Anyone for Pie?

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is far and away the most successful novel set in Guernsey. Although there are easily two dozen works of fiction using the German Occupation of the islands as their background, this is the stand-out commercial hit. Curiously it was written by an American who had only made a single unplanned visit to Guernsey.

The book is the only novel by American author Mary Ann Shaffer. She made a brief stop in Guernsey in 1976 and became fog-bound at the airport; a familiar hazard to island residents. Browsing the bookshop, she learned about the German Occupation of 1940 to 1945. It was two decades before she finally began her Guernsey novel, and it was accepted for publication in 2006. Her health deteriorated, so the final editing was carried out by her niece Annie Barrows who was already a published children’s author. Mary Ann Shaffer died in 2008 before the book was published.

It is an ‘epistolary novel’, in that the story is told entirely through letters between the characters. In post-war 1946, English journalist Juliet Ashton strikes up a correspondence with islander Dawsey Adams one and becomes intrigued by the quaintly titled Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. She travels to Guernsey to meet members of the society, and a story of love, tragedy and hope emerges against the background of an island people surviving almost five years of enemy occupation emerges. For the uninitiated, potato peel was used as ersatz pie crust when food began to run short. I have never tried it, but it was apparently rather nasty.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society was an immediate hit, especially in the USA. It spent 11 weeks in the New York Times bestseller list and reached the number 1 position on 2nd August 2009.

Reviews were favorable; The Times said “Every now and again, a book comes along that is simple yet effective, readable yet memorable. This is one such delight … It is a uniquely humane vision of inhumanity; one to lift even the most cynical of spirits”

To date it has sold over 5 million copies worldwide in over 30 territories and has proved particularly popular with book clubs. It was planned for me to interview Annie Barrows at the Guernsey Literary Festival, but scheduling clashes mean that it’s not to be.

A film adaption has been on the cards for a few years, with different directors and stars mooted. It finally takes form this spring, directed by Mike Newell, starring Lily James as English author Juliet Ashton and Michiel Huisman as islander Dawsey Adams. The film will be in cinemas from April 20th 2018, with a special Premiere taking place in Guernsey in addition to the World Premiere in London. It remains to be seen whether filmgoers also have the taste for pie.

 

 

And Now in German…

The Story of Guernsey is published in German this week. It is an introductory history of Guernsey profusely illustrated with images from Guernsey Museums’ collection, aimed at the general reader, visitors to the island and older children. The English and French editions of this book have already made it the Museum’s best-selling non-fiction work.

I’m pleased to see this out in German and have to thank my friend Tamara Scharf for translating it,  Elke Spangenberg for proofing the text and Christine Zürcher for the final proof-read. My schoolboy German wasn’t up to more than browsing through to check that the final copy looked okay. As usual Paul le Tissier laid out the book; always a complication when a paragraph in another language is not the same length as in English. The book is now on sale from outlets in Guernsey and via Guernsey Museum’s online Amazon shop.

Writing on a Wall (part 2)

I’d like to continue the theme of my last blog, where I discussed established principles for writing text on a wall. These apply not only to museums and galleries, but other public spaces such as information boards.

It goes without saying that the writing should be grammatically correct. Less obvious is that sentences need to be kept short. People are reading wall text standing up, an arm’s length or more away. They may be tired and suffering ‘museum back’, and could easily be distracted by something more enticing in the gallery. Sentences beyond 15 words in length become increasingly challenging to read and some people will give up. By 25 words half the audience has been lost, and almost no-one is still reading at 30.

Punctuation is also the enemy of the curator. The ideal sentence contains no punctuation other than the full stop. A comma gives the reader an opportunity to pause, and indeed to stop reading. Subordinate clauses can make the meaning hard to follow, and people forced to back-track to fully understand may simply not bother. Colons, semicolons, em-dashes and brackets are beyond the pale. Question marks can appear patronising, can’t they? Exclamation marks can look childish – just ask the kids!

Without being simplistic, common words are preferable to long and obscure ones. Archaeologists ‘dig’ rather than ‘excavate’. Instead of them ‘evaluating’ or ‘elucidating’ or ‘extrapolating’, plainer English explanations need to be explored.

The objects are cool – so the text should be cool too.

Within these guidelines, the writing still needs to be fluid and engaging. Museum curators can borrow principles from magazine writers, who are aiming to entertain and inform without lecturing. The use of active verbs is preferred: “The dockers unloaded the ship” rather than “The ship was unloaded by dockers”. Excitement can be injected, where “The soldiers charged onto the beach” rather than “Soldiers were landed on the beach.” Weak nouns are also discouraged: “the soldier was brave”, he did not “display bravery”. This fights against the novelist’s training to avoid adjectives, so the truck “struggled to climb the steep hill” rather than “struggled due to the hill’s steepness”.

The above guidelines make it challenging to still write interesting text. Breaking up long sentences requires some skill and imagination. The text can become choppy. There is also a temptation to use a lot of T-words, namely The, Their, Them, They and That which makes for boring reading, especially when used for successive sentences such as in this paragraph. Curatorial knowledge is essential, good writing skills help, and editing to a ‘House Style’ becomes critical.

When you are next in a museum or gallery, have a look to see how many of these principles have been applied. You’ll never read a museum text board in the same way again.

With thanks to Guernsey Museum for use of images from their exhibition ‘Engage Warp Drive’.

 

A Writer’s Year

January is a hectic time at Guernsey Museum, as we turn around all the temporary exhibition spaces in three weeks. For me it means checking and proofing all the wall text, and numerous press releases. New Year’s Day is also when I like to pitch into the new book – NRT in the case of 2017

 

In an ideal world I’d skip February. It is a miserable month whose only redeeming feature is its brevity. I escaped to Barbados and hand-wrote some major plot twists of my new novel by the pool.

 

March saw the splendid Alderney Literary Festival, where I talked about ‘Glint” and signed a few copies. Mixing with the other authors of historical fiction/ non-fic/ biography was the highpoint though.

 

By April the literary year was hotting up, and I was off to Edinburgh for the annual conference of the Crime Writers’ Association. As usual it included talks by ex-coppers and criminologists on real-life cases; grim stuff like the ‘World’s End Murders’.

May saw both Bristol Crimefest (where I didn’t speak but met plenty of old friends) and the Guernsey Literary Festival (where I did both). I also interviewed Clare MackIntosh on her new book ‘I See You’; great fun, and only the second time I’d done a panel interview.

 

June’s big excitement was an emergency flight to Alderney to rescue what we could of an Iron Age burial ground sliced through by a JCB. Two days’ frantic work produced a wealth of finds that would keep us busy beyond the end of the year.

I was also back in Alderney in July, working ahead of a micro-excavator within the Nunnery Roman Fort. Enough evidence was uncovered to tempt me back in 2018.

 

It was my third visit to the Old Peculiar Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate in July. The last two had been blisteringly hot, but this time Yorkshire was grey and rainy. By now NRT was into its fourth draft, ready to start talking confidently about it to my crime-writing colleagues and send it to my erstwhile editor for a critique.

 

 

 

 

In late August, I went on holiday leaving Draft 5 in the hands of beta readers. I got off the Rock and headed for the wide open spaces of Wyoming, chalking up something over 2,000 miles in a fortnight. Plenty of iconic sites, but the ‘Great American Eclipse’ was an experience never to be forgotten; in Guernsey, Wyoming of all places.

Writing from a small island comes with its own challenges; 100 miles of water separates me from the mainland’s literary conventions, book fairs and library readings. In 2017 I took as many opportunities I could to combine a trip to the UK with a little literary interaction. September offered  a chance to drop into the small but perfectly formed ‘Morecambe  and Vice’ (“bring me some crime”).

 

The big October highlight was of course the CWA Daggers Awards Dinner, the Oscars of the crime-writing world. It was lovely sitting on the ‘New Blood’ table meeting the hopeful nominees and the eventual winner; I imagine we’ll hear more from all of them.

 

November was the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Cambrai, which features strongly in ‘Glint of Light on Broken Glass’. I engaged in a month of subtle promotion of the book on Facebook, and by nudging local shops. Interest in the battle in Guernsey had been minimal three years ago, but via a programme of lectures, museum displays, parades and living history events it was pushed into the forefront of Guernsey’s year.

So we came to December. NRT was finished, the final polish to Draft 7 being hammered out on my mother’s dining room table when I should have been socialising. Having discussed the idea the previous Christmas with London agent Annette Crossland. I sent off the manuscript and in a hectic couple of weeks I was signed up with A for Authors agency. Here we are celebrating at the CWA Christmas party. A pretty good end to 2017.

And the follow-up to NRT? The first page will go down on New Year’s Day. I’m also working on an artistic biography, our ‘Roman Guernsey’ book may finally see the light of day and ‘The Story of Guernsey’ will be published in German.  A Merry Christmas and successful New Year to fellow writers, readers and friends everywhere.

Small Island, Big Discoveries

Following up from the earlier post ‘Bring up the Bodies’, the island of Alderney continues to throw up exciting finds. We had only two short days this summer to rescue as much as we could from an electric trench that ran for some 300m along the edge of Longis Common. The trench was barely 1m wide and up to 1.2m deep so was truly a section through Alderney’s early history. To complicate matters further it was cut entirely through wind-blown sand, which does not tolerate a straight section for more than a few hours. Indeed by the time we returned for our second foray a week after the first, there had been significant slumping of the sections into the trench. In some cases this revealed new finds, but in other cases it dumped archaeology in a heap. I am still not sure whether the features we called C, D and E were three burial cists cut perpendicularly or just one burial which happened to follow the line of the trench.

Some 35 tonnes of spoil had been machine-excavated. Members of the Alderney Society had retrieved over 50kg of archaeological finds from this by the end of the summer, plus a great heap of slabs which once belonged to burial cists.

We have now had two carbon-14 dates obtained from the burial ground. The cremation I dug out literally using my hands had been in a later  Iron Age pot, but its C-14 date range was 198-47 BC, so most probably second century BC. The first skull found on the site has been confirmed to belong to the otherwise headless ‘skeleton 3’. It worried us at first that this was at right angles to the other burials and appeared to have been in a coffin rather than a stone cist. However the C-14 date again pointed to the late Iron Age; 174-19 BC. So the burial was probably later than the cremation and could indeed have taken place in that transition period when the Romans were asserting their control of the region after 56  BC. This is the period in which I initially placed the fine ‘Belgic’ pedestal urn we extracted from a collapsing cist further uphill from the skeleton.

More fun has followed. A keen-eyed local chap brought in a clutch of three bracelets, two of which were made of shale (imagine grinding a bracelet out of shiny black shale!). The third was of copper bronze and in a fragile condition. It was taken to Jersey Heritage’s conservator, who initially thought it might have been silvered.

 

As he cleaned off the corrosion products he noticed a criss-cross lattice on the inside of the bracelet. Moreover, this seemed to contain metal threads. The provisional conclusion is that this is an impression of a fine material the deceased was wearing, or at least was wrapped around the bracelet. Textile preservation is rare in archaeology, but a fine material containing metal threads would be a pretty unique find for Iron Age Britain.

So we now know there was an extensive late Iron Age graveyard at the south end of the Common. Half a dozen graves were already known and this summer’s rescue dig revealed a dozen more. In addition there were traces of at least one building and suggestions of more, in a style suggestive of the Romans. The 50kg of finds have now been washed and includes Roman pottery. Overlooked by the Iron Age settlement of Les Hougettes, and running down towards the late Roman fort at the Nunnery, the electric trench suggests there is over 200m of archaeology in a west/east direction and we suspect this extends at least 100m to north and south.

‘Time Team’ once approached me for suggestions on potential sites for a programme on the Channel Islands and I said “go to Alderney” as the archaeology was fantastic and barely messed about by modern intrusion (they went to Jersey). The little island barely 3 miles long keeps turning up treasures. The sand of Longis Common appears to overlie an entire Iron Age and Roman landscape. We will certainly be returning in the summer of 2018.

 

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.

 

Thou Shalt Not Kill (part 2)

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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.

Thou Shalt Not Kill (part 1)

gun 2

‘Artie, could you kill a German?’

‘Course, easy.’

‘No, but really kill him if he was standing just over there?…’

George challenges his brother as Glint of Light on Broken Glass enters the summer of 1917, with the Great War at its height and no sign of it ending. Artie’s reply is off-the-cuff, the stock response of a confident young man facing a dilemma he has only read about in history books.

Artie is wrong; it is not easy to kill. This is a relief to police chiefs but a problem for generals and those who like to play up the dark side of human nature. Although animal violence lurks within us, modern humans are raised to view it as ethically wrong. Killing raises an even higher order of revulsion, a sin in the eyes of all the world’s major religions.

Even before we became ‘civilised’ there was a great deal of self-interest in not killing another human. Watch animals fight over food, mates or territory. One gets the upper hand and the other quickly backs off. Neither can risk being injured, as it would then face the threat of disease, starvation or falling prey to higher predators. Species that battle to the death are therefore rare.

So it must have been with our primitive ancestors. An individual prepared to fight to the death will in due course meet an opponent who is strong enough or lucky enough to strike the fatal blow first. It is not a career path. My fencing instructor used to say that “50/50 is lousy odds when your life is at stake”. Historically we know of tribes fighting ritual wars that end with perhaps the first death, token injury or submission. Simply embarrassing the enemy by striking him could be enough to prove your valour, such as using the Native American ‘coup stick’.

It is ‘civilised’ humanity that invented total war, often directed by rulers who were not in physical danger themselves. The firearm adds further potential for the use of lethal force; it does not demand the all-out commitment of a sword fight, provided you shoot first and shoot well. In the face of lethal force, our primal instinct is to run, hide, take cover, plead or surrender. You’d need to be crazy to do otherwise.

Writers of historical fiction, and especially TV and movie adaptions should note that most conscript soldiers have a natural revulsion towards killing. It has to be trained out of them, just as the use of arms has to be trained into them. Research in WW2 found that less than 10% of US infantry who fought in the D-Day campaign actually fired their weapon, and a small proportion of these shot at anything in particular. Even in the deadly Great War, the fact that roughly 5% of British troops were killed suggests that, all other things being equal, 95% of German troops never killed anyone. This is accentuated further when one considers that most casualties were caused by artillery and machine guns. Most riflemen shoot wildly at distant or imagined targets, if they shoot at all.

Other research shows that military units of all kinds, from infantry platoons to fighter squadrons, contain a small number of effective killers. Everyone else is simply making up the numbers (and providing targets for the enemy’s killers). One reason professional armies such as NATO perform so well against otherwise well-armed and dangerous opposition is that these flaws are trained out of the troops. In the words of Lt Rasczak in Starship Troopers: “Everyone fights, nobody quits”.

I’ll leave the final thought to our brave lads, shooting into the smoke of the Battle of Cambrai:

Perhaps they killed hundreds ­– perhaps none at all.

Jason Monaghan is speaking at the Alderney Literary Festival on Saturday 25th March

#Alderneylit

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.

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