characters, dino-shaped biscuits and jellies take over the world. Oddly it made their study seem less grown-up, as if we were indeed researching dragons and unicorns. During the 1970’s scientists made great leaps in our understanding of these beasts. A massive asteroid impact was proposed as the ‘smoking gun’ which explains the extinction. Study of their skeletons showed some dinosaurs were warm-blooded, then that ‘theropod’ dinosaurs were the ancestors of birds. Many new species included fast-moving small predators like Velociraptor, dinos with feathers and some that lived in trees. Studies are now being made of their blood supply, digestion and running speeds. Species have been found nesting like birds, laying eggs, hunting in packs, migrating in herds and we can work out what colours some of them were. For a dino-geek, all this is really exciting.

So finally, in 2006, I took a post in a museum. And as luck would have it, Guernsey has no dinosaurs. Not one. A couple of bones and other fossils have come into the collections from elsewhere, but a lonely tooth from an extinct species of elephant is our most ancient creature we have from the island . It is not because we don’t have old rocks – some outcrops at Jerbourg are up to 2,600 million years old, almost half the age of the Earth. All our major rocks have fiery origins, formed deep in the earth and later pushed up to the surface. The youngest of these are about 550 million years old and formed before there was any life on land. Above them, once upon a time, would have been deposited layers of sedimentary rocks such as sandstones or limestones including some dating to the time of the dinosaurs. These have all been eroded away by wind and water. If we ever had dinosaurs walking over our heads, the evidence is long gone.

So, I’m still dinosaur hunting whenever I can, but I have to travel to places like the tiny Mormon town of Blanding, Utah whose dinosaur museum I visited in 2012. Out in the desert, in killing heat, a young Navajo woman guided my wife and I across sandstone beds where dinosaur tracks run for mile after mile and there are loose bones scattered on the surface as we would find shells on our beaches. Meanwhile, a body of experts insist that as aves (birds) is a group of theropod dinosaurs, the dinosaur is technically not extinct at all. Perhaps the closest a Guernsey Museum visitor will come to dinosaurs is that robin hunting through the flowerbeds outside.

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You can follow the adventures of Jason Foss and alter-ego Jason Monaghan right here: Crime writing, Archaeology, Crime writing with archaeology, maybe even writing with no crime at all.

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