Lessons from a Litfest

Another year, another Guernsey Literary Festival. Unlike all the other festivals I go to, this event is more of a smorgasbord; a feast to suit many different tastes. Rather than bingeing on the whole, people I have met are picking at two or three choice morsels. In this way the festival achieves a broad ‘hit’ across the population rather than going for a sharply targeted deep engagement such as (say) Alderney’s historical themed festival or Crimefest Bristol where I’m bound next week. It is a markedly different strategy and local engagement is extensive. There were 60 or so authors and a variety of big names, and I donated a copy of Glint of Light on Broken Glass to each of the goody bags to make them welcome to Guernsey.

WP_20190503_15_32_51_ProThe opening party was fun, only an hour, but chance to hear from a quartet of speakers and mingle with many like-minded friends on the island. On the Friday I was asked to introduce Dr Matthias Strohn (who was quicker to smile than I was when the camera was produced!) speaking at the blow-up Festival Hub in the Market Square. I’d met him at the Alderney festival two years ago and his subject this time was the end of the Great War. As a German historian and reserve army officer who advises the British Army and lectures at Sandhurst, Matthias offered some unique insights. Most telling was how ‘Britain centric’ our view of that war is. The Germans on the other hand were far more concerned with the Russian threat to the east and the French to the west, until the final year of the war at least. He explained how the German view that their army had not lost the war came about via the observation that (1) Germany fought the war because it was surrounded by enemies (2) none of those enemies had any soldiers on German soil at the conclusion of the fighting. The scene was set for ’round 2′.

I was asked initially whether I would moderate a talk by crime writer Mark Billingham, but having seen Mark in action I knew he needed no moderation – he was once a stand-up comedian. In the event he was paired with Erin Kelly, in the bigger venue of St James where even the audience just shy of 100 rattled a bit. Writers’ forums endlessly discuss whether it is best to plan a novel or fly by the seat of your pants (‘planners’ vs ‘pantsers’). Erin takes the same approach as I do, essentially writing a first draft composed of the main scenes of the book not necessarily in order. She then revisits in draft 2 to knit these together into a coherent story. She and Mark also discussed research and the tip was not to write it down as if swotting for an exam, but to use the points that stick. In this way the writer avoids ‘information dumping’, on the reasoning that all this researc =h must show somewhere.

WP_20190506_11_44_27_ProOn the Monday it was a change of venue again, to the spanking freshly refurbished Frossard Theatre at Candie to introduce Dr Gilly Carr. Gilly has worked with the Museum on a couple of occasions and co-created its current exhibition ‘On British Soil’ about Nazi persecution in the Channel Islands. Gilly has worked consistently for the past decade to change the narrative on the German Occupation, which had become in parts saccharine encouraged by cosy tales of wartime make-do-and-mend, partly ‘boys toys’ enthusiasm for the many fortifications and weapons left on the islands and partly by the euphoria of Liberation Day celebrated every year on May 9th. Gilly was talking about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, as experienced by Channel Islanders who were persecuted by the Nazis. Victims deported to Nazi concentration camps belatedly got the opportunity to apply for compensation in the 1960s. Many were in no state to describe their suffering, and there was an added complication that PTSD was not recognised as a medical condition at that time. Claims could be made for wounds, diseases or disability, but how could people find recompense for damage that has not even been defined? More can be found on Gillys website https://www.frankfallaarchive.org/

So, I only managed four events, but I’m now warmed up and in the mood for Crimefest Bristol next week.

The Twitter Campaign

So I’m trying something different, a Twitter Campaign. Mostly it is to test the water, see how effective it is. After all if the Russians can change the result of elections by mass tweeting, there must be some power in social media.

Although it was my sixth novel Glint of Light on Broken Glass was self-published, albeit at high spec by Matador and professionally edited. However it had little of the marketing push I’d expect from a mainstream publisher. It was planned as a slow-seller to local audiences and tourists, but there have been e-book and internet sales through Amazon so the interest is worth stoking.

Also of course we have the #GuernseyMovie released this month, and for a few weeks the G-word becomes more searchable. Other local writers, hotels, gin-makers and others are riding the publicity wave, contributing to a symbiotic promotion of their own products as well as the movie.

So I’m posting or re-posting a range of idiosyncratic images with snippets of text including lines from the book. I’ve taken the photographs myself, often at the appropriate location in Guernsey, then applied a little manipulation and cropping. Alongside this is a professional PR campaign running for a month, nudging people towards my partner website guernseynovel.com. Perhaps you’ve seen it? This is a true test-the-water exercise, as tweeting can be like whispering in a crowded room where everyone else is yelling.

Anyhow, Mr Putin, I’m sure you’d love Glint so if you could get your army of fembots to re-tweet this 20,000 times I’d be most happy.

How I Stopped Being Too English

Whilst selling my books at a Winter Fayre this weekend I tweeted “I sometimes feel I’m too English for this”. I’m no shrinking violet, but when I first came into writing I felt uncomfortable pumping up my own books (and hence, myself). I didn’t have the ego to say “my books are great, buy ‘em”, and keep saying it. Of course, that is what we now have to do as writers. Some self-published authors I know claim to spend half their working hours simply promoting their books, via Facebook, Twitter, forums, attending book fairs and answering fan queries.

I might protest that I’m a writer, not a marketeer, but today a writer must be both.

Again, I attend various functions with the great and the good and generally resist the temptation to have a selfie with that celebrity. A well-mannered little voice tells me that they’re here to have a good time and the last thing they want is this six-foot curly haired chap wanting a quick snap to post to Twitter. However it is likely that the celeb has a publicist who is telling them to “get onto as many people’s social media feeds as you can, dahling”. The actors, musicians and writers who appear on the talk shows are not there because they have nothing better to do; they have a product to sell.

Gradually I have come to realise that self-promotion is not an end in itself, but an essential part of the industry we are in. Yes dahlings, you might think that novel-writing is an art form but publishing is an industry. Enough Englishness remains for me to be wary of ‘shameless’ publicity-seeking, but as time allows I’m now tweeting and blogging with the best. As we reach the 100th anniversary of the events central to ‘Glint’, I’m running a Facebook campaign combining appropriate images with teaser extracts from the book. I have no idea ultimately how successful this will be, but I know exactly what the outcome of doing nothing will be.

Promoting one’s books may not be the mark of a gentleman, but it is the mark of the modern writer.

Alderney Literary Festival

Ald 5This has to be the best literary festival in the land (if you count the tiny island of Alderney as ‘in the land’). Its cosy, its intimate and its focus is firmly on history: historical fiction, biography and non-fiction.

As the speaker’s room at the Island hall only accommodates an audience of 50, there were very few free seats and most talks were at capacity. Only two free seats in my talk (and I like to think the ticket holders had an extra hour in bed, as I was on at 9.30am).

A dozen authors mixed freely with the bibliophiles, another nice departure from the big conventions when the big names parachute in for a panel, and equally swiftly are swept away again by their minders. Work commitments meant I missed the Friday sessions, and I couldn’t get a ticket for Andrew Lownie’s talk on Guy Burgess, but the rest of the weekend passed in a whirl. Anna Mazzola talking about her debut early Victorian crime novel the Unseeing, Lloyd Shepherd finding monsters in Regency London  and Matthias Strohn on the Real German Army of the 1930’s.

Turney Scarrow Downie

On Saturday evening there was a dinner at the Georgian where some of us dared to wear Roman or Celtic garb to hear a good-natured debate on the impact of Rome on Britain – Overpaid, Oversexed and Over Here. Romanists SJA Turney and Ruth Downie fought the corners for Rome and the Celts respectively, with Simon Scarrow umpiring. I  think the Britons won by a narrow margin of ‘thumbs up’, but I’m not precisely sure it mattered.

I was particularly interested in Simon Scarrow talking about Greece in WW2 and its aftermath, as this was the sub-plot of Byron’s Shadow and close to my heart (no pun intended – his book is called Hearts of Stone). Elizabeth Chadwick, Anna Mazzola and Imogen Robertson debated research for the Historical novel, which struck many true cords. Agent Andrew Lownie and phenomenally successful e-book author Rachael Abbott also had an intriguing debate on new forms of publishing versus the traditional model.

Ald 4 (2).jpgThen of course there was Dr Monaghan, talking about Guernsey in the Great War and the background to Glint of Light on Broken Glass. This was a lot of fun in its own right, although always tricky when it comes to the questions. Next year’s Alderney Literary festival is 23-25 March, so put that date in your diary.




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


How “Historical” is Your Novel?

In a previous blog I asked “Tell me something I don’t know”. Glint of Light on Broken Glass is a historical novel – I hope people will learn things by reading it, but it is not a textbook. I have made stuff up. What? You might ask.

Let’s backtrack a few years when I started the novel. I already knew a fair amount about the First World War and also the history, geography and folklore of Guernsey. It was straightforward to write the story using just what I ‘knew’ (or had vaguely remembered). As I grew into the plot, I started researching specific areas to support the story. How I approached the language has already been covered in a previous blog, but I methodically collected phrases that would come in handy and some indeed inspired whole scenes. I walked the island looking for likely locations and checking half-remembered truths as to whether I could see Alderney for that point.

Old maps came in handy, as the island has changed a lot in the past century, with much building work. The Germans also altered the look and shape of the beaches with their anti-tank walls and bunkers. Old photographs were helpful too, although there were some annoying blank spots in the Castel where no-one had seen fit to photograph between 1900 and 1920.

I re-read the history of the Royal Guernsey Light Infantry, and the war experience of the island as a whole. Glint is not a war story as such, I didn’t want to write an adventure story or anti-war polemic, but the military side had to be right; there are too many WW1 ‘experts’ out there watching for authors to blunder. Perhaps the best source of information was the Guernsey Evening Press, and its Weekly editions, which I read though from 1913 to 1919 with excursions to other memorable dates. Its adverts for band concerts, potions and theatre added the background texture. Reports of parades and church services allowed me to be precise at specific points in time. Storms, unseasonal gales and snowfall could find their correct place in the narrative.

RGLIAt times research proved inconvenient, meaning whole sections needed to be moved or subtly re-written. It was never ignored, although at times I decided not to probe too deeply if the story was working well. I was aware of some areas I barely looked into at all, then looked at the growing word count and decided that enough detail was enough. I could go on accumulating information about how people dressed, what they ate, what they planted in their gardens but beyond a point this all becomes words. Enough was enough.

Then I made stuff up. Almost all the characters came from the imagination, barring a couple of instances where I took liberties with actual historical personalities. All the dialogue is made up, as is all the interpersonal action. Even real historical events such as the unveiling of the Victor Hugo statue are simply a backdrop for George, Edith and Arte. Research I don’t need is omitted in a specific sense. The reader does not need to know the detail of the RGLI uniform of 1917, but it is embedded in my head. I see Artie in that uniform as clearly as George sees his mystery woman. The historical writer must avoid information-dumping; the research should not stick up from the page shouting “look at me, I’m a historical fact”. Even when Artie is lecturing George about Guernsey history he approximates the truth and skates over the facts he’s forgotten.  The reader needs to be a subconscious time-traveller, slipping into that distant period and into the mind-set of people who lived there. Much like the way a novel needs a ‘sense of place’, it also needs a sense of time.





Glint of Light…

The novel is finished. ‘Glint of Light on Broken Glass’ is my first historical novel, although my editor reached the half-way point still expecting a body to turn up. It began life as an unpublished short story way back in 1990 called ‘A Ghost in my Eye’. During the First World War, a crippled boy drops his spectacles into a pool, chips them, and becomes convinced the glasses are haunted by a water spirit. Around 2001 I revised the story to set it in Guernsey, re-titling it ‘A Glint in the Eye’, mixing it into local folklore and changing its ending.

Glint CoverSometimes a plot is far too good to be wasted on a short story. Since publishing the short, the plot began to expand in my mind. George and his spectacles were the starting point, but what about his brother Artie? He was originally just a bit-player, but I began to build Artie’s story  considering how he would deal with having a crippled brother with a worrying obsession. He adds a solid and grounded core to the magic-realist elements of the plot. Artie’s story can of course go where George’s cannot. This is bolstered by adding the rest of the family: Marie, Jack and Henry. And what would happen if the family were to have a second child with George’s physical problems?

Then came Edith. Again she began as supporting character, the woman that troubles the lives of both young men. Yet Edith was too strong a personality to be shoved to the sidelines, she demands centre stage. Readers could indeed view this novel as Edith’s story as she gradually asserts her hold on us. Some of the draft titles effectively confirmed this. Quite late in the edit I firmed up the three-person viewpoint, eliminating scenes where none of the trio were there, following them closely through the trials that follow.

The rest of the cast followed naturally – Edith’s dissolute mother Ruth, the mysterious Mrs Patterson and the many friends, relations and colleagues that flow through the story. I already knew most of the period detail so it was a matter of fitting the tale of three young people to the established history of Guernsey from 1897 through into the 1920’s.I took a few liberties with actual historical persons such as ‘the last witch in Guernsey’ Mrs Lake and the Rector of the Castel, mentioning many others who never appear in person.

From a short story of 23 pages came a novel of close to 400. From the story of a lonely young man looking for a friend, emerges a much bigger tale of an island community at war facing a century of change.


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