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…

WP_20180929_09_55_46_Pro
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.

WP_20180929_14_48_40_Pro
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.

WP_20180929_17_38_40_Pro
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.

Beneath the Sands of Time

Some of you will have seen shots of my time spent on the island of Alderney during July. It was probably the tenth time I’d been there to lead an excavation at the Nunnery, but time shifts and this year brought new experiences and new surprises.

Yes, that’s the view from my room!

The Nunnery itself has been reconfigured as a Field Centre, operating under the eagle eye of the Bird Observatory Warden (okay, that was a bad pun). We hope that bird-watchers and ringers will stay there in migration season, and heritage/natural history buffs in the high summer. I was the first resident of the almost-finished hostel, all on my own for the first night, up in the attic watching the sun rise over France when the oystercatchers and seagulls awoke me at 5am. It was of course mid-heatwave so there was no question of closing the windows. For a week I had no radio, no TV, no internet and not even a live phone signal; which was blissful when it wasn’t infuriatingly inconvenient.

Isabel and Dave mark the width of the original gate

Week one, I was progressively joined by more colleagues  and we started Trench 16 just inside the Nunnery gates. The sun reflected back off the Roman and Revolutionary-era stonework as we battled a giant fuscia then dug downwards to uncover the mystery of the Roman gate. There was a hint that it had been narrower than the modern one, and so it proved – by 800mm or so. It had no fancy quoins like the 18th century gate though – just an ordinary corner.

Mystery building from above

In the back of the trench was another section of the mystery building we’d seen in 2016, lurking just beneath the surface but cut through by the 1793 ‘coal store’ foundations. Loads of what looked like 18th century pantiles had to be shifted to have a look at the foot of the Roman wall – whether they came off the mystery building when it was destroyed I don’t know. Down in the same hole though were glazed ridge tiles peculiar to French churches. Maybe there was a ‘Nunnery’ at the Nunnery once, after all.

 

 

Tanya records the stone pavement

After I left for a break, things shifted gear. My colleague Phil de Jersey opened up two trenches in the field opposite, hoping to find more of the Iron Age burial ground we spotted last year. I was going to lead a group of school students to investigate a set of walls we’d also seen to check if they were Roman. As luck had it, Phil and Tanya found the Roman buildings first. Buried under a metre of windblown sand the walls still stood chest- high and in one trench was an impressive stone pavement.

 

 

The cross-walls emerge in Trench C; the Nunnery in the background

For Trench C, I chose a location indicated by a local dowser as being a likely junction of walling and my students quickly found it – again not far under the surface. Four walls met awkwardly, including one where a huge 85cm square slab made up the first course. As ever we were operating on a shoestring but help came from many quarters when we needed it, from landowners allowing the dig in the first place to that welcome excavator to fill the holes in at the end.

Some historic maps marked that area as ‘The Old Town’, although nothing remains above ground today. Since Victorian times there had been reports of odd Roman finds out on Longis common – a coin here, a skull there, ‘huge walls’ in imprecise locations. Now we had proof that all these disparate finds were linked. Some 100 metres separated Phil’s trench from mine – and once the other evidence is added in we have a picture of an entire Roman settlement buried under the sand-dunes of Longis. Several people used the phrase ‘Pompeii of the Channel Islands’ and I was the one who ended up being quoted using it. Apt in that we could have well-preserved Roman houses, streets and courtyards just beneath our feet; less apropropriate as the Roman town was probably long-abandoned before it was buried beneath a massive ‘sand blow’.

Alderney now has a unique and extensive site bigger than anything we have seen in the Channel Islands or adjacent French coasts. The benign sand preserves  bone, pottery and the metal objects we need to date and interpret the site.  The Common is not threatened by a new motorway or multistory car-park so is a perfect research site. And the views are great – eat your heart out Time Team!

It was my first dig where the sun shone every day for 3 weeks  and the rain held off until 30 mins after we closed the site that final Friday. We swam most days in the wide bay at Longis, Alderney’s natural harbour; probably the reason the Roman fort and settlement were put there in the first place. The sun went down glowing on 4th century stonework, black rabbits emerged from their burrows on the Common and we rinsed off the sands of time before picking one of Alderney’s pubs or bistros for dinner. A site tour and great media coverage sent a buzz through the island, capped by a final lecture. So we ended on a massive high, exhilarated by what our small team had found.

To find out more about the Nunnery and Longis Common digs, follow the facebook page ‘Alderney Nunnery’. We’ll be working on the finds and reviewing the evidence during the winter, and with luck will return again next year.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑