Smoke Gets in Your Plot

Picture the scene. The detective walks into the bar and approaches the femme fatale. Very Bogart and Bacall. He offers her a cigarette, then lights it for her. Yaaawn…

I have read so many thrillers recently which would have been two chapters shorter if the lead characters didn’t smoke. Descriptions of people fiddling with cigarettes, lighters, matches etc are simply boring. People also scratch their noses, fart and go to the loo but we seldom read about it in fiction unless it’s a plot driver.

The same goes for films and TV shows, although these divide fairly neatly into ‘smoking’ or ‘non smoking’ sections. In the latter there is a cuteness reserved for cigars and pipes in the hands of old men, even in fare aimed at children.

It may depend on the writer or the perceived audience, but all media to some extent reflects the attitude of the times. In the modern western world the educated middle class largely do not smoke, so the habit is confined to villains, members of the lower classes and characters the writers think needs a quirk. On the tip side of this, a disproportionate number of writers of my acquaintance are still smoking in one form or another, so perhaps their view of normality differs from mine. There is a trope which links smoking to stress, crisis, fatigue, recklessness, sin, excess and rebellion which of course we meet far more of in fiction than real life.

It does get tedious to watch on-screen and it starts to feel like dramatic laziness, even in shows that are otherwise excellent like Peaky Blinders or Babylon Berlin. What is the character doing? Uh oh, smoking. Like 120 per day for some characters, then. By contrast, the TV adaption of The Little Drummer Girl made the selective use of cigarettes and smoking paraphernalia a period-appropriate part of the plot.

I had fun with this trope in the Jeffrey Flint novels, as despite being a product of the 80s University system Flint doesn’t smoke – he doesn’t see the point and objects to swallowing the lies of tobacco multinationals. Instead he and Tyrone kill time eating Mars Bars, drinking Coke from cans or spinning out a pint of real ale. It’s the villains that are the smokers. As you may guess I’ve never smoked, and part of the reason is that tobacco has killed several members of my family; I don’t want to boost the bastards’ profits by making it glamorous, cute, sexy or in any way ‘manly’. None of my close friends and hardly any of my wider social circle smoke, which makes me rather like a nun writing sex scenes.

I’m currently working on a 1930s plot, so that gives me a dilemma as (a) everyone is smoking in contemporary ’30s movies and (b) ‘period’ ’30s movies made in modern times fall into either the ‘smoking’ or ‘non-smoking’ camp. Films made in the ’30s were still in the thrall of movie star glamour and the cigarette was a fashion accessory – even in fashion magazines. ‘Retro’ films either ape this style to overdose on period feel, or go for a more sanitized version of the past that doesn’t ring true. Golden Age novels also take the same approach, not seeing the problems inherent in the habit that we do now beyond certain questions of etiquette.

So how do I avoid boring not just the readers but myself with endless smoking scenes? First, assume it is just happening (like scratching noses, farting etc). Second, have a non-smoking lead. This is perfectly plausible, as despite the view that ‘everyone smoked’ back then it was not true. Tobacco consumption in the UK in the ’30s was half that in the ’40s and a third of that in the ’60s, when it peaked. With unemployment at 20% big slices of the population were simply too poor, and it was still viewed in many circles as unseemly for women. With a statistic at the equivalent of 4 cigarettes consumed per day per adult, there is plenty of scope for 1930s characters who don’t smoke at all or do so with restraint. I was interested to discover that the male and female leads in both Martin Edwards’ recent Gallows Court and Rory Clements’ Corpus are non-smokers. Perhaps I’m not the only one with this view.

So, a clean-air breathing hero braves the ’30s. I am going to have some fun…

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Crimefest 2019

It was not quite déjà vu at this year’s Bristol Crimefest as the venue had moved to the Marriot Grand. The hotel was closer to the historic heart of the City, so was a welcome change, allowing a little exploration in each break and a different selection of local restaurants to sample, where I tasted my first Indian Shiraz. Gala dinners can be indifferent, but the Grand earns a gold star by providing a particularly yummy gluten free chocolate mousse cake for afters; a step up from the fruit salad often offered as my gf alternative.

Panels and talks took place in a set of rooms which required a little detection skill to locate and navigate between. We had our own Crimefest bar, but most serious drinking (I mean, earnest literary conversation) took place in the main bar. If you’ve never been to Crimefest, it operates as two and sometimes three parallel sessions from Thursday to Sunday, each lasting 50 mins with 20 minutes in between to locate the next session. The programme is online, and I won’t bore you by listing the 60+ crime writers who spoke.

One novelty was that we got to see a preview of the first 90-minute episode of the new series of Agatha Raisin, which was a jolly way to spend a Friday evening replete with wine and pizza. I sat on the table with some of the production crew at the Gala dinner and there was also a panel including ‘Agatha’ actress Ashley Jensen.

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Not 007: Claire Kendall, HB Lyle, JD Fennell, Sarah Armstrong, Mick Herron

Take-aways included a comment from Mick Herron, when asked how much research he had to do for the Slough House series of spy novels. He replied that he simply made it up; which worries him when real Security Service staff comment on how accurate his books are. We heard about the challenge of fiction in the Post-Truth world, full of anger and misinformation. Several speakers came out with fact-is-weirder than fiction. Danielle  Ramsey related the unnerving experience of ‘creating’ a British seaside gangster then being confronted by unsavory people who found her story too close to the truth. Jeffrey Seger also found his Mikonos-set gangster was uncomfortably close to a real one. Paul Hardy had to include an author’s note to explain that a horrible act he featured in his story was based on a real case.

Several panels tackled historical fiction, and the need to create period feel. William Sutton made the point that whereas a contemporary writer such as Dickens had no need to explain social or technical subtleties of his era, the historical writer needs to provide this for the modern reader. Familiar periods of history make things easy on both reader and author, although are more likely to attract the detail fanatic that is the bane of all successful writers. Some working in obscure periods such as Indrek Hargla’s medieval Estonia have the challenge, but also the freedom, to make much up. Guy Bolton whose characters work in highly familiar 1940s Hollywood with real moguls and actors, in contrast has to carry out very detailed research.

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Kate Ellis, Leigh Russell, Danielle Ramsey, Douglas Lindsey, William Shaw

The 1930s are seen as the change-over period where policing became more scientifically based but many things which are now illegal were permitted, if not approved of, in the past. Long-running series characters are challenged by changing times, which some authors build into the story arc and some simply ignore, allowing history to wash past unnoticed. Longer in the tooth authors rued the fact that their childhoods in the 50s and 60s were now ‘historical’ periods, but Peter Murphy commented that he still needed to research his 60s novels as relying simply on memory did not suffice. I asked the question as to how writers avoided falling into period clichés. Using the right language, avoiding familiar plot drivers and choosing characters that don’t immediately evoke period stereotypes was the best advice. David Penny suggested that as you can’t visit the historical period at least the location can be researched.

Charlie Gallagher, a serving policeman, opined that modern procedure is so boring that even a ‘police procedural’ aiming for realism needs to take liberties to remain interesting. The writer can get away with this if the set-up is plausible, and strict formalities are less important than plot and character. We considered whether a lead detective is allowed to be happy, how writers avoid creating one who is a cliché and whether series novels should include a cliffhanger to lead into the next book.

In my final panel, Caroline England explained how she likes to introduce love in her stories, then be rotten to her characters. Gunnar Staaleson said that the crime writer’s job was at first to build up believable characters. “Then kill them,” added Kate Rhodes.

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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!

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…

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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.

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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.

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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

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.

 

 

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