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.

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Catch Flint While You Can

The current Endeavour Press editions of the five Jeffrey Flint books will only be available on Amazon until 8th March. The e-books and paperbacks will be taken offline thereafter pending further discussions. This follows the liquidation of Endeavour Press which has been covered elsewhere in the publishing media.

Writing Space

Yes folks, I have a garret. My study is in the converted roof space  of our bungalow. When we first moved to Serenity we created a little room at the back, with dormer windows overlooking the garden and fields, and almost but not quite a view of the Atlantic. Sounds idyllic, but it was not the best place to write. For one thing, the evening sun came straight in, making it uncomfortably hot and too bright to see the computer screen. All that light would surely fade my books too.

So I moved across to the north side, where a chimney had been removed and a velux window popped into the roof to replace it. The sun never comes directly inside, but above me the sky is bright and I can push open the velux and listen to the birds. Mostly it is shady and quiet, with no distracting views and the perfect place to write.

One could tell it was my room the moment you stepped inside. The furniture is all black, originally self-assembly black ash from the late 80’s which I’ve carted around and re-assembled after every house move. It is held together now by inelegant large screws, wood glue and positive thinking. Two showcases for my collections were purpose-built to match.

Five book cases are squashed in here –  a stack of military history and ancient history dominates the room. My hardcore archaeology is in my museum office and my paperbacks are on the landing ‘library’ or over in the den. One shelf holds writer’s aids, dictionaries, a thesaurus and a bible. Below is a shelf of worrying titles concerning murder, forensics and various ways to kill people and then be found out afterwards. A steel filing cabinet holds paperwork, and a black set of drawers is so full of stuff they are reluctant to open any more. More spread into the corners of the room. I’mm sure you can imagine the random untidiness that creeps in.

What wall space is left, plus almost every surface, is covered in souvenirs of travel and random collecting. Native masks, a replica ‘Sting’, Great War medals and a couple of my framed book covers hang around the desk. My mother bought me a bust of Napoleon which sits by my elbow, and my sister bought me a cardboard robot as a joke present but he’s been a sentinel by my computer for a decade. Maybe 1,000 hand painted model soldiers of all periods of history stand in mirror-backed cabinets that double their ranks. Each reminds me of a day – or at least the year- when I painted it.

A pair of whiteboards carry the latest plot twists – but more of them anon. A leather firewood basket holds an assortment of cables, chargers and connectors, each with a different dinosaur on the plug to distinguish them; brontosaurus is for the mobile and so forth. A brass coal scuttle serves as a rubbish bin and never quite overflows.

Three computers are in use, sometimes at the same time. ‘Little Dell’ sits under the big black desk and is for my writing. Alongside is ‘Big Dell’, an older but hefty machine that is used purely for movie editing. As it isn’t connected to the internet and only carries four useful programs it doesn’t get clogged by constant updates or slowed by firewalls, so happily chugs onward despite still using Windows XP. Then there’s this machine (surprise!), my laptop, that sits on the bookcase next to Napoleon. I have a dicky back these days and have got used to standing up to work. Standing typing can be messy but it is a good place to do first drafts, emails, blogs and ‘waste time on the internet’.

Of course there are sundry heaps, and I have a shelf double-stacked with crime books I’m yet to read, but everyone has those, eh? Enough of the guided tour, it’s back to writing.

 

 

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’.

 

Writing on a Wall

Writing for museums is a skill in its own right. Tucked into a novel, you should become so immersed in the book you cease to be aware you are reading at all. In the same way, when you are in a museum, you should enjoy the objects on show and not be aware of the work that has gone into crafting those captions and text boards. The curator’s voice is a whisper not a yell.

Museum curators tend to be experts in their subject, and many write academic papers and books aimed at other experts, but exhibitions require a completely different approach. The curator may have a doctorate in archaeology, but the vast majority of people who view the exhibition will not. Visitors will include school groups, Dutch tourists, Dad keeping the kids busy on a wet Saturday, students working on projects and otherwise keen museum-goers whose enthusiasm is flagging a couple of hours into the visit.

The curator is not writing ‘a book on a wall’ – this mistake is often made by small museums run by enthusiasts. Few people have the time or patience to read more than a couple of hundred words whilst standing in a museum gallery, and want to get to the punchline as soon as possible.

 

Journalists working on popular tabloid newspapers face the same challenge; complex issues need to be explained to the ‘interested non-specialist’ using as few words as possible. However, it is important that in doing this the museum does not ‘dumb down’ or become simplistic.

Tabloid news is also often told backwards, with a give-away headline followed immediately by the crux of the story and then by the events leading up to it. Many people will only look at the photo, read the headline and the first few lines of copy and never actually get into the duller detail. I admit to reading most news stories like that.

Museums address this by using ‘three level text’. First comes the title on the text board, enough for people in a rush or those who don’t speak very good English to learn roughly what they are looking at. Next comes a paragraph of the key information for those who want a little more detail.  The third level offers additional paragraphs to satisfy the more curious, although in reality we are only talking another 2 to 300 words.

Research shows that the majority of museum text and captions are not read by the average visitor; people pick and choose which items they want to discover more about, and tend to have more appetite for reading soon after arrival than they do an hour or more later.

 

The curator’s challenge is to not discourage the reader by making text too complex, too long-winded or too technical. ‘Access’ is a museum buzz-word which includes enabling maximum appreciation of the exhibition by visitors of diverse ages, educational level, cultural background and emotional maturity. Jargon and artbabble are simply turn-offs; the aim is to explain, not show off how clever we are. Museums should be for everyone, not just ‘posh white people who have been to university’.

In Part 2 next week I’ll be looking at some do’s and don’ts for wall text.

Thanks to Guernsey Museum for use of text board images

New Year, New Novel

A New Year’s Day tradition for me has been to start a new novel, or kick-start one that has been slumbering as a few chapters in rough draft. A couple of hundred words will do.

This year I got ahead of myself. With the opening three or four chapters of ‘AW’ already in mind, I put down the first page three days ago.

NRT is done, as far as it can be before the next round of editorial comments come back. In the attached photo I am pondering potential titles for the book. Meantime the challenge is to write the follow-up. Not necessarily a sequel, mind. Who is saying that any of the lead characters survived? Perhaps their story arcs are complete.

What I’ve done is start plotting two follow-up books, using the same style and tone. Both are contemporary mysteries. Why two? Firstly because I have two ideas rattling around in my head that I want to explore. Also, although starting a story is easy, there is not always a middle to explore or a neat ending to be reached. Most real-world mysteries are solved extremely quickly or drag on for years in a mess of loose ends and inadequate evidence.

An author’s chat group ’10 Minute Novelists’ carried a story by one writer on how he uses whiteboards for plotting. To date I’d used ‘plot spiders’ scrawled on A4 paper, but this seemed like a great idea so whilst I was out Christmas shopping, I bought two.

The story with code name ‘AW’ hit a plot snag when I was two-thirds the way down that first page. A new whiteboard hung on my study wall is where I’m now planning my way around it. Perhaps the problem I hit as an author can simply be passed to the characters to solve? Meanwhile, I have both beginning and end in mind for the story code name ‘DC’  but need to think out a middle to tie both together.

So I’m daydreaming and doodling through post-Christmas television, starting to ‘remember’ the stories that have not been written yet. The chart on my whiteboard grows more complex, and I’ve opened two folders on my computers where the first ideas are taking root.

2018 is going to be an exciting year.

 

 

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.

Don’t Fear the Editor

 

So the draft NRT is back from beta-readers. The lovely things the trio said about the book were great, causing big beams of joy on my writerly face. The criticisms gave pause for thought. No, I’m not sharing – only the final version sees the light of day. What happens at beta-read stays at beta-read.

At first read-through an editorial critique of a draft can be daunting. Okay I take some comments with a pinch of salt, others can be easily adapted, but where there is a consensus saying essentially the same thing, those aspects need to be addressed. That means a lot more work on a story that already felt finished. I’ve asked a trio of people for opinions, and I have them. If there are faults, best address them now as literary agents and publishers take no prisoners.

A novel is like a cats’ cradle in that if you tweak one part, the rest trembles. More extensive structural editing is more akin to a game of Jenga; pull out the wrong block and the whole thing falls in a heap. Experimentally I deleted a whole scene, because I wanted to kill someone (not the editor, but the central character in the scene who would have been dead two days in the revised plot). Yep, that was the Jenga scene and whole chunks of plot blocks started to tumble down. Hastily I re-inserted it.

To get to Draft 5 has taken me 9 months and it feels heart-wrenching to start unpicking and rewriting. This is where the author takes over from a person who simply wants to write a book – some people I’ve met would have simply published Draft 5 as an e-book or KDP. It is not like starting again, though, and once I had that list of a dozen ‘must do’ edits morale soon spiked back up again.

The good news is that I have 85,000 words of pretty decent prose, a plot with beginning middle and end, a full set of characters and some near-perfect scenes that don’t need a jot of editing. Best of all, 85k is short of the 100k that a modern mystery should aim for. I have 15,000 words of headroom to develop that character, flesh out that subplot, and twist the middle a little more. The key danger to avoid is killing the cracking pace with 15,000 words of flab simply to tick the editors’ boxes. I was once asked simply to ‘make the book thicker so it looks better on a library shelf’­– that’s not the territory I’m in anymore.

So, draft 6 is underway. I’ve opened the bonnet, pulled out a few creaking parts and reached for the spares box. They say that the first page of your novel is never the first page when it finally comes to print, and with NRT that looks like being true. Rather than slipping into a gently escalating crisis, the lead character is now there on page 1, line 1 – and she’s in deep trouble.

Arsenic and Old Ale

Whodrunkit?

Theakston Old Peculier have been sponsoring the UK’s biggest crime writing festival since the dawn of time (or so their PR goes). This was my third encounter with the crime-loving crowd packed (literally) into the Old Swan Hotel in Harrogate, venue famously of Agatha Christie’s mysterious flight in 1926.

Lee Child’s approach to writing intrigued me – he said he ‘never changed anything’, writing from start to finish without the waves of re-editing and drafts that some of us authors do. The audience wanted to quiz him on his reaction to Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher, but his stated view was that his book was complete – the film did not affect the book.

Crime writer panels asserted that the reader has an expectation that ‘order will be restored’ at the end of the novel, but there is a growing appreciation that ‘justice’ is not always served. The messiness of the real-life crime / resolution was freely bypassed by many writers.

Ian Rankin in conversation

Ian Rankin acknowledges the complexity of the work surrounding Rebus’ investigations but drops just enough hints that this other work is going on elsewhere to allow his detective to pursue the case. As much as we strive for accuracy, we know there are false aspects to many crime stories that require the suspension of disbelief. Former US prosecutor Alafair Burke says she ‘corrects’ the reader’s perceptions by allowing characters to make asides about the unusual aspects of the case; the protagonists know as well as we do that this is not routine police/legal work.

The ‘Dark Side’ panel considered the use of supernatural elements in crime fiction, with a consensus that ‘magic’ should not be used to cheat the reader but it was fair game for characters to believe in the supernatural and act as though it was real. It was acknowledged that even ‘realistic’ procedural police stories contain a great deal of fiction. The demands especially of TV shift our detectives away from reality. This led nicely to the historical panel ‘Ashes to Ashes’ discussing the limits of research. Essentially, if an author is unable to establish a historical fact it is unlikely that readers can either.

Ideas flowed in the panels, in the bar, in the fringe drinks parties and the beer tent. It was

difficult indeed to find slots in which to eat. One author proposed that she would not plan her novels ahead, so that twists sprung naturally and surprised her as much as the protagonists.

Steve Mosby suggested keeping a ‘Bad Ideas’ file, on the grounds you might one day need them. There was tension between the idea of keeping a character running from book to book in a series, or burning them up in a standalone novel leaving them broken.

To cap it all came the late night panel ‘Where The Bodies Are Buried’, a free-for all loosely chaired by Sarah Millican with Mark Billingham, Val McDermid and Lee Child. Head buzzing with ideas (and wine) I can’t even start to re-hash the crime-tinged jokes. However, one uncanny fact was that a certain US politician raised his orange-tinged head in almost every panel during the weekend. Everyone agreed we live in strange times – perfect for crime and thriller writers!

 

 

 

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