In the paper the other week, a defence advocate explained that her client had made some ‘poor decisions’ in her life. We might say that committing a crime is the ultimate poor decision, so at the core of our crime novels are villains who have not just acted badly, but thought things out badly too.
All around us, we see friends and acquaintances make decisions we think poor. That seventh pint of beer when its work the next day, that seventh baby they can’t possibly afford, that suicidaly frank email to the boss. Indeed we characterise people as having ‘poor judgement’ or ‘a poor choice in men’, assuming if we were in the same position we would have acted differently. Much of the time we don’t stop and analyse what we are doing deeply enough to spot our errors in advance.
First up, most decisions are trivial. Shall I go to the shops now, or in ten minutes? Shall I talk to that workmate who looks lost over on the other side of the bar? Then the butterfly flaps its wings and the decision no longer becomes trivial. By delaying for ten minutes, I am hit by a bus crossing the road. By talking to that workmate I find my life partner.
Two soldiers leap out of a trench – one breaks left and makes it to safety, the other breaks right and is killed by a stray bullet. Here small decisions lead to an outcome that could not have been predicted because we did not have enough information. Some people call it ‘luck’, but ‘luck’ is a shorthand for not having sufficient data and the ability to analyse it. If we had known the exact moment the enemy soldier fired his rifle, applied the laws of ballistics, adjusted for gravity, wind direction, the angle of the shot, the symmetry of the bullet, the precise amount of propellant in the cartridge and the range to the unfortunate target we could have given that soldier enough information to tell him to break left, or delay his move for half a second. The roulette ball follows the laws of physics as do the balls tumbling in the National Lottery bucket. It is said that ‘people make their own luck’ and to an extent this is true: analysing the information you have reduces that uncertainty we lazily call luck.
Analyse your own life and think how many REAL decisions have you made for which you were aware of the consequences. Then think how many of your big decisions were ‘no brainers’: do I marry the person I love? Do I take this promotion? Do I buy this dream house? We are not gambling, there is no ‘luck’ involved. We use hindsight to judge, and more often than not base it on the outcome not the starting conditions
The outcome of a decision does not determine whether it was good or bad. We often criticise politicians for taking the wrong decisions (although ‘wrong’ can be a matter of opinion). The fact David Cameron lost the Brexit referendum does not in itself mean it was a poor decision; the poor decision was acting without enough information and without planning for the downside consequences. It was a gamble. A man who stakes £10,000 on a 100-1 bet and wins did not make a ‘good’ decision either; he knew the most likely consequence would be he would lose his money but he acted against this data.
So what of our criminals? Many impulse crimes are committed by people who are daft, drunk, drugged up or desperate. The consequences of their actions never occur to them, so they are not taking ‘poor decisions’, as they are barely taking a conscious decision at all. Moving up to the career criminal brings us closer to the gambler. He knows there is a risk of getting caught, being imprisoned or even killed. However he minimises this risk in his calculations, being over-confident in his ability and just not understanding how ‘trusting to luck’ (ignoring facts outside his knowledge) will be his undoing sooner or later. This is poor decision-making at its worst. Stupid criminals are hard to empathise with.
Finally we have the literary criminal, the one we like to write about and read about. He is not stupid, although possibly psychologically damaged. He takes decisions which in his world appear good, possibly even no-brainers. He might be a gambler, but playing for very high stakes where calm calculation suggests his risk of being caught is small relative to the reward. The criminal may have no choice, or face unenviable options whichever decision he takes. We might feel sorry for his dilemma, and if written well enough even take his side.
Good decisions versus poor decisions are at the core of my new novel. You might decide that I should be writing Draft 2, and not this blog…
How many times have I been watching a film and two-thirds the way through thought ‘finish it now!’. Likewise when reading books, a point often comes where I feel the author is spinning the story out, or we are anticipating the denouement so why another red herring? Some books feel simply too long at this point. I may not be the only author who struggles around the 3/4 mark.
The 3/4 point is the hardest part of a book for me to write. Say chapters 22 to 26 of a 30 chapter book. Starting a book is easy, and the first three to six chapters simply flow. By then I will have an end in mind, and sometimes draft the last half dozen pages so I know where I’m headed. I like a midpoint break, a high point, a crisis, a game-changer which will naturally grow from the character’s actions in the first half. In some of my books I even have a ‘part 2’. I did this in Glint of light on Broken Glass partly to avoid war-weariness in 1916, skipping most of a year where my characters’ lives went on much the same from week to week. So I can work my beginning-of-novel towards that midpoint break.
By this point of the book, key characters, setting, backstory, plot are all established. Moving off from the midpoint is fine, as the reader will be at home with a fully fledged cast, belief suspended, calibrated for the period and style, and immersed in the story. Then comes the 3/4 point. Here the mystery needs to start making sense, without giving away the ending. Characters need to start dropping away so there is not still a cast of dozens cluttering the denoument. Red herrings need to be recognised and real clues appreciated at last. I also need to set up the final sequences – the chase, the fight, the revelation, disillusion or whatever. Characters’ motivations must become clear and their arcs concluded. Loose ends must be tied, and if they are left loose this must be a deliberate conceit of the author not carelessness.
So the 3/4 point is a problem. Introducing new characters is annoying, as the reader will know they are less important that the ones we’ve been rooting for. A shift of scene might be disconcerting unless it fits the style of the plot, such as the Road Movie format of When the Dust Settles or Lady in the Lake. Action sequences or sex scenes or ‘another murder’ can feel like gratuitous padding unless something is resolved – a threat is eliminated or a key twist revealed. Information dumping is even more forbidden now than in the first quarter – this is the wrong time to discover our hero has a forgotten sister or still has a bullet lodged in his back from the war. It is also no time for purple prose as we’ve set the mood already and the reader will become impatient.
Our characters need to be moving inexorably towards that ending, which should still retain at least some surprise if not a twist as such. I’m at that point now in NRT, 50,000 words into draft 1, an end already written about 10,000 words ahead. Don’t pad, don’t give away the end, drop those minor characters, expose the red herrings, raise the stakes, set up that finale.
Deep breath, here we go…
On New Year’s day I have made a practice of starting a new book, or as in the case of 2017 picking up where I left off before party season hit.
So, I’m 50,000 words into the new thriller. It’s contemporary and it has no connection with archaeology; that’s all the clues I’m giving. Oh and the working codename is NRT.
When I was a lad I was at the same fencing club as Desmond Bagley’s widow, Joan. She invited me up to Castel House one afternoon to talk about my ambition to be a writer. IF I paraphrase her advice it was “When you start writing a book, there’s an awfully big pile of blank paper to fill.”
In the modern parlance that translates to a pure wordcount on the computer, but the image remains. Three quarters of a refill pack for my printer needs to be covered in print – hopefully something a large number of people will pay to read. I no longer print early drafts of books, it’s a waste of trees and ink, so at the moment NRT exists only in the electronic realm. And enough of the blogging, it’s time to write!
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.
In 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.
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.
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.”
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 have 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 London 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.
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).
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 deploy 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.
Then 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.