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.

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Bring Up the Bodies

I felt as if I was in a scene from a Jeffrey Flint novel. An email came in saying a skull had been found in the island of Alderney, then a phone call from the police concerned they had a crime scene. It had turned up in a trench being dug for an electric main across the dunes of Longis Common. Was this a crime scene or an archaeological site? Which aspect of ‘blood and trowels’ was involved?

From the start I was pretty sure the skull was ancient – there were reports of Roman burials in that area dating back to Victorian times. However, sensationalist stories swirl about Alderney and inevitably some people started to wonder if this was a slave worker murdered or worked to death by the Nazis during their occupation of the island. The fact that the skull came from under the road, and the road was laid round about the war, suggested to me that this was most likely to be pre-war. The depth of 1.2 metres was also about right. There is I believe a whole Iron Age and Roman landscape buried under 1-2 metres of sand at Longis, possibly a whole village or fort. Only a hundred metres or so from the finds stands the best preserved late Roman small fort in Britain – the Nunnery.

 I couldn’t fly to Alderney as notice was too short to get a flight, but my local colleague Isabel was able to examine the bones and the site. The police decided this was not a crime scene and we archaeologists were in business. I was able to bring the bones back with me latter than week in an ‘evidence’ bag. Then came a call that more skulls had been found. It was 8.30pm and I was settling down for a movie. There was still free seats on the Friday morning flight, so I was in the island by 9am next day. Unlike the UK, little Alderney has no resident professional rescue archaeology unit to call on but the all-volunteer Alderney Society were on hand to lend assistance.

 It was summer-holiday brochure hot and I always love working in Alderney. The site overlooks wide Longis Bay with France 9 miles in the distance. Workmen soon showed me the lengths of wall – presumed Roman – emerging from the 300m long trench. We walked the trench and spotted something sticking out of the side. It was an Iron Age pot that had been clipped by the excavator scoop. I could easily dig it out of the sand with my hands, scooping fragments of pot, charcoal and burned bones into bags to be ‘excavated’ later.

 My colleague Isabel and I then tackled the second skull, which was jutting into the trench just over a metre down, within a stone-lined cist whose lid had been partly torn off by the excavator. The skull had also been damaged (and was still protected by ‘Police Do Not Cross’ tape) but I set to, again mostly with fingers. I had only once dug up a skeleton and that was in 1980. Then I had used a teaspoon to gently remove a Merovingian woman’s bones from a wet sticky ditch, using a paperclip to clean her teeth.

 

 

In the case of Alderney it was fingers, and we had a race against time as the project needed to push forward and the all-sand sections don’t stay in place very long. I believe Skull 2 to have belonged to a woman, and she (?)  was buried with her chin on her chest, looking at her feet. Maybe she had been lowered in a shroud to give her that hunched posture. Her face was almost intact and I found the lower mandible as well as some vertebra. The ribs were well under the road so I left those in place.

 And then we found a third body, a few metres further down the trench. This was a small skeleton- possibly a juvenile, Skull 1 had also looked like a juvenile and I’m wondering whether it once belonged to this body as I only saw legs and a pelvis. A full skeleton was a different matter to retrieving damaged skulls. We’d also walked the trench with Rick from the engineering team and found half a dozen other likely spots. It was time to halt the commando raid, take stock, and call for reinforcements.

 

The 3/4 Point

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…

 

A Sense of Place

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Canna Break the Laws of Physics

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

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

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

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

hooten

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

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

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

I won’t even mention car chases…

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

Tell me something I don’t know

“Tell me something I don’t already know,” says Gordon Gekko in ‘Wall Street’. I’m rather like that when choosing a novel. I used to like science fiction because it was not us/here/now, and dislike kitchen sink dramas for the same reason. I know what it’s like to struggle in a grim northern town, I don’t want to read about it.

 Sci-fi and fantasy is escapism and we don’t learn many facts from it, unless very hardcore. One of the appeals of Tolkien is that you can research his world, learn Quenya and the lists of kings but ultimately the whole thing is made up. Movies and TV drama have a difficult relationship with facts, given they need to telescope timelines and adapt the story to whatever budget/set/costumes are available. It is dangerous to come away from something even as well made as ‘I Claudius’ thinking you are secure in the information you have absorbed.

 Historical fiction is a great learning tool – or as a writer, it is a teaching tool. For this reason, the facts need to be right and as much of the background must also be populated with truth. If I trust Patrick O’Brian I will learn a great deal about the Royal Navy in the Napoleonic Wars. Thrillers work in a much more us/here/now world which has both advantages and disadvantages. Much prior knowledge of the world can be assumed (readers know what the CIA is and are familiar with the concept of televisions) but there is a parallel danger in that those well-educated readers will also have detailed knowledge of much else. There is still scope for learning, however. I learned a lot about the Sahara as a young man reading Desmond Bagley’s ‘Flyaway’. Getting the facts right helps the suspension of disbelief. We allow the characters to survive deadly scrapes and fall into plots with unlikely regularity in part because everything else around them is so real.

 I strained credulity very little in writing Glint of Light on Broken Glass. Our three young people inhabit a very real island in 1913 and are pulled along by the riptide of history. Yes there is a magic-realist element, but I hope I’m forgiven for it given that everything else is solid and grounded. I also hope that readers will learn something they don’t know – something to take away about Guernsey in days gone by and its critically threatened language.

 Writers can also make things up with such authority that they are taken as real. John Le Carre famously invented a whole vocabulary for MI6, ‘moles’ and so forth, in such a convincing way that we have come to believe it. When lecturing, I’m aware that I only need to know 5% more than my audience about the given subject to be the expert in the room. I applied this thinking to the Jeffrey Flint books, all of which touched on obscure areas of archaeology or history. However as a writer my audience is potentially the whole world, not 70 people on a rainy Tuesday evening. One reader will be an expert in Soviet rifles, third century Roman armour or actually live in that obscure Greek town where your story is set. So the writer must strain an extra muscle to shrink our own spheres of ignorance to the point we can gloss over the bits it is not necessary to know.

 With luck, the reader will come away from the novel thinking “I never knew that…”

Glint of Light on Broken Glass is now published in paperback and e-book

 

 

 

 

We All Write Period Fiction

For the first half of my career, I was an ‘artefact researcher’. It is natural therefore that my archaeological thrillers contain plenty of objects. Objects can be dated, as can particular social habits and organisations, so we can quickly spot a piece of period fiction without being told it was set in the past. Fairly soon afterwards we start homing in on the date. A single fact the hero carries a revolver provides a terminus post quem, as archaeologists say – the date after which the story must be set. The clattering of his secretary’s typewriter provides a terminus ante quem – less reliably a date before the novel is likely to be set. The association of the two suggests middle-twentieth century.

I read Peter Robinson’s Caedmon’s Song recently and within a few pages got the uncanny feeling it was set in the past. Checking the publication date of 1990 provided the answer – it was simply a 26-year old book. The author even discusses this in his afternote to the paperback edition. ‘Contemporary’ novels do not remain contemporary for very long. Charles Dickens and Jane Austen were once contemporary novelists

My first novel Darkness Rises was set nominally in 1989, the year of the Green Party revival, although my agent advised me to omit specific contemporary events to prevent the book dating. I wrote it during 1992, inspired by my own experiences in the late eighties. So, my hero Jeffrey Flint uses a fax machine for the first time. His sidekick Tyrone is experimenting with computer databases, but Flint is far from convinced. My old hippie hero does not drive, has no phone at home and when there is a stake-out later in the book, has to borrow some walkie-talkies (which fail to work). My archaeologists use the (then) cutting-edge techniques of pollen analysis, land-snail counting and DNA fingerprinting. A lead suspect has not heard of any of these new techniques “They sound tedious,” he sneers.

By Byron’s Shadow, the ‘present’ has advanced to the mid-nineties, with flashbacks to the early eighties. Vikki the reporter now has a mobile phone, which Flint deplores. When faking documents, he has to use mapping pens and Letraset (remember Letraset?). The plot hinges around an archaeological survey, for which I intended to employ a device called a resistivity meter. This was becoming old hat by draft 2, as my own excavation unit in York had begun early experiments with ground-piercing radar. This then became the novel tool introduced by a helpful American academic: the radar was on a sledge, linked to a bulky computer. As I wrote and re-wrote, this technology moved from being theoretical to practical. It is now standard – you can see it on Time Team most weeks, but the modern machine is man-portable with global positioning and the bulky computer is now a laptop, soon to become a tablet.

Flint has reluctantly bought a van by Shadesmoor. Tyrone now has a mobile phone and flaunts his new laptop computer. The old ‘dumpy’ surveying device has been replaced by the laser-guided EDM and inevitable computer link. The University has dumped its old typewriters so Flint learns to use a PC, but the fact that the University sells off redundant machines provides a major red herring. In a few years, people might ask “what’s a typewriter?”

Artefacts abound in Lady in the Lake, from ancient swords to a decommissioned bren gun and a decrepit Citroen 2CV. The book begins with our hero watching the movie Excalibur on video. How long now before VCR machines are extinct, and readers of my backlist are puzzled by the reference? The ‘new’ technology included video discs, which are already obsolete. Archaeology moved into the mainstream during the 1990’s, and the book reflects the new commercialisation with A/V presentations and press conferences. Academic conferences are still using slide projectors and overhead projector screens however, which Powerpoint has long since condemned to the spoil-heap of history. There is a foretaste of the wave of popular history programmes that started with Time Team and now infest satellite TV, but I did not foresee the incredible 3D graphic reconstructions of ancient sites and objects now possible.

With my fifth novel and a new millennium, Flint’s 1970’s value set was increasingly out of place, so the lead role was taken by Maddy Crowe, lady illustrator and ancient fashion expert. She lives with her mobile phone, lugs around a laptop with graphics package and drives a trendy small SUV. All this high-tech gear leads the writer into new territory. Whereas Flint had to hunt down his witnesses in person (sometimes on his pushbike) Maddy simply sends an email or dials them up on her mobile. Where Flint needed to conduct laborious research in libraries, Maddy can quickly trawl the internet. Her fake documents can be knocked up in a couple of minutes on a PC. If Flint had a mobile, or the internet, half the peril of his earlier adventures would have been dissipated in moments.

Almost everyone indeed has a mobile in When the Dust Settles. This invention could rob the thriller of peril. Being stalked? Ring the cops. Lost your sidekick in the fog? Ring his mobile. Trapped in the burning building? Same. The writer must bend over backwards to get rid of those plot-spoiling phones by convenient signal black-spots, dead batteries, sly thefts or diehard old hippies who refuse to own one. Moving on to today (2016), the police are incredibly sophisticated, pushing the lone cop cracking a murder into the realm of fantasy without a good deal of special pleading.

Maddy’s ‘hairdresser’s 4×4’ may become as sure a marker for the ‘noughties’ as the Mini was for the ‘sixties’. Her mobile phone is already outdated by iphones, bluetooth technology and Borg-like ear attachments. Even the hardware used so prominently by Lisbeth Salander in the recent Girl… series is already dated. Flint’s beard, uncannily, is back in fashion. Ultimately, perhaps we are all writing period fiction.

 

…on the Way to the Forvm. Part 2

The working title for the book was ‘Woad Movie’ – an in-joke if there ever was one. Maddy Crowe was an ancient costume expert assisting the wardrobe department of the latest Roman Epic. When I heard about ‘Gladiator’ being filmed and I stopped writing, in case it completely shot my fox. Once I’d seen the movie I started again (and indeed included a line where the director halts production on his movie to see how well Gladiator performs).

Ironically for all the rationale behind the change of lead character this was not the break-out novel. My agent had retired and her replacement did not like my style. Severn House picked up the book but the editor thought it too long. I dutifully cut 20,000 words, which was an exercise in discipline as the finished product is better for it. The cut was chiefly achieved by rolling ‘plot development’ and ‘character development’ scenes into one.

B&S trimmed 2My first draft included Jeffrey Flint as a supporting character, but in the spirit of the clean break I dropped him for a Flintish reclusive experimental archaeologist named Alan. The published title was ‘Blood and Sandals’, and each chapter had a piece of movie jargon as its heading. The cover design was terrific – the best I’d had to date. Unfortunately the artist drew Maddy as a blonde, whereas the fact she is a brunette is a crucial red herring in the plot. I started on a sequel where as another in-joke she was going to go blonde.

Of course it was brilliant fun to write as all my geeky movie-knowledge came to the fore, together with my geeky Roman Army knowledge too. I had extra joy poking fun at aspects of epics that really annoy me – fire arrows in particular.

When it came to the e-book re-release by Endeavour, this was the book I poured most When_the_Dust_Settleswork into rewriting, even though it was my latest and arguably most polished. I restored my original idea of Jeffrey Flint returning as a supporting character. This restored unity to the series. It needed the original ‘Alan’ to be rewritten as Flint, using some of his favourite mannerisms. I also gave the supporting characters knowledge of his past adventures, as by this date he is fairly notorious in Britain’s small community of archaeologists. His brushes with the world of crime are legendary, and his reputation with women is frowned upon. It was great to see Flint on the page again, and he came with a new cover and a new title. As to whether there is a Maddy Crowe/Jeffrey Flint romance, you will need to read the book to find out!.

Oh, and the Forvm is a restaurant in London, and what happens there in Chapter 1 is anything but funny…

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